Review: How to Build a Girl

I’ve always enjoyed Caitlin Moran’s columns in the Sunday Times Magazine. Her writing feels unstudied, off-the-cuff, casual, in a way that’s both very rare and very hard to achieve, the smattering of ALL CAPS SENTENCES, slang and brand names belying compelling rhetorical structures and serious political (often feminist) points.

How to Build a Girl is her first novel: a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale about a young woman called Johanna Morrigan living in 90s Wolverhampton and dreaming of being – someone else. Almost anyone else, really. So, she invents Dolly Wilde, a gothpunk Manic Pixie Dream Girl Lady Sex Adventurer alter ego in a top hat, gets a job as a music critic and embarks on a life of drink, drugs and moderate, grungy showbiz. So far, so standard a teenage rebellion; what makes How to Build a Girl notable is its commentary on the poverty created by the closing of traditional industries under Margaret Thatcher; the Morrigans’ ever-present fear of having their benefits cut; and the objectification of female bodies. It is altogether a more…cerebral novel than its subject matter and origin might suggest.

The conversational nature of Moran’s non-fiction writing has been dialled back here: gone is the brand-name specificity, the knowing-wink directness. In long form, and without these embellishments, the relative simplicity of her sentence and narrative structures become apparent: I don’t think I’d ever categorise How to Build a Girl as literary fiction, it is too artless for that. But, just occasionally and at its best, Moran’s prose is reminiscent of Catherynne Valente’s in its very artlessness, its tumble of teenage emotion:

…it is a million times easier to be cynical and wield a sword, than it is to be open-hearted and stand there, holding a balloon and a birthday cake, with the infinite potential to look foolish.

One consequence of this artlessness is that the novel is, let’s say, quite tell-y not show-y. Which is to say, instead of allowing its readers to come to conclusions based on narrative and character, it spells out what you should take from it: see the above statement on cynicism, or this, from John Kite, a singer and Johanna’s crush:

When the middle classes get passionate about politics, they’re arguing about their treats—their tax breaks and their investments. When the poor get passionate about politics, they’re fighting for their lives.

Despite the fact that How to Build a Girl is ostensibly written from Johanna’s point of view, these passages feel like statements from an insecure author who wants to make very sure we Get The Point.

Which we do. And we agree with you. Don’t worry, Caitlin. It’s all good.

And yet. This is still, I think, an important book. Something I haven’t mentioned yet is how very many sex and masturbation scenes there are in this novel. Johanna/Dolly is, after all, a teenage girl discovering all the mysteries and pleasures of incipient adulthood, all at once, with multiple partners, or no-one at all if necessary. In one memorable scene, she gets cystitis from someone with a very large penis. This is important because, as Johanna herself says, “There is very little female narrative of what it’s like to fuck, and be fucked.” There are not many stories in which women are allowed to be like this without being seen as a kind of fascinating lusus naturae. There are not many cultural narratives as honest about the female sexual experience.

I don’t know that How to Build a Girl is going to stand as a classic through the ages, or anything like that. It is not a novel that can sustain much critical scrutiny or discussion – it wears its messages too obviously on its sleeve for that; we are never in much doubt as to Moran’s politics or Johanna’s opinions or motivations. As a “lighter” read, though, a chick-lit-style novel that doesn’t make you feel like you do when you’ve binged on Dairy Milk (unsatisfied and slightly nauseated) – well, it’s much better than Shopaholic, let’s put it that way.

Film Review: The Muppet Christmas Carol

The Muppet Christmas Carol is, I contend, the definitive cinematic version of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol. It is, certainly, the one I’m most familiar with. (I’ve only actually read the Carol once, and I may have seen a non-Muppet version once, but I can’t be sure.) If you haven’t seen it (and if not, why not?), the Muppets’ retelling features the Great Gonzo as Charles Dickens himself, narrating the tale, Rizzo as his comedic assistant, Kermit the Frog as Bob Cratchit (with Miss Piggy as his wife, natch) and a surprisingly committed Michael Caine as Scrooge.

It’s delightful to me mostly because it’s so much better than it needed to be. Let us remember that this is essentially a sentimental children’s puppet show from 1992. With an array of catchy tunes. And yet. We have the Great Gonzo reciting large chunks of actual Dickens prose, and explaining the concept of omniscient narration to boot. We have Michael Caine playing Scrooge as if he’s on the stage at the RSC. (The moments before the ghosts of Marley and Marley appear are utterly convincing, Caine’s face registering the frozen terror we’ve all experienced on hearing an unexplained bump in the night – all the more horrifying because it’s real this time.) We have Scrooge declaring that all the poor people should die and “decrease the surplus population!” which is a hell of a line to include in a kids’ film, and also, terrifyingly, something that a Brexiter on the Internet might plausibly say.

I also think it captures the positive aspects of Dickens’ humanity wonderfully. Like his characters, the Muppets are larger than life, and as such they embody and perform the exuberance and vitality of city life; the unexpected moments of community we in the West often find at Christmas (the strangers who wish you a merry Christmas on a country walk; Christmas tableaux in windows in a rural village). Dickens and the Muppets is an inspired combination – and adding musical numbers only makes it better: Dickens was a performer as well as a writer, and fascinated by all things theatrical; I like to think he would have enjoyed the vivaciousness of this retelling, which brings everything in London to life, even the vegetables.

What the film misses, though, is Dickens’ reformist anger, his glimpses into the grimy underbelly of Victorian society. That would be a bit of a drag on an upbeat Christmas film, to be sure, but it doesn’t help that most of its references to Scrooge’s general misanthropy are either in song (“He charges folks a fortune for his dark and draughty houses/Us poor folk live in misery/(It’s even worse for mouses!)”) or undermined by broad and slapstick humour (“Do you remember when we evicted an entire orphanage? I remember those little tykes standing in the snowbank, clutching their little frostbitten teddy bears!”). It certainly isn’t anarchic or anti-establishment, words that keep cropping up in reference to the Muppets; it may have some dark moments, but they’re there to cast the film’s joyous, consolatory ending into greater contrast. Ultimately this is a film about reintegrating a rich man who refuses to act like one into his proper place in society, rather than actually upending the power imbalance between Scrooge and, say, Bob Cratchit.

Complete social reform is probably out of scope for a film like this; to be fair, it’s also out of scope for the original Carol, which nevertheless at least acknowledges the systematic existence of a struggling underclass (there’s a short scene which the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge in which a couple fear bankruptcy because they cannot pay him a debt they owe him). It’s still a lovely, warm-hearted thing to watch at Christmas, and a brilliant, accessible way to introduce young people to the original text.

Review: It Devours!

Like its predecessor Welcome to Night Vale, Jeffrey Fink and Joseph Cranor’s second Night Vale spinoff novel It Devours! is much better than anyone had a right to expect.

Although characters from the first novel do feature, it’s a standalone story in its own right, following the adventures of scientist Nilanjana as she investigates what’s been causing the mysterious and deadly sinkholes opening up in the desert on the outskirts of Night Vale. Her researches lead her to the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God, a church whose members seem to be taking their belief in a giant all-devouring centipede a little too literally for the town’s comfort.

Because, of course, this is Night Vale, an absurdist vision of small-town America where wheat and wheat by-products have been banned since they all turned into snakes in 2012, black helicopters circle overhead recording citizens’ every move, and a radiant glow cloud serves on the school governing board. (All hail the Glow Cloud!) The ever-encroaching, Lovecraftian-but-funny chaos of the town makes it an ideal setting for a story about people trying to make sense of a vast and confusing universe, whether that’s through science or religion.

The novel’s nuance, such as it is, comes from its refusal to land on either side, its ultimate point being that trying to understand the universe through any one limited set of values is at best futile and at worst actively dangerous. Of course, Night Vale’s scientists look precisely nothing like any scientist you might find in the real world: the life’s work of one of Nilanjana’s colleagues involves repeatedly admonishing potatoes to see how it affects them. But then the Joyous Congregation of the Smiling God looks very little like the kind of religious congregation you’d expect to find in real life (as opposed to in popular media). The very fact of reducing the values of these groups down to the point of absurdity, removing them from the sphere of realism, reframes the debate: this isn’t a novel retreading the hoary old arguments pitting science against religion, though it may look like one. Instead, it asks us to think beyond that traditional binary and consider the universe as radically inexplicable by either method.

To a point, anyway. It’s a thoughtful novel, surprisingly so for a media spin-off, but it is not particularly complex. Its plot structure is solidly built and satisfying, but a little too…schematic for a novel about the randomness of existence. It’s got a good heart, though, and that is not something to be sneezed at.

Review: Shopaholic Ties the Knot

This review contains spoilers.

Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic series is a real guilty pleasure for me. Much like the consumer goods its protagonist Becky Bloomwood is always buying, they offer wish-fulfilling instant gratification that also feels a bit gross, long-term. In this, the third novel in the series, Becky gets engaged to her hunky rich boyfriend Luke and starts planning a wedding. But she soon finds she has to choose between a lavish New York wedding organised by Luke’s snooty and emotionally uninvolved mother Eleanor, or a homespun one at her parents’ house in English suburbia.

The solution combines the logic of capitalism with the logic of romantic comedy: she has not one but two weddings, and helps Eleanor and Luke rebuild their strained relationship along the way, thereby neatly pacifying both families and reconciling two apparently competing value systems: the one that says “family comes first” and the one that says “all your dreams can come true!” Although this reconciliation is really just a triumph for capitalism, which, as we know, is flexible enough to consume everything, even ideas.

Of course it’s ridiculous to talk about a Kinsella novel in this way, because ultimately they are the fast fashion of literature, meant for reading and discarding, no brain engagement needed, and they are very successful at that! But I wouldn’t want them to be the only things I read.

Review: A Slip of the Keyboard

Published in 2014, A Slip of the Keyboard was Terry Pratchett’s first collection of non-fiction pieces, covering everything from casting bees in gold to his work on assisted dying.

I held off on reading it for years out of a combination of healthy scepticism about the commercial reasons for publishing such a collection and exhaustion with the glut of substandard Pratchett work coming out at the time (his Alzheimer’s had a marked effect on Discworld – not his fault, necessarily, but also deeply sad for a lot of his readers), and it turns out I was not wrong to avoid it. Not that A Slip of the Keyboard is terrible by any stretch of the imagination, it is just…limited. Pratchett in non-fiction, it turns out, is pretty conventional, lacking the ferocious wit and inventiveness of a Douglas Adams, say, or even the crusading anger of someone like Kameron Hurley – which is strange, because one thing everyone who knew him seems to comment on is his rage, the engine that, apparently, powered him. (I would never characterise the Discworld novels as angry; quite the opposite: they are full of hope and humanity. They often feature moments of anger, people angry on behalf of their families or their communities or their land, but it is not an anger that lasts beyond immediate need.)

He’s also pretty repetitive: this is, of course, a function of collecting pieces written for different occasions and venues across several years in a single volume, but it doesn’t make for a particularly memorable reading experience (and see Douglas Adams’ The Salmon of Doubt for a non-fiction collection that isn’t overly repetitive).

There are also hints here of the unwelcome conservatism that began creeping into his later novels (although if you look carefully it’s always been there, I think). Complaining about 50% taxation, in print, as Pratchett does in “Taxworld”, is not a good look for a millionaire who popularised the Boots Theory of Socioeconomic Unfairness. And in Neil Gaiman’s foreword to the collection, where he talks once again about Pratchett’s rage, he relates an anecdote in which he and Pratchett are late to a radio show because Pratchett refused to take a taxi. Affable old Sir Terry is so angry about his own mistake that they make the journey in silence. This basically sets the tone for the entire collection: here we have a grumpy old man, well past the peak of his career, complaining about taxes and making off-colour jokes.

It’s not all bad. There are some good bits about science fiction conventions, and writing Discworld, and signing tours; and his essay from the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, “Notes From a Successful Fantasy Author: Keep It Real” is always a gem. But, you know the old saying. Never read your heroes’ ill-considered opinion pieces. On the whole, I could have done without this collection and its unflattering picture of an author I’ve always loved.

Review: Welcome to Night Vale

Set in the world of the podcast from which it takes its name, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor’s novel Welcome to Night Vale is better written and more emotionally true than you might think, given its origins. (See also The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet, a novel that started off life as a YouTube series, and should have stayed there.)

Briefly, the podcast takes the form of a community radio show in a desert town called Night Vale, where a glowing cloud sits on the school board, a seven-headed dragon runs for mayor, and people don’t believe in mountains – among many other things. In Night Vale, the strange and disturbing is mundane, and vice versa. As such, it foregrounds how the things we take for granted may in fact be miraculous, and how life is both strange and fleeting: “mostly void, partially stars”.

The novel runs with the same tone; but its narrative is more focused. Whereas each episode of the podcast may tell its own tale, and overall storylines advance only slowly, if at all, the novel offers up a considerably tighter narrative, focused on just two characters: Jackie Fierro, the nineteen-year-old owner of a mystical pawn shop, who never seems to get older or experience any progression of time; and Diane Crayton, treasurer of Night Vale High School’s PTA, whose adolescent son is a literal shape-shifter (an obvious metaphor for the crises of identity that people of that age often face!). Both of them, separately, receive a message from a mysterious man in a tan jacket (a recurring, and sinister, character in the podcast): a piece of paper, which they literally cannot put down, reading simply KING CITY.

They investigate, separately. They run across each other. They annoy each other; they go on a journey together; they bond! Narrative-wise, Fink and Cranor aren’t doing anything new or clever, especially compared to the episodic and quite narrative-free podcast. But the book is solidly built, and perhaps all the more emotionally resonant for that. At its heart it’s a novel about community, reconciliation, emotional re-connection and mutual support, in which people help each other to go on in trying times. This is where the weird fantasy elements really come into their own: adrift upon the sea of strangeness which is their reality, the citizens of Night Vale rely on each other to build islands of safety and of courage.

I’ve always found Welcome to Night Vale, the podcast, strangely soothing, despite its creepiness: radio show host Cecil Baldwin builds a haven of mundanity out of terror and surveillance. The novel’s helped me clarify for myself just why that is, as well as building on that sense of contingent safety to become something that can stand on its own just fine.

Review: The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet

Look, I enjoyed this fine, I’m just not sure why it exists.

The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet is a spin-off of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, the ultra-popular YouTube series that retells Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as a vlog. Purporting to be Lizzie’s private diary (as opposed to her very public vlog), it retells the events of the series.

Sort of. Actually I think there’s very little new material, so as a companion to the series it’s redundant; but its frequent callbacks to the content of the videos mean it doesn’t particularly work as a standalone either.

What writers Bernie Su and Kate Rorick seem to have been going for is an extension to the show’s multi-platform immersiveness. You can find Lizzie Bennet in the comments on her videos, on Twitter, on Facebook – and now, read her diary! But, I don’t know. What made those platforms work was their interactivity: it was exciting because the social media responses of Lizzie and her friends appeared genuine and spontaneous, because here was the fictional world changing in response to the real one in a way that no-one had seen before in the mainstream. A cheap-looking paperback doesn’t have quite the same immediacy – and nor does the prose offer anything feeling like unmediated access to Lizzie’s thoughts. Instead, “her” writing is affected in a way it wouldn’t be if she were writing for herself – it’s performatively sarcastic most of the time, and can’t achieve any profundity when it needs to. Given that the whole project depends on authenticity, this doesn’t really cut it. Even making the book more of an objet d’art (like, for instance, the various maps of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld) might have worked better.

The obvious and boring reason for why this exists is, of course, Late Capitalism: enough people loved the series enough to buy the book anyway, and that alone made it worth doing. But that’s why all (commercially published) books exist: because someone thinks people are going to buy them. It’s not an excuse for a book to be downright pointless. The Secret Diary of Lizzie Bennet is a wasted opportunity – I’ll stick with Pride and Prejudice for now.

Review: The Rosie Project

I read this on a day trip to my old school in Somerset. Turns out that a four-hour round trip train journey with delays is the perfect occasion for a novel like this.

Our Protagonist is Don Tillman, a genetics professor who is essentially Sheldon Cooper from the earlier series of The Big Bang Theory: dedicated to routine and highly logical, he’s constantly looking for the most efficient way to do things. That includes cooking and eating the same seven meals every week; timing his lectures to last exactly an hour; scheduling his time right down to the minute.

(A note: although author Graeme Simsion claims in a Q&A at the end of the book that he didn’t intend Don to be neurodivergent, a lot of audiences have read him that way.)

Once upon a time, Don decides that he is in want of a wife. Because he struggles with conventional dating, he decides instead to embark on the Wife Project: he creates a questionnaire designed to identify the woman who is perfect for him.

What I wanted out of The Rosie Project was adorableness, if possibly slightly conservative and/or consolatory. What I got was kind of…sexist? The questionnaire, of course, does not go according to plan, and Don’s main romantic interest actually turns out to be a bartender called Rosie who fulfils none of Don’s criteria for the ideal wife. She’s horrified when she finds out about the questionnaire, pointing out that any woman who filled it in would be participating in her own objectification. But this never actually gets addressed? The main obstacle to Don and Rosie’s relationship isn’t that Don fails to see women as fully human, it’s that Don isn’t good at reading subtle social signals. But not only is the questionnaire itself pretty icky (there was a sample at the back of the library copy of the book that was billed as Fun Engagement with the Text! but which I actually found super judgemental and uncomfortable), the last quarter of the novel is laden with the kind of “fight for her!” advice that amounts to harassment in the real world. I can’t believe we’re still saying this in 2019, but: if a woman tells her male romantic interest to leave her alone, THAT IS WHAT SHE MEANS. Not “I need further convincing, please come to my place of work and make a dramatic romantic gesture”. That the novel doesn’t recognise this as fundamentally creepy behaviour is a problem for me.

Something I wondered about when I finished The Rosie Project: who is it for? It’s being marketed as light, fluffy romance, but with a male protagonist, which (as a non-romance reader) seems unusual but also interesting! But the sexist undertones of the text make this gender inversion profoundly problematic: this is a novel being marketed to women in particular that says “this is an acceptable way for men to treat you. It is, in fact, adorable! and romantic! (and therefore you should put up with it)”. Like Don’s questionnaire, it asks us to participate in our own objectification.

Which brings me back to a sunny train platform in Somerset. “How’s the book?” asks a fellow awaiter of delayed trains. (People on train stations in Somerset actually talk to each other – always faintly terrifying to this city-dweller.) “It’s OK for a train journey,” I replied. Because it is. It’s undemanding in its recycling of every rom-com cliché going (Don even gets a makeover). It repeats the kind of misogyny that appears everywhere in popular culture. It’s not like I think Graeme Simsion is a raging sexist; I think he’s a commercial writer who doesn’t think in those terms? So The Rosie Project isn’t exactly a terrible book, just a lazy and mediocre one. It’s basically a big ol’ “meh” in novel form.

Review: The Adventure Zone – Here There Be Gerblins

I cannot resist the lure of a graphic novel lying around the house.

Here There Be Gerblins is the graphic-novel version of the first series of The Adventure Zone, a moderately well-known D&D podcast that we’ve just started listening to. That makes it, basically, a quite funny fantasy adventure story with a bit of tame fourth-wall breaking and a hard left at the end. Not reeally the same as the podcast, then.

There’s not much I have to say about this? Partly because it’s like 34 degrees Celsius today and I’ve been a bit under the weather all week, but partly also because as a book it’s a category error. Like, there doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason to translate a rambling, improvised, off-the-cuff RPG into the disciplined, action-packed form of a comic book. The result is, frankly, wishy-washy. Fun, but not memorable.