Tag Archives: ali smith

Folio Season #4: Lerner, Kingsnorth, Dunmore, Rahman and more

Introduction I’ve set myself the challenge of reading all 80 books nominated for the 2015 Folio Prize. Several I’d already read before the list was announced – which was what gave me the perhaps inaccurate idea that it would be possible, or a good idea, to read all of the remainder. Each week, I’ll update with the books I’ve been reading ‘new’, as it were, plus, while I catch up, some of those I read beforehand.

This week it’s the last five of those ‘pre-read’ books, with novels from Ali Smith, Joshua Ferris, Linda Grant and Tim Winton — but before them, Ben Lerner, whose work I revisited this week, plus debut novels from Zia Haider Rahman and the Booker-longlisted Paul Kingsnorth, and a new novel from the one of the best-established authors among the Folio nominees, Helen Dunmore.

10:04 – Ben Lerner (Granta)
Ben Lerner’s second novel takes its title from a moment in a film (Back to the Future) which is excerpted for Christian Marclay’s video artwork The Clock, a 24-hour piece made up of fragments of films in which time is referred to, so that it functions, alongside its entertainment value, as a kind of clock itself. I went to see The Clock when it was in London a few years ago, and had exactly the experience the novel’s narrator Ben describes: glancing at my watch to check the time, then realising that what I was watching was also a vastly scaled up and complexified version of the watch on my wrist. The pairing of the minimal with the vast, the détournement and refiguring of existing works, and the setting of the often bathetic subjective experience against the monolith of art, or history, or the world, this moment of simultaneous inward- and outward-looking — it all seems to be 10:04 in microcosm.
I actually read this late last year in its US edition from FSG (prettier by far than the uncharacteristically drab Granta edition, which ignores the text’s elaborate mention of the image that should be used for its cover). I wanted to hold off writing about it until I’d been to see Ben Lerner read at Foyles this week. He’s as rigorous and articulate as you’d hope from reading this novel, in which a character who shares some similarities with the author (his name, the fact he published a well-received first novel) ruthlessly interrogates his own feelings and statements, trying to get closer to a kind of truth, though highly aware, too, that in fiction ‘truthfulness’ remains a ruse, a technique. To bolster the illusion, partway into the book, a story the real Lerner published in the New Yorker is reprinted, and seems to be a fictionalised version of real events the fictive Ben has spend the preceding section of the book discussing. Seemingly aleatoric in structure, certainly more patterned than plotted, 10:04 takes in descriptions of literary, gastronomic, and social New York, a writer’s retreat to Marfa, Texas (which made me even keener to visit, despite the hilarious and horrific description of a party Ben attends there), the composition of poetry, the difficulty of going to the toilet while you’re the sole adult in charge of a small child in a public space, and the large and small indignities and rewards of (privileged) 21st-century life. This is a novel (is it a novel?) that’s smart and intelligent — not always the same thing — and funny, and moving. The party in Marfa, and a scene in a sperm donor clinic, are two of the most memorable moments in a book full of them. They seem the kind of things that will come to mind at odd junctures in the future, unmoored from the text they appear in, like the cutups in Marclay’s work.

The Wake – Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
Wake, The
Two notable facts about this book: it was ‘crowdfunded’ via online donations, and it’s written in a language that resembles Old English. It’s been a while since I tackled ‘Se yflan cnapan bindeth thone engel’ and so forth, and thankfully, depsite the initially forbidding look of the text, Kingsnorth’s ‘shadow tongue’ is significantly less dense. The syntax is – despite the unusual sentence structures, absent punctuation and incantatory repetition – close enough to contemporary English that, once you’ve acclimatised to the vocabulary (much of which, said aloud, sounds to me someone essaying a Dorset accent), it breezes along. In the wake of the invasion of England of 1066, displaced landowner Buccmaster seeks to fight back against the French invaders, with great visions of a vast uprising of Englishmen that ejects the invader. What’s interesting is that with Kingsnorth sticking to an Old English vocabulary, interiority and emotion has to be conveyed through means other than what we might be accustomed to in a novel: Shakespeare is still five hundred-odd years off, stream of consciousness and the vocabulary of psychoanalysis five hundred more. Restricted vocabulary – there’s a lot of ‘ire’ having to stand in for a subtler range of emotions, say – is compensated for by a quasi-mystical tone, in the actual visions Buccmaster sees, and in the book’s own beautiful rhythm and prose. ‘oh i can say these words’, Buccmaster reflects, as though aware of these limitations, ‘and try to tell what it was lic there but naht can gif to thu what was in my heorte as I seen all of this cuman in to place. sum folcs who is dumb thinks the world is only what can be seen and smelt and hierde but men who cnawan the world cnawan there is a sceat a sceat of light that is between this world and others and that sum times this sceat is thynne and can be seen through’ (p.240–1: ‘sceat’ is ‘sheet’, ‘heorte’, ‘heart’). What he sees through it – a warrior’s inspiration, a vision of the Old Gods of England (Norse myths refigured) – will guide him to his fate. If the book sometimes seems a little padded – it takes Buccmaster two years to get back to more or less exactly where he started – it’s a thoroughly enjoyable journey for the reader, and a truly impressive feat for the author. That this looks to be the first in a trilogy spanning two millennia is just a bonus. I can’t wait to see what Kingsnorth does next.

The Lie – Helen Dunmore (Windmill)
Lie, The
In a Cornish cottage, a dying old woman is  watched over by a soldier recently returned from war. It’s 1920, and when Mary Pascoe dies, Daniel respects her wishes, buries her on her land – and doesn’t tell anyone what’s happened. Haunted by the death of his closest friend in the Trenches, Daniel has come home to try and make amends, and to rebegin his life – but Frederick’s ghost still appears to him every night. This is the first Helen Dunmore I’ve ever read, and it’s impressive, pairing the bucolic atmosphere of J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country with a searing recreation of First World War horror. She’s particularly good on the smell of war: ‘that smell […] that you never know before the first time you go up the line. Raw mud, old gas, cordite, shit, rotting flesh’ (p.154); ‘Chloride of lime, cordite, raw mud, latrines, petrol-tainted water, rotting flesh.’ (p.244.) As Daniel seems to be healing, the lie that gives the book its title is almost forgotten about; it’s only three quarters of the way through that you start to glimpse the danger that he is in. I found the ending, in which his deception catches up with him, a little neat – its inevitability seems more pat than doomladen – but the sensitive depiction of the relationship between Daniel and Frederick, and then between Daniel and Frederick’s widowed sister Felicia, is this book’s triumph: war makes strange companions of them all, breaks them apart, reforges them out of shape, clinging together in the wake of such horror.

In the Light of What We Know – Zia Haider Rahman (Picador)
In the Light of What...
I read Zia Haider Rahman’s debut novel several thousand feet over the Atlantic, which seemed appropriate for a novel which travels between London and New York, spans at least two decades, and which seeks, as from a position of great height over the world, to encompass everything in it. The narrator’s long-lost friend Zafar – mischievous, opaque, charismatic – turns up one morning at his house, with a story to tell. But first, he needs to tell the narrator an awful lot of stuff. While the novel starts promisingly, with a great scene where Zafar outwits some skinheads, then gives the narrator pause to wonder if the whole thing has been a careful setup, it soon becomes a lengthy and often tedious didactic tract. In the middle stretch, before a plot finally starts to grind into gear  two-thirds in, it seems as if the novel’s title could have been compacted to just its final three words, as the conversations that fill it seem to run to the formula ‘Do you know/have you read/heard of X?’ — ‘No.’ — ‘[Lengthy explanation of X]’, over and over. Pub bores would think twice about such constant showboating of arcane knowledge. The pedagogic tone becomes most irksome when the reader has heard of X, or read a book about X, and doesn’t necessarily want to read a short discursive essay barely dressed up as dialogue (no-one, not even charismatic raconteurs like Zafar, speaks in paragraphs like these) regarding X. It seems that even Rahman realises this could be problematic, though, intriguingly, not necessarily consciously:

Do you know what an axolotl is? Zafar asked.
At this point, I’m certain I merely rolled my eyes.

Me too. When exchanges of this sort occur — the narrator accuses Zafar of condescension, Zafar criticises the narrator for his didacticism — you sense Rahman in the background, flailing in the bloat. Earnestness goes some way, but a novel needs a bit more than earnest men telling one another stories about life, even when those stories are about war politics in post-invasion Afghanistan, or the financial crash of 2008, vast events in our lives that need talked about — just not necessarily by these two boffins (they’re not good on jokes, either, which would do a lot to leaven a heavygoing book: when a joke tentatively pokes its nose out, on p.497–8, it’s quickly battered into submission: “But what if she’d had cold feet? Or would have cold feet in the next few hours? Were there not signs that her feet were cooling? — if I may take the feet image a step further.” Yes. We get it. In addition, Rahman’s decision to swell an already long book by opening each chapter with lengthy epigrams from, mostly, giants of canonical literature (Eliot, Shakespeare, Roth, Greene, Mann, Tolstoy, Tagore…) bespeaks a vast failing of confidence more than anything, as if he feels that, as a debut novelist coming late to the game, he needs to surround himself with quotes that show he knows the territory. The text gives itself a get-out by suggesting these are all quotes from Zafar’s own notebook, making him the one lacking confidence, but that doesn’t help the reader much. Likewise the footnotes, purportedly the narrator’s gloss on certain elements of Zafar’s discourse, are distracting and pointless; invoking David Foster Wallace in one such seems particularly on-the-nose. This is largely a novel about education: the narrator, who works in finance, makes the point that the public doesn’t understand the first thing about the circumstances of the 2008 financial crash, nor, assuming it receives its pay packet and can afford its rent, does it much care; the light this book wants to shed is on that murkiness, and on the plots and counterplots of the American campaign in Afghanistan. Yet what In the Light of What We Know reminds us mostly is that, in defiance of the mathematical certainties that the narrator trusts in, less, sometimes, is more.

In brief: The last batch of books I’d read before the announcement of the 80 nominated titles. Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant (Virago) just about redeems itself by the end, as its chronicling of the fates of a bunch of girls who met at college in the 1960s approaches the present day; the 60s sections – pretty much the first half of the book – recall a jolly-hockey-sticks tale of life in boarding school; the problem with devising deliberately naïve characters is that the reader may, as I did, swiftly tire of trite dialogue of the ‘Gosh, isn’t Communism jolly exciting!’ variety (‘Turn on the TV, there’s a crisis in the Suez Canal that’s sure to prove historically significant’) and sketchy characterisation. In Eyrie (Picador), Tim Winton trades the vast landscapes of interior Australia for the high-rise suburb of Fremantle, outside Perth, and finds as much majesty and misery there as in the desert. Once the somewhat offputting staccato style has relaxed a bit – it takes a while; this is a long novel which seems oddly lacking in confidence at the outset – this becomes a gripping psychological drama, a vehicle careering out of control, populated with damaged people who’ve seemingly decided that if they’re going to fall apart, they’re taking down everything around them too. Tragedy has already struck by the time Ali Smith’s How to be both (Hamish Hamilton) opens – or at least, it has in my copy; because here, Smith, who matches peerless psychological insight with a never-cloying whimsical streak and formal playfulness that’s never out of service to the narrative, has hit upon a playful formatting trick so simple it’s taken a genius like her to think of it: How to be both contains two stories, one a contemporary piece and the other set in the fifteenth century. In half the print run, the historical story appears first; in the other, the 21st-century story (both are called ‘Part One’). It bears some resemblance to the formal innovation of BS Johnson or Julio Cortazar and their strategies for imposing randomness on the text, but acknowledges the limitations that a hardback book (as opposed to an electronic text, say) faces. There’s clever intertwining of Smith’s themes in these two halves; I preferred the contemporary story, in which a teenager is mourning her mother’s death, to the story of the fifteenth-century artwork and its makers, but the great joy of this book is that, on reaching the end, you want to start again and see how the second story influences the first. A brilliant, brilliant book. And Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (Penguin) is a story of identity theft, the gulf between the personal and the public, and self-doubt, in which dentist Paul O’Rourke finds that someone has been posting religious polemics about a long-forgotten religious sect, the Ulms, giving his name as the author. Paul – fussy, bad with relationships, mildly obsessional, and a devout atheist – is perturbed, then infuriated, as his name appears in more and more websites, bringing the Ulms’ tragic story to ever-wider audiences. Some of the material about the origin and fate of the Ulms tested my patience – the problem with drawing inspiration from the more tedious of religious tracts is that the tedium comes along too – but this is a clever novel, not laugh-out-loud funny, but amusing at first and increasingly serious as the rather forced setup (he’s a dentist who wishes everyone would floss more!) gives way to Ferris’s actual concerns. The obvious – if unfair – comparison is to Philip Roth’s novel of Jewishness and identity theft, Operation Shylock, but this is a novel with a very different tone and spark.


Running total at 16th January: 27 read, 53 to read, 66 days to go… I’ll have to get a move on.

The eighty nominated titles — with the ones I’ve read struck through (and links to reviews, where applicable) — are:


10:04 – Ben Lerner
A God in Every Stone – Kamila Shamsie
Academy Street – Mary Costello
After Me Comes The Flood – Sarah Perry
All My Puny Sorrows – Miriam Toews
All Our Names – Dinaw Mengitsu
All The Days And Nights – Niven Goviden
All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr
All The Rage – A.L. Kennedy
Amnesia – Peter Carey
Annihilation – Jeff Vandermeer
Arctic Summer – Damon Galgut
Bald New World – Peter Tieryas Liu
Bark – Lorrie Moore
Be Safe I Love You – Cara Hoffman
Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi
Can’t & Won’t – Lydia Davis
Dear Thief – Samantha Harvey
Dept. of Speculation – Jenny Offill
Dissident Gardens – Jonathan Lethem
Dust – Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
Em and the Big Hoom – Jerry Pinto
England and Other Stories – Graham Swift
Euphoria – Lily King
Everland – Rebecca Hunt
Eyrie – Tim Winton
Family Life – Akhil Sharma
Fourth of July Creek – Smith Henderson
How to be both – Ali Smith
In Search of Silence – Emily Mackie
In the Approaches – Nicola Barker
In the Light of What We Know – Zia Haider Rahman
J – Howard Jacobson
Kinder Than Solitude – Yiyun Li
Lila – Marilynne Robinson
Life Drawing – Robin Black
Lost For Words – Edward St Aubyn
Love and Treasure – Ayelet Waldman
Nora Webster – Colm Tóibín
On Such a Full Sea – Chang-Rae Lee
Orfeo – Richard Powers
Outline – Rachel Cusk
Perfidia – James Ellroy
Road Ends, Mary Lawson
Shark – Will Self
Some Luck – Jane Smiley
Stay Up With Me – Tom Barbash
Stone Mattress – Margaret Atwood
The Ballad of a Small Player – Lawrence Osborne
The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell
The Book Of Gold Leaves – Mirza Waheed
The Book Of Strange New Things – Michel Faber
The Country Of Icecream Star – Sandra Newman
The Dog – Joseph O’Neill
The Emerald Light in the Air – Donald Antrim
The Emperor Waltz – Philip Hensher
The Fever – Megan Abbott
The Heroes’ Welcome – Louisa Young
The Incarnations – Susan Barker
The Lie – Helen Dunmore
The Lives Of Others – Neel Mukherjee
The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan
The Night Guest – Fiona McFarlane
The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters
The Tell-Tale Heart – Jill Dawson
The Temporary Gentleman – Sebastian Barry
The Wake – Paul Kingsnorth
The Zone Of Interest – Martin Amis
Their Lips Talk of Mischief – Alan Warner
Thunderstruck – Elizabeth McCracken
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour – Joshua Ferris
Travelling Sprinkler – Nicholson Baker
Upstairs at the Party – Linda Grant
Viper Wine – Hermione Eyre
Virginia Woolf in Manhattan – Maggie Gee
We Are Not Ourselves – Thomas Matthew
What You Want – Constantine Phipps
Wittgenstein Jr – Lars Iyer
Young Skins – Colin Barrett
Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? – Dave Eggers