Sometimes these characters go dancing in Shoreditch or Clapham – but they never enjoy it. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty
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Check your privilege: satire is lacking in Left of the Bang by Claire Lowdon

A “cast of two-dimensional, middle-class bores” prevent this debut novel becoming the “Vanity Fair for our times” that it promises.

Left of the Bang
Claire Lowdon
Fourth Estate, 352pp, £14.99

The blurb on the debut novel by the young critic and editor Claire Lowdon promises “a ­Vanity Fair for our times”, capturing “the foibles, hopes and difficulties that characterise a strata of young Londoners today”. If you’d like to know which “strata” we are dealing with, let me paint a picture. They have names like Tamsin, Serena, Bertrand and Ludo. They eat “supper” in gastropubs in Holland Park or Herne Hill. Sometimes they go dancing in Shoreditch or Clapham – but they never enjoy it. Among their set, the following can kick off a steamy first date:

Hearing in each other’s voices the same expensive educations, he confessed, a little shyly, to Rugby (“but on a bursary, you know”), she to St Paul’s . . . They ascertained that, aged 14, they had both been to the same teenage charity ball.Hearing in each other’s voices the same expensive educations, he confessed, a little shyly, to Rugby (“but on a bursary, you know”), she to St Paul’s . . . They ascertained that, aged 14, they had both been to the same teenage charity ball.

An ideal target for satire. But as the caricatures continued to mount – one character plays “the incredibly rare oboe d’amore” while another wears “brown deck shoes, and Aertex polo shirts in navy blue and racing green” – I became less convinced that the necessary skewering would come.

Take the arrival of “Big Mac” Ollie Macfarlane at “an old south London pub that had recently been subjected to a trendy makeover”. “Big Mac was a consultant at Deloitte,” the narrator explains. “He had a fine bass voice; at Cambridge, he had been a King’s Scholar. His intention had been to work at Deloitte for a few years to build up his savings, then make a go of it as a singer – a plan he talked about with decreasing conviction as each year went by.”

This is pretty much all we learn about Big Mac. He is nothing more than a type. Left of the Bang (a military term for “the build-up to an explosion”) is saturated with these kinds of detail. It is not a revelation of souls but of CVs.

Much of this gossipy material is excavated from the snobby, bitter mind of Tamsin Jarvis, a floundering 26-year-old pianist who has refused to speak to her well-known conductor father, Bertrand, after discovering that he was having an affair when she was 12 years old (her comeuppance at the end of the novel, after perpetrating a betrayal of her own, is that Daddy buys her a flat).

Tamsin is in love with Callum, an arriviste – he is, spit, from Glasgow. She fancies Callum because, as we all know, princesses like a bit of rough. That is, unless the rough isn’t actually as rough as expected (Callum teaches classics at a private school and loves it). He represents a “vague yet unequivocally positive concept” that Tamsin calls “the Real World”. He chides her slummy affectations – socialism, Stravinsky, cigarettes – while she resents him for his regional accent, a “social advantage” that “won him un-worked-for respect”.

Complicating things further is the Rugby boy (bursary, you know) Chris, who shows up one evening at a fancy-dress party and is now a second lieutenant in the army, preparing for deployment to Afghanistan. (What is it with posh people and fancy dress?) There’s a lot of sex. Actually, there’s a lot of agonising about sexual stuff. Instead of the crescendo to infidelity that the reader expects – the bang? – what follows is a 300-page discussion of two couples’ sexual problems: those of Tamsin and Callum (the usual guy thing) and of Chris and Callum’s flatmate, Leah (the usual girl thing).

One further problem is the way the narrator insists on doing the reading for us. For instance, when Callum delivers a stilted line – “It’s good to have you around,” he tells Chris; “You’re a great guy” – the narrator informs us that this is a stilted line. When a squaddie makes a joke about a test tube and a female lab technician, the ­“banality of his humour” is noted. It’s unclear whether we’re supposed to like or loathe these people – which is fair enough but presumably we should find them interesting. Just because a poor joke has been signalled, it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It makes the reader less likely to identify the subtler writing in the book, as when, the day after Chris’s return, Tamsin watches Callum “running a hand over his khaki-coloured hair, which immediately sprang back to attention” – a line that would be ruined were it followed by: “Tamsin had a bad habit of making occupational metaphors to remind the reader who it was she really fancied.”

Lowdon makes the most of Afghanistan, using that military catastrophe to contrive romance and excitement in an era defined by millennial apathy and fatigue. Left of the Bang is a competent stab at the contemporary social novel, marred by a cast of two-dimensional, middle-class bores.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide