Notes on “The Hound of the Baskervilles”

Just some brief thoughts on Watermill on the Road’s touring production of The Hound of the Baskervilles, adapted from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel of the same name, which I saw in the garden of Stanton Harcourt village hall in Oxfordshire last August.

It was basically fine and I will always be here for gender-bent Sherlock Holmes, but it was nowhere near as witty as it thought it was and the denouement was poorly handled.

A cast of three, including two women, took on all the roles, hence Miss Holmes and Miss Watson. Funnily enough (in a way that’s not really funny at all), while this particular piece of gender-bending was not really played for laughs, the middle-class, middle-aged denizens of rural Oxfordshire who made up the majority of the audience found it simply hilarious when the cast’s single man played a woman and put on a silly voice: proof that we’ve not come anywhere near as far as we think we have when it comes to queer rights.

I can’t remember the specifics of the ending, but I do remember that none of us (“us” being me, the Bandersnatch and the Bandersnatch’s parents) thought that it made complete sense: crucial information seemed to have been cut for pacing. (Possibly it wasn’t clear where the dog had come from?) The Bandersnatch’s parents had seen the production at the Watermill itself, and said it had been altered, and not for the better, for the tour.

It had very little to say about the source text apart from obvious jokes – jokes that aimed for the slapstick end of the spectrum rather than anything else – and all in all felt like a very safe production of a well-known property; something guaranteed to get well-off white people back into theatres and do nothing else. Which is, I guess, fine. But I wouldn’t go and see it again.

Review: Interior Chinatown

Interior ChinatownCharles Yu has form playing with genre. His first novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, figures memory as time travel, squeezing a distinctly literary narrative about paternity and the construction of the self into the science fictional container of a time-loop story. It was possibly the first novel I read that made me realise, consciously, what SF could do as a genre.

Interior Chinatown pulls off a similar trick. Told in screenplay format (Yu has written for the show Westworld, among others), its protagonist is Willis Wu, bit-part actor in the cop drama Black and White. Willis, described in the script as Generic Asian Man, aspires to the impossible dream of becoming Kung Fu Guy,

maybe not a real, regular star, let’s not get crazy, we’re talking about Chinatown here, but perhaps a Very Special Guest Star, which for your people is the ceiling

This on page 26: the novel sets out its stall right from the beginning. Refracted through the lens of satire and of the detective show format, this is a story about the racism Asian people face in the US and the ways in which that racism limits what they can achieve and be.

Formally, the novel is a dazzling thing, layers of metatextuality and metaphor reinforcing each other to drive the point home. The screenplay format, which might look like a bit of a gimmick, is actually doing a fair amount of work: it allows Yu to talk about the roles people play or are assigned in a general sense; it summons up the idea of Hollywood and the TV industry as arbiters of how Americans – and Westerners in general – read the world; it illustrates how the stereotypes we see in the media control how people are treated in reality. Yu’s constructed universe has layers of reality to it: the world of Black and White is both fictional and “real” (real, that is, in the terms of the text), just as the world of How to Live Safely is both “real-to-the-text” and explicitly metaphorical. The screenplay format allows Yu to delineate the relationship between the fictional and the real.

It’s a genuinely clever conceit, one that makes Yu’s point – an important and necessary one – essentially on its own. That’s the book’s triumph and, for me, also its downfall. With the novel’s position laid out in its first fifty pages, there’s nowhere really for it to go. One of the great pleasures of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is its narrative shape, the time loop giving it a cohesiveness, a sense of completion. Interior Chinatown has no such shape: things happen in Willis’ life, but they don’t – to my mind – advance or elaborate on the thematic arc. The novel’s brilliant form eclipses its narrative movement entirely.

This second novel of Yu’s would have made a fantastic short story. Even a novella! At novel length it’s merely interesting. Willis’ genericness, which of course is part of Yu’s point, nevertheless left me too little to grab onto to power the whole book. I wanted more character specificity, a tighter plot, a stronger story engine to chew on.

Review: The Glass Hotel

Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel has had a good couple of years when it comes to name recognition, courtesy of her 2014 apocalyptic plague novel Station Eleven, which has found its way onto a number of coronavirus-inspired listicles lately. Her fifth novel, The Glass Hotel, published in March last year, is similar in tone and structure if not in content: like Station Eleven, it centres on a world-shattering event, in this case the arrest of the Madoffesque banker Jonathan Alkaitis for running a major Ponzi scheme, and traces the ripple effects of that event, both forward and back in time, upon a cast of conflicted but ultimately likable – or at least sympathetic – characters.

Those characters include Alkaitis himself – Mandel writes evocatively about his ability to compartmentalise the wrong he’s doing, to think of himself as a good person despite knowing he’s doing something very wrong – as well as his trophy “wife”, Vincent, a former bartender who has traded personal independence for a life of indolent wealth; Vincent’s drifter brother Paul; and a shipping consultant, Leon, who’s assigned to investigate Vincent’s disappearance in the aftermath of Alkatis’ fall.

Each of these characters is, in their own way, quite charming, even when they’re in the throes of making terrible, destructive decisions, or attempting to justify the harm they’ve caused. Mandel’s gift for extending grace to even the worst of the people she writes about is very much on display here: it’s quite something to find oneself feeling sorry for a financier who’s bankrupted countless ordinary people in the course of enriching himself.

I’m reminded here of Mandel’s earlier novel The Singer’s Gun, in which we are again asked to sympathise with a white-collar criminal – in this case a former people smuggler named Anton who’s used the skills he learned in that trade to forge himself a new identity and con his way into a cushy office job. There’s something interesting going on with class and money in these novels, I think: Vincent and Anton (and to some extent Alkaitis) are working-class folk who use deception of different kinds to gain access to “the kingdom of money”, as Mandel calls it in The Glass Hotel, and ultimately lose that kingdom. The glittering edifice of middle- and upper-class-ness is revealed as an illusion. We also see this a bit in Station Eleven, I think: the wealth Miranda gains from her marriage to Arthur does nothing to save her from the Georgia flu.

These are novels, then, that are partly about the corrosive effect of money, the lure and the lie of extreme wealth. An age-old topic, certainly. I can’t quite make my mind up, though, whether it’s entirely a good thing that we’re able to sympathise with people smugglers and Ponzi schemers; whether the textual argument that “oh they just stumbled into it they’re nice people really” is one that we should accept. Part of what gives me pause is the tone of these novels, the grace, the charm, the semi-nostalgic rose-tint that comes from their achronological structure and from their gentle characterisation: there’s something about that tone that distances us, cushions us, from the full weight of the characters’ decisions. This is what makes these books lovely, of course. But I wouldn’t mind seeing something a little raw, a little ugly from them.

As it is, sweet though The Glass Hotel was when I was reading it, it’s not a novel that I found particularly memorable: it slipped down easily, quickly, presenting little resistance. Aesthetically, it’s also very similar to The Singer’s Gun: both novels have broadly the same thematic goals, I think. Given this similarity between novels that effectively bookend Mandel’s novelistic career – The Singer’s Gun was her second novel – I’m not sure how much I need to read another one. Still: The Glass Hotel was an enjoyable enough read, and fairly compelling on the Ponzi scheme stuff; I daresay you’d probably like it.

Review: Ninth House

Ninth HousePublished towards the end of 2019, Ninth House is YA author Leigh Bardugo’s first foray into adult fantasy. Much like Hanya Yanigahara’s The People in the Trees (which is on my mind largely because it happens to have been the book I reviewed before this one), it sheds light on the privilege and entitlement at work in America’s cultural institutions. Protagonist Alex Stern, a young woman with a traumatic past who also happens, mysteriously, to be the only survivor of a multiple homicide, is offered a full scholarship to Yale in exchange for her unprecedented ability to see and talk to ghosts (or Grays, as Bardugo terms them). On arrival, she’s drafted into the titular Ninth House – Lethe House – whose members are tasked with policing the occult activities of Yale’s secret societies, which have given their alumni fabulous wealth and power. But when Alex begins investigating a murder that seems to be connected to the societies, she discovers how limited Lethe’s powers are, and how little the university administration cares about those outside the institution.

Like Yanigahara’s novel, Ninth House gains additional force from the realisation that it’s based on real circumstances: the secret societies described in the novel really exist, and are really populated by the rich, the talented and the privileged. Probably they don’t really summon occult forces (although who knows, I guess); Bardugo’s magic stands in for the real-world power these people hold by virtue of having been in the right place at the right time, and her characters’ hoarding of that magic, their use of it to cement their privilege instead of supporting those without it, is a nice reflection of how power sustains itself in the real world.

For all that, though, I don’t think its critique of elitism is as trenchant or as troubling as Yanigahara’s: wealthy, abusive Yale boys are easy targets, after all, and the novel’s villains are all people with the kind of power that most of its readers will never be able to acquire. It’s not a novel, in other words, that really asks us to interrogate how we ourselves might be enabling and excusing these power structures. That doesn’t make it worthless: it’s a solidly written novel that’s not afraid to look unflinchingly at what happens when powerful people are allowed to wield their power unchecked (content warnings apply for rape, drug addiction and emotional abuse); but it’s not particularly memorable.

Review: My Sister, the Serial Killer

Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer is, as the title suggests, a tale of two sisters. Korede, our narrator, is a senior nurse in a Lagos hospital, the sort of person who takes charge in a crisis and is handy with a bottle of bleach. Her sister, Ayoola, beautiful and self-absorbed, is in the unfortunate habit of murdering her boyfriends. Korede’s the one who gets to clean up after her – until her crush Tade takes a shine to Ayoola.

What makes this taut, slim thriller so much more than just a taut, slim thriller is the fact that we have very little insight into Ayoola’s motives: the story’s narrated entirely from Korede’s point of view. Ayoola claims that her boyfriends threaten her with violence, and she reacts in self-defence, but the narrative gives us plenty of room to doubt her – for example, the fact that Korede has to remind her not to be cheerful on Instagram the day after one of her murders. (She’s supposed to be a grieving girlfriend, after all.)

And what about Korede, too? What does it say about her that she’s willing to cover up Ayoola’s murders, to clean up her little sister’s messes? Braithwaite nails the sibling dynamic here: Korede’s exasperation at her sister’s self-absorbed vanity, the way everything goes her way without her even noticing – as an older sister, I feel that. (Note: my younger sister is not, of course, a serial killer.) And yet, in the end, Korede chooses her frustrating sister over everyone else – yes.

Korede and Ayoola are both profoundly damaged people, it turns out: damaged by an abusive father who punished the girls’ expressions of individuality while being willing to trade them away as wives to strengthen his business contacts. The novel opens as Ayoola, Korede and their mother prepare to mark the tenth anniversary of his death in a celebration of his life and character and everything he did for his family – because it’s easier to lie to the wider family; because, ultimately, their experience as women doesn’t matter to anyone else. That’s really the kernel of My Sister, the Serial Killer: the trap of being a woman in a world where male figures of authority can’t be trusted (and there are no female figures of authority). In Ayoola’s eyes, every man she dates sees only her beauty, not her personhood, and so (the text implies) she’s justified in treating them likewise. You can’t murder an object, after all. It’s not clear that she’s wrong, either.

I mean: Ayoola is a horrifying character. She’s not, like, a feminist icon for the ages. She literally can’t stop murdering people. Korede is horrifying, too, in her way, for her quiet enabling of her sister. They are trapped in circumstance and in a culture that doesn’t recognise women’s humanity, though: it’s hard to see how any of the novel’s events could have gone any other way, given what both of these women are and what they have undergone. This is a novel about two sisters closing ranks against the world; and if they are horrifying, then how much more so is the culture that made them what they are?

Film Review: Knives Out

Knives Out is a warm-hearted send-up of the cosy mystery genre: the Agatha Christie-type stories where an eccentric detective plucks a murderer from a tight-knit family/social unit of seven to ten people. In this case, the eccentric detective is Benoit Blanc, a man of idiosyncratic methods played by Daniel Craig in a deeply improbable Southern US accent. He’s been engaged by the police to investigate the murder of Harlan Thrombey, a famous writer who’s amassed a vast fortune through churning out bloody mystery novels. The suspects are his family, who are all in various ways hankering after or reliant on his money, the housekeeper Fran and his Brazilian nurse Marta, whose mother is an undocumented immigrant.

Director Rian Johnson steers us through a host of twists and turns as Benoit Blanc (who we always suspect is slightly incompetent) seeks his culprit, asking seemingly inane questions and plinking piano keys as the regular police interview the suspects. This is a film both full of surprises and utterly familiar, plot-wise: a place where we can safely expect the unexpected.

The politics of Knives Out, however, upend this comfortable conformity. The Thrombeys fall into two political camps: comfortably-racist-bordering-on-white-supremacist (complete with a radicalised teenage boy who spends his time viewing alt-right websites on his smartphone) and blinkered white liberals who can’t see their own racism. Both use Marta as a talking point in their immigration debates, a comment on their shared inability to see people of colour as fully human, and, when things get nasty, both camps are willing to threaten and/or manipulate her in order to get what they want. But the film – and Benoit Blanc – is firmly on her side throughout: on the side of kindness, decency, professionalism, humanity. And the end of the film sees not a comfortable return to the status quo – which is how many of these stories end; violence and discontent contained by the solving of the mystery so life can go on as normal – but an upheaval of the social order. Marta inherits the Thrombey house, and Harlan’s grasping family leave empty-handed, Marta looking on silently from an upper balcony. Not a return to the status quo, but perhaps a hopeful instatement of a new status quo, where the good inherit the earth.

In other words: watch Knives Out! It’s a beautifully-made film, colourful in character and incident, a universe to fall into and a site of hope; cosy and progressive at the same time.

Review: Feet of Clay

Feet of Clay is the nineteenth Discworld novel, which (astonishingly, when you think about it) puts it relatively early in the series. It’s the third novel about Ankh-Morpork’s City Watch, a police force which is slowly regaining relevance under Commander Samuel Vimes.

As with all of the Discworld novels, the plot is so encrusted with wordplay and humour and rich vital detail that it’s pretty much vestigial, but it is, more or less, a murder mystery. Someone has been killing old men. Somehow, the golems of the city are involved: giant clay people without voices, who are feared at worst and ignored at best, although they’re highly prized as workers because they don’t need to rest or eat or sleep. There’s also a plot to depose Ankh-Morpork’s supreme ruler Havelock Vetinari, because there’s always a plot to depose Vetinari. And there’s a dwarf who defies convention by openly identifying as female, in what is possibly Discworld’s closest approach to a queer storyline.

There is, in other words, a lot going on. That’s one of the great joys of the Ankh-Morpork novels, though: how full they are of life and incident, of the anarchic and wonderful energies of the archetypal city. (Ankh-Morpork is pretty obviously a mirror of London, with its great curving polluted river, its Isle of Gods, its defunct city gates.)

Much of that energy is generated by the social tensions the novel lays out, conflicts between old and new: the centuries-old vampire who manipulates short-lived humans like pawns on a chessboard comes up against the newly-relevant Watch and its stubbornly working-class Commander Vimes, fast rising to prominence; the brand-new concept of dwarf femininity attracts the opprobrium of much of dwarf-kind; the idea of golems suddenly having rights and thoughts and plans of their own is abhorrent, even terrifying, to Ankh-Morpork’s citizenry. But there’s nothing schematic or straightforward about this broad pattern of tension. Cherry Littlebottom, the lipstick-wearing, skirt-clad dwarf, harbours a commonly-held prejudice against werewolves, which she expresses repeatedly to her friend Constable Angua, who is herself a closeted werewolf. Vetinari, despite being the best ruler the city has ever had, despite being despised by aristocrats and generally on the side of justice, is an unelected tyrant with the capacity for occasional cruelty. The golems aren’t really new, they’re old, much like the Watch: so old they’ve become invisible. It’s this seething complexity, this web of allegiances and relationships, that makes Feet of Clay one of the very best of the Discworld novels: its view on the world is not simple.

But there is an arc, of course, and it is the long arc of justice. Discworld, and especially Ankh-Morpork, is founded on a vaguely Victorian idea of progress: the idea that things are getting better, slowly, by degrees, but inexorably. Things tend to be slightly better for people at the end of a Discworld novel than they do at the beginning.

Which is what makes these novels so comforting to return to, over and over again, in a time when things seem to be going backwards, when civil rights campaigns are appropriated by the interests of capital. That reassurance that things will get better, coupled with that acknowledgement that the world is messy and complex. The energies of a city slowly climbing to the light.

Review: Maskerade

This review contains spoilers.

Maskerade is the eighteenth novel in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, so Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge tells me. I tend to think of it as one of my favourites, because there are some habits that are hard to shake: I was distinctly unimpressed with it on my last read over Christmas, but here I am again, going, “Maskerade! That’s a good one!”

To be clear, that’s not because I actually think it’s a good Discworld novel, as Discworld novels go. It sees a pair of formidable witches, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, heading down to Ankh-Morpork, the big city, to recover a young woman called Agnes Nitt. Agnes has run away to join the opera, with the help of her literally preternatural vocal abilities: she can sing in harmony with herself. Only, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg want her to join their coven in the benighted, mountainous country of Lancre.

When this merry cavalcade reaches the Opera House, though, something is amiss: performers and staff alike are being terrorised by a mysterious masked, cloaked figure who makes improbable demands punctuated by far too many exclamation marks. The opera people know him as the Ghost: until recently he’s done nothing worse than demand a box to himself on opening night, but now he’s killing people. And yet: the show must go on…

And go on it does, with Pratchett’s customary humour, wit and humanity.

There’s something very Twelfth Night about this novel: the Opera House is a place where people experiment with their identities, slip into new roles, as it were. Agnes reinvents herself as Perdita X. Nitt (“Perditax”, as Nanny Ogg insists on calling her), a person she feels is more interesting and thinner (more on that later) than Agnes is. Nanny Ogg becomes A Lancre Witch, bestselling author of a cookbook that puts Nigella Lawson’s innuendoes to shame. A painfully shy young man finds confidence and grace when he puts on a mask.

It’s good fun seeing the witches confronted with this chaotic role-play: Pratchett tends to put them in stories about stories anyway, about how stories shape our perceptions of ourselves and others, and how we perform those stories. But I think Maskerade is a weaker example of the type: I’m not convinced that its anarchic performative play has a point beyond itself. It’s just fun. The Opera House, and its particular superstitions and narratives, is important in that it allows for this kind of experimentation, but it is ultimately a closed world, beholden only to itself. When people leave, things go back to normal. Nothing changes, outside in society.

Comedy is at its roots a conservative genre, of course, and Pratchett is a small-c conservative writer: his Discworld novels mostly involve something going wrong in the body politic, and that something becoming redressed by the end. (The Rincewind books are notable exceptions, as is Small Gods.) That conservatism also finds its way out in some slightly, uh, old-fashioned views. In particular, Maskerade has a bunch of fat jokes that haven’t aged well, and like Pratchett’s early writing relies on some humour with subtly sexist undertones.

I still like it, of course. Some habits are hard to shake. Besides, visiting Ankh-Morpork, this wonderful vibrant world of Pratchett’s, pragmatic yet hopeful, is always a joy. Just. Maybe don’t start with this one.

Review: The Secret History

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History is set at an exclusive college in rural Vermont. Our Narrator is Richard Papen, an ambitious but not particularly well-off young man who, by way of an esoteric course in Ancient Greek, falls in with a group of fantastically wealthy students.

It has what I think of as a Gothic structure: one that turns in on itself, compulsively enacting a sort of Freudian return of the repressed. Right at its centre (literally and metaphorically) there is a murder: the entire novel revolves around that still point, as we discover why it happened and the effect that it’s had on these students’ lives. It is an essentially stagnant structure: the narrative’s constant return to the image of the murder reflects the characters’ inability to escape its consequences. As Richard explains in the prologue, their lives will contain no other story but this one. They are trapped in this moment of trauma, defined by it, even as they move further in time from the event itself.

It’s not quite Gothic enough for me, though: it lacks the hallucinatory overwriting of a proper Gothic novel (think Gormenghast or The Mysteries of Udolpho). Tartt’s prose is just a little too conventionally “realistic” to suck you in, cloak you in the abject horror of the repressed returning past. I enjoyed The Secret History, but it felt just a little too controlled; a little too carefully structured.

Review: White Tears

At last! A Tournament of Books contender that I don’t hate!

Well now, that’s a little unfair. I like Ruth Ozeki’s work, and Station Eleven is lovely, and I really enjoyed thinking about Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko. Bu-ut, generally, the people who follow and read along with the ToB are looking for different things in their reading than I am. As a case in point, Hari Kunzru’s White Tears, which I think is doing unusual and important work, didn’t make it out of the first round of this year’s Tournament, despite a relatively high seeding, which means my memory has apparently fabricated a rich vein of discussion about it. (The ToB is possibly the only place on the internet where it’s not only safe but actually productive to read the comments.)

Anyway. The very fact that White Tears made it into the ToB in the first place means that, although it draws on genre elements, it falls squarely into the Literary camp: it relies more on affect than plot to generate meaning. But a bare-bones plot summary might go something like this.

The novel follows two young white men, astronomically wealthy Carter and un-wealthy, unworldly Seth. Carter draws impressionable, eager-to-please Seth down with him into the depths of an appropriative obsession with Black music, a search for a spurious “authenticity” which they think the Black people they actually meet in college lack. Together, they form a production company specialising in creating this “authentic” sound for (mostly white) musicians, using the substantial library of original 1920s records Carter has put together. Things take a sinister turn, however, when Carter releases online a blues track put together by Seth out of a couple of enigmatic recordings he’s made while walking the city; Carter passes the song off as genuine, claiming that it’s by an artist named Charlie Shaw. An ex-collector reveals that Charlie Shaw was in fact a real Black artist – and decades of systematic racism, oppression and appropriation literally come back to haunt Carter and Seth.

Literally: a couple of commenters on the one ToB judgement White Tears did manage wanted to know what “really happens” towards the end of the book, when Seth apparently experiences flashes from the life of Charlie Shaw and possibly other Black victims of institutional racism. Kunzru also sets up a couple of murder mysteries that never get solved comprehensively, at least not in the way we’d expect from the detective-story traditions he draws on. I think that asking what literally happens misses Kunzru’s point here, or is, rather, the exact opposite of Kunzru’s point: these flashbacks, these lacunae, deliberately disturb the “logical”, “rational” surface of the text, the level on which we can rationalise out motives and psychologies and chains of cause and effect. They, precisely, haunt the text, as the spectre of racism haunts America. The novel isn’t interested in logical, rational explanations because it’s not interested in allowing us to construct racism and appropriation as logical, rational responses.

There is something here, too, that’s to do with artistic and narrative erasure. On the most obvious level, Carter and Seth are erasing Black artists, and the cultural tragedy their work is rooted in, by appropriating their “authenticity” for their own profit. (It’s worth noting here that Carter’s family has made their fortune off Black labour and Black lives.) So the novel eschews conventional narrative solutions as a way of performing this erasure: Charlie Shaw, the brilliant young artist, is denied the narrative arc that would (and, under the terms of the novel, should) bring him to fame, fortune and recognition by a system that exploits his labour and life: his career is derailed before it’s even begun by white capitalists who refuse to acknowledge his humanity.

I wonder if my not minding the novel’s refusal to provide logical explanations has to do with genre reading protocols? While it refers to our murder mystery expectations only to subvert them, it’s also clearly drawing on horror tropes to frame its discussion of racism and appropriation – and I suspect that not fully understanding a text on a rational level bothers readers of speculative literature (including horror) less than it does readers who primarily favour mimetic litfic. Or maybe that’s a gross simplification of people’s actual reading habits; I don’t know. In any case, I think this ghost story/murder mystery/Literary novel is a really effective way of laying bare the connections between the slave trade, institutional racism and oppression and cultural appropriation, and the utter savagery of those systems.