Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on George Packer, Melanie Phillips and Neil Gaiman.

The Unwinding: an Inner History of the New America by George Packer

Just over a decade into the new millennium, seismic shifts that occurred in the space of a generation have created a country of winners and losers, leaving the social contract in pieces.  Packer narrates the story of America over the past three decades, bringing to the task his empathy with people facing difficult challenges.

Alan Ryan, a professor of politics at Princeton University, dissects Packer's account of the WalMart-ization of the United States for the New Statesman. For Ryan, Packer's discursivity grates; "like other books that originate in essays in the New Yorker, The Unwinding sometimes makes you wish that the author would just get on with it and stop providing ever more redundant detail." But the reviewer praises the three central ideas Packer illustates. "The first is that what has 'unwound' is the institutional structure that allowed ordinary individuals to have a moderately prosperous, predictable and stable existence for 30 years after the Second World War."  The second is that "individuals find themselves on their own, with nothing to rely on but their wits" in "Margaret Thatcher’s world," and the third is that "America has suffered a moral collapse." In conclusion Ryan dubs the book "an impressive piece of work — but not a happy one." 

Toby Harnden in the Sunday Times calls The Unwinding  "a gloomy, eloquent and at times intensely moving portrait," which "Mix[es] granular tales of a handful of ordinary Americans with snapshots of the lives of the powerful." While in the Guardian, Sukhev Sandu cautions that Packer "isn't too clear about when The Unwinding took place," and takes the author to task for failing to use his narrative to advocate for change: "Packer's book – so decent, meticulous, concerned – reads like both a shrine to and the embodiment of a form of civics that barely exists in America these days. Is lambent lamentation enough?"

 

Guardian Angel: My Story, My Britain by Melanie Phillips

This memoir of Melanie Philip's own personal and professional life reflects the seismic changes in British culture and society over a quarter of a century, covering her decades as a news editor, columnist, broadcaster and bestselling author - a period which saw her transformed from darling of the left into icon of 'Middle Britain' and one of the most controversial journalist in the UK.

In her New Statesman review, Helen Lewis points out that Phillips fancies herself "a lone voice crying in the wilderness as hordes of lefties dominate the airwaves and newspapers," but in so doing  becomes "that most postmodern of literary devices – an unreliable narrator." To complain that the Left has made of her a punching bag while digging in her heels about a monolithic leftist media destroying Western Civilization, Lewis says, undermines  attempts at a rational argument, or issues-based debate. But don't read Phillips in frustration, she cautions; instead "read it and politely disagree. Phillips would hate that."

Gaby Hinsliff in the Guardian reflects on Phillips' troubled childhood, saying that in the memoir "the writing is melodramatic, yet the dread feels real." Hinsliff  allows for the emotive content of Phillips' book: "It takes great bravery for a woman too often dismissed as emotional – the 'Mad Mel' of unfair myth – to write like this, and risk handing her critics ammunition. It would be monstrous not to feel both respect for that courage and sympathy." But she finds the conceptual crux of Phillips' complaint problematic: "Yet for all her vivid descriptions of Guardian staff who denounce anyone failing to toe the left-wing line as 'beyond the moral pale', somehow they keep promoting her."

The Independent takes a more gimlet-eyed view of Ms Phillips' literary output, as evidenced by the headline "Phillips launches ‘Brand Melanie’ as she tries to become the darling of the American right." The article's author, Charlie Cooper, asserts that the self-publication of the e-book, as part of her Melanie Phillips Electric Media LLC alongside '"baseball caps, umbrellas and tote bags", is meant to posit her as a brand of punditry for the US market alongside "Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin."

 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane represents Gaiman’s return to adult fiction, however the theme of childhood remains a prominent part of this work. The nameless narrator finds himself in Sussex for a funeral and is drawn back into the scenes of his upbringing. On its journey of myth, magic and malevolence, the novel reintroduces the adult reader to the fantastical (and horrifying) experiences of childhood.

In the Express, Jake Kerridge doesn’t hesitate to award The Ocean at the End of the Lane full marks for Gaiman’s “uncanny ability to remind the reader what it felt like to be a child”. Gaiman is “perhaps the writer who comes closest to being the Dahl of his generation” and his latest novel “has a power that defies explanation” which at times wakens “a long-dormant need to find a sofa to hide behind”.

The Observer’s Edward Docx does not feel as effectively drawn into Gaiman’s magical world; he writes, “I find all these flapping tent-monsters and worms in your feet and beautiful governesses slightly gauche”. Docx expresses his admiration for “Gaiman’s intelligence and his skill as a writer”, but he feels the demonstration of Gaiman’s talent is not something that “this somewhat laboured 'mythic' story permits”.

In this week's New Statesman (which will appear online Thursday), Alex Hern writes that “Gaiman has written a book that reads like a half-remembered fairy tale from childhood. It has the easy flow of a story already heard, deeply known, and slots perfectly into the canon of British magical fiction”. However, criticism is drawn from the “episodic” narrative, which “feels like it’s made up of offcuts and dreams”.

A man walks near the abandoned car-manufacturing Packard plant in Detroit; George Packer describes this "new America" in his book 'The Unwinding' [Photo: Peter Van Agtmael/Magnum]
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Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman is playful and unsettling

At times, the novel seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past.

When cultures collide or begin to merge, what happens to their myths? In Orhan Pamuk’s psychodramatic and psychogeographic tale of fathers and sons, the protagonist Cem mentally collects versions of the Oedipus story from across Europe – Ingres’s painting of Oedipus and the Sphinx hanging in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s work of the same name, painted 50 years later, Pasolini’s film adaptation, Oedipus Rex. But he also fixates on the epic poem “Shahnameh”, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi; and in particular the story of Rostam and Sohrab, a reversal of the Oedipus story in which father kills son rather than vice versa. As Cem and his wife travel the world’s libraries to inspect copies, what they learn is “how ephemeral all those ancient lives had been”.

Nor is Cem immune to the act of readerly projection. “Like all educated Turks of my father’s generation,” Cem tells us, “what I really hoped to find on these trips wandering the shops, the cinemas, and the museums of the Western world was an idea, an object, a painting – anything at all – that might transform and illuminate my own life.”

Cem has more reason than many to seek clarification: his own father has been absent – whether for reasons of underground political activity or romantic complications is, for a long time, unclear – for most of his childhood; he and his mother become impoverished and, as he tells us at the very beginning of the novel, his dream of becoming a writer yields to a life as a building contractor. But these matter-of-fact bare bones are deceptive, for what unfolds is a far more fabular account of a life gone awry.

Even beyond his father’s departure, Cem’s life is shaped by his teenage apprenticeship to Master Mahmut, a well-digger of great renown. It removes him from his protective mother’s sphere of influence and immerses him in a world at once simple – long hours of physical labour – and highly skilled. As his and Master Mahmut’s quest for water on a patch of land slated for development runs into difficulties, so their relationship – boss and employee, craftsman and disciple, quasi father and son – becomes antagonistic, beset by undercurrents of rivalry and rebellion. Before too long (and avoiding spoilers) matters come to a head.

Throughout, their story gestures toward the fairytale, as underlined by Cem’s irresistible attraction to a travelling theatre troupe performing satirical sketches and classical scenes in the town near their excavation, and to the red-haired woman of the title. But Pamuk, in the style that characterises much of his work, fuses this material with political and social commentary. Over the three or four decades covered by the narrative, which takes place from the mid-1980s to the present day, the landscape of Istanbul and its surrounding areas literally changes shape. Residential and commercial developments spring up everywhere, many of them courtesy of Cem and his wife Aye, who have named their business after Shahnameh’s murdered son, Sohrab. Water shortages belie the sophisticated nature of these new suburbs, which eventually begin to form an amorphous mass.

Cem is preoccupied by the differences between Turkey and Iran, the latter seeming to him more alive to its cultural past. Turks, he decides, “had become so Westernised that we’d forgotten our old poets and myths”. While in Tehran, he sees numerous depictions of Rostam and Sohrab, and finds himself stirred:

I felt frustrated and uneasy, as if a fearful memory I refused to acknowledge consciously might suddenly well up and make me miserable. The image was like some wicked thought that keeps intruding on your mind no matter how much you yearn to be rid of it.

The extent to which individuals and societies suffer by not keeping their mythic past in mind is Pamuk’s subject, but it becomes more ambiguous when different stories are brought into play. What is the significance of a son who kills his father in innocence rather than a father who kills his son? Which is the more transgressive and ultimately damaging act and should both killers be regarded as guiltless because they knew not what they did?

But, as its title is perhaps designed to suggest, these accounts of fathers and sons omit a key element of the family drama: if paternity becomes a focus to the exclusion of all else, maternal energy must find an alternative outlet. As this strange, shifting novel edges to its conclusion – becoming, in its final act, a noir thriller – that energy makes a dramatic return, changing not only the story but the entire narrative paradigm.

The Red-Haired Woman is a puzzling novel; its intentions are often concealed, and oblique. At times, it seems to owe as much to Dostoevsky as to the epics of the long-distant past; it moves forward by indirection, swapping modes and registers at will. Playful and unsettling, it reprises some of Pamuk’s favourite themes – the clash between the past and the erasures of modernity, so charged in a Turkish context, and the effect on the individual’s psyche – without quite reaching the expansive heights of some of his previous novels. It is, nonetheless, an intriguing addition to his body of work. 

The Red-Haired Woman
Orhan Pamuk. Translated by Ekin Oklap
Faber & Faber, 253pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem