The Oxonian Review Fri, 31 Oct 2014 11:45:29 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Weekly Round-Up: Digital Sontag, Controversial Biogeographers, Disappearing Fabulists, Suggestive Colours, Feminist Superheroes, Reclaimed Time Fri, 31 Oct 2014 09:06:26 +0000 The Oxonian Review presents the Weekly Round-Up, featuring articles the editorial staff have found interesting, illuminating, or otherwise noteworthy.

1. “Jeremy Schmidt and Jacquelyn Ardam: ‘On Excess: Susan Sontag’s Born-Digital Archive’“, LA Review of Books: UCLA holds the Susan Sontag digital archive, a cornucopia of Sontagian musings, from draft essays to details of fad diets. However, does such an archive—which will become only more common—result in an excess which compromises productive access? Whatever the answer, the archive does remain successful as “there is an undeniable erotics to working with her born-digital archive. The very idea of having this level of voyeuristic access to someone’s digital life is both exciting and a little dangerous, even if sanctioned by UCLA’s Special Collections Library and by Sontag herself.”

2. “Oliver Burkeman: ‘Jared Diamond: ‘Humans, 150,000 years ago wouldn’t figure on a list of the five most interesting species on Earth’“, The Guardian: the celebrated and controversial biogeographer has, for decades now, been asking why and how certain civilisations prosper while others fail. He is despised by many anthropologists who see his work as cultural imperialism, “intent on excusing the horrors of colonialism while asserting the moral superiority of the west.” Diamond’s struggle against what he sees as “politically correct blabber” means that now, at the age of 77, he remains a dynamic figure.

3. “Forest Gander: ‘Very Trustworthy Witnesses’“, The Paris Review: Ambrose Bierce, witty and subversive writer, disappeared one hundred years ago, at the age of seventy-one, when he climbed atop his horse and rode off into the midst of the Mexican Revolutionary War. It is, perhaps, appropriate that the mischievous writer of The Devil’s Dictionary should vanish in one of the great disappearing acts of the twentieth century. Gander’s article chronicles the many reported deaths of Ambrose Bierce, and even the possibility that the great writer “discovered an occult serum to age him slowly youthward, his literary style changing with the times.”

4. “Eric Banks: ‘King of Colors’“, The Chronicle of Higher Education: in this review of Michel Pastoureau’s Green: The History of a Color, the notion under discussion is that colour is ideology. Mondrian and Kandinsky hated it, and the colour remained chemically unstable for centuries. But fortunes change, and green has been more roundly rehabilitated than any other hue: “Perhaps the notorious anthropologist from Mars (no doubt a little green man) would aver that nothing better symptomized contemporary Earthlings’ shared sense of unstable times and offered them a colorful dose of healthy, hopeful security.”

5. “Heather Havrilesky: ‘Fly Me Up, Tie Me Down’“, Book Forum: Havrilesky reviews Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman and reveals that the kinky-booted action figure of the seventies TV show is a poor substitute for the defiant and liberated character from the original comic strips. Wonder Woman creator, William Moulton Marston, emerges as a paradoxical mix of both pioneering feminism and belief in women’s fundamental delight in being dominated. However, it remains the case that, “even though one bondage-loving iconoclast with delusions of grandeur isn’t likely to change our minds,” Marston’s original creation does represent a woman who fought, from 1941, Fascism with feminism.

6. “Nicola Twilley: ‘Freedom from Food’“, Aeon: in a remarkable time-saving exercise, Rob Rhinehart has created a drink which can replace food. This “thick, odourless, beige liquid” which contains “every substance the body needs to survive, plus a few extras shown to be beneficial,” has enabled him to claw back ninety minutes each day. Twilley considers the manifold possible benefits of this liberated time. Just as convenience food historically liberated women from many of their traditional domestic duties and allowed them time for other areas of productivity, Rhinehart’s Soylent may lead to a new Renaissance.

If you would like to suggest a link, please email Benedict Morrison

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The Tales We Tell Thu, 30 Oct 2014 09:36:46 +0000 Benedict Morrison

The Pillowman
By Martin McDonagh
Dir. Thomas Bailey
29 October to 1 November at the Oxford Playhouse

It would be uncontroversial, perhaps, to suggest that there is something distasteful about Martin McDonagh’s 1995 play, The Pillowman. It is a macabre plunge into the dark imaginations of its central character, Katurian Katurian, a writer of gruesome fairy tales which out-grim Grimm, who finds himself under suspicion for a series of child murders. This production does nothing to shy away from the play’s inherent murk, and horror seeps out from every corner of the magnificent set; in the foreground, the peeling greys of the police station’s walls mark out an arena for bureaucratic violence while, hidden for the most part beyond a tantalising gauze, a derelict site of remembered or imagined outrages haunts the edges of the action. When the violence comes, it rises in horrific suddenness and with a rare precision and conviction. Let it be understood: with its unflinching physical force played in earnest, The Pillowman is an uncomfortable watch.

The production’s unapologetic toughness only accounts for a portion of this discomfort. It is the combination of violence and comedy which really sets the teeth on edge, the collision of the banalities of the police procedural and the underpinning horror. This is gallows humour—here, quite literally dancing beneath or, indeed, atop the gallows—and every laugh is accompanied by a shocked wince at the material that is being made funny. The play is, in the Freudian sense, humorous; the disconnect between material and register—between depraved narratives of child cruelty and wisecrack delivery—stirs up discomfort. The actors deliver many of their lines with the rapidity of a screwball comedy from the 1930s, the difference being that, in The Pillowman, the lines concern heinous crimes. Tupolski, the senior policeman, cites as part of his interrogation strategy the technique of destabilising the prisoner with ‘asinine nonsense’, and the audience is destabilised just as effectively.

If the generation of this sense of unease were the production’s only end, it might feel gratuitous. However, there are, beneath the horror, more compelling veins of thought, more sustaining though no less chilling. The play’s characters, in ways diverse but equally damaging, are haunted by inescapable pasts, traumas long-thought buried. The characters’ commitment to artistic creativity or professional advancement is exposed as sublimation and not remedy. In sympathy with this interest in the return of the repressed, the play obsesses over its own structural repetitions. Stories are revisited, and concealed histories emerge through the cracks at the edge of discourse. The production, like its source text, becomes a network of reminders; some cast members multi-role, the superb derelict set becomes site of a number of childhood horrors, and gestures and inflections are repeated. This oppressive recursion operates at the level of the individual, but also at a broader social level. The totalitarian State in which Katurian is grilled is an echo of so many regimes of the twentieth century, and its monstrous administration operates according to replicable procedures (dictating whether a prisoner about to be executed should be blindfolded before or after he is led to the room where he will be shot); serial killers not only commit murders in series, but are also informed and inspired by the violence of others; and the play itself is a literary dystopia written in an absurdist mode that has gripped European imagination since the writings of Kafka. This is history as plague, infecting the sensibilities and imaginations of individuals and cultures across time. McDonagh’s play seems to wink defiantly at any potential censor; there is no point in denying violence when it infests so completely the surrounding culture.

And it is this cultural reflexivity which marks the play’s most staggering gambit. Far from oppositional, Katurian’s storytelling runs in parallel with that of the repressive State. There is a vertiginous mise-en-abyme surrounding the policemen’s claim that they like executing writers because it ‘sends out a signal’; what is that signal but a cautionary tale of their own composition? Stories—both political and literary—call things into being. The murders are called into being by Katurian’s stories; and Katurian’s guilt is called into being by the State. As Ariel stands and—in hand-shaking, tight-throated agonies of despair—says that he will destroy anyone who harms a child, he struggles to summon forth the society he craves with his words, and his illocutionary language resonates with promises, threats, and declarations. Literature is refigured as a totalitarian force, capable of generating hope but also horror; this remains a genuinely frightening notion, and McDonagh’s play does nothing to diminish the implications of its own self-interrogation.

This notion of performative language—words generating action—resonates with the production’s much-discussed choice to cast without consideration of gender. Far from being the politically correct gesture that some detractors may dismiss it as, this decision is in tune with the play’s thesis on the power of stories. As Katurian and Michal are insistently referred to as men, as brothers, as hes, their embodiment by two female actors sets up an acute tension. This State is a world in which every element of identity is subject to the definitions and categorisations of Authority. This terrible resignation is on display even before the play begins. Katurian sits on stage as the audience enters, his head covered in a bag, unmoving, held in an uncanny calm. When the auditorium suddenly shocks with relentless, percussive music, the sounds powerfully suggest an affect which the blindfolded figure, awaiting instruction from the Establishment, resists. Katurian is manipulated, gendered, and condemned according to the language—the stories—of his captors. Everyone is a storyteller, and most of the stories they have are diseased.

This production of the unnerving play is uniformly superb. As Katurian, Claire Bowman succeeds in moving seamlessly between moments of resignation and of overwhelming distress, the character struggling as he finds himself implicated in the very terror that he has sought to fight. Emma D’Arcy’s performance as Michal is a masterclass in physical and verbal control, the complete manifestation of the damaged character quite brilliant, revelling in the comedy even while undercutting it with unbearable pathos. Dominic Applewhite’s performance sings with a kind of smug indifference that speaks volumes about the nature of bureaucratic justice. And Jonathan Purkiss as Ariel carries in his movement such tension that every line and gesture become a glimpse of a subtextual world of despair. Director Thomas Bailey’s production is unflinching, and it marks a remarkable act of courage and commitment. It is rare to find a play which so unstintingly interrogates its own processes, and this intelligent, elegant, terrifying production serves it admirably.

Benedict Morrison is reading for a DPhil in English at Merton College, Oxford. He is Editor of ORbits at the Oxonian Review.

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Photo of the Week: Cowboy and Child Wed, 29 Oct 2014 08:14:30 +0000 kaap kaap vinesh rajpaul cape cape’ houses morrison Vinesh Rajpaul


This term, we are featuring photographs by Vinesh Rajpaul, an Oxford student originally from South Africa, who spends much of his free time pursuing his passion for photography. Details of his work and competition successes can be found on his website.

Vinesh says about this photo: The image shows a Lisboeta in what appears to be a traditional cowboy costume. He is seen comforting his crying daughter, who had tripped and hurt herself. I shot this from low on the ground in order to capture what I think is an interesting perspective of the pair, and to frame them a little more dramatically against a clouded sky.

If you have a photo to submit, please email Benedict Morrison.

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The Sounds of Vienna Tue, 28 Oct 2014 14:34:57 +0000 schubert’s schubert schubert körner singers schiller baritone karlberg schubert’s schubert schubert körner singers schiller baritone karlberg schubert’s schubert schubert körner singers schiller baritone karlberg Alexander Karlberg

Oxford Lieder Festival
Schubert’s Settings of Körner & Schiller
Sunday 19 October
Holywell Music Room
The Festival runs until 1 November, 2014

The Oxford Lieder Festival has this year taken up the challenge of bringing Franz Schubert’s Vienna to Oxford in a mastodon performance of the entirety of his lieder works, comprising no fewer than 650 songs, including his famous Winterreise and Swan Song. Given the scale of the endeavour, even hardcore festival aficionados will have the opportunity to find songs that they have never heard—and perhaps never heard of—before. It is very likely that many of those who gathered to hear a number of Schubert’s settings of works by Körner & Schiller were in that position; even the Viennese baritone, Klemens Sander, had never heard of the songs until he was asked to perform them.

The concert was divided into three thematic sections, each with four songs, and a final long encore. The first section featured love poems by both Thomas Körner (1791-1813) and Frederich von Schiller (1759-1805) set to light-hearted scores by Schubert. Although well performed, these four songs were perhaps the least musically interesting and demanding. It was all change, however, in the second section. One must assume that Körner did not have much romantic success, as the entire second section was devoted to a series of his tragic love poems. The lyrics gave the singers a greater opportunity to demonstrate the subtlety of their musical expression: the soprano (Elena Copons) and the baritone were particularly successful in generating a presence which captivated their audience.

The third and final section revolved around the epic, with texts by both lyricists. In particular Gebet Während der Schlact (‘Prayer During Battle’) was both beautifully written and set to very powerful music. With the multiple conflicts going on in the world at the moment, it is difficult not to be touched by: “S’ist ja kein Kampf für die Güter der Erde; / Das Heiligste schützen wir mit dem Schwerte: / Drum, fallend und siegend, preis’ ich dich! / Gott, dir ergeb’ ich mich!” (This is no battle for the riches of the earth; / with the sword we defend that which is most sacred; / therefore, whether dying or victorious, I praise you! / God I surrender myself to you!)

The encore was perhaps the highlight of the afternoon. The comedy, written by neither Körner nor Schiller but by Franz von Schober (1798-1882) and performed by all three singers, transformed the Holywell Music Room into the setting of a young couple’s wedding. Being a very light and frivolous piece, it lifted the mood set by the tragic pieces which preceded it. It was clear that the singers enjoyed being able to move around the Music Room and put to use some of their more operatic skills.

Very little could be left to desire from the three singers and the accompanying pianist (Deirdre Brenner) during the concert. Each technically very skilled, they delivered beautiful performances of all the songs. The tenor (Jan Petryka), perhaps, did less well than his fellow singers at moving beyond the stage itself and becoming one with the music, having a slightly static posture and idle hands. This would perhaps not have been noticed had it not been for the immaculate performances from the baritone and soprano. Sadly, as with most of the festival’s concerts there was an apparent lack of young people in the audience. However, all in all, the afternoon was very well spent in the company of Schubert, Schiller and Körner and it would be a joy if the festival were to reprise these pieces on its programme in the future. And any fears of monotony in a festival whose programme concentrates so extensively on the work of only one composer were roundly put to rest; the real excitement in this bicentennial celebration comes with the awareness of Schubert’s remarkable variety of tone and mode.

Alexander Karlberg is reading for a DPhil in Theoretical Physics at Merton College, Oxford.

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The Completeness of Novel-Writing and Inquiries into Epistemology Mon, 27 Oct 2014 00:40:34 +0000 Zia Haider Rahman talks to S S Haque

Zia Haider Rahman



Photo: Zia Haider Rahman

Zia Haider Rahman’s debut novel, In the Light of What We Know, was published earlier this year. It explores ideas of class, race, and identity through the lens of epistemology. The novel is erudite and intellectually explorative, concurrently telling gripping stories: a train journey in late twentieth-century Bangladesh, student life at Oxford, and a thriller plot set in the world of NGOs and expats during the Afghanistan War. We hear the story from two friends recounting their lives to each other after many years apart, when they meet at the beginning of the novel. Knowledge and experience collide in their divergent lives. The novel’s critical reception across the globe has been stunning. The New Yorker’s James Wood hailed it as “a dazzling debut” and Joyce Carol Oates described it in her review in The New York Review of Books as “remarkable…a unique work of fiction.” In the UK, Alex Preston wrote in The Observer that, “This is the novel I’d hoped Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom would be (but wasn’t)—an exploration of the post-9/11 world that is both personal and political, epic and intensely moving.” 

Rahman is an alumnus of Balliol College, Oxford, where he received a first in mathematics. His academic endeavours continued with further study at Munich, Cambridge, and Yale Universities. Rahman then worked at Goldman Sachs as an investment banker, after which he became an international human rights lawyer.

Zafar and the narrator’s lives both reflect some of your own life experiences. To what extent is the novel autobiographical?

My stock answer to this question has been to recall that Philip Roth didn’t write a novel about a European travelling up the Congo River; Joseph Conrad didn’t write about a Trinidadian settling in England; and V.S. Naipaul didn’t write about Jews in New Jersey in the fifties.

I’ve been asked this question many times and I’ve often had the impression that the question means something different depending on who’s asking it or that there might be some other question behind it. If there is, no-one has asked it. In any event, it’s hard to see how, from a literary perspective, it matters particularly. I have yet to meet a novelist who has asked me that question.

I am not Zafar but there are basic biographical details that we have in common—banker and human rights activist, for example—and these are useful because they enable me to get to things I know about, not just details of workplace environment. But I have only drawn on what feels to me like a sliver of my experiences in the world in order to inform my imagination. As a result, from my vantage-point Zafar does not feel like a representation of me. But, understandably, simple biographic details are what most people go by and conclusions are drawn from those, possibly because of what psychologists call the “availability bias”—relying on what you see since you cannot rely on what you don’t see.

You have been a banker, a human rights lawyer, and now a novelist. How much did your previous careers directly contribute to the writing of this novel? And what was the trigger for you to start writing prose fiction?

I drew on those things that had a bearing on the story I wanted to tell, of course, and, conversely, the story I wanted to tell surely grew out of an imagination informed by what I knew.

Reading is what triggered writing. I’ve been writing for some time, starting before Oxford, where I had something published in a fledgling student rag at Balliol. My then editor is a close friend of mine to this day and I’ve been sending him things I write every now and then. He has been urging me to publish, but the idea of being a published author—the very idea—never sat right with me.

You have said “I had a belief that writing books was something people of another social class did”. Is this what you’re referring to when you say that the idea of being a published author never sat right with me?

Yes. I had an insatiable curiosity about all sorts of things and books were the only way to service that curiosity. But even as I took out a dozen books from the library each week as a boy, I felt that I was interloping in the territory of another kind of people. This was back in early eighties Britain when libraries still had books—and, for that matter, there still were libraries. It’s one of the features of a class system that it teaches its lessons from a very early age. I lived on a very large council estate and the library’s catchment was my neighborhood but I never recognised any of the faces of the people I came across in it. I don’t know who used the library but it didn’t seem to me that any of the children who played football or rode their bikes on the estate did. And then as I grew up and got to know more about the people who wrote these book things, what I learned only reinforced the idea that they belonged to another sort. They lived in houses, for instance.

Of course, I’m not naive and I’m able to see the absurdity in the idea that someone with as much education as I’ve had should consider the writing of books as beyond his writ in life. But that’s how class works.

Do you think novel-reading is also class-defined?

That’s an empirical question, at least in the way you’ve framed it, so what I think can’t be anywhere near as interesting or useful as an empirical assessment. That said, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb if I hazard a guess that the reading of literary fiction is correlated with education. I suspect you’ll find that most readers of literary fiction in Britain have A Levels or more, which is probably enough to establish that literary novel-reading is class-defined.

How is it that you did eventually come to write—or perhaps I should say publish—a book?

There’s a long story behind it but the story really only explains how I’d come to a point in life where, because of the deaths of people near to me, and because of a disenchantment with things I was doing, and because I was at a moment between uncertainty and resolve—I had, for instance, interrupted a journey overland across Europe and Asia because of the deaths I mentioned—because of a limbo, I started writing down the beginnings of an idea that had formed in my mind. I was in New York, where I was trying to provide such help as anyone can to friends who’d lost a child. Clearly no-one can offer much. A new acquaintance, a writer, asked me what I was doing with my time. I talked about something I’d written and we talked and he talked and he kept on talking. Eventually, I sent him what is now chapter one of In the Light of What We Know—it hasn’t changed very much at all since then. Not long after that, an agent called me and so on. I don’t think I would have carried on all the way through to writing a publishable book—I would have made my notes and given the thing enough form on the page to reflect something in my mind so that it would be enough for me, as it has been in my writing over the years—I don’t think I would have written a whole publishable book if I’d not had an agent at the outset and, moreover, if I’d not had the agents that I had. In the way they treated me, there was absolutely nothing to suggest that I was anything other than someone who was naturally writing a book. (I’m not talking about building my confidence; I’ve come to publishing just a little older than most do for the first time and with a variety of experiences behind me that have helped to overcome the self-doubts of youth and to understand my limits.) The fact that I met my agents in the US rather than in the UK helped enormously. I see that now. I wrote most of the novel in the US. Oddly enough, I don’t feel the presence of the British class structure when I’m in the US. Class sensitivity is something we carry inside us; externally what we encounter are triggers.

The first two chapters of the novel set the scene for two old friends to meet after many years apart, but also include discussions about Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and the Peters and Mercator atlases. Why are these ideas given such a prominent place in the novel?

I’m reminded of what the American bank robber and incorrigible repeat offender John Dillinger said when he was asked why he robbed banks: That’s where the money is. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, on the one hand, and map projections, on the other, are mentioned where they are mentioned because that’s where the narrator’s structuring of the narrative puts them. But of course that answer is a little disingenuous, though only a little. I’m smarter than the narrator of the novel, which means that I can see, for example, incidental benefits of a certain organisation of the material that he might not. His reasons for organising things the way they are might be enough for him but I have other reasons too.

In any case, remember that pretty much everything in the novel, including its title, is in one way or another in the service of the novel’s central line of enquiry: epistemology. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem and the projections used to make maps all concern, perhaps among other things, how we perceive the world and the limitations on both the perception and the inherent capacity of the world itself to yield to our perception.

It was important, certainly, to bring out early aspects of the novel that run counter to modern trends of mere storytelling. I had to help the reader adopt a stance towards the material as soon as possible that would enable them to get the best experience out of the novel possible.

Every novel, especially in its opening section, trains people in how it should be read. Whether or not a novelist intends such, the effect is that the reader is trained. Unlike a trainer at a workplace, say, a novelist only gets one shot and can’t try a different tack to suit each reader’s strengths—which is yet another reason why two people can come to different conclusions about the same book. So, for instance, I had to slow down readers and there are a variety of techniques that can be used to achieve that. The flexibility of English syntax helps with that, for example. I wanted readers to inhabit a space that stretched into the so-called real world. Even as early as the first chapter I bind the narrator in a relationship through his grandparents to someone who was real, one Leopold Weiss, who converted to Islam and eventually became Pakistan’s first ambassador to the UN. But these sorts of things have to be done quite early because they are about establishing in the reader’s mind the basic parameters of the story space. The later you leave such fundamentals, the more jarring they will be, which jarring might be what you want to achieve; Roth’s Ghost Writer, I think it was, has something jarring of this kind and deliberately so.

The female characters’ motivations in the novel are less transparent than the male characters’. The male, first person narrative adds to their opaqueness. But did you find the female characters more challenging to write?

No, I didn’t find the female characters more challenging to write. I found that I had to hold back on giving the female characters more room; whenever I did widen the mental space they inhabited I found that it wrought havoc with other elements of the work. Two concrete facts, both choices, constrain the presence of women in the narrative. The first is that the narrator is ultimately quite sexist, with a character bearing the soft misogyny that seems to pervade society, largely male society though not everywhere but certainly generally. In broader terms, the narrator can be rather shallow at times; it’s not hard to see why on occasion he seems to be in the thrall of Zafar. The second constraint is that everything is mediated by the narrator, including Zafar’s account. He’s also hugely compromised in the very story he’s reporting and his unreliability is a vital part of the experience that the novel delivers to certain readers.

These reasons alone were enough to generate restraint in what the narrator transmits about the female characters. But there were also other considerations, which were more in the way of key incidental benefits. Sometimes, saying less about a character—or about anything—magnifies that which is said. The character of Emily has to do a lot of metaphoric work, more so than perhaps any other character. Keeping her from altogether coming up to the surface means that when she does speak and there is dialogue, she is felt keenly. Moreover, since much of her power over Zafar is metaphoric, it was important not to undermine the reader’s sense of that by concretising too much of her. It was certainly a tightrope. My hope was that the intelligent reader would grasp the implications of a first-person point of view and that, although there were obvious signs of sexism in some of the male characters’ voices, the sexism would not be overwhelming. It might sometimes make the reader uncomfortable but with good reason.

Epistemology is explored throughout the novel. The limitations of our knowledge and what it is to know are central to the characters’ discussions of people and events. How did you go about integrating these ideas with the narrative and plot?

There was no need to go about integrating them with the story because they are the preoccupations of the characters, first Zafar’s and then the narrator’s. My starting point for this novel, as it is for the next one, is to explore the major animating preoccupations of the principal characters, and to identify things, such as they exist, that the characters wrestle with in their inner lives. Zafar’s overarching preoccupation was epistemological.

There is a chapter in the book where the main characters talk about the writing of stories and the problem of the ineffectiveness of the metaphor in providing meaning. Is this something you struggle with in writing and reading fiction?

No. I do not struggle with it. I have always known that a metaphor, A, of an object, B, does not provide meaning about the object B but relies on the reader imputing meaning about A to B. This is what authors do and how we humans find pleasure in reading when it’s done well. Misgivings about metaphor are far from new. Thomas Hobbes condemned their use and Plato, for that matter, was none too comfortable with them.

It is not necessary in order for me to experience the beauty of metaphoric language that I regard it as endowed with greater power than I think, on reflection, it has. The sensation of understanding is not the same as being given an explanation. Most metaphors have at least two cognitive effects: inspiring a sense of recognition and hardening an image, or giving it form in the imagination. The former is important for bringing the reader closer to the material and the latter is important for creating a sense of experience. And, by material, I mean anything, even something very specific. For example, if an author likens the plastic cover lying over a microscope in a lab to an eagle, as one author I know did more effectively than I can reproduce here and out of context, then the recognition is important. If you have no conception of an eagle there is nothing for you to form the image. And, if you do, the fact that an eagle is known for its powerful eyesight—hence “eagle-eyes”—brings depth since we have a microscope here, after all. This is an example of the use of metaphor without any attendant implication or claim that your understanding of anything is being improved.

It’s very easy to manipulate people with metaphoric language. In the US, there have been directions from appellate courts to lower court judges discouraging the use of metaphoric language, essentially where it actually makes a difference. Politicians know the power of metaphor full well. “A flood of immigrants” is much more effective than “a disagreeably large number of immigrants.” A writer—or anyone conveying an idea to another human being—is of course in the business of manipulation, using a variety of techniques.

My own difficulty with certain metaphoric language is that it can often seem merely exploitative of vulnerabilities in human beings that appear to leave people with the belief that something has been understood when in fact all that has happened is that something beautiful has been felt or perceived or recognised. The thing that is recognised is the subject of the metaphor and not the object, but that recognition seems to get mistaken for an understanding of the object.

Which novelists have most influenced you?

I don’t know. I can no more say which novelists or which books have most influenced me than I can say which meals I’ve had that have been most nourishing to my body. I sometimes think that very flawed writing has been most influential. It’s always much easier to tell what has scuppered a piece of writing. When the writing seems very strong, I think the reader has brought a lot to the writing and this makes it hard to separate the good writing from the good reading. I always feel like I’ve done some work as a reader. This seems to be the case for me, at any rate.

I could provide a list of novelists who’ve written one or more books that I’ve liked, but whether they are the ones who most influenced me I couldn’t say. On the other hand, when others, much smarter about these things than I am, detect the influences of certain writers in my writing, I do find myself nodding with them; I recognise something. In relation to In the Light of What We Know, I certainly see the influences of works I have hugely admired, Austerlitz, The Great Gatsby, Heart of Darkness, American Pastoral, A Bend in the River, to name the most obvious, to me. How writers deal with particular emotions is always of interest to me, how they achieve effects. Different writers do different emotions differently, which is not saying much. Studying this has been rewarding.

You have talked in the past about how novel writing is a problem-solving exercise. As a mathematician, did you approach it like you would a mathematical puzzle?

It isn’t a mathematical puzzle, so no. It’s a problem-solving exercise in many different ways. One way, for instance, is that if you have in mind certain effects you want to achieve in a passage or a set of pages, figuring out how to achieve those effects is an exercise in problem-solving. Trying to figure out why a passage isn’t working is another. Trying to uncover an imprecise niggling feeling you have is also a problem-solving exercise. A lot of the work when I’m writing has to do with developing a better and better understanding of a question.

You manage to navigate a broad range of ideas in the novel, from science and maths to literature and philosophy, without being didactic. Did you find it easy to sell the idea of the novel to your agent/publisher?

It seems to me that linking the premise of your question to the question itself requires an intermediate step: that the qualities of the novel you mention might disqualify it (these days?) from gaining a venue. In the Light of What We Know does go against some of the currents of modern fiction, even literary fiction, which sometimes seems like a testbed for the next lucrative film deal. Recently, a critically well-regarded novelist said to me that in his view modern fiction had simply given up its greatest asset, the thing that it can do, that no other art form can. He described that asset as interiority. I did not initially agree with him: I believed that it had given up more. But I now think that all those things which modern fiction seems to have abandoned are things which, one way or another, hang upon interiority, things ranging from consciousness (which might be interiority by another name) to explorations of meaning, which hinge upon a human perspective.

Doing something for art’s sake is misunderstood as doing it for no appreciable reason. To do art is, precisely, to do it for reasons that do not connect with the commerce. It is to do something with enquiry and beauty and meaning in mind, at front and back. On that reckoning, it will involve risks. But writing literary fiction today has become nigh on impossible financially for all but a tiny few. It is this—not some venal quality on the part of writers—that I think has driven fiction writing towards mere storytelling.

Part of the problem is actually mere nomenclature. Two things might be called novels for the irrelevant reason that both require a lot of words and a good many sheets of paper, e-readers notwithstanding. But that is like saying a ha-ha on a country estate and a grave in a cemetery are both holes in the ground because both require a spade. The collective noun doesn’t get us far if we recognize the underlying distinction. I think the language tends to drive us towards what we each of us come to understand as representative of that thing and it thereby conditions our expectations. Labels like “literary fiction” are helpful to some degree but any finer taxonomy runs into a problem that no one particularly likes talking about, which is that very few people actually read literary fiction. I have friends who read reviews of books all the time, people who subscribe to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books and so on, but who scarcely read three novels in a year. These are literate, educated people. Philip Roth is probably right; literary fiction of a certain kind is probably dying. Yes, there are exceptions—people who do read that kind of fiction—but only the aggregate numbers are relevant here. The economics of literary fiction is disastrous. Against that background, publishers want to widen the market for a book as much as possible, which means that for them the label ‘novel’ is enough. This is only a tragedy now because we’ve lost the idea of a literary common space or canon, other than a historical one that is pushed onto us in high school. There’s nothing hip in the notion of reading a novel because people whom society respects have thought the book worthwhile reading.

Personal pleasure is now the measure of things, the logical destination of consumerism and direct marketing and the elevation of the individual above all else. When Amazon or Goodreads send you to books that you might like because clever algorithms have crunched data and made matches, we should be reeling in horror, because this can only drive us into silos of one, underground caverns populated by everything made in our own respective images. There can be no conversation across buried walls.

But to address your question itself, rather than its assumptions: The truthful answer doesn’t have any interesting wrinkles, I’m afraid. Yes, I did find it easy to sell it, so to speak, to an agent. I sent off the first chapter and calls from the person who became my agent came in a few hours later. Alarmingly, my agent showed such a good understanding of the work that at one point in the conversation, when we met, I had to remind myself that I had only written one chapter, so I couldn’t possibly have sent another. As for publishers, I didn’t sell the book until I finished it. It was obvious to me that one major storyline needed to be brought forward. But I needed at least a three month break after four years of virtually uninterrupted work. And the London book fair was coming up. So, rather than wait another nine months, I thought it might be useful to see how publishers approached the problematic delayed storyline. Eric Chinski at Farrar, Straus & Giroux and Kate Harvey at Picador spotted what was needed right away. They certainly made the book “a much better version of itself,” which is what they were expressly keen to do. Eric and Kate have very fine literary sensibilities and it’s been an immense pleasure working with them.

S S Haque has just completed her second master’s, in creative writing, at Kellogg College, Oxford. She is currently drafting her first novel and she writes, lives, and works in London.

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The Last Tape Mon, 27 Oct 2014 00:30:48 +0000 tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful tape niven alex crowd linoleum polyester mush armful Alex Niven

The Last Tape


Crowds streamed along the path to the industrial estate.
There were rumours of spring, of oxygen.

We arrived at the waste disposal unit. A cargo of goods spilled
out of a storage container tied to a lorry.

Linoleum rolls, laptops, rabbit cages. Everything had rotted to mush.
A white polyester football shirt lay in the sun sighing with mould.

The crowd formed a circle. You came to me carrying an armful of rubbish.
The sun splashed ribbons of light over your beautiful hair.

After hours of waiting a cassette tape fell from the pile.
We shivered.

I kissed your mud-covered hands, and the music on the tape
spread and echoed through the crowd like holy thunder.


Alex Niven is assistant editor at New Left Review. His first poetry collection, The Last Tape, will be published by Zero Books on 31 October 2014.

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Historians Getting Things Done Mon, 27 Oct 2014 00:20:06 +0000 guldi armitage armitage guldi armitage armitage guldi armitage armitage guldi armitage armitage guldi armitage armitage guldi armitage armitage guldi armitage armitage guldi armitage armitage guldi armitage armitage guldi armitage armitage guldi armitage armitage Tom Cutterham

The History Manifesto
Jo Guldi and David Armitage
The History Manifesto
Cambridge University Press, 2014
175 pages
ISBN: 9781107432437

History, according to Jo Guldi and David Armitage, needs a confidence boost. It needs to be bolder, more assured, more engaged—and most of all, it needs to be bigger.

If history today is in trouble, they argue, the roots of the problem lie in the 1970s, when historians began to focus their attention more closely than ever before on the obscure stories of the ordinary, the marginalised, and the oppressed. This kind of history, what the authors call the Short Past, “reflected a call of conscience, a determination to make the institutions of history align with a more critical politics.” But that sense of purpose has gone astray. Its call has been drowned out by the demands of the historical career itself, by a cacophony of articles and monographs speaking to smaller and smaller audiences of anxious, precarious professionals. The History Manifesto is an intervention not just in the scholarly sense—it’s also the kind you organise for an addict.

For Guldi and Armitage, the most important element of history’s recovery plan is the return of long chronological spans, what they call (following French historians like Fernand Braudel, writing in the early- and mid-twentieth century) the longue durée. Rather than deep investigations of specific moments, or studies on the scale of an individual life, historians, they say, should be working with centuries. In the past, this was mainly achieved by relying on an existing body of work; history in broad sweeps, like Eric Hobsbawm’s four-volume history of the modern world, was done by synthesizing and reinterpreting the more detailed investigations undertaken by colleagues. In order to construct a complex edifice, lots of people had to do the groundwork. Guldi and Armitage’s book suggests this may no longer be the case. Now, after all, we have computers.

“In the era of digitised knowledge banks,” the authors write, “the basic tools for analysing social change around us are everywhere.” With Big Data, historians can capture the longue durée unmediated by local studies. Compiling and analysing enough quantitative information can generate qualitative interpretations and conclusions. If historians aren’t rushing to adopt this approach, it’s because they lack “the ability, the willingness, or even the courage” to do so. But Guldi and Armitage list trailblazers working in three crucial areas—climate, global governance, and inequality—who are apparently bringing data and long-term thinking to bear in new and exciting ways. Their most prominent example is Thomas Piketty and his recent blockbuster, Capital in the 21st Century, which used “the power of data” to shake the “prejudices and supposed laws of economists.” His book “exemplifies the power of historical studies, driven by data, to speak to policy and publics well beyond professional history.” Historians, not economists, are the ones who should really be best placed to follow his lead.

The History Manifesto envisages historians not in the study, the library, or the classroom, but striding the corridors of power, getting things done. The engaged historian is one who gets called in to impart the long view to civil servants and select committees. “In a crisis of short-termism,” with horizons determined by electoral and business cycles, “our world needs somewhere to turn to for information about the relationship between past and future.” With their specialism in critically comparing heterogeneous data, the new breed of historians will be there to help “intelligence services, the finance sector, and activists [...] to interpret the long and short events that make up our world.” In the midst of what Guldi and Armitage label a war between experts, the role of the future history department will be “the arbitration of data.”

This is a manifesto aimed at the deciders of our world—inspiration-starved politicians, sceptical administrators, and the holders of purse-strings across public and private sectors. That includes the eighteen-year-olds currently doing cost-benefit analyses on the backs of their UCAS forms, and the cash-strapped Vice-Chancellors wondering which department to shut next. As the American Historical Association scrambles to redesign graduate programmes that will actually get people jobs, Guldi and Armitage are setting out a tempting package that could seriously impact future generations of training and scholarship. In 2008, the economists started to lose their grip on the sceptre of technocratic authority. This book is history’s pitch to take over as metadiscipline.

But it’s possible the authors have taken the wrong message from economics’ recent loss of face. Once they were brought inside the magic circle, once their way of looking at the world became the one that trumped all the others, economists largely stopped speaking truth to power. The discipline had more to gain from showing how the existence of billionaires was ultimately good for everyone than it did from questioning the wisdom of deregulation. Of course Guldi and Armitage advocate keeping history’s critical edge. The problem is that their vision of engagement is so embedded in the structures of elite political and financial power. The new generation of historical data-arbiters may find themselves checking their critique at the door to the boardroom.

Is there a way for historians to be engaged in the work of building a desirable future, without turning themselves into tools of the already-powerful? Back in the late 1960s and 1970s, historians in the first wave of critical social history took on precisely that task. They saw history as a way to puncture the ideological assumptions that underpinned a reactionary Cold War liberalism. In Guldi and Armitage’s telling, though, their approach had more to do with “Oedipal” rage and youthful “true rebellion” than with a serious attempt to solve the problem. Besides, that generation could rely on the expansion of universities to keep providing them with jobs, even while they set out to radically challenge the system. We can’t. The aim of The History Manifesto is to square the circle, by offering a vision of historical practice that hopes to justify itself to both capital and its interlocutors (“the finance sector, and activists”) at the same time.

That attempt is symptomatic of the much larger effort to mount a defence of the arts and humanities, along with the liberal university, the public intellectual, the printed newspaper, and the rest of it. Guldi and Armitage have gone one better than most, by refusing to be on the back foot. Their initiative should at least make us think about what it would mean to rebuild the discipline of history—and whether the interests of the different audiences they address can ever really be reconciled.

Tom Cutterham is the Sir Christopher Cox Junior Fellow at New College, Oxford. He is a contributing member of the early American history blog, The Junto.

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A Critical Hematology Mon, 27 Oct 2014 00:10:04 +0000 Kate Travers

Gil Anidjar
Blood: A Critique of Christianity
Columbia University Press, 2014
560 pages
ISBN: 9780231167208

Academic books can dazzle for a variety of reasons. Some projects are so painstakingly, meticulously researched that, even though the subject matter is sometimes dry and often only ever capable of appealing to a highly specific audience, they command respect. Other works are written with such finesse and linguistic dexterity that they dazzle with their glimmering sheen of intellectual bravura. Yet others become cornerstones of the academic canon because of their wide-reaching implications in many diverse disciplines. Blood: A Critique of Christianity is that rare combination that manages all three. A project of soaring ambition and incredible scope, Gil Anidjar attempts to weave a narrative constructed from—and soaked in—the cultural, social, political history of blood within Christianity and, by extension, the entire Western world.

Blood is a book of two parts: “The Vampire State” and “Hematologies”. “The Vampire State” is a collection of political meditations on the role of blood in medieval Christianity and its subsequent influence on the Western body politic. Anidjar connects the symbolic and social functions of blood in medieval European theology with the emergent idea of the nation state, and its implications in the theorisation of race and Christian identity, illustrating how these concepts permeate the West’s enduring infatuation with capitalism and the construction of modern America.

Anidjar begins his epic narrative by addressing the racial purity laws of the medieval city of Toledo in Spain. It is here that he examines the privileging of Christian blood within the West as “good”, or distinct from others. Using the Toledo laws as a case study in the process of defining a “national” populous, he argues against Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, and Benedict Anderson, whom he believes construct race and racism as sociological class distinctions. Instead, he posits that these distinctions spread from medieval “theologico-politcal” differences, the expressions of which hold a sociological function.

Communities which are united through material blood ties need no longer “perform” their unity. They are “self-fashioning”. While it is certainly true that these communities are engaged in a process of self-fashioning, Anidjar later describes blood in the medieval community as a both “gift and a given”. And what else is the gift, and the act of gift-giving, if not a performance of mutual alignment, of unity? His examination of the early theorisation of the body politic, via John of Salisbury and Christine de Pizane, however, is a brief but vital reminder of the medieval roots of biopolitical thought. Theories of biopolitics are dominated by twentieth-century thinkers, and Anidjar’s tracing of the historical lineage of the conceptual bond between the biological and the socio-political is a valuable endeavour. The fluidity of these concepts and their slow drip-down through the centuries does much to support Anidjar’s refusal to accept conventional notions of periodicity in discussing blood as a theological, biological, and political entity.

Blood‘s examination of Western capitalism is a terrifyingly astute insight into parallels between the circulation of capital and the biological circulation. Not only does Anidjar highlight the obvious resonances of capital as the “life-blood” of the economy, but he also teases out the incorporation of the biological within the circulation of capital. He places blood and tissue in the liminal space between the social and the economic, and points to the practice of slavery as the ultimate gesture of capitalist incorporation—the justification for which was itself offered by early modern theories of blood as metonym for race.

On reading the opening three chapters of the book, what is perhaps even more striking than the clarity of the ideas themselves is Anidjar’s wilfully playful—bordering on facetious—use of language and style. The text at times does appear like a web of verbal contractions. He deliberately and repeatedly contradicts himself: “The one drop rule has no history [...] The one drop rule has no history. This is not a completely accurate statement.” He is unabashedly unacademic (e.g. “Foucault says somewhere”) whilst weaving together a complex tapestry of textual references from Spanish statues to Walter Benjamin. At times, this plethora of citations can seem gratuitous or even contrived, however, this meshing of references is extremely effective at subtly enumerating the occurrences of blood within pop culture. Take, for example, the sentences: “The circulation of True Blood will be televised. There Will Be Blood.” This may appear as a meaningless iteration of pop-culture references, perhaps there for the sole purpose of injecting a little edge into his prose. However, Anidjar is playing a quick-fire game of free association, linking film, television, music, Gil Scott-Herron, Daniel Day Lewis, Johnny Greenwood, Anna Paquin—and blood, in two short phrases. This masterful manipulation of language and culture doesn’t exactly make for an easy read, but it can be joyful to see Anidjar in action.

The first part of this book alone would constitute a remarkable achievement. However, this is followed by “Hematologies”, an unexpected and challenging investigation into the role of blood which, he argues, occupies a crucial space at the centre of the Western literary canon. It is in this section of the book that Anidjar pulls off his most impressive intellectual acrobatics. He engages with Homer, Auerbach, Hobbes, Melville, and Freud to provide a riveting cultural analysis of blood amongst the ancient Greek philosophers and a psychoanalysis of Christianity.

Odysseus’ scar appears in the episode dealt with by Auerbach in Mimesis, his monumental survey of the Western canon. He was wounded by a boar whilst hunting, which left said scar. Anidjar points to the conspicuous absence of blood at the moment of the wounding, despite the clearly significant cultic function of blood for the Greeks. He goes on to compare the function of blood within Hebrew culture, which he describes as “dietic” and “juridico-cutic” with the scientific notion of blood, as it was perceived by the ancient Greeks. Anidjar refracts concepts of race and nationhood through natural philosophy. He outlines how blood was thought to be a direct product of digestion, so when Herodotus claimed that the Hellenic nation states were united by common blood, this was actually a comment on shared culinary customs and diet, rather than an idea founded in a hereditary conception of ethnicity. A debatable concept, that would no doubt cause controversy amongst scholars of the classics, but an original and admirable demonstration of the complex mesh of cultural, political and philosophical significance which blood has carried since antiquity and which has been embedded into Western culture as we recognise it today.

Anidjar saves his masterstroke for final sections of his book. His transposition of the Freudian theory of melancholia into an “economics of pain” ties together the function of blood within Christianity, Western states, Western capitalist economies, and the Freudian psychoanalytical framework. Uniting the writings of Paul and Freud, Anidjar puts his finger on a profound contradiction, the origin-point of the trauma which marks the Christian faith with vivid red streaks: “The only real significant murder, the first murder, is the murder of the father. It is the only murder, the true murder from which we have exonerated ourselves. It is the only crime against humanity, the one of which we, who worship the sons, are always already innocent.” This coalescence of scripture and psychoanalysis is a stroke of genius, weaving together the disciplinary structures constructed in the twentieth-century with institutional frameworks devised millennia before and refined in every century since. This transformative claim cements his argument that blood is as fluid, potent and ubiquitous in its symbolic form as it is in its material sense.

For Anidjar, blood deserves the same attention as sex. For him, blood requires a “critical hematology”, a “denaturalisation” of it as a topic, to strip it of what he calls its “excess significance”. This project, with its broad scope and fascinating insight, has in some senses catalogued this “excess significance”, although perhaps it cannot be said to have diminished it. If Blood will achieve one thing, it is to make increasing numbers of the academic community, from a variety of different disciplines, aware of the multifarious facets and functions of blood in the history and culture of the west.

Kate Travers is currently reading for a PhD in Italian literature at New York University. She also reviews music and books for The Line of Best Fit and The Oxonian Review.

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A Finite Infinity Mon, 27 Oct 2014 00:00:19 +0000 holly holly’s holly holly’s holly holly’s holly holly’s holly holly’s holly holly’s holly holly’s holly holly’s holly holly’s holly holly’s holly holly’s holly holly’s Emma Simpson

The Bone Clocks
David Mitchell
The Bone Clocks
Scepter, 2014
608 pages
ISBN: 9780340921609

You and I are bone clocks. Our bodies are ticking time bombs of mortality: temporal, ever-ageing, constant reminders that our time in this world is short. For us, the concepts of immortality, reincarnation, disembodied souls, and atemporal beings are the stuff of stories. In the words of Mitchell’s own bone clock, Hugo Lamb, they are “plausible, if you live in a fantasy novel. Here in the real world, souls stay inside the body. The paranormal is always, always a hoax.”

Is David Mitchell’s new novel a fantasy novel? At first it is hard to be sure, especially since Mitchell is well known for his promiscuous genre-hopping. The semi-autobiographical bildungsroman Black Swan Green took us inside the mind of 13-year-old Jason in 1980s England; the magnificent work of surreal historical fiction that is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet detailed the life of a Dutch bookkeeper stationed at the East India Trading Post in 18th century Dejima; Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten hopped through the interlinking stories of a variety of characters whose stories spanned time, place, genre, and style, all within a tightly-controlled structure. Mitchell realises these different worlds with the ease of a natural storyteller, ensuring that the reader rarely looses track of even the most obscure of sub-plots.

The first chapter of The Bone Clocks places us in the familiar world of Black Swan Green: a working-class English suburb in the 1980s. Holly Sykes’s first chapter is, at first, a reasonably convincing attempt to mirror the voice of a 15-year-old girl struggling through a familiar minefield of adolescent angst and heartache. Mitchell is a master of voice, and his creations are compelling precisely because even the most everyday characters often have a hidden, existential depth. Holly’s narrative is a typically Mitchellian work of unpretentious philosophy: “I think about pinball, and how being a kid’s like being shot up the firing lane and there’s no veering left or right: you’re just sort of propelled.”

Gradually, and so subtly that it is hard to be sure it is happening, Holly’s story progresses from the everyday territory of Black Swan Green to a world more reminiscent of Mitchell’s earlier novel Number9Dream—a sprawling, semi-structured work of imaginative experimentation which at times runs away with itself. Holly has visions, hears voices, encounters a woman on the road who tells her she might need “asylum” if “the first mission fails”, and witnesses the brutal murder of two people which is then erased from her memory and left unexplained, before her precocious younger brother Jacko goes mysteriously missing. In the space of a few pages the book progresses from what at first seems a simple coming-of age novel, to a complex, fast-paced science fiction fantasy; the shrewd reader begins to store away clues.

In the second narrative we meet amoral Cambridge student Hugo Lamb, who falls in love with Holly when she works at a ski resort in her mid-twenties. Following this there is a thought-provoking, highly political section narrated by Holly’s childhood friend Ed, now her husband and a war journalist in Bush-era Iraq. We then encounter some clever meta-fiction in the narrative of Crispin Hershey, a failing novelist whose story takes us from 2015 to 2025; a quote from a review of one of Crispin’s books tells us that “the fantasy sub-plot clashes so violently with the book’s State of the World pretensions, I cannot bear to look… what surer sign is there that the creative aquifers are dry than a writer creating a writer character?” Mitchell, it seems, is all too aware of his undertaking in creating such a novel.

The Bone Clocks lacks the controlled structure we are accustomed to in a Mitchell novel of such scope. It quickly becomes apparent that Holly’s life is the thread—at times, the only thread—that links together the various voices of the novel. Her life is often referred to by other characters as “the script”, playing with ideas of fate, and what is “written” into the narrative of time—a theme to which the novel continuously returns. However, each of the separate narratives is so well-realised that rarely is the reader bored or confused by the postmodern structure or the genre-hopping plot: this is a messy, experimental novel, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work.

As in all of Mitchell’s books, familiar characters from other books nod knowingly from between a stream of new voices: Jason from Black Swan Green is Hugo Lamb’s cousin; in the last section, Holly’s friend Mo is a character who we met in her younger incarnation at the end of Ghostwritten. All the while, internal plot lines also intersect and collide in a complex tapestry of voices and references. Whether it is a sense of coincidence or a sense of the inevitable that Mitchell is trying to bring to his long-time readers, the result is incredibly satisfying: something like returning home to a house of familiar faces after a very unpredictable day.

The penultimate story is told by Dr Marinus, an atemporal soul who also appears under the same name in Jacob De Zoet. His narrative ties together the supernatural sub-plot which runs alongside Holly’s life: an underground battle between “atemporals” and the “horologists”: two separate groups of eternal beings whose war invites us to question the morals behind immortality. The sub-plot is at times incongruous, confusing, and far-fetched. And yet, it is brilliant because of the way it brings up unanswered questions from previous Mitchell books. Ghostwritten, for instance, contains a chapter written by a “noncorpum”, a disembodied, eternal soul who flits between bodies, co-inhabiting the consciousness of its hosts. In Cloud Atlas, each character is a reincarnated form of the same, eternal soul. If Mitchell’s books are all set in the same topsy-turvy universe, can we conclude that noncorpums and reincarnated souls relate in some way to atemporals and horologists? The fact that such beings exist alongside the bone clocks dissolves the line between Mitchell’s world and our own.

The Bone Clocks is Mitchell’s most ambitious and experimental novel to date. It move both chronologically, socially and geographically: working-class 1980s Gravesend; an upper-class view of casinos and cocaine in the 1990s; a vividly realised picture of the Iraq war in the noughties; a frighteningly plausible vision of the post-apocalyptic future. However, each section of the story gives us only a snippet of a life and time: we are then left to work out the fates of the various protagonists by piecing together bits from stories told by others. Elements of the fantasy sub-plot occur in each story—the battle between good and evil is timeless—and it is Holly’s life, rather than the structure of the novel, which ties together all of these disparate pieces. At the end, in a Cloud Atlas-like recapitulation, we return to Holly, now an old woman living in Ireland in 2043, as the world, now nearly devoid of fossil fuels, collapses around her and her family.

David Mitchell admits to being “a map nerd”, and, in his novels, he is obsessed not only with mapping place, but with mapping time and mapping lives. The Bone Clocks is no exception. Its title sums up the book’s focus on both temporality and mortality, with humankind and our fleeting time on this earth. As a deeply and self-professedly experimental work (it was never likely to win the Man Booker Prize for this reason), it is gloriously ambitious, surprising, moving, and a ridiculously fun read.

Emma Simpson is reading for a BA in English at St Anne’s College, Oxford.

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Weekly Round-Up: Evil Politicians, Sublime Composers, Intellectual Cowards, Queer Writers, Royal Essayists, Empowered Theorists Fri, 24 Oct 2014 07:58:10 +0000 linguistics subin perlin naysayers procrastination The Oxonian Review presents the Weekly Round-Up, featuring articles the editorial staff have found interesting, illuminating, or otherwise noteworthy.

1. “John Gray: ‘The Truth about Evil’“, The Guardian: Gray addresses the thorny problem of evil, and the role the concept plays in contemporary politics. Are politicians’ references to evil merely a cynical ploy to shape public perceptions? Gray argues not. “Too morally stunted to be capable of the mendacity of which he is often accused, Blair thinks and acts on the premise that whatever furthers the triumph of what he believes to be good must be true. Imagining that he can deliver the Middle East and the world from evil, he cannot help having a delusional view of the impact of his policies.”

2. “Alex Ross: ‘Deus ex Musica’“, The New Yorker: Beethoven’s post mortem metamorphosis from great composer to divine figure of genius has not only influenced subsequent musicians but may, Ross argues, have intimidated them into silence. In a consideration of a number of new works on Beethoven, Ross strips away the myth and reveals the complex but compromised man beneath. The verdict: “for this conundrum—an artist almost too great for the good of his art—Beethoven himself bears little responsibility.”

3. “Chris Walsh: ‘Intellectual Cowardice’“, Times Higher Education: invoking Kingsley Amis, Dr Johnson, and—above all—Dante, Walsh describes the mise-en-abyme of the academic cowardice which gripped him as he wrote his book on cowardice (to be published imminently by Princeton University Press). Some of his concerns will resonate with many Oxonian Review readers: “Anxiety about being a fraud does seem to be an occupational hazard in academia… It often seems as if neither we academics ourselves nor others think us worthy. How can anyone finish anything in such conditions?”

4. “Philip Kennicott: ‘Smuggler: A Memoir of Gay Male Literature’“, VQR: Kennicott offers a moving account of the crucial role that a delirious cavalcade of queer literature played in his adolescence. The words and worlds of Gide, Cocteau, Genet, and others introduced him to a new way of thinking and of being. “But the discovery of that kiss changed me. Reading, which had seemed a retreat from the world, was suddenly more vital, dangerous, and necessary.”

5. “John Jeremiah Sullivan: ‘The Ill-Defined Plot’“, The New Yorker: after the glorious example of Montaigne, it was the English who championed the idea of the essayist, the writer dedicated peculiarly to this mode of writing. And the unsung hero of the developing form was James I, whose Essayes of a Prentise preceded Francis Bacon’s Essayes by more than a decade. Could James have known of Montaigne? And could he have been the man to introduce the notion of the essay into the English language? “Was it the case, as seems plausible, that the two were connected somehow—that King James knew of Montaigne, or at least knew of his book (but probably both), and was appropriating the word from him? And if that’s true, why is James’s book rarely, if ever, cited in histories of the essay form, from England or France?”

6. “Terry Eagleton: ‘If I were king for a day I would execute eavesdroppers, morris dancers and Bruce Forsyth’“, The Guardian: the outspoken theorist lists—in the most entertaining way imaginable—his pet hates and how he’d cleanse the world of them. Despite the hyperbole, his views ain’t so outrageous. “All sport will be suspended indefinitely, to be reinstated only when everyone agrees to pull out of Nato and replace capitalism with self-governing cooperatives… Nobody will be allowed to complain about Jeremy Clarkson’s views, since that is exactly what he wants to hear. Instead, they’ll just point out how fat in the face he’s getting.”

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