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23 June 2021updated 30 Aug 2021 11:39am

Reviewed in short: New titles from James Davies, Travis Elborough, David Peace and David Lodge

Sedated by Davies, Through the Looking Glasses by Elborough, Tokyo Redux by Peace and Varying Degrees of Success by Lodge.     

By New Statesman


by James Davies

Atlantic Books, 400pp, £18.99 

Despite more open conversations about mental health and widening access to services, patient outcomes in psychiatry and rates of suicide have worsened over the past 50 years – in contrast to considerable progress in all other fields of medicine. The gap between the life expectancy of those diagnosed with severe mental health problems and of the rest of the population has doubled since the 1980s. For James Davies, a psychotherapist and professor of social anthropology, this decade is significant: it is the period in which Margaret Thatcher established her neoliberal vision of deregulation, privatisation and a smaller state.  In Sedated Davies traces how this new capitalism blinds us to the “psychosocial roots of our despair” by reframing suffering as ingrained in individuals and defining well-being in terms of activities that benefit the economy. The parallels drawn between concurrent rises in household debt and drug prescription are compelling, though those who have been helped by psychiatric medication (or know someone who has) may find Davies’ view on over reliance hard to read. Sedated is a polemic of great clarity that will make you feel at once angry and reassured. 
By Pippa Bailey

Through the Looking Glasses

by Travis Elborough

Little, Brown, 352pp, £16.99

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There are some four billion adults around the globe who wear glasses. Yet it is the invention of the wheel or penicillin or the contraceptive pill that are habitually hailed as the breakthroughs that changed the world. In his breezy cultural history, Travis Elborough makes the case for spectacles. Although lenses had been in use since the first millennium BC, no one knows who it was that first invented spectacles in the Middle Ages. For all their magical properties, however, they weren’t always viewed favourably: in 1583, a German eye doctor decreed that “it is much better that one should preserve his two eyes than he should have four”. Others thought it morally wrong to correct the optical quirks of God.  Elborough barrels through the ages, serving up diverting factoids as he goes – about medieval monks and Buddy Holly, contact lenses (Ronald Reagan was the first American president to wear them) and designer frames, Seneca (who noted that writing was easier to read through a sphere full of water) and Samuel Pepys (“I did this evening buy me a pair of green spectacles,” he noted in his diary). It will all make you look at specs with fresh eyes.
By Michael Prodger

Tokyo Redux 

by David Peace

Faber & Faber, 480pp, £16.99

“The call came, like he knew it would, like it always did, and so he went, like he knew he would, like he always did… he got out of the back of the car, like he knew he would, like he always did… [he] smoke[d] one cigarette and then another, and another, like he always did, like he always did.” One doesn’t get much direct access to the psyche of David Peace’s protagonists in Tokyo Redux, the finale of his “Tokyo trilogy”, but the incantatory rhythms of his insistently repetitive, almost obsessive prose offer a surrogate for interiority, as if you are absorbing a frame of mind through cadence. Like the Red Riding quartet, about the Yorkshire Ripper, that made Peace’s name, this trilogy – previous instalments were Tokyo Year Zero (2007) and Occupied City (2009) – follows the investigations of real (and locally famous) murder cases in Tokyo, where Peace, who grew up in West Yorkshire, moved in 1994. The mystery propelling Tokyo Redux – which spans three periods (1949, during the US occupation of Japan; the 1964 Tokyo Olympics; and 1988-89, during the decline of Emperor Showa), each with its own anti-heroic sleuth – is the death of Sadanori Shimoyama, the president of the Japanese National Railways, who was found dismembered on train tracks in July 1949.
By Lola Seaton

Varying Degrees of Success

by David Lodge

Harvill Secker, 224pp, £25

The third volume of David Lodge’s autobiography, in tone and length almost a coda to its chunky predecessors, brings us to the point at which Lodge embarked on this project. It starts in the early 1990s, with Lodge, having retired from teaching literature at Birmingham University in his fifties, now “a full-time freelance author”. He toils diligently on his plays The Writing Game and Home Truths, adapts Martin Chuzzlewit for the BBC, and publishes more of his genial novels of ideas before branching out into biographical fiction with a book on Henry James, a source of heartbreak when Colm Tóibín steals a march with The Master. The cast includes Tóibín – encountered before he was a novelist in a Spanish canteen on a Catholic pilgrim’s trail – Helen Mirren, Harold Pinter and, in the briefest of cameos, Donna Tartt.  As an account of the period, Varying Degrees of Success is continuously engaging if somewhat even-tempered. It is closer to a record than a confession, with Lodge mentioning his wife and children more or less in passing – though always with love – and providing only glimpses of the ambition and energy required to fuel the final stretch of his near 60-year career as the most dependable of novelist-critics.
By Leo Robson

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This article appears in the 23 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit changed us