Life as a journey

I’ve finally been out of school for as long as I was in it.

School takes ages, doesn’t it? It used to feel almost like a waiting room to me. You get ushered into a room and told to sit quietly for hours at a time and the reading material they’ve laid out maybe isn’t what you would choose for yourself. After what seems like forever, your name is called and you’re finally ushered through the door and on the other side you find… Another waiting room. It’s like a recurring nightmare. I always imagined that once I got to the thirteenth waiting room, I would go through a door that said 18 on it in a red circle. On the other side of the door would be a place called Real Life where I would finally be treated like an adult. I would immediately get into a car, drive it to a casino, order an alcoholic drink and seduce a lady. I was always waiting for Real Life to start.

You often hear people say that life is a journey. They say that you need to have a sense of direction. That you could go far. I actually think those are good metaphors for what life is like. The problem is, when you talk about journeys and directions in 2018 it makes it sound like you know exactly where you’re going and how to get there because you looked it up on Google Maps. Unfortunately, that’s not how life works. When people came up with the idea that life was like a journey, it was more like trying to find your way in the age of Christopher Columbus. Back then, not only did they not have GPS but they hadn’t even figured out how to navigate using the stars.

They used a simple system called dead reckoning. Every day, you wake up on your ship and you look at your compass to see roughly what direction you’re travelling in, and then you throw a random item overboard to see how fast you’re going, and you put a pin in the map where you think you have got to. The next day, you wake up and do the same thing, but this time your starting point is the guess you made yesterday. Eventually your position is a guess based on a guess based on a guess. You know roughly where you are heading but the truth is, you don’t really know whether you’re right until months later when the map says there should be an island on the horizon and you pick up your telescope and hope to God there isn’t just a wide, flat, empty sea.

When I first heard about dead reckoning I thought people must have been lost at sea all the time. It sounds like it would be a miracle if anyone ever ended up where they wanted to go. But the strange thing is that it worked pretty well. You don’t need to know everything about the whole journey. You only need to know three things: which way you’re facing, how fast you’re going, and what you did yesterday. I really like that idea. But there is one big, glaring problem with thinking of life as a journey. It’s the same problem with thinking of school as a waiting room. In fact, almost every time people talk about life, they make it sound as if the entire point of it all is to arrive at your destination and put your feet up. Now I don’t have all the answers but I’m pretty sure the best bit of my life is not going to be the ending.

One of my favourite authors, Fyodor Dostoevsky, put it this way: ‘Columbus was happy not when he had discovered America, but when he was discovering it. Take my word for it, the moment when he was happiest was just three days before the discovery of the New World, when the mutinous crew were on the point of returning to Europe in despair. It wasn’t the New World that mattered. Columbus died almost without seeing it, and not really knowing what he had discovered. It’s life that matters, nothing but life – the process of discovering, the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself at all.’

You have done amazing things with your life. You have amazing things ahead of you. This isn’t a waiting room; this is already real life. There is no master plan. On the best days, you manage to find one of those tiny islands in the middle of a huge ocean. Enjoy that moment. It’s incredible to think that you have got exactly where you wanted to go just by heading in roughly the right direction day after day and trying not to be blown off course. Better still, the next day you wake up and it is one of those rare days when you know exactly where you are and you can choose where you go next. You have not reached America yet, but this is the exciting part, out here on the water. Some days you might feel a bit lost, or even lose heart – that happens to everyone. But never doubt what you are capable of. On those days when everything ahead of you looks like an empty sea, all you need to do is look back and you’ll see how far you’ve come.

I gave a version of this talk at Bournemouth School’s 2018 prize giving day. 

On Chris Power’s Mothers

Chris Power’s first collection of short stories, MOTHERS, is peopled by the restless – forever walking, running, travelling, holidaying, city-hopping, doing anything not to stand still. They are displaced, impulsive, sometimes desperate. The narrator of one story summarises it as ‘the lightness of being far from home, the pleasure and terror of being free to do as I liked.’ It carries the logic, though decidedly not the tone, of picaresque: travellers, like orphans, are liberated to situate themselves from scratch, living without ready-made definitions.

This is certainly true of the three linked ‘Mother’ stories that structure the collection, which concern Eva: first remembering her childhood in Sweden; then travelling along the Costa Blanca; finally married with a daughter of her own. She leads an unhappy life in the shadow of her parents’ death, and travel becomes a way of outrunning her problems, though even here she is following her own mother around Europe, carrying around her guidebook and allowing it to fall open at spine-cracked pages, as if consulting the mother’s spirit. ‘It seemed to help if I kept moving,’ she confesses finally. ‘Whenever I stopped moving everything became… too much.’

Young Eva, in ‘Summer 1976’, reads food into everything: stacks of LPs are liquorice, the air stands thick as jam or greasy with a coming storm. On a dare, the boy who lives next door throws an apple into one of the windows of their apartment block, where it bursts against the wall. (But does she have to be Eva, and does it have to be an apple, so that the story drags around with it the creaking weight of the Biblical malum malum?) Later, after her mother’s death, her taste for life seems to dull. She inherits her mother’s mute desperation; boys are now men, but they embody the same tension between threat and attraction. Later still, tethered to a marriage and a daughter of her own, she loses all energy: stuck in one place, with no water running over her gills, she is reduced, depressed and couch bound.

Listless and withholding, Eva is an unusual character to give the limelight, but in many respects she occupies the thematic heart of the book, caught as she is between the need for love and the compulsion to slip her bonds. MOTHERS begins and ends in Sweden, perhaps the only true centre of gravity for this cosmopolitan crowd of stories. There is also the force of the unspoken, particularly between parent and child: ‘It seemed wrong to ask Mum what she had been thinking about when she was sitting on my bed,’ Eva recalls. ‘It felt like something that would lose its power if we spoke about it.’ In narrative, of course, information does not want to be free, and this ambiguity is what drives all these stories so craftily – partial information, subjective impression, the effort of reading others.

The actions of both men and women are hard to explain away, though they almost always fall short of a partner’s expectations. The men can be slow to know themselves, sometimes drinking as a cover for impulse or physically imposing themselves on their surroundings, whereas the women quietly follow their own path, quietly not saying what they mean. Close relationships, whether familial or romantic, constantly challenge characters’ volition – if travel represents pure freedom, love seems to narrow down one’s options. But without it, there is only the brutal indifference of the wider universe. At the end of a long night, rejected by a lover, a young man watches ‘dawn destroy the stars’.

Power writes arrestingly, particularly about nature, as when a character lies down on the grass and watches ‘leaves divide the sky into shifting fractions of blue’, the phrase simultaneously poetic and precise, with its wonderful rolling rhythm bearing the computational language of division, shifting, fractions. MOTHERS is also brilliantly controlled (for any collection of stories, let alone a first collection). Perhaps this should not be surprising, since Power has been interrogating the form for over a decade – his ‘Brief survey of the short story’ series in THE GUARDIAN has long outgrown its name, numbering 72 articles at the time of writing. On this score, it is tempting to attempt genetic criticism. When Power was writing ‘The Hävang Dolmen’, for instance, with its insensible screaming youth and its coffin-like dolmen, was he thinking of his entry on Franz Kafka, where he wrote about the ‘complex meshing of everyday reality and nightmare… and a world that looks like the one inhabited by you and me, but in which the inner turmoil of the psyche is on the loose’? Is it significant that his first profile was of Anton Chekhov, ‘the author laureate of not knowing’?

Eva once quotes her therapist to the effect that ‘all stories, whatever they’re about, are about you anyway’, and we do find self-conscious elements in a few stories. Any reader reserves the right to skip over paragraphs in which a character gets writer’s block, as in ‘Above the Wedding’, but it is put to better use in ‘Johnny Kingdom’, whose main character is a comedian condemned to stag parties performing another, more famous comedian’s routine (‘He rejects “impersonator”, and resists “tribute act”, although he knows it comes closest’).

Perhaps the most intimate story also appears to be the most self-conscious. ‘Colossus of Rhodes’ runs on two parallel tracks: in the first, the narrator is on holiday in Cephalonia with his wife and two daughters; in the second, he remembers a family holiday as a boy in Rhodes, making him simultaneously parent and child. Power captures the narrator’s parental urge to protect as he covers his children in sun cream, while his young daughter asserts her freedom by standing on her own at the bus stop ‘in a way she considers extremely grown-up’.

Conversely, as a boy, his desire for autonomy comes at the expense of his own wellbeing: while playing an arcade game alone, he is groped in broad daylight by a smiling old man, and later, while lagging behind his family, he finds a dying cat and becomes responsible for putting it out of its misery. Power addresses the reader directly, explaining that ‘it’s a cat in the story because a kitten would be too much’, and that in real life the kitten was killed purely for sport by some local children. ‘Maybe it’s because I never spoke about these things to anyone that I find it so difficult to shape them into a story now,’ he writes. Here, the unspoken becomes a curse, and storytelling a balm, as it will later become for Eva. Stories seem to offer a way of ordering and editing experience – ‘they don’t have to be “true” true’, Eva’s therapist explains – and in doing so, they offer the chance to defang the past. But the chasm, in ‘Colossus’, between the official and unofficial accounts, might leave us wary of fictions that attempt to shield us from the blow.

There is a tendency to think of short stories as episodes while novels are journeys – a sentiment expressed by the most recent winner of the BBC National Short Story Award, Cynan Jones. That works for some writers – certainly it works for Jones – but a collection of stories like MOTHERS needs a different definition. MOTHERS takes a theme too complex to approach except obliquely – the conflict between love and freedom – and, like a particle accelerator, repeatedly fires ideas at it to see what can be inferred from the collision. Power writes mothers, but also daughters, sons, lovers, families and bickering couples, testing different ages, sexualities, genders and cultures to create a composite which arrives at more than the sum of its parts – not a clutch of episodes, but a single, unified, many-sided work, best read cover to cover.

 

First published by The White Review.

How to fix Amazon reviews: let me count the ways

Amazon introduced its five star customer ratings system over two decades ago as a way to improve clickthrough and sales. At first, each book’s rating was the pure average of all its customer reviews. But no one ever said that system was perfect.

Six years ago there was a widespread scandal of ‘sockpuppetry’ in the world of book reviews. Then, three years ago, Amazon sued four sites selling reviews for pay, and began using machine learning to give books a weighted average biased in favour of new reviews, verified purchases and reviews people had marked as ‘helpful’. But in 2018, despite their huge influence on customers, Amazon reviews still suck.

It won’t surprise anyone that Amazon has opted for a standard tech solution to a human problem, but there are so many simple things they could do with their community, which would turn the fact that it is a group of people into a strength, rather than a weakness. Here are five suggestions:

1. Split reviews of the delivery and the product.

I can’t believe this hasn’t been done already. It’s so depressing to see someone’s gnomic whinge about the meaning of ‘standard delivery’ lumped in with an assessment of a story’s quality. It punishes the writer for the sins of the delivery guy. How can anyone equate packaging with imagination? Audible splits its reviews into story and narrator – why can’t Amazon do something similar?

2. Give reviewers a more transparent rating.

Rather than marking out the ‘Top 500 reviewers’, or marking reviews as ‘helpful’ and ‘unhelpful’, follow Uber’s lead and give the customers themselves a starred average. Don’t show reviews by those who abuse the system.

3. Only show reviews once a reviewer has posted more than three.

Airbnb doesn’t list a host’s rating at all until their third review gets posted, partly to give a fair average, but also to prioritise those who are engaging seriously with the platform.

4. If a reviewer hasn’t ‘made a Verified Purchase’ (or as a human might put it, bought it from Amazon), don’t allow their post to appear automatically.

Perhaps they have to write a substantial review of more than 100 words, as many bloggers do – it would make it harder for online communities to ‘brigade’ books for ideological reasons. Though not impossible.

5. Make reviews more social and sociable.

When Amazon bought GoodReads in 2013 for a reported $150 million it already had 16 million ‘users’ (an oddly narcotic expression for readers) on its site, and it now has 65 million. For all that they must have rejoiced in the extra user data and recommendation algorithms, they missed a really big reason that people like it: as a speculative purchase, books feel like a comparatively huge investment of time and money, and a lot of people will only buy a book that was recommended by someone they know and trust.

Some of these suggestions might actually make it harder to engage with reviews, and the idea of adding friction goes against the fundamental ethos of Silicon Valley (and, apparently, Seattle). It could mean some books have two reviews, rather than twenty. But if we are seeking quality, we should look to sites like Wikipedia, which allow anyone superficial engagement but which put up barriers to participation where it matters, with locked articles, forum discussions, roving admins and so on, to make sure not just that people are doing stuff on the site, but that it is a virtuous cycle, improving the community and the content. Because the worst thing about Amazon reviews is that, well, a lot of them just aren’t very good.

 

First published on The Bookseller.