Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked – Review by Jess Cotton

In a 2009 YouTube clip that looks like a scene from David Lynch’s Inland Empire, a news reporter interviews a Pennsylvanian costume shop owner, kitted out in a bunny costume, who has been apprehended for cyberstalking her competitor. When the reporter solicits a response, the accused tears off her hirsute crown, only to reveal another, more sinister mask lurking beneath.

Once a bedfellow of unrequited love, stalking has mutated at a breathtaking rate in our virtual times, feeding off our fascination with radically open modes of communication. Rather than the aggression of a physical pursuit, cyber misconduct thrives on the net’s invisibility cloak. Its perpetrators are characterised by a particular slipperiness of identity, and its modus operandi are pathologically invasive, breeding that most ugly of subspecies – the internet troll. There’s no prurient waiting for a light to go on in an upstairs window, just an obsessional trawling through Google’s stash of private-data-made-public.

Anglo-American poet, novelist and critic James Lasdun’s latest work ponders these techniques of harassment, which he brands “verbal terrorism.” Part-memoir, part writerly  ramble through literary symbolism and chivalric romance, Lasdun’s book is an angst-ridden, chilling account of cyber-manipulation told by a master storyteller.

The story begins in 2003, when Lasdun is teaching a creative writing workshop in New York. Among his students is a young Iranian woman, he calls Nasreen, whose literary ambition and talents single her out as the star of the class. At first their exchanges are brief and professional, focusing on her novel-in-progress, a dense historical work based on her family’s experience in pre-revolutionary Iran. Lasdun remarks on Nasreen’s “undemonstrative confidence” and self-deprecating humour, and deems her “unflustered” reaction to praise “the mark of a real writer.”

Two years pass. Nasreen gets back in touch, asking Lasdun to read over her finished draft. He refrains; but an email exchange is kindled. Lasdun assumes the role of “avuncular” mentor-figure, sending accounts of his family life and vegetable garden; Nasreen is bored, working a dreary day job in the city and has just split up with her fiancé. At first their exchanges are amicable, but the frequency and amorous nature of the emails steadily begins to alarm Lasdun. When he protests, he receives a gracious, thoughtful response. But then he sends Nasreen’s two provocative emails, inquiring how she feels as a Muslim in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. She responds curtly: “Would you like to see me in a veil, sir?,” triggering a deluge of delusional emails, in which motifs of gender, race, capitalism and Middle Eastern politics commingle in schizoid narratives.

The memoir subsequently slips into a defensive treatise, wherein the narrator asserts his moral rectitude, informing his readers of his devotion to his wife, his happy marriage, and his honourable intentions towards his former student. He attempts to regain control of his narrative by projecting his own knight errant fantasy, fending of the wily woman’s “asymmetrical warfare.”

Much of the book navigates the problematic territory of professing to be the wrongly accused, and the paranoia that ensues from obsessive self-censorship. The story is at times uncannily reminiscent of Lasdun’s 2002 novel, The Horned Man, whose narrator, Lawrence Miller, an English professor at a New York college, sits on the board of a sexual harassment committee. Miller’s warped perceptions and duplicitous storytelling makes him a paragon of male sexual guilt. The literary parallels do not go unnoticed by Lasdun; or by Nasreen, who self-identifies with multiple personae in Lasdun’s stories, and cunningly puts him in the position of the protagonist of his own book.

When Lasdun finally stops responding to her onslaught, she ups her psychic warfare, “as if,” he writes, “my rejection had given [her] licence to evolve in a kind of negative space, feeding off [her] own extravagance.” She files a discrimination suit on the grounds of gender and race, and her correspondence turns flagrantly anti-Semitic. “By a certain point,” Lasdun writes, “we were both, in effect, creating or re-creating each other in the image of our crassest fear, our most cravenly stereotyping fantasy: the Demon Woman, shall we say, and the Eternal Jew.”

The memoir is a fascinating study of how identity is fabricated and maintained, and how the internet acts as the natural facilitator for motiveless abuse. Lasdun counterpoints the persona that Nasreen creates of him (built up through slanderous emails sent to colleagues and defamatory online reviews) with an attempt to account for, and make sense of, his doppelganger. Nasreen, for her part, refers to her cyber play as “performance art,” drawing in a wide range of esoteric and geopolitical references, which aggrandise their relationship to that between the imperialist and the lone jihadi.

Most interesting is Lasdun’s view that the internet – that ultimate usurper of facts – makes us more subject than ever to other people’s opinions, allowing us, in effect, to be created in their image. He argues that it reinstates the role that reputation played in pre-modern culture, where one’s livelihood depended on trust and hearsay. Lasdun attributes Nasreen’s attacks to her amorphous identity, to a lack of regard for borderlines or difference. Since we experience Nasreen nearly exclusively in the form of paranoid emails, she stands as a kind of spectre of our virtual reality.

For all his stylistic panache, documenting how Nasreen’s own obsession achieves “perfect symmetry” with his own, Lasdun’s memoir falters when it insists on the “sheer singularity” of Nasreen’s case. He refuses to concede that she might be “mentally ill,” that her paranoia is pathological, rather than of the symbolic kind, associated with Rilke’s Angel. Accounting for her personality disorder would, Lasdun concedes, make the whole writing procedure “meaningless,” a phrase that would serve as ample ammunition to Nasreen’s case that he exploits her to his own fictional ends. It creates an odd distancing effect, which might work in fiction, where it could be deemed a foible of the narrator; but in memoir, it alienates. Lasdun’s trouble – like Nasreen’s – is an allegiance to overarching narratives, rather than to the messy particularity of his subject.

The memoir is at its finest in its deviations, in its readings of literary works that ponder themes of sexual guilt and secret complicity, drawing on Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Tintin, Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train, and DH Lawrence to excellent effect. But these exquisite self-contained essays are not enough to draw together the threads of what is otherwise a disjointed tale, swamped with allusions and hampered by the teller’s self-aggrandising tone. As the narrative progresses, Nasreen becomes a mere footnote to the author’s own usurping narrative, charting his heritage as a non-practicing Jew and the legacy of his father, the renowned architect Denys Lasdun. Repeatedly, he interrogates his “ancient insecurity” that there is “something about myself that I simply don’t see.” Despite his judicial candour and steely precision, this “honest” reader-critic can’t help but agree. 

 

Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked by Jonathan Cape, £14.99

A Hologram for the King – Review by Chris Lloyd

The first thing you notice about Dave Eggers’ new novel A Hologram for the King is its luxuriant cover. The hardback is embossed with gold pattern and text; the jacket a deep rich emerald. On first appearance, this is as much an art object as a novel. The American edition, I should note, is even more resplendent: the cover heavy and golden. Other than a certain superficial aestheticism, I’m not sure of Eggers’ intent in this regard, not least because it belies that lightness within. While this may sound like a criticism, there is a deftness and subtlety about Eggers’ prose that makes reading his (newer) books so easy. He has a way with narrative pace and tone that renders this book in particular seamless in its momentum and construction. Gone is the narrative and linguistic brio of his precocious debut, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and in its place we face a style something like reportage: unaffected and terse. Whereas in a writer such as Joan Didion, for example, these qualities coalesce in a scalpel-sharp incisiveness that is probing as well as humane, Eggers’ writing often falls short of its intentions, becoming dull and repetitive. The opening lines – ‘Alan Clay woke up in Saudi Arabia. It was May 30, 2010. He had spent two days on planes to get there’ – are exemplary.

A Hologram concerns the story of Alan, a middle-aged American businessman, who along with three young colleagues, travels to Saudi Arabia to sell IT software to ‘the King’. Their computer technology creates holograms, so that one can have business meetings with other people in entirely different countries. As soon as they arrive in Saudi Arabia, Alan and his team realise that their pitch will not be as straightforward as imagined. Not only is the King not in Saudi, but they are taken to an in-process development: the King Abdullah Economic City. This ‘city’ is deserted save for workmen, and there are but a few offices and apartment complexes built. KAEC – as it is known – turns out to be a kind of Kafkaesque nightmare: a place where no-one knows anything about when the business pitch will take place, how the team can get internet or food, or where any of Alan’s Saudi contacts are. Alan (and the reader) is kept in the dark for much of the novel; Waiting for Abdullah, rather than Godot, would be an apt enough title. Whether the King actually shows up, I won’t reveal, but through the stalling narrative, Alan experiences a number of detours that forms the real substance of this novel.

Among many incidents, Alan has two romantic encounters that are not only obvious, but in the second instance, strangely uncomfortable. Without giving away too much plot, Alan strikes an unlikely relationship with a Muslim woman. Their first kiss occurs in the sea, deep underwater, as if to show that only here (deep beneath the surface) can real desire be expressed by this woman. The imagery is clumsy. Not only is the storyline quite ridiculous, but its heavy-handedness distracts from the very complex and thorny notions of inter-racial desire and Muslim womanhood in the Middle East. Elsewhere, Eggers is quite astute and adroit when it comes to the difficulties and paradoxes at the heart of this culture: the differences in public and private spheres, the gap between what is said and done, as well as the gaping chasms between Western understandings of Middle Eastern culture and the lived realities. These are mainly tackled in the scenes between Alan and a local man, Yousef, who becomes his part-time ‘driver’. In one more successful interlude, Yousef brings Alan to his father’s home in the mountains. One night, the local men take Alan out to try and shoot some wolves that have been killing a local farmer’s sheep; the night ends with an unexpected event that so precisely captures the unease that defines both Alan and his predicaments at home and abroad.

Thus, while I can see a connection between the surfaces that so dominate  the narrative – computer screens, holograms, emails, reflective glass – and the book’s beautiful exterior, the real substance of Eggers’ novel comes not from a dialogue about such so-called ‘postmodern’ issues. Indeed, it is not technology that is the problem in this book, but the failures of human communication, the failures of manhood, the blind-spots of Westerners away from home. This is a novel that attempts to plumb the issues of our contemporary global world. Moreover, it continues Eggers’ recent projects of telling stories of diasporic Americans: from Syria and Africa, in Zeitoun and What is the What respectively. There are not enough contemporary American writers engaging with such an international politics, and for this Eggers should be rightly celebrated. However, whether this, or future novels by Eggers, live up to such a high task is far from certain.

A Hologram for the King by Hamish Hamilton, £18.99

Harvest – Review By Lucy Williamson

harvestJim Crace

Harvest

320 pp., Picador, £16.99.

 

Harvest is the unexpected eleventh novel from Jim Crace, who announced his retirement from writing fiction on the BBC’s Open Book programme in 2010. Such a U-turn could indicate that, with Harvest, Crace has found a story that he simply had to tell, something too rich in possibilities to ignore or leave for someone else to explore. Alternatively, perhaps Crace found it harder to retire from a successful career than he had first thought, rather like racing driver Michael Schumacher, who was lured back to Formula One after a similar three year period of rest and relaxation. Unlike Schumacher, of course, Crace is unlikely to earn millions of pounds for his trouble but he does not seem too concerned by this. Speaking again on Open Book last month, Crace commented that, above all, he hoped his work would allow people to achieve a degree of transcendence from their daily lives. It seems appropriate to judge Harvest at least partly on this basis.

The story of Harvest is hardly original. As change, in this case a fire, comes to a rural community, ‘outsiders’ – two men and a woman who have recently settled on the outskirts of the village – are demonised and blamed for the bad fortune.

However, any seemingly familiar story can be transformed if it is told in an unusual and compelling way. In one sense Harvest achieves this, as it is definitely a work that does not fit easily into a particular genre bracket. Set in a time that feels like the Middle Ages but is never declared to be so, it is neither historical fiction nor timeless fable.

A lot of Crace’s characters are also portrayed in two different ways so that they appear part realistic and part mythological. This is partly because the story is told in the first person by a somewhat unreliable narrator, Walter Thirsk, who vacillates between attempting a realistic account of events and mythologising the people around him. This is particularly true of the way in which a character known only as ‘Mistress Beldam’, one of the aforementioned newcomers to the village, is described. Crace’s portrayal of her as a woman with “a short receding chin, a button nose, and hair as shiny, dark and dangerous as bella-donna berries” is very reminiscent of medieval descriptions of suspected witches.

Furthermore, it is not only women who  are viewed with suspicion; throughout the novel Crace creates an atmosphere of distrust within the community and shows us the destruction such an atmosphere can cause. Thirsk describes his own struggle for identity and recognition: “I’m not a product of these commons but just a visitor who stayed.” In this sense, Harvest is a more modern and prescient novel than it might first appear; society’s tendency to fragment during a time of great change is something that is as familiar to Londoners, who lived through 2011’s riots, as it is to Crace’s characters, who are struggling with both the after effects of a fire and the prospect of agricultural modernisation. Crace has spoken of being inspired by the effect of recent economic hardships on  community cohesion in his home city of Birmingham.

Crace’s efforts to blur the lines between the genres of historical fiction and fable are commendable.  Speaking again on Open Book, he stated that he wanted to ignore advice that when writing historical fiction one should research extensively and try not to impose twenty-first century ideas on a period of history: “The more that I know, the less my imagination is free to roam. […] I wanted to be free to tell lies”.

It is true that there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to writing fiction, only conventions that are made to be broken. Nevertheless, writers of experimental fiction have to be particularly careful that they do not alienate their readers in the process of playing with form. Crace’s intended sense of ‘transcendence’ can be enhanced by factors other than form, such as whether a reader  relates to the book’s characters, or whether they can picture the landscape described in their mind’s eye.

For this reason, while  there is a lot about Harvest to admire, readers may also experience  frustration with the lack of historical detail provided, given that the novel draws so much of its inspiration from Britain’s agricultural history. Letting one’s imagination run wild is one thing but when it comes to writing about the past, a few names and dates can be the specific details that are needed in order to enable a writer to explore more general, universal themes.

The Fun Stuff and Other Essays – Review By Daniel Barrow

funstuffJames Wood

The Fun Stuff, and Other Essays

344 pp., Jonathan Cape, £18.99

 

There's an interesting turn of thought in James Wood's essay on Edmund Wilson (included in this, his third collection of essays). He quotes Wilson's description of the French historian Michelet, saying that it “can also be applied to Wilson himself”:

“we feel that Michelet has read all the books, been to look at all the monuments and pictures, interviewed personally all the authorities, and explored all the libraries and archives of Europe, and that he has it all under his hat.”

That capacious knowledge was palpable in his prose, which was marked by a classical and eighteenth-century elegance, subduing all information to his authoritative design. He is, for Wood, a kind of ideal man-of-letters, in the tradition of “Johnson and Macaulay”. The essays in this collection, all written for upmarket periodicals (The New Republic, New York Review of Books and London Review of Books) suggest that this is rather how he'd like to see himself, or for others to see him: rearing, as he says of Wilson, “panoptically above his subjects, like a statue overseeing a city square”.

Except that, as Wood  notes, Wilson's synoptic method “is something of a weakness in literary criticism”. Wood himself is known for being one of the few critics working in the weeklies' review sections who still does close reading. Though not necessarily impossible to reconcile, it does seem to accentuate the self-conscious belatedness of the image Wood's criticism has of itself: the essays are marked by a certain neutered posturing, the affectation of great-critic airs in his judgements that just doesn't come off right. One of the pleasing things about 'Designated Haters', the piece written by the editors of n+1 magazine back in 2004, was the exposure of this strange inversion: Wood, modelling himself after the great 19th-century critic-moralists, “Coleridge and Hazlitt, Tolstoy and Flaubert, […] seemed to want to be his own grandfather.”

Not coincidentally, the best essays here are on 19th and early 20th-century fiction. A long piece on Thomas Hardy teases out, through a close attention to the novels, their odd and unique pleasures, and the strangeness of their dramas (although Wood underestimates the importance of class in Hardy).  He points out his deviation from the classic realist technique of the telling detail: “Hardy seems to treat simile and metaphor as a mode of quick warmth, a way to bring an alternative life to the page”, a method that, Wood notes, relates strangely with the metaphysical pessimism of his plots, in which nature always ends up ravaging characters' happiness. A long and intermittently brilliant appraisal of Orwell excavates valuable insights into the real problems that undermine his work as a writer and political theorist: the two categories were indistinguishable, to the extent that Orwell didn't closely examine ideas of his own that were convincingly written. So, in The Road To Wigan Pier the political impetus of the second half's polemic deforms the first half, in which the slight prospects for social advancement are erased: “there are no stories… no movement, just the tar of deprivation, which glues his subjects into their poverty”. Orwell's faith in the plain solidity of John Bull English elides into his sentimental portraiture of the working-class, which Wood nicely compares to “some Victorian genre painter”; Orwell, writes Wood, required real material to get going (his novels are paltry compared to Down and Out in Paris and London and Homage to Catalonia), but couldn't help distorting it for what he considered to be real political ends.

By contrast, there's a slightly wan quality to the essays on contemporary novels. The piece on Joseph O'Neill's Netherland is particularly bad, Wood's usually sensitive attention to style being waved away in favour of a Postcolonialism 101 seminar in an attempt to justify the novel's formal conservatism. Even a mostly very good review of Ben Lerner's Leaving The Atocha Station – which Wood, in spite of his narrow, realist taste, appreciates – offers up the rather obvious conclusion that the novel is “about communication and translation, about what can be truthfully expressed”. The problem isn't so much a lack of critical acuity, nor of style: Wood's close readings are often very fine (although his comments on the style of Austerlitz rather state the obvious), and his elegant, concise approach  makes for engaging light reading. But with attempts to bring moral, political or historical dimensions into his judgements, he falters. Wood's critical idols were, self-consciously, surveyors of their contemporary cultural moment, something for which Wood, as a man out of time (and an ostentatious anti-academic), doesn't have the conceptual tools; compare Wood's piece on Netherland with Benjamin Kunkel's review, published in the LRB at the time, and you can see a writer struggling to get to grips with the historical structure of a novel with a by-now-conservative form. We find in this collection a critic of abundant talent and deficient imagination, who should really stick to what he's good at – the 19th century.

Controller – Review By Jess Cotton

PrintSally Ashton

Controller

94 pp., Dead Ink Books.

There is no more well-trodden literary turf than that of a young woman who runs off to Europe in search of the unknown, a quest that invariably manifests itself in sexual awakening. Sally Ashton’s debut novel ostensibly follows such a trajectory; but that is where any comparison ends. Stripped of the cult of personality, that trademark of 21st century identity with its consumerist tags – “self-awakening,” “the art of pleasure” – her exquisitely crafted prose takes a narrative of self-discovery and makes it new and strange, tainted with dark, emotional nuances.

The setting is a life drawing class in Bilbao, northern Spain. Laura, the narrator, is modelling for the first time. She is all nerves, dizzy and light-headed, and the prose responds accordingly – the lights are “shiny, sweaty;” Spanish sounds get caught in her ear; words fly off the page. Laura’s sense of foreignness, experienced as dissolution, “flooding out her mother tongue,” compounds her sense of physical vulnerability. One man, an older, somewhat weathered Dutch artist, catches her attention, or rather, she is caught by his. She watches him watch her, trying to fathom his line of vision, locked in an artistic prism:

“I moved sideways until I cannot see him and my waist cannot see him.”

Her gaze fixes on his impaired left hand, with its peculiar detachedness, “as though conducting some soft sound that only it can hear;” while his right tenses in the act of creation. He directs her, draws her beautifully, which is to say how she thinks she should be drawn, unlike the others who cut her up in the same “uncaught angles.”

The expertly managed tension between attraction and repulsion is felt powerfully through the measured precision of Ashton’s prose. She begins modelling privately for Eric, but even in his own quarters, he remains inscrutable, driving up the notches of erotic frenzy. Gradually the séances become darker: he places her in compromising positions, binds her wrists and ankles, tying her to the window so as to “open me right up.” Ashton is not concerned with asking big, moral questions about what it means to be an artist, or the difference between ugly and beautiful, head on. She approaches them obliquely.–  These are studies of the body – its damage, its desires, its sadomasochistic urges – written  with a fierce physicality.

After weeks of incessant rain, the wall of Laura’s derelict room caves in, and she finds herself walking somnambulantly to Eric’s apartment, in a muted cry for help:

Open the door to his apartment. Stand on the threshold.

Sudden.

Silence

Except for

the muffled beat of the water.

Of the dryness.

Beat of my feet becomes my heart.

Wake up. Go.

Stop.

Open, dry room and the long necked lamp, standing with its bowed head

in front of me, as though sleeping. Not needed now.

Pulse, beating hard and heavy. To my side…

The man stands beside the sofa. His shirt is half on, he is stopped in

surprise, at me, dripping and standing still in his doorway.

I blink. Blink. I stare.

His chest is naked. Sandstone skin. Naked. Bare. Moving.

Pulse.

I stare,

I see him.

The sexual encounters are both gripping and complicated in their emotional resonance, mainly because the erotic charge of the writing coexists with the characters’ silence, their separation. Caught unawares, Eric is exposed in his “lived-in skin” and cross-hatching of scars. He turns her away, intractable, hostile.

Laura transposes her voyeuristic complicity with Eric onto her relationship with her flatmate, Bea, and the pronouns start to slide a little too easily between “him” and “her.” “She has very fine, snappable wrists and ankles,” she notes of her surrogate companion, “She does not give me anything.” Bea is an object of fascination to Laura – exotic, damaged and fragile, complete with a complicated backstory of poverty and prostitution. Through keyholes, she watches her washing herself, masturbating, and she trespasses.

When Eric goes abroad, she break into his apartment, desperate to cobble together a narrative thread that might illuminate his oblique, errant life. Buried beneath his collection of souvenirs and memorabilia are photographs of wounds and, darker still, of the genitalia of young African girls who have been brutally raped. Laura is disconcertingly nonplussed by the discovery; she ponders the “large and beautifully detailed” images that recall Bea’s own virus, which she too has contracted. But what disconcerts her lies at the edge of the images – the “light, peachy fingers” holding the insides open.

“The fingers fall off the side of the photo, but they are there, insistent.”

The camera allows the artist to quash any moral boundary or social inhibition, exploiting pain and reducing it to spectacle. 

Ashton’s spare, elliptical prose and her art of suggestion allow the reader to tacitly infer characters from their idiosyncratic gestures and irregular movements; but there is also a touch of the fantastical in her story of Bea, who represents a more sordid parallel to her own perverse adventures. Laura has pushed her own desire to excess, and in a dash of sublime understatement, she punctures the charged climatic scene with Eric with a terse “Thank you,” and walks silently away. Eric hands her an envelope of money, and in a gesture, the emotionally charged performance is neutralised to a clean financial transaction. The sky is azure, the sun blinding once more, and Laura has her return ticket home. The escapade is never temporally framed, and with the curtain call of the performance, the story closes as seamlessly as an intense day-dream, an erotic fantasy, “I blink and miss it and it’s gone.”

Tea at the Midland – Review By Lucy Williamson

David Constantine

Tea at the Midland and other stories

250 pp., Comma Press, £9.99.

 

David Constantine’s fourth short story collection, Tea at the Midland and other stories, takes its name from the five page narrative that opens it. From a publisher’s point of view, this is a shrewd move, as “Tea at the Midland” carries the distinction of having won the 2010 BBC National Short Story Award. The critical praise that Constantine has received for this story is certainly justified. Its subject – a conversation between an unnamed couple about whether it is possible to separate artist Eric Gill’s work from his insalubrious personal life – is engaging and, as Alfred Hickling of The Guardian points out, prescient given Gill’s connection with the BBC and the scandals surrounding its more recent stars. However, as Constantine himself has commented, “Tea at the Midland” also operates on a deeper level, as the couple’s argument could be perceived as “ostensibly about Eric Gill, but actually about other things.” The couple’s different reactions to the argument are cleverly used to highlight their contrasting characters. The man seems to need “something which the antagonisms that swarmed in him could batten on for a while”, whereas the woman prefers to focus on the happier aspects of life, saying to him: “If I heeded you I couldn’t watch the surfers with any pleasure until I knew for certain none was a rapist or a member of the BNP.” Constantine then employs the specificities of the couple’s situation to make a more general observation on sexual politics and, given that the man has a wife at home, the complexities of adultery.  

“Tea at the Midland” is superbly written, but the rest of the collection’s stories are, for the most part, just as insightful and enjoyable to read. The main reason for this is that Constantine’s characterisation is outstanding. He has a particular talent when it comes to bestowing characters with quirky yet believable traits. Some particularly memorable protagonists include Lewis of “Ellis and Lewis”, an alcoholic who continuously cuts out pictures of “heroic women” and sticks them on the ceiling above his bed, Arthur Barlow in “Strong Enough to Help”, who always wears a suit to read poetry, and Ev of “Ev’s Garden”, who dreams of making “a garden for the dead people” in a derelict graveyard.

Constantine’s short story writing is undoubtedly influenced by his experience of writing poetry; he once commented that “I don’t write the sort of short stories that people who are interested in plot do.” Capturing the moment takes precedence here and, as a result, Constantine’s descriptive writing manages to create some incredibly vivid images in the mind’s eye. “Alphonse” includes a particularly powerful evocation of sunbathers: “prone lie the browning women, upright the red-swart menfolk […] their midriffs melting over the trunk-tops, their bare domes, angry as boils, dripping into the grill.”

Another poetic aspect of Constantine’s writing is his tendency towards fragmentation, by which I mean that he is often content to tell part of the story and leave the reader to surmise the rest. In “An Island”, we never hear from the recipient of the protagonist’s letters, despite his obvious need for a reply; similarly, we never learn what happens to the characters of “Leaving Frideswide”, once they have taken the bus out of the city. Whether this matters or not depends on what sort of short story one enjoys, one that takes you towards a satisfying conclusion, or one that creates a snapshot: as the unnamed female character in “Tea at the Midland” puts it, “stories that concentrate on one thing without bringing in everything else.”

Readers of this collection will be engaged, surprised and often disturbed by the characters and situations Constantine creates: perhaps the most extreme example is “Goat”, in which a canon, a young woman and a fawn-like figure perform a pagan ritual dance in a derelict school. Admittedly, some may find the stories difficult to get to grips with on a first reading, simply because of their lack of discernible plot and the sheer oddity of many of the characters and themes. However, those who persist with this collection will be rewarded, as second and third readings of these stories reveal the true subtly and precision of Constantine’s writing. The short story is frequently perceived to be an American form, the preserve of Poe, James, Cather and, more recently, Updike, Carver and Wolff. David Constantine joins the list of contemporary British names, such as Kennedy, Simpson and Marek, who will eventually destroy this myth once and for all.

 

Lucy Williamson is a recent graduate of the School of English at the University of Leeds. She has had poetry published in the likes of Poetry and Audience and The Scribe. As well as writing reviews for The Cadaverine, she also writes book reviews for an online blog, Rum and Reviews

Sea of Ink – Review By Thomas Dancaster

Richard Weihe 

Sea of Ink (trans. Jamie Bulloch)

118 pp., Peirene Press, £10.

 

Sea of Ink, originally published as Meer der Tusche in 2003, is a historical novella of barely 100 pages. The brevity of the book reflects the paucity of information we have about its subject, the seventeenth century Chinese painter Bada Shanren. He was born Zhu Da, the Prince of Yiyang, but his fortunes changed dramatically following  the Manchurian invasion of China, leading to a life concerned with art and spirituality. Instead of taking what sparse details he could find and writing into the gaps, joining up the dots that are the known events in Shanren’s life, Weihe has embraced this scarcity.

The resulting book is a bare-bones, sketched outline of Shanren’s life, more historical than novelistic; it is a dramatised biography, occasionally embellished by concepts that were current in the period, and may have been part of Shanren’s milieu. Some of the art philosophy that is espoused in the novel by Shanren, and by his teacher Master Hongmin, is taken from the discourse of painting of the artist Shi Tao who, like Shanren, was a member of the Ming royal house and who became a monk and painter. In a thorough note on the book’s sources, Weihe points to the instances where he has borrowed from others, such as Shanren’s words on developing one’s own painting style, which were developed from Shi Tao’s third thesis:

We do not know what style the ancients followed before developing their own painting style. And when it had reached maturity they did not allow their successors to renounce this style […]You cannot hang on the beards of the ancients. You must try to be your own life and not the death of another. For this reason the best painting method is the method of no method.

 Also woven into the work are references to fourth century-BC philosopher Zhang Zhou, and the words of various Chinese poets. The brevity of the book coupled with its range of references, results in a novella that features chapters densely-packed with pronouncements alternating between elegance and gnomic inscrutability.

When not drawing on Shanren’s hinterland to add heft to the details of his biography, Weihe makes heavy use of the most compelling documentation of his life: his work. Weihe takes his cue not just from the chronological sequence of the paintings, but also their reflections of the emotional state of the artist, drawing sometimes-explicit, sometimes-obtuse parallels between his work and the vision Weihe has of his life. As we trace the dotted facts available to us about Shanren’s life, so too does Weihe encourage us to follow the lines of his work. Not only are recreations of Shanren’s pieces included in the novel, but Weihe involves the reader in their creation, describing the painting of key pieces with an account both precise and spare, guiding Shanren’s paintbrush with his pen.

The images of nature Shanren paints are all caught between the first and last marks he makes with a paintbrush – the circles that began his training, and the single dot he paints at the end of his life. For the rest of his pieces touched on in the novel, reproductions of the paintings are displayed alongside the chapters that describe their creation, but this final dot is expressed concretely, not incorporated into the section in which the artist dies, but standing alone in the book’s final chapter. The single dot functions both as a typographical symbol and as an artistic gesture. For Shanren, it is a ‘tiny black star’; for Weihe and the reader, it conjoins script and visual art in a single point that is both a defiant sign of continued creation and an ending, the full stop to a life.

In a way, this final mark reflects the efforts of the book to effect a sort of synthesis between the telling of Shanren’s life and the depiction of his works; through poetry and philosophy, Weihe attempts to lend this slim volume the weight that Shanren’s paintings hold, yet also effect their minimalism through his simplistic description. Sea of Ink might not quite reach the level of being a written counterpoint to Shanren’s painting, but it comes very close.