Reviews Round-Up

The critics’ verdicts on Lois Banner, Tom Williams and Nell Freudenberger.

 

Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox by Lois Banner

With last Saturday marking the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death many papers chose to feature a review of the latest Marilyn biography by Lois Banner. The text joins another, estimated, 700 books published on Monroe, numbers that would normally suggest a market long since over-saturated. Yet the icon's variable persona, married with her irresistible aurora of sex, intrigue and powerful associates, still invites a limitless and febrile litany of personality hermeneutics. Since her death, authors have tried to paint Marilyn as everything from a dumb blonde, to an intellectual, to a monster, and her death as anything and everything from an accident, to murder, to suicide. Perhaps Banner, a professor of history and gender studies at the University of Southern California, can be excused in her attempt to re-empower Marilyn’s legacy by identifying Monroe as a proto-feminist through Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox.

Zoe Slutzy, writing in the New York Times, identifies the essential problem of Monroe’s confused character. “Marilyn is steeped in paradoxes so profound that, even under the microscope, they stir and shift without ever settling into a singular picture. Such is the premise of Lois Banner’s new biography, 'Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox,' which behaves a little like its subject.” She praises the result, writing that, “by the end, Monroe feels at once like an earthly being — an almost-friend — and an enigma, still slightly out of focus and just beyond reach. That seems right.” Yet it’s not lost on her that feminist writer, Gloria Steinem, has already covered familiar ground and similarly came “to see, in the star’s own sadness, in her winking innocence and complex sexuality, a woman straddling the puritanism of postwar America and its dissolution in the ’60s.”

Joan Smith, whose review was published in the Independent, was also reminded of Steinem’s biography, but remains unconvinced that Monroe's tumultuous and haunted life, “has a positive message for women”. Whilst she admits that Banner's account “dispels some myths”, she argues that “the sheer quantity of detail is daunting, and her prose is sometimes excruciating.”

Susie Boyt’s write up in the Financial Times agrees with this verdict, calling the factual content both a “wealth” and “overwhelming”. She also questions whether Banner is suited to write a text for public consumption, criticising Banner’s prose as both over-reliant on academic discourse and at times patronising to the reader's intelligence. However, she concludes that the project is somewhat vindicated by “Banner’s admiration of, and belief in, her subject", which, "really animate the text".

A Mysterious Something in the Light: Raymond Chandler, a Life by Tom Williams

Banner’s biography wasn’t the only book that last week’s critics claimed shared qualities with its subject. There is a double echo in Williams’ biography of Raymond Chandler, with some reviewers arguing that Chandler perceived qualities of his most famous character, Philip Marlowe, in himself and others criticising Williams' text as sharing some of the unfortunate flaws of Chandler’s own writing.

Jake Kerridge writes in the Telegraph that “one of the most fascinating aspects of Tom Williams’s new biography is that it shows how frequently throughout his life Chandler cast himself as the Marlowe-esque hero-knight.” Indeed, this reflection was so vital to Chandler that he was known to lie about his past. Williams uncovers “evidence that contradicts assertions swallowed by previous biographers,” to Kerridge’s praise. “For example, although he certainly fought bravely in the trenches in France during the First World War, Williams has found documentary evidence disproving his claim that he was concussed in a German shell attack that left all his friends dead.” Despite this discovery, Kerridge concludes that Williams has “unearthed little new material.” He further damns the prose “as pedestrian,” but leavens the criticism by acknowledging that William “knows the value of letting Chandler speak for himself".

Though Chandler fantasised of similarities between his protagonist and himself, Craig Brown in the Daily Mail is struck by the fact that “authors are seldom like their creations, but few are quite so different as Raymond Chandler.” Like Kerridge, he sees the book as somewhat lacking in elegance, though he does recommend it as “a good starting point for those who can’t resist a peek past the glittering stage-set of an author’s work to the tawdry mess that so often lies beyond". He perceives the said "mess" of Chandler’s life to also be present in his corpus, arguing that Chandler’s “plots are all over the place … More often than not, he would end up buried in a hopeless tangle of conflicting plot-lines, with the murderer still not caught for the simple reason that the author had no idea which one he was".

This weakness in story-telling is one that Christopher Bray, of the Financial Times, believes to also be apparent in Williams’ writing, whilst several ugly turns of phrase provoke outright disgust. “'The plan he had outlined in 1939 had not unfolded as planned’ ... How many seconds with a thesaurus would it take to lose that ugly repetition?” Yet Bray’s final hammer blow to the coffin nail is a remark on the inconsistency in the portrait that Williams paints. “A slapdash plotter he might have been, but Chandler would never have dared dream up such a contradictory character."

The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger

Moving on from biographies, is Nell Freudenberger’s third novel, The Newlyweds, a fictional account inspired by a real Deshi "email bride" that Freudenberger met on a plane. It follows a fictional young Bangladedishian woman, Amina Mazid, from her home country to New York to marry a man she met online, George Stillman. For Amina the marriage offers new opportunities and for George a chance at a meaningful relationship, yet “both conceal more romantic yearnings, in Amina’s case for Nasir, son of her father’s oldest friend; George’s lie closer to home. They have, in a manner at once modern and old-fashioned, relinquished these attachments – for now,” writes Catherine Taylor in the Telegraph. “In the third section, Amina, her marriage suffering its first real crisis, returns to Bangladesh to accompany her parents to the US; immediately the novel deepens in insight and drama.” Taylor is largely admiring of the result. “Freudenberger’s depiction of Bangladesh, the interlocking of country and society, is uncanny." “While lacking the effortless prose style of Jhumpa Lahiri, or the political engagement of Tahmima Anam, the richness and restraint displayed here recall Vikram Seth’s epic of pragmatism, A Suitable Boy.”

Kunal Dutta, meanwhile, is interested in how the differences in their agenda for matrimony lead “George and Amina [to] inhabit different mental spaces, and the author reveals the shades of loneliness and isolation that can colour an outwardly perfect union.” Her review in the Independent is largely glowing. “The chapters zip along with purpose and the novel flits effortlessly between the false intimacy of suburban America and the closely knit gossipy communities of Dhaka where Amina returns in the second half.” Yet the distances covered in the novel are not just geographical and cultural, The Newlyweds is a love story woven around the heterotopias of our technocratic world. “What this book does so well is articulate the challenges of mixed marriages in the digital age.” Though Dutta cannot help but notice that “the homage to Starbucks, intended as a US reference point, reads more like a state-sponsored advertorial".

Dutta’s unease is perhaps a seed of Philip Hensher's, who is more overtly troubled by the sterotypically American perspective of the novel. “Too much relies on the questions of who loves whom, and who finds sexual fulfilment most easily", he writes in the Financial Times. He admits that it is “the work of a writer with strong interests in the non-western world,” but sees it as "limited in its analysis" due to its unconvincing preoccupation with American questions. “Since the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism 34 years ago, western writers have become much more wary of treating Asian subjects…. feeling that there are too many ways in which the culture can be mistaken and traduced; knowing, too, that Asia has produced many great novelists of its own.” There is a note of melancholy in his words when he writes that “nearly a century after Forster in A Passage to India regretted that no friendship could exist between east and west – "No, not yet" – it seems as large a challenge as ever for a writer to conceive of a Bengali woman’s thoughts when they are not concerned with western preoccupations.”

Women pose beneath the 'Forever Marilyn' statue in Palm Springs. (Photo: Getty)
Photo: Nadav Kander
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Sarah Hall's dark short stories are fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment

The displacements in Madame Zero are literal, figurative and occasionally fantastical.

There’s no story called “Madame Zero” in Sarah Hall’s new collection: the title floats enigmatically above this dark and memorable set of stories. A passing mention of “Cotard. Capgras. Madame Zero” gives a clue, but the reader has to scurry for it.

In the 1920s a patient presented herself to the French psychiatrist Joseph Capgras with what the latter identified as an unusual form of the Cotard delusion, a mental illness characterised by a radical sense of disconnection from the self. Some Cotard sufferers think parts of their body have vanished; some think they’re dead and rotting. Capgras’s patient felt that she wasn’t there at all, and gave the name Madame Zero to the non-being who had replaced her.

With this, a lot becomes clear about Hall’s second collection of short fiction. So many of these stories are about characters who have vanished, become strange to themselves or stepped out of the centres of their own lives.

The displacements are literal, figurative and, occasionally, fantastical. In the opening story, “Mrs Fox”, for which Hall won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013, a woman who “dreams subterranean dreams, of forests, dark corridors and burrows, roots and earth” is out for a walk with her husband one morning when she transforms into a vixen. “She turns and smiles,” Hall writes, in language whose imagery edges close to horror. “Something is wrong with her face. The bones have been re-carved. Her lips are thin and the nose is a dark blade. Teeth small and yellow. The lashes of her hazel eyes have thickened…”

The story quietly updates David Garnett’s strange little novel Lady Into Fox from 1922, but its fascination with the wild – in humans, in nature, in the borders between the two – continues a theme that runs in Hall’s work from her debut novel Haweswater (2002) to her most recent, The Wolf Border (2015).

It finds an echo in “Evie”, the collection’s final piece, in which a married woman becomes wild in a different way, exhibiting cravings, confusion and promiscuity that first baffles then arouses her husband. Her radical changes, however (“She’d walked carelessly across the tripwires of their relationship, as though through a field of mines, as if immune”), turn out to have a dreadful neurological cause.

Other stories experiment with register, style and genre. Written in downbeat medicalese, “Case Study 2” takes the form of a psychiatrist’s report on a patient: a wild boy found on the moors who turns out to have been brought up by a secretive communal cult. As the therapist begins to “re-parent” her new charge, getting him to say “I” instead of “we” and teaching him about property and possessions, Hall drip-feeds hints about the community he has left, whose slogan “All of one mind and all free” soon acquires a threatening resonance.

The points in this story about connection and selfhood give it an aspect of fable, but at root it’s a weird tale; take away the leached and wistful tone and the doctorly equivocations and we might be in The Twilight Zone. Hall has written counterfactuals and science fiction before: her novel The Carhullan Army imagined life among a group of armed feminist rebels in dystopian Britain, while The Wolf Border, written before the referendum but set in a newly independent Scotland, looks more alternative-historical by the day. 

Similar impulses power several of the stories here. “Theatre 6” portrays a Britain living under “God’s Jurisdiction”, in which the Department for the Protection of Unborn Children insists all pregnancies be carried to term. Other imaginary societies are evoked in “Later, His Ghost”, a haunting piece of cli-fi about a Britain devastated by high winds (originally published in this magazine); and in “One in Four”, a four-page chiller set in the middle of a flu pandemic. Hall is no world-building nerd, however. Her focus is always on the strangely displaced characters (harried anaesthetist, obsessed survivor, suicidal biochemist) at the stories’ heart.

A microclimate of unease also hangs over the stories in which nothing weird is visibly going on. In “Luxury Hour”, a new mother returning from the lido meets the man with whom she once had a secret affair; going home, she imagines her child “lying motionless in the bath while the minder sat on a stool, wings unfurled, monstrous”. “Goodnight Nobody” evokes the crowded inner world of Jem, an Eighties child with a ThunderCats obsession (but her mum works in a mortuary, and the neighbour’s dog has just eaten a baby…). And “Wilderness”, my favourite from this collection, conjures stark prickling fear from its description of a woman with vertigo crossing a creaking viaduct in South Africa: “The viaduct was floating free, and sailing on the wind. It was moving into the valley, into the river’s mouth. It was going to hit the hillside, and heave and tip and buckle.”

These aren’t particularly comforting stories; they’re fragments of lives wrenched out of alignment, told by or featuring characters who are frequently incomprehensible to themselves. But their poise, power and assurance are very striking indeed. 

Madame Zero
Sarah Hall
Faber & Faber, 179pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder