WHEN GERMAINE AND ZADIE GOT IT WRONG

The next post will be on or before Saturday April 6th

WHEN GERMAINE AND ZADIE GOT IT WRONG

Few things are more entertaining, albeit also irritating and risible, than seeing brainbox literary critics, whether the UK or US variety, writing myopic and unbelievable drivel about certain overlauded books that come their way. Here for example is Deirdre Donohue writing in USA Today about the 2000 novel Mr Phillips by John Lanchester (born 1962)

‘Lanchester possesses enormous stylistic gifts. Not one sentence is pedestrian…’

Are you sure, Deirdre? Or were you just possibly half-watching the telly, say Friends or the demanding Seinfeld while writing your panegyric to the blemishless maestro? Note that Lanchester is a lifelong Londoner (he is also on the editorial board of the London Review of Books) and here he is in Mr Phillips bringing metropolitan architecture to life with some far from consummate vividness.

‘The houses in the Crescent are low-squatting semi-detached Edwardian villas…They look more cramped than they are, with decent space at the back and sometimes an attic too, as well as three upstairs bedrooms.’

This reads to me like a cross between an estate agent with incipient dementia and the late Ivor Cutler, Scottish poet and humourist (1923-2006) doing his deadpan riffs on witless overstatement. But just in case you think I am cruelly plucking out a sole and anomalous authorial lapse, here is some more tickertape prose where the hero Mr Phillips is caught up in a bank robbery. He is looking at Clarissa Colingford, a TV celebrity who is the object of his regular erotic fantasies, and who by coincidence is also caught up in the terrifying heist.

‘Her thin pale-brown shirt looks as if it was made out of chamois leather and her thin-looking cream trousers unfortunately seem likely to pick up all kinds of dirts and smears from the Barclays carpet’

Do you, intelligent reader, need me to point out the quantity of ungainly hyphenated adjectives in these two samples, one of which is both a repetition of ‘thin’ and also a weakening item of pallid description as he says it is ‘thin-looking’. The point is that Lanchester who is capable of great things as in his debut prizewinning novel written in the first person The Debt to Pleasure (1996) once he moves to the third person as in Mr Phillips, would seem to find himself much of the time completely at sea. The novel is about a day in the life of a London accountant aged 50, recently made redundant and afraid to tell his wife, who even though she is a gifted music teacher, appears more of a blurred cipher than a credible character throughout the novel, where she is invariably called Mrs Phillips. They have 2 young sons called Martin and Thomas who indulge in amiable and predictable anthropological quirks like sleeping all day at the weekend and putting signs on their bedroom doors saying No Entry, but that said none of the four Phillips could be accused of coming to life in the radical novelistic sense of being vivid and credible on the page. As I’ve been telling all my creative writing students for the last 30 years, when trying to produce compelling literary fiction, there are 3 principal ways of making a character vivid. You have the option of telling us the readers, one or all of the following:

-how precisely they look (Dickens, Mollie Keane, George Eliot)

-how precisely they do things (Chekov, Eudora Welty)

-how precisely they speak (Graham Greene, Ivy Compton Burnett)

Sadly, employing the third person and with the distancing device of the ‘Mr’ for his hero, Lanchester’s descriptive powers tend to the formulaic, and his characters, especially the women who set Phillips’ sex-obsessed mind going, tend to be presented as police identikit summaries rather than 3 dimensional human beings. Hence, when we turn to a woman beggar who Phillips chances across during his day at large, his cameo of her down-and-out appearance would barely pass muster in an essay written by a callow and unheeding 11-year-old.

‘…sitting half rolled-up in too many clothes for the weather – heavy trousers, two or three shirts, a coat, a bobble hat, with a couple of plastic bags strewn around her’

Chekov or Dickens or Mollie Keane could have made the same beggar alive for ever by going to town on the precise nature of the trousers, the shirts and the hat, whereas all Mr P can do is subsequently offer a weary and unoriginal John  Lanchester riff on how beggars embarrass you whether you give them money or not. And note that there is not only US Deirdre telling us that inter alia Proustian/ Joycean Lanchester is incapable of writing a pedestrian sentence. We also have Germaine Greer no less (born 1939) with her colossal and original and as a rule fearless brain, saying, ‘I think it is a masterpiece’ plus the  gifted novelist Zadie Smith (born 1975) of all people declaring, ‘Absolute blinder of a book, hysterically funny, very moving, sooo (sic) elegantly done. Rather wish I’d written it meself (sic)’. Perhaps Zadie’s folksy Our Lass Next Door colloquialisms give a clue to both the ambient weakness of British critical insight, and the bizarre astigmatism whereby declared and prominent feminists are praising a book that is at times repellently misogynistic.

To start at the beginning. Mr Phillips who only once in the whole novel is referred to as Victor (it means Conqueror in Latin, but the nuance, if there is any, is so obscure, it is beside the point) is a 50 year old accountant with a 46 year old wife and 2 teenage boys. He has been bounced/made redundant from his job but we don’t discover that until well into the book, nor that his picaresque journey around London is intended to dupe his wife into thinking he is still working. Much of the notional energy of the novel is given up to Mr Phillips’ random third person ruminations, most of them about sex, and as he is an accountant he and his erstwhile Scottish colleague Monroe had often drily embarked on elaborate calculator computations re things like the frequency with which couples all over the UK might have sex. The essential paradox they both agree is that while everyone goes around thinking everyone else is always at it, the obvious statistical and commonsense reality is that the majority of folk are rarely or indeed never having sex. Phillips’ subconscious deals with his own middle- aged libidinal famine by regular erotic dreams, where despite their vividness (more vivid than any of the characters in the book for sure) he never actually penetrates the woman of his night-time fantasy. The vocabulary of his masculine fantasies is often expressed in a stark and mechanical manner with ample use of the words cock, dick, erection and the debatable word cunt (I know several far from prudish women of different generations who cannot bear to hear it uttered in any context). There is very rarely anything approaching a glancing tenderness or even authentic passion of any kind, as opposed to the phallocentric clinical, and there is an odd and strained passage about the hero and his wife where he manages to move from an incipient tender gentleness to a raw and repugnant conclusion

‘…the smell of her…her skin smelling of milk and sometimes cinnamon, her hair of leaves or sometimes, not unpleasantly, of London, a smell of distant gunsmoke…or of the floral aftermath of her previous day’s toilette, and of sweat metallic and musky, perhaps even of the farts which might have been democratically intermingling under the duvet, with an occasional whiff of authentic cunt smell wafting up as she shifts beside him…’

Aside from the lazy imprecision of that word ‘authentic’, it seems to me that both the hero and Lanchester are acutely uncomfortable when it comes to simple tenderness. So that although all is going well and movingly in the text till we get to the word ‘musky’, thereafter both author and protagonist cannot resist the yah boo schoolboy crudity of under the sheet farts. The same is rolled up in a kind of posh and ironic decorousness, which alas shoots itself in the foot by bringing in the sheer banality of that Terry and June suburbia word ‘duvet’. The writer and his hero then stamp on things decisively by dragging in the c-word just to show they ain’t frightened of anything, and aren’t really Terry and June lookalikes after all. The semantic clue to all this cheerily masculine infantilism seems clear at one stage, when Phillips muses that of all the words for sex, such as lovemaking, fucking etc, the one closest to his heart and inner reality is just ‘doing’ ‘it’. One ‘does’ the thing called sex, which seems to me at any rate a grim species of alienation, for he is definitely not talking about women with insensitive lovers lying back and making the lifeless motions. He is instead stating that when he Phillips copulates, in pure existential terms he ‘does’ ‘it’, the all-purpose auxiliary verb ‘to do’ being in my view a colourless and deeply estranged agency if ever there was.

That being the case, there is scant room here for real comedy if any, for how can you have comedy or any other kind of animated fiction, if the characters and descriptive indices are all 2 dimensional, the scene setting ditto (cue at one point a string of undescribed London tube stops by way of ‘movement’ and ‘colour’ in the novel). This book is hailed by numerous cognoscenti as a comic masterpiece, which surely means it needs to stand shoulder to shoulder with Dickens, HG Wells and Flann O’ Brien, but alas it fails at every level, as instead of being truly funny, it is measuredly and usually ornately facetious. Worse still, at times it doesn’t even manage that, and the ironies such as they are could have been culled from a Rotarian’s after dinner speech.

‘A jogger, a tall man wearing white shorts who has a curious prancing stride, lifting his knees high, passes Mr Phillips, and gives him a sidelong look as he bounces by. Presumably you don’t see many people in suits carrying briefcases in parks at this time of day’

I have read this extract six times trying to get some picture of the jogger and his hinted persona, but I see precisely nothing. He like the man who observes him is a facetious ghost, no more. You might well retort, but he is a minor incidental character, so what’s the problem, to which I would say, well why did Lanchester bring him into the novel in that case? By contrast note that in different ways Dickens and Wells and O’Brien, all took pains to animate their creations, including the monsters as well as the buffoons, by appropriate descriptive touches and as a rule subtly wrought if stylised dialogue. To that extent when Dickens is writing about appalling caricatural specimens like Gradgrind and Pecksniff and Murdstone and Mrs Joe, he invests an objective love in their creation by doing them the courtesy of rendering every last piously cruel sniff and snort and wheeze and hypocritical smile. More relevant perhaps is that Wells like Lanchester was also given to titling his comic heroes ‘Mr’ and we have those eponymous and uneven novels featuring Mr Britling, Mr Lewisham, Mr Blettsworthy, Mr Parham and best known of all, Mr Polly. The History of Mr Polly (1910) is by far the least whimsical and most funny of these works, and for all its caricatural contrivance, manages to squeeze piquant comedy out of Wells’ own appalling years as an apprentice draper in Kent, as witnessed also in his superior and perennially endearing 1905 novel Kipps. We all know about Dickens the child in the hideous blacking factory, and perhaps the reason why Lanchester cannot extract great comedy out of his character Phillips is because his creation has known nothing worse than being made redundant at the age of 50, having a marital sex life not quite exciting enough, and having for a time to live on only one income viz that of his wife, Mrs Phillips, with her, as he puts it in an altogether vain and vulgar stab to raise the fictional flashpoint, ‘authentic’ and intimate body odours.

A LIFE WITHOUT ANY PROBLEMS

I will be on holiday soon for a couple of weeks, and there will be no new post until on or before Friday 29th March

A LIFE WITHOUT ANY PROBLEMS

When was the last time you solved a nagging personal problem by breaking the law?  Never?  Me neither. But let me tell you about a friend of mine I shall call Maria, married and living in the countryside, who somewhere around the mid-1980s, when she was about 30, had a problem that was driving her mad. A skilled and natural driver, she kept failing her driving test simply because she was so pent up and nervous at the all or nothing ordeal. Because she lived out in the sticks, she needed reliable transport to her job in the town, plus she was planning to have a child, and there was no way she could rely on non-existent rural buses, nor exorbitant taxis, and with Jack her overworked husband giving her inconvenient lifts everywhere, it was proving onerous and a strain on them both. So it was that on her fourth attempt, before going into the Test Centre, she nipped into the public toilets and took a hefty swig of odourless vodka, a double or possibly a triple measure, whereafter she sailed through her test and indeed the elderly male examiner congratulated her on her impressive navigational finesse.

There is a whole array of moral issues to be debated here, and any reasoned outcome might well be inconclusive. Supposing Maria had kept on failing her test for say another 2 years, with the rural housing market completely stagnant at the time, it is not impossible the marriage might have broken up with them trapped there in their remote but no longer idyllic cottage, she might well have ended up a single mother without a car, she might well have lost her job. Needless to say, once she passed her test and with a small child in tow, she never drank and drove, and for sure she never will. So what she did to make life tolerable for herself and her partner and the imminent child, was an act of lucid and ad hoc expediency rather than moral recklessness, even if I doubt that many others would follow her example. And given that we are talking about the pragmatic use of hazardous alcohol, it’s also relevant to recall life in impoverished mining villages in the UK somewhere around the 1920s and 30s, when colliers on exhausting shift work simply could not be allowed to have broken sleep. If there was a young baby in the house and it was teething and crying, the mother would often take out the rum bottle normally reserved for Christmas cakes and puddings, and put some rum on the baby’s dummy to make it go to sleep. The objective reality of giving a tiny baby strong spirits, however little, is certainly shocking, but with the acoustics of poky back to back mining cottages, of divorce for working folk being non-existent, and the prosecution of domestic violence ditto, what meaningful choice did a practically-minded collier’s wife have at that point?

There are by my count 3 principal ways of dealing with the Bashing Your Head Against a Brick Wall scenario. The most common one is to just keep on vainly bashing and exhausting yourself, possibly until your dying day, with temporary relief in the form of e.g. amnesic weekend holiday breaks if you can afford them, drinking, gambling, and possibly adultery, whether or not you can afford it. The second option is a mystical or spiritual and occasionally psychotherapeutic one, variations on the Zen koan or exercising a paradoxical approach to an intractable problem. The controversial US writer Henry Miller (1892-1980) who was full of homely didactic wisdom often culled from oriental sources, fittingly once quoted a Zen Buddhist saying about brick walls, which went:

Stand still and watch the wall crumble

As I’ve mentioned earlier in these pages, there is the apocryphal tale of two famous Surrealist painters, one of whom I believe was the Belgian, Rene Magritte (1898-1967). The two artists liked each other very much, but were always painfully tongue-tied in each other’s presence, so much so it looked as if the friendship might have to end. Then one of them (remember that he was an artist hence easily seized by unrehearsed inspiration) one day took a pure Zen approach, and instead of mumbling and squirming and blushing at his lack of words, promptly cracked the other one across the face, full across the chops! Satori! Liberation! It was high risk inspiration you might say, but instead of it leading to cascading not to say surreal fisticuffs, it instantly broke the ice, they both started laughing heartily, and they had no communication problems ever after.

In a therapeutic context, there exists something rather on the same lines. A few unusually imaginative psychotherapists, working with those who have a stuck obsession or phobia or fear of losing control, sometimes apply the Paradoxical Injunction method, as a means of reversing the existential blockage, so to speak. Thus, in the American context, we read of a middle-aged woman Maisie institutionalised in a mental hospital for acts of non-dangerous violence, meaning she never actually attacked anyone, but had a habit at home of threatening to go berserk and wrecking the joint, and occasionally actually doing so. Then one day, the farsighted therapist in charge, had the idea of actually encouraging Maisie to go berserk rather than forbidding it, so that he got all his staff to put temptingly smashable but dispensable and non-hazardous objects all over the main reception area, when all the other residents were away on an outing. He then more or less grinned and taunted Maisie to do her worst, whereupon seized by decades of repressed rage, she started smashing and smashing unrestrained. At long last she got tired of, even bored by her epic vandalism, sat down exhausted on the sofa, and alongside her therapist started laughing her head off. Thanks to the paradoxical injunction, she had broken the deadening and debilitating taboo, meaning the projected and introjected and pathological rules she had lived by most of her days, especially during her grotesquely puritanical childhood. At last those rules had been proved by physical means to be existentially false, and from then on Maisie started to improve and would eventually return to the world. And the catharsis you will note, could not be achieved by talk or reasoning or reasonableness, but only by Maisie seizing the prohibition by the horns and overturning it in the form of physically, with her muscles, breaking those bogus childhood rules.

The third way of demolishing the brick wall is by the exercise of imaginative or creative thinking, best exemplified by the Maltese physician and academic Edward de Bono (born 1933) in his theory of Lateral Thinking, a concept he first expounded in 1967. It is the antithesis or perhaps imaginative counterpart of Logical Thinking, which sees deduction and induction and error-seeking as the primary rational means. Lateral Thinking is very often more on the lines of Playful Thinking, in the sense of provocatively asking seemingly inane or pointless questions at times. For example, why should most cups have handles, which demand greater ceramic time and more ceramic expenditure, even if they stop you burning your hands? Whereupon a lateral thinker might suggest that some cheap insulating material be put where the handle would be, or that an external holder, a cheap cardboard container with a cardboard grip be offered…an image which takes me back nostalgically, almost tearfully in fact, to the old British Rail and its Golden Blend coffee in those ground-breaking paper cups. An attractive analogue of the provocative question, why do we always have to have entity X, is the glorified party game which should never be scorned, whereby a bunch of people brainstorm any given problem (should Mary here marry George, currently on a boys only holiday in Benidorm, who is rather good at disguising his alcohol consumption?) to give as many practical decision-making options as possible. They should be rapidly and spontaneously generated, including any ludicrous options (George is really brilliant at pulling crazy faces) and then they can be reduced to the most liberating and imaginative core by the person with the problem, meaning Mary. Mary, in her crucial decision making, is opening up the emotional and imaginative possibilities, simply by the radical energy proliferated by creative brainstorming.

A word or two of obvious caution, though. Some of the least imaginative and least benign people in the world, like to brag about their own capacity for Lateral Thinking, but interestingly they call it something else, and overall, in the UK at least, they favour the cheery if decerebrated vocabulary of Rotarian after dinner speakers. Hence the former UK Prime Minister David Cameron, that not always inspired Bullingdon Club graduate, he who laid Brexit on us by offering a referendum to the good old British public…he our PM was forever talking in reverential terms about ‘Thinking Outside of The Box’. The rent-a-cliché vacuity of this pre-packaged discourse was laid bare in other oleaginous formulae, specially designed to make your flesh itch. Namely, and apropos Tory political maxims or economic strategies he would say, ‘It Does What It Says on The Tin’ and re those unsettling not to say irritating and treacherous differences of collective strategic viewpoint, he would sunnily enquire ‘Are We Singing From The Same Hymn Sheet?’

Boxes, tins, hymn sheets? Imaginatively and subliminally speaking, seemingly we are back in the cosily retarded world of the 1930s, when you will recall Britain ruled a quarter of the world as colony, dominion and protectorate (which sonorous term is surely its own antonym, is it not?). There is no mystery then about why so many people voted for Brexit, for with every nerve they are hankering after the good old days when like so many selfless and saintly monarchs they and their like amnesically ruled the grateful globe…