Lessons from YA Books

Having read several dystopian novels lately (see my thoughts here) I decided to try a YA version, to see how they compared. I was pleasantly surprised. While I’m incredibly wary of genre-specific snobbery, I confess I am subject to a bit of it when it comes to the YA genre. The books that I’ve read tend to be trite, or the emotions overstated, or clichéd, or they simply dealt with an area of human experience that had lost resonance for me. In the case of The Giver, I not only found a genuinely good book, I also thought that the ‘adult’ sphere of novels could learn a few lessons from it.

A great story doesn’t have to be complicated. 

We are in a perfect world. There is no pain, no hunger, no loss, no poverty. But, of course, this comes at a price. In order to live in a society this controlled, feelings must be suppressed. The question the book asks is quite simple – is a world without sorrow, hate or pain worth it, when there is no joy or love?

We follow Jonas, a young boy who meets The Giver, a man who holds the collective memories of humanity. As The Receiver, Jonas must start to take on the memories himself. As a result, he starts to discover a hidden past, along with profound feelings that leave him confused. He comes to realise the flaws in the perfect world around him, and starts to question the nature of the world around him.

But all of this is told in a very simplistic way. We don’t enter into huge philosophical debates, there is no fluffy description or hyperbolising. Often, the most simply stated things are the most moving.

Being simple doesn’t mean you can’t be complex.

Just because the plot and the language seem straightforward, doesn’t mean the questions and metaphors they’re throwing up are basic. The whole world could be a metaphor for censorship or control, and the effects it has on people. By taking things that people assume are ‘perfect’ to the extreme, you could question the very nature of happiness and perfection, and that part of the beauty of humanity is the struggle, the contrast between highs and lows. The ending could be hugely optimistic or depressingly cynical, depending on how you choose to read it. In fact, it is because things are not overtly spelled out, that the book can be open to a myriad of interpretations.

Never underestimate a decent plot. 

People that tell stories well are often undervalued. The great Stephen King, rarely given much credence in terms of ‘literature,’ is masterful at weaving together stories and keeping them pacy and engaging. This, as I’m discovering, is one of the most difficult elements of writing. Take me into another world, make me see it and feel it, use language to make it sound nice – these things are fairly accessible to all writers.

But immerse me in a story, convince me to follow a character through twists and turns, make me unable to tear my eyes away from a page – this has somehow been deemed a lesser skill. Not that I’m advocating reading Dan Brown, but it’s worth remembering that a good plot with tension dropped in at pertinent points is harder than it seems.

Children aren’t stupid.

I think one of the objections people have to reading from the perspectives of children is because they find them a little, well, childish. In fact, the best authors of this genre don’t underestimate the interpretive powers of their young protagonists. One of the criticisms against The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (although I love that book) is that Bruno comes across as just a little too clueless. In this book, Jonas can comprehend the magnitude of what he is seeing, the power he holds, the difference it makes in the world. The way he sees his parents change, and he is forced into an uncomfortable decision. Child narrators allow a writer to pare things down, but also allow for a much richer level of discovery and development.

Novels like The Giver remind us that stories can be simple, written for children, and still beautiful and resonant for readers of all ages.

When Revenge Goes Bad…

Frank Herbert offers us an insight into the darker side of human nature in The White Plague, an apocalyptic tale of revenge.

The cover of the book is very apt – murky fog, a solitary figure, a town shrouded in obscurity. Even if the weather is fine, or we are indoors, this novel revels in the unknown. The words not said, agendas not revealed, or the problems or changes that might be lurking just around the corner. The message is clear: no-one is to be trusted.

In Ireland, a man is visiting with his family. In one push of a button, his life is destroyed. The provisional IRA detonate a bomb, killing his wife and two children. From this, a desperate revenge unfolds. He creates a virus that attacks only women, the worst possible curse he can imagine to harm the nations that have wronged him.

We are offered a fairly universal viewpoint as the book develops, rather than being ‘on the ground’ in one country, as most dystopias tend to be. We shift between Irish, English and US perspectives, with some French and Russian characters thrown in to counterbalance it all. This gives a true sense of the scale of this hypothetical virus, and allows the author to imagine the global conflict and power struggles that would erupt under such conditions.

There are a few questionable plot points, which didn’t gape wide enough to unhinge the story. How, for example, is it possible that one scientist, in a makeshift lab, can disprove theories of molecular DNA? His science also feels overstated, and for that purpose, doesn’t ring quite true, almost as though he’s trying to labour the fact that he’s done his research. Having said that, his prediction of the use of genetics in warfare was pretty spot on, with the book being written in 1982.

These questions make the book feel more like a ‘what if?’ than a genuine scientific possibility. This perhaps impacts on how much we care about outcomes, but it still explores these ideas in an incredibly interesting way.

The later parts of the book are mostly set in Ireland. We follow a tortuous journey through the Irish countryside – devastated as it was one of the first areas hit, with the characters arguing over the long-term problems of Ireland and the possibility of hope and faith in such a world. We follow the man who created the virus (slightly dodgy use of schizophrenia as a plot tool), the man who blew up his family, a priest, and a young boy silenced by the horrors he has seen.

It’s certainly compelling. I found myself unable to put the book down. Each character had enough depth that I cared what happened to them. The setting was very atmospheric and moody, painting a bleak picture of how humanity might behave if it were faced with such problems.

I did find, however, that the rambling conversations of the troupe in Ireland were unnecessarily long. It almost felt like the author had an interest in philosophy, especially in relation to religion, and wanted to debate a series of arguments. In an extreme setting, questions of God and morality are important, but at times it felt laboured.

Of course, what Herbert is really questioning is the extent to which scientific understanding, in the wrong hands, is perhaps the most dangerous knowledge on earth. Which makes for a pretty good book.

Hag-Seed

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A new book by Margaret Atwood! Very exciting. I went along to her talk at the Southbank Centre (proper fan moment) and heard her discuss the book, her life, and her work. She is one interesting lady. She also has good shoes (silver!). There’s something incredibly refreshing about listening to someone like her talk. Intelligent, yes, talented, yes, but there is something fundamentally captivating about a person who is just so interested and passionate about the world. With so much whining about things on social media, here we have a woman of immense literary talent who devotes her time to helping out local libraries, who supports campaigns to help combat global warming, and who writes graphic novels about a part-cat, part-bird superhero called Angel Cat Bird. Now there’s someone I would like to invite to dinner.

And, of course, she talked about her new novel, Hag-Seed. A reinventing of The Tempest, it is the fourth novel in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, following Jeanette Winterson’s retelling of The Winter’s Tale, Howard Jacobson’s of The Merchant of Venice and Anne Tyler’s of The Taming of the Shrew. It’s a tricky thing, as she acknowledged herself, to re-invent such a well-heeled play from such a respected writer as Shakespeare.

Rather than trip around the subject, Atwood tackles this head on, and allows her main character in on the secret – he is perfectly aware that his life is following the structure of the play, and in fact is in the process of trying to put on a performance of it. He even has a daughter called Miranda. This deft layering of story onto story is a little nudge to the reader; we’re all in on it. It allows for both subtle and overt analysis of the play, its characters themes and ideas, as well as making us feel very clever for getting the references.

Our Prospero is played by Felix, a director who has been spurned from the local Festival, usurped by (of course) his evil brother, and shunned by society. He goes to an obscure little hovel to lick his wounds, and is kept company by his visions of a daughter who died at age 3. So far, so familiar. In fact, I found the opening a little ploddy, but it all took off after Felix takes a job working in the Fletcher Correctional Institute. Here, we meet a new cast of characters, in the inmates who provide the acting skills for various Shakespeare plays. His dream is to finally stage his perfect Tempest. Of course, underpinning all of this is Felix’s desire for revenge. One day he will confront his brother and take back what is rightfully his. Best way to do that? Putting on some plays with criminals, apparently. I have to say I was curious as to how this particular plot would play out, but I needn’t have feared. With Atwood, you’re always in safe hands, and she steers the course of the novel deftly towards its climax.

Some reviewers have found the inmates to be lacking depth as characters. Personally, I quite liked that. It allowed for a layering of interpretations and modernisation to be done through them, without needing to know who they are. They almost figuratively played the part of Prospero’s goblins (they do literally too), in that they are a means to an end, rather than characters in themselves. As Felix brings together his plans for The Tempest, we also have a rather important aside – namely the power of literature to educate and engage the incarcerated. It’s an oft-repeated accusation that prisoners have a ‘cushy’ life, and funding for programmes like literature or drama is often cut. Atwood reminds us of the power of performance, and how a sense of pride and a desire for knowledge can be a powerful tool in rehabilitation. Also, it’s great to hear hardened criminals only swearing in Shakespearean. I might use that one in my classes.

Because the characters aren’t fully realised, there are some great things that can be done with them. We have modernised Shakespearean rap, continuations of the story into fanciful places, modern twists and interpretations of characters and actions, and of course (it being Atwood) a high-kicking Miranda who refuses to be anyone’s plaything. At times it is playful and fun, at others a deep commentary on the nature of loss, identity, and how people can learn to trust each other and heal themselves. I particularly liked how much spotlight was given to Caliban, the Hag-Seed himself, whose origins and destiny are scrutinised, especially by the characters that identify with him.

In re-imagining something, the idea is to take the coherent themes and see how they can be manipulated. Having such an overt agenda in this book means that we can join in, something that I found truly engaging. It’s like an English teacher’s dream. The resonance of Shakespeare’s words are always far-reaching, but it seems that Atwood brings that very notion directly to the surface, rather than hiding it beneath a completely different story. I loved the overt references and discussion and hey, who doesn’t like a few goddesses thrown in for good measure?

Atwood, through Shakespeare, reminds us that The Tempest is all about confinement. In many ways, we are all imprisoned. Sometimes by society, or the way others treat us, or perhaps in prisons of our own making. We are reminded that it is self awareness and hope, not desire for revenge, that will ultimately allow us to be free.

Y: The Last Man

I know I’m massively behind the times in reading this, but as I’m currently working on a similar narrative, several people recommended this graphic novel as a good place to look at how a gender-imbalanced dystopia played out. Interesting ideas, some lessons learned, and a few pitfalls to avoid.

On a day in 2002, a mystery virus simultaneously kills off every creature with a Y chromosome on the planet. Apart from one. Yorick (his parents liked Shakespeare) and his monkey Ampersand, are the only males left alive on the planet.

It’s a neat premise, that leads to a range of far-reaching narratives. There’s loads to explore, and the comic uses split narratives and unusual time-framing to quickly absorb us into the various effects all over the world. It acknowledges the immediate economic and political collapse, as these are areas almost completely dominated by men. The planes that would drop out of the sky, the trains that would crash, the nuclear plants that would suddenly be under threat.

But, where is the resilience? I refuse to believe that half of the species would simply sit about and get hungry. There are a huge number of women in a range of very practical professions, and the cavalier response to disaster just felt a little weak, as if over-exaggerating the impact it would have. Don’t get me wrong, it would be huge initially, but there is technology, systems in place, and the lack of order in the book smacked of the ‘helpless female’ stereotype I hoped this book would try to avoid.

The story is fast-paced and the characters interesting, leading to The Last Man embarking on a journey to discover why he was immune, and how he could find the secret and therefore, save the planet. With him are a secret agent and a doctor, who provide more nuanced characters than the rest, and give a foil for the often arrogant Yorick to bounce against. As a relative newcomer to graphic novels, I found it a really enjoyable read. Of course it is telling a female story, but ultimately, it is the man that is setting out to save the world, which was a little disappointing.

There were other problems with it. At times it was a little stylised. All of the people that we hear from in the story are beautiful, everyone from convicts to guerrilla fighters. Despite being in a world without men, we still had hugely sexualised female characters. The garbage collector just happens to be an ex-model, and we are given a very minimal range of female characters. I suppose with so many narrative threads running through, it’s hard to get completely rounded characters, and so far I have only read the first edition. However, for a world without men, I would have much preferred to have more variation on the scale from ‘nice girl’ to ‘psycho bitch/butch lady’, with a couple of ‘intelligent’ women thrown in for good measure. For a book that’s re-examining the world as we know it, I would like to think they could move outside existing tropes of femininity. I also didn’t understand why we couldn’t look beyond simple gender binary, with all the women apparently falling over themselves to be with Yorick. It was an opportunity to look outside these simple pairings, and I think it missed a trick.

Having said that, the level of violence is, in a way, refreshing. Far from the ‘mother earth’ nonsense that often turns up in feminine utopias, we see struggles for power, killing and chaos in the aftermath of the disease. It’s good that it acknowledges these things are human problems, not male problems. Desire for control and a search for understanding in the world is what preoccupies everyone, and it often leads to fatal conflict. Why should men not being around make any difference? Having said that, the Amazons were infuriating. Ridiculous characters with no believable back story, they form a sort of anti-male cult. Which, apart from anything else, is now entirely pointless. It seems they only exist to give Yorick something to run away from. A lazy plot device that sticks to the ‘feminists as psychos’ trope.

There are plenty of hooks dropped in to make you want to carry on reading the series. The reason the men died, a scientific accident, some loopholes drifting above the stratosphere, there is plenty of story here.

I just found it a little, showy. Yes it’s very compelling, I genuinely cared about the characters, but I felt too often the hand of the writer, creating plot twists with a little ‘ta da!’ in the background. Maybe comics aren’t for me, as the reviews I’ve read say that this is a refreshing break from stereotypical characters, so what must the other stuff be like?

Anything that questions gender politics is good in my book, but let’s try and do something a bit more complex next time. It opened up a lot of possibilities and questions for the world I’m currently creating (watch this space!) which is definitely what I was after. Perhaps we have just moved on a little from 2002. I would like to think so. Perhaps a version of this comic now would try to shock us in different ways.

We Are All Disordered

41gkmvzpzwl-_sy344_bo1204203200_This month I started teaching AS Media Studies. What a treat. I’d forgotten the delights of delving into the signs and representations that we are bombarded with in daily life, and unpicking the institutions behind them, the messages they send us, and why. Of course, it can lead to a few rude awakenings. Poring over Lynx’s ‘ironic’ adverts depicting a scantily clad woman pulling a turkey out of the oven, it was clear that some of my students were already hyper-aware of the skewed views we are exposed to every day. Others, perhaps more worryingly, were not. For their coursework, they need to come up with a range of media products. One of the areas they need to research and analyse is representation. Keen to link into modern debates, I talked to them about black representation in the music industry, and the distorted view of mental health and its institutions in the film industry. From psychotic killers to psychiatrists who are just waiting to meet the right patient so they can marry them, Hollywood does very little to broach the myriad issues surrounding mental health and stigma.

To be honest, it seems that the system is frightening enough, without needing to be fictionalised. I’ve just finished reading The Last Time I Wore A Dress. It’s a memoir of the teenage years of Daphne (now Dylan) Scholinski. You’d be forgiven for thinking it told a series of events that happened in the fifties, back when electric shock therapy and lobotomies were still considered normal practice. Alas, no. We are in the relatively recent time of the early eighties. A time when Channel 4 arrived, mobile technology was in its infancy, and a young girl was hospitalised for three years for not fitting into socially accepted standards of what it meant to be a ‘girl.’

On reading this, perhaps its easy to forget how recent a more globally accepting culture has become. Gay characters on TV, transvestites hosting chat shows, it wasn’t that long ago that these people were used as freak value, rather than the very normal members of society they actually are. I also have to remember that, as a Londoner, I perhaps have a slightly unusual view of the world. But still, the book is heartbreaking. From an abusive and neglected childhood, a young Daphne enters into highly risky behaviour. She is deemed unmanageable by her parents and school, and turfed off to a mental hospital. What is most distressing is that, rather than take the time to develop trust, dig into her issues and help her, the doctors quickly slap an odd diagnosis on her, and spend the rest of her time incarcerated trying to get her to behave in a more ‘appropriately’ girly way.

The technical term, taken from the American Psychiatric Association, as recently as 1994, is ‘Gender Identity Disorder.’ Included in the diagnosis are references to clothing and play behaviour, that do not fit with the ‘gender identity’ of the individual. Excuse me? If that’s the case, then frankly, I was a disordered child. I wore jeans or dungarees for most of my childhood, was forever climbing trees, making bow and arrows, riding my bike, generally going against what is apparently my ‘gender identity.’ And don’t we all? My sister loved her chemistry set, while I had male friends who liked plaiting hair.

For most of us, this behaviour will lead to little more than social disengagement. Perhaps teasing, bullying, until we learn our lessons and revert to a more ‘acceptable’ way of behaving. For Daphne, she had to pretend to like makeup, show interest in boys and plaiting hair, in order to earn ‘points’ that allowed her to leave the confines of her ward, if only for a few minutes. It made me feel sick.

Why are we so obsessed with males and females acting in certain ways? And persistently suspicious of those who fail to meet our expectations? A recent study by Lancet has, not at all shockingly, found that the mental distress that many transgender people face is largely due to social reactions to them, not because being transgender is a ‘mental disorder.’ With so many deaths associated with this issue, it’s surprising that it has taken so long to challenge the WHO’s classification.

The signals young people get from all around them are not helpful. The media tells them to conform, the establishment tells them that variance is a mental illness. As someone who has received enough gender-biased issues solely based on being a woman, I cannot imagine the level of persecution that might get levelled at me if I didn’t fit with the gender binary. But you know what, I can, and should, have a go. Empathy is a powerful tool, and literature a brilliant way to create it. Through reading this book, and sharing in the writer’s experience, I can try to understand the world through a different lens.

Perhaps in years to come, Media students will look back on the programming, advertising and news media of our generation and be terribly amused at how limited it was. Until then, marginalised voices need to be amplified and celebrated, so another young girl is not subjected to the same tortuous treatment.

Be Bold

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Summarising a DeLillo novel is always a tricky task. Well, it’s about football, but also about nuclear war, but then it’s about power and masculinity, about language and the way we use it and are used by it. That’s summary of End Zone. Technically, it’s a novel about a kid called Gary Harkness who goes to play football on a college scholarship in Texas. Along the way, he meets a girl he likes, spends some time with football players (not sure they could be called friends) and gets a bit obsessed with the possible outcomes of a nuclear attack.

Considering the fact that it was written in the seventies, Gary’s creepy insistence on finding out the exact effects, death toll and long-term impact has clear links to the paranoid population during the Cold War. In the novel, it’s the stark way these things are reported that makes it seem unusual. Detached, inhuman; “First to sixth hour after detonation the ground-zero circle is drenched with fallout. By the end of the first day the dose-rate begins to slow down…It all depends on the megatons.” DeLillo is reducing humanitarian crises into a series of bare facts. The result is surprisingly amusing, perhaps because it is so absurd.

In the same way, he deconstructs football into a series of inane sayings, pep talks and sheer blunt-headed violence. “Gary, on the thirty-two I want you to catapult out of there. I want you to really come. I want to see you zoom into the secondary.” Even if you knew what they were talking about (and I don’t), as the novel progresses it all blurs into nonsense. The training on the field bleeds through into their social time, the classes they take and their friendships, until the entire scope of human interaction feels like it’s been pared down into a series of fixed responses. Take it at face value and it’s a way of looking at how ridiculous masculine culture around sport is. Dig a little deeper, and perhaps he’s pulling apart the very basis for most of our interactions and urges – driven by consumerism, charged with greed and the struggle for power.

The characters speak in jargon. They speak in phrases that sound like they have been cobbled directly from textbooks, stories or news bulletins. They also largely speak around each other, rarely interacting. Again, this is funnier that it sounds. With the characters talking at odds, or obsessively circling around a fixed topic, the reader is given a rare treat – hovering over the characters, peering into their weird little world and marvelling at it.

Initially, DeLillo had a small but loyal following. Once novels like White Noise came along, he went from cult writer to critically acclaimed author. In this, his second novel, there’s something really beautiful about the way it feels choppy, intense, perhaps less considered than his later novels. It’s also impressive to see how early on his distinctive voice and sarcasm sears through his writing.

From a writer’s perspective, I think DeLillo is a lesson in staying true to yourself. No matter how ridiculous his prose might seem to some, it’s a distinctive style that captures an essence of communication, rather than attempting to create true speech. Who could do that anyway? What we experience as dialogue in fiction is always a pared down version, a crafted method of storytelling. DeLillo invites us to be a little more bold with our words, and not accept those that have come before as our models.

We Need to Keep Talking About Kevin

In the book I’ve just finished reading, several rather unpleasant things happen. Arguably the first most significant even is when, about 200 pages in, a mother throws her six-year-old son across the nursery so hard he breaks his arm. Upsetting, yes, but not for the reasons you might think. Because as the arc of the small child was described in detail, I felt joyous. Fantastic, I thought, that little sod is finally getting his just desserts. Serves him right. My emotional reaction so unnerved me that I had to put the book down for a minute. Did this mean there was something wrong with me? I am an aunty of six beautiful children, and would react with horror at any physical violence befalling them. I certainly wouldn’t put the seat of blame on one so young. So what was different?

Here we have the clever work of the author. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver walks the balance so carefully and so adeptly that you could consider it, at one and the same time, a story of a dreadful mother or of a dreadful son. It’s clear, at that point in the novel, I was rooting for the mother. But now I have closed the pages, reached the awful twist at the end that, had I thought about it, I knew was coming from quite a long way back. And I’m left feeling rather torn.

Perhaps I am a little too overly aware of the techniques at use here. From the beginning, the book is written as a confessional: heartfelt letters to a missed lover, full of deep meditation and self-examination. On more than one occasion, we hear her decry her lack of emotion, how much she wished she could have done things differently. In using this style, both the first person and the tone of the language, the reader is angled towards her side. I’m also becoming more aware of structure. Before the dreadful arm incident, we have already found out how many people Kevin has killed, and met him in prison, where he comes across as a narcissistic, remorseless, spoiled teenager. The inclusion of particular parts of a narrative, at different points in the story, only allows the reader to see things bit by bit, therefore colouring our experience of the characters.

But then, as we move through the story, we realise how little we know of the truth. We are seeing the world through a very narrow lens, which can be distorted in any way the narrator chooses. While the book might ostensibly be set up to answer the question of why such terrible things happen, I rather think it’s far more about being a parent. The assumed narratives surrounding parenting are so established that it feels awful to veer from them even for a moment. I’m almost certain that all parents have looked at their children at one point in their lives and wished that they’d never been born, loathe as they may be to admit it to themselves. In crafting a complex narrative, Shriver has allowed for the full fears of the worried parent to be realised, either through massive overcompensation or suspicion. Because it’s a novel, the stakes are placed so much higher, and the end result of your decisions result in tragedy. What I like to think Shriver is also saying, is that being a parent is damned hard work. Despite the fluffy images you see on the TV, or the exuberant posts of your friends on Facebook, all families experience times when they feel like they hate each other, and they make bad decisions. And that’s ok.

It also points a few fingers at the voyeuristic nature of the media. While in prison, Kevin can only talk about perpetrators similar to him. How they ‘rate’ compared to his body count, execution, what happened next. Which always seems to be what is reported. In the book, the mother commits to memory the names of two victims, because they barely get a mention in news coverage. All too often we gleefully rub our hands together, wanting to find out more about the sick, twisted individual, when actually our time should be spent on those who lost their lives. Let’s not give these people any more airtime, it only exacerbates the problem. And by the end of the book, the reader is just as bad. We have spent the whole novel dying to found out what actually happened on Thursday. Yet, by the time it was told, I felt disgusting. I, too, had been anticipating the gory bit. Her dispassionate reporting of an horrific event reveals to the reader their voyeurism, and that there is nothing positive to be gained here.

It is worth considering the question of blame, in both the specific and the general sense. Ultimately, it’s not an easy question. It saddens me that mass shootings are so common in the US now it almost isn’t news. This book was written in 2003, and yet still the scrolling list of dead people persists. I don’t know if it’s the lack of clear motive for some of these crimes, or the awful thing it does to our view of children as innocents if we imagine them killing each other. But I do think this book is important. In the background of the novel there is the media, and society, and all of the things that we are told are supposed to make you happy, are things that Kevin has. And he still isn’t happy. He seeks infamy because he can’t see how else to make an impact on the world.

It could be mental illness, it could be a lot of things, but acknowledging that tragedies like this happen and that blame is hard to apportion is important. There are no easy solutions to complex problems. The mainstream media could do with reminding of that.

Perhaps it was easier to make Kevin seem like a horrible child from the outset, because otherwise it might be a little too unnerving to see the violent outcome. Or perhaps it was also easier to make his parent someone who was unsure in her status as a mother, because then we can look at her coldness and think that there must be some explanation. How much harder it is to imagine a pretty normal family involved in something like this.

The truth is, there often isn’t a ‘why’. Or at least, not in the nice, neat way we would like there to be. People are greedy, and mean, and cruel, and they can do awful things to each other. Authors are there to remind us that the most seemingly horrific acts have a whole set of tiny steps that led up to them. Encouraging us to see from the perspective of those we make into monsters is exactly why literature is important.

Politicians should be there to protect the public from people so easily getting hold of firearms. This is where the US has failed its citizens, again and again. As fascinating and clever as it is, it would be far nicer if this book existed as a hypothetical study, rather than as a reflection of too many true stories.

Squirrelling About – The Portable Veblen

It’s not often I finish a book in which the plot is almost entirely about a relationship, and I feel that it has been time well spent. Perhaps because of the squirrels, or the light-hearted take on the evils of big pharmaceutical companies, but whatever it is, The Portable Veblen has it.

I really don’t like the word ‘quirky.’ While it technically is just a way of describing something a little bit different, I always associate it with despicable practices like wearing a small hat at a jaunty angle on your head, or a hand-made printed T-shirt, just to be different. But I’m finding it hard to attribute another adjective to this novel. Our main character, Veblen, works at a dismally mundane job, taking into her hands the thankless task of translating, amongst other things, the works of the great Thorstein Veblen, into Norwegian. Add to that a propensity for finding spiritual connections with squirrels and a mother with severe hypochondria and you have, well, a quirky character.

The novel opens with a proposal. That, in itself, is refreshing. At least we’re avoiding the simplified notion that this is what comes at the end of a narrative. Paul, her new fiancé, is attempting to be as unquirky as he possibly can. Raised by hippy parents in what can only be described as a commune, with a disabled brother, Paul is desperate for the boring life of tamed suburbia. Put the two together, and of course you can see that this is not a story of love that will run smoothly.

But this novel is far more than a funny romance. Shortlisted for the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction, it has a wry wit that enables Elizabeth McKenzie to embark on an exploration of everything from a nation obsessed with war-mongering to mental illness. Her sharp observations are often uncomfortable, although she always seems to find the ridiculous and touching moments, even within the truly horrifying.

A quick flick through the book will reveal that a huge percentage of this book is written entirely in dialogue. This is no mean feat. New writers (myself included) often shy away from using too much dialogue, as it is incredibly difficult to not come across as cheesy, clichéd or downright clumsy. Of course, allowing your characters to speak is exactly what will bring them to life, but creating words that not only reveal personalities but also move the plot forward is more than tricky.

At its core, this is a book about all human relationships. The sacrifices, allowances and annoyances that we endure and cherish in order to develop the most important thing we can on the planet – a connection with each other.

The Unbearable Inconsistency of Levin

While I’m not the first, and I very much doubt I will be the last, I thought I’d share some ideas that were roused in me after reading Anna Karenin (even that sentence shows I’ve been reading Tolstoy). Seeing as it is such a well-read tome, I won’t go into the overall plot too much. Needless to say, at 900 pages, it is a little hard to summarise anyway. If you haven’t read it yet, or seen the film, there are a few spoilers here. You’ve been warned!

It goes without saying that of course I was troubled by his female characters. From the ridiculous Kitty, who flitters about at the beginning of the book, only to find her true solidity and sense of purpose when nursing someone or becoming a mother. Of course, now she has started fulfilling her role as a caregiver, the true calling of womanhood, she is complete. Perhaps the most raucous statement of her feelings are when she is in the throes of childbirth. “She rejoiced in her suffering,” apparently. If ever a man had a romantic notion of the intense pain of giving birth, that was it. Although perhaps he most truly captures the suffering of women in poor Dolly. At the whim of her cheating husband, she finds herself trapped in an endless cycle of pregnancy and nursing, the appeal of her good looks long gone. Nothing but the management of a household that is losing money because of her husband’s careless attitude and gambling is left to keep her busy. If ever an early argument were put forward for contraception, it is in Dolly’s musings over how her inability to control when her womb will be filled completely dominate her life.

And then, of course, there is Anna. From the outset she is insufferable, and only gets worse. Proudly showing off her beauty, by the end openly using it to attract the attention of another woman’s husband, she winds up in a sorry state, consumed by unfounded jealousy. To be honest, by the time it got to the point where she was thinking about topping herself, I was quite pleased. Anything to shut up her incessant whining about her life. And such a jealous, narcissistic being.

From this, it’s quite clear what Tolstoy’s lesson is. The evil woman who gives into temptation meets a sorry end, and is never made to be particularly pleasant, only charming in a superficial way. While Oblonsky, who is guilty of exactly the same crime, winds up getting bailed out by his brother-in-law. While it may well be argued that this is exactly Tolstoy’s point – the inequality in treatment for the two, and the very different outcomes, I feel that the way he created their characters is quite different. While at the end the reader is encouraged to be incredibly weary of Oblonsky, one is not positioned into finding him as objectionable as Anna, and so we are led to believe that perhaps Tolstoy shares society’s view.

To move to other matters, I loved the way that he ridiculed the life of the gentry. Through the simple eyes of Levin, the indulgent eyes of Oblonsky, or the vain eyes of Vronsky, the cream of society is revealed in all its flaws. A greedy and opulent set of people, who argue heatedly about matters they seem to know nothing of. It feels like a precarious nobility on the verge of collapse, doomed for their own frivolities and for the lack of understanding of themselves and those around them. Yes it is a little indulgent in the praise of the pastoral, the beautiful simplicity of a peasant’s life is overly romanticised, but I did appreciate the way that, even then, no-one is entirely sure if what they are doing is the correct way to go about living your life.

What struck me particularly was the way he presented the arguments happening between the gentry. For the most part, each man has his own singular opinions, and repeats them ad infinitum, especially when he is met with confrontation. Levin provides a counterpart to this. When someone presents a decent argument, he is swayed, and takes the time to consider the other side. This often means that he ends up contradicting himself, or changing his mind. While to others this habit shows nothing but weakness and inconsistency, I found it rather charming. At the end of the book, Tolstoy gives Levin a sense of purpose through religion, after throwing him into philosophical turmoil. In a way, I rather wish he hadn’t. It is his ability to weigh other opinions, consider ideas carefully and try out new ideas that makes him by far the most appealing character in the book (not that he doesn’t have his flaws).

It reminded me of a TED talk I listened to, with regard to trial and error. It is something that economics writer Tim Harford calls the God complex – this ridiculous idea that, despite all evidence to the contrary, humans have the definitive answer when solving problems. In an example in the talk, he tells us about a nozzle produced by Unilever for a particular brand of detergent. Scientists spent ages putting together what should have been the perfect nozzle. It didn’t work. Instead, they decided to use trial and error. They made a number of prototypes, and then each time carried forward the elements of it that worked best. In the end, they came up with a perfect nozzle, but none of them could explain what it was that made it work so well.

This, to my mind, is the genius of Levin. Rather than assuming that he knows better than everyone because he’s an educated nobleman, he looks at those around him, reads a huge variety of texts, and struggles to understand things. It is only he that fully grasps the complexity of the world around him. To be fair, this does mean that he spends a fair part of the novel being rather vexed, as he can’t find the answers to life in his approach to the world.

But we could all learn a lot from Levin. As Tim Harford says in his talk, we all claim to know that trial and error is the way forward, but how much would we trust a politician if they said they were committed to raising educational standards, but weren’t exactly sure how? Arguably, until we begin to use this sort of approach to complex problems, rather than assuming we know what is best, things will not improve. We all know what happens when politicians who have little knowledge of a topic start making bold claims and legislation. It doesn’t end well.

So, rather than a tale of obsession and vengeance, I would rather see Anna Karenina as a novel of questions. If we take this reading, we can see very clearly Tolstoy’s wisdom, as he mocks all of his characters, no matter what their choices are, and doesn’t encourage us to particularly side with anyone. Except possibly Levin. If there were anything this novel could teach us, it’s that perhaps we shouldn’t take our own ideas too seriously, and need to be more open to moulding our ideas in light of new discoveries and perspectives.

After Me Comes the Flood

Last month, I went to the Emerald Street Literary Festival. Filled with intelligence, literature and inspiring ideas, it was a fantastic day out. And, best of all, it had a bookshop. In the end, me and my friend decided to buy three books each, that way we were effectively getting double for our money, as we could swap as soon as we’d finished. Nothing better than the feel of a weight of new books in your hand. The first I read was a debut novel by Sarah Perry, After Me Comes the Flood.

In the middle of a heatwave, John Cole decides to get away from the heat of the city and visit his brother. On the way, he has car trouble and find himself at a strange house, where the residents seem not only to know him, but to have been expecting him. We follow his tentative steps to discover the true nature of the people around him, without revealing his true identity, and explore the eerie world the house has brought him to.

This is an intense novel. It could’t be any longer than it is (230 pages), if only for the suffocating atmosphere that imbues it from the very beginning. Her prose is also thick and dense, which helps to create the overall atmosphere of a stifling summer.

The setting is almost other-worldly. While no specific time reference is given, we could be in Victorian times once we arrive at the strange old house. With a piano, peeling paper and artefacts scattered around, the place seems completely isolated from the outside world. The threads of the truth begin to slowly untangle, and we are led, bit by bit, into the strange world the residents inhabit.

Elijah is a priest who has lost his faith, Claire is a childlike woman, Alex, her brother, is a fragile young man and Walker seems separate from the rest, while Eve is an entrancing pianist. Presiding over them all is Hester, a forceful matriarch who steers the course of all of those in the house as though they were her children. Perry creates a highly atmospheric interior, with lots of references to colour and shade, along with religious imagery. This heightens the importance of the house, and gives it a refuge-like quality, as if the people inside are choosing to cocoon themselves within.

Of course, if you spend a large part of a novel building up to a mystery, there needs to be a decent payoff that is equal to the level of suspense that has been created. I think, in this case, the novel was a little lacking. The reasons behind the people and their pasts seemed a little neat, perhaps obvious, and I would have liked to have seen something a bit more complex or shocking to counteract the tension that was built up earlier in the novel.

Having said that, the level of intrigue is not what the novel hinges on. The blurb is a bit of a mis-sell, as it implies that we are almost in thriller territory. A decision by the publishers to make the book appealing, no doubt, but that perhaps makes the content not live up to the promises made on the back of the book. What you are getting is something quite different. A dark, elusive book that takes time to linger on details in beautiful prose and to explore the fragmented reality we all inhabit, and how we might end up clinging to the most unlikely of people or situations, in order to feel at peace.

Sarah Perry has produced a notable first book, the tone and character of it lingered long after I read it. Not enthused perhaps, but certainly haunted.