Tuesday, December 30, 2014

New Year's Resolution 2015

During his sermon last Sunday, Pastor Peter tossed in a suggestion that reading the Bible a bit more
during the coming year wouldn't go astray.

There are many excellent reasons to read the Bible: read it as fine literature, read it as history, as spiritual guidance and inspiration, read it as a cultural icon. I haven't read enough of it, and I'm determined not to go to my grave a Biblical illiterate.

I've discovered many good programmes on-line for reading the whole Bible in one year, but I'm partial to this site:  the Online Parallel Bible, which let's me choose from 21 different translations (it's usually the King James for me, thanks), and for the more diligent scholars, the original Greek and Hebrew are there, too. I also appreciate that they offer numerous links to commentaries, and summaries for each book to put it into context.

Since moving to Cambodia in March 2014, my reading in general has decreased -- partly because I've been spending more time studying spoken and written Khmer, and partly due to sheer lethargy. I need to be more structured with my reading, establishing set times for Bible, Khmer and everything else. When I first moved here, I resolved to clean my floors every morning before having my coffee. I've managed to hold to that resolution, and now it's become habit. If I can't show the same dedication to the Bible as I show to my mop, I'm in trouble.

Master Georgie, by Beryl Bainbridge

Beryl Bainbridge has come to be known as the Booker Prize bridesmaid -- short-listed five times, but never a winner. In 1998, Master Georgie was her fifth novel to make the short list. I had mixed reactions to this novel, ranging from the vague sense that it wasn't much of a novel to the nagging concern that I hadn't read it with adequate attention. The Guardian reviewer noted that "Beryl Bainbridge has remarked that 'most people have to read [Master Georgie] at least three times before they understand it'."

This comment intrigues me, partly because I intuitively believe it to be true, but I can't quite put my finger on why. It's not a voluminous novel -- about 125 pages.  The writing style is straightforward. The trick, I think, is in the subtlety and artistry of the story's construction.  Each of the six chapters opens with the title of a photographic plate, the first being 'Girl in the Presence of Death', dated 1846. The narrator of that chapter is Myrtle, the adopted and adoring sister of George Hardy, or Master Georgie, the young doctor and amateur photographer. She is 12.

They live in a household that barely functions:  George's mother is chronically miserable, and he finds his father dead in a brothel.  Myrtle is slavishly devoted to him, and her upbringing is largely the combined efforts of George, Dr. Potter (the resident scholar) and Mrs. O'Gorman, the housekeeper. Theirs is not a unified approach to child-rearing.
The evening before, Mrs O’Gorman had trapped me in the scullery to acquaint me with the Assumption. She said someone had to school me, seeing I was being raised in such a Godless house. That was a dig at Dr Potter, for being under the sway of the new sciences. Dr Potter held that the world wasn’t created in six days; it was more like thousands of years. Why, even mountains hadn’t always stayed in the same place. St James’ Mount, which overlooks the sunken cemetery, may once have been a flat stretch of earth, grassless under a sheet of ice. It didn’t worry me like it did Mrs O’Gorman, who moaned that it wasn’t for the likes of her to doubt the permanency of rocks. But then, her rock was the Kingdom of Heaven and she didn’t want it shifted. 
Another character winds his way through the novel, narrating another chapter -- he is Pompey Jones, a lower-class photographer's assistant who pitches in to help George and Myrtle remove the body of the deceased Mr. Hardy from the squalid room where he died and return it secretly to his own bed. Pompey's relationships with George and Myrtle grow more complex than one might expect.
I’d seen that face on him once before, after we’d laid his father down and Myrtle had been sent off to the kitchens to fetch water for washing. He’d thanked me for my help and declared I was remarkably practical for my age and that he would never forget my kindness, nor my reticence. It was my intelligence, he said, that rendered me incapable of taking advantage of the present situation. His words, spoken with such apparent sincerity of feeling, took me aback. Up until then I’d been biding my time, having every intention of squeezing five shillings out of him before I left the house. We were standing on either side of the bed, his dead father between us, and for one warm moment I did indeed imagine I was possessed of a superior sweetness of character. ‘You’re a good boy,’ he murmured, and then he raised one knee on to the coverlet and hoisting himself up leaned across to touch my cheek. I knew instantly what he was about, and quit the room. I wasn’t a stranger to that sort of happening, nor unduly alarmed by it, and if he’d not laid on the flattery I might have indulged him - it’s not a vice restricted to any one class, though it’s my experience that the better off bend to it from inclination and the poor more often out of necessity.
As the novel progresses, George is married to Annie, but it's Myrtle who has borne his children. Dr. Potter is married to Beatrice Hardy, George's sister, and the five of them set out for the Crimea so that George can serve as a medic in the war effort. Here they're reunited with Pompey Jones, who reappears in spectacular fashion as a fire-eater, travelling with a troupe of performers.

When the situation worsens, Annie and Beatrice return to England with the children, leaving Dr. Potter, Myrtle, George and Pompey to narrate the final chapters.  The ferocity and madness of the war reveals each one's fundamental character.  Myrtle continues to doggedly trail her beloved George despite the horrors, and Dr. Potter retreats to the scholarly library within his head when he can no longer cope with them. The two of them ride their horses to a nearby hillside to collect some fruit, and when dismounted, Myrtle finds herself standing next to a severed human leg.
‘I wish to go back,’ Myrtle said, turning her white gaze from the thing at her feet.
‘Homer,’ I told her, ‘describes the Laestrigones as cannibals.’ She appeared too distressed to respond and rode on ahead. 
I wish to go back, too, and re-read this novel, and not simply because its author told me I should. I need to address that feeling that I missed too many connections on the first reading. To be continued.

Monday, December 29, 2014

An Experiment in Love, by Hilary Mantel

After reading Wolf Hall and declaring myself a Hilary Mantel devotee, I went back and began reading all of her works in chronological order. An Experiment in Love is her seventh novel, a genre-defying story about a group of young women who came through Catholic secondary school before they met at a London university in the 1970s. I still stand by my assertion that Ms. Mantel is constitutionally incapable of writing a bad book, but I felt almost a twinge of relief when I realised that I didn't love this one. I'd begun to doubt my objectivity, wondering if I'd become predisposed to wax ecstatic about each and every one of her novels. Saying that it's my least favourite of the eight of her books I've read so far is a far cry from criticism. I'd still kill to have written this book, and I still relished reading it.

Carmel is the daughter of a working-class couple in Manchester, and it's her Irish mother's dearest dream to send her daughter off to the Holy Redeemer.  And no one brooks Mrs. McBain when she's got her mind set on something.
I can see that my mother was, in herself, not exquisite. She had a firm jaw, and a loud carrying voice. Her hair was greying and wild and held back with springing kirby grips. When she frowned, a cloud passed over the street. When she raised her eyebrows – as she often did, amazed each hour by what God expected her to endure – a small town’s tram system sprang up on her forehead. She was quarrelsome, dogmatic and shrewd; her speech was alarmingly forthright, or else bewilderingly circumlocutory. Her eyes were large and alert, green like green glass, with no yellow or hazel in them; with none of the compromises people have when it comes to green eyes. When she laughed I seldom knew why, and when she cried I was no wiser. Her hands were large and knuckly and calloused, made to hold a rifle, not a needle. 
One of Carmel's primary schoolmates is Karina, the stoic and somewhat enigmatic daughter of Slavic immigrants. When Mrs. McBain convinces Karina's mother that she, too, should apply for a scholarship to the Holy Redeemer, Carmel is less than pleased. Both girls win their scholarships, and the two mothers take them into town with the school's detailed uniform specifications in their pocketbooks.
This was the first time I had ever been taken to a shop for clothes. Everything I had needed until this point had been manufactured by my mother. I looked at Karina to see if she was any more at ease in this situation. She was standing with her eyes closed, breathing in the deep scent of leather and polish. A saleswoman dressed in black minced towards us over the polished floor, like a panther who has spotted something juicy: like a panther who has spotted something slow.
My mother unclasped her handbag with a big snap and withdrew the uniform list, folded in four.
"The Holy Redeemer," the saleswoman murmured. She seemed to curtsey as she took it from my mother's hand and opened it. Her fingers brushed her smiling throat as she ushered us towards the curtained cubicles of her choice. The room was built up to its lofty ceiling in glass cabinets and deep wooden drawers, some of which other salesladies slid open enticingly, to reveal stacks of stiff shirts bound in Cellophane; from which they lifted jerseys with their arms strait-jacketed by cardboard, in every size from dwarf to gross.
"In here if you please," the saleswoman said, as if she were threatening us. The curtain swept behind her. I was shut up with my mother in my own cubicle, at dangerously close quarters. But she was all simpering smiles now: for the duration, I was her darling. She took off her coat and hung it on one of the hooks supplied, and at once her woman smell gushed out and filled the air: chemical tang of primitive deodorant, scent and grease of Tan Fantastic, flowery scent of face powder, emanation of armpit and cervix, milk duct and scalp.
I removed my clothes. I was pale as paper, my body without scent or flavour of its own. Each of my ribs could be counted; each vertebra was accessible to a casual eye. Around my nipples was a puffiness which looked like a disease. I had been worrying that I would have to undress in front of Karina, who was in advance of me, gently but definitely swollen. I knew I had to get a bosom, but I hoped it wouldn't come on too quickly, because when it did I'd need an 'A' cup, size 32 broderie anglaise bra. And my mother would say, All this costs money, and as we are scrimping and saving for your education . . . The flatter my chest stayed, the cheaper I'd be.
The items required for the Holy Redeemer were brought in one by one, stiff on their glossy wooden hangers, by the saleswoman in black. Only the winter tunic was an exception; she carried it across her arms, palms spread beneath it, as in certain statues and paintings Our Lady bears the weight of the body of her crucified son. The tunic was clay coloured, a stiff deep grey-brown. In the uniform of the Holy Redeemer this colour predominated, but it was offset by a solid purple-red called maroon: and sometimes where you would least expect it, these two colours would collide and form stripes. I slid my arms inside the chilly sleeves of a cream shirt blouse. My mother twitched the stiff collar into position and began to button it up; she was attending to me as if I were a three-year-old, impressing the saleslady with her maternal skills. When the blouse was fastened it came to mid-thigh. The cuffs hung below my hands as if I'd climbed into the body of an ape. "I'll move the button," my mother said. 
Grudging companions, the two girls pack up their regulation grey and maroon, put on their sensible outdoor shoes and board the train bound for the Holy Redeemer, where their new schoolmates are quite of a different class.
This was where we would be educated, Karina and I, among girls whose fathers were solicitors, factory managers, small businessmen and the more prosperous sort of shopkeeper. Their mothers stayed at home to construct Battenburg cakes and cut back hydrangeas. Their first memories were of garden ponds and weeping willows, of the wrought-iron balconies of Scarborough hotels, of the slippery leather of the back seat of the family car. When I think of the early lives of these girls – of Julianne, let us say – I think of starched sun-bonnets, Beatrix Potter, of mossy garden paths, regular bedtime, regular bowels: I see them frozen for ever in that unreclaimable oasis between the war and the 196os, between the end of rationing and the beginning of the end: fixed in time, their bodies scented with clover honey and Bramley apples: one foot daintily poised, one hand – as their ballet teacher prescribed – gesturing a charming invitation to the years to come. Life, do your worst; we are plump of knee and mild of eye, we are douce, glib and blithe: we inherit the semi, while others inherit the wind. 
Carmel, like so many of us who were brought up in a Catholic household, looks back on her childhood and adolescence and wonders if she'd really been as sinful as she'd been led to believe. As she progresses through the Holy Redeemer, though, and moves on to a London university (as does Karina, as well), her moral compass appears unreliable -- the result, I suppose, of having been told for so many years exactly what to do rather than learning to make sound ethical decisions for herself.
When I look back from myself now at myself then, I believe I was a diligent, quiet, undemanding child; hardly more trouble at sixteen than I was at ten. At the time, though – even after I had stopped going to confession and stopped examining my conscience every day – I believed I was a monster of egotism, an incipient tyrant, a source of trouble and agony of mind. My mother said I was, and I didn’t query it. I never tried to take out of her hands the direction of my life, or questioned why she and not I should have it. Inoffensive though I was, she treated me as what was known in those years as a juvenile delinquent. Everything I did was suspicious – at least, it aroused her suspicion. 
As their relationships with each other and with men come to prove, the young women who share a residential hall at the university are not what their mothers and the nuns had hoped for when they'd entered the convent school years before. They seem ill-equipped to confront the tangled issues of class, sex and friendship. The relationship between Carmen and Karina shifts from awkward to malevolent, yet their paths remain somehow knitted together.
It is a mistake, of course, to think that convent girls wait until they’re adults to disappoint the expectations of the nuns. In our generation, growing up through the sixties, we quickly developed our double lives. We were women inside children’s clothes, atheists at Mass, official virgins and de facto rakes. It was not deceit; it was dualism. We had grown up with it. Flesh and spirit, ambition and humility. It was time to make plans for the future; I swung between thinking I could do anything with my life, and that I could do nothing. I still fitted into the blazer bought for my first summer at the Holy Redeemer. My mouse feet had hardly grown, so my indoor shoes were still going strong, and had perhaps acquired a perverse chic. But my satchel was scuffed and battered, and inside it at the bottom corner there was a big ink stain, like the map of a new continent. Maybe the act of love came too late. As a career move, I should have lost my burdensome virginity at thirteen or fourteen, when there would have been no question of a lasting attachment and no desire for one. As it was, I shook when I removed my clothes and I cried after it was done, not out of pain or disappointment but out of an up-rush of muddling emotion which twenty-four hours later I was ready to call love. 
Carmen's whole youth might be termed an experiment in love, I suppose, but I don't think anyone would rejoice at her findings. Including Carmen.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Water's Edge, by Karin Fossum

My journey into Nordic Noir started some years back after listening to a radio interview with Icelandic writer, Arnaldur Indriðason. He and Karin Fossum have become the authors I reach for when I want a crime story with heart and mind.  I've been working my way through Ms. Fossum's books in chronological order, and The Water's Edge, the eighth in her series of Inspector Sejer novels, takes a bold turn -- for the first time, Konrad Sejer and his partner, Jakob Skerre, confront a perpetrator who is not simply an average Norwegian who happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. This time, they are tracking a paedophile.
'The Storm', by Norwegian Edvard Munch

A couple out on their Sunday walk in the woods -- the domineering Reinhardt Ris and his obsequious wife, Kristine -- spot the partially clad body of a young boy lying face-down beneath a tree. Reinhardt concludes that the man who had rushed past them earlier must be the killer. He becomes obsessively thrilled with his own role in a  real-life crime investigation, and to Kristine's horror, Reinhardt pauses to snap photos of the dead boy with his mobile phone.

Many of Karin Fossum's characters are morally ambiguous.  Maybe a bit like Edvard Munch's paintings -- lines are blurred, and circumstances are often unclear. Her paedophiles are not entirely unsympathetic, her witnesses can be monstrous, and when a second boy disappears, we can feel the growing panic in the village and the pressure to solve the crimes. The temptation to jump to conclusions is intense. Trust between neighbours erodes, and formerly innocent associations come into question.

Inspector Konrad Sejer, however, will not be rushed, much as he would like this hideous crime behind him. He and Skarre, his younger partner, spend a fair amount of time discussing what might make a paedophile tick; they have divergent opinions on this, with Skarre noting that many of them were themselves abused as children and thus deserving of counselling as much as punishment, and Sejer staunchly toeing the line of Norwegian law -- their sexual drives are criminal, and if they can't control them, they must be incarcerated.  When the conversation comes around to why they're in police work, both men again reveal their distinctive motivations.
Sejer started rolling a cigarette. He allowed himself one only every evening, as befits an exceedingly temperate man. 'A nicer job?' he asked suspiciously. 'Like what?'
'Well, you could have been a pastry chef,' Skarre suggested. 'You could have spent your whole day decorating cream cakes. And making tiny marzipan roses.'
'I could never have been a pastry chef,' Sejer declared. 'Cream cakes are pretty to look at, but they have no stories to tell. What would you have been doing?'
'I would have been a taxidermist.'
'Someone who stuffs dead animals, you mean?'
'Yes. Squirrels, minks and foxes.'
Sejer instinctively picked up his dog and put him on his lap. 'So tell me this,' he said. 'Why are you interested in criminals?'
'It's possible that somewhere deep inside I might be just a tad jealous of them,' Skarre said.
'Jealous? Of criminals?'
'They do what they want. They have no respect for authority: if they want something they just take it and they have nothing but contempt for us. It's a kind of protest, a deep and profound disdain. Personally, I am extremely law-abiding, to the point where it becomes scary, if you know what I mean. Why do you think people are so fascinated by crime?' he went on.'Nothing sells better than murder and the worse it is, the more interested people are. What does that say about us?'
'I'm sure there are many answers to that,' Sejer said, 'and you're just as well placed to provide them as I am.'
'But you must have thought about it?'
'I think it has to do with the image we have of our enemy,' he said. 'All nations have an image of their enemy, you know, something that unites people. During the war we were united against the Germans. It gave us a sense of identity and camaraderie, it made us take action and behave heroically. People were forced to choose sides, and in that way we could tell the good from the bad. But in our wealthy western world where peace and democracy reign, criminals have taken over this role. Their misdeeds unite us, we enjoy plenty of peace and quiet, but we also need excitement and stimulation to make us feel alive. But it's more than that. Every time someone's killed, we experience a kind of fortuitous assurance.'
In their efforts to gain an understanding of what motivates a paedophile, Sejer and Skarre drop in on a man whom they'd caught years ago and who had returned to the community after serving his prison sentence. Again, Fossum takes great pains to make Åkeson an almost likeable fellow, pitiable in his loneliness. His answers to the officers' questions suggest that the sexual preference for small children is like that for the same sex -- it's not something that can be "cured", even though the paedophile might well wish to be rid of it.
'Can I ask you a very personal question?' Skarre asked.
Åkeson leaned forward. 'Of course you can, young man, fire away. I'm no weakling, I just look like one.'
'Have you ever had a relationship with an adult woman?'
Åkeson smiled coquettishly. 'Well,' he said, pausing theatrically as was his style, 'that depends how you define adult. Yes, of course I have. But I must add that she was a terribly delicate little thing. It didn't last very long, I think it was mainly a desperate attempt to be normal; there's nothing we would rather be, we would prefer to be like you. But, dear Lord, I'm a grown man, I turned fifty last year and I know who I am, it can't be denied and I don't want to either.
When the second boy, a morbidly obese lad taunted by his schoolmates, vanishes, Sejer and Skarre interview his mother and come away feeling uneasy about her new boyfriend who, they discover, has a criminal record for defrauding single women. Many people are mumbling about a teacher who receives students -- mostly boys -- at his home after school. Is one paedophile responsible for both crimes? It's difficult to say, as they have no idea where the second child is or who killed the first one, but the excitement and fear is palpable. And Reinhardt Ris is absolutely thriving on it, glued to the television, making multiple calls to the police with "new" information, and instructing Kristine not to discard his growing stack of newspapers.
'Don't throw them away,' he said. 'I need to cut out the articles.'
'What do you mean, cut them out?'She gave him a puzzled look.
'As a matter of fact,' he said solemnly, 'it's terribly interesting, for once, to follow a case right from the start, follow it week by week as it develops. It's like a discipline of some sort.' He ran his fingers through his hair. 'Perhaps I should quit my job at Hafslund and become a crime reporter. I think I've got the bug.'
Kristine shook her head in disbelief.
'When I think about it,' he reasoned, 'I realise that I have never read the news in this way before. I've been superficial. None of the world's misery has ever gripped me. But this has, it's a totally new sensation.' He let himself flop into a chair and grabbed hold of VG magazine.
'But why?' she asked.
'Because we found him, Kristine. It's that simple.'
'But we didn't know him.'
'I feel I know him now. I've been reading about Jonas for days. The whole sequence of events rolls before my eyes like a film.' ...
'Have you deleted all those pictures?' she asked.
He tossed his head. 'Why do you keep going on about them?'
'Have you shown them to people at work?' She moved the frying pan away from the heat.
'What if I have? I don't understand why you're getting so worked up about them, people are naturally curious.'
She turned away again before replying. 'They were never meant for public consumption,' she said. 'And who decided that?'
Suddenly she felt exhausted. She leaned against the cooker and felt the heat from the brown butter waft against her face. 'Common decency,' she whispered. 'Have you never heard of that?'
That's what I love about Karin Fossum's novels. Her characters are all over the common decency spectrum, and their motivations are rarely predictable. And yet, each and every one of them seems like someone who might be living next door.

I just read that Karin Fossum's seventh Konrad Sejer novel, The Murder of Harriet Crohn, published in 2004, has just this year been translated into English. Something to look forward to!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Danish Girl, by David Ebershoff

This is a gorgeous, thought-provoking historical novel, loosely based upon the life (lives?) of Danish painter Einar Wegener and his alter-ego, Lili Elbe. The historical record, which describes Einar/Lili as one of the first recipients of sex-reassignment surgery -- in its experimental stages in the 1920s -- provides the merest framework for the novel, and Ebershoff fills it out with richly textured atmosphere and emotions, respectfully and gently raising questions of what love entails.
Lili Elbe by Gerde Gottlieb

The real-life Einar Wegener was married to another Danish painter, Gerda Gottlieb; in the novel, his wife is American-born Greta Waud. One day, as Greta nears the completion of her portrait of an opera singer, the model fails to turn up. Greta turns to her slightly-built, blond husband, Einar, and asks him if he would kindly don her stockings, dress and shoes so she can finish the work on time. After a moment's hesitation -- it will take him away from his own work -- Einar complies.

One afternoon a few days later, Greta comes home to find her husband once again dressed and made up as a woman, and the shy, blonde visitor introduces herself as Lili. Lili doesn't stay long at first -- a few hours here and there -- but when she visits, she models for Greta. Over the next months and years, Greta's portfolio grows with ever more mesmerising (and commercially successful) portraits of Lili. Einar's career languishes as Lili appears with increasing frequency, because Lili doesn't paint.

Greta's relationships with Lili and Einar are fascinating and complex. Her love for her husband remains warm and gentle; her bond with Lili ranges from protective older sister to demanding employer, especially as Lili grows into the role of primary artistic muse.
Lili had begun to appear unannounced in the afternoons. Greta would leave the Widow House for an appointment. When she returned she'd find Lili at the window in a loose dress, the back buttons unfastened. Greta would help her finish dressing, clasping a string of amber beads around her throat. It never ceased to startle Greta, finding her husband like that, waiting with the neckline of a dress open across his pale shoulders. She never once said anything to Einar, or to Lili. Instead, she would always welcome Lili as if she were an amusing, foreign friend. She'd hum and gossip as she helped Lili into her shoes. Greta would tip a bottle of perfume against her forefinger and then run her sweet fingertip down Lili's throat and up the inside of her arm. She would stand Lili in front of the mirror and whisper, her voice the soft intimate voice of wedlock, "There now . . . so very pretty."
Gradually Lili begins to go out in public. Greta introduces her at social events as Einar's visiting cousin. Her concerns for her husband's emotional health drive Greta to consult a doctor, a man who is far less accepting of Einar's alter-ego -- after a full consultation, he strongly advises Greta to have her husband forcibly committed into a mental health facility, as he poses a threat to public order and decency. Greta responds by telling Einar that the three of them -- the married couple and Lili -- would be more comfortable in France. They pack up their painting supplies and move south. 1920s Paris is indeed more liberal, and Lili comes into her own.
It was what she liked most: her head gliding across the surface of the pool like a little duck; the other ladies in their wool bathing dresses watching her with their mixture of indifference and gossipy intrigue; the way she could pull herself from the pool, her fingertips pruned, and pat the towel down her arms as she dried in the glittering light that reflected off the Seine. She would watch the traffic across the river. And Lili would think that all of this was possible because she and Greta had left Denmark. She would think, in the summer mornings, on the lip of the pool filled with Seine water, that she was free. Paris had freed her. Greta had freed her. Einar, she would think, was slipping away. Einar was freeing her. A shiver would run up her damp spine; her shoulders would shudder. 
Einar and Lili are engaged in a quiet, heart-wrenching battle, finding it increasingly difficult to share the one body, especially with its undesirable accoutrements.
... if she was in a particularly strong trance about her life and the possibility of it all, she would let out a little gasp when she discovered that down there, between her white, goose-pimpled thighs, lay a certain shriveled thing. It was so vile to her that she would snap closed her thighs, tucking it away, her knee bones smacking; she could hear the muffled smack, and the sound of it -- like two felt-wrapped cymbals meeting in crescendo -- would remind Lili, would remind Einar, of the girl at Madame Jasmin-Carton's who had danced resentfully and snapped her knees together in such a harsh manner that he could hear the smack of bone even through the smudged glass. 
Ebershoff never paints Einar's and Lili's shared predicament as a pathology, but he makes it painfully clear that it is a conflict for which they both want to find a resolution. On a summer visit to Paris, Greta's twin brother, Carlisle, takes Lili to see another doctor who may be able to help. Einar's earnest desire for a solution paired with Dr. Buson's enthusiasm make this one of the novel's more chilling passages.
"And that leads me to my procedure," Dr. Buson was saying. "It's a rather new operation, one that I'm quite excited about because it's so full of promise."
"What is it?" Einar said.
"Now I don't want you to get too excited when I tell you, because it sounds more complicated than it is. It sounds drastic but it really isn't. It's a rather simple surgery that is working on people with behavior problems. The results so far are better than any other treatment I've ever seen."
"Do you think it would work on someone like me?"
"I'm sure of it," Dr. Buson said. "It's called a lobotomy."
"What is that?" Einar asked.
"It's a simple surgical procedure for cutting nerve pathways in the front part of the brain."
"Brain surgery?"
"Yes, but it isn't complicated. I don't have to cut open the cranium. No, that's the beauty of it. All I have to do is drill a few holes in your forehead, right about here . . . and here." Dr. Buson touched Einar's head, at his temples, and then at a spot just above his nose. "Once I've put the holes in your head then I can go in and sever some of the nerve fibers, those that control your personality."
"But how do you know which ones control my behavior?"
"Well, that's what I've discovered recently. Haven't you read about me in the paper?"
"It was a friend who sent us here," Carlisle said.
"Well, he must have seen the articles. There's been quite a bit of press."
"But is it safe?" Carlisle finally asked.
"As safe as many other things. Listen, I know it sounds radical. But I've had a man come to me who believed he was five people, not just two, and I went into his brain and fixed him up."
"How is he now?" Einar asked.
"He lives with his mother. He's very quiet, but happy..."
Although Carlisle feels that Dr. Buson is credible, Greta has been having conversations with a doctor, as well -- a German professor who is offering a surgical remedy that will not render Einar a vegetable, but will render him a woman -- Lili. Einar trusts his wife implicitly and is more inclined to place his trust in the German surgeon.

He reflects upon the impending death of Einar Wegener, painter, should he go ahead and become Lili. In a moment of delightfully farcical back-story, Einar recalls the beginning of his artistic career.

The man in the cloak spoke softly, and word spread through the halls of the academy that he was a dealer from Paris. He was wearing a wide-brimmed hat trimmed with a strip of leather, and the students could barely see his eyes. There was a little blond mustache curling down around his mouth, and the faint smell of newsprint falling behind him like exhaust. The acting director of the academy, Herr Rump, who was the less talented descendant of Herr G. Rump, introduced himself to the stranger. Rump escorted the man through the academy halls, where the floors were gray and unvarnished and swept clean by orphan girls not old enough to conceive. Rump tried to halt the stranger in front of the canvases painted by his favorite pupils, the girls with the wavy hair and apple-perky breasts and the boys with the thighs like hams. But the man in the cloak, who was reported to say, although no one could ever confirm it, "I have a tongue for talent," refused to be swayed by Herr Rump's suggestions. The stranger nodded in front of the painting of the mouse and the cheese done by Gertrude Grubbe, a girl with eyebrows so yellow and fluffy it was as if a canary had shed two feathers across her face. He also paused by the scene depicting a woman selling a salmon painted by Sophus Brandes, a boy whose father had been murdered on a ferry to Russia, due to a single leer at the murderer's adolescent bride. And then the man in the cloak stopped in front of Einar's little painting of the black bog. In the painting it was night, the oaks and willows only shadows, the ground as dark and damp as oil. In the corner, next to the boulder speckled with mica, was a little white dog, asleep in the cold. Only the previous day Herr Rump had declared it "too dark for the Danish school," and thus had given it a less-than-ideal spot on the wall, next to the closet where the orphan girls stored their hay-brooms and changed into the sleeveless apron-dresses that Herr Rump insisted they wear. "This one is good," the man had said, and his hand reached into his cloak and pulled out a billfold made of -- again, this was rumored too -- lizard leather."What's the artist's name?" he asked.
"Einar Wegener,"said Herr Rump, whose face was filling with the hot bright color of choler. The stranger handed him one hundred kroner. The man in the cloak pulled the painting from the wall, and then everyone at the academy -- Herr Rump and the students who had been watching from the cracks in classroom doors and the adminstratrices in their pinned-up blouses and the orphan girls who were secretly plotting a plan, which would later fail, to push Herr Rump from an academy window, and, last of all, Einar Wegener, who was standing on the stairs exactly where Greta would later kiss him -- had to blink.
Is it really a "brazenly American trait", the need to move abroad and reinvent oneself? (Well, it certainly seems so in my case.) What becomes clear, though, is that Einar's wish to transform himself comes from no innate love of change -- he simply can't cope any longer with existing as a man. Becoming Lili seems to be a biological and psychological necessity.
Greta would need to be alone in Denmark, relationless in Europe, in order to become the woman she saw herself as. She needed to put an ocean and a continent between herself and her family in order to feel that at last she could breathe. What Einar didn't understand then was that it was another of Greta's brazenly American traits, that bubbling need to move away and reinvent. Never before had he imagined himself doing the same.
So Lili boards the train to Dresden by herself -- she tells Greta that she can only do it alone. The fictional Lili dies not long after her fifth surgery, as the real-life one had, during which the surgeon transplanted a uterus in the hope that she might bear children. Much as she wanted it, her body rejected the organ. She is buried in Dresden, the city with the Elbe running through it. Looking out the window after her first surgery, Lili told the clinic staff that her new name would be Elbe. Lili Elbe.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

White Bird in a Blizzard, by Laura Kasischke

I reached for this novel after seeing the wonderfully quirky film adaptation of it. As I've written many times before, I'll almost always choose the book over the movie, but this one is a tough call... The screenplay stayed very close to the novel's plot until the end, when the film took a delicious and unexpected twist.  Laura Kasischke is a poet as well as a novelist, though, so the book has some exquisite passages that film just can't touch.  The opening paragraph is a sensory delight, ethereal meeting mundane, and introducing us to a teen-aged narrator who will prove as elusive and puzzling as her mother's disappearance.

I am sixteen when my mother steps out of her skin one frozen January afternoon -- pure self, atoms twinkling like microscopic diamond chips around her, perhaps the chiming of a clock, or a few bright flute notes in the distance -- and disappears. No one sees her leave, but she is gone. Only the morning before, my mother was a housewife -- a housewife who, for twenty years, kept our house as swept up and sterile as the mind of winter itself, so perhaps she finally just whisk-broomed herself out, a luminous cloud of her drifting through the bedroom window as soft as talcum powder, mingling with the snowflakes as they fell, and the stardust and the lunar ash out there.
Teen-aged narrator Kat gives us our only image of her vanished mother, a desperately unhappy suburban housewife who loathes her husband. Like most girls her age, Kat vacillates between utter self-absorption and sympathy for her mother.
 ... she planted petunias in our yard, and by July of every year they were dried out. Like complaints, or exasperation. Our house was stuck into some of the world's most fertile earth -- black and loamy and damp -- and anything could have grown there. A handful of it was as heavy as a heart, or guilt. As a child, I used to dig it up with a plastic shovel and pretend to bake cakes and cookies, shapeless pastries patted out of gravity. That dough, that dirt, was as dark as space. For thousands of years, our backyard had been ice, and when the Ice Age ended it thawed into a swampy dinosaur forest, and when the dinosaurs got zapped by whatever zapped the dinosaurs, farmers came and turned it into farmland and country meadows, which were later bulldozed to make way for subdivisions with names like Country Meadows Estates.
Anything could have grown there, but my mother grew petunias. I never knew what she wanted, but I knew it wasn't in Garden Heights, and it wasn't my father.
Kat's response to her mother's disappearance is disturbingly nonchalant. She and her father soldier on -- not bravely, really, but more indifferently, as if they'd always known Eve would vanish one day, or perhaps as if she'll return from whatever errand she'd gone off to do.  They file a police report, of course, and Brock takes and passes a lie-detector test. When her friends ask Kat if she thinks her father knows more than he is letting on, Kat is quick to assure them that he couldn't have had anything to do with his wife's disappearance -- he just didn't care enough.
These two decades, my father had also stayed slim. His face had aged well. He looked younger than fifty ... but also as preserved and eternal as some frozen-faced saint painted on the wall of a chapel during the darkest Dark Age days. Pale. Uninquisitive. A painted saint gazing without judgment, or interest, at centuries of women passing by, bearing candles, or babies, or flowers in their black habits, lace veils, go-go boots, and girdles. My father was the kind of man, like one of those expressionless saints, who sees a woman -- naked, or roped in pearls, tied to a stake, or shedding tears of blood -- and thinks, I wonder what's for dinner.
But what I think is this: She was a housewife, his housewife. For twenty years she served his dinner at six o'clock. Afterward, she washed the dinner dishes in Palmolive, to keep her hands soft. One Christmas when he offered to buy her a dishwasher she insisted she would never use it, that washing her husband's dinner dishes by hand was one of the greatest pleasures a woman could have. And he had no idea she was being sarcastic.
Precocious Kat seduces the middle-aged detective who is handling her mother's case. Is it because she wants to learn how his investigation is coming along? Not at all. She's just bored after the teen-aged boy next-door broke off their relationship when Eve disappeared. When she goes off to college, Kat's new friends inevitably want to know what happened to her mother.
"Where is she?" Cindy asked.
"Who knows?" I said. "I don't."
"She has to be somewhere,"Cindy said.
"Does she?" I said, spilling wine on my flannel nightgown. "Maybe she doesn't. Maybe she's nowhere."I smiled. But Cindy looked serious, and sad.
This exchange reminds me of an article I read about the mother of the teen-ager who gunned down the staff and elementary school students in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. She had convinced herself that dwelling in his perpetually darkened bedroom, changing his clothes many times each day, collecting an arsenal and insisting that particular foods be arranged in a certain way on his plate was normal behaviour for her son. A psychologist noted that when we're dealing with a mentally disturbed family member, we tend to just readjust our ideas of normality. What seems bizarre and alarming to most people simply became Nancy Lanza's "new normal".

White Bird in a Blizzard tells the story of Kat's "new normal". It's a potent reminder of how adept our minds can be when they want to maintain the semblance of normality, of how keen our vision can be in some regards and how utterly myopic in others. See the movie, and read the book -- they complement each other beautifully.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

American Tabloid, by James Ellroy

James Ellroy is best known for his L.A. Quartet:  Black Dahlia, L.A. Confidential, The Big Nowhere, and White Jazz. I've been reading a fair amount of Nordic noir over the past few years, but this is my first foray into American noir. In this massive novel, Ellroy takes on all the shady characters of the Kennedy years -- gangsters, molls, CIA and FBI agents, Cubans of both the pro- and anti-Castro varieties, and of course, the Kennedys themselves. The majority of characters in the novel are historical figures, so the line between fact and fiction is hard to discern at times, but the overall effect is wildly vivid.

I was 20 months old when JFK died on 22 November, 1963. What sense I have of that era is what I've cobbled together from bits and pieces. Camelot, to Kennedy's supporters, was a time of innocence and youthful exuberance. Ellroy eviscerates the Camelot myth. Innocence? Even if I give Ellroy some creative license, his novel makes it abundantly clear how many individuals and groups had vested -- very vested -- interests in demolishing Camelot.  And they were so interconnected!  The Italian mobsters lost a fortune in casinos when Castro took over Cuba; they supported anti-Castro refugees. Howard Hughes had connections to the mob, oodles of money, a drug addiction that needed to be fed, and an insatiable lust for lurid gossip. Bobby Kennedy had it out for organised crime, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it was his father's underworld connections that had put his brother in the White House. JFK mishandled the Bay of Pigs invasion, leading to a wholesale slaughter of the Cubans who were trying to take their island back, and this infuriated the Cuban refugee community, the CIA (which had secretly backed and funded it), and the Mafia. J. Edgar Hoover had connections to nearly everyone and manipulated them all like chess pieces.
John Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, Robert Kennedy
The Kennedy political circle was every bit as corrupt as those before and after it.

As I said, this genre is new to me, so I can't compare Ellroy to other writers, but I would venture to guess that no one does gangsters like he does.  He seems to catch exactly the right tone without crossing the line into cliché or parody. Herschel Meyer (Heshie) Ryskind is one of Ellroy's creations, but he's clearly modelled on members of the Kosher Nostra -- Meyer Lansky, maybe.

An historical colleague is Jack Ruby (born Jacob Leon Rubenstein). Ellroy portrays Ruby as an ardent dog-lover (in the bestial sense) who is constantly surrounded by a variety of pooches in the sleazy nightclub he runs. I think the dog fancy may be purely fiction, but it's a vivid detail in Ellroy's picture of a weasel-like low-life who will cooperate with anyone who beats the stuffing out of him -- whether it's an Italian mobster or a CIA agent, to whom he describes the sex life of Heshie Ryskind.
Ruby said, "Heshie loves blow jobs. He gets blow jobs exclusively, 'cause he says it's good for his prostate. He told me he hasn't dipped the schnitzel since he was with the Purples back in the '30s and some shiksa tried to schlam him with a paternity suit. Heshie told me he's had over ten thousand blow jobs. He likes to watch "The Lawrence Welk Show" while he gets blown. He's got nine doctors for all these diseases he thinks he's got, and all the nurses blow him. That's how he knows it's good for his prostate."  
J. Edgar Hoover, head of the CIA, wants to keep his job, and Bobby Kennedy, Attorney General and
Jimmy Hoffa, Teamster Union boss
head of the Justice Department, is just as keen to depose him, vowing that Hoover will be fired when his brother is re-elected. Hoover is in cahoots with the mobsters when it suits him and when it serves his battle against RFK,  The Jewish and Italian mobsters are collaborators or foes, depending upon the circumstances, but they are united in their opposition to the Kennedys.  An inconvenient truth, however, is that Irish immigrant Joseph Kennedy, Sr. had very tight connections to both gangster communities.

Ellroy credits the Mafiosos with more brawn than brain-power. While this may be underestimating them (Jimmy Hoffa was in fact a law school graduate), it's entertaining, at least.
Hoffa said, "It's the handing down of grand jury indictments that bothers me. My lawyer said the Sun Valley thing is unlikely to go my way, which means indictments by the end of the year. So don't make Joe Kennedy sound like Jesus handing God the Ten Commandments on Mount Fucking Vesuvius." ...
Rosselli said, "It's Mount Ararat, Jimmy. Mount Vesuvius is in fucking Yellowstone Park."
Three characters -- all Ellroy creations -- weave through the whole novel like serpents, colluding with and opposing each other and every other character.  Pete Bondurant is essentially a thug-for-hire, and he's worked at some point for nearly every faction. Kemper Boyd is a former CIA man who still has ties within the agency, but he is equally comfortable in the Cuban refugee community, and he's enamoured of Jack Kennedy. He has so many irons in the fire that, when muddled, he can no longer remember which lies to tell. Ward Littell, a CIA agent, goes in and out of favour with Hoover, Boyd and Bondurant. At first charmed by Bobby Kennedy, he's soon disillusioned and joins forces with the underworld goons who would like to thwart him at least, or better still, to eliminate him altogether.
RFK, image of Fidel Castro, JFK
This change of heart puts Littell squarely back into Hoover's good graces. ("I will not comment on the attendant irony," as the Director is fond of saying.)

The skullduggery connected to the Cuban crisis is staggering. If Ellroy is even close to historically accurate, the CIA (probably with Mafia help) funded training camps to build invasion forces with anti-Communist refugees, and later -- when JFK had softened his stance on Castro -- to train teams of marksmen who would go to Cuba and assassinate him.

Silly me.  I'd thought drugging mercenaries was a recent phenomenon.
Pete meandered. The camp was Disneyland for killers. 
Six hundred Cubans. Fifty white men running herd. Twelve barracks, a drill field, a rifle range, a pistol range, a landing strip, a mess hall, an infiltration course and a chemical-warfare simulation tunnel. Three launch inlets gouged out of the Gulf a mile south. Four dozen amphibious crawlers rigged with .50-caliber machine guns. An ammo dump. A field hospital. A Catholic chapel with a bilingual chaplain. 
Pete meandered. Old Blessington grads waved hello. Case officers showed him some good shit. Dig Néstor Chasco--staging mock-assassination maneuvers. Dig that anti-Red indoctrination workshop. Dig the verbal abuse drills--calculated to increase troop subservience.
Dig the corpsman's amphetamine stash--pre-packaged preinvasion courage. Dig the action in that barbed-wire enclosure--peons flying on a drug called LSD. Some of them screamed. Some wept. Some grinned like LSD was a blast. A case officer said John Stanton hatched the idea-- let's flood Cuba with this shit before we invade.
Langley co-signed the brainstorm. Langley embellished it: Let's induce mass hallucinations and stage the Second Coming of Christ!!!!! Langley found some suicidal actors. Langley dolled them up to look like J.C. Langley had them set to pre-invade Cuba, concurrent with the dope saturation.
As Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy went on the warpath against organised crime. This has always baffled me, because it's well-known that his father had long-standing connections to the underworld, and that the Mafia had in fact pulled strings to get JFK elected. Ellroy's characters don't seem to understand it any better. Ward Littell, fictional CIA agent, goes on his own anti-corruption initiative and captures the account books of a secret "pension fund" which was essentially used for loan-sharking. He finally -- after an appalling chain of violence and death -- gets his hands on the account books and interprets the code in which the entries are written.
Among the Teamster Central States Pension Fund lendees: Twenty-four U.S. senators, nine governors, 114 congressmen, Allen Dulles, Rafael Trujillo, Fulgencio Batista, Anastasio Somoza, Juan Perón, Nobel Prize researchers, drug-addicted movie stars, loan sharks, labor racketeers, union-busting factory owners, Palm Beach socialites, rogue entrepreneurs, French rightwing crackpots with extensive Algerian holdings, and sixty-seven unsolved homicide victims extrapolatable as Pension Fund deadbeats. 
 The chief cash conduit/lender was one Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. 
Vivid, gritty and dirty. There's not a single clean character in American Tabloid. No one has spotless hands, and few make it out of the book alive. Absolutely none of them is trustworthy, except perhaps James Ellroy, whose voice is always dead sure.  

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

Illustration by Pieter van Eenoge for the
NY Times review of '
The Bone Clocks'
I adore David Mitchell. Each of his novels has left me flabbergasted, and I'm wondering what ailed the Man Booker Prize committee this year when they left The Bone Clocks off the short list.  (Mind you, I haven't yet read any of the novels that did make it onto the short list, so this is unadulterated, uninformed favouritism on my part.)  If they are as or more stunning than this book, I'd better get to reading them.

As with most of his previous novels, The Bone Clocks is a stunning example of literary architecture. In an interview on the radio show, To the Best of Our Knowledge, Mr. Mitchell says he is basically a writer of novellas. By breaking his novels into short pieces that span centuries and continents, he's able to indulge this need to write shorter, very diverse bits of fiction, which he then links together with overlapping themes or characters.  The link in The Bone Clocks is Holly Sykes, who appears as a teen-aged runaway when the book opens in 1984 and as an elderly grandmother in a very grim 2043 when it ends.  Various characters -- some human, others supernatural and "atemporal" -- come into and leave Holly's life in the book's seven chapters.

All of David Mitchell's architectural wizardry would seem contrived and pedantic if he didn't people his stories with characters who reel us in. The voice of Holly, who's run away from her working-class family in Gravesend, is so real that it makes me wonder where the persona of David Mitchell went when he was channeling her. Holly, after finding her older boyfriend in bed with her best friend, takes off on foot and ends up finding work on a strawberry farm.
Blue sky, fresh air, aching back but three pounds richer than I was when I picked my first strawberry. At eight-fifty, we start picking again. At school right now, Miss Swann our form teacher'll be taking the register, and when she reads out my name, there'll be no reply. "She's not here, miss," someone'll say, and Stella Yearwood should start to sweat, if she's got half a brain, which she has. If she's bragged about nicking my boyfriend, people'll guess why I'm not at school, and sooner or later the teachers'll hear and Stella's going to get summoned to Mr. Nixon's office. Maybe a copper'll be there too. If she's kept schtum about nicking Vinny, she'll be acting all cool like she knows nothing but she'll be panicking inside. So'll Vinny. Sex with a bit of young fluff's all well and good, I s'pose, as long as nothing goes wrong, but things'll look pretty different pretty quickly if I stay at Black Elm Farm for a couple more days. Suddenly I'm an underage schoolgirl whom Vincent Costello seduced with presents and alcohol for four weeks before she vanished without a trace; and Vincent Costello, twenty-five-year-old car salesman of Peacock Street, Gravesend, becomes a chief suspect. I'm not an evil person or anything, and I don't want Jacko or Dad or Sharon to lose sleep over me, specially Jacko, but putting Vinny and Stella through the mangle at least a bit is very, very tempting."

In the second section, we make an abrupt shift to Cambridge, and the narrator is a sociopathic student named Hugo Lamb. He's brilliant and amoral, a hedonist and womaniser. Perhaps it's his lack of empathy that makes him completely oblivious to the fact that the gorgeous woman who materialises in a pew across the aisle is not quite... normal. In any sense. They will meet again, but not under the sort of circumstances Hugo might have wished for.

Benjamin Britten's 'Hymn to the Virgin' launches, chasing its echoey tail around the sumptuous ceiling before dive-bombing the scattering of winter tourists and students sitting there in the chancel in our damp coats. For me, Britten's a hit-and-miss composer; prolix on occasion but, when pumped and primed, the old queen binds your quivering soul to the mast and lashes it with fiery sublimity...
The hairs on my neck prickle, as if blown on. By her, for example, sitting across the aisle. She wasn't there when I last looked. Her eyes are closed to drink in the music so I drink her in. Late thirties --vanilla hair, creamy-skinned, beaujolais lips, cheekbones you'd slice your thumb on.
Hugo jets off for a ski holiday at the Swiss chateau of one of his wealthier classmates. The four young Cambridge men haunt the posh clubs and bars at night, which is where Hugo meets a bar maid named Holly (with whom he's inexplicably smitten) and scores some first-class cocaine from the club owner.
I deposit the last of my coke in a swirl on the mirror and -- kids, don't try this at home, don't try it anywhere, Drugs Are Bad -- toke it up my left nostril in a powerful snort. For five seconds it stings like a nettle being threaded down my throat via my nose, until -- We have liftoff. The bass is reverberating in my bones and godalmightythat'sgood ...
Tiny lights I can't quite see pinprick the hedges of my field of vision. I emerge from the cubicle like the Son of God rolling away the stone, and inspect myself in the mirror -- all good, even if my pupils are more Varanus komodoensis than Homo sapiens.
(Yes, that is a reference to a Komodo dragon. Hold that thought.)  Meanwhile, Hugo returns to his group's table to find that his three companions have found some lovely African women to keep them company. They deride him for declining the company of a fourth one, but he, for once, steers clear. The following morning, his intuition proves to have been keen as the women demand enormous sums of cash in payment. When the three lads get stroppy about it, the women ring up their pimps.  Hugo pockets the cash he'd won from them in poker games (ignoring their calls up the stairs to him to give the money back to pay off the knife-wielding goons) and jumps out the window.  Back in the village, he buys a paper, orders a coffee and watches the scene at the ATM machine across the street from his seat at the cafe where Holly works.
Here Quinn makes three withdrawals with three different cards, before being frog-marched back. I hide behind a conveniently to-hand newspaper. A Normal would feel guilt or vindication; I feel as if I just watched a middle-of-the-road episode of Inspector Morse. "Morning, Poshboy," says Holly,
What did you do to your ankle? You're limping."
"I left my old accommodation a la Spiderman."
"And landed a la sack-of-Spudsman."
"My Scout pack did the Leaping from Buildings to Escape Violent Pimps badge the week I was away."
Holly, although she sees through Hugo's flirtations, somewhat grudgingly offers him shelter during the approaching blizzard. What she does not see at first is that, for once, Hugo's interest is genuine.
I watch her fingers, her loopable black hair, how her face hides and shows her inner weather. This isn't lust. Lust wants, does the obvious, and pads back into the forest. Love is greedier. Love wants round-the-clock care; protection; rings, vows, joint accounts; scented candles on birthdays; life insurance. Babies. Love's a dictator. I know this, yet the blast furnace in my ribcage roars You You You You You You just the same, and there's bugger-all I can do about it. The wind attacks the window.
Unfortunately, the associates of the beautiful woman in the Cambridge chapel are also genuinely interested in Hugo, and he disappears before he can pursue any rings or joint accounts with Holly.

The following chapter is narrated by Ed Brubeck, a childhood friend of Holly's, now the father of their young daughter, Aoife. Ed is a war reporter, and he and Holly are at odds -- he's addicted to his work, and she wants him to spend more time at home. Aoife, not surprisingly, is precocious and articulate. Much like David Mitchell, who blithely tosses a Komodo dragon into another chapter.
"Mummy wants to be a dolphin," says Aoife,"because they swim, talk a lot, smile, and they're loyal. Uncle Brendan wants to be a Komodo dragon, 'cause there're people on Gravesend Council he'd like to bite and shake to pieces, which is how Komodo dragons make their food smaller. Aunty Sharon wants to be an owl because owls are wise, and Aunt Ruth wants to be a sea otter so she can spend all day floating on her back in California and meet David Attenborough."
While attending a family wedding in the UK, Ed's thoughts continually flash back to the war in Iraq, which he describes with a clarity that was notably lacking in the politicians who organised it. Lacking, in fact, in some of the "soldiers"who fought it remotely.
A drone circled above us. It would be armed. I thought of its operator, picturing a crewcut nineteen-year-old called Ryan at a base in Dallas, sucking an ice-cold Frappuccino through a straw. He could open fire on the clinic, kill everyone in and near it, and never smell the cooked meat. To Ryan, we'd be pixellated thermal images on a screen, writhing about a bit, turning from yellow to red to blue.
Making his way back to Baghdad after a trip to Fallujah with his Iraqi photographer and fixer, Ed detours to see an American helicopter that's just been shot down. Arriving just after them, a group of Marines orders all the onlookers flat onto the ground, and Ed fears for his Iraqi colleagues' lives. He announces himself as a British journalist, and the commanding officer gives him a dressing-down that's a pointed warning against black & white sympathies.
Major Hackensack looked at the black marine and shook his head, then turned a malevolent gaze my way. "You just see a sewer-mouthed military man, don't you? You just see a cartoon character and a platoon of grunts. You think we deserve this" -- he nods at the wreckage -- "just for being here. But the dead, they had children, they had family, same as you. They wanted to make something of their lives, same as you. Hell, they were lied to about this war, same as you. But unlike you, British journalist, they paid for other peoples' bullshit with their lives. They were braver than you. They were better than you. They deserve more than you. So you and Batman and Robin there, get the fuck out of my sight."
Now we jump to a literary festival at which irascible "bad boy of English letters" Crispin Hershey is at war with reviewer Richard Cheeseman who has just flamed his latest novel.  Hershey is a bitter, angry egomaniac who can rarely be bothered to learn anyone's name, but at the signing he learns -- and will never forget -- the name of the fellow author at the next table.
The place is pullulant with punters, cordoned by festival heavies into a snaking queue of Crispin Hershey faithful. Look on my works, Richard Cheeseman, and despair! They'll be reprinting Echo Must Die by the weekend and a V2 of money is headed straight for the House of Hershey! Victoriously, I gain my table, sit down, knock back the glass of white wine served by the Festival Elf, unsheathe the Sharpie -- and realize that all these people are here not for me, God sod it, but for a woman sitting at a table ten feet away. My own queue numbers fifteen. Or ten. More frumpet than crumpet. Editor Oliver has turned the colour of elderly chicken slices, so I scowl at Publicity Girl for an explanation. "That's, um, Holly Sykes." Oliver's color returns. "That's Holly Sykes? Jesus."
I growl, "Who in the name of buggery is Holey Spikes?"
"Holly Sykes,"says Publicity Girl, falling down the sar-chasm.
Over the years, Crispin develops an odd friendship with Holly, who seems to fill his own sar-chasm with a heightened sense of humanity. He accepts a position at a college in upstate New York, teaching creative writing. Suddenly, I wondered, is David Mitchell channeling the voice of Crispin, or vice versa?
For most digital-age writers, writing is rewriting. We grope, cut, block, paste, and twitch, panning for gold onscreen by deleting bucketloads of crap. Our analog ancestors had to polish every line mentally before hammering it out mechanically. Rewrites cost them months, meters of ink ribbon, and pints of Tippex. Poor sods. ...
"A writer flirts with schizophrenia, nurtures synesthesia, and embraces obsessive-compulsive disorder. Your art feeds on you, your soul, and, yes, to a degree, your sanity. Writing novels worth reading will bugger up your mind, jeopardize your relationships, and distend your life. You have been warned." My ten postgrads look sober. So they should. "Art feasts upon its maker," I tell them.
The sixth chapter is narrated by one of the Horologists, the small group of atemporals who find themselves reincarnated repeatedly throughout time. It's always a bit shocking to them to run into each other again in later incarnations. The narrator, Dr. Marinus, is a middle-aged female psychiatrist. Another character remembers having met her in 16th century Japan, which is, coincidentally, where a Dr. Marinus appeared in very different form in one of David Mitchell's earlier novels, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
"God's blood! Marinus -- the doctor, on Dejima. Big man, red face, white hair, Dutch, an irascible know-it-all. You were there when HMS Phoebus blasted the place to matchwood."
I experienced a feeling akin to vertigo. "You were there?"
"I watched it happen. From the magistrate's pavilion."
"But -- who were you?"
Although this sort of play is great fun, The Bone Clocks is not pure whimsy. The interviewer on To the Best of Our Knowledge asked David Mitchell why he chose to mix genres in this novel (and most of his others), and why he elected to introduce supernatural aspects. This proved to be a question that Mitchell has heard all too often and is weary of. I don't care about sticking to one genre or another, he replied. I just want to write the best novel I can. If it crosses genre lines, so be it.

By introducing atemporals -- beings who are either immortal or reincarnated repeatedly -- he was able to consider how we might treat the world if we knew we were going to be in it for longer than one human lifetime. We would certainly not, he suggested, treat it with such callous disregard. His vision of the 'Endarkenment' makes the 14th century look like a picnic, and worse, it feels all too plausible.

An elderly Holly narrates this final chapter, set in 2043.
Five years later, I take a deep, shuddery breath to stop myself crying. It's not just that I can't hold Aoife again, it's everything: It's grief for the regions we deadlanded, the ice caps we melted, the Gulf Stream we redirected, the rivers we drained, the coasts we flooded, the lakes we choked with crap, the seas we killed, the species we drove to extinction, the pollinators we wiped out, the oil we squandered, the drugs we rendered impotent, the comforting liars we voted into office -- all so we didn't have to change our cozy lifestyles. People talk about the Endarkenment like our ancestors talked about the Black Death, as if it's an act of God. But we summoned it, with every tank of oil we burned our way through. My generation were diners stuffing ourselves senseless at the Restaurant of the Earth's Riches knowing -- while denying -- that we'd be doing a runner and leaving our grandchildren a tab that can never be paid.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Not My Daughter, by Barbara Delinsky

The premise of this novel caught my attention, but it promised more than it delivered.  Four girls, seniors in high school in a Maine town and close friends, make a pact to become pregnant, and three of them succeed. Their decision shocks their parents and, in fact nearly everyone in town -- these girls are at the top of their class, on a track for top-rated colleges, not teen motherhood. To complicate matters, the mother of one of the girls is the principal of the high school, and she comes under attack from the school board, whose conservative members are displeased with her handling of the media storm inspired by the pregnancy pact and find her (a single mother herself) a less than upstanding role model.

The three girls, despite their ostensible intelligence, didn't seem to consider that their behaviour would disrupt their social lives at school, cause a firestorm in the community and put their parents in tenuous positions, both socially and professionally.These girls are from upper middle-class, but more important, loving and grounded families. They are not having babies to fill emotional voids. When asked why on earth they've willfully decided to get pregnant at 17, the only answer any of them can proffer is that they all like babies. None of it is believable. Their parents, friends and neighbours can't get their heads around it, and neither can we readers.

It all ends happily -- the principal keeps her job and marries the father of her daughter (and the grandfather of their new grandson).  The three girls deliver three lovely, healthy babies, although one of them has a scare during the pregnancy, wailing that it had never occurred to her that she could have anything but a perfect baby. Again, I could only shake my head and resist the urge to throttle my Kindle in lieu of the naive, irresponsible, clueless girl.

I know that pact behaviour amongst adolescents is an alarming thing, whether they're suicide pacts, pregnancy pacts, drinking & drugging pacts, or whatever. This novel brought me no closer to understanding the dynamics of teen pacts, and the happily-ever-after ending certainly whitewashed any negative effects in this case. All's well that ends well? So it would seem. What can I say? I'm just happy that none of Ms. Delinsky's feckless teenagers is my daughter.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Songbird, by AJ Adams

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you well know that erotic organised crime thrillers aren't the genre that I reach for first.

Many moons ago, I worked in the publishing industry. In possession of a BA in Linguistics from an elite women's college in the eastern US, I went to work for a small publisher in Boston, editing gay men's porn, predominantly S&M. (This item never featured in my college's alumnae news, rest assured.) I learned a great many things in that job, most of which one doesn't mention in polite company. Here, though, was the central lesson: Good writers write good books, regardless of the subject. A talented writer will take you into a genre you'd not otherwise consider and make you glad you went there.

Now, many decades later, I'm living in Phnom Penh. I mentioned to a friend that I'd love some part-time work. She recommended that I set up a gig on Fiverr, a web site that allows all manner of freelancers to offer their services in $5 increments. As my friend writes erotic fiction, she suggested that I offer editing services specifically for erotica. She's found it challenging, she said, to find editors who will take on sexually explicit manuscripts.  I have no shame.  I set up one gig to edit general text and another for editing erotica.

The amount of work that has streamed in via this site has amazed and delighted me. Between the two gigs, I've drafted and edited web site copy for a Mallorca construction company, promo copy for a boudoir photography studio, a non-fiction book on women's orgasm, marketing materials for a new app to connect fitness nuts with gyms and trainers, and an application essay for a seminary in California. I relish the contact with the customers around the world and the diversity of the things they write and care about.  A few manuscripts have left me cold or put me off altogether, but thankfully, it's been only a handful.

The manuscript for Songbird was the longest submission  I've received since resuming my editing career, and it was an absolute treat.

Solitaire is the plucky and far-from-angelic heroine who falls in with the Princeton-educated boss of a Mexican cartel. There's plenty of sex, violence and a collection of Spanish epithets you're unlikely to pick up anywhere apart from a Guadalajara fish market. The key, though, is the two edgy, intelligent protagonists drawn by a very savvy author.

AJ Adams deftly mixes black humour and verbal quips with the darkness and intensity of her subject matter. Arturo, the cartel boss, says of a dirty London cop, "I now owned Davis from dandruff to bunions, but I still didn’t trust him a fucking inch." This novel is escapism with brains. It's gruesome in places, and it's funny. The sex is torrid. It's a really well-crafted novel that stands far above most of the others in its genre.  (And, I'm chuffed to tell you, it now has nary a comma nor an apostrophe out of place!)

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt

I didn't finish this novel. I frequently glanced at the title and thought of setting it on fire, but that, I suppose, is one more selling point for paper books. I'm not prepared to throw my Kindle on the flames just to incinerate one book.

Some time ago, I made a vow that I would stop reading a book at a certain point if I grew too frustrated. I've really struggled with this. I feel that quitting a book shows a lack of endurance, and I also worry that the fault lies with me and not with the book.  By the time I decided to quit The Blazing World, I'd grown angry about having spent so much time on it. I wanted it to live up to what I thought it had promised. I wanted to like this book, but one evening, I noticed that I was staring vacantly at the Kindle screen and pressing it intermittently to advance the pages.  My eyes weren't even moving over the lines of text -- my mind was worlds away.  I just wanted to reach the end of the book, no longer caring what happened in the meantime.

One of the reasons I selected this book was that it was on the Man Booker Prize long list this year. I've heard readers say that they pay no attention whatever to book awards, usually with their noses slightly elevated. I do pay attention to the awards, their long lists, short lists and winners, simply because someone thought these particular books worthwhile. There aren't any proper bookshops in Phnom Penh, certainly no libraries. Browsing is not an option, so I look to on-line reviews and lists to get ideas of what to read. Of course the Man Booker panel is comprised of human beings, each with his or her own prejudices, preferences and axes to grind.  If they pick 10 or 15 books for the long list, they necessarily exclude thousands.  Generally, though, I think the books that make the award lists are noteworthy. The Blazing World didn't make it onto the short list, and it certainly got bumped off any list of mine, but making an effort to read a novel and failing is perhaps educational in its own way.

Harriet (Harry) Burden is a frustrated, embittered, widowed  New York artist. Although she'd been married to a prominent NY art dealer, Harriet's work had achieved little or no renown. After her husband's death, she concocts a plan to show her own work under the names of three different male artists.

I liked the premise. I could see some interesting plot twists had the male artists' shows been wildly more successful than Harriet's own efforts.  But they weren't.  Harriet Burden is an erudite woman, and she appears to manipulate the younger, less intellectual male artists with whom she's ostensibly collaborating. If she felt victimised by a sexist arts scene, I felt that she victimised these young men no less.

As I gave up on this book, I also thought about all the reviews I've read (and ranted about), in which the reviewer says, "None of the characters in this book is likeable!"  Likeable? Who says that characters need to be likeable to be captivating?  I certainly didn't like Harriet Burden (or any other character in this book), so had I fallen into a category of reviewers that I scorned?

No. I can think of many books whose characters I disliked, and yet I respected the books themselves. Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road pops into my head.  I didn't like either of the main characters, but I could empathise with both of them in one way or another. I wanted to see what they would do next, fearing that they'd disappoint me (and they did!). Harriet "Harry" Burden was simply burdensome.  She annoyed me. I didn't care whether she came to a bad end or redeemed herself.  For several hundred pages, she had proved nothing more than tendentious, tedious and self-absorbed. Are women slighted in the New York arts scene? I'm not even sure of that. Did Harriet have any notable talent? That's not clear, either.  Harriet, like so many other New Yorkers, spent far too much time for my liking thinking solely about herself and finding herself far more interesting and relevant than I could find her.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Patrick Melrose novels, by Edward St. Aubyn

Edward St. Aubyn is the antidote to the BBC depiction of the British aristocracy. Still sighing and swooning after watching your Brideshead Revisited DVDs for the tenth time? The Patrick Melrose novels will snap you out of it.

I first heard of Edward St. Aubyn when Guardian writer Mariella Frostrup interviewed him for her 'Books and Authors' podcast. If his accent hadn't convinced me of his place in the English social hierarchy, his remark about his family owning its estate in Cornwall since the Norman Conquest did the trick. As he talked about his highly autobiographical fiction, riddled with incest, psychological violence and substance abuse, though, he began to sound more like a contemporary Edward Gibbon, documenting the decline and fall of the British Empire. When he read an excerpt, it struck me that he shared Gibbon's droll sense of humour that made the psychological carnage so much more bearable.

Recording family and childhood tragedy with humour is fraught with risk -- get it wrong, and you sound bitterly sarcastic or frivolous and superficial.  Edward St. Aubyn got it right: his wit never trivialises his characters' suffering -- it adds some levity to a tale that might well otherwise be relentlessly black.

In Never Mind, we experience one day in the life of five year-old Patrick.  This is our first introduction to his mother, Eleanor.  (Patrick had been conceived when her husband, David, raped her on a staircase.)
Eleanor Melrose stormed her way up the shallow steps from the kitchen to the drive. Had she walked more slowly, she might have tottered, stopped, and sat down in despair on the low wall that ran along the side of the steps. She felt defiantly sick in a way she dared not challenge with food and had already aggravated with a cigarette. She had brushed her teeth after vomiting but the bilious taste was still in her mouth. She had brushed her teeth before vomiting as well, never able to utterly crush the optimistic streak in her nature...
She imagined vodka poured over ice and all the cubes that had been frosted turning clear and collapsing in the glass and the ice cracking, like a spine in the hands of a confident osteopath. All the sticky, awkward cubes of ice floating together, tinkling, their frost thrown off to the side of the glass, and the vodka cold and unctuous in her mouth. 
Eleanor is the daughter of a wealthy American industrialist; she tries to recall what attracted her to her dreadful husband and concludes that it was a quality that sets British aristocrats apart from the rest of the world.
When she had first met David twelve years ago, she had been fascinated by his looks. The expression that men feel entitled to wear when they stare out of a cold English drawing room onto their own land had grown stubborn over five centuries and perfected itself in David’s face. It was never quite clear to Eleanor why the English thought it was so distinguished to have done nothing for a long time in the same place, but David left her in no doubt that they did...  He was also descended from Charles II through a prostitute.
Eleanor concedes that David was not born a sadist -- he'd been moulded into one by his father.
There had been a time when she admired the way that David became a doctor. When he had told his father of his intention, General Melrose had immediately cut off his annuity, preferring to use the money to rear pheasants. Shooting men and animals were the occupations of a gentleman, tending their wounds the business of middle-class quacks. That was the General’s view, and he was able to enjoy more shooting as a consequence of holding it. General Melrose did not find it difficult to treat his son coldly. The first time he had taken an interest in him was when David left Eton, and his father asked him what he wanted to do. David stammered, ‘I’m afraid I don’t know, sir,’ not daring to admit that he wanted to compose music. It had not escaped the General’s attention that his son fooled about on the piano, and he rightly judged that a career in the army would put a curb on this effeminate impulse. ‘Better join the army,’ he said, offering his son a cigar with awkward camaraderie. 
David, however, had given up his career when he married a wealthy wife, choosing to devote all his energy to making her life a living hell.
He had stopped his medical practice soon after their marriage. At the beginning, there had been talk of using some of her money to start a home for alcoholics. In a sense they had succeeded. 
David Melrose is an angry, cruel man, always on the lookout for victims. Unfortunately for them, Eleanor and Patrick are the most highly available ones. Just before lunch, David feels a rush of rage overcoming him, and he bellows for Patrick to report to his bedroom, to be punished for some unknown (at least to Patrick) wrong.  St. Aubyn treats the sexual molestation of five year-old Patrick with tremendous skill -- the child essentially has an out-of-body experience, transporting himself into a gecko he watches on the wall as his father abuses him. As for David, he feels perhaps a small pang of guilt, but it doesn't interfere with his hearty lunch, and he justifies his actions as a routine part of his approach to child-rearing.
David’s methods of education rested on the claim that childhood was a romantic myth which he was too clear-sighted to encourage. Children were weak and ignorant miniature adults who should be given every incentive to correct their weakness and their ignorance. Like King Chaka, the great Zulu warrior, who made his troops stamp thorn bushes into the ground in order to harden their feet, a training some of them may well have resented at the time, he was determined to harden the calluses of disappointment and develop the skill of detachment in his son. After all, what else did he have to offer him? 
In the late afternoon, guests begin to arrive at the estate for dinner, retiring to guest rooms to rest, bathe and dress. David's friend Nicholas is one of the few who can keep up with his acerbic wit, having shared the same privileged upbringing and education. Nicholas' latest squeeze is a bit of a rough girl, but Bridget is shrewd in her own way.  The two of them wander in and out of the subsequent novels, but not together. After spending a few minutes on a page with David and Nicholas, Bridget feels like a breath of fresh air, just a wee bit cloudy with pot smoke.
Bridget looked critically at Nicholas’s body as he clambered to his feet. He had got a lot fatter in the past year. Maybe older men were not the answer. Twenty-three years was a big difference and at twenty, Bridget had not yet caught the marriage fever that tormented the older Watson-Scott sisters as they galloped towards the thirtieth year of their scatterbrained lives. All Nicholas’s friends were such wrinklies and some of them were a real yawn. You couldn’t exactly drop acid with Nicholas. Well, you could; in fact, she had, but it wasn’t the same as with Barry. Nicholas didn’t have the right music, the right clothes, the right attitude. She felt quite bad about Barry, but a girl had to keep her options open. The thing about Nicholas was that he really was rich and beautiful and he was a baronet, which was nice and sort of Jane Austeny.

At the beginning of the second novel, Bad News, the adult Patrick receives word of his father's death. That's the good news. The bad news becomes evident as he packs for the trip to New York to collect his father's ashes, checking to be sure he's remembered all the right stuff -- Qaaludes, cocaine, sleeping pills -- all the while thinking if or when he might score some good heroin.  As  often as he tells himself that he won't do it, won't touch the heroin this time, it becomes clear that it's taken ownership of him.
No, he mustn't think about it, or indeed about anything, and especially not about heroin, because heroin was the only thing that really worked, the only thing that stopped him scampering around in a hamster's wheel of unanswerable questions. Heroin was the cavalry. Heroin was the missing chair leg, made with such precision that it matched every splinter of the break. Heroin landed purring at the base of his skull, and wrapped itself darkly around his nervous system, like a black cat curling up on its favourite cushion. It was as soft and rich as the throat of a wood pigeon, or the splash of sealing wax onto a page, or a handful of gems slipping from palm to palm. The way other people felt about love, he felt about heroin, and he felt about love the way other people felt about heroin: that it was a dangerous and incomprehensible waste of time. What could he say to Debbie? "Although you know that my hatred for my father, and my love for drugs, are the most important relationships in my life, I want you to know that you come in third."
Patrick rings up his trusted NY dealer, a French man named Pierre. No answer. He goes out and scores from his street dealer, Chilly Willy, who, alas, cannot also provide a clean syringe. Chilly's girlfriend grudgingly hands over a used one, warning that the needle is really too big, but it's all she's got. The scene in which Patrick tries to get the drug into his vein -- and misses -- is both a stomach-churning image and a testament to his incredible need. At last he reaches Pierre and sets an appointment to buy some better stuff.
"You score off the street!" barked Pierre disapprovingly."You fucking crazy!"
"But you were asleep."
"You shoot with tap water?"
"Yes," admitted Patrick guiltily.
"You crazy," glared Pierre."Come in here, I show you." He walked through to his grimy and narrow kitchen. Opening the door of the big old-fashioned fridge, he took out a large jar of water. "This is tap water," said Pierre ominously, holding up the jar. "I leave it one month and look!" He pointed to a diffuse brown sediment at the bottom of the jar."Rust," he said, "it's a fucking killer! I have one friend who shoot with tap water and the rust get in his bloodstream and his heart -- " Pierre chopped the air with his hand and said, "Tak: it stop."
"That's appalling," murmured Patrick, wondering when they were going to do business.
Pierre also sells cocaine, which Patrick likes to inject before the heroin.
Unlike Pierre he preferred to take coke on its own until the tension and fear were unbearable, then he would send in the Praetorian Guard of heroin to save the day from insanity and defeat.
I have never used either heroin or cocaine and have no intention of doing so, but I've long felt that "Just say NO to drugs" is a simplistic and ineffectual approach. Many people I talked to in Malaysia viewed drug abuse and addiction as a moral failure, blind to the reasons people turn to narcotics and stimulants.  I would like to assign all these folks to read Bad News.  I've yet to find anyone who can relate the wonders and the horrors of heroin better than Edward St. Aubyn.
Taking no risks, he stuck the spike into a thick vein in the back of his hand. The smell of cocaine assailed him and he felt his nerves stretching like piano wires. The heroin followed in a soft rain of felt hammers playing up his spine and rumbling into his skull. He groaned contentedly and scratched his nose. It was so pleasurable, so fucking pleasurable. How could he ever give up? It was love. It was coming home. It was Ithaca, the end of all his storm-tossed wanderings. He dropped the syringe into the top drawer, staggered across the room, and sprawled on the bed. Peace at last. The mingling lashes of half-closed eyes, the slow reluctant flutter of folding wings; his body pounded by felt hammers, pulses dancing like sand on a drum; love and poison evacuating his breath in a long slow exhalation, fading into a privacy he could never quite remember, nor for a moment forget. His thoughts shimmered like a hesitating stream, gathering into pools of discrete and vivid imagery. He pictured his feet walking through a damp London square, his shoes sealing wet leaves darkly to the pavement. In the square, the heat from a heap of smouldering leaves syruped the air, and billows of yellow smoke skewed the sunlight like a broken wheel, its spokes scattered among the balding plane trees. The lawn was littered with dead branches, and from the railings he watched the sad and acrid ceremony, his eyes irritated by the smoke.

In the aptly titled third novel, Some Hope, Patrick seems to have kicked his drug habit, and as he did in the first two books, St. Aubyn focuses on one episode. This time it's a lavish birthday party, which is gathering the nobility, the aristocracy, and the affluent from all over England.  While en route to the country estate with his friend, Johnny, Patrick discloses for the first time the abuse his father meted out during his childhood. Johnny listens and responds sympathetically, but when he starts to mingle with the party guests, Patrick realises that he cannot demonise his father entirely. At least not in these social circles.
"Do you know, it's a funny thing," he went on in a more serious tone, "hardly a day passes without my thinking of your father."
"Same here," said Patrick,"but I've got a good excuse."
"So have I," said Bunny."He helped me at a time when I was in an extremely wobbly state."
"He helped to put me into an extremely wobbly state," said Patrick.
"I know a lot of people found him difficult," admitted Bunny, "and he may have been at his most difficult with his children -- people usually are -- but I saw another side of his personality. After Lucy died, at a time when I really couldn't cope at all, he took care of me and stopped me drinking myself to death, listened with enormous intelligence to hours of black despair, and never used what I told him against me."
"The fact that you mention his not using anything you said against you is sinister enough."
"You can say what you like," said Bunny bluntly, "but your father probably saved my life." He made an inaudible excuse and moved away abruptly...
Even when he had gone to New York to collect his ashes, Patrick had not been completely convinced by the simple solution of loathing his father. Bunny's loyalty to David made Patrick realize that his real difficulty might be in acknowledging the same feelings in himself. What had there been to admire about his father? ... All of David's virtues and talents had been double-edged, but however vile he had been he had not been deluded, most of the time, and had accepted with some stoicism his well-deserved suffering. It was not admiration that would reconcile him to his father, or even the famously stubborn love of children for their parents, able to survive far worse fates than Patrick's...
Simplification was dangerous and would later take its revenge. Only when he could hold in balance his hatred and his stunted love, looking on his father with neither pity nor terror but as another human being who had not handled his personality especially well; only when he could live with the ambivalence of never forgiving his father for his crimes but allowing himself to be touched by the unhappiness that had produced them as well as the unhappiness they had produced, could he be released, perhaps, into a new life that would enable him to live instead of merely surviving. He might even enjoy himself. Patrick grunted nervously. Enjoy himself?
In the same reflective mood, Patrick considers his mother, Eleanor, who was completely unequipped to deal with her husband's cruelty, never mind protecting their son from his depradations.
It would probably be better if women arrested in their own childhood didn't have children with tormented misogynist homosexual paedophiles, but nothing was perfect in this sublunary world, thought Patrick, glancing up devoutly at the moon which was of course hidden, like the rest of the sky during an English winter, by a low swab of dirty cloud. His mother was really a good person, but like almost everybody she had found her compass spinning in the magnetic field of intimacy.
Some Hope, however, is not consumed with Patrick's contemplation of his hellish childhood. St. Aubyn has gathered all the great and the good to this one over-the-top party so that he, like Waugh and Wilde before him, can poke fun at them.  In a bold bit of lèse-majesté, he even brings Princess Margaret to the table and mocks both her hauteur and the toadying of the other guests. Patrick's friend Johnny is unruffled, which in turn irks "PM".
"And who are you?" she asked Johnny in the most gracious possible manner. "Johnny Hall," said Johnny, extending a hand. The republican omission of ma'am, and the thrusting and unacceptable invitation to a handshake, were enough to convince the Princess that Johnny was a man of no importance. "It must be funny having the same name as so many other people," she speculated. "I suppose there are hundreds of John Halls up and down the country."
"It teaches one to look for distinction elsewhere and not to rely on an accident of birth," said Johnny casually.
"That's where people go wrong," said the Princess, compressing her lips, "there is no accident in birth." She swept on before Johnny had a chance to reply...
"Jesus," sighed Anne, surveying the room, "what a grim bunch. Do you think they keep them in the deep freeze at Central Casting and thaw them out for big occasions?"
"If only," said Patrick. "Unfortunately I think they own most of the country."

As the evening wears down, however, Patrick realises that the storied stiff upper lip of the British aristocracy is not simply a testament to great inner strength but also to a developed callousness that is passed on to subsequent generations.  Patrick's father, David, had suffered and survived, and so, Patrick tells a friend, he simply continued in the traditional belief that a brutal upbringing would only improve his son.
"What impresses me more than the repulsive superstition that I should turn the other cheek, is the intense unhappiness my father lived with. I ran across a diary his mother wrote during the First World War. After pages of gossip and a long passage about how marvellously they'd managed to keep up the standards at some large country house, defying the Kaiser with the perfection of their cucumber sandwiches, there are two short sentences: 'Geoffrey wounded again', about her husband in the trenches, and 'David has rickets', about her son at his prep school. Presumably he was not just suffering from malnutrition, but being assaulted by paedophiliac schoolmasters and beaten by older boys. This very traditional combination of maternal coldness and official perversion helped to make him the splendid man he turned into, but to forgive someone, one would have to be convinced that they'd made some effort to change the disastrous course that genetics, class, or upbringing proposed for them."

The fourth novel in the series, Mother's Milk, was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2006. In it, we return to the child's point of view, but this time it's Patrick's first son, Robert.  Patrick's wife, Mary, has devoted herself entirely to motherhood, giving all her attention to their sons, Robert and the younger Thomas, leaving Patrick feeling neglected. Patrick, however, has his own maternal concerns: His own mother has decided to will the lovely French house in which Patrick grew up to a new-age foundation that will be run by a shifty Irish conman named Seamus. While Patrick rages, Robert finds the whole affair bewildering.
He loved it down here at his grandmother's house. His family only came once a year, but they had been every year since he was born. Her house was a Transpersonal Foundation. He didn't really know what that was, and nobody else seemed to know either, even Seamus Dourke, who ran it. "Your grandmother is a wonderful woman," he had told Robert, looking at him with his dim twinkly eyes. "She's helped a lot of people to connect."
"With what?" asked Robert.
"With the other reality."
Sometimes he didn't ask grown-ups what they meant because he thought it would make him seem stupid; sometimes it was because he knew they were being stupid. This time it was both.
Eleanor, Patrick's mother, is increasingly susceptible to Seamus' schemes as her mind slips away and her speech fails her (as it always had).  Patrick, Mary and the boys come to visit her in the nursing home, and as they drive home, Robert is the silent witness in the back seat to his father's tumultuous feelings.
"I thought Eleanor did very well," said his mother. "I was very moved when she said that she was brave."
"What can drive a man mad is being forced to have the emotion which he is forbidden to have at the same time," said his father. "My mother's treachery forced me to be angry, but then her illness forced me to feel pity instead. Now her recklessness makes me angry again but her bravery is supposed to smother my anger with admiration. Well, I'm a simple sort of a fellow, and the fact is that I remain fucking angry," he shouted, banging the steering wheel.
On a family trip to visit Eleanor's wealthy relatives in the United States, Patrick's anger at his mother bubbles through at every turn. Unlike his own father, Patrick doesn't take out his rage directly on his sons, but his bitterness still splatters them.
"I liked the Park," said Robert.
"The Park's nice," his father conceded,"but the rest of the country is just people in huge cars wondering what to eat next. When we hire a car you'll see that it's really a mobile dining room, with little tables all over the place and cup holders. It's a nation of hungry children with real guns. If you're not blown up by a bomb, you're blown up by a Vesuvio pizza. It's absolutely terrifying."
"Please stop,"   said Robert.
As he sees the wealth enjoyed and stewarded by his mother's family in America while Eleanor is passing her own inheritance to a dodgy charity is more than Patrick can bear.
Beyond the wood they passed a hangar where huge fans, consuming enough electricity to run a small village, kept agapanthus warm in the winter. Next to the hangar was a hen house somewhat larger than Patrick's London flat, and so strangely undefiled that he couldn't help wondering if these were genetically modified hens which had been crossed with cucumbers to stop them from defecating. Beth walked over the fresh sawdust, under the red heat lamps, and discovered three speckled brown eggs in the laying boxes. Every plate of scrambled eggs must cost her several thousand dollars. The truth was that he hated the very rich, especially since he was never going to be one of them.
Of course the wealthy in the United States have their own woes -- perhaps slightly different than those stinging their British counterparts. Patrick's wife, Mary, tries to locate his cousin Sally at one of her many residences.
When she rang Sally there was no answer in Long Island. Eventually she found her in New York. "We had to come back to the city because our water tank burst and flooded the apartment downstairs. Our neighbours are suing us, so we're suing the plumbers who only put the tank in last year. The plumbers are suing the tank company for defective design. And the residents are suing the building, even though they're all on vacation, because the water was cut off for two days instead of two hours, which caused them a lot of mental stress in Tuscany and Nantucket."
"Gosh," said Mary. "What's wrong with mopping up and getting a new water tank?"
"That is so English," said Sally, delighted by Mary's quaint stoicism.

And then, At Last -- the fifth and final novel, in which Eleanor has died, and the usual suspects gather for her funeral.  Nicholas, the snide family friend whom we first met in Bad News, turns up.  He reminisces with Nancy, Eleanor's sister, as she recalls her own mother's property acquisition skills.

"But you can't pretend that your mother was a fan of the common man. Didn't she buy the entire village street that ran along the boundary wall of the Pavillon Colombe, in order to demolish it and expand the garden? How many houses was that?"
"Twenty-seven," said Nancy, cheering up. "They weren't all demolished. Some of them were turned into exactly the right kind of ruin to go with the house. There were follies and grottos, and Mummy had a replica made of the main house, only fifty times smaller. We used to have tea there, it was like something out of Alice in Wonderland." Nancy's face clouded over. "There was a horrible old man who refused to sell, although Mummy offered him far too much for his poky little house, and so there was an inward bulge following the line of the old wall, if you see what I'm saying."
"Every paradise demands a serpent," said Nicholas.

Nancy herself married well and carried on in the lifestyle to which she'd become accustomed.  To which, in fact, she couldn't seem to do without.
When the Crash came, lawyers flew in from America to ask the Craigs to rack their brains for something they could do without. They thought and thought. They obviously couldn't sell Sunninghill Park. They had to go on entertaining their friends. It would be too cruel and too inconvenient to sack any of the servants. They couldn't do without the house in Bruton Street for overnight stays in London. They needed two Rolls-Royces and two chauffeurs because Daddy was incorrigibly punctual and Mummy was incorrigibly late. In the end they sacrificed one of the six newspapers that each guest received with their breakfast. The lawyers relented. The pools of Jonson money were too deep to pretend there was a crisis; they were not stock-market speculators, they were industrialists and owners of great blocks of urban America. People would always need hardened fats and dry-cleaning fluids and somewhere to live.
Because Patrick seems too muddled and conflicted to manage it, Mary arranges Eleanor's funeral, doing her keep it in line with what Eleanor might have wished. Alas, the result is not what most of the mourners would have liked.  Nancy, for one, is abjectly unimpressed with the whole affair.
All these readings from the Bible were getting on Nancy's nerves. She didn't want to think about death -- it was depressing. At a proper funeral there were amazing choirs that didn't usually sing at private events, and tenors who were practically impossible to get hold of, and readings by famous actors or distinguished public figures. It made the whole thing fun and meant that one hardly ever thought about death, even when the readings were exactly the same, because one was struggling to remember when some tired-looking person had been chancellor of the exchequer, or what the name of their last movie was. That was the miracle of glamour. The more she thought about it, the more furious she felt about Eleanor's dreary funeral. Why, for instance, had she decided to be cremated? Fire was something one dreaded. Fire was something one insured against. The Egyptians had got it right with the pyramids. What could be cosier than something huge and permanent with all one's things tucked away inside (and other people's things as well! Lots and lots of things!) built by thousands of slaves who took the secret of the construction with them to unmarked graves. Nowadays one would have to make prohibitive social-security payments to teams of unionized construction workers. That was modern life for you. Nevertheless, some sort of big monument was infinitely preferable to an urn and a handful of dust.
Read as fiction, the Patrick Melrose novels are a marvel. Reading them as slightly fictionalised autobiography, I marvel that Edward St. Aubyn survived the effects of his childhood, and what's more, seems to have broken out of the family mould. I suppose writing these books was both catharsis and revenge, and I hold him in equal parts brilliant and heroic.