The Fiction Faction - Archive - July-December 2008
Elizabeth Baines

July 2008
Crash by JG Ballard

This was a pretty heated meeting.

I had suggested this 1973 book since I had never read it, yet had always meant to, being fairly sure from what I knew of its subject matter that it was culturally significant and would be at the very least an interesting and probably an exciting read. It's the first-person narration of an advertising film executive, 'Ballard', who, after a car crash, becomes involved with a group of people all of whom are also crash victims and who are led by the sinister ex-scientist Vaughan into an obsession with car crashes and, more importantly, into a cult of the eroticization of violence and physical wounds. The story is told retrospectively after Vaughan's inevitable - and indeed more or less self-willed - death which opens the book.

Ballard's introduction to the French edition, published in my English edition - which I didn't read until afterwards - sets out his, to me, exciting and significant aims. The book, he says, is 'an extreme metaphor for an extreme situation'. He suggests that the car crash - 'a pandemic cataclysm institutionalized in all industrial societies that kills hundreds of thousands of people each year and injures millions' - may be a 'sinister portent of a nightmare marriage between sex and technology'. We live in an age of 'the concept of unlimited possibility' and in a world 'ruled by fictions of every kind', indeed 'inside an immense novel', and the consequent 'diseases of our psyche' - 'voyeurism, self-disgust, the infantile basis of our dreams and longings' - 'have now culminated in the most terrifying casualty of the century: the death of affect'.

He would like to think that the book is also 'the first pornographic novel based on technology', but it also has a political role, he says - and pornography is anyway 'in a sense the most political form of fiction, dealing with how we use and exploit each other, in the most urgent and ruthless way'. I'm not too sure about this definition of pornography - pornography might well reveal this about our behaviour but revealing it as a political act is not often I bet the motive of the pornographer. He states that as the author of the book he has no moral stance, since this can no longer be the role of the writer, who 'knows nothing any longer', yet Ballard's political aspirations for the book surely pull against this. Finally he states that the ultimate role of Crash is 'cautionary, a warning against that brutal, erotic and overlit realm that beckons more and more persuasively to us from the margins of the technological landscape' - and you can't get much more moral in intent than a cautionary tale.

Had I read first these apparent conflicts in authorial intention I might have guessed how disappointed I was going to be with the book, and introducing the book to the group I said so. There are brilliant descriptions of our traffic-choked world and our shifting significance within it, but they are repeated over and over in a way that becomes numbing. The increasing perversions of the characters are presented in the same numbing manner, wounds matched to car parts in a way that becomes nerdy and as infantile as the characters performing them, while the characters themselves are kept at a distance. All of this is clearly strategy to recreate their loss of affect - and Trevor jumped in here in defence of the book to point this out - but I'm afraid it simply didn't work for me: I just found the book dull and had to struggle to go on reading it. It said little more than the introduction and was as much of a thesis - indeed its thesis was repeated numbingly over and over : 'these unions of torn genitalia and sections of car body and instrument panel formed ... a new union of pain and desire' - since it gave me no real insight into the characters and their psychology. There was no real development to engage you, you knew exactly what was going to happen.

People were now bouncing in their seats to contradict me. Trevor said I couldn't complain about knowing what was going to happen because it tells you at the start: Vaughan gets killed in a car crash. I said I didn't mean plot, I meant emotional development: I wanted to know, to experience precisely how the characters moved into the psychological states which led them to their perversions and I didn't. I had really wanted to be excited or shocked by this book, but I wasn't. I was held at a distance. Trevor said that I couldn't complain about that because it was deliberate to keep the reader at a distance. I tried to say that because something is deliberate doesn't mean it works but now people were talking on all sides and I didn't get a chance. I did get to say that my biggest emotional involvement had been wondering how I would have written it: how I'd have retained a moral stance - I was going to say while allowing the reader to share the experiences of the characters, but Trevor cut me off, saying firmly that Ballard had no moral stance. I started to say, Yet he says he's telling a cautionary tale, but realized I had been deflected from my point, so stopped. Also I was afraid that people were thinking that I was being precious and pulling rank and showing off as a writer, especially as I had mentioned at the start that I had been published alongside Ballard a couple of times in mags and anthologies. Indeed Clare now asked me if I always read novels as an author and I said there was no way I couldn't, and Clare and Ann agreed (somewhat politely, I thought) that it was interesting to get an insider's viewpoint while Jenny stayed significantly silent, and I had the uncomfortable feeling that I had disqualified myself as a pure reader and invalidated entirely the point I was trying to make. Trying to get back to it, I did say that I hadn't been at all emotionally involved or found the book erotic apart from one or two moments, but Clare and Jenny said they definitely had.

People started talking about that but I said that I still had my most important thing to say about the book, and they subsided and let me. I said that I completely acknowledged that cars are sexualized in our culture, that when young lads drive cars fast it's a sexual thing and the car is an extension of their penis etc, but that commonplace fantasy precisely overlooks the matter of maiming or death: such young lads feel invulnerable. By contrast in this book pain and death become part of the erotic fantasy. (In fact, I've written a bit about this myself, in my novel Body Cuts, but I found Crash so emotionally unconvincing that I came away feeling that I didn't understand it at all.) I was about to say this, that the book didn't make it convincing, but people jumped in to explain the phenomenon to me, saying That's because it's a perversion! Jenny said, the difference is that all these characters have been involved in car crashes already, and Clare said, yes and then the pain and the wounds become eroticized.
People were now interrupting each other and complaining that they were not being allowed to speak. Eventually I asked them to let me speak again because I wanted to finish my point about psychological conviction in the narrative, which I felt I hadn't got over, but Jenny said, You've said it already and I felt told off and shut up altogether and ate some crisps instead while the discussion went on between Jenny, Clare and Trevor, the book's proponents. (Ann, who hadn't managed to get hold of a copy and so hadn't read it just listened too, as did John who had also found the book boring.) They relished the brilliance of the idea of the airport setting as a theatre for Vaughan's perversions, and the voyeurism yet exhibitionism of the narrator Ballard perched in his glassy flat overlooking the motorway flyover, at the clever paradox that the traffic was constantly static, stuck there in jams. There was a brief discussion about whether the book was erotic or pornographic. Clare did admit that she had also found the repetitious descriptions of car parts and wounds tedious, and had noticed that occasionally the prose descended into clunkiness, but she agreed when Jenny said with a grin that she had found some of the details really shocking, such as the growing semen stain around the flies of Vaughan's filthy trousers.

Because he had said nothing, Clare asked John what he thought of it. He said he had found it samey and boring but he had no real strong feelings about it either way. He did think though, that perversion is really a search for emotion, and that this is what the book was about. Then Jenny said but what's perversion? A perversion is only a perversion once you name it that, it's simply cultural, and there was some inconsequential discussion about this.

Trevor said, What about the bit when 'Ballard' and Vaughan have sex in the motorway underpass and then Vaughan tries to kill Ballard by running him down, that was dead good. I spoke up again and said that I could quite believe it can happen that men have sex and then want to kill each other afterwards, but I really didn't believe in this scene in this novel, it was narrated in too distant a manner. Trevor repeated that I couldn't complain about that because that had been intended. This time I said that I could complain about it, just because something is intended doesn't mean it works. In fact I thought this book was a brave experiment that hadn't worked.
Ann then said the discussion made her think of Hubert Selby Junior's Last Exit to Brooklyn which we discussed previously. Jenny and Clare groaned. Oh no, they had really hated that - that really had been distasteful! Jenny said that she had also liked Crash much better than Nabokov's Lolita which had so disgusted, shocked and upset her that she had been unable to finish it.

It struck me then that this was a clue to what seemed a paradoxical response in the group to Crash, for how could you find a book shocking, as they were gleefully claiming to do, while acknowledging and approving its detachment? Last Exit to Brooklyn and Lolita are books which, unlike Crash, take you right into the minds of the transgressive characters and allow you to see their humanity: what is shocking in them is that they implicate you, the reader, wholly and in my opinion are the greater novels for it. Crash, on the other hand, allows the reader a voyeuristic position, and as such is as pornographic as Ballard clearly intends: any shock is safe, second-hand and as relishable (or tedious) as a ride in a ghost train. Thus the book and the reader collude with the lack of affect it is intended as a warning against.

Not that I got to say any of this. I just drank too much wine instead.
Finally, people asked if it could have been written today. Ballard's premise, stated in the introduction, that we are characterized by optimism and a sense of limitless possibilities, no longer holds in face of the uncertainties of terrorism and global warming. Certainly Ballard could not write that introduction now, nor use this observation as a premise. Yet the book itself is a pessimistic vision, and we operate enough on doublethink to make its message still relevant today.


August 2008
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

At the end of the last meeting we were all a bit drunk, I think, and we cooked up the idea of having this month's meeting in the house in Wales where John and I would be spending most of August. We must have been mad: not only is the house gutted by building work, it's also pretty small, and most people would have had to camp in the field outside, and with these August winds howling and the stream that runs through the field swelling one night and flooding, it was clearly not on. We chickened out, and came back to Manc and held the meeting at our house here instead. In any case, the book suggested by Jenny for discussion, Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, was probably best discussed in a less abandoned and celebratory mood.

It was a sombre evening, dark already when people turned up at eight huddled and drenched from the walk around the corner, an evening well suited to the grave theme and formal tone of this book, a novella-length dramatic monologue delivered in a Lahore marketplace cafe by Changez, the Pakistani-born, Princeton-educated ex high-flying New York financial analyst, and addressed to an Amercian stranger.

Jenny said she chose the book because of its subject matter and because it had been Booker shortlisted (which last would no doubt have drawn wry comment from the anti-hype, anti-prize Mark had he not been absent from the group for some time now because of his studies). She briefly recapped the story which Changez tells the stranger: of his meteoric success at university and in the financial company he joins thereafter, of his relationship with the young and beautiful New Yorker Erica who however is blighted by past sadness, the death of her first, childhood love, and of the way that both areas of Changez's life take a downward turn after 9/11. Erica becomes strangely sadder and indeed psychotically obsessed with the dead Chris, finally withdrawing from Changez altogether; Changez's social status is threatened by the growing American suspicion of all Muslims, and at the same time he comes to realize that he has been a willing dupe in the West's usurpation of his own people who, as he points out to the stranger, although now suffering poverty, built sophisticated cities and conducted a sophisticated civilization when westerners were still barbarians.

Meanwhile - this being a dramatic monologue - as this story is unfolding so is another, on the level of dramatic action: the relationship between Changez and the stranger is tense and highly ambiguous. Changez buttonholes the stranger, who appears immediately afraid, especially of the burly waiter. During the course of the meal which Changez 'invites' the stranger to share - in fact appearing rather to impose it on him, as he does his story - we learn that this louring and intent-seeming waiter has been a freedom fighter in Afghanistan. Yet who is this American stranger in this city without tourism? He must be a businessman, Changez concludes (and the stranger fails to confirm or deny this); yet why does his hand continually move towards his inside pocket? And what is that glint of metal there? Is it a cigarette case or a gun? Who is trapping or hounding down whom? Jenny said she concluded that the stranger had been sent by the Americans to take out Changez, the new if reluctant fundamentalist. Doug however said that since Changez took such pains to engage the stranger he had concluded it was the other way around, that the American stranger was being trapped by Changez and his new fundamentalist confederates. In the end, though, we all agreed that you couldn't really conclude either: indeed both were possible (in the best spy thriller tradition) and, more importantly, the book was deliberately ambiguous (it's an ambiguity that holds right up to and including the dramatic end), sending the important message that it in our current political situation friendship and enmity become muddied, and it's not possible to pinpoint goodies and baddies (as the traditional spy thriller ultimately does).

Jenny said that she found the book a little puzzling, a bit thin maybe. She thought that Erica's sudden emotional descent and its link with 9/11 wasn't really explained and that Changez's political turnaround was perfunctory and possibly unconvincing (and people murmured agreement). She said that pondering this she had wondered what made someone a fundamentalist, and had decided it was probably when something goes wrong in their personal life and they need something to fill a gap. Taking this back to the book, she thought that maybe the point was that if Changez's relationship with Erica had worked out, then he wouldn't have become a fundamentalist.

I said that I didn't think that we were meant to give the book that kind of psychological reading, and that rather it was an allegory, as indicated by the symbolic naming. Erica stands for the Am-erica which after 9/11 is lost, like her, in nostalgia for past glory and invulnerability - a point which Changez (and the author) makes explicitly (and indeed rather over-explicitly). Chris, her dead boyfriend, stands for the death of any vibrancy or integrity in Western Christian civilization, Western Christianity being now reduced to its own version of fundamentalism. There's another kind of fundamentalism in the West too, it's implied, that of the cult of materialism and finance - the mantra of the finance company for which Changez worked is 'focus on the fundamentals' - and it is indeed this fundamentalism about which Changez becomes reluctant as his views change. John added that Changez was also of course symbolically named, as he both changes and becomes perhaps an agent for change.

People agreed that the book made more sense read in this way, but nevertheless, and perhaps because of this, they still found it thin. I asked them what they thought of the voice - Changez's voice in which the whole book is of course couched. It's a very formal voice, suited to the formal cultural mores of Changez's Pakistani background and the kind of English he would have learned there: 'Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?' Jenny said that she really liked the voice; it was one of the reasons she had picked out the book. She really likes books in which the voice is measured and calm and yet there is something tense or sinister about what is being conveyed. I agreed with this but yet I wasn't sure that the voice in this book rang true: wouldn't someone as bright as Changez pick up the slicker lingo of American business and finance - and how could he be so successful without doing so? Doug, who works in finance too, agreed, now that he thought about it. Jenny said, But the Americans absolutely love that old-fashioned formal kind of English, they have a real snobbery about it, which seemed a valid point, but then wasn't the point about Changez that he had excelled at fitting in and hiding his outsider status?

Trevor said there was something else about the book which bothered him, which had made him wonder whether it really worked in the psychological and temporal terms set up by its dramatic monologue form. It had continually occurred to him as he read to wonder if Changez would really have been able to detain such a reluctant stranger for so long, and was it psychologically realistic that he would in those circumstances have told, or been indulged in the telling of, such an intimate tale, including the intimate details of a sexual relationship? And most of all, could he really possibly have told a tale of such length in the space of a single meal? And everyone else said that the very same thoughts had also troubled them.

All in all, the consensus was that the book was interesting but perhaps rather little: Jenny said she didn't think it had the weight to make it worthy of its Booker shortlisting, and Doug said that he felt that it benefited from its timeliness, but that in 50 years people would be unlikely to find it so important as a work of literature.


September 2008
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

It was because I had recently raved about it (see my review) that John chose this book, the story of Oscar de Leon, a New Jersey ghetto nerd struggling with the curse imposed by his family's history of entanglement with the repressive Dominican regime.

I had met Trevor in the street a few days before the meeting and he had raved too: definitely worth the money, he said (we usually read books in paperback, and this was an exception), absolutely flipping brilliant, wonderful the way the story (told in the main by street-wise Yunior who befriends Oscar at the request of his own girlfriend, Oscar's elder sister, Elizabeth) is developed in a non-linear way - it makes it all so real, and exciting the way certain information only comes out later, and Trevor had only one criticism which was that he was so hooked he felt he was reading it too quickly and was missing stuff - a point with which I agreed.

So I was a bit surprised when John reported that he was never really engaged by the book in this way. I had noticed that he read it in a piecemeal way, being very busy with other things, so it's possible that he didn't give it appropriate attention, but in any case I was very interested to hear what everyone else thought.
On the whole people thought the same as Trevor and me. They had been gripped, and most people, like me, were particularly bowled over by the narrative voice of the novel and suspected that Yunior's voice was very close to that of the author, since there are frequent footnotes explaining the history of the Dominican Republic, and indeed of the composition of the novel itself, which are delivered in the same voice. As a result, Clare said that she had been hooked by these footnotes, unlike those in Kiss of the Spiderwoman, which had bored her silly: these seemed, unlike those, an integral part of the novel, essential to its structure. Jenny agreed, but she said she had a slight problem in that as a result she wasn't sure how how factual were their historical details. Trevor said that he felt that Junot Diaz had set out particularly to educate people about the DR with this novel, and so we could take them as truly historical, and people then agreed, and Clare, Jenny and Ann said what an amazing experience it had been to discover from it this history which is generally unknown and unacknowledged. I said that I really loved the way that the footnotes and the novel itself (which is in fact dedicated to Elizabeth de Leon) played with the ideas of fact and fiction in a way that was searingly appropriate, thematically, for the slippery realities created by the political situation described - at which John drew attention to the amazing symbol in the novel of the faceless person, and people chorused accord.

Clare said that she loved the way the different stories of the characters were woven together in a non-linear, indeed backwards way: the way that you get the stories of the children and then the story of the mother, and after that the story of the grandfather, and in the telling of each the previous stories take on new meanings and contours. Jenny strongly agreed. She said that when she read the daughter's story she thought the mother was a bitch, but then when she read the mother's tragic story her eyes were opened, and it was great to have these changing perspectives.

The big surprise for me was Doug's reaction. He had been pretty quiet up to now, but now he said that he agreed with us about much of this, in particular he thought like John that the women were brilliantly done and that the story of Oscar's mother was especially moving. But unlike us, he had found Yunior's voice - which we had found so authentic - fake, affected and modish in its streetwise nature. What? We stared at him open-mouthed. But what about the fact that we felt it was pretty close to the voice of the author (especially as I had said that it was also like the overall voice of Diaz's short stories in Drown)? Doug said, Well, in any case he didn't find the character of Oscar at all convincing. What? Our mouths dropped open further. He was a caricature of a nerd, Doug said, and come to that, so was Yunior, a caricature of a streetwise guy, picking up the girls, talking like he did... And he found the story of Oscar's bullying at school and university so parochial compared to the extreme stories of his mother and grandfather.

We were staggered. First, we pointed out that the whole point is that Oscar's plight draws him back tragically into that political situation. As for the portrayal of those two characters, we had no answer except to say that we had found them both utterly convincing, and Oscar's plight as a bullied nerd as moving as Doug had found it unmoving. Doug said, Well what about when that Goth girl befriends Oscar, that was totally unconvincing, how would a Goth want to be seen dead with Oscar? Clare said, because he was safe, because she could have the kinds of discussions with him she couldn't have with her Goth friends or her boyfriend, but Doug said that his friend had a daughter who was a Goth and she wouldn't be seen dead with anyone outside her own Goth circle. I said, Well, there are Goths and there are Goths and Trevor and Jenny said that people can dress up as Goths for all sorts of reasons, sometimes only because they want to dress like that. But this was getting away from the book and onto life and Clare pulled the discussion back by saying that she felt you could identify with Oscar, surely, if you had ever experienced some kind of bullying or even at least thought you had. And she didn't think that Yunior was a caricature because he did precisely that, identified with Oscar at moments which the rest of us agreed were very moving.

Then Trevor said that he had a hunch that Diaz himself was probably both characters, that he had split himself in two - the wiseguy and the nerd - to tell this story, a point which we all found astute. This seemed for a moment to prove Doug's point, but the fact remained that everyone beside Doug found the depiction of these two characters nevertheless convincing and moving.

After which, we had an impassioned discussion about bullying..

October 2008
The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor

Group member Trevor suggested this novel which begins in 1921 when the head of an Anglo-Irish household shoots at and wounds a potential arsonist, after which he and his wife are compelled by fear to leave their County Cork home. Desperate not to leave, and not understanding why they must, their eight-year-old daughter Lucy hatches a plot to prevent the departure, but inadvertently leads her parents to believe that she is dead and consequently leave without her, cutting all ties in order to deal with their loss. The story then follows the life of Lucy, brought up by the servants left behind and tied to the house and to her guilt, longing for the return of her parents and redemption.

Trevor said that when he began this novel he thought it was fantastic. So much happens right at the beginning: the foiled raid on the house, Lucy's running away and the terrible mistaken conclusion of the parents. But as he went on reading he began to feel less sure: obviously the point was that nothing happened after that, that Lucy's ironic fate, after trying to take control, was to end up passive and basically miss out on life, but he had the growing feeling that as a result there wasn't really enough in this book to justify its length and that it would have made a better short story. But then he really didn't know what to think, as all the review quotes on the back cover said how marvellous it was.

Doug said that he thought it was a wonderful story, but he hadn't at all liked the style of the book (and he too thought it might have better suited novella length). John asked him what he meant by the 'style' and Doug said he meant the prose style. I said that I too hadn't liked the prose style: to my shock I had found it over-abstract and formal, distancing and failing thus to make the characters live.
Clare quickly said, but isn't that the point, the characters don't live: all of them, and most especially Lucy, are condemned to a half-life? I agreed that that was true, but I still didn't think that the language worked well to to convey this psychological state. It reminded me of the prose of the Nadine Gordimer we had read, The Pickup, and similarly featured a frequent and clumsy use of the defocussing word 'what' as a noun: ...the men who had once come in the night would have by now lost interest in what they intended... ... they went to the creamery together for the first time since what had happened... ...his experience was puny compared with what still continued for the girl he believed he loved. Clare said, But the whole point is that characters in the book don't talk about things, they don't refer to things directly: the book is after all about silences and the consequences of silence. Fair enough in theory, I said, but I still thought that the prose was clumsy and distanced the reader from the characters' experience of alienation: what about the frequent use of the passive tense, eg when school had been finished with rather than 'when Lucy finished/left school' and He spoke of that afternoon and was listened to politely rather than 'Lucy listened to him politely'. Clare said, But this underlines the passivity of the characters. I said that there was other clumsiness, though, which seemed less like authorial strategy and more like mistakes: tautologies and lack of verbal economy, eg, Her fingers today were slow in what was required of them and ...this was an outcome that might yet come about.

Doug, Anne and John nodded agreement, but Jenny said that nevertheless she liked the book because it was a great story, and Clare said firmly that whatever we said she had found the book extremely moving and it had meant a great deal to her. I had to agree that in spite of my reservations about the prose it was a great story. John said that we couldn't ignore this, that people had thought it was a great story, and we needed to think about why this was so. I said that if someone told me the story over cup of coffee in a cafe I would have thought it as good, so it was a separate thing from the execution in the novel, but Clare felt that it was the novel she was responding to. John asked her why she so engaged with it, and she said that it recalled for her her feelings of abandonment when she was sent away to boarding school. John wondered if she was though therefore perhaps bringing things to the novel rather than taking things from it, and Clare said, Maybe.
Ann, who also went to boarding school, seemed far less impressed by the novel. John now said that he wasn't actually as moved by the story as others of us: indeed, he found it pretty unbelievable. He didn' t find it believable that the parents could so easily disappear, and Ann agreed. She has recently been researching her own grandfather, an archeologist, for her PhD, and has found that at the time of the novel upper-class people like the Gaults moved from country to country via recommendation (rather than passports) which would leave a trail, not to mention the paper trail which would have been left by their cashing in of their shares - a point which had occurred to both John and me. (As a textile conservator at the Whitworth Gallery Ann is an expert needleworker, and she also said that the authority of the novel was spoilt for her by the author's mistakes about embroidery). Personally, in the light of cases like that of Madeleine McCann, I found psychologically unbelievable the Gaults' ability to accept so quickly the death of their child without the evidence of a body, but most of the group seemed to have no problem with this, unlike me finding the fishermen's explanation adequate to convince the parents.

John said that the thing he really disliked about the book was its colonialist tone. He thought that this was created by the aspects of the prose style I'd pointed out, and drew our attention to the omniscient opening:
Captain Everard Gault wounded the boy in the right shoulder on the night of June the twenty-first, nineteen twenty-one. Aiming above the trespassers' heads in the darkness, he fired the single shot from an upstairs window and then watched the three figures scuttling off, the wounded one assisted by his companions.
In fact, John said, this passage begs questions which we are clearly not expected to ask: Was Everard really aiming above the trespassers' heads? (The novel appears to expect us to accept this.) As an ex-army captain could he really have been that bad a shot? And, Trevor added, isn't it harder to misfire downwards if you're aiming upwards?

I said that, as for viewpoint, the whole novel takes the colonialist one. Jenny said she wasn't sure about this: what about the servants, Henry and Bridget, they were Catholics, and they were very sympathetic characters, and what about the fact that the boy who is wounded ends up being looked after in the mental asylum by Lucy? I said that last was quite right wing, the fact that narratorially he was dismissed into madness. Jenny said, How on earth is that right wing? and Ann said, Well, the boy's story could have been presented as a foil to that of the Gaults' but instead he was simply a pawn in the Gaults' story, which was the primary story, and indeed narratorially he is just in service to Lucy's own (do-gooding) redemption. And then people remembered how much better the Republican and Protestant viewpoints had been counterpointed in Jennifer Johnston's How Many Miles to Babylon? and how brilliant we had thought that book.

Everybody now agreed that none of the characters in this book ever really came to life, and that even as far as Lucy was concerned there were serious gaps where you might have expected emotional development - which, though it may have been the intention of the author, was unsatisfying for the reader. Several moments which were theoretically key to the story were glossed over emotionally, dismissed in a sentence or two, and Lucy's immediate reaction to her father's reappearance just about omitted altogether.

I said in mitigation that one thing that did really strike a chord with me was the fact that the story of Lucy Gault has to be simplified and indeed altered, its nuances lost, in order to achieve the legendary, folklore status it does amongst the local people - but this didn't seem to strike much of a chord with the rest of the group, and people looked at me rather blankly. Someone, I think Jenny, said to much agreement that she had really liked the depiction of the way the neighbours, the O'Reillys, slowly encroached on the Gaults, taking back into Catholic ownership the colonized land, and someone else pointed out the similarity between this and the situation in Coetzee's Disgrace which we have also discussed. John said that it also echoed Chekov's Three Sisters, a production of which some of us had recently seen, in that the land had been gambled away at card games.

After which, the conversation about the book ended somewhat abruptly, and next thing we were planning our group Christmas dinner.

December 2008
The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant

Clothes and the things they represent - social and psychological - are of abiding interest to Ann, a textile conservator - as they are indeed to me: I was very pleased when she suggested this book, the story of narrator Vivien Kovaks, the London-born daughter of Hungarian Jewish refugees, and her relationship in adulthood with the uncle from whom her parents are estranged, a character based on the notorious fifties slum landlord, Rachman.

However, introducing the book, Ann said that she felt the clothes theme was disappointingly undeveloped. Clothes did constitute a fair element of the book - mainly of the story of Vivien who, learning nothing from her silent and hermetic parents about their background, must seek an identity for herself, which she does partly via clothes. However, Ann said, the idea seemed to lie on the surface, and wasn't linked with that lost background in any resonant way that she could see, as promised by the quite brilliant title. Most people in the group didn't particularly care about this - most weren't that bothered about clothes in the first place - and everyone resoundingly agreed that the story of Uncle Sandor which is slowly revealed to Vivien is engrossing.

Well, everyone had enjoyed the book and had found it a great read, but our group has got so critical nowadays that I'm afraid to say it didn't come out of our discussion in any way unscathed. Ann found a dissonance between the story of Vivien growing up and the later episodes: the first seemed felt but the latter rather made up, at which others agreed and listed all the things they had found 'made up' or unconvincing: Clare said that though we were told that Vivien was heartbroken at the loss of her young husband, there was no sense of her grief. And what was all that about him dying, everyone wanted to know? What was the point of not even revealing straight away how he had died, and indeed giving the wrong impression by talking instead about (other) examples of sudden accidental deaths? John said he felt that what was going on here was that things weren't properly imagined; he felt the same sort of confusion over Vivien's wedding: initially, he got the impression that her wedding had been a small one (because it was done through the focus of Vivien's parents) and only later is it revealed that it was a society wedding. Others agreed. The way Vivien and Sandor met was far too coincidental, they said, and they didn't find it believable that Vivien should invite her unknowing parents to the birthday party Sandor holds for her. Ann said that she wasn't convinced by the time shift of Sandor's slum landlordism to the sixties; Rachman was very much of the fifties, and the excuse that Sandor had come to England later didn't hold water because, as even the book says, it was immediately after the war that there were killings to be made in buying up cheap property.

John wanted to know what the book was supposed to be saying: was it meant to say that people like Rachman were OK really, or something? I said that I thought the point was to show that evil doers can't be dismissed as 'pure evil' (as indeed the mother of abducted Sharon Matthews had been described the very day of our discussion), 'the face of evil', as both Rachman and Sandor were described by the press; that what's far more frightening is that the people who conduct evil deeds are on the contrary human. But people said they didn't find the book portrayed this convincingly, Vivien didn't seem to have much of a convincing dilemma over this, and Clare compared the book unfavourably with Bernhard Schlink's The Reader, which we've also discussed.

I said, But didn't you find the prose engaging and witty? and everyone agreed that yes, they had, and then Jenny said, My god, what's wrong with us, I said I liked this book! And then she said, Well, I still do anyway, and everyone agreed. Go figure.


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