Black Vodka by Deborah Levy

In Deborah Levy’s latest collection, Black Vodka, are ten stories which open up her world. They are stories about trying to find out who we are in the course of our everyday lives, and about how we can remain deeply imprinted by those who are close to us. Here, as in her previous plays, stories and novels, her writing exhibits a rhetorical severity which, at its best, has a mythic, lullaby quality, experimental and at the same time simple and beautiful.

It is difficult to say what the collection is about, for two reasons. Firstly, to tell you the conceit of each story would, more often than not, misrepresent the experience of reading them (on which, more later). Secondly, as with many of the best writers, one can’t help but feel that, somewhere, Levy must be holding onto an ur-story from which all her others digress or refract. For Haruki Murakami, the received wisdom has it, this story would almost definitely involve cats, a haunting song, a bizarre sexual encounter, a dream sequence. So too in Black Vodka we glimpse, from time to time, the story that Deborah Levy is compelled to tell and re-tell. A rich creative figure, not quite clear of the (social or military) conflict in his past; a geographical foreigner who has become foreign to themselves; a young lady in a light dress who loves swans or their feathers; inward conflict blossoming into eczema; water and the danger, or perhaps the thrill, of investigating below its surface. If you have read Swimming Home, this may all have a ring of familiarity.

I have had trouble convincing people to read Swimming Home, even since its Booker nomination this year, because – and I feel this is a problem specific to Levy – the plot itself, which people tend to use as an indicator of what a book is ‘about’, is no more than an arbitrary vessel for her ideas. A middle class family goes on holiday to France, and a kooky ginger girl turns up to make trouble. It is almost as if someone has picked the idea out of a list of rejected film plots and challenged Levy to turn it into something interesting. It is a tightrope walk, a daredevil stunt. Part of the pleasure of watching her do it is that you don’t believe she or anyone can pull it off. But the writing is incisive and mercurial, the characters somehow depart from their archetypes to become unique, their experience of the world vivid and layered. As the main character from Black Vodka‘s title story puts it, ‘Better slowly to prove more interesting than I first appear.’

And so it proves. In Levy’s hands, the world of advertising, normally so glib and reductive and lacking in its capacity to really attach itself to human experience, transforms into a research centre for the exploration of the unconscious. Someone laughs uneasily when our hero insists that Vodka Noir has high cheekbones, but why not? He wakes from dreams of Warsaw with tears on his cheeks, ‘transparent as vodka but warm as rain.’ Rain is traditionally cold, but Levy has a Symbolist poet’s eye for telling substitutions. In a description from the story ‘Vienna’, a man muses on his lover:

She is middle Europe, he thinks. She is Vienna. She is Austria. She is a silver teaspoon. She is cream. She is schnapps. She is strudel dusted with white icing sugar. She is the sound of polite applause.

The description goes on, and we are carried with it. It is exhaustive and we never feel she is running out of steam. In these moments it is impossible not to believe in the sheer power of Levy’s imagination and the easy way she renders it in prose. Who cares what she is writing about? She is doing it so well.

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The only time that the collection falters is when the narrative voice strays too far from Levy’s own. ‘Cave Girl’ is the runt of the litter, and will very likely get beaten up by the other stories when you close the cover. In this story, a boy rhapsodises about his sister, who has had a dramatic makeover. There is still a lot of observant detail which carries the narrative forward, but I just don’t believe the voice. Levy can only do one voice – it is her own, and it is exquisite. But I don’t believe in a young boy who would talk in well turned out prose about Ancients, and condensing ‘them’ to ‘em’ or spelling stupid with two Os won’t change my mind. I’m not sure I would even wish to meet a boy who comes out with asides like, ‘Mr Lewinstein, who is quite good-looking I suppose (everyone knows he’s got a mistress in Malta).’ It would be like having to talk to a society girl without the anaesthetic of champagne.

‘Stardust Nation’, on the other hand, is Levy at her best. A strange, dreamlike atmosphere pervades this story about a man and his overly empathetic employee, who becomes confused and begins to tell the story of the protagonist’s life back to him. New information strings the reader along while incantations are introduced, repeated, mutated. What starts as a baffling unreality begins to seem dizzyingly inevitable. Levy writes the story of a man’s breakdown as a kind of thriller, borrowing technically from the genre without bowing to its overworked content. It is like reading an update of Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘William Wilson’. The story challenges the myth that only literary realism can speak deeply of people’s inner lives, perhaps even challenges the myth of the inner life as something we create without the collaboration of others.

You should read these stories – nine out of ten, anyway – for their ideas, and the sheer quotability of her writing. Levy puts poetry in her prose, and has the rare ability to make us see our familiar world afresh, ‘like new paint and old pain.’ I will be pressing my copy into the hands of my friends, and I will enjoy talking over the questions they raise about how we construct our selves and whether we can ever outmanoeuvre our past.

 

Habibi

habibiAt 35, Craig Thompson has already written three previous books: Goodbye, Chunky Rice, Blankets and Carnet de Voyage. But it was Blankets that propelled Thompson’s reputation as one of the leading lights in comics. Weighing in at around 600 pages, it was a major work that received widespread acclaim from both the comics and the mainstream worlds, and still sells well alongside the greats like Joe Sacco and Chris Ware.

With his new book, Habibi, he’s moved from comics publishers Top Shelf to mainstream trade publishers Faber, and although they are known much better for their poetry and literary fiction lists, they’ve pulled out all the stops with this. It’s an incredibly beautiful book, a real weighty tome, with careful attention to detail and high production values. They’ve taken a lot of the meticulous design that went into Thompson’s illustration and integrated it with the cover and endpapers, making a beautiful object of it.

It’s just as long as Blankets, which might explain how it’s taken him so long to write. In a 2004 interview, Thompson originally said he’d try and get it completed by 2005. Seven years on, it’s easy to see where the time went: not just in the sheer length of the work, which is frankly epic by graphic novel standards, but in the research, the beautiful Arabic calligraphy, the interweaving of various religious texts and tales in between the main love story and in the incredible attention to detail, describing the intricate patterns and textures of his world. It is a real visual feast, with a fluent, quick plot but pages that you could stare at for minutes at a time.

At the heart of this book, like his previous, is an unusual love story. We follow Dodola, a young slave girl who flees her captors with a baby called Zam, bringing her up on a strangely abandoned boat in the middle of the desert. As they grow up, they can’t keep the world around them from encroaching. Eventually Dodola is recaptured while Zam is out collecting water and we read on, desperately hoping they will be reunited.

The book draws on the Thousand And One Nights with Dodola as the Scheherazade figure, storytelling often to put off her own death, to divert the attention of men and boys and guarantee her own safety. The preciousness of water and words reminds me a little of Salman Rushdie and his children’s book Haroun and the Sea of Stories, weaving in a rich tapestry of sources. Thompson pulls in stories from both the Bible and the Qu’ran, carefully throwing up the commonality of the Abrahamic religions. Of course, religion was writ large in Blankets, but in Habibi, rather than smothering the action, it provides a source of inspiration, wisdom and comfort.

The setting is in a fictional Middle Eastern state, far removed from Thompson’s own world. He knows what he’s doing but someone who has always lived in America is always going to fight accusations of Orientalism. For my part, I think he’s got away with it, but he’s treading a very fine line. I suppose the reason it works for me is that, whilst he plays around with the myth and magic of the Orient, we’re never asked to believe wholeheartedly in the charms and djinns that crop up in the book. In fact, having convinced half the desert that she is an evil djinn, the real tragedy is that the Sultan wants to believe her. He captures her for his hareem, expecting her to live up to the rumours of fiery curses and flashing eyes, but she disappoints. ‘I wanted to believe such things,’ the Sultan says. ‘Instead you’re only human.’

I think when an author has worked on a book for so long, and delivered such a huge work, it’s tempting not to hold them to their errors. It seems petty and ungenerous to keep too close an eye on the author’s individual choices, as if you’re complaining about the size of your dessert spoon at a banquet. But there are a couple of serious errors of judgment here, including the jarring use of the word ‘honkeys’ and an unexplained Cheshire cat during an opium scene. The problem with graphic novels is that, once the author’s got cracking, they’re on their own. No editor can save them from their idiosyncrasies.

That said, Habibi is an incredibly rich and complex story. It’s wildly ambitious and could easily have fallen flat in the telling, but here it is, a modern fairy tale that already feels oddly timeless. Blankets was subtitled ‘an illustrated novel’ and that’s the feeling that I get from this book, too. Habibi reads first and foremost like a novel, and it happens to be told in the language of comics, pushing out the boundaries of the form. If you’re interested in what a serious modern graphic novel can do, this is required reading.

Gimme shelter

Survival guides always sell well in the USA. Perhaps it is part of the frontier mentality: one man, possibly holding a gun, protecting his family and his patch of soil. Or perhaps it is the Protestant obsession with linear narratives that end in a day of reckoning. Whatever it is, the idea that an honest US citizen might one day have to fend for himself, abandoned to the forces of nature immediately and without warning, is a persistent one.

In case you missed it, the current global financial crisis has repeatedly been referred to as a “perfect storm.” The storm metaphor is also evoked when talking about troubling mental disorders, as in the expression “black clouds,” used to describe depression. Put the three together, and you’ve got an American blockbuster movie.

In Take Shelter, one honest US citizen, who may or may not be mentally ill, is worrying about money, and about whether a massive storm is going to come and wipe out his family. The storm may be literal or metaphorical, the manifestation of a mental illness or a terrifying act of God. To hear the conceit, you could be forgiven for thinking that the film was going to be a bit trite, like one of those big-budget apocalypse films where New York taxis are flung into the Hudson and improbably strong children cling to lampposts. But, from the trailer, the film looked more pensive and brooding than all that, so I sat back and waited to be convinced.

In the first shot, Curtis (Michael Shannon) stares out at a gathering storm. It looks like a real bastard of a storm: grey, sullen, unpredictable. The rain starts up heavily, lashing his face. We jump cut to Curtis in the shower. From that moment on, this is the theatre of battle. We are definitely watching a storm, and we don’t know whether it is Curtis turning on the tap. It’s a tension that plays out quietly, in unsettling increments.

Curtis is having terrible nightmares, but he doesn’t want to alarm his wife or daughter—his mother was diagnosed with paranoia at around the same age, and perhaps it really is nothing. Soon, the nightmares are troubling him deeply, affecting his work and home life, and his obsession with renovating the storm shelter out back is taking up ever more time and money. The heartbreaking paradox is that we don’t know whether, in trying to protect his family, he is really harming them further.

This is not a dialogue-heavy screenplay, but there’s enough talk to bring out some remarkable acting. Michael Shannon can glare in a way I haven’t seen since Ray Liotta, but he uses his arsenal sparingly, giving us a Curtis that is occasionally menacing, but often all too human, agonised, conscientious, trying his utmost to be self-contained. Jessica Chastain’s performance is assured, and their relationship with each other becomes very moving as you are drawn into their situation and the film builds towards its climax.

Take Shelter has been widely praised in the US, where it is already being hailed as a masterpiece. The film has failed to impress critics in the same way in the UK, but this is a very American film, tied up with concerns and a frame of reference that are American. We don’t live in a place where we lose our healthcare if we lose our job, and none of us (except the truly unhinged?) have even considered owning a storm shelter. But, on its own terms, it is a quietly affecting film that avoids blockbuster cliché and carefully builds to a powerful conclusion.