Reviews round-up | 1 October

The critics' verdict on David Vann, William Boyd and Damian McBride.

Goat Mountain by David Vann

David Vann is no stranger to trauma. His debut collection, Legend of a Suicide (2008), uses his father’s suicide as source material. Each page records the uncurling of a family and descent into madness and death. Subsequent novels, Dirt (2012) and Caribou Island (2011) maintain the emotional intensity: the latter using another family murder for inspiration, this time committed by the author’s step-grandmother. Goat Mountain is Vann’s latest creation, and like his previous works, it begins with a death. Set on a 640-acre ranch in Northern California, an 11-year-old boy is at his family’s annual deer hunt. The action unravels when the boy’s father discovers a trespasser and hands his son a high-velocity rifle to take a closer look. The boy looks through the sights and shoots the intruder dead. Tragic, poignant and brutal, Goat Mountain has been criticised for its storytelling, but no one denies its intensity.

Benjamin Evans, writing in The Telegraph, praises Vann’s depiction of the Californian landscape.Vann evokes the scrub, ridges and conifers of northern California with the meticulous eye of a great landscape artist”, he writes. But Vann is fascinated with family dynamics as well as topography. “He seems fixated on how families tear themselves apart,” Evans continues, and he does so “with a hard-won natural authority.” But despite this authority, at times the narrative is stifled by a convoluted writing style, described by Evans with competing convolution: “his prose apes the cosmic grandiloquence of the notoriously inimitable Cormac McCarthy”. Aside from a tendency to say too little in too many words, Evans finds the retrospective narration of Goat Mountain dappled in “unrelenting thesis-fodder about atavistic masculinity” which ultimately “chokes off the artistry in Vann’s writing”.

The Economist nods to what Evans calls an “overwrought commentary” noting that “Mr Vann occasionally overstates his case, reminding the reader of a parallel to Greek tragedy where no reminder is needed.” But for The Economist, this is negated by the trajectory of the novel: “this story has the power of a bullet fired from a gun”. “The book has a quality of a ballad or a folk tale,” continues the review, where “motivation remains opaque and action simply follows action”. This opacity can be seen in the sheer lack of remorse from the boy following the murder, or the lack of expansion as to why the boy pulled the trigger in the first place. Goat Mountain “remains a closed and terrible world” with no place for 21st Century rationality.

Tom Gatti, the New Statesman's incoming Culture Editor, praises Goat Mountain for its “ratcheting real-time tension”. As is the general consensus, however, the references to Cain and Abel and other biblical association may be “powerful and the narrator’s psyche fascinating ... [but] there are times when this religious exegesis feels superfluous.” This is a small criticism to make, though. Gatti remarks how “Vann’s prose never lags” despite excessive glossing, “the novel is not just gripping: it tightens slowly around its reader like a boa constricter.” 

Solo by William Boyd

“The name’s Bond, James Bond.” It’s a phrase not many writers get the chance to write, except, of course, if you’re lucky enough to be approached by Ian Fleming Publications Ltd. William Boyd joins Kingsley Amis, Sebastian Faulks and Jeffery Deaver in published a 007 sequel, reintroducing us to the familiar spy of Fleming’s creation – but with a difference. The year is 1969, and a forty-five year old James Bond is summoned to headquarters to receive news of his next perilous instalment. This time the problem is Zanzarim, a West African nation rich in oil and tumultuous civil war and (of course) Bond is the country’s only hope. As ever, the tuxedo-donning Brit must single-handedly quash the rebels and save the established regime. But while the plot remains suitably action-packed, the psychology of the secret agent has undergone a distinctive shift. Boyd’s Bond has been met by mixed reactions from the critics. While some relish this new take on an old character, others feel the restyling rids the hero of a certain guilty pleasure.

Jon Stock of The Telegraph notes Boyd’s reshaping of the spy, who is still highly sexed (“his eye is immediately drawn to the ‘small-nippled breasts’ of a girl in a Chelsea café”) but has none of the misogynistic undertones of Fleming’s hero. In one particularly telling scene, Stock observed that Bond's moral compass is much more nuanced: “He watches [a catsuited woman] undress and is excited but ‘made vaguely uneasy by this unsought-for act of voyeurism’”.  “Fleming,” Stock writes, “would have no such qualms.” A hero brought up-to-date, Stock also praises Boyd’s narrative construction. “The poised, lyrical writing is a pleasure to read”, writes the Telegraph critic, “the prose sprinkled with apt similes (‘He was incredibly thin, his arms and legs like vanilla pods’”). However, when the action migrates to Africa the story takes a turn for the worse, where the secret agent is lacking in any demonstrative character: “the psychological justification ... is overstated, with too much telling of motive, and not enough showing.”

Ludovic Hunter-Tilney, writing for the Financial Times, acknowledges the daunting task Boyd faces in writing Solo - “to stay true to the spirit of Fleming’s original while remoulding Bond for a readership 60 years distant from the first 007 novel.” It’s a task done, as already mentioned, by giving the seasoned spy a personality makeover. Like Stock, Hunter-Tilney notices the eradication of socipathy and sexual violence that Fleming’s books are so abundant in, but “the gamey tone of racism” is also replaced to “fit a very different world to Fleming’s.” Here, Bond’s “awareness of colour goes no further than appreciating the ‘perfect caramel skin’ of a love interest.” This more accommodating character, though, is said to come at a price. “One side-effect is the loss of the swaggering brutishness that makes the original Bond such a guilty pleasure,” confesses Hunter-Tilney, a loss that makes the spy “a bit of a dull dog at heart.” Despite this “diminution in tone,” the “perfectly judged narrative tempo” is a decent compensation. The FT’s commentator is impressed by the twists, which are “genuinely surprising”, and the baddie who is “suitably grotesque.”

The Daily Mail’s reviewer, Geoffrey Wansell, sees only positives when it comes to Boyd's Bond, witnessing none of the “vanilla” flavourings noted by Hunter-Tilney. “Producing a Bond sequel is one of the most daunting tasks any writer could ever undertake,” writes Wansell, “but William Boyd brings back the real Bond, triumphantly.” The Daily Mail critic is impressed with Boyd’s envisaging of the spy. “Boyd is not afraid to make Bond as politically incorrect as Fleming created him,” Wansell notes, enjoying Boyd’s robust stance when it comes to women: “the zip on the front of her outfit – her catsuit – was like a provocation, a challenge, crying to be pulled down.” The way this Bond “shamelessly eyes up women, harks back to a chauvinist English class system”. The character a heavy smoker and drinker. But these vices are needed, Wansell concludes, to succeed in credibility.

Power Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots and Spins by Damian McBride

Amid the proposals for energy freezes, renditions of The Red Flag and keynote speeches at the Labour conference last week came a nastier development: an insiders account of Gordon Brown’s time as Chancellor and Prime Minister. Written by Damian McBride, a man who insists on his loyalty to the Labour party, the former spin doctor's account of personal feuds, political plots, and media manipulation reveals some remorse and some accounts of genuine morality – but over the quantity of these elements, the critics are conflicted.

Robert Shrimsley, managing editor of and former chief political correspondent for the Financial Times calls the work “ultimately a love story”, where McBride’s “devotion to Mr Brown is unwavering.” But while “Mr Brown is often the victim and plots in his name always take place without his knowledge,” the effect of this is almost always to “diminish the man he is attempting to raise up.” “Tales of selfishness and tantrums litter the pages,” Shrimsley continues, and despite the “pacy” storytelling, the glimpse into the Brown bunker offers too much social anecdote and not enough policy discussion. “The major events are skated over and discussed as process rather than strategy,” writes Shrimsley, with the emphasis firmly on Brown and McBride’s relationship.

The Times’ Francis Elliott compares the process of reading the expose to “stumbling into the business class lounge and realising just how bad economy was. The good stuff clearly went elsewhere.” Elliott is unimpressed by the billing of the work as a “penitent confessional,” writing that “McBride’s book is packed with pride.” Indeed, he continues, “it seems that [McBride] was a one-man newsroom powering Britain’s media.” And while “there are nuggets on process” - a case in point the process of “putting together a Budget” - these are largely exceptional. As a modern morality tale it fails, Elliott concludes, but “it succeeds as a laddish manual of political thuggery conducted while at least twice the drink-drive limit.”

Chris Mullin, writing for the Guardian, determines the “first no-holds-barred account of life at Brown’s court” to be a “much better book than one might imagine”. The “well written” expose, Mullin argues, is “generous to friend and foe alike.” Even the Two Eds - Miliband and Balls - “emerge pretty much unscathed,” while McBride “is positively gushing” about Brown in places: “However difficult he could sometimes be, when I was with him I always felt I was in the presence of greatness and of genius and I could never feel anything less than fierce and devoted loyalty." McBride’s role in dishing out the stories to the press is expressed with some pride, but not seen by Mullin to overwhelm the work: “He proudly describes how he would routinely raid other ministers’ territory in search of stories to feed the ravenous appetite of the lobby hacks (“If you didn't feed them properly you'd soon find your minister on the menu”). All in all, McBride’s exposé has come with questionable timing – “Why did he allow his publishers to sell the serial rights to the Daily Mail at a time when he must have known it would be used to inflict maximum damage on the Labour party?” – but the work tells us “a great deal about the state of British political journalism.”

David Vann in Brittany at the Etonnants Voyageurs festival. Image: Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

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Provocations from a modern master: Andrew Marr on David Hockney

A History of Pictures by David Hockney and Martin Gayford gleefully punctures the pretentiousness of the art world.

We live in a picture-drunk world. A medieval artisan would have been aware, at best, of only a few representations of the three-dimensional world – church paintings, perhaps crude carvings in a churchyard, graffiti on walls. For us, pictures are everywhere, on
screens of all shapes and sizes, on hoardings, in books, on the sides of buildings. They move, they pulsate with digital complexity and they sprawl and glare until they tire our eyeballs and bore us senseless.

This is a book that aspires to be nothing less than a history of pictures, taking drawing, photography, film-making, digital art and painting in parallel and tracking the interrelationships and the borrowing that each involves. That is a huge ambition, far too large for any single volume, yet ­David Hockney and Martin Gayford respond with lively expeditions in many directions and a staccato half-conversation that will keep any intelligent person amused and intrigued for its 350 or so pages.

No practitioner of “fine art” has placed himself at the centre of our culture quite as Hockney has. What he says about smoking or porn makes news. His exhibitions attract vast crowds. He is followed by reverential film-makers, avid biographers and snaking queues of ordinary folk who simply love his bright and life-enhancing images. He also intervenes to ask big questions about the nature of picture-making and the relationship between painters and photography, in a way that no other contemporary artist seems to do.

In all this – and in his tireless enthusiasm for new technologies in picture-making, as well as his curiosity about the rich and powerful – he is surely the Walter Sickert of our times. Sickert’s opinions, as well as his readiness to use photographic images to expand his art, allowed him to bestride British public life in the first half of the 20th century, very much as Hockney does today. Sickert, whose early work the public preferred, produced shockingly modern images of Baron Beaverbrook, Churchill and the celebrities of the interwar years. And so, this year, Hockney had his quickly painted acrylic portraits of the art world’s rich and Botoxed powerful, skewered to their chairs, glaring down at us in the “82 Portraits and 1 Still-life” exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. Both men were gifted with an almost divine facility; both struggled to overcome it, to produce pictures that could be regarded as properly “modern”.

Here, Hockney is paired with Martin Gayford, the author of excellent books on Hockney, Lucian Freud and many other artists, and a reliable, hugely knowledgeable Tonto on this journey. As they take off to discuss a wide range of subjects – shadows, pre-photography use of cameras and lenses, perspective, cubism, abstraction, film-making, digital art – the differences between them become increasingly sharp.

Hockney, with his strong and now familiar views, brings the perspective of a mark-maker to every subject: “If you’re told to do a drawing using ten lines or a hundred, you’ve got to be a lot more inventive with ten. If you can only use three colours, you have got to make them look whatever colour you want.” Gayford, who sometimes picks up on a Hockney challenge and sometimes ignores it, brings a seemingly bottomless knowledge of the history of art and is always a great looker, whether his subject is a Velázquez or Dada.

There is a certain degree of unintentional comedy here, Hockney repeatedly cantering off with an anecdote or salty personal view and Gayford gamely wrenching us back to the high road, but it’s all enormously good-humoured and entertaining. There is so much pretentious cack talked nowadays about art theory that it’s a relief to find an artist ready to use his experience as a film buff, or his thoughts on the manipulation of photographs in the press, to speak about “high art”.

“Walt Disney was a great American artist,” Hockney writes. “He might be a bit sentimental but what he did was quite an achievement. Who were the most famous stars of the 1930s and 1940s? Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.” And, a page later: “Look at the camels in Adoration of the Magi by Giotto, from the Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, painted in the early 14th century. There’s Walt Disney.”

These are the kinds of stuff that would get laughed out of court in the pompous art world. The same goes for this (­Hockney again): “Art doesn’t progress. Some of the best pictures were the first ones. An indiv­idual artist might develop because life does. But art itself doesn’t.” Most academic writers would hedge such starkness but Hockney doesn’t. Again, very Walt Sickert.

So, where do these conversations take us when it comes to the biggest question for contemporary painting: what should a picture look like in 2016? There are so many derivative, unnecessary and tedious pictures all around us, and so much has been done so well for so long, that this is a real poser.

Hockney’s lifelong struggle with being an artist in a photography-dominated culture has rarely lured him away from the duty of representation or, to put it more crudely, drawing. He experimented with Picasso-influenced, semi-abstract pictures but not for long. He used photographic collages to investigate space but, again, not for long. His love of Chinese art and his inquisitive enthusiasm for graphic artists such as Joe Sacco
have allowed him to find ways to put chemical photography firmly back in its box:

People like Mondrian appear heroic, but in the end his pure abstraction was not the future of painting. Neither Matisse nor Picasso ever left the visible world. It was Europeans who needed abstraction, because of photography. The Chinese would have always understood it. But they did not need it . . . Photography came suddenly and late to China.

On almost every page, there is an interesting provocation. I suppose, for Hockney, his answers are what he makes, not what he writes. However, I would hate to end this review without making clear that Gayford brings perspectives and shape here that are hugely useful. This is not David Hockney Bangs On (a book that I would rush out to buy). There is apparently a far bigger book coming shortly, a kind of printed permanent exhibition of Hockney’s art, a book so big that it requires – literally – an easel, and a mortgage. Sickert would have found that very funny. Meanwhile, start here.

Andrew Marr’s books include “A Short Book About Drawing” (Quadrille)

Andrew Marr is a broadcaster and journalist. Formerly the BBC’s Political Editor, he presents the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1 on Sundays and Start the Week on Monday mornings on Radio 4.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood