A Million Little Pieces, Alex Salmond, Atheism, Atheist, Authority, Belgrade, Ben Zion Avrohom, Book review., Books, Caffeine, Conversations, Cuts, David Cameron, Edinburgh, Ernest Hemingway, Financial Meltdown, Folk, Folklore, Humor, Investment, James Frey, Literary criticism, Literature, Love, Nihilism, Opinion, Politics, Pub, Public Spending, Serbia, Sex, SNP, Tea Obreht, The Deathless Man, The Devil, The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, The Jungle Book, The Tiger's Wife, Tony Blair, Yugoslavia
[SCENE: Finnegan’s Wake.]
Tychy:… you take your life into your hands. Renata once visited a retreat on the Isle of Lewis, where the whole community had vowed to completely rid their diet of caffeine, stimulants, additives, and toxins. They drank only water from the local springs and dined only on vegetables which they had grown in their allotments.
Tori: It must have been divine?
Tychy: No, they expired en masse. It was like the Jonestown massacre. They gradually ran out of energy and wound down like neglected clocks. Renata only lived by crawling to the nearest Starbucks and reviving herself with a triple espresso.
James: To work, my friends. I have convened this meeting to formulate our policy on The Cuts.
Tori: You too? Another one? The Cuts are unanswerable. If you no longer have any money then you have to stop spending, but some intellectuals cannot deal with this elementary logic, like a weedy kid who is forever trapped on the first level of his computer game.
James: You’re wandering off message Tori. Our website opposes the Cuts. We believe that the nation is desperate for a massive programme of investment in science, technology, industry, and education – a second Industrial Revolution, or several all at once – to shoot our economy into the twenty-first century…
Tychy: Er James…?
James:…harmless electronic cigarettes for every child… cars driven by humanoid robots… self-peeling oranges… neurotransmitters which will defeat the need to sleep… the cloning of new human organs from stem cell tissue to allow endless self-regeneration…
Tychy: Can you actually name something which has been Cut?
Tychy: Just one thing.
James: Lots of things are in the process of being Cut. Schools and hospitals, for example.
Tychy: Can you name one?
James: Well, public spending has been reduced by… er… (cough, gasp) percent, and this means that lots of schools and hospitals must have, at least theoretically, been Cut.
Tychy: Which must be heartbreaking for all of those theoretical schoolchildren…
James: They Cut an aircraft carrier. I remember that…
Tychy: But I seem to recall that when Tony Blair was Prime Minister, you wanted the whole of the army to be Cut. You also wanted the Home Office to be shut down and the prison population to be reduced by eighty percent.
James: These are details, Biggy…
Tychy: Even now, the “Con-Dem” coalition is still significantly to the Left of New Labour. Have people already forgotten the wars which Blair started, the attempt to extend habeas corpus for 92 days, the immigration polices taken from the BNP, the attacks on juries and freedom of speech? New Labour deliberately engineered one of the most authoritarian and illiberal governments in modern history, and an intended consequence of this strategy was that successive governments could only seem weak in comparison to Labour the Natural Party of Authority. In any event, Cameron seems determined to remain inconspicuous, as if to give the Cuts haters no reasonable grounds for hating him.
Tori: One of the most depressing things of late has been the launch of a majority SNP government. They now have an unimpeded power to do anything. Alex Salmond’s speech to Holyrood quoth Hugh MacDiarmid to demand, “Scotland small?… Our multiform, our infinite Scotland, small?” And so what are the first landmark acts of this great new age? Some flimsy, petty authoritarianism – outlawing cheap alcohol and sectarian football chants – policies which Blair would have put aside for a quiet week – as if the most burning challenge facing the nation is that ordinary people’s lives are not being sufficiently controlled and supervised, rather than that most people do not have enough or even any opportunities to prosper.
At least Blair introduced the minimum wage, which repayed the voters with something. But Salmond has no equivalent policy, and if we are witnessing his fresh, energised period of government, it is going to be a long parliament.
James: I’m still trying to think of something which has been Cut. On the literary front, what have you both made of The Tiger’s Wife?
Tychy: This novel which has just won the Booker?
James: I think it won the Pulitzer.
Tychy: She looks very nice.
James: I have a weakness for blondes, but do you not find her a bit dumpy?
Tychy: You are very sexually unsophisticated, like a teenager. The word is “voluptuous.” I like a big rolling wave of a girl…
Tori: This is outrageous. Tea Obreht has written the first great novel of the decade…
James: Woah! You have to warn me before you say such preposterous things! These surprises cannot be good for my heart.
Tychy: One settles down to voyage grimly through the swirls of multicoloured butterflies and cavorting circus animals. This genre is essentially sub-folk or a folk in pastels: a sort of girlie fruit-tea literature. They had to coin this phrase “magic realism” to account for a storytelling which somehow lacks the natural clarity and depth of folk. I certainly enjoyed the book…
James: Oh I enjoyed it also…
Tychy: Anybody would. It‘s almost offensively inoffensive. But one can sense how dodgy an enterprise is from the number of guarantors whom are allegedly underwriting it, and in the case of Obreht’s novel, we are vociferously assured that it is inspired by a list of oddly disconnected big names such as Marquez, Hemingway, Rushdie and Roald Dahl, as well as various classic scenes from continental cinema.
James: I find that I can easily monkey her homely whimsicality: “Arriving in the village, I observe a garden littered with broken microwaves and I hear the piercing squeals of kittens who have been bathed in the kitchen sink and then hung from the washing line in a row. Zora borrows a light from a band of murderous-looking gypsies who are pushing a retired dancing bear in a wheelchair. When one of them claps his hands, the bear wobbles to his feet and proceeded to deliver a reasonably nimble foxtrot. Suddenly, my eyes sting and I am remembering a remark made by my grandfather when he was removing President Tito’s appendix back in the sixties…”
Tori: That sounds nothing like her!
James: To me, The Tiger’s Wife is as predictable as a Mills and Boon novel – it is precisely what one would expect a twenty-five year old Serbian novelist with a liberal education to write. I could have composed that parody after only reading the blurb on the back of the book. I could have probably written the entire novel…
Tychy: Zora’s warning, “Don’t be so fucking provincial” is basically the book’s epigraph. Take this business with the elephant. They find a circus elephant strolling through the city at midnight: “this is one of those moments… you keep to yourself… It belongs only to you. And me. Only to us.” It’s the twenty-first century! These people are seriously fucked if they still think that an elephant is in any respect noteworthy. I am such a man of the world that if I saw an elephant walking down the street, I doubt that I would give it a second glance.
Tori: Such feeble grievances. This novel becomes most alert on the very question of the folk. Obreht is determined not to attribute any part of the story of the tiger’s wife to folk culture, and the tiger will not be caged within such narratives just as he has scampered away from zoo captivity. Whilst a heroic fable of the blacksmith’s death will mask what really happened, his fabled gun of historical renown actually misfires and blows his head off. He is immortalised in death by folk culture, when he was literally killed by a product of that culture. The tiger next ends up being hunted by a tormented taxidermist, who is a travesty of the traditional frontier huntsman, and this figure is a symbolic brother of Vuk the “thief of music.” The former kills and preserves mythical animals; the latter records folk songs and freezes their rolling lives in final dead ends.
Tychy: But the tiger is at heart bloodless and domesticated. He can only be petted by his “wife” because he was once a pet himself, rather than because she is a witch. Without recourse to Kipling’s Jungle Book – which is itself an imperialist initiative – this tiger may have been identified as one of the more traditional folk “devils” such as Crnobog or Baba Roga.
James: Where does the deathless man fit into this? He is a smirking, alienated figure, without the majesty of the Grim Reaper or the agony of the Wandering Jew. The calamities which he experiences – those harmless drownings and shootings – make him seem endearingly like Wily Coyote.
Tori: Well, we never establish that he exists. He appears in some tall tales, but Natalia’s grandfather may stuff her with these yarns in order to exact some sort of obscure revenge. He could have destroyed his copy of The Jungle Book before departing for Zdrevkov – I can imagine him doing this with perverse relish – leaving Natalia to simultaneously create and narrate her story, trapped in a private unreality.
James: The tiger’s wife and the deathless man could merely add colour to the grandfather’s dreary, empty past. Natalia’s love for her grandfather is forcefully highlighted by the absence of her mother, who is not dead or overseas, but she remains inexplicably locked out of the story. The mother must have insights into the tale of the tiger’s wife…
Tori: If it was true in the first place. All of Natalia’s tales are taken from her grandfather, rather than from anything broader or greater. Grandfather represents a furtive, whimsical private folk, which slyly confounds and occasionally steals from the original folk tradition, and it is estranged from the folk in a quintessentially bourgeois vein, just as gardening is a world away from agriculture.
Tychy: As you say, Obreht has to concoct a folk storytelling because she is removed and alienated from the original. She is a refugee from Yugoslavia who is promoting a nostalgic vision of this homeland. She never names the new Slavic nations, and her novel consequently seems to be set in a huge shapeless lump of Slavic Europe – one not unlike Yugoslavia, in other words. Natalia carps about the tyranny of Milosevic’s “Administration,” when this government was actually elected by working people, but otherwise her grandfather is mourning the loss of Mostar because his “finest memories are here”; there is an unfortunate likening of the Allied bombing of Belgrade to the Nazi assault in 1941; and all of the region’s unpleasantness towards Muslims is redeemed when Mother Vera treats the Tiger’s wife with surprising decency. Natalia arrives in a former region and begins bossing about a gang of hapless locals, like the typical obnoxious agent of an N.G.O., but they turn out to be from her “side” and locals and outsiders alike are reconciled through shared folk rituals.
James: But Obreht’s Yugoslavia is forever warring and “unravelling” – “the fight is endless, and comes in waves and waves” – and the whole enterprise is built on a deranged and jangled, but a nevertheless shared history. Yet, problematically, the emphasis upon quirky individual experience – the grandfather’s stories and memories – at best distracts from the need to build a new and better society.
Tori: Or they provide some shelter within a dystopian society. If one takes away the stories, these characters seem an awkward and rather hopeless bunch. Her family routinely “lie” in times of crisis to “spare one another’s feelings and fears,” but the consequence is to create a nullified family in which each member enjoys untrammelled privacy. The grandfather hides his terminal illness from his wife just to get a bit of peace. He cannot fool his medical granddaughter, although he never says goodbye to her and she equally cannot grieve for him.
James: These people are more English than the English.
Tori: Natalia and her grandfather almost connect when sharing the sight of the elephant, but then they immediately row about her ex-boyfriend, and the prevailing message seems to be that witnessing the elephant is a wondrously private experience which cannot be communicated to any of her “idiot friends.” Natalia will not confide in her best friend about her grandfather‘s death, whilst her mother has nothing to say on the matter. The book’s final moral is that “there are some stories you keep to yourself,” but Natalia’s grandfather apparently keeps his whole life to himself.
James: You think that this book is elevated by its nihilism?
Tychy: That’s merely a pragmatic argument which allows you to retain the cavorting elephants and tigers…
James: That deathless man – “smiling, always smiling” – is a ready comrade of the hero of our next book, James Frey’s The Final Testament of the Holy Bible. Like the deathless man, Frey’s Messiah Ben Zion Avrohom is unperturbed by bodily injury and unable to stop smiling. Intolerable, in other words…
Tychy: James Frey is essentially living on charitable goodwill. After his “fraud” was exploded by Oprah Winfrey, there was a general unease amongst the intelligentsia that he had been built up and knocked down altogether too efficiently. At one point, Oprah even volunteered to apologise tearfully to Frey in person. He is now allowed to publish these rather lacklustre books because people just like the idea that he survived, and that his whole ego was not annihilated by Oprah.
James: A Million Little Pieces exerts a greater influence over Final Testament than any theological work. Frey repeatedly insists that the Bible is not literally true, but that this factual inaccuracy is not important – presumably just like his own fake memoir – whilst the persecution of Ben Zion cannot fail to remind you of Frey’s own hounding in the media. Indeed, if a hasty editor changed the names of the characters and deleted a few of the livelier passages, this book could pass as Frey’s autobiography: “the reporters would write whatever they wanted and the newspapers would print whatever they felt like printing… I don’t look for truth in the media.”
Tychy: It’s bumptious and, considering that things turned out okay for him, oddly ungrateful.
James: The problem with such an outrageous and bombastic comparison of the author to Christ is that it is not even original. Hemingway flogged the same horse in The Old Man and the Sea, for example, with his Christ figure battling to pull a great fish out of the sea just as the Old Man himself needed to pluck a career-reviving novel out of the ether, whilst Mako sharks snapped at this prize like literary critics.
Tori: But isn’t it a laugh that Frey’s Christ returns as the sort of whining teenaged atheist which we now find on every campus? At one point he dismisses Revelations as a “stone aged science fiction story,” which must be absolutely devastating for all of those squares who still insist upon a literal interpretation.
Tychy: Except that this isn’t satire – he means it! Even though our society is a thousand times more sophisticated and anti-authoritarian than the one which Christ visited, Ben Zion can enchant everybody into forgetting their problems by telling them to love each other and occasionally applying some of his own hands-on super love. If only they’d published this revolutionary book in 1900 – a century of world wars and genocides could have been avoided. Ben Zion would, of course, be happy if everybody simply recited “I love you” to one another as sheep baa.
He preaches that money “doesn’t matter,” which is, paradoxically, a bit rich, as Frey is himself very wealthy. It’s possibly a mistake for an author on the make to flatly insult so many recession-battered readers. Ben Zion has emptied the minds of his disciples like baths – Mariaangeles recites more vacuous platitudes than Tony Blair – and this Messiah is such a bimbo that he makes David Koresh sound like St. Augustine of Hippo. In any event, the writing is so poor that the characters seem to be profoundly miserable and violently happy in the same deadened, brainwashed register. The novel only begins to make sense if Ben Zion is regarded as an embodiment of the Devil – after that it becomes surprisingly straightforward. He is, for example, determined to strip human love of all meaning and value and wonder. The dying, the elderly, the obese, all gather before the cadaverous Ben Zion to fuck like frogs in sterile, unerotic spectacles.
Tori: Once again, you are too severe you old gripe. One can find some good satire in this book – there is a quirky joke about religious artwork when Ben Zion is almost transubstantiated into a stained-glass window. There is a vicious scene when a pensioner dies alone and remains undiscovered in a Catholic church, and it is comical that the Messiah only first visits this church to use the restroom. Likewise, the Rabbi Adam’s scholarly reverence for the Talmud is rather undermined when he uncritically believes the first things which he reads about epilepsy on the internet.
James: It is incidentally a good book, but ultimately rather less substantial than that. We must find some better literature to review in the coming months.
Tychy: What is afoot in the coming months? I’m presently writing a story from several years ago about Marcin.
James: I hope to publish the second of our “Mysteries of Pablo” and further commentary on E.F. Benson. Oh my friends, let us drink to our wonderful literary civilisation.