Seduced by herself: Caitlin Moran. Photo: Gettty
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A hasty rehash: Frances Wilson on Caitlin Moran’s new novel

Those expecting a rabble-rousing feminist anthem will be disappointed: the only F-words are fucking and fags, and Moran has nothing whatsoever to say about girls or how to build them.

How to Build a Girl 
Caitlin Moran
Ebury, 343pp, £14.99

When How to Be a Woman appeared three years ago, it was like the turning over of fresh soil. Here, in a blend of memoir and polemic, was the new feminism: buoyant, transgressive and up for a fight, “rugby style, face down in the mud with lots of shouting”. Caitlin Moran, a gobby journalist from an overcrowded council house in Wolverhampton who began writing for the Times as a teenager, had caught the spirit of the age: feminism was about being treated with politeness and equality, and not being a feminist was like bending over and saying, “Kick my arse and take my vote, please, patriarchy.” Along with everyone else I punched the air as I read her book. With Moran in the driving seat, we could relax about showing the way ahead for our girls.

There was only one problem, which seemed unimportant at the time but signalled the car crash to come. Although Moran had a clear sense of her own direction, she never looked in the rear-view mirror. Before Lady Gaga felt free to shoot fireworks from her bra, there was some groundwork done by the likes of Mary Wollstonecraft, Emmeline Pankhurst, Virginia Woolf and Betty Friedan, but Moran wrote as if the world was born the day she came into it. Feminism, her younger readers might think, was something she alone constructed, brick by brick, on foundations she herself laid down. In that sense, it is appropriate that her first novel is called How to Build a Girl, but a better title might be How to Make a Fast Buck.

A coming-of-age tale about a gobby journalist from an overcrowded council house in Wolverhampton who starts writing for a music paper as a teenager, How to Build a Girl comes with a level of hype otherwise reserved for Philip Roth. Added to which it is being promoted by a “rock’n’roll literary tour”. Those in the mosh pit expecting a rabble-rousing feminist anthem will be disappointed: the only F-words are fucking and fags, and Moran has nothing whatsoever to say about girls or how to build them. Apart from the heroine, there are no girls to be found in the threadbare plot, unless you count the bit parts played by her washed-out mother, nasty cousin and a sexual rival called Emilia. Any character roles are given to the men, who also have all the best lines.

Otherwise there is very little difference between Moran the novelist, who says “cunt” a lot, who “gets her freak on” over cartoon characters and describes the state of her mouth after giving a blow job, and Moran the journalist, who does all the same things. How to Build a Girl is simply a hasty rehash of How to Be a Woman. Even the jokes are recycled; the only job available for Moran in Wolverhampton, she says in the first book, is a dead prostitute. The only job available for her in Wolverhampton, she says, less wittily, in the second, is as a prostitute. Except that it is not Moran but Johanna who now says it, and a disclaimer at the start of the novel stresses that “this is a work of fiction” and “Johanna is not me”.

Who, indeed, would want to be Johanna? Even Johanna doesn’t want to be Johanna, so she gives herself the nom de plume Dolly Wilde, demon journalist. Being in the company of Johanna or Dolly for 343 pages is like being pinned to the wall by a bore at a party, who guffaws at her own gags, boasts about her vagina and sees herself as a “legend”. What was once refreshing about Moran’s writing now comes across as laboured and tiresome. When we first meet Johanna she is masturbating, or “seducing herself”, and her self-adulation wavers for only a nanosecond at the end of the book, when a sexual threesome goes wrong. For those who can’t get enough of the world according to Caitlin, Channel 4 has commissioned a six-part comedy series, Raised by Wolves, written by Moran and her sister and based on their childhood.

How to Be a Woman was a celebration of all women, and How to Build a Girl is a celebration of one woman. You might argue that in our age of selfie-obsession this is what we should expect from a writer capable of defining a generation. Or you might see it as lazy and cynical. “Like all the best quests,” Johanna reflects of her experiences, “I did it all for a girl: me.” 

Frances Wilson is an author, biographer and critic, whose works include The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth. Her most recent book is How to Survive the Titanic, or the Sinking of J Bruce Ismay. She reviews for the TLS, the Telegraph and the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

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

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism