After the showing of the two part adaptation of Mayflies on BBC over Christmas, I thought it was a good time to revisit my original review of the book (first published on my other website, www.rjbarron.co.uk last year). It’s a great example, I think, of a TV adaptation being better than the book, although the book has a lot to like and admire. Here’s what I wrote, back in June 2021:
This book looked right up my street – an affectionate memoir of a group of seventeen-year old friends in Glasgow, forever bonded by their shared experience of growing up together as a band of brothers with their love of music holding them together. Then add to the mix a fast forward to contemporary Britain to see how they have fared in the intervening thirty-five years. It’s structured in two halves -then and now- and it’s almost brilliant. Almost, but not quite.
The first half, an evocative portrait of a group of friends on a mythical weekender to Manchester for a festival, with the obsession of the possibility of catching a glimpse of Morrisey in a club, is beautifully done. Anyone who experienced the salvation provided by a like-minded group of anti-establishment friends at that age, with the same passions, the same obsessions, the same devotions, will read this with a tear in their eye and a smile, as your own memories flicker in and out of focus. The power and significance of the music you listened to when you were seventeen – what pain, joy and agony it can conjure, even when catching a few bars of an obscure track in the gang’s playlist.
The main protagonist, destined to escape working class Glasgow life through his intelligence and determination (and, classically, the devotion of the ubiquitous English teacher who encouraged him and pushed him on his path) is a sympathetic character who is transformed into a very successful writer, critically acclaimed and living in a hipster’s paradise in a beautiful and expensive part of London. He has still remained connected to his roots, however, and to one friend in particular who stayed in Glasgow and who turned his talents to English teaching in a “Challenging “ school where he has spent his entire career, inspiring generations of abandoned Glaswegians through his teaching and his humanity.
The second part reveals very early on that Tully, the Head of English back in Glasgow, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. From then on the remainder of the novel charts how James (“Noodle”) deals with this devastating news and helps Tully end his days at Dignitas. I hope that’s not a spoiler, but the publicity surrounding the novel made the story very clear. There is tremendous sadness and grief and nostalgia, as you would expect, and the novel does not shy away from the anger and unreasonableness people show in these testing situations.
Pic: Andrew O’Hagan
But. And it’s a big but. The second half goes on and on and on, seemingly without the watchful eye of an editor. And then I realised. This was autobiographical. This was O’Hagan’s story. And the novel had become a therapeutic exercise for him, whereby every detail was included because the memory of his part of the second half was too significant to leave anything else out. I googled it, and it was true. This was O’Hagan’s story, almost word for word, and just a year or so earlier. And Tully was, in fact, Keith Martin, his boyhood friend. So O’Hagan deals with grief so recent, it’s still raw and it completely clouds his judgement.
It’s a familiar problem for a novelist, when you are casting around in your own autobiography for material for a novel and the first draft includes a load of stuff that is oh so significant to you, but which means diddly squat to your readers. And the editor was too sensitive to point it out. Or O’Hagan was too blinkered and determined to listen. It’s a pity. I reckon that if O’Hagan had waited a for a few years, he would have written a masterpiece, with the benefit of some perspective.
Pic: O’Hagan with Keith Martin in 2018 (right)
But then, sometimes, what the reader needs is irrelevant. The writer’s human too. And if Andrew O’Hagan needed to write this book to work through his grief, who am I to carp, because it wasted half a day of my time. The friendship he delightfully and brilliantly portrays , a friendship we can probably all replicate in our own back story, deserves the epitaph O’Hagan decides to give it, in his own way and in his own terms. Narrative arc can sometimes take a back seat.
The distance between the events portrayed and the writing of the TV script, with the urgent, autobiographical recording of the novel in between, has done the trick, I reckon. And I don’t think it’s insignificant that the adaptation was written by Andrea Gibb, not O’Hagan himself. Mediating traumatic events through a third person has brought much needed perspective, while retaining the raw emotion of the story.
It’s a great piece of work. And the first half of the novel, with its portrait of the obsessive, bonding passions of the gang of seventeen year old friends, remains a beautiful, luminous, evocative piece of writing.
“Hamnet” was in my top five novels of the year in 2021, and many other people’s as well, if Twitter is anything to go by, so the announcement of her follow up, “The Marriage Portrait”, earlier this year caused great excitement. English teachers who have taught GCSE Literature in the last fifteen years will be very familiar with the source material: My Last Duchess by Robert Browning.
The poem, written in 1842, is a wonderful thing. It’s a long poem, a dramatic monologue, in the voice of an Italian Duke, Alfonso of Ferrara. The Duke is escorting a servant of a visiting nobleman around his palatial aristocratic pile. The visitor is there to negotiate a marriage between the Duke and his daughter. They stop at a portrait, hidden behind a curtain, of the Duke’s late wife. Browning brilliantly conveys, from his own lips, the cruelty and snobbery of the Duke.
By the end of the poem, the reader is left with an uneasy near certainty that Alfonso has engineered the murder of his young wife, seemingly because she was open hearted and friendly with people other than himself, specifically, people from a lower social class than himself. It’s master class of innuendo and suggestion. Without saying anything incriminating, the case against the Duke and the world he represents seems watertight.
It’s also a marvellous poem for GCSE students. It’s a great example of a poem that at first sight, and after first reading, seems impenetrable: obscure, dull, irrelevant. With a bit of reassurance, and a bit of skillful handholding, students can learn the fact that poetry, with its supercharged language, can be made to yield its secrets, like a tightly folded bud opening its petals one by one. Repeated reading reveals new insights, new possibilities, new pleasures. Once experienced, the joys of poetry seem just a little bit more real, a little bit more accessible, and students seem a little bit more willing to try another difficult one.
And so, given the magic wrought by O’Farrell in Hamnet, it seemed like a rich seam of material to mine. I started, with eager anticipation, a useful store of knowledge, and a fund of goodwill towards the writer. And there is a lot here to admire. I read it quickly, carried along by the narrative and the language. But…..
By the end, I was racing to finish for a different reason. How can I put this politely? It’s a little…..dull. The period and place are beautifully evoked. The language shimmers and sparkles. But the plot, which is the spine of any novel in my opinion, disappoints. The fact that, because of the original poem, the plot is so well known isn’t really the issue here. After all, O’Farrell starts the novel with Lucrezia, the Duchess of the marriage, realising she has been brought to an isolated rural loggia to be murdered. The rest of it is a procession of inevitability.
O’Farrell tries to use structure to shake things up a little, switching between the scenes at the end of her life, “imprisoned” in her husband’s country retreat, and incidents from her childhood in Florence. The scenes in Florence are more engaging somehow. The portrait of a privileged, but loving family, makes a sharp contrast with the Ferrara scenes. There’s a charm and an interest in the depiction of Lucrezia’s childhood, the eccentric younger child of the family. One luminous early section concerns the encounter between Lucrezia and the tiger her father commissions on a whim, to add to his menagerie of exotic creatures, kept down deep in the dungeons below the family home. Her determination to leave her bedroom and travel in the dark to encounter this magnificent beast radiates with poetry and significance. The idea that the Tiger allows her to stroke it through the bars without savaging her, imbues our protagonist with qualities that mark her out as a rare character of substance.
There’s also a pleasing attempt to use the plot to give the Duchess an escape route. No spoilers here, but it is plausible and the idea is satisfying. Ultimately, though, it is rather thrown away, as if O’Farrell herself felt a little uncomfortable about changing history.
In the end, the problem is that O’Farrell, gifted novelist though she is, cannot compete with Robert Browning’s original. (Picture of Browning , right) The subtlety and nuance of his version of events requires readers to work hard to unpick its story. He pays them the ultimate compliment of trusting their intelligence to pick up the thread he has carefully woven through the verse. Somehow, it makes for a more satisfying read than O’Farrell’s four hundred plus pages of prose, no matter how beautiful much of it is.
I was left with a feeling of disappointment and let down. What promised much delivered very little. I’m hoping her next novel will abandon a reworking of our literary heritage and strike out with something new. It’s a difficult habit to kick though, once you’re in the grip of addiction. And there’s so much to choose from:
Goblin Market by Christina Rossetti (All that suppressed sex and oozing juice of ripe fruit. It could certainly stand a Game of Thrones mash up)
London by William Blake. (who was that mysterious man wandering around those “Chartered streets”?)
Dickens’ affairs with Ellen Ternan and Georgina Hogarth. (With the added Gothic bonus of the Great Man’s attempts to have his wife locked up in an asylum)
And, of course, that old favourite, beloved of English teachers of a certain vintage, from the days of 100% coursework and “creative responses”, a retelling of The Ancient Mariner from the point of view of the Albatross. That would be a challenge. It was certainly beyond the grasp of most of the Year 11 kids who attempted it in the Eighties.
On second thoughts, I have some advice for Ms O’Farrell. Just step away from your laptop, Maggie, take some time out, and come up with a contemporary tale set in the here and now. Now that would be worth waiting for.
Just a quick announcement that I’m serialising my children’s book, The Watcher and The Friend, pubished by Burton Mayers Books via my Podcast, Telling Stories. I’m hoping to publish a new chapter every week. I’ve had lots of people ask me about this and I can reveal that the second book in the series is almost finished. You can find out more about the book on my other website:
An extract from “Zero Tolerance” by The Old Grey Owl
Rick, Deputy Head at Fairfield High School, is the senior member of staff on duty at the annual leavers’ Prom. It’s a hot summer’s evening and resentment runs high over the Zero Tolerance regime instituted by the new Head, Camilla Everson. Meanwhile, a gaggle of Year 11 students, led by the notorious George Mason, who have been formally banned from attending for a variety of crimes and misdemeanours, have plucked up the courage to invade the event
The disco was in full swing and under the strobe lights, Rick could just about make out the identities of the gyrating bodies. Occasionally, the pursuit of teenage kicks led to Rick and some of the other senior members of staff in attendance having to remind a few people that snogging should be restrained and controlled. The air inside was thick with pheromones, Lynx and Babe Power. It was at moments like these that Rick was most glad that there was a no alcohol policy. Add that to the mix and there would have been carnage.
The familiar and comforting tropes of the Year 11 Prom were being replayed in front of him. He had been asked several times to “Show us some moves” and had dutifully provided appropriate dad dancing to keep the students amused. He had chatted to staff about their summer holidays. He had taken a thousand photos and had photobombed a thousand selfies. Ties and jackets had long been removed, to be replaced by sweat stains and flapping shirts. Expensive gelled and sprayed hairstyles had started to wilt, mascara to run, and regular missions to the toilets were undertaken for running repairs.
Even better, O’Malley was about to go. Rick had had the delicious experience of walking in to the main dance area with him, to be met with a subtle but unmistakeable outbreak of hissing. To his credit though, O’Malley had stuck it out, even though he was snubbed by both staff and students alike, so that he ended up drinking orange juice on the door with the Security guard. Eventually, after braving several laps of the venue, hissed at wherever he went, he finally came up to Rick and said, straining to be heard above the music, “I think I’ll make a move now.”
“Ok,” Rick replied, “See you on Monday”.
He watched as O’Malley picked his way through knots of people chatting and taking photos, inching his way to the exit. He was about to go and have a sit down in the quiet room when Jason came over to him and shouted, “Eh Sir, come on, it’s the conga.”
He hauled himself to his feet. “Alright Jase, if I absolutely have to,” he said and followed him back into the dance room.
On the main road by the entrance, a red double decker bus stopped and about fifteen raucous youths got off, George in the vanguard of the battalion. Twenty minutes earlier they had mooched around in the street outside the Trafalgar, George still smarting at his humiliation in the pub and the ruination of his Friday night.
“This is fucking rubbish man,” George had pronounced, “What are we gonna do now?”
“There’s always the Prom,” ventured one of the others, “Why don’t we go up there and try and get in? It’d be a laugh.”
“Come on George man, they shouldn’t’ve banned me in the first place, and you never went last year. They’d shit themselves if we all turned up there mob -handed. They’d have to let us in.”
“Yeah come on,” George agreed, “Let’s go shop and buy some more cans and then get on the 165. We’ll be there in fifteen.”
Their spirits rose with the advent of this new plan and by the time they boarded the bus they were loud, aggressive and objectionable in equal measures. It was an uncomfortable journey for those passengers who had made the innocent mistake of getting that particular bus at that particular time.
The driver was relieved to see the back of them as they all piled off at the stop. Although it was only fifteen minutes away from the Trafalgar they found themselves on a lushly wooded fast road with detached houses set back behind long, mature gardens. It was golf course territory. They stared at the houses and breathed in the fragrance of money.
“Fucking hell, look at those houses, fam. Why do they have the Prom here? Talk about fucking rubbing our noses in it.”
They all stared, each of them lost in a vision of their own. Some were consumed with jealousy, some anger, some inferiority, some acceptance, of a world that existed and that they couldn’t change. Eventually they roused themselves. They started off down the road towards the entrance to the mansion when George, out in front, stopped dead.
“Shit. There’s security. We’ll never get past him without a bit of trouble.”
Illuminated by a solitary street light up ahead was the unmistakeable figure of a bouncer. Shaven headed, with sunglasses and a walkie talkie. They all ducked tightly into the trees by the side of the road and began talking quietly.
“Listen,” said George, “I aint going back after all this. If we go over the fence here, we can get in that way, go through the woods and end up on the drive way that leads to the big house.”
After a prodigious session in the Trafalgar, topped up on the bus with a few cans, this seemed to them the most reasonable plan ever devised. Without any hesitation, the rabble began to shin up the fence and over. Two minutes later, with a few barked shins and bruised arms and legs, they were all over the top and in the woods. Clutching their carrier bags full of lager, they tracked the path while staying in the woods until it turned a bend, so that they would be invisible from the road.
Under the canopy of the trees, the warm night air was soupy with pollen and earthy scents and there was a strange quiet, with only the distant hum of the traffic leaking into the undergrowth. They were an unlikely crew, with baseball caps, trainers and carrier bags, crashing through brambles and whiplash sappy branches. Occasionally, they stopped to get their bearings and they listened to the eerie sounds of snuffling, scurrying wildlife yards away from them.
“Fucking hell, man, what was that?” exclaimed one of them after a particularly piteous set of cries came from a thick clump of rhododendron bushes up ahead. Something was meeting a brutal end in this lush Surrey woodland. They all pulled up and looked around, peering through the swirling blackness. Suddenly, the Trafalgar, with its comforting brash lights and noise, seemed many miles away.
“I hate the fucking countryside,” George pronounced, “Come on, let’s get on the path.”
They didn’t need telling twice. They spotted a light in the distance, winking intermittently through the branches, and they set their sights on that, pushing aside branches and thorns that whipped back in their faces when released by the person immediately in front. When they emerged from the trees onto tarmac they presented a sorry sight: faces and arms scratched, out of breath and sweating, they resembled the apocryphal lost soldiers emerging from far eastern jungles unaware the war was over. They were thirsty, tired, disorientated and in dire need of something resembling entertainment to make this great trek worthwhile. Recriminations were beginning to bubble to the surface.
George leaned forward his hands on his knees, wheezing, red faced, slicked with sweat. This was the furthest he had walked since he was seven years old, and his head was spinning.
“Jesus,” he gasped, “whose fucking idea was this? This better be worth it fam, or there’ll be trouble, I’m telling you.”
As they filled their lungs with the night air and wiped the sweat from their eyes, they surveyed their surroundings. They were a little confused to see, not the imposing splendour of eighteenth century architecture, but a car park, and a few out buildings.
“Shit,” said Adam, “we’ve come the wrong way. This aint it.”
“Fuck, that’s all we need. I’ve had enough of this, man. This fucking sucks.”
There was a general murmuring of agreement when George said, “Hey, look over there. Who’s that geezer?”
The car park was flooded with lighting and they squinted their eyes to adjust. It was Adam who said, “I don’t believe it. It’s that cunt O’Malley. He was the fucker that had me excluded and banned.”
They all looked at each other, each of them thinking the same thing, but waiting for permission to act. George, still bubbling with resentment from earlier slights gave it to them.
“Come on, let’s get the fucker.”
O’Malley looked up at the sound of running and a shout. On the far side of the car park was a group of about twenty youths, all with hoodies up and bandanas on, charging towards him, shouting. He froze.
“What the ..” he exclaimed, but before he could do anything they had surrounded him, shouting and taunting him.
He was petrified. There was nothing he could do, so thinking as quickly as his terrified brain could, he played for time. Surely, someone else would come to the car park soon. He wondered whether the security guard would hear him if he took a chance and started to scream, and he concluded that no, they probably wouldn’t above the insistent thumping of the disco. His only option was to talk.
He held his hands up, outstretched in supplication. “Lads, let’s not do anything silly now. Let’s just calm down, and talk this through.”
George, his voice muffled by his bandana, walked towards imitating his voice, as if it were that of a little girl. “Oooh, lads, let’s not do anything silly now. Let’s just calm down because I am shitting myself here.”
The circle of his accomplices laughed and joined in. George took a few steps towards him and began poking him in the chest.
“I hear that you banned some of my mates from the Prom, Is that right?”
“Look, you need to think about what you’re doing. You’re on CCTV and the house is full of people who can identify you. I think you should just turn around and let me go before you do something you’ll regret.”
O’Malley had mustered as much calm gravitas as he could. He hoped that they couldn’t see he was panic stricken. He was mistaken.
“Nice try, but for once, it’s the kids who are gonna tell you what to do, bruv.”
The circle tightened around him and his cries were muffled by the press of bodies. A few minutes later he had been bound and gagged with some of the bandanas and locked in his own car.
“That’ll do for now ,” said George through the open window. “We’ll be back, so don’t go away. Oh, sorry, I forgot, you can’t.”
This provoked a chorus of laughter and jeering. George wound the window back up and locked the car.
“Come on,” he announced to the triumphant group, “It’s round two.”
They followed him, hoodies and bandanas still in place, carrier bags stuffed with cans swinging in their hands, as he skirted the car park in the direction of the thumping bass of the sound system. They rounded a corner and saw the mansion. In the light that spilled from the open doorway, a second bouncer was clearly visible.
“Shit,” cursed Adam, “another one. Now what?”
They huddled together hard up against the wall of the building, out of his eye line, waiting for inspiration to strike. Just as they were beginning to lose hope, they saw the familiar flare of a match, followed by the glowing tip of a cigarette. The bouncer, taking a drag from the cigarette, stretched and began to walk away from the entrance, away from them and around the corner.
George looked in, a smile spreading across his face. “Yes! He’s on a fag break. Come on lads, we’re in.”
He sprinted to the door, keeping as close to the wall as he could, weaving in and out of the bushes, in case the bouncer returned early. The others followed and they all piled through the entrance into the warm yellow light of the foyer. One or two students, taking refuge from the dance floor, or en-route to the toilets, looked up in alarm as the rag tag army burst in, euphoric after their successful kidnapping of O’Malley, and the ease with which they had gained entry. It seemed to them that there was nothing they could not achieve.
And then, reality dawned on them. They looked at each other with their carriers of lager, hoodies and trainers, and then at the Prom goers, who gaped at them open-mouthed, in their shiny suits and tight dresses.
“Look at the state of us, man,” whined Adam, “we stand out like a sore thumb. What are we gonna do now?”
George considered for a moment and then pronounced his judgement.
“We’re gonna blend in, bruv, blend in. And, we’re gonna have a little drink, and a little dance, and a bit of a laugh, for as long as we can get away with it.”
Adam’s face registered disappointment and the rest of the crew looked sheepish.
George felt like a lion leading donkeys.
“Or, you can bottle it and all just fuck off home. You’re on your own.”
He took a can from his carrier, cracked it open and, and took a long, deep draught. Then he placed the bag behind the reception desk, the open can in his pocket, and he sauntered towards the dance hall. The others watched him go. When he had disappeared into the flashing lights and pulsing shadows, the others looked around at each other, leaderless and unsure.
It was Adam that was the first to crack.
“Oh, fuck it,” he said, “might as well.”
He went through the same series of actions as George, and followed his route towards the promised land. One by one the others all followed.
The two prom goers, who had observed the whole scene with a growing sense of fascination from the corner, watched them go. They turned to each other.
“We’ve got to see this, come on.”
“First things first,” said the other, reaching for his phone.
He opened Instagram and, in a blur of texter’s fingers and thumbs, he messaged, “Prom just been invaded by George M and his gang!”
The news spread like wildfire.
Part 3 will follow in a day or two. Sign up to the blog to get an email alert every time a new post is issued. You can buy a copy of the novel, Zero Tolerance, using the links below:
A first return to The Globe after a pandemic-induced absence of a couple of years made me long once again for lockdown. As someone who was an English teacher in London for about 35 years, I’ve been a regular visitor, both on my own and with students. In the days of Mark Rylance as Artistic Director it was invariably a thrilling experience, with the pleasures of the authentic setting enhanced by the quality of the productions.
In recent years, however, a trip to The Globe (pictured right) has been something to be endured rather than enjoyed. More and more it has come to resemble just another version of famous world city tourism, an experience to tick off the list made by people on a schedule: The Colosseum in Rome, The Louvre in Paris, The Rijksmuseum and Anne Frank in Amsterdam etc etc.
I knew nothing of the production before we booked. We originally wanted to see Much Ado, but that was all sold out. There were tickets for Lear and as far as I could see, very little publicity for it. I was amazed to find out, when digging a little deeper into the production, that this was a reprise of a famous role for Kathryn Hunter, who first did the role back in 1997, also for director Helena Kaut Howson. That, apparently, was a groundbreaking, brilliant production and performance.
It was very hard to tell from this feeble revival. I have to begin this merciless hatchet job with a tiny caveat. We have both got to the advanced age where subtitles are necessary for us to be able to follow any drama on TV. That undoubtedly contributed to the difficulties we both had with this performance, but to be honest, by the time we walked out of the theatre at the interval, I was actually glad I couldn’t quite hear the lines clearly. That would have just served to underline just how much the play was being brutalised.
We were also badly served by our seats -The middle gallery, level with the two main pillars of the stage – so for seventy percent of the time, the speaking actors were facing away from us, and their lines drifted away into the summer’s evening air, to compete with the helicopters and jumbo jets that seemed to pass overhead every five minutes.
But all of this was just background annoyance. There are more substantial complaints to come. The story is complex, the language difficult, the characters and relationships hard to pin down. So a production has got to do the bread and butter of exposition much better than this. Clarity of verse speaking, costume, gesture, body language, props, scenery- all of these need to be used imaginatively to pin down what the scenario is from the beginning. Of course, the division of the kingdom, the three daughters and their declarations of “love” were established well enough (partly because they are so well known), but the subtleties of the interplay between Edgar and Edmund, Gloucester and Kent, the husbands of the “bad” sisters, all of this and much more was abandoned to garbled verse speaking, knockabout comedy, and lots of stage business, with hammy actors walking around the stage for no apparent purpose except to lend the lines some additional dramatic force. It failed miserably to lend any of it any dramatic purpose at all.
It was old fashioned Nigel-Planer-Nicholas-Craig-style Actoring at its worst. (Nicholas Craig pictured left) Hand waving, strutting, movement across the stage with no discernible realistic purpose – it all just screams, “We are doing serious Shakespeare stuff here.” This was also accompanied by full-on, shouting-the-lines, Shakesperean declamation.
This was particularly the case for Regan. Or, in the case of Edmund, lines delivered in a softly spoken accent that made them very difficult to follow or to take seriously. He also seems to have been directed to play a lot of his lines for laughs, like his legitimate brother, Edgar, whose performance when he had “gone mad” was particularly ludicrous.
That appeared to be the default position. To give this difficult stuff more audience appeal, let’s make sure we mess about and crank up the physical comedy. It seemed to me to be totally inappropriate, and detracted from the drama and tragedy of the play. Unfortunately, on the night I attended, the groundlings seemed to be heavily stocked with the friends and family of the people working on the production, such was the enthusiasm of their laughter, like regular bursts from a machine gun. What on earth they were laughing at, and how that helped a complex, subtle, human tragedy was beyond me.
I don’t especially blame the actors for this. Presumably, they were responding to the director, and in Shakespeare in particular, the director makes (Nicholas Hytner) or breaks (Rufus Norris) a production. In this case, Kaut Howson (pictured right) absolutely destroyed this production. She has been recuperating from an accident, apparently, so perhaps that explains it, but nothing can reasonably excuse this exercise in painting-by-numbers direction.
It did occur to me, as I tried in vain to take my mind off the car crash as it unfolded in front of me, that actually, the play would have been much better suited to the dark, atmospheric candle lit magnificence of the Sam Wanamaker theatre. The Globe can manage knockabout comedy. A warm Summer’s evening lends itself to a lighthearted romp. The Wanamaker would certainly have helped Hunter, whose voice seemed lost in the open air setting.
During one of the many longeurs in the first half, I found myself looking down on a gaggle of young people, mainly boys, either on a school trip or on a foreign exchange arrangement. I lost count of the number of them who were surreptitiously messaging and surfing the net on their phones. My old-person-English-teacher instinct kicked in immediately, but I did manage to exert some self control and stop myself from scowling and tutting. By the time the interval arrived, I’d joined them, checking my messages.
Doerr’s latest novel is his first since the Pulitzer Prize winning All the Light We Cannot See. That book was a particularly happy accident for me. I found it lying around the house, and knew nothing about it, so began it with no expectations. After about thirty pages or so, I knew I was dealing with something special. I browsed this new one in Waterstones in the run up to Christmas and rejected it. It just didn’t sound like my cup of tea: three separate stories spanning several hundred years, including a sci fi section, all linked together by a fictional fragment of a Ancient Greek text. No, thank you very much, I’ll pass on that.
How wrong I was. This is a singularly brilliant novel, one of the best I’ve read for years. Each section is perfectly realised: the stories of two of the little people on opposite sides of the siege of Constantinople in 1453 (pictured right) , Omeir and Anna is beautifully done in luminous prose. I’ve read some criticisms about the sentimentality and implausibility of this story, but you would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the outcome, after years of hardship and personal tragedy.
The contemporary section, which tells the story of a teenage eco-terrorist bomber, who is “radicalised” by a shadowy online presence that exploits his vulnerability and his disbelief at what we are doing to our planet, is the starting point for the whole novel. Each section as it is threaded through the bigger narrative, slowly ratchets up the tension of the unexploded bomb in his rucksack at the local library. The library is empty except for a group of young teenagers who are rehearsing a theatre production of the Ancient Greek text, Cloud Cuckoo Land, that holds the whole thing together.
The links extend to the sci-fi section that is set in a spaceship of humans escaping a world destroyed by global warming. You might think that such a variety of settings would jar, and that the author would naturally display a weakness in the realisation of at least one of the stories, but the reverse is true. There is no sense that, in fact, these are three entirely sparate stories that have been clumsily welded together. The whole thing feels seamless, with each section being part of an organic whole. The plotting, linking all of these disparate parts is exquisitely done. Improbable, but done with authority, credibility and artistic integrity. Each section enhances the others, and the sequencing and pacing of the sections turns a heavy weight literary novel of ideas into a page-turner of real dramatic power.
A further structural embellishment is the regular punctuation of the text with extracts from the fictitious Ancient Greek “novel” by the classical writer, Antonius Diogenes. (pictured left) Each extract is short, with the gaps in the text, supposedly produced by the passage of time, represented by missing words, scholarly guesses and question marks. For a while, these sections work well. They are strangely poetic and they are a welcome pause for the reader, providing an opportunity to digest the main sections of the overall narrative. After a while, however, I must admit that I began to skim read these bits, but that was because I was so invested in the main story, I really wanted to press on to get to the resolution of the whole thing. So even the weakest aspect of the book is actually an indication of its great strength.
Doerr himself describes the book as “my attempt at a literary-sci-fi-young-adult-historical-morality novel”. Guess what? He succeeds. It reaffirms the value and power of literature as a cultural endeavour that is capable of producing great beauty and great insight. Immersive, big stories like this that tell us something about ourselves and our world continue to be important. In many ways, the book is very explicit about that. It is a celebration of the significance of stories, of texts, (like the imaginary Cloud Cuckoo Land of Diogenes) and their ability to endure over the centuries so that they continue to speak to people in the future.
Literature, and story-telling in general, does a lot of cultural heavy lifting in our society, whether it’s a comic, a novel, a movie or the latest Netflix series. It can soothe, entertain, reassure, divert, excite. At its best, it can illuminate and make you see the world afresh, while doing all of the above as well.
This is an unexpectedly fabulous book. Mozley received lots of critical acclaim for her debut novel, Elmet, published in 2017, but, I have to confess, I was underwhelmed by it. It seemed to me to be one of those novels that sacrificed the more humble virtues of plot, character and credibility of motivation for obliqueness and a certain poetic sensibility. Having arrived at an interesting (though not really believable) story, she recast it through a vague lens of obscuring the connections and back stories and motivations to make it more “interesting”.
The reader is forced to become a detective, piecing together fragments of description and dialogue, working out time shifts and changes in perspective until a narrative emerges just in time for a vaguely satisfying resolution to come into view. Of course, you can only do this if you’re an experienced and sophisticated reader, so in a very real sense you’re being set a test. If you like the book, you’re an intellectual. If you don’t and you wish that the author would just bloody well tell the story, then you’re out of your depth and should stick to Mills and Boon. The real sign, the dead giveaway, is when the puzzling out of the connections is actually more interesting, more satisfying than the story that is eventually revealed.
Hot Stew is a million miles away from this. It’s a wonderful confection of a book, Dickensian in its portrayal of contemporary Soho, and the depiction of an extraordinary range of characters and relationships. It also functions very effectively as a critique of modern urban life and the interplay of rich elites with us ordinary folk. Mozley portrays all of them with skill and verve, so that the reader is propelled along by concern for the characters and the forward motion of the plot. She handles a vast cast of characters, who interconnect and intersect at times, very skilfully, and with an instinctive feel for pacing and sequencing. Aspects of the plot verge on the dreaded magic realism, and at times one has to suspend one’s disbelief with an industrial winch, but it’s all done with a knowing wink that left me at any rate, indulgent of any flaws or half baked, unresolved threads. This is partly because it’s funny and partly because Mozley is on the right side – there is a clear affection for the area and for people forging lives and relationships from adversity. This is a welcome departure from the world of Elmet, that turns rural Yorkshire into a kind of Deliverance style grim struggle, a world of violence, amorality and shabby survival. In Mozley’s Soho, there is love and humour, as well as exploitation and snobbery.
It’s received a lukewarm reaction from the critics, in comparison to Elmet. That is clearly because it’s written in a transparent, open style that invites its readers to participate in receiving an entertaining and thought-provoking story. Come on Fiona, wise up! You’ll never win the Booker like that – but you will win readers, who, like me, will eagerly await your next offering.
Sally Rooney’s third novel frustrates and disappoints in equal measure.
The View from The Great North Wood
I’m sad to report that the answer to the question posed by the title of Rooney’s third novel, “Beautiful World Where Are You?” is, “Well, not here, at any rate.”
I had looked forward to this for some time, keenly anticipating more of the glorious writing that characterised “Normal People”, a novel I loved, with great surprise after finding her first effort, “Conversations with Friends”, a full blown example of the Emperor’s new clothes. The critics gushed, and told us we were witnessing a new kid on the block who was authentically chronicling life and love as experienced by the middle class, educated twenty-somethings of Dublin (and by extension, everywhere else). I found it tediously thin and empty. “Normal People”, on the other hand, is one of the great novels of the twenty first century, a subtle and beautiful story of an enduring and evolving relationship between a “difficult” middle class young woman and a talented working class young man.
So I come to this with some perspective. Neither an adoring fan, nor an anti-woke critic, I really wanted to love this book. And there is much here to enjoy and admire, but ultimately, it disappoints. It tells the story of four young adults in Dublin and some unspecified Irish seaside town, and their attempts to find meaning in their lives and relationships, doing so via different perspectives, omniscient narrator and text/ digital message exchanges.
Rooney seems at pains to demonstrate how much she really is the voice of a new generation by laying on with a trowel the importance of social media to all of these characters. Time and time again, scenes are punctuated with exhaustive (and exhausting) descriptions of tapping on social media icons, scrolling through news feeds, checking messages etc etc. Sally, we get it. You don’t need to do this. We all do these things, even old fogeys like me. It’s a bit like Charles Dickens droning on about closing the doors on that new-fangled train type thingy. Interestingly, the key relationship, the friendship between Eileen and Alice, only seems to work digitally, when they are writing to each other. Whenever they are together physically in the real world, they fall out, and their friendship seems false and unsupportive.
The social media stuff, and the painstaking, repetitive description of the physical choreography of sex, shows that Rooney seems to want to challenge Knausgard in her relentless accretion of the mundane details of the business of living. Again and again, we are battered with flat, colourless prose recording hands resting on limbs, legs touching and not touching. And just like Knausgard, it is draining and dull and says nothing, a mere inventory masquerading as an insight into a new configuration of millennial sexual relationships.
It’s also hard to love a book that focuses on such unlikeable characters. The two women, Alice and Eileen, apparently best friends, are tiresome in the extreme. Alice is a thinly-veiled portrait of Rooney herself, a young female Dublin novelist who is lionised from her debut novel. This in itself is a little depressing. It’s like the Rock Band who have made it big. Their first album is sparky, innovative, full of energy and ideas. The difficult second album is more of the same with greater technical competence. Then, when they’ve broken through and are established in the mainstream and are selling out stadiums in America, the third album is written in hotel rooms and includes songs about the emptiness of life on the road in endless hotel rooms. The songs reflect their changed circumstances, but who gives a toss? It’s very difficult to empathise with the neuroses of the creative rich and famous.
After a vague nervous breakdown, she now clearly despises the trappings of fame and despairs of the emptiness of her life and world. No matter how hard I tried, I really couldn’t summon any sympathy for a woman afflicted by wealth, fame and privilege. Her friend Eileen, from their university days, is presented as the junior partner in the friendship. Less successful, less confident, her relationship with Alice mirrors that with her elder sister, Lola, despite the fact that Eileen loathes Lola and idolises Alice. Her lack of agency, her diffidence in articulating clearly what she wants, her self-pity about her life, is after a while, simply grating, generating annoyance rather than empathy. A key narrative thread in the novel is her long-standing love for Simon, five years older than she is, who she has known from home since childhood. They have had a history of almost, but not quite, falling into the relationship that clearly both of them want, but circumstances and other relationships, and bad timing have prevented from happening. Simon is probably the only likeable character out of the four, and is in some sense, a rehash of Connell from “Normal People”. Committed to social justice, modest, strikingly fit and handsome, and successful in terms of a career in the political world, he seems like a nice self-effacing kind of chap. Obviously he is markedly inept in terms of opening himself up to intimacy, but dear readers, there are worse crimes to be indicted for.
There is an element of their relationship that works well for me and it’s another echo of “Normal People” which was a tour de force on tentative, awkward communications between people who really like each other but are scared they might say the wrong thing and ruin it all. This is beautifully done there and once again, the conversations between Eileen and Simon are toe-curlingly awkward and realistic, leaving the reader wanting to shout at them, “Just tell each other straight, for God’s sake” Rooney is brilliant on this kind of self-sabotage through embarrassment and feelings of lack of self-worth.
“Telling each other straight” is the one positive quality I could discern in Felix, the final character of the four. He seems to be the partner of choice for Alice so that Rooney can signal her right-on ness yet again. He’s an unskilled working-class chap who she meets on some Tinder-type dating app. Their first date is a disaster but she is intrigued by him. As the novel progresses, we learn that he was a low achiever at school, and does not read, so has little idea of her career as a novelist, but it is clear from Rooney’s descriptions and his dialogue that he is intelligent. The dialogue between Alice and him is refreshing and thought provoking. They fence around like all of the others, but Felix’s great strength is that he is fairly clear and straightforward about what he wants from her. He’s respectful about asking though – this is not a portrait of an abusive man – but Rooney deliberately muddies the waters by including a scene where Alice finds some particularly nasty, violent pornography on his phone. The fact that she does not judge him negatively for this seems to be part of Rooney’s schtick that modern love and sex is different somehow.
I don’t buy it I’m afraid. He lets her know he is bisexual and makes a mockery of his own name by making it very clear he’d like to have sex with the gorgeous Simon, right in front of Alice and everyone else. Rooney seems to be saying that, these days, for these fabled millennials, sex is just another appetite and is disconnected from other emotional connections. Loyalty, fidelity, exclusivity in relationships seems so last century. The ghastly Felix, appears utterly selfish on one level, such that, in a scene late on in the book, when he gets back home to be reunited with his beloved dog and there is a detailed description of him lovingly stroking it, I feared for the dog’s honour. We were genuinely just a short step away from a bold depiction of the love that dare not speak its name. Fear not, gentle reader, the dog survived, honour intact. As did Felix’s relationship with Alice, which just did not ring true to me.
There are some redeeming features. The opening 4 or 5 chapters are wonderful. She is a beautiful, precise writer, and effortlessly draws the reader in to a scenario. I was expecting something magnificent, but ultimately, I was disappointed. She is also brave enough to tackle big ideas. The email/message exchanges between Alice and Eileen have them dissecting weighty themes about the meaning of life. What is important? What really matters in life when climate change and populism threaten our very existence? Rooney concludes it is the connections we make with other people and the pursuit and enjoyment of cultural beauty. The trouble is, after a little while, one’s heart sinks when yet another musing whatsap message exchange about the meaning of life hoves into view. In the end, I just flicked to get to the narrative. Ideas are all very well, but let’s not forget about the story.
Speaking of the story, very early in the novel she gives us ten pages of back story, telling us about the childhood connections between Eileen, Simon and Alice. It’s a curious pause in the proceedings. On its own, it’s a masterful bit of plotting which could have been the outline of a very satisfying, better novel. And then I realised that it was too close to the plot/milieu of Normal People, so she couldn’t just repeat that again. So in effect, it’s a what-happens-next continuation of Normal People in disguise.
The weirdest aspect of the novel for me, given that I think that Rooney is a great stylist, is the curiously flat, perfunctory prose that sucks all of the life out of every description. There is a distance set up between the reader and the characters, and in effect, between the characters themselves, because the style makes it so hard to care about what happens either way. At times it’s like reading the shipping forecast, or a clinical psychotherapist’s academic report, holding up a mirror to the participants.
She’s a wonderful writer, but at the moment the scoresheet reads won 1, drawn 1, lost 1. She needs a big result from the next book. I’ve got my fingers crossed.
The Great American Novel: the weight of expectations and current US obsession with Christianity is too much for Franzen’s latest effort to bear.
For a certain type of contemporary fiction lover, there exists a fascination with the pursuit of The Great American Novel. The very idea seems to me born out of a longing for old school respectability in the ranks of American commentators. American pre-eminence in the new cultures of the Twentieth century only serves to sharpen the longing for recognition of their excellence in proper culture – fine art and literary fiction – rather than the bubble gum worlds of the movies, TV and pulp fiction.
It speaks to a notion of America being both looked down on for its cultural poverty at the same time as being lionised as the world’s major superpower, politically and economically. “Give us some respect”, it seems to shout, “we’re just as good as you failed old Europeans. You’ve had your day -it’s our turn now”
This is the mindset that periodically proclaims someone to be the latest carrier of that torch. The writer in question (usually a white man) needs to have written a very long book, to be able to bear the weight of cultural expectation. It is, after all, The Big Country. The Great American novelist has been subject to regular reinvention – now a woman, now someone of colour – but the essential premise is the same: this is a great stylist, working on a large canvas, to portray some quintessential truth about a great country.
Jonathan Franzen has laboured for a good few years under the burden of this label, ever since The Corrections was published in 2001, and Crossroads is his latest epic that lays claim to the title, Great American Novel. So, how does he fare?
Well, two out of three isn’t bad, I suppose. It’s just a shame that the one he fails miserably to reach is the most important. Let’s be clear right from the outset, this novel is a long way from being great. It is certainly a novel, of sorts. And unquestionably, it’s American. Looked at from the outside, at a distance and standing in the shadows it could be mistaken for TGAN, but it really wouldn’t pass muster in an ID line up under harsh neon strip lighting. It’s big (540 pages) and it deals with a WASP family from the Midwest, with the usual stresses and fault lines just under the surface, that break out with dramatic consequences in the second half.
So far, so good. If it sounds like a duck and smells like a duck and moves like a duck, it’s probably a …well, you get the picture. Except not in this case. Because despite all the approximations, this is quite clearly not a duck. And the breathless, positive reviews it has garnered all smack of lazy journalism from people who have not actually read it, but have, instead, gone on Franzen’s back catalogue and The Duck thesis. It’s not that Franzen has phoned this in. I think he thinks he was writing a significant opus. He wouldn’t have bothered to churn out 540 pages or so if he didn’t think he was writing a book that said something important and insightful about contemporary American Society. But in a sense, that’s the problem. The minute you start to write with posterity in mind you’re holed below the waterline. Rather like sublime pop musicians who don’t have the confidence in the validity of their genre and then try to write something proper to prove their cred. And before you know it, you’re Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
The frustrating thing is that much of the essential material is good. The extended family unit and their dysfunctional dynamic works really well. The patriarch, Russ Hildebrandt, is the head honcho at the local church and has had a reputation of late sixties counter cultural credibility. This makes his later fall from grace, at the hands of a younger, newer version of the hip vicar even harder for him to take. He loses interest in his wife Marion and starts sniffing around a young widowed member of the congregation, the foxy Frances, all the while oblivious to the travails of his various children: Clem the favoured son who having discovered sex at college is on the verge of dropping out and volunteering for service in Vietnam; Becky the well-balanced, beautiful and successful girl who also discovers sex and religion (though not in that order) and Perry, the genius rebel who is quickly disappearing down the rabbit hole of his many, undetected (by Russ at any rate) drug addictions. The characters are well drawn and there are some entertaining and well-drawn set piece scenes, with some sparkling prose at times. But for much of the time, particularly after about a third of the way in, it is painfully dull and repetitive and I found myself flicking the pages of yet more back story to get to the meat of the here and now. It’s far too long. Structurally, it’s a mess, with the momentum of the narrative repeatedly disrupted by really hefty expositions of the back stories of the main characters. In themselves, they are quite interesting, but the overall effect is of having three or four related novels clumsily stitched together to make one mega novel. As avoiding this to protect the reader’s interest in the drama of the main story is a basic rule drummed into wannabe writers by all of the agents, mentors, and creative writing tutors out there, it comes as something of a surprise that Frantzen, a veteran, seems to think the “rules” don’t apply to such as him. If this had been a first novel by a nobody, it would have garnered little but rejection slips.
And then there is the American obsession with religion. Or rather Christianity. Readers of faith may have to turn the other cheek here and forgive me, for I know not what I do. Not really, obviously I know what I do, but you’ll have to forgive me anyway. This is a portrait of a culture, of a community, a family and myriad individuals steeped in the conventions of the established Christian church. And what a stultifying, suffocating, irrelevant, dogmatic portrait it is. What possible attraction does this religion have for anyone? And where were the naysayers? Why are there no characters that push back against this rigid conformity? Becky shows admirable lack of interest at the beginning but then is tempted to join the ghastly Youth Group, the Crossroads of the title. This is initially to get closer to the boy of her dreams, but then after a ludicrous encounter with cannabis, she embraces Christianity with missionary fervour. It makes Cromwell’s puritan Britain in the seventeenth century seem like a liberal enlightenment. By the way, Frantzen’s description of what happens when you smoke a joint, reads like an extract from the reefer madness propaganda of the fifties. Ironically, he manages to serve up the most powerful anti-drug message imaginable. If this is what smoking weed does to you (turn you into a swivel-eyed Christian zealot) then no-one will want to touch it with a barge pole.
The Crossroads youth group is a terrifying manifestation of the brainwashing of vulnerable young people. Given that never -ending revelations about child abuse undertaken under the cloak of respectability provided by The Church are so familiar to us these days, it beggars belief that Frantzen offers no caveats about this highly dubious organisation led by the classic, “charismatic” young trendy religious leader. At its most innocent, it’s a portrait of a nauseatingly smug hero leader basking in the adoration of his teenage congregation. At worst, it’s a lot more sinister, but not for the author, who seems to see it as a force only for good. I imagine he had some sort of similar experience as a teenager or young man. Whether as the Messiah or the Disciple, I’m not sure.
The characters spend so much time agonising about whether they have lived up to the expectations and teaching of the scriptures, that they seem to have little left when it comes to actually treating their friends, family and community with love and respect. If they could just forget about doctrinal regulations, and put the same amount of effort into their own therapy and a better understanding of their fellow man, their lives, and those of the community, would be so much better.
Franzen appears to be aware that he could be accused of being obsessed with the emotional travails of the white American middle classes, and that these days in 2022, he runs the real risk of being cancelled, or worse, thought to be irrelevant. To counter this, he throws in a couple of tremendously awkward sub-plots, one involving the poor black community that are the focus of Russ’ do-gooding endeavours and the other centred on his relationship with a Native American community out in the wilderness of the reservation where as a young, firebrand preacher he had earned his radical, alternative stripes. There is some sense that Frantzen has the self- awareness to satirise white American liberal guilt, but only some. The overwhelming feeling is that these scenes are only there to provide a smidgeon of cred.
Finally, thankfully, the whole towering edifice collapses exhausted at the end. I have no idea why it ended where and how it did. The last third dribbles on in a meandering ineffective way. It could have ended at the full stops of any of the final several hundred sentences, but on it ploughed, as I listlessly flicked the pages praying for the end.
I’m sorry to have been so negative. Buried deep underneath the layers of subcutaneous fat here, there probably lurks a decent, interesting novel. But it’s the job to the writer to do that preliminary archaeology, not the reader. It’s what the editing process is for. 540 pages that could so easily been 280 and so much the better for it.
And guess what? It gets worse. In preparing to write this review , I discovered something I was not aware of when reading the book: Franzen plans this as the first of a trilogy. Oh dear.