Review of The Topeka School by Ben Lerner. (Granta Books)

The Topeka School by [Lerner, Ben]

Born from a Cambridge University publication in 1989,  Granta Books is a prestigious independent literary publisher which publishes about 25 titles a year.  From their website I note that an original launch list included works by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Martha Gellhorn and Salman Rushdie.   The website lists prizewinning works they have since published,  including Booker winner Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.

To be published by Granta is to be part of an important literary conversation.

The Topeka School  is a book with a number of literary conversations and they are not always easy to follow.  At the centre of the narrative is a family: Dr. Jane Gordon,  second wife to her psychologist husband Jonathan (“a Jewish long-haired hippie from New york”) and her son Adam a brilliant debater and migraine sufferer.  The book charts the years as Adam heads through school in a patchily brilliant way to college.  The Gordon family comes to Topeka where the parents work for ‘The Foundation”, a mental health facility.   At school Adam becomes  a questionable friend  to Darren, a traumatized teenager completely ill equipped for life in modern America.

Darren is jeered at, laughed at, punched and beaten for no seeming purpose other than he is what he represents and what he represents is

“ … the bad surplus.  The man-child, descendant of the jester and village idiot and John Clare, the poet roaming the countryside after enclosure. “

A group of Darren’s ‘friends’ including Adam drive him to a lakeside spot then abandon him, drunk, drive off and leave him asleep.  Darren wakes confused the next morning and has to walk home as best he can.

The key that unlocks this otherwise rather confusing narrative I believe is a response given by the narrator to Darren’s mother –  a nurse at The Foundation (and therefore a colleague of Adam’s parents) – when she questions the ‘dumping Darren’ episode: surely these children of professional families knew better?

“Of course they knew better, but knowing is a weak state; you cannot assume your son will opt out of the dominant libidinal economy, develop the right desires from within the wrong life; the travesty of inclusion they were playing out with Darren-their intern- was also a citation and critique of the Foundation’s methods…”

It’s hard for people to behave outside the norm.  We cannot behave any old how and yet somehow  expect our children to perceive what their parents are doing wrong – all the cock ups they’ve made –  and distance themselves accordingly.    Sometimes that happens.  Most of the time it doesn’t.  Nature or nurture.

The account of Darren trying to find his way home on foot from this unfortunate escapade is interesting less for his state of mind than for the reactions he encounters or rather doesn’t encounter.  No-one stops.  No-one asks if he’s OK.  When he is spied limping and  dishevelled  and walking into (the wrong) town by a woman  she pulls her own children closer towards her, while completely ignoring the distress of someone else’s child.

The book seems to highlight the callous and sometimes appalling treatment of these young people by each other,  but it also asks where are these exalted and professional parents while their senior school kids are beating each other up?

The answer:

“Watching Friends or Frasier… doing desk work… reading Adrienne Rich or “Non Interpretive Mechanisms in Psychoanalytic Therapy”.   Some were eating or opening a window or just walking dully along on a treadmill.  Some were drinking gin and tonics in Taipei…”

Lerner’s book manifests the US as a country in some sort of hypnotic slide to the road crash that will become the Trump era; it is almost as if they can see it coming but are unable or unwilling to do anything to stop it.  Or maybe they think that the power of psychoanalytic theory or linguistic pyrotechnics will save them, as some rather naively now think that technology will save us.

Much attention is given within the story to the skill of debate – a subject in which Adam excels.  Yet the ‘linguistic overkill’ of the cleverness of debates, does nothing to address human understanding and particularly nothing to address relationships.  Debate is adversarial.  Someone wins and someone loses.  Debate is not dialogue.

“We thought that if we had a language for our feelings we might transcend them.”  Adam’s father says, pointing up the limits of psychology, as a science, as a medical approach. And the limits of language.

No-one in The Topeka School does transcend their feelings, nor surmount them, nor transform them.  They just dose their feelings up with alcohol and drugs,  both of the prescription and non-prescription variety.   –  Unsurprisingly this does little to halt the underlying tension and violence in which the story finally erupts.    The building in which The Foundation is housed, itself ends up empty and comprehensively trashed and no one could claim to be sorry.

The Topeka School is work which is concerned with the legacy of toxic masculinity – a legacy of which we are all in some way survivors.

Dr. Jane Gordon says:

“Once I asked another senior analyst why he referred to male postdocs as “Doctor” and female postdocs by their first names, and there I was, on the couch again, getting the penis envy lecture.”

Her response is “…the Foundation’s unexamined Freudian tradition, which pathologized women’s experience when it didn’t fit the great man’s theory.”

The book incorporates dizzying time switches and changes of narrative viewpoint often within the same chapter.    There are disintegrations everywhere, hidden, revealed.  Marital collapse. The mess of politically correct parenting, the inception of abusive parenting.  The sexual fantasies of those who write books on how to control the mind.  It is a book about about the human cost of trying to survive within an arid monoculture.

Thank you to #Net Galley and #Granta for this review copy.

 

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Ocean Vuong

Summer has come and gone.  The expiry date for my ten books of summer has passed.   I only made it to No. 6. I apologise.

Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous outshines anything else on my reading list.  In fact, I would go so far as to say it outshines anything else on anyone else’s reading list.  In whatever genre.  Forget genres.  Here is something new.

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

Vietnamese and from a refugee family which immigrated to the US when he was two years old,  the poet burst out of his allotted lowly refugee status and on to  the literary scene with a T.S. Eliot  prize winning poetry collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds (Cape Poetry, 2017) On Earth we’re Briefly Gorgeous is his first novel.

I do not know what there is to say about this book.  Next to Vuong’s poetry and prose any routine use of language that I might come up with would instantly collapse under the weight of its own inadequacy.

On Earth takes the form of a letter to Vuong’s mother who was violent towards him and who married a man who was imprisoned for violence towards her.  In short Vuong grew up surrounded by violence, whether or the domestic or other kind,  in Hartford,

…where we made a kind of life digging in and out of one brutal winter after another, where nor’easters swallowed our cars overnight.  The two a.m. gunshots, the two p.m. gunshots, the wives and girlfriends at the C-Town  checkout with black eyes and cut lips who return your gaze with lifted chins, as if to say mind your business

… where entire white families, the ones some call trailer trash, crammed themselves on half broken porches in mobile parks and HUD housing, their faces Oxy-Contin gaunt

Thank goodness the author does not mind his business. Thank goodness for his genius to  humanise modern America, to bring the  worlds of Saigon, Dunkin donuts, food stamps and nail bars crashing together as the voice of his lived experience.    How Vuong skewers the appalling opioid scandal which has decimated the US and is making its way to the UK

“OxyContin, first mass-produced by Purdue Pharma in 1996 is an opioid, essentially making it heroin in pill form”.

If you find this a totally inadequate review, so do I.  “Brilliant “shattering” “luminous” “a masterpiece” are some of the epithets I took from the publisher’s  back cover.  But I would say this.  Ocean Vuong is a writer whose work will appear on exam syllabi into the future.  This is a writer whose work will be studied, written about, lectured on, whose work will be the subject of dissertations and doctoral theses.

And still no-one will know how he did this.

 

 

Lost Children Archive, Valeria Luiselli (4thEstate)

This is a book born of heartache and a thousand acres of poetry.

Not for these children the blessing of growing up in a suburb somewhere,  getting yelled at about school work or too much screentime.    These are the refugee children, the anonymous ones, named only in the record of their deaths as if death alone brings an entitlement to recognition.  The right to a name is indeed hard earned for these refugee children trying to cross the desert,  to cross a long bridge in a good car and see tall glass buildings. To live in an imaginary world of light.

These are the universal siblings brought together by dire circumstances and the constancy and immanence of death.  They ride atop trains, jump off, run through thickets of gorse and stone, get scratched, bleed, or simply lie down and die of exhaustion and exposure.

“They had walked and swam and hidden and run. They had boarded trains and spent nights sleepless atop gondolas, looking up at the barren, godless sky. The trains like beasts, drilled and scratched their way across jungles, across cities, across places difficult to name. Then, aboard the last train, they had come to this desert, where the incandescent light bent the sky intoa full arch, and time had also bent back on itself.  Time in the desert was an ongoing present tense.”

And if the “barren, godless land” puts you in mind of Eliot, be assured, 21stcentury America  as portrayed in this book is The Wasteland made manifest.  In a nod to this Luiselli raises Eliot’s spectre in The Sixteenth Elegy.

“Unreal desert.  Under the brown fog of a desert dawn, a crowd flows over the iron wall, so many.  None thought the trains would bring so many.  Bodies flow up the ladder and down onto the desert floor.”

In one scene as children cross the desert  a plane passes overhead ironically full of other children.  They two groups will not know each other.   They will never meet.  But inside the plane a little boy sucks his thumb.  He is being  “erased from the fucked up country below him, removed.” As he drifts into sleep his thumb falls from his mouth.     “Finally he shuts his eyes, dreams spaceships.”

In a parallel storyline and universe  a (non-refugee) family try to make their way across the States in a bid to get from somewhere to somewhere else – to record the voices of the lost:  the Apaches,   the children.  A policewoman reprimands the family for breaking the law by letting their five year old travel in the back of the car without the correct designation of child car seat (the age limit is 7 not 5) because ‘we value our children’.   At the same time as someone else’s children are being shot at.

Somehow the author manages to make the book heart achingly sad but not at the same time depressing, perhaps because of the clarity of vision, the dextrous use of language which comes from a great deal of study and reading  thousands of acres of poetry.

But here is something else that occurred to me after reading this book.  For a project of my own I have been researching the teen fiction market. Coming from a poetry background it is not something I have ever felt the need to do before –  short of reading the obligatory Potter for my own kids.  But I asked around,   found some teen fiction titles and read them.

Why do we feel this need to categorise and make things generic for this age group, that age group?   Why do we assume that young people can only read a certain type of story?  But most of all I wondered how children can be allowed to die in the desert trying to get to a better life, but not be considered old enough or mature enough to read their own stories?

This is Book 5 of A Volatile Summer of Reading for my ten books of summer.

Sorry Mr. Fleming, WW2’s Most Dangerous Spy was in fact a lady

A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell (Virago Press, 2019)

 

 

An unscheduled No.4 from my 10 books of Summer  but a worthy addition to the list.

Hall’s wartime service is described  by Purnell as “a Homeric tale of adventure, action and seemingly unfathomable courage”,  her service even more remarkable for covering a time when women didn’t register on the heroism scale  – or any other scale much.  Even more incredible, is that despite the fact Virginia Hall was disabled by a shooting accident which left her as an amputee she personally oversaw and took part in some of the most daredevil exploits to help the allies win WW2.

Virginia Hall experienced many rejections in her life but she never allowed these to stand in her way.  Repeatedly refused work in the diplomatic corps in the US (she was a woman for goodness sake who had ever heard of such a thing) Hall nevertheless in 1940 (aged 34)  travelled to France to volunteer as  an ambulance driver.  Later she went to England where she got picked up by Churchill’s newly formed Special Operations Executive (SOE) which had been formed to carry out disruptive work behind enemy lines –  and sent to France to help coordinate the resistance movement.

In 1940 the SOE itself was not the fait accompli that, with the wisdom of hindsight and Sebastian Faulks’ novels, we now assume it to be.  Purnell explains:

“Advertising for recruits for such subversive work was obviously out of the question – the government never mentioned SOE in public and if asked they would deny its very existence.  Traditionally, British Secret Services had drawn from a shallow pool of posh boys raised on imperial adventure stories, but this regard for breeding over intellect was scarcely a match for the ruthless barbarism of the Third Reich.”

Virginia Hall, however, was.

Subtitled The Untold Story of Virginia Hall WW2’s Most Dangerous Spy, Purnell gives us the story of this courageous  lady whose exploits are not dissimilar although in many ways even more extreme than those of war reporter Marie Colvin who was killed in Iraq in 2012.

Reporter for a US newspaper was the  alias that Hall first used when she went to France where she had been tasked with coordinating and building up the French resistance, starting in Lyon when she fought to stay one step ahead of the notorious butcher Klaus Barbie.  This ‘staying one step ahead’ at one stage involved Hall having to  travel to Perpignan and  cross the Pyrenees in midwinter in order to reach Spain which was, at least officially, neutral.    This unimaginable feat – with a prosthesis – this  treacherous crossing that had felled plenty of fit and able young men:

“sometimes escape parties would come across a frozen corpse, occasionally in an upright position, gazing forward with a fixed stare.”

was undertaken by Hall with the slimmest chance of survival,  along with an unfriendly guide and two other men,  even as the Wehrmacht combed the town behind her with sniffer dogs.

Despite the fact that the internet age was still half a century in the future, the germans were never short of information or the ability to trap spies from other nations, yet Virginia eluded them, even though they knew about her, including a description,  even though she limped and had a prosthesis.  Even thought they put her on their most wanted list.  She seemed to have an uncanny ability not only to adopt different physical disguises but different demeanours too.

The book is hugely readable and fascinating.  But most of all it made me feel ashamed that I had barely heard of this lady.  Yet which of us has not heard of Douglas Bader? In 1956, barely a decade after WW2 ended, a film was produced with Kenneth More in the title role playing Bader.   If Hall had been a man it is unlikely we would have had to wait so long to hear her story.  Purnell’s book is more than a biography it is the setting straight of a record that has long needed setting straight. I urge you to read it.

 

A Volatile Summer of Reading

IMG_0227

 

This Summer I will be taking part in 20 Books of Summer.  A great idea from Cathy@746 Books to review twenty books over the summer period except my 20 will be more like 10.  I realise there are not quite ten books in the photo above!   My other three titles are not yet available to be photographed but will be within the next two days.   A Big Thank You to Sister Rune for trekking to the Hay Festival to make these purchases for me.  The remaining three titles are:

Heida: A Shepherd at the Edge of the World by Steinunn Siguroardottir

Coleridge, The Wordsworths and Their Year of Marvels. Adam Nicholson

River Voices: Extraordinary Stories from the Wye by Marsha O’Mahony

 

 

Reading is like life – a work in progress

Many are the books that I have read and many are the books that I have joyfully completed during my life.   But then there are always those that I couldn’t quite get through and that’s fine.   No-one can like everything and life isn’t long enough so, next please.     img_0168

Having a week’s holiday recently I took  a copy of Orhan Pamuk’s  My Name is Red.  This is a considerable and beautifully crafted tome coming in at 666 pages  just perfect for hours spent in a hotel room when I should have been enjoying the aprés ski if only (a) I drank alcohol and (b)I wasn’t so shattered from falling over on the slopes.

I spent my week and two plane journeys happily engrossed in it.  But lo and behold at page 425 (the number is significant) with less than a quarter of the book to go I couldn’t read it any more. For some reason the magic had gone.  When I got home I replaced the semi-finished copy on my bookshelf,  but found to my amazement a second copy of – guess what – Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red that I had forgotten I owned bookmarked at the last read page  415!

What led me to read over 400 pages of this excellent book and then give up on it in almost exactly the same place, twice?   This required in literary terms a surgical examination.    It almost felt like there was a point in the writing when the whole style of the book changed.   Did I entirely understand the arguments about erroneous religious teachings or the disquisition on the philosophy of art?  Probably not but up until that point I had been enjoying them – but they were not what caused me to stop reading.

I think the reasons I stopped reading were far more pragmatic and plot related.

I decided I couldn’t take Shekure’s two whining children another minute, thought Black somewhat feeble for giving in to her conditions regarding their marriage (he had to find her father’s murderer before she would sleep with him but the poor guy is an artist not a detective) nor regrettably did I any longer care who pushed Elegant Effendi down the well .

Ding dong bell.

Two other books I am struggling with: the Booker shortlisted Everything Under by Daisy Johnson an examination of a relationship between mother and daughter which can only be described as savage it’s words seeming to jump off the page and scrape at the bones; and the Booker prize winning The Milkman.   Although I love what Anna Burns has done with the narrative voice,  even a Booker judge admitted it was a bit of an uphill struggle to keep reading.

I‘m nervous about books from the Booker shortlist but every year I forget my nervousness and pile in.  I’ve had failures before including Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Ben Okri’s The Famished Road.   Although I adored (and definitely finished) The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – the book that didn’t win the year it was nominated but should have.

But then no reading is every wasted.  And reading is like life.   A work in progress. I certainly don’t intend to spend precious time feeling guilty.  Next please.

 

 

 

 

The ground is shaking as the giant stirs

Are we the unreliable narrators of our own lives with our porous memories, shaky realities, versions of our own truth?  If so, where does this leave history or perhaps the question is where does history leave us. These are matters which have concerned Nobel Laureate Kazuo Ishiguro since his first novel A Pale View of Hills was published in 1982.

It is fascinating listening to Ishiguro’s Nobel Lecture which I highly recommend.

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZW_5Y6ekUEw&feature=youtu.be

The author speaks of how he pieced together what he termed his fragile ideas of Japan (a country he left with his parents at the age of 5) from his own childhood memory, from books and comics sent by his grandparents, from ancecdotes and stories told to him by his own parents who for years talked of ‘returning to Japan next year’ and who therefore saw themselves as visitors to these shores, rather than immigrants.

It was never a given that Ishiguro would set a book in Japan, a country which had been Britain’s bitter enemy during the second world war. Now, in a time when writers leap to tell their stories of ethnic or linguistical differences to set themselves apart in a crowded field, it is hard to remember how in the 70s and 80s that was not at all the case. Race was a linear thing and in terms of English Lit it was preferably white and British.

Thankfully, as a student of Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter on the far-sighted and, back then, completely innovative University of East Anglia Creative Writing course, Ishiguro was encouraged to write a story about Japan, set in Nagasaki. That story became his first book.

After A Pale View of Hills he went on to write a second ‘Japan’ book An Artist of the Floating World

“Shintaro, I said, why don’t you simply face up to the past?”

A pertinent question which runs through much of the writer’s oeuvre. Answer: because its too difficult and we often don’t either individually or as a nation.

The Booker prize winning The Remains of the Day later made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thomson, is a story which concerns itself with that acme of Englishness, the butler in a grand house. There is a moment in the book when the main character Stevens, realizes not only that he has lived his professional life to the exclusion of any possibility of a personal one but, shatteringly, that he has faithfully served a master who serves a false, nay evil, ideology.

These books were followed by: The Unconsoled a story about a pianist which I have attempted and failed to read three times, and in which nothing is what it seems to the extent that it drove me mad; Never Let me Go, a dystopian science fiction story also made into a film; When we were Orphans and The Buried Giant, another study of memory and loss set in the deeps of anglo saxon history where giants still lie. The problem of national memory, is examined in this book.

Are national memories related to individual memories and if not how do they differ? What is the relationship between national memory and national identity – the latter subject now being acutely foregrounded by political events since 2016 both in Europe and in the US. And yet if warnings of the dangers of nationalism are never far from the surface of Ishiguro’s work, the past two years have shown us that those warnings are not being heeded. The ground beneath us is shaking as the giant stirs.

During the lecture the author talks about a visit that he made to Auschwitz/Birkenau; how his guide showed him the gas chambers which Ishiguro describes in his lecture as ‘neglected’, a choice of word which initially shocked me. Why would you choose to preserve the gas chambers? Let them rot away into the ground. But that which we allow to rot away is not by definition going to be around to inform the future. If we erase the gas chambers – or rather neglect their preservation to the point where they self-erase – don’t we also erase the murderous ideology which produced them?

This is the great dichotomy and it is one which museums of the 21st century will increasingly face. How to remember and what to remember.  Not only Museums but writers too have a responsibility to address the major issues of their time. It is a responsibility that Ishiguro has not failed to shoulder. (https://wordpress.com/post/volatilerune.blog/354).

Since 2016 both Europe and the US are finding out that the tide of liberal humanism which washed over our western democratic societies in the second half of the twentieth century – and which we thought was forever – wasn’t. How will writers of the future address the history that is being made now.

 

 

 

 

The poets light but Lamps –

The Poets light but Lamps –

Themselves – go out –

The Wicks they stimulate

If vital Light

 

Inhere as do the Suns –

Each Age a Lens

Disseminating their

Cicumference –

(Emily Dickinson 883)

In Extremis  The Life of War Correspondent Marie Colvin. Lindsey Hilsum (Chatto & Windus, 2018)

Becoming Michelle Obama (Viking, 2018)

 The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Faber and Faber 2016)

I recently heard poet and academic Ruth Padel interviewed on the radio, saying how she was clambering down some steep escarpment somewhere remote and scrabbling for a handhold,  when she had an epiphany about the dashes in Emily Dickinson’s work – as one does.  They are, she said, handholds, breathing points,  between scrambles for meaning.

At least this is what I understood her Emily Dickinson: Complete Poems (Book Center) by [Dickinson, Emily, Center, Book]to be saying, but I loved the idea of it.  This is the idea I’m sticking with now when I read Dickinson.   This inspiring writer of genius whose whole life was a struggle with God, with illness,  with the servitude of domestic life.  She kept struggling.  Although unrecognised during her lifetime – she knew her own worth.

If there is any common thread linking these three volumes (other than that they are all sitting on my bedside table)  it is about women knowing their own worth.  It is about lighting lamps – shining a light for future generations.  In very different ways, this idea epitomises the achievements of three very different female writers.

There is so much about Emily Dickinson that is beyond my comprehension.  I love that I could read her forever and still not understand her;   she who scrabbled for handholds among the ghosts and maelstroms of the soul, who rummaged amongst eternities and  in our concepts of divinity.  Dickinson the writer of genius who, in the later stages of her life, barely left her room.

A woman who conversely rarely stayed home was war correspondant Marie Colvin.  Colvin  was born into a conservative family in small town America in 1956,  there was nothing especially poor or deprived about her upbringing, but being a woman in the l950s was more usually a guarantee of becoming a housewife or a typist,  rather than a famous war correspondent.Marie Colvin.jpg

In 1974  Colvin was among the first few intakes of female to go to Yale and whilst there discovered a passion for both travel and journalism.  But she didn’t travel the way most of us travel, any more than Dickinson wrote poems like most of us write poems.

As a student at Yale, Colvin wrote for a travel piece for a journal based on ‘the real Mexico’ a country she had visited with another female student.

 “Arriving in Chihuahua, our first night in Mexico, we strolled jauntily out for a Mexican meal and a look at the nightlife.  Nervous glances began to get panicky after two blocks; men who passed turned to follow, catcalls came from corners and open doors, cars honked suggestively … there wasn’t another woman on the street … friends who had travelled to Mexico had returned with glowing stories about how warm and open the local people were.  They neglected to tell us all their friends had been male; we’d neglected to notice all the storytellers were male.”

Hilsum notes:  That was typical of Marie it never occurred to her not to do something that it might be unwise or dangerous, nor because as a woman she might face particular dangers.   Such adventures, she realised when she began to write, were rich seams like the silver ore in the rocks of Durango. An eye for detail, the ability to conjure a scene and scant regard for her own safety were to become trademarks of her journalism.

Colvin was killed in 2012 after she had herself smuggled into Homs, Syria, when everyone else was trying to get out.    All her life she had tried to shine a light on people’s suffering.

In her much lauded memoire Becoming Michelle Obama writes of her childhood in the East side of Chicago during the ‘tail end’ of the 1960s; she writes of teenage years spent returning home from outings with her doorkey pointing outward between clenched knuckles.  Growing up in a time and a place when the colour of your skin was enough to make you feel unsafe and certainly second rate.  In many places that is still the case.  In her book she shows a woman who has tried to strike a balance between retaining her own sense of identity and her life in the public sphere which at times has threatened to be overwhelming.

“I’ve been”  she writes  “a working class black student at a fancy mostly white college.  I’ve been the only woman, the only African American in all sorts of rooms.”

She has also been, it will come as no surprise to most people, a lawyer, a Chief Executive of a hospital trust, and First Lady of the United States of America.  This latter was not a position gifted solely as a result of being married to Barack.  She ran a stressful and exhausting, ultimately successful, campaign of her own to support him.

In the book Michelle writes movingly about a visit to the UK that she paid – shortly after becoming First Lady – to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school in Islington,  a visit that she has recently repeated on being in London to promote her book. So why this school in particular?

More than 90% of the school’s 900 pupils were black or from an ethnic minority, a fifth of them were the children of immigrants of asylum seekers.  I was drawn to it because it was a diverse school with limited financial resources and yet had been deemed academically outstanding.

Watching them she said was like falling back into her own past.  She knew:

“These girls would need to work hard to be seen.  All the ways they’d be defined before they had a chance to define themselves.  They’d need to fight the invisibility that comes with being poor, female and of colour.”

Grace is a word that occurs quite often in Becoming.  The search for a precious commodity that can never be bought or acquired other than by pure hearted struggle.

The author writes:   ‘If there was a presumed grace assigned to my white predecessors I knew it wouldn’t be the same for me.  My grace would need to be earned.’

And so it has been.

Disobedience: the film. As relevant to Jewish orthodoxy as a bacon sandwich

This story started life in 2006 as a book by Naomi Alderman. It was according to the author the first time a book had been set among the orthodox (frum) Jewish community since Daniel Deronda in 1876.  It was a book born out of the author’s own experience and crisis in faith (if crisis it can be called) and not least her experiences of being in the vicinity when the twin towers fell,  which precipitated a drastic change in lifestyle and a writing career.

So.  to the plot,  in which Ronit the daughter of the Rav (Rabbi) has left her orthodox roots behind to live and work in New York but returns to Hendon upon hearing of her father’s death.

Given Ronit’s somewhat flexible sexual arrangments and perceived lack of faith, her  presence is not welcomed by the community who are much taken up with organising a memorial service for the Rav and see Ronit’s return as an unwelcome distraction that needs to be dealt with at what for them is the worst possible time.  One rather rascally gentleman of the synagogue tries to pay her to go back to New York early and leave them all in peace!

But peace is not to be had so easily it seems, for any of the characters.  Esti, the wife of Dovid (likely to be appointed the new Rabbi)  was once involved in a teenage affair with Ronit.  Upon Ronit’s return from New York, this affair looks likely to reignite and to take half of Hendon with it.

The book wasn’t perfect (what book is) – some of the scenes were borderline silly – but it had some good ideas and something to say at the end that was life enhancing.

Books don’t have to be the same as their films nor films the same as their books.    But it seemed to me this film is as relevant to Jewish orthodoxy as a bacon sandwich.

I admire Naomi Alderman for managing to sit through it. It was almost more than I could manage – apart from a few moments of beautiful singing in the synagogue.    The author wrote recently for an article in the Guardian that they had changed the end of the film.  She didn’t add – presumably out of delicacy – that they also butchered the middle and the beginning, without benefit of kosher.   The author said that she thought she had written a book about a frum community in Hendon but it turned out that she had written a book about lesbians.  She was being ironic, I think.

I don’t understand why everyone is raving about a film which assumes that all its viewers are stupid and won’t ‘get’ that Ronit is no longer part of this community unless she makes daft comments about selling her father’s house on shabbat (the comments,  not the sale), or tries on a wig for laughs when visiting her uncle; nor apparently is the viewer capable of understanding that there was once a passion between Ronit and Esti  (played respectively by Rachel Weisz and Rachel McAdam)  unless there is a 20 minute scene watching them making out in a hotel bedroom.  If this scene was meant to convince me that the two were passionately in love it failed; rather it looked like just another version of the male gaze objectification of women for which the film seeks to criticise its fictional protagonists.

It is the nature of film that none of the characters has an internal monologue.   Yet this played such an important part in the book, giving us Dovid’s migraines, his innate gentleness and liberal tendencies and Esti’s confusion. The important resolution at the book’s ending revolves around wanting to make things better rather than baling out.

The film however having spent two hours obsessing over sex,  back pedals furiously at the end with a tacked on speech from Dovid about ‘freedom’ as he decides he is not qualified to be Rabbi (nonsense, of course he was) and Esti (now pregnant) deciding freedom means bringing  up a child on your own in London without the support of the community that she is pleased to complain about having grown up in, thus in one fell swoop depriving a father of his child and a child of his father, and all for no discernible reason.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A ring in tissue paper and a thousand broken promises

C.G. Menon. Subjunctive Moods. Dahlia Publishing Limited

Catherine
C.G. Menon

The Oxford Dictionary defines subjunctive as a specific verb form. It usually expresses something that you wish for, or a hypothetical rather than actual situation. Eg.  If only I were ten years younger.

Life is full of ‘if only’ moments.      If only I had a different job, partner, life… .   The Art of Losing isn’t hard to master said Elizabeth Bishop –  a sentiment with which the characters in Menon’s stories would no doubt agree as they lose husbands, wives, partners, youth, memories, identity, life.

Menon, not unlike Loveday reviewed above, skewers the  claustrophobia and anxiety of modern life, its obsession with media constructs of ‘happiness’ and the chasm that exists between those pictures in the red tops and  glossies and what passes for reality in most people’s lives.   In particular the stories offer a cross cultural examination of the lives of women when we learn, unsurprisingly, that white or Asian, pink or yellow or green, the burdens are the same, and of course the joys.

Yet underneath the bare light bulbs and cheap plastic chairs that inhabit these stories more ancient voices call,  of dragons,  seascapes,  jackfruit flowers.   Both Menon and Loveday are part of a new generation of writers who are not settling for the fake news they’ve been sold by decades of cynical neoliberalism.  While these are not new ideas and there is much literature out there dealing with the same topics, it is the writer’s job to create unique characters with believable individual lives, to give us a moment’s insight and empathy into someone else’s reality which is, remarkably, not unlike our own.   These stories achieve that.

Many of the characters are caught at moments of great change or even crisis in their lives; the heartbreak of a single mother who has her child taken away by Social Services (‘Foxgloves’); the intolerable pressures of the modern workplace (‘So long, so long’). The settings of the stories stretch from Kerala to Kuala Lumpur to Northumberland but the ‘who am I?’ and ‘what am I doing here?’  problems remain.

Germaine Greer wrote in The Female Eunuch that the cage door had opened but no-one flew out.  It feels that many of the female characters of Menon’s stories are sitting there with the door open, afraid.

For example,    In ‘For you are Julia’ a telephone call from a long ago lover leads to an interior examination of boredom and inadequacy.

Tom sees nothing but joy as the hymn puts it.  He squints into the sun  and sees another woman, and he never dreams it’s only me; only Julia tricked out with sunbeams and cataracts.

In a moment of pure Angela Carter,   a bride is:

  ‘veiled in lace and trussed up in silk, and her feet are squeezed in blood red shoes. The church is silent in a bright, bitter pause and outside the summer day is ending.’

Or this from one of my favourite stories in the collection:  ‘I see you in triplicate’ Caroline’s husband collecting his belongings from what was the family home, goes off with her Spanish class enrolment form (thinking it was a mortgage document).  He then realises ‘the least of his mistakes’ and pushes the form back through the letterbox.

In the kitchen meanwhile Caroline is gnawing at the shining rind of a granny smith and drinking gin from a jar that once held home-made chutney.

I loved that jar of chutney for it represents the very pinnacle of the earth mother dream, turned to gin soaked nightmare.

In “So long So long” , a junior surgeon faces the failure of his consultant’s examinations for the second time much exacerbated by his wife’s derision.  When he complains that he has a long list of bypasses to perform that day she snaps back:

‘Everything bypasses your heart.’

Densely written in descriptive and imagistic prose these stories are as I imagine might be a visit to Bombay (I’ve never been!)  –  the images tumbling over one another, the sights and sounds and smells.   I could have wished occasionally for a little more breathing space in the sentences around the adjective-laden imagery,  but this is an excellent first collection of stories from this prizewinning author and rising star.