Monday, 21 December 2015

Between Friends

I bought the hardback of Amos Oz's Between Friends (2012) this year from a good bookstore, on sale for $5. I felt a bit sad buying the book at this price, like a man taking pity on a stray dog at the pound of some undoubtedly good pedigree, misplaced. And that feeling of melancholy lasted with me as I read the book, the fourth I have read by the Israeli writer, peacemaker, and intellectual. This is a short book so I will tell a little of my other readings first.

Black Box (1988) is written as a series of letters between divorcees with shared responsibility for their son, Boaz. Just having a character, Alec, as a university professor, travelling between locations as part of the correspondence introduces a political and social complexity. It’s an intellectual book about emotional issues; something that fills me with envy as a writer. In the Land of Oz (1983; 1993) is a memoir of voices of Israel and the West Bank from the 1980s – of both and all sides (if you can see that paradox) in the Arab-Israeli conflict; it’s something like a memoir, a travel story, and war correspondence that resonates with important reflections, like Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. I read Panther in the Basement (1995) as semi-autobiographical, a twelve-year-old living in Jerusalem in 1947, with British soldiers on the streets and trouble at the door.

I understand that Oz is the author of some thirty books, so this is just scratching the surface. I do keep a line from Oz in my office at work, not because I can claim to be confronting anything like the difficulties Oz has thought about and lived through, but because as a teacher, I have opportunities to think about the notion of idealism and compromise in my own, small way. The quotation, from an interview reads as follows:  

The concept of compromise is not particularly in vogue, especially among young idealists. This is because it is perceived as an immoral agreement; as a betrayal of pure and absolute principles. For me, however, compromise is a synonym for life. “Compromise” does not mean to surrender or to turn the other cheek, but to succeed in meeting the other half way. The opposite of compromise is not idealism, but fanaticism, which is equal to death. art-of-compromise-57191

It seems to me, that even if he wasn’t a great writer (and I think he is), Amos Oz would be worth listening to.

Between Friends can be read as either eight short stories, or as chapters in a novel that focuses on different characters or people living in a Kibbutz. The characters are all treated with great tenderness, even though they are clearly flawed people – flawed by idealism, in some cases, which can lead to an inability to compromise and let others grow. Flawed by the failure to live up to the high ethical standards demanded by a community that shares everything, including and especially gossip; flawed by youth and inexperience or age and bitterness. In ‘At Night’, Kibbutz secretary Yoav Carni, the Kibbutz’s ‘first baby’, is now a responsible if not particularly happy man. As he walks on the guard shift at night, he thinks: [he] didn’t believe in God, but in moments of solitude and silence such as this, Yoav felt that someone was waiting for him day and night, waiting silently and patiently, soundlessly and utterly still, and would wait for him always’ (p.116). Then he bumps into Nina, who has left her burly husband in the middle of the night in search of sanctuary – and Yoav is torn by a temptation to respond to signs of affection, while keeping faith with his detachment as a leader, and his own marriage vows. Oz utilises the symbolism of streetlamps to foreshadow the inevitable, when they are spotted talking together and whatever innocence there is in their conversation is bound to be misread. In another story, ‘Deir Ajloun’, a young man Yotam must confront the committee if he wishes to study abroad, something he doesn’t have the will to do – and yet escape he must. These are examples of the simple, human dilemmas which fill the stories, stories not based on immediate danger from the surroundings outside the Kibbutz, but from the sheltered life within.

A funeral ends the collection with the death of a holocaust survivor, an anarchist and a believer in ‘Esperanto’ (the title of the story). His eulogy could almost sound like the sort of tribute paid to Amos Oz: ‘He saw with his own eyes how low human beings could sink, but still came to us imbued with belief in people and in a future burning with the bright flame of justice’ (p.196). That’s not bad for $5, not bad for a short novel or collection of short stories, which allow the reader to listen to the ruminations of characters who think one thing, and often say something else. This is the nature of the simple yet profound resonance of the prose, as honest as any half-hidden, half-true conversations ‘between friends’.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

The Unknown Terrorist,204,203,200_.jpgI am very intrigued by writers who seem to be able to shift gears so dramatically. Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist is like a Stephen King novel, skilfully written as a genre piece, almost with the trace of the author’s style. If you are a fan of Flanagan’s earlier books, particularly Death of a River Guide and Gould’s Book of Fish, then you will scarcely recognise the prose. But form suits the message here. Flanagan is writing for a wider audience, and he wants to give them a very clear message: we construct our own monsters, from our own fears. This is a case of using a popular form of fiction to portray an unpopular idea; the irrational fears that beset us make us vulnerable to manipulation by government agencies bent on power, and media outlets bent on profit.

I wondered whether the title, ‘The Unknown Terrorist’ is something of a play on W. H. Auden’s famous poem, ‘The Unknown Citizen’. Auden writes about a man who has done nothing wrong, and indeed, is a modern saint in terms of his quiet compliance and service. His very blandness does him the credit of being one who causes no fuss; his opinions are predetermined. The poem ends with the sad fact that behind this life, there is little joy: “Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:/Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.”

The unknown citizen in Flanagan’s hands is a poll dancer, who has left her western-suburbs life behind and has attempted to be invisible through a fixation of celebrity fashion and style that has allowed her to remain hidden in plain sight. She earns her money in cash, literally keeping $100 bills in the roof of her apartment, avoiding the tax man and the fixed identity of banks, tax offices and so on. And yet her dreams are those of the everyman – to save enough for a deposit on her own apartment, as the first, slippery step towards a horizon of freedom and happiness. For now, she is content to dance her way forward, being less demeaning in some respects than the nine-to-five grind of low paying she has tried in the past. The Doll’s views of the world are uninformed and prejudiced (“I’m equally racist about everybody,” she would say, “but slimy lebs I really hate” p.11).

Flanagan takes this unformed character and places her, by a whim of fate, in the midst of a terrorist scare. After dancing her shift at The Chairman’s Lounge, she meets Tariq, an exotic stranger with bland-luxurious goods and an equally unknown life in a high-rise with city skyline views. They have a night together, and then the Doll becomes the mysterious figure linked to a terrorist suspect. Whether Tariq is anything more than a mid-level drug or people smuggler is never really made clear, though it seems likely that the terrorist charge is trumped-up. As for the Doll, she becomes a much-hated figure as a desperate media figure, Richard Cody, takes revenge on her rejection of his sexual advance and through the dark arts of reconstruction, turns her into the “unknown terrorist”. Although not Muslim, the narrative runs, the Doll is disaffected and has become the internal enemy that is the next phase of terrorism, as events in Bagdad and Kabul turn slowly, inevitably, towards self-destruction at home.

To say much more about the characters or plot would be to give too much away, for Flanagan uses a simple thriller technique of labelling the sections of the book by days of the week and building the level of tension that literally reaches its crescendo on a hail-stone evening when the heat is finally released in apocalyptic stones falling from the sky on the city of glass. The Unknown Terrorist wears its politics on its sleeve, and could be criticised for its caricature of the media, government agencies and corrupt police (at least in terms of the figures that represent them). On the other hand, it makes a simple point well, and it is an important message for us all to consider. Do we create our terrorists, at least our home-grown ones, through some sort of pathological need to experience fear and terror, or are we at least complicit in their popularisation, if not their fermentation? I’d call this an important book for the here-and-now, rather than a book that will necessarily become part of the works which I think Flanagan will be remembered by in the longer term. And that, it seems to me, is a very good use of popular fiction – to sell books, yes, but to engage in important ideas at a popular level, as good crime and thrillers do.

Saturday, 31 October 2015


Paul Auster is one of my favourite authors, and so even when I don’t think one of his books is as good (read engaging, moving, strange) as another, I find it hard to criticise. That’s okay – I am a reader rather than a professional reviewer, and I can just voice what I understood about the book and hint at some dissatisfaction, with sending the dog to the kennel without supper.

The starting point is that this is a story about a man and a dog. At first, it is more about the man, a dysfunctional Brooklyn poet who has taken a Santa Claus vow to be helpful to others. We wonder - along with our narrator, Mr Bones – whether Willy G Christmas will survive long enough to meet his old teacher and mentor, Bea Swanson, and what it will mean if he does. There is some urgency here, since ‘the smell of death had settled upon Willy G Christmas, and as surely as the sun was a lamp in the clouds that went off and on every day, the end was drawing near’.

I’m not sure about other readers, but I think technically it’s hard to get inside a character in an empathetic sense when you see him indirectly from a dog’s point of view. We do hear Willy’s voice, quite a lot in the early part of the novel, as Mr Bones recalls their conversations. However, the narrative is also mixed in with canine dreams and follows a short-version of the picaresque novel (like Mr Vertigo, following a younger character and an eccentric older man). In this sense, the novel centres on Mr Bones himself, as he contemplates his lonely fate, hunts for food, is temporarily adopted by a Chinese boy, and eventually finds a family to call his own (though there are costs to his masculinity in that operation).

At one point, Willy laments that he hasn’t taught Mr Bones to read and wonders if there would be ‘riots on the streets’ if the blasphemous idea that dogs are as smart as men got out there in the world. Then the police arrive and Mr Bones’ earlier dream about his owner’s demise begins to unfold before his eyes. This is a typical Auster trick, one which walks the line of coincidence and something stranger operating in the universe, a fateful tale which is rich in irony and represents all of our lives, like the half-told tales that they are, perhaps even when grand, 'signifying nothing'.

And as I write this, then, I wonder if I am missing something, if the book is indeed a sort of fable about unrealised human potential, though I am no surer at the end of the book if this was Mr Auster’s intention. To stand back from the story a minute, one can think about an unpublished poet, his illiterate friend, homelessness and immigrants with profound stories of desperate loss and escape – in this case, from the holocaust – and yet death comes and sometimes, suicide. And then I think about all those voices, not the ones of novelists whose words, like Auster’s, echo around the world in fine print, but lost voices with no more lasting impact than a dying dog’s last bark. And I wonder if this may be the sort of metaphoric reading that leaves me with a tinge of sadness, as well as frustration, when the tale wags its last tail, and … all the rest is silence.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Mr Mercedes

Strange to say that this is the first Stephen King book I have read, though I come to the table knowing about his brilliance as a plotter, and his authority as a writer, especially in terms of his open advice to would-be authors. This reputation also makes me nervous to be critical; there does appear to be a different set of rules for King and writers of his ilk. So, this will be a neutral review and confined to some simple observations.

With regards to plot and structure, the novel concerns a mass-murderer/white terrorist; one without religious impulse (unless you count quoting from Nietzsche – when you gaze into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you). On this point, King makes the reader aware of the mass murderer’s reflections on 9/11 on two occasions; the first is the annoyance of someone who is aware of extra security and back-pack checks which restrict his own use of plastic explosives (“they spoiled it for the rest of us” p.252). The second time he ‘muses’ on the terrorists who brought down the World Trade Centre it is to reflect on their religious impulse, and to contrast their hopes of heaven with his own realisation of eternal nothingness: “the truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue” (p.301). So, King gives us a post-9/11 terrorist, not one that we fear, though we should, but a local white boy with delusions of grandeur and a hatred of self and the world. The man is a nihilist of the sort older generations feared (his purposeful lack of belief), armed with the grandstanding that might come after those great symbols of capitalism fell from the sky and left us all in their perpetual dust-clouds for years to come ...

King alternates perspective simply and effectively between this young killer, a certain Brady Hartsfield (and ‘heartless’ is Brady) and a recently retired police detective, Bill Hodges. Hodges has the reader’s sympathy, though his quick affair with a beautiful woman, Janey, twenty years his junior, stretches believability and not only for Bill, but the reader. That’s as close as I am going to get to a critical comment. I will say, however, that in terms of "author's style", I found that the book almost lacked it altogether. This may be King’s thing, but the author appears to be quite absent, in a manner that we do not find in more literary fiction. This book might have the hallmarks of a King novel to those that know his way of writing, but to me it might have been written by a younger writer with good technical skills.
In saying this, I recognise the craft of the writing of a thriller, with actually a good deal of sympathy for not only Bill but the cast of characters that fill the pages. And it’s also true that there is nothing superfluous here (the other side of a book which has eliminated traces of author stylistics). The Guardian review included the quotation ‘I challenge you not to read this book in one breathless sitting’. I must be a slow reader, because it took me a few weeks. But I was engaged and enjoyed the book, a sort of hybrid police-thriller, with a nod to the private-eyes of the past (including the fatal use of a fedora), one-sitting or not. It's clever stuff, because it is intelligent writing without any hint of pretension. And when I close the book, I think: he's still "the King", and "the no.1 bestseller", someone who knows a thing or two about writing, whether I adored the book or not.