this house of wounds

Delighted to share the news that my debut collection, THIS HOUSE OF WOUNDS, is being published by the extraordinarily brilliant Undertow Publications, and should be out within the next few months. There are a number of new, previously unpublished stories in there, which I’m super excited about. But the book also collects some of my earliest pieces, such as Crow Voodoo, which was one of the very first stories I ever had professionally published. It’s exciting to look back over my career so far and to see themes and concerns emerge and coalesce. My writing has always been woman-centred, concerned with the physical body and with competing realities. Themes of madness, perception, parallel universes, doubles and others have deepened and enlarged. And lately my stories have become more concerned with issues of representation, especially the visual image. I think my work has become weirder and more complex over the years. I also think I give the reader an increasing amount of space in the story, and an increasing amount of work to do. But as is the ways of these things, the stories don’t belong to me so much anymore – they belong to the readers and I very much look forward to seeing what you make of them.

THIS HOUSE OF WOUNDS is one of the titles in Undertow’s impressive 2019 catalogue which also features Laura Mauro’s debut collection, a collection from Michael Kelly, and reprints of wonderful books by Lynda E. Rucker and Joel Lane. As always, Undertow have gone out of their way to make beautiful books you’ll want to keep forever.

I’m hoping to share more news soon regarding my novella, HONEYBONES, and I’ve recently embarked on a new novel which I’m sure will be taking up every spare moment. I promise to try to blog a bit more this year and to keep this space a bit more up to date. In the meantime, you can find me on the twits (@monster_soup) or drop me an email. Happy new year!!

the big-headed people

who are the big-headed people

No one is brilliant the way the author/recorder of these stories, Des Lewis, is brilliant. I thought I’d try to gestalt-real-time-dream-catch-review ‘The Big-Headed People’ but found myself instead foundering, sunk by the weight of these stories, through the floor and into the basement and then somewhere underneath that opened up into great vistas of strange incomprehension. It’s not an overstatement to say these stories are radical. A kind of un-writing that speaks to the unconscious spirit, translating the everyday and quotidian into its sometimes sinister, sometimes absurd, sometimes godly language of feeling and knowing. It’s impossible to do justice to these stories in a brief response. They are small but TARDIS-like in that they are bigger, infinitely bigger, on the inside. Which is funny, considering Des Lewis is the outsider-artist of our times, the one who sees it all.

THE BIG-HEADED PEOPLE

“What happened between then and now is told, I’m told, in detail elsewhere, by another source…”

The first story in the collection sent me reeling. I didn’t know you could tell that story. I didn’t know it was possible to completely transform every recognisable element of a story into something else, and present the reader with such a generous trusting invitation to make her own art from it. This story shocked me. At first I thought of Kafka, and Borges, especially his labyrinths. But the closest comparison I could make to an existing work of art is to Tarkovsky’s film ‘Stalker’. The labyrinth doesn’t look like a labyrinth, but it is, a maze sunk underground. An understory. The rest of the story is “elsewhere,” generated by an anonymous source, unreliable and distant. We are left with the part of the story that can’t be told.

The mannequins with their leaking, rusty groins put me in mind of my own Dreemy Peeple: inarticulate and broken, they haunt the story, perform operations, move with the sick compulsion of a dream. The derelict tower is a tarot card, signifying breakdown. A level of dysfunction that drives the narrator to find a primal connection to his own birth.

A HALO OF DRIZZLE AROUND AN ORANGE STREET LAMP

“I am depending on hearsay and rumour…”

Alma wants a real experience, something that matters, a “real-time fact of her diminishing life.” But her connection to the world is attenuated, alienated; again, the story has been told elsewhere, by anonymous others. In this case, only understanding one facet of the story, Alma invites sinister shadow-stories into her world. There can be no record, no story, not even the Family Bible can keep Alma tied to this world where “things are all technological and nobody has proper picnics at all.” There is a loss of simplicity, a loss of connection to the past, to family, to memory. The sun is “panicking” and so are we.

THOUGHTS & THEMES

“It was my turn to stand watch at the front room window tonight…”

Two clowns, Vladimir and Estragon in another dimension, take turns to pay attention to the world and meditate on its themes, as a circus rolls into town. Entities and urges are disguised as normal people and everyday things. Behind their masks/clown-faces, an unfathomable intellect. Beyond that, a physical mystery. The two (?) characters are emphatically not “normal human beings” by their own account. And yet there is something familiar and domestic in their attention. Characters in these stories are growing older, monitoring and documenting the world as it changes and morphs into unrecognisable forms. Trying, perhaps, to capture something real or meaningful and keep it alive.

ORIGAMI SHADOWS

“This story knew where he was, all the time… sure in its own heart that reality was its gift to the world, not make-believe…”

This story opens with a reference to Bill and Ben, the flowerpot men, which reminded me of a jubilee street party, long ago in a different time, where my brothers were dressed up as Bill and Ben, and I adamantly refused to be dressed up as Little Weed, thinking I was being made an insignificant feminine sidekick to the main characters. As well as Bill and Ben, I spotted Alice and Escher in this story, my own ‘White Rabbit’, and that Ian McEwan story about the geometrical shape that disappears people. For all its spreading web of connections to story after story, this is the most blatantly un-written story in the collection. It seems to be admitting to its project of undermining story in order to get at reality… or something deeper. “The origin of the shape was slowly pre-dating the shape itself…”

THE SOFT TREAD

“A black rose.”

The past is mysterious, illusory, a tapestry of lies. A suspicion of noises. The sound of stone revolving over stone, a sound we pretend not to have heard. The soft tread of the story, following us along the hallway. A ghost story that made me feel like the ghost.

This collection of stories is tiny, but it weighs incredibly heavy. We are so lucky to have Des Lewis in these times. His project as a reader and as a writer is dazzling huge but touchingly intimate all at once. A genius, no doubt. But much more than that – his writing is a resource for all of us who think stories matter. READ THIS BOOK.

my top ten books of 2016

Because books didn’t let us down in 2016.  Books didn’t allow Poundshop Cruella to take over the UK. Books didn’t elect Dipshit McHairdo as US president. Books didn’t exacerbate and instrumentalise divisions between people. Books didn’t conspire with evil dictators around the world to usher in a new age of fascism.

Because books are good.

Alice, by Christina Henry

This book gripped me from the very first line, and had me enthralled right to the very last. I love Alice in Wonderland, and over the years have collected many versions and adaptations (some relevant ones here are Jeff Noon’s Automated Alice, and The Looking Glass Wars, by Frank Beddor). Christina Henry’s version gives us Alice as a victimised, imprisoned, oppressed young woman, who finds within herself the will and strength to fight back against the gruesome misogynist magical regime of the Walrus and the Caterpillar. It is gripping, funny, gruesome, and feminist as fuck. Highly recommended.

Wylding Hall, Elizabeth Hand

Creepy fiction about a bucolic summer in which something very strange happens to the members of a folk band recording their first album at Wylding Hall. The compelling thing about this book is its telling – each of the band members relays what they recall of that strange summer, and in the gaps and overlaps between their stories, we begin to see the shape of something very sinister emerging. By layering their stories one on top of the other, Hand is able to make a whole other story emerge, ghost-like, from the interstices. A brilliant book.

Bodies of Water, V.H. Leslie

This is a book which keeps on unfolding and revealing itself long after you’ve read the last lines. Kirsten moves into an apartment at Wakewater House, a former hydropathy sanitorium. Her story intertwines with that of Evelyn, a woman treated at Wakewater House many years before. From there, this gothic ghost story is transformed by Leslie’s sensitive, passionate writing into a frightening and moving explication of the tortures that ‘unnatural’ women were subjected to, and the need to keep this history alive. Leslie is a superb writer of the feminist gothic and Bodies of Water is a very exciting first novel.

My Name is Leon, Kit de Waal

I had to stop reading this book on the tram because it was making me cry so much that it was actually embarrassing.  Leon is a young boy in foster care, broken up from his younger brother, and very lonely. His foster carer is one of those brilliant ordinary women who understand how to love and who rage against the racism and callousness of the care system. Set in Birmingham around the time of the Handsworth Riots, this is a story about family, love, racism, and power. If you like having your heart broken and put back together again, this is the book for you.

The Lost and Found, Katrina Leno

Full disclosure: Katrina Leno happens to be a good friend of mine. But I am only friends with the best, most accomplished, talented and interesting people, and she is one such. She has a unique voice which is both sensitive and sarcastic, and an imagination which knows no bounds. In her second YA novel, she tells the story of two young people who are brought together in a mysterious way, each on their own journey to solve their own particular problems. Leno’s evocation of falling in love is the most moving and compelling aspect of this book, which will make you laugh and cry. What more do you want?

A Spell to Conjure Violets, Kate Mascarenhas

Kate Mascarenhas is not only a fantastic writer, but a talented artist and a bookbinder. She printed, bound and covered each copy of Violets herself – which has sadly now sold out. You’ll be lucky to get your hands on a copy of this book, but if you can, then do! Because it is fantastically weird and beautifully written – a portal fantasy that goes fractal. It’s a novel about abuses of privilege and power, and also about what connects us to one another. A book of wonderful, frightening, enthralling possibilities. I treasure this book, and commend this writer to you with all my heart.

Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys

Jane Eyre has been one of my favourite books since I was a small child – so I’m not sure why it took me until this year to get around to reading Jean Rhys’ incredibly powerful sister-story, Wide Sargasso Sea. It tells the story of Rochester’s mad wife in the attic, and in doing so, it moves Bronte’s gothic sensibilities into new dimensions of power, privilege, abuse, racism, colonialism, and sex. This is a brilliant book in its own right, but to me at least a part of its greatness comes from the conversation with Jane Eyre, who is also oppressed as a female, yet is part of the system that oppresses Bertha and denies her freedom. A very beautiful, sad, and thought-provoking book.

The Bird King, James Knight

Total cheat, as this isn’t actually just a book, but a series of books, poems, and tweets which explore nightmares (both personal and political), other worlds, strange cabaret, the thing behind the mirror, Mr Punch, illustrations of your dreams, and more besides. James Knight is currently writing a novel, which will no doubt be brilliantly surreal, moving, and extraordinary in every way. In the meantime, you can buy one or several of Knight’s books here.

The Vegetarian and Human Acts, Han Kang

The Vegetarian grabbed everyone’s attention this year by winning the Booker prize – deservedly so. This short novel is about the madness and oppression of Yeong-hye, a woman who no one notices at all until she stops eating meat and thus begins her struggle to escape the imprisonment of her female body. An utterly brilliant, though bleak, book, which led me to Human Acts, Han Kang’s absolute masterpiece. This is not only the best book I read in 2016, but one of the very best books I have ever read. It is a shocking account of the 1980 Gwangju massacre, in which hundreds of students were viciously killed and their bodies carelessly thrown onto pyres. Han Kang carefully and lovingly draws out several strands of this story, bringing to life the humanity and need of each of the characters, taking us the reader into the heart of the horror, and then leading us back out to the light. This is a book of magic, with Han Kang working at the height of her powers to put the ghosts of Gwangju to rest. It is more connected and active than any writing I’ve ever come across – I came away with the feeling that the book itself is a form of prayer, a burial rite, and a powerful kind of healing. Han Kang is an extraordinary writer, a genius, an activist, and a luminary.

I read about 100 books this year, and many of them were excellent, but only ten of them can be on the list, because that’s the arbitrary rule I’ve invented to torture myself with. So sorry to those books I loved but didn’t make it. (Come back in 2017 when I’ll be reviewing some of the good ones I’ve read lately.) And happy new year! Read, write, and resist.

25 books that will stick with you and blow your mind

Apologies for the stupid title. I stole it from this stupid article, so do forgive me.

1. The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikabu
The first novel ever written! Universally recognised as a great masterpiece of Japanese prose narrative, The Tale of Genji is an incredible insight into the moral, social, political and sexual values of its time and place.

2. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
One of those books that changes lives, especially young lives. It teaches the importance of justice and integrity in the face of cruelty, racism, hatred and fear. A classic, by anyone’s standards.

3. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Widely considered to be the first science fiction novel, Frankenstein endures because of its insightful evocation of character and theme. Apparently, male-book-list writers also consider this a worthy book. Thanks a lot!

4. & 5. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, and Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
You can’t read Jane Eyre without reading Wide Sargasso Sea. Bronte’s novel is a fantastically gothic tale of the unloved, the orphaned, the abused and the unwanted, set against the wild Yorkshire moors. Rhys’ novel provides a mind-altering reading/rewriting of Jane Eyre. It’s a powerful story of dislocation, dispossession, sexism, racism, and the ways in which these oppressions can lead to “madness”.

6. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
A dystopia that has proved to be frighteningly prescient. Atwood’s powerful novel is a brilliantly written, witty, and terrifying insight into religious fascism.

7. Human Acts, Han Kang
A novel about the Gwangju massacre of 1980. I don’t know if such horrors have ever been written about with such compassion. A novel that lays ghosts to rest. Han Kang is a genius of the highest order.

8. Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Gabriel Garcia Marquez said, “the worst enemy of politicians is a writer,” and it’s hard not to recall those words when reading this effortlessly brilliant story about the state of Biafra. Like ‘Human Acts’, it lays out the human truth and makes us care.

9. The Bloody Chamber and other stories, Angela Carter
Only read this if you like magic, fairy tales, blood, sex, horror, dreams, talking animals, Jungian archetypes, and beautifully accomplished writing. Classic writing that will endure.

10. Kindred, Octavia Butler
A rich and complex novel that combines slavery memoir with fantasy, and political allegory with time travelling science fiction. An absolutely astonishing feat of literature.

11. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin
A ground breaking work of science fiction, with one of the most compelling settings ever devised. This novel explores sexual politics and colonisation within an adventure story that has you on the edge of your seat.

12. The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt
Narratively innovative, thematically complex, a brilliant collage of a novel that makes you fall in love and leaves you utterly bereft. The art works in this book deserve whole galleries to themselves.

13. The Neapolitan Quartet, Elena Ferrante
These lucid, original and page-turning novels tell the story of a complicated friendship, and in doing so chart the subtle effects of class, poverty, marriage, and education on individuals and their communities.

14. The Lover, Marguerite Duras
No one writes like Duras, with such vulnerability, sensitivity, and courage. The Lover is a book that is suffused with feeling and contradiction, ardour and terror.

15. White is for Witching, Helen Oyeyemi
One of the best haunted house stories ever written. Oyeyemi is one of those perfect writers who can seemingly do anything at all, create ghosts out of thin air, anything she likes.

16. Netsuke, Rikki Ducornet
This short, terrifying novel takes us inside the mind of a dangerous narcissist as he hurtles towards destruction. Absolutely mastery from Ducornet: careful, precise, and shocking.

17. Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link
The same flavour of surrealist magical realism that Haruki Murakami writes – but Link does it better. These pieces expand the territory of the short story, setting up outposts in contemporary culture and politics, creating and dispelling illusions with masterful sleight of hand.

18. The Knife Drawer, Padrika Tarrant
This is the book I most frequently recommend to other book lovers. Why? Because it is utterly brilliant. Moving, funny, frightening, and very very weird. A Jan Švankmajer film in prose. Like nothing else you’ve read.

19. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler
The less you know about this funny, charming book before reading it, the better. One of the most awesome – and technically accomplished – twists of all time.

20. The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud
“How angry am I? You don’t want to know. Nobody wants to know about that.” So begins this brave and magnificently furious book, so angry it could burst into flames at any moment and you wouldn’t be too surprised.

21. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson
An unreliable narrator, possible death-by-mushroom-poisoning, and angry villagers with pitchforks are just a few ingredients in this wonderfully funny and macabre book.

22. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark
Spark’s sparse and precise language here serves to emphasise the brittle brilliance of Miss Jean Brodie – magnetic, charismatic, an inspirational leader — and a fascist. One of the greatest fictional characters of all time.

23. The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector
Lispector’s final novel, and her masterpiece. A deceptively simple story with a philosophically intense and ambiguous underlying narrative that echoes and ripples long after the end.

24. We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver
A big, American novel that both responded to and shaped the cultural conversation around motherhood and violent masculinity. Shriver writes with great authority in this deeply serious book.

25. My Name is Leon, Kit de Waal
It’s only just been published, but I predict that this book is going to be huge. HUGE. And deservedly so – it’s utterly heartbreaking, ultimately uplifting, and full of heroes. An instant classic.

Notes:

* This list was compiled just off the top of my head in response to that seriously ignorant Independent article, and I’ve left out SO MANY wonderful writers – I could have mentioned Rebecca Solnit, Magda Szabo, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, George Eliot, Jane Austen, Nnedi Okorafor, Zadie Smith, Nicola Barker, Lydia Davis, Alice Thompson and so many many many others.

** This list – and my reading – could be more racially and geographically diverse. I’m working on it and welcome suggestions!

the star of the hour

Everyone’s talking about Clarice Lispector. A little synchronicity for me – I picked up The Hour of the Star before the summer, and within weeks, I heard her name spoken everywhere. I’m glad.

I recently attended a book event in Edinburgh. A.L. Kennedy and Janice Galloway read from their novels – respectively, Paradise and The Trick is to Keep Breathing – which have both been reprinted as Vintage Classics. Two extraordinary books, and two funny, clever writers. The chairperson asked the authors questions about their place in the literary firmament. They laughingly declined to answer. They said that as women, they don’t expect their books to last. When women die, their books die with them.

And yet, here is Clarice Lispector, long dead, and suddenly the talk of the town. Her stories, her passions, her language. (Her heroic cheekbones.)

The Hour of the Star is an odd, short novel, which contains within itself another odd, short novel, and its novelist, who appears to be writing himself into and out of the life of his protagonist, a colourless, stupid girl.  Only the novelist sees in her something very touching, something to love. Perhaps it is something he sees in himself. Nothing much happens. It’s not certain who or what the story is about. But Lispector’s writing is hypnotically strange. It’s weightless, then it sinks you with a moment too heavy to bear. Sometimes you have to stop reading and breathe.

Virginia Woolf once asked, “Who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?” I think one reflection of this question is Clarice Lispector. She is ideological. She is avant garde. Her language is abstract and hums with its own peculiar rhythms. She is, perhaps, a little boring to the modern reader. We don’t want abstract passions and puzzles; we want story. We want the three-act structure and resolutions and we want things to go the way they should. That’s good writing, we say, when it happens.

I don’t know if a woman could write like Lispector now, with such freedom, or if anyone could. I say a woman but maybe I mean anyone. We seem to be so beleaguered at the moment. We seem to be so at odds with the world. We have to be very sure, we have to be rock solid and unshakeable, so we can stand atop our perches and be unmoved by the world’s opinions of us. But how then can a writer  experiment, how can she step out not knowing what’s beneath her? How can she balance with one toe on solid ground while the rest of her stretches out into other worlds, feeling for the force and the upswing, hoping for less gravity? Well, maybe she can, if she is monstrously brave.

 

 

fierce attachments

buy his paintings

There are some books which I consider to be unequivocally women’s books. Women’s books because they speak of female worlds which are secret and separate from the ‘real’ world, the outer world of action, which is seen to belong to males. These are books which needle out from under the skin the bloodied strings that tie mothers to daughters, where each mother passes to her daughter the exact amount of hate and love that she herself was gifted with. Nothing in these relationships is simple, but there is one story that keeps playing out: how the girl strains to escape the limitations of her society, which the mother has (weakly, stupidly, cravenly – in the daughter’s eyes) capitulated to. And how the mother attempts to hold the girl back, not just out of jealousy, but out of a need to perpetuate the same conditions that have stunted and stifled her own life, a need which she calls ‘protection.’  This is women’s culture, this is how it has been passed down through generations.

These books also have in common an almost supernatural brilliance, an ability to convey feeling and character with deft touches that practically defy analysis. It is done by truth-telling, by honesty without self-justification, without falling back on artificial narrative resolution. Such is the clarity of writing in Vivian Gornick’s memoir, Fierce Attachments, that I was convinced I had been given secret family knowledge, that hidden truths had been revealed. Gornick writes of growing up in an immigrant Jewish family in the Bronx during the depression, but everything about that which is alien and other to me is rendered by her prose as familiar and intimate as if I’d lived it myself. I felt that I lived in her story, in her incredible sentences.

Gornick’s relationship with her mother is at the centre of the book and the centre of her life, and there is really nothing she can do about it, try as she might. There is humour in this, and even love, but most of all there is a kind of tragedy. Every woman in the story is affected by it; some are destroyed. Gornick and her mother fight, often. At one point, Gornick yells at her mother, “Don’t I get any credit for spotting a good idea, Ma? That one should try to live one’s life?” And her mother defends herself, says, “What did I have? I had nothing. Nothing.” But that’s not good enough, how can it be? It’s testament to Gornick’s talent and temperament that the reader never loses empathy with any woman: all are living out this culture, this practice that sets one generation against the next. (Our culture where pregnant women are told, “girls steal your beauty,” where thirteen-year-old girls speak ill of each other enough to kill.)

I had never heard of Vivian Gornick until I read about her in an essay by a wonderful writer, Rikki Ducornet, whose novel Gazelle is another book I would add to the category tales of women’s culture. I would also include Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. Of course these books feature terrible, desperate mothers, but they are still mothers. They are the kind of mothers so many women have had, the kind that hold you down in the name of doing you good. The dominant myth of motherhood is that mothers are shining angels of goodness and of love. And some mothers are surely that good, and some are better. But what about the other mothers? It is brave to speak of them at all.

what we have learned since then

In the final pages of Barbara Ehrenreich’s ‘Living with a Wild God‘, she says: “Human solidarity […] is the only reason for writing for a book.” It’s one of those moments of joyful recognition that Ehrenreich is so generous at providing. You imagine a woman laden down with grenades of wisdom – she just chucks them out whenever she feels like it, not knowing or caring much about the impact, the blown minds she leaves in her wake. And you want to thank her, or punch the air, perhaps, for making the truth simple and believable. Ehrenreich has written this book out of solidarity with her species, and it is a book that fills the reader with gratitude: thank god for you.

Or maybe not god. God, or not god, is not exactly the question. In this reflection on science and religion, the existence of a monotheistic god is never at stake. Ehrenreich’s atheism is something she takes for granted, something handed down to her by generations of blue-collar workers and particularly by her (alcoholic, neglectful) parents, who teach the young Ehrenreich that if something can’t be expressed in words, then it can’t exist at all. Following her father into a scientific education, she attempts to fit the whole universe into this belief. When something strange happens in her seventeenth year, something that doesn’t fit, she represses it, tries to forget it, denies it. She hands over responsibility for the situation to a future version of herself. In the absence of better answers, she ascribes her experience to madness.

Yet the one thing that seems most unlikely in Ehrenreich is madness. Even as an adolescent (“a particularly clinical case”) her journal writing is assured, confident, and full of her irrepressible intelligence. She treats her younger self with great compassion for the most part, only losing patience when the troubled teenage girl shows a lack of ability to think clearly about her experience. Think about it! Make sense of it! She exhorts her former self. But this lack of thinking and questioning is a brief blip in the mind of a woman whose greatest gift to the world is her ability to think it through.

Because Barbara Ehrenreich is one of our greatest thinkers. She’s clear-sighted, rigorous, original, and she never allows herself to get away with an easy answer, or to use language to obfuscate or misdirect the reader. She is scrupulously honest, even when the subject does not yield readily to explanation. Her job is to report what there is to report, to enlarge our knowledge of the world and each other. Her foundation is a brilliant, if formidable, intellect – and if she doesn’t suffer fools gladly, at least she never assumes that you are the fool.

In this book, she thinks clearly, lucidly, and persuasively about the question that’s been bugging her since she was a kid: What the hell’s going on here? What exactly is this world? By the end of the book, she has, in her meticulous, clear-sighted manner, answered that question, or at least got as close to an answer as she can. Along the way, she provides a slyly witty account of her adolescence, which hints at the origins of her later successes and failures. Her account of her relationship with her father is sad and subtle; her tales of being exposed to potential fatalities are wildly entertaining: perhaps some combination of these influences make the adult Ehrenreich simultaneously a superlatively rational thinker and the kind of woman who spends hours alone in a kayak, taunting sharks.

There’s a sense of correspondence, too, between Ehrenreich’s teenage and adult selves. As a teenager, Ehrenreich demands of her future self that she reads her journal with compassion, that she doesn’t forget. She needn’t have worried: Ehrenreich more than does justice to her and to her story. She has written exactly the book that the young Barbara desperately needed to read. And for those of us who also spent our youth in passionate pursuit of the meaning of life, Ehrenreich’s perspective is invaluable. Here is a woman who has lived the life of the mind, who has travelled from solipsism to solidarity, and who sincerely attempts to answer the question posed in her journal by her sixteen-year-old self: “What have you learned since you wrote this?”

You might not find the meaning of life in this book, but you’ll certainly learn something, and that’s a very good place to start.

me and mouse.

It was a real thrill to hear Armistead Maupin read from his new novel, The Days of Anna Madrigal. In fact, it was spellbinding. It was like being in a room with all his characters, all rolled up into this one extremely funny, lovable, compassionate, quick-witted, joyfully acerbic man.

Maupin’s books are a roly-poly mix-up of Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Jackie Collins and a weekend at Burning Man. With their silly, sometimes preposterous, plots (it was funny to hear him talk about the plots he discarded along the way – glitter killer, anyone?) and campy subculture referents, the Tales of the City novels might have been too outrageous to become popular. But the books succeed and endure because they are about people – ordinary, dysfunctional, flawed, funny people – and Maupin makes us care about them.

It was clear to see from the audience reaction just how much Maupin’s stories matter to people, and what a difference he has made in their lives. It’s fantastic to be reminded what it is that writers actually do, and why we cannot survive without them. Writers like Armistead Maupin make the world a better place. Even if all we had to thank him for was the ‘twat cosy’ (which reduced a 300-strong audience to tears of helpless laughter) it would be a brilliant, unforgettable contribution.

 

 

mountains of the mind

Here's one that I imagined earlier.

The central premise of Robert Macfarlane’s wonderful first book, Mountains of the Mind, is that the mountains we encounter are a strange almalgam of rock, stone, ice and our own imaginations. He suggests that mountains are formed (in some ways) as much by the drift of ideas as by the action of the continents brutally smashing into one another. By way of history he shows how, until the 17th century, Western people experienced mountains as rather ugly, almost a mistake on the part of God. Then Lyell came along and uncovered the deep, deep time of geology, and the mountains became a way to time-travel. And now: majestic, sublime, fearful, they are the places you go when you want to come face to face with your own extinction.

Macfarlane says that the gap between the mountain of one’s imagination, and the real mountain of rock and ice, is often a fatal one.

I think it’s possible to apply this theory to virtually every experience in life. We are always dancing this dance between what is real and what we have constructed in our imaginations. And what is real is also mediated through culture and performance, so as to make us feel that we have closed the gap, that we understand. But nobody understands a mountain. One cannot even see a mountain without the superimposition of one’s memory, ideas, science, visions and dreams layered over it like a transfer.

So it is, I think, with every event of nature, including people. We don’t see each other as we are. We cannot. We cannot see things as they are – there is no such thing-as-it-is. Not for us humans, no. Because we cannot experience anything without first filtering it through our minds, washing it out with soap and water, spinning it into something other. I think that is fundamentally what it is to be human: to impose a narrative upon the world. We turn everything into a story about us.

This gap between things as they really are and things as we believe them to be may be a dangerous one for mountaineers, but for writers, it is the source of something important. Macfarlane himself has written a book that makes use of this very gap, and he has created something that is not a history, nor a memoir, nor a scientific treatise, nor a fiction, but something in between all those things. Something interstitial. Something numinous, and wise, and transporting.

For speculative writers, this gap between what a thing is believed to be, and its true thing-ness, gives rise to what I would call the Weird. The interstitial, the liminal, the estranging, the unfamiliar, defamiliarising, jarring, disturbing… It’s not fantasy or science fiction – it’s not just ‘another world’. It is this world, at an angle. In one sense, it is absolutely as real as reality. But we agree that reality is not really real, not in the sense of things being as they are, and the Weird comes out of that gap between reality and story about reality, and makes the gap visible.

Philip K Dick once said that his project was to explore the question, ‘What is reality?’ In doing so, he had to go very deep into the gaps between things, so much so that he could even be called a fantasist or a madman. For me, this sums up the Weird. It is not an aesthetic, not a genre, even, but a willingness to dwell, imaginatively, in the uncertain gap between fiction and reality.

new treasure

When I was a kid, I read three or four books a day. I really loved to read. I read every book in the house. Then I read every book in the school library, and then I read every book in the kids’ section at the public library. I got hold of books that were way too old for me – but they didn’t seem to do me any harm, probably because they went right over my head. I had no idea that Henry Miller was even writing about sex, for instance, and I thought that Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward was quite a good story about a man who wasn’t very well.

I’ve slowed down (and wised up?) a bit since then, but still get through two, three or more books a week. Yet it’s increasingly rare for for me to find myself utterly in love with a book.

Then, last weekend, it happened. I was travelling to Birmingham from Edinburgh, a journey of just over four hours. I had my kindle with me and opened a book I’d found whilst browsing online. Four hours later, I’d barely looked out of the window. I had been transported to another world. Yes! That’s what’s supposed to happen! (But it hardly ever does.)

The next day, coming back, I finished the book with three hours of my journey still to go. And then I did something I don’t think I’ve ever done, in all my years of reading, which was to turn immediately back to the beginning and start again.

The book in question is Annabel, by Kathleen Winter. It put me in mind of Louise Erdrich and John Irving, if those two had collaborated on a novel about an intersex baby in a remote and hostile Labrador town.  There were parts of it that I thought were a bit silly and over-simplistic, but the language completely drew me in, and the amazing setting kept me absolutely fascinated. There’s something about cold, harsh landscapes that make them perfect settings for stories about love and family, ritual and weakness. And there’s something wonderful about being shown a whole new world through the pages of a book.