Lucy and Todd

Posts Tagged ‘Todd McEwen’

The 7th Function of Language—Laurent Binet

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on May 27, 2017 at 5:09 pm

You know, it’s possible to have a lot of fun, even in the world of today. Laurent Binet’s debut novel, HHhH, was a frightening and utterly riveting account of the attempt to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich in 1942, narrated by a neurotic post-modern writer whose observations of himself as he garnered the facts of the case were as entertaining as the story itself. Now, if you had been told that this scarily perceptive novelist’s next subject was to be French literary theorists of the 1970s, you would predictably have yawned.

But Laurent Binet is possessed of something like Superman’s X-ray vision combined with a million lasers. When he gets something in his sights, that thing is dead. And what he kills in his new novel is literary theory, in all its fake unuseful stupidity. Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes and the gang were working very hard to ruin the art of literature in the name of strutting masculinity in the 1970s and 1980s. With The 7th Function of Language, their number is up.

In 1980 the semiologist Barthes was struck by a van in Paris and died a month later. From this rather sad, ordinary fact Binet constructs an opera buffa of a cabalistic world of evil so wide-ranging and seemingly influential that it makes those who worry about the Illuminati or read Dan Brown books look like the pipsqueaks of paranoia that they are.

Before he was run down Barthes had lunch with Francois Mitterrand. He may have discussed with the future president a document relating to the work of Roman Jakobson, a Russian linguist who identified six functions of language—all very academic and all very debatable, as these things are. But Jakobson may have identified a seventh function, an aspect of language the use of which would cause its utterer to gain anything he wished. (Or she—but as this story is about literary theory, women don’t figure much except as swooning fodder for the critical bed.)

This seventh function becomes a state secret, like the A-bomb, and the serving president, Giscard, wants it for France. (Binet alludes to the power of semiology as something humans have but don’t understand, like fire.) As with his book about the Nazis, Binet wipes the floor with you with a great deal of improbability, and you just want more. Reputations get dissed, fingers chopped off, the French Open is watched (of course), sex is had at academic conferences (of course) and in ancient anatomy theatres, the Bulgarian and Japanese secret services begin to chase post-Structuralists and you still want more. More! Reading Binet gives you that rare pleasure of feeling that you’re losing your grip on reality. As one policeman asks another, ‘How do you know that you’re not in a novel?’

What Binet can do with a scene, a paragraph, is beyond belief. He can suddenly burst into a wide ranging scenario where everyone is talking at once, not even in the same room, and like his undoubted associates, or competitors, Wu Ming of Bologna, he can accentuate the banality of cultural evil with the most horrific violence. In the few minutes before the Red Brigades’ bombing of the railway station in Bologna in 1980, a slightly stoned policeman is looking at the abandoned piece of luggage that contains the bomb. Each time he looks at it, it seems a little bigger. That is Binet at his best – for him the world is completely plastic and at the mercy of the novelist. So few have his courage or ability.

As in HHhH, the novel is a commentary on itself and the practicalities of novel writing, as Binet says when describing the efforts of two of his policemen to discover what happened at lunch between Barthes and Mitterrand: ‘They could barely even get hold of the guest list. But I can, maybe … After all, it’s a question of method, and I know how to proceed: interrogate the witnesses, corroborate, discard any tenuous testimonies, confront these partial memories with the reality of history. And then, if need be … You know what I mean. There is more to be done with that day. 25 February 1980 has not yet told us everything. That’s the virtue of a novel: it’s never too late.’

Here is an irony: The 7th Function of Language might be the first novel that uses the tools of semiology to the advantage of fiction. And in that case it must be the last. The purpose of this novel, it’s to be hoped, is the long-overdue murder, embalming and funeral of literary theory. One suspects Binet will make, or perhaps already has made, a lot of enemies with this jaw-droppingly disrespectful, extremely witty and—yes—heart-felt book. But one thing’s for sure—he’ll know how to handle them.




This review first appeared in the Herald on May 19th, 2017.

Michael Rosen–The Disappearance of Émile Zola

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on January 19, 2017 at 9:24 am

In July 1898, embroiled in the ‘Dreyfus Affair’ (the persecution of a Jewish army officer) and facing serious charges of libelling the French government in his article ‘J’Accuse’, the novelist Émile Zola vanished. Almost immediately there were wild speculations in the press: was he hiding in a suburb? Or worse, gone to Norway?

What Zola had done was to stop by his house, confer with his wife, and wrap up a nightshirt in some brown paper. As you do. He then took the train to Calais and a boat to England. Arriving at Victoria, he demanded to be taken to the Grosvenor Hotel (‘Grosvenor’ being one of a couple of English words he had managed to commit to memory). The nonplussed taximan drove him there. It was around the corner.

So began a weird year of self-imposed exile for one of Europe’s greatest writers, in a series of bafflingly mundane suburban villas and commercial travellers’ hotels. Five years before, Zola had been feted in London. Now he hardly dared to go out, afraid of papers being served on him if he was identified in public. Although, rather comically, he was spotted by a French lady on his second day in London: ‘Why! There’s M. Zola!’

Michael Rosen’s account of this adventure is a little shallow at times (it’s the re-hash of a radio programme). But it is interesting both politically and culturally in terms of today’s shrinking civil liberties, especially in the U.S., where not a finger is going to be lifted to protect individual freedoms, and when England has cut its ties with Europe in order to repudiate a whole lot of important, cherished, hard-won political ideals.

Though distressed at times, Zola seems to have been content with his suburban milieu. He took to cycling around places like Norwood and Weybridge. A serious amateur photographer, not surprising in a writer celebrated for his ‘scientific’ attention to detail, he began taking pictures of everyday English things. He particularly liked shop fronts and pubs, and was quite taken with the scores of young English ladies on bicycles he encountered.

He didn’t, however, adapt so well that he could tolerate turn-of-the-century English fare. He wrote to his wife: ‘The food continues to be revolting, their vegetables are always cooked without salt, and they wash their meat after they’ve cooked it. I am so sick of it, I would give you a hundred francs for a steak cooked by Mathilde.’ He wondered why English houses were all so small, he didn’t like Hyde Park and he thought the National Gallery ‘wretched’.

Zola’s domestic life was already complex. He and his wife Alexandrine did not have children, but he had fathered two with Jeanne Rozerot, originally hired by Alexandrine as a maid. The arrangement that developed over time, possibly without being expressly discussed with Alexandrine, was that wherever the Zolas went, at home in Paris or in their country house at Médan, Jeanne and the children were always installed nearby. Zola would see them regularly, always without Alexandrine. But Madame Zola developed a fondness for them and visited them with some regularity; later she developed a closeness with Jeanne too.

Many anguished letters detail the uncertainty between Zola and Alexandrine—Jeanne’s to Zola have disappeared. Rosen seems to have Alexandrine figured for some kind of emotional incompetent, but this doesn’t seem right, from what she wrote. Zola had inflicted a real emotional wound on her. She was in pain.

The Zolas began their married life as poor bohemians, but his hard work and success brought them into a certain amount of money. Now, though, Émile’s involvement with the Dreyfus Case had cost them almost everything they had. During his stay in England they had to have a sale of their effects, partly to pay for many clandestine trips back and forth across the Channel by Alexandrine, Jeanne and the children to visit Zola in his various Wimbledonish establishments. Most charges against him were eventually dropped and in 1899 he returned to the land of delicious vegetables and steak.

The awful epilogue to all this is well known: a little over two years later, Zola died from carbon monoxide poisoning (Mme Zola survived this horror). An anti-Dreyfusard builder later claimed to have stopped up the chimney, another point not pursued by Rosen. In 1908, in a show of remorse, Zola’s remains were taken to the Panthéon. As his body was placed in the crypt, alongside Hugo and Dumas, bigots fired shots. It never ends.


This review appeared in the Herald, January 14, 2017

Gunter Grass–Of All That Ends

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on January 5, 2017 at 7:18 am

Gunter Grass, who died in 2015, made himself write or draw something every day in his last months. These written and visual memoranda show us what it will be like when we start inarguably to dwindle. He has much advice for those in this situation, but what he suggests might be taken up by us all in light of recent geopolitical cataclysms. Reread favourite books. Write long letters to friends who have passed on. Deliver indignant diatribes. Why not? We might as well assert or reassert any meaningful thing about ourselves, given that merely existing over the next few years looks like being pretty tricky.

There’s a Zen-like piece on melancholy – ‘the clock was invented to oblige it’. Hopeless loves are recalled as well as rewarding ones. The role of jealousy in life is given a good kicking. On the economy, which seems to be improving, Grass says, “We just don’t know what to save, or why,” and that applies to Germany as well as Greece. There’s an elegy to the Olivetti typewriter on which he wrote all his novels: “She was and is my favourite product from the fifties, sleek and elegant in form, as if Leonardo da Vinci had invented the typewriter on the side”. A lot of this is grim, some wry, all of it rueful. Well, what exactly is the matter with rueful?

Of All That Ends is also an album of drawings. Grass was a renowned graphic artist, very good with ink (see the cover of his novel The Flounder of 1977). He made many drawings of these appealing fish, some incorporating his own features, sharing that species’ lugubrious, confused look.

Most of the drawings here are in charcoal and graphite, with some washes – Grass no longer had the confidence for pen and ink, which he regrets. They seem like an almost systematic homage to the textures of Albrecht Dürer. Decay is the thing: dead birds, broken eggs, live snails crawling alongside petrified snails. Grass exhibits his dentures next to an eroded elk’s skull. There’s a lot here about his teeth.

Throughout this book are plentiful reminders of what a writer of the forest Grass was. Windfall apples and pears nestle in leaves, gently beginning to rot. There is a narrative of feathers, juxtaposed in particular with some twisted coffin nails, for which Grass recalls paying a cemetery worker in Lucky Strike cigarettes; at one point he was a stonemason by trade and spent time in graveyards. There are disturbing renderings of large pairs of paper scissors paired with human hands; later these big blades lie on a table with a lot of snipped-off fingers. Grass asks himself why he collects frogs and toads that have completely dried out, while arranging them for us in a penciled danse macabre.

There are chains, ropes, and a curious bundle of sisal which is used in India, smouldering outside shops that sell bidis, as a kind of continuous cigarette lighter. Grass’s own smoking has come to an end, and there are several drawings of his favorite pipes, now “cold and ill-tempered”. Grass watches Germany and the world, and the feelings and tastes of the world that he created, typically and definitely start to decay: onions, mushrooms, people, offal, walls, houses, tobacco and history. Books and paper. He finds pointed decay at the very heart of the reunification of Germany.

The compelling story of the book is about the day Grass and his wife decide to have coffins made for them, by an old acquaintance who built much of their furniture over the years. (A German word for coffin is Erdmobel, “earth-furniture”.)

The discussion starts over coffee and cake. Grass wants a birch box, his wife pine. He doesn’t want the box to taper toward the foot, and neither of them wish for cushions or linings. Grass gets the idea of lining the boxes with leaves, whether bright ones from summer fruit trees or decayed and autumnal: when they die, he and his wife will lie on leaves in their boxes and be covered with them. He rules out one leaf, that of the oak: a Nazi symbol. The meeting ends with schnapps.

It’s hard not to feel that here we are watching Grass being buried, not under the summer or autumn leaves he wished for, but under the scraps of paper ideas and images that make up this book. Whether or not this is bottom-of-the-drawer material (which he does allude to at one point), it reads, pitifully, a little more that way than not.

Duly the boxes are delivered by the friendly carpenter. Schnapps again. Grass and his wife take them down to the cellar and try them out, lying in them side by side. His wife tells him she wished she had a camera: “You looked so content.” Later, preparing dinner, Grass points at their two fish, nestled in a pan, and they both laugh.

The boxes remain, pointedly useless, in the cellar; eventually his wife begins to use hers for storing her flower bulbs. Now, against the certainties these two boxes would seem to offer, Grass surprisingly borrows a tale from a friend of his that intimates the two bespoke coffins were stolen, for a time, from the cellar. Later they are mysteriously returned, minus the bulbs, but containing two very delicate mummified mice. Grass’s doubt and ambiguity are there, were there, to the end.


This review appeared in the Herald, Jan. 1 2017

Colson Whitehead–Sag Harbor

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on November 18, 2016 at 10:13 am

The summer of 1985 is a halcyon one for Ben, 15, and his brother Reggie, 14, left alone in the family’s vacation house. The town of Sag Harbor, New York, is the plain face of “the Hamptons”, one of the weirder places on earth. In winter it is bleak potato farms, in summer the desk and playpen of writers, actors and arseholes from the world around: in Ben’s words, “the Hamptonite Undead”, who stop at nothing to satisfy their opulent summery urges.

Strange and brave that a community was founded here by black professionals from the city in the 1930s. “I’ll wager on this,” Ben says, “the sunsets closed the deal for that first generation … my grandparents and their crew … that first generation asked, Can we make it work? Will they allow us to have this? It doesn’t matter what the world says, they answered each other. This place is ours.”

Whitehead proves himself, among many other things, a poet of the American summer and its aspirations. In these cherished, toiled-for houses, Ben and his city friends live summer and adolescence parallel to the rest of the world. The place means everything to their parents, and to them. To let anything, even money worries, “interfere with Sag, your shit was seriously amiss”.

Within days of being left in charge, the two brothers have eaten all the frozen dinners they expected would sustain them. So Reggie throws himself on the mercy of Burger King and Ben gets a job at Jonni Waffle, a wonderful, nauseatingly evoked emporium of American dessert bilge – “the beginning of my exile from decent people”. Yet in Whitehead’s hands this place, reeking of burning sucrose, is the perfect theatre for every anxiety of puberty: monetary, digestive, racial, sexual and criminal.The nostalgia the young have for family things is acutely done: the dependable look of rakes in the basement, or how it feels to gather up your stuff at the chilly end of a day on the beach. And there is a guilty, haunted Ben who looks down on his maturing self from outside, a kid never allowed to forget he goes to a fancy white school – “most of the year it was like I’d been blindfolded and thrown down a well”.

Day to day, Ben broils in the anxiety of any 15-year-old: “The new handshakes were out, shaming me with their permutations and slippery routines. Slam, grip, flutter, snap. Or was it slam, flutter, grip, snap? … Devised in the underground soul laboratories of Harlem, pounded out in the blacker-than-thou sweatshops of the South Bronx, the new handshakes always had me faltering in embarrassment … I had all summer to get it right, unless someone went back to the city and returned with some new variation that spread like a virus, and which my strong dork constitution produced countless antibodies against.” For Ben is a dork. The musical currency in his milieu may be rap, but he listens to the Smiths (as well as alluding to his Dungeons & Dragons past – “a means of perpetuating virginity”).

But this remarkable novel goes far beyond gentle musings on awkward youth. This is Ben on the meaning, to him, of the cataclysmic shift from rap to hip-hop: “Something happened that changed the terms and we went from fighting (I’ll knock that grin off your face) to annihilation (I will wipe you from this Earth). How we got from here to there are the key passages in the history of young black men that no one cares to write. We live it instead.”

In this elegiac, spirited prose there are echoes of Melville, one of the first to write about Sag, and others, too: Thurber’s ability to celebrate a troubled family through satire, and Cheever’s melancholy geography of class. Compared with his own brilliantly stark, insinuating writing in The Colossus of New York, Whitehead’s language here is relaxed and playful, a tribute to youth. But Ben’s take on life is a fond, proud, nervy shout, and a triumph of rueful reason.


This review appeared in the Guardian on May 16, 2009

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