Archive for March, 2022

Love in the Big City

March 29, 2022

Love in the Big City by Korean writer Sang Young Park, translated by Anton Hur, is one of three Tilted Axis Press titles long-listed for the International Booker his year, giving it a more diverse reach than has often been the case. The four-part novel (either autobiographical or disguised as such) tells of Park’s search for love, and his difficulty in recognising and accepting it when he finds it. In the first part he has little interest in settling down:

“I… got drunk and slept with a new man every night… Some of the men I met wanted more than just drinking followed by a one-night stand. No matter how many times I refused they kept going on about wanting to date me and threatening to come and see me at my apartment, at which point I would fend them off by saying I had a roommate.”

They assume Park’s roommate is male but instead it is a young woman, Jaehee. Similarly, her boyfriends think that she shares her flat with another woman and complain that they never meet her; one jokes that she must be a cat – “Why is she always at home? Why haven’t you introduced us? Why have I never heard her voice?” Park and Jaehee are very close – this section has the feel of a buddy movie, except it’s one where one buddy pays for the other to have an abortion, an example of how Park’s light-hearted tone admits more serious moments. The same might be said of the section’s ending, where Park must sing a song at Jaehee’s wedding, the importance of their relationship only really hitting home as he sings “Stay with me always”. Jaehee, however, rescues him:

“I sucked in my snot and finished the rest of the song with her.”

The second and third sections tell of failed relationships. The second begins retrospectively when an old boyfriend returns a diary. The relationship had begun at a class both were attending – “we ended up wandering around the area after each class, picking a place to have dinner.” The boyfriend is a complex, older character, something Park conveys, as usual with humour – noticing his “unfocused gaze” he wonders, “Was he part of a cult?” and he later says their conversations:

“…gave me the feeling that he was reciting lines from a Greek tragedy or an absurdist play, or even an eighties movie.”

He is politically radical – refusing to wear a Gap top with an American flag on it – but also embarrassed by his homosexuality:

“When I thought no one was looking I snuck a kiss on the back of his hand. He snatched his hand out of my grasp and said, ‘Don’t do that,’”

When Park asks him if he’s ashamed he replies:

“Yes, that’s right, I’m ashamed of you. You want to hold my hand in public, you call me baby. I mean, what would anyone think?”

Though they speak again after this argument, the relationship ends when he dismisses the idea it could be love. Once again, the emotional power of the story almost sneaks up on the reader, particularly as this section also deals at length with Park’s relationship with his mother.

The final two sections tell of Park’s relationship with Gyu-ho. It begins at the airport as they are about to depart for a trip to Japan – to celebrate their “two-hundred-day anniversary” – but Park has brought the wrong (expired) passport and can’t travel. He hands Gyu-ho the itinerary saying, “Follow this plan and find some guy to spend the night with.” The scene foreshadows the end of their relationship months later when Gyu-ho leaves for a job in China with Park still refusing to say the right thing when Gyu-ho asks him, “Are we breaking up?”

“Stop asking me. No one cares anymore.”

The carefree persona Park adopts is revealed to be less than the full story in the final section where we see the effect Gyu-ho’s departure has on him:

“In my dreams, he and I are laughing and talking it up, and he tells me he loves me. But even in my dreams, I know it isn’t Gyu-ho.”

As throughout, the gentle pace and gossipy narrative of Park’s novel disguises a sadder heart. Park observes the small difficulties of relationships but, more so, he reveals a resistance to commitment, a compulsion to take the first escape route. “Sometimes it feels as if everything was all my fault,” he writes, “and sometimes I think: it’s all so unfair.” Both are true but we cannot help feeling that perhaps Park wants it to be unfair rather than open up. Love in the Big City is a novel which is neither showy nor shocking and its episodic structure can give it a soap opera feel, but, like the narrator, it is good company most of the time.

After the Sun

March 26, 2022

One of the most exciting discoveries of last year’s International Booker was Olga Ravn’s The Employees from Lolli Editions. This year the same publisher is represented by another Scandinavian writer, Jonas Eika, and his short story collection, After the Sun, translated by Sherilyn Nicolette Hellberg. Eika’s stories, of which there are five in this volume, begin in a convincingly realist vein but each one at some point diverts into disconcerting strangeness.

Two of the stories, both called ‘Bad Mexican Dog’ (or perhaps that makes them one story though they sit second and fifth in the collection), are related. The fifteen-year-old narrator works as a ‘beach boy’ at a Mexican resort, tending to the needs of the tourists – bringing water, rubbing in sunscreen. According to Manual the trick is to:

“…guess where they’re from and how much money they have and then I try to imitate the waiters they know from back home. But you have to make yourself completely blank on the inside.”

The story is shot through with sudden moments of jarring violence. The narrator, massaging a tourist, informs us his hands “disappear between the flesh belts” and his next action is to “pull out a kidney and fling it across the sky.” Later, one of the boys, Ginger, is beaten to death by a jealous boyfriend:

“The boyfriend staddles him and lets loose on his face. In his rage, he grabs a rock, thick red pool next to Ginger’s head.”

While the first incident can be attributed to the narrator’s imagination running wild with heat and boredom, the second is lodged in the world of the story by the funeral ceremony which follows, a ceremony which cements the idea that the boys exist within their own culture. Eika seems intent on brining to the surface the violence that underlies this apparent tourist paradise. He is also clear that the culture of the boys is quite alien to the tourists, promoting this idea through sexual scenes between the boys which take place in a pool “thick and living with the jellyfishy blobs we’ve been filling it with day after day” and involving the use of shrimps as a stimulant. The story ends by veering into another narrative, that of a tourist asked to appear in a film by the boy (because he is “studying film”), a film which descends into the tourist treating the boy like a dog. In the second part we discover that this film is being used to blackmail the tourists. As with the other three stories, there is a very strong realist narrative here which Eika chooses to skew with unexpected surrealism, almost a declaration that reality is not real enough.

In the first story ‘Alvin’ the narrator arrives in Copenhagen for a meeting at a bank to discover the bank had:

“…collapsed and tall piles of marble, steel, pale wood and office furniture lay dispersed among other unidentifiable materials.”

Shortly after his aborted appointment he meets Alvin in a café, an encounter not unlike those in 19th century stories where a new acquaintance turns out to be the devil (“the way I was both seeing and seeing through him”) but Alvin is perhaps something worse, making a living in derivative trading. Soon they develop a working partnership and a homoerotic friendship in a story which brilliantly exposes the empty heart of capitalism as, for example, when the narrator realises the necessity of forgetting the losers:

“To edit them out of the image, by an act of will working slowly and covertly inside you, so in the end only your own victory remains.”

Despite having made his point, Eika pushes the story further with a surreal ending that (literally) takes it to a place that is both unexpected and inevitable.

Of the remaining two stories ‘Rachel, Nevada’ is one of UFO obsession and ‘Me, Rory and Aurora’ one of drug-dealing within an awkward, unspecified three-way relationship, emphasising the range of Eika’s writing despite the small number of stories in this volume. In the first of these Antonio finds what he describes as the ‘Sender’ which he believes is designed to attract alien life. Deciding “he had to become the Sender” he physically alters his body to imitate it, a process that is described in gruesome detail:

“Suddenly his windpipe popped put of the wet flesh, distended and fluted with cartilage.”

The story works so well because Antonio’s behaviour, and his UFO obsession in general, is grounded in his daughter’s death: however bizarre Eika’s stories become they feel psychologically true. Similarly, in ‘Me, Rory and Aurora’, it is the narrator’s feelings for Aurora that provide a basis for the events of the story.

As with The Employees, After the Sun is another original voice with a distinct perspective on the possibilities of fiction. There are a number of short story collections on this year’s long list, but this is a particularly striking and vibrant one.

The Book of Mother

March 20, 2022

Violaine Huisman’s debut novel The Book of Mother (translated by Leslie Camhi) is very much in the ‘bad mother’ tradition which (as I know, having recently reread Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest) has been around for at least the last seventy years and is still going strong today – just ask Gwendoline Riley. The novel is in three parts: the first is a child’s eye view, emotional, angry, listing the mother’s many faults; the second is a more objective recounting of the mother’s life, beginning with her own childhood; and the third deals with the mother’s death. Each one is tonally different, and, in succession, less successful, though the middle section is clearly intended to act as a bridge to greater sympathy and understanding.

The novel opens at the moment ten-year-old Violaine learns her mother, Catherine, is a manic-depressive. This follows what she calls the “definitive incident” when her mother, with Violaine and her older sister Elsa, in the car, accelerates through a red light:

“I still don’t know by what miracle we survived.”

The picture painted of Catherine in this section is of a woman whose beauty gives her licence for extravagance, unpredictability and egotism. She, above all, has little time for the feelings of others:

“Maman was a force of nature and her patience for the whining of wimpy little brats was very limited.”

When an apple tree her daughter loves is in the way of the tennis court she wants to build, she goes as far as promising that it might be possible to replant it, but, of course, she has no intention of doing so. The pets they own have, according to Violaine, “one principal purpose: to prepare us for grief,” dying, as they do, one after the other, often through carelessness or abandonment, and, in the case of one dog, because Catherine kills it to relieve her feelings of anger.

Her life story is visible in fragments, distorted through her own telling, “continuously, ad nauseum, an unbearable monologue,” and filled with regrets (“Maman always said that her biggest mistake had been to leave her first husband”) and self-pity (“Maman didn’t get very far in school”). Yet her life is not without successes – her dance school, for example – though these tend to be subject to her own sabotage.

In the second section we are presented with a more dispassionate version of Catherine’s life. We discover that her mother, Jacqueline, whom she has always regarded as cold, became pregnant with her as result of rape, and was then forced to marry the man who raped her. He is just the worst of series of abusive men in the novel, though later, after his marriage to her mother falls apart, Catherine will re-establish a relationship with him as a teenager, losing her own virginity hastily when she fears, after he climbs into bed with her one night, that her father might take it. Her first marriage, however, is a success, but her life changes when she catches the eye of the wealthy, upper class Antoine:

“She’s not in love, it’s something else: she’s been swept off her feet.”

Less generously we might say, it’s something else: money. Her relationship with Antoine is tempestuous and sexually adventurous, but it is with him she has her two daughters. Drugs, alcohol, and Antoine’s predilection for threesomes and infidelity place increasing stress on Catherine, as does her desire to be a better mother than she believes her mother was to her. She finds it difficult to reconcile her role as wife and lover with that of parent, discovering after a trip to America with Antione when Elsa is a baby that she feels estranged from her daughter when she returns:

“She doesn’t recognise her daughter, she’s different suddenly, and Catherine no longer knows what to do with her.”

The reader’s sympathy for Catherine wanes as she becomes more distant from the daughters she claims to live for:

“It’s complicated with the girls, she has no patience, and she’s very aware of how much they notice her absences. They see everything, and their gaze makes her feel unbearably guilty; she’d rather blind them than catch them looking at her like that.”

Part 2 ends where Part 1 began, but Part 3 takes place twenty years later with the daughters both living in America and Catherine in Dakar. When Elsa flies to meet her in Paris she finds he dead. While this may not be unexpected, the twenty-year gap leaves something of a hole in the narrative, especially as we are now expected to believe that the girls have nothing but love for their mother. Lengthy and rather ridiculous commemorations follow Catherine’s death, all in keeping with her wishes. “We were just as excessive as she was,” Violaine tells us, though there is no evidence of this, “we were addicted to her” (while ensuring they were many miles apart). This sudden character change (and both sisters feeling exactly the same) seems both unlikely and unsympathetic – certainly not redemptive in the way that seems to be intended. The ending is truly terrible, which seems such a shame for a novel which began so promisingly. The judges clearly admire the whole novel, but I suspect not enough for it to make the shortlist.

More Than I Love My Life

March 16, 2022

David Grossman, and translator Jessica Cohen, won the International Booker in 2017 with his previous novel A Horse Walks into a Bar. Its central character was a comedian whose performance is revealed to the reader through the eyes of an old friend – one he has specifically asked to watch him. His new novel, More Than I Love My Life, longlisted for the same prize, is also filtered through a narrator, Gili, who, at times, seems more of an observer than a participant despite the fact she is the granddaughter and daughter of the main characters, Vera and Nina. Further suggesting her role as observer, much of the novel centres on a film she and her father, Rafael, are making of their troubled family history – the story of Vera’s abandonment of Nina as a young child, and Nina’s subsequent abandonment of Gili when she is three years old.

In 1962, Vera arrives in Israel from Yugoslavia with her seventeen-year-old daughter Nina. Vera, like Rafael’s father, Tuvia, is widowed, but before they can meet and marry, fifteen-year-old Rafael encounters Nina and falls in love. As she walks away, he holds out his hand:

“I can actually see him standing there with his hand out.

“And that’s how he’s remained, with the outstretched hand, for forty-five years.”

Gili characterises her father’s relationship with her mother in this way because, as we shall see, whatever occurs in the years which follow, he is always there for her when she needs him; “you know me,” he tells her, “If you were to suddenly turn into…I don’t know… a hunchback, then I’d start loving hunchbacks.” But she also warns us that the story of their first meeting has been told to her by her father who insisted “every detail in the story was important, because that is how you construct a mythology.” The idea of mythologizing those we love will turn out to be central to the novel.

Though much of the novel consists of flashbacks, it begins at Vera’s ninetieth birthday, and a final appearance in the lives of her family of Nina (“my rarely seen mother”) who, after a time in New York, is now living in a village close to the Arctic circle. Shortly after the party she reveals that she has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and will lose her memory over the coming years:

“Even right now I’m being a little bit erased, look… now I’m in colour, but three or four years from now I’ll be flat white, then transparent.”

Before it’s too late, she wants to know the truth about her childhood, a time she has previously attempted to forget. When she was a little girl her mother was sent to Goli Otok, an island used by Tito as a gulag, and she was left alone, her father having been already killed by the regime. It is for this reason she asks Rafael to make a film of Vera’s memories as the family return to Croatia and to the island.

The truth she is looking for is the reason Vera abandoned her, this sense of abandonment having defined her and prevented her from forming any lasting relationships of her own, including with her daughter. Subconsciously she feels this was a choice, and that Vera put her dead husband before her living daughter. Even as she marries Rafael’s father, Vera tells him that she still loves her first husband, Milosz, “more than anything in the world, more than my life” and he, too, is mythologized. The novel questions the ability of characters to see beyond the idealised images of this they love, and the damage this can unwittingly cause.

As the family journey to Croatia, Vera’s story is revealed, not only in her speech, but in a separate first-person narrative of her time on the island, climaxing as the family arrive there:

“Empty and barren. We’re alone on the island. Only a madman would come here in this storm.”

Will the storm be one of cleansing or destruction?

The novel has a complex structure which Grossman skilfully navigates, but the various barriers between the reader and the story can, at times, dilute its impact. It’s no surprise that one of the most effective sections is the direct narrative of Vera’s years on Goli Otok. The filming does provide some powerful moments as, for example, when Nina begins to address herself (much to the confusion and panic of the others) when in fact she is addressing the future, amnesiac Nina. It also provides an excuse for various videoed recollections over the years, and a symbolic, if slightly contrived, ending. However, both Gili and, to a lesser extent, Rafael remain largely behind the camera. Rafael as a character rarely goes beyond his love for Nina which, being unconditional, is also uninteresting. Gili is even less memorable. In fact, even Nina struggles to compete with Vera – which is at least in keeping with the family dynamic.

On the other hand, the novel once again showcases Grossman’s ability to demonstrate the impact of historical trauma on the individual. The punishment which a totalitarian regime inflicts on Vera is felt not only by her but by her child and grandchild – the harm does not end when the violence stops. This is an accomplished novel, as one would expect from a writer who has written ten others, certainly good enough to make the shortlist (though it’s early days yet) but, in the end, lacking the focus and emotional power of A Horse Walks into a Bar and therefore unlikely to repeat his win.

International Booker Prize 2022 Longlist

March 11, 2022

My International Booker Prize predictions may have mentioned five of the final longlist, but in other ways the thirteen selected have been something of a surprise. First of all, it is the fewest number of European books in the Prize’s history – normally around half (between 6 and 7) of the longlist are by European writers, but this year there are only four. Two were expected by many to be there – previous winner Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob (translated from Polish by Jennifer Croft) and the final part of Jon Fosse’s Septology, A New Name (translated from Norwegian by Damion Searls). The other two represent the first appearance in English of their authors. Jonas Eika’s short story collection After the Sun (translated from Danish by Sherilyn Hellberg) has already won the Nordic Literature Prize and is published by Lolli Editions, whose The Employees was a highlight of last year’s longlist. Violaine Huisman’s The Book of Mother (translated from French by Leslie Camhi) is a debut novel which has also already won prizes.

Latin America is represented by Claudia Pineiro’s Elena Knows (translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle), one of my favourite books of the last year, and Fernanda Melchor’s Paradais (translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes), published later this month. Melchor was shortlisted as recently as 2020 for Hurricane Season, and Pineiro appeared on the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize longlist back in 2010 with Thursday Night Widows.

The real achievement of this year’s longlist, however, is its global nature. With Europe and Latin America making up less than half of the titles, its leaves space for a wider range of countries to be represented. Much of this is down to the three books published by Tilted Axis Press: Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park (translated from Korean by Anton Hur); Happy Stories, Mostly by Norman Erikson Pasaribu (translated from Indonesian by Tiffany Tsao); and Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree (translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell). How wonderful that (previous winner) Deborah Smith’s publishing venture finally gets the recognition it deserves. (Ironically, having faithfully suggested that one of their titles should be selected in every previous year, this year I simply haven’t read any yet).

Finally, there is another Korean title, and another translation credit for Anton Hur, in Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny, a Japanese representative in the form of Heaven by Mieko Kawakami (translated from Japanese by Samuel Bett and David Boyd) and, from Israel, a second previous winner, David Grossman, with More Than I Love My Life (translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen).

The full list is:

Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung, translated from Korean by Anton Hur (Honford Star)

After the Sun by Jonas Eika, translated from Danish by Sherilyn Hellberg (Lolli Editions)

A New Name: Septology VI-VII by Jon Fosse, translated from Norwegian by Damion Searls (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

More Than I Love My Life by David Grossman, translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen (Jonathan Cape)

The Book of Mother by Violaine Huisman, translated from French by Leslie Camhi (Virago)

Heaven by Mieko Kawakami, translated from Japanese by Samuel Bett and David Boyd (Picador)

Paradais by Fernanda Melchor, translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Love in the Big City by Sang Young Park, translated from Korean by Anton Hur (Tilted Axis Press)

Happy Stories, Mostly by Norman Erikson Pasaribu, translated from Indonesian by Tiffany Tsao (Tilted Axis Press)

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro, translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle (Charco Press)

Phenotypes by Paulo Scott, translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (And Other Stories)

Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree, translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell (Tilted Axis Press)

The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from Polish by Jennifer Croft (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

Reading the longest before the shortlist is announced (7th April) will be quite impossible for me having only read two, and with The Books of Jacob and Tomb of Sand coming in at almost 1,700 pages altogether. Having said that, I will be reading as many as I can…

International Booker Prize Predictions 2022

March 7, 2022

With the announcement of the International Booker Prize long list of 2022 only days away it is traditionally time for me to fail to predict what might be on it. The favourite, of course, is Nobel Prize winner Olga Tocarczuk’s The Books of Jacob (translated by Jennifer Croft), running to as many pages as most of the other contenders put together. The prize – both as the International Booker and in its previous guise as the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize – has never been particularly kind to Nobel Prize winners: Orhan Pamuk and Jose Saramago’s wins both predate their Nobel anointing, and Mario Vargas Llosa has only once made it onto a short list. The Books of Jacob may not be as certain to win, or even to be included, as we might think.

Other major European contenders, however, are in short supply. The French writer Maylis de Kerangal, with Painting Time (translated by Jessica Moore) is one possibility having been previously long-listed in 2016 for Mend the Living. Also Portuguese author Dulce Maria Cardoso, who narrowly missed out in 2017 according to the chair of the judges Nick Barley, may find herself included with Violeta Among the Stars (translated by Angel Guirra-Quintana). Then there is the yet to be published Portrait of an Unknown Lady by Maria Gainza (translated by Thomas Bunstead) or Trust by Domenico Starnone (translated Jhumpa Lahiri, whose own Whereabouts is also eligible having been originally written in Italian) – unfortunately, Elena Ferrante has never won, preventing Starnone from doing a Romain Gary. Hopefully at least one of two strong contenders from Peirene Press will feature – Winter Flowers by Angelique Villaneuve (translated by Adriana Hunter) and Marzan, Mon Amour by Katja Oskamp (translated by Jo Heinrich), both of which find hope in trying circumstances. If I could place one European writer on the long list myself, however, it would be Bel Olid for Wilder Winds (translated by Laura McGloughlin), a collection of short stories where quality far exceeds volume.

Last year was a disappointing year for Latin American writers, although both books which were long-listed made the short list. Charco Press have, as usual, numerous contenders. Tender by Ariana Harwicz (translated by Carolina Orloff and Annie McDermott) is one, but it is surely too off the wall even compared to the first two parts of her ‘involuntary’ trilogy. Both Brickmakers by Selva Almada (translated by Annie McDermott) and Elena Knows by Claudia Pineiro (translated by Frances Riddle) are very fine novels and at least one of them should be there. Phenotypes by Brazilian Paulo Scott (translated by Daniel Hahn) and Chilean Poet by Chilean Alejandro Zambra (translated by Megan McDowell and not yet published) are also strong possibilities. Evelio Rosero may reappear with Stranger to the Moon, thirteen years after winning with The Armies (both translated by Anne McLean).

Elsewhere, perennial judges’ favourite Yan Lianke has a new novel out – Hard Like Water (translated by Carlos Rojas) – and Mieko Kawakami – who missed out with Breast and Eggs – may have more luck with Heaven (which I preferred, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd). The popular Cursed Bunny by Korean writer Bora Chung (translated by Anton Hur) would be a great addition for the name alone. Otherwise eligible titles outside European languages have rather passed me by in the last year so my main hope is that the judges, who include writers from Zimbabwe and Singapore, have unearthed some potential winners of their own. This year more than ever, it is in the hope of discovery, rather than the expectation of accurate prediction, that I approach the announcement!


March 5, 2022

The rediscovery of Kay Dick’s 1977 novel, They, seems somehow appropriate to its portrayal of marginalised and censored artists: out of print since its initial publication, it was found by a literary agent in an Oxfam shop in Bath last year and is now available once again, garlanded with praise from a panoply of contemporary authors. It is an unusual novel in not really being a novel, more a series of short stories connected by the world in which they are set, and presumably by a narrator, or at least a narrative voice. The world it presents to us is one where art is increasingly disapproved of, books and artworks destroyed, and artists pushed further and further to the edges of society when not being coerced into conforming.

In the opening story, ‘Some Danger Ahead’, this occurs stealthily.  “They took another book last night,” the narrator tells us:

“They never came when one was in the house. In their view confrontation was an unnecessary waste of energy, a luxury they withheld.”

By the end of the story, however, we are made aware of the implicit violence which lies behind this as Claire is taken away to be blinded:

“She went beyond the accepted limit. She continued to paint.”

Artists are tolerated to an extent, but examples are made of those who resist. When they throw a poet, Jane’s, work into the fire she instinctively reaches out to save it: “…they held her right arm over the flames for five minutes.” If the punishment is not physical, it is some form of brainwashing. When the narrator gets a new neighbour in ‘Pebble of Unease’ he will not speak to her:

“When it rained he sat with his back to the window. Clearly he had been desensitized.”

When Fiona returns from ‘treatment’ in ‘A Light-hearted Day’ she doesn’t recognise anyone: “Our presence made no impact on her.” Even toleration comes at a price as we discover in ‘A Pocket of Quietude’ where Hurst has set up a refuge for artists in an old mill – “It’s a matter of survival, not of suicide.” His survival, however, comes at the price of betraying the artists he invites to stay with him, his main aim being to protect their work rather than their lives. This, at least, distinguishes him for the largely interchangeable writers, painters and sculptors which populate the rest of the stories. The atmosphere is similarly rather monotone, varying only from the general unease of feeling under threat to moments of pleasure at the beauty of nature. Strangely, there is little relating to artistic creation which is taken as a given, as if Dick’s audience were also artists – and, indeed, in the novel art seems only to be produced to be appreciated by artists.

In her foreword, Carmen Maria Machado claims that it is too easy (though not wrong) to “affix the label of ‘they’ onto the people who have specifically made the lives of artists and intellectuals hell: conservative politicians and reactionary pundits and pearl-clutching parents and cowardly institutions” and we should cast the net more widely to include all “censorious impulses … and soft bigotry” This reading of the novel strikes me as only possible if you are a) not British and b) have very little awareness of the 1970s. In the first place, to a British reader the novel is heavily class based. The artists have ‘unobtrusive’ servants and cooks and not once, despite the outlawing of art suggesting it may not be a reliable source of income, do they worry about money. Even childhood memories are strong class indicators:

“Tea was a return to childhood with homemade scones, dishes of jam, plates of bread and butter, watercress, boiled eggs, seed- and ginger-cakes.”

Dick’s much praised descriptions of nature in fact convey a proprietary attitude, as if the countryside exists as a place of contemplation and can only be appreciated by the few – she explicitly refers to walking in the country as an ‘extension’ of art.

And ‘they’ are, of course, the working classes, threatening the established order with their disposable income – particularly the young. Wherever any threatening characters develops a little individuality in the novel (not often) they are ‘youth’s or children. Their viewpoint not only does not exist in the novel, but we are told they would not be able to articulate it anyway.

“They jabbered like savages, indecipherable gang vocabulary.”


“They have reduced speech to a minimum, to such an extent that they can barely articulate their words.”

They are seen as feral and violent – a dog is killed as a warning; at one point children have to be stopped from drowning a fox. It is a novel in which the young are feared, and the poor are little better than animals – “like locusts.” No surprise, then, that television is a focus of criticism, explicitly linked to the brainwashing facilities:

“The only light comes from the television screens, kept on all the time.”

Opera is (apparently) “a dangerous art” (“It suggests too many freedoms.”) but pop music is to be condemned.

Rather than a hymn to non-conformity (quite ridiculous when the artists conform as much as ‘they’), the novel is an ugly reactionary psychodrama portraying the subconscious fears of an ageing writer against a world where her assumed privilege is under threat. More sadly, it is largely an artistic failure as its strengths (the sense of unease, the ambiguous threat) are simply repeated ad nauseum becoming less interesting with each story. For a much better novel conveying the fear of society breaking down prevalent in 70s Britain  I would suggest Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor, written three year earlier; and for a dystopia where memory is threatened, the much more recent The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa is far superior to this largely unnecessary book.