The Fiction Faction - Archive - January-June 2004
Elizabeth Baines

January 2004

The Quiet American by Graham Greene

Doug had chosen this novel set in French-occupied fifties Vietnam, concerning the relationship between Fowler, a seasoned and weary British journalist and young American Pyle, rival for Fowler’s Vietnamese mistress and whose work with the American Economic Aid Mission in Vietnam is shrouded in secrecy, the book beginning with the mystery of how Pyle has come to be found dead.
Introducing the book, Doug said how vivid he had found Greene’s evocation of place, as in all his novels, and how much he admired the depiction of the relationship and the way it stood for two opposing moral viewpoints: idealism warped by blind opportunism on the side of Pyle and cynical lack of commitment tempered by moral conscience on Fowler’s.
We all agreed that the prose was vivid, and the book, published as long ago as 1955, prescient in its theme of American political idealism and occupation. Most people gave the book the thumbs-up, but Sarah and I, the only two women present, had found it hard to engage with or care about and would have passed it off as a boys’ book had Jeanne (absent along with Don) not sent a message that they had both loved it, and had John not said that, notwithstanding the moral preoccupations of the book, he had found it something of a barren thriller.
I said that, reading the book in the present time, I had found it hard to take seriously because of the portrayal of the mistress Phuong, central to the relationship between the two men, with its somewhat phewy pong of sexism and racism.
Sarah pointed out that the book was of its time and Mark, arriving late, agreed. I said that I know it’s sometimes hard to remember the revelation that feminism was when it hit us in the seventies, and how different attitudes were before that. However, I said, great male writers transcend their own times, and you wouldn’t catch Flaubert or Tolstoy making the same mistakes about women as Greene, who describes Fowler, submitting at one point to possible drowning in a rice field, as ‘like a woman who demands to be raped by her lover’.
As for what I’d called the racism, Trevor said, he thought that the idea in the book that Phuong wanted cynically to get whatever she could out of Fowler and Pyle was simply realistic: it is understandable behaviour for all colonised peoples.
Sarah and I countered that what was racist was the fact that the book gave Phuong no other dimension than this, and no inner life whatever, but colluded with the baffled attitude of Fowler and Pyle towards her, and Mark agreed.
There was a lot of argument about how we were meant to take the character of Pyle, the 'quiet American'. Was he merely a cynical manipulator, a cold-blooded government agent, or did he believe the idealism he spouted at the start? Doug came down on the side of the latter, but most of us simply didn’t know what to think, and Sarah pointed out that Pyle is filtered through Fowler’s viewpoint throughout, and so we have no insight beyond Fowler’s own ambivalence towards Pyle. Trevor said that this was the point, and we did all agree that although the book employs the thriller mode, it’s intended as more than that, and as an examination of the moral and political ambiguity which many thrillers eschew.
However, most of us felt that, rather than a satisfying ambiguity, we were left with inconsistency. Mark pointed out that in the recent film of the book Pyle is portrayed unequivocally as a manipulator and indeed a liar, and while this simplifying adjustment may have been dictated by the more objective demands of drama, we all felt that it must be a improvement on an aspect of the book which even the Greene fans had found unsatisfying.
In the end, even Greene fans among us agreed that this isn’t one of his strongest books, but Trevor strenuously stuck to its defence and said he thought it was cracking.

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February 2004
The Outsider by Albert Camus (Penguin)

We met at Jeanne and Don’s to discuss this classic 1942 French novel – Don’s choice - narrated by a young French Algerian, Meursault, whose downfall in a bourgeois society is that he cannot lie about his emotions, even to save his own life.
Introducing the book, Don said that it was only possible to read it in the light of the French Existentialist movement from which it sprang, and most of our reactions bore this out.
Jeanne and I who had been stunned by the novel when we read it in the sixties and seventies respectively now felt less satisfied by it. Jeanne said that she now had no interest in Meursault with his inability to care deeply about anything much (including the death of his own mother and the crime of murder he commits) beyond the sensual fulfilment of each moment as it comes (the last a classic existentialist position).
It was hard nowadays to accept the way that in the novel the actual death of the Arab Algerian killed by Meursault is not an issue (only Meursault’s attitude to it). The Arabs and women are in fact more outside conventional society than Meursault himself, yet they get short shrift from both Meursault and Camus. (Although, interestingly, this is a point made as long ago as 1946 by Cyril Connolly in his introduction to the first English edition.)
Sarah, who had not previously read the book, said that she too couldn’t care about Meursault, and whether or not he was hanged at the end for his crime. She had found unconvincing the scene in which the murder takes place. Since Meursault specifically and characteristically has no personal quarrel of his own with the Arab, the quarrel being between the Arab and a somewhat casual acquaintance of Meursault’s, and since in the moment Meursault shoots him the Arab is still lying down on the beach and therefore no real physical threat, the killing seemed to Sarah motiveless.
It became clear in the discussion of this that Sarah had read a more modern Penguin translation than some of us. Less poetic and metaphoric, a good deal more literal than the earlier translation, it conveys with less emotive force the effect of the blazing sun on Meursault in these moments - the uncompromising sun being in this novel a metaphor for amoral truth.
However, even those of us with the earlier translation felt we had had to make an effort to accept the existentialist terms of this, rather than to give the incident post-existentialist and Freudian readings.
Don indeed conceded that while Meursault’s great virtue is his adherence to emotional truth in the face of bourgeois hypocrisy, he is in effect a monster.
John however said that he remembers that in the sixties Meursault was on the contrary considered no monster but a hero, a revolutionary sensibility, in particular by young people, and that books like The Outsider had contributed to the student revolutions of 1968.
The Afterword included in the latest Penguin edition gives Camus’ own view, which while implying an acceptance of Meursault’s moral imperfection, comes down very much in his defence by presenting him as a martyr:
...for me Meursault is not a reject, but a poor and naked man, in love with a sun which leaves no shadows. Far from lacking all sensibility, he is driven by a tenacious and profound passion, the passion for an absolute and for truth … I tried to make my character the only Christ we deserve.
I said that the comparison with the present-day Vernon God Little (discussed in December) was interesting. While Meursault simply refuses to save himself from the guillotine by pretending to regret his crime of murder, and thus seizes control over his own destiny, however negative, it is Vernon’s inability to display guilt for murders he has not in fact committed which condemns him to death: Vernon’s present-day universe is a more complex one, in which sentiments are even falser and more devious, and the truth not a weapon for seizing control over one’s own destiny, but the very thing over which you can lose it.
Don concluded by commenting on the brilliant economy and vividness of The Outsider, and those of us with the earlier translation agreed, while those with the later one looked surprised.

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March 2004
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

A small number of us met at mine and John’s to discuss this book with its vivid and satirical depiction of nineteen-twenties’ New York high society and the story of the mysterious and wealthy Jay Gatsby whose glittering parties are its heart.
The book was my choice as one of my all-time favourites and one which I would say has coloured my mental landscape and has strongly influenced me as a writer.
Reading it again, I was if anything more impressed by the writing, and in particular by Fitzgerald’s narrative genius in his choice of narrator, Nick Carraway.
Carraway is a narrator both implicated but detached - brought up, as he tells us, to be non-judgemental and thus treated as a confidant by the other characters, while his tolerance of them sometimes, by his own confession, ‘has a limit’; wise to the corruption of the America Dream as played out by the other characters, yet implicated in it himself by virtue of his background and his profession in the ‘bond business’. This gives him a freedom to view the other characters at different times from both inside and outside, the anti-hero Jay Gatsby in particular, and deepen
s both theirs and his own moral ambiguity.
By thus combining a certain level of narrative omniscience with an almost postmodern sense of the deep partisanship of storytelling, Fitzgerald creates a psychologically complex novel.
I was struck again by the economy of the writing and the detonative symbolic power of the images: the wind blowing through the house of Tom and Daisy, Nick’s cousin, and making everything, the curtains, the women’s dresses, seem to float – prefiguring their lack of moral grounding; the whiteness of the dresses conveying their moral blankness; the lawn surging from the beach to splash up the side of their house in vines, foreshadowing the tide of moral corruption that will overtake the characters. So vividly are these things described that they stay in the mind to explode with their full meaning as the story unfolds.
The only odd thing for me was that I found I had not remembered how the story ended – which was certainly strange when the novel is so vivid and when I have held it as so important to me, and when no one else in the group who had read it previously had the same problem. It was only next day that I realised what must have happened. I was reading The Great Gatsby just before I first began writing. I must have been so inspired by the prose that I went off and started writing half-way through it and never finished it!
Everyone present agreed that the novel was a great read, though Sarah said she found it lacking in the thinness of the depiction of the women characters, which no one could deny. Anne said that she was troubled by the fact that she couldn’t like any of the characters, including Nick Carraway. We all agreed that you couldn’t, but no one else found this a problem, as we felt that this was the satirical point of the book.
Anne, who had not read it before, said she wished now that she hadn’t seen the film of it beforehand, as she felt that Robert Redford wasn’t right for Jay Gatsby (not sinister enough), and the image of him got in the way as she was reading.
This led on to an interesting discussion about books in the media and the hyping of books and authors. All along Mark has been rather resistant to our reading new books that have been heavily hyped, as he feels that this is no guarantee of literary merit. We pointed out that just because a book is hyped doesn’t mean it’s bad, either, but Mark said that, more importantly, he strongly resents being told what to read by the profit-making multinational publishing machine.
He was rewarded this time by John choosing a modern classic for the April meeting, Blindness, by the Portuguese writer Jose Saramago.

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April 2004

Blindness by Jose Saramago

John chose this 1995 book by the Portuguese writer Saramago as one he had previously read and admired, a novel in which a whole society – at first one by one and then en masse – is overcome by a ‘white blindness’ with no obvious cause but which is clearly infectious.
We all sat waiting expectantly for his introduction. However, he confessed that he had been unable to read the book a second time, finding it too one-dimensional and unsubtle to take a second reading, but that he had not remembered it well enough to introduce it in detail.
Anne hadn’t even managed a first reading, but had been defeated after eighty pages by the dense minimally-punctuated prose.
Martin had told me that he hadn’t liked the book, but he wasn’t able to make the meeting, so it was left to me, who also had great doubts about the book, to argue with the others present – Sarah, Trevor and Mark who had all loved it (although Mark had only had time to read the first hundred pages) and Doug who had some reservations but was basically positive.
I said that I had a problem with how to read this novel. It began with all the hallmarks of an allegory, which conventionally indicates a clear and logical meaning, yet it didn’t appear to fulfil these allegorical terms. It was hard to work out very precisely what the blindness meant, and why everybody had gone blind.
Sarah said that this didn’t bother her; she didn’t read novels for meaning. She had been completely taken up in the world the novel described, which was enough for her, and swept along so she had none of the problems others had had with the lack of punctuation and paragraphing.
I insisted that the novel appeared to be asking to be read in this way, however, for meaning.
I said that if the novel is meant to be about the tenuous nature of civilised society, and the ease with which it can break down, then I felt that it had failed to convey this fully since it concentrates closely on the experience of the initial group incarcerated in a disused asylum for their blindness and therefore unable to experience the breakdown of social structures as it occurs in the outside world.
Sarah said she didn’t think this mattered, as within the asylum there is a microcosmic society which breaks down, the blind thugs in possession of a gun gaining control of the others.
I didn’t find this satisfactory, however, especially as when the group finally emerges from the asylum the situation inside it appears not to be paralleled in society at large, where people seem to be coping with their blindness with a greater democracy.
Sarah said that she found this part of the book fascinating: the way that people in the outside world seemed to have reverted to the primitive set-up of tiny tribes in order to survive.
I said that if, on the other hand, the book was meant, as John suggested, to be a psychological study of freak en masse blindness rather than an allegory about society, then I thought the novel failed in this, too, most especially as the whole thing is witnessed by the only person, the doctor’s wife, who doesn’t go blind, a point with which Doug agreed. While the central sighted character is clearly a necessary literary device, it’s unavoidable that it’s also something of a cop-out as an exploration of the psychological experience of blindness.
It is true that there is considerable stress on the physical experience of the characters, and some psychological exploration, most notably in the conversations between the characters about their situation. However, the fact that the characters are not referred to by name (merely as ‘the doctor’s wife’, ‘the man with the eyepatch’), while clearly intended to portray the way that blindness robs them of their identity (at one point one of the characters states that blind people don’t need names), also has the effect of locating them as allegorical rather than psychologically-rounded figures.
Having been primed, though, by certain aspects of the novel to look for psychological and social realism, I found much about it unconvincing. I didn’t find convincing the situation depicted at the start in which the first people to become blind are thrown into the disused asylum building and left to fend for themselves without medical help, guarded by soldiers and threatened with being shot if they try to escape.
Trevor said that he certainly found it believable: what about the concentration camps? And John said, What about Guantanamo Bay?
I said, but there is no suggestion in this novel of terrorism, or of any political underpinning for the strategy. At the start of epidemics under normal circumstances in civilised societies, which is what the situation in the book appears to be, doctors and nurses are expected to risk infection to treat patients.
Sarah, who is a doctor, snorted and said that she could just imagine this kind of thing happening if the Ebola virus got out. Mark, who is a flight attendant, agreed: he felt he’d already seen signs of it, since during the SARS outbreak a man on his plane with a raised temperature was refused entry at Singapore and separated from his wife and child.
Another thing I didn’t find convincing was the fact that the blind inmates of the asylum, crammed together, disorientated, half-starved, worried that no more food will appear, in fear for their lives and monumentally covered in excrement, appear to be conducting normal and indeed – according to this translation at any rate – discreet and decorous sex lives.
Everyone else said they found it perfectly believable that people would still want sex in those circumstances. My point, which I had clearly failed to convey properly, was the level of psychological conviction of the novel; however, since everyone else was appealing to real-life probability, I did so too, and as the comparison with Nazi concentration camps had been made, reminded them that when we discussed Primo Levi’s This is a Man Don told us of work he had read which showed that for Nazi-camp inmates sex drive disappeared beneath the need to survive appalling circumstances.
Doug now protested to me that he didn’t think the circumstances in the book were comparable to those in the Nazi camps.
I said I couldn’t work out precisely why blindness had been chosen as the trope of the book.
Mark and Trevor said it was obvious: blindness is obviously the most frightening sensual affliction. I said, but a study of the psychological effects of loss of sight could be done via a single character: you don’t have to send a whole society blind to make it.
Doug said he felt that the physical blindness of the book must stand for moral blindness, and a suggestion was made that the doctor’s wife remained sighted because she was selfless. I said that if this is what’s intended then it’s rather an obvious and somewhat hackneyed association. Mark said, Well, there’s nothing new under the sun. I replied that I do expect a new insight from a novel, and not just a corny idea, and anyway, the precise moral blindness of the society is never defined.
Doug said, well, one of the first group is a thief and another a prostitute. I said, but the book doesn’t make any particular issue of this – which Doug conceded – and anyway others of the group are morally blameless yet they all suffer blindness in the same way.
Trevor then said to me, Look, you want this to be a book like Animal Farm with a single meaning. But as far as he was concerned, he said, this book was about a lot of things, including society and human nature under stress, and war.
I said that I had no rules for what sort of book Jose Saramago ought to write. It was simply that I needed to be able to know the terms of a book in order to know how to read it, and that I felt that the terms of this book were not clear.
John, who had read several other books by Saramago, then said that the other books were more clearly in the magic realist mode, with its much lesser reliance on logicality than allegory, and that he felt that this book was affected by this.
Then everyone in the group, including those who had said they loved the book, said that they hated the ending, in which everyone’s sight is returned suddenly and simultaneously for no apparent good reason (apart perhaps from the fact that they have learnt to live together with their blindness), and that they considered it a real cop-out.

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Link to interesting discussions of Blindness on Bob Corbett's site, Webster University

Alma Cogan by Gordon Burn

After all his trips abroad, the birth of his second baby and the complete renovation of his house, Mark was finally able to host a meeting of the group, and we all piled in and exclaimed with ironic accusations of yuppiedom and genuine admiration at his beautiful new interiors, which had immediately been snapped up as a location for a TV advert - before finally turning to the book, Mark’s choice.

Although a Whitbread First Novel winner, this 1991 book did not get a good reception from the group.
It proposes the continuing life of the fifties popular singer Alma Cogan (who in reality died in 1966 at the age of thirty-four), and in first-person prose charts her problematic negotiation in post-fame middle age with her own youthful and very manufactured famous persona, and with the world which keeps that persona frozen.
Everyone present agreed that the meditations on the above theme of celebrity were stunning, that Gordon Burn can sure turn a sentence, and that his evocation of fifties and eighties Britain and the contrast between the two were startlingly vivid and spot-on. (Although Don later complained that the fifties Britain evoked was hardly representative, being the Britain of fifties showbiz.)
However we all felt that, as Jeanne put it, the prose had the quality of a series of ‘creative writing’ exercises, in that the marvellous impressions seemed not to be anchored on any narrative bedrock, and therefore lacked overall resonance and soon faded.

We all agreed that a non-plot-based novel was theoretically acceptable (witness Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, to which this novel has been compared), (although Sarah and I said that we did like a good story). A problem with this novel, however, is that it kept prompting you to look for narrative satisfaction and resolution by creating moments of seeming narrative tension and doom (ominous signs in and around the seaside cottage in which Alma Cogan is spending her retirement) which however come to nothing and ultimately appear to operate only as indicators of Cogan’s existential unease and poisoned relationship with the public world.
Anne pointed out that it was rather the connection made between Cogan and the murderer Mira Hindley which was the ‘narrative’ hub of the book. On a thematic level this connection was intriguing (the notion that both fame and notoriety can trap you as a ghost of yourself), but on a narrative level it seemed uncertain, appearing only belatedly and bedevilled by the book’s mixture of fact and fiction. As Don said, with some heat, it was impossible to know just from reading the book whether the precise circumstances recounted linking the two characters really occurred or not, and one is left wondering about this precise issue, and their potential force in the book is thus lost.
Martin, arriving late from putting his kids to bed, strongly agreed.

Only Mark disagreed: he said he loves faction, especially the way it is handled by Janes Ellroy. Sarah said that she didn’t mind faction in the least if it was made believable, but that in this book it wasn’t. She said that in view of all these problems she had found the book a pretty tedious read and, frankly, rubbish.
I said that I felt that, stunning as the prose and ideas were, they were unconvincing as the voice and mentality of Alma Cogan, and came over rather as those of an agiley-intellectual and knowledgeable researcher with a savagely poetic bent of mind, ie Gordon Burn himself. Everyone agreed.
Everyone pondered the question of how on earth the book could have won the Whitbread, and John said he felt that then, in 1991, it must have seemed very innovative and prescient, but that the things it was saying about the nature of fame and manufactured celebrity (Cogan being perhaps the first truly manufactured pop star) had since become commonplace, and thus the book now has less impact.

I said that that’s the problem nowadays, to get published now books have to be showily zeitgeisty, which makes me anxious about the long novel I’m writing now: will it be obviously zeitgeisty enough to get published? Mark said, Precisely, and it means that books that get published aren’t necessarily good, and in fact are quite likely to go out of fashion, and we were back on his hobby horse, the hyping of books by multinational publishers. There was a very heated debate about whether good books can sink without trace in this situation, which Don thought was rubbish: Books always make it in the end if they’re good, he said, Look at Turgenev! And I said but Turgenev wasn’t battling the present situation: what if good books fail to get published in the first place because the marketeers say they won’t sell? But then felt I’d better shut up in case it sounded like potential sour grapes, and in any case it wasn’t up to me to judge my own books as good. Though Mark said Exactly! and poured me another big glass of wine and I started to get drunk.

Then people asked the older members what Alma Cogan’s singing voice and songs had been like and they said, Mediocre, but Don said that at least she had sung live with a real big band, unlike modern pop stars who all mime to music made by machines, and that so-called music today isn’t real music at all - at which people protested that it was simply a different technology today, and another heated debate ensued.
Then Don and Jeanne left, Don saying that it had been great to see us all again (having missed the last two meetings for a holiday), misinformed though we all were. After which, Mark and his partner Kirstin recounted the experience of having a film made in their house, and there was a general discussion about the various houses in the neighbourhood given a somewhat anonymous immortality by being used as locations for films, and the book, famed as it might have been, was forgotten.

June 2004
The Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills

We met at Martin’s to discuss this quirky novel about a group of three fence-builders who travel from Scotland to England to work and are increasingly overtaken by surreal and sinister events.
It was Martin who had chosen the book – because, he said, having read it twice previously and thoroughly enjoyed it each time, he was nonetheless still stumped as to what it was supposed to be about. Now that he had read and enjoyed it a third time, he had come to the conclusion that it was intended as absurdist and was more able to accept its ambiguities.
Everyone else agreed that the book was an immensely enjoyable read. We found the portrayal of the workers, their work and their attitudes to their job and their employers – uncomprehending yet wily, shamed and resentful yet shameless and lackadaisical, and often full of suppressed violence – beautifully observed: laugh-out-loud funny and often touching. We all agreed that the prose, while apparently simple, was almost magically resonant.
Many of us were unconvinced, however, that the book worked as absurdist literature. It’s true that there is a tragi-comic absurdity about the gang and their alienation from the purpose of their work. The whole story, too, is shrouded in moral ambiguity: it’s never quite clear whether the workers are victims or exploiters, and when people are killed on the work site, it’s debatable how far the deaths are accidental. Yet the ending, while it too seems ambiguous, seemed to some of the group an attempt to provide a moral gloss. For me it was an aspect of the mode of narration which cut across the absurdist elements: the spell-like repetition of events told with incantatory repetitive wording are the tricks of fairytale, with its distinct black-and-white moral framework.
The social and psychological realism with which the characters were observed also seemed to indicate realist rather than absurdist authorial concerns.
Apart from Sarah, we were agreed too that there was an unsatisfying disjunction between this realism and the surreal and fairytale elements. While the men and their work are described in minute and specific social and psychological detail, there is none of the character development one might consequently expect, and as in a fairy story the deaths that occur have no psychological effects on them, or indeed any social consequences. The very surreal ending, when it becomes clear that the three men are unwittingly building a sinister death-camp-type trap for themselves, felt to some people tacked on.
Only Sarah didn’t mind that it was hard to work out the precise symbolism of the fences and the obsession of the men’s employer with the unnecessary straightness of each fence they build.
Don said the book was about authority and hierarchies. John similarly wondered it if was about colonisation, as invested in the Scottish-English tensions in the plot and between the characters. I thought it might also to some extent be about the nature of reality – the way the deaths are covered up and then ignored, the way characters swear by clearly dubious ‘truths’: the idea that truth and reality are not as straight as the men’s employer would like it to be.
Trevor then seemed to draw all these notions together by saying that, as a manual worker and service provider himself, he felt that the book was more mundanely but satisfyingly about the slippery morals operating in this kind of work, and those of a society based on it. He viewed the men killed accidentally-on-purpose in the book as extreme symbols of the way that in life botched jobs are so frequently covered up and clients made to pay for them.
He then told us about some real-life cover-ups he’d witnessed. We’d also had a long digression about absurdist literature, and Jeanne said with some irony that we had in fact spent more time discussing other things than the book itself, which illustrated how thin it was. Mark said he couldn’t believe that we’d spent as much time discussing the book as we had, and that he doubted that the author had spent as much time as we had thinking about its meaning.
We all got quite animated, and the door of the room, inadvertently left open by someone returning from the lavatory, was quietly closed, and we realised we’d got too loud, with the real-life social consequence that we’d woken Martin’s small children who had to go to school next day.

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