This year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist is a really interesting and challenging group of novels. I’ve been particularly busy in the last few weeks but I have managed to read five out of the six books listed. I was totally engrossed by the twisted psychology and suspenseful plot of Ottessa Moshfegh’s “Eileen” and fascinated by the compelling portrait of manhood David Szalay created in his nine distinct stories about men’s lives in “All That Man Is”. Paul Beatty's "The Sellout" is an extraordinary satire that fearlessly, hilariously and cleverly gives a new perspective on racism in America. But I have to say, two of my favourite books I’ve read so far this year are Deborah Levy’s “Hot Milk” and Madeleine Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing”. Levy’s novel takes a brilliantly unique look at identity, family and sexuality. Thien’s novel is a complex, sophisticated story showing generations that struggle for personal freedom and creative expression. It’s difficult to choose, but I’m going to guess that “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” will win. I’ve even placed a bet at the bookies for it to win! I successfully predicted that “A Brief History of Seven Killings” would win the Booker last year so I’m hoping to collect this time as well when the winner is announced on the evening of Tuesday, October 25th! More excitingly, it will be great to follow all the bookish discussion around these compelling books that have been shortlisted.
David Szalay has found an inventive way to portray the hearts and minds of men in this novel which follows nine distinct characters at certain points in their lives. From young aesthete/wallflower Simon who travels around Europe to savvy journalist Kristian on the brink of publishing a sensational piece about a high profile affair to elderly Tony who resides in Italy mulling over unexpressed desires with his adult daughter, the parts of this novel progress through stages in different men’s lives alighting upon commonalities and variations of experience. It felt to me like each part or short story could have been easily expanded into a novel in itself, but paired together they make a fascinating composite portrait which questions ideas about masculinity and life’s meaning. Towards the end especially, “All That Man Is” feels something like a Beckett play where the men’s common yearnings and regrets have accumulated together to sound like one voice crying out for all human experience.
Through several of the men’s stories there is a marked disconnect between how these characters confidently portray themselves publicly and the feelings of self-doubt they harbour privately. Szalay skilfully moves his narrative between these two spheres of experience to show dramatic points where the self-assured mask a man might wear crumbles. This sometimes happens in instances where an arrogant man is undone by desire like in the story of young slacker Bernard who finds himself seduced by both a mother and her daughter while on holiday in Cyprus. Or when social outcast Murray finds himself emotionally moved by a psychic who he nonetheless realizes must be a con-artist. Through this it is shown how men are compelled to maintain confident fronts both because of societal pressure to appear strong, but also out of an oftentimes unjustified personal pride.
As the novel progresses and the male protagonist of each new story become older there is an accumulating sense of the flow of time: how these men’s lives are caught up in details and misadventures which distract from their ideals and larger goals. Many of the younger men don’t give too much thought to this caught in their own admittedly false sense of their immortality: “this too shall pass. We don’t actually believe that, though, do we? We are unable to believe that our own world will pass.” The stories in the middle of the book are concerned mostly with professionals who are embroiled in the busyness of their professional ambitions and work life: “Life has become so dense, these last years. There is so much happening. Thing after thing. So little space. In the thick of life now. Too near to see it.” Their unquenchable drive for power, money and status leave them little time for reflection or valuing things which should matter more like caring for their family or maintaining a sense of integrity. This takes on a poignancy with the later stories where the men often feel they’ve not achieved what they really wanted and have little drive to continue. This is most touchingly realized in the story of wealthy iron baron Aleksandr who is living through the collapse of his mighty empire and seeks a little feeling of home with an employee.
This book raised a lot of questions for me and gave me many conflicted feelings. I love how it exposes and satirizes how petty, selfish and short-sighted men can be which makes the reader question the idea of masculinity. But, at the same time, I kept thinking about the title and wondering ‘is this really all man is?’ There is little of the subtly about men which is so finely articulated in Andrew McMillan’s superb book of poetry “Physical”. Of course, the nine men in this novel certainly don’t represent all of mankind, nor do I think Szalay intends them to. Although there are some positive and humorous qualities about some of the men portrayed - with Balazs and Tony in particular demonstrating a sensitive side - they are overall quite nasty. Men can also be caring, compassionate and giving, but I think Szalay was more interested in exposing specific types of men and the inner lives they hide. It also shows how certain men perceive women and how women must navigate this male gaze. He does this in an accomplished way and its impressive how instantly I felt immersed in each part even though it was about an entirely new character in a different situation disconnected from all those before it (except for the final part).
“All That Man Is” is ultimately a fascinating and thought-provoking novel that leaves a lasting impressing.
It’s so rare that a comedy can last for over two and a half hours but still be funny. New film ‘Toni Erdmann’ by German director/writer Maren Ade achieves this by building in both a tender story of a father-daughter relationship and scenes which become increasingly surreal/bombastic as the story progresses. Big lumbering Winfried is a divorced retiree and notorious prankster amongst his friends and family. He often uses the corniest tricks like wearing goofy glasses, ratty wigs or crooked false teeth to elicit a weary chuckle from those around him. When his adult daughter Ines returns home for a brief visit, he sees how uptight she’s become. She constantly makes work calls, dresses conservatively and has little time for her father’s pranks. The emotional disconnect is palpable. When Ines goes back to Bucharest where she lives and works, Winfried follows her there. He inveigles his way into her private and work life using the pseudonym Toni Erdmann and pretending that he’s a quirky flatulent businessman/diplomat. A series of wildly funny, cringe-worthy and awkward scenes ensue as Ines tries to carry on despite his intrusions.
What is so charming and engaging about this set up are the fluctuations of power play which take place in this father-daughter relationship. Ines wants to be taken seriously and lives like how she believes an adult should. Her time is filled with trying to advance in her job by sucking up to clients, partying with friends/business contacts and belittling those who work beneath her. Toni arrives in her life like an agent of chaos showing how shallow and ridiculous her pursuits are. Equally, Ines tries to show her father how immature his behaviour is and attempts to prove what an adult she is by acting out sexually, taking drugs or playing the diva at a spa. These battles between family members who desperately try to prove something to each other feel very real and touching.
It’s impressive how this film keeps you on your toes uncertain where it’s going next. Many scenes have the feeling of being improvised because of the thoroughly convincing performance from the actors who really look mystified about what’s happening or how to react when something highly unusual happens. I was surprised to learn from the Q&A with two of the actors at the London Film Festival screening I went to that the film was completely scripted and heavily rehearsed! Winfried (played by actor Peter Simonischek) gets a bewildered look in his eyes at certain points and holds his body as if he doesn’t know what he’s going to do next: continue the joke or fess up and go home. Also Ines (played by Sandra Hüller) maintains such a serious composure when faced with disruption that when she finally cracks at some points it feels wholly shocking. But also the script was obviously tightly written to make it feel like the characters were making spontaneous decisions.
I can’t express how involved the entire audience was at the screening I attended. There was a lot of audible laughter, gasps and winces at the outrageous scenes which gradually unfolded including karaoke to a Whitney Houston song, lewd acts with petits fours, a big hairy costume and a non-sexual naked office bonding party. ‘Toni Erdmann’ manages to be both genuinely heart-warming and brilliantly funny. I’ll be shocked if this film doesn’t get a best foreign language nomination at next year’s Oscars and it may well win the award. If you get a chance to see this film, I highly recommend it.
When I was in school I absolutely hated standardized tests. It seems melodramatic now but I simply could not focus on the dreary text and formalized questions. Often I ended up filling in the multiple choice answer sheet to make a pattern on the page rather than mark what I thought were the right answers. I wish now that I had just knuckled down and focused more but at the time that felt impossible. So it’s a delight coming across inventive Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra’s new book “Multiple Choice” which is based on the Chilean Academic Aptitude Test. He creatively plays with the test’s format to form micro-stories and oftentimes hilarious commentary on society, formalized education and the human condition. This is a brisk, short book but like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel you could easily spend ages thinking about the multiple combinations and outcomes you could make in each section.
Each section of the book is laid out like a standard multiple choice test where you are instructed to exclude a term, reorder a sentence, decide on how best to complete a sentence, eliminate certain sentences from the text or show your comprehension of a story. Yet, quite often the multiple choice responses are comical, sarcastic or slyly make subversive statements. Sometimes reordering the text creates radical new meanings which are in turns poetic/ironic/poignant or the possible answers create impossibilities as if completely mocking the idea of an exam. There’s a great deal of wordplay where in one section he writes “You try to go from the general to the specific, even if the general is General Pinochet.” The infamous military dictator Pinochet pops up several times in the text and some sections make a sharp critique Chilean society and the notoriously oppressive political system under his rule. These passages add a weightier feeling to the book as you can sense so strongly the strain of having lived under such a fearsome regime. (If you want to see a great documentary about the longlasting effecting of Pinochet’s dictatorship watch the powerful film Nostalgia for the Light.)
Many of the early sections are filled with only brief lines of text whose meanings are cryptic or suggest there could be much longer stories told. Frequently there are allusions to broken families or tempestuous relationships. One of the extended stories towards the end is about a man who won’t give or can’t remember his former wife’s name. It was quite shocking to learn in this story that Chile only legalized divorce in 2004. Another story is about a man who works variously as a chauffer and ghost writer for a politically conservative man who wins the lottery. The more extended texts are followed with possible interpretations of the text which are alternately funny or add another kind of meaning to them. It reminds me of Will Eaves’ powerful book “The Inevitable Gift Shop” which similarly suggests methods of reading while simultaneously creating an engaging story.
“Multiple Choice” is a richly rewarding and extremely funny book which so cleverly plays upon those standard school tests many of us dreaded taking.
Ali Smith is an author whose writing embodies absolute passion, invention and positivity – this is true despite her new novel “Autumn” beginning with the line “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.” Because she is writing about the contemporary including this year’s recent significant referendum where the UK voted to leave theEuropean Union, this statement playing upon Dickens’ famous opening accurately reflects the political and social feeling for many people in this country. What Smith does in this novel is give a sense of perspective on this mood of all-encompassing gloom. She shows how while times might feel dire right now, it is simply a season in the turning of time. It’s the story of a young woman named Elisabeth Demand and her friendship with Daniel Gluck, an elderly man who lived through the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s. Together they debate ideas and create stories while witnessing the monumental changes happening in the society around them. Their exchanges are very different from the present popular mode of communication “which is a time of people saying stuff to each other and none of it actually ever becoming dialogue.” “Autumn” emphasizes the importance of art and literature as a means of communicating when dialogue between different factions of society comes to an end. In this way, this novel naturally follows on from Smith’s “Public Library”, a collection of wonderful short stories interspersed with real accounts of the personal and social importance of libraries and books for connecting people.
Another aspect of Smith’s positivity is the way in which her stories often involve charismatic and intelligent young people. Many like to moan about the coming generation by claiming they are aimless and lazy, but Smith frequently shows a real optimism and respect for her adolescent characters who are relentlessly inquisitive and creatively engage with the world. This novel moves backwards and forwards in time, recalling the occasions in Elisabeth’s youth when she first got to know her neighbour Daniel. Her mother Wendy is sceptical about this friendship, worries Daniel might have some ulterior motives and speculates that he is gay. Elisabeth astutely observes in response to this that “if he is… then he's not just gay. He's not just one thing or another. Nobody is. Not even you.” This is a continuation of an idea brilliantly realized in Smith’s last novel “How to Be Both” where characters weren’t necessarily one thing or another. In the imaginative and funny stories Elisabeth creates with Daniel they play upon this assertion showing the ever-changing and fluid nature of people, societies, language and the environment around them.
In opposition to the playfulness of this dialogue between the pair are the institutions which seek to hem in and pigeonhole people. In the present day Elisabeth tries to get a passport application put through the post office, but she’s told on multiple occasions after waiting in a long numbered queue that her photos and the head on her shoulders doesn’t meet required specifications. These scenes make a funny critique of the way our society frequently puts people through tedious regimented processes instead of giving individual attention. But it also takes a worrying look at the notion of citizenship during a time when who you are and where you came from will come under scrutiny as our government dictates who does and does not belong in our country. Furthermore, these scenes highlight how policies focused on classification and exclusion trickle down into the public consciousness causing factions and divisions within communities.
Elisabeth becomes fascinated by the little-known artist Pauline Boty who was Britain’s only female painter working in the Pop art movement of the late 1950s. As someone who studied Pop art in college and had a passionate interest in Andy Warhol, I feel ashamed not to have known about this artist before reading “Autumn”. Boty challenged conventional notions of representation and gender in both her art and life. She tragically died of cancer before she was thirty, but would no doubt have been better remembered and left a more substantial legacy had she lived and continued with her imaginative work. Through viewing her art work and studying her life, Elisabeth finds a way to engage with the creative ideas Boty set forth and applies them to how she questions and views the present time. In one memorable scene it leads her walking; she follows fields of cow parsley to land designated as private and encounters a man who tries to stop her using regimental language. This causes a disruptive crisis between the individual and the natural world.
One of the funniest parts of this frequently playful/funny novel is a section where Daniel and Elisabeth discuss a story about someone who disguises himself as a tree and becomes embroiled in a battle. Smith has written in the past about people’s connections to trees or transformation into trees. There’s a great tradition of metamorphosis in literature – everything from Homer’s “The Odyssey” to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” – both of which this novel makes sly references to throughout. As well as being an entertaining and lively exchange between the two characters this mutually-created tale says something very moving about people’s connection to nature. It also highlights the connection between language and books, the way our words are inscribed upon paper and how there isn’t a separation between our ideas and the world around us. Also, their story which at first seems humorously abstract turns very personal for Daniel in a moving way. Smith is a master at catching the reader off guard with passages that are deeply emotional.
Smith plans for “Autumn” to be the first in a quartet of novels all named after the seasons. It’ll be fascinating to see how the books play out together and how much more we’ll discover about Daniel’s troubled past. At the start of the novel he washes up on a shore in a way that is reminiscent of Shakespeare's "The Tempest". I suspect Smith has more to say about the parallels between the changes happening in society now and what Daniel witnessed growing up. He makes a beautiful statement in this novel when he tells Elisabeth “always try to welcome people into the home of your story.” This is a hopeful cry for inclusivity and diversity against the current political movement towards shutting down borders. It’s a plea to really see all the people around us and acknowledge that they are part of our lives and our communities rather than shutting them out or pretending they don’t exist. “Autumn” triumphantly shows how our stories don’t belong to us alone but are part of a larger narrative of humanity and the time we live in.
Read an interview I conducted with Ali about "Autumn": https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/in-conversation/interviews/2016/oct/ali-smith-on-autumn/
The narrator of "Eileen" is so painfully introverted and isolated in her thoughts I felt instantly on edge and utterly compelled by her story. As a now elderly woman, Eileen recounts a week in her life back in 1964 when she was a young woman who lived a very claustrophobic life with her alcoholic widower father. At that time she was friendless, worked in a correctional facility for young offenders and spent her free time on booze runs for her father or in the attic reading issues of National Geographic. Although she was secretly plotting to run away from her small New England town, the arrival of an attractive new staff member named Rebecca creates a dynamic tension that changes everything. Filled with squeamish descriptions of Eileen’s extremely self conscious physical and mental state, this sinister novel builds to a dramatic conclusion
The narrator of this novel reminded me slightly of “The Looking-Glass Sisters” because she’s so overwhelmingly uncomfortable in her own skin and lives in an isolated damaged household. Eileen is so acutely embarrassed by her own physical being that she even states “Having to breathe was an embarrassment in itself.” She has a heightened awareness of the smells and functions of her body. With so much disdain for her own being it’s no wonder she doesn’t have the self confidence to make any friends, let alone find a relationship. She has a romantic obsession for a man and frequently lingers outside his house. Eileen is equally critical and vile about other people as she is about herself. The comments she makes about her colleagues are frequently vicious and perverse. In an understated way she claims: “Looking back I’d say I was barely civilised. There was a reason I worked at the prison, after all. I wasn’t exactly a pleasant person.”
The only close relationship she has is with her father a man who drinks copious amounts of gin each day, protectively clings to his gun from his days in the police force and treats Eileen with abominable disdain. Eileen came back to live with him when her mother grew gravely ill, but since her mother’s death continued to stay with him far longer than she should have. Her beautiful and more confident sister Joanie left quite some time ago. Eileen skulks through life hiding her emotional state behind what she terms her “death mask” and flails about within her twisted fantasies. Throughout the novel I felt we were meant to question how truthful Eileen is being with the reader because it’s about a period in her life so far in the past. Also, she’s quite cagey with certain details. For instance, she never names this town of her youth referring to it cryptically as X-ville.
Eileen is so determinedly unlikeable that she’s actually quite fun to read about. I enjoyed her indulgent descriptions of repulsion for almost everything and everyone around her. It’s quite fun reading about someone living so firmly within her own rules that she shoplifts, creates teasing questionnaires for the mothers of the imprisoned delinquents and engages in other antisocial behaviour. Sometimes she’s flat out bitchy like in her judgement of one woman where she states “Her lipstick was a cheap insincere fuchsia.” In her disdain for the human condition she also explores a dark side of humanity from a highly unique angle. For instance, she feels that “Violence was just another function of the body, no less unusual than sweating or vomiting. It sat on the same shelf as sexual intercourse. The two got mixed up quite often, it seemed.” Anyone from the outside looking in on her situation would probably disagree and understand how a toxic situation has created a very damaged individual. But these strident opinions and alarming situations feel quite natural for Eileen because it’s all she’s known.
Hovering in the background is the knowledge that something very sinister has occurred, but the reader doesn’t fully understand the situation until towards the end of the novel. I enjoyed how Ottessa Moshfegh builds this tension with creepy descriptions and teasing passages which gradually build up an alarming amount of dread. Eileen is someone who only lives by her own moral code and it’s alarming to discover from her that “I didn’t believe in heaven, but I did believe in hell.” The consequences of her particular belief system create an atmosphere of tension which makes for compulsive reading. “Eileen” is a wickedly unsettling and mesmerising novel.
I always look forward to the London Film Festival as it’s a great chance to see upcoming movies which might not be released for some time (or not ever get a general release). However, because the London Literature Festival is happening during the same two week period it means I’m particularly busy with events booked every evening. Last night I had to leave a discussion with Margaret Atwood right before she finished a Q&A with the audience so I could make the start of ‘Moonlight’ but I’m so glad I didn’t miss this extraordinary film!
‘Moonlight’ is the second full-length film from director Barry Jenkins and it’s based on the play ‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue’ by Tarell Alvin McCraney. It’s the story of a boy named Chiron told in three stages of his life (and his character is played by three different actors). Growing up in a rough Miami neighbourhood, he’s frequently bullied and often fights with his single mother who is a crack addict. However, he finds mentors in local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa (Janelle Monae) who care for the boy – not for any sinister reason but only because they see a vulnerable young man who needs help. Their refuge can’t protect him from the increasingly violent bullying he experiences growing into his teenage years. Eventually the abuse becomes so intolerable he reaches a boiling point and it turns him into someone very different from the introverted boy he once was.
It’s so rare to see a complex depiction of masculinity in films – particularly about African American men. ‘Moonlight’ skilfully portrays the way in which a man’s body changes as he grows, how emotions must often be suppressed or hidden in social groups and the struggle to understand and express his sexuality. It does this subtly through the expressions and gestures of the actors as the dialogue is often quite sparse. When Chiron does speak it’s more often about what’s left unsaid. There are a few particularly powerful moments when what he says is a true expression of what he feels. However, the words are difficult to form because he’s gone through such conflicted periods of emotional turmoil.
He’s given nicknames at different ages such as “Little” or “Black” and these labels ironically become appropriated as an integral part of his identity – both informing who he is and defining his place in the world. The film depicts the way men build muscles as armour. It shows how queer feelings are often first expressed only through circuitous routes and then can be wrapped in a vow of silence. It presents how agonizingly difficult it is to express love and forgiveness for a parent who has wronged her child so atrociously.
As complex and nuanced as the film treats the character of Chiron, it approaches the supporting characters with as much sensitivity and these actors give powerful performances. Though we don’t get their full stories we have a glancing awareness of their conflicts. His mother Paula (Naomie Harris) battles addiction and inner demons. Teresa (Janelle Monae) shows a humour and strength to raise others out of their difficult circumstances. Kevin (played by Jharrel Jerome as a teenager and Andre Holland as an adult) is conflicted between conforming to others’ expectations and asserting what he really wants. These characters portray a layered and dynamic community around Chiron.
I felt such a powerful connection to Chiron’s character even though his life and circumstances were so different from my own. There are some beautifully shot scenes where Chiron spends time at the beach looking out over the water. I think anyone can feel the familiarity of these moments gazing at the sea and seeing there the expanse of everything unexpressed within you. It was a special honour at the screening last night that so many of the cast and crew were there speaking so passionately about how deeply they believe in this film. ‘Moonlight’ gives a perspective that’s so needed in the world right now: a celebration of black bodies, queer desire and the buried emotions of men.
It’s getting chillier here in London so I’ve been staying inside more reading Graham Norton’s first novel “Holding”. I was pleased to discover it’s a story about a small town mystery which hit exactly the right engaging tone that made me want to cosy up under a blanket with a cup of tea and keep reading until I found out what happened. The holding is predominantly about the secrets members of small Irish village Duneen withhold for twenty five years, but which are eventually brought into the open when buried human bones are uncovered at a building site. This is a place where nothing much happens: “Time didn’t pass in Duneen; it seeped away.” So a body being discovered is big news and gets all the local gossipmongers gabbing. At the centre of the novel is the village’s only policeman Sergeant PJ Collins – an overweight, oftentimes solitary man who touchingly discovers the value of being held himself over the course of the novel. This is a thrilling novel with a story that grips you and captivating quirky characters.
PJ Collins finds it difficult to lose weight when his elderly housekeeper Mrs Meany cooks him so many hearty meals. Norton sympathetically writes about PJ’s struggle with self image and his awareness of being laughed at by people, but being helpless to change himself because of the emotional comfort food provides him. When he has the chance to experience a real physical connection it’s tinged with a whole series of emotions because his identity is so tied to the extra weight which has been with him his whole life.
Norton explores the emotional complexity of a number of other relationships in the novel. Three aging sisters who live in one of the village’s finest old houses sounds like something out of a gothic tale. The author creates a really fascinating relationship between the three women and shows how their closeness is both a blessing and a burden. I particularly like the complex way Norton shows how different relationships can sometimes deteriorate. When commenting on the sisters’ parents he writes: “Some marriages combust, others die, and some just lie down like a wounded animal, defeated.” Also, there is the character of Brid Riordan who has become known in the village as someone who too often enjoys a tipple. As a wife and mother of two she’s particularly condemned for doing so. Yet, the author shows how her drinking has become an emotional crutch because of an early heartbreak and problems within her existing marriage.
The compelling hook which made me compulsively read this novel were the intriguing secrets which several characters hold close. It’s well paced so that the reader discovers there is not one mystery, but multiple ones going on in the background as Sergeant PJ Collins and the Detective Superintendent down from Cork investigate and question members of the village. It gradually builds to a dramatic conclusion. “Holding” was such a pleasure to read and it’s wonderful to discover that such an engaging TV presenter is also a talented writer.