Saturday, 24 October 2020

Indignation by Philip Roth

Indignation by Philip Roth reviewed by Rob McInroy
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There are a few very common errors that new writers make with point of view. Notably, with first person narratives, they allow a character to have knowledge of events they couldn’t possibly know about because they weren’t there. Or stories veer from POV to POV with dizzying speed so that the reader loses track of whose mind we are supposed to be in. Or the great howler that really shows up a beginner writer: the narrator dying before the end. 

On page 54 of Philip Roth’s Indignation, the narrator quietly advises us that he’s already dead. Oh dear. But this is Philip Roth, so it’s obviously intentional, isn’t it? And all rules are made to be broken, aren’t they? It’s what the postmodern is all about, after all. Maybe so. I hate so-called rules of creative writing, especially ones beginning with “Don’t”, which is a word guaranteed to make this particular contrarian reach for the “do”. There is, to my mind, only one rule in creative writing: if there is a reason why you should do something, then you must do it. 

So, is there a reason why the narrator of Indignation should already be dead? Yes, but it’s a qualified yes. It’s a yes given with a heavy heart, because I fear I may be falling prey to the “great writer” syndrome and giving Roth more latitude than I would a new or beginner writer. Indignation is a compulsively readable book but it is nowhere near as powerful as it thinks it is. The fact that the narrator is dead is not the cause of this weakness, but it does bring the flaws to the fore. 

The narrator is Marcus Messner, a Jewish boy in the 1950s raging against conformity and its strictures and making plans to avoid the imminent danger of the Korean War. His father is sliding into a paranoid condition in which he sees danger in every mundane moment and his over-protectiveness drives Markie out of the family home to a college as far away from Newark as he can find. He fetches up in Winesburg, Ohio. And here his troubles really begin. 

Markie is not someone inclined to compromise. His social skills are not well developed. He finds it difficult to empathise or to see anything from another’s perspective. Aloof and alone, he shuns offers of friendship, refusing to join the campus fraternities who queue up to recruit him. All of this is grimly familiar to me: when I was at school, one of my reports stated that I was “diffident in relationships with his peers.” I was more proud of that statement than anything else in my entire school career, continually rolling the phrase around my palate and savouring its meaning like a fine wine. For the outsider to be identified as an outsider is the greatest possible accolade. 

But, of course, there is ultimately something nihilistic about such an approach. It becomes a life lived in negative, with progress ranked and rewarded by absence, the privileging of solitude over community. “No, I won’t do that,” becomes the clarion call. “I will do things by myself. I will neither seek nor offer assistance.” Thus, although he is commonly described as “the nicest boy in the world”, Markie is not, in fact, an especially likeable person and this becomes problematic within the structure of the novel, focused as it is on Markie’s death. Throughout the novel, Markie has forced himself into an emotional bubble and it is difficult for the reader’s emotions to penetrate his sense of isolation and in so doing extend great pity for a life extinguished almost before it is allowed to begin. For the novel to have at its structural core the death of the protagonist, there must be a sense of gradually increasing emotional attachment to him. But Markie Messner does everything he can to ensure that does not happen. 

This feels to me a significant fault in the novel. By locating Markie in Winesburg, Ohio, Roth is clearly suggesting a connection to Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 story collection of that name. And superficially there are resonances, to be sure. The characters of Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio are insular, solipsistic people who crave but cannot sustain human relationships. Markie would fit in with these grotesques very well. But, ultimately, at least some of Anderson’s poor, stilted people find some way of connecting with one another. Like the beautiful losers of Carson McCullers's novels, through their loneliness they still, somehow, sometimes, make the spark of human connection. Markie Messner, despite opportunities, never quite does.

Most signifantly, Roth's depiction of Markie's relationship with the fragile Olivia is flawed. Olivia, a suicidal young woman with distressingly low self-esteem, has the potential to be a great character. Indeed, she is far and away the most interesting person in the novel. But in the end she is poorly served by Roth, who cannot get inside her head convincingly. It could be argued, I acknowledge, that the novel is not about Olivia and if Roth were to focus more on her it could compromise the thematic integrity of the whole. Granted, but nonetheless a great novel would find a way to integrate Olivia’s story into the narrative more effectively. After all, in a novel where the smallest mistakes have the gravest consequences, the damaged Olivia’s serial catastrophes offer a striking counterpoint to Markie’s: where Markie’s need to succeed fuels his increasing insularity, it is an overwhelming need for love which drives Olivia. 

That fragility could be heartbreaking. It is hard not to read Olivia and think of Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath’s  The Bell Jar. Alas, for Roth, the comparison is not favourable. There is nothing of the intensity of Esther in Olivia. The reader cannot make the same emotional investment in her. That Olivia’s tragedy is part of Markie’s tragedy and that Markie’s tragedy is part of our tragedy – Everyman approaching everydeath – should form the philosophical bedrock of the novel. Instead, the pathos of Olivia is replaced, near the novel’s ending, by the bathos of the great panty raid, a scene which is extremely funny but wholly out of sympathy with the emotional direction at that stage of the novel. If the two plot elements had even been transposed so that the panty raid preceded the denouement with Olivia it might have worked. As it is, Olivia is cast into an oblivion she doesn’t deserve and the novel loses its way. 

This is a pity, because there is a genuine profundity to Indignation which, if we were allowed easier access to the spirit of its protagonist, would make it a great work. Most of Roth’s late fiction has been obsessed by death, and Indignation is clearly part of his process of seeking an accommodation with mortality. In this he is telling us, of course, that it isn’t possible to isolate oneself in a bubble. Reality will interrupt. Life will happen. Mistakes will be made. Chance will intervene. To read Philip Roth is to understand that death will arrive, sooner or later, and there is no escape, neither for the optimist nor the pessimist, for the bon viveur or the curmudgeon, the insider or the outsider. Markie makes a mistake. It is a small mistake, trivial. Nowadays it would not even be a mistake, simply a choice made by a rational being. But in 1951, in Winesburg, Ohio, it is a mistake that leads to his death at the age of 19. And that is heartbreaking. But such is life.



Hallucinating Foucault by Patricia Duncker

Hallucinating Foucault by Patricia Duncker reviewed by Rob McInroy
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In my review of Madame Bovary, I stated that the link between reader and text becomes paramount, more so even than the link between reader and writer: once the writer has done his or her job and completed the text, their work is done. Patricia Duncker's brilliant Hallucinating Foucault attempts to present an alternative view, proposing an explicit connection between reader and writer, fashioned by the text, which acts as some form of conduit for that passage of intellectual interaction. 

Hallucinating Foucault is a remarkable text, postmodern in the sense that it plays with perceptions of narrative yet operating within a wholly realist framework. It focuses on a fictional French author, Paul Michel, and his relationship with the genuine French philosopher, Michel Foucault. Sanity/insanity, community/isolation, love/loss, sex/death: these are the binary opposites which this novel explores. Add the tension between writer and reader and we have an extraordinary novel, a mere 178 pages which manages to present an astonishing amount of thought-provoking matter without ever losing the narrative drive one might expect from a more straightforward thriller. 

Given the title of the novel, the subject matter I describe above should not come as a surprise: Michel Foucault once said: “Madness, death, sexuality, crime; these are the subjects that attract most of my attention.” Although he never actually appears in Hallucinating Foucault, he is nonetheless a principal character in it, and indeed he is the pivot around which the whole narrative swings. While madness suffuses Hallucinating Foucault, for Foucault himself it was relative. Indeed, he saw it as a social construct and thus subject to differing diagnoses according to the prevailing orthodoxy of the time. We should expect, then, a nuanced analysis of insanity in any novel bearing his name, and this is indeed what we get in Hallucinating Foucault. 

The unnamed narrator is a postgraduate student from Cambridge University whose doctoral thesis is on the fiction of Paul Michel. Initially, he takes the same view as me, that the author is irrelevant and everything is in the text. For that reason, his PhD subject is to be a study of the novels, not the novelist. Indeed, when he finally meets the novelist in person he makes this point to him forcibly, even as his actions are beginning to give the lie to his words. 

Michel, we are told, was previously susceptible to unprovoked violent outbursts and finally succumbed to a paranoid schizophrenic breakdown in 1968 whereafter he had been secured in a variety of mental institutions. As the novel begins, the narrator meets a young woman, The Germanist, whose doctoral research area is Schiller but who appears to have a detailed knowledge of Michel, too. Together, the pair grow more interested in the fate of the mysterious author, and The Germanist persuades the narrator to travel to France to track him down. Thus begins the main element of the narrative. What follows is a beautiful and painful meditation on truth and narrative and love and loss. 

Once in France, the narrator begins in Michel’s archive, where he uncovers a series of letters to Foucault which seem to indicate some strong relationship between the two. Ultimately, however, the narrator realises that these letters were never sent. He tracks Michel down to a mental hospital in Clermont-Ferrand and visits him. After a tricky start, the two become increasingly close, to the extent that, after a few weeks, the authorities agree that Michel can be released from the hospital on licence for two months. They travel to Nice, where they begin a sexual relationship and the story develops towards its climax. 

It gradually becomes a study of alienation and isolation and disconnection. At one point, discussing loneliness, Michel tells the narrator of: “the loneliness of seeing a different world from that of the people around you. Their lives remain remote from yours. You can see the gulf and they can't. You live among them. They walk on earth. You walk on glass. They reassure themselves with conformity, with carefully constructed resemblances. You are masked, aware of your absolute difference.”  As such, Michel refuses to conform in any way. Even his homosexuality must be manifested in the way of an outsider: not for him the jeans and white tee-shirt uniform of the bar-room gays. He "didn't give a shit what other people thought", we are told, and he would promenade on the beach with his arm round the narrator or kiss him as the mood took him. James Purdy, that old curmudgeon of American letters, would have been proud of him. 

So we have madness, love, isolation, truth: all of this could become a bit of a mess unless there is something to hold it together So what does? As I have said, Foucault is the pivot of the novel and, in particular, one might usefully turn to his approach to the concept of parrhesia, “frankness” or “free speech”. This was a central notion in Foucault’s understanding of the mechanics of power and social inter-relationships. Two forms of parrhesia may be said to exist, and it is the second which is of particular interest in this novel. The first, political parrhesia, can be seen in the novel in Foucault’s and Michel’s participation in the riotous events of 1968, in which they spoke out against the prevailing culture and for the counter-culture. But it is the second form, philosophical parrhesia, which dominates the novel. In any analysis of power, there must be frank discourse. As Edward McGushin explains in his superb analysis of Foucault: 

Ethical/philosophical parrhesia is a form of discourse that takes place in the context of care of the self. Ethical parrhesia is poetic in the sense that its purpose is to transform individuals – both those who speak it and those who listen to it. But the notion of parrhesia, especially in its philosophical form, challenges us to rethink the concept of truth. 

And this is what we see in the relationships in this novel – the Germanist and the narrator, the narrator and Michel, Michel and Foucault and so on. There is truth-telling and there is concealment. True parrhesia will not allow concealment and so these relationships, however loving, are compromised. Nonetheless, they are borne of courage and there is something noble and beautiful about them. Foucault himself might have approved. 

As well as this, the narrative is a vehicle for an exploration of the bond between writer and reader. For Paul Michel, that reader is personified by Michel Foucault, to whom he writes those unsent letters. “You ask me what I fear most,” he says in one of the letters, and explains that it is “the loss of my reader, the man for whom I write.” Later, we discover that there was another, equally important and this time genuine reader, “his English reader”. These are the people to whom Michel addresses his fiction. The message he relates is difficult. His prose is described by the narrator as emotionally detached. It contrasts with his true nature, he chides, which is much more open and friendly: “you’re the most passionate man I’ve ever met. And you’re nothing like what you write.” 

The pellucid nature of his prose is neatly mirrored by Duncker’s own, the novel being narrated in an unadorned and unaffected way. What emerges is a love story that transgresses the norms of society and is all the deeper for that. 

In the end, though, I still hold to my view that the author is irrelevant. Talking of her novel, Duncker says: “I wanted it to be a love story... to explain the love between readers and writers. My life has been radically changed through the books I’ve read and I wanted to describe that.” The second sentence is undeniably true and I can empathise with it: Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Tin Drum, One Hundred Years of Solitude, reading those novels as a teenager changed my life. But that sentiment doesn’t logically follow from her first sentence: the love is between readers and texts, not writers. I have no interest in Hardy, Grass or Marquez; something compelled them to write works of literature which resonate with me very powerfully, but it is the text, not the impulsion within the writer that connects with me. In Hallucinating Foucault, Duncker tries very hard to draw the writer into the narrative. It is beautifully done. It is indeed a fine love story. It resonates, it will linger long in the mind. But, in the end, that is the point: Hallucinating Foucault will linger in my mind. Not Patricia Duncker.


Something Childish But Very Natural by Katherine Mansfield


Something Childish But Very Natural by Katherine Mansfield reviewed by Rob McInroy
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This little collection, part of a Penguin Books series, “Great Loves”, brings together eight short stories from three of Katherine Mansfield short story collections. The stories collected here are: “Something Childish But Very Natural”; “Feuille d’Album”; “Mr and Mrs Dove”; “Marriage à la Mode”; “Bliss”; “Honeymoon”; “Dill Pickle”; and “Widowed”. And what a beautiful collection it is. 

I find Katherine Mansfield’s style utterly beguiling and completely intriguing. Her stories are so simple, hardly stories at all really, just vignettes, little slices of life, and yet there is such an astonishing depth to them. Her characters are lovely creations, so fragile and vulnerable and human. You ache for them, for the quiet sadness of their existence, for the failed ideas and lost hopes, for the brittle confidence and stoic resignation. You long for them to be able to communicate, one with the other, to convey their true feelings and allow those feelings to inform their actions. You share their desolation when love, as it so often does, founders. These stories are wonders. 

Mansfield herself was dissatisfied with her short stories. She said: 

I've been a selective camera, and ... my slices of life have been partial, misleading, and a little malicious. Further, they have had no other purpose than to record my attitude which in itself stood in need of change if it was to become active instead of passive. 

I think she is being unnecessarily hard on herself here. While many of her stories end in great unhappiness, there is nothing malicious in them. On the contrary, the stories are designed to allow us, the impartial readers and observers of these people’s misfortunes, to assess what might be done to remedy those misfortunes. They are, then, entirely hopeful and honest endeavours. 

Shortly before her death (at the very early of 34, from tuberculosis), she wrote witheringly of her friends in London who:  

have come to an agreement not to grow any more, to stay just so – all clipped and pruned and tight. As for taking risks, making mistakes, changing their opinions, being in the wrong, committing themselves, losing themselves, being human beings in fact –no, a thousand times! 

And this, it seems to me, is the key to her work. There is a serious and earnest searching for something in these stories, some understanding of what it is to be human, to be alive, to be in love.





Tuesday, 20 October 2020

The Grotesque in Southern literature


The Grotesque - essay by Rob McInroy

Sarah Gleeson-White, in a study on the southern grotesque, argues against the common interpretation of it as presenting a “gloomy vision of modernity” which acts as an allegory of the human condition as “existential alienation and angst.” Her focus is specifically on Carson McCullers, highlighting a quote from her The Vision Shared, which sought to justify the grotesque school by claiming, of its authors, “I seem strange to you, but anyway I am alive.” This demonstrates, Gleeson-White suggests, rather than an alienated modernity, an affirmative and transformative quality, and it is this we should be celebrating when reading the southern grotesque. 

In developing her argument, Gleeson-White adopts and adapts Mikhail Bakhtin’s conceptualisation of the grotesque which, she feels, comes closest to articulating the celebratory nature of McCullers’ cry of “I am alive”. In doing so, she rejects as incomplete those traditional interpretations, as expounded by the likes of William Van O’Connor and Millichap and Fiedler, with their allusions to “dark modernism” and “alienation, loneliness, a lack of human communication, and the failure of love.” 

She presents instead, McCullers’ explanation of the grotesque: “The technique is briefly this: a bold and outwardly callous juxtaposition of the tragic with the humorous, the immense with the trivial, the sacred with the bawdy, the whole soul of a man with a materialistic detail.” 

A key focus for Bakhtin and McCullers is the body, in particular deformity and difference from conventional perceptions of beauty, even normality. Physical freaks are, of course, a signature of the grotesque, from Faulkner’s Benjy to O’Connor’s Hulga and onwards. McCullers’ novels and stories, too, are peopled by freaks – giants or dwarves, mutes, hunchbacks and cripples, self-mutilators, androgynous men-women, and so on – but, Gleeson-White argues, and I would agree, McCullers ultimately uses these characters as a reaction against convention and as an exploration of humanity. She suggests that: “Her novels of resistance present us with unsettled identities and so push the very boundaries of how we understand human being.” 

This idea of the transformative nature of grotesque freakery is interesting. For all her brilliance as a writer, for example, I cannot see it in Flannery O’Connor. Transformation, for her, is bound to redemption, and her perspective on redemption is that of a subject reconciling him or herself to the will of the master; her works are flavoured, for me, by subjugation to the supernatural and not celebration or understanding of the human.


Likewise, I look at the works of Cormac McCarthy and try to discern how they might be described as affirmative or transformative. Only his early works, of course, are considered to be truly southern but I believe that typical southern transgressiveness suffuses his later works, too. And, in his collection of freaks, from Lester Ballard and Rinthy and Culla onwards through the seven feet albino judge to the morally autistic Chigurh, he presents a set of characters who are outwith anything that could be considered normal. But is he, in Bakhtinian terms, “[disclosing] the potentiality of an entirely different world, of another order, another way of life”? And, moreover, is he using his grotesquery to unnerve in order to enlighten? 

The answers to those questions would appear to me to be yes and possibly no, and therein lies a difficulty. Yes, McCarthy shows us a different world, most significantly in Blood Meridian and The Road. This is what mankind is capable of, he is telling us in the former, and because of that the latter he presents the road we may be leading ourselves down. It is, then, a negative view, and what positives one may take from his novels must generally be taken by this process of inversion: don’t do that, or this may be the result. Such is the approach of organised religion through the ages: behave, or else; believe, or de’il tak ye; belong, or be cast adrift. 

In this, then, we see echoes of Hazel Motes and Tarwater, even of Captain Ahab; we see the human relegated beneath the supernatural, and the result is obeisance to the godhead, whoever or whatever that might be. Rather than transformative, then, it is reactionary: it is promulgated on the maintenance of a primordial order rather than the advancement of humanity. Hence the answer to the second question may be no: McCarthy’s grotesquery does not wholly enlighten, but rather it can seem to cast us backwards, to limit our freedom. McCarthy so constructs his characters – indeed, they are often more archetypes than characters, with no psycho-social histories or motivations – that they are unable to project forward. 

It is all very well for McCarthy to warn of the dangers to human society of our inwardness, our selfishness, our self-destructive disregard for nature, because those are warnings we would do well to heed, but in presenting only the binary oppositions of annihilation and acceptance of a putative god, he is artificially defining the boundaries of the debate. His grotesques are so designed, those characterless characters, that they miss the true alternative, the human. They endure so much and experience so little. And his words, all that rhetorical portentousness, serve only to wrap a mystery around them that, in the end, overwhelms. 

It is a grotesquery which doesn’t so much say “I am alive” as “I can only die”.


Tuesday, 13 October 2020

The Regret by Dan Malakin

The Regret by Dan Malakin review by Rob McInroy


Full disclosure: I know Dan Malakin slightly. Back in about 2005 to 2008 we were both in an online writers’ group, Alex Keegan’s Boot Camp, famed for its forthright approach to literary criticism. Or brutality, if you’d prefer. We also spent four days on a writers’ course at Alex’s house in Berkshire, and we met up again once more, along with the estimable C.L. Taylor (another Boot Camp alumnus) at the launch of Alex’s short story collection in London. However, as a former Boot Camper, Dan will know that none of this makes any difference and I won’t pull my punches in this review... 

Actually, I don’t need to. The Regret is a quality novel for a number of reasons, and Dan Malakin is a skillful writer. One of the areas we used to score stories on in Boot Camp was pace, by which I don’t simply mean that the story rattles along at a tremendous lick, but rather its pace is in sympathy with the plot, character, theme and mood of the work. The Regret does indeed rattle along at pace, but importantly this is not to the detriment of character or emotion. Where many novels eschew character building in their headlong impulse to thrash the story along, The Regret draws us expertly into the troubled mind of the protagonist Rachel, a woman who has suffered trauma in her life and is now, forcibly, having it revisited on her. Previously hospitalised for anorexia and associated mental health issues, she reacts to the terrifying position she finds herself in by reverting to type, and observing Rachel’s disintegration is harrowing. The reader wills her to succeed, even as she descends deeper and deeper into terror. It’s brilliantly handled. 

It’s a very modern story, and it confronts issues central to the 21st century zeitgeist, looking at social media and the often malign influence it can have. The story revolves around a hacker who targets Rachel by using sophisticated computer hacking skills to take over her social media accounts, to intercept her wages and have them redirected to another account, to fabricate reports on her work computer to make it appear she has been negligent in her work as a nurse. In our massively connected world, where everyone is online all the time and our personal information is far more vulnerable than we would care to recognise, the dangers Rachel faces are all too real, and Dan Malakin explores them in a dramatic and telling way. The ease with which Rachel’s life is torn asunder is chilling. 

For all its modernity, though, there’s a Hitchcockian feel to the narrative, based as it is on an innocent whose life unravels because of the actions of external agencies. At first, of course, no-one believes her, thinking she was responsible herself for some of the things which happened. And, typical of the genre, details are layered ever denser, with new things happening, gradually increasing in intensity, gradually pulling Rachel ever closer to disaster. But just when you begin to think “hang on, that’s a bit implausible”, something else crops up which explains it and makes it credible again. It takes tremendous skill to be able to continually throw new adversity at the main character while all the time making it believable. Dan Malakin achieves this brilliantly. 

All in all, this is an excellent read. Dan has just signed a two-book deal with Serpent’s Tail and it’s not hard to see why. If you want a story that zips along at electric pace, but still packs an emotional punch, then The Regret is the book for you.

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

The Yellow On the Broom by Betsy Whyte

 The Yellow On The Broom by Betsy Whyte reviewed by Rob McInroy

When I was a young boy living in Crieff in the 1970s, every October the Meadows would be occupied by dozens of vans and caravans, filling the entire area between the back of Commissioner Street and the old railway cutting, where now stands the Cooperative supermarket and its car park. There were caravans and people everywhere, the sounds of living, the instant creation of a new, mobile community within the existing, settled one. These were Scottish traveller families, congregating for the tattie howking, or picking the potato harvest. Travellers were immensely hard working, and tattie howking – by hand in those days, of course – was especially hard work. It was a remarkable spectacle, these transient families meeting in common purpose as they had done at this time every year, back through generations.

When they arrived, my mother used to warn me to behave myself “or the tinks will take you”. We called them tinks then. We didn’t think it demeaning. We know better now, although it’s probably too late for it to really matter. I fervently wish my mother hadn’t tried to frighten me like this because the travellers were decent, compassionate people who would never have done me any harm, as my mother well knew. When she was a girl, back in the 1930s, one of her best friends was a tinker lassie and my mum regularly got into trouble with her parents for playing with her. One time, she got lice and her father washed her hair in paraffin. Still, she continued to play with her friend. So why she chose to frighten me in this way is a mystery.

Within a matter of years, this annual congregation of the travellers on the Meadows was a thing of the past. A way of life enjoyed by travellers over centuries was eradicated within a single generation. I’ve always thought that was a terrible thing. As it turns out, though, those 1970s meetings that I witnessed and thought were the continuation of an ancient tradition were, even then, showing signs of terminal decay. That much is clear on reading Betsy Whyte’s wonderful memoir, The Yellow on the Broom, which details Betsy’s early life on the road with her family in 1930s Scotland. They travelled constantly, going from job to job and place to place before one year, much to Betsy’s horror, over-wintering in a new Council house in Brechin. But the story she tells us, of itinerant life in the years before the war, was already the last gasp of a unique culture. Betsy wrote later:


The end of the war was ... the beginning of the end for the Scottish travelling people. With bewildering speed camping sites disappeared almost completely. Soon too, the farmers had machines which took over many jobs that the travelling folk had done. Even if a farmer did need workers, he was not allowed to have campers without providing flush toilets and running water, etc. Some farmers who grew a lot of berries did have those things put in, but for the majority it was not worth their while.


And, even in the 1930s events relayed in The Yellow on the Broom, the portents are there. There is one chapter, near the end, where the family go to all their usual camping points around Blairgowrie, only to find, on each successive site, “No Camping” signs had been erected. Travellers were always mistrusted and disliked and yet, for all that, in the old days a symbiotic relationship existed between the tinkers and the hantle – their name for non-Travelling folk. The travellers would request boiling water, or milk, or old clothes, and offer clothes pegs or baskets in return. The hantles and the tinks could co-exist, sort of.

But all that began to change. Ironically, partly it was due to the establishment of the welfare state. Before, people felt it was their duty to look after each other, even strangers, even outsiders. But with the advent of the welfare state we began to believe that it wasn’t our personal responsibility to look out for other people, but the state’s. That is a sad bastardisation of Beveridge’s noble vision behind the establishment of the welfare state but it is the truth, nonetheless and, in the less welcoming world that resulted, a way of life withered and died.

When I started working in Perth and Kinross District Libraries in 1981, my main duty was accessioning books – putting on the various stamps and labels, giving them a numerical accession number, jacketing them and so on. I remember once having to accession dozens of copies of The Yellow on the Broom. It must have been a reprint because the book was first published in 1979. I didn’t give it much thought at the time, other than to curse how many damned copies of it there were: the time went slower if you had lots of copies of the same book to accession because you had nothing fresh to look at. I remembered it, and I remembered what the book was about, but I never bothered to read it. I was young. History was interesting enough in an academic sort of way, but it didn’t really connect, even although, as it turned out, I was part of the last generation of hantles to witness a congregation of travellers and their once vibrant, now extinct way of life.

I’m glad, now, to have read The Yellow on the Broom, and to have entered the life of the clever, obstinate, short-tempered but kindly Betsy Whyte. I’m glad I know a little of how she lived, and I’m glad she had a happy childhood, oblivious that she was one of the last to experience it. Their life was very hard and it doesn’t do to romanticise it. All the same, the traveller way of life was vibrant and vital and meaningful.

Now it is gone and, in that, I fear we have all lost something a little precious.


Tuesday, 25 August 2020

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

 The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead: book review by Rob McInroy

Having spent five years studying the baroque writing of Cormac McCarthy – the high register, the biblical language, the extraordinary range of allusions and references, I have come to cherish simplicity in writing. True descriptive power does not derive from language used but from emotions evoked.When an author disappears into his or her text, so that only the story remains, this is something alchemical, something wonderful. What happens is that the reader is absorbed into the narrative, lives it, picks up its resonances.

Colson Whitehead is such an author. His use of language is exceptional: he tells his story in crisp, clean language, just the facts, ma’am, and we, the readers are left numbed, not because of an overstraining for effect or impact, but because we have been forced to confront the world of another person, a world wholly different from ours, a world that is hostile and dangerous and cruel.

The narrator of The Nickel Boys is a young boy called Elwood Curtis. Elwood is very clever, very moral and very hard-working. He has ambitions and he has the drive to achieve them. Unfortunately for Elwood, he is also black, in 1950s Florida, where Jim Crow still holds sway and life for black people is impossibly tenuous.

Elwood achieves a scholarship to a good school and, curious, decides before school starts to vist this place which is going to shape his future. He accepts a lift from another young black man, but they are pulled over by the police and the car is found to be stolen. This being 1950s Florida, and Elwood being black, he is sent to reform school, his hopes for the future in tatters.

What unfolds in the reform school is horrific beyond words. Whitehead models his fictitious Nickel Academy on the real Arthur G Dozier School for Boys in the small panhandle town of Marianna in Florida. In 2012, during an archaeological excavation, dozens of unmarked graves were discovered. What emerged in the subsequent investigation was a hideous story of a brutal regime in which boys were routinely and horrifically tortured, raped and beaten, many to death. Their bodies were discarded like so much garbage.

The school only closed in 2011.

Whitehead uses this ghastly truth to fashion an extraordinary fiction. The boys of the reform school are subjected to a regime of abuse which is as unpredictable as it is horrifying. Intially, Elwood thinks if he behaves and shows himself to be diligent and conscientious he will flourish, even gain early release. His is quickly disabused of this and joins the procession of boys through the years taken in the dead of night to the “White House” for special attention. A giant industrial fan is used to drown out their screams. Those who can’t sustain the beatings are tossed into unmarked graves, never to be mentioned again.

It was William Faulkner (or at least one of his characters) who said: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” This world-haunted view is, of course, particularly apposite for the American south as it struggles to reach a compromise with its past. Faulkner himself experienced similar struggles, most catastrophically in a drunken interview in 1956 in which he argued that the pace of desegregation needed to be slowed or they would “be back in 1860”, that is, at the start of the secessions which led to the American Civil War. More, he stated that if it came to Mississippi versus the United States, “if I have to make the same choice Robert E. Lee made then I’ll make it.” Although he quickly distanced himself from these remarks, the uncomfortable truths they contain remain. There is still a deep-rooted conservatism in the American south (and elsewhere) in which racism is not necessarily overt, but it exists all the same. More than that, it is systemic.

To go back to my one sentence paragraph earlier: “The school only closed in 2011.” Think about that. We are decades from the civil rights movement and Dr King and the long march to freedom. Desegregation has been dismantled. Civil rights have been won. Equality has been enshrined in law.

Has it really?

What this deeply unsettling novel tells us is that hidden in full view such atrocities persist. Being a young, black man is still a dangerous condition in many places. The life chances of that young, black man – and woman – can be shattered as easily today as they were in the 1960s of Elwood Curtis. Ask George Floyd. Ask Michael Brown. Ask Eric Garner. Ask Freddie Gray. Ask Sandra Bland. Go back to 1955 and ask Emmett Till. Turn on the news today and ask Jacob Blake, paralysed after being shot seven times while walking away to his car.

There are just too many to ask.

The Nickel Boys is a confession. But it is the confession of a country and a society still to understand what that confession means.

Or what to do about it.


Indignation by Philip Roth

Add caption There are a few very common errors that new writers make with point of view. Notably, with first person narratives, they allow a...