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21 July 2021updated 21 Sep 2021 1:30pm

Reviewed in Short: New books by Jon Yates, Lucy Ellmann, Denton Welch and Brandon Taylor

Fractured by Yates, Things Are Against Us by Ellmann, In Youth is Pleasure by Welch and Filthy Animals by Taylor. 

By Anna Leszkiewicz, Leo Robson and Lola Seaton

Fractured by Jon Yates

When diagnosing the growing polarisation of society, many point to the narcissism of social media or the inflammatory speeches of populist politicians. But the problem, according to the former government adviser Jon Yates, is that we are in an interregnum. Just as the Agrarian and Industrial revolutions overturned previous ways of living, the drastic changes of the past 50 years have eroded the institutions – clubs, associations, local workplaces – that brought diverse people together. The failure to replace these forms of common life, as Yates terms it, has turned our differences into divisions.

The importance of community is not a new idea. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America (1835) that if people did not associate “with each other in ordinary life, civilisation itself would be in peril”. More recently, the political scientist Robert Putnam lamented the decline of associations in the US in his classic work Bowling Alone (2000). Yates’s thoroughly researched, if at times verbose, book applies the idea to the digital revolution with clarity, and lends the subject renewed urgency by methodically showing how rifts in society may be  undermining our health, democracy and security.
By Freddie Hayward
HarperNorth, 352pp, £20

[See also: Reviewed in Short: New books by Gwendoline Riley, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Michael Spitzer and Matthew d’Ancona]

Things Are Against Us by Lucy Ellmann

Lucy Ellmann’s innovative, expansive novel Ducks, Newburyport forensically explored the inner life of a mother and baker in rural Ohio. Her thoughts – neurotic, fragmented, trivial, political – comprised a stream of consciousness narrative written almost entirely in a single, sprawling sentence. Alongside her day-to-day anxieties about her family and to-do list, Ellmann’s nameless narrator mused on violence against women, Fox News, gun laws, climate change, Donald Trump, clickbait journalism, animal rights and the full scope of humanity’s destruction of the Earth. In this essay collection, Ellmann confirms that she shares many of her character’s concerns. In tangential, informal, sarcastic slices of polemic, sprinkled with extensive footnotes sometimes longer than the essay itself, Ellmann “complains” at length about the state of the world. She rails against “the big fat loser” (the 45th president), argues that in a world heading for climate disaster, “travel is colonialism”, and in “Three Strikes”, inspired by Virginia Woolf’s “Three Guineas”, makes the case for women embarking on “a housework strike, a labour strike, and a sex strike”.
By Anna Leszkiewicz
Galley Beggar Press, 170pp, £9.99

In Youth is Pleasure by Denton Welch

Denton Welch, an English painter and aesthete who took up writing after a  cycling accident, was a pioneer – a practitioner of autofiction and queer fiction. His second novel, In Youth is Pleasure, which appeared in 1945 and had the working subtitle “A Fragment of Life Story with Changed Names”, follows the thoughts of Orvil Pym, a lonely, obsessional adolescent who despises his boarding school, on a summer holiday in the Home Counties “several years” before the Second World War.

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Orvil’s father – who addresses him as “Microbe” in reference to his size – is cold and tedious, his elder brother conventionally strapping. Orvil, deprived of meaningful connection, goes on solitary rambles, watches people and fantasises about seclusion and even entrapment. Welch unfolds his impressions in a story-book mode characterised by bald, single-clause constructions, with feelings more often named than evoked or dramatised, and thought rendered with the dulling tag “he thought”. Welch’s sensibility – alien, fertile, fetishistic – seems better suited to the first person, the mode deployed in his next, unfinished book,  A Voice Through a Cloud, which describes his experience of disability, and was published following his death in 1948, aged 33.
By Leo Robson
Penguin Classics, 192pp, £9.99

Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor

The centrepiece of Filthy Animals, unfolding over five of its 11 stories, revolves around a love triangle. Lionel, a black, queer grad student tentatively rejoining the world of other people after a suicide attempt, meets a couple, Charlie and Sophie, at a party. They happen to be professional dancers, but dance, in a more ambient sense, is ubiquitous. Intimacy, always highly physical, is a matter of synchronised breathing or finding a shared tempo. Guests assembling their food “pirouetted and collided… hugged and kissed and pressed against each other”. Lionel documents this social choreography whose language he is relearning: amid this familiar movement, he “arrange[s] his stiff face into a friendly expression”.

The love triangle is a kind of dance, too, as if three – a number that recurs in these racy, melancholy, sometimes violent stories – is an unstable and inherently dramatic quantity, necessitating constant improvised motion, the formation and reformation of temporary pairs. Filthy Animals is a study of our primal ambivalence toward others, its exact, lyrical prose cutting through to a subterranean layer of human relationships – the “animal” element – where desire and aggression, tenderness and brutality, kindness and cruelty, are always proximate, if not entangled.
By Lola Seaton
Daunt Books, 272pp, £9.99

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[See also: Reviewed in short: New books by Margaret Reynolds, Michio Kaku, AK Blakemore and Jay Griffiths]

This article appears in the 21 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Chinese century