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)
David Brent: Life on the Road
Show Hide image

Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.