Tag Archives: review

Milkman / Cré na Cille (The Dirty Dust)

Anna Burns / Mairtín Ó Cadhain

One of the traps I fell into through becoming a Joyce fan at a young age was to not read any Irish writers other than Joyce, or Joyce and Beckett, or Joyce and Beckett and Flann O’Brien, a state I persisted in for far too long. This year C and I bought copies of Anna Burns’ Milkman for one another for Christmas and when I came to read it a couple of weeks ago I loved it. It’s an almost unbearably tense novel whose narrator is a young girl in Northern Ireland during the Troubles: it’s moving and frightening and hilarious and the last few pages had me getting up out of my chair in the kitchen without realising it.

After that I decided to tackle The Dirty Dust, which has been on my to-read list since I first heard that it was out in an English translation in 2015. It’s got a formidable reputation as the greatest work of modern literature in the Irish language—a reputation of which I was wholly ignorant until I heard that it was being translated, for which reasons see the Joyce/Beckett/O’Brien trap described above. Cré na Cille was published in Irish in 1949 and became a critical and popular success in the Gaeltacht, where it was serialised in Irish-language newspapers. The more than fifty-year delay in getting it translated into English seems to have resulted from a combination of copyright problems, the general prickliness of the language question in Ireland and reluctance on the part of those segments of the Irish literary community to bollix up the job, which is understandable, because it’s very, very good. The entire novel is spoken by the dead in the graveyard of a village in Connemara, who carry on the gossip, backbiting and feuds they had above ground. A few reviews of it have described it as being in “dialogue” but that doesn’t quite capture the polyphonic qualities of the speech, which is sometimes conversation — new arrivals are keenly interrogated by the central character, Caitriona Paudeen, for news — but as often as not monologue or chorus. The dead are identified by their verbal mannerisms, in a way which is reminiscent of Joyce but more so of Stein: even more than in life, people are like stuck records. It’s demanding but very funny and savage, and Caitriona is a somewhat awe-inspiring figure, an over-the-top but believable monster of spite and snobbishness. I’m looking forward to reading it again, once I have a bit of a break.

The obvious points of comparison to the three-Irish-authors trap are Beckett — especially Play, with its after-life love-triangle — and Flann O’Brien’s satire of Gaeltacht autobiography, An Béal Bocht, but Ó Cadhain’s work is more generous than either, though just as unsentimental.

Alan Titley’s translation is pacy and accessible, with plenty of anachronistic slang and a deliberate avoidance of Syngean Hiberno-English. The same publishing house bought out a second, alternative translation in 2016, Graveyard Clay, by Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson, in counterpoint to Titley’s, sticking more closely to the letter of the original. I’m looking forward to revisiting it in a different register.

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Cracked – Why Psychiatry is Doing More Harm Than Good

James Davies

One of the false starts I made towards the previous post was a review of this book, which I abandoned because it was making me too angry. I’m home sick today and feeling spiteful, so here it is.

I picked the book up one day when I was feeling sullen and grumpy with my side-effects: I’m glad that I bought it in a remainder store, I don’t want its author to earn any money from it, because it’s awful. I wouldn’t call myself an outright antipsychiatrist, but on top of my personal dissatisfaction with my meds, I feel like the profession and the pharmacological industry have serious problems and need some sort of reform, and I’m also fascinated by the history of the discipline. Despite this, I can’t remember the last time I read a book written from a position to which I thought I would be basically sympathetic which left me feeling that its author was not only a bad writer, but a bad person.

From the start, the book’s style, at once matey and hectoring, made me think of the last five years of British political debate, and I thought, facetiously, that people like Davis are why Brexit is happening. I persisted with it only because of a growing horror and fascination with the author’s sins, his smug contempt for patients disguised as concern, his apparent ignorance of how much of psychopharmacology’s flaws are those of the drug and medical industry as a whole, his sentimental and captious argument that what people need instead of medication is “traditional values” without ever having to spell out how exactly these should be delivered. By the time I reached the end, this didn’t feel like a cheap shot. People like Davies, and an intellectual and publishing culture which supports them, are exactly why Brexit is happening.

The single biggest problem I have with the book is its childish binary logic. It is assumed that we as a society or as individuals are faced with a neat choice: either submit to the corrupt technocracy of big pharma and keep swallowing ‘happy pills’, or shape up, go to humanistic psychotherapists like himself, and, one supposes, church. (Putting the phrase ‘happy pills’ in scare quotes is a perfect illustration of the book’s stylistic dishonesty: this is a phrase which is only used by his side in the debate, so they own it, and holding it at arms’ length is cheating.)

Davies never makes plain what he means by traditional values, so the reader is free to imagine his alternative to the status quo as some sort of pre-industrial idyll, at least if they’ve never cracked open a history book. There’s no connection in Davies’ thought with the anti-psychiatric tradition which sees modern society as regimenting and controlling alternate and viable ways of being; there’s no evidence that he’s read or even heard of Laing, much less Foucault. Nor is there any sign that he’s aware of the callous and violent ways in which traditional societies dealt with the mental illness before modern psychiatry, or the desperation and misery which has characterised the lives of the mentally ill for most of human history.

Outside the journalistic games of good guys and bad guys which books like these are playing, people with mental illness don’t just visit their GP, take the pills and hope for the best. They got to twelve-step and other self-help groups: they go to therapists and counsellors and family members and, yes, church. Davies is an anthropologist and psychotherapist, which makes his caricature of the actual experience of mental illness all the more frustrating. I found myself reminded of the rationalist blogger Scott Alexander and Jordan Peterson, both of whom are also clinical psychologists but who seem to have strange or deficient ways of understanding how actual human beings behave. All three seem very far removed, in terms of temperament, from the qualities I would look for in a good therapist or psychiatrist, or a priest or rabbi, for that matter.

If you want to read a good book on the divide between traditional psychoanalytical practice and psychopharmacology, written by an anthropologist who seems to be able to observe and interpret clinical behaviour, rather than just try to score rhetorical points off it, I can recommend T M Luhrmann’s Of Two Minds as a much better alternative.

Having just added the title to this post, I don’t know what I was expecting from a book about mental illness whose title is a clumsy play on a slur against mentally ill people. This might seem like a PC quibble, but it’s actually a distillation of the book’s awfulness. It’s like someone making dad jokes about matters of life or death and then expecting you to thank them for their intellectual bravery. Everyone involved in it can get fucked.

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

A man in our town is so fond of the short stories of Lydia Davis that he never wants to see a photograph of her. He explains that for him, she is a texture of words, and if asked to elaborate will explain that the composite portrait offered by her overlapping and exactly-sketched characters, which are almost certainly no more or less autobiographical than those of other writers but which somehow, due to the concision and clarity of her style, seem to embody a consistent presence, is more satisfying than any mere mechanical reproduction of her physical appearance could be expected to be.

Too Like The Lightning

Ada Palmer, 2016, Tor

I have been looking forward to this ever since I heard that it was a medium-future science fiction novel written in the style of an eighteenth century conte philosophique, two of my favourite literary forms. (Medium-future as in a couple of centuries from now, between near-future, which is decades away, and far-future, which is your Olaf Stapledon or Stephan Baxter stuff when humans have evolved into moonbats or the universe is running down and the sun’s turned into a cannonball.) It’s such an ambitious book — the narrator is describing a twenty-sixth century world which is several technological marvels and a world political revolution distant from our own, but is doing so from another imagined future perspective, after it’s all changed again. This doesn’t quite work as well as I’d like it to, particularly in the book’s treatment of gender: I felt like Terra Ignota’s conventions were not well-established enough before the narrator starts poking holes in them. But I forgave this for the fact that it’s a future history which is about radical social change. (Altered Carbon, which I was looking forward to after seeing people rave about it on Twitter, is a depressing example of how lame most sf is: the hero wakes up after 250 years and nothing seems to have changed except that the rich are meaner. Everything’s still a shopworn cyberpunk dystopia which, let’s be completely honest, was always just Chinatown as seen by a scared white kid.)

The other thing to point out is that the book comes with an in-universe title page, rather lovingly done in imitation of the sorts of eighteenth century books it’s emulating, complete with content warnings from the relevant organisations. Most of the text on this page is incomprehensible unless you’ve read the book and got your head around the very different political structure of its future world, but the content warnings themselves are straightforward, accurate, and should be taken very seriously. It’s an easy book to spoil, and I don’t want to do that, except to warn you that there aren’t many novels where I’ve read certain pages and then had to make a conscious decision whether I wanted to keep reading it in the morning.

I’m glad that I did. Palmer has created something quite unique and exciting, which reminds me of a bunch of authors I never thought to see yoked together. She acknowledges her debts to Asimov and Bester with a couple of sly references, and the portrayal of an utopian society about to unearth social forms which it has buried or obscured reminded me of Cordwainer Smith’s Rediscovery of Man stories, in content if not in style. And, most unexpectedly, the baroque characterisation made me think of R A Lafferty, who is not an author I ever expected to compare to anyone.

You Should Come With Me Now

M John Harrison, 2017, Comma Press

The first collection of Harrison’s short fiction since Things That Never Happen in the early noughties. I think it would make a very good introduction if you haven’t read him.

One way of looking at fantasy and sf is that they are about incursion. Something new, wonderful and frightening, enters the character’s world. Often it’s an obvious metaphor, especially in popular forms, for sex or the racial other, bureaucracies both private and public, but leave that aside for a moment and think about the seam between the fantastic and the real. Although even “seam” is too literal. I was fascinated, as a child, by the way in which you could distinguish the background painting from the animated figures in a cartoon, not just because the latter were moving, but because of their texture or grain. In the literature of the English-speaking world, we have strict border patrols between genres which do this and those which don’t, and even in those forms when the fantastic is permitted, there are a lot of conventions about how and in what way it manifests itself, about how the imaginary or the impossible is allowed to be imagined or narrated. It’s these, as much as the repetition of props and tropes, which can make genre fiction so dull even if you aren’t prejudiced against it.

One of the things I admire about Harrison is how he handles this disjunction, always with originality, with a kind of offhand deliberation that evades the usual rituals. Sometimes by making a liminal zone apparently explicit, like the first journey to the land of Autotelia, the focus of some of the longer stories in this collection: it’s literally referred to as “transition” by a guard announcing it on the train journey, but the standard lecture from either narrator or character, guided tours on the reader’s journey into strangeness, is absent. The verisimilitude of piled-up facts, internally consistent details and clever extrapolations is abandoned — it’s good to see that Harrison’s anger at worldbuilding is still burning bright, in the vignettes about the sordid and comical lives of the royal family of Elfland — what we get in exchange is something more valuable, in which the journey to an imaginary land takes on the unspoken and strange qualities of the boundaries (of work, home, between social roles) which we cross countless times every day.

Autotelia, like the city of Viriconium from earlier in Harrison’s career, is more convincing for being unexplained and multivalued. To me it echoes something of the relationship between England and continental Europe and between the developed world and its former colonies, while not being a literal metaphor for either of these. (For the fans: yes, there is a Viriconium story in the collection, and it’s a good one.)

There are a few novellas, many short stories and a number of even shorter pieces of fiction, which made their first appearances on Harrison’s blog. A bunch of terms occurred to me for these, the chummy old sf label “short-short”, “parable” or “epigram” or “microfiction”, but none of these seem suitable. Even the ones which at first glance are parodies of sf/f clichés, like the Elfland stories or “Earth Advengers”, have got something more disquieting and interesting happening if you pay attention.

The collection’s title is apt: not so much an invitation as a warning, with the implication that there’s no time to waste, and no promise of comfort. For a sample, here’s one of the stories in full: “The Crisis”

The Forever War

Joe Haldeman

I’ve read and enjoyed lots of Haldeman’s short fiction, but when I came
across this recent interview it reminded me that I hadn’t read The Forever War, although I had a kind of ghostly memory of it which might have been the result of reading it at an age when I was too young to really get it, or of having read an excerpt or a review long ago. So I downloaded the e-book, which is available from SF Gateway – if you’re my age and an sf nerd, you’ll have a Pavlovian response to the Gollancz-yellow typographic covers.

The novel more than lives up to its reputation as cracking military sf, although that’s not a genre I’ve really read much of – the descriptions of combat could have been written yesterday, although if they were there would probably be much more stuff about computer viruses and all-purpose nanotechnology, which is all to The Forever War’s advantage as I’m bored with the “computational turn” of sf. This is a seventies novel, so it uses the genre toolkit of its time, that peculiar bow-shock of plausible tech and recent astrophysics which actual science and technology pushes before it into its fictional amanuenses: low-temperature physics, “collapsars” (stellar-mass black holes), stasis fields and relativity played with the net up. The combat and training are as numbing an alternation of boredom with haphazard brutality as any actual modern battle, and the succession of alien worlds on which war with the Taurans plays out are free from the contrivances and cliches of planetary romance. (They also include two of my favourite astrophysical objects, Epsilon Aurigae and the giant star S Doradus.)

The most famous feature of the novel is the dislocation caused by time dilation, which stretches the main characters’ subjective timelines out over what become centuries back on Earth. Haldeman was in Vietnam, but the disjunction between the main character and his home planet isn’t played out in the political clichés of home-front contempt which have come to dominate how we think about that war: they feel like they would be applicable to any combat veteran. The most dated aspect of the novel is its treatment of homosexuality, which is promoted by the world government as a remedy for overpopulation. It’s not that it’s homophobic, Haldeman giving the impression of a decent open-minded straight dude doing his best, but its assumption that orientation is completely malleable, or that a majority-gay society would mirror our society’s homophobia, aren’t credible.

Another aspect of the novel’s treatment of sexuality which I disliked is the baseline 1990s military culture at the start: mixed-gender troops with mandatory partner-swapping which amounts to a form of enforced prostitution. This is the occasion of some fairly unpleasant humour and is on the whole no more convincing than the broader social changes later in the novel. (I ended up wishing that all the sex stuff had been written by another writer, Samuel Delany, for instance.)

It’s still a great book – one of the best of that subgenre of sf which uses relativistic time-dilation as a powerful metaphor for the friction between time as lived experience and time as history, something which gets to us all these days, soldiers and civilians alike – and deserves its reputation.

Ancient images

On Photography, Susan Sontag
Mr Turner, Mike Leigh
Ancient Laughter: On Joking, Tickling and Cracking Up, Mary Beard

I’m a latecomer to Susan Sontag – I think On Photography is the first book of hers I’ve ever read. It’s really good, in spite of a very late 70s-early 80s tendency to swoon about like the End of Days is At Hand, and made me wish she were still around to write about the people who get freaked out by selfie-sticks. The racist trope of the native fearing the camera’s soul-stealing powers is pretty old-fashioned, but photography is still enough of a novelty that its new manifestations – which are really just an acceleration of the trend to cheapness, portability and popularisation which Sontag records – arouse responses which it doesn’t seem unfair to call superstitious.

I’ve not been much of a Mike Leigh fan – Naked is one of the very few films that I wish I’d walked out of – but I really enjoyed Mr Turner, which contains a nice set-piece at the very start of photography’s history. I’m not much of an artist-biopic fan, either, but Leigh mostly avoids the genre’s cliches, his 19th century has a very convincing, lived-in feel, and Timothy Spall’s performance is admirable. It’s worth seeing on the big screen, as the cinematography is excellent. The audience I saw it with tittered in embarrassment at some of the parts which I found most touching and convincing – Turner singing out of tune to an out of tune pianoforte at a patron’s country house, for example. By our standards, there would have been so much slightly-off music in the days before recordings – George Bernard Shaw’s early work as a music critic is very instructive.

I’d been looking forward to Mary Beard’s Laughter in Ancient Rome ever since I saw a copy in Melbourne last year, and it didn’t disappoint. It’s a dried and more scholarly work than her Pompeii – Life and Death in a Roman Town, but that added to the austere pleasure of a text which not only describes the most ineffable of emotional responses – the history of theories of laughter is something like a narrative of repeated attempts to catch smoke – but also attempts to register that response’s echoes across the gulf between ourselves and the ancient world.