Hanif Kureshi – The Tale of the Turd

The brilliance of this short story is getting us to empathise with a truly embarrassing situation while simultaneously disliking the person in it. 

Told through the voice of a guy who is visiting the parents of his girlfriend for the first time, it tells of his excruciating experience dealing with a turd that won’t go down the toilet. It’s funny and embarrassing and you can sympathise entirely with his predicament.

But at the same time the guy is thoroughly unlikable – the girl is 18, he is 44. She is experimenting with drugs, he’s helping her do it. He, it turns out, preys on young girls like her, effectively grooming them and turning them into addicts whose lives are most likely ruined. That we can sympathise with him is a real mark of Kureshi’s ability.

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“I’m crying inside too, you know, but what can I do but stick my hand down the pan, into the pissy water, that’s right, oh dark, dark, dark, and fish around until my fingers sink into the turd, get a muddy grip and yank it from the water. For a moment it seems to come alive, wriggling like a fish.”

Hanif Kureshi, The Tale of the Turd

My Son the Fanatic – Hanif Kureshi

A really powerful short story that shows the lack of mutual understanding that can grow between generations.

It is told in the third person from the point of view of the father Parvez. His son, Ali, has begun to sell his possessions and Parvez quickly realises he is turning to fundamentalist Islam. After working so hard as a taxi driver to provide everything Ali needed for a good life in Britain, Parvez is distraught.

He tries to talk to his son but everything he does makes it worse, showing that Parvez drinks and has struck up a close friendship with a prostitute who he gives lifts to and looks out for at night.

What comes through strongest in this simply written story is the complete lack of understanding between the two. Parvez is a sympathetic guy who just wants his son to take the advantages he is being offered and get on, and cannot comprehend why Ali would give up on any of that. Ali is less sympathetic, but you can see his complete frustration with his father who seems to lack self-awareness and believes in nothing bigger than the day to day of life. 

It ends with a sad scene, where Parvez defends his prostitute friend from the insults of Ali, in the end hitting his son, who replies, “who’s the fanatic now?”.

The Doll-Master – Joyce Carol Oates

The Doll-Master is a selection of six haunting stories rooted in the horror of the subconscious as much as the supernatural.

At the core of them all these stories, though each very different from the next, is the sense that fear and tension come from the unknown inside of us, and that it is this which gives rise to the kinds of terrible things which might are sometimes associated supernatural terror.

Oakes uses some of the tropes of weird fiction but reverses the twist, so that events seem supernatural but turn out to have plain every day causes. The Doll Master is about a young man screwed up by the death of his sister who turns into a murderer, and Mystery, Inc is written in the style of classic Poe but is just straight up greed that motivates the killing of the bookshop owner.

What amplifies this theme of the horror residing within is the realist style of writing for which Oakes is known. The characters and settings are very much in the descriptive real-life style that we know her for in books like We were the Mulvaneys and Carthage, and so when we learn about the boy collecting dolls or the woman who fears her husband will murder her while they are on a trip to the Galapagos Isles, the story throws the reader between malevolent spirits and people just being people.

Even Big Momma, a story about someone who is befriended by a family who own a room-sized human-eating snake, is built around the sad reality of a child whose parent is so pre-occupied with her own life that she doesn’t see the danger her child is on.

What’s great, then, about these really readable stories is how much they tell us about subconscious drives that cause odd and apparently supernatural events.

“Europeans have always liked typifying American literature as being primarily about brooding male figures alone on a vast, windy continent, wishing hopelessly and romantically to keep in check some awful brutality we secretly love.” 

Richard Ford, in his introduction to The Granta book of the American short story: vol 1

Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin 

I can’t say I loved this book, though it’s entertaining, gives insights into a different era and most interestingly illustrates the complexities of power and liberation.

It’s set in 1970s San Francisco, when a new generation of people – and some older – are living footloose and hedonistic lives that were unimaginable to most earlier generations.

There is Mary Ann Singleton, who has just moved to San Francisco; Mona, her friend from back home who has been there a while; Michael, Mona’s gay and promiscuous roommate; Brian, a straight philanderer; Beauchamp, who works where Mary Ann does, and his troubled wife De-De; Norman, an apparently dull but actually odd and perhaps sick guy who Mary Ann befriends; and Anna Madrigal, an older bohemian lady who owns the building, 28 Barbary Lane, that many of the characters live in.

Most noticeable to me about the book, first off, was the style: there is almost no description, nearly all of it is dialogue, and very short, snappy dialogue at that. You learn about the characters almost entirely through what they say. It’s like a play as much as a novel in that sense.

The big theme of the book is liberation, both as a positive and negative force. It’s positive insofar as the characters are living free and experimental lives, doing things for themselves that few others would have dreamed of. San Francisco gives them amazing possibilities for living differently, for creating their own way of being.

But despite their liberation from conventional ways of life, they appear trapped by the new one they have embraced. They are troubled by relationships they are and aren’t having, they end up forcing themselves to do things against their better judgement (one woman pretended she was black for years, using hardcore pills that coloured her skin, in order to get on in the modelling industry), and there’s a lot of sadness that their hopes about how life could be are constantly unmet. 

The great thinker on power – Michel Foucault, who incidentally spent time in San Francisco in the 1970s and 80s for precisely the reasons the characters moved there – is quite clear on what’s going on here. He says there are always power relations and discourses in society that define how we live. New generations might liberate themselves from old conventional lifestyles but then new ways of thinking, new conventions, new forms of normality, take their place and despite being different and perhaps better than the old ones, they are still a constraint on people’s lives.

For Foucault we need to develop an ‘art of the self’ where, through reflection and hard work we craft a way of being for ourselves that takes bits of different discourses and become something that as far is possible our own, making us free subjects not just objects of discourse and power relations.

What we see in Tales of the City are a group of people trying – to different degrees – to tread a line and find their own ways of being between the new and old discourses about how to live, sometimes being trammelled by power relations, sometimes finding flashes of freedom.

J M Coetzee – Elizabeth Costello 

Elizabeth Costello is an ageing, well regarded author. Now rarely writing, she tours the world giving lectures and talks. In Amsterdam, on a cruise liner, in the States and elsewhere she finds herself talking on the big themes of philosophy, religion, human rights.

Through it she is in a state of angst – about whether what she is talking about is meaningful and ultimately about what it is to be a human, a writer, to have a presence in the world.

In some ways the novel is a construction to explore some important but slippery distinctions: between humans and animals, between philosophy and creative fiction, between morality and belief, between bearing witness to horrors and getting sucked into them.

There is an abstract and Kafka-like scene toward the end of the book which nicely articulates the protagonist’s worries and, more widely, is a nice way to capture why it is to hard answer the question ‘who am I.’ She is waiting to pass through from one place – an Italian piazza as it turns out – to another which may or may not be heaven.

The judges who determine whether she can pass base their decision on what she believes – whether she has a belief – but when she is asked the question ‘what do you believe in’ she struggles to identify the ‘thing’: her beliefs, the values that define her are multiple and changeable and hard to articulate.

The Pigeon – Patrick Suskind

This is a fine novella in the European existentialist tradition.

In just 77 pages we experience the identity crisis of Jonathan Noel – a French security guard who for three decades has lived in the same small apartment with the same job, and minimal interaction with or exploration of the outside world. Until, in his fifties, he encounters a pigeon in his apartment building – its eyes penetrating him, it’s excrement soiling the floor and its presence fundamentally unsettling his ordered world.

He had successfully managed to shut out the messiness and ambiguity of things outside of his experience but the pigeon appears and reveals the precariousness of his life – how he can’t control events, and how he could as easily have been a bum and, indeed, given the sameness of his life, it might have been more meaningful. 

There’s a great bit when he sees a bum eating sardines and bread, and drinking wine with abandon. And then, a little later, Jonathan goes and buys the same stuff and enjoys it with an intensity of pleasure he perhaps has never experienced before.

What the novella expresses brilliantly is the the unstable nature of our identities, of what we build our lives around, and how things could be so easily different.

Trumpet – Jackie Kay

Trumpet is a beautifully written novel that makes you think differently – you surely couldn’t ask for more from a book.

It begins with the death of the jazz trumpeter Joss Moody. On his death a secret only he and his wife Millie have known is revealed – that Joss was in fact born a woman (Josephine) and has lived his life as a man, bandaging up his breasts every day and telling nobody, not even their own adopted son Colman.

The book is a look at the fall-out from this revelation. We get a variety of first person perspectives: Colman in particular, who is very angry and is working with a tabloid journalist to write a biography and expose of his Dad; Millie who is mostly struggling with her son’s reaction, as well as reflecting on her past with Joss; and a variety of others, like the journalist, the drummer in Joss’s old band, the funeral worker, Joss’s Mum.

A big part of the book is from Colman’s perspective as he tries to deal with the realisation. His character is unlikeable – he is already a bit of a loser, like the children of high achieving famous people might be, and discovering his Mum and Dad had hidden something so big from him for years tears him apart. Over the book, though, he gradually realises that despite everything Joss was his father, he loved him, and he can’t go ahead with the expose.

Millie appears naïve, as if she hadn’t considered what would happen when the news was out. It’s interesting, and I wonder if partly this is because she and Joss had lived with the secret for such a long time that I had become normal. And the fact that they kept this secret, even from their own child, makes you realise that they did so because this is something that was and remains very hard to talk about, so it drives you to do things that aren’t necessarily perfect.

What’s clear, too, is the way that Joss and Millie had a very tight relationship, one guarded from the outside world – and one that probably excluded Colman quite considerably, though they might not have known it, and it was only when the secret was revealed to Colman that this became clear.

Trumpet is brilliantly written – simple language but very beautiful and affecting. And the story works on so many levels – as a love story, in part, as a complex take on the impact of social norms on the way relationships work, as a delve into the psyche of someone learning his life was not quite as he thought it was, and as a morally ambiguous story about families and secrets.

The Bricks that Built the Houses – Kate Tempest

The Bricks that Built the Houses is a lyrical novel, rich with accurate metaphors, and a gripping story with a social conscience.

It tells the story of the interweaving lives of twenty-somethings Harry, Becky and Pete. Harry, with her best friend Leon, is a high end dealer; Becky is an inspiring dancer who funds her aspirations through massage; Pete is Harry’s brother, struggling with finding direction in his life.

Pete and Becky are together, though their relationship is falling apart because of Becky’s job and Pete’s jealousy, but Harry and Becky fall for one another separately. Harry and Leon end up being set up in a drug deal and doing a runner with bags of cash an drugs. Becky’s Uncle, it turns out, is the dealer’s muscle, and everything comes to a head in the excellent chapter ‘Everybody Down’ (also the name of an album by Kate Tempest), where all the issues collide at Pete’s surprise birthday party.

The characterisations are excellent and because they are given such attention have a high level of complexity. Though there is a romanticisation of youth culture and an unbelievably high level of coincidence, the plot is gripping.

The absolute strength of the book, other than the evocative writing, is its ability to show how these three characters’ personalities and lives are shaped by a mix of social situation and pure luck. If goes back into third parents’ lives and how they affect their kids, with all experiencing tough upbringings – Becky especially – that make them sympathetic, believable and real.

The missing protagonist at the heart of Joyce Carol Oates’s Broke Heart Blues

An evocative story, Broke Heart Blue weaves the voices of countless upper class Americans together in a powerful tale of memory, perception and class.

The background to the plot is the early years of John Reddy Heart, a working class teenager from our of town and new to a well-off school in Willowsville in upstate New York. Adored by the girls for his rugged aloofness and admired by the boys for his manliness, he ends up shooting a man – Melvin Riggs – apparently after Riggs has a fall out with Reddy’s Mum, the beautiful and out of control Dhalia Heart. We subsequently learn that John Reddy was not responsible but takes the fall anyway in order to protect his family.

What’s interesting is how little John Reddy Heart is in it. The book is split into three parts. Part 1 is at high school and told through the eyes of various teenagers, first focusing on their lust for him, later the trial. Part 2 is twenty years later when John Reddy is trying to make his way as Mr Fix It, an odd-jobs person, and build a relationship with a young woman, Nola. And Part 3 is a 30 year reunion for the school, where the privileged kids of yesteryear reunite in a decadent party that is fuelled by alcohol and the lack of John Reddy a Heart.

Beyond the missing Heart, so to speak, the most striking feature of the book is the style. At no point is there a clear narrator but instead a range of interweaving voices and perspectives. The technique is at once gripping and difficult, and has the effect of reinforcing the subjective views on what’s happening and the impossibility of getting clarity. It’s all emotion, conjecture and desperation. Other than John Reddy there are no strong characters developed, despite this being a dense 500 page book.

In their youth, the mass of teenagers – Verrie Myers, Art Lutz, Kate Olmsted, Dwayne Hewson and countless others – are so in thrall to their passions that they can’t get a clear sense of what’s going on for John Reddy. He is living a difficult life with a neglectful mother, forced to be the grown up rather than her – but none of them ever appear to realise the gravity of the situation.
And thirty years later, at the reunion, their memories of school are idealised and often wrong. There are events they have completely rewritten, people forgotten – and John Reddy Heart looms large in their lives despite them not knowing him while at school or since.

They are, it seems, all successful white upper class Americans who were always destined to do well. Their love affair with John Reddy Heart represents a shallow infatuation with the working class and troubled life of John Reddy Heart which they appropriated for their own stories, entertainment and collective memories without ever thinking of his life. In this sense, John Reddy Heart is missing from the story both in the sense that he isn’t much part of the plot and in the sense that his thoughts, motives and life are never seen or understood by the other characters that place such significance in him.

Cocaine Nights – JG Ballard

Ballard’s nightmare version of our world is as astute as ever in Cocaine Nights.

Charles Prentice has gone to Estrella de Mar, a British expat resort on the Spanish coast, where his brother Frank, who runs the resort health club, has pleaded guilty to an arson attack on the Hollinger’s house that killed five people. Charles can’t believe hid brother’s guilt and begins to investigate to find the truth.

What he discovers is a resort that appears on the surface a model of middle age Britains abroad – all tennis clubs and amateur dramatics societies – but underneath is a sordid world of drugs, petty violence, prostitution and rape about which nobody speaks.

He becomes more and more involved in the world, and discovers the ambiguous figure of Bobby Crawford is behind much of it. Ostensibly a tennis coach, he had worked with Frank and a group of others to bring life into the town. What Crawford saw was that the resort was dull and desolate, populated by people just waiting to die, but that he could inject life into it with crime. Through ongoing petty crimes – from vandalism to horrific porn – Crawford provoked an enthusiasm for life that made Estrella de Mar such a thriving place.

Charles becomes more involved with and enthralled by Bobby Crawford – part gangster, part messiah figure – until he himself begins running a resort, his brother Frank’s plight almost forgotten.

What Ballard portrays through a cast of corrupt professionals and a characterless expat backdrop is the dark side of the ideal of the ‘leisure society’, a much discussed concept that many in the West have at different times seen as the consequence of technology and capitalism creating a world where work becomes a small part of our lives. What replaces work has always been the question: poetry, arts, personal relationships, fun, debauchery, laziness…?

Ballard offers a psychoanalytic critique of the leisure society, pointing to how there is always something unknowable repressed and smouldering underneath apparent order, and this repressed element will always find ways to manifest itself. We will always find the ‘return of the real’ as Lacan might say and it is this which we’re seeing ignited by Crawford, as the repressed desires of the expats are provoked and spill over, creating a criminal underground that makes life both deadly and worth living once again.

The characters – Charles, Frank, Bobby, Paula, Sangar, the Hollingers – might be unlikable but the ideas, the imagery and the unfolding dram in which they are cast make this an excellent piece of fiction that is at once dystopian and eerily accurate.

The Colonel’s Son – Roberto Bolano

A characteristically fun, tantalising and slightly odd short story from Roberto Bolano – just fourteen pages – that describes the plot of a B movie zombie film from the perspective of an excited narrator.

The narrator begins with a page of caveats to explain that the movie is terrible yet he loves it, see it as a mirror to his life, before the rest of the story’s pages describes the plot of the film. In the film the son of a colonel falls in love with a girl who shortly after becomes a flesh eating zombie. They are pursued by gangsters, police and the army, and the girl kills most of them quite disgustingly, but despite this he maintains his love for her. The colonel himself, at the end, deserts his mission to kill the zombies in order to protect his son, who is in turn trying to protect the zombie girl.

It’s an unusual story that simply describes the film, a film which may or may not exist. It’s classic Bolano in its ‘and this happened, then that happened’, where the meaning comes from what is included in the descriptions as opposed to deeper introspection or reflection in the story itself. And it’s perhaps a strong allegory about the powerful pull of love, it’s ability to lead us to do things we would not necessarily choose – even kissing and protecting flesh eating zombies.

And, of course, it’s brilliantly written: page turning, visceral, amusing – the kind of writing that makes you want to watch this film even though we don’t even know whether it exists!

Oh, and how’s this for an opener?

You’re not going to believe this, but last night, at about 4am, I saw a movie on TV that could have been my biography or my autobiography or a summary of my days on this bitch of a planet. It scared me so fucking shitless I tell you I just about fell of my chair.

Rose Tremain – Trespass

A gothic tale of retribution, family, abuse and the effect of histories, real and imagined.

Set in the South of France, it tells the story of two sets of brother and sister. First there is Arundun and Aramon, the former sexually abused by the latter for 15 years, with the encouragement of their father Serge, and the power relation is now embodied by their housing, with Aramon in the large and increasingly decrepit manor house and she in a small bungalow, ambiguously on the edge of his land. Tired of the house and the responsibility, he wants to sell up. She continues to harbour murderous thoughts of revenge, but is yet to enact them.

Then there is Veronica and Anthony, she living in France with her partner Kitty, he an antiques dealer still in London, but fed up with the work, struggling with his business, and wanting to move to France.

He is interested in buying Aramon’s house, though worried about the bungalow on the edge of the property, and as the to and fro of the house purchase goes on Arundun sees an opportunity to take revenge on her brother for the abuse he subjected her to and the life he destroyed in the process. 

What is really strong in this novel is its gothic style, with the house and the land has a force and presence of their own; stronger than any of the characters in many ways. People – with their histories, families, houses, memories – they come and go, but land is always there. 

And equally powerful is the ways in which our histories and memories shape and ruin our lives. For Arundun and Aramon these memories are real: the abuse suffered has destroyed both their lives in different ways, and at the very end, when in prison, he expresses sorrow and appears happy with his lot, finally. For Anthony, his life is determined by his connection to his mother, Lal, but according to Veronica, it’s an imagined connection – his love for her was largely unrequited, and the mother was interest in her life and apparently lacked the maternal affection Anthony holds so dear.

Trespass is a very good book. I was expecting something more action-packed, so it’s slower revelatory style was a surprise at first, particularly given the opening chapter sees a you girl finding a body. But when you realise it’s more family saga than crime drama, it’s brilliant.

Benjamin Markovits – You don’t have to live like this

The way this book conveys big ideas about race and urban renewal through an unreliable but captivating first person account makes this remarkable and in some ways unlike anything I’ve ever read.

The book cover includes comparisons to The Wire – in fact a relatively accurate description, both in the way the city of Detroit is itself more a character than a setting, and in the way it spans the big social issues while giving an on-the-ground story.

It tells the story of Marney, a Yale graduate in his early 30s, working at Aberystwyth University, who goes back home to the US on for the vacation, meets with his old friend and uber-successful Robert James and ends up moving to Detroit in a new socially liberal scheme Robert is organising to buy up chunks of the real estate and bring in new largely middle class pioneers who can bring jobs, money and community back to Detroit.

Marney manages to make close friends among both the incomers and the mostly African Americans living in Detroit already, particularly the hard and unpredictable Nolan and a teacher, Gloria, with whom he becomes romantically involved, as well Astrid, Tony and others who have come for the cheap property and the idea of creating a new way of life.

In the end, though, the experiment in urban renewal breaks down after a black kid is hit by an incomer’s car,  and then an incomer’s child is taken, it seems, by Nolan. Marney is stuck in the middle, he ending up in court and the neighbourhood in riots.

Beside the balance of the political and personal there are some remarkable elements to the novel.

Marney is an excellent character: subtly flawed in his account of everything that is going because of his indecision, his inability to confront or perhaps even see the reality, and his unwillingness to look beyond himself.

There is a cool simplicity to the prose. It’s in the first person and on the first page Marney explains that he’s already had ‘then this happened, then this happened’ approach to story-telling. It is a device that Markovits uses effectively to allow the story to unfold gradually and to allow Marney to say what he thinks is happening without reflecting more deeply on it.

There is an enormous complexity to the characters in the book. There are lots of people, all with back stories, but despite the number and the scale of the issues dealt with in the book, there are very few stereotypes: the people are multi-layered and realistic.

Robert James is an example of this. A dotcom entrepreneur now wanting to do some good, he thinks bringing in new people and fixing up the Detroit neighbourhoods can change the nature and fortunes of the city. His motivations? Some kind of wild megalomania? Political ambitions? The desire to do good? Probably all of these and more. Throughout the book there is moral ambiguity – events that make you wonder whether something is right or wrong. We glimpse all this, but often from afar, because we are only seeing through the eyes of the self-absorbed Marney – and it is this, the complexity and ambiguity, that makes this such a quality novel.

 

The Vegetarian – Han Kang

Desperately beautiful and sad in equal part, The Vegetarian is a short and shocking meditation on what it is to suffer, what happens when you challenge convention and ultimately what it is to be human.

It tells the story of a woman who becomes vegetarian and, in part as a consequence of her choice of diet being rejected by her family and, in part because of a deep, destructive melancholy, gradually decides to eschew conventions like clothes and eating, in the end almost dying, in order to become plant-like.

The story is told in third person from three perspectives in the book’s three chapters: the woman’s husband, a conventional man who discards her once her behaviour becomes too extreme; her brother in law, a strange film maker who is obsessed with her and uses her madness to take advantage; and her sister who continues to care and worry for her when everyone else has gone.

We learn through the sister’s story  – and in a shocking earlier scene in which he hits her and forced her to eat meat at a family meal – that their father was abusive, with the woman taking the brunt of it, helping to explain the suppression of her personality up to the point of becoming vegetarian. But we also find the sister experiencing despair too, and reflecting that if she didn’t have a son and her sister to care for, perhaps she might let herself detach from the world too.

All this is written in a direct yet beautiful style – incredible, given this is a translation from Korean.

In this remarkable novel Han Kang channels the ideas of existentialism, of Deleuze, of Becket, successfully conveying the sense that humanity is not essential or absolute but tied down by conventions which can easily be loosened, revealing other ways of being that are both mad and natural at the same time.

Number 11 – Jonathan Coe

Through the separate and overlapping stories of childhood friends Rachel and Alison, Number 11 covers everything from the right wing press, wealth inequality, food banks and the bedroom tax to I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. 

With childhood memories of a summer in Beverley, Alison and her Mum Val struggling in Birmingham, Rachel becoming a live in nanny for London’s super rich, the pair losing touch after miscommunication on social media, and Alison ending up in prison, among much much else, the novel covers a lot of ground.

There are some wonderful ideas in here too. When Val appears on I’m a Celebrity all the good things she does are excluded from the show making her appear mean and malicious and, my favourite, the Maverick policeman who approaches any crime by first trying to understand the political and cultural context in which its occurs.

Number 11 is, needless to say, a contemporary state of the nation novel with a strong left wing political undertone to it, which was very occasionally a bit much – a kind of knowingness or cynicism about modern life that took away from the story – but actually this is a fine book. Funny, gripping, well written. John Lanchester’s Capital is a similar sort of novel, but Coe’s characters are fuller, more nuanced and although the situations they find themselves in are a bit cliched, the characters themselves are deeper and carefully drawn.

Man Crazy – Joyce Carol Oates

True to form, Joyce Carol Oates’s Man Crazy is a powerful and affecting book. It tells the story of Ingrid, whose father mysteriously chose to leave after involvement in a murder and whose mother lived a needy and unsettled life, largely reliant on a series of men for a mix money and adoration. As Ingrid hits adolescence she experiences the same kinds of neediness as her mother, desperately craving the attention and lust of men.

It ends with her living as a sex slave in a biker – Satanist cult led by the depraved Enoch Skaggs. She exposes the cult, in the end, though it’s not clear entirely to her how that happened. Throughout the book the sheer sadness and desperation of Ingrid’s upbringing and its impact on her personality is so present, so powerful, that at times it’s difficult to continue reading.

The most affecting point is Ingrid’s poetry reading at secondary school. She has won the poetry competition and is to read out her winning poem during the end of year assembly. She cannot believe that anyone would think it worthy of winning and works herself into a state of panic in the run up to the reading. She scratches itches on her face so she is bleeding from her hairline and decides at the last minute to find another poem, by a classic poet, to read instead, which she mumbles through, the teachers and pupils in shock. The build up to the performance, excruciating to read, conveys such a strong insight into her insecure, under-confident and needy character.

Middle Age – Joyce Carol Oates

Middle Age shouldn’t be a good book – a long descriptive novel with a minimalist plot  populated by affluent and unlikable fifty somethings. Yet it grips.

In part this is down to Joyce Carol Oates’ incredible ability to articulate deep feelings and thoughts. She, more than any other writer I’ve read, has a powerful ‘hyper-realist’ style – one that in best articulated by distinguishing from the hyper-realism of crime fiction novels (see my short review of Alex Gray’s Glasgow Kiss for this). Whereas the latter try to connect with the reader by using obvious, everyday and sometimes banal language, Oates’ hyper-realism taps into inner feelings and complexities that we often don’t recognise in ourselves and others until she says it. It’s a hyper-realism of our internal as opposed to our external selves.

Middle Age also has the related theme – that, if you like, there’s always more going on under the surface. It begins when Adam Berendt, a much-loved local artist in affluent Salt Hill in upstate New York dies trying to rescue a drowning girl. And it follows the fall out for a number of individuals in the community. There are affairs (Lionel Hoffman, Augusta Cutler), new children (Roger Cavanagh), complete changes of direction (Marin Troy, Augusta Cutler), fall outs with old children (Abigail de Pres, Roger Cavanagh), car crashes (Abigail de Pres), dog attacks  (Camile and Lionel Hoffman),  and, it transpires, Adam Berendt was far more complex than he seemed, with a hidden difficult upbringing, a string of false identities and an array of shares and investments.

What we find, ultimately, is that they may appear to be the stereotype of upper middle class America but in fact, as Oates digs into their characters, it seems all have complex and evolving inner lives. Middle age, it turns out, is not the sedate resting ground it might appear but is in fact another chapter in life’s constant change and renewal.

The Concrete Island – JG Ballard

Read Jan 2016

The Concrete Island is a fantastic premise. Maitland – a successful architect who divides his time between work, family and mistress – crashes into a large traffic island in the middle of a series of motorways and slip-roads. He is injured enough to get stuck and can’t get off the island. Despite being in the middle of the city nobody notices him, and because his life is so split it appears even those closest to him aren’t searching for him.

He eventually finds two misfits living on the island who are trying to get away from modem life. And, in fact, the book is quite hard going and descriptive until these characters turn up and some inject some life into things about a third of the way through. Initially he appears to be their captive but the life skills and material goods he has acquired through ongoing engagement in the capitalist world enables him to turn the tables on them.

In the end Maitland drives them away – one of them dies and the other leaves – creating an apt metaphor for how we corrupt enclaves of relative innocence when we touch them with capitalist society. 

Gradually, as he drives the others away, Maitland becomes accustomed to the island. It ends with him choosing not to leave the island immediately, with the help of the other two, but to do it on his own, in his own time. Again, what Ballard is presenting here is a nice metaphor for the individualism of modern capitalism, with Maitland refusing help and deciding that if he leaves the island it must be on his own terms and done entirely by himself.