Posts Tagged ‘2000s’

March 18, 2013

I pretty much always finish books – like, always. Even if I don’t buy the characters or if there’s something structurally awry or other significant issue X, Y or Z. I’m a completer-finisher, what can I say. (Obviously, when I’m reading a book for work – say I’m reviewing it or interviewing its author – I always finish it.) But it’s been a really long time since I didn’t finish a book I was reading for leisure. In fact, I can’t even remember the last time that happened.

This seems to put me in the minority: a lot of people I talk to generally put a book down and either forget about it or don’t pick it up again for whatever reason. Possibly I’m good at picking books I know I’ll like and avoiding books I know won’t suit me, and/or I’m bloody-minded enough to forge on with something I’m not really into just so I can understand why it didn’t work for me. I tend to think it’s more the former, because I rarely feel like I would be better off not finishing a book than I would be finishing it.

Buuuuuuut I recently read three books that I really didn’t want to finish. I felt a bit bad about it but I knew from what non-finishers said that I was feeling the same way they did when they put a boring/bad/not right for them/not right for them at that time book down (and never pick it up again). And I think it had a lot to do with style. I read fairly broadly, across a range of genres, so I am open to a lot of things: clichéd storylines, experimental writing styles, a bit of pretension here and there, irksome authorial quirks. As long as a book has something I’m invested in, be it one character or story arc or whatever, I’m generally in for the long haul.

Here’s how I know I didn’t want to finish them. Tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiimmmmmmmmmmmmmeeeeeeee wwwwwwwwwwwweeeeeeeeeennnnnnnnnntttttt bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy sooooooooooooooooooooooooo slooooooooooooooooooooowwwwwwwwwwlllllllllllllllllllllyyyyyyyyyy (and time can do so much).

I did actually finish one of the books. It was White by Marie Darrieussecq, she of the Google-by-necessity surname. I’d been really wanting to check out her work for a while and when I was trawling the library for books about far-flung places, a novella based in Antarctica seemed like just the thing. I think you’d have to do a fair bit to make a book about Antarctica boring, but I struggled to finish this book. Really struggled, like at the end I just wanted to push the book violently away from me.

As I said, this was mostly because of the prose. The premise is interesting: two people running from secrets in their respective lives decide to join a working team on the French base in Antarctica. Edmée is French, and as the only woman in the team, who is also charge of expensive, limited communications with the rest of the world, she piques the interest of the others. Peter is in charge of keeping everyone warm, the weight of which responsibility is one of the most convincing personal tensions in the book. The plain facts in this book are actually fascinating. Two images from White have stayed with me: a bottle of champagne exploding in the fat cook’s hands as he leaves the plane and finally steps foot in Antarctica; and Antarctica’s five suns. These scientific and experiential details are based on Darrieussecq’s husband’s real-life stint in Antarctica, and are totally interesting.

It’s in every single review, and on the back cover blurb, so it’s no spoiler to say that Edmée and Peter end up having an affair. In the build-up to this, Darrieussecq allows Edmée and Peter to consider their pasts, including present and past partners, but the affair is scarcely affecting – apart from the logistical issues it raises in a small, isolated Antarctic camp – because these portraits are so sketchy. Many critics praised Darrieussecq’s evocation of isolation in White, but I am not sure that isolation is a powerful narrative pressure if the characters it acts on are so thinly sketched. One interesting, but still frustrating, element, is that the narrators are the ghosts of those who have died in Antarctica. Their voice is not quite funny, and not quite serious, playing havoc with the assumption that their deaths were noble – or even the convention for choric narrators to be simply elegant or angelic. Again, though, the variation and inconsistency in the voice gets a bit frustrating.

Above all, though, it was the image-heavy prose that made me stabby. It’s just not my favourite style, especially juxtaposed with the theme of isolation and barren images of Antarctica. To give you a taste, here’s a section that Michael Worton excerpted in his (very positive) Guardian review:

The colour of the leaves of crumpled skin fluctuates, beige/purple; curtains, hangings, shutters. If he leans more heavily on her thigh, the leaves open, one tautens, the other wrinkles up a little more, and their pearly pink interior is revealed to be almost blue there where, like a highly polished slide, the vagina begins.

It’s not my thing at all, and the whole book is like this: little, shardy, decorative sentences/sentence fragments. So when I finished the book (only about 110 pages or so) I felt like I had run a marathon. Still, even though I wasn’t keen on this book, I’m still interested in reading her other books, including her new one and the first novel, Pig Tales, which is a Metamorphosis-style tale of a woman’s transformation into porcine being.

The next book I didn’t want to finish – and didn’t – was also French: David Foenkinos‘s The Erotic Potential of My Wife. I’m going to be brief about this one, because I don’t think it’s as interesting as White. On the back cover blurb, there’s a quote from a French magazine that claims Foenkinos is France’s Philip Roth. Honestly, if I were Philip Roth, I would find this epithet so amusingly inapt that I would frame it and put it on my wall. (I don’t know, maybe he’s more of a throw-into-the-fireplace kind of guy.)

This book’s hero is Hector, the survivor of a suicide attempt and a recovering collector. Hector’s psychological profile is more like a couple of dots on a piece of paper; this book is not a serious look at mental illness. Not that it’s supposed to be; it’s billed as a comic novel. But it’s not even funny, containing laboured jokes that almost seem to come with a belated clash of cymbals as you turn the page. It’s the kind of book that might work as a kind of cutesy Amélie-style film, with lots of visual gags and colour, but the writing doesn’t hold up. I think I got about 50 pages through.

Finally, a book I only got about 10 pages through. Super disappointing in this case, because I’d bought it when it came out and was desperately awaiting a gap in my reading so I could get cracking. However, Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened and I are just never going to be friends. It’s like when you meet a rad person at a party but you don’t quite hit it off? And then you later reflect that it was probably for the best? It’s like that. Lawson’s ‘mostly true memoir’ is written in a hugely over-the-top style (which is probably what bagged her the book contract). Lots of italics and avowals and rambling digressions, peppered with wit and references to eighties fashion. I can’t speak too much to the content, because obviously I didn’t read much of it, but Lawson talks charmingly about her childhood in a very small West Texas town. Though she seems like a very cool person, Lawson’s storytelling style lacks panache. Some of the tales she tells are undoubtedly funny, but she overdoes the humour to the extent that I thought the actual situation was probably much funnier. As I told a friend, Lawson makes things less funny than they probably are, as opposed to someone like David Sedaris, who makes mundane things seem hilarious.

I was shocked and saddened to learn a couple of weeks ago that Hazel Rowley had passed away. As many of you know, Rowley was scheduled to do an Australian tour to talk about her latest book, Franklin and Eleanor.

My acquaintance with Rowley’s work began when I heard her interviewed on The Book Show about Richard Wright on the centenary of his death. Not a reader of biographies, I was surprised to find myself totally absorbed in Rowley’s details of the American writer, whose protest novel Native Son sold hundreds of thousands of copies when it was published in 1940. Rowley was a delightful interviewee, so obviously entranced with her subject, so humble:

How can I be so stupid? Who’s going to talk to me? What the hell do I think I’m doing?…Writing about a man, a black man, an American man? What do I know about this? Zero!

I planned to seek out Rowley’s biography of Wright – I’d never heard anything about him before, and his story was electrifying (an angry black writer, read widely by white readers and deeply influential upon later black writers, who became a communist, joined the John Reed Club, then moved to France).

But I came across Tête-à-tête first, which I couldn’t resist – being as I am conditioned to treasure great love stories. As Rowley writes in the preface, the book ‘is not a biography of Sartre and Beauvoir … This is the story of a relationship.’ Which for me was a sort of relief – I’m not well acquainted with the work of either, and haven’t particularly enjoyed Sartre’s fiction (which I suppose is akin to saying ‘I don’t think Shakespeare was so great at making paper planes’). Nevertheless, it was good to approach this book not burdened by my lack of philosophical knowhow – which was more than supplemented by Rowley’s familiarity with these existentialists’ oeuvres.

It’s a pleasure to track how Sartre’s and Beauvoir’s work developed and changed, and equally wonderful to discover how they supported and encouraged one another. Named after the type of communication the pair found most satisfying, the book is a tender portrait of how, among emotional and political upheaval, Sartre and Beauvoir continually returned to their particular brand of intimacy until Sartre’s death in 1980.

For a biographer to gain this reader’s trust, they must prove their depth and breadth of knowledge, and present themselves as a balanced teller of the particular story. Having interviewed Beauvoir in 1976, as well as many of Sartre and Beauvoir’s friends and family members, Rowley certainly does the former, also providing endnotes, a selected bibliography and a ‘note on sources’ that briefly describes the location and status of the various diaries, letters and other materials she studied. As to the latter – on the one hand, it’s clear how close to Rowley’s heart the two writers are, particularly Beauvoir:

When I read Beauvoir’s memoirs in the late sixties, I was exhilarated – intoxicated, one might say. She made the impossible seem possible. Didn’t we all want an intellectual partner with whom we could share our work, ideas, and slightest thoughts? Didn’t everyone want to write in Paris cafes amid the clatter of coffee cups and the hubbub of voices, and spend their summers in Rome in complicated but apparently harmonious foursomes? Who wanted monogamy when one could have freedom and stability, love affairs and commitment?

This is the kind of passion a biographer needs to stay the course with a subject, but a reader also wants a biographer who can be even-minded with the material, not a hagiographer. At once admiring and tongue-in-cheek, Rowley tempers her obvious interest in the two – as writers and as partners – with a clear-eyed view of the tangled family they eventually wrought. Small details help deconsecrate Sartre (‘He had been keen to get himself a German girlfriend but found he lacked the language skills’) and humanise him – at one point there’s a great image of the ambitious, workaholic academic carrying lunch to an ill Beauvoir, ‘taking great care not to spill it on the way’. Seen through the eyes of later lovers, though, the man is not so appealing. In particular, Sartre’s pursuit of the Kosakiewicz sisters wears its facts sordidly. Wanda, the younger ‘Kos’, was ‘appalled’ when the fifty-six year old Sartre kissed her – then twenty years old – in the back of a taxi. It wasn’t just Sartre who had grand appetites, though: both Sartre and Beauvoir pursued younger lovers, often sharing them. When she was a teacher, Beauvoir seduced a couple of her baccalaureate students.

From the beginning, Sartre and Beauvoir’s relationship was a singular one, with few precedents even in the pair’s social circle. Sartre was non-monogamous, and to counter jealousy, he suggested to ‘the Beaver’ that they tell each other everything, which he called ‘transparency’. Sartre wanted her ‘to share … all her thoughts with him’, and Beauvoir found this ‘as frightening as it was exhilarating’. This was to be a central tenet of their relationship, which Sartre called ‘primary’ and ‘essential’, but they did not extend the courtesy of transparency to their other, ‘contingent’ lovers; indeed, they often lied to them. The tension between the pair’s devotion to the ideal of transparency and the emotional consequences of their manipulations held for the rest of their lives, with many of their other lovers constantly requiring assurance, time, continued falsehoods and even funds. Sartre, particularly, continued to accumulate dependants, until he and Beauvoir were supporting several young women. Complicated affairs like these provided ample material for the pair’s creative endeavours, such as Beauvoir’s She Came to Stay and The Mandarins (though her memoirs arguably caused more commotion; one-time lover Nelson Algren reviewed one of the volumes, ending with ‘Will she ever quit talking?’).

Beauvoir was often worse off in these taxing situations. Only once did Sartre admit to having felt jealousy, and being attached to so many young women was eminently satisfactory for him; towards the end, he even said he lied to Beauvoir more than to anyone else – despite their pledge to be honest with one another. On the other hand, Beauvoir struggled with jealousy and was often tortured by worry – she was a woman; society found ‘freedom’ just that much more condemnable in her – and suffered no small anxiety about the edifice of lies the couple constructed in claiming the transparent life for themselves, and leaving the contingent life for others. After Sartre broke off his relationship with Bianca Bienenfeld, a former student and lover of Beauvoir’s, Beauvoir wrote: ‘I blamed us – myself as much as you, actually – in the past, in the future, in the absolute: the way we treat people. I felt it was unacceptable that we’d managed to make her suffer so much.’ It makes for uncomfortable reading, the The Second Sex‘s author bearing weary witness to her partner’s etiolated women. The bitter taste of Beauvoir’s reassessment is echoed in an affecting part of Rowley’s Book Show interview:

The disappointment came really when Simone de Beauvoir’s letters were published after her death and we did find out that she had lied to people and that they had both lied to people, and that she, to some extent, had lied to us readers as well as her lovers, and that was the disappointment.

Yet there is something incredibly salutary about reading this non-judgmental account, in respect of a story that could easily have been rendered merely as farce or muck. Rowley’s inquiring and fair mind has laid out what she discovered, for all to read, as if to regale us with ceaseless tales of her most treasured, high-functioning and flawed friends. This book is a wonderful, naturalistic feat of reverse engineering – from letters, books and interviews to lives.

Sartre and Beauvoir’s philosophical project – resolving to create their own lives’ meaning without recourse to any traditional rubric – was a difficult one. As Rowley puts it, ‘It is not easy, freedom. It brings with it the anguish of choice. It comes with the burden of responsibility.’ And though they did not always discharge that burden creditably, Sartre and Beauvoir forged memorable paths as readers, thinkers, writers, lovers. Tête-à-tête gives those of us intrigued by their work a chance to be caught up in the excitement and newness of the legend as if it were happening now, rather than forty, fifty, sixty years ago.

A little while back, one of the senior publishing editors at work, Karen, mentioned she was seriously enjoying the Mötley Crüe memoir. ‘No you’re not,’ said I, unbelievingly. Silly me! Trust me, the pain of having to use two totally redundant umlauts in the title of this post was but a minor slight in comparison to the great good entertainment I received from this book. From the opening chapter by Nikki Sixx (bass), in which he stabs himself in the arm and tells the police that his mother did it, The Dirt is a fount of rock ‘n’ roll stories from which I was seriously happy to drink.

In fact, I made everyone else drink from it too. I became a Crüe-only Conversationalist. Here are some scenes from a real-life dinner party:

Friend of Estelle [FoE] #1: …which is why I’m moving to New York.

[Brief lull]

Estelle: So, I was reading this book about Mötley Crüe, you know, the band. It’s so hilarious. I can’t stop reading it. There’s this amazing story in it where Vince, the singer, has a crush on this Playboy Playmate, and they hang out for a bit but then he has to go to Hawaii for some reason. Anyway, he’s on a jetski in a lagoon with another woman – I think she’s topless – and all of a sudden Vince sees the Playmate on the beach, and she looks pretty mad, so he elbows the topless woman INTO THE WATER. Seriously. How hilarious is that?

[The conversation continues.]

FoE #2: …so fantastic about the work she’s been doing for them.

[Brief lull.]

Estelle: SO. I don’t really want to go on about it, but this Mötley Crüe book is really amazing. It’s so gross. Have you ever seen that show about the Osbournes? Well, Ozzy Osbourne is crazy, right. SO CRAZY. I think he took acid every day for a year, just to see what it would be like. Brain is totally addled. So anyway, he was hanging out with Nikki Sixx – you know, the bass player – or maybe it was Vince, the singer? Anyway, they were off their heads on a cocktail of drugs and alcohol at a hotel, and Ozzy needs to pee. So he drops his pants and does a wee right in the middle of the hotel grounds. And then, he gets down on his hands and knees and STARTS DRINKING HIS OWN URINE. In long strokes with his tongue, like a cat.

FoE #3: Oh my god.

Estelle: I KNOW. So. then, Ozzy says, ‘Your turn, Nikki.’ And Nikki is freaking out – Ozzy is his idol, right. And Ozzy wants him to drink his own pee. What can he do but do it? So Nikki takes his pants off and does a wee, and he’s preparing himself, he can’t shame himself in front of Ozzy Osbourne, and then … Ozzy gets down on his hands and knees and drinks NIKKI’S wee.

FoEs #1 to 3: OH MY GOD, that’s disgusting.

Estelle (beaming): I KNOW!

*****

All this despite never having heard any of their songs, ever. You get the idea. If neither of those stories floated your boat, you won’t like this book. It’s also super readable, especially the first half, in which you’re driven by the pure emotion of WTF. The book lags a little towards the end, but the writing’s good throughout, which I’m guessing is mostly thanks to Neil Strauss. (If you think I’m being unfair to the members of the band, consider these lyrics, given at the end of the book: ‘You’re so fake / You’re a dirty little bastard / Fake, you’re always so plastered.’) Strauss, no matter what I think of his pick-up society antics, is a good writer and music journalist, and in The Dirt each of the four members of the band has a distinct voice and story.

Next up? Tommyland.

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In ‘Up North’, the fourth story in The Dead Fish Museum, a man whose wife is having a string of affairs says, ‘Our marriage was like a constant halving of the distance, without ever arriving at the moment in time where, utterly familiar, I’d vanish’. In the collection’s final story, ‘The Bone Game’, a man comes across a crystal clear stream, but the fish, which the native Americans believe are their ancestors, are ‘thin and weak and mutilated, their flesh ripped and trailing from their bodies like rags’. Charles D’Ambrosio’s second short story collection is full of these inexorable equations: lives diminishing without fully disappearing.

One way of coming to terms with the diminishing returns is to accept that life is a pretty low-stakes deal. Tony, the narrator of ‘Blessing’, describes heavy misfortunes as ‘gyps’. He’s an insurance broker, so he knows all about hedging bets: ‘You expect a normal life, but wager against it.’ Boons aren’t of much consequence either; Tony’s wife, Meagan, an actress for whom parts are proving elusive, says, ‘I love you … At least there’s that’. In ‘The Scheme of Things’, Lance and Kirsten live off small amounts of money – ten bucks a pop – that they procure by posing as charity workers.

Of The Dead Fish Museum’s eight offerings, three are fishing stories and one is a hunting story. In ‘Up North’, a couple make their way from New York to a cabin in the snow for deer season. In ‘The High Divide’, two boys go on a fishing trip. The triangulation of life, death and nature is a classic configuration: a proven catalyst for unearthing family violence (‘Up North’), or a nation’s bloody history (‘The Bone Game’). But D’Ambrosio’s sensitivity to natural beauty makes the gambit worthwhile. Not only is the land tainted (in the title story, the ocean shore is awash with garbage), it is also promising and fecund, housing tulips in ‘a sea of red and yellow … rolling our way like a wave’.

Animals meet their ends quite readily in these stories, but for their human counterparts, life is a waiting room at best. Young Ignatius in ‘The High Divide’ watches his father sitting on the caged-in patio of St. Jude’s Hospital, his eyes like ‘blown fuses’. This sense of attenuated experience is intensified by the recurrence of details across the stories. In a García Márquez–like repetition of circumstances, the collection contains multiple failed actresses, guns, insurance workers and psychiatric hospital inpatients. This déja vu blurs the lines between tales, creating a spectrum of story in which the waiting never ceases – characters are reincarnated, waiting, in another purgatory.

D’Ambrosio’s prose is good, his dialogue great. ‘My life is so simple a one-year-old could live it,’ says the self-immolating ballerina in ‘Screenwriter’. Folksy vocabulary and unusual word choices enable him to nail character and description in a scant sentence. His dialogue and prose work together at their best in ‘Drummond & Son’, a study of the relationship between a typewriter vendor and his son. Drummond is patient, dignified, undemonstrative: ‘Sometimes your illness tells you things, Pete. You know that’. Yet twenty-five year old Pete is referred to as ‘the boy’ in the story’s prose, a protective tell construing his son’s interrupted life.

‘Half-life’ is a scientific term – a measure of the time it takes for a substance to halve in size or potency. It’s synonymous with decay, with deterioration, and thus with the consciousness that there’s only less to come. While the realism of The Dead Fish Museum is constructed with an eye to the compromised quality of its characters’ existence, it’s also anchored in the ‘strange becalmed moments’ of the outgoing tide. D’Ambrosio’s stories are portraits of humanity at the tail end of exponential decay, reminding us of the distinction between even a compromised life and silence.

(Cross-posted from Killings – with my apologies for all the cross-posting while I’m occupied with blogging for MWF.)

Imagine a city where you can tell a person’s social position, what language they speak and their background just by looking at them. Anjum Hasan’s Lunatic in My Head tells us that Shillong, in India’s north east, is such a place:

Firdaus knew that the woman waving to her from the window of the beauty parlour, her friend Sharon, was a quarter British, a quarter Assamese of the tea-planter variety, and half Khasi.

Firdaus is an outsider, a teacher at the Loreto Convent. She has no Khasi blood, unlike the majority of Shillong’s inhabitants – she is a dkhar, an outsider, a ‘permanent guest of the hills-people’. Four years into her PhD, and she still thinks of ‘English literature as a vast grey 19th century amorphousness’. Her supervisor, Dr Thakur, is as scattershot and adamant with his advice as Thor on a bad day, and her thesis topic is sadly undercooked: ‘Something like the values of characters like Elizabeth Bennet … how she manages to get around … prudishness and arrogance and that sort of thing.’

Another local, Aman Moondy, is preparing to sit the Civil Services exam. It’s his second attempt; having been assured by his philosophy teachers that there was no future in that ancient art of knowledge, the exam seems like the only way out of Shillong. What he really loves is music – Aman’s band, The ProtoDreamers, imagine themselves as Pink Floyd and as the trigger for a new creative scene.

This part of India bears the marks of its neighbours – Bhutan, Bangladesh, Burma and Nepal. Chinese restaurants jostle for space among the kwai (betel nut) sellers and aloo-wallahs. But this doesn’t mean that its inhabitants attend harmoniously to life and each other. Instead, Firdaus and Aman are uncertain of their welcome. For dkhar, violence can bloom like a terrible flower: see a street vendor pummelled for fun by Khasi youths.

Eight-year-old Sophie feels alienated, too. Not only from the people in the Ladybird books she has read (‘Jane, will you help Mummy bake a cake?’), but also from her parents. In fact, she thinks that she’s adopted – how else can she become Khasi, like the others?

Anjum Hasan was born in Shillong. She writes it as a loose tangle waiting to be tightened – racially motivated acts span the gamut from merely rebarbative to fatal. Lunatic in My Head is an immersive way of discovering a part of India we know so little about.

(Cross-posted from mwfblog.)

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When it comes to genre, I’m usually more True Blood than true crime. But it’s a wrench to resist Jake Adelstein’s story, as told in his book Tokyo Vice: Jewish-American kid applies for a job at a Japanese newspaper (and not just any newspaper; it’s the Yomiuri Shimbun, which has the highest circulation of any newspaper in the world) and despite his Japanese language score being in the bottom ten, he’s called in for an interview and he gets the job, only to end up sitting opposite a member of the biggest organised crime group in Japan, who is relaying a death threat from his boss. Just another day in the life, really.

Adelstein’s first posting is in half-rural, half-suburban Urawa, a ‘place considered so uncool by urban Japanese that it had spawned its own adjective, dasai, meaning “not hip, boring, unfashionable”’. But, as unfashionable as it is, Urawa is where he cuts his teeth as a police reporter. Navigating the complex spatial politics of the Yomiuri’s office (“Who the hell told you could sit down here!”) and getting up to speed with the house style (“I’ll expect you to know it within a week.”) are small tasks compared to learning how to update the office scrapbooks.

Starting out in any profession is a big ask in any case, but being an American who works for a Japanese newspaper has its own challenges. Adelstein’s first kikikomi (interviews related to a crime) are comedic adventures, with potential interviewees mistaking him for a salesman. The cultural differences serve him well, too, sometimes; “dumb gaijins” can get quite handily behind police tape.

Adelstein is a chummy and deft translator of Japanese culture: from the Japanese reverence for language, as exemplified by the concept of kotodama – the spirit of language that resides in every word; to the underbelly of Japanese culture, which makes our Underbelly look like Play School. Eventually, Adelstein scores a post at the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Press Club, where he begins to cover the extraordinary crime syndicates of Japan – the legendary yakuza.

As Adelstein explained in an interview on WNYC, the yakuza are more Wal-Mart than West Side Story. On one end of the spectrum, there are the members who ‘own’ the illegal immigrants peddling counterfeit wares on the street. On the other end, you have the supremos who launder money through their innumerable – and legitimate – loan businesses and hostess bars.

It would be hard not to admire the seemingly unassailable extent of the various yakuza enterprises, except that, unavoidably, regular people get hurt or disappear. Adelstein’s career path takes a turn when he becomes involved in the story of Lucie Blackman, a British girl who went missing while working as a hostess in Tokyo’s infamous Roppongi district. In this quest, Adelstein straddles the line between impartial observer and passionate truth seeker. And it wasn’t to be the only time he came face to face with the ugly side of Tokyo.

(Cross-posted from mwfblog.)

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy are three of my favourite books in the world. The books, if you haven’t read them, follow the adventures of a young girl called Lyra, who lives in a parallel world to ours, where humans’ souls exist outside their bodies and take animal forms. The sheer imagination that suffuses the novels is wondrous, and is underpinned by Pullman’s powers of characterisation; Lyra and her companion, Will, who’s from our world, are no mere products of ink on paper, but are as present as living, breathing flesh; as are their animal souls.

One of the most striking preoccupations of the books, and a common target for commentary since their publication, is the strength and corruption of its fictional church, called the Magisterium. In Northern Lights, the first of the books, the Magisterium has built a laboratory to perform dreadful experiments on children in the name of trying to eradicate Dust, which they believe is a physical manifestation of sin. The books are peppered with zealots of all kinds, from the lethal Mrs Coulter, a power-hungry associate of the Magisterium, to fanatics willing to flagellate themselves in advance punishment for crimes. Pullman’s fictional assailment upon wealthy, corporate churches was echoed in his personal statements, with his famous quote ‘My books are about killing God’ earning him plenty of ire from Christians all around the world.

His new book, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, which I reviewed recently for The Big Issue, tackles similar ground in a more radical fashion. In fact, it might be seen as the thematic prequel to the His Dark Materials books: it sets up the structures and mythology that Pullman had Lyra tear down. Pullman reimagines the original Christian birth as a double: Mary is the mother of twins, Jesus and Christ. Christ is the early forerunner in the story, a child who performs miracles and often assists his more compulsive brother, Jesus, out of trouble. As the brothers age, the differences intensify – Jesus becomes a charismatic religious teacher devoted to God, who repels with disgust Christ’s attempts to persuade him to capitalise on his influence and assemble a structured church, ‘all answering to the authority of one supreme director’.

Christ is asked by a mysterious stranger to make a record of Jesus’ doings, and he does so – at first as accurately as he can, but then with some revisions and editing. So we learn that the stories we now know from the Bible were entirely different in the doing; we see the tension of myth and history. For instance, the paralysed man whom Jesus exhorts to take up his mat and walk was not cured, but ’so strengthened and inspired by the atmosphere Jesus had created that he found himself able to move’. And, at a wedding in Cana where the wine has run out, Jesus has a few words with a steward and more wine appears, but it’s not certain exactly how; it’s possible that Jesus has simply asked for more to be brought out.

There is a lot to admire in the book, but there are also disappointments. I have not read anything so beautiful this year as The Good Man Jesus’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, which is served well by Pullman’s easy yet arresting prose. His way with characterisation and dialogue (assisted, of course, by the source material) provides us with a Jesus who is resolute and lion-like in ferocity. But there’s close to no subtlety in Jesus’s diatribe in Gethsemane. In Mark’s gospel, this is a moment of enduring and bottomless faith. But in The Good Man Jesus, Jesus has lost his faith completely, and is using his last moments not for reconciliation but catharsis: ‘Lord, if I thought you were listening, I’d pray for this above all: that any church set up in our name should remain poor, and powerless, and modest. That it should wield no authority except that of love.’ It’s rather too ‘The Church’s Worst Crimes throughout the Ages’, and not strongly foreshadowed in the book; as Rowan Williams said in his Guardian review, ‘nothing in the narrative has prepared us for this; the Jesus of earlier chapters has a robust conviction of the unconditional love of God’.

The Christian story is one that clearly has a powerful hold on Pullman. In fact, such is its power over him that my thoughts upon reading The Good Man Jesus were of a similar tenor to James Bradley’s conclusion in May 5th’s Australian Literary Review (though nowhere near as finely worded) that The Good Man Jesus ‘is a book so bound up in its argument with religion that it is … essentially a religious text, unable to transcend the terms of its creation’. The dilemma faced by Christ – how to represent Jesus’s story and ensure its longevity – is one that accepts the power and grace of that originary story. But while Pullman may have an argument with religion, he certainly doesn’t have anything against the power of story, the sole element of religion that emerges from the book unscathed.

Read the transcript of a conversation between Philip Pullman and Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury (whose intelligence and engagement with non-Christian viewpoints make me furious about being in the poisonous vicinity of George Pell), here.