Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Beyond Black - Hilary Mantel, 2005

Beyond Black is Hilary Mantel’s 11th novel, and tells the story of Alison Hart, a psychic and medium who plies her trade in the commuter towns along the M25 periphery and the M4 corridor.

It strikes me as a novel marinated in pessimism and misanthropy, running from the unremittingly horrible people that surround Alison while she’s growing up, to the dim, inarticulate and generally low-watt people that come to see her medium stage show or pay her for palmistry and tarot readings. The crowds shuffle in and out of the halls where she performs, don’t know the names of their own grandparents, get irate when she fails to be specific, ask inane questions and receive inane answers from their equally stupid and confused counterparts on the ‘spirit-side’.

The death of Diana - a busy time for a medium - occupies a large section of the first third of the novel, and seems the perfect backdrop for, and embodiment of, the sort of bovine sentimental idiocy that suffuses this novel. 
Using this real-life event in the narrative helps to connect Mantel's vision to a real-world phenomenon - the herd-like outpouring of grief for a total stranger, the uncritical sentimentality. Alison's customers want to hear messages from Diana, and when she finally does materialise she throws a grotesque tantrum and vanishes again, leaving no revelations.

Part of the story is told in flash-back - covering Alison’s years of growing up in Aldershot with her prostitute mother and her circle of murderers, petty thieves, gamblers and dog breeders, most of whom now form a circle of malevolent spirits that follow the adult Alison around. It gradually transpires that Alison was frequently sold to these men by her mother, that she mutilated two of them, and was mutilated by them in return. It’s a bleak story, with a grotesque strain of kitchen sink realism running through it - the characters speak in soap-opera cliches (‘never you mind!’ ‘I’ll knock you to kingdom come!’), they serve up insta-mash and saveloys, they reminisce about days out at the dog-track.

A major driver of the narrative is Alison’s relationship with her assistant Collette, who is presented as another thoroughly mediocre, curtain-twitching, petty human being. Her twin motivations are to offset as much of Alison’s expenditures against tax as possible, and to move past her divorce from the equally bland Gavin, whom she leaves when she joins Alison. Adding to the unforgiving way the characters are treated, Mantel dwells on their physicality, which she presents with a cruel intimacy: Alison is large, pale, fleshy, bulging, overflowing. Collette is thin, wiry, twitchy, colourless, bird-like. Morris, their spirit companion, is smelly, vulgar, abrasive, old-fashioned, badly dressed, violent, self-pitying, self-aggrandizing. The spirit world is suffused with this messy physicality too: the spirits leave behind parts of themselves when they go, they miss some parts and have too many of others.

The landscape in which the action takes place defines, and reflects back, the mediocrity of its inhabitants. Alison and Collette travel: “Oprington, Sevenoaks, Chertsey, Runnymede, Reigate and Sutton...there are floodlights and bunkers, gravel pits and pallet yards, junctions where traffic cones cluster. There are featureless hangars with ‘To Let’ signs pinned to them, types spun away into shabby fields.” Alison performs in conference halls, the back rooms of faux-Tudor pubs, in dank village halls with 70s decor. The imagery is reminiscent of J G Ballard’s later novels, except without the explosive unease simmering underneath - in Mantel’s vision, the underneath is just as empty and stillborn as the surface. In one scene, Alison describes an image of the spirit world as a 1930s vision of the good life, a picnic in a park, bandstand in the background, everyone healthy and well, but the atmosphere is stilted and unmistakeably dead. The spirits - like their living counterparts - are waiting for something that will never come, while life is being lived elsewhere.

Mantel says: “The link between memory and landscape has been cut. It's interesting, this great move towards family history, people trying to trace who they are because they have lost all sense of that. This deracination has a lot to do with the psychic scene. Psychics tap into what is collective: our regret and our sense of time going by; our common repression and anxieties. People are trying to get some sense of connection.” In the novel, this loss of memory which the landscape both represents and defines has been total. Everybody is un-moored, both from place and time and from their own personal history, and in that sense they resemble the spirits, who have taken the next logical step and become un-moored from their physical form.

Reading Beyond Black is a fairly dispiriting experience. There’s no let-up from the pessimism, no ray of hope or redemption, at any point. The spectrum of humanity, dead and alive, runs from the murderously evil on one end to the stupefyingly bland and mediocre on the other. It takes place in a modern dystopia where nothing good could ever happen, and the best one could hope for is that nothing really bad will happen. Only Alison stands apart, and she’s presented as a passive receiver of everything around her, a character with practically no agency: her physicality is constantly remarked on, her fat which runs in folds and mounds, her aroma which fills rooms and lingers after she leaves; physically scarred by the violence of her childhood and mentally scarred by the violence of the spirits she is forced to live with, she is something like a fat, psychic, latter-day Jesus, suffering bodily for all our sins. The sins in this case being a great, all-encompassing banality, an impoverishment of spirit and a loss of memory.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

I Married a Communist - Philip Roth, 1998

I Married a Communist is the middle entry of Philip Roth’s multi-award winning “American” trilogy which began with American Pastoral (1997) and concluded with The Human Stain (2001). It charts the rise and fall of Ira “Iron Rinn” Ringold, a fictional Jewish-American radio star of the 1940s, as remembered by his protege Nathan Zuckerman and his brother Murray Ringold, now old men in the late 1990s. Ira - a combative Communist in the McCarthy era - is a tragic character in the Shakespearean mould, driven to self-destruction by his unyielding political convictions and his barely-controlled violent impulses. He is Gatsby-like, forcibly severing himself from his roots, and in the process creating himself anew - the archetypal modern American, a creature created and sustained by self-determination alone.

The catalyst for his downfall is a book written by his ex-wife which exposes him as a communist, in an echo of Roth’s private life - Roth’s ex-wife also published a tell-all expose about the author in the mid-1990s, although it would be a mistake to assume that this makes the novel autobiographical, or at least not in the sense that it seeks to explain or understand anything from Roth’s life. Instead, it seeks to elevate the stuff of real life into art. The crude cliché is that the writer is solving the problem of his life in his books”, explains Roth. “Not at all. What he's doing is taking something that interests him in life and then solving the problem of the book - which is, How do you write about this?”

One of the recurring problems that Roth tries to solve in the American trilogy is how to write about the interplay between the broad sweep of history and the minutae of personal experience, as it’s lived. In his own words, the three novels are “about the historical fire at the centre and how the smoke from that fire reaches into your house." In Ira's case, the smoke that chokes his career comes from the McCarthyite paranoia surrounding Communist activity. Ira is a character defined by his antagonism, so it makes sense to place him in opposition to the most oppressive political climate in the history of the USA. This setting also allows Roth to examine a particularly traumatic chapter in 20th Century American history, when the fear of communism was ratcheted into a major threat to the country’s foundational idea of political freedom.

As a student, Zuckerman comes under the tutelage of a young professor called Leo Glucksman, who tells him: "Politics is the great generalizer, and literature is the great particularizer, and not only are they in an inverse relationship to each other - they are in an antagonistic relationship". Ira Ringold highlights, but ultimately fails to resolve, that contradiction. Roth refuses to unpack the antagonism at the core of the Ira character - it just is, as it would be in real life. It’s given a genesis in his neighbourhood and family, and an outlet in his political beliefs and his violence, but it also - primarily - exists as an elemental force of its own. The wider context is provided by the era he lives in, and he exists in constant antagonism to it. Ira’s violence isn’t unpacked because it’s a part of him, a particular, the smallest unit - indivisible.

Conversely, generalisation is what seems to drive the (mostly faceless) anti-communists, who barely feature in the narrative as formed, speaking characters. Instead, the threat is always out of camera-shot, lists of communists are implied but never produced, and when the repercussions do come - Ira and his producer are fired from their radio show - they happen away from the main thrust of the narrative. There’s a Kafka-esque feel to these proceedings, the accused are never informed of the nature of the charges and never face their accusers, and are only left to face the consequences.

When Eve’s book is published, the effect is to distort the real person that Ira is by simplifying him into a caricature ‘communist’. Effectively by over-generalising him, by reducing him to one superficial quality, Eve succeeds in destroying the real, particular Ira. Eve’s motivations, or the content of the book, do not feature heavily in the narrative - again it’s left to the reader to imagine what forces are arrayed against Ira, and Roth portrays only the impact these things have on Ira and those close to him.

The Murray character is the opposite of political, and the opposite of generalised - he’s interested in the intangibles, the particulars of novels and of lived experience. He has no time for Ira’s political convictions, preferring instead to read and teach literature. He is the embodiment of the principle stated by Glucksman - he cannot see the world in the broad strokes necessary for any political ideology, but can only puzzle over the particular nuances of human character that are revealed through the novels that he reads. Having finished speaking to Murray, the older Nathan ends the novel by sitting on his veranda, gazing at the stars. Experience has brought him away from the certainties provided by political ideologies, and - unlike Ira - having survived, he chooses instead to retreat into imponderables.

So if the book can be said to have an overall theme, I’d read it as the interplay between literature and politics, and the way they can’t really reconcile. Novels are about not fully understanding, not quantifying or reducing, but about describing and anatomising the raw stuff of living, as it is. Political ideologies are the complete opposite, insofar as they trade the personal for the general, the contradictory for the complete. Ira is a confused, messy human form who tries to forcefully fit himself into something rigid and ordered - and this eventually leads to his undoing. Eve Frame’s character follows the same trajectory. The present-day Murray and Nathan exist above it all, embracing the contradictions with the benefit of age and hindsight.