Book Review: Not Working

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

“So you abandon wage slavery for some long-term freelance project – a novel or invention or fast fortune or cult blog. You wake up now to vast expanses of time, craving the relief of the regular hours and definable tasks you stupidly gave up, feeling chronically deprived of the urgency, direction and clarity of purpose you’d taken for granted when you’d had somewhere to go and something to do each day.”

Not Working is strap-lined Why We Have to Stop – an interesting if somewhat impractical premise, I thought, when I chose the book to review. The author is a psychoanalyst and Professor of Modern Literary Theory at Goldsmiths, thereby appearing well qualified to create a compelling argument. What we have here, however, is more akin to a series of opinion pieces injected with memoir alongside personal critiques of artworks and their creators. As a whole it lacks coherence.

The book opens with a lengthy introduction. The author then tries to shoehorn his views into four sections: Burnout, Slob, Daydreamer, and Slacker. Each of these sections includes a study of an artist the author associates with the anti-work type he is writing about. All those included have created acclaimed output so I struggled with the connections being attempted. They each worked at their craft.

Many examples from the author’s life are included. Patient cases – merged for confidentiality – are also cited but added little to the main argument.

The author posits that modern man regards work as something to be avoided if possible. There is little discussion about: the pride that may be taken in a job well done, the self-respect gained from contributing to a project, the camaraderie amongst colleagues. There is acknowledgement of the potential downsides of not working including: depressive exhaustion, listless entitlement, loneliness, and marginalisation.

I disagreed that ‘serious’ art – however that may be defined – offers more pleasurable satisfaction than science.

Personally I cannot appreciate Tracy Emin’s bed ‘masterpiece’ but understand that the value of artistic works is whatever someone is willing to pay for, or pay attention to. The majority of artists may struggle financially but this is not a modern phenomena. The author does not discuss the quality of outputs beyond his famous examples. Perhaps it is the act of creation rather than the finished product that he finds worthwhile – although most creatives, at whatever level, do seek some form of affirmation.

“Not working has almost always been valued only to the extent that it serves the cause of work. It is time we spoke up for not working, in all its creative possibilities, as its own value.”

The author’s opinions are stated as facts. Assumptions are made – such as that a rabbit being looked after temporarily enjoys a ‘serene emptiness’. Cohen cannot know this as he has never been a rabbit and cites no scientific study of the creature. In many of his stated opinions he comes across as arrogant.

The problem of choice is discussed from several angles in what is described as our overworked and accelerated culture. Parents are blamed for both distancing themselves and being too involved in their offspring’s choices – supportive parenting leading to a fear of disappointing.

“there could be nothing worse than to choose one thing and so lose the possibility of others”

“I barely know how to do anything without wondering if I’m doing it well enough.”

I found no mention of the gig economy or part time working. The pressure to work seemed geared towards the professions who could, perhaps, afford a psychoanalyst such as Cohen. I pondered the author’s privilege and outlook.

When discussing Emily Dickinson he mentions her unwillingness to marry, declaring reasons for her behaviour without explaining how he reached his conclusions. Given the time during which Dickinson lived and the autonomy she would lose to a husband – more than just her own, lockable room – I saw strength of purpose and innate knowledge that her work mattered more than social acquiescence.

Towards the end of the book the author explores how minimal activity can lead to finding a perfect inner state – nirvanic bliss – albeit transient. It can also lead to an inertial void. Few of the arguments made or opinions stated refuted the problems inherent in doing nothing – or that freeing up time only rarely leads to creativity in the arts.

Any Cop?: Overall the writing lacked direction and was too wound around the author personally rather than the subject he purported to be exploring. I found this book hard work to read, and regularly during its perusal considered stopping.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: Splice 1

Splice was set up by Daniel Davis Wood in 2017 (you may read more about their aims here). It has three main pillars: a small press that publishes short story collections by outstanding writers; online, in-depth book reviews; a biennial anthology showcasing previously unpublished work by three of the press’s authors, each of who selects and introduces the work of another writer deserving more attention. These selected writers will then be

“commissioned to publish new work in future and to nominate new and interesting writers of their own.

In essence, the anthology functions as a way of consolidating the Splice community and broadening its scope.”

Splice 1, as its title suggests, is the first anthology. It opens with a foreword by the editor, Daniel Davis Wood, who also writes the introduction to the work of the three Splice authors included: Dana Diehl, Michael Conley, Thomas Chadwick. After each introduction there is a complete short story from the author plus an extract from a further work by them (the full second story is available to read on the Splice website). The author then introduces their chosen writer whose contribution is presented in the same format – a short story and an extract.

Having read and reviewed the three featured authors’ short story collections, it was interesting to read the editor’s take on their work – what drew him to want to publish them. The short stories included here are all impressive examples of the form. One features an apartment that is carpeted in three feet of soil. Another has a character whose hair starts to talk when he allows it to grow. A story written entirely in dialogue is set on what I assume is a distant planet. Fantastical though these concepts may be they do not read as fantasy. The authors have grasped the essence of writing fiction and created distinctive and mesmeric voices.

As a reader I will have personal preferences but can recognise fine writing even in those stories I don’t enjoy so much. The final writer, Victoria Mansfield, includes vivid imagery that I found unpleasant in Whitegoods for Your Daughters. She describes sex, food and even travelling by public transport in ways that made me recoil. Yet I can appreciate her way with words and the emotional resonance. For those less squeamish than me her work may be better appreciated.

Despite such a strong field, my choice of standout story was by Abi Hynes. A conversation recorded before the end of the experiment presents man and alien attempting to communicate. The arrogance of humans is skillfully foiled by the encounter. Man is trying so hard to be reasonable, failing to comprehend the purpose and place in this new world that he has been granted. It is a fabulous tale, perfectly paced, both humorous and tragic.

Honourable mentions must go to Dana Diehl’s The Earth Room and Renée Bibby’s That Boy. Both stories draw the reader into the day to day difficulties individuals face and how they regard themselves, particularly when dealing with others. They are quirky and clever but never too much of either. The tales flow and entertain while offering much to consider.

I also enjoyed Thomas Chadwick’s The Unsuccessful Candidate. Office workers rarely wish to raise their heads above the parapet for fear of becoming a target for blame. The idea that someone could turn up daily for work, despite being rejected at interview, and co-workers would be flummoxed about how to deal with them, was just delicious, especially as the successful candidate was proving far from ideal.

The extracts included in the anthology provide tantalising tasters. I must find time to seek out the rest of Thomas Chadwick’s Politics. It opens

“David killed the Queen. It was nothing personal he said. It was just politics. All he wanted was to make a political statement about the abuse of power in the country”

The media twists the facts to fit their agendas. Peers are interviewed and quoted out of context.

“”Who told you that?”
“We can’t say.”
“Was it Charles? Because if anyone needs locking up, it’s Charles. He thinks wealth trickles down. He knows all the verses of the national anthem. He sleeps beside a copy of Atlas Shrugged.”
David was told that for all his sins Charles had not shot the Queen.”

Splice 1 provides excellent and varied reading. It is also a fine introduction to a literary endeavour that deserves wider attention from readers.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Splice.

Book Review: Gentlemen and Players

Gentlemen & Players, by Joanne Harris, is the first book in the author’s Malbry Series. The story is set in and around St Oswald’s, an old and long established boys’ grammar school in the north of England. The timeline moves between the present – when a new cohort of teachers arrive for the start of the academic year – and the years when one of these individuals was a child enacting a daring deception in a bid to reinvent themselves.

The child is nine years old when their tale opens. Living in the school gatehouse – a perk of Father’s job as porter – they are aware that the grounds and school are out of bounds. Nevertheless, they dare to sneak in, thereby discovering that no action will be taken so long as they remain invisible.

The child grows bolder. Keys are taken from Father and the main building breached. Over time the old building’s layout, the school timetable, and many of the teachers become familiar. The child covets the privilege of the wealthy pupils in their rarefied existence.

The child’s mother left her little family and does not maintain contact. Father is a drunk who at times grows violent. Being small in stature and lacking sporting prowess, the child is a victim of bullies at the local state schools attended. To escape this misery, a St Oswald’s uniform is pilfered and – renamed as Julian – the child starts to blend in occasionally as a pupil. A friendship is formed with another misfit. Leon and Julian delight in breaking rules within school and in the town when freed.

In the present day, the new teachers are observed by Roy Straitley – a Latin master nearing retirement who attended St Oswald’s as a boy and has worked there for more than thirty years. During this time scandals have been weathered – including improprieties and tragedies. Now Straitley is resisting changes being enforced as the new head attempts to modernise. Straitley’s caustic wit and underlying humanity make him a valuable character in portraying what a school can be.

“The reality is the stone; the tradition; the permanence of St Oswald’s. Staff come, staff go. Sometimes they die. Sometimes even boys die; but St Oswald’s endures, and as I have grown older I have taken increasing comfort from this.”

Now an adult in the guise of one of the new teachers, the child has returned seeking revenge. Plot development gradually explains what happened back in the day and why they wish to bring St Oswald’s to its knees. From the opening line the reader knows that, in this teacher’s opinion, ‘murder is really no big deal.’ The illicit St Oswald’s boy who remained invisible seeks both retribution and to finally be seen.

It took me some time to differentiate between voices – to work out, chapter by chapter, from whose perspective the narrative was being written. The many teachers and pupils introduced need to be remembered if threads are to be followed and understood. Although not difficult, this required a degree of concentration and occasional rereading.

Knowing that the author was once a teacher adds to the humour of many staff room observations. I enjoyed her comment to colleagues in the acknowledgements:

“any of you who may fear to meet yourselves in the pages of this book, rest assured: you’re not there”

Her characters are expertly drawn and recognisable as those who have haunted the corridors of every British school I have experienced as pupil and parent. Perhaps these didn’t all harbour a murderer but jealousies and resentments amongst both staff and pupils run as deep as depicted. The tension and mystery are tightly woven around more poignant revelations. The denouement is chilling but retains enough heart to leave the reader content.

Although perhaps not as well known as some of the author’s other works, the Malbry series is a personal favourite. The variety of characters along with the fine balance between dry humour and compelling thriller make for an enjoyable read.

Gentlemen & Players is published by Black Swan.

Book Review: Real Life

“life was a big soup in a mixer where you had to try and avoid being shredded by the blades”

Real Life, by Adeline Dieudonné (translated by Roland Glasser), is – understandably – a multi-award winning novel that is now being brought to readers of English by the excellent World Editions. It is a coming of age tale but with a voice that raises it above bland attempts to pigeonhole. The richness of the taut prose and devilishly dark humour make it a standout addition to the genre. The story is of a girl growing up but that is merely its frame.

The narrator is ten years old when the tale she is recounting begins. She takes delight in her younger brother, six year old Sam. They are a close and companionable unit because their parents cannot be trusted. Father is a brutal bully who only seems to find joy in hunting and killing animals. Mother is described as an amoeba and lives in fear of the beatings she takes.

The narrator’s life is forever changed when she and Sam witness an horrific accident. Thereafter, Sam loses his sunny smile and willingness to play happily with his sister. Determined to recover what has been lost, the narrator decides she will build a time machine – as she has seen done in a film. She will travel back to the fateful moment and change its outcome.

Over the next couple of years she strives to accumulate the knowledge and materials needed. Sam, meanwhile, is developing worrying habits and bonds with his father. Distressing as his behaviour is, the narrator makes no attempt to intervene. She is convinced that their present is temporary.

When the knock back happens the girl must find a way to continue. She proves resourceful but, for now, must still live in the fearful familial shadow of violent disdain. Puberty brings with it added danger although also warmer feelings that, with her scientific reasoning, she is drawn to explore further. The denouement is tense but handled impressively.

In fact, the entire character and plot development are impressive. The girl’s situation may be disturbingly bleak but her outlook remains focused and forward thinking. Woven within are nuggets of comparative lives that are mined with understated skill, adding both a degree of light and breadth. Much is revealed without the need to explain.

An original read that I devoured and relished. The brutality the girl must live with is unsettling but this remains a recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, World Editions.

Book Review: Black 13

Black 13, by Adam Hamdy, is the first in a proposed new series from the author of the high octane Pendulum trilogy. It introduces the reader to Scott Pearce, a former operative with MI6 who was driven out of the service when he refused to stand down after an horrific engagement in Islamabad. He believes the perpetrators are still at large and seeks some form of retribution. Scott is a formidable individual whose skills, strengths and lack of personal ties allow him to make clear decisions that may put him in mortal danger but for what he believes is the greater good. He is loyal to the former colleagues who have remained loyal to him.

The story opens with the murder of one of these colleagues, Nathan Foster. Like Scott, Nathan is no longer working for a government agency but is struggling to get by as a civilian. When a young lawyer, Melody Gold, recruits him on behalf of a shadowy client to investigate goings on at a bank, Nathan is drawn to the chance of some danger and glory. He has grown bored with his mundane work as a private investigator for suspicious wives or employers. However, what he discovers at the bank terrifies him and ultimately leads to his demise.

The action then moves to a beautiful beach location in Thailand where Scott is working under an assumed identity as a climbing guide and tutor while seeking gunrunners he believes are connected to what happened in Islamabad.  He is appalled when Melody turns up to recruit him in place of Nathan as only three people in the world should have known Scott’s location. With his cover compromised and powerful enemies on his tail he returns to England. On confirming the details of what happened to Nathan he plots revenge.

Scott asks another of his trusted former colleagues, Wayne Nelson, to act as bodyguard for Melody who is now also in danger. He contacts Leila Nahum, a disabled Syrian refugee and accomplished IT expert with an horrific personal history, whose life Scott saved during an MI6 operation. This small team works to find out who Nathan’s client was and who was behind his killing. What they uncover goes to the heart of the British establishment and beyond, into global networks of politics and wealth.

This is a slick, tense and fast paced thriller. Beneath the vividly described action – the fights, car chases and imaginative means of escape – the author effortlessly slips in thought-provoking social commentary. Arguments put forward can be made to sound reasonable to the disaffected who see their concerns being ignored by those in authority. The narrative explores how ordinary people can be radicalised and how some will go on to commit indefensible atrocities. It is a warning, a clarion call, for what could be happening in Britain today.

The varied and well drawn characters add to the enjoyment of what is an intense and compelling story. It offers escapism but is inventive enough to carry the reader through the many battles and complex conspiracies. Explication never detracts from the adrenaline fuelled escapades. Recommended for those who enjoy well written and electrifying action thrillers.

Black 13 is published by Macmillan.

I am touched and grateful for the limited edition proof I received, with a personalised inscription from the author.

Book Review: Magnus

Magnus, by Mark Carew, is mostly set on a remote island in northern Norway. Five students are spending a week studying the mosses that grow there for a project that will enable them to complete their studies. The professor overseeing their work owns the island and is nearing retirement. It is he who agreed to accept the outsider, Magnus, despite the man’s infamy putting others off attending. The group is small for what is usually a popular placement.

Magnus is older than the other students as he has struggled to graduate. His many health and behavioural issues have led to the university extending the time he is allowed to continue at the institution. This week, however, is his final chance to attain a degree. Magnus’s contempt for other people verges on the dangerous but the professor considers himself capable of managing whatever situations develop.

The island has no phone or internet connection. Power comes from a generator. Food and drinking water must be brought in. The residents are all but cut off from the world for the week they stay.

Parallel to the story of the island group is a tale of a young, English tourist, Alexander Clearly, who is travelling through Norway is search of adventure. He buys a wolf skin that he wears as a cloak and carries few other possessions. There are hints as to his relevance to the main plot and this is eventually revealed.

The arrogance of these two characters puts their lives in danger as they are determined to survive alone, on their wits, by whatever means. Along the way they encounter kindnesses that are rarely appreciated as most would expect. They are loners who only seem to regard their mothers with any sort of fondness. They wish to mate with women but lack social skills.

The dormitory accommodation on the island leads to issues when Magnus goes out of his way to be unpleasant. The group rejects him and he plots his revenge.

The writing is raw in places, which suits the animalistic behaviour of the protagonists. There is much dialogue but once the pace picks up the tale becomes compelling. I was reminded of Scandinavian Noir in translation despite this being an English work. The sense of place is strong throughout. The rituals described are evocative with the undercurrent of unease building well.

The denouement is tightly woven if disturbing. Magnus is really quite a terrifying creation when considered clearly. The reader, like the professor, will be challenged by the desire to give even dysfunctional people a chance, and the dangers this can lead to. A thought-provoking story that is well worth reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

Book Review: Wakenhyrst

Wakenhyrst, by Michelle Paver, is loosely woven around facts and folklore from rural Suffolk and a supposedly enlightened England. Many of the attitudes and behaviours depicted were still pervasive in the not too distant past. The author has located the titular hamlet close to ancient fens that locals both enjoy and fear. Its church, St Guthlaf’s, was originally built in the Middle Ages. Much of the story is set in Edwardian times when a wealthy landowner and respected historian, Edward Stearne, ruled his family home, Wake’s End, with a stern hand (such Dickensian naming). The tale is told by his daughter, Maud, who by 1966 was the only survivor and lived as a recluse in what was by then a house in disrepair.

The book opens in this later time with a journalist visiting Maud to try to learn more of a murder she witnessed as a teenager that led to her father’s incarceration at Broadmoor. Written in tabloid style, the short exposition is followed by a series of letters between Maud and an art historian, Dr Robin Hunter, who is eager to access a notebook in which Edward Stearne may have written about his inspiration for famous paintings he produced while locked away in the asylum. Maud has no wish to have anything more to do with the outside world after her experience with the journalist. It is only when a violent storm puts her home at risk that she agrees to tell Dr Hunter about her childhood and the events that led to her father’s undoing.

Maud’s story opens in 1906 when she is six years old. Her beloved mother has gone into labour, a regular event that often leads to a baby born dead. Maud has just the one sibling, Richard, who she regards with contempt. Her handsome father is a pious man whom she fears but longs to impress. Maud’s childish beliefs are coloured by the church’s teachings and the tales told of the fen by household servants. As God has not listened to her pleas for help, she prays to the fen that her mother may survive.

St Guthlaf’s church contains gorgoyles, sculptures and carvings that date back to medieval times. These include animals, mythical creatures and devils intended to warn sinners to repent. Much of the church’s vivid artwork would have been painted over by the Puritans. When Edward donates a sizeable sum of money to enable improvements to the building he unwittingly unleashes forces in the form of an historic mural known as a Doom.

Maud is starved of affection and pours out her love on an injured magpie that she sets free but continues to feed. The only animals her father will tolerate are the horses required to pull his carriage. Rebelling against the strictures enforced by Edward’s many rules, Maud takes to wandering the fen, something he forbids. There is suggestion of an event from his childhood that led to him hating and fearing the place.

As the years pass Maud must cope with grief and the impossible love she feels for a young gardener in her father’s employ. Being female she is regarded as lacking sense, despite her obvious intelligence. Her father allows her to help him with menial tasks in his work but assumes she is incapable of comprehension. Maud secretly reads the journals he keeps and is appalled to discover his true nature, and where this leads.

Journal entries are included verbatim throughout the text. The window this offers into the attitudes of an Edwardian gentleman are disturbing. When Edward becomes obsessed and potentially dangerous, Maud finds she has nowhere to turn – her concerns repeatedly dismissed as hysteria. Her father is affected by the doom and the fen, by his guilt and knowledge of church history. Maud soon realises how precarious her situation is.

The author taps into the shadows and cracks that generate fear in the dark even rational minds struggle to dismiss. As the story progresses these elements build providing an undercurrent of unease. It is not so much what is true that matters as what is believed and feared.

The effects of class and gender divides offer a stark background for a beguiling tale of arrogance and misdirected fervour. At its heart though is a story of a house and a fen, each emanating secrets and rich histories that colour the lives of inhabitants across generations. Whilst not quite as tightly woven and therefore on par with the author’s previous work – the spellbinding Dark Matter this was a compelling and creepy tale that I enjoyed reading.

Wakenhyrst is published by Head of Zeus.

My copy of this book was borrowed from my local library.