Lucy and Todd

Posts Tagged ‘misogyny’

Will Self — Phone

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 24, 2017 at 9:53 am


PHONE begins, cutely, with the ringing of an old-fashioned telephone. Actually it’s a “retro” ring on a modern mobile, overheard by Dr Zachary Busner, and it starts him down some very long corridors of memory.

A retired psychiatrist who’s becoming senile, at one point he finds himself in a hotel room in Manchester bestrewn with all manner of signs of serious debauchery, and smeared with faeces. This he attempts to explain to the manager of the hotel without wearing any trousers. But haven’t we all had that dream?

Dr Busner also remembers how well-dressed his father was (the reason was partly that he wanted to be taken for English, not Jewish): “He wore tailored English suits and shirts, handmade English shoes, Saint Michael’s not-so-hairy vests, pants and socks – gold cufflinks from Asprey’s, gold fountain pens from Parker, leather wallets, pocketbooks and card cases from Smythson’s … That he sported Italian and French silk ties only confirmed him in his opinion of his own essential Englishness: if the Angels of Death were to come swooping down over Whitestone Pond … if they were to dive, deploying some sort of Semitic-blood-seeking equipment – then they wouldn’t locate Maurice, who’d remain in the drawing room at Redington Road, sipping tea, listening to the Light Programme.”

One thing about this novel that is inarguably good is the author’s ability to encapsulate whole decades, not by describing what happened or who figured in them, but with simply the materials of daily life.

He does the early 1960s with the aroma of Passing Cloud cigarettes; “changing at Motherwell, and waiting by a huge old wall, anthracite-black and rain-dank”; and cameras “of cream Bakelite, Meccano and vulcanised rubber.”

We, however, are bafflingly yanked out of Dr Busner’s somewhat amusing, attractively crumbling little world and sent half way across civilization with a bunch of odious English spies. It’s never clear why. But these jumped-up Whitehall geezers really are the Angels of Death, and they, too, spend a lot of time thinking about male clothing.

From now on we have to listen to spooks and squaddies giving us the real dope on war in the Middle East and global politics, or making jokes about child soldiers, and it’s very hard to care. Of course, Will Self has made something of a speciality of anatomising the male English psyche. The question is: who needs it?

The novel becomes scabrous and never recovers. Thinks a spy known to us as The Butcher: “Both espionage and closeted homosexuality depended on good tradecraft – including cryptanalysis: a mouth slobbering at a crudely hacked hole could mean quite different things … depending on the context.” That, in fact, may be all you need or want to know about this book.

There is some superb Tony Blair-bashing, which is welcome. But do you really want to read a novel that has phrases in it like “instead of the silky Agent Provocateur lingerie he’d been expecting…”? A woman has a “barrage balloon of belly”. And there is a lot of very old-hat novelist-understands-prostitute folderol. You begin to realise that this is not art, and it’s not even satire. It’s just stuff that oozes out of a writer who is floundering in the tar pit of the establishment.

The Butcher uses sex with both women and men to exert the sad, staggering amount of control over everything that he seems to need. Because, one supposes, that he represents the England of today. There’s a sketchy attempt at feminism in Self’s treatment of one female character, to make up for all the maleness. It doesn’t work, partly because there is no variety of voice in this narrative.

Overall, Phone seems a rickety attempt at channelling Joseph Heller, Thornton Wilder and, arrogantly, Louis-Ferdinand Celine. Maybe William Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic. Stream of consciousness? Not really. In consciousness there is variety. Reading this, frankly, just seems like being vomited over by A Guy Who Went To University. There’s a difference.

Puns and clichés abound, and it’s not always clear whether these staggeringly inadequate male characters are giving us what they believe or if their consciousnesses are the narrator’s. “Never shit where you eat.” This is revealed to us by the author as proper, street-smart received wisdom of The Butcher’s. Or maybe he thinks he made it up? Doctor, heal thy self. It’s too late to be “knowing”, it’s too late to be smug, it’s too late to be clever, too late to male, and very, very too late to be an English male novelist. Here is the proof.




This review was first published in the Herald on June 2, 2017

Patience — Daniel Clowes

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on April 18, 2016 at 2:57 pm

If you could travel back in time, would you kill Hitler’s mother, seek out your old house and play ball with your former self, or locate your (eventual) wife during her unhappy adolescence and punch her violent boyfriends? These are the dilemmas facing Jack, the hero of Daniel Clowes’ latest graphic novel. The murderous attitude toward Hitler’s mother (rather than toward Hitler himself) fits right in with an underlying misogyny throughout. Indebted to Hollywood for most of its ideas and its deficiencies, Patience only squeaks by in the Bechdel test.

It begins wittily enough with the tip of a penis, a semi-circle of cervix, and a big white splodge in between. Across this romantic conception scene the year 2012 is emblazoned. Patience is a ‘preggo’, as she despairingly puts it. She and her husband Jack want the baby but don’t have much money. He hasn’t even told her yet that his current job consists of handing out porno flyers. He’s about to fess up when Patience gets murdered. As in The Fugitive, Jack’s unjustly accused of the crime – but he gets off.

He proceeds to grieve for Patience and their unborn child for seventeen chaste years, until 2029 when he happens upon a scientist with a time machine. Though Jack admits ‘All that sci-fi bullshit is way too much to wrap my stupid-ass brain around’, now begins a bitter tale of love lost and reclaimed via time warps.

“POOF…BOOM…POW!” As with Woody Allen, the descent into magic makes your heart sink. Clowes doesn’t need to retreat from reality – he needs to get closer to it. Still, Jack’s psychedelic freak-outs add visual variety, since Clowes’ usual flat, denuded pictorial take on things can make Patrick Caulfield’s formalized functionalism seem rich and generous.

The real subjects here are banal hopes and dreams, with a bit of mock heroism thrown in, all set within the customary graphic-novel gloomsville. Unquestioned stereotypes (fatsos, good-hearted tarts, even the wise black sidekick) and narrative clichés (the requisite murder, driving around, and male vengeance) reek of TV drama. There’s no actual law that says bleakness has to be portrayed in a bleak way. Edward Hopper rose above it.

Clowes gets more playful with the weirder psychological, physiological and ethical aspects of time travel. One two-page spread throws every known substance in the universe into flux, and Jack’s heart, intestines, muscles and veins briefly show through his clothing. Clowes is clever too at conveying nighttime action. But the countless Vertigo-like depictions of Patience’s bland blonde head get aggravating.

Jack has his time-warp trials. He makes no friends when he attempts to pay for a 1985 breakfast with modern money (a veiled complaint, perhaps, that the government ever changed the look of the good old dollar bill). A woman in a bar admires Jack’s 2029 jacket: “Whoa, did you make that yourself?” In a casino he toys with the (Back to the Future) temptation to place bets on the results of ancient NFL games. How American, and how male, to remember those football scores in the midst of metaphysical, galactic disarray.

But Patience is most of all an invasion-of-privacy fantasy: a man goes back in time to snoop on his future wife, read her diary, and check her out at a young age – supposedly, to prevent her later murder. The gory close-up of the dead Patience’s open eye is a bad sign, and this is where the really icky intrusiveness begins. It’s getting so a girl can’t be clunked on the head in peace anymore.


This review appeared in the Spectator, April 2, 2016