Show Hide image

Wild at heart: Literary tigers from William Blake to Fiona McFarlane's The Night Guest

Like so many books about tigers, The Night Guest, by Australian first-time novelist Fiona McFarlane, is a battle to preserve the order and civility of the household from the madness and barbarity outside.

The Night Guest
Fiona McFarlane
Sceptre, 288pp, £14.99

From William Blake to Judith Kerr, writers have deployed tigers in literature to represent wildness, energy and disruption. Blake’s sublime, forest-dwelling feline was the antithesis of his meek and gentle lamb – “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” – while in Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea, the big cat threatens to consume every means of sustenance, displacing the family who had initially welcomed it in (mirroring Kerr’s experiences of Nazi Germany).

Ever since Disney gave him a voice, A A Milne’s ebullient Tigger has become a figure of childish amusement, when really he’s an incorrigible pest. He wakes Pooh Bear in the small hours of the morning, gets himself stuck in a tree and nearly drowns poor Eeyore. Like Kipling’s Shere Khan, he expects those around him to bend to his will.

The first-time novelist Fiona McFarlane has pitted a tiger against a lamb in the form of her two central characters, Frida Young and Ruth Field. Ruth is a widowed pensioner, living out her dotage on the south Australian coast. One night she hears a tiger romping through her kitchen. The following morning Frida appears, “as if blown in from the sea”, a “government carer” sent free of charge to be “[her] right arm”.

The significance of the tiger is never fully explained or fixed in place: does it symbolise the threat posed by Frida, or is it Ruth’s senility, her independence or lost youth? As in Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, much of the novel is taken up with power struggles and territorial disputes. Frida moves in. She brings chemicals to get rid of the smell of the sea, puts up banisters and urges Ruth to sell her car, making her dependent and weakening her resolve. But Ruth is never straightforwardly meek. She questions, debates, resists and loves the roughness of swearing (despite having given elocution lessons before she retired). She remembers fondly her childhood in the Fijian jungle, where her parents were missionaries and she fell in love with a young, passionate doctor – the opposite of the steady man she eventually married.

Like so many books about tigers, The Night Guest is a battle to preserve internal order and civility from the madness and barbarity lurking outside. It is a domestic drama, but given that Ruth’s mind leads her to internalise events – “If I see one car in the next ten seconds, she thought, I’ll tell her to go away” – it is an inward struggle too. McFarlane beautifully captures the protracted loss of Ruth’s faculties, one day at a time, like the tide eroding the shore.

In T S Eliot’s “Gerontion”, written in 1920, the tiger takes on a new mantle. “In the juvenescence of the year/Came Christ the tiger”, says the aged narrator, “Us he devours … Tenants of the house”. The Night Guest takes place in the Pacific springtime, November, when casuarina trees, humpback whales and golden wattle blossoms appear along the coast. The book builds to a breathtaking final scene, in which the dry desert of Ruth’s bewildered mind bursts forth into animal majesty and the full extent of Frida’s machinations become clear.

“Long live the tiger!” Ruth cries.

Image: Henri Rousseau's Dream (1997) by Frances Broomfield

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron the captive

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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

0800 7318496