Writing in the shadow

A question that’s been preoccupying me recently, as I spend more time reading than writing my own stuff, is this: how does anybody manage to write a word after reading their favourite novels?

One of my favourite novels, for example, is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. I sometimes tell people it’s my favourite novel (I don’t really have an answer to that question, but it’s something to say that most people have heard of), but really, I love Heller’s lesser-known novel Something Happened even more (I wrote a review of it here). It’s a difficult novel to love, described by Kurt Vonnegut as “one of the unhappiest books ever written”, and yet – drawn as I am to unhappiness and things/people that are hard work (ahem… joking) – love it I do.

I recently re-read Something Happened as research. Like Bob Slocum, the narrator of Heller’s novel, my narrator, Jason, is a fragile and toxic man crippled by self-loathing and assailed by irrational fears and a general sense of doom – that something bad is going to happen to him, and that he deserves it. Having re-read Heller’s novel, though, I felt deflated about my own idea, which seemed like an obvious, derivative, poorly-written pool of word vomit in comparison. I hadn’t only stolen Heller’s themes, but clumsily aped his writing style (he puts lots of asides in parentheses (and sometimes parentheses inside parentheses as well (see what I did there?))). Why do I bother, I wondered? What am I saying or doing in my writing that’s new, different?

Recently at a party I told someone my novel is “a more British American Psycho with less violence and misogyny and definitely no rats” (this is a shining example of the calibre of my small talk). I didn’t even like American Psycho much (due to aforementioned violence, misogyny and rats). There are parts of it I think are genius – I’ve tried to recreate the business card scene with Instagram profiles in my novel – but mostly, I’ve reacted against it. When Jason tries to go all Patrick Bateman on women, they defy his expectations and show him up for the sad little man he’s trying to be (he does have some redeeming features, honestly). Still, when I compare my novel to its anti-inspiration, I get that sinking feeling. What if people think my novel’s a watered down version of American Psycho because I’m afraid to be shocking?

Reading great novels confuses me, because they make me feel I may as well give up, but they also make me desperate to write. I know I’ll never be as good or bold or shocking as the author I’ve just read, but I can’t help but try anyway. The one way I can guarantee never being as good is by giving up, right? There’s a quiet voice in my head that says, “They’re only a human being and they wrote this. You’re also a human being…” And who knows, maybe Heller had the same voice in his head when he read Nabokov. Maybe Nabokov felt like crap and wanted to fling his manuscript in the fire when he read Tolstoy. And so on and so on.

There’s another positive way to look at it. With every novel I read, and with every element of another writer’s style I absorb, my writing becomes more complex. Recently I read two Julian Barnes novels in a row and for a few weeks everything I wrote sounded like a posh old man sadly reflecting on his past regrets. But then I read some other novels, and the voices of those authors were added to the mix. As a result, my novel-in-progress is an ugly, messy, unfocused, Frankenstein’s monster-type creature – but nobody else could write it. And perhaps the voice of Emma Goode, and the voice of every writer, is just that – the voices of a thousand other writers so intermingled they create something new and beautiful, colours coming together to form white light.

So I try not to feel too hopeless. If I keep reading and keep writing, and writing and writing, pushing through the feelings of inadequacy that ambush me every time I pick up a brilliant book, weaving in the elements I love, whittling away those I don’t, my writing will become more honed, confident and self-assured. Who knows, maybe one day somebody might even read one of my novels and love it so much they hurl their laptop out of the window in despair. I can only hope.

The May Queen by Helen Irene Young

Helen Irene Young’s The May Queen is a gently profound novel which explores secrets, love and family ties against the backdrop of a Gloucestershire village and London during the Blitz. It isn’t your typical Second World War romance novel, though; it’s a more literary novel showing the coming-of-age of its narrator, May Thomas. If you’re not expecting the dramatic twists and turns and heightened emotions that often feature in Second World War romances, and prepare yourself for a more gently-paced, reflective novel which ultimately delivers more value, I think you’ll find this one to savour.

Although The May Queen opens immediately to a scene of conflict and tension – May’s sister Sophie has brought shame on the family by getting pregnant out of wedlock – the world Young introduces us to seems idyllic and innocent. May’s life in the country village of Fairford revolves around trips to the Big House to visit her father who’s the gardener, making her costume for the village fair, and cycling around on her bicycle delivering goods from the village shop. As her name suggests, May feels an affinity with nature – she’s awarded the accolade of The May Queen at the fair – and her love of being in the water recurs as a motif throughout the novel.

After Sophie disappears to have her daughter, Honor, May becomes attracted to the son of the occupants of the Big House, Christopher, despite the class difference between them. When May’s parents catch on to her closeness with Christopher, they fear she is going the same way as her sister; this leads May to have suspicions about who Honor’s father might be – but she still can’t quite bring herself to avoid the charming Christopher. The first half of the novel is slow, but there are quiet secrets bubbling under the surface, a sense that something isn’t quite right. Before these secrets can rise to the surface, though, we’re thrown into the midst of another conflict: the Second World War breaks out and May moves to London to become a Wren.

The contrast between the two halves of the novel is effective. While the first half is quiet, gentle and picturesque, the London section is noisy, frantic and dangerous. May trades in her bicycle for a motorcycle, roaring around the streets of London to deliver dispatches with bombs falling around her. I didn’t know much about the Wrens so enjoyed learning more about how women served during the war (which was very inspiring). As the bombs fall May loses people close to her, but Young recreates the Blitz spirit: May picks herself up and gets on with life, revealing a quiet inner strength. She attracts the attention of a sailor, John, but never feels able to fully commit to the relationship – John’s character seems distant, but it feels like an intentional projection of May’s feelings towards him – and the memory of her relationship with Christopher never leaves her. May eventually returns to Fairford and Sophie’s secret resurfaces at the end of the novel, which has an ambiguous ending with a note of hope I appreciated. Real life doesn’t have neat resolutions, after all.

In its exploration of a misunderstanding which disrupts an outwardly idyllic world and reverberates through the years that follow, The May Queen reminded me a little of McEwan’s Atonement, especially with its gently reflective literary tone. I loved Young’s voice, which captures May’s dialect not just in her dialogue but in the way she thinks and observes the world around her. Young also uses some particularly beautiful and unusual turns of phrase which I had to re-read. I enjoyed the fact the novel takes a different approach to the war, using it as a backdrop for May’s emotional journey rather than the focal point. This is an elegant debut and I’m looking forward to seeing more from the author!

The May Queen is published by Crooked Cat Books – support the indies! More information here: http://www.crookedcatbooks.com/product/the-may-queen/ 

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Never have I emerged from a play feeling physically battered, but that’s how I felt after seeing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at the Harold Pinter theatre on Saturday (battered in a good way, if that’s possible). Admittedly I was feeling more tender than usual due to having just been on a 5.5 hour wine tasting course where there was no spittoon, but in a way that helped me to relate to the play’s characters, who knock back an astounding number of drinks over the course of the action.

The play takes place in the early hours of the morning in the home of George and Martha, a history professor and his wife, the daughter of the president of the college. They’ve just returned from a faculty party and have invited a younger couple, Nick and Honey, a professor in the biology department and his ‘mousey’ wife, to continue the party at theirs. Nick and Honey are sucked into George and Martha’s toxic relationship; as more drinks are consumed the couples grow increasingly disordered, the arguments escalate and both marriages unravel. The entire play takes place in the living room, a drab, pistachio-coloured incubator for bitterness, resentment and disappointment. Yes, it’s a heavy play, but the dialogue is so full of wit and energy that it’s never a drag.

I loved this production. What astounded me most is how the characters’ conversations flow so naturally – exactly the way you’d imagine an increasingly drunken conversation at a party would unfold – in a way that reveals everything you need to know about the characters, their relationships and their pasts, without being clunky. For this writer, it was a masterclass in dialogue. It builds towards the climax – the revelation about George and Martha’s absent son, who always hovers awkwardly on the edge of conversation – with a sense of inevitability. Remember those times you’ve stayed later than you should have done at a party, long after the fun has departed, watching a friend (or yourself) getting drunker, knowing humiliation is coming but doing nothing to stop it? That.

Imelda Staunton plays Martha, and it would be easy to say she steals the show, swerving between vivaciousness and charm, Medusa-like seductiveness, banshee-screeching and child-like vulnerability – but she was perfectly matched by Conleth Hill as George. He is a cantankerous old history professor on steroids: from the get-go he eviscerates Nick, who threatens him as a representation of science and progress as opposed to George’s fusty old world of history. Martha, on the other hand, he treats with ironic scorn, knowing exactly how to get under her skin. Just when you feel he’s being too cruel, she retaliates with an attack so brutal he’s again reduced to a tweedy, ineffectual object of pity. Their toxicity infects Nick and Honey, who begin as an immaculately dressed golden couple glowing with youth and end looking as if they’ve gone through several rounds in a boxing ring. The actors playing Nick and Honey play it fairly safe, but perhaps that’s what makes them the perfect foil for George and Martha.

Nick and Honey aren’t merely victims: their marriage has its own fatal flaws which are brought out of the woodwork by their night with Martha and George, and in a twisted way I felt as if the older couple were doing them a favour by sparing them years of simmering resentment. As the younger couple stagger home and dawn light streams in through the window, you get the sense that Martha and George have thrashed their way towards a stark truth, where delusions have been shattered and a bitter cycle has finally been broken. It’s not exactly a hopeful ending, but it is resolution.

There’s not much to dislike about this production. It’s an astonishingly well-written play starring four strong actors, staged in a simple way which allows these elements to come to the forefront: what could have gone wrong? The play is running until the end of May and you should see it, though I wouldn’t recommend trying thirteen glasses of wine beforehand if you don’t want to come out feeling emotionally in shreds!

A God in Ruins

I haven’t written a book review in a while. This is partly because I’ve been writing instead of reading, and partly because I haven’t read anything good. But I just read Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, which I thought was fantastic, and I happen to be plagued by insomnia (it’s currently five in the morning and I haven’t slept all night), so I thought I’d write a blog post about it.

A God in Ruins is a companion novel to Atkinson’s previous novel, Life After Life, featuring the same characters, and while it’s best to read both I think this works as a standalone novel too. It relates the life of Teddy Todd, a bomber pilot in the Second World War, before, during and after the war. There are many horrific flashbacks from the war but the novel largely focuses on Teddy in his old age, trying to cope with a future he never expected to have and a family who don’t understand what he went through – particularly his awful daughter, Viola. The book is clearly very well-researched – I remain in awe of anyone with the patience to write historical fiction – and feels authoritative, monumental even, without losing its closeness to its characters.

After reading a few underwhelming books, I knew I’d enjoy A God in Ruins. I’ve loved Kate Atkinson’s writing since I read Case Histories when I was a teenager and wrote this odd essay for my A-Level English class where I compared her to Dickens, based on the fact her characters are ‘quirky’, which now seems very tenuous. I dropped off at the Jackson Brodie novels, and was pleased when she returned to writing literary fiction. I liked Life after Life, but A God in Ruins is even better. One reason I like Atkinson’s writing is that she’s so effortlessly funny; I also love it when humour is mixed with tragedy, and I love novels about the Second World War, so the book ticked all the boxes for me. One of my favourite novels is Catch-22, and since Yossarian is also a pilot in the war, I suspect there were some homages to Heller (in particular, a grisly accident involving a low-flying plane and somebody’s head) which I appreciated.

Atkinson is a master characterisation. This is a long book, which gives her space to delve deeply into the lives of both Teddy and his family members, particularly Viola and his grandson, Sunny. Teddy is one of the most likeable and sympathetic characters I’ve encountered in fiction recently – almost inhumanly patient and kind – though Atkinson also explores the moral ambiguity of what he did in the war (for example, the bombing of Hamburg). For me, the most interesting character is Viola. She is absolutely awful to her father, bundling him off to a nursing home the second she can, and yet we also see the tough time she’s had, marrying a useless hippy and drug addict who forces her and their children to live in a commune and eventually kills himself by jumping in front of a train. I wasn’t a huge fan of the commune scenes, however, which contain a lot of clichés and caricatures; Dominic and the other hippies are very two-dimensional and seem only to exist so the author can poke fun at them.

Unfortunately, I spoiled the book for myself about halfway through. I have a bad habit of flicking to the ending. I like to pretend it’s for some profound psychological reason, but I think I’m just terribly impatient. Usually I don’t mind knowing the ending, because I read for the pleasure of the writing rather than to find out what happens. It was a big mistake in this case. My main piece of advice if you’re going to read A God in Ruins is: DO NOT flick to the end. The novel has an extremely powerful and emotional twist at the end, and knowing it affected the way I read everything before and completely changed its emotional resonance. I wish I could read it again without that knowledge. Unless you’re a monster like me, the ending will probably make you weep; it’s obvious once you get there, but also very clever – much more so than the ending of Life After Life, which is the ultimate cliché of all time travel/alternative reality novels.

I’d give this book something like 4.5/5, with my only real criticism being I felt it was too long and the pace a little too slow for me at points. I felt there were some scenes which, while wonderfully written, could have been cut without the novel losing any of its overall power, for example the unnecessary epilogue. I do get the sense, however, that Atkinson wants to stay in her world with the characters she’s created for as long as possible, and I can forgive her for that – especially since, as we all know, I struggle with brevity too!

Anatomy of a failed novel

I just finished watching Giles Coren’s documentary, My Failed Novel, which was both entertaining and full of advice for aspiring novelists. Reading mass-market bestsellers and the literary greats for inspiration is all very well and good, but it’s just as helpful to look at novels that flopped and why, so you can avoid making the same mistakes.

Coren’s first and only novel, Winkler, is the definition of a flop: the hardback sold fewer than 800 copies, which as someone working in publishing I can confirm is dismal. It received either lukewarm or brutal reviews. What’s more, he was given a £30,000 advance for the novel. Thirty grand! There’s no way he earned out that advance. His publisher must be kicking themselves, because this is a classic example of banking on the author’s celebrity profile (and it not paying off). Ultimately, any sane person would rather read a good novel by a nobody than a crap novel by a somebody.

Coren realises over the course of the documentary that this was his biggest problem: because of who he is, he was able to get his first ‘proper’ novel – the one that should have stayed in the drawer – published. Most of us won’t face the same problem. I’m glad that agents rejected my last novel, because I realise now that it didn’t deserve to be published. It was a first draft. It needed to be rewritten five more times, which I didn’t have the energy to do. If somebody had taken a chance on it, they would have done me a great disservice; the novel would certainly have flopped, and probably put me off novel writing for good. That’s the first thing I took from the documentary: don’t try to publish until you’re 100% ready.

How do you know you’re 100% ready? Feedback, feedback, feedback. Coren takes the opening of his novel to a workshop with a group of UEA Creative Writing students, and they decimate it. He looks like he’s going to cry. He’s been published and the students haven’t, but they know much more about the craft of writing than he does. The documentary is a good sell for creative writing courses; even Hanif Kureishi (charming, friendly and upbeat as always in his interview with Coren), who in the past has said Creative Writing MAs are a waste of money, admits that you can’t teach someone to write, but you can teach them to write better. Coren thought about a writing course, but decided he didn’t need one, presumably because his talent would be ruined by too much artifice.

That leads to another point I took from the documentary: another of Coren’s mistakes was that he had an Idea of Himself As a Writer. The major concept of Winkler, he confesses, was Me, with a story bolted on. This is a classic first novel mistake, and one I definitely made in my first ‘serious’ novel (which, shockingly, was about an English Literature graduate living in London frustrated at her failure to have a literary career… because everybody wants to read that). Good writing always has to be about telling a story, and nothing else; the writer’s ego shouldn’t get in the way. Some aspiring writers think that if you dress a certain way, talk a certain way, sit in certain coffee shops reading certain books, attend the right events and hang out with the right people, you are therefore a Writer – without doing very much actual writing. When Coren’s novel flopped, his Idea of Himself as a Writer became wrapped up in his sense of failure, which prevented him from trying to write another. I sensed that by the end of his journey he’d started to recover from that, and understands now what he needs to do to write a better novel. I hope he tries again.

As always, determination and dedication emerged as essential qualities for a writer; Coren didn’t have enough. Jeffrey Archer appears on the documentary, being (in my view) rather irritating, telling Coren off for not writing enough and telling us about his amazingly disciplined schedule, where he writes in two-hour intervals all day every day from six in the morning to ten at night. If you have the luxury of being a full-time writer (with an amazing glass-walled flat overlooking the Thames, might I add) that must be easy to maintain, but for those of us who have full-time jobs are are tired all the time, we have to squeeze in bouts of writing wherever we can. I take his point, though: if you’re serious about writing, you have to use whatever time you do have to write, write, write.

Coren also faces up to his harshest critic, Stephen Bayley, who criticised the novel’s ‘lavatorial awfulness’. This part was mostly banter between critic and victim, with Coren choosing which of Bayley’s kitchen knives he would use to get revenge, but one fascinating (and saddening) thing that came out of it is that Bayley didn’t actually read the entire novel. I had no idea that’s the way it worked – how can you be qualified to comment on a novel unless you’ve read the entire thing? – but there go you. I suppose if your novel is good enough to critic will want to read it from cover to cover… Also, Coren’s joyless mirth as he shows us his Bad Sex Award – the plaster foot covered in moss he keeps beside his garden shed, which will be the legacy his grandchildren remember him for – was rather tragic. I admire him for being able to laugh at himself all the more because you can see how it pains him at the same time.

I’d strongly recommend anyone who wants to write or is writing a novel watch My Failed Novel. It’s refreshing to see someone face up to their own inadequacy in such a brutally honest but also light-hearted way; you don’t get the sense Coren’s doing this because he wants to boost his measly sales (the novel’s out of print, after all) but because he genuinely wants to learn from his failure. It’s a human journey, but also full of practical advice from writers, critics, agents, publishers and ordinary readers. If only more writers would own up and admit their novels aren’t all that…

Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

A few Saturdays ago, I was sitting on a train to Stratford-upon-Avon feeling very fragile. This was admittedly mainly due to the after-effects of a bottle of wine – but my delicate emotions were rattled even more when the train passed through Leamington Spa, my old university stomping ground.

As we pulled into the station I caught a glimpse of the classy Kelsey’s bar, where one could enjoy a neon-green ‘eliminator’ cocktail (six of the cheapest, most vomit-inducing shots mixed with energy drink) whilst being perused by old men in crumpled faux-leather jackets who for reasons I cannot possibly imagine chose to hang around in a student bar. Tears welled as I remembered the time we asked the bar staff for a knife so we could cut a birthday cake that perfectly resembled Duncan Wu’s Romanticism: An Anthology in the sticky basement of Kelsey’s – which we didn’t explain to them, but they handed over the knife anyway (presumably this is a normal request in Kelsey’s). Oh, Leamington Spa! The train then arrived at Warwick, where I saw the platform sign that was the location of my first ‘lamppost embrace’, which became a stock photo every time my housemate and I went on a night out (in a moment of folly I thought I’d post the photo here, but quickly decided against it). Oh, Warwick!

I’m sure none of this is interesting – I’m just reminiscing – but I’ll now make a tenuous link to the point of this post. I was going to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, feeling emotional because my journey reminded me of my days of youth and folly before I had to become a sensible adult and not dress as a fairy and jump into bushes with my friends anymore… which, if you think about it (really hard) is similar to the journey Henry goes through in Henry V, transforming from the good-for-nothing Hal into the fierce and courageous King of England. See what I did there?

A while ago I saw the RSC’s Richard II, which I thought was excellent (and David Tennant’s reprising the role in January!). Henry V is part of the same play series. Unfortunately I never got to see Henry IV (parts I and II), which affected the way I saw this play. In Henry IV Hal is a lovable rogue who spends his days hanging out in the tavern with Falstaff and other folks of questionable morals, refusing to face up to his future kingly responsibilities; in Henry V, he’s become king, ditched poor Falstaff and leads his army to victory in the Battle of Agincourt. If I’d been with him from the beginning of his journey, I would have felt more invested in his character and proud of his triumph. Still, you see him develop in this play. Alex Hassell’s Henry subtly transforms from being just a little bit naive, flying off the handle when the King of France taunts him with tennis balls, to filling the stage with his calm, regal presence. Henry pronounces some tough sentences – ordering his soldiers to murder their prisoners, for example – but overall still manages to seem humane and sympathetic, which is impressive. My problem was that I found him to be a bit of a bore. This might be my problem, because I compare everything to The Hollow Crown, in which Henry is played by the marvellous Tom Hiddlestone. He made a great scoundrel but also  convincingly transformed into a king, whilst still showing glimpses of Hal’s charm.

The most famous speech in Henry V is ‘once more unto the breach’, with its rallying cry at the end: ‘Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!‘ There’s the danger of going a bit over-the-top with this speech, since attempts to inspire good ole’ English patriotism are generally met with eye-rolling disillusionment these days (or is that just me?), but this production went for a minimalistic approach, which I liked. It didn’t leave me quivering with patriotic fervour, but I did find Hassell’s St Crispin’s Day speech very powerful. These heavy scenes are balanced well by the comic ones, in which Pistol and his rag-tag band fumble their way haplessly through the battle. The humour seems to be largely based on funny accents – but, let’s face it, we all laughed. I was less keen on the attempts to make me laugh using cheesy wordplay (pronouncing horsery as ‘whooooore-sery’) and pantomime-style audience participation towards the end. I did, however, love Robert Gilbert’s Dauphin, the hilariously camp French prince whose ridiculous hairpiece threatened to steal the entire show.

Considering I saw the play out of context, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. It’s more difficult to make the history plays interesting for a modern audience, but as with all Shakespeare, Henry V still has that timeless quality: like Hal, we all have to step up and join in the battle at some point, though my ‘breach’ is rather different to his. Yes, I still occasionally drink too much wine on a Friday night (and suffer for it), but somehow I’ve become a publishing professional who’d never dream of embracing a lamppost on a night out… and that’s an amazing transformation.

Henry V is transferring to London in early November – do go see it if you can.

In the Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami

I’m going to Japan in October, and I’m already unbearably excited about it. I like to get a sense of a place I’m going to beforehand by reading its literature, but my only experience of Japanese literature until recently had been Haruki Murakami – and as you may know from older posts, I don’t really get the fuss, so my fascination with Japanese history and culture is really quite inexplicable (I do love udon noodles, but I’m not sure that explains it either).

To build up my excitement to an even more unbearable pitch, my lovely friend Lizzie gave me a novel by another Murakami (Ryu Murakami) for my birthday: In the Miso Soup. I read it over a series of lunch breaks sitting in Russell Square, huddled over the book with a horrified expression, my suddenly very unappetizing couscous salad pushed to one side. It’s a short and gruesome novel. I remember squirming as I read a scene in (Haruki) Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in which a man gets skinned to death very slowly. In the Miso Soup has topped that by managing to be even more sickeningly gory – and yet I enjoyed it much more. Let’s not think too much about what that says about me.

The novel is narrated by Kenji, a young guy who makes a living by giving tourists ‘sex tours’ of Tokyo’s nightlife, guiding them to the ‘relatively safe’ clubs, bars, cabarets, massage parlours and ‘lingerie pubs’ (self-explanatory). This is an aspect of Tokyo that I (obviously) didn’t consider when I decided to visit, but the novel gives a fascinating insight into a darker side of the city: a hollow and nihilistic world that’s sustained by loneliness, boredom and exploitation. Despite his line of work Kenji seems like a normal, decent guy who has no interest in what goes on inside the clubs he takes his clients to. From his description of the prostitute whose rather depressing ‘dream’ is to visit Niketown in New York and the joyless dancer whose translucent skin and thin body are cruelly exposed under the brash stage lights, to the near-empty ‘matchmaking’ pub that tries desperately to look classy but is instead gaudy and cheap, full of clients and staff who ‘look as if something has eroded away inside of them,’ Kenji paints a bleak picture of Tokyo’s nightlife. As both an outsider and an insider, he provides a fairly objective and balanced perspective on this world, and the shocking events he becomes caught up on seem to be testing how objective he can remain.

Kenji takes on a disturbing new client, an overweight American tourist called Frank. Immediately Kenji detects something off about Frank, describing his oddities comically: his skin that looks ‘as if he’d been horribly burned and the doctors had resurfaced his face with this fairly realistic man-made material,’ and his wink, which is ‘the world’s weirdest wink: his eye rolled back in his head as he closed it, so that for a second all you could see was white.’ But he also detects a pathetic vulnerability about Frank, displayed at its starkest when Frank challenges Kenji to a contest in a batting cage and then is pummeled by the balls, unable to hit a single one. Kenji begins connect Frank with a series of murders happening in Tokyo, and his suspicions are later confirmed in a horrifically violent scene (I won’t go into detail, but it was worse than reading about someone being skinned alive). Frank’s murders are brutal but also so absurd that they don’t seem quite real, as if they are being depicted in a comic strip.

I don’t consider that a spoiler, as the novel isn’t a whodunnit; it’s obvious from the beginning that it’s building up the moment Frank unleashes his true murderous self. The most interesting part of the novel for me comes after the murders, when Frank reveals his own past to Kenji and Kenji tries to understand Frank’s motives. Kenji finds himself unable to detach himself from Frank or call the police on him for reasons he can’t understand. The more he hears of Frank’s story, the more he ‘cease[s] to think of Frank as insane or not insane. I felt like someone listening to an ancient myth… I wasn’t sure any longer what was right and what was wrong. It was a very precarious feeling, but it hinted at a sense of liberation like I’d never experienced.’ This is, obviously, dangerous ground. I love how Kenji becomes more drawn in by Frank, and how Murakami creates a contrast between the shocking brutality of the murders and Kenji’s almost philosophical reflections on them afterwards, his concept of morality beginning to blur. It’s when Kenji sees Jun, his sixteen-year-old girlfriend, and feels an overwhelming desire to protect her from Frank that his humanity is restored and he’s able to walk away.

His parting from Frank is weirdly cordial; Frank leaves him with a gift, the feather of a swan he once murdered. Although it’s written very simply, it’s a complex and nuanced ending. I’m not sure sure what it means. Frank’s actions are obviously reprehensible, but I also get the sense he’s a victim of that crippling sense of alienation and disconnect from the world that pervades the novel (not that this justifies murder, obviously). I was left just as baffled about what to make of Frank as Kenji is, and feeling a desperate need to read something light and fluffy.

If you’re a squeamish person or someone who reads to relax, you will hate this book. I’d hesitate to recommend it to anyone unless I knew they had a very strong constitution, or liked their thrillers dark. I found the murder scene gratuitously violent and shocking and struggled to read it, although that was probably the point. I literally had a nightmare about it a few nights later, which never really happens to me (I like to think I’m quite unimpressionable). That scene aside, In the Miso Soup is actually a very reflective novel which has a lot to say about cultural and moral corruption and the sense of disconnect  from other human beings which are increasingly features of modern life.  Needless to say, I hope my own adventures in Tokyo are a little less eventful… I’ll be avoiding the lingerie pubs, at any rate.

Something Happened by Joseph Heller

Finally – I have read a book that made me excited! A book that made me almost wish I was unemployed so that I could sit in bed and read it cover-to-cover in a day. I was starting to think that feeling didn’t exist anymore – that it was just a brief, heady moment of my university days when every book I read excited me because someone with a PhD was always there to explain why it was exciting. For the past couple of years, the books I’ve read have inspired a subdued nod of admiration at best – but I want to tell everyone about Joseph Heller’s Something Happened. There really is something to be said for just buying books by authors you love. Catch-22 is one of my favourite novels, and so when I saw Something Happened going for cheap in a charity shop I bought it even though the blurb left much to be desired and the title didn’t exactly inspire me.

My liking this book was a fairly predictable outcome, because I’ve noticed a pattern: I love anti-heroes. I might have been seduced by Milton’s Satan if I hadn’t found Paradise Lost so torturous to read. I was definitely seduced by Shakespeare’s Richard III, and secretly a little bit happy when Iago got one up on the gullible Othello. Like everyone else, I can’t help but align myself with Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell, even as he orchestrates beheadings. To bring my frame of reference into Netflix territory, House of Cards’ Frank Underwood is a fantastically despicable character, and I’m still convinced that Breaking Bad’s Walter White is a good guy even though almost everything he does seems to be bad. I like these characters because they make me ask questions about myself: am I a terrible person for liking them, sometimes even cheering them on? Do they appeal to the evil part of me, if  such a part exists? It does, would I give it free rein if only it weren’t for the necessity of functioning in society? I love it when a novel throws me into an identity crisis.

Bob Slocum, the narrator and anti-hero of Something Happened, is even more terrifying than any of the characters I mention above in his amorality. While they are all either extraordinary people or people who find themselves in extraordinary circumstances, Slocum is an average American guy working in an average American office. He has a vaguely sales-related job that pays the bills, a wife and three kids (though in his mind he only has two – more on that soon), a house in the suburbs and two cars – the kind of guy we all probably know or work with and never think twice about. If what’s going on inside Slocum’s head is also going on inside the heads of all those guys we know, we need to be worried.

Not much happens in Something Happened (although something does happen at the end – something not very nice). The novel is Slocum’s extended stream-of-consciousness as he tells us about his job, the politics of his office and how he’s terrified of everybody there and everybody is terrified of him, his love affairs, his relationship with his wife, his surly teenage daughter, his anxious little boy and Derek, his ‘brain-damaged’ and ‘retarded’ son who he tries to pretend doesn’t exist.  If you cut out the internal monologue and look at what Slocum actually does, there’s nothing extraordinary in his badness: he screws over a colleague to get a promotion; he has numerous affairs; he delivers scathing put-downs to members of his own family. Yes, all of these things are pretty slimy, but they’re things we see happening in literature and the real world all the time. It’s the things that Slocum thinks but never dares to articulate that are really reprehensible.

He dreams about kicking his disabled colleague in his bad leg just to see how he reacts. He sees his wife and every other woman he sleeps with as a ‘piece of ass’ and can’t wait for his wife to have an affair so he can divorce her and get another wife to cheat on (he only ever wanted to be married so he could commit adultery). He admits that he’s quite excited by the idea of rape. He is racist and homophobic. He’s terrified he might secretly be gay himself. His feels zero affection for his daughter, sees every conversation with her as an opportunity to ‘outfox’ and belittle her, and longs for the day she will go off to college or just run away. He is severely embarrassed of Derek, his disabled son, ashamed that he could have fathered such a child, and wishes that Derek had never been born or would die – when he talks about Derek, we see right into the dark, rotten depths of his moral abyss.

It’s impossible to like Bob Slocum, but reading about him is strangely compelling. He is skilled with words – demonstrated by his constant ‘outfoxing’ of everyone – and the blunt, irreverent way he describes certain situations is shocking but also funny. As with most anti-heroes, he draws us, the reader (or viewer) into his confidence, making us feel privileged and relieved to be on the side of the psychopath rather than against him. Slocum’s honesty is refreshing, but of course he isn’t honest with anyone other than the reader. With no-one he can be honest with, he is utterly alone, and there’s something tragic about that. What Heller does most skilfully in the novel is not to make us like Slocum but to make us pity him. There is without doubt something fundamentally wrong with him.

The novel begins with the brilliant line, ‘I get the willies when I see closed doors.’ It is the perfect start to a novel about a man who is crippled by fear. He is terrified not only of closed doors but also of mice, of everybody in his office, of hospitals and death, of what his children are getting up to when he doesn’t know, of his family dying – especially of the death of his hapless, pathetic little boy, who seems to be the only person he loves (and he loves him with a stifling, aggressive intensity) – and of what people will think of him when they find out about Derek. Most of all, he seems to be terrified of himself and of what he might end up doing (and does do at the end – the thing that eventually happens after 500 pages of build-up).

I also see Slocum as an inevitable product of the middle-class suburban American world he exists in. That depressingly small and seemingly meaningless world reminds me of Revolutionary Road, but I think Heller’s take on it is even darker if that’s possible. Money, status, material possessions and the appearance of a happy family unit are the achievement of the American dream. Slocum has them all – so does it matter what goes on, not only behind closed doors, but inside of his head? Heller seems to be saying that it does, after the terrible thing has happens near the end of the novel Slocum’s life goes back to normal. There can be no consequences or punishments for the crimes he commits in his mind: he gets his promotion, while the typist who’s been threatening to go crazy for years finally does so. Slocum oversees her removal from the office and as he watches her leave, he observes: ‘Everyone seems pleased with the way I’ve taken command.’

It is a really chilling last line, although it might not seem so until you’ve read the entire novel. I think you should, especially if you also loved Catch-22. I think Something Happened might be even better.

Testament of Youth – film review

After watching the film adaptation of Vera Brittain’s memoir Testament of Youth yesterday, I flicked through the book again and was reminded of how much I enjoyed it.

When I read it I remember feeling an affinity with Vera: as teenagers we both had similar ambitions, but the reality of our lives diverged dramatically. We both had comfortable (even idyllic) upbringings, but were determined to study English Literature at Oxford and become writers rather than getting married and ‘settling down’. Vera got a place at Oxford at a time when women still weren’t permitted to obtain degrees; I failed to get into Oxford due to my bungling attempt to pretend I’d read books I hadn’t in my interview. I had a fantastic time at Warwick instead, and my existence continued to be comfortable; Vera’s education was disrupted by the outbreak of the First World War, and her life was never comfortable again. Seeing her studies as futile while men were fighting and dying on the front, she postponed her degree to serve as a nurse, first in London then in France. From that point onwards, I can’t compare my life to Vera’s at all, since I haven’t – and hopefully never will – never live through the horrendous experience of a world war or endure the death of so many of my loved ones.

Testament of Youth isn’t really about youth but its destruction. Vera was only 24 when the war ended but felt infinitely older, weary and disillusioned, as if the days of her youth and her studies at Oxford were a hopelessly naïve dream. The film begins on Armistice Day with Alicia Vikander, who plays Vera, pushing her way through the cheering crowds into the gloomy solace of a church. She does not look happy – instead her eyes have a dark, wounded look, as if happiness is now impossible. As she looks at a painting on the wall viewers are transported back to the beginning of her story, that brief bubble of happiness which contained her before the war broke out. I thought this was an ideal way to start the film, perfectly capturing Vera’s description in her memoir of her reaction to the end of the War:

‘I detached myself from the others and walked slowly up Whitehall, with my heart sinking in a sudden cold dismay. Already this was a different world from the one that I had known during four life-long years, a world in which people would be light-hearted and forgetful, in which themselves and their careers and their amusements would blot out political ideals and great national issues. And in that brightly lit, alien world I would have no part. All those with whom I had been really intimate were gone; not one remained the share with me the heights and depths of my memories. As the years went by and youth departed and remembrance grew dim, a deeper and ever deeper darkness would cover the young men who were once my contemporaries.’

As for the rest of the film, although I enjoyed it overall – it was gently mournful and I thought Vikander was well-suited to portray the outwardly young and tender but inwardly brittle, fiercely intelligent and stubborn Vera – I wasn’t sure it had quite the impact it should have. On the one hand, I liked the fact it depicted the devastation of war as experienced by people away from the trenches: the quiet, helpless and heartbreaking sense of loss as Vera learns on her wedding day that her fiancé is dead and then reads his final poem, found inside his bloody uniform. Not every First World War film has to shock you with as many bloody and violent scenes as possible in order to demonstrate what a tragedy it was. There were moments when the film provided brief snapshots of men in the trenches, often staring directly into the camera, depicting the brutal reality that Vera can only try to imagine as she thinks about her loved ones on the front – I thought these were effective, showing the massive gap in experience between those who were fighting and those who were trying vainly to continue their lives at home.

On the other hand, I didn’t think the film was as bold as it could have been. Testament of Youth is Vera’s account not just of her experiences during the conflict, but her campaign for peace after the war. She was filled with rage by the senseless deaths of millions of men, some of which she experienced first hand as a nurse. In France Vera nurses wounded German soldiers, and the film contains a powerful scene where she comforts a dying German man by pretending to be his beloved. Towards the end of the film, this memory provokes her to make an impassioned speech at a debate about whether Germany should be made to pay for the war, in which she argues that the grief and suffering of the Germans is the same as the grief and suffering of British men. This is the only scene in which her anger really comes out. The book contains an entire third section in which Vera relates how she became a lecturer for the League of Nations, determined to do a job which made a difference to the world. Later on she becomes a prominent pacifist. Perhaps this part of Vera’s life wouldn’t have been as dynamic on screen, but I found her feelings of anger and injustice were missing from the film.

I was worried that the film would reduce Vera’s story to a doomed romance between her and Roland Leighton, but I think it succeeded in avoiding that, keeping its focus on Vera as an inspirational woman and feminist. Vera’s dream before the war was to be a writer, and although those four years put her childish aspirations into perspective, a writer she did become, though not the kind she’d imagined. She wrote several novels, but it is Testament of Youth – an account of real people and real events – that became her most famous work.

My own dabbling with prose seems trivial in comparison, but I’m grateful that I don’t have real experiences like Vera’s to write about. I imagine she would have preferred never to have had cause to write her memoirs, and instead lived a quiet life buried in her books in Oxford, if it meant she never had to go through those wounding experiences which destroyed the innocence and hope of her youth and claimed the lives of those she loved.

The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide

Usually this post – my last of 2014 – would be a summary of the best and worst books I’ve read throughout the year. I won’t be doing that, because I’ve disappointed myself this year: I think the number of books I’ve read might be just short of the 40s, far less than my usual quota. I would like to distract you from my failure with an amusing picture of our family cat, Hero.

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I don’t want to be that dinner party bore who cracks out pictures of and dull anecdotes about their cat in lieu of dull anecdotes about their children or conversational skills in general, but please indulge me for a few sentences if you can. Our previous cat died a few years ago, and although he spent ninety per cent of his senior years asleep the house just wasn’t the same without him. In the summer I went with my mum to the RSPCA centre, just to ‘take a look at the kittens,’ but we returned home having agreed to adopt a cat called Sassie. That terrible name was the first thing to change, and she became Hero – a name designed to baffle our neighbours who don’t realise it’s a girl’s name. They told us that Hero had been in the centre for quite a while because she was a little bit ‘feisty’ (read: violent and dangerous to children). They warned us not to bend over beside her as she liked to jump onto people’s backs and cling there, forcing the unfortunate member of staff to hobble along in a Gollum-like posture until she decided she was bored of riding them like a donkey. Since our last cat was also charmingly violent – he was the neighbourhood thug and often came back with a new piece missing from one of his ears or tufts of anonymous fur in his claws – we took to Hero straight away.

Hero is more entertaining than the average cat because she is insane, possibly literally. My parents don’t have a Christmas tree this year because if they did she would pull every single decoration off, knock them all under the sofa and then pull down the tree and probably eat the entire thing. She will attack your shins without warning while you are sitting at the dinner table. Rather than bringing us dead birds she brings us dead leaves, thinking they are living creatures (and if a cat could beam, she would be whilst presenting her conquest to us). Her new favourite game is to stand on the roof outside my bedroom window meowing until I let her in, immediately demand to be let out of my bedroom, run back outside, climb onto the roof and repeat the process over and over again. Every time I return from a weekend at home I am covered in scars, and no-one understands why I am smiling when I display them. If I’m in a foul mood she always makes me laugh, even when she is attempting to devour my flesh.

The point I’m ambling towards is that it’s not just a sentimental cliché to say that, when a new pet comes into a home – completely indifferent to the problems the people living there might be going through – it truly can bring a lot of joy and transform the way that home feels. Which leads onto the book I’ve just finished reading, Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat.

This book by a little-known Japanese author translated into English has been an unexpected bestseller this year, and I can’t figure out why. Not because it’s not good – I think it is – but because it’s so niche and doesn’t really have a plot. The cynical part of me thinks it’s down to the power of the marketing machine; people love rooting for the underdog, and so there’s always an ‘unexpected’ bestseller at Christmastime. Then, there’s the lucrative cat lovers market – it’s the perfect gift for your weird auntie Phyllis who already owns an entire wardrobe full of multi-coloured cat waistcoats. I do think there’s something more to this book than that, though; it’s quietly reflective and beautifully written, and you could appreciate these qualities even if you’re not a Phyllis in the making.

The story: a middle-aged couple live in a cottage in a quiet area of Tokyo, where they work at home as freelance writers. Their marriage is quiet, uneventful and a little bit tired. Then, a neighbour’s cat wanders into their garden and makes itself at home in their house, and gradually the colour trickles back into their lives. The first question I asked myself on picking up the book was: why should I care? Why is this a novel-worthy story? The book’s achievement is that it does make you care. You feel that the couple’s relationship with Chibi, the funny little cat, is terribly important for some reason. When they’ve reached a point in life where no longer seem to notice their surroundings and go about their daily routines with little enthusiasm, Chibi’s curiosity about the world helps them to see things in more detail, with more wonder and with more appreciation.

The novel’s themes are not simple, although the plot is. The narrator’s life is changing – he has quit his job to work from home as a writer, and he and his wife are soon to be evicted from the house they love as the elderly landlady wants to sell up after the death of her husband – and while he contemplates the impermanency of his life circumstances, Chibi’s natural unpredictability represents a release from these human worries. He relates his experiences with her to poetry and art. The book isn’t overly philosophical, though, with every falling leaf causing the narrator to muse obnoxiously for pages about his own mortality. The philosophical nature of the narrator’s thinking is embedded in the language he uses, the descriptions of the house, the garden and of Chibi.

That’s what I liked most about the book: the quality of the writing (and the translation). I love the way Hiraide picks out the details with such poetic precision. Chibi is ‘slim and small, with ears that stood out, tapering off beautifully at the tips, and often twitching. She would approach silently and undetected to rub up against one’s legs.’ She hates to be touched, and slips away when anyone attempts it: ‘The cat’s manner of rejection was like a cold, white light.’ The way she tremors and twitches in response to subtle changes in her surroundings undetectable to humans, the way she rarely makes a sound and softly bites anyone who tries to pick her up, are described in a way that shows how captivated the narrator and his wife are by Chibi. They feel she belongs to them but know she doesn’t, which taints their fascination with sadness; just as they cannot own the house and must move on, neither do they own Chibi, who eventually leaves them too: ‘Which is why it seemed all the more as if she were a gift from afar – an honoured guest bestowing her presence upon us.’ Chibi, being more preoccupied with playing with ping-pong balls than musing about the meaning of her existence, doesn’t share this connection and when the narrator’s wife starts crying because she knows they will have to leave the cat, ‘Chibi stared intently with her deep green eyes at the clear liquid flowing from my wife’s eyes and rolling down her cheeks – these human things called tears.’

I must say that towards the end of the book, I think the couple’s emotional investment in Chibi becomes a little bit creepy and over-the-top, and I’m not surprised the cat’s real owner gets weirded out, but maybe that’s just me and my heart of stone. Read it and see for yourself. Whatever you think, this is a beautifully written book. More than just an ode to a unique cat, it’s about change and loss, how humans respond to these things and how nature responds to humans, going about its business with beautiful indifference (see my last blog post). Even if you hate cats, which means you probably didn’t make it past the second paragraph anyway, you should find something to relate to in those themes.

Well, that’s me for 2014. I hope you had a merry Christmas and that have a happy New Year, anonymous blog readers!