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 FT.com 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.

David Brent: Life on the Road
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Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.