Fictionalizing the Facts: On Lily Tuck’s ‘The Double Life of Liliane’


In the author’s note to the 2004 National Book Award-winning novel The News From Paraguay, Lily Tuck points out that many of the 19th-century events that take place in the book are both little known and complicated, and as a result the need to explain and the need to dramatize are in conflict. “What then, the reader may wonder, is fact and what is fiction?”

We find ourselves up against the same conundrum while reading Tuck’s latest book, The Double Life of Liliane. The press blurb calls it her most autobiographical book to date, and yet on the back cover it is marketed as fiction. This time there is no author’s note to acknowledge that liberties have been taken, that some characters are based on real people and some are invented. Instead, we resort back to the author’s note in The News From Paraguay and assume that the same principle applies: “My general rule of thumb is whatever seems most improbable is probably true.”

The Double Life of Liliane combines pick-and-mix tropes and themes of Tuck’s earlier work. Like I Married You For Happiness (2011), the book charts the course of a life over a specific period, plays out partly in Paris, and eschews the simple past for the simple present. There is an appended creative writing sample which will later be worked into Siam: Or the Woman Who Shot a Man (1999), and two separate episodes — a professor of linguistics falling off a moving train and a French family fleeing Europe for Lima in the 1940s — are reprised from (and are possibly source material for) two stories from the collection The House at Belle Fontaine (2013). And then there is a heroine who is magicked by the novels of the Italian writer Elsa Morante – not unlike Lily Tuck who wrote Woman of Rome: A Life of Elsa Morante (2008).

Tuck has said in interviews that with The News From Paraguay she did not want to write a traditional historical novel. By the same token, The Double Life of Liliane is neither a traditional autobiography nor a conventional novel — and is all the better for that. The book opens with Liliane flying alone from New York to Rome, shuttling from one parent to another. We are given only scraps about her: she is young and pretty and she speaks English at home with her mother and French with her father in Rome. Shortly after landing, instead of building her up and fleshing her out, Tuck screens Liliane off and tells her father’s story.

Rudy is a German assimilated Jew who, in 1933, left his native country for Paris where he got married, had a child, and founded a film production company. When Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, Rudy was wrenched from wife Irène and daughter Liliane and first put in an internment camp and later drafted into the Foreign Legion. After the war, despite becoming a naturalized French citizen, Rudy moved to Rome and made his name in cinema. When Tuck returns to the present — that is, somewhere in the early 1950s — it is to show Liliane on her Roman holiday, reveling in her father’s glamorous world: being driven around in his silver Lancia, lounging in his expensive apartment, lunching in fashionable restaurants, and rubbing shoulders with movie stars.

Before Liliane’s double life can truly unfold, Tuck has another parent to introduce and a second set of origins to explore. Irène’s background is more detailed because Tuck expands to cover her two older sisters. All three enjoy a childhood in Berlin until bombs fall and blitz their roomy Charlottenburg family apartment. Oldest sister Uli runs away from home and lives on a sisal estate in Tanganyika, while Barbara, the aunt of whom Liliane is particularly fond, cavorts with American soldiers in Innsbruck and goes on to establish a medical practice in Rhode Island. Irène, the most reserved of the three and also “the loveliest,” is shown fending for herself during her husband’s detainment. One day in 1940 she becomes tired of waiting — waiting for her husband to come home and “waiting for the German troops to march into Belgium, into the Netherlands and Luxembourg” — and flees Paris with Liliane for Portugal. In another jump-cut to the present, Tuck reveals that Irène now lives in New York City with second husband Gaby. She paints with oils and goes to an exercise studio, yet for Gaby she is exotic, mysterious: a “German-French divorcée, with a past and with an eight-year-old child.”

From here, Tuck brings Liliane to the fore, all the while keeping her relatives in sharp relief. Liliane’s story proceeds, for the most part, chronologically — from that eight-year-old child to a Harvard student — but Tuck enlivens her narrative by regularly breaking off and changing tack, using tangents, flashbacks, fast-forwards, and stories within stories to give us a fuller, more complex but also more interesting picture. In addition to regular flits between New York and Rome, we accompany Liliane on trips to Peru and Maine. In Capri she looks for Elsa Morante but instead meets her husband Alberto Moravia. Over the years she learns horse-riding and ballet, begins a novel about Heathcliff’s years away from Wuthering Heights, is afflicted by nightly terrors and her stepfather’s nocturnal visits, and spends days with school friends, grandmothers, besotted older men, and her father’s mistresses. Interlarding episodes or milestones in Liliane’s life is an account of Rudy’s perilous escape from occupied France and Irène’s wartime affair with “romantic, dashing, impetuous, lucky, sexy Claude.” Blanketing the whole proceedings is a conspicuously loud silence from both parents about the family’s Jewish heritage. “Is it a cover-up or a form of anti-Semitism?” Tuck asks. “More likely — and more generously — Liliane thinks her parents were blocking out the horror of the Holocaust by not discussing their past.”

Liliane’s “life” is diverting, and at times intriguing, but in no way can it be termed remarkable. Tuck lingers only long enough over each event to give it credence; otherwise Liliane’s experiences are thin, lean, relatively weightless. The people she mingles with are typical Tuck characters: recognizable but hardly memorable; guarded, aloof, parsimonious with their feelings; vague outlines rather than striking page presences. All of which of course constitutes not an artistic shortcoming but a deliberate stylistic ploy, one that compels the reader to appreciate bare-bones storytelling and minimalist scenes over warts-and-all portraiture and barnstorming set-pieces. Thoughts and deeds matter to Tuck, only the former are stunted and the latter elliptical, and it is up to us to make sense of them. “I hope my readers will read my work with imagination,” Tuck said in a recent New York Times piece. For her work to pay dividends, there is no other way to read her.

Tuck has confessed to being a pruner of adjectives and an enemy of adverbs, but what she avoids more often here is mention of Liliane’s age and era. In this book, Tuck’s priority seems to be not sparseness but elusiveness. Liliane is suspended in a kind of temporal limbo. “How old is she then?” Tuck asks at the outset, feigning authorial uncertainty. “Nine? Ten?” Later, in Capri, Alberto Moravia asks the same question — “Seventeen, eighteen?” — and again, nothing is pinpointed, we have to make do with approximations. A similar evasiveness is at work when Irène is reunited with Uli: “The two sisters have not seen each other in how many years? Fifteen? Twenty? Not since before the war!” Irène’s age is also undisclosed. We are told that she was born in Berlin but that “she does not like to give out the year.” Time flows stealthily throughout this chronicle, with dates largely going unmarked. The reader can only gauge junctures by extrapolating from what Liliane does and what goes on around her: fashions, songs, exams; lecherous men and gradually infirm parents; youthful follies and adolescent vices.

As if to counterbalance hazy characters and half-told adventures, Tuck sprinkles her narrative with hard, ascertained historical fact. There are potted biographies of famous deads, some of whom are distant offshoots in Liliane’s family tree (Mary, Queen of Scots, Moses Mendelssohn), plus synopses and production details of Italian films her father works on. When Liliane’s Aunt Uli worries about violence in neighboring Kenya spilling over into Tanganyika, Tuck seizes the opportunity to expound on the brutalities inflicted by the Mau Mau and under British colonial rule. Liliane’s grandmother’s back-story incorporates a crash-course on interwar Germany, covering hyperinflation, Hitler’s rise to power, and Jewish persecution.

Writers frequently become unstuck when integrating such external material. When facts resemble research then readers are alert to the crude joins, the unleavened mix. Tuck delves boldly into history but appropriates with care, blending in relevant segments rather than grafting on incongruous chunks. She has strategies for conveying historical facts seamlessly — a tour guide’s speech, a grandmother’s yarns, a professor’s lecture — and ensures that each tidbit is purposeful, there either to edify or embellish.

However, on occasion her historical detours feel contrived, relying too much on tenuous hypotheses. Liliane’s plane flies over Roman aqueduct ruins — “And had she been a little older and studied Roman history at school, she might have known how by the fourth century BC, due to rapid growth of the population and thus the need for a greater water supply, the Romans had begun to build aqueducts that carried water all the way from springs in the Apennine Mountains.” Elsewhere, Tuck’s riffs and meditations prove counterproductive and stall narrative momentum. Characters don’t arrive promptly at their destinations because Tuck stops to recount the history of a street; they check into hotels and attend universities, but can’t proceed further until Tuck has rattled off a roll-call of illustrious guests and alumni.

But these amount to minor infelicities which only fleetingly frustrate. In the main, Tuck expertly fuses world history and four-generation family history, fact and fiction. She utilizes photographs, letters, and poetry and engages with and reflects on war, memory, and humanity. In all of this, W.G. Sebald looms large over the page. Here is a writer whose books also resist orderly classification, with Vertigo designated “fiction” but The Emigrants curiously categorized as “fiction/history.” One special technique shared by both writers is the deft movement from one topic or historical aspect to another. At the beginning of The Rings of Saturn (“memoir/travel/history”), Sebald skips artfully from a description of his Suffolk walk to his spell in hospital one year previously, and then from a recollection of a dead friend to the mystery of Thomas Browne’s skull, with peripheral musings on Franz Kafka and Gustave Flaubert along the way. Tuck performs a similar trick by hopping from Liliane’s grandmother in Ithaca to her Uncle Fritz’s academic life to the death of a Luftwaffe gunner, alighting at intervals on Vladimir Nabokov and the city of Karlsruhe, and inserting a photograph of a German death certificate and an excerpt from the text of a Thomas Tallis hymn. What could have been a messy hodgepodge is instead a graceful ripple-effect, like watching a skimmed stone spawn one neat circle after another, only without any diminishment in size or force.

Unlike Sebald, Tuck distrusts her readers’ ability with languages and feels obliged to translate every foreign word she cites. “Mon dieu, les allemands!” goes one urgent cry. Tuck is immediately at hand to rescue baffled readers: “My god, the Germans!” Later, Irène criticizes the converted troopship that carries her and Liliane and hundreds of displaced Eastern Europeans across the Atlantic. “‘A floating flophouse,’” she says. ‘Un bordel’ — a brothel, she adds in French.”

Towards the end of the book, Liliane’s professor Paul de Man tells his seminar students that Marcel Proust’s great work is meant to be autobiographical and yet “it is impossible to tell what is fact and what is fiction.” Tuck may well have heeded those words and set out, decades later, to blur boundaries and genres in a literary treatment of her early life. Maybe Tuck’s father was bailed out by Josephine Baker when he was stranded in France. Maybe Tuck did have a medical Aunt Barbara who was summoned to the White House to look at the blemishes on the First Lady’s face. And maybe Tuck did turn heads and break hearts and fly out to meet a pining boyfriend in Bangkok. After a fashion we stop questioning how much of what we are reading is memoir and how much of it isn’t, and simply surrender to the elegant, limpid prose of this, the most beguiling work of Lily Tuck’s career.

The Existentialist Swimmer: Daniel Galera’s ‘Blood-Drenched Beard’


Most level-headed readers know not to judge a book by its cover. However, the adage that springs to mind when confronted with Daniel Galera’s debut novel is not to judge a book by its title. Presumably the original Portuguese title Barba Ensopada de Sangue carries more gravitas or conveys more menace than its English equivalent. Sadly, Blood-Drenched Beard sounds like a 400-page slab of cheap, cheesy melodrama. It might have worked if Galera’s game-plan was artful Tarantino-esque pastiche or full-on surrealist comedy. Instead he plays it straight, producing a candid, trick-free portrait of a young man starting afresh while seeking answers to a decades-old family tragedy in a small Brazilian beach town. Ignore the title and its false promise of heady sensationalism and dive right in.

‘Dive’ being the operative word, for this is a novel the events of which play in and around water and the protagonist of which is a swimming instructor. He remains nameless throughout the book and becomes something of a recluse, but Galera makes a point of recording his every thought and deed to paint a fascinating warts-and-all portrait that renders his character complex and mysterious but also knowable and sympathetic.

The novel opens with him paying a visit to his father and being promptly dealt two body-blows. The first is the story of his grandfather’s death — or, specifically, murder — in the town of Garopaba in the late ’60s. Viewed by the long-suffering residents as a surly, antagonistic old gaucho, he riles them one last time at a dance at the community hall: the lights go out and when they come on again his bloody body lies on the dancefloor with multiple stab-wounds. The crime went investigated, no one was punished for it and the body disappeared.

Barely allowing him time to recover from the shock, father goes on to hit son with his second bombshell: ‘I’m going to kill myself tomorrow.’

The reader snared, Galera jump-cuts to Garopaba in the present. His young man is house-hunting, keen to distance himself from family and friends, several of whom call him and leave messages of condolence. He wanders around with his father’s ailing dog — one he refused to have put down, despite his parent’s last request. It isn’t long before he has settled into an easy rhythm in his new downscaled life by the sea. He makes a friend in Bonobo, a Buddhist able to play ‘geriatric-diaper poker’ for hours on end. He gets a job as a swimming coach in a gym run by a pair called Saucepan and Spatula, starts a running club, and enters into a couple of relationships.

Throughout all this, slyly and incrementally, Galera reveals more about his hero’s situation: his girlfriend left him for his brother in São Paulo; he has been growing a beard since his father’s funeral; and, most intriguing of all, he suffers from prosopagnosia, a neurological disorder that prevents him from recognizing faces. ‘I don’t recognize my own face in the mirror,’ he tells one disbeliever. Instead he is forced to concentrate on attitudes, gestures, and voices. This medical condition is an interesting conceit that prompts awkward laughs (people think he is rude, forgetful, or just plain weird) but also inspires pity, particularly when we watch him up against enemies he is unable to identify.

Those enemies come out of the woodwork when he starts asking around about his grandfather’s mysterious death. It doesn’t help that he is the spitting image of him — his beard not a mask but a recognition tag, transforming him in the eyes of the locals into a younger version of a man they hoped was safely dead and buried. Some profess remembering him but, conveniently, no one remembers his death. ‘If no one remembers,’ a policeman tells our hero, ‘then it didn’t happen.’

Blood-Drenched Beard feels like two novels in one. The first half of the book is chiefly devoted to Galera’s character going about his day to day activities of work and play. In the second he remembers why he moved to the beach resort in the first place and intensifies his sleuthing to make sense of this ‘nobody-knows, nobody-saw-it kind of crime.’ Here Galera ups the pace and the tension. His character learns that his grandfather has become a myth: he is a bogeyman, still alive and haunting the town. Rumor has it he is holed up in a cave in the hills. With newly inherited dog in tow, his grandson sets out to track him down. His treacherous, rain-lashed journey is a heart-of-darkness descent into madness, obsession, and painful self-discovery. Galera keeps the reader riveted, guessing all the way as to whether his bowed and near-beaten truth-seeker has bitten off more than he can chew.

Galera has published four novels in Brazil to great acclaim, and, in 2013, Granta named him one of the Best Young Brazilian Novelists. In addition, he has translated the work of David Mitchell, Zadie Smith, John Cheever, and David Foster Wallace into Portuguese. None of their shadows loom over Blood-Drenched Beard. Indeed, with the exception of several pages containing digressional Wallace-esque footnotes, Galera’s novel feels largely and refreshingly devoid of any Anglo-American creative influence.

Instead, Albert Camus rears his head when we are told that ‘the feeling of emptiness he yearns for is dormant inside him’, or when our ‘existentialist-materialist swimmer’ weighs up free will versus determinism (proving into the bargain he is no ‘thick athlete’). There are also hints of Georges Simenon’s romans durs, his ‘hard’ non-Maigret psychological novels that fuse together raw emotions, moral conundrums, and bleak depictions of humanity. And, closer to home, every now and again Roberto Bolaño’s presence is felt, most noticeably in the scenes that radiate a queasy disquiet: an interview with a retired police chief in a Mafia-run nightclub; the discovery of a murdered, mutilated 16-year-old girl; the desolation of a sleepy seaside town in winter.

Galera excels at turning his purported coastal paradise — ‘the perfect place to be happy’ — into tawdry backwater. Out of season, dead penguins litter the sand: ‘No one touches them, not even the vultures.’ Incessant rain leads to flooding. ‘The light from the lampposts gives an oily yellow hue to the carpet of water moss that covers almost the entire surface of the polluted lagoon. A cloud of mosquitoes hovers over a small rotting warehouse. Huge dogs start to emerge from the vegetation on an empty lot, and he hooks his finger under Beta’s collar as a precaution.’

Holding his dog back from bigger ones is a shrewd move. Less rational and downright menacing is when he reaches out to the attractive Dália and ‘plunges his fingers into her hair, at the nape of her neck, forcefully working them into her taut hair, feeling the roughness of her roots and the resistance of her scalp. He holds her head by her hair in front of his.’ A grim foreboding permeates the novel that, towards the end, is worked into a palpable threat of violence. We approach Galera’s denouement — more a showdown — and wait for the moment his character’s long, unruly beard finally becomes blood-drenched.

Apart from that silly title, Galera also falters with occasional hackneyed phrasing (‘Tears snake down her cheeks again like rain on a window’). And what should be subtle foreshadowing is, once or twice, clumsy signposting. We are frequently reminded of his character’s previous ironman challenges and his expertise and endurance both through the water and under it, and so it comes as no surprise to witness him flung into danger and even less of a surprise to see him utilizing his physical capabilities to extricate himself from it.

Fortunately, these blemishes are few and are easily offset by the novel’s many strengths. Galera’s slow-burning first half fleshes out character and quest and comes larded with long drawn-out set-pieces that on the surface seem to go nowhere but on close analysis are freighted with compacted drama: an encounter at the village fair with a man who had a run-in with the character’s grandfather; a whale-watching excursion on which he becomes captivated by fellow loner Jasmim. That second part wrenches us away from sun, maté on the beach, and gently swaying pitanga trees and throws up its harsh, grainy flipside. Galera’s character comes to realize that ‘There are two possible places for a person. Family is one. The other is the whole world. Sometimes it isn’t easy to figure out which one we are in.’

Despite its omnipresence, Galera doesn’t go in for lavish descriptions of the sea. At one point ‘the ocean flaunts its infinitude,’ which smacks of Herman Melville in miniature — say, ‘the new dusky moors of ocean’ in Benito Cereno. Elsewhere, though, Galera’s non-littoral imagery can be striking. His young man’s father has a bulbous nose, ‘shiny and pockmarked like tangerine peel.’ During a car ride, ‘Figures such as cows or cyclists come to life in a flash and go back to being specters in almost the same instant.’ Cold nights, we are told, ‘torture the summer with a slow death’.

Blood-Drenched Beard has at its center a fascinatingly headstrong character, one who swims perfectly but flounders on land, who strives for connection with his grandfather while cutting himself off from family — and one we root for despite not knowing his name. If Galera’s other three novels are this potent and absorbing, and if his able-bodied translator Alison Entrekin can be persuaded to return to the helm, then readers are in for a treat.

Where the Heart Is: Toni Morrison’s Home

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January of this year saw the release of Elliot Perlman’s The Street Sweeper, an excellent and epic novel that in dealing with the horrors of 20th-century prejudice ingeniously splices together its two main strains: anti-Semitism and anti-black racism. Adam, a historian, is called upon to research and corroborate the hushed-up fact that black U.S. soldiers fighting in segregated units helped liberate Dachau. Their achievement, deemed too heroic or too shameful, was whitewashed over and a more palatable history was written. After fighting Nazism, the soldiers returned home to a new front, their own civil rights battles. Adam amplifies protest voices that have lain muffled over the years, learning that “when black World War Two veterans came home to the Jim Crow South they weren’t going to take it anymore.” He documents their “small acts of resistance” born of a newfound courage instilled in them from the war. On the home front they were up against the same racism from the same oppressor, but one all the more hateful for being severely ungrateful.

Toni Morrison’s latest novel, Home, is concerned also with war, injustice, and homecoming. We are in the next decade of the 20th-century, with African-American Frank Money returning from the battlefields of Korea, but the racism is just as ingrained in the country he was fighting for. The ingratitude hasn’t changed either. “You all go fight, come back, they treat you like dogs,” Frank is told. Morrison starts her tale and Frank’s odyssey in a hospital: Frank wakes up, bound and sedated, but has no recollection of how he came to be there. He receives a mysterious letter urging him to hurry home to his sister. “She be dead if you tarry.” Frank, bitter and brimming with self-loathing, has been back in America for a year but has been unable to bring himself to head back to his native Georgia. The letter gives him the spur he needs. He breaks out of his “crazy ward” and starts his journey, first barefoot through snow, then shod and fed and with $17 in his pocket from a charitable minister. Soon he is weaving from state to state, plagued by post-traumatic stress disorder, but finally charged with both direction and purpose.

Morrison interlards Frank’s narrative with those of the other characters in his life. We meet Ycidra, or Cee, the sister in distress. After years of putting up with her grandmother’s malice (Cee, born in the street, was thus tormented with the tag “gutter child”), she ran away from home at 14 with a ne’er-do-well called Prince. When she is left “broken down, down into her separate parts,” she starts again by securing a job from a white doctor called Beauregard Scott. Morrison deftly showcases Cee’s naivety in a short scene where she peruses Scott’s books with titles such as The Passing of the Great Race and Heredity, Race and Society, and then mulls over the meaning of “eugenics.” The other woman in Frank’s life is, or rather was, Lily, his brief romantic interest, before both realize he is too damaged to be tender, too raw to love. Sex is “bed work,” a “duty,” and when he eventually walks out on her, the loneliness she feels gives way to a calming solitude, “a shiver of freedom.”

Frank travels in the present but on the way his troubled mind casts back, conjuring up scarred thoughts and memories from his time in Korea. He witnessed the deaths of his two childhood friends — the three of them joining the army to escape the hometown they loathed and the limited job prospects of work in cotton fields they didn’t own, just like their parents before them. Reliving their deaths goads him on. “No more people I didn’t save. No more watching people close to me die. No more.” Frank’s unswerving loyalty to his sister means he will stop at nothing to complete his quest. War has left plenty of residual cruelty sloshing around in him. He will kill anyone who has touched her. He fights a pimp and keeps punching him when he is unconscious, fuelled by a reawakened lust for blood — “The thrill that came with each blow was wonderfully familiar.” Morrison is sparing in detailing the carnage of war, but there is one neat twist that she withholds until the end, which suggests that Frank is so corroded by remorse that his sister-saving op will only grant him so much redemption.

Frank rescues a very mutilated Cee — whose job description of “medical assistant” should instead have read “guinea pig” — and spirits her home to Lotus, the town the pair did everything they could to flee from (presumably based, as in previous novels, on Lorain, Ohio, where Morrison grew up). This is home and hearth, but of the tough, hardscrabble variety. And yet, both seem to have come full circle. Frank finds it hard to believe he once hated the place; Cee goes one step further by declaring “This is where I belong.” Home and belonging have been salient themes throughout Morrison’s long career. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, begins with a description of two homes, the MacTeers’ and the Breedloves’, both humble, but the former full of warmth and love. The latter is less so, and the youngest family member, Pecola Breedlove, craves a safer sanctuary and sense of community. This warped homely ideal is a typical Morrison trope. We see it again in Sula — Nel’s home is clean and orderly whereas Sula lives among chaos and disorder. Home, in Morrison’s fiction, is frequently a dwelling and seldom a haven. Milkman Dead in Song of Solomon comes from a home stuffed with material privilege but the Dead house lives up to its name – an empty shell devoid of life. In Jazz Joe and Violet Trace depart the South for the “City” and discover quickly it is no Promised Land. Morrison saves her most mordant variation on home for Beloved: the Kentucky plantation on which Sethe Suggs is enslaved is called Sweet Home.

The subverted home-sweet-home sentiment is utilized again in Home. Lotus, for Frank, is a town of dead-ends, “the worst place in the world, worse than any battlefields.” Navigating the town’s transportation system is also “rougher than confronting a battlefield.” Much as she yearns for her own house, poor Lily is thwarted, first because of the “restrictions” regarding race in the neighborhood she desires, and second because Frank isn’t able to share her house-hunting enthusiasm. (The two friends he loses in Korea are his “homeys,” but this is the closest he comes to being a homeboy.) A good home seems to be reserved for the lucky few. In one short section, Morrison makes patently (and poetically) clear who does the real living and who the house-tending:

It was 7:30 a.m. when he boarded a bus filled with silent day-workers, housekeepers, maids, and grown lawn boys. Once beyond the business part of the city, they dropped off the bus one by one like reluctant divers into inviting blue water high above the pollution below. Down there they would search out the debris, the waste, resupply the reefs, and duck the predators swimming through lacy fronds. They would clean, cook, serve, mind, launder, weed, and mow.

Morrison makes no mention of skin color here. The bus travel and the jobs do the work for her. She employed a different, more overt approach in Sula, spelling it out for us that Nel is “the color of wet sandpaper” and Sula “a heavy brown with large quiet eyes” (and both “wishbone thin and easy-assed”). In Home she prefers to leave us to infer, and rightly so, that a doctor is white or a minister is black, guiding us only by denoting a character’s vernacular and social standing.

But for all its strengths, Home still falls short. This is partly due to its length. Marilynne Robinson’s Home, of “real” novel length, was roomier, with more space for the characters to breathe (two of whom were also like Frank Money, turning up unexpectedly in their hometown after considerable time away). Morrison tries to pack just as much into her 140-something pages and the result is a busy cast bursting with potential, but characters who are so hamstrung in their tight confinement, so seldom on the page, that their tales are only half-told. Perspectives shift to give us another character’s insight and history, but ultimately we feel as if we hardly know them. A whole batch of them gestate but never hatch. Instead of honing in on a small, crucial ensemble, Morrison prefers to pan out and mint more secondary characters, even in the closing pages. James Wood has accused Morrison of loving her characters too much. Such mollycoddling “hotly hugs the life out of them” — a case in point being Frank himself, who is severely half-baked, all pent-up rage and muttered threats that never come to anything. He avenges his friend’s death in Korea by shooting an old one-legged civilian; he describes how picking cotton “broke the body but freed the mind for dreams of vengeance;” and, just prior to freeing Cee from the doctor’s clutches, he experiences “Thoughts of violence alternating with those of caution.” Unfortunately, and perhaps improbably, it is that caution that wins the day, despite Morrison’s grandiose build-up. In a dismal display of bathos, he rescues Cee calmly and wordlessly, all that bloodthirsty vengeance evaporating in the process. Nowhere do we witness Perlman’s “small acts of resistance.” Big angry Frank Money is all bluster.

Morrison wraps up the proceedings with a saccharine bow-out, loving Frank and Cee so much as to endow them with peace of mind and even douse them in the soft-focus “glow of a fat cherry-red sun.” Mercifully, the impact from the bulk of the book lingers — the poignant depiction of a sundered family, the unflinching portrayal of war — for us to brusquely write the whole thing off. If only Morrison had concluded it otherwise: keeping Frank enraged, a victim of his own exaggerations (“home” still being akin to a Korean battlefield) not to mention his own worst enemy. When still with Lily, instead of sharing her passion to find a home, he tells her all he wants to do is “Stay alive.” Trudging through Atlanta he is mugged by five “sneaks” and then dusted down by a Samaritan who warns him to “Stay in the light.” We would prefer a compromise: we like Frank alive, but wish Morrison with her too-big heart had kept him in the shade. That, along with swapping her scattershot sketching for broader, splashier, and more daring brush strokes on a wider canvas, and Home would have been up there with Morrison’s best.

The Mutability of Truth: An Interview with Patrick Flanery

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Patrick Flanery was born in California, raised in Nebraska, and in recent years has spent significant time in South Africa. His first novel, Absolution, is set there. It focuses on Clare Wald, a reclusive writer, opening up about her past to her biographer, Sam Leroux. So far, so familiar. But Flanery’s trick is to tell his tale from four varying perspectives that ultimately converge and contradict, leading us to question the reliability of the characters and the validity of their confessions. To what extent is a writer engaged in “professional lying?” How are we all complicit in the problems of the countries we live in? Can we ever fully obliterate, or atone for, our past crimes? Flanery’s debut is a fascinatingly multi-faceted novel which impresses the more it perplexes. I wanted to learn more about writer and book and so interviewed him. He was in South Africa, I in Berlin, and so the following was done by email.

The Millions: First of all I have to apologize. Sam Leroux mentions his “carefully formulated questions I’ve spent months preparing.” I have only taken an hour to compile mine. Presumably before Absolution was even conceived you completed a doctorate in English Literature at Oxford University. What area did you specialize in and did it have any bearing on the novel?

Patrick Flanery: I went to Oxford thinking I was going to write a doctoral thesis on male friendships in the works of D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and Evelyn Waugh. When the powers that be decided the topic was not adequately “new” (in other words, they thought the work had already been done), I decided to focus exclusively on Waugh, shifting from a literary critical project to a largely book-historical one, which examined the publishing history and various media adaptations of three of his novels: Vile Bodies, A Handful of Dust, and Brideshead Revisited. My work on Waugh unquestionably had an effect on Absolution, although quite a complex one. For one thing, as a relief from my total immersion in Waugh, I began side projects on J.M. Coetzee’s publishing history, which led me to broader investigations of South African literature and culture. In contrast to Waugh, I was craving a more ethically engaged, and more resolutely secular territory to explore, and Coetzee’s work provided just such a space.

Waugh’s own minor experience of censorship also led me to wider theoretical reading about institutions of censorship, and thus to Coetzee’s brilliant and essential collection of essays, Giving Offense. That provided the spur to thinking about the writer-censor relationship in creative terms, and I began, while still finishing my doctorate, writing a series of dialogues between a writer and her biographer that explored this territory. My concentration on Waugh’s fiction, and the letters and diaries of a writer who cultivated a vividly difficult personality — one notoriously resistant to interviewers — helped inform my character Clare Wald.

TM: In an interview with the Independent, it was noted that you talk more about literature than you do yourself. It is a rather facile question but an important one for a debut novelist: who are your literary idols and influences?

PF:  It is among the most difficult questions to answer, simply because the influences are legion, whether positive or negative models (I like this, I don’t like this). For a novelist, though, talking about literature is perhaps one of the most revealing ways of talking about oneself. I’ll limit myself here to the influences I was most conscious of tapping while writing Absolution. These I can divide into four territories: South African, North American, Latin American, and broadly European (including British and Irish).

The most obvious South African influence is Coetzee, whose work has always astonished me for the rigor of its control: I never have any doubt that Coetzee knows precisely the kind of work that each word does in the text. Several other South African writers were also important, including Marlene van Niekerk, Zoë Wicomb, Ivan Vladislaviċ (all three are too little known and read outside of South Africa), and the late K. Sello Duiker; Nadine Gordimer I admire greatly, although I suspect her influence functioned at a quite subconscious level. Of North American writers, DeLillo, Roth, and Didion (her essays) were important touchstones, along with Atwood (I taught Surfacing for several years and regard it as an important intertext for Absolution), as well as Mavis Gallant and the poet Anne Carson. From Latin America, Jorge Luis Borges was an early and not necessarily productive influence, but nonetheless a very potent one: an uncle who leads one astray and doesn’t pick up the bill at the end of a surprisingly expensive meal. Roberto Bolaño has been a more recent discovery: complex, complicated, and often, for me, a maddening writer, he is also a model for writing a novel (2666) that manages to be gripping at both intellectual and visceral levels. European influences are predictable: Joyce, Forster, Woolf, Conrad, T.S. Eliot (if one can call him European) and, perhaps inevitably (and as much as I might wish to disavow his influence), Waugh as well. From the continent, Proust, Mann, Kafka, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov formed a rather dour, sometimes wry chorus of support.

TM: Reviewers have already placed you in illustrious company, comparing you with the likes of Graham Greene and Coetzee. The former, I feel, is always lazy short-hand for any novel with tension and conflict in an exotic locale. The latter was almost inevitable — both you and Coetzee deal with professors and academics, crime and violence, and refuse to offer neat solutions to your complex themes. Summertime even features a biographer trying to unlock a writer’s life. I do see Coetzee having had some impact on you (Dusklands even gets a mention in the novel, secretly stashed away from the authorities among books by Clare Wald) but also see Absolution as a kind of second cousin to a similar-titled novel, Ian McEwan’s Atonement: the fractured narrative, the varying viewpoints, the re-imagined and alternative histories. Am I miles off?

PF: When Summertime appeared I already had the foundations for Absolution; I knew it was going to be about a novelist and her biographer, and I knew it was going to have a fractured, fragmented form. I also knew that if my own novel were ever published, people would inevitably see a line of descent. I won’t deny Coetzee’s influence, but as I suggest above, he is one of a great many writers with whom I like to think my own work might be in conversation. McEwan is an intriguing comparison. I admire Atonement, and perhaps it, like Gordimer, was lurking in my subconscious: in a way, Absolution takes the next logical step in form where Atonement leaves off. I started with large, discrete sections, as in McEwan’s novel, but felt, for my own purposes, that the story I was trying to tell needed a form, a shape, and a rhythm that was more dynamic, shifting, and urgent. Some reviews, I know, have described the novel as a kind of “literary thriller,” and it would not be inaccurate to say that I was conscious of wanting to endow the events of the novel with a certain quality of pace and suspense more usually found in genre fiction.

TM: Early on in your novel, Sam poses a question about fiction being necessary to political opposition. Clare laughs at him and replies with “You have a very strange idea of what fiction is meant to do.” What is fiction meant to do?

PF: The temptation is to answer your question as Clare would, to tell you that fiction, even under conditions of oppression, has a different role to play, that it need not only be social realism reporting on the conditions of the oppressed, involving itself in a struggle for liberation, but that it can perhaps play a part in such battles even while its role, its position, and its effects are not necessarily legible, or may only be legible in retrospect, when the field has cleared and the dead have been buried, the treaties agreed, and history lurched into its next cycle.

But that is what Clare would say.

My own feeling is that fiction in a broadly social realist form has a place in the larger body of any given national — or indeed transnational — literature. Absolution is certainly not social realism, although it does attempt to engage certain aspects of the current and highly varied social realities at play in South Africa. Such moments of social realism are, however, contained in a text that might more accurately be described as subjective or critical realism, with layers of the surreal, the nightmarish, the apocalyptic, the confessional, and the biographical.

Fiction that aspires to be something more than an entertainment commodity must, I think, ultimately be concerned with its own longevity, with the conversation it holds between itself and whatever has preceded it.

TM: As you suggest, the novel began as a series of exchanges between characters on the issue of censorship. Only later did South Africa present itself as a setting. How did this come about?

PF: While writing the initial censorship dialogues between Clare and Sam in 2005, I was also writing the first draft of the narrative of Clare’s “house invasion,” as she insists on calling it, alongside a post-apocalyptic narrative of a woman looking after a young boy. I did not, initially, know how this third narrative related to the other two, but I sensed that they all belonged together. For a time I thought I might set the book in a near-future California, but the more I wrote of the three primary sections, the more I was just conscious of a landscape that recalled what I already knew of South Africa’s Western and Eastern Cape Provinces from visits with my South African partner to family and friends. Unsure what to do with this odd triptych of texts, or how to make them advance, I put the book aside.

Years passed, I finished my doctorate, I returned for further visits to South Africa, and continued to think of Clare, knowing that I did not want to abandon her. I began thinking again about the setting, dismissing America as the wrong location for the story I was trying to tell, and thinking instead of an unnamed, semi-allegorical African or South American country, before finally concluding that the book needed a highly specific temporal and geographic context to make the story both more resonant, as well as to provide the kind of narrative the characters needed to move forward from their quite static positions. Once I settled on South Africa as the setting, the various problems of character, narrative, and form all began to fall into place. Unraveling the three novellas, I started weaving them together, while adding a fourth strand — those sections which bear dates in the novel — that seemed to bind together the first three.

Journalists have asked me what kind of challenge the decision to set the book in South Africa represented. It was significant, and one I did not take lightly. My experience of South African domestic space (through visits with my extended family and friends in the country), and the reality of living every day of my life over the last decade with a South African partner, meant that I had a certain kind of access to a quite particular strand of South African cultural life — largely white, English-speaking, and middle-class. So the daily details, the language, and the cadences of speech were not the most difficult aspects to negotiate; rather, it was making sure that the complexity of certain relationships and lines of inheritance made sense in a way that was at once possible to fit into a plausible strand of South African history, while also being conscious that history (however one might wish to define it) need not necessarily function as the benchmark against which the events of the book might be measured.

TM: You write about contemporary South Africa and adopt a fairly non-judgmental stance. Only once does Sam lose his cool with a person begging. Clare is traumatized by that break-in but doesn’t call for tougher laws and stricter punishments. Was it a conscious decision to be the aloof outsider looking in? Is it a writer’s ‘duty’ only to reflect and never comment on a country’s social or political situation?

PF: At no point did I think that I was writing a critique of the country, although I would argue that there is a considerable amount of commentary about the unresolved legacies of apartheid. I was always trying to tell a story that, as I suggest above, started from large, perhaps “universal” themes, and worked backwards in its composition, from the broad to the specific, from the universal to the local. Equally, while I was conscious of the particular challenges I set myself in writing about a country not my own — a country whose literature has long been informed by a sense in some quarters that South Africans should tell their own stories — I did not think of myself as an outsider looking in. In his review of the book in the Mail & Guardian, the South African critic Michael Titlestad refers to me as an “insider outsider:” it is an apt and flattering description, I think, and one I am happy to embrace. I tried to write from a place as thoroughly within the country as I could manage.

To “reflect” a country’s social or political situation suggests that there is one coherent narrative of what that situation might be, and also that it is the job of fiction to be “reflective.” Absolution tries to destabilize such ideas, to argue that there are many simultaneous, competing narratives, not only about traumatic events of the past, but also about the way in which the everyday life of a country unfolds. Sam’s account of his encounters with people begging would not, inevitably, match their own versions of the same interactions; had I chosen to give such characters voice beyond the limited dialogue Sam reports, they would have narrated the story in a markedly different way.

Rather than “reflective,” I think of my own fiction as “discursive:” in a dialogue not only with literary tradition, but also with the world it seeks to describe.

TM: You have said that South Africa is “the most and least like America” of any country you have visited. Please explain!

PF: Before I first visited South Africa in 2003, I imagined it in terms of apartheid, its European colonial past, and those circuits of cultural affiliation, and, in a shamefully under-nuanced way, as an “African” country. The first visit immediately complicated all of those assumptions.

Visiting Cape Town and its surrounding communities, one cannot but be aware of Dutch and French (Huguenot) influences, both in terms of architecture and place names, while in a town like Grahamstown, in the Eastern Cape (where I sit as I respond to your questions, in the Victorian house of a friend), the influence of 19th-century English settlers is inescapable. Nonetheless, “modern” South Africa — meaning both the modernist buildings and infrastructure built in the second half of the 20th century under apartheid, and the largely post-modern buildings of democratic South Africa — often looks startlingly American. Many buildings and neighborhoods would seem at home in America in a way they would never fit in Britain or the Netherlands. Stylistically, spatially, and in terms of scale, South Africa feels more North American in its register than it feels European, except, perhaps, in places like Stellenbosch or the Karoo town of Graaff-Reinet, where the Cape Dutch architecture predominates; even in those towns, however, it is always possible for me to imagine myself into Southern California (in the case of Stellenbosch; I see similarities with Spanish mission architecture), or parts of the Midwest and Southwest (in the case of Graaff-Reinet). There is an expansive sense of space and possibility in the urban as well as rural landscapes of the country that feels utterly familiar to someone who grew up in Omaha with family ties to Oklahoma and California. So on the level of the built environment, as well as some aspects of the landscape (although not the vegetation), the country feels familiar to me.

The differences, however, are as numerous as the similarities, and not just because of the obvious reason that this is an African country. It is culturally, linguistically, and socially complex in ways that America is not. However unfinished the process of reconciliation and truth telling may be, South Africa has engaged in a dialogue about the past that America has failed to do in the same way. Imagining an American Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate racial atrocities, the legacies of slavery, and the much longer and profoundly unexamined treatment of American Indians, is all but impossible because those invested in maintaining the status quo, in not unearthing the truth of America’s past, are, I fear, far too powerful.

TM: At one point Clare announces to Sam in a letter: “You see how unreliable I am.” Sam is also an unreliable narrator — in one scene he realizes the life-story he is presenting to his wife, Sarah, is based on events and experiences from Clare’s books. Even maps are described as “a tracery of lies.” Was it your intention to disorient your readers and have us constantly uncertain of which characters to trust?

PF: The point was not to disorient readers, although I acknowledge that the initial reading experience may sometimes be one of disorientation, at least in part. Rather, the characters’ so-called unreliability (perhaps it would be better to speak of the mutability of truth in the novel), functions as a formal manifestation of the ways in which trauma produces multiple narratives, or multiple truths. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission sought to provide a forum for different forms of truth (“factual or forensic truth; personal or narrative truth; social or ‘dialogue’ truth…and healing and restorative truth”), acknowledging the ways in which such ostensibly competing truths may coexist. I hope that, to some extent, Absolution suggests the ways in which there can be, particularly in the case of a traumatic event, a multiplicity of possible truths.

One of the signal traumatic events from Sam’s past is the death of his uncle, and Sam’s negotiation of that memory produces more than one version: the memory is fractured, fragmented, shifting, entirely unstable, as if viewed through a prism. In the case of Clare, her manipulation of the narrative of her own life, and those she loved, serves a different purpose: it represents a struggle to negotiate the boundary between her public and private selves, to protect and defend those territories she regards as beyond the reach of public interest. Her intention, certainly, is to disorient Sam, the man she has, ironically, appointed to write her life, to keep him on shifting ground, as much as his mode of questioning her has a similar intent.

TM: Absolution is immensely intricate and must have required the tightest plotting — so much so that you can’t possibly be a spontaneous make-it-up-as-you-go-along writer. How much of it all did you plan in advance?

PF: I planned almost nothing at first, and that is, perhaps, why it took me six years to finish. As I approached the final drafts of the book, I did begin to have a clearer sense of where it was going, but I did not know how it would end until I wrote the final sentence.

For my second novel, however, I have worked from an outline. While it provided a loose structure that I ultimately revised, reworked, and then abandoned, having that map helped to focus the work, allowing me to write a complete draft in 10 months. It was certainly a much more efficient and less frustrating way to work.

TM: How and when do you write? Do you set yourself a daily word-count target? And how difficult is the creative process?

PF: After years believing that writing was about waiting for inspiration to strike, I realized I would never finish a book on such terms. Now I try to be at work by nine each weekday morning, work until noon, take an hour’s walk, eat lunch, return to work for the afternoon. It is, in this sense, a 9-5 job that sometimes intrudes into the evening and weekends. I try to write a minimum of 1,500 words each day, although with the second novel that rose to 2,500. The initial writing is rarely difficult: the tap flows freely. The challenge is regulating the temperature, the force, and finding ways of containing and shaping what emerges.

TM: Clare states that biography is “cannibalism and vampirism.” Many a debut novel draws heavily on the author’s life to date. How much of yourself did you cannibalize for the novel?

PF: Everything and nothing.

TM: You have one great novel under your belt. What are you working on now?

PF: I’m in the midst of revisions on the second novel, which will be finished in the next few months. Although set in contemporary suburban America, it shares some preoccupations with Absolution. Themes of dispossession, of inheritance, and of the vulnerability of domestic space are again present, although explored in quite different terms. It is very much a novel of and about the uncanny, the unhomely home, surveillance, and the complications, costs, and elusiveness of the American dream.

Fractured World: Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men

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Hari Kunzru’s fourth novel is his most ambitious yet. Like its predecessors it is a sprawling work that refuses to be bound by a straight, linear narrative, one-stranded plot or minimal cast. On this occasion, however, Kunzru has upped the ante to a dizzying degree. Gods Without Men revels in its multifariousness: we come up against a myriad of characters of diverse cultures, warped ideologies and clashing faiths; we skip time-zones and surf alternate realities. “Emotional teleportation” is what one character feels when blotting out his senses – “like staging his own extraordinary rendition, grabbing himself out of one time and place, hoping to land in another.” Kunzru inflicts a similar disorientation on the reader, playing a headshrinker who at the same time expands our mind. The effect is exhilarating.

Due to its ambition the novel resists a neat précis. At its center are Jaz and Lisa Matharu, he Sikh, she Jewish, and their severely autistic son, Raj. When the boy vanishes in the Mojave Desert the parents are flung into turmoil. Privately their cultures clash, impeding their course of action; publicly they suffer from the media feeding-frenzy, eventually becoming accused of murdering their son. Their marriage deteriorates in a storm of acrimony and guilt, and after Raj miraculously reappears it is all they can do to repair the rift between them. With a nod to the real-life Madeleine McCann disappearance, Kunzru convincingly paints the relationship’s breakdown and each individual’s personal meltdown. When the couple are at their lowest ebb and merely going through the motions Jaz describes them both as “priests of a faith they no longer believed in.”

Around them, Kunzru weaves a fiendish web of plots and subplots, always employing the desert as stage or backdrop. There is Nicky, the louche London rock star, “a scabrous cockney vampire” trying to break America, who needs a time-out from creative differences in the recording studio, not to mention his psycho, gun-toting producer; we are initiated into a mystical cult called the Ashtar Galactic Command which has set up base at the “Pinnacles” in the desert to commune with extraterrestrial forces; and in one of the novel’s virtuosic set-pieces we meet Laila and a group of Arab Americans who have elected to play the role of insurgents in a “fine grained simulation” to give Marines a foretaste of what deployment to Iraq will be like. (In this last section there is even a mock-beheading, all the more mocking and blackly comic because one of the executioners loses his dishdasha and has to improvise by wearing a Little Mermaid beach towel round his waist.) In the main Kunzru excels with his kaleidoscopic storytelling. When Jaz’s boss expounds on a new financial model his words double as justification for Kunzru’s choice of splintered narrative:
There’s a tradition that says the world has shattered, that what once was whole and beautiful is now just scattered fragments. Much is irreparable, but a few of these fragments contain faint traces of the former state of things, and if you find them and uncover the sparks hidden inside, perhaps at last you’ll piece together the fallen world. This is just a glass case of wreckage. But it has presence. It’s redemptive. It’s part of something larger than itself.
Kunzru’s second novel, Transmission, was told from the perspective of three characters. By employing far more, some of whom we meet, some not, the reader is tasked with making sense of those “scattered fragments” and working out how, if at all, they interconnect.

While the fate of the missing child is the novel’s epicenter, the Pinnacles is its geographical hub, a meeting-point for each of those seemingly disparate plot strands. Schmidt, the founder of the UFOlogist sect, seeks to harness the “paraphysical energies flowing through the rocks.” Kunzru has mixed success with the exploits of his cult. Its members, led by Wolf and the slippery shape-changing Coyote, proclaim themselves not settlers but “unsettlers.” At the outset we see them attempting to subvert “negative energy vibrations” and prepare mankind for “full galactic consciousness;” later they are dabbling in drugs and reaping the benefits of free love. The manipulation of the duped followers is effective, but getting there means wading through agonizing chunks of cosmic gobbledygook concerning Space Brothers, Oracles, plus a machine called the Mux. “Under the guidance of Merku, Voltra and the other members of the Command, including Aleph, Lord Maitreya, Sananda-Jesus, the Comte de Saint-Germain and on occasion Director Ashtar himself, I have worked tirelessly to spread the word” – and so on. We return to familiar ground with Jaz and Lisa, before being swept off again to be introduced to a friar in 1778 and later a pilgrim in 1871.

Such to-and-fro scene-shifting and time-traveling demonstrate Kunzru’s inventiveness while simultaneously evincing a kind of novelistic restlessness. Each new tale is the equivalent of watching a child prodigy playing one instrument after another, each one swapped calmly for the next, with seldom a duff note produced. We watch, we marvel, but we occasionally grow irritated by the showmanship and jarring of sounds. In Gods Without Men it is the voices that jar, simply because they are too many. Just as we are becoming engrossed in one of those scattered fragments, the section ends and the next tale picks up the baton and whisks it off in a completely different direction. What is intended as variety can seem instead rag-bag miscellany. We don’t mind floundering like so many of the drug-addled characters – the cult members on sugar cubes and blotters, Nicky’s artistic highs from his psychoactive peyote kicks – but the sheer busyness of the novel engenders a peculiar claustrophobia, its clutter hampering us from truly engaging in plots or connecting to characters.

Mercifully, Kunzru is still, in the last analysis, able to rein in some of that abundance so as not to mar the entire novel. James Wood’s charge of hysterical realism has cut down a few literary reputations, and felled novels crammed with facts and hyperbolic happenstance but which do not know “a single human being.” Kunzru’s novels are packed with such vitality but ultimately he escapes censure by knowing when the facts clog the narrative’s impetus, and so when to quit. We hear that Deighton, an expert on the ethnology of the Mojave, “had worked with coastal tribes in Oregon and Washington State (it was his proud boast that he knew more about the mythology of salmon than any white man alive).” It is tempting to believe that Wood’s guilty parties, writers such as Don DeLillo and Zadie Smith, might have gone off on some tangent to embellish Deighton, authenticate him with fishy back-story. But for Kunzru this bizarre boast stays incarcerated in parentheses, and rightly so.

Kunzru has been compared to DeLillo, if not for style then certainly thematic interests – conspiracy theories and apocalyptic cults, the function of terror, the disintegration of family and its dubious reassembly. My Revolutions, Kunzru’s 2008 novel about a man’s extremist past and its effect on the present, bears this out; as does Transmission from the moment an insidious computer virus is unleashed to wreak havoc on the world. Gods Without Men’s more immediate cousin is David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. That novel was compared to a Russian doll, spawning tales within tales; Kunzru’s narrative, also fractured, is however more intricate, and resembles the description of his Arab actors in the desert – “tiny moving parts, like cogs in a watch.” Both writers operate like Kunzru’s coyote: “He had to mess with stuff, connect things together. He had a rage for transformation.”

Kunzru used transformation as a conceit is his masterly debut, The Impressionist, in which his protagonist sloughed off and assumed a series of identities. In Gods Without Men Kunzru puts his whole cast through one transformation or another, whether as signed-up disciple in a cult or anguished parent sliding into madness and despair. It is an extraordinary novel. Closing it, we can be satisfied that the better sections easily outweigh those that are more whimsical and loose-ended. And we can only applaud Kunzru for that ambition and scope. Dawn, one of the disciples, learns, albeit with help from acid punch, “how to open up the world of existence and let the vastness of the Universe enter in.” Kunzru sets himself the same gargantuan task and succeeds, aided only by his considerable talent.

Identity Crisis: William Boyd’s Ordinary Thunderstorms


Throughout his career, William Boyd has evaded classification. What kind of novelist is he? What kind of books does he write? The themes in his works are various, and as a result stubbornly refuse to be filed under any handy group heading. His first novel, A Good Man in Africa, was farcical fun. 2002’s Any Human Heart was a magnificent fictional autobiography, and recent offering, Restless, was an evocative Second World War spy novel which shone a fresh light on the genre, chiefly in its treatment of identity. So what about the identity of the author? Who could he sit comfortably alongside? For if we can’t categorise his oeuvre then we may have more luck categorizing him – such is this British insistence on shacking British writers up with likeminded literary bedfellows.

Many critics think he has been robbed and should always have been the fourth wheel of the McEwan-Amis-Rushdie triumvirate (or sneaky fifth column if you accept the inclusion of Julian Barnes). Others feel he has a claim to inclusion only because of generation, not artistic merit. Boyd could be the outsider, ploughing his own furrow and glad of it. He has the dark naturalism of McEwan but eschews the verbal dynamism of Amis and magical realism of Rushdie. For my money his closest teammate is Sebastian Faulks. We might still be waiting for Boyd to produce something as durable as Birdsong but both write competent, confident fiction and are equally adept at relighting the past as they are at providing rich insight into the present. Any Human Heart has the same broad strokes and masterful period detail as Human Traces, and with its backdrop of war and desperation, Charlotte Gray is an antecedent for Restless.

Now, in his new novel, Ordinary Thunderstorms, Boyd returns to the red thread that ran through its predecessor and spools it round a new reel. If Restless was about the search for identity then Ordinary Thunderstorms, is about the need to conceal it. Ordinary Thunderstorms begins with familiar territory. During a trip to London for a job interview, Adam Kindred gets into conversation with an immunologist in a restaurant. When Adam visits the man’s apartment later to return the folder he left behind he finds him dying, with a knife stuck in his side. The man dies on him in mid-sentence and Adam flees from the scene of the crime with the folder. The novel deals with Adam trying to evade capture by the police for a crime he didn’t commit, and a nut-job contract killer eager to get his hands on the folder for his paymasters.

Armadillo (1998) starts in a similar fashion, with the protagonist walking in on a hanged man. But Boyd has made no bones about this opener being an updated Thirty-Nine Steps. It’s a pity its beginning couldn’t have been as plausible. Adam’s fellow diner asks him the time and then “they inevitably began to talk.” This is a cheap conceit to join dots and unite characters. Also “inevitably” is too presumptuous, unless Boyd himself is one of those garrulous, gregarious sorts who like nothing better than to acquaint themselves with taxi drivers, check-out assistants and the person sitting next to them in the aisle seat. We make a sharp slide from presumptuous to preposterous. Following the dying man’s orders Adam pulls out the knife – yes, that was pulls out the knife – and then finds himself faced with a double quandary: his fingerprints are on the knife, but, now more pressing, he has heard movement on the balcony outside. Clearly the scientist’s attacker hasn’t yet exited the building. Managing to escape in one piece, Adam then acts even more recklessly by opting to head for a Pimlico pub where, temporarily shored up, he can recover from his shock by downing several whiskies and devouring bags of peanuts. The problem an author faces when presenting such characters is that one man’s reckless is another man’s idiotic; foolhardy is not a large jump to foolish. We lurch onwards and are forced to suspend our disbelief some more when Adam abstains from dialling 999 and protesting his innocence and instead  settles down to a life lived rough on a patch of waste ground in Chelsea until things blow over.

The thriller that Boyd set out to write has by turns gripped us then cheated us, and we’re only at the end of chapter one. Luckily, chapter two heralds a new character, Rita Nashe, a policewoman, and chapter three introduces us to Ingram Fryzer, head of the pharmaceutical multinational for which our corpse once worked. Extra characters are needed to offset dopey Adam, and it is a relief to know he is not to carry the whole of the novel on his shoulders. Boyd brings Adam back in chapter four and in doing so takes two steps back from the one step forward he’s made by giving us the hope of a wider perspective seen through the eyes of Rita and Fryzer. Adam decides to stay off the grid and go underground. From now on he’ll shun phones, internet and cash machines and become an “urban ghost”, one of the 600 people who go missing in Britain every week. It isn’t long before he is erecting a make-shift tent, bathing in the Thames and eating seagulls.

He – or perhaps the reader – is bailed out as Boyd feeds us more characters from all walks of London life. He expands on the Fryzer strand by introducing Ivo, his brother-in-law and a louche Lord of the Realm; Mhouse, a prostitute, who laces her son’s cornflakes with rum and crushed Diazepam, and whose life on a Rotherhithe sink estate is unflinchingly portrayed as a daily fight for survival; and our two villains, Alfredo Rilke, the shady owner of Rilke Pharmaceutical, whose “controlling interest” extends to people as well as companies, and Jonjo our hitman-for-hire who injects not only violence but menace.

The novel works best when Boyd rouses Adam from his self-pitying funk and gets him away from his wasteland and interacting with the rest of the cast and London itself. We are gripped when it seems that Jonjo is closing in on him; there is a tenderness in the scenes where he teaches Mhouse’s son Ly-on to read; and the satiric scenes in the Church of John Christ – complete with charlatan preacher and a congregation made up of illegal immigrants, scamsters and paedophiles – are blackly comical. When he ventures out, London becomes alive, Adam becomes alive and the novel takes shape. With the city, Boyd is particularly interested in the river. The Thames opens and ends the book and permeates key chapters, providing settings for the vagrant Adam, a backdrop for Rita’s new career in the Marine Support Unit and her domestic life on her father’s houseboat, and a dumping ground for two bodies. With each tidal ebb the river shifts in character, sometimes sinister, sometimes with the same colours as a Fauvist painting – indeed, “at low tide everything changed”, and for the worse: “Correspondingly, the city suffered aesthetically.”

Thus the river has the power to transform the city, regenerating it and wrecking it, and in a similar way Adam’s changes bring colour to what would otherwise be a humdrum thriller. He goes from Adam Kindred, climatologist, to an identity-less nobody on the embankment, to John 1603, and lastly re-enters society as Primo Belem. In his essay”‘On Personal Identity” William Hazlitt states that for all the admiration and envy we feel for others, “no one ever wishes to be another, instead of himself.” However, necessity prevails here: Adam has to slough off one identity and assume another. It is when he does so that Boyd increases the momentum, as if remembering he has set out to write a thriller. And if the last section of the book has Adam running around the city a little too much like Jason Bourne, it is still immensely preferable to him sitting still in Crusoe-like solitude at the beginning. We might scorn them but the two main rules of the thriller are incontestable: excitement is the drama of movement rather than stasis; and you can strain the reader’s credulity but don’t try our patience.

The book isn’t as thrilling as a thriller should be, and it is almost as if Boyd got bored halfway through of the genre he had shackled himself to and was far more interested in fleshing out his characters. The scenes in The Shaft, Mhouse’s estate, are extremely effective, and Boyd is able to add colour and the requisite grittiness to the gangs, pimps and pushers, not to mention the poor victims caught in the crossfire, while remaining unpatronizing. Mr Quality, Mhouse’s landlord, is lightly sketched but we get enough strokes to learn it’s not only exorbitant rent he commands from her. Boyd even invents a Clockwork Orange-esque vernacular for The Shaft’s cheap hustlers: good things are flat, ordinary people are mims; “You scatter my head,” Mhouse tells Adam. A thriller writer is allowed to slow the pace and insert postmodern pyrotechnics but there had better be a good reason to do so. Boyd gets mixed results. True, the momentum is drastically impeded, but the characters are so good and their street-talk so vibrant that the reader is prepared to make allowances. Boyd is of course less successful when the bit-parters don’t light up the page. Fryzer’s family are stock caricatures, right down to his spoiled-brat kids and long suffering wife; and his doctor, a benign old Scot, is a chronically bad pick-and-mix stereotype who enjoys a dram of whisky during surgery hours and even says “You’ll have had your tea.” All that is missing is the kilt and shortbread. Finally, there is the nagging suspicion that Boyd is also keen to expand on this theme of identity, or better still, being identity-less in the twenty-first century. This would have been an intriguing topic to explore, particularly in a country which has a huge overreliance on CCTV and yet has reversed its decision to introduce mandatory identity cards. In fiction, we are fascinated by characters with concealed identities – from the amnesiac walking-wounded or Victorian dispossessed in search of an identity, to the spies or confidence tricksters with too many identities, multiple passports and aliases. Sadly the idea is only touched upon here, with more screen time being dedicated to the almost hackneyed thriller staples of innocent men on the run, maniacal rent-a-killers and the collateral damage caused by the corporate greed of bad Big Pharma.

Coming in at four hundred pages, Ordinary Thunderstorms is a lengthy thriller. The pace meanders like the river at its heart and only towards the end is there a current-like narrative pull. Miraculously Adam doesn’t die from drinking from the Thames (“brownish water with some sediment but the taste was acceptable”) but thanks to the strong omniscient voice the reader is kept guessing until the end as to whether Adam will elude Jonjo in their cat-and-mouse game. Weighing the strengths of Ordinary Thunderstorms we can declare it could be weightier, that it is full of untapped ambition and potential, with snapped-off strands which could have led off in more interesting directions but instead are left dangling. Boyd is not Buchan but nor does he try to be. Unlike many of his Scottish contemporaries he is also no purveyor of tartan noir. Which brings us back all the more tenaciously to our original problem: how to categorise him? How to categorize the novel? Does it even matter? It is clear the book suffers from the same identity crisis shared by its protagonist. Only Boyd will know if he has accomplished what he set out to achieve. Whatever, he deserves respect for attempting to do something new with London, and for creating a panoply of characters, low life and high society, all of whom in the main ring true enough to belong there.