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#GoldsmithsPrize2020: Meanwhile in Dopamine City by DBC Pierre

A few days before the Goldsmiths shortlist was announced, I saw an episode of the game show Pointless which had a round on Booker Prize winners. When Vernon God Little was revealed as one of the answers, both presenters said something along the lines of, “I read a few pages of that but it wasn’t for me.”

This was pretty much the impression I had of DBC Pierre’s work, without having read any at all: that his writing was ‘turned up to 11’, and that he probably wasn’t someone I’d ever have cause to read. Then he was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths, and here we are.

Meanwhile in Dopamine City is set in an unspecified country that feels like the USA in some ways and Australia in others. In a town owned by the Company, Lon Cush holds out against the ever-greater encroachment of technology and social media on all areas of life. That is until he slaps his nine-year-old daughter Shelby-Ann, having jumped to the wrong conclusions about what she was doing. Lon is forced to obtain smartphones for himself and Shelby, so the authorities can keep an eye on them.

Pierre’s prose is indeed busy. For example: “Frogs fell quiet under the catmint and sea holly as he pulled the gate shut behind him, lifting it on its hinges to dampen the squeak. He went up three steps and billowed into his house like a sailor in a black-and-white bar scene.”

After Lon gets his smartphone, the novel becomes even more striking, because the text splits into two columns: a first-person voice in the left, and a newsfeed on the right that links to it in some way. I presume that this is meant to evoke the distraction of using a smartphone, but actually I found it something of a respite! Pierre’s default prose style is enough on its own to convey that sense of constant diversion.

I must admit that I lost track of the plot as the novel went on, but I don’t think that matters too much. It’s the texture of Pierre’s book that makes it for me, and the ideas at work within, such as the Universal Fluid Score, a single giant algorithmic rating that determines social standing. Meanwhile in Dopamine City shines brightest as an experience of being caught in a hyper-connected world, with all its promises and dangers.

Published by Faber & Faber.

Click here to read my other reviews of the 2020 Goldsmiths Prize shortlist.

Lolly Willowes –Sylvia Townsend Warner

Sylvia Townsend Warner (1893-1978) was a new name to me, but I was intrigued by the sound of her 1926 debut Lolly Willowes, newly reissued in Penguin Modern Classics. What I found in it was a very enjoyable character study.

Born in 1874, Laura Willowes grows up indifferent to the societal expectations of a woman her age:

Being without coquetry she did not feel herself bound to feign a degree of entertainment which she had not experienced, and the same deficiency made her insensible to the duty of every marriageable young woman to be charming…

Laura lives in the family home with her father – no marriage for her. After her father’s death, she reluctantly moves to London to stay with her elder brother’s family, where she is consigned to the role of Aunt Lolly.

But Laura longs for more from life. It seems the First World War might herald change, as suddenly she has a vocation (albeit the fairly tedious one of doing up parcels). But it’s not to be: “When the better days to come came, they proved to be modelled as closely as possible upon the days that were past.”

If there is to be change, then, it will have to come from Laura herself. In 1921, she announces that she is moving to a village in Buckinghamshire, seemingly on impulse (she starts thinking about it after buying some chrysanthemums that were grown in the county). But the real reason becomes apparent: Laura is leaving to practise witchcraft.

The quality that draws Laura to the countryside is underlined when it’s about to be taken from her. At one point, Laura’s nephew Titus joins her in the village. He has an instinctive understanding of the countryside, but it’s a mechanistic one. Laura understands the place on a more spiritual level, though she can feel this slipping away from her:

The woods judged her by her company, and hushed their talk as she passed by with Titus. Silence heard them coming, and fled out of the fields, the hills locked up their thoughts, and became so many grassy mounds to be walked up and walked down.

With Titus around, Laura finds herself reverting back to being Aunt Lolly. It’s a situation that seems impossible to escape – but there are ways…

Lolly Willowes is the story of a woman turning her back on prescribed social roles and forging her own path, in what turns out to be spectacular fashion. I recommend it warmly.

Three books: Pheby, Coleman, Shanbhag

It’s time for another trio of reviews that were first posted on my Instagram.

Alex Pheby, Lucia (2018)

I have quite a few unread Galley Beggar Press books, and I was in the mood to start changing that. So I picked up Lucia by Alex Pheby, which won the Republic of Consciousness Prize a couple of years ago. ⁣

This novel concerns Lucia Joyce, James Joyce’s daughter. I didn’t know much about her, beyond what it says in the cover blurb: she was a talented dancer, spent her last 30 years in an asylum, and most contemporary references to her have been lost to history. ⁣

Pheby confronts head-on the problems of what it means to write a real life into fiction. The structure is fragmented, with fragments written from a variety of viewpoints – this is a novel told around and to Lucia, not by her. Interspersed between chapters are sequences describing an Egyptian archaeological dig, and the process of mummification – the implication being that the act of writing about Lucia is a similar disturbance. ⁣

Much of what happens in the novel is traumatic for Lucia, and this is uncomfortable to read, as it should be. Overall, I found this book a powerful reading experience, and I appreciated that Pheby made the problem of what he was doing part of the novel itself. ⁣

Flynn Coleman, A Human Algorithm (2019)

This book is a look at some of the issues around artificial intelligence. Flynn Coleman is a human rights attorney, and her book is very much focused on the ethical implications of AI and what it might mean for us as humans. ⁣⁣

⁣⁣This is not a subject I know much about, and I appreciate that Coleman is posing questions at least as much as trying to come up with answers – the book seems meant as a starting point for a conversation rather than a definitive conclusion. ⁣⁣⁣

It seems to me that Coleman is pretty even-handed in considering both the potential benefits and drawbacks of AI. She’s clear, though, that it’s urgent for us to be thinking about issues such as how we might instil morals into machines (and whose morals they should be), because the technology will continue to develop in any case. ⁣⁣⁣

I like the range of Coleman’s book, and it left me with a lot to think about, which is what I wanted most of all from it. If the subject piques your interest, A Human Algorithm is well worth your time.

Published by Melville House UK.

Vivek Shanbhag, Ghachar Ghochar (2013)
Translated from the Kannada by Srinath Perar (2017)

The narrator of this short novel is a director of his family’s spice business in Bangalore, though it’s so successful that he doesn’t need to do any work. His uncle built the firm up, transforming the family’s fortunes in the process – though money has not solved all their problems. ⁣

The narrator structures his story around the hierarchy of his household, with his uncle at the top and himself somewhere towards the bottom. This has the effect of making the novel feel like a series of anecdotes, and there are some engaging episodes, such as the family’s attempts to deal with an ant infestation in their old shack. But this book is more than a yarn: the narrator is not telling us everything. ⁣

His wife, Anita, is often at odds with the rest of the family – she wasn’t too happy to discover that her husband earned no money for himself, for example. The particular incident on which the book pivots is when a woman arrives at the house asking to speak to the uncle, and is summarily sent away by the narrator’s mother. Anita is the only family member who feels the woman was treated badly, and tells her husband that he should have intervened. The ramifications of this play out across the novel. ⁣

Within the book, “ghachar ghochar” is a phrase invented by Anita to mean “hopelessly tangled up”. That’s what the narrator comes to feel his life is like, and with good reason. Vivek Shanbhag examines the implications of his characters looking away from what they don’t want to see. ⁣

Published by Faber & Faber.

⁣⁣⁣

BBC National Short Story Award 2020: ‘Scrimshaw’ by Eley Williams

This post is part of a series on the 2020 BBC National Short Story Award.

Ever since I first saw the cover of this year’s BBCNSSA anthology, I wondered: what are the walruses about? Well, here they are in Eley Williams’ story – specifically, this webcam feed of walruses in Alaska.

Williams’ narrator is messaging a – friend? lover? partner? – online when that other person admits to being unhappy. The narrator is unsure how to respond, then decides to send a link to the walrus live-stream, because it’s a favourite of theirs. But the other person doesn’t reply, and the narrator is concerned that their message may not have been taken as intended.

‘Scrimshaw’ is the shortest story on this year’s list, and the densest with language. It has the same fascination with words and exuberant expressiveness that I found in Williams’ novel The Liar’s Dictionary:

A whole town stretched between us, and I considered the surface of our separate skins blued or bluewn or bluesed by pixel-light as we typed against our own private darkness.

This is a story very much concerned with the nature of contemporary communication: the way it can be intensely solitary if you’re typing away, but can also permeate our lives. ‘Scrimshaw’ is a fine end to a strong shortlist.

Listen to a reading of ‘Scrimshaw’.

BBC National Short Story Award 2020: ‘Come Down Heavy’ by Jack Houston

This post is part of a series on the 2020 BBC National Short Story Award.

Of all the stories I’ve read so far on this year’s shortlist, this one has the most obviously unconventional style:

& what happened was Simone said she wasn’t sure she was really in the mood so Jackie walked the small & darkening park alone, the tower behind her, the fizzed glow of the thin-strung lamplight guiding her along the narrow concrete path to The Birdcage…

Simone and Jackie are friends, addicts who move in together in the hope of finding some stability. Their lives are fundamentally precarious, which is reflected in Houston’s writing, that tumble of words and occasionally-awkward phrasing – saying what you want to say in any way possible, because you don’t know when there will be another chance to say it.

‘Come Down Heavy’ is harrowing to read, but that prose is unstoppable. You’re right there with Jackie and Simone, feeling what they feel.

Listen to a reading of ‘Come Down Heavy’.

BBC National Short Story Award 2020: ‘The Grotesques’ by Sarah Hall

This post is part of a series on the 2020 BBC National Short Story Award.

With this story, Sarah Hall becomes the first author to be shortlisted for the BBCNSSA four times. ‘The Grotesques’ is as fine a story as I’ve come to expect from her.

Like Jan Carson’s story, ‘The Grotesques’ focuses on a family with its own rules and hierarchies, though Hall’s fictional family seems rather more oppressive. The narration leaves no doubt as to who’s in charge:

Perhaps she could say she had done something. Mummy would. Mummy could change a story or revise history with astonishing audacity, and seemed to instantly believe the new version.

The person thinking this is Dilly, on her thirtieth birthday. At the start of the story she is shaken by the sight of a homeless man whose face has been covered with fruit – probably a student prank. This brings a note of disorder into Dilly’s strictured world.

Dilly returns home to a party: her mother’s tea party, that is, rather than a celebration of her own special day. As the story goes on, it becomes clear that Dilly’s mother is controlling her relationship with food, and there are hints of other dark secrets in the family as well.

The tone of Hall’s narration gives a feeling of being at a remove from reality. I’m not going to give away the ending, but there’s cause to wonder whether it describes something that has happened, might happen, or is just about to happen – or perhaps even all three.

Listen to a reading of ‘The Grotesques’.

New Passengers – Tine Høeg

One of my favourite literary awards, the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses, offers its own Book of the Month subscription. I signed up for it this month, and recently finished my first title, Tine Høeg’s New Passengers (translated from the Danish by Misha Hoekstra). It’s from a publisher that was new to me – the European-focused Lolli Editions – and has a strikingly stark cover design. I was intrigued even before I knew much about the book.

The first thing you notice about the text of New Passengers is that it’s laid out like a poem:

it’s by chance
we fall to talking on the train
my first day of teaching

I’m nervous and our legs
graze each other
when we sit down

you’re a graphic designer at a travel agency

you’re a commuter too

you’re ten years older than me

you’re married and father to a girl

These two characters embark on an affair, and there you have the basic premise of Høeg’s novel. But it’s not the premise that matters so much as the telling.

What does this fragmentary verse-style prose do? For me, it does two key things: it breaks the novel into small pieces, and allows them to merge together.

Høeg’s narrator is having to compartmentalise her life: over here is teaching, over there is her older lover, and so on. The thing is, the different parts of her life won’t necessarily stay separate, especially after she meets her lover’s wife and daughter. Nor is this the only example: the woman is well aware that she’s not much older than her pupils, and the past keeps threatening to intrude on her – supposedly more responsible – present.

This then plays out in the novel as the sense that snatches of prose from different areas of the narrator’s life are encroaching on each other (Hoekstra’s translation is great at conveying this). It takes you right inside the narrator’s situation, which in turn makes for some powerful reading.

An Inventory of Losses – Judith Schalansky: a Splice review

Judith Schalansky’s An Inventory of Losses (translated from the German by Jackie Smith, and published by MacLehose Press) is a collection of stories, each inspired by something that has been lost to the world: buildings, species, artworks and more besides. Each piece is written in a different style, adding up to a multifaceted exploration of loss. It’s a beautiful looking volume, too.

I’ve reviewed An Inventory of Losses for Splice, where I go into more detail on a selection of the stories.

Read my review here.

BBC National Short Story Award 2020: ‘Pray’ by Caleb Azumah Nelson

It’s that time of year again for the BBC National Short Story Award. It was one of the first literary awards I discovered through blogging (way back in 2010!), so I’ve always had a soft spot for it. This year’s shortlist was announced earlier in the month:

  • ‘Pray’ by Caleb Azumah Nelson
  • ‘In the Car with the Rain Coming Down’ by Jan Carson
  • ‘The Grotesques’ by Sarah Hall
  • ‘Come Down Heavy’ by Jack Houston
  • ‘Scrimshaw’ by Eley Williams

That’s two authors who are familiar to me, and three who aren’t – a nicely eclectic mix, which is the sort of thing I like from this prize. I’ve been offered a copy of the anthology published by Comma Press, so I’m doing one of my occasional story-by-story reviews of the shortlist (see previous ones here).

The plan is to post a review about one story every other day from now until 6 October, when the winner will be announced. Today, the shortlist gets off to a strong start with Caleb Azumah Nelson’s story…

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‘Pray’ is the story of two teenage boys from South East London: the unnamed narrator, and his older brother Christopher. Their parents have both passed away, and now they’re struggling to find their footing in life.

The brothers are at an age when they feel they don’t fit in, but other people are only too happy to jump to their own conclusions about where they should fit: “too young to be adults, too old to be children, but stuck in bodies which implicate us either way”. There’s also the issue of racism: as the narrator puts it, “the world we frequented wasn’t built with us in mind.”

What strikes me most about ‘Pray’ is how the brothers’ world comes to them in pieces. Over here is the club, where everything makes sense when you can lose yourself in the beat, take the mic and the words flow out. But over there is the unknown place where things get too much, and you just pray for protection “from what we can’t see but know lurks in the air.”

The boys aren’t in a position to inhabit the world in a way that lets them see it as a whole, and thereby navigate through. Instead, they are shunted from piece to piece, and have to hope they can hold on.

Listen to a reading of ‘Pray’.

Blog tour: Launch titles from V&Q Books

My post today is part of a blog tour for V&Q Books, the new English-language imprint from the German publisher Voland & Quist. The imprint is headed by the translator Katy Derbyshire, and is dedicated to writing from Germany. It’s not necessarily going to be limited to books translated from German, although the first ones are. V&Q offered me review copies of their first three titles, and I take a look at each below…

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Sandra Hoffmann, Paula (2017)
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (2020)

Paula begins like this:

We have a word in German: schweigen. It means deliberately remaining silent; it is different to merely being quiet.

This autobiographical work explores the effects such a deliberate silence may have on a family. The young Sandra Hoffmann knew that she and her mother looked different from other people in her village – darker-skinned – but she didn’t know who her grandfather was. Her grandmother Paula, a staunch Catholic, refused to say.

This isn’t a story of Hoffmann discovering her grandfather’s identity. It’s a study of the gaps left behind and what might fill them. Hoffmann goes over the many photographs that Paula left behind, and imagines the scenes and people in them.

The silence – the schweigen – permeates the book, spreading through its long passages. The oppressive effects of the silence on family life, in Hoffmann’s childhood and down the years, are vividly conveyed.

Lucy Fricke, Daughters (2018)
Translated from the German by Sinéad Crowe (2020)

Daughters is the story of two women – old friends – trying to find their place in life at age forty, and to deal with the loss of a father-figure.

For Martha, this loss is imminent: her father has booked an appointment for a one-way journey to Switzerland, and wants her to drive him. Betty wants to visit Rome to find the grave, not of her biological father (with whom she has little to do), but an ex-partner of her mother’s, an Italian she remembers as “the Trombonist”. Martha and Betty embark on a road trip across Europe with these intentions in mind. But both of them will find that the situation is not as they imagined, and their relationships will be tested.

Lucy Fricke’s novel is full of wry humour that makes it a pleasure to read:

We were the daughters of fathers who’d only found time to talk to us after they’d retired. We explained the internet to them and they explained the weather. Their love came so late that we barely knew what to do with it. We just accepted it with gratitude. But we had little to give, and nothing at all to give back.

Sinéad Crowe’s translation is wonderful: so often, I found myself stopping at a striking turn of phrase. The plot veers off in unexpected directions… This book is a joy.

Francis Nenik, Journey through a Tragicomic Century (2018)
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire (2020)

This non-fiction volume is subtitled “The Absurd Life of Hasso Grabner”. Grabner (1911-76) was a writer, albeit an obscure one – Francis Nenik says that he wanted to write about a forgotten author, and there was barely anything about Grabner online at the time he looked.

The reason Grabner’s life is described as absurd has to do, I think, with its apparent contradictions. He was a committed young communist who ended up being awarded an Iron Cross by Germany for his military service. He was director of a steelworks in the GDR whose writing was banned.

As with Fricke’s book, there’s a wonderfully wry undercurrent – a fine translation by Katy Derbyshire:

And Hasso Grabner? Not only is he part of the grotesque named history and always precisely where it is being made; he is also co-writing it, even though he doesn’t know the script, and history is more than slippery, what with it only ever coming about when it’s already happened…

You can watch a reading from Journey through a Tragicomic Century here.

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All in all, this set of books is a strong start for V&Q Books (I like their series cover design as well). I look forward to seeing what else they have in store for us.

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