Though Elizabeth Crane’s All This Heavenly Glory is billed as a collection of stories, after just a few, I shifted into novel mode, which was easy to do, seeing as the whole collection is about one character viewed in many snapshots from the age of 6 to 40, Charlotte Anne Byers. Those who who have read Crane before will be familiar with her rambunctious, elbows-flailing prose, in which the dependent clauses become so laden that they at times break free into outlines and lists. The effect of this stylistic departure from standard convention is, miraculously, not at all gimmicky, because a) Crane manages to keep those piled up words from toppling over, and b) it is in keeping with the persona of the character that she has created to inhabit this book. Because All This Heavenly Glory, necessarily, touches upon many trials and tribulations of girlhood and womanhood, it seems likely that it will have the “chick lit” moniker attached to it at some point. So be it. But what this book really is is an unflinching character study of a complicated person. Charlotte Anne is raised on the Upper West Side, comes of age in the 1970s in a family branched by divorce and remarriage, and endures a decade of being lost in her 20’s – both geographically and spiritually. She is both foolish and clever, endearing and infuriating, hopelessly falling apart and really good at “having it together.” Not all at the same time, of course. Crane tells Byers’ story episodically, filled with details and discursions, and though the book threatens to come apart under the pressure of Crane’s furiously frantic stylings, she manages to pull together an overarching narrative that is telling and poignant, less – and therefore more meaningful – than the sum of its frenetic parts.
The pleasures of reading Edward St Aubyn’s Melrose novels can feel strangely illicit. From the Some Hope trilogy of novellas -- comprising Never Mind, Bad News, and Some Hope -- through 2006’s Mother’s Milk, St Aubyn has used the trials of Patrick Melrose and his family to explore psychological damage and the intangible terrors of childhood trauma. But he is at his most remarkable when dealing with the experience of the senses, the means we use to escape ourselves. Bad News, the most gripping book of the early trilogy, chronicles a 24-hour drug binge in New York, where Patrick Melrose almost self-destructs against the backdrop of his father’s death. It is a thrilling novella, and yet its thrills feel slightly dubious because we are invited to revel in what amounts to drug pornography -- a specialist genre which, from Hunter S. Thompson to William Burroughs, is notable for its talent-crushing ODs. But St Aubyn’s nimble mind allows him to avoid the usual forms of self-indulgence. “The trouble was that he always wanted smack, like wanting to get out of a wheelchair when the room was on fire,” is surely one of the best one-sentence summations of drug addiction ever written. And no one I have read has managed to make the anticipation of a cocaine injection sound as cosy but also as infinitely depressing as when St Aubyn writes, “His stomach made a rumbling sound and he felt as nervous and excited as a twelve-year-old in the back of a darkened cinema stretching his arm around a girl’s shoulder for the first time.” One of the problems with the Some Hope trilogy is that the great sentences, which are usually similes, stand too tall among the underbrush. Instead of being combed through with greatness, the writing is only great at intervals. I can imagine St Aubyn, like Raymond Chandler, keeping a notebook of devastating descriptions to be deployed when an otherwise bland paragraph is in need of horsepower. This problem was partly overcome in Mother’s Milk, where the prose is not as uneven, and a complexity of feeling shines through. That novel was a departure from the trilogy in many ways, not least in its focus on Patrick’s relationship with his mother instead of his father. It also has some very good passages from the perspective of Robert, one of Patrick’s sons, a supremely intelligent five-year-old who has the preternatural clarity of a less sombre Little Father Time. Unlike the trilogy, Mother’s Milk works as a standalone novel, and it is for this reason, as well as for its depth and range, that it might be remembered as the best Melrose book. But those who have not read all of the Melrose sequence may feel at a disadvantage when they come to At Last (the books are now also out in a set The Patrick Melrose Novels). The most cathartic novel that St Aubyn has written, it achieves a subtle but satisfying conclusion to the saga, comparable in its best moments to John Updike’s Rabbit at Rest. Its power relies on the accumulation of details, so when Patrick reminisces about “the gecko that had taken custody of his soul in a moment of crisis”, readers of Never Mind will remember the rape of Patrick at the age of five by his father, and how by seeing the gecko on the window sill the child was able momentarily to see beyond the terror. In a characteristic dualism, it also brings to mind the unforgettable description of his father’s eyes: “They moved from object to object and person to person, pausing for a moment on each and seeming to steal something vital from them, with a quick adhesive glance, like the flickering of a gecko’s tongue.” At Last begins with Patrick in a much longed-for state: a parentless existence. “Now that he was an orphan everything was perfect. He seemed to have been waiting all his life for this sense of completeness.” His mother, Eleanor, is finally dead after a long deterioration, and the novel takes place entirely on the day of her funeral. After a month-long stint at the Priory rehabilitation clinic, the alcoholism that haunted Mother’s Milk is behind him. He is separated from his wife, Mary, though still dependent on her. With his inherited money gone, he is living in a bedsit (though, in a nod to his erstwhile privilege, the bedsit is in Kensington). The only person he can really open up to is his friend Johnny Hall, who is, perhaps appropriately, a child psychologist. The funeral setting allows for a raft of characters to be in the same place, many of whom Patrick despises: the snobbish friends, the greedy relatives, the over-earnest New Age gurus. Most of them are members of the decaying upper class. Eleanor’s sister, Nancy, lives on the prestige of her illustrious family tree (“One day she was going to write a book about her mother and her aunts, the legendary Jonson sisters”), and Nicholas, a family friend, is the perfect symbol of unrepentant snobbery in the face of a future that has no plans for him or his kind. Everyone at the funeral is troubled in their own way. Eleanor, like a Mrs. Jellyby recast by Evelyn Waugh, has left a legacy of pain to Patrick and a legacy of bewilderment to everyone else. She spent much of her life desperate to help others through charity, while her own son was being abused by her husband, David, one of the most relentlessly despicable characters in recent English fiction. Eleanor tells Mary of a particularly upsetting incident, when a drunken David circumcised his infant son as Eleanor and others looked on, too scared to do anything. “They knew this was no operation, it was an attack by a furious old man on his son’s genitals; but like the chorus in a play, they could only comment and wail, without being able to stop him.” A scandalised Mary wonders how a mother could let this happen, but concludes that her mother-in-law “could never have protected anyone else when she was so entranced by her own vulnerability, so desperate to be saved.” These gestures towards forgiveness are scattered throughout the novel and are what give it a sense of simultaneous ending and renewal. Yet St Aubyn can stumble when he tries to push conflicted thoughts onto paper. His simile-laden style has no purchase in the tangle of feelings that Patrick experiences towards the end of the novel. We get a hint of its manic source when Patrick tells Gordon, the moderator of the Priory’s Depression Group, that metaphor is “the whole problem, the solvent of nightmares. At the molten heart of things everything resembles everything else: that’s the horror.” St Aubyn is clearly aware of the malign effect a stylistic flourish can have, and it is perhaps the struggle with this impulse that can cause confusion for the reader. There are moments when, caught in the cobwebs of Patrick’s mind, we are perhaps supposed to be confused; but then we arrive at a sentence like this: “The absolute banishment of irony from Eleanor’s earnest persona created a black market for the blind sarcasm of her actions.” Some readers may be clever enough to digest this on first reading, but many of us will be scratching our heads on the 10th time round. St Aubyn is also capable of dropping the ball entirely. The following sentence is the literary equivalent of a blooper reel: “Her social secretary would call twice a day to say that she had been delayed but was really on her way now.” The siren repetition of the “ay” sound would be shoddy work if the writer was not considered a superior stylist, but in the context of so much careful prose it feels like a minor tragedy. Mentioning tragedy in such a trivial context might seem insensitive considering the novel’s autobiographical source. From what can be gathered from interviews, St Aubyn lived through many of the most traumatic episodes of his novels. This autobiographical strand is repeated to the point of numbness in most reviews and features, but it is worth remembering that the Melrose books are presented by the author as fiction. In a lot of cases, joining the dots between life and art is a futile practice, and not very interesting either. It is tempting because it is easy, which is why it is not appropriate for these addictive but complicated novels; and it can also lead to the reader doing the author too many favors, investing emotion when it is not there in the words. Or, more unfairly, it can downplay the real strengths of St Aubyn’s abilities. Once we know we can’t unknow, and many readers will be carrying some extra nonfiction baggage when they read At Last. But even without the autobiographical anchor -- or, better, if we were unaware of the autobiographical anchor -- the Melrose novels would still be a brilliant if awkward display of St Aubyn’s gifts as a writer.
My appetite for non-fiction is pretty much equal to my appetite for fiction. I read memoirs, essays, and observations as I would read a novel, keyed into the author's voice. When I read history, though, I read for the information, as though I'm auditing a course at my local community college. I underline the important parts, I try to process the information and place it in context. Sometimes I take notes. I read history when I want to know the facts, and that's why I love John Keegan. His writing is clear, and he brings unassailable expertise to his books. I first discovered him a while back when I read part two of Ian McEwan's Atonement in which the evacuation of British forces from France in the face of German invasion is described. McEwan's vivid description of the grim realities of a small and somewhat forgotten event inspired me to read about World War II in search of more small, somewhat forgotten events. My knowledge of history comes from high school, a few courses in college, the History Channel, and a scattershot array of books I've read over the years. I know the big picture, the facts that we are all supposed to know, but, in the case of World War II, I didn't know the nuances, the details, and campaigns and events that textbooks push to the background in the interest of smoothing out the narrative to assist in the learning process. I found that The First World War neither skimped on the specifics nor did it overwhelm with minutiae. I learned about the Greek campaigns and just how close the Allies were to losing the war. I learned about the British evacuation from France, and, in the end, understood the chronology of events and how all the pieces fit together. As an added bonus, Keegan every once in a while would pause the narrative to describe the realities on the ground, to explain what it was to be a soldier (or a general) fighting in this war. These invaluable nuggets are what make the book great. Naturally, I began adding Keegan books to the queue. The First World War is another great book, and a must read for anyone who wishes to have deeper knowledge of that cataclysmic event. Some fascinating insights: WWI represents a dividing line in history, and much more than the events that preceded it, WWI is responsible for shaping the world order of the last 90 years; this truly was a global war with campaigns in Africa and Asia; though the terrible nature of trench warfare is well-known, Keegan's descriptions of the realities of the life of a WWI soldier are indispensable. If you are interested in military history, you won't be disappointed by John Keegan.
It was not long after the death of the Yasser Arafat that I received an email purporting to be from a cousin of his, soliciting my assistance in spiriting away several hundred thousand dollars held in a secret account somewhere. I had a Hotmail account at the time: its spam filters were not as effective as Gmail’s, so a lot of this kind of stuff got through. Filters have come a long way since then -- and so, in turn, has spam itself. A colorful assortment of international tradespeople, drug-pushers, swindlers, and fraudsters, spammers have become a familiar feature of our digital landscape. Finn Brunton’s investigation of the question of spam, Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet -- the problems of defining it, understanding it, and tackling it -- takes us to the front of an ongoing and highly sophisticated technological war, a keenly contested territorial struggle for control of the information superhighway. The precursor to the modern Internet was the U.S. government-sponsored Usenet network. It was the product of a marriage of convenience between two very different groupings: the “Iron Triangle” of the US Department of Defense, the U.S. Congress, and the defense industry on the one hand, and an Ivory Tower of pioneering computer geeks and academics on the other. Merging the hierarchical and technocratic secretive culture of the military with the libertarian, communitarian ethic of an emergent hacker ethos, the Internet’s complex and contradictory cultural formation contained the seeds of an identity crisis that would be brought into sharp focus by the advent of spam in the 1990s. “Spam,” in the Usenet era, denoted the practice of posting excessively voluminous or repetitious missives across various newsgroups. The word’s contemporary association with commercial self-promotion can be traced back to 1988, when a scammer called Rob Noha posted a message in multiple newsgroups, in waves across several days -- subject line: "Poor College Student needs Your Help!!:-(" -- asking readers to contribute a dollar each to “Jay-Jay’s College Fund.” The message provoked an outcry from network users, enraged that the system was being so flagrantly abused. Reluctant to resort to oppressive policing measures to combat the new scourge, the system administrators were happy to hand the matter over to mob justice: We have received a number of inquiries about JJ...If you view these questions as the burning issues of our time, you might wish to call JJ yourself. You can reach him at: Rob Noha (aka JJ) 402/488-2586. And they did, in droves. In time, the administrator’s withering sarcasm would prove to have been misplaced: when large-scale commercial spam began in earnest in the 1990s, this scourge did indeed become one of the “burning issues of our time,” because it highlighted critical ambiguities about the nature of the Internet. What was it for? Who owned it? Who, if anyone, had the moral, ethical, or legal right to police it? Six years later, the issue was brought into the limelight once again, courtesy of two immigration lawyers from Arizona, Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel, who circulated a 34-line email to users of 6,000 active newsgroups, soliciting clients with the offer of assistance in filling in applications for a Green Card Lottery run by the U.S. government. Applicants needed only to send their details on a postcard to be eligible, but Canter and Siegel posed as necessary middlemen who could help with the paperwork of registration, for a fee. The online community was predictably enraged, but powerless; in the absence of any structural system of redress, suggestions for remedial solutions were limited to the usual collective vigilantism. (“Let’s bomb ’em with huge, useless GIF files, each of us sending them several, so as to overwhelm their mailbox and hopefully get these assholes’ account cancelled by their sesames.”) Canter and Siegel later published a bestselling book, How to Make a Fortune on the Information Superhighway, which expounded an essentially Lockean argument whereby the Internet geeks who populated the network from its earliest days were characterized as backward “natives,” while the authors were cast in the role of Wild West “pioneers.” The “land,” they argued, should belong to those, like Canter and Siegel, who would work it profitably. The “natives,” stuck in a primitive social system -- a volunteerist, commons-based economy -- had no meaningful rights to it. Canter and Siegel spawned a wave of imitators, a veritable cottage industry of how-to guides, including Davis Hawke’s The Spambook, Jason Heckel’s instruction manuals, “How to Profit from the Internet,” and Rodona Garst’s Premier Services, “exemplary gray-area spammers,” who were (according to their brochure) “opening the doors to cyber space and smoothing the transition into these infinite markets.” Several important developments had fundamentally altered the online landscape by the mid-1990s: the foundation of Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), alongside the emergence of the Marc Andreessen-led Mosaic web browser, meant the networked computer was about to become far easier to use for many more people, bringing into the online world “a vast influx entirely free of pre-existing intellectual commitments to the ethos of computational resource sharing, research, non-commercial use, and radically free speech.” On New Year’s Day in 1995, the ban on commercial activity on the NSFNET (the successor to Usenet) was rescinded; the Internet ceased to be the property of the U.S. government. By 2000, the infamous “419 message” -- named after the section of the Nigerian penal code pertaining to online fraud -- had established itself in the popular consciousness as the quintessential spam email. As Brunton explains, the 419 scam was merely an updated version of the “Spanish prisoner” confidence trick of years gone by: a beautiful, aristocratic woman, incarcerated by the King of Spain for oblique political reasons, needs your help to escaping; in return she will give you some part of her fortune. The plot requires money for bribing guards, hiring guides, and purchasing supplies for the trek through the mountains. Things don’t work out as planned; more money is needed for more bribes, the prisoner falls ill and needs money for a doctor, and on and on. Brunton takes us back a whole century, to a New York Times account of one such syndicate operating in the U.S. in 1898 via Havana: the “prisoner,” in this instance, is a certain Captain D. Santiago de Ochoa, imprisoned in Cuba with a trunk full of French banknotes buried in New Jersey. A variation on the theme would appear in Martin Amis’s London Fields, in which the temptress Nicola Six persuades her lovestruck admirer to part with a large amount of cash to help smuggle a couple of non-existent Thai children to safety. In its modern, digital version, the scam was being carried out on an industrial scale: What makes 419 so remarkable is that all of this business, this international criminal activity and transfer of wealth and the creation of a small population of specialized, almost craftsman-like spammers, is the constantly metamorphosing story of the Spanish Prisoner -- possibly, quantitatively, the most told and retold story of the twenty-first century so far. Some people lost more than others. In 2000, a businessman named James Adler unsuccessfully sued the government of Nigeria and the country’s central bank, after having paid $5.6 million over several years to participate in transferring stolen funds out of the country, with the promise of a 40 percent cut. A Czech retireee, Jiri Pasovsky, murdered a Nigerian secretary at the country’s Prague embassy in 2003 after being told that the consulate could not help him recover losses amounting to around $600,000. The phenomenon was gloatingly satirized by Nigerian actor and comedian Nkem Owoh, in his 2005 song “I Go Chop Your Dollar”: National Airport na me get am / National Stadium na me build am / Presiden na my sister brother / You be the mugu, I be the master / Oyinbo ["white person”] I go chop your dollar / I go take your money disappear Once a new generation of spam filters had learnt to spot the distinctive, cajoling language of commercial spam -- as the programmer Paul Graham, developer of the successful Bayesian spam filter observed, “the Achilles heel of the spammers is their message” -- spammers turned to innovative new techniques with increasingly mind-boggling results. Cue the arrival of “Litspam,” cut-up literary texts statistically re-assembled to take advantage of flaws in the design and development of Bayesian filters. Filtering may have killed off conventional spam -- couched in the language of the respectable sales pitch -- but Litspam was an entirely different register, devoid of the usual syntactic rhythm; words functioned not as signifiers but as carriers. The messages read like utter gibberish, with excerpts from Shakespeare plays or Obama speeches messily spliced with the occasional significant word. New laws and filters had all but wiped out the world of legitimate online marketeers pushing low-margin products, leaving the field open to criminals pushing low-take-up, high-margin products. Spam had shifted from sales pitching for goods or sites to phishing, identity theft, credit card scams, or spreading viruses, worms, and other malware. It became much more criminal, experimental and massively automated...A striking example of the move into a new kind of computationally inventive spam production. Somewhere, an algorithmic bot with a pile of text files and a mailing list made a Joycean gesture announcing spam’s modernism. This new phase also saw the proliferation of “splogs,” spam blogs designed to deceive search engines into directing people to their pages. Comprising more than half of the total number of all blogs, these were made up of RSS feeds from other blogs and news sources, chopped up and remixed, inserting relevant links, hour after hour and day after day with minimum human supervision. “Content farms” actually produced human-authored text for some such blogs, filling the web with what Brunton calls “a nonsensical poetry of uselessness” -- articles such as “How to wear a sweater vest” and reviews of deodorant containers. The content was utterly meaningless, but just about realistic enough of to attract both search engine returns and clicks. Having established a working definition of spam -- “the use of information technology infrastructure to exploit existing aggregations of human attention” -- Brunton is realistically pessimistic about the prospects for a spam-free future. Because the very characteristics that enable spam to happen are also at the core of what makes the Internet what it is: that unique openness and ease of communication, the flexibility of open access, of anonymity and ambiguity. Lose these and you lose the essence of the Internet as we know it, and what remains is “a carefully specific theme park of a system,” a civic-minded, highly-managed proprietary space -- in relative terms, a closed network. The poise and elegance of Finn Brunton’s prose is all the more remarkable considering the high level of technical detail that necessarily pervades this Shadow History of the Internet. For all his pragmatism, he still dares to imagine that our contemporary online ecology might someday evolve into “media platforms that respect our attention and the finite span of our lives expended at the screen.” If there is hope, it is surely to be found precisely in the communitarian ethic of the anti-spam movement itself, in the tireless efforts of a multitude of enthusiasts driven by a desire to fulfill the tremendous potential of the digital revolution -- a movement whose own history comprises, in Brunton’s words, “a decade-long case study in online collaboration, community work, and negotiation at the barricades.” Image Credit: Flickr/epSos.de
● ● ●
The world in Hugh Sheehy’s short story collection, The Invisibles, is a distinct one. It constitutes the American nightmare of the last 30 or so years, including lax gun control, increased dependence on drugs, and more extreme episodes of neurosis about the ability to love ourselves and others. It shows a time when Reagan, Bush, and Clinton became less proper nouns and more belts of alternating plasticity and cheap heavy metal used to persecute the poor, entertain and quell the middle class, and fatten the accounts of the rich. The stories portray a scurvy, jumbled, and faintly resolute country reminiscent of Robert Frank’s photographs in The Americans. People drink, swear, tease, addle, enrage, but mostly drink, getting jacked enough to not be able to watch the only good thing about their life walk away as they stay in a stupor: wordless, detached, and only full of nostalgia for the fists their old friends raised at the people who dared to hurt them. As the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Award winner for short fiction, Sheehy’s stories perfectly fit in the vein of that Southern writer whose characters hold similar hardened, messy lives bordering on Messianic in her attuned symbolism. Often taking place in the burnt-out, brutal Midwest of small towns with a bar on every corner, these stories throw a documentary-type lens on the reckless youth who grow up to sputter through life -- shirking responsibility and unable to imagine a world in which their existence might make a difference. Besides the travails of addiction, there are good reasons for this apathy. A Lake Erie killer haunts the story “The Invisibles,” in which a motherless teenager loses her two best friends to a mysterious menace that goes unsolved. In “Meat and Mouth,” the two eponymous marauders take a teaching assistant and a student staying after school hostage on a snowy Friday when everyone else has left. And fate again intervenes in “Whiteout,” in which the protagonist, a cocaine addict and general ne’er-do-well, is on his way home for Christmas for the first time in 13 years. Getting there during a snowstorm, he sees an overturned minivan on the highway. His decision to help will dictate whether he will make it to his family, an encounter too painful to have for so long. It might be said, possibly correctly, that trouble seeks the troublemakers or lost souls who have knowingly abused their lives, without knowing how they’ve hurt someone else’s. A fitting karma is a lesson to be learned. A hallmark of these stories is a certain type of slacker behavior grounded in drinks and friends. In “A Difficult Age,” the main characters, Francis (the narrator) and Lionel, sit with Brooke on a riverbank getting away from it all: We sit together, painless, sharing a pipe, and drum our legs on the bank. Brooke calls us idiots, but more importantly, the autumn is its naked self, bold and inelegant, and hard like a new tooth driven through a baby’s gums. We laugh hard and cry and get scared and laugh hard, and Brooke stares at the pond and shakes her head, drinking wine and being pregnant. People want to have fun together, and screwing around, as handed down by their parents, getting drunk, and getting stupid are how these characters unwind. But Sheehy couples the desperation with a powerful metaphor, placing the scattershot behavior of the characters against the world they still have to inhabit, as everything, including their choices and any “new tooth...through a baby’s gums” turns and changes. If they don’t grow up, their careless philosophy will infect others. The characters in The Invisibles might not exactly be asking for their gloomy fate, but often it is the best thing that can happen. In the exemplary “Smiling Down at Ellie Pardo,” Sheehy builds a twisting narrative stretching from a young man’s (Nolan’s) deleterious adulthood to his more hopeful teenage years as he returns home to be again paired with Henry, an old friend from the neighborhood, after a single woman they knew from their high school days has been killed. In one swooping sentence the reader gets the mysterious Ellie described in a flashback: A feisty Italian who always had a tray of lasagna in the oven or red sauce bubbling on the stove, she jogged back and forth on our street each day, exposing her beautiful legs even to the wicked cold of our winters on the lake. The alliteration of “wicked” and “winters”, as well as “of,” “our,” and “on” at the end of the sentence makes this evocation full of sound and substance by showing how she lived her life and where it played out. Each of the two men had a different relationship with her back then, and when Henry reveals that he once dated Ellie, it sends the story into another quadrant of psychological ramifications that Nolan tries to reconcile as their grief eventually leads them into a dark woods and an unforeseen but apt confrontation. Though many of the stories have an element of mystery, Sheehy isn’t interested in finding out who did what -- he knows the dramatic cornucopia lies elsewhere, with the living and the mistakes they have to examine in light of the dead. There is a unique sadness to this book. Sometimes there’s a touch of Raymond Carver, whose spirit is reminiscent in the broken down characters who are often missing a parent and pouring another glass. Sometimes early Paul Auster is evident as in a unique variation on the Memento-type story where a classics professor unwinds himself with the help of Ovid in “Translation.” Things are happening faster than ever, but Sheehy slows down and looks to see where and how our innocence was lost. The most important thing to be said of this book is that it’s true, presenting a reality of deteriorating values many face and foster in our country, equally unwelcoming for young men or old.