The Fiction Faction - Archive - January-June 2014
Elizabeth Baines

January 2014
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick

Trevor suggested this book, the novel on which the acclaimed film Blade Runner was based, set twenty-four years after the book's 1968 publication in a speculative 1992 when the ecosystem has been destroyed by an apocalyptic war and humans have consequently begun to colonise other planets, served in the project by android slaves. Development of the androids has become so sophisticated, and the latest models so intelligent, that they can be detected only by the use of the 'Voight-Kampff' psychological test for empathy. The plot concerns Rick Deckard, a 'bounty hunter' working for the police, whose job it is to hunt down androids escaped to earth, and who is briefed to track down a particularly dangerous and intelligent group of six - six of the latest, most sophisticated 'Nexus-6' types - one of whom has already badly injured Deckard's boss, chief bounty hunter Dave Holden. In the process Rick falls in love with a Nexus-6 android, Rachael Rosen.

Our discussion about it is difficult to report, as it generated an excitement that seemed to cause the room constantly to break up into multiple simultaneous discussions, and I'm not sure that we each always understood what others were saying.

Trevor began quite clearly by saying he was nervous about our reaction to the book, since we had been so down on Kurt Vonnegut's Piano Player which had badly misfired in terms of predicting the technological future, and there are certain similarities here: for instance, while personal vehicles are airborne and people speak on vidphones (one thing Dick did get right), the notes on Deckard's quarry that he carries around with him are 'smudged' carbons. People immediately jumped in and said that in this novel it didn't matter: its chief concern was not in speculating on the concrete particulars of the technological future, but in, as Jenny said, the question of what it is to be human, most particularly what it is to be human in a situation of developing technology, and indeed what is reality. As Doug put in, it's not really about the technological future, but like all interesting science fiction it's about humanity now.

Everything in the novel is called into question or overturned: android Rachael Rosen almost passes the Voight-Kampff empathy test; she is human enough in the accepted terms for Deckard to fall in love with her. Conversely, right from the start the autonomous humanity of Deckard is questioned by his dependence on technology: he and his wife Iran begin their day programming their moods on 'mood machines'. His empathy - the quality at the heart of the state religion, Mercerism - is also under question: he is of course a killer, and in a domestic squabble his wife calls him a 'murderer', referring to 'those poor andys [androids]' And, as John said, what are the androids after all but slaves rising up against their oppressors? The book ends with some stunning revelations about the society the precepts of which people, including Deckard, have been living their lives by. The Voight-Kampff test questions are interesting: they are designed to test empathy with animals (many animals being now extinct, and thus valued, and animal pets prized as status symbols); passing the test requires the subject to feel horror at the portrayal of mistreatment of animals. Yet many of the examples of 'ill treatment' are things that in fact pass without comment in our own society - a calfskin purse, the eating of oysters, a mounted stag's head - which seems like a metafictional prod of the reader by Dick.

Trevor, beaming, was greatly relieved by our reaction and said that this was probably the best novel he had ever read, it was 'brilliant, brilliant.' Now Mark spoke up. He said that, after having really admired the film he had expected a lot of the book, but was sorely disappointed as it was so badly written. Others of us agreed that this was a fault of the book, the writing. However, Clare said that she had been so engrossed by the story and the ideas that she hadn't even noticed that it wasn't well written. For this reason, she said, she felt that it didn't matter, and she was backed up by Jenny who said she didn't think books had to be well written to be enjoyable or engrossing. Someone - Mark or Doug - said, But there was no tension: an android got killed and it was just flat, you just went on to the next thing. Jenny and Clare said they didn't think that mattered because the ideas, and the way you didn't know what was what, pushed you on. Clare did agree, however, that it was hard to care much about any of the characters, that you didn't get involved with them, and at that point she said she understood what we meant by tension - dramatic tension - and agreed after all that it was lacking. Ann said (I think; things were getting a bit excitable!) that it was a pity, because good ideas are best expressed through good prose, and I added that it wouldn't have mattered so much if the ideas were just mumbo jumbo as in Dan Brown, at which Jenny, who enjoys Dan Brown, asked me if I'd read it, and I had to say no, and she said I couldn't judge it then, and my plea that I'd tried but couldn't read it because the prose and sensibility were so bad was drowned out by the next interruption. As I say, things got excitable!

Trevor, however, could not agree that this novel was in any way badly written. Mark and I objected that it was full of prose errors: malapropisms and ineptnesses such as 'a potpourri' of arias, a 'fragrance of happiness', a facial expression described as 'turgid'. Trevor, said, But he makes up words! and John, agreeing, remembered the example, 'disemelevatored'. We conceded this (although I'd say 'disemelevatored' is not as witty as it seems word-construction wise, since one doesn't 'emelevator' as one 'embarks'). However, there are ugly constructions - 'stiltedly', an 'indistinct, glimpsed darkly impression' - a tendency to use archaic pomposities such as 'thereupon', and downright grammatical errors (the pompous and erroneous misuse of pronouns: 'we' for and 'us'), and frequent use of the kind of lazy, tautologous phrase that any GCSE student would be marked down for writing: 'he said to himself,' and even, 'he inquired of himself'. There are also gaps and inconsistencies in the story (ironed out in the film): At one point another android introduces herself as Rachael Rosen, which is never explained, and one gets the impression of an author not entirely in charge of his story and failing to edit.

We were also in disagreement about the tone of the book. As an example of a howler which had me laughing out loud, I quoted the following which occurs at a point when Deckard is seriously angry with his wife: 'Damn her, he said to himself. What good does it do? She doesn't care whether we own an ostrich or not.' Others said that they had laughed too, but they had thought it intentionally funny. However, John said that he hadn't been able to decide whether it was intentional or not, and had specifically wondered as he read it, and since the overall tone of the book isn't comic (on the contrary) one wonders whether there is a lack of control over tone as well.

John now said that he thought all of the apparent carelessness was in a way deliberate, as Dick was strongly anti-academic, but Mark and I were were not convinced that, in order to stick one to the academic establishment, Dick would have purposefully made the kind of errors that, for us at any rate, reduce our sense of his authority over his story.

In the end we had to agree to differ over this matter, but all of us thought Dick's ideas were prescient and remain important.

February 2014
Moon Tiger by Penelope LIvely

Warning: plot spoil.

This Booker-winning novel, Ann's suggestion, concerns historian and ex-war reporter Claudia Hampton who, slowly dying in her seventies in a hospital bed, decides to write in her head a history of the world pinned around the story of her own life, a life in which the central, defining event was the loss of a lover, Tom, whom she met while in Egypt covering the Rommel campaign of 1942, a soldier killed in action.

Ann said that the first time she read the book, when it was first published, the thing that impressed itself on her was that central story, but this time around she was more taken by other aspects of the novel: the highly original mode of telling and the thematic preoccupations it conveys.

The novel is told in a variety of voices and perspectives: first person address by Claudia to the reader and third person reminiscences from Claudia's point of view and those of others, providing contrasting versions of the same incidents, all framed by an omniscient present-day narration that watches Claudia on her hospital bed. As Claudia says unequivocally, 'The voice of history is of course composite. Many voices; all the voices that have managed to get themselves heard.' And also: 'The lives of others slot into my own life'. There's a linked preoccupation with identity: 'I am composed of a myriad Claudias who spin and mix and part like sparks of sunlight on water.' Everyone enthusiastically agreed that they had found all of this exciting and satisfying and psychologically true. We also agreed with Ann that a real feat of the book was to make Claudia, a potentially unengaging character (pushy, opinionated, aware of her own physical beauty and happy to use it cynically, horrible to her somewhat simple sister-in-law and unable to love her own child), entirely riveting and sympathetic, by virtue of her wit, wisdom and insight, and the energy of her voice. (Jenny said that Claudia was the sort of person she would want to like her.) I did point out later that even the abrasive nature of Claudia's personality is under question: it is after all the version of herself she is presenting (even when she presents other people's perspectives), and late in the book, when she characterises herself in a bad light to one of her hospital visitors, he protests that she is not at all like that, but 'brilliant.' Jenny said she found moving the portrait of emotional damage that the book gave: the effect of Claudia's loss on her ability to form later relationships, with the father of her child and the child herself.

While characterised by Claudia's voice - tough, ironic, sometimes sarcastic - the book is also vividly imagistic. The Moon Tiger of the title - 'Moon Tiger' is the brand-name of the mosquito coil that burns beside the bed as she lies with her lover Tom - is a potent symbol of the vivid and concrete-seeming present crumbling into the uncertainty of history, its 'red eye', 'dropping away into lengths of grey ash', finally becoming, the next morning, a 'green spiral mirrored by a grey ash spiral in the saucer.'

Mark in particular thought the book was stunning. He said it was like a William Boyd (one of his favourite writers) but much, much better in terms of the writing, the thematic preoccupations and the insights. The book describes in detail the conditions in the desert (burnt-out tanks and bodies) that the intrepid Claudia insists on experiencing, and Mark said it was clear that Lively had done a fantastic amount of military research, and research into all the historical periods on which Claudia makes frequent wry comment, yet unlike McEwan, Lively never gives you a lecture, everything she includes is absolutely necessary to the story and the theme. Everyone agreed with this, and Jenny said that she has a habit of skipping when she reads books, but this is one book where she wanted to read every single sentence. Indeed, she savoured it and read it slowly. Mark thought the revelation of the incestuous relationship between Claudia and her brother was particularly well handled: the revelation is gradual so that it seems inevitable.

Now there came a voice of dissent. John spoke up and said that he felt like this about the beginning of the book, but became disappointed in it. Partly this was because he couldn't identify with upper-middle-class characters - which stunned the rest of us: we felt that the book overcame any such prejudices - and partly because, due to the effect of the war on his own father, he always finds it difficult to read books set in the second world war. He said though that he found that in the war sections the novel became more conventionally narrative, and he found them boring, particularly the long italicised section towards the end, which is the lover Tom's diary of his experiences after his last meeting with Claudia and up to his death. This made people think and they began to remember they too had had something of the same feeling about the diary. I said that it didn't tell you much more about Tom's experience of the war than he had told Claudia in person more briefly. Jenny said that the one significant thing it did show was that Tom had gone on thinking about Claudia, indeed that she had been central to his thoughts, which is true. However everyone now agreed that it was too long. Then it occurred to someone, I think Jenny, that the time Claudia spends travelling with the army in the desert - before they break down and she consequently meets Tom - oddly takes up more of the book than her time with Tom. I suggested that perhaps this is one way in which the book is actually skewed by the weight of research, and, after thought, people agreed that that was probably true.

This didn't prevent a final judgement that the book was wonderful (unanimous apart from John). This is a tough book, tough in tone and subject matter and unflinching in the face of tough truths. Unbelievably it has been dismissed by critics as a 'women's book' (and apparently its Booker win attracted a lot of criticism for that reason), and we were roundly agreed that this was a case of the outrageous tendency to judge the author rather than the book.

Doug, who missed the meeting, wrote later to say that he had loved the book too, and echoed many of our positive comments. He said that he 'loved the way Lively explored the idea that we carry the history of the world / a museum around with us in our heads'. He did find some of the characters beside Claudia rather two-dimensional, but he thought the book beautifully written.

March 2014
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

Clare suggested this 2012 Booker-shortlisted novel in which a group holidaying in a villa near Nice (poet and philanderer Joe Jacobs, his war correspondent wife Isabel, their fourteen-year-old daughter Nina and their two friends Laura and Mitchell) is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of a stranger, come to seek out Joe whose poems she is obsessed with, the mysterious and unbalanced twenty-three-year-old Kitty Finch, a fey-seeming (but devastatingly disruptive) creature with long red hair and green-painted fingernails, appearing first swimming naked in their pool.

However, we know before the narration of this moment that Kitty and Joe end up having sex, as the opening section has them driving back together from the hotel where they have done so, a scene that will keep recurring through the book, and which is steeped in an air of loss and doom.

The book is strikingly imagistic, and we were all agreed that it created rich pictures in the mind of the reader, but in her introduction Clare said that she felt at too much of a distance from the characters, and there was something about the imagery and the very conscious patterning of symbols that seemed somehow superficial and left her cold, and most people agreed.

Symbols recur throughout the text: when Kitty is first sighted in the water she is seen as a body - a prefiguring of death or tragedy that then hangs over the book - and Joe jokingly asks if it's a bear, a point that is laboured in dialogue between the characters and a symbol that will recur at the devastating end of the book. John pointed out the recurring image of hairballs - someone choking on one, hair getting caught in the pool filter system - and there are frequent references to mice including sugar mice which appear twice in an unsettling chronology for the reader, first in a dream of Nina's (which she doesn't communicate to anyone else) and then in a later incident when Joe and Kitty are walking away from the hotel and Kitty buys one. There's also frequent flagging of the antique guns that Mitchell, a trader in such artefacts, has bought, and of his love of guns and shooting. John pointed out the symbolism of Kitty Finch's name, the cat and bird references indicating a woman both at war with herself and of ambiguous significance to the others.

Thus while the novel is predicated on a familiar setup of the realist novel of middle-class mores and also displays some of the characteristics of the whodunnit, it is yet a novel with a strong and intricate symbolic system that draws attention to itself in a non-realist, and indeed postmodern way.

Although everyone in our group enjoyed reading the book, no one found the combination satisfactory. One chief complaint was that, as Clare had indicated, it was impossible to like or care about the characters, since they are very much viewed from outside, and their motives are, for the most part, unclear. John noted that the characters are placed, puppet-like, in scenes like tableaux - the family by the pool, the family around the dinner table, Kitty and Joe in the orchard, various couples on the beach, retired doctor Madeleine watching them all from her balcony etc - and I said that since there was a gun placed at various moments, including under a bed, it also had echoes of the game of Cluedo, which I take to be deliberate. Trevor (without knowing that Levy had been a playwright), said he thought the novel was thus really a play. I wasn't sure that it was that simple, since the concerns of most plays (realist ones anyway) are indeed motivation, character and dialogue - all things that this novel eschews (much of the dialogue seeming non-realistic, and to many in our group unconvincing). I pointed out that a postmodern novel is intended precisely to disrupt and disturb and even alienate the reader, rather than to reassure and immerse, and that the concern of this novel is the fluidity of personality and identity (eg the sugar mice of Nina's undisclosed dream entering the real-life experience of Kitty and Joe, Kitty's ability to challenge and break down Joe's carefully-honed middle-class-English persona and to bring to the fore his searing past as a child refugee who had been hidden in the woods from the Nazis, and her conviction that the child Joe had entered her mind). People readily accepted this as a principle, but they didn't think it worked here.

Some suggested that the problem was that the middle-class-realist novel setup of a moneyed family taken from their normal environment and thus vulnerable to disruption, led you into a realist reading which then in turn left you dissatisfied with the postmodern elements. The discussion showed that people were indeed wedded to a realist reading of the book, as there was much pondering of the characters' motives and a huge argument over what had really happened in the tragic moment towards the end, with people indeed wanting the clear-cut explanation you get with a murder mystery. The notion that we were not meant to know exactly what happened, that it was indeed muddled, seemed not have occurred to anyone, nor was acceptable to them. There were also objections to elements that are unconvincing on a social-realist level: what poet can live on his royalties as Joe does? and how was Mitchell supposed to get the guns he had bought there out of the country? Do pebbles really get holes worn in them in the mildly lapping Mediterranean? And why isn't Kitty's background filled in when she's such a disruptive force?

I felt that the middle-class-novel paradigm had been deliberately set up to be subverted: Joe's urbane middle-class Englishman's veneer masks a tragic past and ongoing emotional damage, Mitchell's gourmet interests and impulse to hire an expensive car hide the fact that he's about to go bankrupt, and the whole apparently concrete and vivid middle-class setup is haunted by an existential uncertainty. I wondered if the problem was the imagery itself, and the way it's employed. Having had my attention drawn so acutely to the symbolism (Ann said you almost thought of charting it all out on a spreadsheet), I personally felt the need both to understand its meanings on an intellectual level as well as to be influenced by it emotionally, but as Clare had indicated in her introduction, I often did neither, and often what an image brought to my attention to was not the themes and ideas so much as an author creating an artefact.

Why, for instance, the bear image, (rather than that of any other wild and dangerous animal)? In fact, it seems an inappropriate image: one has to stretch one's mind to imagine how a very thin girl swimming naked looks like a dead bear, in spite of her long red hair (not to mention the fact that bears aren't endemic to the countryside around Nice), and the association does not in fact spring organically from the scene, but stems from Joseph's head. It is explained that the previous day an article had appeared in the newspaper about a bear stumbling into a Los Angeles garden and swimming in the pool, and that Joe had wondered then whether the tranquillised bear had found its way home (so he has bears on his mind). This plants the central theme of exile and home, but by being located in the consciousness of a man whose consciousness is largely shrouded, the image is essentially divorced from the scene. This may be deliberate - Levy may be making a point about consciousness - but the effect for me is to give the image an academic quality, which in turn made me think of the author imposing it on her text, and ultimately gave me a sense of artificiality and interfered with my engagement with the book. I felt the same about much of the rest of the imagery. I still don't know, having thought about the book, what the sugar mice signify specifically, and although I could perhaps work it out intellectually if I thought about it further, the point is that in the process of reading it didn't impress anything on me emotionally apart from bafflement. At one point, caught fish are described, in Joe's consciousness, as having failed to 'swim home' and although this metaphor is potentially more organic (we know by now about Joe's background of exile and emotional damage), the over-exact verbal echoing of the title of the book seems forced and draws one's attention to the author and her manipulations rather than to any world of meaning she is creating.

The overall viewpoint appears omniscient in that for much of the time the characters are seen from outside, viewpoints are constantly shifted - in the introductory scene by the pool from paragraph to paragraph - and the whole thing has a watching, observational air. However, this seemingly external viewpoint is only partial: we don't know everything about the characters' thoughts, and we often share the characters' lack of understanding of each other and their motives. John suggested, rightly, I think, that the overall viewpoint is intended to be that of Nina, at the time a bystander to the adult dramas yet affected by them, looking back and trying to piece it all together from the standpoint of the very final section.

This final section is strikingly different from the rest of the book. Narrated in the first person by Nina several years later, it lacks the glittering imagistic quality of the rest of the book, but throbs with a rhythm and felt emotion seemingly withheld until this moment. While everything up to this point has seemed to happen indeed through the vivid and glittering distortions of water, this last section feels utterly real. It's a hymn of grief (restrained but all the more affecting for being so) that brings retrospectively into shocking focus the importance and significance of the tragedy underlying that past summer's events. It had me in floods of tears, but when I pointed all this out to the group they looked rather blank, and if they had already found it noteworthy that the section was tonally and narratorially different, they gave no indication, in which case the author's strategy hadn't worked on them. As for me, although I'm aware of the possibility that that last section depends to some extent for such an effect on the very contrast, I can't help wishing that the rest of the book had been more like it.

Doug, who didn't make the meeting, sent a note to say that he had found the setup and characters cliched a la Miss Marple, but that he had in fact very much enjoyed the imagery, found that there was some tension generated, and that the book 'cantered towards the denouement with the gusto of a frisky pony. What's not to like?'

April 2 2014
Dark Water by Joyce Carol Oates

I suggested this novella, a fictional parallel of the well-known incident of July 1969 when Senator Edward Kennedy, driving home from a party on Chappaquiddick Island, accidentally drove his car off a bridge into a tidal marsh creek, an accident from which Kennedy escaped, but in which his passenger, 28-year-old political campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne, died. Subsequent investigations failed to explain certain aspects of the incident, in particular the fact that having left the scene of the accident, Kennedy did not report it for nine hours, a fact that ultimately blighted Kennedy's political career. The novella updates the scenario to the late eighties - early nineties, replacing Kennedy with the physically and politically similar but unnamed Senator, and Mary Jo Kopechne with the slightly younger Elizabeth Anne 'Kelly' Kelleher, its incident set on the resonant date of July 4th.

Aptly for a book borrowing from an incident the outcome of which is well known, the novel adopts a structure based on hindsight, and its primary interest is not in what happens but in unpicking the sexual and political power structures that have led to a situation that is already in place. The book begins when the car is already in the water and Kelly alone and trapped in it, the Senator having swum free, and the central narrative is her struggle to free herself over the next few hours before the car finally fills with water. Meanwhile, however, chiefly (though not entirely) through Kelly's consciousness (via an intimate third person narration), we chart back through the hurried drive for the ferry in the dark on a disused back road, the party beforehand at which Kelly and the Senator met, Kelly's personal history of passionate political campaigning, a painful and potentially abusive sexual relationship and a childhood that has left her with low self-esteem, and the Senator's political background. Since Kelly is of course panicking in the car, all of this comes to us in a fragmented and repetitive form, the scenes lapping in repetitive waves like the water into the vehicle, each time they return bringing new insights, and as they become more jumbled paradoxically creating more meaningful connections. The drowning is thus both structurally and politically the central point from which a whole world of personal and political drama both spreads (like the ripples around the submerging car) and comes meaningfully together. However, there is still a strong narrative thrust due to the prose style which in my view brilliantly recreates the psychology of the trapped woman - breathless with minimal punctuation, obsessive with repetition and alarmed with pulsing rhythms (Ann would say later she found the book emotionally torturous, and found herself metaphorically lifting her head like Kelly to escape the rising water. I had said that if there was any problem with the breathless style, it was that I tended to read the book too quickly, with the feeling that I was missing things, but Ann said that she had found it all so agonising that she had to read it slowly, taking it in bits.)

When I had finished introducing the book to the group along these lines, Ann said she thought the book 'brilliant', and John and Mark agreed. Doug, who was unable to make the meeting, had written beforehand to say that he had found it a 'fabulous' book and didn't imagine there would be much discussion as he couldn't imagine anyone disagreeing. However, up until this point in the meeting Trevor, Jenny and Clare had been very quiet, and Trevor (who has tended to be positive about most books) now said that he was afraid he couldn't agree with us. He said that the book 'got on his nerves'. He said he got the point right from the start and the rest was just over-insistent repetition, and he couldn't stand the prose style, finding it insistent and bullying. He said it was an old story, too familiar to need to be told again, ie the story of a silly young girl having her head turned by an older man when she ought to know better. This led to a chorus of protest, that just because a story is old doesn't mean it can't be told again with a new perspective, that you don't have to be stupid to be seduced by charisma (that's one of the points: that modern politics is fatally based on charisma), that Kelly isn't stupid, she is actually clever and seriously academic and political, she just has low self-esteem (as Jenny pointed out), and, most importantly that the novel isn't just about that sexual scenario, but much more importantly about the last gasps of a moribund political system. This last point was made by Mark; the updating in the novel, he pointed out, reflects the fact that the political rot and the loss of the Democratic vision which had set in at the time of the real-life incident, and of which the whole incident is symbolic, was deeper and more evident by the time in which the novella is set and was published.

Ann and Mark pointed astutely to symbols of rot and breakdown in the novel: the swamp itself, 'a powerful brackish marshland odor, the odor of damp, and decay, and black earth, black water'; the fact that in the car headlights it looks like broken mirrors; the dead trees that Kelly worries might be dead from pollution, the dumped rubbish including the resonant image of a headless doll; the old disused road that the Senator takes instead of the new modern road (a route leading to disaster); the diminishing air bubble in the car (the last gasp); the fact that the car here is a Toyota (unlike Kennedy's Oldsmobile) and thus a symbol of the loss of American economic power. The seven-foot rushes in the marsh are described as being 'like human figures grotesque without faces', thus symbolising the lack of humanity in both the Senator's ultimate treatment of Kelly and of capitalist politics in general. Mark said in strong disagreement with Trevor that everything in the novel was symbolic or significant in some way, everything in it mattered and nothing was superfluous.

Jenny now said that her problem with the novella was that, unlike us, she didn't find it psychologically realistic: she found on the contrary a lack of urgency; she thought that Kelly would be panicking far more than she found the novel gave an impression of her doing. Also she didn't agree with me that the memories of the preceding and past events recurred with added insight or information, an observation that left us staggered and speechless. It seems to me that although certain moments are repeated and thus dwelt on, the memory-flashbacks do follow a narrative trajectory, showing the development of Kelly's involvement with the Senator at the party and her changing attitudes towards him (she is initially politically suspicious of him, but becomes charmed). Those moments that are obsessively dwelt on do to my mind re-emerge with added insight. The Senator first appears as attractive and attentive: 'big, gregarious ... playful' 'how tall he was, how physical his presence,' then with a hint of attractive vulnerability: 'And his grin wavered, just perceptibly. As if, for that moment, he was doubting himself: his manly power'; slowly however hindsight reveals him as domineering and selfish: 'The Senator was in the habit of making queries that were in fact statements'; 'that tongue thick enough to choke you' when he kisses Kelly; speaking to her 'as if speaking to a very young child,' and insulting her by telling her she's too young to understand. After the initial impression of vigour come hints of lack of wholesomeness: 'an exhausted middle-aged man beginning to go soft in the gut', his sports shirt 'damp with perspiration' and 'his seersucker trousers ... rumpled at the rear.' Then towards the end there is the self-regard revealed in the curiously repulsive image of the Senator eating 'ravenously, yet fastidiously, wiping his mouth with a paper napkin after every bite' and the resulting 'catsup on his napkin like smears of lipstick' with their inevitable connotations of blood. Towards half-way through the book the initial impression of generosity and gregariousness is cut across by this memory: 'Actually, the first thing the Senator did after greeting his hostess was to draw Ray Annick [his lawyer friend] off to confer with him, out of earshot of the others', and by the end of the novel two ominous memories have surfaced: Kelly's friend Buffy saying to her as she leaves with the Senator for the fateful car ride: ' "Don't forget, he voted to give aid to the Contras' ', and, as Kelly passes through the party kitchen, Ray Annick on the phone: 'speaking in a low, angry voice, the words asshole, fuck, fucking punctuating his customarily fastidious speech ... so unlike the genial smiling man ... courteously and sweetly attentive to Kelly Kelleher ... his eyes ... followed her as she passed ... as a cat's eyes follow movement with an instinctive impersonal predatory interest, yet as soon as she passed beyond his immediate field of vision he ceased to see her, ceased to register her existence'. This last of course prefigures the terrible end in which, in order to save the Senator from scandal and damage to his political career, Ray Annick will try to help the Senator to dissociate from the accident so that Kelly will be left in the car to die. However, none of this was enough to prevent Trevor and Jenny from experiencing the book as repetitive and static.

Ann said she wondered a bit about a fairly lengthy interjection towards the end of a treatise on capital punishment. This is the substance of the article that Kelly has written for the left-wing paper she works for, which discusses the role of the state in the matter (state-sanctioned or indeed -operated murder), and which at first the Senator gives the impression of having read, but hindsight makes clear he probably hadn't. John thought this was very important, not only as an illustration of Kelly's intelligence, acuity and left-wing passions, but as a comment on the fact that of course Kelly Kelleher is in effect murdered by the state, as was indeed the real-life Mary-Jo Kopechne.

Clare had been quiet for most of the meeting but she now said that like Trevor she hadn't liked the prose and as a result, like Trevor and to some extent Jenny she had been unable to engage with the book.

April 30 2014
Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge

Warning: partial plot spoiler (or improver).

This was Jenny's suggestion, a book she had on her shelves but had never read, the story of two thirteen-year-old girls in a small Merseyside town just after the war, an unnamed narrator and the malevolent Harriet, who during the school summer holidays set out to beguile then humiliate Peter Biggs, an unhappily married middle-aged man they have encountered all their childhood on their forays to the beach, and whom they call the Tsar. Initially, as she waits for Harriet to return from holiday, it is the narrator who first encounters the Tsar on the beach this particular summer and becomes obsessed with him, simultaneously attracted and repulsed, but once Harriet returns, the campaign begins, motored by Harriet's insistence. Right from the start we know that something drastic happens in the end, as the first chapter opens with the two running from 'the dark house' screaming and the narrator's mother asking 'if I was sure it was Mr Biggs', and what follows is a retrospective account of the events leading up to that.

However, we all found that on a first reading, this narrative trajectory, and the motives of the girls, weren't as clear as I have made them above, and a lot of the meeting was spent actually working out those motives (since everyone but me had read the book only once). Introducing it, Jenny said that although it was such a short book physically, in the experience of reading it she had found it quite long, and most of us nodded. Mark had said beforehand that he thought it was very obviously a first novel (it wasn't Bainbridge's first published novel, but it was the first she wrote, originally turned down for its 'disgusting' characters, later of course published for that very reason, its transgressive characters). I thought that there was indeed a lack of narrative focus, as did John. John thought that even though adolescents experiment with formal language, the overall narration was too formal, which is a novice writer's error, and there was an uncertainty of tone. The narrative isn't an internal monologue, but it's not clear from what vantage point it's being addressed, or to whom. Everyone agreed with this. I said that in addition there are basic errors in story-telling: I wasn't even clear on my first reading that the book wasn't entirely linear, that the second chapter moves back in time. Immediately after the dramatic escape which forms the first very short chapter, the second chapter begins thus:

When I came home for the holidays, Harriet was away with her family in Wales. She had written to explain it was not her fault and that when she came back we would have a lovely time.

The simple insertion of an 'earlier that summer' would have prevented me from reading this as an aftermath scenario, with Harriet explaining that whatever had happened with Mr Biggs was not her fault (rather than making a simple apology for being away when the narrator comes home from boarding school), and forming the notion that both girls had been sent away because of the incident concerning Mr Biggs. Once I realised my mistake, I needed to go back and start again, which inevitably contributed to my sense of a lengthy and somewhat rambling narrative. Perhaps as a result of this, a significant past event which is mentioned near the beginning - the fact that the girls have already been in trouble for going in the sand dunes with Italian prisoners of war - didn't seem to me to be mentioned until much later on in my reading, which surprised me: indeed, I wondered why it hadn't been mentioned earlier, and it was only on a second reading that I realised that the mention did come early. As a result, its narrative impact was reduced for me. I wasn't the only one: Trevor, too, thought it was mentioned much later, and the group were generally muddled about when certain events had happened, ie in what order.

We were all clear by the meeting that the novel was precisely about that transition period in girls' lives when they are becoming sexually focussed and intellectually strong yet are still in many ways children - an important topic to address at the time Bainbridge was writing, as Mark and Clare pointed out, since up until then adolescence hadn't been recognised as a developmental stage, and children were expected simply to turn overnight into adults. However, we are not told until a good way into the book that the girls are at that significant age, thirteen, and I was much exercised at the start in trying to work out what the protagonist's age was as she veered between on the one hand gnomic pronouncements and subtle observations (was she an older teenager? There's an early reference to their leaving school) and, on the other hand, childlike behaviour, becoming sure I was reading about a small child when a two-page description of the alternative walks to the sea is presented in terms of a child mapping her environment and includes this line conjuring a picture of innocence: 'I sang as I began to climb the slope among the trees, "All through the night there's a little brown bird singing, singing in the hush of the darkness and the dew ..." It was practically the only song I knew all through...' If I had known the simple fact that the protagonist was thirteen years old, I would have been able to read her behaviour as adolescent ambivalence rather than the possible result of author inconsistency, and my experience of the book would have been much smoother. A consequence of this uncertainty was that I was unsure of the tenor of the narrator's early lone encounters with the Tsar, plumping for the idea of her as an innocent and consequently entertaining the notion that the first chapter depicts a drama of innocents violated by a paedophile. Reading then the girls' campaign with the Tsar through this lens, I was less aware of their sexuality and the strength of their obsession which motor the narrative trajectory, constantly unsure of their motives at any given point, as I think were most people in the group, and missed thus a sense of narrative thrust.

Most people said similarly that they hadn't been grabbed by the book, Ann summing it up by saying that although the subject matter was extremely interesting in theory, somehow the book didn't grip or convince. The one exception was Trevor, who had really enjoyed it. We were exercised by the girls' attitude to their parents, inevitably in adolescents ambivalent but seeming on occasion not to ring true. Harriet's father is violent, and no one in the group found convincing Harriet's matter-of-fact attitude to that, her superior view of him as needing to be handled and pathetic in his anger, nor the fact that both girls use, without irony or comment, his epithet for her mother, 'Little woman.' Indeed, both girls at moments have a protective and superior attitude to their parents which didn't seem realistic. However, having read the novel a second time, I suggested that this was meant as an illustration of their naivety - they are in fact misinterpreting their parents and their own situation. Initially people didn't seem convinced by this, but as the discussion progressed they came to embrace it. Although it was clear to everyone by now that the girls set out to target the Tsar, I suggested the possibility that there was a conscious authorial irony about this; that the narrator is meant to be unreliable, and that - as Jenny, accepting the idea, said - he is simultaneously targeting them, a fact of which the girls are unaware. Everyone in the group then thought of moments pointing to this, such as the way that at the start the Tsar constantly seems to be where the girls are walking, as if placing himself in their way (which, when I first suggested it early on, drew the comment that he was just a bloke out walking there anyway), the fact that he tells the narrator about his unhappy marriage, and various actions betraying his selfishness. I have to say that on a second reading this last irony seemed quite obvious (and the Tsar quite manipulative), and the narrative arc much clearer and more dynamic as a result. John now said that he wondered if the writer was trying to show through the girls' attitude to their parents that the parents, wrapped up in their own concerns and leaving the girls very much to their own devices, had left them vulnerable to the Tsar. Harriet's father's bad temper could be taken as an effect of the not-long-finished war, as well as the less than even temper of the narrator's father who cleans the house manically and bad-temperedly in his old ARP uniform, and one could extrapolate that the parents (and the Tsar himself) are thus damaged by the war and incapable of protecting the girls. The trouble is, however, that the narrative focus of the novel is so narrow - sticking closely to the perspective of the thirteen-year-old narrator - that there is little indication of this. The whole thing takes place too faithfully in the enclosed bubble of childhood, with little of the social or political contextualisation a more expert writer could indicate. All we know of any of the adults' backgrounds or pasts is that once upon a time the Tsar glamorously visited Greece, and the war is presented solely through the girls' consciousness as 'a long time ago', which contributes to the air of vagueness and lack of focus. Jenny now remarked that, having discussed the book, she felt it was a better book than she had thought, with a lot more in it, and people agreed. However, we couldn't escape the fact that it had lacked focus for us, and, although the prose is snappy and lyrical, there really is something about the nuts and bolts of the composition that defocuses everything on a first reading, we found.

People noted too that there was really no sense of eroticism in the girls' pursuit and campaign of humiliation of the Tsar, although there was eroticism in the relationship between the two girls, which seemed like a lack and left the girls' motives and feelings towards the Tsar unclear. People did think, though, that, as Clare said, the relationship between the girls was beautifully and accurately depicted - the power of the one (Harriet) over the other, the love-hate dynamic tinged with sexual and existential longing. John said that overall, however, he found the book emotionally cold, and others agreed.

It's a book, in other words, that is better read in hindsight, through a knowledge of the end. It's interesting in this light that it's often written about as having been inspired by the Parker-Hulme murder case concerning two New Zealand schoolgirls similarly locked in a folie a deux, on which the film Heavenly Creatures, starring Kate Winslet, was based. If you approach the book knowing this connection (which I didn't at first), you know from the start that the girls have committed a murder, and the whole thing is imbued with a far greater urgency than if you lack this expectation. In fact, I'd say that it's a tall claim that the book is based on the real-life story (rather than vaguely inspired by the general idea of girls in an intense relationship murdering an adult): the Parker-Hulme story is really very different, with an entirely different dynamic. In fact, Harriet Said suffers from the comparison, since the Parker-Hulme murder was committed, and planned, to prevent the girls being separated, thus making the erotic relationship between the girls the pulsing centre, and the murder itself more organically inevitable than it is here. One wonders therefore if that somewhat spurious connection was flagged by an editor, author or publicity department aware that the book is indeed better when read in the light of it.

June 2014
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

Warning: spoiler.

Last month, just before the death of the author Daniel Keyes, we happened to read this, his 1966 novel, much-adapted winner of science-fiction awards and now accepted as a science fiction classic. However, John, who recommended it, said that when he read it years ago he didn't in fact take it as science fiction so much as a psychological study, psychology being a major interest in general in Keyes' work.

The novel consists of the diary entries of Charlie Gordon, a man of 32 with a low IQ who is chosen to take part in an experiment to improve the intellect, involving removal of part of the brain, an operation already carried out with spectacular success on the laboratory mouse Algernon, turning him into a mouse with superb intelligence, able to find his way swiftly through the most complicated maze. The operation on Charlie is successful too, and as the novel proceeds, the diary entries, begun as naive, awkwardly written and badly spelled, become gradually literate and insightful. Charlie's intellectual development, however, reveals the world to him in a different, more jaundiced light: he comes to realise that his bakery workmates have been laughing at him rather than with him, that they were not after all his friends, and as he overtakes them in intellect they begin to resent him, and through this he loses the job he has loved. Eventually he becomes a genius, able quickly to learn many languages and grasp complicated scientific concepts that even the doctors and academics in charge of the experiment don't understand, but his emotional development fails to keep pace, which results in his distress. It is at this point, when Charlie is intellectually lonely (and despising those considered experts) that the mouse Algernon's newly sophisticated faculties begin to falter, and it becomes clear to Charlie that a similar reversal is in store for him. He then devotes himself to investigating the flaws in the experiment before his intellect fails, which it does rapidly, the diary entries quickly returning to their former naivety and lack of literacy.

Most people in the group enjoyed reading the book but it didn't generate any deep discussion. Mark hadn't actually had time to read beyond the early diary entries, but said he really admired the way the author captured the semi-literate voice - 'Dr Strauss says I shoud rite down what I think and remembir and evrey thing that happins to me from now on' - and the gradual way in which the prose style and Charlie's consciousness develop. The chief question the book seemed to be posing, people said, was whether intelligence makes you happy (or whether, as Thomas Gray put it, 'where ignorance is bliss 'tis folly to be wise'), which was considered an unoriginal point, Doug being pretty scathing about it, in fact. Someone pointed out that it was also about whether we should value intellectual intelligence over emotional intelligence as we do, a more subtle and important point, and the question of what it is to be human. John said that it was in addition about the morality of using science and technology to interfere with someone's personality - another important and prescient point. He pointed to the memories that Charlie begins to retrieve about his mother, and Charlie's gradual realisation that she rejected him out of an inability to accept his disabilities. The book thus, by implication, questions a similar prejudice and desire for perfection motivating much medical research. The choice of the diary form perhaps points to a concern with the extent to which attention is or isn't paid to the subjective experience of human subjects in clinical trials. In the book, John pointed out, the only people with real empathy with those with disability are those with disabilities themselves. (On the other hand, John, a child psychologist, told us a very interesting fact. We discover in passing that Charlie's condition is phenylketonuria, a congenital metabolic deficiency which if left untreated in infancy causes mental developmental difficulties, but for which, John explained, there is now a diet treatment which is in effect a cure, since patients treated in infancy and childhood no longer in adulthood suffer the metabolic deficiency with which they were born and are therefore no longer in danger of the same mental disintegration.)

Since the ending of the book is not happy, John said, it serves as a warning, but we all felt that the same effect could have been achieved without actually taking us through the reversal in Charlie's intelligence, which is predictable and thus boring. Indeed, John suggested, the book would have been better, and more emotionally affecting for the reader, if it had ended at the point where the highly intelligent and emotional Charlie is facing his doomed fate, rather than descending with him into affectlessness and lack of awareness or concern about anything much.


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