Books I’ll never write #4: desolation fiction

As humans become more and more enmeshed in protective layers of technology and welfare, of offices and comforts, it nevertheless appears that discontent remains a consistent – perhaps even a growing theme – of personal and political life.

It’s against this backdrop, arguably, that we are seeing the emergence of a genre of fiction that uses desolation as way to explore what, beneath and beyond the protective layers, it is to be a human.

Sometimes this is dystopian fiction, like the Hunger Games or the End of the World Running Club. Other times it’s a situation in which someone finds themselves alone or travelling in a vast expanse, like the Shepherd’s Hut or The Road.

The core of these and other books is that the protagonists are thrown back on themselves – their bodies, their brains, their survival skills – with no recourse to the armoury of stuff available to them in contemporary civilisation.

Apart from the sociologically interesting question about why people are writing and reading these kinds of stories now, there are other ways of looking at them too. One is by way of comparison with Agamben’s concept of ‘bare life’, the existence that is left in situations of war when everything else, most notably ideas of human rights, are removed. Another is in comparison to the existential freedom of Satre, where all that matters in the end is the ability of the human subject to choose that there is nothing but autonomy at the human core; everything else is contingent and inessential.

The book that I’ll ( probably) never write would explore how desolation fiction is a response to the world we find ourselves in, looking at both the sociological and the philosophical underpinnings.

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4321 – Paul Auster 

A colossal exploration of the different paths a person’s life might take, and the role personal circumstance and political events play in shaping that.

4321 is a massive novel, in many ways. Massive in its ambition, telling four different versions of the main character, Ferguson’s, life, which takes different courses depending on circumstances. Massive in its scope, covering Ferguson’s place within and perceptions of major events in the 50s and 60s, like Kennedy, Vietnam and race riots. And massive in its size, at over 1,000 pages.

Ferguson is the son of Rose, who he is close to in all the versions of his life, and his entrepreneurial Dad who owns a TV and electrical goods store. And in a way the direction of his life is determined by their fates, whether they are successful, stay together or even die. Despite the epic political context it’s the minutiae of personal relationships that determines Ferguson’s lives far more than anything else. 

In the end we see one Ferguson going to Princeton, another to Columbia, another moving to Paris and another *spoiler ahead* dying early. Their lives are different. But interestingly not radically so. All of them are wanna-be writers. All combine sport with writing. All have a close relationship with Amy, but in one she’s a girlfriend, another a cousin. 

It’s interesting in this respect that what Auster (so often seen as a postmodern writer) is saying is that there are core traits to Ferguson’s personality that circumstances might shape but will always be there is some way or other.

What 4321 does brilliantly is combine historical sweep with detailed intimacy. The book covers some major events and periods, but because each story is focused on Ferguson and his place within it, we circle around him, gradually honing in on his views, feelings, emotions, strengths and weaknesses, making it a very full and powerful character study. 

Despite being written by Auster now rather than four deviates ago, 4321 really brings to life the experience of being a teenager and then young man, especially in a time of major social change. Ferguson is exploring his sexuality – in one life he’s interested in men, in another not all – and trying to understand his commitments to politics and activism rather than to art or sport.

And despite its length, the book is just so well written too. It has all the trademark characteristics of Auster (see this in-depth review of his New York Trilogy). But the style is different, with long sentences, sometimes up to a page long, exploring things in depth from different angles – just like the book. It’s light on dialogue and big on analysing inner thoughts and external circumstances. 

The Sisters Brothers – Patrick DeWitt

A stark but affecting existential Western about the need for – and struggle to find – meaning.

Eli and Charlie Sisters are, it turns out, pretty notorious mercenaries in nineteenth century mid-West America. They are commissioned to search out an inventor who had somehow created a mix of chemicals that makes gold clear in the bottom of lakes, providing an easy way to get rich in the time of gold-rush.

The plot charts their slow pursuit of the inventor – Warm – as they befriend, meet or kill a host of other people on the way: lawyers, prostitutes, farmers, Native Americans, other cowboys. They eventually catch up with Warm and his friend Morris, but it turns out that, although the invention might be effective, it is also pretty lethal.

The big theme of the book is about finding a meaning in life. It’s narrated by Eli, who is a thoughtful soul stuck in the mercenary business. He largely wants out, to leave the death behind, but this is what he is, what he does. His brother Charlie is less reflective and altogether meaner, and it’s hard for Eli to break away from his brother when in many ways the relationship with his brother in in fact all he has of value or meaning.

The pursuit of gold appears to give meaning to the lives of so many characters, but often it appears to be self-defeating – acquiring gold often results in being robbed or killed, and the chemical agent that can help find gold is itself toxic. Charlie and Eli are brilliantly philosophical about material gain. A number of times they make enough money to retire only to lose it somehow, yet they just live with the loss and move on. Perhaps the point is that the journey and what they do en route is what provides meaning, not the gold, the end, itself?

And what I like about the book too are the little things. Eli is wonderfully conflicted, he has different moods, he is aware that he thinks different things at the same time; his mind is tricky, and real. He is multiple. Despite being murderers you can’t help liking Eli and Charlie and somehow rooting for them, for their success. And there are some excellent scenes – a Western style shoot-out with a nervous but affronted lawyer stands out as a lovely addition.

It drags sometimes, and the lack of substantial women characters in the book – although it may well reflect Eli’s attitudes – feels like a limitation, but nevertheless The Sisters Brothers is an excellent existential Western.

Daughter of Smoke & Bone – Laini Taylor

This is a mix of a deep fantasy and a love story, making it an interesting read but frustratingly conventional at times.

 The heroin is Karou, a feisty 17-year art student old living in Prague who was in fact raised in another world – Elsewhere – by Brimstone, a chimera who harvests and somehow uses teeth, the source of a mysterious magical power.

 Karou is fluent in over 20 languages, trained in martial arts and is able to travel around the world – and the underworld – at will, thanks to wishes granted by these teeth; something she often does, running ‘errands’ to collect teeth for Brimstone to use, though we don’t know what for exactly.

 It’s a great premise, and the opening 80 or so pages are brilliant for it, not least in her interactions with other humans who view her as a beautiful mystery – he superficial boyfriend Kaz and her friend Zuzana.

 We gradually learn that the chimera are in an ongoing battle in this Elsewhere world with the angels, the Seraphim, who have the power on their side, but not the magic of Brimstone which enables chimera to pass through bodies and occupy new ones when they are destroyed.

All of these ideas and scenes are great – imaginative, evocative, gripping. There’s so much to the fantasy and the world Taylor constructs and I could read that all day long.

 Where there book falls down a little, though, is in the core of the plot – where Karou meets the angel Akiva, first in combat and then again, and they fall in love. There are great things in the relationship – scenes where they fight, revelations about Brimstone, large sections where we and Karou herself learns about her past, about how she came to live half in the human world, half Elsewhere. But ultimately about half the book, perhaps, is focused on their relationship and it’s too much, for me at least.

 It’s a good read, lots of great ideas and imagery, but not quite as strong as it could have been if less time were spent on the love story.

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.