Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Kate Atkinson, Shereen El Feki and Aleksandar Hemon.

Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

Set in wartime Britain, Kate Atkinson’s latest novel explores themes of new beginnings, fate and family life through the inventive manipulation of temporality in her narration of the story of Ursula Todd. The Guardian’s Alex Clark describes Atkinson’s novel as “a marvel… one that invites the reader to take part in the deception”. Clark remarks that “every time you attempt to lose yourself in the story of Ursula Todd, a child born in affluent and comparatively happy circumstances on 11 February 1910, it simply stops.” Atkinson narrates several instances showcasing the protagonist, Ursula, in a different situation whilst simultaneously narrating shifts in British society.

The Independent’s Rachel Hore writes that the reader is compelled “to hold onto his hat” due to the shuffling from one temporal event to another. She notes the tangible narrative tension derived from “seeing how long Ursula will last each time.” Clark notes Atkinson’s skill in cutting “from one war to the next” as an effective means to combine historical events and the twists in Ursula’s life. Hore notes Atkinson’s vivid portrayal of the London Blitz: “Again and again, Ursula experiences one particularly traumatic event: a direct hit on a dozen people sheltering in a cellar in Argyll Road in November 1940. ” The use of repetition in her narrative structure, for Hore, reinforces a salient point in Atkinson’s novel: “the war should not have been allowed to happen.” Clark rightly concludes that Atkinson’s treatment of the protagonist is exceptionally executed, “Life After Life gives us a heroine whose fictional underpinning is permanently exposed, whose artificial status is never in doubt; and yet one who feels painfully, horribly real to us. 

Life after Life will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

Sex and The Citadel by Shereen El Feki

Sex and the Citadel reveals diverse attitudes to sexuality in Arab countries through a combination of interviews, polls, statistics and personal accounts. The Independent’s Rachel Halliburton describes Shereen El Feki’s book as “a witty encapsulation of the central difficulty that El Feki has faced in chronicling aspects of sex in the Arab world … yielding an extraordinary collection of opinions on everything from online flirting to female genital mutilation.” She adds that it “provides crucial oxygen for discussions that will need more airing in the long, conflicted years ahead.” El Feki’s re-evaluation of Islamic culture compares 11th-century Islamic sex manuals with the opinions of famous TV sex therapists such as Heba Kotb who advises women not to give their men “a reason to choose between [themselves] and hellfire.”

In the Guardian, Faramherz Dabhoiwala notes how El Feki “makes clear how far most Arab women share the sexist presumptions of their culture, even as they suffer its effects.” He reveals El Feki’s omission of the fact that “as long as the words of the Qur'an and its prophet are treated as infallible, and their exegesis by male clerics remains the ultimate authority in sexual affairs, there can be no proper individual sexual freedom“, adding that this is symptomatic of all fundamentalist interpretations of religion.

Along with statistics detailing the proportion of Egyptian women subjected to genital mutilation (a staggering 80 per cent), El Feki’s accounts of these instances are, as the Telegraph's Richard Davenport Hines describes “too revolting to discuss in a review.” Although he highlights how the book “is full of dismal and upsetting stories of inhumanity and ignorance. It will appal, sadden, and anger Western readers”, he praises the book as a “cogent account of sexual liberty in the Arab world.” He describes El Feki as “a cautious optimist who believes that fairness will yet triumph.” The consensus is that El Feki’s book opens up a much needed debate over sensitive topics.

The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon

Leo Robson provides a critical review in the Guardian of The Book of My Lives, noting that author Aleksandar Hemonhas settled for “compiling a memoir rather than composing one.” Robson focuses on the structural problems of the non-fiction successor to the novels Nowhere Man and The Lazarus Project, explaining that the chapters were not conceived so as to go together and in fact have previously been published elsewhere, without receiving “much retooling”. This causally assembled memoir of Hemon’s journey from Sarajevo to Chicago “is inscrutable and chaotic.” Robson adds that if you, “imagine a jigsaw puzzle with a thousand pieces but no pattern, you begin to understand this book's awesome powers of frustration.” A casual approach means that there is a notable dearth of the kind of basic information that you would typically expect in a memoir – the first mention of his first wife is on page 171. Robson explains that in Hemon’s account, “ordinary human suffering is next to nonexistent: the threat posed by the birth of a younger sister is told as comedy (‘Never again would I have all the chocolate for myself’); life in the Yugoslav People's Army was tough because of the ‘fantastically limited’ menu.” The impact of Hemon’s grief at the death of his younger daughter Isabel is blunted by context. Robson explains that the raw emotion and pain expressed in the original essay, published in the New Yorker in 2011, is “utterly ill-suited to round off a collection of journalism so full of emotional deflection”..  

In contrast, Max Liu doesn’t think that this book is devoid of emotion. Writing in the Independent on Sunday, he argues that it is “wrenching but often very funny and self-deprecating too”. Liu focuses on the way Hemon deals with living in different communities and his interest of using narrative and language to negotiate trauma. Liu explains how the reader “of this extraordinary book” will be rooting for his daughter Isobel as the doctors try to save her. According to Liu, Hermon “invokes W H Auden on pain and indifference, as the rest of humanity continues to move ‘dully along’.”

In the Independent, Mark Thompson gushes that Hermon’s “stories seem to tell themselves, unreeling in verbal felicities that kiss the ear”. Furthermore, he expresses how “contagious energy flows from language that seems to be discovered in the act of composition.” Thompson explores the theme of identity, and writes that Hermon, “bolts semi-academic terms skilfully onto childhood memories and the observation of his parents displaced in Canada”. The key chapter in The Book of my Lives “relates the puppyish avant-garde exploits of Hemon and friends in the 1980s. When they organise a Nazi-themed cocktail party, parodying the jackbooted decadence portrayed in Yugoslav movies, hysterical denunciation follows.” Thompson asks: where does he hail from, as a writer? He answers that the influences are from “all sorts of places, new and old”, and that although Hermon adores Bruno Schulz and Danilo Kiš, his vernacular isn’t wrought with density like their prose, but instead manages “lightness along with word-perfection”.

The Book of My Lives will be reviewed in the next issue of the New Statesman.

Kate Atkinson's novel narrates the life of a woman, Ursula Todd, during British Wartime (Photo: Hulton Archive, Getty Images)
David Brent: Life on the Road
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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.