Sunday, 12 May 2019

The Man With the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren

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It’s hard to believe that The Man with the Golden Arm was written in 1949. It seems so fresh, and contemporary, and its approach to drugs and criminality so open, that one wouldn’t believe it could be the product of buttoned-up, frightened post-war America. The collection of deadbeats and low level criminals depicted in its pages is remarkable.

The Chicago of the novel seems to sit somewhere between Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and the apocalyptic Africa of William Burroughs’ Wild Boys but the depiction of the daily lives of these characters is more realistic than either of those novels: Steinbeck’s Mack and the Boys, however impressively they are depicted, have that characteristically Steinbeckian whiff of idealism about them, while Burroughs, even when he is chronicling the more savage side of drug-taking, always runs the risk of romanticising the life. Algren does none of this. Like the characters of Carson McCullers, Algren’s are real, flesh and blood, as prone to terrible mistakes as honourable acts. Reading The Man with the Golden Arm, we believe we are in Chicago’s Polish Downtown, and we believe in the moral and social disintegration of Frankie Machine, and we believe that, despite this, the community of which he is a part will be sustained. It is an outstanding example of naturalistic writing that can lay bare the deprivations and assorted ills of a society and still leave one feeling optimistic about human nature.

The eponymous Man is Frank Majcinek, known to all as Frankie Machine, a stud-poker dealer regarded as the best in the business, hence the golden arm of the title. Addicted to morphine after being treated with it for an injury sustained in World War 2, his life begins to unravel. His fabled golden arm fails him. He falls into crime. His wife is in a wheelchair as a result of his drink-driving. He ends up in jail. His mistress leaves him. Worse ensues. This sounds like a catalogue of calamity, and it is, so how can one argue that The Man with the Golden Arm is an uplifting piece of fiction?

Well, the first thing to note is that the novel was, as one might expect, controversial in its day. Norman Podhoretz, for one, thought it glorified the underclass at the expense of decent society. Such an assertion from Podhoretz, of course, is proof positive that the novel most certainly does not do that: being attacked by Podhoretz is a clear indicator that you’re doing something right and the more he criticises the more you should feel satisfied with your efforts. And Algren, while clearly depicting the underclass of his novel in a more positive way than neocons like Podhoretz would deem healthy, nonetheless cannot be accused of naive liberalism. This can be seen most clearly in the character of Captain Bednar.

Bednar is one of the most human characters in the story. His humanism is not some starry-eyed idealism: he knows the criminals he deals with are no good and will amount to nothing. And yet he craves some form of connection with them. We are told, from his point of view, that “[i]t was patently wrong that men locked up by the law should laugh while the man who locked them there no longer felt able even to cry.” He is trapped inside his own unhappiness. “I know you,” he says to them. “You think you’re all members of one another, somethin’ like that.” And yes, their community is “something like that”, but again not in a romanticised way. Those critics of the novel, like Podhoretz, who suggest it is burdened by liberal romanticising of poverty and the poorer classes haven’t read the novel, just the cliched version of it their political views force upon it. Again from Bednar’s point of view, we are told:

For every man was secretly against the law in his heart, the captain knew; and it was the heart that mattered. There were no men innocent of intent to transgress. If they were human – look out. What was needed, he had learned long ago, was higher walls and stronger bars – there was no limit to what they were capable of.

Somewhere along the line he had learned, too, that not one was worth the saving. So he’d been right in saving none but himself. And if that had left them all to be members of one another, then it had left him to be a member of no one at all. Had, indeed, left him feeling tonight like the most fallen of anybody.

This is extraordinary stuff. The captain simultaneously condemns and pardons, disapproves and understands, wants and rejects, seeks harmony and craves isolation. His conflict is total and despairing. There are no easy answers, either for him or for us. But there are questions, so many questions. And this is why the novel is ultimately uplifting: it forces us to question preconceptions, to wonder, to empathise, to criticise. It forces us out of the comfort of our own prejudices to think about things and people and society in radically different ways.

What is truly astounding about the novel is its language. It is (before it was even invented) hiphop, rap. Above all, it is jazz, a hymn to the motion and poetry of the rhythms of life. Take this passage, told from the viewpoint of Sophie, trapped upstairs in her wheelchair, listening to the activity down below:

The smell of despair, the odor of whisky and the scent of the night’s ten thousand dancers, the perfume and the powder sprinked across the deep purple roar of barrelhouse laughter, the armpit sweat cutting the blue cigar smoke and the hoarse cries of those soon to grow hoarser with love, scents and sounds of all things soon to be spread up through a thousand rooms into her own room. Till the drinkers and the dancers, the gamblers and the hustlers and the yearning lovers came dancing and loving, came gambling and hustling in a wavering neon-colored cloud down her walls.

That writing is so good it makes you shiver.

Saturday, 11 May 2019

Flash 500 Flash fiction competition

I'm pleased to have won third prize in the latest Flash 500 flash fiction competition with my story, Momma.

This is a story that is circling round in my head at the moment. It's adapted from my first novel, Cloudland, but written first person in my protagonist's voice, rather than the third person of the novel. It makes it more intimate. I have a longer version of the story as well, and I'm working on a longer story at the moment which expands on the same scene, too. It's becoming a bit of an obsession.

Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

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Ruth Stone is a beautiful young woman. By that, I do not mean physical beauty – I’m not sure her appearance is even described in any detail – but in her personality, her humanity. She represents all that is vulnerable, that is hopeful, that is fearful in each of us and all of us. She represents the individual. She represents life.

Ruth and her sister Lucille live in the small western town of Fingerbone, on the edge of the Fingerbone Lake. Their early life is disrupted by the death of their mother, following which they are brought up by their grandmother who, despite the generational gap, tries to instil some normality in the girls’ lives. She dies, however, and the girls are subsequently looked after by their great-aunts, Lily and Nona, a pair of fatalistic old maidens who are quite unsuited to bringing up two young girls. The girls quietly rebel, missing school more often than they attend and living their own lives of wild freedom entirely apart from the rest of Fingerbone, even their peers, a friendless existence that comprises just the two of them. In despair, Lily and Nona try to contact the girls’ aunt, their mother’s sister, Sylvie, a black sheep who left home very young and has lived a nomadic existence riding trains from somewhere to nowhere, making casual acquaintances and living lightly. Against the odds, Sylvie responds to their entreaty and returns to the old family home in Fingerbone. She agrees to take over the upkeep of the girls, much to the relief of Lily and Nona, who retreat to the safety of their previous, structured existence back in Washington state. Thus, the girls are left in the care of yet another housekeeper, the quixotic and unpredictable Sylvie. Her approach to the task is unconventional, to say the least, and it gradually becomes clear that her behaviour is far from what passes for normal in old-fashioned Fingerbone.

And so the girls’ lives twist once more. For Lucille this proves a turning point. She is alienated by the lack of order in Sylvie’s chaotic existence. She returns to school and concentrates on her studies, she breaks the close bond with Ruth and makes new friendships; ultimately, she is repelled entirely by Sylvie’s lifestyle and leaves home altogether, staying instead with her home economics teacher. She chooses convention. Now Ruth is alone with Sylvie, and a curious, though inevitable bonding begins.  Ruth, a sensitive child still affected by the death of her mother, is drawn to the ethereality of her aunt, to her free-spiritedness, her unwillingness to be bound by conventions. Although Ruth, like Lucille, has returned to school, she agrees to miss an exam in order to accompany Sylvie on a trip to the lake and thus we reach the turning point of the novel, in which Ruth and her aunt make decisions which will shape their lives forever.

Housekeeping is an extraordinary novel, haunting and humane, with a quiet depth which resonates more powerfully for its lack of overblown rhetoric or fanciful mythography. On the contrary, with her clear, crystalline prose and pitch-perfect symbolism, Marilynne Robinson creates characters who are wholly believable and a situation which is at once desperate and beautiful: perhaps what unfolds is not best for either Sylvie or Ruth, but who would deny them the opportunity to experience it? Who would wish to shackle these free spirits or diminish their glow? Who would make them live a life more ordinary?

The locale of the novel is essential to its understanding. It takes place around the lake after which the town of Fingerbone is named. There is something primordial about it. It is home to the dead – countless unfortunates reside within it, including the girls’ grandfather and mother, and yet, because everything in Housekeeping is placed in opposition to something else – it is also the bringer of life, water, the sustenance that all existence requires. So we have water and land, death and life, and there is no neat division between them. Thus, the lake floods the town every year and things which people might wish to keep separate are comingled – life in death, death in life, order through chaos.

In this way, then, Ruth’s early life is dominated by death and water and, in particular, the unfortunate confluence of the two. Her grandfather dies in an accident when his train plunges from a bridge into the lake. Years later, her mother commits suicide by driving into the same lake. Water suffuses the novel, from the flood that engulfs the family house for days on end to a night Ruth and her enigmatic aunt, Sylvie, spend adrift on the lake in a small rowing boat. Water, of course, is the most inconstant of materials, eternally fluid, kinetic, permanently impermanent. And such, of course, is the nature of human interaction, particularly for outsiders like Ruth and Sylvie, people with one foot in reality and another somewhere else, somewhere simultaneously internal and exterior, people who reside at once in their heads and in some otherworld.

The central metaphor of the novel is that of housekeeping – the ways in which human beings try to exert control over nature and their external surroundings, imposing order, conformity. At the same time it represents the ways in which communities bind together through convention and usage. Grandmother Sylvia responds to her new task of bringing up the girls by imposing a routine of housekeeping, rigid and conservative like the community of Fingerbone in which they reside: controlling nature, conforming to society.  It is futile: nature cannot be controlled, nor can the human spirit be tramelled against its wishes. When she dies and the free spirit Sylvie takes over the housekeeping, she throws open the windows to the elements. Not long after, floods symbolically claim the lower floor of the house while Sylvie and the girls retreat to the upper levels. Sylvie hoards tins and papers instead of cleaning and tidying, and the house turns into a calamitous mess. All the while she shuns the Fingerbone community, making no friends, speaking to no-one, living entirely outside their norms. It cannot last. The community turn against her, accuse her of being unfit to bring up Ruth. Thus, the metaphor of housekeeping, as elucidated by first the grandmother and then Sylvie, stands for doomed defiance of both nature and civilisation, of the impossibility of taming the chaos of the cosmos or escaping the strictures of community.

Nonetheless this is an upbeat book and its ending offers hope. Ruth is the heroine of the novel, and so is Sylvie, and the pair of them, heroines both, forge a pact that is as uplifting as it is foolish, and quite, quite beautiful.

The Man With the Golden Arm by Nelson Algren

  It’s hard to believe that The Man with the Golden Arm was written in 1949. It seems so fresh, and contemporary, and its approach t...