Archive for October, 2013

October 31, 2013

Colm Tóibín, The Testament of Mary

From this weekend’s column.



Before the announcement of this year’s Booker prize, many of those who had actually read the whole of the shortlist seemed to think the real race was between its longest and the shortest works; Eleanor Catton’s eight-hundred-plus-page The Luminaries, and Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary, less than a hundred pages long. Both sprawling-and-ambitious and precise-and-compact strike me as healthy things for a novel to be (though with deadlines looming I’d prefer more of the latter) and I’m looking forward to Catton’s now award-winning novel. But this week I only felt capable of tackling the Tóibín.

“I cannot say the name, it will not come, something will break in me if I say the name. So we call him ‘him’, ‘my son’, ‘our son’, ‘the one who was here’, ‘your friend’, ‘the one you are interested in’. Maybe before I die I will say the name or manage on one of those nights to whisper it but I do not think so.”

Religious retellings can be (also) religious or secular—they can embrace the divine or supernatural nature of their subject, or they can create a more material logic for their worlds. Tóibín’s Mary never says the word “Jesus”, and in some ways this could be any crucified son, and any mother (lots of women are called Mary, surely) who believes in the end that whatever great cause her son died for cannot have been worth it. Despite this we’re never really in any doubt of who these characters are—if Mary’s son and the two men who haunt her home after his death are not named, Lazarus is, his sisters Mary and Martha are, familiar miracles are described, even if most of them are witnessed second-hand.  If the stories that Mary hears are true, obviously, this can’t be just any story of a dead son and a grieving mother.

But while Mary occasionally seems skeptical about her son’s great deeds, what is far more striking to me is that neither she nor the book seem particularly invested in their veracity. This is not an account of the life of Jesus that attempts to explain away the supernatural, then, but nor is it one in which the divine is centred. Even as her son’s disciples attempt to narrativise his life story, and to absorb Mary into it, she resists by writing back with a story of which she and her grief are the focus. “In the way they work now”, she says, “they try to make connections, weave a pattern, a meaning into things”. Mary disrupts that meaning, refuses to allow herself to be used, makes of her life something too messy and multifaceted for them. At one point we’re shown an empty chair that is waiting for “someone who will not return”; Mary’s “protectors” (and possibly the reader) assume this is a reference to her son, before we’re forced to remember that she has been a wife as well as a mother.

Christ’s divinity (if that is what it is) then fades into the background in the face of Mary’s humanity. And she is at her human best when she departs from the perfect symbol—when she thinks of her self-preservation during the death of her son and marvels at herself for doing so, when she feels the creeping dread of passing time after each Sabbath, when she hides in the house as her neighbours (a shared female community that is one of the things I like most about Tóibín’s book) lie to visitors and tell them she has left. When she finds time at her son’s crucifixion to notice other awful things happening around her, as if the most important event in the book’s world (but not her book’s world) were not taking place right there in front of her.


October 27, 2013

Susannah Clapp, A Card from Angela Carter

From last weekend’s column.

I spent the evening after I finished this leafing through Shaking A Leg, Carter’s collected journalism and being reminded of just how much I enjoy her voice. I’m not sure how much of a compliment to Clapp it is to say that what I liked so much about her book was another writer’s voice, but still.

This blog has been quiet lately; here’s Carter on a missed deadline:

Pieces had to be wheedled and winkled out of her during epic exchanges on the phone. “I’m sorry I’m such a lousy deadline-keeper,” she wrote from London, enclosing a delayed review. “But it’s been the end of term & I had lots & lots of term-papers and I went deaf & I trod on a rabid squirrel & All has been Hell.”



It’s easier to kill some writers than others.

As a reader, I’m mostly in favour of the death of the author. Authors are all very well in their place, but no one wants then getting in the way while we’re reading; it can be distracting and it often limits the ways in which we can engage with the book. Sometimes it’s necessary to admit that an author is still alive (when, for example, they’re a horrible bigot who may use the money from their royalties to fund further horrible bigotry) but most of the time it’s convenient to pretend they don’t exist. Biographies and memoirs of authors generally do not interest me; nor do collections of their correspondence.

But then there’s Susannah Clapp’s A Card From Angela Carter, which I enjoyed far more than I expected to. Clapp was Carter’s friend for many years (and her literary executor after the author’s death in 1992); A Card From Angela Carter is a short literary memoir constructed around some of the postcards that Clapp received from Carter over the course of their friendship. Each postcard (presumably not an exhaustive set) is pictured, and used as a starting point for Clapp’s reminisces of Carter’s life, or musings upon some aspect of her work.

One reason I enjoyed it so much, perhaps, is that I first read Carter in school and some vestiges of hero-worship still remain. With adulthood has come the ability to critique, and to admit that I don’t always find her (politically or artistically) flawless, but part of me is still the teenaged fan who wished she could have known her. Then too, in her fiction as well as her non-fiction (she was a journalist and reviewer as well as a novelist) Carter is never a remote authorial presence whose existence can be forgotten. She is always unmistakably herself, and this is one of her great strengths. Clapp notes that even as a teenaged feature writer at the beginning of her career, Carter would deliberately insert herself into her work. “She began using the first person – in places that person did not usually reach – as a way of making sure she got a byline: her gambit was to use ‘I’ so often that a sub-editor couldn’t be bothered to keep taking it out”.

Due to its brevity and the way it is structured A Card from Angela Carter is scattershot, a series of interconnected impressions of the author rather than an attempt to capture all of her. This works well, and Carter’s own words shine through. I spent the evening after I read Clapp’s book skimming through Shaking a Leg, an anthology of Carter’s nonfiction, and remembering how much I enjoy her voice. As Clapp herself says, “During my twelve years on the editorial staff of the London Review of Books, hers was the copy I was keenest to read. She was the only reviewer who could deliver with equal pungency on the ANC and on Colette, and who could tell us that D. H. Lawrence was ‘a stocking man, not a leg man’.”

Occasionally Clapp’s own voice turns into something rather special as well, as when she describes events after Carter’s funeral, as security guards appeared to protect the author’s close friend Salman Rushdie. “it was as if Birnam Wood had come to Putney Vale. The surrounding trees rearranged themselves. They shifted and they sprouted feet. They marched and dispelled, shaking themselves free of foliage.”

A Card from Angela Carter ends with Carter’s memorial service. It’s tempting to say something unbearably trite about authors living on in their work, but her friends and family presumably know how far from true that is. But there’s more life and personhood in a sentence of Carter than most writers can hope to aspire to, and Clapp’s book does a wonderful job of reminding us of this.


Favourite bits that didn’t make it into the review include a postcard in which Carter begs to be given “any Brontë stuff” that comes in for review, because no one else has written about them properly.

And this:

“Like Angela, Empson was a high-wire stylist, an atheist and an admirer of Andrew Marvell; like her, he had lived in Japan. They met later when Angela went to hear him lecturing – her with her flyaway hair, him with the slipping-down beard that he wore round his neck like a bib – but all Angela reported to me about the critical illuminator of ambiguity was that he made (not for her) a seduction drink from tinned raspberries and condensed milk.”

October 9, 2013

Shannon Hale, Austenland

I have mixed feelings about this book, but at least it looks significantly superior to the movie.


(From this week’s column)


Mr Darcy died this week.

Some months ago a giant Mr Darcy rose from the Serpentine like a participant in some bizarre Austen/Godzilla crossover movie (Pride and Pacific Rim?), the alarming sculpture a tribute to that scene in the Pride and Prejudice TV series, where Colin Firth jumps into a lake only so that we may admire his clinging wet shirt. That scene, and Firth’s Darcy, have grown into a phenomenon in themselves. The scene has become a staple of a certain sort of fluffy literature which can make the assumption that most heterosexual adult women have seen it and can identify with its power. One of the earlier examples of this is in Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones books—Bridget is a big fan of Firth’s Darcy, a situation made funnier by the fact that Bridget Jones’ Diary is itself a loose retelling of Pride and Prejudice (and Bridget’s Mark Darcy is also played by Colin Firth in the film adaptation). Fielding’s third Bridget Jones book has just come out, and even those of us who have not yet read it can hardly have missed the big news—Bridget is now a widow, her Mr Darcy dead. Perhaps it was about time.

That’s certainly the impression one gets from Shannon Hale’s Austenland, the movie version of which recently released. Hale’s heroine Jane Hayes is an Austen fan; she’s read the books multiple times, and has managed to enjoy them (except Northanger Abbey, which already makes me suspicious of her taste). But Jane is also a Mr Darcy fan, and is self-reflexive enough to know that those two things aren’t necessarily the same. After a series of unsatisfactory relationships Jane has begun to think her obsession with Mr Darcy is actively hindering her love life. When a relative sends her on a three week holiday to an Austen-themed resort, she determines to face and conquer her Darcy problem.

The resort, it turns out, is an ‘immersive’ regency experience for rich (usually married, usually American) women who want to live like Austen heroines and flirt with beautiful men in period costume. Jane finds herself both attracted and repulsed by the lifestyle—the gorgeous men in breeches on the one hand, the long hours of boredom and class snobbery (one is not permitted to flirt with the sexy gardener) on the other. The toll of keeping up the act—though Jane is certainly luckier here than the actors, who are being paid to be pawed at by rich women. And being seduced by a gorgeous man who says all the right things is very nice, but not when he’s been hired for the role and one can’t tell what is and isn’t real.

Part of the problem is that it’s never clear how far Darcy has affected Jane’s life—of the ex-boyfriends of whom we hear, most are terrible, and a couple are ordinary failed relationships of the sort that happen to anyone. As Jane is reminded on her arrival, in Regency England a woman in her early thirties would be regarded as unmarriageable and (therefore) a failure; in the 2010s that is far from true. Since it’s not clear what Jane is doing wrong, it’s hard to see why she should need to fix it.

But then this also plays into a cultural narrative in which women who like romance novels and movies are somehow incapable of functioning within real world relationships. In the end, I’m not sure whether Austenland challenges that idea by giving Jane a relationship that validates all her fantasies so far, or endorses it by assuming that there’s something wrong with this adult woman who dreams of Colin Firth.

Either way, the problem appears to be Mr Darcy. Mr Darcy and his dripping, wet-shirt-encased torso are somehow sabotaging all our love lives. Mr Darcy had to die, and we can only be thankful to Helen Fielding for killing him off.


October 4, 2013

Shira Lipkin and Michael Damian Thomas, Flying Higher

Because superhero poems.

Slightly edited version here.


You could make a good case for superhero comics as the classical myths of our time. You could—I’m not sure it would stand up to very close scrutiny, but here are vast, cosmos-encompassing stories of gods and monsters and fatally-flawed heroes, with somewhat flexible continuity and a lot of dubious sex. It sort of works.

One reason we keep going back to myths is the knowledge that most people know them. They make a useful point of reference because they’re so culturally widespread, they’re built into our idioms and our consciousness. Poets are still reimagining bits of the Ramayana, or the Iliad, because there’s something immediate and accessible and fundamental about these stories and the place they have in our lives. Might superheroes be fit subjects for poetry as well?

Flying Higher: An Anthology of Superhero Poetry might be the answer to that question. Edited by Shira Lipkin and Michael Damian Thomas, this collection of poems draws inspiration from the world of the superhero comic in numerous ways.

Some of these address wider tropes within superhero comics; I’m particularly fond of Lisa Nohealani Morton’s “Supervillanelle” (because who could resist that pun?) with its repeated “But now you must face my death ray.” Kip Manley’s “If” (not based on the Kipling poem as far as I can tell) has an ordinary narrator going through a series of superhero origin stories that they did not face. Alex Dally MacFarlane’s “The Bone Woman” is as sparse as the image it suggests, and gorgeous.

In “Darksein the Diabolic Plots His Comeback from Beyond the Grave” Mike Allen has the character (who, presumably, bears some similarity to Darkseid) address his creators directly, and the result is one of the funniest things in the collection. “What hack cranked out that script? Gaiman? Morrison? Moore?/ Tell me it wasn’t Miller. HOLY SCREAMS OF THE DAMNED NOT MILLER!?!”

Emily Wagner’s “Invisible” makes a case for The Fantastic Four’s Invisible Woman. Julia Rios and Wendy Babiak both write about Wonder Woman, both allowing her sexuality to become a source of strength rather than vulnerability. Kelly McCullough’s “J’onesing for J’onn J’onnz—A Fanboi’s Paean to the Martian Manhunter” tries out (and discards) a number of classic poems as templates, before settling on Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”. Lisa Bradley takes and entirely different track and reads Rosie the Riveter as an iconic superhero. Other direct tributes, such as Michael Damian Thomas’s “Hawkguy” and Matthew Kuchta’s “The Wolverine” simply don’t work as well. “The Ballad of Captain America’s Disapproving Face” doesn’t quite live up to that title (it is, to be fair, a great title). Sofia Samatar’s “Apache Chief”, with its sudden, affirming last line, is possibly the strongest piece in the collection. Shawna Jaquez sums up the appeal of the recent Avengers movie in “Friendship and Butts”. In “Princess of Gemworld” Mary Anne Mohanraj describes the awful situation of children in secondary world fantasies who must come home, leaving their powers and new lives behind them.

The poets in this anthology use the form to interrogate, occasionally mock, and pay tribute to the superhero comic, but for all that a particular depth of feeling or weight is rarely invoked. Obviously this is partly because many of them aren’t supposed to, and the introduction explains that the whole project stemmed from a conversation about unlikely subjects for poetry. Perhaps that’s the problem; superheroes hold enough of a place in our imaginations that they ought to be an obvious subject for literature, but after a point even people dedicated enough to write poems about them (and it’s clear that most of these poets are comics fans) can’t entirely take them seriously. As a result, Flying Higher has much in it that is clever and familiar, and fun to read out to friends who are fans, but there’s little that stays with you or touches the heart.


October 2, 2013

September Reading

In last month’s reading update post I said I’d been having a rather hectic few weeks, and those continued. Since I wrote that post I have moved to another country and begun (sort of- I haven’t done any actual work for it yet) a PhD. There hasn’t been much reading, as a result.


Vikram Seth, Beastly Tales: A classic, obviously, and one I’m very fond of–I think most Indian schoolchildren of my generation can still recite most of “The Frog and the Nightingale”. I reread the collection this time soon after a conversation about the gender of animals in children’s books, and so ended up noticing for the first time how often the active parties in these stories are gendered female. I suspect even here parity is nowhere close to achieved, but it’s nice for “he/him/his” not to be the default all the time.

Jack Vance, Dream Castles: I reread this while I was writing a review for Strange Horizons, which appeared here. It’s a bit all over the place but the longer stories in particular are very Vance-y, which is all I really needed to enjoy it.

Shira Lipkin and Michael Damian Thomas, Flying Higher: An Anthology of Superhero Poetry: Not a collection I’m going to treasure in particular, but often very funny (and free!). I reviewed it for the column.

Maria Semple, Where’d You Go, Bernadette?: Read this on the plane, wrote about it for the column here.

Terry Pratchett, Thud! and The Fifth Elephant: Comfort reading. The Fifth Elephant is still excellent, Thud! is a definite drop in quality, but against all reason I will still forgive a Vimes book most things.

Diana Wynne Jones, Dark Lord of Derkholm: Reread. If you like DWJ for the clever self-reflexive genre thing that she does with The Tough Guide To Fantasyland, this is excellent. Since that’s not what I most like about her, it’s … still pretty good, I suppose.

Nicholas Blake, The Whisper in the Gloom, The Widow’s Cruise, End of Chapter: Last year I read the last Blake book and it put me off him horribly. I seem to have calmed down enough that I’m still capable of appreciating the books themselves. I’d read End of Chapter before but had completely forgotten who the murderer was; the other two, which I hadn’t read, were far easier to solve. Not that that is the point, of course; these particular Blake books felt far less literary than some of the others have, but I enjoyed them rather a lot anyway.

Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being: It’s cool that this book managed to sneak some SF (and Hello Kitty?) onto the Booker shortlist, and it’s unfortunate that it could use a lot more editing, but I enjoyed myself too much to care about either of those things.

Jonathan Grimwood, The Last Banquet: I’m hoping to write more about this soon, but it is very good.

Sophie Kinsella, Can You Keep a Secret?: Hm. I find Kinsella’s fluffiness very comforting and so enjoyed this one, but the power imbalance that the whole thing is based on made me really uncomfortable. He’s her boss and he knows all her secrets and he won’t tell her any of his and he’s attracted to her and he humiliates her publicly in front of her colleagues? Run away. Screaming.

Balaji Venkataraman, Flat-Track Bullies: Middle-grade (I think) novel about children trying to have exciting holidays in Chennai while their lives are curtailed by about fifteen different sorts of coaching classes. I can only hope for their sakes that the society these characters live in is heavily exaggerated.


(Edited to add Ozeki’s book to the list; I’m not sure how I managed to leave it off.)