Stuff I’ve Been Reading: Nov/Dec 2007

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: Nov/Dec 2007

Nick Hornby
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  • The Pigman—Paul Zindel
  • The Bethlehem Murders—Matt Rees
  • The Dud Avocado—Elaine Dundy
  • Singled Out—Virginia Nicholson


  • Holes—Louis Sachar
  • The Fall-Out: How a Guilty Liberal Lost His Innocence—Andrew Anthony
  • A Disorder Peculiar to the Country—Ken Kalfus
  • Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees: A Life of Contemporary Artist Robert Irwin —Lawrence Weschler (unfinished)
  • Bridge of Sighs—Richard Russo (unfinished)

Weirdly, I have had sackfuls of letters from Believer readers recently asking me—begging me—to imagine my reading month as a cake. I can only imagine that young people in America find things easier to picture if they are depicted in some kind of edible form, and, though one cannot help but find this troubling, in the end I value literacy more highly than health; if our two countries were full of fat readers, rather than millions of Victoria Beckhams, then we would all be better off.

As luck would have it, this was the perfect month to institute the cake analogies. The reading cake divided neatly in half, with Andrew Anthony’s The Fall-Out and Ken Kalfus’s A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, both inspired by 9/11, on one plate, and Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs and Lawrence Weschler’s biography of the artist Robert Irwin on the other. Louis Sachar’s Holes, meanwhile, is a kind of nonattributable, indivisible cherry on the top. There. Happy now? I’m warning you: it might not work that satisfactorily every month.

Andrew Anthony is a former five-a-side football teammate of mine (he still plays, but my hamstrings have forced me into a tragically premature retirement), a leggy, tough-tackling midfielder whose previous book was a little meditation on penalty kicks. I’m not underestimating Andy’s talent when I say that this book is a top-corner thirty-yard volley out of the blue; you’re always surprised, I suspect, when someone you know chiefly through sport produces a timely, pertinent, and brilliantly argued book about the crisis in left-liberalism, unless you share a season ticket with Noam Chomsky, or Eric Hobsbawm is your goalkeeper.

Anthony (and if he wants a future in this business, he’s got to get himself a surname) is a few years younger than I, but we have more or less the same political memories and touchstones: the miners’ strike in the mid-’80s, the earnest discussions about feminism that took place around the same time, the unexamined assumption that the U.S.A. was just as much an enemy of freedom as the Soviet Union. Liberalism was a dirty word, just as it is in your country now, but in our case it was because liberals were softies who didn’t want to smash the State. As Anthony points out, we would have been in a right state if anyone had smashed the State—most of us were dependent on the university grants or the dole money that the State gave us, but never mind. We wanted it gone. These views were commonplace among students and graduates in the 1980s; there were at least as many people who wanted to smash the State as there were people who wanted to listen to Haircut 100.

Anthony took it further than most. He read a lot of unreadable Marxist pamphlets, and went to Nicaragua to help out the Sandinistas. (I would have gone, but what with one thing and another, the decade just seemed to slip by. And also: I know this keeps coming up, but what are you supposed to do when there’s a revolution on and you’re a season-ticket holder at a football club? Just, like, not go to the games?) He also had it tougher than most: Anthony was a working-class boy whose early childhood was spent in a house without a bath or an indoor toilet—a common enough experience in the Britain of the 1930s and ’40s, much rarer in the ’60s and ’70s. The things you learn about your friends when they write memoirs, eh? He had every right to sign up for a bit of class warfare. In the wearyingly inevitable name-calling that has accompanied the publication of his book, he has been called a “middle-class twat.”

Anthony, however, has concluded that the class war is now being fought only by the deluded and those so entrenched in the old ideologies that they have lost the power of reason. Which economic and political system would we really prefer? Which economic system would the working class prefer? Which economic system gives women the best chance of fulfilling their potential? Nobody, least of all Anthony, is suggesting that the free market should go unchecked—that’s why liberalism still matters. Post-9/11, however, all that old-left aggression, now whizzing round with nowhere to go, is being spent not on Iran, or North Korea, or any of the other countries that make their citizens’ lives a misery, but on the U.S.—not your hapless president, but the place, the people, the idea. Anthony threads some of the most egregious quotes from liberal-left writers throughout the book, and when you see them gathered together like that, these writers remind you of nothing so much as a bunch of drunks at closing time, muttering gibberish and swinging their fists at anyone who comes remotely close. “It has become painfully clear that most Americans simply don’t get it,” wrote one on September 13, 2001 (which, as Anthony points out, means that he would have had to have finished his copy exactly twenty-four hours after the Twin Towers fell).“Shock, rage and grief there have been aplenty. But any glimmer of recognition of why…. the United States is hated with such bitterness…. seems almost entirely absent.” Yes, well. Give them another day or so to get over the shock and grief, and they’re bound to come round to your way of thinking. “When I look at the U.K., it reminds me of the Nazi era,” said another, apparently in all seriousness. “While the killing of innocent people is to be condemned without question, there is something rather repugnant about those who rush to renounce acts of terrorism,” said a third. (Are these rushers more or less repugnant than the acts of terrorism themselves? It’s hard to tell.) By the time you get to the Index on Censorship editorial asking us to “applaud Theo van Gogh’s death as the marvellous piece of theatre it was,” you start to wonder whether some of these people might actually be clinically insane. Van Gogh, you may remember, was the Dutch filmmaker who was shot eight times and had his throat cut to the spine in broad daylight on a busy Amsterdam street. His last words were “Can’t we talk about this?” How’s that for censorship?

Sometimes, the doublethink necessary to produce observations and opinions like these can only produce disbelieving laughter. My favorite comic moment is provided by a leading Afro-Caribbean commentator, writing about the Asian immigrants expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin: “The Asians from Uganda came to what can only be described as the most inhospitable country on earth.” The country he’s talking about, of course, is Britain, the place the Asians fled to. This cannot literally be true, can it? However fierce our self-loathing, we must concede that, in this context at least, we came in a disappointing second place in the Most Inhospitable Country on Earth Cup. Uganda, the country that took everything the Ugandan Asians owned and forced them out under threat of death, won the gold medal fair and square.

This book has inevitably been misunderstood by many on the left as some kind of revisionist right-wing diatribe. It’s true that Anthony owns up to believing in causes and systems that slowly revealed themselves to have been unworthy of anyone’s belief, but this is an inevitable part of getting older. But The Fall-Out is really about the slippery relativist slope that leads tolerant, intelligent people to defend the right of unintelligent and intolerant people to be intolerant in ways that cannot help but damage a free society; I think we do a lot more of that in the U.K. than you do over there, possibly because the only people who have any real belief in an idea of England—invariably right-wing bigots—quite rightly play no real part in our political debate. Where is our Sarah Vowell?

Ken Kalfus’s A Disorder Peculiar to the Country made a wonderful accompaniment to Anthony’s book. You’ve probably read it already, so you know that it’s about the frighteningly unpleasant, horribly believable end of a marriage, set during and after 9/11. The book opens with both parties having reason to hope that the other might have been killed, either in the Twin Towers or on a plane, and if you haven’t read it already, then you will know from my synopsis of this narrative fragment whether you have the stomach for the rest of the novel. If the book has caught you at just the right point in your relationship, you’ll wolf it down. And just in case my wife bothers to read this: I’m not talking about us, darling. At the time I wrote these words we were getting on well. I wolfed it down for entirely literary reasons. A Disorder Peculiar to the Country is a sophisticated piece of adult entertainment (and by the way, that last word is never used pejoratively or patronizingly in these pages), full of mess and paranoia and an invigorating vicious-ness, and it takes narrative risks, too—a rare quality in a novel that is essentially naturalistic and uninterested in formal experiment. Not all of them come off, but when they do—and the vertiginous ending is one that does, in spades—you feel as though this is a fictional voice that you haven’t heard before.

So the plate with the other half of the cake on it was, like, an art plate, and I have to say that I haven’t eaten it all yet. I’m two-thirds of the way through Russo’s Bridge of Sighs and about halfway through Weschler’s Robert Irwin book, and my suspicion is that I won’t finish the latter. I’m so confused about the house rules that I’m really not sure whether I’m allowed to say that or not, even though it’s a simple statement of fact; harboring a suspicion that you won’t finish a book is almost certainly a crime, and I’m almost certainly looking at a one-month suspension, but I don’t care. My reluctance to finish the book is nothing to do with Lawrence Weschler—it’s because I enjoyed Everything That Rises, his brilliant collection of essays, that I went out (or stayed in, anyway) and bought this one. It’s more that the subject of his book is a minimalist artist, and when it comes to minimalist art, I am, I realize, an agnostic, maybe even an atheist.

I use these words because it seems to me that it’s something you either believe in or you don’t—a choice you’re not really given with a Hockney or a Hopper or a Monet. Here’s Irwin (clearly a likable, thoughtful man, incidentally) on his late line paintings, which consist of several straight lines on an orange background:

When you look… at them perceptually, you find that your eye ends up suspended in midair, midspace or even midstride: time and space seem to blend in the continuum of your presence. You lose your bearings for a moment. You end up in a totally meditative state.

Well, what if that doesn’t happen to you? I mean, it doesn’t happen to everyone, right? What are you left with? And it occurred to me that Catholics could make a similar claim about what happens when you receive communion. There’s a big difference between the body of Christ and a bit of wafer.

I shall write about Russo’s absorbing, painstakingly detailed novel next month, when I’ve finished it. But I kept muddling up Irwin with Russo’s artist character Noonan—not because the art they make is at all similar, but because the journey they take seems so unlikely. Noonan is a small-town no-hoper with a hateful father who grows up to be one of America’s most celebrated painters; Irwin was a working-class kid from L.A. who loved cars and girls, went into the army, and then embarked on an extraordinary theoretical journey that ends with the blurring of the space-time continuum. When you read about the two lives simultaneously, one adds credibility to the other.

Louis Sachar’s Holes is funny, gripping, and sad, a Boy’s Own Adventure story rewritten by Kurt Vonnegut. Do you people ever do light reading, or is it all concrete poetry and state-of-the-nation novels? Because if you ever do take any time out, may I make a suggestion? These young-adult novels I’ve been Hoovering up are not light in the sense that they are disposable or unmemorable—on the contrary, they have all, without exception, been smart, complicated, deeply felt, deeply meant. They are light, however, in the sense that they are not built to resist your interest in them: they want to be read quickly and effortlessly. So instead of reading the ninth book in a detective series, why not knock off a modern classic instead?

P.S. Well, that didn’t take long. I have been suspended for one issue. “Willful failure to finish a book,” it says here, “thereby causing distress to a fellow author and failing in your duty to literature and/or criticism.” Ho hum. This has happened so often that it’s water off a duck’s back. See you in a couple of months.

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