by SRB

Volume 3 – Issue 3 – Reviews

November 9, 2009 | by SRB

Adam Smith’s The Wealth Of Nations
P.J. O’Rourke
ATLANTIC BOOKS, £14.99
pp 242, ISBN 9781843543886

Reviewer: James Buchan

Towards the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith, there are two principal literary approaches. The first seeks to understand from the exiguous materials of Smith’s life in Eighteenth century Scotland why he wrote as he did. This approach originates in Dugald Stewart’s eulogy of Smith before the Royal Society of Edinburgh in early 1793, and has given us biographies by John Rae (1895), W.S. Scott (1937) and I.S. Ross (1995) and the texts of Edwin Cannan, Walther Eckstein and the modern Glasgow Edition.

The second approach seeks to mine from Adam Smith’s published works, most notably
An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of The Wealth Of Nations (1776), authority for modern political or commercial postures or practices. This approach begins with William Pitt the Younger, in a speech to the House of Commons in February, 1792, passes by way of John Stuart Mill and the late Victorian Economists to the neo-Smithians in the Anglo-Saxon countries of the 1970s, such as Milton Friedman and Margaret Thatcher.

Since Smith was writing in a pre-industrial Scotland, where a large factory had twenty hands and three thousand voters determined the fortunes of a million-and-a-half Scots, he is not of great service as a prophet of the hundred-billion-dollar corporation and modern democracy unless subjected to aggressive emendation. If the first or historical approach is worthy and dull, the second or ideological is gamey and very, very inaccurate. Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England and an adherent of the second approach, cannot even quote Smith correctly on the English £20 note.

P.J. O’Rourke, an American comic writer, belongs firmly to the second group. His qualification for writing about Adam Smith are that he is a right-wing American living in small-town New England, and has read some or much of The Wealth Of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). He does not appear to have read Smith’s essays, letters or lectures. As a plain American fellow, he boasts he was a poor student of philosophy and there is nothing in this book to undermine that boast. Mercifully, he knows no political economy and we are spared the modern fashion of inserting into Adam Smith’s work economic theories promulgated centuries after his lifetime.

O’Rourke principal contention is that The Wealth Of Nations is verbose, dull and often wrong, while his own book is brief, funny and wise. Each reader may judge the truth of that contention on the single combat of two excerpts.

Smith: “I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the publick good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it”.

O’Rourke: “Smith gets enmeshed in clarifications, intellectually caught out, Dagwood-like, carrying his shoes up the stairs of exegesis at 3.00 a.m., expounding his head off, while that vexed and querulous spouse, the reader, stands with arms crossed and slipper tapping on the second-floor landing of comprehension”.

As a humorist, O’Rourke has a just a single gag, which is anachronism. As in Mulan or The Jungle Book, distant countries and periods are merely the modern United States in costume. For O’Rourke as for the Disney company, the past is a featureless but English-speaking plain, in which here and who makes no great difference. Because O’Rourke does not understand what Smith intended by words such as “place”, “pneumatics”, “police” or “public school”, he mangles Smith’s arguments and then calls him a nut, “feckless”, “demented”, and “completely out of his mind”.

O’Rourke’s technique is to quote a sentence of Smith out of context, and then to cast it at one of his pet hates, such as the World Bank, the Kyoto Protocol, Rosalynn Carter, PBS, Bill Clinton, liberals, conservationists, central banks, John Lennon, the New York Times and women. O’Rourke misunderstands Smith so often that I suspect he had before him not a text of The Wealth Of Nations but an epitome or digest, perhaps the seven and a half pages of excerpts published by the Cato Institute in 1997 which he more than once praises.

For example, when Smith wrote that “the state cannot be very great of which the sovereign has leisure to carry on the trade of a wine merchant or apothecary”, he meant precisely what he said. Smith had not, as O’Rourke writes, “dismissed government ownership of businesses in one sentence” though he argues against that elsewhere.

The market for conceited twaddle is as deep and strong in the United States as on this side the water. O’Rourke’s book was warmly received in both the New York Times and the Washington Post. Does it matter? Not at all. Adam Smith is the most lucid philosopher ever to have reasoned in English. Readers come to him not merely, like O’Rourke, to reinforce commercial prejudices but to extend their intellects and refine their politics.

White Rose Rebel
Janet Paisley
VIKING, £12.99
pp387 ISBN 9780670917181

REVIEWER: TREVOR ROYLE

Boudicca meets Neil Munro is the literary and historical background of Janet Paisley’s spirited new historical novel and a jolly good job she makes of it too. From Walter Scott to Nigel Tranter and all points in between (think John Buchan or James Grant) Scots have proved to be excellent exemplars of the genre and Janet Paisley is no slouch in following in their footsteps as she wanders purposefully into the well-trodden areas of Jacobite history.

She writes with a confidence that is informed by several factors – her obviously deep love for Scotland, her tenacity in espousing the liberty of the individual and her determination to ensure the presence of women in Scotland’s history. Even better she has reinvented the form and made it her own with some startling innovations including a clutch of inventive sex scenes and some graphic pieces of violence. On the latter Paisley is first-rate: she knows that when swords and battle-axes meet frail bodies the result is bloody and shocking and she does not shy away from the horrors of close-quarter combat.

The time-frame of White Rose Rebel is the doomed Jacobite rebellion of 1745-1746 and to it Paisley has brought a novel twist. Her main character is a real-life heroine known as Colonel Anne Farquharson of Invercauld who led a force of Highlanders in the Jacobite army which was crushed by government security forces (which included many Scots) at Culloden in April 1746. As Paisley admits in a postscript little is known about the real Anne Farquharson or her motives and her novel is very much a work of fiction, albeit one that makes use of historical facts.

As such she chooses the well-worn theme of the woman torn between two men, one who supports the uprising and one who is opposed to it, at least in his head. Their story is soon told. Anne is married to Aeneas McIntosh newly elected leader of Clan Chattan but she also entertains a predatory fondness for young Alexander MacGillivray. To add spice both men are old friends and boon companions, one is calculating and pragmatic, the other is prey to his emotions.

Come the arrival of Bonnie Prince Charlie in the summer of 1745 choices had to be made and across the Highlands clan leaders weighed the odds. Some plumped for the Jacobite cause or ignored it altogether while others hedged their bets by sending their tenants under the command of younger sons. All too often it was a case of balancing the romantic attachment to the Stewart cause with the hard-headed knowledge that the Union of 1707 was already bringing Hanoverian prosperity to the Lowlands.

Predictably, Anne has no such misgivings. When her husband tells her that she might forfeit her life by riding in support of the Stewarts she agrees. “Our lives,” she tells him. “And our choice how they will be lived or lost”. The exchange tells us a lot about the character of Anne and Paisley’s attitude towards her.
MacGillivray throws in his lot with his childhood sweetheart and ends up getting killed in the process. But for Aeneas there is a different fate. To meet his family’s financial obligations he offers his followers as soldiers for government service in one of the three companies of the 43rd (later 42nd) Highlanders which served in the operations to put down the Jacobite rebellion. Later still this regiment was known as The Black Watch.

All this is related with a good deal of gusto and Paisley’s well-honed narrative takes the reader through the excitements of a period of history which still has the power to tickle emotions. Her creation of Anne Farquharson is a triumph: not only does she display the commitment which would have driven every regimental commander who served the Jacobites but she comes across as a person who knows exactly what she is doing. In the aftermath of Culloden she faces execution with equanimity telling her tormentors that she will gladly share the fate of her clan followers.

Of course it doesn’t come to that. In an ingenious twist Anne survives the gallows and lives to see her beloved Highlands utterly transformed. Within a few decades the old clan system had largely disappeared other than as a sentimentality run riot and families like the Farquahrsons and McIntoshes were busy raising Highland regiments to regain their attainted lands, not to say their place in society.

This is an excellent fictional account, lively and well-paced but save us from the publisher’ publicity which invites us to meet ‘the female Braveheart’. Wallace fought the English – this novel shows us what happens when Scots fought Scots.

The Picnic
Lesley McDowell
BLACK AND WHITE PUBLISHING, £14.99
pp256 ISBN 1845021290

A young Glasgow girl ice-skates for the first time in Toronto. The coloured lights around the rink grow brighter and Lily feels her ankles become heavier. Lily skates and skates, until she spots her mother on the ice a few feet away. Lily’s mother Rubina stands in a romantic embrace with someone Lily doesn’t recognize.

Years later, Rubina disappears at a family picnic by Lake Ontario. This incident is the central storyline of Lesley McDowell’s debut novel, The Picnic. The novel is set in two places – Scotland and Canada – and is told from two perspectives – Lily’s and her grown-up daughter Sadie, a scholar from St. Andrews University who wants to research the incident for an academic project. The dual narratives run parallel to each other as both women ponder the reason behind Rubina’s disappearance. Lily thinks she knows why her mother left but won’t tell; Sadie wants to know what happened to her grandmother, but isn’t told. Sadie’s insistence on the matter drives the two women apart until their arguments give way to cold silence.

McDowell’s confident writing boasts smart dialogue and a subtle lyrical style throughout. Playful rhymes are inserted in sections when Lily is a child, as she rhymes the word “girdle” with “milk that curdles and carts that hurtle.” Natural images pervade both narratives, from the fresh white snow covering the streets of Toronto to the high fields and windy beaches of St. Andrews.

The two narratives of Lily and Sadie create distinct voices. Lily’s obvious Glaswegian tone, chatty and troubled, recollects the years leading up to Rubina’s disappearance. Most of The Picnic is set in the past as Lily searches for clues in her own memories. The Great Scottish Diaspora provides a framework for the family’s conflicts. In the Fifties, Lily and her family immigrate to Canada by ship. “Canada is a place across the ocean with Red Indians who kill bears and men with their bows and arrows” imagines young Lily before they embark on their new adventure.

Inspired by the immigration of her father’s family to Canada, McDowell gets perceptions of Scots coming to Canada for the first time just right. The shiny, new home appliances, the miles of lush green forests and the scorching East coast summers are noted with a foreigner’s fascination. Everything in Canada is bigger and brighter. At night, young Lily whispers strange words that she heard that day: “darn”, “gees” and “holy smoke.” Lily hopes her mother will be happier in Toronto, but sees her reach for a bottle of alcohol hidden in a cupboard. As Lily recounts growing up in Canada, her thoughts always return to the summer day when Rubina left them. “Bad things shouldn’t happen when the sun shines” Lily says sadly.

In contrast, Sadie’s narrative is written in the third person. Her thoughts appear separate, as if in a cartoon bubble, in a small typeset above the narration. Working in St. Andrews, “a tiny frozen little place by the sea,” she strives for academic acceptance in an English department of men. Her obsession with theorizing her grandmother’s life is really a search for her own identity. Dressed always in black, she works long hours in her small office and thinks about “words, not bodies.” How she can turn “a family mystery into research.”

The author’s theme of abandonment is evident. When Lily is nineteen, she leaves Canada to go back to Scotland because she and Rubina are not getting along. Sadie admits at the end of the first chapter that she moved to St. Andrews to get away from Lily. Lily thinks that leaving is natural. “Leave to go on holiday. Leave to have an affair. Leave to find yourself. People do it all the time,” she reasons. But Lily brings up the North American idea of “closure” – that without saying goodbye, leaving one’s family is a betrayal.

Dual narratives can sometimes be jarring, but McDowell handles hers with ease and grace. Swinging back and forth from Lily to Sadie, the author spans a time period of almost fifty years and over two countries. The two narratives, written in the spirit of each woman’s generation, compliment each other as mother and daughter learn how alike they are.

Canadian writers have long reflected the Scots presence in Canada. Contemporary examples include Alistair MacLeod’s Cape Breton Highland Scots in No Great Mischief and Alice Munro’s search for her own Scottish antecedents in The View from Castle Rock. Until now, Scottish writers have been slow to reciprocate, preferring to set their work in Scotland. McDowell’s fine portrayal of the immigrant experience may be the book that will begin to redress the balance.

An Taigh-Samhraidh
Angus Peter Campbell
CLÀR, £8.99
pp240 ISBN 1900901293

REVIEWER: RONNIE BLACK

Henry James once wrote that the novel “needs the concept of a normal society”. As Gordon Brown likes pointing out, a ‘normal’ society is one in which everyone speaks a common language. This means that ever since the first Highland chiefs were sent to Eton about 1750 and the first squeeze was put on the tacksmen (the bulwark of the Highland middle class), Gaelic society has progressively become less and less ‘normal’ even in its own territory – and that, compared to songs and poems, the Gaelic novel has always been a rare creature, a whale surrounded by thousands of little fishes.

Since 2003 the Gaelic Books Council has been tackling this problem, with success that I would describe as phenomenal under the circumstances. Their Ùr-Sgeul (‘New Story’) series has produced eleven works of prose, nine of them novels, nominally published by Clàr of Inverness. Of the novels, one or two stand comparison with the best of their kind in any language, one or two fail, and the rest are good or very good.

The latest offering, Angus Peter Campbell’s An Taigh-Samhraidh, is typical. For one thing, Campbell (a native of South Uist) is Ùr-Sgeul’s most prolific author, this being his third novel in the series. For another, it’s good. It begins well and ends very well, despite losing its way in the middle. With An Taigh-Samhraidh (it means ‘The Holiday Home’, or more literally ‘The Summer-House’), Campbell’s writing comes of age. One reviewer put her finger on a particular weakness in his second novel, Là a’ Dèanamh Sgèil do Là (‘One Day Speaks to Another’): the female characters were one-dimensional, and appeared to exist mainly for the benefit of the men. In An Taigh-Samhraidh Campbell puts that right. There are three main male characters and three main female ones, and the two women are better than the men in all the ways in which women are prone to be better than men.

The issue didn’t arise in Campbell’s first Ùr-Sgeul novel, An Oidhche mus do Sheòl Sinn (‘The Night before We Sailed’), perhaps because the women in that epic were so single-minded that they resembled men. Equally, the problem may be that when the author’s own voice is as omnipresent and three-dimensional as it is in the novel under consideration, he risks leaving his own characters in the shade. It’s hard at times in An Taigh-Samhraidh to be sure whether we’re reading Campbell’s latest novel or his column in the West Highland Free Press. In fact, at a low point halfway through, after providing us with an italicized list of historical events in two languages, he adds, “coltach ris an nobhail seo a tha mi a’ sgrìobhadh (“like this novel I’m writing”); I was glad of this reassurance.

But Campbell’s style is Campbell’s style, and I’m sure he isn’t going to ditch it even if he could. No doubt he was right to stick to it, but he was also right to put in more work on characterization. In a Campbell novel, for every step forward taken by the plot, we’re treated to snatches of poetry and song, philosophical speculations, and quotations in a variety of languages, including English. Oh, and lists.

An Taigh-Samhraidh is set in the island of Seil south of Oban, where Campbell spent part of his childhood. The principal characters are Seumas Dubh MacLachlainn and his wife Ciorstaidh (who lived in the eighteenth century), Tom Wilson and his wife Rebecca (who live in the Twenty-First century and have a holiday home in the island, the house that Seumas and Ciorstaidh built), and Ronnie Weaver, who provides the glue that joins the plot together.

Weaver, a Canadian, is a descendant of Seumas and Ciorstaidh. He has learned Gaelic, feels strongly about the colonization of the Highlands and Islands by incomers who know nothing of the region’s language and traditions, and knows from personal experience about the need for affordable housing in rural areas. He also believes in direct action, though not quite along the Welsh lines of setting fire to holiday homes.

Central to Campbell’s writing is a passionate belief in marriage. Seumas and Ciorstaidh’s solid partnership is a counterpoint to the Wilsons’ dysfunctional one. By the time we reach an exciting dénouement in the whirlpool of Corryvreckan, we’ve begun to appreciate that this good novel has a comprehensive and well-thought-out message about the clash between tradition and capitalism on three different levels: cultural, economic and social.
Read it if you can. If you can’t, enroll in a Gaelic class, because no Gaelic novel has been translated into English since 1924.

Love Letters from my Death-Bed
Cynthia Rogerson
TWO RAVENS PRESS, £8.99
pp288 ISBN 1906120005

REVIEWER: LAURA HIRD

Cynthia Rogerson’s latest novel, Love Letters From My Death-Bed, published on new Ullapool-based publisher Two Ravens Press, is a wonderfully eccentric exploration of the choices we make and ways we behave when faced with our own mortality and that of others.

Gentle Valleys, California’s first European-style hospice, is having extreme difficulty finding any dying people to occupy it. Joe Johnston, Gentle Valley’s owner, promises Manuel Mendoza, a drifter pretending he’s a doctor, a job if he can drum up some trade. In desperation, Mendoza convinces Morag, a colleague from his pot-washing job who he is in love with, that she has terminal cancer so she will move into the hospice.

Serial polygamist Morag, originally from the Scottish Highlands is an engaging character. Craving love and affection, she is a sucker for male hairdressers, doctors and dentists who she visits regularly just to feel a man’s hands on her. She lives in growing fear she will never be kissed again and enjoys fantasising about her funeral, for at least then she will be the centre of attention: “Her throat is filled with the kind of unfocused sorrow that easily comes with habitual funeral fantasies”. The title comes from a comically poignant scene in which Morag, thinking her life is nearly over, looks through scrapbooks of all her husbands, and writes letters of apology to them for the hurt she caused.

Fred Snelling is one of the Hospice’s only two residents. Robbie and Carlton Snelling, siblings and Fred’s grandchildren, make a wonderfully awful pair. Selfish, cynical, and lazy, their contempt for everything and everyone other than themselves somehow makes every page they occupy oddly and morbidly compulsive.

Love Letters From My Death-Bed is set in Fairfax, California, a small town populated by first and second generation hippies. “Basically, it is still the Sixties, with better coffee”. The novel is full of sharp but affectionate swipes at the legacy of the flower power generation. “Everything their (the Snellings) parents did to rebel is now politically correct, missing the entire point”.

Crammed with gloriously complex and lovingly rendered oddballs, the novel whizzes along at an incredible pace. Rogerson’s prose has a wonderful energy and rhythm. She is a master storyteller whose love of language and black humour envelops the reader within the strange and strangely familiar, sometimes reminiscent of early John Irving.

Love Letters From My Death-Bed is illustrated with quirky, off-beat illustrations and examples of its protagonists’ signatures from which Rogerson asks you to draw you own conclusions. The illustrations, by Alec Houston, really add to the screwball atmosphere. Following a passage about Mendoza and the filthy house and neighbourhood in which he lives, there’s a gloriously scuzzy picture of him lazing in bed, beside which Rogerson asks – “Does any of this bother Manuel Mendoza? Does it look like it does? Look at him…” It is the same clumsily swaggering Mendoza who uses a card bearing the message, “Hi. Smile if you want to sleep with me. If not, please return this card, as it is very expensive,” to help him seduce women.

The author has obviously taken a great deal of pleasure in writing Love Letters From My Death-Bed; a pleasure which is infectious. From the love-letters of the title itself, to the lists the Snell’s make up of reasons to hate and reasons to like people, to the lovely detail used to make even the minor characters breath and jump from the page. Such as Morag’s five neighbours who bond over a plot to alleviate her misfortunes, and Fred whose final trip out to the beach with his grandchildren is immensely funny and tragic at the same time. Even the ambulance drivers who arrive to pick up an inebriated Morag to take her to the hospice after her initial false diagnosis are incredibly well drawn, as are the hospice staff and volunteers, “genteel good women [for whom] the hospice is the respectable version of stopping at a freeway to gawk”.

The only character that didn’t ring true to me is that of Consuela, a ghost who haunts the hospice, sightings of whom appear throughout the book. The device gives the book an extra layer which it doesn’t really need and sometimes serves to take the reader out of the narrative and distract, rather than enhance it. This is a quibble though in what is a delightfully funny and often deeply touching book.

No More Angels
Ron Butlin
SERPENT’S TALE, £8.99
pp207 ISBN 1852429542

REVIEWER: JONATHAN FALLA

Ron Butlin’s new collection carries an ‘appreciation’ by Ian Rankin. This is fitting, since the stories inhabit a landscape Rankin knows well. Most are set in or near to Edinburgh, most involve copious alcohol, and two thirds are about death.

Only a few murders, admittedly. Most are deaths remembered, usually of family: the wife killed in a car accident, the brother drowned, the mother collapsing with a coronary, another mother falling downstairs, plus one victim of Lockerbie. A husband is killed by remorseless disease, and his wife waits for death. Another family’s exotic birds are on the way out, literally, with the cage door left ajar: “They’ll die out there; they need looked after”. Butlin’s characters are not good at looking after each other. Some relatives are grieving; others are dancing on the grave. Fathers make a poor showing, being unemployed couch potatoes or bullies. They’d be better off dead, and several are.

Travellers arriving at Turnhouse airport, with its embarrassing mural of congratulatory quotes on the glories of Edinburgh civilisation, may not recognise Butlin’s city, but Ian Rankin will. This is “a cul-de-sac of uncollected bin bags, broken glass, dogshit and lack of sunlight”, where the only tourist site visited is Calton Hill: “Big deal. A lumpy stretch of grass with Greek pillars stuck in it.” Innocent lads won’t want to hang about with the company up there.

There is also the death-in-life of the meaningless job or marriage, or the alcoholic’s insensibility. The town is full of alcoholics: the derelict renting out student lodging; the homeless slumped in doorways; young men staggering across pubs with a skinful of heavy; a professor drunk on malt insulting the wife; an elderly butler drowning in bitterness and the master’s claret. The house guests get pished and lob peeled prawns for a bimbo to catch in her mouth: “She would lean forward, instead, catching them in her cleavage. Purpose-built, it seemed.” The young rot their livers with Black Velvet, meaning here a blend of beer and cider. (I’d always thought Black Velvet was Guinness and Champagne, but there I go with my elitism.) Haute cuisine is wasted on the Edinburgh elite, while the rest of the population subsists on McRubbish, Chinese carry-outs and the fine dining to be had at Giorgio’s flop-house: “slice of bread – 15p butter, 10p marge”.

If the tone of all this seems rather unremitting, it is. Butlin can write very amusingly, but this collection has a bad case of the glums. One looks in vain for much beauty or love or celebration, and after a while the misery can become wearying. So the flashes of light and humour are to be treasured: the kindness of a ‘Paki’ shopkeeper to an old lady, or that same old lady skewering a road-hog’s tyre with an artificial Christmas tree, or the kiss from a girl who had seemed a prize bitch of a tease, but who might just be a genuine sweetie after all.

Some of the best stories are the deft short fables. A nice one features a Tony Blair lookalike, “who had turned sincerity into a brand-name stamped across his forehead”, having an unfortunate encounter with the Delphic oracle. There’s also a deft jab at pretension in art music; when you see Arnold Schoenberg described as “the great composer and music theorist”, you can be sure that Modernism is in for some happy slapping. Sure enough: “After turning the corner into the glorious future ahead, the engine [goes] slamming into a solid wall”. Schoenberg is soon “rushing up to complete strangers. ‘My twelve-tone system offers real value for money to composer, player and audience alike'”. It is neatly done, with a stripped-down, agile humour that RLS would have enjoyed.

Much the most effective and moving story, though, is the longer piece that closes the book, ‘Alice Kerr Went With Older Men’. I am increasingly convinced that the art of the short story (so often said to be in the doldrums) is ill-served by the constraining “3,000-word max.” of competitions, radio reading and magazine publication. Alice Kerr makes the point. In this tale – sixty pages instead of the routine eight or nine – Butlin shakes off his slightly formulaic horrors and allows his characters to grow, to achieve a complex personal journey. The result is a very superior piece of fiction, a fine story. The world is the same – youth seeking an escape from crushing parents, dead-end prospects and hopeless love – and the route leads through the familiar landscape. But Butlin’s young hero comes to life in a way that is varied, funny, convincing, worldly wise but, at the last, hopeful. The story (and the collection) concludes: “He was so very, very glad” – and this we can genuinely share.

The End Of Mr Y
Scarlett Thomas
CANONGATE, £10.99
pp455 ISBN184195957X

REVIEWER: COLIN WATERS

Normally, using modern French philosophy to clarify a novel’s plot is only slightly less futile than pushing a grape up a hill with your nose. Such a volume, book shop-physics dictate, can expect to hit the remainder bin at the speed of light. The End Of Mr Y however is good enough to uncast such prejudices. Its author, Scarlett Thomas, has been writing for almost a decade now, publishing books whose intriguing characters – a man allergic to UV, corporate cool hunters – and zigzag of high and low cultural references never quite catalysed. The impression left was one of cut-price Coupland, a karaoke version of Murakami. Traces of both authors continue to whistle through The End Of Mr Y, only here Thomas indulges her imagination and her reading habits more than ever – and this time the mix ignites.

It begins with gravity. On an unnamed English campus, the Newton building, almost as if its name was a self-fulfilling prophecy, falls down. Subsidence: underground tunnel. Watching from the English department, we find our heroine and narrator, Ariel Manto, a Ph.D student. With the car park, and so her car, ruled out of bounds for safety reasons, Ariel has to walk home. Taking an unfamiliar route she chances upon a second hand book shop. Inside, she discovers an odd book, as odd as the adventure yarn her creator has embroiled her in.

Ariel’s doctorate is on Thomas E Lumas, a Nineteenth century writer and crank whose obscurity is all but impenetrable. The ne plus ultra of his nigh-on invisible ‘career’ (the inverted commas are mockingly justified) is his last book, The End Of Mr Y. No library in the world has a copy, no one even knows what it was about. Lumas died the day after it was published in 1893, everyone involved in its publication, soon afterwards. Little wonder then that antiquarians talk of the missing book as cursed. That Ariel’s supervisor and Lumas’ biographer, Professor Burlem, has gone missing only adds to speculation.

In one of those symmetries that only ever happen in books, Ariel discovers The End Of Mr Y in the shop, reasonably cheap, staff unaware of its true value. Despite its reputation, Ariel dives into the book. Lumas provides a curious warning that the novel is merely a thought experiment: “It’s only as fiction that I wish this book to be considered.” Guessing the book is somewhat more than mere fabulation, Ariel cooks up the formula recipe’d in the book. This potion propels its imbiber into the Troposphere, a mystical “world-of-minds” where adepts hop between people (and mice!), accessing memories and desires. Resembling a RPG set on a lysergic landscape, the Troposphere is dangerously addictive. Worse, rogue CIA agents (who else?) have got wind of The End Of Mr Y and sensing its lucrative potential, are prepared to kill to secure a copy.

[/TALS]The End Of Mr Y (Thomas’ book, not Lumas’) is not only a Matrix-style jump-and-run actioner, it’s also a philosophical salad. Thomas tosses together Derrida, Heidegger, Lacan, as well as Baudrilliard whose idea of ‘the Simulacrum’ – a copy of the real that supplants the real, his paradigm of modern existence – is central to both Mr Y and The Matrix. Language is itself a Simulacrum, and Thomas uses her plot’s downtime to build up this idea with reference to, amongst other things, quantum physics and homeopathy. “Can something be created in language independently of the people who use the language? Can language become a self-replicating system…?”

Such thoughts bring to mind Thomas’ label mate, Steven Hall and his debut novel, The Raw Shark Texts, which similarly constructed a fantasy-thriller out of outré philosophy, pulp science fiction, and word games encoded in the text from the title down. Taken together with a book like Andrew Crummey’s Mobius-Dick, one almost detects the lineaments of a new and winning literary mutation: a sort of post-modern polar fantasy that pirates the highest and lowest art, splitting the difference without dividing into a soggy middlebrow read.

Not that The End Of Mr Y is perfect, though its sins are ones of ambition rather than poor execution. Like Hall’s and Crummey’s books, some loose ends are left flapping, and each book concludes, funnily enough, with the main characters happy if caught in an other-worldly zone that might be a post-death dream. Also Thomas’ similes occasionally slide away from her too. “The sky is the colour of sad weddings.” What colours is that? Grey? White? Black? “The rain is bouncing off the pavement like tears on a table”. When was the last time you saw a tear bounce, on a table or otherwise? Quibbles, quibbles. The End Of Mr Y will make excellent, ambitious poolside reading whether you chose to holiday here or another dimension.

King Henry
Douglas Galbraith
HARVILL SECKER £12.99
pp320 ISBN 0436206285

REVIEWER: RONALD FRAME

This is a wet Sunday book. It’s a baggy old sofa kind of novel, to let yourself sink into.

Back to 1915, Detroit. The central figure is Henry Ford, and this is the very long, 400 plus pages, tale of his involvement in a plan to conclude the war in Europe, which he considered harmful to business and enterprise.

Lots of characters (spot that famous person in walk-on cameos). Lots of voices telling us what goes on at the court of King Henry. Bags of history bits too. Things you feel you almost knew, information which you can squirrel away in case it should come in useful (University Challenge perhaps). Automobile racing, trains, ships, Halley’s Comet overhead (when it isn’t zeppelins) – we’re always on the move, speed is the common denominator, and indeed there’s something breathless about how this deluge of historical detail goes flashing past us. (One damn thing after another, pretty much.).

When I was growing up, it was so much simpler. Historical fiction was Jean Plaidy, safely distanced to Tudor times. Or it was Mary Renault’s sun-soaked and blood-drenched recreations, enthusiastically recommended to us by a charismatic young classics master at school in dreich Glasgow, who had the air of a bearded Greek warrior about him: a lifeline to save us from the morass of conjugations and declensions.

Then we became ironic and post-modern and perhaps just too knowing for our own good. We could throw it all up in the air: fact or fiction, who was caring? The Bruce Chatwin period. Later WG Sebald, over-praised as Chatwin surely was, teasingly left us to puzzle over the veracities of his ‘Emigrants’ – and his other books, written in their gluey way.

The one triumph of genre-bending I recall was a little-noticed book by Frenchwoman Elisabeth Baraille. Her subject, alas, was avant-garde writer Anais Nin, a vain and rather vapid and silly person. Nin was undeserving at one level: at another she was entirely appropriate. A serial fantasist, her inner life was anyone’s guess, so why not the inspired Baraille’s? Contrasting with the out-and-out fictionalising was that heady French mixture of sensual regard and pinning-a-specimen-to-the-board precision, plus her stylistic risk-taking (sentences without verbs; or sudden Olympian formality). Thanks to Baraille, the endlessly self-mythologising Nin couldn’t fool us any more.

More conventional based-on-life novels still get written. There was one recently narrated by Randolph Hearst’s butler. King Henry presents Henry Ford from many angles, but one problem in carrying the story forward along these parallel routes is separating the characters when they all speak in the first person and in much the same voice.

The book is unusual for 2007 in this, that it doesn’t parade any list of books consulted, offers no assurances or disclaimers.

So how much is based on Ford fact, and how much is Douglas Galbraith’s invention? Does it even matter that we should know?

For the centenary of his death I was commissioned to write a Radio 3 drama about Verdi. Never mind that much of his music leaves me cold, I duly applied myself to the task. I might have tackled the subject in a different way, but I chose to have him speak thoughts and memories I was giving him. Even if I believed I was being ‘true’ to the details of his life, I was still claiming the man’s soul for myself. I invented him falling out of a tree as a boy, for instance – or I think I invented it, I can’t actually remember. And if I don’t know any more ….

Mr Galbraith goes about the business a little differently: he has Henry Ford doing and saying things, yes, but he’s observed doing and saying by others. We’re at a certain distance from him, not inside his head. Ford is an enigma, or at least a paradox: a man surfaced with mirrors.

Perhaps it’s the very orderliness of the vignettes which unsettles me. In one very nicely written chapter – Mr Galbraith’s prose isn’t to be faulted, nor his grasp of the characters’ psychology – he homes in, literally enough, on the young Ford and wife Clara. Henry demonstrates his messy new engine in their kitchen one Christmas Eve. To Callie he says “I could have tested it at the works, but I wanted you to see it when it first goes”.

Did this happen?

Does it bother you if it didn’t, or if it half-happened thus?

Maybe I’m showing signs of my age, but I need my distinctions now. A good biography can be as pacey as any novel. An able biographer is controlling and censoring, of course, but also – if he or she is duly modest, and serving the subject – not confusing the lived life with the speculative.

The question I’m left with is, does a novel add to our understanding of the person? EL Doctorow’s Ragtime managed, with grace and wit and some daring, to fillet Teddy Roosevelt’s America, and at lesser length, and with the savvy – or chance good timing – of catching the zeitgeist. In my fogey-ish way I feel that life generally offers enough surprises not to beg a make-over.

But then, that’s just me. You might absolutely love it. There’s bound to be a wet Sunday in prospect.

Blog / Discussion

x
2
Posts Remaining