Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Charlotte Mendelson, Daniel M Davis, David Shields and Shane Salerno, and Jhumpa Lahiri.

Almost English, Charlotte Mendelson 

Charlotte Mendelson’s fourth novel pivots precariously between tragedy and comedy, exploring the turbulent inner workings of an emotionally fragile mother – Laura – and her awkward daughter Marina. A coming-of-age story with a Hungarian tang, this Booker-longlisted novel has been receiving a mixed response from critics, who both admire Mendelson’s theatrics, yet criticise her sincerity.

Bella Bathurst, writing for The Observer, praises the sharp, cynical voice that governs Almost English, noting that the novel deserves to win the Booker “for the quality of the writing alone”. While impressed by the prose, Bathurst does find fault with the similar characterization of Marina and Laura, noting that although “the lack of differentiation between mother and daughter sometimes makes for comedy, [it] sometimes feels uncomfortably same-ish”. In a similar vein, The Independent’s Arifa Akbar criticises the pair’s lack of individuality, observing that “the often histrionic inner voice of the teenager sounds a little too similar to the often histrionic inner voice of the mother, which sounds peculiarly petulant for a woman of her years”.

Arifa Akbar writes in the Independent that it’s not just Laura and Marina who lack refined characterisation, but the whole cast of Almost English. “Characterisation of the eccentric brood of Hungarians feels two-dimension and generic,” writes Akbar, “they seem forever to be saying ‘Von-darefool’ as if accented English were a substitute for depth.” But aside from this, Mendelson is admired for her depiction of strained but intense teenage crushes: “Marina talks in the screeching language of teen love”.

The New Statesman's Claire Lowdon refigures what Akbar calls “generic” or “histronic” as a “Dickensian love of caricature and plot.” Lowdon identifies a shared purpose between Mendelson and the Victorian author, where “the comedy comes with a sting”, and acts as a “poignant counterpoint to all the rollicking social satire.” This “sting” however, is not always achieved and at points the humour is smothered by over-exaggeration. “Marina’s visit to the Viney country pile is hammed up, Guy’s snooty 17-year-old sister utter[s] such improbabilities as, ‘One becomes so protective…’” Initially appreciative of Mendelson’s larger-than-life characters, Lowdon is ultimately frustrated, concluding with the judgment: “if you are writing in the realist tradition, you can only exaggerate so far.”

The Compatibility Gene, Daniel M Davis

In The Compatibility Gene Davis popularizes the genetics of immunology, investigating how the genes of each human being determine relationships, health and individuality. Small clusters of our 25,000 genes, Davis argues, hold disproportionate influence over the human body. These clusters, as The Compatibility Gene explores, control tissue compatibility for transplants and are responsible for a healthy immune system.

Michael Brooks, writing for the New Statesman, praises Davis’ scientific storytelling, paying particular attention to his Darwinian vision of genetics: “As well as dealing with foreign tissue, the compatibility genes seem to influence our selection of biologically beneficial partners. It turns out that we look for complementary immune systems that enhance the chance of our offspring’s survival.” While Davis’ study offers optimism for a future where genetics is increasingly understood, Brooks is quick to notice a note of poignancy in Davis’ work. “Many more scientists are threaded through the pages of Davis’s thoughtful book and they all share one thing: the grinding heartbreak that is the slow progress of scientific discovery.” Nonetheless, concludes Brooks, “The Compatibility Gene is a fascinating, expertly told story of a field that may yield significant treasures in the decades to come”.

Peter Forbes in the Guardian also identifies Brooks’ “heartbreak”, noting how “Davis sugars the pill of exploring unresolved research by focusing on the lives of the researchers and their struggles.” In his review, Forbes highlights the problem of locating underlying principles in immunology, when exceptions are present in so many cases. Most diseases require more than a single defective gene, and this “makes the job of a populariser such as Davis doubly difficult.” But Forbes is satisfied with Brooks’ admission: “While many scientists would argue that a popular-level book like this one should stick to established decades-old ideas, my view is that nothing can be more exciting than what's happening at the edge of knowledge."

Davis in the Times offers personality to his readers as well as science. “Until recently, in everyday speech ‘Neanderthal’ was a stock term of abuse, meaning lumbering, out-dated, stupid”, notes Forbes. “Davis himself can't resist quipping: ‘I look forward to discussing my wife's Neanderthal inheritance with her family at our next Christmas lunch.” Nicola Davis in the Times comments on this readability, which allows for easy comprehension. She comments, “many of the early concepts tackled are fairly familiar but Davis’s readable narrative allows them to be seen afresh through the eyes of those who first probed such puzzles as the existence of blood groups or the very nature of disease.” For all readers of The Compatibility Gene, it is clear the more we find out about this science, the more complicated the science becomes. Nicola Davis doesn’t seem fazed, she remarks.

Salinger, David Shields and Shane Salerno

With a figure as aloof as J D Salinger any biography is likely to be alluring and problematic in equal measure. In their new work Salinger, David Shields and Shane Salerno, neither of whom are biographers, think they have the answers to this particular mystery. But despite nine years of research, 200 contributors and 175 photos, they have failed to impress the critics.

Christopher Taylor, writing in the Telegraph, is unconvinced and awards the book two stars. He doesn’t like the tone of the book and although he grants that it is “energetically researched and contains some notable scoops, it is non-Salingerian in spirit to an almost comical degree: over-emphatic, lurid Hollywood-infected”. All in all, Taylor deems the autobiography to be looking for a film-style “killer montage” rather than providing any sort of insight into Salinger’s relatively unknown life.

John Walsh, in the Sunday Times, however, was more complimentary, impressed especially by the scale of the work. He says “You take away two fascinating paradoxes from this hugely impressive, if not entirely revelatory project. One is Salinger’s creepy obsession with girls on the edge of adulthood... Second is his attitude to seclusion. For a man supposedly indifferent to fame, he monitored it obsessively, checking reviews of his work, ringing up journalists, turning up to interviews with pretty women, inviting people to his house, attending army reunions.“

Carl Rollyson in the Wall Street Journal points out the haphazard nature of the book: “Salinger is biography as scrapbook, chock-full of well-known figures and well-worn stories, with fresh information scattered about.” While Taylor was pleased by the amount of information, Rollyson finds it all too much, concluding “Biographies are often accused of not explaining enough. Here, however, is an example of one that tells us too much. The raw material in "Salinger" will need to be digested by yet another biographer. But the next book will need to be less thesis-ridden and more generous to the insights that other biographers contributed to our understanding of Salinger. We have waited so long to understand J D Salinger. We must wait longer.”

The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri’s second novel The Lowland, already longlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, follows the story of two Calcutta brothers as their paths diverge after they go to university. While one becomes politically active and a Naxalite revolutionary, the other is more obedient and passive, studying oceanography in Rhode Island. The novel examines the political and the personal, set over nearly 50 years of Indian and American history.

Stephanie Merritt, writing in the Observer, gave the book a positive review, impressed by Lahiri’s “restraint and understatement. She resists lyricism, just as she avoids obvious drama.” Although she says that “perhaps Lahiri spreads her net a little too wide at times”, she ultimately concludes that “there is no doubt that The Lowland confirms Lahiri as a writer of formidable powers and great depth of feeling, who makes the business of conjuring a story from the chaos of human lives seem quite effortless.”

Randy Boyagoda of the Financial Times, however, was not so complimentary. He writes that “Jhumpa Lahiri would be a far better writer if she weren’t so bloody exquisite about her writing. The Lowland [...] is an ambitious multigenerational intercontinental drama, but also a symptom of its author’s success.” He finds the style too irritating for the novel to merit much praise, concluding “All of the intellectually listless contradictories share the novel’s pages with those tiny ants and the softness of kisses and many other maddeningly meticulous, pathologically decorous reflections on memory and identity and tea and biscuits and journeying and jasmine-picking and Googling. Booker or not, The Lowland is awash with Lahirical excess.”

Chandak Sengoopta, in the Independent was also unconvinced, again finding problems with the Lahiri’s style. While he lauds Lahiri’s character portrayal, commenting “the tragic family saga is certainly affecting and Lahiri, as always, is adept at portraying the lives of diasporic Indians without condescension”, Sengoopta feels the tragic impact of the novel is somewhat blunted: “The entire novel, in fact, has an emotionally detached tone that reduces the impact of the tragedy”. He concludes that “The Lowland chooses to be a novel about unfathomably dysfunctional people, and not the epic human tragedy it could easily have been.”

Jhumpa Lahiri. Photograph: Getty Images.

Book talk from the New Statesman culture desk.

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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