Double Vision by Pat Barker
had suggested this book by an author whom, interestingly, she had
known before she became famous, and which she had already enjoyed.
She began her introduction by saying that although she had been
unable to work out why the book had been given its title - Double
Vision - she admired its concern with the way that political
violence overshadows personal lives, and found engrossing its cast
of damaged characters: sculptor Kate grieving the death in Afghanistan
of her war-photographer husband Ben and also herself suffering a
major accident at the start of the novel, war-traumatised reporter
Stephen Starkey who has come to her North-east village to work on
a book using Ben’s photographs, Stephen’s brother and sister-in-law
and their crumbling marriage and autistic son, vicar’s daughter
Justine whose mother abandoned her at an early age – many of them
touched by the sinister figure of Peter, a local handyman with a
Jeanne found the air of menace in the book brilliantly managed and
thought the book exceptionally well written, quoting in illustration
from the passage preceding Kate’s accident at the beginning, with
its presaging hints of physicality: ‘pale trunks of beech trees,
muscled like athletes stripped off for a race.’ She thought that
the prose, while atmospheric, also had a beautiful ease which made
the whole book very easy to read.
She said that she’d had a moment of worrying that the book was going
to turn out as some kind of aga-saga romance, but had been relieved
that Barker had done something much more interesting. She felt that
ultimately the book was about redemption, each character being redeemed
in their own particular way.
absent, had rung to say that she too had enjoyed the book, and Trevor
and Doug now said that so had they, and that they had found it a
very easy read, but Trevor said that he thought it lightweight –
Mark, arriving later, would say the same - and although Doug too
had been engrossed by the characters, he’d been left confused as
to what or who it was all meant to be about.
I agreed: beforehand I had commented to Madeleine (returned to the
group after a long absence) that Double Vision was an apt
title as the book seemed to have no focus. While the blurb on the
paperback edition implies that the novel is purely about Stephen,
the novel begins very much with Kate, shifts to focus on Stephen
and then on again to focus on Justine.
Jeanne countered this objection by referring to a final passage
in the novel in which Stephen is spinning stones on water, creating
‘concentric rings that would meet and overlap … always spreading
out’, and said that this exactly describes the structure and theme
of the book.
Madeleine said while she too had found that the book carries you
along, her problem with it was that, unlike Jeanne, she found the
prose marred by a certain imprecision, and quoted in illustration
from a passage in which the disturbed Kate wakes according to habit
too early, in the dark: ‘If she went on like this night and day
would be reversed.’
Don said there was nothing wrong with this sentence, but I said
that I had found the novel peppered with such de-focussing and sometimes
clichéd overstatements (‘apple crumble indistinguishable from cement’).
While I conceded that there were passages of powerful atmospheric
description I had in fact found much of the prose unsuitably coy.
There is, for instance, an episode in which Kate notes the violence
of the Green-Man gargoyles on the church. They are clearly meant
in the book to be a symbol of the ominous violence overshadowing
the characters, but the author dissipates all sense of the sinister
with the somewhat effete language of her statement: ‘[Kate] had
been paying [the gargoyles] regular visits since.’ As a consequence
of this coyness, unlike Jeanne, Don and Doug, I had found the characters
unconvincing and the themes uninvolving.
I had found there to be lazinesses and inaccuracies which betrayed
the novel as incompletely imagined and the author as not in complete
control of her material. I pointed for instance to the fact that,
while Barker makes elaborate, indeed insistent play on the ideas
of dark and light and dawn and dusk – presumably linked to the concept
of double vision – there are glaring continuity errors in the first,
prolonged description of dusk: dusk fails to fall at a time of day
in January when in fact it would have done so; then, after we have
been told that the day is finally ‘fading fast’, have subsequently
witnessed a family meal and been treated to an image of ‘a shoal
of stars’, we are told that Stephen can see a detailed view of the
garden through the window with a red sky in the distance, before
the window slowly fades to dark.
Everyone said that they had noticed this too, including Don, but
Don said this sort of thing didn’t matter. I said that it mattered
to me, since it made me question the writer’s authority over her
material, especially when the material involved the novel’s central
metaphor, but Don insisted hotly that it didn’t matter to him.
I also quoted (to John’s groaning protest) a list of instances of
formulaic or clichéd sentences which for me had made encounters
between the characters less than vivid or convincing: ‘She greeted
Fred and his son with pleasure’; ‘He was beginning to like her a
lot.’ ‘The adults stood around chatting.’
In particular, I said, I found the dialogue poor – unheightened
yet unrealistic with the characters undifferentiated, and often
used to provide information to the reader in an unrealistic and
stilted manner: ‘The Starkeys. You know them. The little boy.’ ‘Oh
yes. Adam, isn’t it?’
However, I destroyed my own argument by quoting the above in the
affected voice which it had suggested to me, and Don and Jeanne
cried that anyone could put on a voice to misrepresent anything,
and Don said pretty angrily that I was imposing my own prejudices
on the book. Madeleine said, but isn’t that what anyone does on
reading a book? Don began to respond to this, but I objected hotly
that he was interrupting me and he agreed even more angrily that
indeed he was, rightly, because I was imposing myself on
John then asked Anne, who had so far said nothing, her opinion of
the novel, and she said that she too had found it sloppy, and Trevor
added that he was unsatisfied by the sense of things unresolved,
in particular the character of Peter and the way we never find out
the real truth about him. There was then some general discussion
about this character, and Anne pointed out that he operates as a
catalyst for the other characters and is the novel’s bogeyman.
Don then brought the discussion back to the matter of the prose
and after quoting, as an illustration of Barker’s narrative economy,
the passage describing Kate’s accident - ‘The road dipped and rose,
and then, no more than 400 yards from her home, where a stream overflowing
in the recent heavy rain had run across the road forming a slick
of black ice, the car left the road’ - said that in order to judge
a book we ought to be doing just that, looking at the text.
John took great exception to what he saw as Don’s implication that
our method of studying a book was inferior, and there was a heated
altercation as Don defended himself from this accusation. I wanted
to say that we had been looking at the text anyway, but things
were already too heated to interject.
things calmed down and attention returned to the character of Peter.
What some saw as a weakness in the representation of this character,
Don and Jeanne saw as a strength: Don said that Barker handles brilliantly
the sinister tension surrounding Peter, and that our inability to
see him or indeed any of the characters in any clear moral light
was a function of the personal moral ambiguity inevitable in a world
of political violence, potently conveyed in the moral issue of Ben’s
war photography and encapsulated in the title Double Vision.
However Madeleine then said that rather than asking the question,
What can we know about the characters? we should perhaps be asking
the question, How much does the author know about the characters?
and that Barker didn’t give us quite enough about the characters
to allow us to feel that she has a grip on them herself.
None of us beside Don and Jean felt that the Sarajevo and Hague
trial sequences were convincing, but found them grafted on, and
Madeleine said to general agreement that she thus didn’t find that
the novel successfully conveyed any convincing or resonant links
between the rural middle-class world of the characters and the background
Mark, who had very much enjoyed other novels by Pat Barker, said
it read to him like an airport novel, and that it gave the impression
of having been written in a rush. Trevor said that to him it read
as though Barker had been unable to give it her full attention,
as if, for instance, she’d been suffering a family crisis while
writing it, and I said it read to me like a first draft.
concluded by saying that she found it strangely heartening, but
also as a writer quite frightening, that people could have such
extremely differing reactions to the same book.
here to add your comments
How Many Miles to Babylon? by Jennifer Johnston
time our group came up against an effect of the depressing phenomenon
in British publishing and book marketing about which Mark is always
railing: the concentration on the New.
Jennifer Johnston is an Irish and Booker-prize-winning author who
has been publishing short and in my opinion stunning novels since
the early seventies. John, a great admirer also, chose for this
meeting her 1974 novel How Many Miles to Babylon? which is
narrated by Alex, the son of landed Irish gentry, and concerns his
forbidden friendship with local lad Jerry, from boyhood through
to the first-world-war trenches in France.
Scandalously, although this book is in print, the group had great
difficulty obtaining copies. Madeleine said that she had rung every
bookshop in central and south Manchester and not one had had it
in stock. All but one said that (perhaps because of Penguin’s recent
warehousing problems) it would take two to three weeks to obtain.
Only the tiny but famously efficient independent Chorlton Bookshop
said that they could get it quickly, and did so. Mark and Sarah
both failed altogether to get hold of copies, as a consequence of
which Sarah, busy anyway with her job and baby, didn’t attend the
meeting, and Mark had to sit through it without having read the
Of the rest of us present, all but Anne – John, Madeleine, Doug
and me – admired this book immensely and were greatly moved by it.
We thought it exceptionally well written and vivid. Madeleine commented
that one function of the vividness was the author’s use of colour
– the rich golds of the drawing room in Alex’s family home, the
silvers of the Irish landscape, the pink of the dawn sky the morning
that Alex is due to leave for the war, the encroaching greyness
and brownness as the trench scenes take over – all achingly mirroring
the state of mind of narrator Alex, caught between longing and the
emotional repression resulting from his lonely and emotionally cold
All of us found Alex’s relationship with his cold mother heart-wrenching,
and we noted the subtle ways in which Johnston achieves this effect,
such as this understated but vivid depiction of the mother’s passive
manipulation: She walked slowly, leaning on me slightly, to keep
my pace the same as hers.
Introducing the novel, John asked us what we thought it was
about. This novel is very non-explicit and works very much on an
emotive rather than intellectual level, prompting an emotional rather
than analytical response from the reader. Therefore few of us had
yet analysed the novel in this way - I for one felt unusually reluctant
to do so - and, faced with John's question, we weren't quite sure
of the answer. John now suggested that the novel was about the class
system and its deleterious effects, both in Ireland and in the British
army. Madeleine suggested cruelty as its theme – the cruelty of
Alex’s mother and her social class, the cruelty of war.
Anne, who had said at the start that she had mixed feelings about
the book, now gave her reason: unlike the rest of us she had found
the section set in the trenches unconvincing. In particular, the
whole thing had fallen apart for her at the point when Alex’s commanding
officer tells him to ‘mix’, which she felt was unrealistic and anachronistic,
too modern in concept and diction. She said now that she felt the
war episode wasn’t even necessary, that the themes of cruelty and
schism as played out in the relationship between Alex and Jerry
might have been better served if, instead of enlisting in the British
Army, they had remained in Ireland and Jerry in the Republican volunteer
This seemed plausible, and we all nodded, but I felt somehow that
we hadn’t yet got to grips with the novel’s true meaning and intent.
Madeleine then asked us what we thought of a woman writing a book
concerned with two men, in which the only woman was a cold one,
and wondered, having not read any other books by Johnston, if Johnston
perhaps had some difficulty writing from a woman’s point of view?
This reminded me of a connected point made by Zadie Smith (author
of White Teeth) on a recent Radio Book Club programme: she
said that she found it much easier to write from a man’s point of
view, as women so often suffer from the burden of false consciousness
which is very tricky to replicate in writing – a statement I found
riveting, since this last, an anatomisation of female false consciousness,
is one of the things I’m attempting in the novel I’m currently writing.
Mark asked in amazement and some derision how on earth it could
be easier for a woman to write from a man’s point of view, and questioned
whether a woman could write convincingly from a man’s point of view
I said, Well, how do the men here who’ve read this book think Jennifer
Johnston has done? and both John and Doug, the most unreservedly
admiring of the book, said that they had been utterly convinced.
It was only after I got home that it occurred to me (perhaps because
it’s a theme in my own current novel) that what this book is about
is the eternal Irish theme of belonging or not-belonging, and that
in this case the war episodes are absolutely necessary. Jerry and
his people can’t truly belong in their own country, seized long
ago by the settlers, Alex’s family among them; there's no belonging
for Alex in his emotionally cold family; social and religious divisions
in Ireland mean that Alex and Jerry can’t belong together as friends.
Enlisting seems a way of belonging at last, to each other, to a
joint cause. But their escape to the fabled Babylon of the title,
so easily by candlelight, is doomed. It only brings them back again
to the same divisions pursued more viciously and with tragic consequences
in a mud-slicked field of division and death.
here to add your comments
If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor
unusual, prize-winning and much-praised novel focuses on the normal
life over one summer's day of a residential street in a northern
town, making clear from the start, however, that by the end of the
day a momentous event will have shattered it, affecting for ever
at least some of the residents.
had chosen the novel because, he said, he had found it utterly engrossing
- he had been unable to put it down - and had been immensely impressed
by it. He admitted that he had found the numerous characters living
in the street confusing and had had constantly to look back to check
which character lived at which address, but said that he’d actually
enjoyed being thus made to keep on his toes.
He was especially taken by the book's unusual structure: omniscient
present-tense chapters providing both an overview of the life of
the street and delving intimately into the lives of some of the
inhabitants, alternated with the first-person retrospective narration
of one of them, a nameless young woman who is still emotionally
affected by the catastrophe and living through its repercussions.
This structure does indeed convey stunningly the way that the past
lives in the present, as well as the book's concern with the way
that people fail to connect yet profoundly touch each other's lives.
Mark thought the book brilliantly written, in moving and exceptionally
insightful prose, and he had found the revelation of the catastrophe
Sarah agreed with Mark wholeheartedly. She had particularly loved
the opening section, a sustained riff on the life of the city at
night (the night which precedes the day in question). She had loved
its evocation of the sounds of the night city, and in particular
of the miracle of silence ... a hesitation as one day is left
behind and a new one begins.
too had loved this opening, but said to Mark's great surprise that
after this he got bogged down with all the characters and began
to find the prose overblown and became really irritated with the
book, and in the end hated it.
John went further: he said he had hated in particular the beginning
so admired by Mark and Sarah, and hadn’t been able to bring himself
to read much of the rest of the novel. He found it affected and
highly derivative of Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood (a play
which also takes an omniscient view of a small society of disparate
individuals), aping Thomas's opening section down the actual wording:
(Thomas: Listen. It is night moving in the streets … Listen.
It is night in the chill… McGregor: So listen./ Listen, and
there is more to hear.
I find it hard to believe that McGregor isn't deliberately
referencing Thomas, consciously providing a counterpoint to the
silence of Thomas's night-time rural town with the noise of his
contemporary night-time city. However, as a teacher of Creative
Writing I have read far too many Under Milk Wood pastiches
not to have, like John, found this opening passage tedious, and
did find it to have a 'Creative Writing' quality of description
for description's sake.
Sarah made clear that she for one was quite happy with description
for description's sake, but everyone did agree that the section
was somewhat distinct from the rest of the novel in style and content
and focus, and did read rather like a piece written separately from
out of which the novel was later developed. People also expressed
mild irritation with the idiosyncratic layout of the first-person
sections - overhanging rather than indented paragraphs - seeming
to find it somewhat affected. This was one point on which John later
defended the novel, seeing the technique, as I do, as a useful typographical
signal for change of viewpoint.
experience of the book was quite opposite to Doug’s. Having had
problems with the beginning, I later became on the whole almost
as moved and involved as Sarah and Mark. However, I did agree with
Doug about the ending. We both felt that the coming disaster had
been built up to such an extent that we were expecting something
more monumental than actually occurs, so that when it happened it
seemed almost lame and disappointing.
Anne said, But isn't that the point (pace the book's title): that
events which may not be deemed remarkable in the wider political
scheme of things are in fact remarkable on the human scale in their
power to affect people's lives.
Doug said, but he didn't believe that this event would have affected
the young woman narrator to the extent it is meant to, particularly
when she's at present involved in her own crisis of having become
accidentally pregnant, and I felt inclined to agree.
Mark and Sarah strongly protested: Mark said he felt that anyone
would have been affected as the young woman is. I realised then
that yes, in theory, the event could symbolise for the young woman
her own vulnerability and the emotional damage caused by her childhood,
as well as the vulnerability of her unborn child, and that the event
would therefore be of emotional import to her, but the novel didn’t
make me feel this at any gut level.
Mark said, but didn't we think the actual disaster was brilliantly
conveyed, especially the extended description of the mechanism by
which it occurs? John said that he found this last psychopathic
and self-indulgent and I said it was a narrative mistake, as by
this time the reader, knowing the disaster is unfolding, should
be far too keen to know the outcome in human terms to be reading
slowly enough to take in the detailed technical description.
was in fact more moved by some of the more peripheral emotional
situations, in particular the relationship and history of the old
couple living in the street, and everyone, even Doug, agreed that
this was very touchingly done.
Sarah said she was most moved by the portrayal of the young woman's
reaction to seeing the first scan of her unborn baby: having not
long ago had a baby herself, she had found it very accurate, and
said that she was amazed that it could have been written by a man.
I agreed, and said that I had found it so insightful that I wouldn’t
be at all surprised to find out that Jon McGregor was really a woman.
Anne commented that this was interesting in the light of our discussion
last time, and Mark now furthered that discussion by asking me if
I thought it was easier for a woman to write from a man’s point
of view than vice versa. I said I thought (like Zadie Smith; see
our last discussion) that maybe it was, since there are indeed some
remarkable areas of female experience which have been very much
untold or unsaid, and that I myself might have found it difficult
to write about childbirth (as I have) without experiencing it -
which is what makes Jon McGregor's achievement of insight (if he
really is a man) all the more remarkable.
Though then Doug put in that he had found the whole scan scene unbelievable,
because he just didn't find it convincing that the character Michael
would have accompanied the young woman there.
is a twin, and there are two other sets of twins in the novel. This
had struck me as affected and, on the plot level somewhat laboured
and unconvincing. I now wondered about its thematic significance,
and even as I did so it came to me that of course twins embody the
novel's theme of connectedness/unconnectedness, and it seems a measure
of my fundamental lack of engagement with the novel that it had
taken me so long to realise something so obvious.
Anne said she had a fundamental problem in that, in spite of the
descriptions of the houses in the street being central and endlessly
unfolding, she had had difficulty picturing them. Mark suggested
that there is a burden of imagination on the reader to realise an
author's descriptions, but Anne pointed out that the descriptions
are actually contradictory: back yards and the fact that people
sit out on steps seemingly very close to the road imply a far humbler
street than the one drawn and mused about by the architecture student,
with trees and houses which he judges must once have been inhabited
Mark and Sarah found the book very clever, though John said that
that was the trouble, it was clever-clever. Doug agreed with John,
though he said that one thing he did find impressively striking
was the way that most of the characters were not given names but
distinguished according to their physical characteristics, most
notably their hair. I said that that was precisely one of the things
which had given the book a 'Creative Writing' feel for me. Distinguishing
characters according to their physical characteristics rather than
their names is a famous Creative Writing exercise, and I didn’t
think that the novel took the technique far enough away from this
dimension. While the objectification inherent in the technique might
seem to serve the novel's purpose of showing how unknowable the
characters are to each other, it is psychologically incompatible
with the omniscient narrator's intimate depiction of the characters'
inner lives, and is thus in danger of seeming an affectation.
Mark said, Well, it may seem 'Creative Writing' and therefore familiar
to you, but it's not often you see this kind of writing published,
and to us it's refreshing and exciting - which was indeed a most
interesting point, yet another comment on the limitations of a marketing
philosophy whereby publishers believe that readers must be provided
with what they think they want and therefore already know.
Even Mark, however, said that the very final twist of the book,
after the disaster, was disappointing, and most of us agreed with
Anne's final conclusion that this was very much a curate's egg of
by Anne Tyler
chose this book for its light, indeed gently satirical touch with
a potentially sombre subject, that of grief and recovery. Middle-aged
Baltimore protagonist Macon is an obsessive writer of businessmen’s
travel guides that shield the traveller from the rest of the world.
He is also trying to keep his personal tragedies at bay: the violent
death of his twelve-year-old son Ethan, and the consequent breakdown
of his marriage. Into this grim scenario steps much younger dog-trainer
Muriel on her spiky heels, to tame the dog which Ethan left behind
and which Macon can’t control, and to storm the barricades of Macon’s
book generated a thoughtful and evening-long discussion over a main
single point: the fact that although all of us present found the
book extremely well written and the characters and their dilemmas
vividly and poignantly observed, we all also felt that there was
something missing, some kind of ‘meat’, as Mark put it. At one extreme
Madeleine disliked the book for this reason, and at the other Doug
loved the book in spite of it, but we were all agreed on this basic
point, and we spent the evening trying to work out why it was the
Trevor said he thought the problem was that the book was sentimental,
but no one else agreed with this. We felt that the book precisely
avoided sentimentality by dealing satirically with the characters:
emotionally-repressed Macon and his sister and brothers, all of
whom over-control their domestic world as a way of coping with the
enormity of past grief and abandonment; Macon’s chaotic ‘old-boy’
publisher Julian who nevertheless yearns for domestic stability
in the form of Macon’s sister; cooky, brave and managing Muriel
who yet has her own insecurities, played out in her over-protectiveness
of her puny son; and, notably and hilariously, the dog Edward in
whom the tragedy of Ethan’s death and Macon’s subsequent stress
have resulted in waywardness and aggression.
It was suggested that one key to the problem was a lack of clear
or convincing motivation on the part of the characters: one or two
people found the relationship between publisher Julian and Macon’s
spinsterish sister unlikely and unconvincing; Madeleine pointed
out that it is never made precisely clear why Macon at one point
leaves Muriel to go back to his wife. Someone said that this vacillation
on Macon’s part can be explained, in general terms, by his passivity,
but Madeleine said that in the relevant scene the precise moment
in which Macon has his change of heart is not clear, nor, more importantly,
is the moment or event which precipitates it. We examined the passage
together and found this to be so, and agreed that as a result Macon’s
change of heart seems insubstantial and arbitrary. In the same way,
the ending, Macon’s final ‘choice’ between the two women, also seems
arbitrary rather than inevitable. Sarah then said that a less arbitrary-seeming
ending would make her satisfied with the book, but the rest of us
felt that the problem was more fundamental than that.
wondered if it was a disjunction between style and matter.
While reading the book I had found it, like everyone else, very
moving, but as soon as I broke off and when I finally finished it,
the effect instantly faded – I was not in fact moved in any lasting
way, and I began to realise that my emotional response to the book
had been that of recognition rather than revelation. Perhaps
the reason for this was the style: gentle – possibly even cosy -
satire in which the characters are held at a certain distance. Indeed,
they are in fact types, and are ultimately seen as quaint – which
last, Trevor now said, was what he’d been getting at when he had
said the book was sentimental. The minute observation of behaviour
and manners is entrancing but fundamentally miniaturist, and indeed
at odds with the substantial length of the book, 350 pages.
suggested that the problem might also be one of viewpoint. While
the tone of the book is gently satirical, it eschews the traditional
satirical mode of omniscience and adheres throughout to Macon’s
point of view. Tyler’s ability to do this while to some extent implying
the viewpoints of the other characters is impressive as far as it
goes, but we felt the stratagem had its limitations: Madeleine pointed
out that the wife from whom Macon is estranged is thus seen in very
one-dimensional terms, and I had found myself frustrated by the
lack of attention paid to Muriel’s crisis over Macon’s abandonment
of her son, precisely because it is given the scant attention which
Macon allows it for himself.
Sarah now said that it was fair enough that we should be kept at
a certain distance from characters and their dilemmas if they are
viewed through a sensibility as autistic and lacking in self-knowledge
as Macon's, but Madeleine said that it’s a novelist’s responsibility
to transcend such a partial viewpoint and allow us to see further
beyond it than this novel does.
which time we had drunk all the wine and we were keeping Sarah up
when she had an early start at work next day, so we terminated the
discussion and the rest of us stood up to go.
Sarah said as we left that she was really glad she’d chosen this
book, since we have rarely had so sustained and thoughtful a discussion
without veering from the point.
here to add your comments
Atomised by Michel Houellebecq
very small meeting but a pretty noisy one as we tried to get to
grips with this book of Trevor’s choosing, which caused a storm
of controversy on publication in France in 1999.
indictment of the materialism and individualism of late-twentieth-century
Western civilisation, the book charts its putative dissolution through
the lives of two half-brothers abandoned by their mother in infancy
for the hedonistic hippy lifestyle prompted by the sixties sexual
revolution. The two boys are brought up by different grandmothers,
and in literal and symbolic illustration of the ‘atomisation’ of
our society and the breakdown of the family, are for several years
unaware of each other’s existence, leave alone the fact that they
live nearby and eventually attend the same school. In their very
different ways the half-brothers suffer severe emotional damage.
Bruno, the elder, is a hedonist for whom the chief goal in life
is sexual fulfilment which he is however unable to attain; Michel
is a scientist with little sexual desire and without the capacity
for love. Michel, however, has enough of an intimation of the possibility
of love to envisage an alternative to our corrupt society, a vision
which fuels his genetic research and gives rise finally to a superior,
cloned species replacing mankind and capable of creating a cohesive
society with echoes of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
At the end of the book it is revealed that the whole has in fact
been narrated by a member of this cloned species, towards the end
of the twenty-first century.
was dispute in our group, or rather uncertainty, as to whether this
latter-day society was intended by the author as a utopia or a dystopia.
John and Doug were pretty certain that it was intended as dystopian.
John felt that the depiction of its chief architect, Hubczejak,
was ironic, revealing him as egotistic (searching, as he put
it ‘for … not just a way of seeing the world but a way of situating
myself in it’) and shortsighted (His unrelentingly positivist
reading of Djerzinski [Michel] led him constantly to underestimate
the extent of metaphysical change which would necessarily accompany
such a biological revolution), and the fundamental character
of his activities as those of a rarified PR (Whatever his failings,
he understood how to communicate to the public the idea).
I pointed to a significant discussion in the book between Bruno
and Michel about Aldous Huxley. Bruno notes that while Huxley’s
Brave New World is generally considered a dystopia, it’s
actually the world we are striving towards, with control of reproduction
and the elimination of disease, old age and unhappiness. Michel
then points out that writings by Aldous’s brother Julian indicate
that in fact Huxley wrote the book as a utopia, and that it was
only when it was taken as a ‘totalitarian nightmare’ that he affected
a different authorial intention. However, as an early founder of
the New Age centre in Atomised, (a chief acolyte of which
ends up as a Satanic murderer), Huxley is aligned with its moral
corruption or error.
If we are to take the narrator in an ironic light, then many of
the objections to the book expressed in our group begin to dissipate.
Doug and I had commented that the links between moral corruption
and cell mutation are not successfully made, but perhaps this is
the point: the new society is founded on a logical flaw, prefigured
in Michel’s moment of scientific revelation after fasting: The
impression of intellectual stimulation created by fasting is real.
Presuming we can trust the translation, a close look at this sentence
shows that it is only the impression and not the intellectual stimulation
which is real. Anne was irritated by the frequent interjections
of little scientific essays, and the dubious and sweeping parallels
drawn between human behaviour and scientific phenomena: but again,
perhaps the intention here is satirical and a comment on the narrator
and his society.
Or is this special pleading for the novel? Certainly the depiction
of the lives of Bruno and Michel seems heartfelt on the part of
the author of Atomised (and it is known that their childhood
mirrors Houellebecq’s own), and there are certain ambiguities which
make it difficult to determine the moral stance of the novel. It
could be said to be sexist: all women over forty are referred to
as hags - but then that’s usually from Bruno’s viewpoint - and all
the women end up dead, usually dying of cancer or commiting suicide
because of it, unable to bear their own physical corruptibility
- but then Michel and Bruno also self-destruct, Michel commiting
suicide too and Bruno checking into a psychiatric hospital to end
his days. On the other hand, the only altruism Michel can find in
nature is the maternal instinct, and he concludes that only women
are truly capable of love - though, as Madeleine said, that could
be taken as sexist in itself, an abdication of love on behalf of
Most importantly, we felt that the very belated revelation of the
identity of the narrator made it impossible for us to judge the
book on one reading, indeed that we had been played with unfairly
by the author, tricked into reading it in quite the wrong light.
Even that though, we thought, may have been the point: that Houellebecq
is a master of literary provocation, and in the process a profound
questioner of our late-twentieth and early-twenty-first century
here to add your comments
Frankie and Stankie by Barbara Trapido
gathered on an aptly hot and sticky evening to discuss this novel
about a girl’s white-middle-class South African childhood and coming
of age, set in the fifties against the tightening of apartheid and
interwoven lightly but slyly with an account of South Africa’s racial
had chosen the book out of interest, understanding it to be very
different from Trapido’s other novels which she had found very readable.
In the event she had found it even more readable than the others
and had completed it in one sitting.
Having spent her own childhood abroad, she had found extremely accurate
the meticulous depiction of the tenor of colonial life, and thought
the starkly contrasted political background a considerable revelation
- with which last we all agreed. Most importantly, she felt that
the book demonstrates more clearly than any other on the subject
how oppressive regimes can be allowed to come to power and be tolerated
once they do, cleverly implicating white middle-class readers identifying
with the world of protagonist Dinah.
Madeleine strongly agreed with this last. She said that the portrayal
of Dinah’s mother brought her up short and made her think. German
and kindly and likeable and with, it is hinted, possible Jewish
ancestry, Marianne is nevertheless utterly apolitical - she knows
that where politics are concerned you should keep your head down
- and has as a young woman worked as a secretary to the Nazi German
Consul in Cape Town, without any conscience or even thought of the
Dinah gets her greater political awareness from her father, the
son of a Dutch Communist, and the book deals ironically with the
contrast between the protected middle-class world in which she is
growing up and the political situation it’s based on and of which
she is increasingly aware.
John and I, however, had problems with the way this disjunction
was handled. The fact is that in terms of plot and event Dinah’s
comfort within this world is never seriously threatened, and while
this may be the point, Trapido’s trademark light and cultivated
irony seems too comfortable to provide any really savage critique.
In addition, while the historical background is conveyed in mini-essays
with a particularly detached irony, Dinah’s personal history is
privileged by length and a vividness which reaches the reader on
an emotional level. The emotional locus of this book - and in a
novel it’s the emotional level that counts - is the white middle-class
colonial world, and thus the book fails to be truly radical and
could even be said to collude on a structural and linguistic level
with that which it purports to critique.
said that as a novel the book had disappointed me in many ways -
that indeed it reads not as a novel but as an account or memoir,
lacking the selectivity or cumulative narrative arc of a novel.
While enlivened by Trapido’s characteristic style, it’s essentially
a routine and predictable plod through infancy, primary school,
secondary school, university and emergence into adulthood.
Doug and John agreed, but Madeleine said that she hadn’t been troubled
by this as she had in fact read it as a memoir - that of Barbara
Trapido - and had thus been able to inject her own shape into the
narrative as she read.
I said that we have no right to assume the book is a factual memoir
since it’s packaged and sold as a novel and uses obvious fictionalising
techniques. One of these is the use throughout of the historic present
tense - Lisa and Dinah go to High School in the same year
- which in a novel usually has the effect of creating immediacy
and allowing the reader to identify. However, both Doug and I found
that here it created a kind of glazed distance, skirting as it does
the issues raised by the other, memoir-like aspects of the book
- those of historical perspective and the contingency and particularity
I found also that it led to occasional if not frequent uncertainties
in the narrative voice. A passage near the beginning seems firmly
established with the restricted viewpoint and language of the infant
Dinah observing her parents and absorbing their anecdotes: Dinah
who loves poking about finds that her mum periodically hoards dark
Swiss chocolate and Nescafe and Lux flakes in her drawers alongside
little bottles of 14711 cologne. The word periodically
however, with its longer historical perspective, creates a defocusing
shift of viewpoint, consolidated in the next observation which could
not have formed in the infant Dinah's mind: She does this whenever
there’s a whiff of further trouble in the world. Finally, with
the examples that follow - Korea, Suez, Cyprus - which historically,
in Dinah’s infancy, would not yet have occurred, the narration erupts
disconcertingly into a wider, more authorial historical perspective
which is indeed the mode of memoir.
agreed that essentially the book hovers between memoir and novel,
after which we could find no more to say, and the discussion, which
had not been very lengthy, petered out - which Madeleine said testified
perhaps to the book’s lack of novelistic depth.
here to see a list of all books discussed
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