But first, a musical diversion. Sunday at The Old George Narius brought his Grammy-winning friend Amrit Sond along to join in the fun. Narius was his usual smooth accomplished self, with songs from the world over – Brazil, France, Spain, the US – and Mark Knopfler. Amrit was something else, though. Hard to explain; ‘fingerstyle’ only scratches the surface. Freestyle fingers, hands, fists … if he were playing tennis at Wimbledon rather than an acoustic guitar he’d probably be cautioned for racket abuse. (Poetic license: not that he actually throws it down, hits anything with it or breaks it). With his hands in unorthodox motion, crossing over one another, dramatically strumming (that upstroke!), the guitar’s body bought into extensive use as a percussion instrument, his drumstick fingers over the frets – he gets some extraordinary sounds out of his instrument: the full spectrum – tuneful, angular, discordant, delivered with aggression and gentility – and back again. The 30 second clip on his website gives a rich glimpse of the richness of sound and there is more on YouTube, but try here to see what he does with the coffee).
Anne Tyler says A spool of blue thread (Chatto, 2015) is her last novel, which is fair enough given the 19 that have gone before. I’ve read a few of those and like her a lot for the attention to telling detail – emotional as much as anything else – and nary a wasted word. She gives good nuance. Picking A spool of blue thread up at the library, the librarian, a Tyler fan, said she was disappointed – going out with a whimper, she said – and much as I’d wished it would, it didn’t grab me enough to drop everything to finish it before the library due date. This being not so much a fear of fines as the moral issue of other people waiting to read it, so I returned it unfinished, and didn’t avail myself of the offer to be put back on the waiting list. Other fish to fry, other books to read. A four generation family story, told or gleaned from legend, out of chronological order. Kicks with a phone call from the wayward son of ’60s generation parents who are getting too old for the big old house, which is a big deal in the family history, that they still live in. As far as I’d read, I couldn’t care that much about what happened to them. Now it’s made the Booker Long List, so what do I know. Except, a bit like hay fever, I have good and bad years as far as that prize goes.
In the matter of not finishing books, I tend to give up early rather than hold out too many hopes, though I try to do my duty by the Reading Group. If it hadn’t been this month’s Reading Group book, Amanda Craig‘s Hearts and minds (2009) would have been jettisoned early. As it was, as the narrative momentum built, and in the end I didn’t resent the Book Group imperative to finish it as much as I thought I would. But it’s basically crime fiction with knobs on.
Because Hearts and minds does not lack ambition. She’s shooting for a Dickens, and it certainly starts well enough:
At night, even in these dead months of the year, the city is never wholly dark. Its shadows twitch with a harsh orange light that glows and fades, fades and glows, as the pulse of electric power courses through its body like dreams. The sour air, breathed in and out by eight million lungs, stained by exhaust pipes and strained through ventilators, is never clean. The dust of ages swirls and falls, staining walls, darkening glass, coating surfaces, clogging lungs.
But it’s this ambition that lets it down. The writing never reaches those heights again. Hard not to detect a tick box element to both the characters and the newspaper horror story issues they have to deal with, and the way their lives are connected is a trifle contrived, to say the least (I know, Dickens too, and at least there is no shocked revelation of a genealogical kind).
So there’s the murderee, Iryna, illegal immigrant, cleaner and nanny to single mother human rights lawyer Poppy (the only English character); there’s sex slave trafficked Ukrainian teenager Anna (and her Russian gangster pimps); there’s globetrotting South African East End sink school teacher Ian; the noble two jobs Zimbabwean political exile Job (we all liked him); Job’s mate and fellow taxi driver Tariq and his sons, one a jihadist; heart-broken Yank Katie, working at The Rambler, a magazine not a million miles from the Spectator, who might just have an eating problem; and a full supporting cast including an exuberant slob of an Australian and the magazine crowd (doubtless a few in-jokes going on there).
So, London as cosmopolis, then; we get it, but there still seems something missing. There’s a slightly dubious dramatic climax – at The Rambler‘s celebrated annual party extravaganza – and some heartening things happen to most of the people who deserve good things in the end.
The paperback edition carries loads of review quotes praising Hearts and minds to the skies, but none of our Book Group recognised the masterpiece lauded therein. I’m afraid she’s no Dickens; the prose is often clumsy, the dialogue a bit stilted. Would an A&E doctor really say, “It is still under four hours, you know – we are within the national guidelines for A&E“? (Actually, the health professional in the Group said they might, but I’m not convinced.) And then there’s this, written from the bloke’s perspective:
All the blood in his body has rushed from his head to his groin, and it hurts. He wants her, she doesn’t want him. It’s like being trapped between an immovable object and an irresistible force.
Which the rock, what the – sorry – hard place.? He does desist, though elsewhere Polly gets to think, “Underneath, all men are like something from an earlier stage of evolution …” about her screenwriter boyfriend networking at the party. Enough.
Postscript: Vaguely contemporary London novels that hit the Dickens spot? I can’t get beyond Zadie Smith (both White teeth and NW) and Michael Moorcock (King of the city, and probably Mother London, though I haven’t read the latter).
Mike Hannah, married with two children anti-hero and narrator of Andrew Cowan‘s gripping What I know (2005), is at a pretty complex and crippling stage in his evolution. Married in his early twenties, he’s just hit 40 and chopped down the leylandii trees planted at the bottom of his garden by the previous owners (there’s a whole other story there too), putting his back out in the process. Now he can see a young female student in a window in the house behind (nothing prurient on view, mind) and it takes him back to when he was a student (on a creative writing degree course – author Cowan is now Director of the Creative Writing programme at the University of East Anglia), reminding him of soul mate with privileges Sarah, who he has not seen since.
So Mike is now in full-blown, albeit tentative, mid-life crisis mode. He’s not written anything since uni, but there’s William Brown, a novelist neighbour living nearby, who he pretends not to know too much about, though he quite fancies the writer’s wife while suspecting his wife of plotting an affair with the novelist. The thing is, Mike is now a professional private investigator with a technological bag of tricks and a lot of his work entailing surveillance from doubting spouses, so he starts employing his work procedures on his own private life. Furthermore, his moderately successful novelist friend Will has hit a writer’s block and asks Mike if he can tag along in the name of research for his next book, so he starts off by tracing what has happened to old girlfriend Sarah as an example. Needless to say, it does not go well, though if one is talking of bloodletting it is only metaphorical.
Cowan playfully hints at postmodern fictional games without actually committing them. So:
Will’s books are not very exciting. His narratives verge on the ‘slow’, even the ‘dangerously slow’. His subject matter is ‘downbeat’ and ‘depressing’. And while his ‘accumulation of minute particulars’ does lend authenticity, it can also become ‘so much clutter on the page, impeding the story.’
It was precisely this ‘accumulation of minute particulars‘ that impressed me as being a feature of his writing in his Worthless men, where the bits I’m usually tempted to speed read – lists of things, even – kept me engaged and added to that (very different) novel’s power. (Here’s my take on it). And that holds for What I know. “Will might well have invented me,” Mike says near the end,
… a typical male in the fiction of William Brown is a man struggling against his own mediocrity … short on ambition, but also frustrated by his personal failings, his lack of imagination, his indecision.
“Our lives around here are not the stuff of novels, or at least not interesting novels …” says Mike, but – oh you big tease, Andrew Cowan – this here What I know is interesting indeed, getting to the core of a thorny male middle class suburban dilemma. Which is not as tedious or self-centred as that sounds. It is satirical in its setting but serious on a personal level to those involved.
Welcome to the neighbourhood, which is fast becoming “the exclusive preserve of the middlingly successful“. “We are good citizens here. Our streets are tree-lined and our local park is not often vandalised …“. “You might call us bourgeois-bohemian, which is to say we are neither“, while “Ours are the privileged children of parents who ‘oppose’ privilege, and while some of us claim to feel guilty about this, we will still pay for them…” to do the extra-curricular things these kids do.
Here’s cheery Mike on marriage: “Every marriage is a mystery. I wouldn’t be the first to think that, nor to suppose that most are stalked with regret, the melancholy thought of what they are not.” While he’s sure he and his wife, Jan, still love one another, “It has ceased to be a story” to him, “if it ever was. There’s little sense of a plot being revealed, of surprises in store …” At home and work he’s always, he says, “been happy enough.”
But at university he had lived in an activist commune, where, “As a household we objected to most things, but especially money, possessions, careers“:
And though I did sometimes look upon all this as play-acting, mere pretending, I never actually said so […] I still turned out for the protests, the pickets. I did what was expected, and you may even have seen me – distributing leaflets in the town centre, hawking newspapers, rattling buckets – and kept well away. I wouldn’t now blame you, and I cringe to remember all of this. I was twenty years old then, and I wouldn’t want to go back there.
Yet he finds he is now “becoming broodingly nostalgic for the intensity of friendships I had known at university, itself a time … when I hadn’t so much made friends as I had been made by them.” He longs for a hint of “the person I used to be”, and surmises that many of his kind are looking “to connect with who they once were, or once hoped they’d become“.
As the action unfolds it all becomes very existential. “Of course there is love and there’s love” – he does expand on that – but even as he makes his moves, “My true purpose isn’t quite clear to me …” Earlier he has surmised:
… it’s in the nature of my occupation to look for patterns, connections, stories, clear lines of cause and effect. But in fact I believe that most of life, including my own, is really quite random, somewhat plotless, accidental.
But there is a narrative to What I know and its pull is strong. Paranoid, claustrophobic, repetitive, bleak, thoughtful, painful, insightful, excruciating and thoroughly entertaining, I liked it a lot.