Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Richard Davenport-Hines, Mark Binelli and George Saunders.

The Tenth of December by George Saunders

Acclaimed short-story writer George Saunders darkly satirises modern life in his fourth anthology, The Tenth of December..Through the eyes and minds of ten characters, it envisages the gulf between dreams and reality in suburban America.

For Joel Lovell, of the New York Times, it is the “best book you’ll read this year”. Other critics’ praise is more reserved.

David Wolf, writing in The Observer, applauds the author’s skillful storytelling and “the exhilirating explosion of slang, neologisms and fake product names”. Saunders’ writing is at once comparable to Kurt Vonnegut’s “deadpan absurdism” and The Simpsons with his mix of “crude and sophisticated satire” and warm optimism. Nevertheless, Wolf criticises the inability of the MacArthur Genius Award winner to develop his writing style: “Saunders’ first collection for six years delivers all we expect but nothing new.” He added: “It seems like he’s stuck.”

In a review that charts Saunders’ backlash against his former idol and arch-rationalist Ayn Rand, Ludovic Hunter-Tilney welcomes the “sustained attack on the ideology of individualism.” For the Financial Times writer, it “overturns the belief that altruism is evil and instead suggests that helping others is the core component of our being”. The “blackly comic” book is only criticised for the tendency of the ten stories to seem formulaic because of Saunders’ distinctive style.

Alice Charles’ review for the Huffington Post UK, while commending The Tenth of December for its insight into characters’ minds, similarly criticises its repetitiveness. The habit of revisiting characters, themes and ideas “in a collection of just ten stories, feels like a bit of a cheat.”

 

The Last Days of Detroit by Mark Binelli

Mark Binelli’s Last days of Detroit, soon to be reviewed in the New Statesman, tells the story of the boom and bust of what was once America’s fourth largest city. A former Detroit-native himself, the critics are divided on the perspective this brings for Binelli’s telling book.

Andy Beckett writes for the Guardian, and points to the author’s “busy, knowing prose” as the cause for the frequently quick and flippant tone; highlighted on one occasion where Binelli heedlessly skims over three decades of history exclaiming that “nothing much interesting happened in Detroit for the next thirty or so years …". Beckett is more critical of the beginning of the book, where he claims it reads more like a book proposal than a book itself, “authoritative but self-conscious, switching restlessly between past and present”, however he praises Binelli on his subsequent coverage of Detroit’s decline.

Rose Jacobs of the Financial Times finds that Binelli provides a charming narrative, managing to associate with the reader through personal asides and footnotes that show him to be “playing the tongue-tied non-expert”. As amiable as this may be at times, asserts Jacobs, the “ingenue’s approach” was also occasionally irksome. She concludes that the success of the book waivers, completely relying upon the subjects interviewed in each chapter.

Mick Brown’s review for The Telegraph commends Mark Binelli, deeming him “an assiduous reporter” and credits him with avoiding making the book an epitaph of Detroit. He identifies Binelli’s optimism amongst the ‘devastation porn’ that was the decline, but does query the lack of photographs that would have been so fitting in what is “otherwise an excellent book”.

 

An English Affair by Richard Davenport Hines

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Profumo affair, Richard Davenport-Hines bawdily retells how the war minister romanced the reputed mistress of a Soviet spy, Christine Keeler. In the throes of Cold War fever, politicians and the media convulsed at the idea of high-risk “pillow talk” that, followed by lying in the commons, forced resignation and framing, purportedly sowed the seeds of Macmillan’s demise.

The English Affair: Sex Class and Power in the Age of Profumo has divided critics who draw different lessons from the 1963 event.

Susan Elkin, writing in The Independent, praises Davenport-Hines as a “sparkling and compelling writer” and meticulous researcher. She draws parallels with the present: “it is hard to read his book without reflecting that we are still agonising over press freedom and the extent to which private lives are relevant to public office.”

By contrast, Vernon Bogdanor craves more context in the “racy read”. An English Affair re-runs a widely-told old story; “It is not entirely clear what purpose is served by further exhumation.” The New Statesman writer speculates that the affair thwarted chances of a Conservative election victory in 1964 that may have forced Labour to modernise 30 years before Blair. “The consequences are far more important than the cultural implications that Davenport-Hines analyses.”

The Guardian’s Blake Morrison nonetheless welcomes An English Affair as “an antidote to the current nostalgia for the period”. It exposes the “double standards of the early 60s” in which the welfare state, far from banishing spivs, encouraged a new generation of merchant adventurers who “transformed the capital with brutal phallic modernity”.

“For anyone who imagines things were better in the age of ‘never had it so good’,” writes Morrisson, “this book should be compulsory reading.”

Detroit River during a race, the Detroit skyline in the background. (Getty Images)
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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

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 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism