Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on James Lasdun, Andrew Solomon and Woody Guthrie.

Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked by James Lasdun

Writing in the Observer, Mark O’Connell describes James Lasdun’s Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked as “a fascinating meditation on the malleability of identity in the online age, on the ease with which the truth about individual lives can be publicly distorted.” The memoir “is as unsettling as anything I've read about the internet's awful capacity to facilitate the dissemination of hatred”. O’Connell writes that, “perhaps the book's most terrifying revelation is the idea that all that is necessary for a person's life to be made utterly miserable is for another person to want this badly enough, for whatever reason. The internet is the genie that grants such poisonous wishes.” The reviewer is also impressed by the range of Lasdun’s book, writing: “As intriguing as this material is in itself, it's Lasdun's deviations from it that make for such an odd and original work of nonfiction. There are long, idiosyncratic digressions in which he views his situation through various literary lenses – readings of Tintin, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Macbeth and the poetry of Plath.”

Jane Shilling’s review in the Telegraph describes Lasdun’s attempts to address the internet in his memoir: “Lasdun accomplishes the task with his habitual luminous elegance, drawing into his account wider questions of honour, reputation, masculinity, creativity, the nature of evil and the experience of 'an unbelieving, not even entirely kosher Jew [who] finds himself subjected to a firestorm of unrelenting anti-Semitism'.” However, Shilling contends that the book is somewhat let-down by Lasdun’s “inability to do more than glance obliquely at the crucial questions of love, flirtation, fidelity and the nature of the marriage bond itself”.

In the Guardian, Jenny Turner is somewhat less complimentary. She says that, “the book as a whole is skewiff, with both far too much information in it and not enough” and she “could also have done without some of Lasdun's own psychic self-dramatisations”. Turner adds that the possibility of Lasdun’s stalker, Nasreen being in “terrible distress” is neglected – “Lasdun isn't interested in a diagnosis, preferring to see her behaviour as motivated by 'a malice that … simply is'.”

Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

Far From The Tree by Andrew Solomon

In the New York Times Dwight Garner reviews Far From The Tree, Andrew Solomon’s book on parental love, based partly on his experiences with his parents as a gay child. It is a “book is about diversity of a harrowing sort. He introduces us to families who are coping with deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia and, in some cases, multiple extreme disabilities. He writes about rape victims who have kept their children”. While the book is certainly dense - it’s nearly 1,000 pages long and includes interviews with over 300 families – Garner says, “my respect for it rarely wavered.” Where the book lets itself down, it is through prose that is “dry and epigrammatic.”

To Emma Brockes, writing in the Guardian, Solomon’s work is “a rebuke to everything shoddy and dashed off in the culture, and the density of his empirical evidence decimates casual assumption”. Brockes is particularly impressed by “those parents who forfeit the good opinion of their peers by not doing what is 'expected' of them: a woman from Oxford who, after a terrible period of indecision, gives her mentally and physically disabled child up for adoption; the mother of two severely autistic children, who, when her husband asks, 'Would you marry me again?', replies, 'Yeah, but not with the kids.' “

In the Telegraph, Jane Shilling is interested by Solomon’s exploration of identity. “The theme of identity haunts Solomon’s book. He distinguishes between vertical identity – traits we inherit from our parents, such as ethnicity or language – and horizontal identity, acquired from a peer group.” The personal dimension of the book is also notable, writes Shilling.  “As ]Solomon] watched his infant son undergo a CAT scan, he recognised in himself the quality that he had spent so long observing in others: the dazzling terror of parental love.”

House of Earth by Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie composed 3,000 songs. It turns out he was also a novelist. Martin Chilton, writing in the Telegraph, praises his novel (written in 1947 and previously unpublished) as a “heartfelt story about grinding poverty”, and a “rallying cry for building better homes”. The edition contains an introduction by Johnny Depp and the historian Douglas Brinkley which describes the novel as “an artefact from another age” – an introduction which Chilton finds “engrossing”. The novel contains “vivid descriptions” of terrible housing conditions in New Mexico, but Chilton ultimately assesses them as “dated and slow”. This defect is balanced by Guthrie’s powers of observation, which “enabled him to write with a homespun authenticity, and a fine ear for dialect”, and by scenes which are “genuinely moving”. The novel contains a 30 page romp in a barn (“You got more joosey magoosey in these tits of yours here than in any of our old milk cows”) and an extended birth section, which combine to enunciate themes of hope and “weary resignation”. Chilton awards the long-forgotten novel, “both welcome and timely”, an up-beat three stars.

Michel Faber, in the Guardian, is a little more unsettled by the sex scenes in the novel. “Such prose was clearly unpublishable in its time, and is still unusually explicit today”, he writes, after quoting an instance in which “the liquids from [Ella May’s] womb smeared through the hairs on [Tike’s] stomach”. This emphasis on sense data, continues Faber, is “all part of Guthrie's larger vision of human experience. Every sensation is noted and riffed on. Every thought is felt, every feeling anatomised at length. Weather permeates the soul and the soul mingles with the elements. The cry of Tike's newborn baby is described for two pages, because for Guthrie it is the cry of all things on earth”. Faber cannot help but snigger at the introduction, which takes the novel to be a kind of prophetic cry against global warning, and during which Depp and Brinkley “work themselves up to a pitch of bombastic celebration”. This focus is misleading, he contends, and should be transferred to Guthrie’s “linguistic bravado”, which nonetheless is at times a little circumlocutory. In sum, the book is an “eccentric hymn to the everythingness of everything, a sort of hillbilly Finnegans Wake”, and a “historical curio, a precious relic of semi-legendary Americana”.

A range of other reviews echo Chilton and Faber, such as David Martingale’s for America’s Star-Telegram. Martingale finds the novel “entertaining but slight”, “engaging but odd”, and at times “jarring and heavy-handed”. The “dream-like quality”of the prose is commendable, but when Depp and Brinkely compare the novel to Steinbeck they are “guilty of overstating the importance of House of Earth ... a treasure and a pleasure for Guthrie enthusiasts, but hardly an American classic”. 

House of Earth will be reviewed in a forthcoming edition of the New Statesman.

Woody Guthrie photographed in 1960 (Getty Images)
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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.