Wednesday, 1 July 2015

A girl is a half-formed thing

I was intrigued by 'A girl is a half-formed thing' by Eimear McBride when it appeared on the Women's Fiction Prize shortlist last year (an award it won). I bumped it up the list when I discovered that a stage version has been produced and will be on at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer. It's not often that I say this but I have never read a book quite like this before. Experimental is a word that inevitably springs to mind, and no doubt occurs in all the reviews, none of which I had read. I read the first chapter and thought, 'What the hell!!' Having spent a lot of time around small children I could make some sense of what she was trying to get across, but was very relieved that the character became more coherent (but only slightly) as she aged. So we have this girl, and the book happens inside her head; her thoughts, her reactions, her imaginings, her memories. But they are written like thoughts, the way they flit across your mind and never form into 'proper' sentences, are often implied and unfinished. After the first chapter, and deciding I would make a stab at it after all, I stopped expecting anything. All the things you expect from a novel are absent, and yet, somehow still there. There are characters and you come to understand a little of their motivations. There are places and incidents that are described, in a kind of patchwork, that gradually comes together to make a whole. You have to read the whole book in a totally different way. Individual sentences themselves (the bits between a capital letter and a full stop) don't make sense, but once you have read a page something begins to emerge. 

So lots of quotes to come now. This first one is quite early on, so she is young, five or six I suppose, in this section you see the exuberance of childhood but she is already learning what is expected of her:

"It's a dangerous place for smacking mass. Any trying to run up and down the aisle. Get back here. Climbing through the seats ahead. Sorry. Sit down. Sucking tissues or getting under the pew. That's a good thump in the back. Stand up here and it goes right through your lungs. I like that, to make men from sucked toilet paper. I have plenty and I never clean my nose. Stop that dirty thing. You get it for GI Joe man banging on the floor. But he's jumping. Ssssh. But Mammy he's. Ssssh. Jumping off Niagara Falls. Stop. That. Now. Ow. Be quiet I said.
And when we go out all the old ones saying would you look at that, and aren't they great at their age you can get them to behave at all. At that age mine were up to all sorts. Sure they had my heart broke. She smiles says they're a handful, but you wouldn't be without them would you? No. Thanks be to God.
Do you like coming to God's house? In the car home. Careful. And for this the answer's yes. Would you not rather be watching the telly? No, Mammy I wouldn't. No." (p.19)

This second one is vivid and heartbreaking, as she watches her brother try and join in a football game and how he is tormented by the other boys:

"Think please just leave the pitch. Please just walk away. It won't be worse than standing there. But you're still trying. Fumbling red for words. He's doing you even as you speak now, to your face. My throat. Is blank. Is sewn up. You shouting what's so funny. I nearly died. I still could. It's still in me. It isn't funny and then, for pity, say why are you laughing about me? They are and laughing more. Your anger permits. Gives goals and goals. You face red thick. Bulged indignated. The bullish face fat with humiliation. Handicap. Handicap. One from the back gets the ball. Kicks and aims. It strikes your face. Bleared with mud. And knock you over. Laughter. Laughter. Never ever will it stop. Not ever. Not ever again. The bell rings and releases you from that place. I close my eyes and wish this day had never been or you or me. I walk back and will not help. Pretend I didn't even see. Did you see me? Look at them hear them talking just a bit embarrassed about it. About what they done. And I will not think of your feelings anymore. For it's a bit too much to know." (p.50)

As a teenager the girl is raped by her uncle, though the situation is ambiguous and later she has an ongoing relationship with him. This incident leads her quite directly into what is described on the cover as 'chaotic sexuality', where she uses sex almost as a means of self identity. If she is seeking some kind of approval all she is going to find within the confines of her mother's religion is disgrace.  It's not clear what she is looking for, I don't think she knows herself, but she certainly doesn't find it. She goes off to university and finds a friend who joins her in the chaos, the two of them leading a life of drink and sex. The ongoing bond with her brother is the only thing that gives her cause for concern outside of herself, and when his childhood cancer returns it is her cue to go home. This scene in the hospital shows the importance to her of their relationship: 

"When they've gone out we see sitting prop in the bed. You. With some bowl of pudding with your wobble hand eat. Drop it look up say I saved you some. I. And you are, I know, look like five again. So I hug you and say now what have you done? Gone fell over like an eejit. Cracked your head. Well done. Sorry. You laugh all the same. Well done. I am smothered. Air bit strangled by that. So how are you feeling? Ah not too bad. Not too bad a bit tired and they hurt my head. Touch somewhere a bandage and all around shaved. Ah that's nothing wait til you see what I can do for giving me a fright. You laugh. That's calm now and I can do that. So are you truce for a moment? And she says we are. We sit. By your bed. Look at you. Think. Wonder. What is going on?" (p.122)

It is almost impossible to describe this book. It is rather overwhelming because you experience directly the emotional impact of the things that happen to her. It feels like the ultimate example of a small child who's needs have not been met, who wants so much from the people around her, can't articulate that need and finds herself trapped in destructive ways of dealing with a world that makes no sense to her. Tragic and heartrending. Expect to work hard to find the moments of understanding.

Another girl

'The Girl on the Train' by Paula Hawkins was getting the kind of hype that Gone Girl got two summers ago, so I fell for it. We waited in a queue of 94 people for several months. Tish read it first, and it should have been a clue that she wasn't coming out with exclamations of how exciting it was. I haven't really read a lot of thrillers, but if you like that kind of thing then I am sure this is going to hold your attention. 

Rachel sits on the train every morning and evening, and when it pauses at some points she begins to invent a life for the couple she watches across their garden. It just so happens that they are neighbours of her ex-husband who lives with his new wife and baby in a house along the row ... one she used to share with him. Lets just say she hasn't really got over the breakup. So when the young woman she has been watching goes missing it's almost the perfect excuse to get involved. The only problem is she doesn't actually remember what happened. The most interesting thing about this story is its presentation of alcoholism. The mixture of guilt, humiliation, rationalisation, self-justification, anger and bitterness are all torturously portrayed as Rachel tries to cope with her fucked-up life, fucked-up marriage and general downward spiral into destitution. She is so desperate to make amends ... just not if it means forgoing the drink. 

The tale is told from three perspectives; Rachel to begin with, then introducing Megan, the disappeared, and later in the book Anna who is the new wife. I did not like any of them. There is rather a lot of tedious hysteria in this book, and the women are all far to victim-y for my taste. There was too much emphasis on certain characters, in a 'oooh look how suspicious this behaviour is' way, that makes you determined not to suspect them. As we raced towards the denouement I did sit up late to finish because by that time you just want to know how it pans out, but it felt rather too much like it was written with a view to the film rights. Why do writers make characters make stupid decisions in dangerous situations, it feels lazy to me. I didn't like any of the men either. She tried to make a bit of a thing about abusive relationships too but singularly failed. It felt like everyone was manipulating everyone else. Are people really like that? It's not that everybody has to be nice, it's just I don't buy these rather two dimensional nasty people. Definitely no Gone Girl.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Visit from the Goon Squad

A review that has been in the draft folder for weeks so I just need to write something and move on ... not that I didn't love this book, just that I have been lacking the energy to put fingers to keyboard.
I picked up 'A Visit From the Goon Squad' by Jennifer Egan when I was visiting Monkey in London. It is a collection of interlocking stories that covers the lifetime of the central group of young people who gather in the first chapter. Each time you have to make a small mental adjustment to see who is involved and where in time the events are taking place; often years have flashed past in the turn of the page and they are all but unrecognisable. I liked it because of the different voices and the immediate way she manages to involve you on each new chapter; despite the ups and downs  that life throws at them the characters are identifiable and I enjoyed the unfolding of the separate paths. She jumps around from tense to tense; sometimes things are described very immediate as they happen, then other times it is reminiscences, and then others she lurches wildly into the future describing in a short paragraph the long term outcomes of a particular event. I really love the chapter written by a teenage daughter in the form of charts and diagrams, it gave her a very distinctive voice. I didn't note down any quotes, which is unusual, and mostly signifies that I was engaged with the story more than the intricacies of the prose.
I pulled this one out almost at random, it gives a picture of their teenage days:

"On warm days Scotty plays his guitar. Not the electric he uses for Flaming Dildos gigs, but a lap steel guitar that you hold a different way. Scotty actually built this instrument: bent the wood, glued it, painted on the shellac. Everyone gathers around; there's no way not to when Scotty plays. One time the entire J.V. soccer team climbed up from the athletic field to listen, looking around in their jerseys and long red socks like they didn't know how they got there. Scotty is magnetic. And I say that as someone who does not love him.
The Flaming Dildos have had a lot of names: the Crabs, the Croks, the Crimps, the Crunch, the Scrunch, the Gawks, the Gobs, the Flaming Spiders, the Black Widows. Every time Scotty and Bennie changed the name, Scotty sprays black over his guitar case and Bennie's bass case, and then he makes a stencil of the new name and sprays it on. We don't know how they decide if they should keep a name, because Bennie and Scotty don't actually talk. But they agree on everything, maybe through ESP. Jocelyn and I write all the lyrics and wok out the tunes with Bennie and Scotty. We sing with them in rehearsal, but we don't like being onstage. Alice doesn't either - the only thing we have in common with her." (p.43-44)

There is something faintly nostalgic about the story, or you feel that way by the time you reach the end, a wistful sense of what might have been, and a trying to hold on to the romantic notions of adolescence. 

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Here be Dragons

Sorry Stella but I don't think this is as good a book as 'Cold Comfort Farm'. It tells the story of Nell and her move with her parents from rural penury to the urban glamour of Hampstead under the patronage of a wealthy aunt. Her father has misplaced his calling to the ministry and is suffering from depression, and while her mother potters around trying to make the best of things Nell starts a tedious job in a stifling office arranged by Aunt Peggy (Lady Fairfax) to support the family. Unlike Flora our Nell is determined to work hard, earn money, be responsible and forge a career for herself. She encounters her wayward cousin John who introduces her to the bohemian coffee bar culture, which seems to consist of a bunch of unwashed artistic writer types who sponge off their girlfriends and consider themselves somehow above paid employment. 

I think neither the title nor the description on the back represented the story very accurately; much as Nell has lived a restricted and controlled childhood, and London is certainly an unexplored territory, she enters it not in the spirit of exploration but more like a dispassionate observer. She has a very strong sense of herself and her values and at no point is she 'led astray' by the example of this gang of dissolute youth, in fact she seems to view them as objects of curiosity and remains resolutely on the outside of the social crowd. She starts playing tennis with Robert but has only friendly feelings towards him as she has developed an unacknowledged crush on the rather obnoxious John. He is so utterly self-obsessed, and nothing could tempt me to like him. He is forever going off to see someone about a job, but never gets one, and seems to assume that Nell will abide by his comings and going and be available to keep him company any time he requires it. He enjoys manipulating people and situations and sees his friends as  just there for his amusement,  delighting in their attention and being told how wonderful he is. In some ways his only saving grace is that he doesn't at least have any illusions about himself:

"'Do you know why I liked Nerina so much?' he said, after a silence in which he put a great deal of sugar into his tea. 'Because she never tried to make me any different or asked me to give her anything. She never made demands on me. I hate being asked for things; time or attention or liking. I just want to be left alone, and to have someone there when I want them.'" (p.339)

So we follow Nell as she moves from the office to a tea shop, challenging by inches the rules that have governed her life up to this point, and the assumptions of her parents about what is appropriate. The story really encapsulates the new found freedoms of the younger generation during the 50s, when money, music and sex were all suddenly much more freely available to them. I loved this description of Hampstead:
"Hampstead showed increasing signs of being given over to Bohemia; the pavements echoed with flapping sandals and the clapping of Continental clogs; there were tights and striped blue-and-white jeans to be seen loitering round the Underground station, and somehow all this seemed to Nell to be linked with the expected arrival of Nerina at The Primula next Monday evening." (p.181-2)

While it was a period of social and cultural change the old attitudes still held a lot of sway, so being a co-respondent in a divorce, or an unmarried pregnancy were still potentially devastating situations. The story was very slow compared to Cold Comfort Farm, and much as I liked Nell I really wished she would let her hair down occasionally, but you could really see her as a woman going places, taking advantage of the economic opportunities and eventually learning her lesson where the feckless John is concerned. 

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Kierkegaard and all that

I have been doing a few more Coursera courses over the last few months, having started several last year but not completed any. The course on Kierkegaard was another that I did not complete, put off partly by the fact that I was supposed to write a real essay to pass the course, but also by the utterly unreadable nature of his writings. So I borrowed 'Kierkegaard: A guide for the perplexed' by Claire Carlisle from the library, since the lectures were interesting and I followed enough to feel that he had something significant to impart.

The thing that strikes you is how learning about Kierkegaard the man is vital to understanding his way of thinking (second only to learning how to spell his name of course). What is most interesting is that he doesn't think of philosophy as some kind of abstract ideas, but as integral to being human:
"Instead of excluding his personal life from his intellectual work, he turned his experiences of love, suffering, spiritual weakness, moral conflict and despair into philosophical problems, and insisted that these could not be addressed through rational, abstract thought. Kierkegaard argues that objectivity is dishonest and unable to capture what is most fundamental to human existence, because before anybody becomes a philosopher - and even, in fact, before they start to think about anything - they are already an 'existing individual' who lives, breathes and moves continually closer to death. The idea of an 'existing individual' is absolutely central to Kierkegaard's philosophy, but of course this is more than just an idea, and abstract concepts fail to capture the vitality and fluidity of life." (p.15)

There is much debate about the distinction between the person he was and the person he presents as in his writing; was he trying to create alternate personas for himself, or is it the case that it allowed him to posit all kinds of potentially unpopular views and arguments. The vast majority of his writings were published under a series of pseudonyms. He argued that the aim was to distance himself from the reader so he would not be viewed as some kind of authority figure. Heavily influenced by the thought of Socrates his aim was not to present a coherent package of ideas or 'truths' but to lead students to find the truth for themselves. He did not want to tell people how they should live, but encourage them to think for themselves.
"One of his priorities is to awaken readers to their capacity for choice, and by refusing the role of author and authority-figure he is giving the reader the opportunity to exercise her freedom." (p.38)

Kierkegaard's critique of Hegel, an important and influential german philosopher of the time, was an ongoing theme in much of his writing; his influence is significant if you consider how much time and effort Kierkegaard put into it (here talking about Either/Or).
"By dramatising the philosophical debates of his contemporaries, he takes the issues out of the purely reflective, theoretical context, and into actual existence. There is  in Kierkegaard's thought an attempt to move beyond academic philosophy, as well as to criticise Hegelian ideas in particular. This means that his relationship to both philosophical traditions and the academic world is rather ambiguous: on the one hand he draws from concepts created by other philosophers, which were already topical - such as Aristotle's principle of contradiction - but on the other hand he uses these concepts to argue that philosophy cannot express the whole truth about human existence." (p.56)

He wanted to shift the focus of thinking away from Hegel's insistence on objective truth, for Kierkegaard the 'inwardness' of the individual was all important. As the book points out, "Kierkegaard's philosophy reflects a common experience of feeling occasionally at odds with the world and unable to express oneself fully within it", and perhaps this is why he has come to be linked so closely with 20th century existential philosophy. For him subjectivity was more significant:
"'Subjectivity is truth' means that truth is a way of being a subject, or a way of existing as a human being. Kierkegaard says that subjective truth is a matter of how - how one lives - whereas objective truth is a matter of what one knows or believes." (p.68)
However:
"Right through Kierkegaard's authorship there runs the claim that, from an existential point of view, intellectual reflection alone is unable to reach the goals of ethical and religious life. Religious faith is presented as a greater task and a rarer achievement than rational thought." (p.61)
I begin to loose contact with him at this point because he moves off into the realm of theology and I skimmed though the last part of the book. In the same way that Descartes came up with all sorts of interesting challenges to mainstream thinking of the day, he baulks at actually questioning the existence of god. Challenging the doctrines of the church is one thing, anything that might undermine their essential message is quite another. There are some interesting introduction to critiques of Kierkegaard on his Wikipedia page if you are interested. So, a very interesting person, privileged by his independent wealth to spend his life thinking about what it means to be human, something that we should all do from time to time.
"He wrote a book on the topic, with a title that summed up his quandary: Either / Or. Either get married to Regine or don’t get married. What’s it best to do? Settle down to family life? Or look for someone else? Stay single? Or settle for what you know already? After a year of agony (of angst), he broke off the engagement. But he pined for Regine nevertheless, leading to a memorable outburst: 'Marry, and you will regret it; don’t marry, you will also regret it; marry or don’t marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the world’s foolishness, you will regret it; weep over it, you will regret that too… Hang yourself, you will regret it; do not hang yourself, and you will regret that too; hang yourself or don’t hang yourself, you’ll regret it either way; whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the essence of all philosophy.' "(Quoted from The Philosopher's Mail)

Love again

'Love, again' by Doris Lessing is ostensibly about an older woman falling in love with two young men, but I found I was much more drawn to the background story of the wayward Julie Viaron, around who's life The Green Bird theatre company are devising a production. It traces also the friendship between Sarah and Stephen, their wealthy backer who had also developed a tragic fascination with the character of Julie. So poor Sarah must contend with a painful crush on the tantalising Bill, replaced by a deep burning passion for Henry, the director, and fending off the outrageous advances of Andrew, another of the young actors with a 'thing' for older women. As she dances back and forth amongst all this male attention there is hardly a mention of her relationships with the women that she is working alongside, women who she would plainly have been very close to. She lives with all this turmoil inside her head, she confides it to no one, so although the story is supposed to be some kind of celebration of love you end up feeling that Sarah is ashamed of what she is experiencing, as if her maturity means she should be beyond all this and it is somehow a little inappropriate.

What I really enjoyed about the story was the growing bond between the theatre company as they work on their play, that has been written by Sarah based on Julie's diaries and some very hypnotic music that she wrote and has recently been rediscovered. All the players are drawn into the story of her life and working to create something they all feel worthwhile:

"They were already a group, a family, partly because if their real interest in this piece, partly because of the infectious energies of Henry. Already they were inside the feeling of conspiracy, faint but unmistakeable, the we-against-the-world born out of the vulnerability of actors in the face of criticism  so often arbitrary, or lazy, or ignorant, or spiteful - against the world outside, which was them and not we, the world which they would conquer. It was because if Julie Varion's special atmosphere." (p.81)

The production is an artistic and critical success, which of course becomes its downfall. The local community, wanting to capitalise on the popularity, ends up destroying the woods and the ruin of Julie's house to build car parks and hotels, removing all sense of place and history that had been so integral to the original production. Another member of the production company takes the story and turns it into a rather tacky musical. Life, and the Green Bird, moves on to other things, but Sarah is left with this hopeless passion for Henry. She and Stephen console each other in the absence of anyone else who understands, and so it becomes more a story about that friendship, which is much the most interesting relationship in the book:

"He would ask her about what she had done that day, and tell her what he had, the the careful, meticulous way that she recognised - though she did not want to - as a prophylactic against the absent-mindedness of grief. He asked what she had been reading, and told her what books were pled up on his night table, for he was not sleeping much.
They might talk for an hour or more, while he looked from his window over darkening fields. He could hear the horses moving about, he said. As for her, she had a plane tree outside her window, its middle regions at eye level, and through it she watched the lights of the windows opposite." (p.209-10)

I have become much more interested in Doris Lessing the person than the writer, having followed a series of articles by Jenny Diski in The London Review of Books, about the period that she spent living with Doris as a young woman. I went through a bit of a Doris Lessing phase in my twenties, reading the Children of Violence series, and The Golden Notebook is on my 101 books list for later this year.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Austerity Rules UK

So, the election result was pretty depressing, compared to last time when I felt relatively positive (little did I know!) It reminds me of the third Thatcher victory, the terrible sense of hopelessness and incomprehension. Rather than sink into a state of despondency I went along today to a demonstration in Piccadilly Gardens. It was organised by a couple of local young men with the assistance of The People's Assembly Against Austerity, which is acting as an umbrella organisation for a huge variety of protests that are going on against pretty much every aspect of planned government policy, from the human rights act to the fox hunting ban, though focussing mostly on the widespread cuts in public spending and the privatisation of the NHS. Having been involved for many years in the anti-nuclear movement I think that even though marching through the streets is not going to bring down the government any time soon, it still has an impact on public opinion and ensures the politicians know we're watching them.

Michael Rosen (his blog is here and well worth a read) summed the situation up just perfectly on Facebook the other day:
"The government's trick is to convince enough people that cuts in healthcare, education and welfare are inevitable and necessary whereas a redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor (and to provide better healthcare, education and welfare) is impossible, crazy and dangerous. Meanwhile UKIP (with Tory and Labour nodding in the background) claim that poor healthcare, education and welfare is caused by immigrants and not as a result of the super-rich hoarding wealth."

There is a big demonstration planned at the Bank of England in London on 20th June, so if you are at all despondent get out and add your voice to the gathering crowd.

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