Archive for May, 2013

Lightning Rods

May 26, 2013

lightning rods

Over ten years have passed since Helen DeWitt‘s first novel, The Last Samurai, was published to both critical and popular acclaim in 2000. Surely a case of writer’s block – publisher must be crying out for follow-up novels from successful debutants? Not so – Lightning Rods was , in fact, originally written at much the same time as The Last Samurai; ironically DeWitt felt the latter was too complex for a first novel and so began a number of other books to publish first. As she has said herself, “There was no mad rush for the second book because it was COMPLETELY UNLIKE the book everyone loved.” That its subject matter was controversial (i.e. it involved sex) and its intent satirical didn’t help. However, thanks to New Directions in the US and & Other Stories in the UK it has finally seen the light of day.

A simple summary might suggest why so many publishers shied away. The novel tells the story of an unsuccessful salesman, Joe, who, frustrated at his lack of sales, spends his time indulging his sexual fantasies. These fantasies are detailed and specific:

“His first fantasy was about walls. The woman would have the upper part of her body on one side of the wall. The lower part of her body would be on the other side of the wall.”

Sex is entirely disconnected from any kind of relationship – Joe is not even interested in the top half of the woman’s body never mind her sentience. An important part of the fantasy is that “for some reason or another she would need to pretend that nothing was happening.” It is his sexual fantasies, however, that lead to his ‘eureka’ moment when he considers the sexual frustrations of the work place and the sexual harassment that can lead to:

“…if you could give people a way to get it out of their system they would be a whole lot more productive. They’d be happier about themselves. Because there had to a lot of guys like himself, guys who didn’t want to be spending the amount of time they were spending thinking about sex, guys who given the chance would rather get it out of their system and concentrate their energies on achieving their goals.”

His scheme for achieving this involves an opening in the Male disabled toilet which allows the lower half of a woman to appear (while her upper half remains in the adjoining Female disabled toilet). The man (randomly chosen) can achieve sexual release via the aperture (I’ll let you decide which aperture I’m referring to) and then return to work. Joe’s stroke of genius (as far as he’s concerned) is that the woman too would then return to work; she would be a normal employee of the firm but paid an enhanced salary to provide this extra service.

As with all good satire, DeWitt takes this disturbing idea, normalises it (largely through Joe’s voice), and follows it as far as it will take her. What prevents it from being simply a cheap shot are its successes: an inveterate sex pest is able to form a relationship; two of the women save for law school, one also improving her French by reading Proust while ‘working’. And while it clearly has something to say about the commodification of women, I felt its real target was the American Dream.

It’s no surprise, then, that the main character (and narrator) is a salesman. DeWitt has commented that:

“America has tended to be ahead of the rest of the world in elevating salesmanship to a kind of science, something with pretentions to explaining the human condition.”

The novel also utilises the language of self-help books, from an abundance of clichés (“He wasn’t the kind to let grass grow under his feet…”) to trite mantras such as, “When you’re in sales you’ve always got one thing to sell, and that’s yourself,” and, “Any salesman knows that you have to deal with people the way they are.” Joe is willing to sell anything to be successful. Companies are willing to adopt his system to hold on to their big earners. Capitalism, as we know, doesn’t have a conscience, something this book demonstrates without being at all preachy or bitter. And as for those who might dismiss its hypothesis as unlikely, to quote the novel’s final line:

“In America anything is possible.”

The Changeling

May 22, 2013


Teachers play an unusually prominent role in Scottish fiction. Jean Brodie is, of course, the archetype, but many other novels feature a ‘dominie’ as a central character. This is perhaps partly the natural consequence of so many Scottish writers being teachers, including Robin Jenkins. He began his teaching career in Glasgow’s east end in the 1950s, a setting not unlike that of The Changeling, which remains his best known novel after The Cone Gatherers.

The plot of The Changeling has dated somewhat, though the issues it raises have not. Charlie Forbes decides to take a promising pupil from a poor background, Tom Curdie, on holiday with his family. Nowadays they would find themselves the subject of a nationwide manhunt, but in those more trusting times we have to take Jenkins word for it that this, while unlikely, was not impossible. (Curdie’s family do appear at the end in an attempt to blackmail Forbes with hints of paedophilia, but only to demonstrate their own baseness).

Forbes is a man who wants to do good – he is, to quote the title of another of Jenkins’ novels, a would-be saint. He is not, however, presented as a heroic figure – Jenkins intends to make us aware that doing good is more complex than it might at first appear. Look at this early description of his feelings for Tom:

“With his leer of sympathy he contemplated this small, smiling, incommunicable, deprived morsel of humanity.”

‘Leer’ is Jenkins’, suggesting Forbes’ sympathy is not entirely genuine, and that he may be taking some pleasure in it; ‘morsel of humanity’ is Forbes, reducing Tom to what he represents. Forbes himself doubts his motivation:

“Without doubt, at the very back of his mind form the very beginning had been the hope that his befriending of this slum delinquent child might reach the ears of authority.”

Is it ever possible, Jenkins questions, to commit a selfless act?

Just as we can never quite pin down Forbes – well-meaning innocent or destructive meddler? – so too our impression of Tom is changeable. At one point he wants revenge on Forbes for his pity – “It would pay Forbes back.” When he breaks into the school he is careful to steal from Forbes’ classroom – if he didn’t it “would be like admitting he was grateful.” However, we also see his kindness to his younger brother. And how should we feel when on holiday he shoplifts despite having been given money to buy – is he simply reminding himself of who he is?

Predictably, like a changeling, Tom causes upset in the Forbes’ family. Often it is his good behaviour which draws unwelcome comparison with Forbes’ own children. One revealing scene occurs when they come across a rabbit suffering from myxomatosis. Forbes knows the humane action is to kill it but his attempt fails and he cannot bring himself to do more. It is Tom who has to end the rabbit’s life, only to suffer Forbes’ daughter’s critical eye:

“He did not seem at all conscience-stricken, either for killing the rabbit or just for seeing it.”

The scene demonstrates the moral complexities of the novel: Forbes wants to do right but cannot whole-heartedly (in merely hurting the rabbit he makes things worse); Tom does right but is suspect for his lack of emotional response.

Tom is an experiment in the nature / nurture debate, Forbes believes that by removing Tom from his environment he can change his nature. When his wife complains that Tom is a thief, he replies:

“Because of corrupting influences, surely. It’s those influences I hope to save him from.”

Slowly, painfully, the time away begins to change Tom – at one point he calls himself ‘Tom Forbes’ – but, as Jenkins realises , the problem with holidays is that you eventually have to go home. Is it fair to give Tom a glimpse of happiness and then take it away? The novel ends, like The Cone Gatherers, rather melodramatically, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that the questions it asks are as relevant today as ever.

Awakening to the Great Sleep War

May 15, 2013


Awakening to the Great Sleep War is not my first excursion into the non-narrative absurdities of Gert Jonke, meeting those early pages, as usual, with a mixture of delight and bemusement. The city we enter raises itself from the ground each morning before hovering at a comfortable height; in the evening it slowly sinks beneath the earth again. Everything in the city seems alive:

“Some days the streetcar tracks spring out of the asphalt, shake off all those annoying stops, and move their terminals several metres up into the air.”

Most alive, to the novel’s protagonist Burgmuller, are the stone figures which support the buildings – ‘telemones’ in their own language. His experience of the telemones is not unlike our own experience of Jonke:

“The telemones lived, as he soon found out, in a version of the world that was at first neither understandable nor apparent to him.”

Time moves so slowly for them that a simple gesture might take years. They are equally baffled, however, by Burgmuller’s ability to sleep. Telemonic sleep would, of course, be disastrous for the city, causing it to collapse; indeed, it is suggested that this very event takes place in the novel’s final pages as “the city suddenly swells up like a huge puffball that then explodes.” In between we learn about Burgmuller’s experiences of love.

All are stories of lost love, the first taking place on a train journey. Burgmuller meets a woman and they fall in love but are heading for different towns and cannot agree to leave the train together. In the end they separate, with Jonke finally throwing doubt on any meeting at all:

“…You’ve only being signalling at one another from afar, the two of you did meet at the train station and then did see each other on the train, where upon you simultaneously thought all the above things in each other’s directions…”

The following love stories end as sadly. In one his girlfriend becomes fascinated with a fly, locking it in the kitchen and refusing to leave the house, spending her days and nights sliding salami under the door for the fly to eat. When the fly finally disappears he notices its departure before that of his girlfriend who has similarly left. In the final story his lover is a writer who insists she is writing the reality around her: her typewriter is a “reality-producing projector.” he begs her to leave the city with him (“you can’t find the real conclusion of your narrative from here because you’ll be hindered by your own writing”) but she refuses.

Of course, this summary makes the novel seem only a little surreal. It doesn’t take account of the fact that these tales are not constrained by time and space and have no real ‘order’. Burgmuller is not a character in the traditional sense having no character development; the various women are even sketchier, and do not necessarily represent different characters. Despite using some of the dynamics of romance, Jonke’s intention is to defy narrative convention through the plasticity of his setting. While at times this can seem like being in a maze littered with dead ends, at others we are suddenly lifted above the maze, seeing everything momentarily from a new and unexpected angle. It is these moments of wonder that make the novel worth reading.

Grey Granite

May 8, 2013

grey granite

Grey Granite, the final book in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair trilogy, takes us even further from the rural setting of Sunset Song to the industrial city of Duncairn (largely based on Aberdeen). After the death of her second husband, Chris has moved once again having bought into a boarding house in the city. This immediately allows Gibbon the mix of characters that he was previously able to achieve through smaller communities. It is noticeable that the communal voice of the other books is largely absent, replaced by a greater variety of individual voices, as community breaks down in the face of urbanisation.

Robert Colquohoun’s socialism having been seen to be a ‘pillar of cloud’ in Cloud Howe, Grey Granite explores communism as a possible future for Scotland through Chris’ son, Ewan. Ewan doesn’t begin the novel as a communist; an apprentice at Gowans and Gloag, he shows little interest in politics until the arrival of an English teacher, Ellen, at the guest house. Ellen interprets Ewan’s belief (similar to Gibbon’s) in a golden age before history (“a time without gods and classes”) as socialism, but even then his initial reaction is hostile:

“I don’t much care. It won’t come in our time. I’ve my own life to lead.”

As is so often the case, however, state oppression drives him towards radicalism. A bystander to a march of the unemployed being charged by police, he instinctively directs them to a brewery lorry full of empty bottles which they can use as missiles. Soon he is organising a strike at Gowans in protest at their involvement in making armaments, but it is the police once more who convince him that communism is the answer.

He is arrested after another worker plants evidence on him under the misapprehension that he has left his sister pregnant. The police beat him savagely:

“…not Ewan Tavendale at all anymore but lost and be-bloodied in a hundred broken and tortured bodies all over the world, in Scotland, in England, in the torture dens of the Nazis in Germany, in the torment pits of the Polish Ukraine, a livid, twisted thing in the prisons where they tortured the Nanking Communists…”

This is the moment of conversion – from then on he is a communist – “a hell of a thing to be History, Ewan!” Jim Trease, the local communist leader, is explicit – it is not the workers in the factories who are the working class but people like him and Ewan.

While Gibbon’s sympathies clearly lie with Ewan, he sees his weakness: his coldness, his “grey granite glance.” As Ellen says to him, “…your heart’s not in it at all. Only your head and imagination.” This is most vividly displayed in his treatment of her, discarding her without a thought when he discovers she has signed a document promising not to be an activist any longer in order to keep her job:

“Go to them then in your comfortable car – your Labour party and your comfortable flat. But what are you doing out here with me? I can get a prostitute anywhere.”

With each novel in the trilogy, Gibbon’s vision gets a little darker as he looks for answers and finds none that satisfy. But those that stop with Sunset Song are missing out on a picture of Scotland in the first third of the twentieth century that is unsurpassed. We can only wonder what Gibbon would have gone on to write if not for his early death at thirty four.