Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on David Runciman, Margaret Drabble and Iain Sinclair.

The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis from World War I to the Present by David Runciman 

Despite a troubled past, democracy has become the accepted mode of modern politics in many parts of the world. However, in recent times, perhaps due to the difficulties in transitioning into this form of government in the Middle East and the miseries caused by the crash of 2008, democracy has witnessed a bit of a loss of confidence. David Runciman seeks to address this lack of confidence by explaining democracy’s inherent problems. The Confidence Trap suggests that the problem is confidence itself. Government officials defer resolving problems because they are too confident in a system that is adaptable and resilient in crisis, and so allow their problems to escalate. Runciman sees this pattern repeating in history and points to seven crises as examples.

Jonathan Freedland at the Guardian is impressed with the book. He finds Runciman’s book “lucid” and “original”. He argues that Runciman’s thesis is a “paradoxical idea that the author repeatedly expresses through paradox.” Such as the lasting success of democracy produced through lots of little failures or a leadership crisis that allows a nation to end up with the right one. The book is “presented with a bracing intellectual confidence” that is devoid of graphs and conventional data, rather it is written “colloquially” and “does not shy away from the sweeping generalisations.” The book is “ambitious, in the best sense of that word.” Freedland does identify that Runciman does not offer any answers but thinks that answers perhaps do not exist. All in all, Runciman is a “compelling guide.”

Vernon Bogdanor, a professor of government at the Institute for Contemporary British History at King’s College London, is disappointed with the book for the very reasons it is praised by Freedland. In his review for the New Statesman, he describes the book as “less a work of research or scholarship than a commentary on events, strong on paradox and epigram rather than analysis and written in a somewhat rhapsodic style, which occasionally becomes wearisome.” Statements can be “vacuous” and worse Runciman fails to address the main challenges faced by democracies today: how they can be “induced to defend themselves”.

In the Financial Times, Mark Mazower recognises that despite the books global remit it is primarily concerned with America. For him, this myopia diminishes the discussion of the resilience of democracies in adapting to crises when compared to other polities. He highlights the lasting success of dynasties (the Ottoman and Habsburg), the adaptability of fascism and even of Soviet communism. However, the focus on America reminds us that there is “an international dimension to this subject that is closely connected to American self-perceptions” as the “world’s first real democracy” and has having the responsibility to pump “freedom around the world.” Despite Runciman remaining “relatively sanguine” about the issue, by the end he is “sounds worried about the problem of overconfidence”.

The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble

Dame Margaret Drabble’s first novel in almost decade follows a young anthropologist named Jessica Speight and her daughter Anna, the titular “pure gold baby”. Set in the swinging sixties, this is a novel about single parenthood and a child with an invisible disability. 

The Independent is thrilled with Margaret Drabble’s return to fiction with a “poignant but ultimately uplifting tale.” The review sees the question of dependency at the heart of the novel: whether Anna has given Jess an excuse to “shy away from the hardships of raising funds to work in the field?” And how “Jess copes being away from Anna is even more interesting than how Anna copes away from her mother.” Eleanor, the novel’s narrator and Jess’s friend, has been given a “conversational style that sometimes slips into a conspiratorial tone.” She mentions in passing characters and events whose true implications are made apparent later in the novel; this is praised as being “much like in fragmentary, real-life conversations.” Drabble’s prose is “graceful and flowing” even though she has a penchant for the word “proleptic” which “appears several times in the novel”. In the end, this is a “quiet, contemplative ... anthropological study of women”.

Jane Shilling at the Telegraph finds parallels between this novel and Drabble’s third, The Millstone (1965). Both are about single mothers who are supported by an “affectionate community of friends in Seventies north London.” She stresses that the novel is about “themes, rather than character.” Returned memories do not lead to revelations and are just another image in the collective fragment pile which is the novel. Shilling notes that “in some ways [Drabble’s] current novel resembles a jigsaw; its ambitious themes of parenthood, innocence, wounded children, anthropology, literature, madness, ageing, illness and love juxtaposed to form, if not quite a coherent pattern, then something tantalisingly close to it.”

Private Eye remains wholly unconvinced by Drabble’s new work. The Eye recognises that Drabble is returning to a subject matter where she has previously been a virtuoso, most notably in The Millstone. However, the difference is with this encounter the baby is “profoundly, though ineluctably, backward” and that “the whole idea of narrative locomotion seems, equally mysteriously, to have deserted [Drabble].” Drabble preaches “an exemplary tolerance while remaining horribly snooty about the wrong kind of opinions,” and turns “downright disdainful about nearly every manifestation of popular culture in sight.” Eleanor’s narrative inconsistencies are also amiss; they involve “the juxtaposition of a mystifying amnesia about dates, relationships and personal histories ... with almost total recall of nursery rhymes and bygone brands of confectionery.” Most damning of all, perhaps, this is a book in which “hardly anything happens”.

American Smoke: Journeys to the End of the Light by Iain Sinclair

Iain Sinclair’s recent literary forays have been in the ambitious psychogeography of London. He walked around the M25 in London Orbital and followed in the footsteps of the poet John Clare in Edge of Orison. His new book leaves London behind and tracks his ventures to America in search of authors who were an influence to him in his childhood – most of whom fall into either the Beat writers or the Black Mountain Poets. 

The Sunday Times's John Self is complimentary. He is impressed with the long line up of authors in the book: William Burroughs, “the man who sold Jack Kerouac’s raincoat to Johnny Depp”, Greogory Corso, Alexander Baron and even Albert Speer. Sinclair holds up “names faded and talents forgotten.” His prose particularly impresses, Self describes Sinclair's ability as “undimmed, particularly his writing about place.” The traits that typify Sinclair are “history, localitlity” and “an eye for absurdity” all which are neatly present in his final journey in England: “from Hastings to Hackney, by swan pedalo.”

Kevin Jackson at the Literary Review explains that this book is Sinclair’s odyssey. Whereas all his previous books have been about staying put, in this he goes out into strange territory. As an Iain Sinclair fan he is unsurprised than the outcome is far from straightforward, it is well supplied in Sinclair’s long digressions “and dozens of short ones”. In the book’s scope, however, there are also some moments that are “grimly comic and captured in deft, memorable phrases”, specifically Sinclair’s trip to visit the elderly Burroughs. The book uses quotes sparingly and “is much better on the spirit than the letter of [the authors’] works.” Fundamentally, it is “less than bracingly, intoxicatingly written”.

“The virtuality of everything Iain Sinclair knows is powdered in the dust and refracted through the desuetude of the British experience,” writes Iain Finlayson in the Times, “it is the fulcrum on which he spikes this psalter of praise to the memory of Hip.” In this short but verbose review Finlayson maintains: “The fast shutter speed of Sinclair’s prose pins the dated cultural moments, his ventriloquism refracts the period jargon; the pinwheel of his imagination fires off the tangential topographical associations.” He seems to like the book.

Margaret Drabble in the study of her London home in July 1974. Photo: Evening Standard/Stringer/Getty Images.
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

John Darnielle's Universal Harvester contains as much tenderness as horror

The Mountain Goats musician's novel has some structural problems, but is not without interest and insight.

It is the late 1990s in the small city of Nevada, Iowa, and Jeremy is getting complaints about the tapes that people are renting from the Video Hut. Weird images are appearing partway through films: the sunny romcom She’s All That cuts suddenly to a shot of darkness and the sound of someone breathing behind the camera; the Peter Bogdanovich thriller Targets is interrupted by amateur footage of a woman tied to a chair inside a barn, with a hood over her head and a rope around her neck. These menacing images cause confusion. Are they a manufacturing error? A prank? Or something more disturbing?

Jeremy, whose mother died in a car accident six years earlier, is in his directionless early twenties and expert at derailing his dad when he asks what he plans to do with his life. A customer, Stephanie, gradually persuades him to help investigate the scenes they have witnessed on the tapes. It seems a dangerous task; at best, the sequences are deeply strange, but the worst of them – bodies moving under a tarp, a woman fleeing down a dark country road ahead of the camera’s bobbing light – suggest kidnap and torture.

When Jeremy’s boss, Sarah Jane, watches one of the videos, she recognises the property where these mysterious scenes are being filmed. She embarks on her own investigation, one that involves her in a situation as sad as it is strange, and that transforms the novel from a horror story into something less easily classifiable. There are several changes of pace and tone throughout the book, some of which are less successful than others. The most serious problem – the one that hampers the reader’s ability to become immersed in Darnielle’s often highly atmospheric writing – has to do with framing. Just who is telling this story?

The novel is mostly written in the third person, but occasionally a first-person narrator interrupts to add their take on events. The first few times this happens, it’s thrilling: it adds a further mystery to be solved, and in one instance delivers a huge and enlivening revelation.

But Darnielle uses this trick too often and in apparently contradictory ways. Some parts of the book only make sense if we assume an omniscient narrator; others suggest that someone intimately involved with what is going on is controlling the narrative; while other asides suggest a narrator far removed in time from the events described, as if the story being told has passed into local legend. “There is a variation on this story so pervasive that it’s sometimes thought of not as a variation but as the central thread,” the narrator tells us, uncertainly. I cannot find a way to make these three modes of telling the story work logically together. I’m not saying they don’t, but the answer isn’t discernible on the page.

The pity of Universal Harvester’s structural problems is that they distract from some interesting and insightful writing – the kind that might be expected from Darnielle, the songwriter for one of the most intelligent indie rock bands of the past 20 years, the Mountain Goats. The book’s second and best section is a lengthy flashback about a woman who goes missing in the mid-1970s after becoming involved with a fringe Christian group. In the eeriest scene, her husband listens to her singing at the sink, “but the song continued at the same pace and tempo, and he realised she’d been praying – chanting”. He doesn’t recognise the prayer, “and he didn’t want to follow it out to where it went”.

That line reinforces the sense, skilfully kept always in our minds, of the threatening isolation of the vast fields of Iowa, where “a farmhouse has no neighbours, not real ones, and if you try looking for them, it shrinks… Walk twenty paces from its door and you’re waist-high in corn or knee-high in bean fields, already forgetting the feel of being behind a door, safely shielded from the sky.”

But there proves to be as much tenderness as horror in Darnielle’s novel, which ultimately has more in common with the small-town loneliness and desire for connection described in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio than it does with rural horror such as Stephen King’s “Children of the Corn”.

One of the things that Jeremy treasures about his sleepy town where the days “roll on like hills too low to give names to” – one of the things that the events of the novel put under threat – is “knowing where you were: this seemed like a big part of the point of living in Nevada, possibly of being alive at all”. 

Universal Harvester
John Darnielle
Scribe, 224pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder