In the Critics this week

Robert Skidelsky on British industry, Richard J Evans on Norman Stone, Olivia Laing on Sheila Heti, Megan Abbott on Detroit and Ryan Gilbey on Quentin Tarantino.

 

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, the economic historian and biographer of Keynes, Robert Skidelsky, reviews The Slow Death of British Industry by Nicholas Comfort. “In the early 1950s,” Skidelsky writes, “Britain was an industrial giant. Today, it is an industrial pygmy.” The reasons for this sorry decline are various, Skidelsky suggests. But “running through this history is a lack of continuity: government policy towards taxation and incentives continually changed, long-term aims were repeatedly sacrificed to short-term financial exigencies, projects were taken up and abandoned when they became too costly …” But it needn’t have been like that. It was a historic mistake, Skidelsky argues, for Britain to rely so heavily in recent decades on financial services. “Like individuals, governments should hold balanced portfolios … Governments … need to promote a balanced economy.”

Also in Books: historian Richard J Evans reviews World War Two: A Short History by Norman Stone (“Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this book is its unremitting dullness”); Olivia Laing reviews How Should a Person Be? By Sheila Heti and Wild by Cheryl Strayed (“Though Strayed’s book is both touching and instructive it’s Heti’s …that will stay with me”); Lesley Chamberlain on Roberto Calasso’s La Folie Baudelaire (“a kind of self-parodying continentalism for the coffee table”); Catherine Taylor enjoys Deborah Levy’s short story collection Black Vodka (“There is a sexy hauteur in Deborah Levy’s prose reminiscent of the voice of Marianne Faithfull”); American novelist Megan Abbott reviews Mark Binelli’s The last Days of Detroit (“the metaphorical distance between the city and its hostile suburbs is immense, treacherous”). In the Books Interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to Jared Diamond about his new book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? “Life in Africa,” Diamond tells Derbyshire, “is socially rich but materially poor, whereas life in the west is materially rich but socially poor.”

Elsewhere in the Critics: Ryan Gilbey on Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (“Portraying the perpetrators of slavery as merely monstrous, and their victims as holy, does a disservice to the oppressed …”); Rachel Cooke wishes the BBC hadn’t tried to adapt PG Wodehouse’s Blandings stories (“[Some] funny books … have never and will never work on television”); Antonia Quirke is baffled by Smooth Radio’s Osmonds obsession; and Alexandra Coghlan pays tribute to Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski, whose centenary is celebrated this year. PLUS Will Self's Real Meals.

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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge