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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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge