Monday, 9 July 2012

Lucy Williamson reviews Shark in The Cadaverine


In a recent interview, Wes Brown spoke of his commitment to “writing completely uncensored.” His debut novel, Shark, certainly seems to have been written in this way. Its pages are full of sentences that barge their way in to your head, smash the place up a bit and break the door on their way out. Sentences, in other words, that tell it like it is, however that might be. For this reason, Shark will not appeal to everyone. If you are easily offended by swearing, or recoil at the idea of frank sexual discussion, I would advise you to seek alternative literary pursuits; everyone else is invited join John Usher in the run-down boozers and worn out snooker halls of Leeds. 
A Yorkshire lad and Iraq war veteran, Usher has returned to his home city following his departure from the army. He struggles to adapt to civilian life and battles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Uninspired by the limited employment opportunities available to him, Usher decides to earn his money as a pool shark. Brown’s novel is the story of the ups and downs of Usher’s life both at and away from the table, including his complex relationship with two women: ex-girlfriend Evelyn, now married to English Defence League member Carl, and attractive barmaid Francesca, whom he has instantly taken a liking to.  
The way that Brown writes about Burley, the district of Leeds in which the novel is set, is vivid and engaging. He states that his depiction of Leeds has “elements of the real” but is “located somewhere deep in the subconscious”. Understandably perhaps, he wishes to distance the dystopic elements of his writing from his home city, which, he says, is already at risk of being negatively stereotyped in a way that is “not truly representative”. Nevertheless, he does admit that the novel portrays some of the grittier elements of life that can be found in big cities like Leeds. His writing is undoubtedly at its best when it deals with recognisable aspects of urban Yorkshire: the long roads with “the houses all the same: chunky terraces” and the guttural Leeds accent “doht” for don’t and “yer” for you. 
Shark has some weighty themes: the after-effects of war, adultery, misogyny, racism, drug abuse, alcoholism and unemployment all feature at some point during the narrative. Brown, however, manages to keep Shark from become an ‘issues’ book. His focus is on his main character, John Usher, rather than on any particular theme. The novel is Usher, his thoughts, his feelings, his actions and his words, none of which are without their controversies. For the rest of the review


Saturday, 16 June 2012

Shark is a story about the dispossess and how they get by.

Ex-soldier and violent deadbeat John Usher returns to his boyhood home of Leeds to find things have changed. His community has been unravelled by gang culture, ethnic tensions and hopelessness.

Unable to sleep, his only consolation is drinking late into the night and playing pool by himself. That is, until an encounter with a hard right activist leads him into a twisted relationship of deceit, cuckoldry and hatred.

"In Shark, Wes Brown writes with a kind of rhythmic Northern realism, catching the way we think, the way we talk, the way we act round here; he manages to make the North a marvellous place, a place where art can happen, where epic can feel comfortable..." Ian McMillan, poet and broadcaster.

"Brown is a new generation Updike with the ability to capture the essence of a time and place comparable to Cartwright's Heartland. Never has hard-fought alienation been rendered so tensely familiar and jaw-achingly hard to swallow." Jo Brandon, editor of The Cadaverine

"Here we have that rare artifact. A contemporary, regional, working class novel written with the ideas-based, language currency of the great transatlantic stylists: Updike, Bellow, DeLillo and Martin Amis. Wes Brown's art is to match literary intensity to the northern pubs and pool halls, finding the story in a young man's struggle to accommodate himself to the life he has been dealt, after service in Iraq, in a community divided and adfrift." Danny Broderick, The Workroom.

The unabridged version of Shark is now available to download on Amazon or by hard copy from Waterstones.

I

JOHN USHER, with his six feet of height and his rigid hands, pedantically sets the table: triangle over the balls. Even though he’s playing himself, there’s somehow more to lose. He plays pool every Wednesday; today alone, playing before daybreak in the still light. He sees the spare open in the far left corner. Arches his shoulder, turns to lever and strikes up. Noses the cue direct. Rockets the second. Hard with the third.

Scuffs the fourth.

Shit. But lucky this wasn’t eight ball. Thankfully, it wasn’t; he was playing alone. To play alone – that was something. To come down here, dressed in a beaten-up hoody and punished sneakers, styling stripes and spots into playful geometry. There’s smoke too. An illegal, silver coterie hung above the tables. He doesn’t drink. Or he shouldn’t drink. Though tonight, on the kickstand by the table and a high bar stool, draping his hood and minding his fags, is a pint of beer. There must be music, but he doesn’t hear it, refuses to listen. He doesn’t need to take sides. These balls are his.

He can take free aim. A strike at whichever one impresses, chooses for difficulty, the toughest shot. Long time since he played tournament level. Not the best. Not the worst. He takes a sip. Eyeing the middle right pocket, he knocks a seven ball near sideways. The thing fidgets in the pocket, nestles. He gets baited stares. Him being alone. A young man. Working the table with deadly efficiency. But he’s learned to erase any pressure, to enjoy his concentration. Several balls need potting. He goes to work, lumbering round the table, rifling sequentially. The cue aches hot. The maths of the next shot and the one after make sense to him. Stillness. He pauses to watch, to cast his eye over the table. His concerned gaze, mapping expectation.

People envy to watch, to take notice of this guy, on his own, as he sinks ball after ball. It’s a run as good as any he’s had. He can’t miss. Pings a four ball into the opposite pocket: drops a spot. He anticipates the black, the final strike. By now a crowd has nosily gathered, mostly boys, a couple of men. The black is open. He curls a six, pendulum-style, into the side-hand pocket; on a turn he draws aim. The black. His strike is fluid. Hard. He watches the ball tumble over itself, pick pace across the green, plump full into the sack. The crowd disperses. Pretends not to be impressed.

He limbers up, set to break. Brings his elbow high, ready to crack the cue. Swoosh of ball. Whiteness. Vague as a bird. The knocked balls scatter. Impact ignites movement; they spark off the other, a chaos for the back pocket. Cue hitched between finger and thumb – pointed like an arrow, he assesses the situation. The balls are clumped like clouds. The beam from the overhead light looms heavy over the game. Making the shot cools him. Eagling from side to side, you can forget yourself like this. On to his eleventh pint of Stella, the taste’s weak and carbonated. These days he can get by this way. Doesn’t like easy. Worried playing alone might become a chore. Four, five, six games gone without missing, without coming close. The easiness of the game upsets him. He likes a challenge and begins to chase the toughest shots: balls that are virtually impossible to pot, to risk his own record.

There are days when he can’t be bothered, not even to play pool or get out of bed; grey long days he can’t look forward to. His war is the absence of fight. No resistance, no enemy to be alert against; he’s over tense, always on guard. But glad to be free from the bullshit of army life, the discipline and the people. The Snooker Centre has become a haven: where he can collect his thoughts, gather momentum, thrash his white hot cue ball into packs of red and yellow balls. But today his peace has been disturbed by his own ability, and the gang on the table alongside are aggressive and irritating. Over confident. They don’t see his worth, how they’re in this together. They fucked me over; they don’t give a shit about me neither. He’s in that dizzy place between drunkenness and darkness; nights you can’t remember in the morning. Chunks of memory lodged between headache and heartburn. Nights you’d prefer to forget, if only you could remember. Hangovers are half his daily activity. Why he tries to quit the booze. He can’t get enough; more makes him thirsty. Veiled beneath his heavy, pinstriped duvet with the knowledge you’ve fuck all to do, there’s a sense of progress beating a hangover.

His fatigue doesn’t show. The ease of the game has made him angry. He stabs at the balls. He wants to see how much force he can control – how much fight you can drive into a shot. A voice. Urban and forced:

“Check out da showboat. Playin’ wit himself?” His lobes burn and he see another guy join the table. Bling. Sportswear.

“Only wenna think o you.”

“You sick.”

“Maybe. But yow were watchin.”

“Fuck-ing nobhead.” The guy breaks the word in two: tongues apart each syllable.

“Maybe yow boys should shut fuck up? Eh? Maybe yer should shut fuck up before I come over theh and stick mah fist through your fucking face. Little fuckin cunt. Fuck off.”

“Easy. White boy. You starting? We’ll eat you up. You hear? Fucking eat you. Who the fuck you think you are? Cunt. Calm yow shit down gaura.”

“Fuck you. Dickhead.” John goes back to his game with his heart a jackhammer, knowing he’s being watched, doing his best to find a rhythm, but the pressure skews his play. Goes to shit. He loses focus on the game in hand and knocks the cue ball off the wrong cushion. Misses a sitter. If this were Kabul, Helmand, or Kosovo he’d have his boys; they’d take care of these cunts. Still his knuckles contract, grip the cue tightly, veins rippled green. Five crowd round the next two tables. Loud, piss-taking, banter that tightens his gut, pricks his ears. The kind of talk you get in the mess or hear during dull days on patrol. He downs the last of his pint. They speak street slang. From the front of the mouth, a stylised drawl, loosely enunciated. Fuck it. He’s through with this civilian bullshit. Trying to play by the rules. He breaks his cue across his thigh, bulk of knee, and thrashes the biggest first, drawing blood with the cherry wood shards of cue. The guy’s down with a bloodied face. The others tend to him, scared kids staring up with the angry whites of their eyes.

“Yow fucking come near me and I’ll fucking kill yer.” John shouts and they know he’s serious. His starry-eyed expression makes him look crazed. He turns on his heel and heads to the bar where the barmaid, Francesca, this twenty-something with a pert body that fills a white t-shirt and plaid skirt, leans onto the bar and leafs though the pages of a trashy magazine. John sets himself down on a high stool that wobbles under his weight.

“Who woh those twats?”

She looks up, taking her eyes away from glossy pictures of snow boots. “Excuse me?”

“Those guys. What’s the crack?”

“Am sorry, but maybe yer might want to rephrase yer fucking question?”

“Fuckin women. Christ almighty. Those guys. Who the fuck are they?”

“Juss regulars, Rambo. Guys who come in here every fucking day of every fucking week.”



HE HAS HEAT under his steps: on the way home from the club. Rough-stubble face coughing on a cigarette. Divisions. The streets are always alive round here; with the immigrants driving taxis, and the busy drug dealers and students going out all the nights of the week. A chalky brightness. The resins of fireworks in the sky. He has been renting a place for a few weeks; the bay window lurching into the garden and his key gets stuck in the door, unlocked.

On the communal landing, he can see through the grey dust of the hallway distancing the dull light of the kitchen. Fried food. The fumes of stale oil.

“Big John.”

“The doors unlocked?” Carter is standing topless in the kitchen: his bald head and rippled muscles.

“Sorry mate, just popped out for o fag.”

John’s eyes are stern and voice slow, “No worries.”

“You seen the new girl upstairs?”

“Nope.”

“Teacher. Pretty fit.”

“I’ll have to say hello.” Carter laughs; John knew this would make the right-thinking man laugh.

“You got your housing sorted yet?”

“Savings.”

“Yeah, but yer wanna top up?”

“Am not o charity case.” Turning up the stairs his thigh screams. The jagged edges of a bullet hole. He gasps, growling through his teeth; his body a relic, remembering the days of war. When he wore camo gear bullet-vests, and ultrasound helmets. His apartment is what they used to call a bedsit: a large bedroom in an Edwardian house. A kitchenette and partition round the back of his bed. A Sony portably TV stood up on a chair. All of his clothes are pressed and folded, neatly, in a suitcase by the bed. He pulls down the blinds: the slattering catches of midnight streets.

Sleep is quick. Suddener than it has been. He sleeps right through the night without dreams, half-wrapped in his duvet. Thinking with his mind’s eye closed. When John wakes up at half-past midday, he kicks himself out of bed. Mattress springs slumped and creaking: makes himself a coffee, flosses tobacco and blood out of his teeth. His belly takes the brunt of his drinking; his vain eat fatty, absorbent foods. Now it burns in the morning. There’s a creaky headache, aching like the weight of an elbow crack on his sweat-glossed forehead. In his white vest with his black self-inflicted tattoos on either shoulder’s front (a griffin and a spider) he thinks about whether or not those Pakis were gonna come in and chin him. Whether they knew who he was, where he lived? When he was a lad, it was football nobheads he got into fights with; but they were minted now, making a packet doing gardens, building houses, on worksites, putting their fists to use. Every fucker has to have his day at the bottom of the pile. Now it’s John and the Pakis Enemies in direct competition for piss-on patches of land. Women. Space to do your own thing. In ten years time they’d be new guys at the bottom of the pile: those who don’t die or get fucked up get lucky, and it’ll be John making money in the next big thing. That’s what he tells himself, thinking, balls to it; I’ll get myself down the club.

Shark is available to download on Amazon and to oder in hard copy from Waterstones.

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Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Aping Mankind Review

Aping Mankind
Acumen
400pp

Our Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, John Gray, has slurred us. We, higher primates, are “exceptionally rapacious” and “predatory and destructive.” We are homo rapiens. Such thinking from the ‘Philosopher of Pessimism’ and its subsequent popularity has drawn doctor, philosopher, poet and vigorous polymath Raymond Tallis’ ire. Along with Gray’s pessimistic view of human nature, Tallis diagnoses two strands of thought, or illness that afflict contemporary thinking. These are ‘Neuromania’: the misguided belief that brains alone can explain a person, and ‘Darwinitis’: the idea that evolutionary theory can explain all human behavior and social organisations. Tallis points toward the tendency to animalize humans and humanize animals. This biologism, Tallis argues, misrepresents and degrades humanity.

Neuroscience is an immature field, and the techniques used for imaging while giving us some new insights, many times reveal what we already knew. We are all susceptible to social influence? Inequality to leads to anxiety? We are less rational than we think? Aside from stating what is self-evident, often the crudity of the extrapolation means that much of this imaging is as much good as phrenology. Take Zeki’s ‘insights’ into love garnered from showing subjects pictures of loved ones and ones to whom they are indifferent, and then subtracting the latter response to the former. How much does this really tell us if something tingles? Does this tell us anything about the inner state of that person, at that moment, does it give us a window to their soul? Does it explain people as selves?

This is the science of the hard materialists. Those, like Daniel Dennett, who claim to have ‘explained consciousness’ despite disregarding the self and any readily understood human agency. Tallis’s background as a physician means that while most of us intuitively disagree with these simplifications, Tallis can back up his instinctive suspicion. His training as a philosopher skillfully exposes the conceptual muddles scientists can get themselves in. See his critique of John Searle’s analogy between H20 and the ‘wateriness’ of water. There are also elegant feats of logic on the idea that ‘the brain knows more than we do’ for surely this is another incarnation of the homunculus? A “little man” who witnesses and acts accordingly? The approach simply pushes back the problem to another ‘decider’ in the brain which Dennett calls ‘evitablism’. Or in Richard Dawkins’ words, “lumbering robots.”

The ‘neuro’ or ‘evolutionary’ prefix is appearing everywhere. Like one of Dawkin’s ‘memes’ Evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary ethics. Neuro-economics. Neuro-theology. ‘Neuro-aesthetics’ to understand why art works by observing the tingles in the brain. This, again, tells us little we didn’t already know and replaces the act of judgment with a supposed objectivity. Very useful if you’re wary of being seen as elitist or culturally imperialist. Except at some point you have to discriminate over what makes one poem ‘better’ than another and so much analysis tends to be “neuro-speculation” with less value than good old-fashioned literary criticism.

It’s no surprise that theories that promise to explain everything tell us nothing. Tallis doesn’t have all the answers. Though neither do the hard materialists who are hell-bent on telling us they have explained consciousness and that human behaviour can be reduced to observable, neurological effects. For all Tallis’s rage at John Gray (there’s a lot of it) his form of secular humanism does sound cannily like Christian belief in progress. Have we beheaded Christianity but kept the body? How special are we really? For every great idea there is mass murder, for every leap forward, a bloody step back. It can be liberating to realise we are simply evolved animals, not children of God or born with perfectible natures. Rather than degrade humanity anthropomorphism makes us more humane. Showing solidarity with our fellow creatures is humbling and integral to our compassion. It is the mechanists, the machinists who reduce both animals and humans to biological robots who we should be most wary of. It can be liberating to feel like a mammal. 

The defence of human dignity is powerful and timely. Given Sam Harris’s neo-utilitarian ambition to create a morality based on the science of ‘well being’; the glamour and authority of bad science; the rise of evangelical scientism. Tallis has done a fine job dismantling hard mechanistic and erroneous thinking. Though his answers are less complete. Our selves live, “in a community of minds” that has been, “woven out of a trillion cognitive handshakes over hundreds of thousands of years.” Sometimes his account of consciousness sounds like vitalism – something unqualifiedly intangible – a ghost in the machine – and if we are evolved animals then surely evolutionary theory can shed light on our apparatus? How can we be the only known free agents in the Universe? Though, here, I think, is a revolutionary idea. Our idea of consciousness is that it is made out of matter. But our idea of matter is deep rooted in 17th century mechanism. Could the final resolution of the mind/body problem lay in a new, more dynamic understanding of matter? Aping Mankind is a broad-ranging tour de force of intellectual brio and impassioned thinking. Sometimes longwinded. Sometimes irascible. The book brilliantly, hopefully, wonders not how the light gets into your brain, but how it is that “a gaze that looks out”.

Wes Brown is a writer and critic based in Leeds. His debut novel Shark is published by Dog Horn and he is the director of DEAD INK.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

East Leeds FM Side Salad - Learning

Was luck enough to be on East Leeds FM the other day talking about writing, the Young Writers' Hub and the idea of learning. You can find a recording of the show here and more about East Leeds FM here.

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Thursday, 15 March 2012

Interview in the Periscope Post


Chelsey Flood, First Story writer-in-residence, interviews young writer Wes Brown

When he was a child, Wes Brown wanted to be a professional wrestler.

Luckily, he outgrew that ambition and settled on another career path, one that he says he pursues with the devotion of a novitiate: At 26, he’s an author who’s been described as “a new generation Updike”, and whose gritty debut novel, Shark, has been heralded as a punch to the gut (“in a good way”).

Leeds-based Brown is also the director of DEAD INK Publications, co-ordinator at the National Association of Writers in Education (NAWE) and book critic at Politics on Toast. Chelsey Flood, First Story writer-in-residence, talks with Brown:

Did you always want to be a writer?

When I was younger, I wanted to be an archeologist, and then a professional wrestler. It wasn’t until my late teens I found out I wanted to write. That all the inner whispers had a purpose. But now, it feels like a vocation. More than a profession – the nearest thing I have to religion.

When did you start writing?

When I was about 16. Don DeLillo says he started writing in his ‘muddled adolescence’ to ‘define things’. I think while most people ‘grow up’ – a writer has to maintain a sort of innocence. A sense of shapelessness.

What/who are your favourite books/writers?

I’m the love child of kitchen sink Northern realism and American modernism. So David Peace, Alan Sillitoe, David Storey, and John Updike, Don DeLillo and Vladimir Nabokov. I’m also very keen on Virginia Woolf and George Eliot.

What kind of thing do you write?

I think I’ve only really started writing in the last year. The stories, and failed novel attempts before were all kind of first base. Shark is an attempt at British social realism with American influences. It’s written in a sort of rough, poetic style. When Lights Are Bright, the novel I’m working on currently, is much more American but about very British things. Class, namely.

For the rest of the interview

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Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Book Review: Wes Brown's 'Shark'

New edition out Shark is out soon. Here's one of the first reviews of the new version by Kate Wilson:

Here we have a book quite unlike anything I have read before... Reading Wes Brown's debut novel is a little like getting punched in the stomach (in a good way)...

Set in Leeds, the protagonist John Usher is a soldier of the Iraq war returning to the humdrum rhythms of civilian life. Rather than appreciating the peace his return offers, John misses the violence and heat of his life as a soldier, seeking solace in aggressive games of pool at the failing local bar, and intense sexual encounters.

There were several things that surprised me about this book, not least of which is Brown's dedication to writing in a Leeds dialect. Initially I thought this might be distracting for me, as I haven't spent any time in Leeds and can't hear the accent, but I found I fell into the speech patterns. This was a daring move, and one which works extremely well in firmly placing the novel, and in giving an impression of that working class (for want of a better term) environment with its racism, misogynism and general struggle to adapt to the times. We are introduced to the tensions between Pakistani men and right-wing nationalist groups, and there is a real sense of a society on the point of collapse.

The dialect is made all the more interesting as it is balanced with a kind of rough poetic prose, which often uses expletives and alliterative, sexually explicit language with great results. While the characters themselves are limited in what they can articulate, Brown is a competent narrator with a distinctive style. He moves smoothly between the sections set in Leeds to those few scenes in the blistering heat of Basra. These transitions are not done too often though; this is not a novel comprised of flashbacks (which is what I had expected). Rather, these sections are used to emphasise the mundane cycles of John's life. He wakes up. He watches TV. He goes to the bar. He drinks beer. He has sex.

As he considers his prospects, the reader is left feeling as though there is nothing he can do that won't undermine his experiences at war. Sex is the closest he can get to the immediacy of experience that he craves, yet even that comes with the complication of attachment. The initial thrill, even John's proclamations of love, fade with time. Driven by an underlying desire for 'something more', the characters fail time and again to find any kind of real fulfillment.

For more reviews by Kate Wilson

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Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Christopher Hitchens: Enlightenment Fundamentalist

If ever anybody lived for outraging new forms of correctness, it was Christopher Hitchens.

Anybody would think a man who’s targets ranged from Mother Teresa to Henry Kissinger, Noam Chomsky to Sarah Silverman, actively sought attention. Or so detractors have said. Though why should this be a sleight on the accuracy of his convictions is debatable. For when Hitchens is right, he is very right. Yet there is a lurking suspicion of controversialists: that what they miss in accuracy they make up for in shock value, and, ultimately, lack sincerity. While this may contain a grain of truth, it can be too easy, too safe to deny the liberating impulses of a contrarian. In an earlier book of missives exploring radical, dissenting positions, Letters to a Young Contrarian, Hitchens wrote: “The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.”

And it was the independence of Christopher Hitchens mind that was shocking. Not the bombast – the performance, and the bravado – the sensitive and broad-ranging erudition that made counter-intuitive points sound right. Beyond the Wildean character was a brilliant literary critic who habitually stormed the world stage to outrage, delight and inform.

Hitchens had two basic modes: the commentary and the polemic. The former brought out his female qualities of intuition, gossip, sympathy; the latter, were either attacks on anything he didn’t like (generally some form of dogma, illiberalism or stupidity) or defenses of ideas or people he did liked. Or loved. These are macho, loud, and scolding. In She’s No Fundamentalist, Hitchens takes up the task of defending Ayan Hirsi Ali and happily names and shames his former acquaintances Timothy Garton Ash and Ian Baruma for incorrectly slurring Hirsi Ali as an “Enlightenment Fundementalist.”: But who dares to say [that belief in free speech is] the same as the belief that criticism of religion should be censored or the belief that faith should be imposed? To flirt with this equivalence is to give in to the demagogues and to hear, underneath their yells of triumph, the dismal moan of the trahison des clercs and “the enlightenment driven away.”

This enlightenment is not uncontroversial. The Greatest Think Tank in History, its promise of what Saul Bellow calls, ‘the universal eligibility to be noble’ is self-defeatingly seen as a cover for Western hegemony. Hitchens railed against cultural relativism and sacred cows, his pet hate being the idea of ‘moral equivalence’. And, in the intellect of Hitchens, we had a living specimen of the paradoxes of our politics. Had Hitchens classically moved Left to Right? Had he become a megaphone for Western Imperialism? Was he an advocate of universal freedom? Had the Left, as Nick Cohen contends, moved Rightward by implicitly supporting reactionaries in the name of multiculturalism? Hitchens saw a schism he thought transcended the traditional Left / Right divide: and it was this: “Briefly stated, this ongoing polemic takes place between the anti-imperialist Left, and the anti-totalitarian Left. In one shape or another, I have been involved – on both sides of it – all my life. And, in the case of any conflict, I have increasingly resolved it on the anti-totalitarian side.”

For the anti-imperialist, loyal to popular Marxist critique, the West is still the great superpower and the enemy of an enemy can so often be a friend. Islamists are resisting American hegemony. For the anti-totalitarian, Islamism and theocracy are barbaric, reactionary, oppressors of freedom. In Saul Bellow: The Great Assimilator Hitchens writes of Bellow’s political evolution: “His life as public intellectual is sometimes held to have followed art or trajectory: that from quasi-Trotskyist to full-blown ‘neocon’.” And, yet, like so many so-called neocons, like Hitchens himself, Bellow was hesitant to embrace the term. Further complicating the Left / Right diagnosis is the fact that many conservatives oppose liberal interventionism on the grounds that it is Leftwing Utopianism. Others, like Michael Gove, vehemently advocate interventionism as essential to defending the West. There are other Marxist critiques: no less the accelerationists who argue that capitalism, a revolutionary force, must be ‘speeded up’ in order to collapse itself, before moving onto a new stage of materialism. America, therefore, embodies the ideals of former Leftist movements and is the perfect agent of revolutionary change.

Left or Right, evidenced in these essays is a garrulous, individualist, raconteur glinting with contradictions: eloquent, literary, moral, boyish, patriotic, and charismatic in the way only a sort of upper-class Englishman can be. Essays range from the female humour deficit, to food and drink, to a cultural history of fellatio, the experience of torture and the oppression of the burka. Again, with the eclecticism of subject matter and forceful clarity of prose, parallels with his, Leftwing-patriot hero are easily drawn. Revealingly, in Hitchens’ view, George Orwell: “Decided to write as if people could be addressed as if they were humane and intelligent and democratic.” When we write about our heroes, we are really writing about the aspirations of our higher selves.

At its best, Arguably is Hitchens being Hitchens. George Orwell was novelist as well as journalist and committed himself to fighting earthly totalitarianism. Hitchens, by extension, no less courageous, no less anti-totalitarian, possibly stretched the definition of fascism to include Bin-Ladenism. Though what matters most is not whether Hitchens was Orwell, for, he was, unfailingly himself. Playing by the rules, keeping your head down, not speaking out for fearing the condemnation of peers may be safe, even lucrative, but it is not necessarily the path to truth. Arguably, true or untrue, Left or Right, reminds us of the sacred freedom of an unchained mind.

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Monday, 19 September 2011

Cosmopolis review in Politics On Toast

When Francis Fukuyama wrote “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such…” triumphalism was in the air; not only had the United States seen off it’s geopolitical rivals – starting with Nazism and finishing with Communism. It ended history. History in the Hegelian sense. The Utopianism once seen on the Left could now be seen on the Right: free markets and liberal democracy were inseparable. The future was American.

And for some years, these assumptions became cultural orthodoxy. Enter the Masters of the Universe:

“He kept doing this because he knew the yen could not go any higher. He explained that they were levels it could not reach. The market knew this. There were oscillations and shocks that the market tolerated to a certain point but not beyond. The yen itself knew it could not go higher. But it did go higher, time and again.”

In Cosmopolis, Eric Packer, is not the self-styled Master of the Tom Wolf’s Bonfire of the Vanities. He is typically DeLillo-esque. A multi-billionaire, prone to abstraction and numerical mysticism, riding through New York City in a stretch limo on a day heavy with what Saul Bellow called ‘event glamour’. The President is in town, a rapper’s funeral proceeds through the streets and an anti-globalisation protestors demonstrate in Times Square.

Don DeLillo has created a canon of literature as idiosyncratic as it is prescient. Veering away from the compendious Underworld and voodoo histories of Libra, the author’s later works have become slimmer, humbler, abstract, invariably strange. Of these later works Point Omega (2010) is the most successful with the what can only be described as a ‘quantum ghost story’ The Body Artist, the least. What could easily be dismissed as haute couture and self-regard, DeLillo has attempted an audacious novella. Packer is sub-human. An idiot savant. Like Leopold Bloom, setting out on a voyage of the mundane to the butchers’ shop in Ulysses, Packer sets out to get himself a haircut. But he is not on foot. His mode of transport is the distancing limousine in which he spends his morning engaged in bizarre conversations, unfettered lusts and having a rectal examination whilst lusting over a female colleague via telescreen.

It’s not all cyber-capitalist, market mysticism in the world of Eric Packers as he rolls around town when it’s revealed that he is has been the subject of death threats. DeLillo has written at great length about something he calls ‘Assassination Aura’; a sense of how historical event can weave their way into fiction. There are DeLillo’s hallmarks: the power of crowds, the auspices of technology and the threat of terrorism, ulterior modes of knowledge, the vacuity of consumer culture, and outright abstraction:

“Because time is a corporate asset now. It belongs to the free market system. The present is harder to find. It is being sucked out of the world to make way for the future. The future becomes insistent.”

Time has become a preoccupation of DeLillo, who’s interest of late has primarily become the nature of reality. From this everything else follows. It is the only way to understand DeLillo, the strange licks of his language, the every so slightly parallel universe he creates with a quantum awareness.

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