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Too close for comfort: Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk is very nearly greater than the sum of its parts

One of the most consistent pleasures of Levy’s fiction is her complete resistance to unthinking characters, unthinking female characters in particular.

Deborah Levy has long mined the seam of desire in her work, and not just plain old sexual desire – although that usually puts in an appearance. Rather, her interest inclines towards the various modes and implications of the deep push of longing itself, as well as the manner in which the pursuit of satiation moves her characters, both around themselves and around in the world. And her fiction is usually situated out in a world where international casts of artists, misfits and the occasional boor mix drinks and ­philosophies while playing and, sometimes, losing at life. Her excellent, Man Booker-shortlisted Swimming Home is the obvious example, and certainly the most fully realised of her novels. But this theme of life and thought explored in the absence of home stretches all the way back to Lapinski, the Russian-exile heroine of her debut novel, Beautiful Mutants (1989). Even the England of her stylistically constricted Billy and Girl (1996) has been pushed through some strange Freudian mirror to create a frantic, dystopian version of itself.

It’s a useful device that has served Levy with ever-increasing success since her migration from play-writing to fiction. By reeling her characters just far enough out from the probabilities of daily life – but not quite far enough for them to make a run for it – she backs them into scrutinising what they are, have been or might become. And so it is with Hot Milk.

Set predominantly in Spain, this is ostensibly the story of an Englishwoman, Rose, and her half-Greek daughter, Sofia, and the quest for a cure for the mysterious (possibly psychosomatic) paralysis that intermittently afflicts Rose’s legs. As the maverick Dr Gómez and his “last-chance saloon” diagnostic techniques soon show, Sofia is in as much need of intervention as the terminally self-centred Rose. Sofia has a First, a Masters and an abandoned PhD in anthropology, but works mainly as a waitress and “main witness” to her mother’s many ailments. Even locating the boundary between her mother’s sick body and her own well body has become fraught with difficulty. For Rose this situation holds no ambiguity: all suffering accrues to her and Sofia’s purpose is to provide relief. The scene is set for a classic tale of overbearing mother v put-upon adult daughter, and that, indeed, is what the reader gets; but not only that.

First, there is the great lush writing itself, and then the luxuriation in place. No writer infuses the landscape, urban or rural, with as much meaning and monstrosity as Levy. She remains blessedly immune to the lure of the “urban everywhere”, insisting on the ability of time and place to affect outcomes deeply. So it is only here, on the unrelenting, sun-stripped streets of Almería, to the backing track of a crazed dog barking, with the ever-present threat of lurking medusa jellyfish, and navigating the personal agendas of this particular ragbag of self-possessed – and dispossessed – internationals, that Sofia can no longer avoid the glare of her sabotaged life.

One of the most consistent pleasures of Levy’s fiction is her complete resistance to unthinking characters, unthinking female characters in particular. This trait is visible throughout Hot Milk. She allows line upon carefully crafted line of incisive observation to trip from Sofia’s tongue. In response to her mother’s comment that she cannot imagine her driving, she wonders, “How do we go about not imagining something?” Or her keen-eyed evaluation of a woman in the street: “Who is her body supposed to please? What is it for and is it ugly or is it something else?” With such quality abounding, it’s hard to hold more self-consciously constructed pronouncements – “My love for my mother is like an axe. It cuts very deep” or “I felt that she was indeed a gangster and that she was mugging my life” – against her.

Levy deftly twins the mother-daughter, physical-emotional paralysis from the outset, too, so the deep sense of filial bondage is clear. Yet it is Sofia’s obvious understanding of the reasons behind her failure to take on any of the responsibilities that might be expected of an intelligent, well-educated, 25-year-old woman that eventually creates a certain frustration with the narrative. She knows, and we know she knows, what both the problem and the solution are, almost from the first page. It is difficult to remain patient with a woman who colludes in overly extending her own adolescence.

Nevertheless, the way Levy draws the other strands together makes up for this irritation. While Sofia falling head over heels for another deeply self-centred woman may not convince, there is plenty to carry the reader willingly along: the exploration of the nature of hypochondria, the boundaries of parental responsibility (to accusations of paternal selfishness, the new, young wife of Sofia’s long-absent father offers the hilarious rebuttal: “Why would he do things not to his advantage?”) and the cynicism of pharmaceutical giants thwarting practitioners who refuse the doctrine of “A pill for every ill”. Interestingly, this is the second novel in as many years (Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island being the first) to feature anthropologists wielding their trade for alternative, and opposing, purposes.

If Hot Milk never quite succeeds in becoming greater than the sum of its many great parts, it very nearly does, and it is certainly an unmissable addition to Levy’s catalogue. 

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy is published by Hamish Hamilton (218pp, £12.99)

Eimear McBride’s second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, will be published by Faber & Faber in September

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue

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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

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