Books I’ll never write #2: is an inner life enough of a life?

How far can you be said to have lived a life if most of it has been in your head?

Like many people I’m torn between an active life of doing stuff and A more contemplative life of reading and thinking. Likewise, authors are often advised to write what they know. Stephen King suggests otherwise, saying he’d not have written most of his books if he’d followed that advice.

To me this tension between thinking and doing, imagining and experiencing, begs the question: if you’ve got a rich and active inner life, is that enough? Does reading and thinking about interesting things offer as good or better alternative to doing things? In fact, what is the difference between doing things and thinking things?

So this is an exploration in answer to these questions. It looks at philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, literature, and tries to get to the bottom of whether an inner life is life enough.

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Moshin Hamid – Exit West

This is a humanising story about immigration and the effect it has on people – a brilliantly written book that feels so right for the times.

It focuses on two young people in an unnamed but presumably Middle Eastern city – Nadia and Saeed. Nadia’s a bit of a rebel, riding a motorbike, though she maintains safety by wearing a long black robe. Saeed is not so rebellious but is an honest man, interested in girls and a little weed like most his age.

They get together slowly, and then quickly, before their city begins to resemble a war zone as militants attack and the government defends. They see less of each other and Saeed’s Mum is killed in a bombing.

Then they hear about doors popping up all over the city, ones that lead to other towns and cities. First they travel to Mykonos in Greece, then London, then San Francisco. We see the stress and isolation and hardship takes its toll on their relationship, in time growing irritable with one another and ultimately apart.

The first thing that’s striking about the book is its style – short, yes, but importantly very readable and the author all-knowing. It’s written in this style, arguably, in order to present their experiences as objective in some way, or at least to be dispassionate in the telling.

Also striking is the richness of the two main characters, their depth. At no point are they stereotypes but instead are a complex mix of fun, and sadness, and music, and rebellion, and piety, and fun. Unlike say, Rose Tremain, whose plot and main character in The Road Home are gripping but follow the familiar story of the East European migrant, Hamid’s characters are of their own – as of course all migrants, all people, are.

Rose Tremain – The Road Home

This is a solid story that gets into the mind and under the skin of a migrant in search of work and hope.

It tells the story of Lev, a father and widow from Eastern Europe who travels to the UK in search of work, the lumberyard in his home town of Auror having closed down.

The novel follows Lev’s arrival in London, his search for work which he finds in kitchens through a mix of good luck – Lydia, who he travels over with on the bus is well-connected – and hard work – and his relationships with his landlord and friend Chrisy, and girlfriend for a while, Sophie. Eventually he develops cooking skills and raises enough money to go back home, where can help his family and friend Rhudi.

There’s an element of stereotype about the story though – the hardworking immigrant, slightly aggressive at times, doing all he can to help people back home.

But psychologically, emotionally, this is a great read. Lev is a strong character and Tremain really gets under his skin – his desires, his sadness for his wife, the difficulties of being foreign, his kindness, his aggressive streak – all of it. It’s the richness, the detail, that elevates the story and makes it a compelling read.

Partly this book seems to be humanising or subjectifying the migrant experience, but it’s also much more personal – about loss and memory. Perhaps Lev has to leave what he’s familiar with in order to get over the loss of his wife, Marina, and it’s only when he gets back to Auror and Baryn that he can move on with his life?

Steve Tolz – Quicksand

This is an incredible piece of writing brilliance and a wise and often hilarious read.

Liam’s best friend is Aldo Benjamin, a force of nature who has more life packed into his thirty or so years than whole generations of people at a time.

Liam, a wanna-be writer, needs a subject and so Aldo becomes it, with Liam telling Aldo’s story – the failed businesses, time in prison, his drinking, his lost child, accusations of rape, his relationship with lover and wife Stella, his crippling disabilities and illnesses, and his eventual martyrdom and death on a rock as he begins to and eventually gives up setting up a new religion.

There’s no simple plot; rather snapshots of Aldo’s incredible life, told with such energy and a kind of joyful cynicism, if that’s possible.

What’s great about Aldo is he is constantly speaking unlikely or oxymoronic truths about life that read like aphorisms. In fact, knowing that Tolz’s last book was quite philosophical, it was easy at times to see Aldo like a twenty first century entrepreneurial, nihilistic Nietzsche, one raised on reality TV and art and poverty.

Ali Smith – Winter

Like so much of Ali Smith’s books, Winter is a light, joyful and highly readable exploration of the reality of ideas, in this case the complexities of truth.

It centres on Art and his mother Sophie and Aunt, Iris. Art’s relationship with his girlfriend Charlotte has broken down, and she is sending fake tweets from his account (he is a known nature writer). He was going to take Charlotte home to meet his Mum – an elderly and previously successful no-nonsense business woman – for Christmas. Wanting to take someone he pays Lux, who he meets at a bus stop, to pretend to be Charlotte.

They visit, and finding Sophie unwell – she has being seeing a disembodied head floating around her and is losing her health – Lux calls for Iris, her sister. Iris and Sophie haven’t spoken for 20 years, in part because Iris was an antinuclear activist and idealist, Sophie a realist.

Thrown together thus, all manner of truths begin to be nudged out, primarily by Lux who is open, honest and warm. She gives up the pretence of being Charlotte (in a brilliant scene) and gradually the family – Art, Sophie and Iris – tease through their relationships.

As much as anything this is a book about truth – what it is, what hides it. Art isn’t bothered about Charlotte stealing his online identity because the one he portrays is equally false. The truth of Iris and Sophie’s history, relationships and lives is talked about too, but what happened is not always clear – they have different versions.

And the role of Lux is intriguing – she is the most likeable character and she brings together the three family members; without her they wouldn’t have been able to talk so well. And they all relate to her – in part because she’s frank and open, but also because they don’t know her like they know one another: people are complex and her honest appearance is just the first layer, she is being truthful and honest as far as we know, but like an onion there will be more inside as you get to know her.

Elmet – Fiona Mozley

Among the best books I’ve ever read, Elmet is a brilliant novel about land and the countryside, family and loyalty, poverty and class.

It’s narrated by Daniel, the brother of independent Cathy and their Dad, John. They live a lawless life in a wooden hut in Yorkshire, living off the land, foraging, and from what John – a giant and renowned fighter – can earn from staged fights organised by travellers and others for bets. They don’t attend school but get their education from a family friend, Vivian, who teaches them at her home in the nearby village.

All is good if a bit risky occasionally (and worse when John goes away), until John teams up with local workers and tenants to take on their landlord and employer, Mr Price. He is the muscle, his job to scare off the thugs who threaten people in the village who hold out against Price. It gradually seems to work – until one of Price’s sons is murdered and John is the main suspect. The kids are captured, and he seems to disappear, regardless of whether he’s the killer or not. We get fleeting flashes forward through the book from Daniel who is searching for his sister some years later, and the Dad’s whereabouts remain unknown, giving the whole thing some ambiguity.

It’s a great story, but even more than than that it is the setting that makes it. The brilliant and accurate descriptions of the countryside, both beautiful and gritty. And the way it’s portrayed in a way so often ignored by nature writers: unruly, large, wild; full of people with low pay jobs struggling to earn a living; a place where life is difficult and unsanitised for many.

There’s also a great little bit where Daniel is talking about. Vivian’s house and realises that whereas Cathy likes the outdoors, the freedom of the wild, he likes the comforts of inside: cushions, materials, the warmth. It’s a great little insight; one of so many.

There’s so much to say about this book… but I’ll leave it there.

Dracula – Bram Stoker

The classic telling of the vampire story, it’s both timeless and of its time.

It’s a well-known story of a group of English men and some women, fighting Count Dracula as he arrives in England from Romania.

The first fifty pages or so is the journal of a legal clerk, Jonathan Harker, who visits a mysterious Count in Romania to agree paperwork, to discover he’s been imprisoned in his castle, gradually realising the Count is a vampire. It’s a gripping read, full of horror and suspense.

The subsequent parts of the book cover Dracula’s arrival in Whitby and London, and is told through the diaries and letters of the people fighting him: Harker and his wife Mia, Arthur and his fiancé Lucy, and Dr Seward, as well as the Dutch Professor Van Helsing and Quincey Morris.

There are some great and evocative parts, especially Lucy’s enthralment and night time wandering in Whitby, the slow as they realise that vampires exist, Dr Seward’s unfathomable patient in his mental hospital, Reynard, and the way in which the group aim to protect Mia but in doing so put her in danger.

It’s timeless in its subject matter, bringing together in one satisfactory novel the main tropes and traditions of vampire fiction and folklore. Garlic, crosses, stakes, bats, wolves, mist, sirens… they are all there.

But in other ways it’s very of its time. The language is often overblown, especially towards the end, where at times it’s so impenetrable its hard to know what’s actually happening! And the role of women and class is hugely stereotyped. The heroes are all pillars of society – lords, doctors, lawyers – and the working class just unaware bodies who do a job unthinkingly to get paid. 

The women meanwhile are little more than beautiful victims, (itself a trope of vampire fiction). Lucy is turned into a vampire and Mia just about, whereas the men survive or die heroically. Buffy it isn’t! 

Metroland – Julian Barnes

A well written story and thoughtful portrayal of how radicalism both dissipates and becomes part of us as we age.

It’s narrated by Chris, and is broken into three sections.

The first part is when Chris and his best friend Toni were art loving cynical and pretentious teenagers in suburbia, often visiting London or laughing at their school friends and neighbours at the end of the Metropolitan line (hence the book’s title).

Second is when Chris is in Paris, in 1968, discovering love and honesty with a French girl, his first love. He misses the political upheaval but nevertheless experiences the same kind of changes going on around him.

Third is when Chris is in his early 30s having settled down with a family – a wife and small child – and now living back in Metroland. His life is conventional, but he and his wife (who he met while in France) still combine elements of bohemia with their suburbia. The change is brought into contrast when Chris meets up with Toni who has retained more of his arty cynicism, and sees Chris as having mellowed into normalness.

Metroland is brilliantly written, with great sentences building on one another throughout. And it’s a thoughtful reflection on what happens as you age, on how youthful radicalism is combined into daily life as you mature. 

“That day I carried the dream around like a full glass of water, moving gracefully so I would not lose any of it.”

Miranda July, in No one belongs here more than you

The Retreat of Western Liberalism – Edward Luce

In many ways, this is a well written refutation of Fukuyama’s end of history thesis. Where Fukuyama saw that the end of the Cold War signalled the triumph of liberal democracy, Luce (like many others) points to the ways the world – especially the West – has moved away from that model, with Trump the latest and most dangerous indication yet.

He breaks his book into three main parts:

Fusion – where he argues that people were satisfied with liberal democracy as long as it provided them with material wellbeing.

Reaction – where he argues that people are turning to populist leaders like Trump because elites are no longer running a system that meets their needs, and this is because capitalist success elsewhere, especially China, is exacerbating inequality in the West.

Fallout – where he argues that what’s at risk is not just the rise of populism and illiberalism, but all-out war, as the nationalisms of the US, China, Russia and elsewhere clash. 

Although I feel I’ve heard much of this before, perhaps with the exception of the third section, it’s a well written, wide ranging and wise book. It’s hard not to agree with much of it.

There was, though, a lack of political imagination – an assumption that liberal democracy is what we ought to hope for and aspire to, without recognising that discontent with Western systems of government might result in support for something more radical or progressive: Corbyn, Sanders, or something bolder still.

For political thinkers like Chantal Mouffe, too, the move toward the middle ground, the consensus on globalisation and democracy, that we saw in the 90s and early 2000s resulted in differences being suppressed and then re-emerging in anti-democratic and dangerous ways. It may well be that which we’re seeing now or, more positively, we might in fact be seeing the start of a new era where differences in politics are more evident and so disagreement can be played out in a political arena. Maybe. The point is that there’s more to think about than whether Trump, China and Russia signal the end of liberal democracy.

The Independence Patch – Bryan Camp

This an intriguing and amusing short story exploring the future of humankind by an author I hadn’t come across before.

Donny is teenager who like most of his kind is fed up with school, hates his teachers and wants to have sex. The difference is he’s part robot, part human – ‘technically a cyborg’ as his Mum tells his teacher.

It’s unclear quite why he’s a cyborg (though his mother is a hacker activist which might explain it), but he’s not alone, there are others living among standard humans too. But it’s tricky for him. He’s constantly plugged into the internet and he can download information constantly, making his classes and exams a joke. He can be precise about everything because he is himself technology.

What the technology doesn’t help with, though, is negotiating his relations with other people. In particular he has a relationship with a girl who dumps him, and he struggles to deal with it, as any young kind would do. So, on his 18th birthday he downloads an ‘independence patch’, which allows him to take control of the technology inside him – yet even then it doesn’t help him understand other people.

The story is fun to listen to (it was on the Lightspeed podcast). Donny is a good character, an ultimately kind but typical teenager who finds himself in some amusing scenes with his teacher. But the story also raises good questions about the possibilities and limits of technology: it might be useful but can technology allow us to deal with human emotion or just raw data, facts?

For me, I’m not so sure that the hard data / soft emotion distinction really holds up. As technology develops, with AI and the like, surely it will be possible to both understand sentiments on a meta level through data and read emotion on an individual level, meaning that we / cyborgs will be able to predict and react to what people’s emotions.

Either way this is a great story that makes you think.

‘Salem’s Lot – Stephen King

This is classic horror, pure and simple. A great, haunting novel that satirises rural America.

The first few hundred pages tells the story of Jerusalem’s Lot, introducing us to the people, the closeness, the closedness of this small New England Town.

The two incomers to the town are Ben Mears who grew up there and is now a successful novelist. He returns to write a story about the imposing Marsten House, a building with a terrible history that stands above the town – and one where he had a terrifying experience as a child.

The other is Straker, an elegant gentleman who is supposedly opening a new antique store and has taken residence at Marsten House with his partner, as yet unseen, Barlow.

As well as the day to day of small town life going on – arguments, affairs, drunkenness – odd things begin to happen. A dog’s head is found spiked on a railing, a child called Danny Glick dies – then his whole family – and gradually more and more people appear to be hollowed-out and zombie-like.

A cohort gradually understand with horror, and some shock, what’s happening – that Barlow is a vampire who is turning the whole town and they attempt to fight him, losing all the people they love – and for most of them their lives – in the process.

Ben and a teenager called Mark Petrie are the lead of a band of heroes, alongside Ben’s old teacher Matt, doctor Jimmy Codie and priest

Father Callahan, with support from Ben’s girlfriend Susan Norton. The characters, the big ones and the bit players in the town,are brilliant, so well written.

What I love about this book is partly how classic it is – the small town, the band of defenders, the nods to the traditions of horror and vampire literature, and the kind of modern day vampire and zombie stuff we see in the likes of Walking Dead.

And what I love too is how it parodies small town life – where Stephen King says he grew up. The minutiae of daily life, the gossip, the sense of isolation, the way everything is closed up after dark meaning anything can happen without being noticed. 

There’s a great bit in King’s afterword to the edition I read where he says his Mum would have chainsmoked her way through the last 100 gripping pages before declaring the book trash, but good trash. I know what he means: this book is trashy vampire horror, but of the highest, well-written and meaningful quality. 

“Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday. I can’t be sure. The telegram from the Home says: Your mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Deep sympathy. Which leaves the matter doubtful; it could have been yesterday.”

Albert Camus’s great opening to The Outsider 

Only Begotten Daughter – James Morrow

This is the story of God’s daughter, Julie Katz, born in a test tube to lighthouse-living outsider Murray in twenty first century Atlanta City. It’s a truly original story and a funny, scathing critique of religion.

After his death Julie’s angry because her mother (Gilid) has abandoned her, not to mention made her a deity with divine powers, powers which Murray had warned her not to use because right wing religious zealots will see it as blasphemous – not least Billy Milk and his son Timothy who blew up the clinic where Julie was born right after Murray had visited and picked up Julie in her jar. 

She tries to negotiate a life with her odd ball and eventually alcoholic friend Phoebe, first rejecting her powers and then using them in a newspaper column. Eventually she gives up hiding them and, after revealing herself to the world through a big act, accepts an offer from the devil (called Andrew Wyvern) to go to hell. There she meets her brother, Jesus, who works tirelessly providing hell’s sufferers with a morphine-like drug.

Fed up with hell she gives up her powers in return for life, and finds that a ‘church’ has been established by her former editor – and future husband – Bix, while Billy Milk and his band of zealots are in charge of Atlanta. In the end she tries to help Phoebe fight alcoholism and she is caught and brought for crucifixion…

This really is a good book. Well plotted. Interesting characters. Constant surprises. Full of apt metaphors. It has a religious or parable-like feel to it at times, but it’s so much more than that. It’s literary and weird and sci-fi and fantasy – I don’t know what genre it is.

And it’s a great satire of religion, good and evil are entirely jumbled. Julie’s the daughter of an uncaring God. Julie has powers to do good but doesn’t know if and his to use them. Jesus is in hell. Only three or four people appear to be in heaven. The devil is helping the so-called religious on earth…

Recommended.

Books I’ll never write #1: the role of the coffee shop in US fiction

The diner or coffee shop is a familiar venue with big significance in much contemporary American fiction. So here’s a book I’d like to write but never will: one looking at the reasons why diners play such a big role and what they are used to represent.

You could put a particular focus on American crime fiction, where the coffee shop is well used by the likes of George Pelecanos, Walter Mosley, Lawrence Bloc and the like, but they crop up in the likes of Paul Auster or Richard Ford too.

What role does the diner play?

From a plot point of view, the diner is a way for the protagonist to be alone in their thoughts, but also run into other people through which the plot can easily develop. But the diner is less about plot and more about themes.

First, these coffee places often represent the diversity of real-life America, where all kinds of people rub shoulders, no matter what colour or class. In Pelecanos’s Washington Quartet, in particular, it’s about a Greek diner run by Nick Stefanos and Costa, but it’s a multicultural place frequented by Greeks, Italians and African Americans. 

Second, they function as a public-private space: somewhere where everyone can feasibly go, where it’s independent, but in a typically American fashion it’s a private business. There’s a curious – perhaps curiously American – mix of individualism and community.

Third, it is often used to portray a kind of authentic working class America, where people are taking a break from hard work at all hours. Though in principle it could be men and women, in reality it’s often a very male and masculine environment, with women often just working in the place not a protagonist using it. In Stefanos’s diner the people are united by coffee, beer and food, but also by boxing and sports.

I guess that the cafe is used in different ways internationally: as a place of discussion in French literature, for example, or a site of freedom in Naguib Mafouz’s Egypt, which might make a nice point of contrast.

What would I call this book, that I’ll never write? Maybe The coffee spot: the role of the diner in contemporary American fiction.

“Of course we have a waiting list. Don’t believe everything you hear about hell. Next time you run into some anti-hell propaganda, consider the source… And remember, we persecute only the guilty, which puts us one up on most other institutions.”

Andrew Wyvern (the devil) in James Morrow’s Only Begotten Daughter  

The Skating Rink – Roberto Bolano

In Bolano’s characteristically terse prose this is a great short novel about love, murder and the transience of an individual’s life.

Told from the perspective of three different people, it gradually unravels a story in which a senior but pompous bureaucrat builds an ice rink in an abandoned building with public money for Nuria, a beautiful skater he’s besotted with; a subterfuge that works until a dead body is discovered and the scandal is exposed.

We get the story from the bureaucrat’s perspective (Enric Rosquelles), that of a local entrepreneur (Remo Moran) who has a brief relationship with Nuria and whose ex-wife Lola worked with the bureaucrat, and Gaspar Heredia, a Mexican poet living in a campsite in the town who knows Moran, the murder victim, and strikes up a relationship with the victim’s friend.

The ins and outs of the murder are secondary. Mostly the book is focused on the people and relationships around ice rink, the campsite and the town, known only as Z.

What comes across powerfully in the book is the randomness and transience of life. Stuff just happens. From an apparently successful political adviser, Enric finds himself stealing public money, in prison and then with a new life. Gaspar drifts to the campsite, meets countless other people who’s lives are temporarily on hold, like the murder victim, and rarely seems to have a clear sense of what’s happening around him. 

This becomes clear in part through the characters and their perspective, but more than anything it is Bolano’s style of writing, where this happens and then that and then that, a sequence of random or unexplained events that creates an atmosphere of existence’s purposelessness.   

The Sellout – Paul Beatty

I don’t even know where to begin with this book. It’s incredible and amusing and confusing in equal measure.

The narrator (unnamed) is brought up by his sociologist father as a social / psychological experiment to see what happens when a child is constantly confronted with being black and poor in modern America. He is traumatised and abused, but hilariously and ridiculously so.

The book (kind of) follows the narrator in his quest to re-establish a black ghetto in LA – Dickens – that has been, as far as he thinks, erased from the map. In the process he begins to re-introduce racial segregation and gets himself a volunteer slave (Hominy). It’s quite hard to know what’s going on most of the way through the book, but the segregation appears to be having a positive effect on buses, at schools, in the streets, until the narrator gets caught and ends up at the Supreme Court accused of offences against the constitution. The narrator has a long-term relationship with bus driver Marpessa, who loves and in infuriated by his crazy schemes.

What’s most striking about the book, quite apart from the originality, is its brilliantly scathing take on race relations and inequality in modern America. The narrator comes down hard and offensively on everyone; the government and police of course, but absolutely everyone, from those unaware of their white privilege to black intellectuals, who are brought to life in the book through the character of Cheshire Foy.