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: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear