Friday, November 27, 2009

The Cleft by Doris Lessing

I often wait a day or two before writing a review. I find that my appreciation of a work often changes on reflection, sometimes magnifying the experience, sometimes diminishing it. In the case of Doris Lessing’s The Cleft, a little distance has considerably enhanced the initial impression, which was less than favourable. 

The Cleft is quite a short novel. It just seems long. The language isn’t difficult, likewise neither are setting or plot. Not that there’s much of either. We begin with a society that’s entirely female and where procreation just happens. When “monsters” appear, babies with ugly extra bits on the front, they are either killed or mutilated. Killing involves leaving the tiny bundles of flesh on a rock for eagles to take. But the cunning birds aren’t always hungry.

A community of squirts - grown-up monsters – begins to thrive and the women find they have to interact. New activities are mutually invented and suddenly all is change. A new race or perhaps merely a new society develops via proto-parents, develops at least twice, in fact. Journeys are made. Promised lands reveal promise. New orders establish themselves.

Meanwhile, we realise that this creation myth is being related by a Roman gentleman who has his own domestic battle of the sexes. At first sight this extra layer of narrative seems redundant. Eventually an elemental force binds the myth to the narrator’s present. The link is tenuous and as a plot device, its impact fails. It does, however, conceptually link the narrator with the related myth. After all, Romans were themselves created, they believed, out of a myth where a pair of lads were nurtured by an animal. 

The military tradition (equals male) by which Rome prospered was founded on the social control of Sparta, not the demos of Athens. Sparta was probably the ultimate macho male society, where the old were revered and women were chattel, though they could own property. Doris Lessing at one point refers to Spartan youth being separated from their families at the age of seven to hone military and combat skills via camaraderie. Such an exile the monsters of The Cleft invent for themselves.

Galling at first reading and later informative were the repeated gender stereotypes that dominate Doris Lessing’s narrative. The repeated use of these bludgeoning concepts had more than an air of artifice. Looking back, I now see that this actually enhanced what emerged as the book’s overarching idea, which is our need for myth and the necessity of reducing it to the level of populist fairy tale. The eagles who nurtured the monsters play god. The way we organise our society demands certain role models, while ceremony, often barbaric, such as genital mutilation, allies us to ideals and ideas we prefer not to question. In the end we have to explain elemental forces beyond our control and myth is our refuge. Stick with The Cleft. It’s a tortuous journey, but it is worth it in the end, an end whose only solace may only be found in myth. 

View this book on amazon The Cleft

Monday, November 16, 2009

Reflecting on a review of A Glance Away by John Edgar Wideman

When reviewing a book I try to keep myself out of the argument. The purpose is to reflect upon the work, to enter its world in its own style. It’s a process that often clarifies issues and prioritises arguments for the reviewer as much as it helps inform the review’s reader. Whether I liked or disliked the book in question is an opinion that’s perhaps less than irrelevant, because it adds a double confusion. You, the reader, don’t know the book, but then you know even less about me, so what price my humble, unexplained, unjustified recommendation?

I used to work on a market stall. Alongside household cleaners and soap powder, the stall also offered kitchenware and fancy goods, items to be considered considerably less often than weekly. Running up to Christmas, we also carried large, high cost toys, such as board games, construction kits and the like. The stall’s owner handled that end of the business, leaving the dealings in shoe polish, soap, bleach and toilet paper to his minions at the other end. The minions, incidentally, were his daughter and me. If a potential customer dithered over a purchase, the vendor’s shock tactic was to offer the reassurance of solidarity. “We’ve used it” or “We have one at home” were the phrases he used. “And we are happy with it” then followed in judgment. Often – more often than not – the punter smiled, purchased and so profit was pocketed. But there was nothing cynical about this process.

The stall-owner came weekly to each pitch. He would take things back if they were broken – but usually not if they were merely disliked. People didn’t bring things back if that was the case, except, of course, to exchange. And, given his household’s general pursuit of novelty, he probably had tried out the products in question, at least for a while. He had, personally, what twenty-first century capitalism calls a brand. He was a trusted face – not a name, because none of his customers knew anything other than his first name – and his recommendations carried the authority of that trust. He did good business and made a good living, his punters’ trust being well-placed.

But as an internet reviewer, what might my opinion be worth to a browsing punter? If a reader regularly follows my opinion, of course, then a pattern might emerge and some conclusion might be drawn. The chances are, however, that you are not that reader, that you have stumbled almost randomly upon my thoughts and thus what I say is potentially worthless. I present a double unknown, an unread book and an untried, untrusted opinion. I am prompted to reflect on the nature of the internet book review because I have just finished A Glance Away by John Edgar Wideman. 

It’s a short book but far from succinct. The style is often sparse, its words deliberated over, even missing for effect, unsaid on behalf of communication. On the fly-sheet it’s a novel at the front and, in a quoted review at the back, an autobiography. I too was confused. But not by the style… There’s a family. There are brothers. With apparent prescience of some stylistic devices used later by Toni Morrison to both define and characterise a specifically black culture that is both part of but also separated from the general, John Edgar Wideman allows the reader into a family’s passion, conflicts and confusion. The brothers live different lives, meet different people and aspire to different ideals. There may be reasons, explanations, but what people think is largely hidden by a profound opacity. Perhaps the characters themselves are confused. Perhaps that’s also the point.

As an experience, A Glance Away is a powerful, sometimes provocative novel. But its detail often reads as obfuscation, demanded by its lack of continuous thread. Perhaps it’s a book to read again, its challenge not met by a punter who was unfamiliar with its brand.

View this book on amazon A Glance Away

Saturday, November 7, 2009

New York Days, New York Nights by Stephen Brook

I have just done another tour of New York. It’s a city whose streets I have walked, whose life I have encountered, whose people I have known. But I have never been there. New York, Like Paris and London, is a city where writers switch on their professional noticing and recording. A good proportion of novelists seem to want to live there. It’s a city where journalists apparently never have to travel far for a story and where social commentators uncover endless lines of interest.

And in the early 1980s Stephen Brook, an English visitor, took his turn at plodding the streets, buttonholing the affluent and dabbling with low life in order to generate his book, New York Days, New York Nights. It was a task he took seriously. His mission covered the city’s politics, food, shopping, sexuality, power, social structure, ethnic relations, commerce, crime and apparently every other aspect of its existence, but with only scant regard for its history.

We learn how on Manhattan air space can be traded, how the city’s craving for constant change means that there is little sense of permanence. We visit late night bars and clubs, experience the gay-scene low-life at first hand, then at second hand and eventually at the level of the mutual anonymous grope. We visit jails, courts, police beats and other arresting areas. We talk to mayors, ex-mayors and would-be mayors. We feel debt and wealth in unequal measure. Stephen Brook appears not to want to leave any concrete block unturned.

But though Stephen Brook’s journey through New York’s unique experience is nothing less than encyclopedic, his experience seems to remain that of the outsider, the committed but still detached tourist. As each of the book’s many chapters runs to its close and another opens, we can almost hear the writer begin with, “And here’s another thing…” Well before the end we feel that the author is on a mission to collect in order to exhibit. In the end, we feel we have been on a city tour bus and listened to the commentary, but that we still have to walk the streets to begin the real experience.

But like all impressionistic descriptions of contemporary life, it becomes both less relevant and more interesting as it ages. It becomes irrelevant because its original concept is superseded, rendered mere whimsy by the passing of time. Its intention is to be contemporary, after all, and that quality is soon lost. But twenty-five years on, having been reminded that the city remains eager for constant change, it becomes fascinating to reflect on what has or might have changed.

In 2009, we have a financial crisis, rich man’s crime, an economy laden with unemployment and debt, recession and portent of doom and gloom. We also have celebrity, overt riches and conspicuous consumption alongside poverty, near-destitution, drug addiction and poor man’s crime. So what’s new? One major change is that during Stephen Brook’s journey, the existence of AIDS deserves mention, but little more. During visits to bath houses, the author experiences at first hand the workings, insertions, thrusts and suspended machinations of gay promiscuity – sorry, there is no other word – and the scenes he describes seem better fitted to a fantasy porn movie than any reality. A dimension we don’t feel in all of this is the contrast with attitudes that one would expect to be prevalent in middle America. Surely it is that contrast that illustrates the difference between New York and the rest of the country?

But New York Days, New York nights remains a rich and rewarding trip. (The city’s drug scene, but the way, is such an aspect of daily life that it deserves frequent but only passing comment.) Though the reader may occasionally tire of Stephen Brook’s lengthy trek through the city, it is an account that has endured and that still interests, perhaps because the place itself and its people remain interesting. View this book on amazon New York Days, New York Nights (Picador Books)

Monday, November 2, 2009

My new life as a ghost - 50 of the best by Martin Offiah

Becoming a ghost usually involves major change in one’s life. It doesn’t happen every day. For me the call came in May 2009. A name I recognised appeared in the subject line of an email from a friend. I thought it might be a joke. The more momentous the event, it seems, the more one is tempted to see it lightly, to discount it as unlikely. It’s a form of self-preservation, I suppose. So when I opened the message to find it contained a serious suggestion, I was surprised, to say the least. 

The name in question was that of Martin Offiah. He’s a former rugby league player who has become a bit of a celeb. Actually, describing Martin Offiah as a former rugby league player is about as apposite as saying that Ringo Starr used to be a drummer in a rock band. When he retired, Martin had scored 501 tries in the game, making him the third most prolific scorer in the game’s history. The two above him, Brian Bevan and Billy Boston, played in a different era, that of the 1950s and 1960s.

The game has changed since then. I know because I saw both of them play when I was kid in the West Riding of Yorkshire and a near-permanent feature of Wakefeild Trinity’s Belle Vue home. I am even in the greatest ever film about rugby league. The film, of course, was Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life. It was nominated for two Oscars and provided Richard Harris with his first starring role. Now if you look really carefully, I am the lad in short trousers behind the sticks at the Belle Vue end in one of the crowd sequences. I, along with more than 28000 others, witnessed as extras the filming of some of the play sequences as a curtain raiser to the 1962 third round Rugby League Challenge Cup tie between Wakefield and Wigan. Wakefield won 5-4. Fred Smith scored the game’s only try, diving in at the corner on the Trinity right. Neil Fox missed the conversion, but kicked a penalty in the game. Wigan’s fullback, Griffiths, kicked two penalties. Tries were only three points in those days, by the way.

To be asked to write a book with Martin Offiah was for me the stuff of dreams, even at the age of 57! I have not kept up my passion for rugby league because in 1970 I moved to London and in 1992 I left Britain altogether. Rugby league is hard to connect with from afar. It’s easier now that the internet brings the far to just a click away. The suggestion was that Martin, the consummate try-scorer, should select and describe fifty of the greatest tries ever scored in the game. It was a project at appealed to me, both because of my lifetime interest in the game and because here was a chance to become a ghost and perhaps, just perhaps, invent a new me. Martin and I communicated by phone. I live in Spain and he’s in London. We talked on Skype and I recorded our conversations using shareware that creates mp3 files that can be played a replayed through Realplayer. The 66000 word book appeared from this ether by the end of August and, a few weeks later, there was a website with videos of all the action Martin chose to describe. Have a look at and do please read his 50 Of The Best. Imagine the process that produced it. And now, officially, I can call myself a ghost.