Lucy and Todd

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Outside Looking In — T C Boyle

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on April 17, 2019 at 7:28 am

Whatever you think about Timothy Leary, the guy was trouble. A pain in the arse for psychologists, for Harvard University, for parents, for Richard Nixon, even, who called Leary ‘the most dangerous man in America.’ Kicked out of academe, he led a series of communes based on self-discovery dependent on the use of LSD. The honesty and possible usefulness of all this went rapidly downhill.

This novel by the prolific TC Boyle is a puzzle. It deals with many themes he’s used before: small groups of people under pressure to conform, renegade behaviour in the search for truth and spiritual fulfilment. In his excellent novel of Los Angeles, The Tortilla Curtain, he explored the frightened lives of illegal Mexican immigrants. San Miguel touchingly portrayed an unlucky family’s desperate attempt to make a living on an isolated California island. The Terranauts was a lengthy story of men and women sealed in a biosphere bubble for a year. Boyle’s early novel The Road to Wellville was a comic tour-de-force about a community of health food crackpots.

The problem with Outside Looking In is: how do you write interestingly about people who are irredeemably dull? Boyle mocks the intelligence of the Harvard postgrads who follow Leary around like ducklings, particularly his insecure graduate student protagonist, Fitz.

Fitz is not much fun to read about. He’s a jerk, a psychology academic. He’s timid. He knows nothing about himself and he’s got female breasts on the brain. It’s a little hard to believe that he teaches at Harvard. Or maybe it isn’t.

Fitz’s wife, Joanie, is the novel’s real subject in terms of revelation. Not as well educated as Fitz, she works as a local librarian. But once the psychedelics start flowing, she becomes possessive of the experience and is up for anything ‘Tim’ wants to do. When the group is disgraced in Massachusetts and moves to a hotel in Mexico, Joanie starts sleeping with the other men. This is another Tim idea: use the drugs to break down sexual jealousy. Worked for him, apparently.

We suddenly see the reality of the endeavour from a woman’s perspective. And while Joanie is gung-ho for acid and all the other stuff that’s hanging around these fearsomely conventional would-be revolutionaries (beer, wine, cigarettes, pot, martinis, station wagons and pizza), there’s still a lot of cooking and housework. Guess who does it.

It’s difficult to tell what Boyle really thinks about the little communities he writes about. At times it seems he’s chiding them for believing that anything could ever be different in America than it is. But just as often he takes their side, a champion of the inherent value of weirdness and the contrarian.

But maybe these people are just incompetents. Where is the certainty that what LSD does is genuine? Does it just poison you in such a way that you think something has been ‘revealed’? (The brain is always trying to order things, no matter what you do to it.) These sad sacks never elided grandly into the world, or transformed it. They became parasites, mooching off millionaires, fighting with cops and taking menial jobs.

The richest and best imagined part of Outside Looking In is about Albert Hoffman, who first synthesized LSD in 1943, and experimented with it on himself and his colleagues. Told from the point of view of his lab assistant, it’s a virtuoso performance by Boyle – joyous, mad-scientist slapstick, frightening, profound and even erotic. One could wish that Boyle’s narrative excitement here could be sustained through the rest of the novel. But then the academics arrive and humour and joy, of course, are banished, no matter what pills are popped.

In the ‘commune’ novels of Boyle there’s often a capitalist intervention – a sudden realization that somebody’s got to make some dough around here. The upstate New York group decides to offer revelation and the ‘sacrament’ (LSD) to businessmen and bored housewives, for money. Joanie, doing the dishes as usual, is looking out of the kitchen window. A man appears asking a question that startles her but reveals to us the depth of this whole ‘spiritual’ enterprise: Where do I park?

TMcE

(This review appeared in the Herald on April 13, 2019.)

Muscle — Alan Trotter

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on February 14, 2019 at 6:27 am

‘… He said that they were lucky if he didn’t take their little city from them and grind it under his heel. He said that a man who couldn’t at any moment point to a dozen necks he’d like snapped was a man without imagination who didn’t deserve to be in charge of a poem, let alone a city.’

It would be a clever reviewer who could discuss Muscle in the way that it should be discussed without spoiling it. What looks initially like an ultra-modern pastiche of the entire hard-boiled world, meaning every pulp novel ever written, good movies and bad, even whole ‘noir’ towns and people, turns out to be anything but that.

The plot, which is enormously dangerous to talk about, concerns some pretty lousy citizens and the depredations they practise on one another. There are two types on a train who might be Beckett’s Mercier and Camier, if they were hit-men. In between little assassinations, they discuss their calling with detached erudition:

‘Our own self-interest is not threatened,’ says Charles, ‘so the impulse that demands that society disapprove of our action doesn’t lash at us. If we punish ourselves, then we are holding ourselves to a higher standard than that to which society holds itself.’

‘And why,’ says Hector, ‘would it be reasonable to expect us to do that?’

The dialogue and the prose in Muscle flit effortlessly around the whole range of its sources and influences. Its prose is sullen, muzzy, droop-lidded. Some of it reads like a David Mamet play; there are undercurrents of Damon Runyon. There are utterances recognizable as pure Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. But Muscle’s inner logic, though highly poetic, is far superior to the junk in which it finds its origins.

There’s an unexpected side to this book, an element of pure, luridly coloured pulp fantasy, which Alan Trotter brilliantly locates as co-existing in the same time period with the elements of the crime fictions he’s playing with. What does a barely-educated thug do when he is tired of drinking, cards, and women – what does a thug read?

Which brings us to our sympathetic narrator, named Box. He is pure muscle, and assists a very hotheaded middle-level operator, represented in the text with the non-name ‘____’. Box and ____ are given periodic assignments applying pressure, or ‘easing the flow of regret’ as they like to put it. In a card game, Box meets Holcomb, a writer for pulp magazines, and one day while on stakeout, bored out of his mind, he reads one of Holcomb’s sci-fi stories.

At first he’s baffled by it, but then it comes to make sense to him, even to haunt him. There is something really unsettling yet amusing about a big bruiser like this, a truly dangerous guy, stumbling upon what may well be the only printed matter in this horrid town, or at least in this crumby neighbourhood, and finding it enlightening, even transformative: the only food for thought he will ever encounter.

Holcomb’s stories are about centuries, aeons, of intolerable waiting (which Box and ____ know something about) and finding a key to the nature of time. But not for a reason that is good. The stories are not sane, and it’s terrible to watch Box being drawn into their stupid way of thinking. At this point it’s like Jim Thompson has met HP Lovecraft, and they’re planning on getting married.

Things don’t turn out well for Box. He’s frustrated in love, and the business of beating people into various forms of pulp isn’t going too well. He begins to think that he can build a device like one in the stories, so that he can atone, sort out his existence. And it’s not a good idea, this horrible device that he wears on his head ‘like a nest made from refuse’. His own solipsistic version of some very dire events is loudly contradicted by Swagger, a detective, who thankfully for us retains some grip on reality, even as Muscle veers into other worlds, taking Box with it:

‘Swagger has grown so big there is no space in the room to stand, I’m pressed up against the wall. His tooth swings open like a door and I go inside the hot cavern of his mouth and his voice surrounds me.’

This is a remarkable, radical, historical novel. It’s as if everything bad about the 1940s and 50s is still circling the earth, another planet. You are practically strapped into a broken chair in a smoky, dingy room and forced to watch a writer at play, to watch his imagination, and what imaginations he gives his characters, zoom. How often do you get that chance?

TMcE

 

(This review appeared in the Herald on Feb. 10, 2019)

 

 

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

The Neighborhood — Mario Vargas Llosa

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 2, 2018 at 6:08 pm

Speaking at Edinburgh University a few years ago, Carlos Fuentes was asked if he thought literature could alter politics. ‘Sometimes,’ he said, somewhat ruefully, ‘very slowly. Fiction is fiction and power is power’. The Neighborhood by Mario Vargas Llosa addresses that idea in several ways: could a tabloid journalist fight corruption by simply reporting a sex scandal? Could a novel that posits such an event have a political effect too?

The weak, pampered head of a Peruvian mining conglomerate, Enrique Cardenas, gets invited to a party by a foreigner he doesn’t know. The stranger plies him with champagne and the gathering quickly becomes an orgy, complete with prostitutes and cocaine. Cardenas manages to hide this misadventure from his wife. The foreign gentleman vanishes from Peru.

Two years later, Enrique is called on in his fancy office by Rolando Garro, the slimeball editor of a scabrous gossip magazine (they seem to have abounded in Peru, at least during the Fujimori regime, when this story takes place). Garro has a nice set of explicit photographs of the orgy. No way is he proposing to blackmail Cardenas, he insists – on the contrary, he’d merely like him to invest in his magazine, to help it become the biggest investigative publication in Peru. Cardenas kicks him out and the magazine immediately publishes the photographs.

Within hours all of Lima has clocked the private parts of this fairly prominent citizen. His wife orders him out, and he agonizes about the effect of the scandal on his mother. He says it will kill her, and it does, rather ridiculously and pointlessly, since we’ve never even met her.

As if all this isn’t enough, Enrique’s wife has begun an affair with the wife of his best friend, Luciano, his lawyer, an affair in which Enrique eventually participates. (There’s quite a bit of sexual satisfaction in this book, mostly, one presumes, for Mr Vargas Llosa.) It’s significant that as their troubles increase, the first place these four little rich people think of turning for help is directly to Fujimori.

This is a bold book, not least because the bad guys, or, that is, the very worst of the bad guys, are real and they’re still alive: Alberto Fujimori, the former president of Peru, and his security chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, known as ‘The Doctor’. There are very few good guys. At one point when he is starting to feel a little too sorry for himself, Cardenas remembers an appearance The Doctor made at a gathering of businessmen.

A bombastic beer belly in a blue suit with yellow shoes, he did make an impression: ‘Regarding terrorism, he talked at some length, justifying his “hard-fisted” policy with an example that made the hair of some of those present stand on end: “It doesn’t matter if twenty thousand die, including fifteen thousand innocents, if we kill five thousand terrorists.”’

Whatever Vargas Llosa’s politics now (he’s been moving slowly to the right through the course of his career), it’s obvious that he despairs for Peru, particularly in terms of its culture and the freedom to have one. There are numerous references to lambent Peruvian poems and to Felipe Pinglo, father of Peruvian ballads. One of the better-drawn characters is a partly demented old man, Juan Peineta, formerly a celebrated reciter of poetry.

Being a reciter he’s poor, and he gets inveigled into replacing a TV comic in a Three Stooges kind of act. ‘The worst thing was that in the program The Three Jokers, they even had him recite … on any pretext, just so the other two jokers could shut him up by slapping him with blows that knocked him to the floor … these were the worst moments of each program for Juan Peineta: making a laughingstock of divine poetry.’ It’s an unforgettable picture of how art and ideas are treated by totalitarians.

Juan Peineta gets beaten with rubber hoses by the security police and signs a false confession, all the while telling his torturers that they needn’t bother braining him because he’s already senile. In exchange for this favour they take him out of his hovel and install him in a nursing home with his cat.

Exposed magazine, which initiated the scandal, is now run by a very small, very tough journalist called Julieta Leguizamon. Like Rolando Garro, she is somewhat in the pocket of The Doctor. But she’s got a surprise or two up her short sleeve for him. She publishes a sizzling exposé of the murder of her predecessor and, somewhat unbelievably, gets proof of it to the judiciary, which Vargas Llosa seems to suggest is singularly protected from all this corruption he’s been describing. But within the boundaries of The Neighborhood, it works. ‘That little woman had made history without proposing to, without suspecting it.’

There’s an odd quality to this novel. The political horrors are compelling, and there’s no hint of lecturing or reams of back story. It’s not an epic, either, although it could be – Vargas Llosa tells the story of the titanic corruptions, assassinations, and disappearances of modern Peru with a small family of characters. At times they seem too evenly balanced, and without sufficient investment by the author. He could have chosen to tell the story from the point of view of any one of them – the hapless Juan Peineta would have been brilliant.

In the end, we find the two capitalist couples are up to their old tricks, having drinks on their terrace, now unbothered by kidnappings and terrorism, discussing a holiday in Miami, perhaps even moving on to a foursome from three. To our disappointment at least, the problems of Peru have been solved only in fantasy.

What a place. Now –  in reality – Fujimori has been ordered to stand trial for more murders, having been only recently pardoned on ‘humanitarian grounds’, whatever those could possibly have been. ‘Doctor’ Vladimiro Lenin Ilich Montesinos is in prison. In a proverb murmured by several characters in this book: welcome, trouble, if you come alone.

TMcE

(This review appeared in the Herald on May 5, 2018)

 

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)