A strange, wise novel

George Saunders is the most lauded short-story writer living today, revered in America to the point of canonisation. Among many other accolades, he has been awarded a Macarthur “Genius” Fellowship and named by TIME magazine, in a characteristic departure from reality, as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

He rose to prominence in the UK in 2013 with publication of his short story collection The Tenth of December, a bright, brilliant firework of a collection, which received rave reviews and won the inaugural Folio Prize (now the Rathbones Folio Prize). This made his debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, one of the most anticipated books of 2017.

Saunders’s stories often follow a certain structure: refusing to explain their rules at first, they seem strange and impenetrable; gradually, a world recognisably like our own is revealed, but in some way estranged or uncanny; the story and its conventions begin to converge purposefully and forcefully; and finally, out of nowhere, we are hit with a wave of compassion, the very last thing we expected of an ostensibly experimental story. Even when we do learn to expect it, the sheer aching sympathy of his characters challenges you to be better, kinder, more humane.

Lincoln in the Bardo follows this same broad structure, charting one night in the graveyard where the young Willie Lincoln, son of Abe, has just been interred. Although Lincoln Sr features, it is really young Willie who is in the bardo, a Tibetan word for an intermediate state between lives in Buddhism, similar to the Christian limbo. None of the characters there are able to acknowledge that they are dead, delicately referring to “that previous place” and calling their coffins “sick-boxes” as if they are merely resting up for a return. All here are restless souls, snagged on some troubling detail of their past life like Williams the hunter, who sits caring for the great pile of animals he has killed.

There is a touching trio of elders who take Willie under their wing: roger bevins iii, a young gay man covered in eyes; hans vollman, who lugs around a “tremendous member”, having been taken ill while anticipating his marriage-bed; and the reverend everly thomas, who is adamant that this is no place for a child, and that Willie must depart as soon as possible, for whatever the next life holds. Except Willie won’t go. He is waiting for his father.

Writing Abraham Lincoln is like playing Hamlet – fraught by competing, contested interpretations, impossible to begin anew – and Saunders confronts the historicity of the novel with a polyphonic, argumentative chorus. Different observers tell us Lincoln’s eyes are “gray”, “gray-brown”, “bluish-brown”, “bluish-gray”, “blue”; he is both “the ugliest man I had ever seen” and, to another, “the handsomest man I ever saw”. Saunders is not reverent towards Lincoln, whom he depicts at one point riding his nag with his long legs hanging down like “some sort of man-sized insect”. But we do not hear Lincoln Sr’s testimony directly – we literally inhabit him, as roger bevins iii and hans vollman sit within him to understand his thoughts.

The novel is not, as is being suggested, a masterpiece, but it does reveal Saunders’s many great qualities, not least of which is the hard-won gift of empathy, and his emphasis on the importance of “kind little words, which are of the same blood as great and holy deeds”. It takes a couple of chapters to attune yourself to the clamour of voices, but the reward is a strange, wise novel, truer in its expression than many ostensibly historical novels, and a reassurance that America has survived a war with itself before.

First published in New Humanist, Spring 2017. You can subscribe to the magazine here.


Book review: Against Everything

Against Everything: On Dishonest Times (Verso) by Mark Greif

Mark Greif is a founding editor of N+1, a New York magazine founded in 2004 which, in retaliation against a prevailing culture of irony and indifference, declared in its first issue that it was “time to say what you mean”. Greif and his co-founders appeared to be answering the call of David Foster Wallace a decade earlier, when he had written in the Review of Contemporary Fiction that “the next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of ‘anti-rebels’, born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values.”

Twelve years on from the magazine’s launch, Greif has amassed a collection of sober and enquiring essays on topics as diverse as gym culture, hipsters, the function of police and learning to rap. The author has described Against Everything as “a cultural argument in linked essays”, building up a picture of a society moulded, often unconsciously, by the logic of consumer capitalism. It is not a far cry, in its concerns, from another book Verso has published in the same month, by Stuart Jeffries, arguing for the importance of the Frankfurt School. But although informed by theory, Greif’s argument is mercifully light on jargon, opting for philosophy in plain English and careful deliberation over the everyday.

The first section of the book reflects on “the rules of food, of sex, of exercise, of health, [which] give us ways of avoiding facing up to a freedom from care that we may already have within reach.” These are areas of our lives which, he argues, are no longer governed by necessity but by fetishisation, private needs turned into public, monetised performances: deferring the convenience of food by seeking out arcane ingredients, sexualising youth as a way of commoditising the body, turning exercise into a public pursuit of something other than health. Since we no longer struggle for survival, we create artificial obstacles, impose new rules of struggle, to lend our lives meaning.

These essays are an earnest attempt to examine the points of friction between capitalism and our daily lives, as well as an attempt to discover their resolution. Greif has always been a remarkably prescient and insightful essayist – in 2006, he had already begun to write about issues, such as Universal Basic Income, that would reach the mainstream only after the financial crisis and the resulting Occupy movement – but his elegance has grown with time, leaving behind his earlier flirtation with portentousness (“Let the future, at least, know that we were fools… Record our testament[!]”). Some of the most rewarding passages in the collection are, therefore, the most recent, such as his essay on policing, or his editorial update to the essay on reality television, which brilliantly dissects the bland horror of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

And yet his anti-capitalist heroes are not necessarily those of the 20th or 21st century. In a series exploring the “Meaning of Life”, Greif rejects the accrual of hedonistic experience or mere objects, and harks back to the first Greek philosophers, the aestheticism of Gustave Flaubert and, particularly, the perfectionism of Henry David Thoreau. For a writer ostensibly against everything, Greif finds an unexpected solace in the lives of others as an antithesis to one’s own life, synthesising a new self and continuing the search. As he points out, “the instant for philosophy is always now, and every day, because some of us need a lifetime for it. We are slow learners.”

First published in New Humanist, Winter 2016. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

The Cable Guy: a swansong for privacy

Imagine it’s 1996. The Iraq War is a thing of the distant past and you’ll never have to hear the name George Bush again. Leonardo DiCaprio is still twenty years away from his Oscar. Will Smith is still the name of a character played by Will Smith in the Fresh Prince of Bel Air. Tom Cruise is yet to star in Magnolia as the charismatic leader of a cult convinced by his own meaningless affirmations, let alone become that man in real life.

Now imagine it’s not just 1996, but you’re Jim Carrey. Everybody loves you. You are dumb, and dumber. You shot to fame as Ace Ventura by literally talking out of your arse. Your troubled birth from a prosthetic rhino’s vagina has already made an indelible impression on a nine year old British kid called Alex Christofi. You have just been offered Hollywood’s first ever $20 million paycheque.

The character is not a detective, nor a cop, nor a lawyer, nor a salaryman in possession of a cursed Viking demon mask. He is the ’90s equivalent of a broadband installation professional. He is clingy and enthusiastic about karaoke.

This year in history, you are the most wanted man in Hollywood. You can pick any part in any film you want. And of all the films you are offered, you choose The Cable Guy.

But you say yes on two conditions:

1. We turn this screwball comedy into a parable of the slide of consumer capitalism into basic privacy violations, which the public will come to tolerate as a kind of devil’s handjob in return for the promise of free content, little realising that content itself will soon be devalued and we will acclimatise and come to require less and less reimbursement for the exact same privacy violations.

2. I get to speak with a lisp.

Ben Stiller directed the film, and has a cameo as a guy who murdered his identical twin (also played by Ben Stiller). Matthew Broderick plays the straight man so well you could almost forget he is in it, even though he is technically the main character. It’s like watching the word ‘normcore’ assume human form – he doesn’t quite seem like a real person, more like a set of pillows and clothes arranged in a bed to trick your parents when you run away from home. The supporting cast includes a recycled extra from Waterworld called Jack Black and the smuggest film debut ever from an actor calling himself Owen Wilson, who is later quasi-sexually abused with a hand dryer.

Despite the cast, the film scores exactly 6.0/10 on IMDB, making it one of the few films in the history of cinema that is, by popular vote, neither good enough nor bad enough to be worth watching. On its release, the New York Times said The Cable Guy ‘offers the shocking sight of a volatile comic talent in free fall.’ It went further, to say that ‘there’s no fun in watching Carrey covering his face with chicken skin.’ However, Newsweek hit the nail on the head, if only accidentally, when it called Carrey’s character ‘a demonic and omnipotent Dennis the Menace.’

Because we have a word for what Carrey’s character is now. He either wants to be your best friend or your worst enemy. He hides behind pseudonyms. He quotes people without attribution, he thinks women are something you buy and, crucially, he is obsessed with what people in the 90s quaintly called ‘the information superhighway’. The cable guy is the world’s first troll.

Here’s what Carrey says when he’s standing on a giant satellite dish for those who prefer their visual metaphors to hurt: ‘Soon every American home will integrate their television, phone and computer. You’ll be able to visit the Louvre on one channel, or watch female mud wrestling on another. You can do your shopping at home, or play Mortal Kombat with a friend from Vietnam. There’s no end to the possibilities!’ Here is a man clinging to a utopian ideal of keeping multiple tabs open so that he can convince himself he’s not really watching porn because he’s also, simultaneously, looking up museum opening times. It’s that sort of insight that makes this film a pre-Matrix Oracle. He even points out that ‘free cable is the ultimate aphrodisiac,’ or as we would put it nowadays, Netflix and chill.

But let’s say it all gets a bit much and you want out. Well, that’s not really how this whole thing works. The cable guy insinuates himself with your girlfriend and your family home; he makes secret recordings of you; he hacks your office network and gets you fired; he makes every car alarm in the car park go off; he holds compromising pictures of you in flagrante delicto; he has you arrested for receiving stolen goods that he put in your flat. And you know what? He doesn’t even work for the cable company.

What did you do to deserve this? You’re just Matthew Broderick the pillow boy. But you let the free content cross your threshold, and now a troll is fucking all your shit up.

This is the gift they have given us, a swansong from the last days of privacy, Judd Apatow, Ben Stiller, Jim Carrey and Matthew Broderick, some of the finest political commentators of their generation. Their message is this: any technology is only as trustworthy as the creepiest person who knows how to use it. As the troll himself points out, ‘The trouble with real life is, there’s no danger music.’

This piece was originally read at The Wrong Quarterly‘s event, ‘Remarks on Unremarkable Films of the 90s’, alongside Will Eaves, Heidi O’Loughlan, Nell Frizzell, May-Lan Tan and Ned Beauman.