Lucy and Todd

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.




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


The Necessary Angel — C. K. Stead

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 2, 2018 at 5:54 pm

Don’t you hate it when people come up to you at a party and say, ‘Did I mention that I’m giving a lecture at the Sorbonne, actually?’

The Sorbonne, or The Sorbonne Nouvelle as it’s now called, is merely a department of the University of Paris. It used to have some kind of intellectual glamour, if you admit such a thing possible. Now its primary use is to be drooled over by academics from other countries who think that even the mention of it will confer on them kudos and wisdom.

The characters in The Necessary Angel are connected with this place, and if you would expect them to be engaged in lofty pursuits, you’re in for a let-down. Instead of arguing for hours about philosophy and (gulp) literary theory, they’re sitting around reading The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis. Or languidly passing a copy between them, because they’re bored by it.

Max Jackson is from New Zealand, but somehow the deities of the Sorbonne allowed him admittance some decades ago and he has become a fixture. His wife Louise is a fixture, too – she’s doing an ‘edition’ of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education for the famous Bibliothèque Pléiade. This operation is something of a wonder, as Louise seems to write her annotations, send them off to the publisher, receive the proofs, see the book printed, and plan her launch party all within the space of a couple of months. French publishing must really be hot.

Max is living that portion of middle age when all he can do is think about women and try to bed them. Every woman in this novel is described in terms of her looks: she is beautiful or she is not beautiful. The shape of breasts is guessed at. Yet we know nothing about what Max looks like, except that he gets red in the face from chasing one femme up the stairs of the Opéra. (That’s the Opéra Bastille, CK Stead will have you know.) So now you can probably guess what Max looks like.

Max and Louise have two children and two apartments, because Louise has ‘banished’ Max from the family – he lives downstairs with their dog. Louise is a real snoop and in touring Max’s flat, sniffing his sheets to see if he’s having sex or just becoming a smelly middle-aged academic, she predictably finds a letter written to him by an odd English girl, Helen, a student.

Max is afraid of Helen, who’s a bit fragile, but he sleeps with her anyway, at the same time trying to construct a middle-aged obsession over his colleague Sylvie Renard. Sylvie hopes to become a fixture. Everybody in this book wants to become a fixture. Renard means fox, the author explains. Max attempts his obsession but he can’t really do anything. At all.

It’s strange that someone this vague could keep a teaching job. Scraps of terribly canonic, musty novels and poems walk across his thoughts like a nursemaid pushing a pram. He’s writing a book about Doris Lessing and VS Naipaul, which again seems a pretty lowly pursuit for the SORBONNE, especially since it’s only at the end of the novel that we get a single cogent, extended thought on literature from Max. That’s too late.

There are a few other characters. The children don’t matter – the dog might. Max has an office-mate with whom he shares coffee. Sylvie is in a relationship with a German TV producer whose only detectable trait is that he’s German.

Philip Roth once said that the reason there is so much back-stabbing, plotting and underhanded behaviour in academia is because ‘there is so little at stake’. But here, there doesn’t even seem to be that: ultra-competitiveness is mentioned, as if it’s expected, and it’s even attributed to some of the characters, but we see none of it and nothing really happens except a lot of contemplation of infidelity, and the name-checking of every important monument in the relevant arrondissements.

Sub-plot to the rescue: Louise’s family owns a small Cézanne, possibly an early version of the Etang des Soeurs, which is in the Courtauld Gallery in London, we are told sedulously, as we are told everything in this novel. The painting goes missing from Louise’s apartment after Max has taken a girl there, which he won’t admit.

Academics are always showily turning their attention from the classics to trash, and now that Louise has wrecked Flaubert for the general public she hopes that her new interest in Georges Simenon will yield her even more fame and success. She decides he’s no good, of course, but there is a brief Simenon razzle-dazzle in the faint bit of real action in this novel, police business regarding the search for the painting.

Is this meant to be the story of Max? Does he fit in? Is he smart? Is his French good enough? In the denouement the story makes a frantic rush from limp, coffee-sozzled romance into very badly written thriller. This is not a win-win situation, and it includes the dastardly trick of turning a slumbering female character into a terrorist, which male writers love to do.

As Anglo takes on Paris go, it doesn’t compare well with Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado – a master class in wit, energy and, well, Paris. In the end this is a campus novel, and like most campus novels it doesn’t work, because nobody cares what goes on in universities. Er – did I mention that it takes place at the Sorbonne? Actually?





The Lost Child — Caryl Phillips

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 2, 2018 at 5:44 pm

Caryl Phillips’s The Lost Child is many things, but more than anything else it is the story of Julius Wilson and Monica Johnson and what happens to them and their children. Monica, a slightly weird although abundantly talented girl from Yorkshire, rejects her parents and while at Oxford in the 1950s meets and begins living with Julius. He’s from an island nation bent on eventual independence. Monica’s father, Ronald, a fearsomely uptight, neurotic schoolmaster, disowns her (on many levels this is a novel of the buttoned-up versus the unbuttoned). Monica drops out. When Julius begins working as a teacher, they move from Oxford to the dreary south coast, and then to London, in a really depressing, vividly re-created England of the Fifties and Sixties. Julius eventually gives up his job to campaign full-time for the freedom of his birthplace. He then decides to go back there to teach, but Monica is tired of him and ‘his boring talks about the future of his nonsensical stupid country’. She takes their two sons, Ben and Tommy, back to Yorkshire.

Living on an estate in Leeds, Monica works at a branch library, and Ben learns how to steal. Tommy drifts into a football fantasy life, and though he’s brilliant at the game, his poverty and unworldliness lead to his, and his mother’s, undoing. She has a nervous breakdown. Ben is left in a foster home; despite his necessary taste for larceny, he studies hard and is bound for university.

The Lost Child actually begins, however, with an exotic fable: a poor woman exploited in the Indies and then taken elsewhere, to lead a sad existence in an inn. A kindly man takes an interest in her. They have a child. You spend a lot of time trying to figure out who this child is. Could it be Julius? Julius’s father? There’s a kind of Steinbeck style to this: earthy but coy. The woman’s story is mainly concerned with her life after the Indies, but where? (Turns out it’s Liverpool, but described in such a wild, degraded manner that you think you’re still in the tropics, England having brought its own savagery home.) You may or may not discern where this is heading, but be aware that the irritation of authorial vagueness is a small part of the experience of The Lost Child.

For a book really to be a novel, language has to be exemplified, twisted even. In this important sense The Lost Child is fascinating. The atmosphere and language are intricately done, shifting with the decades and locales in a kind of linguistic odyssey, a giant exercise in Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies talk, going from very male, arm’s-length measured prose (the way Monica’s father thinks) to the sillinesses of Oxford, the loucheness of London and the abyssal utterances of Leeds, a city for which there is not an iota of love lost—indeed the chapters of Monica’s, Ben’s and Tommy’s story that take place there seem like a different novel entirely.

In a long chapter called ‘Childhood’, Ben narrates the story of his adolescence against a background of pop songs, everything from George Formby to David Bowie and Pluto Shervington. But we’re never told how or when Ben could be writing this, and the connection to the music becomes looser with each vignette. Phillips is not convincing as Ben, which is surprising, as otherwise he is a good ventriloquist. It’s a little diversion into Nick Hornby Land, which doesn’t suit the overall tone or logic.

Something pretty peculiar happens. Breaking in on Leeds is a short, suitably wild, fictional surmise on Emily Brontë’s death. (We know that Monica is interested in fiction – early on we’re told what does and doesn’t interest her; later we learn that the only worldly thing she leaves behind is an envelope full of diaries and stories.) Maybe The Lost Child is not necessarily a novel, but stories about (and possibly by) Monica, and about lost children, one of whom just happens to be Heathcliff. The Brontës were lost children, too, of course. All of them.

Perhaps this is the scheme: Monica realizes she is losing touch with reality. She ‘channels’ Emily’s illness, and, deranged herself with grief over Tommy, feels she knows what the author of Wuthering Heights was fantasizing about her beloved little hero as she died. But if you really wanted to write Heathcliff’s backstory, why do it in two short chapters possibly written by someone losing her mind? Because, in Phillips’s view, there is much more to say. Heathcliff’s resonant story is only one representation of the book’s major theme, that of the ‘intrusion’ of blacks into Britain, wonted or unwelcome, then and now: Heathcliff, Julius Wilson, Tommy and Ben—lost. The British response to them echoes down the generations, and keeps on echoing.




(This review appeared in the Herald on June 3, 2018)