It’s Time We Discussed the Economics of Rape Culture


Published by Kettle Mag 18/10/2014

A 19-year-old man was jailed for five years on October 13, for drunkenly raping a woman after he’d taken off all her clothes, and photographed her naked as she slept. Louis Chand is from Scunthorpe, at the time of the assault he had just completed three and a half years studying engineering, and he had no previous convictions. So how did it come to pass that after a few drinks he thought, in the first instance, that it was justifiable to strip a sleeping woman and photograph her, and in the second, that he then had the right to have sex with her without her consent – or, indeed, her consciousness?

To merely condemn this man as a terrible human being would only serve to sweep the cultural issue under a carpet of inflammatory rhetoric, which so often serves to hide the deeper problems that are inherent in our society when we talk about sexual assault and rape. Across the country women suffer through sexual intimidation every day – but these instances, sadly, seem to be more prevalent in areas of high unemployment, and low economic growth.

An Economic Sinkhole

I am four years older than Louis but I, too, grew up in Scunthorpe. I may not have lived there since I was his age, but I remember the kind of culture that proliferates in its clubs and bars. Scunthorpe, like a number of industrial towns has, in recent years, been swept up in a seemingly unstoppable slide into an economic sinkhole.

Since the 1980s, employment in Scunthorpe’s main steel industry has fallen from 27,000  workers at its height, to an estimated 4,500 today. The knock-on effect of such a dramatic set of job cuts, is that a disproportionate number of the population have been forced to claim government benefits of some kind. The high street is littered with pound shops, and big-name retailers including Marks & Spencer and Dorothy Perkins, have been forced to close. Crucially, the crime rates, particularly for burglary and sexual violence, are significantly higher there than the national average.

I should mention, at this point, that underage drinking is also something of the norm. With such an abysmal set of achievable aspirations on offer for its young people, coupled with the bitter injustice of a significant rate of unemployment for many skilled older workers, Scunthorpe’s pubs and clubs have become a bizarre and frightening alternate reality, in which to wile away the hours.

At the heart of this alcohol-fueled twilight zone, the age range of the people caught in  thrall to its pulsing lights and 50p Sambuca shots, ranges from 15 and 16-year-olds, to a  singularly disheartened generation of apathetic pensioners. In this other-world, a generation of benighted teens are exposed from an increasingly young age, to a strange pseudo-morality, in which the norms of equality so hard won throughout the 20th century, are drowned beneath an incessant and sickeningly sweet flow of cheap alcohol and economic impotence.

Challenging Cultural Conditioning

A number of years ago, and as an underage young teenager myself, I was one of the many boys and girls who floundered there on a Saturday night. What concerns me, is that I never realised quite how far from the norm of social structures Scunthorpe’s nighttime system was, until I left for university. So, let me describe for you a particularly worrying faction of this system – as it was when I resided there – as context for the environment that, I’m sure, Louis and his victim are all-too familiar with.

Underage girls are conditioned to bribe their way into clubs by wearing low-cut, high-hemmed, skin-tight clothes, and a delicately nurtured vodka-jacket. When challenged by some of the more diligent bouncers – and they do exist – their night may yet end with a swift and disappointing taxi ride home. But for a concerning number of wannabe revelers, a flash of flesh and an intoxicated smile, will be enough for them to gain access to the rivers of chemicals that flow beyond the doors of many a darkened watering hole.

Once inside, the real fun begins. With an age range that encompasses the only-just-pubescent and the probably-taking-viagra alike, anything goes, and girls learn from their first entry, that a certain system of acceptable behaviour is firmly set in place. Men will grab you. They will grab you an awful lot, almost anywhere they can reach. The trick  many young girls intuit quickly, is to push valiantly through this sea of wandering hands, and learn when to smile, when to laugh it off, and when to get angry and move on.

This may sound both prosaic and prurient to anyone who has been in a club in recent years, and so already knows first-hand that this happens across cities and towns on a nightly basis. But so ingrained is it in our culture, that it has become a phenomenon that the media increasingly leaves unhappily unexamined. The surprising quality of Scunthorpe’s nightlife, however, more than that of any other town or city I’ve experienced, is that this system has entered into a sexual spiral, in which the lines of acceptability have become steadily more difficult to define.

Rape Culture and Socio-economics

I would delve deeply into the nuances of this problem, but I think it can be summed up by one key anecdote. On Scunthorpe’s high street, in a sticky little bar called The Britannia, is  - or there was a couple of years ago – a dance floor heralded by a sign which reads “Beaverview Square”. Here, there resides a first-floor dance partition with a see-through plexiglass floor. Women are encouraged to dance there – it being the only dance space available – whilst men of all ages, from those in their teens to those in receipt of their free bus pass, sup their pints and leer up-skirts from the ground  level directly below.

This is “normal”. Even worse than that, this is “harmless”. In an area in which so many people are without even the prospect of a job, and surrounded incessantly once the sun goes down, by such readily-accepted sexist voyeursim, is it such a huge leap to suggest that the area’s young people will become, inevitably, both perpetrators and victims of rape culture?

In the first instance, Louis’ actions were voyeuristic. They were fueled by an already publicly sanctioned desire to see more of this young woman, and to see it while she was at her most vulnerable. That isn’t to say that it is excusable. Louis is 19-years-old, a presumably intelligent human being, and being drunk is no justification for assuming a right to a woman’s unconscious body.

But without previous convictions, without a history of violent behaviour, and with an educational level higher than a number of men his age from the same area, he did. Now, he will have to live with this actions coming to define the rest of his life, and so will his victim. In a statement to the court, she told the jury she had “flashbacks and nightmares” of waking up with this man on top of her. She said she now felt that her “goals and ambitions” had been “ripped from” her, and she has since been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and prescribed anti-depressants.

Now, through no fault of her own, this young woman must come to terms with what has happened to her. Louis has scarred both his own life as well as his victim’s, and his actions are inexcusable. But to pretend that this crime is simply a result of one man’s predilection for violence against women, would be wrong and unhelpful. The issue is far wider and far more ingrained than that, both within our culture generally, and within the gaping maw of our socio-economic situation. As a society, isn’t it about time we addressed the economic factors inherent in our rape culture?

Analysing Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize Winning Novel

Published by Kettle Mag 15/10/2014

In an earlier review for Kettle Mag, I called The Narrow Road to the Deep North “a deeply impressive novel” – but I also argued that the psychology of Flanagan’s juxtaposed love story relied too much on a “laboriously romanticised archetype.”

On the 14 October, however, the judges for the 2014 Man Booker Prize decided that, whatever its failings, Flanagan’s 12-year-in-the-writing novel deserved to take home the highest literary prize on offer in the Commonwealth. So, were they right?

A Prolific Writer

It is difficult to argue with Flanagan’s output over the course of his seventeen year authorial career. His first novel, Death of a River Guide, was described in 1997 by The Times Literary Supplement as “one of the most auspicious debuts in Australian writing”.

Flanagan’s works since then have won numerous accolades, including the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Queensland Premier’s Prize, and listings as the New Yorker’s Book of the Year and The Observer’s Book of the Year. With this in mind, it almost seems as though it were only a matter of time, before the Booker Prize was added to his list of auspices.

Indeed, his was a popular choice on social media among both writers and the public.

Rhyme and Reason

That isn’t to say though, that the competition wasn’t, as it always is, fierce. Flanagan’s fellow shortlisters included Howard Jacobson, who won the Booker in 2010 for his wisely comic The Finkler Question, and Ali Smith’s How to be Both was hotly tipped to take home the £50,000 prize.

But if the comments from the judges are to be believed, Flanagan’s tale, which was loosely based on the WWII experiences of his grandfather as a PoW on the infamous Japanese “Death Railway,” was the obvious choice to win.

Philosopher A C Grayling, the chair of the Booker panel, said the novel had a visceral sensation on reading, like being “kicked in the stomach”. For Grayling, it was “the beauty of the writing, the profoundly intelligent humanity, the excoriating passages of great power, and the great truth” inherent in the book, that made it the standout winner of this year’s competition.

This was something I also argued in my review last week. Flanagan imbues his prose with poetry in the form of haikus, ontological meditations, and a perceptive juxtaposition of the beauty of the Japanese culture, and the brutality of its war effort. Similarly, he forces us to make sympathetic leaps, from the perspective of the PoWs, to the recesses of the Japanese General’s psyche, thereby creating a nuanced and insightful work of historicised fiction.

Notable Absences

Five of the six shortlisted novels were published by global conglomerate Penguin – with, surprisingly, the exception of Flanagan’s winning novel. For me, however, there were some notable missing persons from this year’s Booker long-list. Most obviously, for me, Will Self’s incredible Shark, the second book in a trilogy, the first installment of which, Umbrella, was shortlisted for the Booker in 2012.

Similarly, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was surprisingly absent, and there was an unhappily white-male-focused selection from the get-go, with only one woman making the final six on the shortlist.

These slight issues aside, however, Flanagan’s deeply personal, refined, and thought-provoking  book is, in my opinion, a worthy winner of the Man Booker 2014. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is, as I’ve said before, a deeply impressive novel, written by an equally impressive writer.

Booker Shortlist Review: The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Published by Kettle Mag 12/10/2014

“Mother, they write poems” – so reads the epigraph to Australian novelist Richard Flanagan’s ambitious novel, concerning life on the infamous Japanese “Death Railway” during the Second World War. Taking its title from one of the greatest works in Japanese literature by the haiku poet Basho, the vertiginous timeline of Flanagan’s own work expresses one universal truth: that all human history is a history of violence.

Despite its bleak subject matter and philosophising, however, this is not an inherently pessimistic book. Basho’s original work – a mixture of haiku and prose – is a masterpiece of meditation, philosophy, and precision. And in its namesake, Flanagan imbues his prose with poetry in the form of haikus, ontological meditations, and a perceptive juxtaposition of the beauty of the Japanese culture, and the brutality of its war effort.

Individualism and Universality

Focusing on the life of Alwyn “Dorrigo” Evans, a doctor and the officer in charge of J Force – the one-thousand strong assortment of mostly Australian PoWs working on the infamous “Line” in Burma – Flanagan’s narrative pulls us incessantly back and forth across both time and place.

Based on the wartime experiences of the author’s grandfather, who died just as the book was finished, Dorrigo’s character is intimately and masterfully drawn. Through this individual, Flanagan manages to universalise a generation’s anguish, and his strength lies in forcing the reader to make difficult, sympathetic leaps throughout the novel’s 448 pages.

The suffering of J Force at the hands of their Japanese captors is a brutal, and often viscerally difficult narrative to become lost in. But perhaps even more difficult than the scenes of egregious violence, are the unsignposted leaps Flanagan makes to the perspective of the Japanese Major responsible for many of the atrocities, as he suffers through homelessness during Tokyo’s post-war reconstruction.

Humanising the Inhuman

Representations of the WWII Prisoner of War camps in western literature, inevitably focus on the suffering of those who were captured – many of whom were worked to death. Not only does Flanagan attempt, and mostly succeed, in describing such horrific acts, but he also humanises the people responsible for perpetrating them.

From the Burmese Jungle, where putrefying flesh, skeletal human beings, and merciless soldiers abound, he drags us to a Tokyo broiling in the midst of post-war reconstruction. Here, we find Major Nakamura, a formerly proud and vicious Japanese general, responsible for some of the PoW’s most brutal beatings and unjustifiable deaths.

Here, though, he is changed. As he discovers himself to be listed by the Americans as a wanted war ciminal, Flanagan takes us deep within the ex-soldier’s psyche. Once there, we grapple with him as he struggles to understand how he could be called a criminal, for treating the prisoners as he was ordered to by the Emperor; who, of course, remains unmolested.

Here, Flanagan’s history of human violence reminds us starkly of one thing: morality is decided by the victors, and the human cogs of the war machine are far more easily punished than the engine that drives it.

Love and Hate

Juxtaposed with this tale of death, destruction, and disdain for life, is the bittersweet relationship between the young Dorrigo, and his Uncle’s remote and conflicted wife. Here, however, it is impossible not to notice that Flanagan’s own idealised image of the redemptive powers of a woman’s love have, perhaps just a little, clouded his keener insights.

Amy is possibly the least well-drawn of Flanagan’s formidably well-realised characters. It’s obvious that he has attempted to create a strong, complicated young woman who, like Dorrigo, finds her true self only within the object of her affections.

However, although the resulting passages are beautifully written and often with more than an element of the poetic to their form, for me, this analysis of the star-crossed lovers was too simplistic, and the psychology too loosely weaved around a laboriously romanticised archetype.

A Timeline too Far

Similarly, for all of the author’s masterful treatment of the complex issues surrounding war, torture, enslavement, and the the jarring return to civility for the prisoners at the battle’s end, his final chapters felt like a step too far.

Yes, it was important for us to witness the enduring camaraderie between those men who survived. Likewise, the state of Dorrigo’s relationship with his future family could never have been glossed over.

Nevertheless, without giving too much away, the chapters featuring the fire during our protagonists’s twilight years, and the incredible serendipity of one Darky Gardiner’s heritage, are inescapably contrived. And what’s more, they come as a severe disappointment when set against the virtuosic treatment of the far grander issues that have gone before.

In the end, though, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a deeply impressive novel. With disarming narrative control and sympathetic consideration, Flanagan has succeeded in examining one of the darker periods of our recent history, and creating one of the most insightful books published in recent years. It’s just a shame he didn’t know when to stop.

In Defence of Serious Reading

Published by Kettle Mag 10/10/2014

Nick Hornby is the bestselling author of novels including About A Boy, High Fidelity, and Fever Pitch. Titles ripped from Elvis Costello lyrics aside, he is also, if we are to take his comments at the Cheltenham Literature Festival to heart, an advocate of the simple pleasures of reading. Here, “simple” is the operative word, because the popular writer doesn’t believe that readers should attempt to finish so-called “difficult” novels, if they don’t  start to enjoy them within the first few pages or chapters.

Now, I may not be a bestselling novelist, but to me, this is a potentially damaging view to take.

Reading to be Lost

Many of us read as a form of escapism. Readers, as a collective, intuitively know that a strange telepathy is at work when we dive beneath the wordsea of a really good book. For however long we stay submerged there, the codices of the writer’s words match our own visual and emotional absorption into the text point-for-point. In fact, this phenomenon has been described, characteristically eloquently, by Will Self in one of his most recent articles for The Guardian – and I’ll stop paraphrasing it if you start reading it.

Reading to become lost in a different world, or to know a new set of characters intimately – and often far more deeply than we know our own friends – is, of course, one of the great joys of picking up a book with a rollicking narrative.

With this in mind, I’m not going to attempt to argue that there isn’t a place for this kind of reading. As a child of the 1990s, like most readers my age I harbour an enduring love for the Harry Potter series, with all of its borrowings and simplistic prose combining to make a bloody good story nonetheless.

Similarly, my own guilty pleasures are fantasy novels – and I read them across the spectrum. From the insightful sci-fi of J.G. Ballard, to the frankly painfully populistic imaginings of Suzanne Collins, my love of a decent dystopia, utopia, or Tolkien-style fantasy epic, unfortunately does not discriminate based on talent. But here is where my agreement with Nick Hornby ends.

Diving More Deeply

To read as a utilitarian, purely for pleasure, is no bad thing. But as I said in an earlier article on Hilary Mantel’s assassination short story, words are power, and ideas have influence. Without serious literature – and by this I mean works such as Ulysses, The Master and Margarita, and even, if the Bronte’s float your metaphorical boat, Wuthering Heights – human life would remain unexamined.

In this sense, Kafka’s argument still stands. Great literature is “an axe to break the frozen sea inside us”. Numerous psychology studies in recent years have proven this claim, by revealing that readers of literary fiction posses greater tolerance of different people and races, heightened empathy, and a far higher emotional intelligence than those who only read mainstream “stories”.

A Worthwhile Expedition

To complain that reading a book like Ulysses is difficult, is the literary equivalent of complaining that Everest is hard to climb. Some of the most valuable experiences of our lives are won through hard work, concentration, and perseverance. And what’s more, once completed, these endeavours often turn out to be some of the best and most rewarding undertakings of our lives.

As a teenager, I read Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 for the first time. Close to 200 pages in, I was still hopelessly lost and thoroughly beleaguered in his vertiginous narrative. In all honesty I very nearly gave up, until a short while later, something miraculous happened. Heller’s narrative suddenly converged, and it was as if someone had turned on a light.

Suddenly, everything became clear. The whole imagined world opened out in front of me, and from that moment I raced through the book alternately laughing, crying, and running an incessant inner-monologue which screamed, disbelievingly, “HOW DID HE WRITE THIS?”.

I still don’t know, but I do know how I read it. I read it with difficulty, and it is categorically one of the best – and certainly most productive – things that I did in my teenage years. The scale of some of the best known works of literary fiction is awe-inspiring, and the challenge of reading and understanding them is both a test and an expansion of capability.

Reaping the Rewards

Difficulty, I would argue, is in fact a necessary consequence of valuable innovation. Knowledge, skill, and pleasure are bought by hard work, and you don’t get something for nothing. Nabokov famously sneered at people who “talk about books instead of talking within books”, and this is, I assume, what Nick Hornby is advocating.

For me, literature is a method and a manner of better living. It both threatens and amplifies the ways in which I see the world, and I’m yet to find a reason why anyone would want to shy away from the agitation and dislocation that serious literature can evoke.

So, my apologies to Nick Hornby. As charming and successful as his novels are, I would far rather live in a world where people were encouraged to read Ulysses, than one in which About A Boy is the pinnacle of a reader’s ambitions.

Will Self: On Critics, Ulysses, and that Orwell Article

will self

Published by Now Then Magazine 03/10/2014

Will Self is one of the most prolific and controversial journalists and writers of the last twenty years. On the 4th of September, Shark, the second novel in his trilogy of psychopathology, war, and the antagonistic protagonist Zack Busner, was released to time almost providentially, with his article in The Guardian proclaiming George Orwell a ‘supreme mediocrity’. But is that really what he said?

On the 9th of October Will is appearing at Ilkley Literary Festival to publicise his newest release. And so, braced for a conversation that I knew might leave me having bitten off more than I could chew, I spoke to him over a cantankerous studio phone that played an unhelpful time-out game with our conversation.

In Shark, this is the seventh time you’ve used anti-psychiatrist Zack Busner in your writing. What is it about this character that keeps you coming back to him?

Oh, well I don’t know. He’s been around since 1991 in my first book, and he’d appeared in bits and pieces in other narratives, but he never had an internal life until Umbrella. When I was thinking of Umbrella I did consider not using him, but then it just seemed like, there he was. So much of the material of novels is the stuff that’s lying around, and he’s just been lying around a lot! But he does all sorts of things for me as a character. I’ve always been interested in psychiatrists as the gatekeepers of sanity, which is now our modern form of morality.

In Concept House in Shark, there’s a blurring between patient and psychiatrist. Is that part of how you see mental health?

No, the Concept House in Shark is based very, very securely on the kind of houses that R.D Laing’s Philadelphia Association set up. I had a friend who stayed in one in Notting Hill in the 1980s, so I saw it myself at close hand.

Shark’s narrative is completely circular. It starts and ends on the same sentence, so you can literally read it round and around, if you really wanted to…

Well, I hope you do really want to!

I’ve read it twice already, so you must have done something right. But circularity’s a really common theme. You have the shark circling, and you have Claude describing army drills ‘circling tighter and tighter like a tan fish trying to eat its own tail’. If everything’s circling around like that, do you see Shark as a pessimistic book?

At this point, the studio phone hung up on us for the first time. Luckily, Will Self’s not one to let a minor technology malfunction throw him off, so we picked up, quite naturally, where we’d left off.

I don’t know what happened to you there, but I was just saying that you haven’t mentioned the most important circularities. What gets Busner thinking about the residents at the beginning of the book, is that he notices the paper bags with the discarded tampons under the sink. So the menstrual cycle is the most important circularity in the book. It begins with an acknowledgement of synchrony between women’s menstrual cycles, and ends with the death reverie of the mother. And the other main circularity that informed Shark, since it focuses on Hiroshima, is the circular orbit of the proton around the nucleus of the uranium 238 atom. In fact, the entire book is structured like an atomic model of uranium 238. As for whether it’s a pessimistic book, I don’t know. I think the point I’m trying to make, and I’ll probably resolve your question in the third volume, is whether the relationship between humans collectively, and technological innovation, is productive or pathological.

A lot of people say your books aren’t easy to read, and you’ve argued that literary fiction doesn’t know it’s dead yet. Are you trying to resurrect it, or are you just having a lot of fun at the wake?

Oh, I think I’m just having a lot of fun at the wake.

But do you set out to write books that encompass more of the English language than other writers?

I’m both puzzled by difficulty, and by people saying that my writing’s difficult in its vocabulary. I just don’t understand what these people have been reading. They quite clearly haven’t read Ulysses, because it’s about one-hundred times more complex than anything I’ve ever written, and deploys a vocabulary that’s about forty times wider. So none of these critics, presumably, have read Ulysses, if they think my stuff’s so bloody hard!

Speaking of your wide use of language, you wrote a controversial article at the end of August calling George Orwell a supreme mediocrity.

No, I said that he had been appointed supreme mediocrity by those kinds of English people who love a talented mediocrity. I never said that Orwell was a mediocrity. The piece has been widely commented on by people who quite clearly didn’t read it.

Your argument seemed to be that keeping the English language stagnant, and having an ideal of what the perfect English was, was unhelpful and wrong in the way that language evolves?

Yes, it just is wrong! If you read the piece you’ll see that the attack is on the first paragraph of Politics in the English Language, where Orwell states something that is factually wrong about the nature of language. I just despair of our culture that some fucking hack then comes along and thinks he wants to have a pop at me, and he doesn’t bother to read the piece, and doesn’t address any of the fundamental points I make. But I don’t really mind. My motto is that I just want to be misunderstood.

Well, you certainly are that. Finally then, what is it about Ilkley Literature festival, and literary festivals in general, that you seem to enjoy doing so much? Because you’re quite a regular on the festival circuit.

Oh, I get paid for it. It’s part of my job. My job is to write books and present them to the reading public, and that’s why I do literary festivals.

Is it something you enjoy doing though? Speaking to the public face-to-face about what you’ve written?

Well, up to a point. But I don’t get a hard on thinking about it! [Laughs] I don’t think you’re going to put that line about getting a hard on into your article, are you?

I’m saved from answering that question by the dying of the phone line. When we resume, it’s for Will to drop in his final sliver of information, and turn the cantankerous phone into something quite serendipitous.

Hello again. This is ridiculous.

Never mind. Technology, you see. Technology and pathology. And the next book in the trilogy is, in fact, called Phone. And that gives you the hook for your article, doesn’t it?

Certainly, it does. It may be Will Self’s motto to be misunderstood, but in conversation he’s   disarmingly unambiguous in a way that suggests that he may be right: the true problem doesn’t lie in the difficulty of his writing, but with a critical group of people who don’t always take the care to understand.

Shark is available to buy now.

Historical Fiction, Censorship, and the Assassination of Literature

‘Imagination only comes when you privilege the subconscious’ … Mantel.

Published by Kettle Mag 28/09/2014

At the opening let me make one thing clear: as much as I may have previously wished and tried to be, I am not a fan of the over-lauded Hilary Mantel – overlord of historical fiction and darling of the middle-class intelligentsia that she is. Certainly, hers is an impressive feat. To be the only British novelist to have won the Man Booker Prize twice, for two books in the same series, and as a formerly little-known female writer no less, is nothing to be sneered at. And yet, somewhat apologetically, I still do.

Assassinating the Iron Lady

But let’s begin at the end for the time being. Mantel’s short story and accompanying interview espousing her deep-seated wish to assassinate former PM Margaret Thatcher, has recently raised all kinds of umbrage from those fans who had previously held her most dear.

Lord Timothy Bell, to take a vocal example, went so far as to call for her to be investigated by the police, and Stewart Jackson, the Conservative MP for Peterborough, in a self-righteous fit of ignominy labelled her “sick and deranged”. Among their issues with the short story published by The Guardian, seemed to be that the subject was “in bad taste”.

Well, to them I say: So what? But please don’t misunderstand me. By this statement I am not advocating a laissez-faire attitude to literature, but nor am I suggesting that these comments should be taken lightly.

Literary Censorship

I wonder whether the people who are so aggrieved by Mantel’s so-called descent into “bad taste” have stopped to consider quite what it is they’re advocating in its place. Would they, for instance, have been of the type who sought to ban D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover when it was first released?

Let’s go further. Would they have called for Tolstoy’s War and Peace to be removed from print for encouraging the removal of Napoleon? Would they, perhaps, even have been among the powers-that-be who would have burned Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master’s manuscript, if given half a chance?

Put into this context, the issue becomes blindingly clear. Big Brother is watching, and of this we are all aware. Rushdie’s Satanic Verses earned him a Fatwa, yet transparently damaging drivel such as Fifty Shades of Grey earned its frighteningly anti-feminist author millions in disposable income. There is a frightening disconnect here between society’s advocation of mass-produced fiction, and its discouragement of original and controversial ideas.

Freedom of Publishing

Mantel’s attack on a Prime Minister who was to politics as marmite is to tastebuds, is a considered and thoughtful comment on a woman who, with one hand bolstered the economy, and with the other drove millions out of work and left many families languishing today in third and fourth generation poverty. The darker recesses of an individual’s thoughts may be considered bad taste to some, but freedom of publication is a right we should cling to far more dearly, than to a certain factions’ propensity to take offense when rattled from their coddled cages.

I said at the beginning that I am not a fan of Hilary Mantel, and truly I am not. Personally, I find historical fiction to be a failure on both the part of the historian and of the writer. The story is not her own, the writing is hardly virtuosic, and the history would be far better discussed within the musty pages of an historical textbook, than between the shiny covers of this year’s bestseller. But, for all of the qualms I have with the double-Booker award winner, I applaud her success and I will defend hers and every other writer’s – nay, person’s – right to cause controversy wherever and whenever they see fit.

Literary fiction is dying. Mass-produced sadomasochism ties knots around our brains, and forcibly beats us into submitting to the societal view that reading for pleasure is the highest form of learned relaxation; and therefore should be accepted and encouraged no matter the calibre of the novels we digest. This is a fallacy.

Encouraging Education

Words are power. Ideas have influence. For previous generations in the west, and for existing generations elsewhere today, the battle for education was and still is fought. And why? Because with education comes an understanding of the world. It is the key to unlocking our potential as human beings, and in the UK at least, our society is based on J.S. Mill’s guiding principle, that the majority has no more right to silence a single man’s opinion, than that man would have to silence the opinion of the majority.

Male-centric pronoun aside, this is the freedom that’s at stake when Lords and MPs deign to condemn a work of fiction for being, in their opinion, “bad taste”. They must not succeed in proscribing what constitutes “good” literature. Personally, I would like to see Fifty Shades of Grey removed from bookshelves the world over, but that is not my decision to take, and nor is it anyone else’s.

So, whether they be Lords or politicians, readers of historical fiction or writers of controversial literature, one truth must stand above all else for all of us: as the Master discovered, no matter the danger of their ideas, manuscripts do not burn. And nor should they be silenced.

Will Self’s Shark: More Than Some Can Chew

Published by Kettle Mag 17/09/2014

Will Self is often accused of being incomprehensible to the average reader. His vocabulary too verbose, his analogies too deeply drawn, his ideas too, well, difficult for a light read. Shark, his second installment in a trilogy of psychology, technology and pathology, is guilty of all of these things and more – and it’s all the more glorious a literary morsel because of it.

Reading anything written by Self can often feel as though you’re diving into murky waters without the aid of a searchlight, and for anyone who reads to give their overworked brain a rest, Shark is simply not the novel for you.

If, however, you’re looking for a cerebral workout and an exhilarating narrative to boot, you’ve probably come to the right place.

At first, being plunged into the middle of a sentence which begins a book-length paragraph of stream-of-consciousness style narrative, might seem superfluously maddening. But the effect of Self’s prose is to drag you incessantly inwards and onwards, rather than leaving you hopelessly adrift.

Much like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, trying to second-guess the narrative will only damage your understanding of this book; keep on swimming in Self’s psychological sea, and you’ll soon make the necessary leaps required to keep your head above water

Dropping anchor

Following on from Umbrella – or, for a more accurate chronology, preceding from it – Shark’s currents pull us deep within the swelling minds of the residents of Concept House, with the aid of Self’s oft-used antagonistic protagonist, the anti-psychiatrist Zack Busner.

Based firmly on the houses R.D. Laing’s Philadelphia Association set-up in 1965, Shark drops us into the 1970s, where Busner has taken the idea of therapists and patients living together as equals one-step further; and thus, birthed The Concept House.

Our anchor in the washing tide of the residents’ intersecting streams of consciousness is, as it was with Umbrella, the wayward psychiatrist. This time, though, he’s been tricked into embarking on an ill-advised acid trip with his patients.

From this fixed point the ebb and flow of memories circles back and back, cutting across  events including the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in the shark-infested South Pacific, the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima, and the life of a girl who, abused by her mother as a child, enters into a young womanhood of prostitution and drug addiction.

Circling the kill

These events may at first appear discrepant, but as ever, Self’s masterful structuring of his narrative ensures that – as long as you pay attention – you’ll find your way safely back to shore.

The shark-like narrative circles back on itself again and again, until subject and object are united and we end up right where we began. Self’s universe is the realm of confusion and chance, serendipity meeting superfluity, and above all, psychology meeting pathology.

And while it might appear as though he’s simply thrown caution to the wind and scooped us up into an infuriating whirlpool of never-ending cause and effect, with little thought as to its consequence on the reader, this structure is intensely apposite.

Self has taken Hiroshima as the eye of Shark’s storm, and in fact the circularity mimics more than just the sharks going in for the kill. The structure of his book, quite unbelievably, recreates the orbit of the proton around the uranium 238 atom, and so in a very real sense we find ourselves reading the path of the nuclear bomb that decimated a city.

A slippery sea of thoughtfish

To attempt to describe the numerous rivulets of experience that form the larger waves of Shark’s narrative flow, would be both impossible and unhelpful. Suffice to say, that Shark both precedes Umbrella chronologically, whilst continuing its author’s examination of the relationship between humans and technology, through a wide-arching psychological dissection that questions whether this relationship is productive or pathological.

Reading Shark is a sometimes disorientating and at all times rewarding experience. Throughout its 466 pages the reader is repeatedly tossed across stormy seas, which at times will leave you feeling a little battered and bruised.

But in the end, Self sets you down with a fulfilling bite of literary fiction, and ensures that even the most ardent of serious readers will finish the journey feeling fully satisfied, and still wanting more.