Lucy and Todd

A View of the Empire at Sunset — Caryl Phillips

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on September 1, 2018 at 9:05 am

The novelist Jean Rhys, born Ella Gwendolyn Williams in the Caribbean in 1890, was sent to England at the age of 16. Under the thumb of one of those aunts that everybody seemed to have then, she wasn’t impressed. From the start of A View of the Empire at Sunset, Caryl Phillips’s odd rehearsal of Rhys’s life in novel form, she appears as a woman who just naturally baffled people. Something in her looks and demeanour drove people in authority slightly crazy. But there was nothing overtly rebellious about this girl. When she was upset about something, she would climb a tree and sit there for hours. Lots of people do that.

Her mother, a hopeless neurotic, struggled to hold herself and her children above the Negroes, for whom she had great contempt. Her father was the chief medical officer in Dominica, a heavy drinker, and gossiped about. He was Welsh, with disdain for the growing English population there. ‘Gwennie’, as she was called, became a regular at the island’s new Carnegie library. One day the librarian told her an English ‘lady novelist’ was going to visit the island.

As an avid reader (whose urge to write, though, was still nascent), Gwennie attended this event. The woman turned out to be an upholstered bore, worse than that, a poet, reading stuff from the bottom of the drawer. Her father had predicted exactly this: “she wondered how on earth her father had managed so quickly to understand the truth about this woman without ever setting eyes upon her.” Dr Williams seems to have been possessed of a certain sly prescience about things, which he might have passed on to his daughter.

Mocked at her Cambridge school, she leaves for the theatrical life. She has a couple of showgirl pals, hardly dedicated to their art, but using it as a way to get husbands of some description. One of them cautions Gwennie about her attitude to men, echoing the taunts that plagued her through her first two decades: “‘You’ve got to stop pretending you’re a virgin, as that frightens them off. And you always look half-asleep, has anyone told you that?’” Phillips surmises that “Eventually she began to think of herself as not only a strange bird but a bird with a broken wing.”

Gwennie is a romantic, wanting to find what passion and love are. But because she is unsure how to take in her new environment, and worries London with her looks, behaviour and odd way of talking, she handles every encounter by saying almost nothing. This might have added to her small store of mystique, but it also contributed to the exasperation people felt in her presence.

There were always these men hanging around stage doors. Rhys went out with some of them, and it wasn’t good; usually “a bout of inelegant kissing”. What Phillips give us is not so much the story of Jean Rhys, the writer, as of the girl who wanted to become a woman, to discover what that was, and then to become the writer Jean Rhys. She’s impatient to blossom, almost willing it. Shortly before she left the island, she examined herself: “confident that nobody could see her, she rubbed a hand across her chest and once again made sure she was finally budding.”

Whatever it was about Jean Rhys that caught people, and especially men, off-balance, it stayed with her for her entire existence. Phillips imagines her third husband’s thoughts: “He assumes it is the exotic part of her nature that contributes to her allure, but in some rural parts of England she might well be taken for the slow girl in the village. Her eyes, for instance, are perhaps a little too close together, and he often observes her sitting perfectly still in a trancelike state of wonderment, with her lips slightly parted.” But he was just another of the men who never got beyond her looks. One suspects Phillips hasn’t either.

Is isolation one source of the troubled tone of her work? It is never as self-indulgent as many of the narratives of hurt we are now used to. Her life was a constant cycle of rude inquiry, being rebuffed, summed up, and turned into something other in her fiction.

It’s curious that the ‘plot’ of this book, from her childhood through three marriages to totally unsatisfactory, unsatisfying men, makes no place for her life as a writer. Although her second husband was an editor who helped get some early work published, we never experience any of her thoughts about her work or her ambitions for it, and no mention is made of the writers who championed her.

There are infelicities in Phillips’s writing that are not to be found in hers: anachronisms, repetitions, a jumble of tenses and split infinitives, and it’s often difficult even to tell who is speaking. He’s a fierce man for the adjective: why would you describe flowerpots as “curved”?

Reticent, shy, aloof, frightened and pitiably alcoholic as she may have been, it’s hard to square the Jean Rhys that Phillips gives us with the feeling, intelligence and insight displayed in her work. One of the points she made in her novels was that women never get the chance to exist, much. Phillips has dangled her in front of us, but in doing so he’s prevented her interacting with her own life. So we learn very little.

TMcE

This review appeared in The Herald on June 3, 2018

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God Save Texas — Lawrence Wright

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 2, 2018 at 6:03 pm

It’s Lawrence Wright’s contention that we must regard Texas as the very symptom, the future of the upcoming world we will all live in: ‘Because Texas is a part of almost everything in modern America—the South, the West, the plains, Hispanic and immigrant communities, the border, the divide between the rural areas and the cities—what happens here tends to disproportionately affect the rest of the nation.’

Well, yee-haw. At this very moment the Texas economy is overtaking that of California, and it’s not just about oil. These two monstrosities of the western US are opposed in every way. California is a complex, neurotic, highly regulated society, historically open to outsiders, whereas Texans have a horror of furriners and, at the same time, of messicans and redskins. They resist any kind of law-making that restricts the making of money. The costs of that, social and environmental, as detailed in God Save Texas, are staggering.

Just to read the chapter on Houston is mind-bending, in terms of the dirty potential of these ever-spreading cities – in their demands on electric power and infrastructure alone. Houston is only a little smaller than the entire state of Massachusetts – soon it will be the largest urban area in the US. And begging your pardon, ma’am, but it just don’t seem to have no limits.

Fracking, which Texas believes in as sure as barbecue, means that the United States is once again replete with black gold (Texas tea!). That makes it a colossal threat to us all. This is a pretty depressing side to this must-read book, but Wright handles it well, balancing Armageddon with tales of things that are good about Texas. A few things. There’s Willie Nelson for one, some of the most beautiful wildflowers in the world, a shedload of dinosaur bones, and all kinds of stuff to eat. There are also Alamo belt buckles and a whole heap of lingering Confederate racism.

The state animal of Texas could well be the grudge. Texans are super-defensive about their ‘image’. In 1952 the distinguished writer Edna Ferber published a novel about Texas: Giant. In it a Texas rancher marries a girl from Maryland. She takes an interest in her Mexican servants and gets the whites-only doctor to save an Indian baby. Over the years the rancher’s heart softens, as much as a cattleman’s can.

This novel drove Texans mad. They resented the perfectly accurate perception that they mistreated their minorities, found women invisible, birthed their laws in rooms full of cigar smoke, and hated Mexico so much that more than once in Texas history was mooted the idea of a Trumpish wall. Giant was published sixty-six years ago and they continue to fume about it, and as Lawrence Wright points out, they’re still acting that way, too.

The emptiness and aridity of Texas can be sobering. The Last Picture Show may have given you an idea, but it’s nothing compared to this: there’s a guy in this book who grew up in a tiny Texas town; his parents ran the dry-cleaning shop. There was nothing to do, nowhere to go for hundreds of miles from this place. So when the kids got really, maniacally bored, the parents gave them the keys to the shop, and they’d spend the afternoon trying on everybody’s clothes. That’s what you call rural entertainment.

Wright acknowledges that the womenfolk ain’t had much influence on the culture or politics of Texas, despite the fact that some of the most dynamic women in US history came from there: Barbara Jordan, the first black female member of the US House of Representatives from the South; Ann Richards, a shoot-from-the-hip-and-ask-questions-later feminist and the forty-fifth Governor of the state; the crusading reporters Molly Ivins and Linda Ellerbee.

To begin fixing the problems that face Texas, and therefore all of us, how about some kind of free-wheeling gender reversal? The women could make laws and deals (in Texas they’re kind of the same thing), open the borders, improve education (Texas is the worst state for this) and even introduce compassion. The men? There’s no need to understand ’em. Just ride ’n rope ’n brand ’em.

The author of The Looming Tower, a history of Al-Qaeda and 9/11 which won the Pulitzer Prize, Wright seems a political mixed bag. As a journalist he has to spend time with some very right-wing folks. He often eats breakfast with Karl Rove. He acquired a gun permit so he could enter the state capitol more easily. (Yes ma’am, you heard correct.)

The gun laws are nuts. Don’t-go-there nuts. They’re so nuts that you wonder why anybody in Texas bothers to get up in the morning. As a professional writer on terrorism, Wright professes a belief in ‘strong borders’, but he freely admits that the exigencies of the 21st century aren’t being addressed by Texas dialectic.

Now, y’all listen to this: Mr Wright is a resident of Austin, Texas, the state capital and a city with a reputation for a certain intellectuality and tolerance. He is disturbed by the commercialization and homogenization of his town: ‘One can already sniff the artifice and inauthenticity that transforms these charming environments into amusement parks for conventioneers. The very places that made Austin so hip are being demolished for the hotels and office spaces needed to accommodate the flood of tourists who have come to enjoy what no longer exists.’ Edinburgh, the eyes of Texas are upon you.

 

TMcE

 

(This review appeared in the Herald on April 28, 2018)

Fire and Fury — Michael Wolff

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on January 22, 2018 at 1:23 pm

 

The terms used to describe the President of the United States in this book include clown, idiot, moron and fucking moron. And those are from the people who work for him. Last weekend, defending himself against some of the many charges in Fire and Fury, Donald Trump tweeted that he is a ‘stable genius’. The jury’s out on the genius part, but he certainly belongs in a stable.

This president is the definition of a moving target. In order to get him to think about something essential, even for a single second, his helpers have to convince him that it was his idea. Except that he doesn’t have any ideas. On top of this, he has several hours of total irrationality per day, cause unknown.

Dealing with him is ‘like trying to figure out what a child wants,’ according to one member of his transition team. The last person to speak to the president, at any given moment, is the only influence on his thinking. It can take hours to get him steered in the right direction.

But. Then he goes to bed, eats a shedload of cheeseburgers, and watches right-wing cable news until he’s foaming at the mouth. (Trump’s supposed 35% base of support in the population will never see anything wrong in his conduct, because they get their ‘news’ from the same filthy outlets that he does.)

In the middle of the night he phones his billionaire pals for long rambling confabs. Any American over the age of eight knows this is not the way to run the White House, but it sounds like Trump’s mental age is lower than that.

He eschews preparation or scripts and ad-libs instead, creating many a ‘wackadoo moment’, as Michael Wolff puts it. Trump prefers EOs (Executive Orders) to legislation – he seems never to have heard of the other two branches of government. And he longs for his old chums, Rudy Giuliani and Chris Christie, to join his team, but so far can’t find jobs for which they’d ever be confirmed.

Trump believes it’s perfectly okay to lie to the media, but feels they get him all wrong: ‘My exaggerations are exaggerated’. He’s fixated on Time Magazine covers, which he figures should portray him every week, and longs for the New York Times’s ‘nut job’ Maggie Haberman to write just one nice article about him, which seems unlikely.

The White House is now a cross between King Lear and an episode of “Dallas”, a maelstrom of brainlessness, founded on bigotry, vulgarity, inertia and family. Trump’s an ‘idiot surrounded by clowns’, as one insider put it. They’re all dumber than each other, and Trump’s putty in their hands. Silly putty.

Having nothing but contempt for expertise, he put his own kids in charge. ‘Jared has this’, Trump said about his son-in-law and the Russia investigation. No, Jared screwed it up. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, or Jarvanka as Steve Bannon named the couple, are good at putting their yuppie oar in and making everything even worse.

Psychologically incapable of taking a close look at himself, Trump never wanted to win the election. He was just hoping to expand his brand. With no real ideology, no principles either guiding or otherwise, the White House under Trump has descended into one long damage-limitation exercise.

He is tended by an undisciplined team of back-stabbers, who chase behind him, sweeping things under the carpet. They’re now all agreed that the job is to muffle him as much as possible, and stifle incoming information under the blankets of their own fear. Melania often doesn’t know where her husband is. Isn’t she lucky?

Michael Wolff, for some reason, was allowed to take a seat amongst them all in the West Wing. He was like a real fly on the wall, unwanted and unnoticed. A good writer, probably a real wit, he seems to be applying a curious restraint here, given the grand guignol he found himself in.

But he unearthed a genuine narrative in the middle of this giant political disaster, by focusing on what’s really dangerous and chilling. When the going got tough, there was Wolff, still sitting on his little sofa! By that point, everybody had probably permanently forgotten who he was, because they forget everything around that place.

This is not a gossipy book, as the Trumparatchik Sarah Huckabee Sanders has tried to characterize it, but a serious look at the predicament we’re all in, at the mercy of a mentally challenged man with his fingers on that ‘big’ nuclear button.

‘He’s a guy who really hated school’, says Bannon, Trump’s head anarchist. Trump won’t read. He can’t. Not even the shortest position paper. He’s ‘total television’. If you try to brief him on something, his eyes roll back into his head and he flees the room. He can’t even sit still for a PowerPoint.

But neither, in a real sense, do any of these people read. Kushner went to Harvard, so he may have read at least one book. Bannon seems dimly aware of Shakespeare – perhaps he thinks he’s Iago. Mike Pence, as we know, reads the bible. Does that count? Where there is no reading there is no thought.

This is quite a portrait of the ‘postliterate’ pussy-grabber-in-chief. Trump speaks of himself in the third person: he’s ‘the Trumpster’. He’s afraid everybody wants to touch his toothbrush. He finds the White House slummy, can’t work the light switches, and is phobic about its rodent problems. The bigger rats he hired himself.

He has a craving for other men’s wives, whom he occasionally wins by painstakingly convincing them of their husbands’ infidelity. He assesses everyone, including potential government appointees, by how they look: he goes for second-rate generals with plenty of ‘fruit salad’ on their chests. Just a sucker for a guy in uniform.

Our faults are not in our stars. They are in the President of the United States, and he’s moving on us like a bitch.

LE and TMcE

 

(This review originally appeared in The Herald on January 13, 2018.)