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.
February 11th, 2011
Illogical Volume: I hate trying to write a synopsis of anything (because: BORING!), so here’s the back cover blurb:
What do Batman, Doctor Who, quantum physics, Oscar Wilde, liberalism, the second law of thermodynamics, Harry Potter fanfic, postmodernism, and Superman have in common?
If your answer to that was “Nothing” then… well, you’re probably right. But in this book Andrew Hickey will try to convince you otherwise. In doing so he’ll take you through:
How to escape from a black hole and when you might not want to
The scientist who thinks he’s proved the existence of heaven and what that has to do with Batman
What to do if you discover you’re a comic-book character
Whether killing your own grandfather is really a bad idea
And how to escape from The Life Trap!
An examination of the comics of Grant Morrison, Alan Moore and Jack Kirby, Doctor Who spin-off media, and how we tell stories to each other, Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! tells you to look around you and say:
“This is an imaginary universe… Aren’t they all?”
Botswana Beast: Andrew is our – not fake, real internet – friend, full disc etc. etc., he was actually the first person I interviewed in… well any capacity really, it was a real pleasure to me, I really like doing interviews, I guess I should do more. This isn’t really a review, call the TSA!
So, but I’ll get the complaints out of the way quickly – I don’t like the typseset and it particularly buggers the citation from Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?at the end with linebreaks, it’s a bit like reading poetry in speech balloons (so sorry, Etrigan the Demon) that bit and – I don’t know – linebreaks are bit fussy throughout, could’ve used some hyphens on the multisyllables, I imagine this is basically all a problem of publishing through Lulu. Secondly, it fails to entirely transcend the original format – but certainly does work better in collation, no question, in particular the ‘Are You Living in a Comicbook?’ chapter and it’s following – because some concepts, like Dave Sim, are improperly introduced, some of the mathematical concepts – Copenhagen, Many-Worlds – are discussed at length earlier and only given fuller grounding in the 3rd last chapter or so. The Harry Potter fanfic chapter could probably have been wholly excised, although it is interesting in terms of ‘canon’ and so forth. I do think to address the complaint about better-smoothing the book into a, you know, a book would have been a lot of work for little gain; an overhaul, essentially, and I’m not unsympathetic being deeply lazy, which Andrew is clearly not, the author I read here is a constant clear rejoinder to me with his ceaseless interest and desire to work at his fascinations, a rejoinder to my cynicism and Anti-Life force essentially.
Other than that, though, it really is pretty much an untrammelled joy – I pretty much cannot face non-fiction without wanting to go into coma (seriously, a vast land of fetid prose, I’m sure all you NF readers can set me straight, look forward to that) and this was entirely digestible, pointed and exciting to read. Given it’s written, essentially, on hypertime, paracontinuities and the destruction of canon/Objectivist lore and I am, I’d have to say probably only the second or third most enthused person in the world at these concepts, it does feel rather made for me. So I read it in a night, which I think is an indicative of either how thrilled I am to see these concepts mined or – maybe, I’m not gonna tell you this is objective because read the last sentence - maybe it’s actually really chippily and digestibly written, maybe it has a whole bunch of interesting shit written about excitingly. Or both! I don’t know, you should read it if you like the above-mentioned stuff?
Illogical Volume: Double disclosure, not only is Andrew an internet friend, he was also daft enough to ask me to proofread this book and provide “helpful” suggestions. He even swapped a couple of chapters around at my suggestion — THE FOOL!
Even as someone who had an “inside” view of the creation of this book, I still found the format a little frustrating at first. I think this is related to Botswana Beast’s complaint about the way that scientific concepts are introduced early but not fully explained until near the end. Obviously, since I didn’t suggest changing the order of these parts, these issues bothered me less than they bothered Mr Beast. Indeed, as I pressed on, I found this to be part of the charm of Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! – it’s a fractal story about fractal stories, and I’ve always been a big fan of art that expresses its themes in style as well as in content.
And hey, even when Andrew doesn’t get back round to a topic, I liked getting to do a little bit of extra dot joining myself – a good sign that I enjoyed the book, that! So, for example: the realisation of the way the seemingly disconnected essay on the Melmoth chapter of Cerebus was actually an essential part of the ultrastructure was probably when I decided that this was A Proper Book, whatever the fuck that means. Melmoth is a tangle of interconnected fictions concerning the life and death of Oscar Wilde, and by writing about it early on Andrew underlines the complex relationship between the real and theoretical that runs through his book.
This aspect of Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! reminds me of old argument between Marc Singer and Jim Roeg, about various forms of multiplicity. Half a decade on, I agree with Singer when he highlights the danger of taking the “gestural multiplicity” of, say, DC comic books as any sort of basis for an actual “politics of multiplicity”, and this is a relevant concern here. Thankfully Andrew is more convincing in his arguments than Jim Roeg was, and he works hard to blur the boundaries between the gestural and the real in almost every chapter.
I know I’ve laid the praise on pretty thick so far, but I do have some issues with the book. Like Botswana Beast says, the citations are often a bit sloppy, with odd blocks of white space sitting between text and images. More troublingly, given that Liberal philosophy is essential to the story Andrew’s telling, I hit a bit of a speedbump when I read the chapter on Liberalism and Cybernetics. When Andrew writes about the Liberal Democrat party…
…we support things like greater democratic representation and accountability, mutualism, devolution of power to local levels, civil liberties, and so on.
…I find myself wincing a little. Not out of any knee-jerk hatred or dislike for the Lib Dems (I know there are a lot of good people in the party, and I probably loathe them less than either Labour or the fucking Tories), but because I can’t help but see these same words put to other uses by the Liberal Democrats’ current coalition partners, the aforementioned Tory bastards.
A perfect example of the dangers of conflating the real and the abstract, you might think, butin the end. I think it’s more nuanced than that. Indeed, Andrew is very clear that he doesn’t think that these beliefs need to lead to some sort of free-market paradise, and it’s likely that I’m bringing a lot of my own issues to the book here. Still, Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! is Andrew’s story, not mine, and by collecting all of these blog posts here, Andrew provides them with a sense of cohesion, of old fashioned authority even. Which is kind of ironic, given the book’s focus on pluralism, but it works in the book’s favour in the end. Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! makes a passionate, committed case for a worldview based on liberalism and multiplicity. And really, given the hateful rhetoric that dominates so much of current public life, what could be more energising than that right now?
There’s a lot of Doctor Who in there though, so… it’s still a very niche book, but if it’s your niche then I suspect you might just love it.