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.

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism