Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Wilson, Astill and Doyle.

Ballistics, by D W Wilson

Following his success as a writer of short stories, D W Wilson’s ‘Hyper Macho’ debut novel follows two male protagonists: Alan West and Archer Cole. At the behest of his grandfather Cecil, Alan journeys through the Canadian Rockies, in the grip of wildfires, searching for his father. He takes Archer Cole along with him, an 82-year-old US marine and Vietnam War veteran, who continually experiences disturbing flashbacks.

David Annand of the Telegraph offers praise for Wilson’s first novel. He remarks that “unlike the standard sub-Carver sentences that characterise most of the [Hyper Macho] genre, Wilson’s prose is rich and nuanced, and Archer is a sophisticated portrait of a man intelligent beyond his education”. However, “It’s a shame ... that Alan seems to have been unaffected by his big-city schooling and is as uncritically in thrall as the rest of them to the Hyper Macho honour code.” Annand suggests that the book would thus benefit from a “counterpoint model of masculinity”.

The Scotsman’s Tom Adair offers a similar criticism, remarking that the novel is perhaps too hypermasculine, to the clear detriment of its analysis of women. “The story lacks real insight into its trio of female characters” suggests Adair. “Invermere, [where most of the novel takes place] drenched in testosterone, booze, male sweat, the sounds of gunfire, the rasp of petrol engines, buzzsaws, men revving up for regular blood and bone encounters, is a male-only adventure playground”. Compared to Wilson’s short stories, Adair also believes that “too much happening, too many words”.  A similar overload is lamented in “the closing quarter of the novel” which “almost chokes itself: so much drama”.

Robert Nathan of the Guardian however is not so critical of what he calls a “lean, powerful book about quiet, emotional people”.  He offers particular praise for Wilson’s descriptive ability. He “animates a world that any small-town North American could identify in a moment”. Yet mere description is not all Wilson achieves. The novel “transcends this environment to evoke something universal: how people live through loss, and how they talk about what matters, or don't”.

The Great Tamasha, by James Astill

The critics have lavished praise on James Astill’s exploration of Indian cricket. The Great Tamasha analyses key developments in cricket’s recent history, such as the advent of the IPL, the Indian influence on cricket, and its growing domination of the sport, while also using the game as a lens to view deeper, more problematic issues in Indian society.

The Guardian’s James Burke flatters Astill’s  “engaging, perceptive and rigorous book”. The book is about much more than sport” Burke explains, and features analysis of recurrent Indian issues, such as the caste system. Particular praise is given to Astill’s first-hand research. Astill “spent a week living in both slums in Mumbai and a rural village in the dirt-poor northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which few writers have the time, or the desire, to do”. As a result, his “narrative is helped along by lively interviews with strong characters”. Burke concludes that “The Great Tamasha tells a fascinating story well. Anyone interested in India, or cricket, and most certainly both, will enjoy it very much”.

Mihir Bose of the Independent offers similar adulation. “Much of this story is known” remarks Bose, “but while Astill relies on previously published material, what makes his book exceptional is his first-hand reporting”. The breadth of Astill’s research receives special praise. We “meet powerful Indian politicians from Sharad Power, who aspired to be prime minister and headed international cricket, to residents of Dharavi in Mumbai, one of the biggest slums in Asia”. Like Burke, Bose is also keen to emphasise how other important issues in Indian society are tackled through the lens of cricket. India’s “corruption, crony capitalism, ... [its] thriving democracy” are all explored.

Finally, Tom Fort of the Telegraph congratulates Astill on a “clear-sighted and superbly researched” book. Yet another critic is impressed by Astill’s erudition: “Astill seems to have talked to everyone who is anyone involved in this deeply unattractive business” Fort remarks. Fort also believes that as a “cricket nut” and the “Economist’s bureau chief in Delhi, Astill was well placed to observe the birth of the Indian Premier League (IPL) and monitor its explosive growth”.

The Guts, by Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle’s latest novel is a sequel to The Commitments (1987). It follows middle class, middle-aged Jimmy Rabbitte who pays for a three bedroomed house and sizeable family by pursuing a career in the Irish music industry. At the start of the novel Jimmy is diagnosed with bowel cancer (hence the title), exploring both his treatment for the disease, and the Irish music industry simultaneously.

Theo Tait of the Guardian remarks that although the book is “easy to pigeon hole” as a “mid-life crisis novel”, it “has heart and humour, and is thick with Dublin detail”. Impressive too is the fact that Doyle manages to simultaneously serve “up a good-sized helping of nostalgia”, yet attack such sentiments at the same time. Tait believes that the book “provides everything that, back in the mid-1990s, a Roddy Doyle novel seemed to represent: a big, raucous but loving Northside Dublin family; perfectly pitched dialogue; well-observed male camaraderie; a lot of music; and, perhaps most of all, entertaining profanity”. He concludes that “The Guts deserves to be a popular success. Who knows, it might even penetrate a demographic group notoriously resistant to reading novels: middle‑aged men”.

The National Post’s Philip Marchand also emphasises the warmth that Doyle’s latest work contains. “The novel is rich in sentiment and episodes conveying sentiment” Marchand explains, while the book has a “comic mode” which is retained even in its darker moments. This “comic mode is heightened by the form of the narrative, which is basically a series of dialogues - often texted”. However, although this “keeps things sprightly” it “also limits the emotional tone, so that the novel begins to seem like a requiem performed entirely by brass instruments.” In all, Marchand offers a balanced appraisal of a “buoyant tale”.

“It is bright, jokey, wry and robust” explains Patricia Craig of the Independent. She a makes a point of commenting on the book’s authenticity, as Doyle “captures the authentic tones of a late 20th-century, urban working-class, pub- and housing-estate culture, all Howyeh and Wha' d'you mean? and shite and fuck”. This creates an “emphatic atmosphere” which “in a sense... takes the place of a plot”. Like the other “’Barrytown’ novels in particular” The Guts is by no means a book where you will find intricate plot making.

Again, reference is made to the book’s treatment of sentimentality. At times, Doyle’s “and his characters' exasperation with sentimental shite ('it was fuckin' everywhere') gives way to actual sentimental shite: 'the sadness, the grief, had never left. Like losing the kids, them growing up and away from him, one by one'. But such lapses are rare, amid the whole demotic, chaotic onrush of Dublin life and inimitable carry-on”, Craig explains.

Craig remarks that The Guts features much of what is typical of Roddy Doyle: social criticism, “immense skill” and an intensely Irish feel.

James Astill's "The Great Tamasha", an exploration of indian cicket, has been well received. Images: Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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