Zadie Smith – The Autograph Man
For someone with my particular literary damage, reading this novel for the first time in 2014 was a lot like having the arguments of 2001 all over again. If literary critic James Wood’s attack on what he deemed “hysterical realism” has a fitting target it is this over-eager, initially likeable but ultimately tiresome second novel from Smith.
The story of “twenty-something Chinese-Jewish autograph dealer” Alex-Li Tandem’s frantic, free-wheeling attempts to lose himself in the search for his pop culture obsession, The Autograph Man spends its four hundred plus pages tilting after a curiously overdetermined sort of oblivion. To mangle a Samuel Johnston quote most boys of my age know by way of popular wise guy Hunter S. Thompson, Tandem acts in the belief that he who becomes his hobbies spares himself the pain of being a man. The novel follows suit, hence the ever-egressing framework of Kabbalistic associations, Zen progressions, verbal tics (“the popular” and ”wise guy” chief among them), Rabbinical comedy routines and generally excessive detail. All of this by way of keeping Tandem from dealing with the world’s tendency towards impermanence and disorder: these events take place in the build-up to the tenth anniversary of his fathers’ death, and in the aftermath of a destructive trip that seems like it might cost Tandem most of his established relationships, and also his car.
The overlapping structures of this novel are all fine and sturdy, and have elsewhere proven themselves more than capable of supporting, variously: an Oscar Wilde aphorism, an essay by Walter Benjamin (“wise guy” and recipient of the novel’s worst punchline), the occult adventure comic Promethea, and an excellent graphic novel by Eddie Campbell. There’s nothing to say that they couldn’t provide the framework for an excellent Zadie Smith novel too, but the difference between The Autograph Man and all of the aforementioned works is that Smith’s imaginative scaffolding seems to exist around very little that was worth supporting in the first place.
March 10th, 2014
George Eliot – Silas Marner
Despite its sentimental, Dickensian cover and premise – an outcast weaver is drawn back into society by the arrival of an orphaned child in his life – this short novel is yet more evidence of Eliot’s ability to create the impression of distance in her fictions. Eliot’s mastery of the bourgeois novel is of a similar kind and order to Milton’s mastery of the epic poem; the devil, as always, is in the details and how they’re relayed.
It’s worth comparing Marner’s transition over the first part of this novel with Scrooge’s in A Christmas Carol in order to better understand Eliot’s method. Dickens is one of the all time great narrators, and he trusts that the effects he has conveyed so spectacularly throughout his ghost story will linger with both his notorious outcast and miser and the reader even after he’s allowed the illusion to collapse in on itself:
For the first time the hand appeared to shake.
“Good Spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!”
The kind hand trembled.
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”
In his agony, he caught the spectral hand. It sought to free itself, but he was strong in his entreaty, and detained it. The Spirit, stronger yet, repulsed him.
Holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate reversed, he saw an alteration in the Phantom’s hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.
Compare the drama of Dickens’s line to the ever-shifting emphasis of this paragraph from the final bloom of Silas Marner‘s first volume:
Silas began now to think of Raveloe life entirely in relation to Eppie: she must have everything that was a good in Raveloe; and he listened docilely, that he might come to understand better what this life was, from which, for fifteen years, he had stood aloof as from a strange thing, with which he could have no communion: as some man who has a precious plant to which he would give a nurturing home in a new soil, thinks of the rain, and the sunshine, and all influences, in relation to his nursling, and asks industriously for all knowledge that will help him to satisfy the wants of the searching roots, or to guard leaf and bud from invading harm. The disposition to hoard had been utterly crushed at the very first by the loss of his long-stored gold: the coins he earned afterwards seemed as irrelevant as stones brought to complete a house suddenly buried by an earthquake; the sense of bereavement was too heavy upon him for the old thrill of satisfaction to arise again at the touch of the newly-earned coin. And now something had come to replace his hoard which gave a growing purpose to the earnings, drawing his hope and joy continually onward beyond the money.
In Eliot’s hands a seemingly romantic conceit – a child’s improving effect on an alienated adult – is nevertheless established to be effective only inasmuch as Marner’s continued obligations to the child necessitate a continued interaction with society as a whole. This is typical of Eliot’s approach, which emphasises connection and consequence over the triumph of kind hearts and stirring rhetoric.
This comparison is, however, not offered in order to disparage Dickens, whose busy narration looks simultaneously backward to the jarring shifts of the best English poetry and forward to the juddering machinery of modern comedy. And if it’s true that those same novels are premised on a call to individual kindness that overlooks the necessity for any broader or more systematic change then that does not diminish their effectiveness in making vivid the muck and dirt of unreformed reality.
The simple truth is that Eliot’s talents are slightly different in nature, and their magnitude does not need to be exaggerated by the disparagement of other novelists even if they may be better understood in light of the comparison.
Staying mindful of the example of Dickens, it occurs that the subject of the novelist vs. the social order that produced them is a curious one when applied to Eliot’s work. The form of the bourgeois novel she so excels at may in itself may replicate bourgeois values by way of its sheer confidence, but Eliot interrogates these conventions through the startling depth and clarity of her narrative judgements, which contrast with the narrative itself in a way that can’t help but provoke quiet inquiry.
The introduction to the edition I read makes up for any awkwardness its cover may engender by virtue of an astute introduction by R.T. Jones (an Honorary Fellow of the University of York, apparently), in which Jones tracks some of the juxtapositions that exist in Silas Marner‘s framing story, arguing that for all Eliot’s narration chides Godfrey for foolishly hoping that all would work out well when he didn’t claim his secret child, the story bears out his actions more than it does her words:
…the novel leads us to conclude that if Godfrey had done the right thing, acknowledged his first wife and her baby as his, Nancy would not have married him; Eppie (under a different name, of course) would have grown up in the Red House with no mother and a resentful father; so Godfrey, Nancy and Eppie would have had very little oppotunity for happiness, and of course Silas Marner would have remained an exile from human society.
Silas Marner ends on a statement of total happiness that somehow fails to ring false, but the novel never once lets you forget that fairy-tale conclusion has been built on a series of disappointments, lies, and betrayals, and it is Eliot’s ability to keep both of these seemingly contradictory positions in perspective that gives the truest account of her peculiar genius in this short novel.
September 29th, 2013
The battered wooden door was hesitantly opened, and a man stepped out. He had an elegant, curious face, with eyes that darted around his surroundings. And at the moment he was frowning a dangerous frown. He wore the sombre black tailcoat of an Edwardian gentleman under a heavy cape, with a Keble College scarf thrown over one shoulder. He would have merited hardly a glance on the streets of Edwardian London, but he looked somewhat out of place in the twenty-first century. This was the adventurer in time and space known only as the Doctor. Although he looked human enough, he was actually an alien from a far-off world. Among the many strange and wonderful things about his alien nature was his ability to regenerate, to replace a worn out or fatally injured body with a new one, which brought with it a whole new personality and oudook on life. It was something all his people, the Time Lords, could do. This form was his ninth.
August 11th, 2013
The belief that the world can be represented in a symbolic form, and that by manipulating those symbols, while following a strict set of rules, one can both understand and manipulate the world itself. Yes, yes, very clever, we see what you’re doing, you’re making a clever reference back to your piece on Logopolis, which was structured this way. You’re so sharp you’ll cut yourself.
Ancestor Cell, The
Subversive propaganda by the enemies of Faction Paradox
August 1st, 2013
Dead Romance is one of the best novels I’ve ever read, and it’s a novel that will never, ever, reach the readership it deserves.
June 9th, 2013
By 1991, Virgin Books (who had bought up Target some years previously) were rapidly coming to the end of the TV stories they could novelise, and there was no likelihood of a new TV series coming out any time soon. There was only one thing for it.
June 4th, 2013
By 1990, Doctor Who had finished on the TV. There was nothing left but the hopes of the occasional of old shows on VHS or (for stories that had been destroyed) cassette, the comic strip in Doctor Who Magazine, which surely couldn’t keep going that much longer now there was no TV show, and the Target novelisations, which themselves had to come to an end once there was nothing left to novelise.
December 4th, 2012
In which two men enter and one frisky little blog post leaves…
With his feather-frazzled early fictions (Vurt, Pollen, Automated Alice and Nymphomation), Jeff Noon presented the world with a distinctly British (no, wait – English!) version of cyberpunk – one that side-stepped all those designer shades and phallic head jacks in favour of something that was a little bit less ashamed of its fantastical status. In his short stories (Pixel Juice, Cobralingus) and transitional ode to musical Manchester Needle in the Groove, Noon drifted even further from traditional modes of science fiction, working to match the ever-adapting techniques of then-contemporary electronic music and – in Cobralingus – offering a “how to” guide to the curious reader in the process.
Until recently, 2002′s Falling Out of Cars looked like it might be the last Jeff Noon novel. If the fractured mirror landscape of the book often proved to be as startling and dissociative for the reader as they were for the characters then that was probably a feature rather than a bug – Falling Out of Cars made the fact that all of Noon’s adventures in wonderland had been tainted by life on this side of the mirror horribly clear.
This notion was always there in Noon’s work – no amount of strain is going to make a looking glass show something that isn’t already here waiting to be reflected, after all – but in Falling Out of Cars it became inescapable. This made the subsequent absence of a “new Jeff Noon novel” seem more explicable, if still somewhat tragic – what better note for an author to stop writing on than this, a story about people whose very ability to comprehend the world and words around them was slipping away.
There were some signs of writerly life though, like 2008′s 217 Babel Street - a collaborative hyperlink fiction the served as the real world scaffolding on a fictional location – and 2012 has seen Noon’s strange pollen corrupting the air stream on a previously inconceivable scale. Noon’s endlessly imaginative twitter account is one of the best follows out there for those in a Mindless frame of mind, and if his microfictional “spore” fictions leave you craving more there’s always the echovirus12 account, to which Noon also contributes.
For those who like their fiction to occupy a more traditional form, there’s also a new novel, Channel SK1N, the story of a pop star who finds her skin overridden by the signals all around her as she transforms in a way that blurs the line between broadcaster and receiver. I’ve only just finished reading the book, and I hope you’ll forgive the ecstatic tone of this introduction because Channel SK1N combines the lysergically enhanced rush of Noon’s early fiction with the queasy comedowns of his later work, and in doing so reaffirms sci-fi’s status as the best tool available to writers who want to explore a future that’s here somewhere, already hidden.
Still buzzing off my contact with his SK1N, I got in touch with Noon to discuss his dazzling reemergence as a self-publishing internet invader…
Illogical Volume: It’s been ten years since you slipped through the darkly reflective cracks of Falling Out Of Cars; ?dlrow rorrim eht ni emit ruoy saw woH
Jeff Noon: Falling Out Of Cars seemed like the end of a period in my life, work-wise, and also I’d just left Manchester (my home town), so it felt like a good time to make some changes. I fell into screenwriting, and had some fun days and some bad days in that world. I was working on various scripts for a number of production companies. I also went back into the theatre, which was my first love in writing terms. I did a play for The Crucible Theatre in Sheffield about the early days of the Mod movement and a science fiction audio play for Radio 3. I still hang onto hope regarding the film scripts, but it’s a difficult media to succeed in, no doubt about it. Eventually, I realised that I’d been without a proper audience for 10 years, so I started writing prose again. I dug out Channel SK1N, which I written a draft of a couple of years previously, and started working on that. And that was the transit point.
May 6th, 2012
All is not well at the Wenley Moor underground atomic research station: there are unaccountable losses of power-output; nervous breakdowns amongst the staff;
and then—a death!
UNIT is called in and the Brigadier is soon joined by DOCTOR WHO and Liz Shaw in a tense and exciting adventure with subterranean reptile men—SILURIANS— and a 40 ft. high Tyrannosaurus rex, the biggest, most savage mammal which ever trod the earth!