Archive for ‘language’

May 21, 2013

The Thuggery Affair (AF 6)


My friend Supriya recently visited her family in Bombay, and in a fit of home-sweet-home-ness took this wonderful picture of The Mumbai Mirror.

This was a useful reminder that the next of Antonia Forest’s books contained a) drug-running wildlife b) wordplay (though nothing quite in the league of “bleet(y) hell!”).

If Autumn Term is the Marlow book about genre and Peter’s Room is the one about make-believe, The Thuggery Affair is the one about language. This is to oversimplify, of course, yet language seems to be at the centre of most people’s experience of this book. Forest’s own discussion of the book (again, that useful prologue in the GGB editions) begins with a reference to the self-invented languages of teenagers and a rueful “unfortunately, I think I was the only person who did understand what my characters were saying. But still, try anything once”. Online reviews bear this out by talking constantly about how difficult the language of the “thuggery” is—to the extent that this particular quirk of the book has almost overshadowed the fact that the book is about drug-running pigeons.

A scandaroon, the variety of pigeon used to smuggle drugs. I hope this enhances your understanding of the text.

The plot in brief: Lawrie, Patrick and Peter are home for half-term; Nicola is staying with a friend and Ginty (to Patrick’s disappointment) with her grandmother. A group of young delinquents –you can tell, they wear garish clothes and listen to the Beatles—work nearby, at the home of a woman who breeds pigeons. Two such pigeons are taken down by Patrick’s hawk Regina, and the children discover that one has a capsule filled with white powder attached to its leg. Since all three are rather inept they lose the capsule and decide to split up—Peter will lead the gang (known to the children as “the thuggery”) on a wild goose chase, Patrick will break into the dovecote, and Lawrie, in the absence of the crucial piece of evidence, will take the pigeon’s corpse to the police and explain that it used to have drugs attached. To no one’s surprise, things go horribly wrong.

Further proof that this connection is tenuous, at best. These covers are nothing like one another.

In my head I keep associating The Thuggery Affair with A Clockwork Orange. Burgess’ book was written in 1962, three years before this, and also features teenagers with made-up languages, and, er … the cover of The Thuggery Affair is very orange. This is not a particularly scholarly comparison to make.

But (in part because of the completely spurious connection I’ve made in my head) I can’t help comparing the teenage languages in the two books. And when I do so I find the complaints about the Thuggery being incomprehensible rather strange, because compared to Nadsat this is hardly challenging. I wonder if it has to do with the expectations we bring to a book—perhaps one doesn’t expect a children’s adventure story to require effort. Most of the time the Thuggery’s language is just gloriously stylised:

“Why so much try to decorpse this one flutterlet?” (a character is trying to feed a baby pigeon)

“What met your top, Jukie? It grows a melon.” (Jukie, the leader of the gang, has a bump on his head)

“Belshezzar it” (a message is written on the wall)

For me, the reason this is interesting is that it ties in with a preoccupation with language that runs through the whole book. Forest’s characters don’t just use language, they delight in it. This is clear from the beginning of the book, when we learn how the book gets its name:

That pack of boys the village called them: Patrick, adding one more to the nouns of association listed in The Boke of St. Albans, called them in cheerful exaggeration A Thuggery of Teds.

Shortly after, Patrick gets into an argument with Miss Culver, the breeder of pigeons. Miss Culver is carrying a gun and seems quite threatening, until she realises that Patrick is the son of Anthony Merrick, the local MP.

It would have been one thing apparently, thought Patrick hilariously, for Gunslinger Culver to pepper a peasant, but quite another to murder a Merrick … Good humour and chap-to-chappery were now, apparently, in bloom.

Patrick isn’t the only one of the three main characters who delights in language. Peter later describes someone as “trembling like a naspen”. And then there’s Lawrie.

We already know from the previous books in the series that Lawrie is a good actor, and in The Marlows and the Traitor we see her observing other people’s behaviour carefully for the purpose of future roles (people who she is unlikely ever to act are ignored, obviously). Here, she starts the book by imitating a number of stylistic registers: she speaks “in the manner of any comic admiral of film, radio or television”, in her head she “composed a front page story for the Colebridge and District Mail”. So far this is unsurprising – Peter also likes to imitate a strong accent (seen here, but much more in The Ready-Made Family where it forms a part of the actual plot). What is interesting, though, is Lawrie’s ability to think in a different register as well.

Lawrie’s complete ignorance of everything around her often leads her to be used as the comic relief in these books. Here, she is deputed to smuggle the dead pigeon to the Colebridge police and explain the situation to them; a task which terrifies her. She braces herself by putting on make-up to look like a Bond Girl (Peter is alarmed; she does not look anything like Pussy Galore), but then gets really into the act. To the point that when she meets a member of the gang on the train, instead of trying to avoid him and run to the police station she flirts with him, introduces herself as Sophia, and decides to join him for coffee and a movie. And the reader laughs or rolls her eyes and says Oh Lawrie, because of course Lawrie would be so flaky that she’d forget her mission and go off on a date. It’s only later that we realise that there was a genuine threat to Lawrie—when Jukie casually says of Red Ted “I think mebbe he’ll give the chicklet a real live whirl. If she’s willin’ of course. ‘N then again mebbe even if she’s not”. As in The Marlows and the Traitor, we’ve been reminded that the world isn’t entirely safe even for middle-class English children having Blytonesque adventures. Once again we are pulled, as Peter thinks, into “the midst of an adventure which had turned into something huger and blacker than he had bargained for”.

But back to Lawrie who, being Lawrie, when she inhabits a role really inhabits it. And so Forest shows us an actual shift in her internal monologue. “It was just grotty Sophia had to lug her music-case around with her; and she naturally thought it gear when Red Ted offered to carry it for her.” (Though she retains her love of playing with language, describing “The Beatles merseying from Red Ted’s pocket ‘She loves you—yeh, yeh, yeh’”). It’s only when she panics, comes to her senses and escapes, that the register of her thoughts changes back to the one with which we are familiar.

Which is not to imply that the register with which we are familiar is any sort of default. There’s a moment, quite early on, which is rather telling in this respect. The trio of Patrick, Peter and Lawrie have received a note which the Marlows are unable to decipher, but that Patrick, with his greater knowledge of urban slang, is able to translate:

The carton was empty all right; but on the inside of the flap someone had printed: PLAY IT SEHR CRAFTY NODDY-BOY. IF THIS MOB IS SPRUNG THE CLICK IN THE SMOKE WILL HAND DADDY-O HIS HEARSE TICKET SHARPEST.

Peter read this aloud. Lawrie said, “What’s all that mean?”

In an unnaturally level voice Patrick translated. “Take jolly good care softy. If our lot are caught the part of the gang who operate in London will murder your pa. I wouldn’t know if sharpest means razors or just fast.”


I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. For one thing, I’m reading this a good half-century after it was written and that changes a lot of things about context. I invoked Blyton a couple of paragraphs ago; the Famous Five, for example, regularly spend the few days of half-term battling smugglers with no adverse consequences, and saying things like “by jove!” A lot of the language taken for granted by this genre (though can we consider The Thuggery Affair to be in the same genre as Five Get into Trouble?) seems hopelessly archaic to a modern reader. And there are certainly moments in The Thuggery Affair that were probably not meant to be as funny as they are now; at one point Patrick suggests that they might have misheard Jukie’s nickname, and it might be “Junkie”. “Junkie—in their language—means drug addict.” I don’t know how widespread the word was in 1965, and Forest could hardly have predicted that it would become something everyone knew. But I laughed anyway.

But I don’t know if that exchange I quote above can be put down entirely to a disconnect between the world in which it was written and the world in which I am reading it. Because I don’t think Patrick says things like “take jolly good care” on a regular basis. I wonder if the text is laying that extra bit of emphasis on the sort of language that he uses to remind us that that too is not a default but a specific style of speaking associated with specific cultural markers.

Forest often gets dismissed by critics for writing about (since there aren’t enough of those in literature) privileged people having adventures. I do think this is a fair criticism, and I often find myself mocking the supposed poverty of her characters (the poor things cannot afford to buy more horses without selling the family tiara). But in The Thuggery Affair for the first time (and perhaps this has to do with the fact that it was the 60s) she might be doing the same. Twice in the book characters are forced to confront their privilege. First Lawrie, who discovers that the police might seem perfectly friendly and polite to the daughters of naval captains who also own extensive property and yet be hostile and suspicious towards girls in make-up who don’t look like the daughters of naval captains etc. One moment Lawrie is being suspected of being in a rival gang, the next, after a phone call from her mother, she’s being fed cocoa and pork pie.

And then Patrick, who over the course of his and Jukie’s aborted getaway drive learns something of his captor’s history. When Patrick scorns the notion that his father would ask him to commit perjury to salvage his political career, Jukie only replies, “You mean he doesn’t need it. He’s got it all already.” Patrick does say that his father would probably feel the same even if he was running for P.M. (rather telling that this is his definition of having something to lose!), but the reader has been reminded that Patrick’s and Jukie’s circumstances are entirely different. Shortly after, when he tries to express empathy for Jukie because he gets less pocket money than a lot of the boys at his posh school, he is mocked. “Patrick was silent, convinced he really did know how it could be, keeping company with people who had more spending money than you had”, but the reader is not convinced.

Somewhere in The Thuggery Affair‘s engagement with language, then, is there an acknowledgement of some of the series’ own class-related issues, of the constructedness of the norms of the class to which the Marlows, Patrick and most of their genre-contemporaries belong, and of the ways in which language and culture are intertwined? I think there might be, though I’m still not sure how far Forest herself would agree with me. Meanwhile, there are many pigeons.



*It is quite possible that no Blyton character ever has used that expression, but you know what I mean.


April 11, 2013

James Joyce, The Cats of Copenhagen

(On the question of dogs vs cats in literature, this might be relevant)

From last weekend’s column:


Recently Maria Popova of the website BrainPickings brought the existence of a children’s book by Sylvia Plath to the internet’s attention. The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit tells the story of a little boy called Max who comes into possession of the perfect suit. It’s always a little strange, and rather nice, to find literary figures known for their writing for adults show that they could be pretty good children’s writers as well. Like many people I was introduced to Ted Hughes not through his poetry, but his children’s books The Iron Man and (this one was a little after my time) The Iron Woman. And James Joyce wrote two children’s books- The Cat and the Devil and, published for the first time last year along with illustrations by Casey Sorrow, The Cats of Copenhagen.

Both of these books are in the form of letters sent to Joyce’s grandson Stephen—there was some controversy upon the book’s publication over whether all of Joyce’s writings or only those previously published, belonged in the public domain once the copyright had expired in 2012.

Apparently, along with The Cat and the Devil Joyce had sent Stephen a toy cat filled with sweets, a filling of which the grown-ups in Stephen’s life would probably have disapproved. The first lines of The Cats of Copenhagen are possibly an apology for his inability to send another cunningly concealed cache of candy: “Alas! I cannot send you a Copenhagen cat because there are no cats in Copenhagen”.

Joyce appears to have loved cats. There’s an episode in Ulysses in which Leopold Bloom, also clearly a cat person, feeds and speaks lovingly to his pet, who answers with an evocative “mkgnao!”, far more catlike than the more traditional “meow”. It’s fitting that he should have dedicated two books to the creatures. Children’s literature is full of faithful hounds and naughty pups. Cats (except in rare works like Anushka Ravishankar’s I Like Cats) tend to get short-changed; the only iconic figure they have is Puss-in-Boots.

If there are no cats in Copenhagen, Joyce’s book seems to suggest that the city would be vastly improved by the introduction of some. The Copenhagen invoked here is a city in thrall to its policemen, who sit at home reading and smoking in bed and drinking buttermilk (how does one apply for this job? I am very well qualified), sending out boys in red to carry out their orders. Meanwhile the citizens depend entirely on these orders, apparently lacking the ability to do such basic things as cross roads without instructions.

Casey Sorrow’s art lends another layer to this odd little account of the city. There are no cats, we’re told; but Sorrow’s illustrations are full of them. Cats crossing roads, cats on bicycles, policeman-cats lying in bed and gorging themselves. Is the author lying to his grandson? Would cats, were they introduced to the city, behave like humans? What does it mean to be a cat?

A cat, of course, being independent sort of creature, can “cross a road without any instructions from a policeman”. There’s an element of anarchy in the book’s proposed plan, which is to introduce cats to the city so that they may teach by example, render the policemen obsolete, and eat fish. Copenhagen, we’re told, has many fish.

Joyce’s insistence on the city’s abundance of fish has created, for me, a nice little linguistic mystery. “There are lots and lots of fish/ and bicycles but/ there are no cats,” he says. For most people the bringing together of fish and bicycles will recall a famous feminist statement. “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” was popularised by Gloria Steinem, but she credits it to the Australian writer Irina Dunn, in 1970. Long after Joyce, then; The Cats of Copenhagen was written in 1936. But Dunn in turn credits the fish-and-bicycle wording to an unnamed philosophical work; perhaps Joyce read the same book? Or the whole thing is a complete coincidence.


February 21, 2013

Christian Morgenstern/Sirish Rao/ Rathna Ramanathan, In The Land of Punctuation

The art is probably the best thing about this book, so I recommend Rathna Ramanathan’s post about her work here.

From last weekend’s column:


Recently the webcomic xkcd drew many people’s attention to a minor storm brewing on the internet as Wikipedia users hotly debated whether or not the first letter of the third word of the forthcoming Star Trek film Star Trek Into Darkness should be capitalized. Was it Star Trek: Into Darkness? Star Trek into Darkness? A number of people saw one or the other side of this debate as something genuinely worth fighting for, a fact which could either seem heartening or a little scary.

It can be surprising, and a bit alarming, how passionate and how inflexible people can get about punctuation. Wars have raged over the Oxford comma for years: does it bring much-needed clarity to a statement (as in the famous “we invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin” example) or obscure it? Punctuation is important; it can change meaning drastically. Most pragmatists will just go with what is least likely to cause confusion.

Perhaps the most abused form of punctuation there is is the poor semicolon. Most people do not seem quite sure how to use it and so this useful mark is often neglected or replaced, incorrectly, with dashes or commas. Its most frequent use, I suspect, is in the manufacture of winking smiley faces  [;)]. Semicolons have been on the decline for a while now, but it seems unlikely that someone writing a century or so ago could have predicted this ignominy.

But in 1905, the German poet Christian Morganstern published “Im Reich Der Interpunktionen”, or “In the Land of Punctuation”. My copy of the poem is a translation by Sirish Rao, in a beautiful hardback edition published by Tara Books with illustrations by Rathna Ramanathan. Set in a world inhabited by punctuation marks, Morganstern’s poem tells the story of how the other marks declare war upon the semicolons. It’s a war fable that is eerily prophetic of the violence that would follow in Morganstern’s own country within a few decades.

The semicolons are declared “parasites” and slaughtered by the other punctuation marks – all but the cowardly question marks, who manage to escape. The commas, who had been among the first to condemn the semicolons, find themselves the new targets. The nation now devoid of comma-like objects (apostrophes appear not to exist) all that is left is to bury the dead with a brief sermon.

Rathna Ramanathan’s illustrations for the book are in ominous black, red and white, and are made up entirely of punctuation marks. The first spread shows a comparatively peaceful scene, with buildings made of hyphens and slashes and trees of question marks. But “The Peaceful land of Punctuation / is filled with tension overnight” and from then on all is violence. “And then the captured creatures freeze / imprisoned by parentheses / The dreaded minus sign arrives / and – slash! – ends the captives’ lives”. One spread has the black dashes charging against the red commas, the two meeting in a mingled black-and-red diamond at the crease. It’s a reminder in part that for all their significance to meaning, punctuation marks are fundamentally just shapes.

Morganstern too reminds us of this, when he has the dashes slice through the commas so that, in Rao’s translation, “[they] cut across the commas’ necks / so that the beheaded wrecks / (the dashes delight in gore) / as semicolons hit the floor”. This is brilliantly done; the revelation that a “beheaded” comma actually would look a bit like a semicolon, but also an underlying sense of the grotesque, frankensteinian perversion inherent in butchering one thing to make it look like another. It’s a moment that is characteristic of the book as a whole. It’s all very clever and darkly humorous, but there’s an undercurrent of repulsion to it. There’s something horribly bleak about that last couplet:

“Then through their comma-form free nation
They all march home: dash dot dash dot”



January 17, 2013

Helen DeWitt, Lightning Rods

I was writing all these Christmas and children’s lit/YA-themed columns and thought it would be a good idea to write about sex in toilets instead. One doesn’t want to get into a rut. Erm.

From Sunday’s column:


Friends and well-wishers have over the past few years occasionally expressed shock that I haven’t read Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai. I’ve been both intimidated and a little sceptical about the sheer brilliance they claim for this novel; at any rate, it was enough to make me curious about DeWitt’s latest work. Lightning Rods was written a decade ago. If the delay in publication was due to the difficulty in finding a publisher, considering the novel’s subject matter it’s not hard to understand why.

Joe (he has no surname and the most everyman-ish first name he could possibly have) is a not-very-successful salesman of vacuum cleaners who has previously worked as a not-very-successful salesman of encyclopaedias. Almost the only thing he seems exceptional at is masturbating, which he complicates through the imagining of erotic scenes which have to sufficiently adhere to their own internal logic before they can serve their purpose. Joe’s great moment of inspiration comes when he decides to use his strengths to get ahead, utilising his own masturbatory fantasies as the basis for a scheme to get rid of sexual harassment in the workplace; a scheme that essentially involves the installation of high-tech glory holes in the disabled toilets. The “lightning rods” programme soon spreads to offices across America, running into all manner of problems that Joe had never anticipated (the difficulty of preserving anonymity where race is involved; the complications that arise when people use the toilets for their stated purpose), yet somehow this utterly ludicrous idea is a rampaging success.

Told in a tone that is equal parts uncritical biography and business report, Lightning Rods documents the phenomenal success of Joe’s project. One of the targets (and there are many here) of DeWitt’s satire is the language of corporate culture, and all the meaningless platitudes of Human Resources, all the euphemistic rubbish that any of us has ever put on our CVs, are employed here in the most artfully-unselfconscious of ways. Some of this language has become so normal a part of the way we communicate that we barely notice it here – which is, of course, part of the point.

It’s hard to entirely dislike Joe, even as the novel tears him, and everything he stands for, apart. There’s a sense throughout that he’s earnestly working all of this out from first principles, as if there were no studies of sexism in the workplace, no research of psycho-sexual urges, nothing for him to cling to. He even buys himself a Programming for Dummies textbook in order to develop the rudimentary software the programme requires. Naturally he gets things very wrong, but it’s easy to believe that he genuinely wants men to harass women less at the workplace (or at least, not to risk getting into trouble for it; Lightning Rods is as much a skewering of workplace gender norms as it is anything else), or that he really believes that his height-friendly toilet is going to revolutionise the lives of little people and people with disabilities.

By the end of all of this, Joe’s ideas begin almost to sound plausible, even healthy. Men stop calling in sick to work. Productivity is increased. We read of one male employee whose ability to relate to women on a personal level is enhanced by  his sexual satiation in the workplace, another couple whose relationship proceeds independently of their anonymous sexual encounters with one another. Naturally everyone cannot benefit equally – only one woman in a thousand, Joe claims, has the temperament to face this job with equanimity.

Corporate language and culture, workplace sexism, pornography; Lightning Rods has a wide range of targets, and it manages to bring them all down. More, it does this in a detached, deadpan style that is a joy to read. I’m not sure how she’s done it, but DeWitt has managed to write a cliché-ridden, bloodless book, and have this somehow be the greatest possible proof of her skill as an author. I’m left delighted, and also shaking my head in disbelief.


August 28, 2012

Anne Carson, Antigonick

I had a short review of Anne Carson’s translation in Mint about a week ago. A slightly longer version (with illustrations) below.



Besides the minor change in the title, there’s little about Anne Carson’s translation of Sophokles’ Antigone to indicate that anything unusual is going on. Then on the first page of Antigonick, Antigone and her sister Ismene argue over whether a quote comes from Beckett or Hegel.

Antigone is the daughter of Oidipus, who is dead when the play opens. Also dead are her brothers, Polyneikes who died attacking the city of Thebes and Eteokles who fell defending it. Kreon, ruler of Thebes, has ordered that Eteokles receive a proper burial while the traitor Polyneikes’ body should be left to rot. Kreon’s civil statutes, meant to maintain order in the city, are antithetical to Antigone’s stance on behalf of the importance of kinship. She defies the law, claiming her moral duty to bury her dead, and is sentenced in her turn to death. As is so often the case in Greek tragedy this sets off a series of deaths.

The German philosopher Hegel saw Antigone as a collision between the two extreme positions, neither particularly wrong in itself, taken by Kreon and Antigone.  The tragedy arises from the fact that the two simply cannot co-exist.

It’s obvious from the beginning that this is not a word-for-word translation. Carson strips the dialogue of most of its punctuation and adds large blank spaces of silence, turning the whole into poetry. “SHE WAS THE CHILD IN HER BIRDGRIEF THE BIRD IN HER CHILDREFTGRAVECRY HOWLING AND CURSING SHE POURED DUST ONTO THE BODY WITH BOTH HANDS SHE POURED WATER ONTO THE BODY WITH BOTH HANDS I SEIZED HER”, says the usually flippant guard who catches Antigone.  “YOUR SOUL IS BLOWING APART”, says the chorus, a single line in the centre of an otherwise blank page.

Kreon arrives in a motor boat and there are anachronistic references to later writers (Samuel Beckett and Virginia Woolf among them). There is even a new character; the mute “Nick” remains on the stage for the entire duration of the play, but is only mentioned once, in the stage directions. Yet Carson is only ever credited as the translator, rather than the adaptor or re-interpreter of Antigonick. In a way, there is nothing here that is not in the original, but we are not reading this in Sophokles’ Athens. A reader of the Antigone in 2012 will come to the play with the history of the last few centuries behind her; our reading of the play cannot but include Hegel’s as well.

Frequently it seems that the characters are all aware of this. Ismene reminds Antigone of Brecht’s adaptation which had Antigone carrying a door strapped to her back. Antigone prompts Kreon (“ANTIGONE:  NEXT WORD IS DEATH   KREON: DEATH”). Eurydike, Kreon’s wife, is barely given a few lines in Sophokles; here in an extended monologue she ponders the lack of space given to her character and even spoofs her own stage directions.

Eurydike is the only character to raise the question of “Nick”. “HAVE YOU HEARD THIS EXPRESSION THE NICK OF TIME WHAT IS A NICK”. In tragedy there is no nick of time, there is no last minute aversion of disaster. There’s a rueful inevitability about all the characters (except Kreon, who sometimes seems to have lost the script). They have lived out this story before, through all of its many adaptations. They know they’re going to die.

Bianca Stone’s illustrations, printed on transparent vellum to overlay the text, are full of a sense of opposing, irreconcilable forces. Cosy domestic scenes are juxtaposed with wild, uncontrollable ones –a horse knocks over a dining table and is later hobbled by a spool of ordinary thread; a human body bursts, Alice in Wonderland-like, out of a house too small for it; wedding cakes and staircases sit incongruously in wild landscapes. Here too we find the anachronisms of the text – the very twentieth century houses and furniture – and is that a Star Trek uniform?


Look, I just really like looking at QuintoSpock, okay

Stone’s illustrations and the hand-lettered text make Antigonick a beautiful object, and it’s easy to forget that it is a play, and meant to be performed. But it’s also clear that the play is not lacking in dramatic power, with the perfect comic timing of some of the exchanges, the lyricism of the prose and the silent figure of Nick measuring in the background. Is Antigonick then the synthesis of Nick, who measures, and Antigone who is immeasurable? I’m not sure.


For a far better, deeper analysis of the play I’d suggest Pierce Penniless’ essay here.

June 14, 2012

Zachary Mason, The Lost Books of the Odyssey

This weekend’s Left of Cool column was on Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey.

I shrink instinctively from, yet am intrigued by Mason’s research: he claims he is “interested in scientifically [...] understanding thought with computational precision” (from here) and his thesis appears to have to do with computational linguistics and metaphor (the introduction to the video below elaborates a little on this).

The Lost Books of the Odyssey blew me away. Since I read it I’ve been looking for everything by Mason I can find – David Hebblethwaite pointed me to his story (a retelling of the Narcissus and Echo myth) in the inaugural issue of Night and Day and Guernica published “The Machine Edda” some years ago. Apparently Mason is now working on a version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Too often books that are this clever (and I wonder how computer scientists feel about the term ‘postmodern’?) get characterised as rather cold and heartless, and those of us who love them find ourselves making excuses, showing how human the characters are, how moved we were. And there are certainly moments in The Lost Books of the Odyssey where I was moved. But what is more important is this- the implication that the exhilaration that comes with brilliance isn’t unfeeling and detached, a product of our uncommitted times; or if it is, that it’s also old and primal and something that humans have been doing (and loving) for centuries.


A version of the column below.


 “Odysseus, finding that his reputation for trickery preceded him, started inventing histories for himself and disseminating them wherever he went. This had the intended effect of clouding perception and distorting expectation, making it easier for him to work as he was wont, and the unexpected effect that one of his lies became, with minor variations, the Odyssey of Homer.”

Nothing about Homer’s Odyssey is straightforward. The poem tells of Odysseus’ voyage home to Ithaca after the Trojan war, yet it does not start at the beginning of his journey. Homer opens the story after Odysseus has spent several years on the island of Calypso. We only learn what has happened so far when he escapes to the court of the Phaeacians and narrates the story of his own adventures. It is Odysseus’ account of his own journey that takes up most of the poem.

Meanwhile, his son Telemachus searches for news of his father. In doing so he hears of other Greek heroes who had fought at Troy. As a result the Odyssey is a story made of stories – stories told by Odysseus, stories told to Telemachus.

It is entirely fitting then that Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey should be a meditation on how stories work. The premise of Mason’s work is that Homer’s Odyssey is the only surviving account of a much more widely written story. “Nearly three millennia ago a particular ordering of these images crystallized into the Odyssey as we know it, but before that the Homeric material was formless, fluid, its elements shuffled into new narratives like cards in a deck.” The Lost Books of the Odyssey claims to be a recently discovered set of forty-four variations on the story.

What Mason presents us with, then, is a series of remixes and “what if?”s. It’s a brilliant conceit for this particular epic, and Mason unrestrained in what he does with it. One story, which takes place in a sanatorium, reads almost as science fiction. One has Achilles fighting Asian gods (“white-tusked demons” and “mad-eyed devas”). Another has him as a golem, and there’s an entire chapter about the history of a chess-like game in which Mason may be comparing Kshatriya war tactics to Sanskrit grammar.

Many of the stories take stories themselves for their subject, thus creating a kind of meta-meta-narrative. In some, as in the fragment above, Odysseus himself is the storyteller, knowingly or unknowingly manipulating his own story. One piece deals with a Phaeacian belief that we are all characters in somebody else’s tale. In another Odysseus exists almost outside the narrative—he has read the Iliad, and while the story of the fall of Troy repeats itself over and over, only he and Helen remember its past cycles. A piece entitled “The Book of Winter” plays brilliantly on Odysseus’ ruse of renaming himself “nobody” to escape Poseidon’s wrath; here, to escape the sea god once and for all he obliterates himself completely. The narrator of this section has no name and no memories—occasionally he reads an account of his own life and remembers who he is for a brief moment.

Most of these stories have footnotes which add to the conceit. At one point Mason’s compiler offers a scientific explanation for stories of Cyclopes; at another he comments on the probable age of a fragment. It’s easy to forget that the whole thing is a fiction; this account of how a story might develop over time is utterly plausible. Sometimes it feels as if Mason is tapping into our vast, shared reservoir of Story – and making of this reservoir is a tangible, knowable thing.

There’s beauty here, and heartbreak. An account of Medusa, who craves company but finds only an increasing collection of statues. Achilles, who has defeated the gods in his search for a worthy opponent and now sits on their throne wishing he had never been born. Yet what you really take away from The Lost Books of the Odyssey is the exhilaration that comes from something really clever. Odysseus would know the value of that feeling.


Mason reads from some of his stories in the video below:

April 25, 2012

Thanhha Lai, Inside Out and Back Again

A couple of people had good things to say about this book recently – Requires Only That You Hate didn’t hate it, and Larry of the OFBlog thought well of it. So did I, evidently. As I think I say in the review, what makes Lai’s book so remarkable for me is the extent to which it centres Hà so that she’s never the one out of sync with culture, but American culture is out of sync with her.

A longer version of last weekend’s Left of Cool column



Sometimes it seems as if everything about the immigrant experience novel is a little too easy to predict. Displacement, contrast between the culture within the home and outside it, physical difference, amusing linguistic mix-ups (of which the English language provides several), and a general crisis of identity. There’s nothing to stop a writer from telling this story again, and telling it well, but there’s surely a limit to how much it can be done and still feel fresh.

And so it was difficult for me at first to be enthused by Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again when it was published last year. Lai is an American author of Vietnamese descent and the book, her first, is partly autobiographical. People began to pay attention to this book when it received the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature last year.

Inside Out and Back Again tells the story of one year in the life of a young girl. In 1975, Kim Hà and her family live in increasing poverty in South Vietnam. The war has not yet come to this part of the country, but its echoes are being felt. Hà’s own father has disappeared and been missing for many years now. Matters come to a head, and just as Saigon falls, the family boards a ship and leaves the country. This is the first third of the novel; the second and third parts take place first aboard the ship itself, then in Alabama, where Hà’s family must build a new life for themselves.

A large part of what makes Inside Out and Back Again unique is the style. The novel takes place over the span of exactly one year, starting and ending with Tét, the first day of the lunar calendar. The story develops over a series of what appear to be diary entries written by Hà, each of them carefully dated. But this is not a straightforward autobiographical narrative either – the entries themselves are in verse, and the verses themselves are often only obliquely related to what is going on in the plot. The effect of this is to give the words that make up this deceptively slim story a power that they could not otherwise have.

But I heard

on the playground

this year’s bánh chưng,

eaten only during Tét,

will be smeared in blood

(February 12)


But more than this Hà herself makes Inside Out and Back Again work. Because there is no identity crisis here – from the very beginning Hà knows exactly who she is and clings to that knowledge. She is no frail victim of circumstances. We learn that she was an occasional bully in her old school, and see her learn to defend herself in the new one. Where she feels rage and confusion it is not at her own inability to fit in, but the failure of her new country to accommodate her – the inferiority of America’s canned meats and imported dried papayas (she has her own tree at home); the ludicrousness of people who patronise her for being able to count and recite the alphabet when she has graduated to far more advanced literature in her own language; the English language itself. Within the text all of this only serves to make Hà a more engaging character; in the larger context of immigrant books in general this is practically revolutionary.


To make it worse,

the cowboy explains

horses here go

neigh, neigh, neigh,

not hee, hee, hee.

No they don’t.

Where am I?

(August 29)

She must have heard


as in funny ha-ha-ha.

She fakes a laugh.

I repeat, Hà,

and wish I knew

enough English

to tell her

to listen for

the diacritical mark

(September 2)


I mention above the cliches of immigrant fiction, and surely one of these is a difficulty with the new language. It’s less common in literary works, I think (unless you consider The Inscrutable Americans; let’s not)  but occasionally shows up in cinema, and is usually played for laughs. Particularly because so much of this fiction is either in English or directed at people who are familiar with English – we may laugh and agree that the rules of the language are strange and illogical, but we still know that what the supposed non-native speaker has said is incorrect (or is unfortunate innuendo; hilarious!) and in a sense that makes us insiders.

Hà turns the orientalising gaze of her peers (and of the book’s primarily white, English speaking audience) back on them. She plucks red hair from the arm of an American marine and doing so makes white bodies alien. Hà is the centre of her own world, and that is exactly as it should be.




December 31, 2011

China Miéville, Embassytown

For the sake of completeness – I realise I never reposted this review (originally written for Global Comment) here. This version is slightly longer than the original.



When China Miéville’s The City and the City won the Arthur C. Clarke award in 2010, there was some debate over whether or not the book was really science fiction. With his new book there can be no doubt. The City and the City was a crime novel set in a fictional part of Eastern Europe: Embassytown is set on another planet.

Arieka (the planet upon which the city of Embassytown is located) is home to a race of aliens known to Terran settlers as “the Hosts” or the Ariekei. What they look like is never very clear. Miéville’s previous books have often contained creatures that cannot be adequately described except through fleeting glimpses – notably the Slake Moths of Perdido Street Station and the Grindylows of The Scar. We do know that the Hosts have “fanwings” which aid in communication, and that they have two mouths.

This last is important because the language of the Ariekei is unique. Firstly, they cannot tell lies. In this language there is no real boundary between the signifier and signified; the word is the thing itself. It’s a clever inversion; two tongues but only one meaning rather the the other way around. This inability to lie makes the use of metaphor rather complicated — the thing to which the comparison is being made must already exist in the world. The Terran narrator of the book, Avice Benner Cho (her initials ABC) is a simile. She is “the girl who ate what was given to her”; a description vague enough to be of use in many contexts.

Secondly, this language relies not only on sounds but on the mind behind them. The two mouths must speak simultaneously, and they must mean what they say, but they must also be motivated by the same consciousness. Most Terrans cannot speak the language: two may speak simultaneously, but unless they share the same mind to the Ariekei it’s so much gibberish. Hence the importance of the Ambassadors, pairs of Terrans who are genetically identical, and raised solely for this purpose. The Ambassadors are seen not as two people but as a single entity; with names like CalEb and MagDa, their individual components only meriting half a name. The events of Embassytown are set off by the arrival of an Ambassador of an entirely different kind, whose voice affects the Hosts in unexpected ways.

This is a setting that allows Miéville to explore various ideas around language and consciousness. There is, for example, the strange place that lying assumes in Ariekei culture. The nature of Ariekei language (referred to throughout as capital L Language) renders it “incapable of formulating the uncertainties of monsters and gods”, and so the Hosts have no religion. However, they do have “festivals of lies” at which people compete in trying to use Language to tell falsehoods. Lying has taken on an almost religious significance here; something beyond Language, impossible and yet apparently conceivable. This raises the question of whether it is even possible for something to be “beyond words”, a notion contested early in the book by Avice’s partner Scile, a linguist. The possibility of a language in which word and thing are the same brings to mind the first sentence of the Bible. If the Ariekei think of lies in semi-religious terms, various Terrans regard Language as an almost pre-lapsarian means of communication, and one that must, by virtue of its unsulliedness be preserved.

Equally, there is the question of the mind (and since religion has become involved, the soul). Are Ambassadors made up of two separate people, or are they one? Does Avice’s friend Ehrsul, an “autom”, have a soul? Can the Ariekei recognise individual Terrans as sentient beings (and not strange, half-minded creatures)? And are even regular human minds ever really that unified?

The issue of colonialism is also raised in the relationship between the Hosts and the Bremen Empire to which most Embassytown residents belong. The Hosts have advanced biotechnology, while the Terrans have the ability to travel and trade, a relationship that seems egalitarian. Yet the Terrans are backed by the larger might of an empire. Later events bear out the existence of a power imbalance, with connections made between colonialism and drug addiction (it is easy here to make a connection with imperialism in Asia) and the Hosts confronting their status as postcolonial subjects.

But this is itself is a bit of a problem for me. Because once you begin to read Embassytown as a book (partly) about colonialism and religion (and if you don’t subscribe to this reading all this is irrelevant), we have a book in which aliens who have their wonderful, prelapsarian innocence destroyed stand in for the brown people and the humans who travel around the universe spreading their culture are the white people. I don’t know how this connotation could be avoided (by making the Terrans not Terran? By having the Ariekei have a more visible cultural impact on the various groups who visit their planet?) Miéville deals with a rather fraught set of questions better than most, but it’s there, and it makes me uncomfortable.

Miéville answers very few of the questions he poses, exploring ideas without coming down on any particular side. It can feel slightly scattershot – there are more questions and leaps of thought from one idea to another than there is deep engagement with any single idea. And yet there are times when this works. Science fiction is often praised for an ability to literalize metaphor, and this is very clearly more a novel of ideas than one where plot, setting and character are central. But here we have something different. So much of the structure of the universe of Embassytown is unknown even to the characters that inhabit it – we learn early on that this is not the first universe there has been, and about the “lighthouses” in the immer, created by unknown peoples. Some of the most fundamental questions about the universe remain unknown. Such a universe is one in which questions can be debated; not necessarily one in which they can be answered.

Miéville’s language has always been both elaborate and richly allusive, and in a book about language this is even more evident. He coins words like “shivabomb” and “pharotekton” without explaining them, and in working out their etymologies the reader is reminded of just how dependant on metaphor our own language is. A number of words are derived from German, since the “Bremen” empire is involved. The indescribable alternate space through which people travel vast distances through space is called the “immer”, German for “always”, while the space we habitually exist in is the “manchmal” or “sometimes”. But “immer” also allows for the word “immersion” to describe space travel.

It’s when the characters are talking about language that Miéville stumbles a little. I’m not sure the concept at the centre of the book (how Language works) holds up, but I was willing for the duration to suspend disbelief and treat it as an intellectual exercise rather than a matter crucial for the functioning of a plot. Avice’s circumstances make it seem natural that she should be able to speak knowledgeably about language (and I appreciate the author’s willingness to use critical terms). Yet some of her explanations seem rather unnecessary. “The best we can do is say that the immer underlies or overlies, infuses, is a foundation, is langue of which our actuality is a parole, and so on.” Indeed, and it’s an apt analogy, but the reader who is familiar with such basic structuralist terms as “langue” and “parole” has probably figured this out. The linguist character, Scile, repeatedly explains things that the text is already making quite clear.

Yet Embassytown (mostly) works. It is unabashedly an intellectual exercise, and at times its characters seem rather lifeless. But it is bursting with ideas, language well used, and is occasionally a good story. These things make it easy to forgive much.


July 26, 2011


As most of you probably know, the SF “Mistressworks” blog exists to highlight science fiction by women written prior to 2000 (the time period covered by Gollancz’ Masterworks series which is rather short on female contributors). My piece on Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow is now up there, and I hope you enjoy it.



May 5, 2011

The hidden joys of acknowledgements pages

I don’t think this is going to convince me to always read them, but oh well.

From the acknowledgements pages of The Harvill Book of Twentieth-Century Poetry in English, edited by Michael Schmidt:

Laura Riding” “A City Seems”, “The Troubles of a Book”, “The Mask”, “One Self”, “The World and I”, “The Reasons of Each”, “Poet: A Lying Word” and “Divestment of Beauty” from The Poems of Laura Riding, by Laura (Riding) Jackson. Copyright © 1938, 1980. Reprinted by permission of Carcanet Press, Manchester, Persea Books, New York, and the author’s Board of Literary Management, which, in conformity with the late author’s wish, asks us to record that, in 1941, Laura (Riding) Jackson renounced, on grounds of linguistic principle, the writing of poetry: she had come to hold that “poetry obstructs general attainment to something better in our linguistic way-of-life than we have”