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Fifty shades of cliché

Nancy Huston's "Infrared" reviewed.

Nancy Huston
Atlantic Books, 272pp, £12.99

“It was a good book but I just didn’t like the main character”: a complaint levelled at fiction with alarming frequency. Why should the protagonist be likeable if the writing is good? Surely all that matters is that a character is believable and interesting? Think of Humbert Humbert in Lolita. Or Charles Highway in The Rachel Papers.

The title of Nancy Huston’s Infrared is a photographic technique and a metaphor: the book is concerned with things that are hidden from ordinary vision. Rena Greenblatt, the 45-yearold photographer heroine, is decidedly unlikeable. Her most irritating characteristic is a vaunting, self-conscious intellectualism. “I use infrared to disturb the hic et nunc that is the very essence of photography,” she tells us. On waking, she “stays in bed for a while, eyes closed, breathing in the Florence air and slowly intoning the words Tuscany, Renaissance, beauty”. She’s so down with key historical figures that she’s on nickname terms with them: Buonarroti (Michelangelo), Bea (Dante’s Beatrice) and J C (Christ). Yet the insights she shares with the reader are teenage. “Most Holy Annunciation, my eye! My ass! Mary didn’t get knocked up by some whispered word from the angel Gabriel, she got knocked up by some guy’s tool.”

None of which would be a problem if Rena weren’t also unbelievable and unbelievably dull. The novel recounts her holiday in Florence with her father, Simon, and stepmother, Ingrid. Each section is titled for a day of the week and these days are further divided into chapters with headings such as “San Lorenzo Primo”, “Piazza della Signoria” and “Pietà”. For Rena is determined to show Simon and Ingrid all of Florence. “I must, oh, I simply must get Ingrid and Simon to fully appreciate the works,” she thinks in the Pitti. As a result, the reader is also forced to traipse round Madonna after Madonna as Rena quotes liberally from her Guide Bleu. If irony is intended here – if tourism is being lampooned – then that irony is lost. It is very difficult to describe tedium without being tedious and Huston does not succeed.

The various artworks trigger memories for Rena and this timed-release life story is the novel’s main focus. The narrative voice flicks between the third person and Rena’s interior monologue – except there’s a twist. On page five, we are introduced to “Subra, the special friend who accompanies [Rena] wherever she goes”. Subra is Rena’s imaginary older sister, named after Diane Arbus (“Subra” being “Arbus” backward). Her function in Infrared is twofold. First, she is an attempt to naturalise the artificiality of a character telling herself things that she already knows by giving Rena someone to “talk” to. “Tell me, Subra says” becomes a refrain, used to signpost any shift from the hic et nunc to memory.

Subra’s responses to the stories Rena “tells” her (“Subra rewards her with a laugh”) are unfortunately reminiscent of Anastasia Steele’s “inner goddess” in E L James’s Fifty Shades of Grey. (The inner goddess comments on Anastasia’s adventures with Christian by “tapping her small foot impatiently”, for example). Subra is also unoriginal within Huston’s oeuvre, in that her previous novel, Fault Lines (which made the Orange Prize shortlist in 2008), features three characters in the habit of talking to and receiving instructions from their congenital birthmarks.

Subra’s second function is more complicated. Rena is an unreliable narrator: the stories she tells are not necessarily true. Subra provides a corrective. “No, all right, Rena concedes to Subra, who has been frowning at her sceptically for the past half hour. I didn’t leave Alioune, Alioune left me.” In this way, the truth haltingly emerges. Rena’s father, Simon, is a failed academic who believes: “A self is neither more nor less than the story of a human body, as told by that body’s brain.” The Subra device literalises this idea.

The novel is similarly enslaved to psychoanalysis (referenced throughout). Each chapter begins with a dream that Rena helpfully parses. The narrative method corresponds to Freudian theory, with Rena’s memories of her abusefilled childhood being gradually recovered and articulated as the story progresses.

That abuse-filled childhood is also Huston’s get-out clause, because everything – Rena’s crackpot habit of talking to an imaginary friend, her obsession with sex, her lies – can be explained away by the early trauma. However, it can’t explain away bad writing. Infrared is cliché-concentrate: smoke pours out of nostrils, bitter cups are drunk to their dregs, Pandora’s box is opened along with the can of worms . . . And the sex – there is a lot of sex – is truly terrible, worse than D H Lawrence on a bad day:

My self freed of both self and other, the quivering sensation, the carnal pink palpitation that detaches you from all colour and all flesh, making you see only stars, constellations, milky ways, propelling you bodiless and soulless into undulating space where the  undulating skies make your non-body undulate.

Come back, Fifty Shades, all is forgiven.

Claire Lowdon is assistant editor of Areté

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Greece: a warning for Britain?

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For the last time, please, bring back the plate

The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place.

The much-vaunted tech revolution is not without its casualties, as I discovered first hand last weekend. The album format, creative boredom and now my favourite skirt: all collateral damage in the vicious battle for our waning attention span.

The last met its end in a pub, when it found itself on the wrong side of a slate slab full of Sunday roast. Once gravy got involved, things turned pretty ugly; and when reinforcements arrived in the form of a red-hot jar of plum crumble, I abandoned all hope of making it out with my dignity intact and began pondering the best way of getting a dry-cleaning bill to Tim Berners-Lee.

I lay the blame for such crimes against food entirely at the feet of the internet. Serving calamari in a wooden clog, or floury baps in a flat cap, is guaranteed to make people whip out their cameraphones to give the restaurant a free plug online.

Sadly for the establishments involved, these diners are increasingly likely to be sending their artistic endeavours to We Want Plates, a campaign group dedicated to giving offenders the kind of publicity they’re probably not seeking. (Highlights from the wall of shame on the campaign’s website include a dog’s bowl of sausage, beans and chips, pork medallions in a miniature urinal, and an amuse-bouche perched on top of an animal skull – “Good luck putting those in the dishwasher”.) Such madness is enough to make you nostalgic for an era when western tableware was so uniform that it moved an astonished Japanese visitor to compose the haiku: “A European meal/Every blessed plate and dish/Is round.”

The ordinary plate has its limitations, naturally: as every Briton knows, fish and chips tastes better when eaten from greasy paper, while a bit of novelty can tickle even the jaded palate at the end of a meal. Watching Jesse Dunford Wood create dessert on the tabletop at his restaurant Parlour is definitely the most fun I’ve ever had with an arctic roll (there’s a great video on YouTube, complete with Pulp Fiction soundtrack).

Yet the humble plate endures by simple dint of sheer practicality. The slight lip around the edge is no mere bourgeois affectation; it keeps the food contained in its proper place, rather than slipping on to the tablecloth, while the flat centre is an ideal surface for cutting – as anyone who has ever tackled sausages and mash in an old army mess tin (“perfect for authentic food presentation”, according to one manufacturer) will attest.

Given these facts, I hope Tom Aikens has invested in good napkins for his latest venture, Pots Pans and Boards in Dubai. According to a local newspaper, “Aikens’s Dubai concept is all in the name”: in other words, everything on the menu will be presented on a pot, pan or board. So the youngest British chef ever to be awarded two Michelin stars is now serving up salade niçoise in an enamel pie dish rightly intended for steak and kidney.

Truly, these are the last days of Rome – except that those civilised Romans would never have dreamed of eating oysters from a rock, or putting peas in an old flowerpot. Indeed, the ancient concept of the stale bread trencher – to be given to the poor, or thrown to the dogs after use – seems positively sophisticated in comparison, although I can’t help seeing the widespread adoption of the modern plate in the 17th century as a great leap forward for mankind, on a par with the internal combustion engine and space travel.

Which is why I have every faith that all those tiny trollies of chips and rough-hewn planks of charcuterie will eventually seem as absurd as surrealist gazelle-skin crockery, or futurist musical boxes full of salad.

In the meantime, may I recommend the adult bib?

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

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