In the Critics this week

John Gray on capitalism's future, Ryan Gilbery on Stoker, Leo Robson on Coetzee and Crace, and much more.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, our lead book reviewer John Gray reviews The Locust and the Bee: Predators and Creators in Capitalism’s Future by Geoff Mulgan. “The assumption underlying Mulgan’s analysis,” Gray writes, “is that … capitalism is the only game in town”. The problem with Mulgan’s thesis, Gray continues, is that his definition of capitalism detaches it from “any particular mode of production”. And we know from recent history that “an elastic understanding of capitalism allows governments to condemn the market’s excesses while continuing to entrench market forces in every corner of society”. Mulgan, argues Gray, has not eluded the logic of market-based thinking. “Where [his] argument is problematic is in accepting that all human relations can be understood as forms of exchange and that we can enjoy the market’s benefits without any of its hazards”.

Also in Books:

Novelist and critic Philippa Stockley reviews Amanda Mackenzie Stuart’s biography of former American Vogue editor Diana Vreeland (“Vreeland lived out her fantasies and for decades encouraged others to invent and imagine theirs”); David Shariatmadari reviews Revolutionary Iran: a History of the Islamic Republic by Michael Axworthy (“Axworthy has confirmed his position as one of the most lucid and humane western interpreters of Iran writing at the moment”); Leo Robson reviews new novels by J M Coetzee and Jim Crace (“The Childhood of Jesus, Coetzee’s most freewheeling work so far, might be seen as a homage to Beckett … The most seductive and enthralling of Crace’s novels, Harvest is also likely to be his last … Ending is its theme – or if not ending, then the destructiveness inherent in change”); Olivia Laing reviews The Gentrification of the Mind by Sarah Schulman (“[T]he true message of the Aids years should have been that a small group of people at the very margins of society succeeded in forcing their nation to change its treatment of them”); and Rachle Bowlby reviews Jane Dunn’s biography of Daphne du Maurier and her sisters (“Daphne du Maurier was one of three sisters but the Brontes they weren’t, however much this book tries to present a picture of collective creative achievement”).

Elsewhere in the Critics:

Ryan Gilbey reviews Park Chan-wook’s new film, Stoker (“This [film] left me stoked”); Rachel Cooke watches Sue Perkins’s comedy Heading Out and ITV’s Glorious Food, hosted by Carol Vorderman (“Vorderman … appears to be about as interested in cooking as I am in who wins this shameless, muddled rip-off”); Antonia Quirke bemoans the quality of football phone-ins (“programmes such as … Radio 5 Live’s 606 are increasingly hard to listen to”); Jason Cowley reviews Jamie Lloyd’s production of Macbeth, with James McAvoy in the title role (“Jamie Lloyd’s production is as visceral and boisterous as any I have seen”); Alexandra Coghlan hears Maxim Vengerov and Itamar Golan at the Barbican and Nicholas Daniel and friends at the Wigmore Hall (“The quality of [Vengerov’s] playing … is a rather mixed bag”).

Plus:

Meeting Peter Porter a Year After His Death, a poem by Tim Liardet, and Will Self’s Real Meals.

Nicole Kidman at the London premiere of Stoker (2013, Getty Images)
DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era