Beastings – Benjamin Myers

There’s a simplicity to this novel that’s really refreshing – the writing is pared down and harsh, mirroring the tough fells that form the story’s backdrop, and the plot focuses in on just three characters.

The girl (we don’t know her name) has taken a child from the Hinckley’s, who she was a help for. She’s been there since being assigned by the orphanage where she was raised, and – we learn slowly – abused by the sisters and raped repeatedly by the priest. The girl is mute, though most likely through trauma rather than anything solely physical.

She has taken the baby and is fleeing across the hills of Cumbria, pursued by the Priest who has enlisted help from a Poacher, and its this chase that forms the core of the story.

The girl – we never know her name – makes her way across crags and moors and woods, half starving to death, meeting all kinds of strangers, some kind, some horrific, all the time trying to keep the baby as safe as possible, despite having no money, only a tiny amount of food and almost no opportunity to get any, save for what little she can forage or beg.

She meets occasional farmers and wanderers, some of whom help her, others quite the opposite, but on the whole she’s alone with her baby.

The Priest and the Poacher are in pursuit, tracking her. The Priest is hard, thin, mean, cites God constantly, and takes drugs rather than eats. At the end of the book the building sense of menace about him is realised in brilliant and surprising ways (I’ll say no more than that).

The Poacher is a simple country man, lives in and from the wild, and the Priest looks down on him, often refusing to engage in conversation with the Poacher, as if it’s beneath him. The Poacher begins as a rough character but he is slowly redeemed by Myers, as a plain talker who gradually reveals the true character of the Priest.

The relationship between the Priest and the Poacher is perhaps the most interesting and engaging part of the book. There’s something suggestive of Waiting for Godot in their ongoing dialogue. The dynamic between them gradually changes as the Poacher starts to see what the Priest is really like, that the Priest is pursuing the girl for self-interested and perhaps even malevolent reasons, and by the final third of the book the Priest avoids conversation with the Poacher, not because he considers it beneath him anymore, but because the Poacher is too close to the bone in his blunt and often funny questions and taunts to the Priest.

Like others of Myers’s books – like Under the Rock – it’s the evocation of the countryside that is so strong in Beastings too, alongside the characters – not as a rural idyll but as a tough, unruly place where nature dominates humans rather than vice versa.

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“She couldn’t remember. Her thoughts no longer sat in a line like stepping stones over a stream but instead were scattered far and wide and without formation like buttercups in long grass. Alone and disconnected from their nearest neighbours.”

Benjamin Myers, Beastings

“The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together. Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd.”

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari express the complexity of the individual in the opening sentences of A Thousand Plateaus.

Days of Awe – A.M Homes

Days of Awe is a darkly comic and unsettling short story about a woman novelist on a speaking engagement at a conference on the Holocaust, at which she meets a guy she used to know at university and has a brief affair. But it’s about so much more than this – guilt, truth, forgiveness, openness, what it is to be yourself…

She recognises the guy when she arrives at the airport (we never know the protagonists’ names; the woman is the Trangressive Novelist or just ‘she’, he is the War Correspondent) and they strike up a conversation when they meet in the hotel lobby. They soon get together and have a one night stand, despite the fact that she is in a relationship with her girlfriend, a relationship close enough that her girlfriend and her mother play online scrabble with one another.

This is followed the next day when she finds a synagogue to go and worship at, only to find him there too. They spend time together, time in which they are able to be playful and honest and maybe very different from how they normally are – but eventually fall out and she leaves him in the middle of nowhere to walk back to the hotel.

Alongside this story is their relationship to war and genocide. He is a war correspondent, a witness to genocides, and held in high esteem. She is a novelist who has no direct experience of genocide but who is trying to understand its effect on future generations, and is taunted by holocaust survivors at the conference for having no right to talk to about the subject. Her treatment by some of those attending the conference is just hilarious.

The Days of Awe is a ten day religious period in the Jewish calendar when people ask for forgiveness from those they have wronged, and it’s this question of forgiveness and how much is owed that is at the heart of this story – to holocaust survivors, to parents, to partners. At the same time, though, it’s as if everyday life for the woman (and probably the man) are frozen and normal rules don’t apply at the conference, as she acts in ways that seem to be at odds with how she typically behaves.

The question is, does she need to ask for forgiveness for how she behaves during these Days of Awe that we witness in the story, or for how she normally behaves?

“The Priest’s mouth was a gash in his face as if the flesh of his mouth had been pulled tight across his skull then slit with a knife.”

Macabre and vivid description from Benjamin Myers in Beastings

Dead Men’s Trousers – Irvine Welsh

It’s hard to know where to begin with this book. Maybe the plot. This is about the reuniting of the four main characters from Welsh’s earlier book, Trainspotting: Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Frank Begbie. It’s twenty years later and all have changed, some more than others.

Renton is a successful DJ manager, but dissatisfied, travelling around the world, living out of hotels, and drinking and using drugs too much. Sick Boy is sex obsessed, and runs an escort agency. Spud is on the streets, in the worst position of the lot. Begbie is an internationally known artist, married with two kids, living in LA, his angry past apparently behind him.

Renton and Begbie run into each other on a flight and they begin to be friends again, despite Renton owing Begbie and Sick Boy thousands after ripping them off at the end of Trainspotting. We meet the others, and in the process [a few spoilers coming up] Sick Boy spikes his brother in law, Euan’s, drink with drugs, leading him to leave his wife; Spud gets involved in human organ smuggling, but his dog eats it; he has his own kidney extracted by Sick Boy; Begbie reveals he’s not entirely changed; Renton and Sick Boy find love; one of the four dies… it’s a great story, gripping, funny and sad.

What makes this book stand out, other than plot? The writing style. As Welsh is well known for, he writes in a Scottish dialect, hard to read at the start, but you quickly adapt. He even varies the depth of accent among the characters, with the globe trotting Renton having a minimal accent and Spud’s much thicker, hard to understand at times.

And each of them is presented in the first person, an approach that draws you in to each character, and allows you to see the differences in views between them, especially the animosity between Renton and Sick Boy, and Begbie’s hidden side.

What’s interesting is how, for each of the characters, little has changed in their personality, despite living different lives: Renton is still unhappy with his life and trying, largely unsuccessfully, to better himself; Sick Boy has replaced his drug addiction with sex addiction; Spud has never got his act together; Begbie’s previous traits are there still, just hidden.

Black Girl, White Girl – Joyce Carole Oates

This is a truly brilliant book, a thorough and often uncomfortable character study that highlights differences in race, class, privilege and values.

Genna Meade is the narrator, the wealthy daughter of radical liberals Max and Veronica, who were active in the activism of the 60s and early 70s. Max is a lawyer to the counter culture movement, and Genna saw countless hippies and radicals live in their shambolic house as she grew up. They are are from a rich family of Quakers, the Meades, though what Genna had in terms of financial wealth she lacked in family support.

At the liberal arts college that was paid for by her family, she gets a roommate in Minette Swift, one of the few black girls in the college hall. Minette is from a church family, is devoutly Christian, and despite all of Genna’s attempts to be her friend, is consistently aloof and guarded and self-reliant.

We hear the story through Geneva fifteen years after Minette’s death at the college. Through their time as roommates, Minette is subjected to apparently racist acts that Genna at first doesn’t see but gradually comes to understand. At the same time she tries to befriend Minette, but Minette always keeps her distance, refusing to accept Genna’s overtures of friendship – something that Genna can’t comprehend.

What’s so powerful about this novel is the detail of emotion – the fact that Minette can’t be pigeonholed, that Genna is both privileged and traumatised by her upbringing, that the relationship between the two girls is so tense, that Genna still can’t see what was going on even a decade and a half later.

And what’s here, too, is the impact of racism and racial stereotyping on Minette, how she is tense and awkward, how she has different values and ways of relating to people, when compared to Genna; and Genna can’t or doesn’t comprehend this, always thinking that Minette will

at any moment accept the generous hand of friendship and support she is offering.

We see, as well, the impact of historic forces on individuals’ lives – Minette who is shaped by a history of racism and resistance in America, and Genna who is traumatised by the life her parents forced upon her.

This is an uncomfortable read at times, not least because Minette is often unlikable, and the fact that it’s a white woman, Oates, writing about black experience, makes you wonder whether the portrayal is fair or ought to be more understanding or sympathetic.

Ultimately for me this book is about how, when two people with radically different and difficult histories, values and daily experiences, are thrown together, they can’t easily just get one another, they can’t just connect, there’s too much there holding them apart.

The Ghost Rider – Ismail Kadare

A mysterious and beautiful story that uses a classic Albanian folk tale to talk about the supernatural surrounding love, loss and debt.

The heart of this novella is the story, also known as the ‘Lenore Motif’, of a family – a mother, her daughter Doruntine and her nine brothers, including Doruntine’s favourite brother Konstandin.

Set in a pre-industrial time, Doruntine had married far away from the village of her family, but in the three years she’s been away all but her mother died of the plague. After the mother was overheard cursing Konstandin’s grave for failing to keep his promise to return his sister home, something inexplicable happens – Doruntine returns on the back of a horse she says was ridden by Konstandin.

The story then turns to local lawman, Stres, who is intent on discovering what happened, how this could have been. He considers theory after theory, a person is even arrested. But as his investigation continues, and fear and suspicion are whipped up in the village, he eventually accepts that the only explanation is a supernatural one – that the brother did rise from the dead to return his sister home.

Ultimately, what Stres is accepting, I think, is the limits of the rational and the explainable. He doesn’t want to believe it but in the end he accepts that where love, honour and grief are concerned, sometimes things can only be accounted for by things that are beyond empirical verification. And what Stres accepts, too, is that the norms and conventions of the village, which see the return of the sister as an act by the dead Konstandin, are important their own right, more so than the authority of religion or deduction.

“He now realised that everyone, each in his own way, would take some stand in this affair, and that each person’s attitude would have everything to do with their station in life, their luck in love and marriage, their looks, the measure of good or ill fortune that had been their lot, the events that had marked the course of their life, and their most secret feelings, those that people sometimes hide even from themselves… though they would believe they were passing judgement on someone else’s tragedy, in reality, they would simply be giving expression to their own.”

Ismail Kadare, The Ghost Rider

Annihilation – Jeff Vandermeer

Annihilation is the story of a group of four women investigating an apparently post-apocalyptic part of the world, Area X. It is an expanse of wildness, separated it seems from the rest of world by a man-made border. The area may once have been populated but now the natural and supernatural world is taking it over, it’s history never fully explained.

There have been 11 previous excursions into Area X, to get information we think, although the purpose of the excursions isn’t entirely clear. It’s clear that for at least the last two, if not more, many people died whilst there or made it back but their psyche was shot afterwards.

We experience the 12th expedition through narration by a female biologist who goes into Area X with a psychologist (who has powers of hypnosis), a surveyor and an anthropologist (we never know their names). She signed up for the expedition it transpires, in part because she’s a biologist who’s fascinated by the wildness of nature, and in part because her husband was on the 11th expedition and came back as a shell.

Nature abounds in the abandoned Area X, but beyond the lush wildness it has two significant features – an obscure tower or tunnel, and a lighthouse.

The tunnel is the source of much fascination for the biologist, and they begin exploring it at once. They discover it continues for a long way down and, intriguingly, appears to be an organism – alive, growing, pulsating – with organically growing writing along the walls. In reviews of Annihilation there are frequent references to Lovecraft, Ballard and Poe, and you can see these influences in this mysterious supernatural being.

After things start to go very wrong in the tunnel, the biologist makes her way to the lighthouse where she finds the psychologist and an archive of the previous expeditions’ notes, including her husband’s.

It’s hard to talk about the plot, as the core of Annihilation is less plot and more atmosphere – a disturbing build of tension and uncertainty about the biologist’s co-workers, the secrets behind Area X and most of all the terrifying and uncanny unknown at work in the tunnel and beyond.

And equally interesting, Annihilation is also an excellent character study of the biologist – a woman captivated by nature not people, who longed to sit by a pond and observe, and who struggled in a relationship for years with a man who was extroverted and craved company.

“This premonition of violence made little rational sense, and yet it came to me too easily, almost as if placed in my mind by outside forces.”

Jeff Vander Meer, Annihilation

The Gallows Pole – Benjamin Myers

A vivid and gritty fictionalised account of the hardness of rural life and a band of criminals that were fighting authority and causing misery in equal parts. Absorbing reading.

This is the true story, with some grounded but fantastic fictional embellishments, of the Cragg Vale Coiners, a group of farm workers and rural labours in eighteenth century northern England who made money clipping coins and forging them into counterfeits.

Led by David Hartley, they made money, fought the law and the coming industrialisation, made some people better off and others less so. They were a gang whose activities threatened the authority of the king and the law.

For this reason local lawman William Deighton and wealthy solicitor Robert Parker, with the aid of James Broadbent, a dim and unlikable mole in the Coiners gang, go after them. It doesn’t end well for Deighton, but Hartley is arrested, sent to prison and hung in York, and the Coiners are disbanded.

It’s a gripping story, but perhaps the most remarkable feature of this book is the writing style. Vividly written, the descriptions of the wildness, the untamed, nature of rural life make this book stand apart. I wonder if Myers’ writing is one of a new approach to writing about the countryside, one which focuses on the hardness and wildness of the land, rather than it’s beauty. I’m thinking, too, of others writers, most notably Fiona Mozley, author of Elmet. For them the countryside isn’t twee or privileged but rough and lawless and hard.

Unlike historical fiction, the book’s written in a very modern tone, in the way that farm folk might speak then and now. This is interweaved regularly with extracts from David Hartley’s prison dairies, which are written in a phonetic English dialect, with words that are spelled as they sound, something which is initially off-putting but soon becomes accessible and amusing. His semi-poetic ramblings offer a different perspective to that of the narrator too, which raises questions of reliability – of narrators and of historical records.

David Hartley himself is presented as an ambiguous character: occasionally Robin Hood like, occasionally someone to admire for their enterprise, but often mean and greedy and crude and dangerous, rather like a modern day gang boss might be portrayed. In fact, he comes across not unlike the kind of man that Nietzsche praises in his work – someone beyond conventional morals, who is unconstrained by norms and laws, who strives to live a remarkable life, who isn’t resentful even after being caught. As Hartley puts it in one of his diary entries:

“These are not the werds of a man turned sower with regret and if I had another chance id do it all the same again but bigger and better.”

“James Broadbent said this and then began to chuckle quietly to himself. But it was laughter without a smile… it disguised something ugly and damaged; a harlequin’s mask worn askance.”

Ben Myers, The Gallows Pole

Marshland – Gareth E Rees

This book is many things – it’s place writing, its memoir, it’s local history, it’s weird fiction, it’s psychogeography, it’s political. It’s the kind of book I’d like to write.

It begins on a personal note (though whether this is a fiction I’m not sure about now) with the author wanting some space away from his family, and so he explores the marshes near Hackney and Walthamstow with his dog. He walks, he occasionally talks to people, and gets inspired and starts to learn more about the area, digging out local stories and histories.

There’s no set pattern, but what Rees does often in this book is give us a chapter of walking mixed in with history, followed by a piece of fiction, often of a weird or speculative nature, that has come from that bit of history.

There’s a brilliant bit about a couple of nineteenth century industrialists based in the marshes, Hazlehust and Whipple, which he then takes forward in time to the twenty first century marshes where they are confused and then confronted by a group of east London teenagers who are amused at these anachronistic dandies in front of them.

In another section, Rees talks about how during the Second World War people would, contrary to the popular myth of bravery, run from their houses to the marshes to evade German bombing raids, and then follows his imagination to a story about a whole class of people living out in the marshes, rebelling against a technology-run London, to whom people would come to touch and see tangible, non-electronic items from the not-too-distant past.

There are some strong political themes to the book – land ownership and the commons, the city and its edges, technology and nature, dystopia and the always unfinished nature of the world. But there’s so much more than this too.

It’s in the tradition of JG Ballard interspersed with John Gray and Ian Sinclair and Benjamin Myers and so many others. I can’t speak highly enough of this original, fun and thought-provoking book.

“This is the way of the city. London is a palimpsest. Industrial sites overlay agricultural ones. Sites of commerce replace those of industry. Private regency gardens become public parks. Public spaces become privatised. Abandoned factories, power plants and sewerage systems are transformed into museums, galleries and recreation zones. Schools become mezzanine apartment blocks. High street banks become betting shops. Pubs become flats. Churches become pubs. Everything is overwritten, eventually. There is no final draft of London.”

Marshland, Gareth E Rees

The Call of Cthulhu – H P Lovecraft

Brilliant supernatural horror that evokes an unnamable darkness at the heart of human being.

It’s written as an excerpt from the journals of Francis Thurston who himself is learning of a terrifying revelation through the papers and journals of his recently deceased uncle. The uncle had come across reports of an unsettling incident and set out to uncover what was going on.

Through information from an artist, Wilcox, he had discovered that for a period of three weeks or so artists all over were tormented by twisted dreams and visions. And from information from other sources, a police inspector, Legrasse, who reports of a cult who worship unnamed beings and a sea voyage at the same time as the artists lost their minds that resulted in the death of nearly all the crew members after stumbling across unspeakable and indescribable creatures on a hidden island.

Through his investigations, Thurston finds that these unconnected incidents may have been caused by the emergence of The Great Old Ones , powerful supernatural beings that appear to have been been worshipped by cults for millennia and were in the world long before humans. They are dangerous, shapeless, only part matter; they are monsters that have been largely buried, but through shifts in the earth re-emerged causing torment to some.

The tense and formalistic style is incredibly powerful in this story; it makes it all the more compelling because it implies the narrator is straight, educated, that everything in him wills not to believe, and yet be begins to.

Interestingly, I’ve done it the wrong way round and read Thomas Ligotti before Lovecraft, but the similarity is so strong: the formal writing style, the focus on description, the gradual and subtle unravelling of a truth that is worse than gore.

Whet stands out most, though, is the idea of the Cthulhu that animates this – a dark, unnamable, unspeakable, monstrous power that has been hidden from most humans save a few cults for most of our existence. It’s perfect supernatural horror.

There is in fact a long tradition in European philosophical thought of an unspeakable and horrifying other inside, that Lovecraft’s Cthulhu might be said to embody. From the fear and trembling that Kierkegaard documents when confronted with life to the Real in Lacan, an indescribable part of our psyche beyond our comprehension and language which occasionally bubbles up and affects us.

On a societal level thinkers like Arendt and Freud have pointed to the founding violence on which civilisation and modern states are built, with the remainders that didn’t fit made invisible and unnamable, but with their presence occasionally making itself felt in surprising and uncontrollable ways. One way to interpret the Cthulhu is precisely this – the hidden partially suppressed other on which human civilisation depends.

“Mayakovsky could never have retired to the country to write poetry about raising cucumbers… he needed literature to be a form of action or work, just like fighting in a war or building a railroad.”

Elif Batuman, The Possessed. Adventures with Russian books and the people whole read them

The Wild Hunt

“The Wild Hunt is a spectral pack of hounds that careers through the air, sometimes with an equally spectral giant huntsman, making a ghastly racket… No matter the country or culture in which you meet the Wild Hunt, it brings with it doom, illness, death or some unwelcome news.”

John Billingsley, West Yorkshire Folk Tales

#FolkloreThursday

At the Existentialist Cafe – Sarah Bakewell

A fantastic, readable and brilliantly explained history of the radical ideas of French existentialists that have shaped so much of modern thought and social change.

This wonderful book is a history of the lives and ideas of the originators of existentialism: Satre, de Beauvoir, Heidegger, Merleau Ponty, Husserl, Camus. It’s traces the way their lives and ideas interact; or, especially, the way in which their ideas influence their and others’ lives.

From the early 1930s when they were founding their thinking, through the war, occupation and liberation of France, to the protests of 1968, Bakewell traces how their thought developed and how they put in into practice, both in artistically and academically, personally and politically.

She begins, after briefly introducing us to Satre and de Beauvoir, by talking at length about Husserl’s development of the philosophical practice of phenomenology, which so influenced Satre. The sense that the role of philosophy is to cut through the appearance of things, through the perspectives and ideologies that attach to things, and to describe the phenomena itself, in its essence, was she says, revolutionary. And it’s this sense of cutting through to the essence of what it is to be human, the being or ‘Daisen’ for Heidegger, that is central to existentialism, and it’s view that people are unencumbered by convention or history or ideology and are in fact radically free.

We get chapters on Heidegger, both because his philosophy was influential for existentialism, and because he is an interesting but flawed character because of his attraction to and refusal to denounce Nazism. And we get lots on Satre and de Beauvoir – their lives, their commitment to writing, their absolutely engagement in politics, and of course their massive influence. Bakewell is particularly good on why de Beauvoir’s Second Sex was such a revolutionary and important book for feminism and women’s liberation.

Bakewell, at a late point in the book, says she used to be naive and think what matters most in the world are ideas, that a focus on people’s lives is a distraction, but she has since come to see that people’s lives are the thing that matter. In fact, she is truly excellent at explaining the complex and highly abstract ideas of phenomenology and existentialism, and more than anything in this book she shows how lives and ideas interact.

Satre and de Beauvoir, for example, lived in ways considered quite shocking for their time – working constantly, an open relationship all their lives, childless, fervently committed to Soviet communism. Whether this radical freedom of their lives influenced their ideas or vice versa, who knows, but the connection of life and philosophy is clear.

And what’s more, Bakewell shows how their existentialist ideas were so influential in a period of social change – civil rights, student protests, anti war demonstrations, the Beat poets, sexual liberation, feminism… all of these movements were founded on ideas of personal freedom, of living consciously chosen and free lives, that were at the core of their existentialist philosophy.

“a phenomenologist’s job is to describe. This is the activity that Husserl kept reminding his students to do. It meant stripping away distractions, habits, cliches of thought, presumptions and received ideas, in order to return our attention to what he called the ‘things themselves’. We must fix our beady gaze on them and capture them exactly as they appear, rather than as we think they are supposed to be.”

Sarah Bakewell describing phenomenology in The Existentialist Cafe