Saturday, 29 March 2014

Review: Big Brother

I read We need to talk about Kevin when it was published, along with everybody else I saw on trains, beaches, and benches, at coffee shops, hospitals and dentists. I was fascinated by it, and unsure how I felt about it. My Auntie J asked us "So, what do you think? Was it the boy, or his mother?" She herself was entirely unsympathetic to the mother, and used some uncharacteristically unfeminist language to condemn her. But then, Auntie J was (is) a mother herself. Maybe it's more tempting, from that position, to believe that a mother's character can influence her child's one way or the other. Maybe it's even true; how would I know? (I mean, my mother is the best person in the world, and I'm ... me.) But I know that I never had the conviction that Auntie J did to damn Eva unreservedly. It was more complicated than that.

If you haven't seen the film with Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller, you should. It's bleak and horrible and you won't want to see it again, but it's worth a watch. 

Anyway, the things I really loved about Kevin were the writing and the complexity. Something about Lionel Shriver's prose is deeply compelling, and I love to read even her books whose contrivances leave me cold (the story of The post-birthday world, for example, is complete nonsense, and I still enjoy reading it). But I was disappointed to learn that her most recent novel is called Big brother and centres around a woman whose brother Edison, once a "slim, hip pianist" turns up for a visit weighing roughly 386 pounds. To us Brits, that's 27.5 stone. 

Let me get this out of the way right now: I couldn't care less about all the handwringing regarding obesity epidemics and national averages and plane seats and fatties-cost-the-NHS-millions-of-pounds-a-year. Everyone has the right to be whatever weight they want, or whatever weight they happen to be, and in the UK, you additionally have as much right to be treated for any conditions arising from that as you do to be treated for sexual health, lung cancer, liver damage, gender confirmation, and a million other things. I have no patience for fatness-as-a-moral-failure narratives, nor for conniving arguments that try to make that statement without seeming to make it (see I'm only concerned for your health, I just want you to live a full life, I don't want people to be mean to you, wouldn't you rather have more choice in clothes, etc).

So that's why I was disappointed in Shriver's subject matter. The best thing about Shriver's novels is how deeply she examines complicated situations; how much nuance she reads into people and their lives. It's impossible to say that it's all Eva or all Kevin, or even how much blame should be assigned to Franklin. The novel twists and turns on itself with such dedication that you're constantly wrongfooted as a reader, and that kind of satisfying moral ambiguity is not something I want to see applied to (as the blurb says) "why we overeat". 

I'm going to spoil the entire plot of Big brother, including the twist at the end, so read on at your own risk.

The narrator, Pandora Halfdanarson, has grown up under the shadow of a famous father and a huge personality of a brother, but by the time we meet her, she is outranking both in personal and professional success. When Edison arrives for a visit having gained hundreds of pounds and lost friends, work, pride and possessions, she and her family struggle to ignore what they call "the elephant in the room". As he prepares to leave on a fictional jazz tour of Europe, she proposes that they get a house together for a year, where he will be put on a strict diet until he loses the weight. He succeeds, but when he realises that she will now go back to her family, he deliberately binges until he regains all the weight.

At this point it is revealed that the whole weight-loss story line has been Pandora's invention, and that Edison instead returned to New York, foundered further, gained more and more weight, and died at 49 of "complications of congestive heart failure". 

This feels like such a cop out. I'm not saying I was happy with the 'I love my bro so much I'm gonna force him to crash diet for his own good, bravely risking my own health and marriage in the process' story, but this 'and then I woke up and it was all a dream' thing? How has that been allowed in a successful writer's fourteenth novel? It's not that it isn't subject to similar complexities as Shriver's usual narratives - I would be far angrier if her 'dream' had ended successfully rather than with a reversion to eating-as-emotional-weapon - but it does have the effect of declawing everything about the preceding 200 pages. In those pages Pandora gets to know Edison, and herself, and other characters develop alongside them. Employing the silly 'it was all a dream' contrivance cheapens the development that has occurred throughout the novel, leaving you with a crushing sense of anticlimax. "Oh yeah, this didn't happen and could never have happened, and he's dead now anyway." It's just poor form. 

This book has all of Shriver's signatures: complicated, often unlikeable characters with unusual names and esoteric occupations; multi-faceted musings on place, identity and fame; an obsession with food and eating; a focus on familial ties and responsibility. The complexities are great, and her fascination with the strive for satisfaction, challenge and meaning in life is as compelling here as it is in Kevin. There's a really interesting discussion to be had about their portrayals of 'normal' life: ambition, achievement, stability, adventure - what 'normal' means and if it's worth it. But I feel so let down by the subject matter, and even more so by the cowardly ending.

Reading the notes at the back reveals that Shriver's older brother died in the same circumstances as Edison. So that pretty much explains why this novel feels more like a vehicle than fictional craft. It also gives us this gem from Shriver herself: 
I faced a range of obvious end points, none satisfying: a) Edison stays fat (static, not a story); b) Edison loses the weight and lives happily ever after (didn't sound like a Shriver novel to me); c) Edison loses the weight only to gain it all back again. Now, the latter structure would engender an appealing pathos. Yet as a matter of principle I could not publish a novel with the implicit message that in the long run it's impossible to lose weight, and thus it's pointless to even try.
So I chose d). 
I mean, this could take days to unpack, and I'm trying to practise brevity. (But I have to say this: a character getting really fat and then living their life is not "static". That is frankly insulting.) Shriver's anti-fat bias is summed up in the closing point: she thinks losing weight is so desirable that it would be morally wrong to publish a piece of fiction suggesting that losing weight is impossible. And that's disappointing from someone who wrestles with moral ambiguities the way that Shriver normally does. To be clear, I'm not advocating for a debate about the rights and wrongs of weight loss, fat-hatred, obesity scaremongering and the like. I think I've made my own views clear. But this moral high-handedness is not what I expected from Lionel Shriver, and it's not what I wanted.

Sunday, 23 March 2014


I had wanted to see S Bear Bergman speak at Bar Wotever, where I was sure he would be far queerer and less 'family friendly' than he would be at JW3, a Jewish community centre in North West London. But I was away for that event, so off to JW3 I went, along with another queer Jew of my acquaintance who was in a similar position, although more worried than I about drinking the tea of the occupation. (It was Oscars night at JW3, and my friend and I were surrounded by opulently dressed, exquisitely-groomed Jews who politely skimmed their eyes over us, the raggedy queers drinking g&t and peppermint tea in their midst. Apparently there was a real Oscar statue there, but I didn't see it.)

There were maybe 40 people in attendance, and I assumed that people had taken the write-up seriously, and brought their parents and grandparents to the event. It was nice, I thought. Bear's storytelling was marvellous, of course, and there was a lovely jumble of queerness, Jewishness and family in every story. 

It wasn't until the q&a at the end that things went awry. The very first question was "So ... you mentioned the word 'transsexual'. What ... er ... can you ... say more about that?" Bear answered that he is transsexual, and apologised (in a gloriously polite 'sorry not sorry' way) for not including the information as part of his introduction. Then he quipped that the line about his grandma asking him, as a youth, if he had a boyfriend yet, would have made a lot more sense with this information, and something about the amount of head-nodding in the room must have given the game away.

On going round the room, Bear discovered that there were 3 separate groups of people who had had no idea what they were coming to: about half the audience in total. At least one of the groups was a work outing. And in another group, one man explained their presence thusly: "Well, it was this or Wolf of Wall Street."

Another man, sitting right at the back, tried very hard to be polite as he explained that queer means homosexual, and that we don't really use the word here, as it's derogatory. (Outraged gestures no it doesn't! yes we bloody do! from the queers in attendance.)

Bear, to his credit, handled the whole thing tremendously. He was nothing but polite and sympathetic to the confused and they, for their part, were mostly respectful and seemed genuinely interested. There were some awkward questions ("So how long ago were you a woman?") but Bear handled them all with aplomb, and at the end, while the queer side of the audience huddled together to recuperate, it was wonderful to see that the other half of the audience had gathered around Bear. I was in the other half, of course, but I hope they were being nice to him. Maybe apologising a bit, or asking more questions, or just getting to know him.

On our side of the room, we were conducting shaky post-match analysis. I don't think I was alone in finding the q&a quite traumatic: for much of it I was near hysterical with a laughter which wasn't always happy, and others were acting similarly; I can't know their feelings, of course, but my companion confessed afterwards that she had felt the same. After things had calmed down, I found myself so shaky and short of breath that I recognised the sensation of an anxiety attack. Texting each other afterwards, S and I discussed the strange feeling of 'coming down' that we were both experiencing; S said her immediate response had been to want to get drunk, and that she knew she'd feel very tired soon. That's not how I processed it, but it certainly feels familiar! In the immediate aftermath, there was a feeling of euphoria amongst the leftover queers - we were laughing and talking, greeting old and new friends, bonding in a way that reflected the strange intimacy of what had just happened. I'm not overstating the post-traumatic feeling, for myself at least. It felt like we'd survived something together.

The leftover queers
And that brings me to machatunim. Properly, this Yiddish word means 'the parents of your child's spouse', but in his book Blood, marriage, wine and glitter, Bear expands it to refer to a kind of 'chosen family' which resonates particularly with his queerness: whilst queers might not have uncomplicated access to the traditional family framework that most people operate within, in its place we can access a different kind of family - a deliberate family. Bear's most recent book is all about this kind of family: mixed in with tales of his parents and grandparents and brother are stories about people tied to him not by blood but by love and kindness and choosing - wine and glitter, in fact. I've written before about the homo head nod, the sense of safety and support that can come out of being similarly marginalised, and this is what machatunim means to me. 

It means silent, fleeting recognition on the street, and heartfelt welcome in a hug. It means webs of connectivity across facebook and tumblr and gay bars and queer book readings. It means the shaky, euphoric release felt as we exchanged with one another broken fragments of the strange thing that we'd experienced. The ease with which we opened up. Becoming more than a handful of strangers in an anonymous room. Becoming, just for a moment, family.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Review: The Goldfinch

I fell in love with Donna Tartt's The Secret History when I was 15 or 16, in France with my family,  and my aunt lent me the copy she had brought with her as holiday reading. (I discovered We need to talk about Kevin in the same way: thanks Auntie J!)

Although I knew even as I was reading it that it was angsty, pretentious nonsense, I couldn't help myself - I was an angsty, pretentious, teenager and it spoke to me. It was about college, about people only slightly older than myself who seemed worlds away. They wear knee-sprung trousers and long woollen skirts and "unexpectedly beautiful" jackets: "old Brooks Brothers, unlined silk, ivory with stripes of peacock green." They have "off campus apartments" where they invite each other for dinner, bringing bottles of wine and champagne, about which they know a great deal. They buy each other books and cufflinks and go on holiday to somebody's enormous house "in the country". Their conversation is erudite and full of obscure quotations which they all recognise - a truly secret language. 

For a geeky, sensitive teenager, full of love for language and learning and literature, resenting the hell out of people who didn't love these worthy things but seemed to be far happier than I was, it was like a hand reached out to me from far away. There are people like this, it said. Places where these people are. Bring to me your freaks. And despite the fact that these are mostly terrible people - arrogant, snobbish, unkind - there is something awfully seductive about the whole deal. And that, I always thought, was one of Tartt's underlying messages: hateful things can be tempting; fatally so. It's the worst kind of cliquishness, making you want to be on the inside not solely because the inside looks so lovely, but because being on the outside is so cold. The students are sneeringly indifferent to what they see as the lesser lives of the people around them; people who don't study Greek or wear suits and who prefer house parties to dinner parties. Being on the inside of that is shamefully tempting, especially for someone who has never fitted in - like Richard.

Richard, the narrator, is a kind of everyman interloper to this rarefied world, desperate to fit in, constantly terrified of being discovered to be fraudulent, masking his inadequacies with drugs and alcohol and Ancient Greek. It feels unfair to make generalisations about Tartt's writing based on only two books (I didn't read The Little Friend), but having just finished her most recent offering, The Goldfinch, I find the similarities uncanny. Both have young male protagonists cut adrift from family and stability (Richard and Theo); both have an esoteric but richly detailed and narratively important background subject (Ancient cultures and art/antiques); both are full of alcohol and drug use both as an escape from life and a cleaving to it - a desire to experience things more fully, to "wade straight through it, right into the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open" (Goldfinch); both feature beautiful, mysterious, unobtainable women (these women are "quirky", have unusual and passionate interests, and are generally loved and wanted by every male character (Pippa, Camilla, Theo's mother)), alongside women that the protagonist must settle for (who are beautiful, cold, tasteful, shallow (Kitsey, Mrs Barbour, Judy, Sophie)); both feature wild, destructive forces in friends (Boris, Henry) and absent and inadequate fathers replaced by cool, wise, sexless father figures (Julian Morrow, Hobie) who draw the innocent, wildly grasping protagonist into an elevated world in which they flail about desperately, in way over their heads, courting trouble that the detached elder finds both horrifying and secretly compelling. 

They also share Tartt's idiosyncratic prose style, which I love and could pick out of a line up (there's an idea: a quiz on style, matching the writer with the writing!), as well as of course the deeper themes of her work: beauty, madness, lust, the death drive, timelessness, love.

Her characters, if not always likeable or the littlest bit realistic, are always so well-drawn that you want to know them, and her characters' descriptions are always at once trivial and vivid ("lovely, dusty-soled boy feet"). 

She also does that wonderfully silly thing of cameoing a character from one book in another for no apparent reason: in this case, Boston-born Francis Abernathy, one of the main characters in The Secret History, is mentioned in passing at Theo's engagement party in The Goldfinch (" ... Harry's cousin Francis - the Longstreets and the Abernathys are related on the father's side, Boston branch of the family ... "). Although this slightly saddens me by putting The Secret History into a time frame, when the novel itself works hard to keep even the smallest contextual reference hidden, I love it when characters cross worlds. It's the geek in me, probably - it's satisfying to realise how well you know a work, when the smallest reference in another place seems made just for you. 

Quite apart from all these details, what Tartt's novels share above anything else is a sense of intensity. Her characters feel things compellingly deeply and that, I guess, is what keeps me coming back to them. Both protagonists feel the same sense of connection to (although also isolation from) the world, one which, when they achieve it bridges continents and centuries. They talk of the light that suffuses a page of Greek prose, a light than exists in no other language and that they feel bonded together by understanding. They talk of the brushstrokes which capture the goldfinch, bringing a centuries-old bird into the contemporary in a way that seems personal to each viewer. They talk of the timelessness of art, the essentialness of it when compared with brief, pointless human life. It is at once a nihilistic and joyful worldview, and one which the most compelling of Tartt's characters (Henry, Boris) share and her hapless interlopers (Richard and Theo) ceaselessly aspire to. The death wish and the life wish together. 

For whatever reason, however pretentious or sentimental, I love The Secret History and will always love it. I really enjoyed The Goldfinch, and I will give The Little Friend another try, but for me, The Secret History is that book. I hope Donna Tartt doesn't leave it another 10 years before publishing again.