A long, slow curve, outward to a point

Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson.

This book wasn’t completely perfect.  There were occasional flaws, and thank God for that because a book so beautifully written and so wonderfully well-constructed can be rather discouraging for a writer, particularly when you remember that Housekeeping (published in 2004) was its author’s first novel.

I find it much harder to be drawn into a novel than I used to be, possibly because I see through the artifice more easily than I once did.  I imagine puppeteers must find it harder than other people to suspend their disbelief and see the little wooden figures as real characters.  I find it somewhat easier, I think, to give myself up to slow painterly writing, than to busy stuff with lots of things happening.  In any case, this slow painterly book completely drew me in.

Two sisters grow up in a small  town in Idaho, beside the large lake that claimed the lives of both their grandfather and their mother, and the railway bridge that spans it.  Their grandmother looks after them until she dies too, and then two great-aunts more accustomed to a shabby-genteel life in a hotel room than managing a household with two children, and then finally their odd, solitary, distracted aunt Sylvie, who has lived a transient life, picking work here and there, riding in boxcars, gathering yarns and stories from passing acquaintances.  One of the sisters (Lucille) eventually breaks free of this life, the other (Ruth, who is also the narrator) does not.

One of the main characters in this book is, in a way, the material world -the lake and its shores, the house, the bridge- which for a lot of the time is Ruth’s (and her aunt’s and her sister’s) main companion, her ‘significant other’.  The writing beautifully evokes its materiality, its mystery, while at the same time mining it for interesting and unexpected metaphors.  A metaphor, after all, is not just some literary device.  It is a recognition that things have similarities with one another, and that even things we think of as ‘inside’ us have similarities with things ‘outside’ to the point that the distinction itself is somewhat questionable.

In the following, Ruth and Lucille are out by themselves on the frozen lake, right at the extremity of the area that is swept of snow to provide a skating rink for the town:

The town itself seemed a negligible thing from such a distance.  Were it not for the clutter on the shore, the flames and the tremulous pillars of heat that stood above the barrels, and of course the skaters who swooped and sailed and made bright, brave sounds, it would have been possible not to notice the town at all.  The mountains that stood up behind it were covered with snow and hidden in the white sky, and the lake was sealed and hidden, yet their eclipse had not made the town more prominent.  Indeed, where we were we could feel the reach of the lake far behind us, and far beyond us on either side, in a spacious silence that seemed to ring like glass.

The topography of a landscape is quite difficult to describe without the prose becoming plodding and literal, but Robinson seems to achieve this effortlessly.  Here for example, a beach on the lake is not only evoked but its precise layout rather carefully explained, without the exceptionally fluent  prose faltering in any way:

The shore drifted in a long, slow curve, outward to a point, beyond which three step islands of diminishing size continued the sweep of the land toward the depths of the lake, tentatively, like an ellipsis.  The point was high and stony, crested with fir trees.  At its foot a narrow margin of brown sand abstracted its crude shape into one pure curve of calligraphic delicacy, sweeping, again, toward the lake.

But she writes beautifully, and wittily, about human things too.  Here is Lucille beginning to pull away from her sister Ruth and from the eccentric isolation of their life with Sylvie in their dead grandmother’s house.  Ruth has gone to fetch a dictionary at Lucille’s request (in order to find out what ‘pinking sheers’ are) and, opening it, finds it full of dried flowers, carefully pressed there by their dead grandfather:

“Let me see that,” Lucille said.  She took the book by each end of its spine and shook it.  Scores of flowers and petals fell and drifted from between the pages.  Lucille kept shaking until nothing more came, and then she handed the dictionary back to me.  “Pinking sheers,” she said.

“What will we do with these flowers?”

“Put them in the stove.”

“Why do that?”

“What are they good for?”  This was not a real question, of course.  Lucille lowered her coppery brows and peered at me boldly, as if to say, It is not crime to harden my heart against pansies that have smothered in darkness for forty years.

This example also touches on a theme that runs through the book: the paradoxical nature of loss, the way that something or someone lost can be a  much bigger matter than the actual presence of that something or someone would ever have been.  The sisters live their whole lives in the shadow of their mother’s absence, but..

…if she had simply bought us home again to the high frame apartment building with the scaffolding of stairs, I would not remember her that way.  Her eccentricities might have irked and embarassed us when we grew older…  We would have laughed together at our strangely solitary childhood, in light of which our failings would seem inevitable, and all our attainments miraculous.  Then we would telephone her out of guilt and nostalgia, and laugh bitterly afterward because she asked us nothing, and told us nothing, and fell silent from time to time, and was glad to get off the phone.

Listen, Liberal, by Thomas Frank

(Listen, Liberal, by Thomas Frank.)

I’ve just read this book, first published at the tail end of the Obama presidency. It articulates concerns I share and have attempted to express here a number of times: the growing invisibility of class as a social division (as compared to other divisions such as gender, sexuality etc), and the way that political parties on the political ‘left’ have ceased to identify with the interests of working class people and becoming instead the mouthpieces of the liberal professional class.  Frank is writing specifically about the American Democratic party.  This is ‘still a class party,’ he says. ‘In fact [Democracts] show admirable concern for the class they represent.  It’s just that the class they care about doesn’t happen to be the same one that Truman, Roosevelt, and Bryan cared about.’*

Frank asks why the Democrats are ‘so bravely forthright on cultural issues’ [by which he means ‘culture wars’ issues such as abortion rights, transgender rights, gay marriage…] and yet ‘their leaders fold when confronted with matters of basic economic democracy.  What is it about this set of issues that transforms Democrats into vacillating softies, convinced that the big social question [massive and increasing inequality of wealth] is beyond their control?’  He notes that the standard explanation for this is the power of money and the ability of moneyed interests to influence politicians through campaign finances etc, but he suggests that this is only part of it.  He argues that there are ‘different hierarchies of power in America, and while oligarchy theory exposes one of them -the hierarchy of money- many of the Democrats’ failings arise from another hierarchy: one of merit, learning and status.’  He goes on to say that ‘We lampoon the Republican hierarchy of money with the phrase “the One Percent”; if we want to understand what has wrecked the Democratic Party as a populist alternative however, what we need to scrutinise is more like the Ten Percent, the people at the apex of the country’s hierarchy of professional status.’

He observes, ‘We always overlook the class interests of professionals because we have trouble thinking of professionals as a “class” in the first place…we think of them merely as “the best”.  They are where they are because they are so smart…’  Ceding authority to professional experts is, he acknowledges, ‘tolerable to a certain degree -no one really objects to rules mandating that only trained pilots fly jetliners, for example…. But what happens when an entire category of experts stops thinking of itself as “social trustees”?  What happens when they abuse their monopoly power?  What happens when they start looking mainly after their own interests, which is to say, start acting as a class?’

Myself, I see this happening around me all the time.  I don’t mean by this – and I don’t think Frank is saying this either- that the professional class is acting in its own interests knowngly and cynically.  We human beings have a need to see ourselves as ‘the good guys’, and we rationalise our self-interest in various ways as being in the common good.  What I see is liberal professional people telling each other, sometimes pretty stridently, that they are the real left, the real good guys  (being as they are against sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia etc), asserting that their view of how the world should be run is simply correct (because they, after all, are the class of experts), and becoming increasingly hostile to the elements of their own working class that no longer accepts their authority.  Like all powerful classes, they (and really I should say we because it is my own class I am talking about!) believe themselves to be both entitled and virtuous.  One of the great things about being a highly educated elite which is against sexism, homophobia etc etc is that you can be pretty certain that the less educated, less intellectual part of the population will tend to subscribe to more old fashioned views than you do on gender, sexuality and so on, thereby making it rather easy for you (in spite of your privileged position) to claim the moral high ground.  You just have to keep class off the agenda.

‘When the left party in a political system severs its bonds to working people,’ Frank observes, ‘-when it dedicates itself to the concerns fo the particular slice of high-achieving affluent people- issues of work and income inequality will inevitably fade from its list of concerns.’  I have certainly noticed over my lifetime how the idea of social justice has gradually stopped being about reducing disparities of wealth, and has come to be about equal opportunities, about ensuring that everyone can make use of their talents.  As Frank notes: ‘Another term for this understanding of equality is Meritocracy, which is one of the great defining faiths of the professional class.’  He quotes the journalist Chris Hayes** who writes:

The areas in which the left have mad the most significant progress -gay rights, inclusion of women in higher education, the end of de jure racial discrimination- are the battles it has fought for making the meritocracy more meritocratic.  The areas in which it has suffered its worst defeats – collective action to provide universal public goods, mitigating rising income inequality- are those that fall outside the meritocracy’s purview.

The trouble with meritocracy, it seems to me, even if such a thing could ever be achieved (which is dubious given that successful meritocrats can easily ensure that their children get a head start in the supposedly meritocratic race), is that it has nothing to offer to people who are not especially talented or skilled: and after all, half the population  are of average or below average ability.  And this is the trouble even with the idea of meritocracy as a desirable political goal.  A meritocratic culture is one that celebrates high achievers, that fetishises exeptional ability  and exceptional attainment (Frank describes this very persuasively), and has no interest in those who are merely ordinary.

This fact may rebound on the ideology itself, though.  Frank observes that, although the Democratic Party (like the British Labour party) consciously uncoupled itself from its old blue collar allegiances, it nevertheless assumed that it could continue to rely on blue collar votes because blue collar voters had nowhere else to go.  Recent events, in the US and America, suggest that this assumption may be spectacularly wrong.  As the musician Brian Eno observed:  ‘There was a revolution brewing and we didn’t spot it because we didn’t make it. We expected we were going to be the revolution.’

 

*Frank doesn’t discuss the British Labour Party at all, but its own transition is, in a way, even more striking, given that the much older Democratic Party has represented all kinds of interests over the years (including those of slaveowners and segregationists) but the Labour Party’s very name reflects its origins as a party specifically created to ensure that the interests of the working class were represented in Parliament.

**From Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy.   (A book I have not read.)

Che Puro Ciel

A bit random, but it’s something I’ve just been listening to and I thought I’d share it.  This lovely aria is from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice. 

Orpheus is a poet and musician whose music is so beautiful that even stones are enchanted by it.  When his beloved Eurydice is killed by snakes, he travels to the underworld to try and win her back.  Even the hearts of the rulers of the underworld are softened by his sweet music, and they agree she can return to life on the one condition that he  doesn’t look at her, even once, until they have emerged again into the world of the living.

In this aria, after various travails, Orpheus finds himself in the Elysian fields.  ‘How pure the sky,’ he sings, ‘how bright the sun…’  But none of this can make him happy until he has Eurydice back again.  At the very end of the aria, the chorus announces the arrival of Eurydice.  Heart-stopping moment!  To be in her presence again, when he thought he’d lost her forever and yet be forbidden to look at her, or even to explain to her why he must constantly turn away his face.

It fascinates me the way old stories from different places tend to echo one other.  No doubt this is sometimes because a story from one culture is heard and taken up by people from another, like the story of St Josaphat.  But I’m sure it also happens because certain stories reflect deep structures in the human mind which are universal, and perhaps even hardwired into our brains.

I think of the biblical story of Lot’s Wife, who would be turned to a pillar of salt if she looked back at the city of Sodom.   But a much stronger resonance is with the Norse story of Balder, who like Orpheus was capable of stirring the hearts even of animals and stones.

In the Balder story it is Balder himself who dies and his mother who sends a messenger down into the underworld to beg for his return.  As in the Greek story, the ruler of the underworld grants the request on one condition (albeit a different one), and as in the Greek story (though not in the opera!), the condition is almost met but not quite, and the beloved one is lost forever.

Two short stories by Ursula Le Guin

Many people are writing just now about Ursula Le Guin, who died on Monday, and her many works.  As my own small tribute I will say that she was the author of two of the best short stories I’ve ever read, not just in SF, but in any genre, each in its own way as near perfect as a story can be, yet very different from each other.   One of them is ‘Semley’s Necklace’ (aka ‘The Dowry of the Angyar’), the other is ‘The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas.’  (If you don’t like spoilers of any kind, best not to read the following, although I’ve tried not to be too specific.)

‘Semley’s Necklace’ draws on the Norse myth of the Brisingamen necklace, which belonged to the goddess Freyja (itself a favourite of mine).  But Le Guin transposes it to an interplanetary setting and gives it an entirely science fictional twist based on the extreme time dilation that is predicted by the theory of relativity when a starship travels at near light speed.  Although she herself comes from an aristocratic background, Semley feels inadequate by comparison with her husband’s people, who are wealthier than her own, and sets out to recover an heirloom that belonged to her own family and will, she believes, put things on a more equal footing.  She succeeds in her mission, but tragically fails to understand the implications when told she can reach it in a journey that will only last a single long night.  The story is very human, genuinely tragic, and at the same time utterly science fictional in the best possible way, melding its very different elements perfectly.  And the plot, the structure, the pacing:  well, it simply doesn’t get any better.

As to ‘The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas’: it’s sometimes said (and I agree) that, in SF, the world functions as an additional character, but in this story, the world is the main character with the only other real character being the narrator.  There is no dialogue, and no one is introduced by name.  The story is simply the description of Omelas, a wonderful city, a beautiful and tranquil place, which is introduced to us as its citizens are celebrating the first day of summer.  Indeed the narrator, in a way that reminds me of a move made by Jane Austen once or twice, at one point invites the reader to add details of their own to make the world as much to their liking as possible.  Of course, it does feel too good to be true.  The narrator acknowledges this but then adds a devasting twist which suddenly makes Omelas seem all too real.  It’s an extraordinarily original and very disturbing piece of writing.

Spring Tide now out!

Spring Tide, my new story collection, is out today, both as an ebook and as a beautiful little hardback.  I feel I know the physical qualities of those hardbacks pretty well since, in a marathan session at a huge book distribution centre in Grantham (see below),  I signed every single one of the current batch, in the company of Kate Straker from Corvus who was meanwhile applying the ‘signed by the author’ stickers.  We had quite a cottage industry going there for a couple of hours.

Me and the boxes of books waiting to be signed at Grantham Book Services.

America City: some background

America City began as a short story called ‘Destiny’.   The story itself was never published, its basic flaw being, I realised, that it wasn’t really a short story at all, but an idea for a novel.  I’ve just checked and, to my suprise, I find that I wrote it as long ago as summer 2012.   Holly Peacock wasn’t in the story, but the basic set-up of America City was there and so was President Slaymaker.

***

Originally, I was going to write this book after completing Mother of Eden.  I started work on the novel in 2015, under the working title of Slaymaker, but in the end I decided I wanted to complete my Eden trilogy first, so I set Slaymaker aside to write Daughter of Eden.  

The fact that the novel that became America City was originally going to be my next project after Mother of Eden is I think visible in the book.   For instance, the relationship between Holly and Slaymaker is a little like the relationship in Mother of Eden between Starlight and  Greenstone’s father, Firehand: an ambitious, restless, rootless young woman from a community which values gentleness and fairness, is fascinated by, and feels an unexpected affinity with, a powerful, charismatic and ruthless man a generation older than her, who doesn’t value those things very much at all.  (Firehand dies quite early in Mother, so I didn’t get a chance to develop the relationship very much there.)

In both books, too, the ambitious young woman sets out to sell a political idea, and the idea has unintended consequences, as political ideas always do.   Both books also make some use of interspersed scenes from the viewpoint of peripheral characters to show the impact of what the major players are doing.

But then again, Mother is set in a sort of bronze age society on a planet with luminous trees and no sun, while America City is set in 22nd century America.  And Holly helps Slaymaker, while Starlight sets herself against what Firehand believed in.

***

When I settled down again to write America City in 2016, and through into the beginning of 2017, it was against a new backdrop of real political events: first the Brexit vote in the summer of 2016, and then the rise of Donald Trump.  Obviously the book is deeply influenced by my thoughts about why and how these things happened and what I felt I was learning about how politics work.

I felt very challenged by the fact that the 2016 Presidential election was going on as I wrote the book.  Here I was, writing about an American politician winning an election by appealing to the tribal instincts of voters, and meanwhile in real life…

In fact, in some respects what was happening in reality was stranger than what was happening in my book.   I’m biased of course, but if I compare Slaymaker and Trump, it’s Trump who seems more like a made-up character.  So there was a while there when I felt like the real world was overtaking me on the inside lane.

***

I got the name Slaymaker from an administrator at the school of social work at the University of East Anglia, where I was working when I first came up with the idea.  Her name is Eve Slaymaker.  Names are important.  I built the whole character around this amazing surname.

There was another administrator there at the time called Hollie Peacock, and I borrowed her name as well.

***

I don’t often sit down and draw things for a book, but I did design this flag.  Holly comes up with it, some way into the book, while passing the time on a flight to Washington, DC.