Migrants prepare to cast off the beach at Shimbiro, Somalia, for a perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen and beyond. Photo: Alixandra Fazina/N
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The best of the NS in 2014: World Affairs

Our best pieces from the past year. In this selection, we choose the best foreign affairs coverage and reports from abroad.

From Portsmouth to Kobane: the British jihadis fighting for Isis

By Shiraz Maher.

British jihadis fighting for Isis What motivates the young men who leave Britain to join the murderous fanatics of Isis in the Middle East? Shiraz Maher spoke to dozens of them inside Syria to find out.
 

Life among the ruins: ten days inside the Gaza Strip

By Donald Macintyre.

The grossly asymmetrical casualties inflicted on the Palestinians have obscured another important question: how far have they even been worth it from Israel’s point of view?
 

High heels and hijabs: Iran’s sexual revolution

By Ramita Navai.

For more than 30 years, the Islamic Republic has been obsessively battling against sex, but as with anything that is suppressed or banned, people have learned to sidestep the punitive regulations.  


Miracle of the tsunami

By Xan Rice.

A family lost a son and daughter in the Indian Ocean disaster. Ten years on, they may have found them.
 

Blowback: who are Isis and why are young Brits fighting with them?

By John Bew and Shiraz Maher.

Hundreds of young British men are said to have joined the murderous group, first in Syria and now on its bloody incursion into Iraq. What happens when they come home?  


It is sobering to see how war has taken hold in Ukraine

By Lindsey Hilsum.

There is no question in my mind that Russia stirred up this war to destabilise Ukraine, but how will these people ever trust the government in Kyiv again?  


Can anyone bring back Nigeria's lost girls?

By John Simpson.

President Goodluck Jonathan has no strategy for dealing with Boko Haram – he just hopes the world will forget the 276 youngsters kidnapped by them in April.  


Project Martyr: the British doctor who went to work in Syria

By Martin Fletcher.

In 2011, Rami Habib, a 43-year-old doctor from Leicester, flew to Syria. Since then, he has watched the revolution against Bashar al-Assad fall apart – but he won’t give up.  

 

Two years after the infamous Delhi gang rape, India’s women still aren’t safe

By Samira Shackle.

India is only just beginning to understand the scale of its sexual violence problem. The public discussion in the wake of the Nirbhaya case has been encouraging, but until it translates into action, little will change.

 

At the gates of power: Marine Le Pen and the far right in France

By Charles Bremner.

Under her father, the Front National was the pariah party of France. Now Marine Le Pen has brought it closer to the mainstream – and people are getting worried.  

 

Francis Fukuyama: “America shouldn’t have permanent enemies”

By Sophie McBain.

The American political scientist and author once predicted that liberal democracy had won the battle of ideas. Now he says political Islam is not a serious threat to the west and we should not intervene in Iraq.
 

From Africa to Kent: following in the footsteps of migrants

By Daniel Trilling.

The guardians of Fortress Europe are fighting a lost battle: poor migrants will always try to find a better life for themselves, or die in the attempt. Daniel Trilling traces their steps, from the Middle East and Africa to the Kent countryside.  


Where has the French Left gone?

By Myriam Francois-Cerrah.

The recent dissolution of the government reflects the increasing pressure on Hollande to turn around a dire economic outlook.
 

I saw no evidence of Hamas using Palestinians as human shields

By Jeremy Bowen.

The BBC's Middle East editor reports from Gaza.
 

A tale of two cities: how San Francisco's tech boom is widening the gap between rich and poor

By Laurie Penny.

San Francisco is awash with tech money. Yet this city of innovation is also a place where you have to step over the homeless to buy a $20 artisan coffee.  

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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

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