Reading took a back seat last month to my adventures in guitar buying. Well, I mean, I was still reading, but it didn’t seem the time to write about it.
And it’s not like there weren’t other things to think about besides. Beyond the general Brexit angst that has become our oxygen, we had acute alertness with the election campaign. And bundled in with all of that, I and colleagues not just at Cardiff University but across the land were on strike for eight days.
This is ideal ferment, really, for reading John Lanchester’s new novel, The Wall. It’s not about what we’re in, but it’s certainly about where we’re going. Or where we might be going if we don’t heed the call etc. This is not a new theme for dystopian literature, but the title is drawn from very present-day dystopian concerns. The very word is associated with Donald Trump, though this is set in a not too distant future Britain, with a wall of its own, a rising tide to contend with, and an exceptionally brutal way to deal with immigrants.
All citizens, we learn, serve two years on the wall. Conscription is back, and it is of a most Switzerlandian kind: Britain is not preparing to make war on other territories or come to the aid of those unjustly treated by their neighbours. It is about defending this island with all of its coastline. Two years, twelve hours on and twelve hours off, two weeks on and two weeks resting or training, and then you’re done and never have to look on it or think of it again, citizen. And we mean it – you can trust us. This is also a theme in the book.
Typical of its oeuvre, our narrator will get to experience the full gamut of prescribed scenarios on and off the wall. When you begin to read it, or even when you just read the blurb, you can get a pretty good idea of the narrative that will unfold. Not much in this is surprising. The question we’re meant to think through is “why” – what happened to put these terrible scenarios in place? If you’re paying attention to the headlines, you can make some good guesses here, too. What shocked me most, I think, was the coldness with which the narrator and his generation judge their parents and grandparents, the ones who let this happen. They know their present and future was stolen by selfish inaction not many decades ago. (And if we’re listening to our climate strikers, even this should not surprise.)
If we can guess at all of this beforehand, why read it, then? It’s a good question. Back in J-school, my lecturers intimated that the point of a newspaper was to ensure the readers weren’t surprised by tomorrow’s newspaper – that they’d been adequately prepared that day to imagine what will unfold next. There is a comforting confirmation in reading novels like The Wall. Lanchester is/was a journalist, and his last novel, Capital, was similarly journalistic, devouring the here and now and returning it to us in fiction: there, for the city of London; here, for Britain in climate peril and mass migration.
I think of Tom Wolfe when I read Lanchester, especially his introduction to The Bonfire of the Vanities. He was attentive to the events about him but wanted to surpass the accusation of “just journalism”. There is, then a hyper realism to his great novel of New York, just as we see in Lanchester’s novels. Like Wolfe, they are not so artfully written as other works that I tend to prefer. It’s not the expression that we read it for – a wonderful line or observation. Rather, it’s the compelling rendering of our current concerns, carefully arranged for maximum impact.
Well, after such a bleak turn of affairs, maybe something a little more beautiful and comforting is in order. From a dystopian gaze into the future, Laurie Lee’s hallucinatory memoir of his childhood is pretty much as far in the opposite direction as you can get from authors who have sucked the same oxygen. Lee’s is the England that the grownups in Lanchester’s novel let utterly slip away. It is the rural, green, unelectrified West Country that a friend of mine recently described to me as “real England”. Thomas Hardy country, or perhaps just a bit north of it. (This may not be the best place to confess that I have not ever finished The Return of the Native, despite beginning it many times, and I feel that boat may have sailed.)
Lee’s book begins arrestingly as he is plonked off the cart in the tall grass near the Cotswold cottage that he, his copious siblings, and his heroic mother bunker down in to wait out the end of the First World War. We get the story in drips and drabs – like Joyce’s Portrait, the memoir grows in maturity and apprehension as the narrator does. This is, of course, a fiction, as Lee would not have been equipped to take notes of his observations whilst he was in them. He is remembering and imagining into that remembered space what he wants there to be now, as an adult with a poetical bent. That’s okay – it’s absolutely wild and very engaging to read.
It’s also thematic, so alongside the grudging arc of his childhood ageing, we get chapters clustered around ideas or people – a vivid one on the extremities of summer and winter, the one I’m reading now about his various uncles, and a compelling, emotional depiction of his mother. That chapter is, for me, the heart of the book, and it contrasts his brief and coolly damning account of his father, which takes all of two paragraphs. He was clearly a bastard, and Lee has no patience for him though perhaps feels, as an adult, that he can understand enough to reconcile his own thoughts on the matter (forgiveness would not be the right term). His mother put up with a lot and really gave herself completely for her family – which, for her, included the phantom hope of reunion with her husband. The report of his death is constructed by Lee as a hand grenade that explodes the last of her vitality; hey ho – her children are a little older and increasingly independent by this time, so she is free to collapse now. Though the details related are not always flattering or even ones we might want published, were they our details, they are rendered with only love and admiration.
One theme I’ve not really picked up on yet is this bloody Rosie. I’m sure the book’s conclusion will have such a compelling climax that it will be obvious why he titled it so, but 170-odd pages in, I’ve not seen it yet. Which makes this edition’s cover equally gratuitous. Feh, publishing folk.
Those publishing folk, I’m pretty sure, would not have let Peter Pan slip through the gates these days. Leastways, not in its original form, as this unabridged version offers. We just finished reading it at bedtime with the kids – it’s been about six years since we did last, back when we were living in Edinburgh. Long enough that the delight of the relaxed, avuncular tone can get paired with shock at the current of misogyny woven through it and the patches of blatant racism. We’ve already negotiated the whole English-kids-lit predilection for referencing “Red Indians” and “redskins” – sadly not merely in older books; there are some current youth authors who still don’t seem to understand that those are hurtful terms. Since our kids are aware of it and because we problematise the terms over the course of reading it, we feel okay with still reading them classic stories like this. It’s a perhaps unfashionable nuanced tack between extremes.
Earlier, my daughter had proposed Hook’s Daughter, a more recent novel that’s been on her shelf for a while. I thought we should probably read Peter Pan first, as our youngest doesn’t have memories of the original source material that Heidi Schulz plundered for her girl-empowering sequel; however, my daughter disagreed and argued that we should read her choice first, since Pan comes off rather poorly in it and she didn’t want that to be his lasting depiction. Fair play, though J.M. Barrie is at great pains to remind us multiple times through the story just how awful and conceited his hero is. That’s the thing about these really classic books: they don’t adhere to simplistic notions of the unalloyed goodness in their characters. Pan’s a rascal, an egotist, and in many ways a dangerous person you’d rather not be around. Like Jacob from the Book of Genesis, it’s neither because of nor in spite of these qualities that he is our hero. Rather, he is our hero, and this is how he is.
It is one of those delights to read aloud. Maybe too indulgent, in fact: the chapter where Hook and his pirates set upon the aboriginal population guarding Peter and the Lost Boys’ home is so opaquely written and riddled with asides and non-sequiturs that I can’t imagine any child reader staying through it. I would have been flipping ahead to the next chapter, as my 11-year-old self often did my first time through The Lord of the Rings. As a grown-up reader, it was great fun, and I can only hope my delivery carried it through for the juniors.
We’ve moved off of Peter Pan now and, appropriately, have launched into A Christmas Carol. I know, you’d think nothing had been written for children in the last eighty years. We read current stuff, too, but more frequently they read current stuff on their own. I don’t think as many writers aim for the oral voice and the richness of expression when they compose their novels. Or maybe I’m a curmudgeon. But having read sections of Dickens’s holiday story aloud in public a time or two, I can certainly speak to its pleasures.