Category Archives: Writers

Book review: ‘Infinite Ground’, by Martin MacInnes

Full disclosure – I’ve known Martin for years (it would be too strange to refer to him as ‘MacInnes’ throughout this). He’s my closest friend, so any pretense of objectivity will have be abandoned at the entrance to this review; which isn’t to say that I’ll approach it in the spirit of back-scratching favouritism either. In many ways, having watched Martin’s thinking evolve over the years, I feel like this book’s ideal reader, and I would feel positively towards it regardless of whether I knew him or not because it does exactly what most excites me in contemporary fiction. It presents a sequence of extraordinary ideas and startling imagery in a prose style that is both precise and hauntingly elusive, and it maintains a tone of bewildering strangeness and threat that manages to make reality seem more interesting than it did before you picked up the book. It encodes its central theme in its form, and manages to radically destabilise the concept of narrative coherence while masking this destabilisation behind an ostensibly straightforward noir plot – one that rapidly and thrillingly spirals out of control into something far, far more disturbing.

At the beginning of the book, Carlos, a 29 year-old office worker, has gone missing during a family meal at a local restaurant, in an unspecified South American country. A semi-retired inspector is called in to solve the case, and he begins by piecing together an idea of the missing man through interviews with his co-workers and by examining his working space at the temporarily unnamed corporation where he was employed. Uncovering dark hints of corporate malfeasance in the country’s rainforested interior, the inspector soon finds his investigation focusing on the physical, forensic traces that Carlos had left behind in his office; a bio-trail of microbial disorder that initially points to a psychological or possibly biological breakdown on Carlos’s part. As the inspector begins to feel similarly disordered, the city around him, suffering under a punishing heatwave, begins to feel threatening and unnavigable; a maze that throws surreal events into his path, and that seems to generate shattering trains of thought in his increasingly fevered mind. Finally, convinced that Carlos had felt compelled to track his way into the distant rainforest, the inspector traces his imagined journey into the interior; a destination that will generate in him a radical unmaking.

Martin told me that he had always tried to find a virtue in his limitations, and that being uninterested in verisimilitude or feeling himself incapable of writing psychologically rounded characters meant that he had to find his own techniques to convey the ideas he was interested in. In Infinite Ground he uses the rough scaffolding of the narrative to turn his gaze deeply inwards, to ignore the psychological development of character that the 19th century realist novel has trained us to believe is the pinnacle of literary art and to focus on the material development of character instead. This biological imperative takes us into a narrative world where the broiling system of the human body is an environment in itself, where the inspector’s investigations are as much into the ‘edge-life’ of the microbes on Carlos’s skin, shedded and left behind on the keyboard of his office computer, as they are into his day to day life. The inspector’s obsessive need to reconstruct, to create a facsimile version of Carlos’s office in order to recreate the conditions in which Carlos would have experienced his breakdown for example, are revealed as so much shabby artifice, incapable of illuminating the true condition of the missing man. The temptation is always to find a psychological correlative for biological events; ‘It was difficult to think about’ the inspector admits, ‘to consider in any way that wasn’t grossly reductive.’ Instead, he has to find a different mode of approach, ‘thinking via the life of the room.’ Isabella, the forensic specialist who assists him, scorns the idea of a neat division between the self and the environment that forms it, ‘the front-facing third person. A man and a landscape clearly defined.’ ‘There is no clear distinction between him and his room,’ she later says, ‘inside and out.’ Once that perspective has been lost, the book suggests, and as we become crushingly aware of our own fundamental incoherence, we dissipate and are blown away on a fertile wind.

Within the framework of the main narrative are situated two sections of freestanding speculation; one, ‘Flying to the Interior: Case Notes on the Forest’, is an unattributed account of what dark and surreal communities the rainforest might be hiding under its canopy; the other, ‘What Happened to Carlos’, is a sequence of 29 numbered paragraphs (the same age as Carlos when he went missing) hypothesising the possible means by which he disappeared. Both of these sections are some of the most innovative pieces of fiction I’ve ever read, the ‘What Happened to Carlos’ section in particular a fount of disturbing invention, each separate paragraph reading like the summary of the alternative experimental novel Martin could have written in place of the one he actually did. Here we see the theme of biological fecundity given concrete shape, with its suggestion that the novel’s final form is only one possibility among many. It also negates the idea that a mystery could or should have a solution; that a novel should pick up the ball it has set rolling. ‘What Happened to Carlos’ (presented as a statement rather than a question) suggests that there is something metaphysically as well as narratively banal about the need for resolution.

With its Ballardian combination of sparse lyricism and the brute poetry of the medical report or corporate account, Martin’s style is perfectly suited to convey both the inspector’s gradual degeneration and the more abstruse scientific information, without the latter seeming like mere didacticism. Here life can be ‘A temporary euphemism hung upon a large amalgamation of disparate biological material, memory and feeling’, or, at a more human level, he can pick out the office worker’s calves which ‘thrummed a walking impulse that was suppressed by the desk.’

All of this might make the book sound forbiddingly austere, but this is a playful and generous novel that is alive with, and intoxicated by, its own invention. Mad speculation is whipped along to its logical conclusion, and scenes of cinematic clarity are followed by dense considerations of the wilder side of microbiology (which, as the afterword assures the reader, is ‘always speculative, and sometimes wholly invented.’) Perhaps the key achievement in Infinite Ground is that Martin has managed to write a novel which is fundamentally about science without relying on that tired stand-by of the scientist-narrator, the omniscient hero who can explain exactly why the world should be seen as so consistently awe-inspiring. Here, the science is threaded through every sentence of the book, and gives the novel not just its form but its sense of pitiless unsentimentality. It isn’t nihilistic by any stretch of the imagination, but it refuses to fall for the false consolation of transcendence, ‘This idea that life is suddenly magical and incredible’ as Isabella says, ‘because of astronomy, the story of where the matter has travelled.’ The sense that human beings, that life, is ‘just’ matter though is wholeheartedly rejected. ‘Listen, I am not saying we are merely this, in the pejorative sense. I am saying we are exclusively made from this and that there is nothing more extraordinary.’ This is a major work that will surely inspire a generation of young writers, demonstrating to them what is possible when you cleave wholly to your obsessions and refuse to compromise your intent, when you make ideas your master and follow them wherever they may lead.

(Infinite Ground is published by Atlantic Books, £12.99)

‘What’s become of Kennaway’

I recently contributed an essay to the Scottish Review of Books about the semi-neglected Scottish novelist James Kennaway, which is now up on their website. I say only semi-neglected because he seems to be the subject of perennial reappraisals which never quite elevate him to the level in the pantheon that his admirers evidently feel he deserves. He’s an interesting if not fundamentally very significant writer, and I hope I give an even-handed account of his work here.

‘What’s Become of Kennaway?’

The forgotten Kenneth Grahame

It was only after reading ‘The Wind in the Willows’ to my four year-old daughter over Christmas that I realised it isn’t, properly speaking, a children’s book at all. I’ve loved the story, its picture of comfortable domesticity and wild adventure, since I was a child myself, but there’s enough in the book at a formal and stylistic level to hint to the interested adult reader that there’s more going on than meets the eye. The two chapters commonly excised from abridged versions, ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’ and ‘Wayfarers All’, are the most obvious signposts to more enduring concerns than the everyday trials of small, anthropomorphic woodland creatures. The former sees Mole and the Water Rat drawn into a hallucinatory encounter with the god Pan, while the latter recounts the Water Rat’s meeting with a Sea Rat, who intrigues him with tales of the high seas and distant, dusty Mediterranean ports, to the point where Ratty is about to give up the river bank for good.

But enough has been written about ‘The Wind in the Willows’ in the century since its publication, and I doubt I could contribute much else of interest. It’s an enduring classic of children’s literature that repays adult discovery, and if anyone reading this hasn’t glanced at it since they were small, then scare up a copy of the Oxford Classics edition, which has an excellent introduction and notes. What I’m really interested in now is the ‘forgotten’ Kenneth Grahame, the deeply reserved and eccentric bohemian who spent his career in the Bank of England; the children’s writer whose son savagely killed himself, and who preceded his best known book with a curious, whimsical collection of essays and two arch, superbly ironic books about (not for) young children. The cosy Edwardian had in fact been a late Victorian aesthete in many ways, publishing articles and stories in the notorious ‘Yellow Book’ and forging a style of paradoxical exuberance and precision that would go on to influence Kipling, PG Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh and (I would argue) Vladimir Nabokov.

Grahame’s first book, ‘Pagan Papers’, was a compilation of his earlier sketches, essays and articles, a composite portrait of the artist as a young bohemian. Musings on pipe smoking and pints of ale in country pubs share space with more considered reflections on book collecting, marginalia, ‘loafing’, and a wonderfully evocative sketch of ‘The Rural Pan’. It was Grahame’s second book, ‘The Golden Age’ (1895), that was his real breakthrough, a critically and commercially successful collection of stories and reminiscences about childhood that counted amongst its many unlikely fans both Theodore Roosevelt and Algernon Swinburne. In a series of linked stories, the narrator and his siblings play their childish games with deadly seriousness and muse on the mystery of the ‘Olympians’, the adults that provenance has put in charge of them, and whose motives remain utterly inscrutable. Grahame’s stylistic breakthrough here was to narrate the stories from the necessarily limited moral and intellectual perspective of a child, but to give him the language and the sinuous, elevated register of a gifted prose stylist. He uses this high, rhetorical style to present the everyday games and trials of middle-class Victorian children in way that both gives them an ironic distance, and frames them with all the resonance and power that the children in question would have experienced.

These are of course taken out of context, and perhaps don’t illustrate what I mean as forcefully as could the book entire, but here are a couple of examples, picked literally at random from the page. In one scene, sneaking down to the kitchen at night, the eldest child Edward togs himself up as a bold cavalier: “Whatever the audience, Edward, if possible, always dressed for his parts with care and conscientiousness; while Harold and I, true Elizabethans, cared little about the mounting of the piece, so long as the real dramatic heart of it beat sound.” Or, being sworn at by the farmer whose rowing boat they have stolen, the children wonder “where Farmer Larkin, who was bucolically bred and reared, had acquired such range and wealth of vocabulary.”

Sometimes the prose leaps gorgeously into the intimation of higher things; in my favourite chapter ‘The Secret Drawer’, pausing while he investigates an old bureau in a spare room, the narrator looks out of the window: “Westwards the clouds were massing themselves in a low violet bank; below them, to north and south, as far round as eye could reach, a narrow streak of gold ran out and stretched away, straight along the horizon. Somewhere very far off, a horn was blowing, clear and thin; it sounded like the golden streak grown audible, while the gold seemed the visible sound.” It is that far off golden note that rings through all of Grahame’s work, the pagan call of distant adventure, and a long road in the getting of it.

All this seems to raise further questions on the nature of ‘voice’ in narrative fiction. Not to name names, but I have always hated novels where the narrator’s perspective governs the language; in other words, books narrated by children that read as if they were written by children hold no immediate appeal. Rather than the objectively patronising approach of writing with one hand tied behind your back, Grahame’s style seems the most rewarding and the most sincere to me. Nothing other than ultimate meaning is held back from the children in ‘The Golden Age’ (and its sequel, ‘Dream Days’), and they are allowed to express their inner lives with all the vigour of a great talent reaching at full stretch, relishing his command of the language. A direct line can be drawn from this to, for example, Martin Amis’s ‘Money’, where the slobbish, ignorant and inarticulate John Self can narrate his own story with all the acuity of a writer pushing himself to his best achievement.

It’s incredible to think now, but Grahame had tremendous problems getting ‘The Wind in the Willows’ published. After the great success of his earlier books, no one could quite understand this woodland whimsy, and it’s rumoured that an American edition was only secured through the direct intervention of Roosevelt himself, who revered ‘The Golden Age’ and thought its author a genius. The adventures of Mr Toad, Mole, Rat and Badger will remain in print as long as books are read or stories told, but it’s something of a scandal that these three earlier books are currently out of print. Of course, in the infinite bazaar of the internet old copies can be found, but how much more of a tribute to their author would be a decent Oxford or Penguin Classics edition, available in all good bookshops etc, and set to introduce a new generation to one of the most beguiling and near-forgotten talents of the age?

The glove is thrown down; publishers, take up the challenge.

 

Book review – ‘Ian Nairn: Words in Place’ by Gillian Darley and David McKie

I first heard about the architectural critic Ian Nairn when I read an article about him by Jonathan Glancey, three and a half years ago. At the time, my interest in architecture was an offshoot of my interest in Ruskin, but it was Glancey’s portrait of Nairn as a tragic and outspoken figure that first captivated me. Mercurial and melancholic, he eventually diluted his talent with alcohol and died in relative obscurity. In the 1950s and 60s though, Nairn was one of the most savage and beguiling voices in his field, a self-taught outsider who brought an iconoclast’s perspective to the profession, and who was one of the most persuasive critics of planning and redevelopment in post-war Britain. I was eager to read more by him, but his books were all out of print. The library of the university where I worked at the time carried none of them on its shelves, and opportunists online were charging ridiculous sums for volumes like Outrage, Nairn’s London, and his editions of Pevsner’s Buildings of England: ‘Surrey’ and ‘Sussex’. I may have badly wanted to read Britain’s Changing Towns, but not to the extent of paying £1700 for it.

Happily, and probably as a result of Glancey’s article (and the short films which accompanied it), Nairn seems to be undergoing a mild renaissance. Always championed by writers like Jonathan Meades and Owen Hatherley, both of whom contribute short entries to this excellent collection of critical essays about the man, Nairn’s books could hopefully re-enter print. Indeed, Hatherley has just edited a new edition of Britain’s Changing Towns under the title Nairn’s Towns, issued by Notting Hill Editions this month. Even more happily, at the university where I now work I have just managed to secure a copy of Nairn’s London from the library stacks. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Darley and McKie approach Nairn’s career chronologically, which is also to approach it thematically. They take us from the early Outrage period, when he was writing for the Architectural Review, through to his broadcasting career making films for the BBC about British and European towns and buildings, and then on to his sad decline after a successful stint as a Sunday broadsheet features writer. By the 1980s Nairn had descended into alcoholism, and he died an early death, essentially unemployable. Jonathan Meades, who met him not long before he died, recalls that Nairn sank 14 pints over lunch. No one can live like that and not expect the worst.

As a writer and broadcaster Nairn was unafraid to speak his mind, and Darley and McKie perfectly capture his belligerence and critical force. He offered a purely visceral, sensual, subjective opinion of the styles and designs that moved him. Neither a conservative nor an arch-modernist, Nairn responded most to harmony and character, and he never lost sight of a fact that many architects and developers seem to have abandoned some time ago – the built environment should be subordinate to the people and the communities who live in it, not the other way around.

This is not to say that he favoured the bland over the dynamic though. Nairn could go into ecstasies about the best of Le Corbusier, even as he excoriated Corbusier’s more arrogant, self-parodic efforts. Brutalism can be harmonious too, in other words. In a way, his perspective was postmodern. He was drawn to a multiplicity of styles, gauging each only on its value as a lived experience. For Nairn, this meant an experience in context, not in the abstract.

There are a couple of his 1970s programmes on YouTube, and they exemplify both his humanising approach to the built environment and the way he seemed to take bad planning personally. His presenting style is certainly unique; hesitant, diffident, scruffy and conversational (and unscripted), Nairn strolls his way through ‘Across Britain – From Leeds into Scotland’, extemporising on the towns and villages he finds on the route. Carlisle exasperates him for its lack of control and blurred focus; Riccarton depresses him for the waste of its half-mile of platform, disused since the junction was closed down. There’s a wonderful scene at Hawick where, moved by the virtually abandoned storage depot buildings in the town’s grand railway station, he stands on a bridge over the empty line and gasps with disgust at all this useless dereliction. He flinches and looks away from the camera, his voice breaking as if he is going to start crying with rage.

Some would argue that Nairn’s humanising approach is, or would be in any other field, mere anthropocentrism (or even anthropomorphism), and he would probably agree. Buildings and places are not just designs to him, and he often referred contemptuously to ‘paper architects.’ He admires buildings and places for their character, as one would admire a person. Buildings ‘come out fighting’; features ‘leer’ or ‘grimace’, while flat roofs are often ‘inarticulate’ – they have nothing to say.

Although by all accounts devoid of a personal politics, Nairn’s disgust at the unthinking paternalism and elitism of much of the planning process is inherently political. Those who have the most to gain or lose from the quality and utility of the built environment are always those who have the least say in its design and production. No thought is ever given to them. This remains the case today, as the government’s housing policy is essentially a system of bribing the construction industry to build expensive flats for the benefit of buy-to-let landlords, who will rent them out at exorbitant charges to the very rich; or, on the other hand, to bribe potential homeowners with the ‘help to buy’ scheme, which guarantees mortgages irrespective of income, in an uneasy mirroring of the ‘sub-prime mortgage’ fiasco which brought the financial system crashing down in 2008. Architecture, then, remains the only artistic field in which both practise and criticism can have both aesthetic and political/social consequences. As Nairn spent his life arguing, it is too important to be left in too few hands.

Beyond all this, Nairn’s perspective was one of delight and disgust in the unique capacity of architecture to define place. Its marriage of science and art enthralled him, and he wrote and broadcast about it with vigour and passion. This excellent collection of essays is an ideal introduction to a powerful writer and personality who has languished in obscurity for too long. It is time to rediscover Ian Nairn, and through him to rediscover the cities, towns and villages in which we live.

Yet more reading in public

For someone who genuinely dislikes it (or at least dislikes the build-up to it, and who on the whole prefers his days to be free of the sight of dark clouds on the horizon), I seem to be doing more and more readings of my stuff in public. Last month it was Blackwell’s, this month it’s the open-mic night at the Skylark in Portobello, tomorrow evening (Friday 20th September). I don’t know how many people are reading in total, but I shall count myself amongst them. I’ll blog later about how it went.

I was also going to post something here about the latest Man Booker Prize controversy (in the same way Martin Amis suggested American readers might think it’s actually called the ‘Prestigious Booker Prize’, I sometimes think of its official title as the ‘Controversial Booker Prize’ – only it’s not really controversial, and every gesture towards controversy seems utterly contrived), but in the end I find I have nothing in particular to say about it. Perhaps, as the dust clears and the battle lines become more emphatically drawn, I’ll lend my weighty opinion to one side or the other. But the decision seems to have achieved its main aim anyway, which is to generate discussion, which in turn generates free publicity, which in turn generates sales of the shortlisted books, which in turn generates further prestige and controversy for the Controversially Prestigious Man Booker Prize. Job done.

The Next Big Thing Part II: Martin MacInnes

As I mentioned in my last blog post, when I answered these questions, I’m now going to host my friend and colleague Martin MacInnes’ response to the Next Big Thing questionnaire. Martin has had fiction, non-fiction, and a hybrid version of the two, published in The Edinburgh Review and online at the Human Genre Project, and is easily the most talented writer I know. Here are his answers:

What is the title of your latest book?

Ascension Incorporated.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

A line in a psychology report written in the 1970s. The writer was talking about signals of severe mental disturbance, and claimed that certain changes in human brain-state are detectable, via scent, by rats. The particular line was about a desire to escape the body manifesting as a fascination with hands and feet, ‘terminal peninsula of the human body.’

I began writing fictional interviews with colleagues of an anonymous office worker who has vanished/become insane/ascended/committed suicide. These interviews became extremely digressive, and I used the premise – a search for an impossibly missing person – as an excuse to launch stories and experiment with many different kinds of writing, all really about the interesting difficulty of defining life and of documenting a life, ‘capturing’ a person. I wanted to sort of imply that this was an alternative world in which death was impossible – as, in this world, it imaginatively is – hence the ridiculous lengths gone to in the search. I tied the search to stories around the geography and history of a strange island I’d visited in the South Atlantic, ‘Ascension’ – making full use of the not so very discreet allusion in its name.

What genre does your book fall under?

Science-fiction (in both senses), travel writing, autobiography, natural history, even ‘literary fiction’ – in no order of priority.

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie?

The main character would never be seen face-on, so it could be many different people, or no-one. For the characters who make up the stories I would like sets of people who looked similar or even related to each other.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

An extraordinary and inexplicable vanishing leads to a search spanning deserts, seas and the polar south, the deep past and the far future, astronauts and ship-wrecked sailors, as an investigating company attempts to establish what has happened to a man who has gone.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’m trying for an agent and publisher; self-publishing successes seem predominantly thrillers or genre-work. I wouldn’t want to publish a book without the support of an experienced editor, and I also, possibly pathetically, could do with the professional validation.

How long did it take you to write the first draft?

I’ve written the book twice, with two different plots, so about three years, with some parts drafted many times. I scrapped the first half of the original version, and ‘wrote over’ the rest of it with a new plot.

What other books would you compare it to within your genre?

In popular writing, maybe ‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell, ‘The Rings of Saturn’ by W.G. Sebald,, ‘The Songlines’ by Bruce Chatwin and ‘Sightlines’ by Kathleen Jamie. The books that most influenced me when writing it were ‘The Passion According to G.H.’ by Clarice Lispector, ‘Consciousness Explained’ by Daniel Dennett, and most of all J.G. Ballard’s short stories and interviews.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Mainly the feeling that time is always running out, and that the world is stranger and more various than I’ve regularly been able to express. Specifically, I’ve felt it’s important to write about absolutely natural, routine processes – the way the body makes itself, the slow radiation of species, two people sitting in a cafe – in a way that gives them all the imagined wonder of space exploration. I think too much writing – especially ‘literary fiction’ – is limited in its curiosity by being anthropocentric and dualist. The mind can be ‘nothing but’ an organ working, a piece in cooperation with the rest of the body and the organic world, and yet still without significant limitation.

What else about your book might pique a reader’s interest?

Quite a lot of it is ‘true’, in the sense of having happened.

Nobel

The Nobel Prize for Literature is announced later today (Thursday 11th October) – I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that Cormac McCarthy will get it. Or someone I’ve never heard of. For some reason Haruki Murakami has the shortest odds with the bookies, but I can’t see this happening.

Okay, place your bets!

Update: 12.10pm – Mo Yan, of course …