Lucy and Todd

Posts Tagged ‘fiction’

The Terranauts–T. C. Boyle

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on November 3, 2016 at 9:42 am

What would happen if you took eight people and sealed them up in a three hundred acre glass terrarium with plants and little pigs and fish and a lot of yams and told them they had to be self-sufficient, even to the point of recycling their own air and water? Would they bend to the task like Stakhanovites and make their employers and their parents and the American public and the press amazed and proud? Or would they fall quickly into factions, attack each other, become severely priapic, steal food and live so close to the bone that their egos protrude? Or would nothing occur at all?

Surprise, surprise: all of this happens in The Terranauts. Especially the nothing part.

Supposedly this is a trial run for establishing a closed ecosystem that could support human life on Mars, although during the course of the experimental two years the terranauts get so fed up with eating tilapia and yams and trying to distil booze out of rubbish, this quickly starts to look like a pretty quaint idea. (The Terranauts is based on a real experiment, ‘Biosphere 2’, which took place in Arizona in the 1990s, but it would have been better fun, socially, to set it in the Bush era—many more pricks to kick against.)

The Terranauts is narrated, turn and turn about, by three of the characters involved in the enterprise, which is run by a Richard Branson/Donald Trump figure, largely as a media phenomenon, but partially in cooperation with NASA. He seems an utter philistine, which is what you would expect, although he asks the crew to perform plays from the theatre of the absurd, like The Skin of Our Teeth, The Bald Soprano and No Exit. But these are Boyle’s conceits of course – this guy’s never heard of Sartre.

Ramsay, the ecologist, is the stud of the outfit. He tries to screw everyone in the organization, and half the women in Arizona, before they ‘go inside’ the habitat. There he presses himself on two of the terranauts, and struts around pontificating unconvincingly about ecosystems and masculinity. His only real scientific interests are girls and cheeseburgers.

Dawn is in charge of the animals. She’s so beautiful and soft-hearted. But dammit she’s a scientist and a terranaut too, so when it falls on her to slaughter the miniature pig she tugs at our heartstrings. Briefly.

Linda, Dawn’s best friend in the project, is on the outside, a support worker. She wasn’t chosen to go inside in this group, but hopes to be in the next team, in two years’ time. Like all these characters, she is surprisingly dumb. She’s also a schemer, a rat and an amazing bore – she’s not locked up in the glasshouse, she’s free, yet all she can think of to do is to drive around southern Arizona getting drunk and flashing her semi-celebrity terranaut status at guys in bars.

Dawn has sex with Ramsay without birth control, very much against the rules—the fragile ecosystem would not be able to handle another human being. She becomes pregnant. Ah, you think, a possibly interesting abortion story—but no.

Whether Boyle is attempting to say something about the kind of shallow egomaniacs that would volunteer for this sort of overblown unscientific hokum, it’s hard to say. The satire is surprisingly limp; you need George Saunders for this kind of drastic, speculative adventure. Boyle doesn’t bother to differentiate the voices of the narrators, which is odd, because usually he’s very agile. After a while you start to feel you’re as low on oxygen as the terranauts.

Reading The Terranauts is something like being sealed in a ‘biome’: it feels like a big responsibility, nothing much happens, and it is no fun at all. In reality, it would be impossible for these people, such as they are, to care for each other, or for us to care about them. And the novel is exactly the same. As Linda says, “They’re fools. Careless, petty, banal people.”

There are crises, in the nature of the familiar crises you get in books and movies about submarines and spacecraft. The characters always come back from the brink. They are seemingly invincible, which is a little hard to believe because they’re all so stupid. Maybe it would work, wrapping up all these half scientists and ducks and yams and starfish in cellophane and putting them in a rocket and sending them to Mars, maybe it’s feasible. But one thing’s for sure: it’s dramatic suicide.


This review appeared in the National on October 16, 2016

Infinite Ground–Martin MacInnes

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on November 3, 2016 at 9:33 am

Infinite Ground is a very sharp novel about sick politics, corporate infiltration of society, and good old-fashioned paranoia, a cross between Kafka and The Blob. It’s about late capitalism and spooky capitalism. It provides the frisson you get from reading about the Royal Bank of Scotland or the machinations of Essential Edinburgh.

A retired Inspector of police in a Latin American country is asked to investigate the disappearance of Carlos, a young, seemingly responsible office worker, who takes to hanging upside down in his office and then vanishes from a restaurant. Looking into Carlos’s firm, the Inspector finds that some of its workers are actors, hired to make the company look good and to spur on the real employees in terms of poise and drive.

This company, like many, has duplicate office facilities at a remove, in case of disaster or war: ‘He read it as an example of corporate anxiety. Their imagination of the apocalypse was limited and picturesque, affecting a distinct, geometrically precise land segment, allowing civilization to be transported elsewhere, uninterrupted.’ The idea of duplication, a horror genre staple, grows in the novel until neither the Inspector nor the reader can be sure of what is genuine.

The Inspector is assigned an assistant, a brilliant microscopist. She hoovers out of Carlos’s computer keyboard insect wings, jungle soil, and other substances that suggest Carlos doesn’t live only for his job. The Inspector is fascinated by her and for a while they rub along in a lively, almost rom-com exchange between police thinking and scientific metaphor.

In fact, her inventive speculations on micro-organisms exacerbate the Inspector’s growing paranoia, which threatens his investigation. At one point the playful narrative gives over to a fantastic list of what might have happened to Carlos: perhaps he never existed. Perhaps there are fifty or more of him (readers of Stanislaw Lem will enjoy this). Maybe he went walkabout because of food poisoning. Or his mother (she is one of the actresses) made him up.

The Inspector begins to wonder if Carlos was mentally and physically dissolving as a result of contact with some micro-parasite. He even wonders if he himself has contracted the same from his minute examinations of the man’s office. Eventually he decides that Carlos has wandered out of the city and into the forest.

Is the Inspector deranged? Next thing we know, he’s joined a silly tourist group in order to get quickly into the interior. He pays a lot of money, only to be faked out by phony ‘contact’ with ‘tribespeople’. One of them turns out to be the lady who runs the local coffee shop.

Now, strangely, the focus shifts from contingency and conspiracy to a story solely of the Inspector, suddenly alone in the forest, for what reason it’s unclear. (Most of the unexplained elements work here, though occasionally there’s a little too much Twilight Zone.) Is the intention to show him the near impossibility of Carlos remaining alive for long in such a place?

Thoughts of the investigation are abandoned as we watch the Inspector turn into a really icky Robinson Crusoe, eating bugs and worse, trying to keep from losing his marbles as he follows the morning sun. It’s scary: ‘There was less of him and he scouted for parts of the new vegetation reminiscent of his character.’

This novel sends up all kinds of rockets. In its South American atmosphere you will be reminded of Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps. The contemporary social and political unsureness is that of Javier Marias. Its really astute anatomization of employment itself will make you think of Ed Park’s Personal Days. In the biological and jungle horror there’s a lot of Sartre, Conrad and even HP Lovecraft.

Will the Inspector escape the forest? If so, in what condition, and into what world? This section of the novel is a little less satisfying – there’s a Planet of the Apes tedium to it. Earlier there were many exciting explorations of a lot of nasty micro-organisms that sound totally plausible and which are all ranged against us. One in particular takes over bugs’ brains, forces them to march to the sea, and then explodes their heads! You’re left hoping that this isn’t the one that bit this particular policeman.

What is the upshot of all this? You may well find in Infinite Ground’s meditations a sketch of things to come, post Brexit: ‘He took the conviction that this new, insubstantial world couldn’t be happening as proof in fact that it was.’


This review appeared in The Herald August 6, 2016


In accolades, Our Clients Vouch for Us on May 30, 2014 at 11:40 am

LEILA ABOULELA (novelist, playwright and short-story writer; Caine Prize winner; author of four novels: Lyrics Alley, which was Fiction Winner of the Scottish Book Award, Minaret, The Translator and, more recently, The Kindness of Enemies; Leila’s plays have been broadcast on BBC Radio and her stories published in Granta and the Virginia Quarterly Review; her work has been translated into 14 languages):  [from published interviews]  “Thanks to…..Todd McEwen, my writing tutor, whose belief in my work made me take myself seriously as a writer” (Mslexia)  “Thanks to McEwen, Aboulela found an agent and in 1999, her first novel, The Translator was published by Scottish independent, Polygon.” (The Big Interview  –  New Books Magazine)

NANCY GAFFIELD (poet; Tokaido Road, 2011, CB Editions, won the Aldeburgh First Collection Prize for poetry, and is now an opera; Owhere, 2012, Templar; Continental Drift, 2014, Shearsman):  Todd and Lucy are that rare breed of professional writers who are outstanding at teaching. I highly recommend them to anyone who is serious about writing. Not only will you be given in-depth and critical feedback, you will also get practical help in learning how to get your working published.  Todd has been instrumental in my launch as a poet.

EDDIE GIBBONS (poet;  author of A Twist of Lime Street, 2013, Red Squirrel Press, and Roughly Speaking, 2014; his What They Say About You, 2010, Leamington Books, was shortlisted for Poetry Section of the Scottish Book Awards):  If Todd and Lucy were mechanics, they’d work for Rolls-Royce or Ferrari. They are fiction engineers. Todd McEwen set me on the path to five published collections of poetry by instilling in me a belief that I could become good enough by building on my raw ability through application, study, editing and enjoyment of all these processes. But he didn’t stop there. Once he thought that my work was of a sufficient level he encouraged me to send it out into the world, where some of it got published in literary magazines. Not only that – he actually brought the editor of one of those magazines to meet me, whereupon he offered to publish my first collection. But it doesn’t end there. Todd and Lucy have inducted me into the wider world of authorship by introducing me to many luminaries of the writing profession, including Billy Collins, former poet laureate of America. Their tutorship and continuing friendship are things I treasure.

NEIL BUTLER (short-story writer and novelist; author of The Roost, 2011, Thirsty Books):  Lucy and Todd will NURTURE your book – they won’t tell you what you should write or how THEY would write it.  They’ll help you make YOUR book the best it can be.  Which is a long way of saying they’re the real thing.  They’re not the friend who’ll tell you they don’t like your subject-matter or that they don’t get what you’re trying; they’re not your mum who’ll tell you you’re just brilliant: WHERE did you get that IMAGINATION from?  These are people who know how to write, they know what writing IS – so they know how you edit.  Todd edited my book and left me a book I’m proud of.  His cuts were fine plastic surgery, not butchery; his advice was practical (i.e., not ‘this is how I WOULD write it’ but ‘here’s a way to improve this’); he spotted the glaring errors that make it into every piece of writing that passes 140 characters.  Lucy gave me my cover quote – ‘It’s wonderful’ – (and meant it!).  One last thing.  They do a very good seminar, the only seminars I ever came out of feeling excited, inspired and not in need of a stiff drink.  So, tip: bring a pad and paper and scribble down the books casually mentioned, quiet-like, under your desk.  Trust me.

PETER BERCZELLER (novelist and essayist; author of Doctors and Patients: What We Feel About You, 1994, Macmillan, and The Little White Coat, 2014, Metroverlag):  I was first attracted to Fiction Atelier by their clever ad in the London Review of Books. Indeed, as I quickly found out, individual therapy beats group therapy by a mile. Lucy does not provide tough love; her gentle nurturing made my novel “Max: The Anality of Evil” into a much more coherent work. What’s more, Lucy provides tender after-care. Her interest does not end with delivery of the edited product. She is always available for subsequent musing and shmoozing, a welcome antidote to the fluctuating self-esteem which is every writer’s lot. I am only sorry I did not meet her earlier. My previous books would have vastly benefited from her sure guidance.

GREG KLERKX (novelist and journalist; author of Lost in Space, 2004, Pantheon; his first novel, The Emissary, 2014, was shortlisted for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award):  I was lost in the proverbial wilderness with a new novel when a writer friend recommended Fiction Atelier…oh lucky man me! With each comment and point of advice, Lucy showed that she cared about my novel the way I cared about it, and she was as exacting about improving it as ever I might be. Her insight and skill had a profound, positive impact on the book, and I’d work with her again in a heartbeat.

KYLIE GRANT (short-story writer, novelist and critic; winner of the Unbound Press/Spilling Ink Review Holiday Flash Fiction Prize 2012 and author of The House that We Built – shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2011; winner of Wise Words Fiction Prize, 2014; reviewer for The List, Scotland):  Todd McEwen and Lucy Ellmann were utterly wonderful teachers, editors, and mentors during my time at the University of Kent.  One of their many strengths is that they actively want to engage with your writing, both as writers and as teachers, giving you the freedom to experiment and create your own confident writing voice.  In encouraging you to read and question a variety of thought provoking, frustrating, beautiful and ultimately inspiring pieces of writing they improve the quality, depth and structure of your own writing. I honestly couldn’t have finished my novel without their enthusiasm, guidance and feedback.

EFFIE CURRELL (novelist and short-story writer; author of short story collections published by the Kreol Institute in the Seychelles, and a children’s book published by Macmillan Caribbean):  So many things keep pulling me away from writing, and sometimes it would be easy to abandon a story that no-one will miss if it’s not told. So, as I sit to write sans publisher, sans book deal, sans contract, sans any of the things that I – perhaps naively – imagine help writers to feel that they are not suffering from delusions of talent, I am glad that I am at least an apprentice at the Atelier.

KYRILL POTAPOV (novelist, playwright and short-story writer; winner of the first Bloomsbury Writing Prize, 2009, University of Kent): Lucy Ellmann is probably the reason I’m still writing, against all odds and temptations. She gave me the confidence and direction that I needed as a young writer and helped to provide the right literary contexts for me to be able to place my writing in a wider tradition and to broaden my pool of writing mentors. Six years later I have completed my first novel and Lucy has been there for me every step of the way. Her input has ranged from loving encouragement to comprehensive commentary on editing strategy. She has shown me a far more suitable direction for my first draft, and with Todd’s input has revealed dimensions and possibilities in my writing I certainly hadn’t considered. Several people have read my manuscript but only Lucy has provided me with a vantage point from which I can see the work as a whole and feel empowered to do what’s needed to make it good.

MARY HONG (short-story writer; teaching literature and creative writing at Webster University, Leiden):  Lucy and Todd are sympathetic and rigorous readers, exactly the kinds of qualities that make a good editor. After several years of writing and struggling to figure out how to take my short stories to the next level, Lucy and Todd’s detailed, insightful comments and patient responses to my many questions opened up new avenues for me to explore in my stories, making them richer and deeper. I found the process of working with them immensely satisfying and stimulating and look forward to sending them my next story.

RUPERT SMITH (short-story writer; winner of the Bloomsbury Writing Prize, 2010, and the T. S. Eliot Prize, University of Kent; his short story, ‘Fripperies’, was broadcast on Radio 4 in October, 2011):  Lucy and Todd were meat and drink to me whilst at Kent. I never dreamed that my writing would be invigorated in the way it was – suddenly I was urged out of my comfort zone, but at the same time I was never happier in taking the risks I took on the page to the extent that I almost forgot I was on a degree course. What was so revelatory was how the reading fed so appropriately into the creative process; works I’d never before come across (by writers I’m still exploring) were shoring up all the experiments I doubt I would ever have otherwise undertaken, and validating them.
Lucy encourages her students to think deeply about their craft, and I’m delighted to say that the generous feedback I received during her module ‘The Body’ was instrumental in helping me to strike out and complete what was to become my Radio 4 short story debut.
And Todd is just so supportive and wise: who can resist a tutor who asks, à propos of nothing, ‘What’s exciting you?’?  His tutorials are mini literary adventures: invaluable assistance with envisioning the writer’s journey alongside an uncanny bibliophile’s sixth sense in steering you towards your next feeding frenzy. I never shifted to the uni library so fast.

AARON SIMON (short-story writer and novelist; author of short stories published in Danse Macabre, reviewer, and preliminary judge for the 2014 and 2015 Endeavour Awards):  Todd and Lucy were amazing mentors at Kent, guiding me along the path of making my writing more engaging and less, well, amateurish. With their prodding and encouragement, I finished up a first draft of a novel, vastly improved my ability to get ideas down on paper, and figure out what makes a decent manuscript. They have the supremely rare skill of being able to give feedback with a human touch, connect with you on a personal level, and give you outstanding feedback without crushing your fragile little writer ego. (And don’t try to deny it. It’s the same for all of us.)

JAMES WRIGHT (short-story writer):  Todd and Lucy, as writers, readers and editors, helped me to trust and develop my ideas of fiction and have inspired the confidence to do my ideas justice and successfully write exactly as I aspire to. Their editorial support is artistically sensitive and, with the reader in mind, logically sound, so as not to lose sight of the essential narrative.

EMMA GLASS (short-story writer):  I would like to say that it is always such a pleasure to receive feedback from you. The response is always prompt, always honest. Even when I send long, intangible lines of random words with minimal punctuation, you always help me to find a focus. You read with such patience; guiding my rough chapters and shaping them, helping me to see through the creative fuzz. Observations always objective, practical considerations about the reader, about the narrative voice. But always, and most essentially enthusiastic and encouraging.

CHRIS BENNETT (short-story writer and novelist):  Truly wonderful! Fiction Atelier has not only polished my work but their feedback and guidance has improved my writing immensely. It’s a personal service that is tailored to each individual and Todd and Lucy are always available to help – just a phone call or an email away. I couldn’t have completed my novel without them.

NIK WILLIAMS (journalist and short-story writer, now writing for Index on Censorship and openDemocracy):  Never erosive nor evasive, their editorial help offered constructive directions out of a manuscript tangled up by syntactical choices, pockmarked by plot holes and crowded by superfluous characters. I would recommend their services to any writer without hesitation.

KRISTEN LOWMAN (playwright, short-story writer and novelist):  You won’t find anyone better than Lucy and Todd.  I can say this; I’ve attended some fine workshops, but I have never received such detailed, precise, thoughtful notes; some dealing with the story’s subtlety, some addressing the technical, all of them honoring and enhancing the story.  They also have a unique way of making me reach higher, without fear – it comes from their generous natures as artists, as professional writers.  After working with them, I find myself enthused, excited to get back at the story.  They pass on their joy, igniting my own.  Thank you.