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30 October 2023

From Nathalie Olah to Stephen Marche: new books reviewed in short

Also featuring Alexandria by Islam Issa and The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada.

By Michael Prodger, Megan Gibson, Anoosh Chakelian and Barney Horner

Alexandria: The City That Changed the World by Islam Issa
Sceptre, 496pp, £30

During his brief but storied life, Alexander the Great founded many cities that bore his name. The most fabled of them, however, was Alexandria in Egypt. The idea for the metropolis is supposed to have appeared to him in a dream: a multi-ethnic haven on the Mediterranean – an intersection between three continents – to link his conquests with his homeland. Alexander’s city was home both to the Lighthouse of Pharos, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and his library, the greatest repository of learning of the pre-modern age.

Islam Issa’s history takes the city from Alexander’s transformation of an Egyptian fishing village around 331 BC through its multiple subsequent lives. It was, by turns, Ptolemaic, Islamic, Ottoman, Napoleonic and Egyptian and it hosted, among innumerable others, Cleopatra, St Mark the Evangelist and Saladin. Issa, an Alexandrian himself, is an assured narrator with an easy, undemonstrative manner, who unearths myths and stories that give vivid life to his more sober account of Alexandria’s travails and triumphs.
By Michael Prodger

[See also: Why we chose Benjamin Myers’s Cuddy as the 2023 Goldsmiths Prize winner]

The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada, translated by David Boyd
Granta, 128pp, £12.99

On the first page of the Japanese author Hiroko Oyamada’s dark novella, Yoshiko Ushiyama wonders if the hiring manager at her new employer is drunk. “Or maybe,” she thinks, “this was just how overworked middle managers looked, devoid of life and spirit.” Not just middle managers, she soon learns. Yoshiko is hired to shred documents at the mysterious factory for 7.5 hours a day. Her brother is tasked with proofreading nonsensical documents, while another protagonist, Yoshio Furufue, is hired to green the roofs of the factory but given no training, supervision or deadline.

Perspectives and scenes shift both subtly and abruptly, as though in a dream. Or rather, a nightmare. The three characters feel trapped by the oppressive nature of their utterly boring, meaningless work; Yoshiko repeats “die, die, die” to herself as she falls asleep each night. Meanwhile, their workplace seems to grow, encompassing not just the factory, but also blocks of flats, shops and museums; mysterious animals, including flocks of birds, appear on the grounds. As the years roll by, the deadening, corrosive nature of their employment takes an increasingly sinister toll and eventually consumes each of them.
By Megan Gibson

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[See also: Inside the mind of Hilary Mantel]

Bad Taste: Or the Politics of Ugliness by Nathalie Olah
Dialogue, 240pp, £18.99

From Frasier Crane and his Eames lounger to yuppies in blue-collar chore jackets, no aspirant middle-class consumer is safe in Nathalie Olah’s Bad Taste. The cultural critic meanders through the class-based connotations of everything from sourdough to Tough Mudder (“an event whose name I can barely bring myself to type”). She savages the “normcore” Scandi-inspired aesthetic of the clothing brand Toast, lifestyle magazine Kinfolk and mid-century estate agent the Modern House. Readers will quake in their cotton twill slacks.

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From nannying for rich families, Olah learned the secret codes that separated the aristocracy from the nouveau riche. Educated at an inner-city Birmingham state school and not born into wealth, the writer takes her subject personally. Rejected from jobs for being a “poor cultural fit”, she felt she never looked quite the right way. As a concept, Bad Taste is rich and relatable – but its zippiness is hampered by the plodding anti-capitalist lessons. By insisting on viewing her examples through this lens, Olah overlooks a simple truth: social anxiety and status symbolism are facts of humanity.
By Anoosh Chakelian

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On Writing and Failure by Stephen Marche
Sort of Books, 128pp, £7.99

How can you succeed as a writer? That is the question behind Stephen Marche’s charismatic essay. His answer, though, asks instead: why should you succeed? This reformulation ought, he argues, to define the timeworn inclination to write.

Marche, a novelist and columnist himself, critiques not only the romance of being a successful wordsmith, but also, more subversively, the allure of failing as a writer. Failure and suffering are intrinsic to the act, but shouldn’t be instrumentalised by the writer. The book uses detached sections – sometimes multiple pages long, sometimes only a couple of lines – that combine the author’s own experience with anecdotes from the gutter-lives of past writers, from Anna Akhmatova writing her poetry under the threat of Soviet surveillance to F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway’s penis-measuring contest. Marche’s purpose is not to discourage young tyros from taking up the pen but to inform them – via repeated commands of “no whining” – that writing is not the path to success, riches or even, often, respect; writers write in spite of failure.
By Barney Horner

[See also: From Naomi Alderman to Francis Spufford: new books reviewed in short]

This article appears in the 01 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour Revolts