Pity the Billionaire, by Thomas Frank

The Great Depression between the wars resulted in a grassroots backlash against capitalism, and moves towards greater state intervention in the economy, but, in the US today, the most significant political movement to have arisen out of the current economic crisis, is one that calls for still less state intervention.  Thomas Frank illustrates the difference between the two eras by contrasting the ways in which the 1773 Boston Tea Party was invoked in each one.  In 1932, a farmer who took illegal direct action to support his demand for government help for poverty-striken farmers, justified his action by saying ‘Seems to me there was a tea-party in Boston that was illegal too.  What about destroying property in Boston harbour when our country was started?’   But ‘what makes the rebel’s blood boil today,’ Frank writes, ‘is not the plight of the debtor but the possibility that such “losers” might escape their predicament – that government might step in and do the things that those Iowa farmers wanted it to do eighty years ago.’  At a Tea Party rally in 2009 one sign read ‘Your mortgage is not my problem.’  (Given the popularity of Christianity on the American Right, I’m intrigued to know how ‘Your mortgage is not my problem’ can be squared with ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ [Matthew 12:31], but let that pass.)

This excellent book, packed with pithy observations, is an exploration of a bizarre phenomenon: a crisis caused by unfettered capitalism, followed by populist demands for yet more unfettered capitalism.  The apparent contradiction is explained in part by the fact that this new political movement doesn’t identify the core problem as the collapse of the capitalist financial institutions, but rather as the government bail-out that followed, not only because it resulted in a debt which the taxpayer has to pay, but because it distorted the workings of the market.  Ironically enough, given their hatred of the term ‘liberal’, this lot are extreme economic liberals.  They view the free unfettered market as being the God-given natural order, and any intervention into it as unnatural, tyrannical and ‘socialist’.  (‘Clear-thinking Americans must begin to view Socialism as a prosecutable crime and recognize those who conspire to advance it as in fact criminals,’ chillingly writes one Tea Party pamphleteer cited by Frank.)

To some degree I agree that markets are ‘natural’, in the sense that I believe that people will, almost inevitably, do deals with one another, and try and get the best return they can for their work.  (It happened even in states such as the Soviet Union which tried to abolish the market.)   But politics are also ‘natural’ in this exact same sense of stuff that is bound to happen, bound to be part of the picture, as is expecting the community as a whole to help out in a crisis, collective action etc etc.   Capitalism, and the notion of the ‘free market’ are, after all, very recent historical developments,  and, as Frank points out, the ‘pure Capitalism’ that these people dream about has never existed, and could never exist.   It is a one-dimensional concept, an essentially Utopian idea which, like all Utopian ideas, only works if you exclude reality from your worldview.

Frank is interesting on the way in which this libertarian right wing mirrors, sometimes quite consciously, the left.   It uses the language of injustice and class war, for instance, to pit ‘ordinary decent Americans’ (including billionaires!) against a ‘liberal’ elite, which it sometimes characterises as fascist or Nazi.  And Frank sees its adherents as blinkered in much the same way as the leftists who visited Stalin’s Soviet Union in the years after the Depression, and managed to avoid noticing famine, terror and gulags, and see instead a socialist Utopia.  What is terrifying in all these cases is the capacity of human beings to persuade themselves that something is its exact opposite.  ‘Freedom is Slavery’, ‘War is Peace’, ‘Poverty is Plenty’, went the slogans in Orwell’s Oceania, and now we have billionaires as victims, liberals as Nazis, and poor people as the cause of the problem.

Of course, as Frank points out, the misty soft-focus dream of an America consisting of decent hard-working business people (regular guys like you and me) competing in the market place, is essentially a facade (rather in the same way, I suppose, that the rhetoric and iconography of socialism was used as a facade for tyranny under Stalin).   The folksy Tea Party rhetoric distances the movement from big business, depicting the latter as monopolistic, in cahoots with the state, on the scrounge for subsidies and lucrative government contracts, but it is nevertheless big business’s purposes that the Tea Party serves.

We have no exact equivalent of the Tea Party in the UK, but there are plenty of people here who have taken the opportunity presented by the crisis in capitalism, to roll back the state still further, and give unfettered capitalism still more freedom to act.   I strongly recommend this book.

Pity the Billionaire on Amazon UK.

 

The City & The City, by China Miéville

I live in Cambridge where, every summer, hundreds of foreign teenagers descend on the city to attend the various language schools.   Often they move around in large crowds, instantly recognisable because of the standard issue language school backpacks and t-shirts.  Often they hire bikes (this city is, after all, the UK capital of bicycles), and can be seen wobbling along in groups, sometimes on the wrong side of the road, or even going round roundabouts the wrong way.

And the thing that strikes me about them is that they are not really here.   Physically they are in Cambridge, but they aren’t really present in it.   We notice their language school livery and their Latin looks and pay no further attention, dismissing them as transients who will soon be gone. They hardly see us at all.  I even tested this once.  A group of Italian boys were walking towards me, filling up the entire width of the pavement.  They needed to make room for me.  The only way I could have got out of their way was to press my back up against a wall.  But I kept walking, and sure enough one of them walked straight into me.  He looked startled, as if surprised to discover that I was actually solid.

You see the same thing with British tourists abroad.  Waiters fetch things for them, but they hardly even make out the waiters’ faces.  Physical location is only one aspect of where we are, and not really, most of the time, the most important one.  We are much more interested in other kinds of nearness.  Look at someone walking down the road, talking to a lover on a mobile phone.

In The City & The City, China Miéville draws attention to these other kinds of nearness and distance, by imagining a place where it is not just normal to ignore and discount much of what is physically present, but actually compulsory.  The two city-states of Beszel and Ul Qoma occupy the same piece of territory, and are so interwoven that, in some places, they share the same streets.   But their citizens learn from an early age to ignore the parallel city alongside their own, seeing only their own buildings, and their own people, and noticing, but then immediately ‘unseeing’, the buildings and people of the other place, whose otherness is signalled to them by small differences that they’ve learnt to instantly recognise (rather in the way that, so I’m told by people who come from there, Northern Irish folk establish almost at once whether someone is a Protestant or a Catholic) .  A person in Beszel, therefore, must not stare at, think about, speak to, or in any way acknowledge a person in Ul Qoma, even if in terms of purely physical space, they live next door to one another.  To violate this principle is to commit ‘breach’, and is a serious crime.

But this is not the same thing as saying that each city must deny the existence of the other, or that Ul Qomans and Besz must never meet.  On the contrary.  It is perfectly possible to travel from Beszel to Ul Qoma, with the necessary visas, by passing through a border post.  Having crossed over, and been issued with a visitor’s badge, a person from one city may return to the same physical spaces he normally inhabits, but as he is now legally ‘in’ the other city, he must now ‘unsee’ his own city, but may look at leisure at the sights that, when ‘back home’, he would have been forbidden to notice.  Miéville has fun with the ramifications of all this: there is even an ‘Ul Qomatown’ within Beszel, which Besz people might at first glance feel obliged to ‘unsee’, since it superficially resembles Ul Qoma.

This is one of those books (like, for instance, Christopher Priest’s Inverted World, which I discussed here previously, and like much of Kafka and Borges), which works by unfolding the implications of a single odd premise, while allowing its metaphorical possibilities, its resonances with the real world we actually inhabit, to gradually take root in our minds.   The story is a police procedural, about a Besz policeman investigating a murder which turns out to have Ul Qoman ramifications, and this provides a device by which we can gradually learn more and more about the relationship between these two states.   As the policeman attempts to solve the murder, the reader (or myself at least), is equally absorbed by the possibility of in some way getting to the bottom of the nature of this cleft city, and of the shadowy institutions, beyond the ordinary police of the two states, that maintain their separate existence, by punishing breach violations that might be as small as looking at a shop window in the ‘other’ city.

It gets a little busy and plot-driven towards the end – when it is being made to deliver the solution to the crime required by the police procedural genre, this strange imagined world does feel a little as if it is being crammed into a space that is just too small for it  –  but this is an original, clever and compelling book.  The single scene which most haunts me, is one in which the detective Borlú, during a working trip to the foreign country of Ul Qoma, walks down the Ul Qoman street that, in terms of physical space, is the street he lives in back in Beszel: he passes, but carefully unsees, his own front door.

The City & The City on Amazon UK.

Postscript

Incidentally (and this is the kind of thing that you learn when you have a Wikipedia dependency as bad as mine), there really does exist a pair of intermingled towns in two different countries.  The Belgian town of Baarle-Hertog consists of more than twenty enclaves in and around the Dutch town of Baarle-Nassau.  There are even Dutch enclaves within the Belgian ones.  See here for more.

Red Plenty by Francis Spufford

Book coverThis is a staggeringly original and intricate piece of work, the best and most ambitious book I’ve read for a very long time.   The author begins by denying that it’s a novel, but it reads like one, has diverse and well-drawn characters and is beautifully written.   It’s just that the characters are not all linked together into a single big story, and the fictional elements (or semi-fictional, blending real historic figures and real events, with made-up characters and events) are interspersed with factual information about the Kruschev era Soviet state, and in particular its centrally planned economy.  By denying it’s a novel, the author gives himself permission to provide this stuff undigested and thereby avoids having to load down his characters with ‘As you know Bob…’ – type dialogue.  (In short: this ‘not-a-novel’ strategy is a way of avoiding – or perhaps legitimising – what SF writers and readers call ‘info-dumps’).

As it happens the info-dumps are just as riveting as the rest of the book, and are incredibly well informed, not only about the Soviet system, but about all kinds of other stuff.   About computers for example.  There is even a virtuoso account of the way that smoking causes cancer inside a cell.

I think it is a novel, though.  The main character in it is the socialist dream, which Spufford convincingly argues survived all through the time of Stalin, right into the Kruschev era and even on to Gorbachev.   These people may have been tyrants, but they genuinely believed in the idea of a socialist economy, directed by reason rather than by blind market forces.    (Why otherwise, he points out, did they not go down the Chinese road and convert the economy to capitalism, while keeping political power in the hands of the Party?)

The book is very vivid on the actual workings of a planned economy: an economy in which, if a machine breaks down in a factory, the company can’t just buy a new one, but must apply for one, and this application must then somehow be accomodated in the entire Plan for the entire country.  It is an economy which only works by finding ways of getting round its own rules.

For a little time there, apparently, in the Kruschev era, clever economists, computer scientists and mathematicians thought they might be able to find ways of making this juggernaut not only work, but actually work better than the capitalist countries with their markets.    Having seen the collapse of the Soviet Union, we, in 2011, know this isn’t going to work out, living as we do in the age of Russian oligarchs, but they didn’t know it then, and thus (as the author observes in an interesting article here)  ‘An immense overhang of obvious consequences teeters above the events of Red Plenty, invisible to characters. And so the book became a kind of comedy, an unwitting comedy whose jokes don’t exist within the world of the story.’

He goes on: ‘I want people to laugh (among other things) as they read it. But I don’t want them to laugh comfortably, from a position of comfortable superiority, snickering at the deluded inhabitants of the past. I want, I hope for, the nervous laughter of fellow-feeling. We should laugh like what we are: people whom the observers of 2060 will be able to see are naively going about our business beneath our own monstrous overhang of consequences. Whatever it is.’

I suppose history is almost entirely made up of people busying away at projects which, in the end, don’t work out.

Incidentally, when I was trying to think of another book which was not-a-novel in anything like this kind of way, a Russian instance came to mind: Tolstoy’s War and Peace,  also claimed by its author not to be a novel.

Red Plenty on Amazon UK.

 

 

 

Philip K. Dick

I came to Philip Dick’s work relatively late, but it has a big influence on me.  I would find it difficult to say  which is my favourite one of his books and stories, though at times I decide The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which many people seem to pick, and which I may write about some other time.  At other times I decide on Flow My Tears the Policeman Said, a wonderful book in which the most complex and sympathetic character is a police chief in a brutal police state, in an incestuous relationship with his twin sister, whose death is a turning point in the story  (one of countless references in Dick to a dead female twin: his own twin sister died in infancy).

I also particularly admire his short story ‘I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon’  (I once wrote a 20,000 word dissertation on this one story, and I may at some point write more about it here.)

Although I started reading science fiction as a teenager in the seventies, I didn’t come upon Dick until some time later, and I found his work a revelation: I could use science fiction not just for sociological and political speculation, not just for ‘sense of wonder’, but to write about everything!

The first Dick book I read was  Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and I was blown away by the reckless, even careless, daring with which Dick flung together ideas, bothering not at all with technological plausibility, and combining  deep darkness with playful absurdity.  Dick can be very funny. The opening pages of Androids are some of the funniest writing I have read anywhere, and  who but Philip Dick would have a character (as in Ubik) engaging in an argument with his own sentient front door (he threatens to kick the door down, at which point the door threatens to sue him.)

Some people say Dick has good ideas but does not write well. I find this hard to understand.  His writing can sometimes be sloppy – many of these books were churned out at great speed – but I envy the precision and clarity of  his best prose, and at times it is really beautiful.  The following is from Androids. Isidore stands in his decaying apartment in a nearly empty building, in a decaying and depopulated world:

Silence.  It flashed from the woodwork and the walls; it smote him with an awful, total power, as if generated by a vast mill.  It rose from the floor, up out of the tattered gray wall-to-wall carpeting.  It unleashed itself from the broken and semi-broken appliances in the kitchen, the dead machines which hadn’t worked in all the time Isidore had lived there.  From the useless pole lamp in the living room it oozed out, meshing with the empty and wordless descent of itself from the fly-specked ceiling.  It managed in fact to emerge from every object within his range of vision, as if it – the silence – meant to supplant all things tangible.  Hence it assailed not only his ears but his eyes; as he stood by the inert TV set he experienced the silence as visible and, in its own way, alive.  Alive!  He had often felt its austere approach before; when it came it burst in without subtlety, evidently unable to wait.  The silence of the world could not rein back its greed.  Not any longer.  Not when it had virtually won.

But above all what stands out about Dick’s work is that, however bizarre and ludicrous the worlds he creates, the characters within them are entirely human.   The author has inhabited them and looked out of their eyes (not always the case in science fiction writing, where characters are often very much seen from the outside, their characteristics added-on, rather than integral to their nature).   Dick’s characters’ dramas are real, however strange (or even silly) the worlds in which they take place, just as the drama in a well-acted play is real, even if the actors’ costumes are absurd and the stage set is only bits of painted plywood.

And of course, famously, the great theme of Philip Dick, is that the so-called real world is like that too: painted plywood concealing something else.  We don’t know where we are, or even who we are, but yet somehow we still really do exist.

Grave of Philip Dick and his sister Jane

 

The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro

Cover imageWhat’s your favourite book?   It’s a meaningless question of course.  If you’ve read a lot of books, you can’t really have one favourite.  But if I’m asked the question I’ve been known to answer The Unconsoled. I first read this some 16 years ago when it first came out, having heard Ishiguro talking about it on the radio.   I have just re-read it to see if I still rated it as highly.  I did.  It’s a long book, but I could hardly bring myself to put it down.

I was drawn to the book in the first place when I heard Ishiguro say that he had decided to write the book using the narrative technique of human dreams.  In a dream, he explained, a person can go through a door in one town and emerge in a different town (saving the many pages of rationalisation and explanation you might need to get a person from one place to another in a realistic novel).   These jumps happen frequently in the novel, as do other dream-like devices, such as one  person doubling up as another, or of a person standing outside a building being able to see what is going on inside, or a person or thing from the past turning up in a completely different context without this causing anyone any surprise.  But the novel isn’t in any way ‘dreamy’.   The dream-technique is used for compression, not for random weirdness, the writing is in Ishiguro’s usual spare exact stiff-upper-lippy prose, the characters are precisely and poignantly drawn, and even though the situations are often bizarre, the human relationships are painfully real.

The story is about an eminent pianist, Ryder, arriving in an unnamed European town (the town is unnamed but the characters have German-sounding names: there is a definite debt to Kafka in this book, and in my opinion, if not a debt then a faint kinship with the work of another of my  favourite writers, Philip Dick).  The town expects great things of Ryder, and he is very taken with the idea of himself as a great and important man, but what unfolds (for I guess some 200,000 words) resembles  one of those anxiety dreams (I have them frequently) in which you are trying to get somewhere, but are constantly thwarted by endless complications and obstacles (for example by a brick wall built for no reason right across a street).  Or the ones in which you are never quite sure what part you are supposed to be playing.

In the course of this, a whole cast of characters appears, mostly rather lonely and tortured souls, many of them so driven by a need to redeem themselves in the eyes of their imagined superiors, or their parents, or their own eyes, that they neglect and forget about those they are supposed to love.  (Themes apparent also in his previous novel The Remains of the Day).   There are many truly heartrending moments, for example when parents simply fail to see how much their children need their approval, but the book is also often funny enough to make you laugh out loud.  The banality of everyday thoughts are wonderfully mocked by having the vain and self-centred Ryder expressing them in the same pompous language that he uses to talk about his big projects, and often the book is simultaneously funny and excruciatingly sad.  Here is Ryder, who has promised to spend an evening playing boardgames with his little boy, but is distracted by… the need to read every word in the local paper:

Returning to my sofa, I saw that, by putting my plate down on a cushion beside me,  I would be able to eat and continue to read my newspaper at the same time.  I had decided earlier to examine the newspaper very carefully, scrutinising even the adverts for local businesses, and I now continued with this project, reaching over occasionally to my plate without taking my eyes off the newsprint.

There’s no way of doing the book justice in a summary, and I’m sure that, even on two readings, I have only understood part of what is actually there, but it certainly remains one of my favourite books, unsurpassed I think by Ishiguro himself, and I’m surprised it isn’t more famous than it is.

I particularly love the idea of using the narrative devices of dreams because my own view is that dreams are the original archetypal stories.   When people say they don’t have the imagination to write stories, I often wonder how it is that people can say that, when every night they weave themselves complicated intricate stories without even trying, rich in layers and layers of meaning, and often full of truths which waking minds just don’t grasp.  Freud saw dreams as the disguised representations of desires, but that’s only a little part of what dreams do.  In my experience dreams tell me who I am, and often direct a sharp light onto my own self-deceptions, my own little acts of cowardice.  And it is exactly that kind of light that The Unconsoled enlists to shine into the lives of its characters.

 

Christopher Priest: Inverted World

Feeling that I would like to steep myself a little more in the history of the genre in which I write,  I’ve been buying books in Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series, and have just finished this one which I had never come across before.   The cover sold it to me, and more than most covers do, sums up what the book is about.

Priest’s own website includes a scathing review of this book by Martin Amis (complete with a spitefully gratuitous spoiler),  pointing out the wild implausibility of the story.   Amis also suggests that a ‘courteous editor’ would have reduced the first 100-odd pages to more like 20.

It’s true that there are a lot of holes in the story.  It isn’t plausible and, even looked at within its own terms, there are obvious questions left unanswered (why, when the inhabitants of the city are constantly interacting with the people around them, has no one in the past 200 years ever thought of asking the locals where they actually are?)

But the central image is incredibly compelling.  A city is perpetually being very slowly hauled along railway tracks that must be laid ahead of it, and then taken up again after it has passed.   It must keep moving forward to escape annihilation which is never far behind it.   Surveyors go out ahead of it (or ‘up future’ as the characters in the story call it, for they conflate distance and time and measure their lives in miles) to try and work out the best route to follow.    Others ride out from the city to recruit locals to labour for them… and to bear them children, for the city does not produce enough girls of its own.

Amis’ comment about the length of the first 100 pages misses the point.   The joy of this book is this central image.  It’s very rich in metaphorical possibilities and we need time and the accumulation of detail to let us savour it,  let it soak in, allow us to inhabit it.    One Amazon reviewer mentions that the book prompted a very vivid dream.   Yes, this city on rails does have a feel that is like the odd places we come back to again and again in our dreams, full of meaning, yet not amenable to simply being decoded into a single, simple message.

The Space Merchants

It can be disappointing rereading a book that impressed you years ago.   When I attempted to reread Kerouac’s On the Road, which at 19 I thought was wonderful, I couldn’t get more than a few pages into it.  It was sentimental, baggy, misogynistic, and I couldn’t get past that to see the energy that had first impressed me.

But, though I must have read The Space Merchants by Pohl & Kornbluth at at even earlier age, I was just as impressed with it on recently rereading it as I was first time round the better part of four decades ago.

Like all SF of its era, it depicts a ‘future’ that falls very wide of the mark technologically (daily passenger shuttles to the moon, but no computers or mobile phones), but considering it was written in 1952, it is impressively relevant.   The global struggle between Capitalism and Communism that was occurring at that the time the book was written, has long since passed.   The adversary of rampant global capitalism is not communism but conservationism.   Consies not commies, are the pariahs.  Advertising agencies, and their huge networks of interlocking sales campaigns, rule.

I’d forgotten (or more likely did not notice aged 16) how funny the book is.  Told from the viewpoint of Mitchell Courtenay who as a star class copysmith with the Fowler Schocken advertising agency (vastly superior in his eyes to the sleazy Taunton agency), is a member of the elite who (for much of the book) accepts the rules of his own society without question, a society in which sales are everything and even to mention a concern about the environment is to mark oneself out as a consie sympathiser.

“She’d been bought up in a deeply moral, sales-fearing home…”

“…the basic drive of the human race is sex.  And what is, essentially, more important in life than to mould and channel the deepest torrential flow of human emotion into its proper directions?   (I am not apologizing for those renegades who talk fancifully about some imagined ‘Death-Wish’ to hook their sales appeals to.  I leave that sort of thing to the Tauntons of our profession: it’s dirty, it’s immoral, I want nothing to do with it.  Besides, it leads to fewer consumers in the long run, if only they’d think the thing through.)”

“The Crunchies kicked off withdrawal symptoms that could be quelled only by another two squirts of Popsie from the fountain.  And Popsie kicked off withdrawal symptoms that could only be quelled by smoking Starr cigarettes, which made you hungry for Crunchies…  ”

You have to read the book and read these things in context to get the full effect.  It’s brilliant satire.  Still sharp after almost half a century.

The True Deceiver, by Tove Jansson

As a child I loved the Moomintroll books by Tove Jansson.  She created (both in words and in pictures) an utterly absorbing and intricate world that was comforting, yet mysterious and not without sadness.  They were like nothing else and I found them completely enchanting.

It’s nice to have one’s childhood judgements confirmed.  I recently read one of her adult novels – published in English as The True Deceiver – and I found it just as absorbing and fascinating as I had found her children’s books, and just as original (I have never read anything like it).

The main protagonist, Katri, is a strange solitary woman with yellow eyes who despises friendliness and the ordinary pleasantries of life as being fake and dishonest.  She doesn’t even give a name to her dog.  The book deals with Katri’s relationship with an elderly and wealthy writer of children’s books who likes to be seen as likeable and nice.   Slowly they change one another.

It is much darker than the children’s books, and yet has a lot in common with them too:  its creation of an absorbing world, evoked in a wonderfully concrete and quite sensual way, its evocation of a Nordic spring, emerging from under ice and snow, its interest in solitude and integrity…  (The Moomin books include many proud and solitary characters too).

Quite brilliant!   The Summer Book is great too.