Tag Archives: satirical

THE MANDIBLES by Lionel Shriver

It’s 2029. There’s a Latino in the White House and Putin is still ruling Russia. The dollar is about to become worth less than the paper it’s printed on. Families like the Mandibles, who have accumulated wealth from one generation to the next, and along with it a sense of security and entitlement, now find themselves facing a new financial and social reality. One which requires them to battle simply to survive in an America that’s become even more competitive, brutal and violent than they could imagine.

Shriver’s writing is, as usual, blistering and unflinching. Her comedy is dark and the satire just brilliant – take one Mandible mother, trying to be modern, fresh and quirky, who gifts her sons the names Goog (for Google) and Bing.  The premise is that the future  everyone expected is one big practical joke and the nightmare future she has created  to replace it is both credible and terrifying. Hiding gold is treason. Homeless shelters overflow. Supermarket shelves are regularly empty and inflation out of control. From details like a return to printed bank statements (“So history could reverse” observes one character) and the daily rituals of first saving water then having to scour the streets for old fabric to turn into reusable toilet paper, this is large scale social breakdown told through the every day small things.

The younger generation and the drop outs adapt most easily but by 2047 a new kind of economy has emerged to replace the old one – one in which it’s clear they are going to have to shoulder most of the burden of supporting their parents and grandparents. Their resentment at having to work three jobs, paying 77% tax to meet the costs of elderly social care, and filling the gaps previously plugged by immigrant workers is palpable. The concept of free time laughable.  Leaving not an option when your chipped. No wonder the Utopian myth that is Nevada, the state that chose to leave the US almost as soon as the shit started hitting the fan, persists.

Some of Shriver’s previous books have failed to live up to the high of WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN but this is her back up there.  She hasn’t shied away from doing the economics thoroughly and she’s got every little thing right – from the throw away lines about the Chelsea Clinton administration to the way slang has evolved. From the way that food evolves from being a style and life choice for the “watercress and wasabi” set to something that prompts former hedge fund managers to mug their neighbours at knife point – superior quality designer kitchen knives, of course. From the practical uselessness of the jobs most of the Mandibles do to the astute characterisation of every family member – from eccentric, canny Enola, for whom no amount of economic chaos can detract from the importance of doing her daily jumping jacks at the ripe old age of 80 and beyond, to thoughtful teenager Willing who quickly grasps that his beloved dog needs to be given away before the family can no longer feed him and just as quickly learns to steal, lie and wield a gun.

I loved this dark dystopian novel. And it’s definitely made me think twice about what’s valuable now compared to when everything does go belly up. Basically, stock pile loo roll, grow your own food and don’t bother with a pension.

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THE CORRECTIONS by Jonathan Franzen

I have been looking at this book for some time and for some reason it always felt like it was going to be hard work, so I put off reading it. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Lambert family are a joy to read about. From stubborn, principled Alfred and his wife,  Enid, for whom life’s highlights are weddings and Christmas, to their 3 children – angry Gary, loser Chip and striving Denise.  The joy is because of course, there’s so much more to all of them than I can possibly convey here.

Indeed everything about this book is big, epic even – from landscapes traversed by railroads to ideas and theories. Its  geographical heart is the mid West of America, taking in Lithuania and New York en route. It encompasses dodgy pharmaceutical corporations, celebrity restaurants, the internet sale of most of Vilnius, philanthropists growing vegetables with poor kids, and children setting up CCTV in their own homes. It’s a commentary on the modern economy, the digital age and the American dream. But above all it’s about the space in time when nothing much is happening. Who we are and who we have become. The disappointment, the self-obsession, the tragicomedy and the humiliation. The rot. And how it’s all pretty much inescapable.

Franzen’s greatest skill is perhaps that he has made such a dark and ultimately desperate book feel warm and light-hearted. That there’s much which feels familiar is no doubt largely responsible. What I also felt though was distance – and, I admit, superiority. My life is surely more than waiting for something to happen? More than an attempt to correct the mistakes of my parents? Of course, this is what we all believe – and perhaps delusion is one way to survive. Enid found wonder drugs, Gary alcohol. Denise throws herself into love, work, sex, whilst Chip runs away. Alfred is the only one facing the truth and it’s making him depressed.

I didn’t only put off reading THE CORRECTIONS, I delayed writing this review too, knowing I’d never be able to do it justice.  I don’t pretend to be a literary critic – this blog is intentionally small and personal. A book like this somehow deserves more though and all I can really say is that if ambitious, intelligent proper literature is your thing, please go find the joy.

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AUTUMN by Ali Smith

I generally like Smith’s books, especially the way she plays with structure and language. At times that can make them slightly less accessible but in my experience persistence usually pays off (though I do have a copy of HOW TO BE BOTH on my kindle that I have not read yet because it feels a bit daunting). With AUTUMN she has written something apparently much more straightforward and in which I found myself easily absorbed. However, the relative simplicity belies some complex ideas and themes.

The emotional heart of the novel is the relationship between Daniel Gluck, 101 years old and who spends  most of his time in his nursing home sleeping and dreaming, with Elisabeth Demand, 32 years old, on the verge of losing her job as an art historian, and adapting to the post-Brexit world. Daniel and Elisabeth were neighbours when she was a child and he inspired in her a love of beauty, colour, stories and much else. It jumps between the present day and some very funny interactions eg between Elisabeth and the man at the Post Office as she tries to make a passport application, Daniel’s vivid dreams, and the time when the pair first met, 1993.

These threads are held together not just by our characters but also by their different and contrasting commentaries on the nature of time. From Daniel’s slow breaths, and the observation that each one might be his last, to his dreamscapes, which are full of longing and speeded up action. From Elisabeth’s forays into the life of Daniel’s one time love, the largely forgotten only woman Brit pop artist Pauline Boty, to the changes taking place after the Brexit vote and the literal and metaphorical fences she encounters. Time is portrayed as fluent, the present as fleeting, our existence as fragile.

Smith has written a sobering book, in which the smallness of everyday life, where one’s head on a passport photo is measured with a ruler and rejected, contrasts temporarily with the largeness of what we leave behind through our interactions which others, but which in turn becomes small then disappears thanks to our fading memories and transience in this world. Despite all this, there’s an energy and colour to the novel, which I really loved. It’s flies by, much like time. It’s a reminder that nothing lasts for ever, including the things we fear and dread.  And above all, it’s a call to make the most of every moment, because the seasons will keep passing and we are powerless to stop them.

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THE ICE by Laline Paul

I was reading this as Hurricanes Irma and Harvey struck the Americas and an estimated 40 million people were affected by flooding in South Asia. Anyone who still thinks the climate isn’t changing and that the effects are not dangerous isn’t paying attention. Paull has set her novel in a chilling and not too distant future when the Arctic sea ice has melted and multi nationals compete to exploit the new business and shipping opportunities that have opened up. It revolves around two close friends, Greenpeace campaigner Tom Harding and his university friend and global entrepreneur Sean Cawson. It opens with a cruise ship  detouring for a rare sighting of a polar bear and instead finding Tom’s frozen dead body, revealed by the melting ice of the Midgard glacier.

What ensues is a fascinating story about the pair’s different journeys and choices, a searing commentary on the corruption, lies and motivation of the corporations seeking to profit from investment in the Arctic region, and a thrilling and emotionally charged drama as the inquest into Tom’s death unfolds. Sean trades in exclusivity, discretion and powerful connections. He has created a retreat at Midgard for the world’s elites – and Tom has been persuaded to get on board to provide ethical and environmental credibility. When a visit to Midgard ends in tragedy, Sean is forced to confront his role in events and the value of the life he has created for himself.

The beating heart of THE ICE is a tension between two different takes on humankind, captured in one particular scene between Tom and Joe Kingsmith, Sean’s long term mentor and financial backer. The latter mocks Tom’s idealism: “Your beautiful idea of everyone pulling together only happens in the movies, war and sport”. Tom counters with an assertion that “People are better than you think.”  Paull uses small but perfectly chosen details to illustrate the vast gulf between Tom and Sean’s ideologies – one of my favourite is an aside about the Tom Harding Bequest, his friend has established, worth £100,000 and set to awarded in the first year to “Imperial College for the newly patented biodegradable Fruit-Fly drones, nano-tiny and with unprecedented maneuverability”. Very little could be further from the natural world that’s been the focus of Tom’s life work.

The friends share an lifelong obsession with the Arctic and each chapter is prefaced by a short passage taken from older writing and accounts about the region – including the effects of gangrene and an 1893 excerpt from an explorer’s journal which describes movement in the ice as “Nature’s giants… awakening to the battle.” The overall effect is of a moving and very gritty eulogy for the frozen region we have lost forever. “Climate change was too big to care about, too vague to talk about, and was just – unsexy” reflects Sean at one point. Paull has proven that literature has a leading role to play in challenging that perception. But THE ICE is a gripping story even without its dramatic backdrop of climate breakdown and Paull doesn’t labour her environmental subtext – she doesn’t need to when it speaks  so powerfully for itself. Lines like “Record deaths this month both sides of the Schengen Fences” seem almost throwaway.  The combination of personal conviction, politics and corporate greed really made it stand out for me though. A truly impressive book and a more than worth follow up to THE BEES. If it doesn’t touch you deeply, you aren’t paying attention.

 

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SWING TIME by Zadie Smith

Wow – this is Smith back on form and with a novel that’s apparently superficial plot about a young woman working for a Madonna inspired superstar belies its dark heart and complex sub narratives.

It opens with the unnamed narrator hiding out from the press in an upmarket London apartment block. Then it takes us on a journey of discovery about what she has done to end up there. Moving back and forth in time, we explore her childhood on a London estate, raised by a black mother, an ambitious community activist determined to chase an education for them both, and a white father, who turns his back on promotion to go back to working as a postman.

As an adult she has difficult relationships with both parents, caught up as she is in a transient life that spans every continent. They simultaneously make her feel guilty and proud, with encounters prompting both memories and soul searching about the accuracy and meaning of those memories. From a childhood with strong roots and connections she moves into an adult lifestyle where being off line for 72 hours is “among the great examples of personal stoicism and moral endurance of our times”.  Despite her apparent success at escaping the estate where she grew up, the replacement is not as glittering and glamorous as it appears and the lack of real connections with people and places dogs our narrator. She feels she has spent her life attaching herself to the light of other people – first Tracey her childhood friend and dance prodigy, later Aimee, singer, dancer, tyrant, benefactor, adoptive mother and one of a category of people “of financial means and global reach, who happen to love freedom and equality, want justice, feel an obligation to do something good with their own good fortune.”

The layers beneath this story of a girl making something of her life are remarkable. Smith isn’t afraid to tackle big topics here – with a lightness and subtlety that means I often found I had to go back and re-read sections to check I had them right. Most notable is when the narrator discovers Tracey is being abused, a realisation they both treat as “absolutely true and obviously untrue”, prompting the observation “perhaps only children are able to accommodate double-faced facts like these”. The idea of children being a mix of knowing and innocence is something Smith comes back to again and again, including in the shape of a universal “girl who lives everywhere and at all times in history, who is sweeping the yard or pouring out tea or carrying somebody else’s baby on her hip and looking over at you with a secret she can’t tell.”

She cleverly picks apart notions of success and happiness, and also delivers wonderfully astute and social commentary. In common with Smith’s other novels, she mocks all her characters and the prejudices, assumptions and inconsistencies with which they go forth into and shape their worlds. So for example, the other mothers disapprove of Tracey’s mother finding a job and neglecting her children almost as much as they were critical of her being a lazy and unemployed. Everyone is trying to better themselves, to escape, to change, and yet, Smith forces us to ask, what exactly does better mean? This is starkly brought home by the contrast between what Aimee’s body guard sees when the entire entourage travel to Gambia to help build a school and what our narrotor sees:  “Where I saw deprivation, injustice, poverty, Granger saw simplicity, a lack of materialism, communal beauty…” And do we measure our own success objectively or always in relation to someone else’s?

SWINGTIME has a soundtrack to die for and language that sings. It has characters that seem familiar and at the same time intriguing. It has a story that flies of the page and says important things about race, about class and about gender. Pretty much all I could want from a novel, really.

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A GOD IN RUNS by Kate Atkinson

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This book picks up the story of Teddy Todd, from LIFE AFTER LIFE,  granted a reprieve at the end of that novel and and who survives a bombing mission and a prisoner of war camp to return home. Whilst flying a record number of missions and repeatedly unsure if he has a future, Teddy vows that if he survives he will just be kind. A GOD IN RUINS tells how he tries to keep that promise, living a life, that, after the war, is unremarkable in many ways, with Teddy the very definition of stoic. It could make for a very dull read but this is Atkinson, so it’s quite the opposite.

In LIFE AFTER LIFE Atkinson’s narrative thread turned on the alternative paths that might be followed if seemingly small events turned out differently. In A GOD IN RUINS she picks a similarly unusual structure, this time based around memories. The novel moves around a great deal in time, between Teddy’s childhood, the war, his marriage to Nancy (whose family lived next door to the house at Fox Corner where he grew up), the arrival of his own daughter and then of grandchildren, and old age and his final days in a nursing home. It often segues between these not in any apparent order but because what happens in one thread prompts recollection of an earlier episode – that might be the sight of a girl on a bicycle, finding a much treasured clock whilst packing to move house, or lines from poetry. Oft repeated refrains tie things together, as they do in our own lives, whether it’s Nancy’s exhortation “Let’s talk about something more interesting than the mechanics of bombing”, the appearance of a skylark, or the way in which all the Todd family conjure an idealised past with their litany of the flowers that grew near Fox Corner, “flax and larkspur, buttercups, corn poppies, red campion, the ox-eye daisies”.

The overall effect is of feeling we have truly shared someone’s life with them – both the every day mundane and the stand out highlights. What’s very special about this book is that, although essentially a catalogue of events, we nonetheless experience Teddy’s life more as the relationships that hold him together.  Most of us tend to look back and forward in time by way of specific moments, whether they are quiet or of heightened drama, yet Atkinson’s novel celebrates these moments more for their  long and short term consequences on how we interact with our fellow human beings, and in Teddy she gives us a character whom she clearly admires for embodying awareness that it is the point of it all. In turn, his daughter, Viola, is mocked relentlessly for her obliviousness to this universal truth and it’s striking that Atkinson’s trademark satire, of which Viola is the most common victim, is far harsher here than in her other novels.

One of the most moving aspects of A GOD IN RUINS is the sense we have of life being wasted, whether it’s viscerally in the horrific sixty million dead overall from the Second World War or more indirectly from the way in which the past infects the present – at one point Teddy’s grandson reflects that he has no idea “how to get a life” and resents his grandfather’s generation, “They’d been given history.” Atkinson’s book is peppered with various utopias, about which she’s largely rather impatient – make the most of what you have, here and now, she seems to be telling us. You get one shot and this it is. Like Teddy, just be kind and appreciate being given a future. The totally unexpected twist at the end of the novel, and that I am still resisting – hard – but, which I have to hand to Atkinson, is perfect in almost every way, underscores her theme. And after all, as Teddy remarks when he finds out his sister is having an affair,  nothing should really surprise us, because, “The whole edifice of civilisation turned out to be constructed from an unstable mix of quicksand and imagination.”

Teddy’s existence encompasses horrors beyond belief (“people were boiled in fountains and baked in cellars”) and small lies (the stain on an old photo is blood not tea), it is part of history and crosses centuries, there’s unbridled passion and the safety of an altogether less demanding kind of love,  it is vast and at the same time no bigger than his predilection for saving rubber bands. And at the end, a beautiful end, there’s no prize for having endured “its never ending grinding labour”, no “afterward after all“, just “time tilting” and, if you are lucky, having someone by your side who can make you feel loved.

Breathtaking, magnificent, dazzling and heartbreaking, according to the reviews printed on the front cover, A GOD IN RUINS is all these things and more. But crucially, it’s truthful and it’s real, and I think therein lies the incredible impact it had on me.

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THE GIRLS by Emma Cline

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sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water

Evie is haunted by her past. A past in which she spent one summer at a free love commune, in thrall to the dangerously charismatic and delusional Russell Hadrick and, perhaps even more so, to the girls that hung around him. The summer ended in mass murder.

Unhappy and bored as she waits out the weeks before being dispatched to boarding school, Evie lives with her mother, cringing at the recent divorcee’s efforts to find herself, a new boyfriend, and her inner thinner more beautiful being. Best friend Connie and even her older brother are an increasingly ineffective distraction, so when Evie encounters the long haired, sullen, provocative Suzanne, stealing toilet roll from the store, she is immediately smitten by the prospect of breaking out of her dull existence.

Suzanne invites Evie to the ranch that’s home to Russell and hangers on, and it’s not long before she has her first sexual encounter with him. But it’s her encounters with the girls that really change and shape Evie and Cline has captured perfectly that time in a teenager’s life when girlfriends are your entire world and everything is viewed through the prism of how they might react. She’s also nailed the underlying cultural norms that contribute to such behaviour, along with the vulnerability, desperation and poor self esteem that makes some young girls so at risk of exploitation and abuse.

At one point Evie reflects: “I waited to be told what was good about me” and “all that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you – the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.” Being noticed is a recurring theme for Evie, unable to hide her longing to be someone else. As an adult, she is hugely sensitive to the young girls she finds campaigning for their own existence, “before finally giving up”. And as a teenager, the only time she seems to notice the absence of absence inside her is when she takes drugs or fills up with hatred for her mother: “it was almost nice, how big it was, how pure and intense”.

No wonder she’s so drawn to Suzanne, the first person to really look at Evie. Whose “face answered all its own questions” and who seems the very opposite of the resignation, being overlooked and being backed into someone else’s corner that Evie assumes is her fate.  Suzanne represents a turning point, with life before “limited and expected, objects and people occupying their temperate orbits” and life afterwards “come into sharp, mysterious relief, revealing a world beyond the known world.” The other girls on the ranch are similarly drawn to Suzanne’s combination of worldliness, affection and challenge. She is a skilled prophet too, proselytizing on Russell’s behalf, delivering his judgments and girls.  When Russell incites murder, it’s Suzanne who makes it all happen, who eggs them on, and it’s Suzanne who, whether deliberately or not, ensures Evie isn’t implicated.

It’s almost impossible to read this book apart from the knowledge of the events that inspired it – the Charles Manson cult and the murder of Sharon Tate and her family. One of the Manson cult’s trademarks was to break into empty houses and disturb them a little, to mess with the occupants’ heads. The girls do the same. But Cline’s sympathy for the fictional girls, who are portrayed  as victims as much as killers, is strongly evident and is what ultimately stops this being a simple retelling of the Manson story. Rather, it’s an attempt to understand how such things can happen – even a warn that they are perhaps not so unlikely once you understand the way girls are made to feel, and the way men feel they are made to behave.

Evie says of her teenage self, “At that age I was, first and foremost, a thing to be judged, and that shifted the power in every interaction onto the other person.” What’s striking about the sections of the book set in the present is that she seems to still be inhabiting that space – as well as projecting it onto others. This is never clearer than in the closing scene, when she’s running on the beach and expects to be confronted, if not attacked, by a man coming towards her. A man who, headphones plugged in and  lost in a world of his own, has in fact not even noticed her. It’s an ending that I found immensely frustrating at the time but seems very fitting now, with some distance. After all, being noticed only matters if you define yourself in relation to others. Or, as Cline puts it, “even at the end, the girls had always been stronger than Russell”.

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