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In the New Statesman this week: Autumn Fiction Special

This week’s New Statesman kicks off a seminal publishing season with reviews of new novels by the biggest names in British literature.

This week’s New Statesman kicks off a seminal publishing season with reviews of new novels by two British literary heavyweights, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan. Our own critical prizefighter Leo Robson argues that scientists and historians have captured the brains of these two writers, now in their mid-60s, bringing them to the point where facts overpower their fiction. You can read Leo’s review online now, as a taster of our Autumn Fiction Special, which also includes:

Lionel Shriver on The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

Frances Wilson on the Booker-longlisted How to Be Both by Ali Smith

Eimear McBride on The Wake by Paul Kinsnorth, published by innovative crowdfunding publisher Unbound

Rachel Holmes on The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Olivia Laing on The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Neel Mukherjee on The Southern Reach Trilogy: Annihilation; Authority; Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

Ian Sansom on J by Howard Jacobson

And finally, although he enjoys reading Shark, the latest novel by Will Self, the NS’s critic at large Mark Lawson recommends it only to unemployed readers who have both “insomnia and a catheter”, because it is a “chapter-free, gap-less, italics-and-ellipsis-strewn chunk of 480 sides”:

Although driven by considerations of plotting and pace, the structure of a work of literature often also acknowledges the ease of the reader: the crime writer Peter James recommends short chapters so that people can read two or three before going to sleep. In that sense, the ideal reader of Shark might be someone who doesn’t have a job but does have insomnia and a catheter. Even the most diligent Self fan, when confronted with such density of typography and exposition, must sometimes think: give us a break. But, in an era when publishers and reading groups exert so much pressure towards the soft read, Self (along with Philip Hensher and both Smiths [Ali and Zadie]) is saving the life of the hard read that rewards the attention demanded.

This week’s New Statesman, “The New Caliphate” is available in shops NOW. To purchase a copy, visit www.newstatesman.com/subscribe or visit the App Store.

And if that wasn’t enough to chew on, Philip Maughan has written a preview of the next clutch of new big-name novels, due out later this year:

The year’s most beautiful season is also the busiest for those in the book business. Canadian dynamo Margaret Atwood kicks off the second wave of notable titles this autumn with a new collection of dark fables, Stone Mattress, on 28 August (look out for an interview soon in the NS). Competing with her for the prize of hottest story collection of 2014 is Hilary Mantel (the deliciously titled Assassination of Margaret Thatcher lands on 25 September), Kirsty Gunn, whose Infidelities will be published on 6 November along with another Canadian, Eliza Robertson, who publishes her hotly-tipped debut Wallflowers on 16 September.

Virago will release the new novel by Marilynne Robinson on 9 October, the third instalment in the Gilead series, Lila, which tells the story of a rogue child coming to terms with her new life as a minister’s wife. Irish writer Colm Tóibín begins what might turn out to be a Robinson-style character survey in Nora Webster, when Nora, the sister who stayed behind in his 2009 novel Brooklyn, attempts to rebuild herself after a shattering bereavement.

On a break from producing the film script for Tóibín’s Brooklyn (which stars Saoirse Ronan and Domhnall Gleeson, and will be released in 2015), Nick Hornby returns on 6 November with Funny Girl, the story of a Blackpool beauty queen, Sophie Straw, beginning to doubt whether she is cut out for the showbiz world. After the unearthly cool of Jonathan Glazer’s film adaptation of Michel Faber’s 2000 novel Under the Skin, Faber returns with The Book of Strange New Things, also on an extraterrestrial theme. Peter Leigh, an evangelical Christian, is a missionary expedition to the planet of Oasis, where he must translate the Gospels into a language comprehendible to the alarmingly enthusiastic natives.

The beginning of November sees the return of Frank Bascombe, Richard Ford’s most endearing alter-ego, surveying the damage done to his New Jersey home by Hurricane Sandy in Let Me Be Frank with You. Finally, on the slippery slope to Christmas, trains and planes worldwide to fill up with copies of Us, the new novel from One Day author David Nicholls, published in hardback on 30 September.

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump