Lucy and Todd

Posts Tagged ‘Todd McEwen’

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

Everyone is Watching–Megan Bradbury

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on July 12, 2016 at 10:21 am

This fascinating novella, almost a work of philosophy, is about the death of New York City, its forced abandonment by the very people who ought to live there: the middle and lower middle class, artists, musicians and writers. A cyclic, impressionistic narrative, it returns again and again to historical and contemporary figures whose connections are staggeringly strong, apt, poetic and, seemingly, unbreakable. That they were broken and that the city has been left culturally stunted is poignant, and conveyed with incisive, rueful calm.

The people on which Bradbury anchors her story are these: Walt Whitman, arguably America’s greatest writer, who lived in Brooklyn through most of the 19th century, when it really was a place of its own; definitely not part of the ‘United States proper’, as Frank Capra had it. Whitman is the foundation of this book, a pure note of angelic American hope.

The devil is the planner, builder and destroyer Robert Moses. A crappy visionary with obscure motives, he delivered parks, beaches, hulking roads and two World’s Fairs to the people of New York over the course of the 20th century. And in the process he illegally evicted thousands of them from their homes.

To counterbalance this Frankenstein, Bradbury proposes two controversial artists, the poet Patti Smith and the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Both vitally interested in fame itself besides their art, they famously lived at the famous Chelsea Hotel, an icon and mainstay of Bohemia, just when the city of serious art was coming apart, and the infrastructure of Moses was crumbling too. The Chelsea, once luxurious, had quickly been cut up, and cut up again in the Depression – that was when the artists had moved in:

‘They lived in rooms with half a fireplace, half a ceiling rose. The outlines of the rooms were brand new and their borders were confusing. Ghost apartments. Ghost hotel.’

Those are the thoughts of the writer Edmund White, who’s also a character in Everyone is Watching. He’s there because he’s arrived back in New York too late, it seems, to live in the romantic, literary city he remembers from the Sixties. When you think about it, what’s happening to the Chelsea now is a perfect metaphor for the city:

‘When the renovation is complete, it will be a tourist hotel … the beds will be made with clean white sheets … this building will not now produce anything new.’

Artists were antithetical to what the forces of business wanted for the city. They were deemed destructive, perverse. But as clear thinkers and seekers of the new, they were just what New York always needed. The choice of Edmund White to commiserate with this story is a clever one, particularly as regards the West Side of Manhattan. Robert Moses built a huge highway there; the giant piers where ocean liners docked from all over the world became derelict, and then the locus of the gay revolution, the symbol, to White, of the freedoms New York offered when it still could. Now, the West Side is merely ‘cool’: people with money and no brains all clamour to live in the Meatpacking District.

‘Walt Whitman used to live round here somewhere,’ one woman says to another. ‘I don’t know where exactly.’ Surprising, huh?

Bradbury makes connections between people and places, and across time, that are edifying and moving. Robert Moses builds the 1964 World’s Fair and the teenage Robert Mapplethorpe works there, selling waffles. Walt Whitman is astonished by his first walk across the Brooklyn Bridge – he likens it to the printing press he operates for a living. A hundred years later, Robert Moses attempts to throw an even greater span across New York Bay. But things have changed. People no longer want to lose whole neighbourhoods to the automobile.

There’s a striking passage about how it may be possible to live on a reasonable budget in New York: ‘They avoid the organic grocers and they buy food that’s past its use-by date. They don’t have a TV and so don’t pay for cable. They use the Internet for free at the Brooklyn Library. When they go out with friends they order a beer, which they share, then they top the bottle up with liquor brought from home.’ One suspects this would make Edmund White feel sad. Walt Whitman would love it.

Why did New York have to go? ‘… that filthy place which didn’t work. What is it now? A historical exhibition of a cleaned-out place.’ What a disaster.


This review appeared in the Herald, 25 June 2016.

Jenny Diski–In Gratitude

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on May 20, 2016 at 6:44 am

Cancer is everywhere. It’s like a parallel universe. If you don’t believe it, take yourself off to the Cancer Centre at Edinburgh’s Western General. There’s an entire city of pain there.

And cancer diaries are now a major literary genre. In Gratitude is partly the late Jenny Diski’s examination of this. She took the time, while dying, to discuss the ins and outs of the kind of book she was writing: should it be written at all? What are the merits, the uses of this sort of book? Do such memoirs comfort the writer, or the reader?

Diski, who died of lung cancer last month, was uncertain about joining the ranks of those who go public with a terminal illness. She even felt some sympathy for Clive James, who magisterially announced his cancer with some very effective poetry, and who, thanks to medicine, now seems to be doing better.

She talks about cancer books a little disquietingly, as if writing them is a contest. She wonders which cancer-stricken authors will get the most press. She mentions Until Further Notice, I Am Alive, by the art critic Tom Lubbock (reviewed in these pages four years ago). That was a vivid book about the writer’s unhappiness at having to leave the world, all the more poignant in that the increasingly muted form of the book mirrored his day-to-day losses as his brain tumour grew. Diski doesn’t mention one of the best, but perhaps least known of the genre, My Diary by Mio Matsumoto, a surprisingly beautiful, wrenching graphic novel about cancer of the tongue.

Diski is opposed to characterizing having cancer as a ‘battle’, as was the late John Diamond, who wrote persuasively on the subject; she also despises the popularity of the word ‘journey’ in its many modern touchy-feely contexts. Good for her.

Lots of things in this world were ranged against Jenny Diski. Much of that was her own doing. One comes away from this book thinking that the real illness being discussed is not cellular but mental: she suffered from a backbreaking amount of depression all her life and never got any real help for it. A doctor she hated told her she had an addictive personality and put in her notes that she would have a terrible life and a lonely death.

She also constantly compared herself to others. This wasn’t good for her. A writer needs a bit of emotional home turf, and this she never got. She wasn’t one of those writers who feeds solely on disquiet, although she may have wanted to be.

Another thing that never helped her, as becomes plain here, was her relationship, as daughter or step-daughter or adopted daughter, with Doris Lessing. This was unhealthy, no matter how much good Lessing thought she was doing in ‘rescuing’ this classically screwed-up literary waif.

Lessing put a lot of her own trauma, and aspirations, on Diski, fitting her with a diaphragm at the age of fifteen and introducing her to a lot of men too old for her, as if deciding, after taking this troubled girl into her home, that the only thing to do was to force her to become an adult as soon as possible so she could get rid of her. This is distasteful and troubling. Did Diski survive Doris? It’s too close to call.

In Gratitude reads as though it’s not the book Jenny Diski wanted to write. On several levels of course this must be true: she didn’t want to have cancer, nor find herself writing a book about her cancer, and she must have found it immensely frustrating that this was the only book she could write. Particularly in the section on chemotherapy the reader will grasp how difficult it was to get anything written in the midst of this full-scale derangement of body and mind. And it was a close-run thing, but by all accounts Jenny Diski got to hold In Gratitude in her hand: it was sped to her straight from the printers by her agent and publisher. This book she never wanted to write.

‘You’re not the only fish; not the only one with cancer’, Diski says ruefully. She’s good on rueful. ‘The world has its timetables and rhythms. It was precisely for weeks like this that our parents were supposed to have taught us to put aside childish notions of instant gratification for the more mature deferred sort. As we all know, come cancer scans and silent lovers, it doesn’t work.’



This review appeared in the Herald on May 21, 2016

Julian Stannard—What Were You Thinking?

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on May 3, 2016 at 9:47 am

‘I had not realized how much one could look at a tree and hate it.’ This is a book of playful, moving poems with an almost excruciating self-deprecation. It’s lyrical, real, wistful, and then sometimes it barks like a dog you can’t completely trust.

There are strange happenings, ancient and modern. The poet’s bedsheets emigrate to Poland. Mothers dress their children in tutelary clothes so they can carry uncooked Christmas turkeys the weight of the baby Jesus across heaths. Sheep wait for the writer to speak to them, to give them ‘something they can pass around themselves’. A teenage wheelie bin that writes poetry gets blown by the wind to Paris and his mother goes berserk.

Mothers are much in evidence. On the phone, the poet tries to be breezy with his. She senses he is lighting a cigarette and scolds him; he can then ‘hear her frowning’. She goes on to use the word ‘alakefic’ which he affects to understand. If you look this word up, you will encounter claims on very dodgy-looking etymological web sites that it is RAF slang, but one might equally guess Stannard made up ‘alakefic’ and planted references to it on the web. Such are the thoughts you will think while reading this.

‘Imagine a castle defended by poets. How easily we capitulated!’ This from a poem about a certain well-known writers’ retreat not a million miles from Edinburgh. As in all such places, the quality of the experience is determined by whom you are thrown together with and how good the food is. For amusement there’s something proposed called ‘Scottish roulette’, which involves dangerous amounts of porridge. ‘One night I met the American poet on the stairs by candlelight. How much self-hate can there be? she asked. I said, There can always be a little more.’

Stannard has spent much of his life in Genoa, where, he writes, there is always something to find out, and you can lose your way twenty times a day. The wonderful section ‘The Street of Perfect Love’ addresses Italy, and love. It hasn’t worked out too well maybe: ‘Someone had taken an axe to my life.’ Dragging a Christmas tree through the city streets he starts to feel alarmingly Biblical and it’s very funny and sad.

Most of these poems are a page in length, but they’re packing heat. They read like memoranda from the future, from someone who’s got slightly worse luck than you do. ‘Burlington Arcade’ is a terrific riff on the luxurious late capitalism that will choke London to death. In a longer piece, about hell, the writer opines it’s like public school. You get free towels, cover versions of the Pet Shop Boys and occasional amyl nitrate (actually, what’s he complaining about?). ‘As a rule I find damnation’s good for the figure’. But the problem with this particular hell is that there are no women, and he finally guesses they must have their own inferno – with plumped-up pillows and pot-pourri. Hell as Laura Ashley.


This review appeared in the Herald on May 2, 2016