Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring got a lot of a buzz when it came out in hardback last year. It’s out in trade paperback now from Picador. Their blurb:
In The Trip to Echo Spring, Olivia Laing examines the link between creativity and alcohol through the work and lives of six extraordinary men: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, John Cheever, and Raymond Carver.
All six of these writers were alcoholics, and the subject of drinking surfaces in some of their finest work, from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to A Moveable Feast. Often, they did their drinking together: Hemingway and Fitzgerald ricocheting through the cafés of Paris in the 1920s; Carver and Cheever speeding to the liquor store in Iowa in the icy winter of 1973.
Olivia Laing grew up in an alcoholic family herself. One spring, wanting to make sense of this ferocious, entangling disease, she took a journey across America that plunged her into the heart of these overlapping lives. As she travels from Cheever’s New York to Williams’s New Orleans, and from Hemingway’s Key West to Carver’s Port Angeles, she pieces together a topographical map of alcoholism, from the horrors of addiction to the miraculous possibilities of recovery.
Captivating and original, The Trip to Echo Spring strips away the myth of the alcoholic writer to reveal the terrible price creativity can exert.
You can read an excerpt here.
Not crazy about the claustrophobic cover.
David Mitchell’s latest novel The Bone Clocks is 624 pages in hardback, its sprawling metaphysical plot jammed into six overlapping sections that move through six decades and several genres. Any number of critical placeholders might be applied here: Sweeping, ambitious, genre-skewering, kaleidoscopic (I stole that last one from the book jacket). Or, perhaps we prefer our descriptors more academic? Okay: Postmodern, metatextual, metacritical, polyglossic. With The Bone Clocks, Mitchell has used these functional, formal postmodernist techniques to string together a few good novellas with some not-so-good novellas into a novel that’s not bad—but also not particularly good.The Bone Clocks is just okay. It fills space, it fills time. But unlike Mitchell’s previous stronger novels—Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas in particular—The Bone Clocks fills without nourishing.
The Bone Clocks opens in 1984 with “A Hot Spell,” introducing us to the novel’s ostensible subject, Holly Sykes, a fifteen year-old who runs away from home. This section also introduces us to Mitchell’s consistent idiom here, a first-person present tense narration that forces the plot forward like an engine. When Mitchell needs to deliver any background information, the narrator simply trots out old memories, or a character politely shows up to dump exposition. The exposition-dumping is particularly egregious in the novel’s final sections.
Our heroine Holly Sykes helps out with some of that exposition early on, filling in some of the contours we’ll need to understand if we want to suss out the Big Metaphysical Plot of The Bone Clocks: There are “the radio people,” voices that contact Holly, um, telepathically; there are the strange figures of Marinus and Constantin; there is the drama of Holly’s deep-souled, old-souled little brother Jacko, who ominously makes her memorize a labyrinthine map in the book’s early pages (foreshadowing!):
The one Jacko’s drawn’s actually dead simple by his standards, made of eight or nine circles inside each other.
“Take it,” he tells me. “It’s diabolical.”
“It doesn’t look all that bad to me.”
“ ‘Diabolical’ means ‘satanic,’ sis.”
“Why’s your maze so satanic, then?”
“The Dusk follows you as you go through it. If it touches you, you cease to exist, so one wrong turn down a dead end, that’s the end of you. That’s why you have to learn the labyrinth by heart.”
Christ, I don’t half have a freaky little brother.
“Right. Well, thanks, Jacko. Look, I’ve got a few things to—” Jacko holds my wrist. “Learn this labyrinth, Holly. Indulge your freaky little brother. Please.” That jolts me a bit.
See how young Holly doesn’t quite cotton that Jacko has, like, responded to her by using the same phrase she thought but didn’t say aloud? Mitchell has a talent for crafting characters like this—characters who can’t see their own blind spots, characters utterly naïve to how we see them. Mitchell excelled at this technique in Black Swan Green, whose narrator Jason Taylor describes for us what he cannot name or fully understand. Holly’s 1984 narrative often feels like a rewrite of Black Swan Green. Jason actually shows up—sort of—in The Bone Clocks; his cousin Hugo Lamb, a minor character in Black Swan Green, narrates the section antecedent to young Holly’s story.
Hugo Lamb’s “Myrrh Is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume” propels us to 1991. Lamb is a charming, conniving con man. If young Holly echoes Adam Ewing of Mitchell’s superior novel Cloud Atlas in her naïve innocence (she does), then Hugo Lamb echoes Cloud Atlas’s genius con man, Robert Frobisher. Indeed, most of the central narrators in The Bone Clocks read like familiar repetitions of characters from Cloud Atlas. I enjoyed Frobisher’s plotting and scheming, and I enjoyed it again in Lamb, a sympathetic rake. I was digging The Bone Clocks all through his section, despite feeling vaguely worried that Mitchell was not exactly doing much to flesh out The Big Metaphysical Plot that would have to hold this thing together.
William Gaddis’s last novel Agapē Agape is a bitter, funny rant, a monologic stream-of-consciousness that, through its extreme powers of synthesis, spills over into heteroglossic eruptions, a carnival of erudite voices. Driven by terrible physical pain, hints of madness, and, most of all, the need to “explain all this” before he dies, the voice of the novel (surely Gaddis himself) channels cultural historian Johan Huizinga and philosopher Walter Benjamin into a conversation about the conflict of art and commerce set against the backdrop of the rise of mass culture:
. . . falls right into line doesn’t it, collapse of authenticity collapse of religion collapse of values what Huizinga called one of the most important phases in the history of civilization, and Walter Benjamin picks it up in his Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction in this heap somewhere, the authentic work of art is based in ritual he says, and wait Mr. Benjamin, got to get in there the romantic mid-eighteenth century aesthetic pleasure in the worship of art was the privilege of the few. I was saying, Mr. Huizinga, that the authentic work of art had its base in ritual, and mass reproduction freed it from this parasitical dependence. Ah, quite so Mr. Benjamin quite so, turn of the century religion was losing its steam and art came in as its substitute would you say? Absolutely Mr. Huizinga, and I’d add that this massive technical reproduction of works of art could be manipulated, changed the way the masses looked at art and manipulated them. Inadvertently Mr. Benjamin you might say that art now became public property, for the simply educated Mona Lisa and the Last Supper became calendar art to hang over the kitchen sink. Absolutely Mr. Huizinga, Paul Valery saw it coming, visual and auditory images brought into homes from far away like water gas and electricity and finally, God help us all, the television. Positively Mr. Benjamin, with mechanization, advertising artworks made directly for a market what America’s all about. Always has been, Mr. Huizinga. Always has been, Mr. Benjamin. Everything becomes an item of commerce and the market names the price. And the price becomes the criterion for everything. Absolutely Mr. Huizinga! Authenticity’s wiped out when the uniqueness of every reality is overcome by the acceptance of its reproduction, so art is designed for its reproducibility. Give them the choice, Mr. Benjamin, and the mass will always choose the fake. Choose the fake, Mr. Huizinga! Authenticity’s wiped out, it’s wiped out Mr. Benjamin. Wiped out, Mr. Huizinga. Choose the fake, Mr. Benjamin. Absolutely, Mr. Huizinga! Positively Mr. Benjamowww! Good God! a way to find a sharp pencil just sit still avoid stress stop singing what, anybody heard me they’d think I was losing my, that I’d lost it yes maybe I have . . .
Peter James’s Dead Man’s Time. Publisher’s blurb:
A vicious robbery at a secluded Brighton mansion leaves its elderly occupant dying. Millions of pounds’ worth of valuables have been stolen.
But as Detective Superintendent Roy Grace, heading the enquiry, rapidly learns, there is one priceless item of sentimental value that her powerful family cherish above all else. And they are fully prepared to take the law into their own hands, and will do anything – absolutely anything – to get it back.
Within days, Grace is racing against the clock, following a murderous trail that leads him from the shady antiques world of Brighton, across Europe, and all the way back to the New York waterfront gang struggles of 1922, chasing a killer driven by the force of one man’s greed and another man’s fury.
A reissue of the ninth novel in the multi-million copy bestselling Roy Grace series, from the #1 chart topper, Peter James
Stephen Collins’s The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is really really good. Full review forthcoming.
New from Verso Books, a collection of writings from philosopher Alain Badiou. Verso’s blurb:
The Age of the Poets revisits the age-old problem of the relation between literature and philosophy, arguing against both Plato and Heidegger’s famous arguments. Philosophy neither has to ban the poets from the republic nor abdicate its own powers to the sole benefit of poetry or art. Instead, it must declare the end of what Badiou names the “age of the poets,” which stretches from Hölderlin to Celan. Drawing on ideas from his first publication on the subject, “The Autonomy of the Aesthetic Process,” Badiou offers an illuminating set of readings of contemporary French prose writers, giving us fascinating insights into the theory of the novel while also accounting for the specific position of literature between science and ideology.
More to come—but for now: Diagrams! (I will try to understand them in context):
Papal decree granting Castile sovereignty over the Indies
Rome, June 1493
Translated by Helen Nader, 1996. Alternative translations [in brackets] by George F. Barwick, 1893.
(1) In the name of God, amen. This is a transcript well and faithfully copied from a document written on parchment [written on parchment of skin] in the Latin language, embossed with a red [coloured] wax seal, placed in a wooden box, tied with a green silk ribbon, and apparently certified and signed by a certain papal notary, the content of which, word for word, is as follows.
(5) Among other works well pleasing to the Divine Majesty and dear to [desired of] our heart, this assuredly ranks highest, that in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for, and that barbarous nations be overthrown [subdued] and brought to the true faith. Since we have been called to this holy chair of Peter by the favor of divine clemency, although of unequal merits, recognize that, as true Catholic kings and princes, such as we have known you always to be, and as your illustrious deeds now known to nearly the whole world declare, you not only eagerly desire but with every effort, zeal, and diligence are laboring to that same end, disregarding hardship, expense, danger, and even the shedding of your blood… We therefore are rightly persuaded and consider it our duty, of our own accord and applauded by others, to grant you those things by which, with daily effort, you may be more heartily enabled to carry forward your holy and praiseworthy purpose pleasing to immortal God, for the honor of God himself and the spread of the Christian rule.
(6) You chose our beloved son, Christopher Columbus, a man assuredly worthy and of the highest recommendations and qualified [well suited] for so great an undertaking.
(7) Columbus and his men, with divine aid and with the utmost diligence sailing in the sea, discovered certain very remote islands and even continents that hitherto had not been discovered by others. A great many peoples reside there, living in peace, and, it is reported, going unclothed, and not eating meat [going naked, and not feeding upon flesh]. Moreover, as your envoys think that these same peoples living on those islands and mainland believe there to be one God, the Creator in heaven, and seem sufficiently disposed to embrace the Catholic faith and be trained in good morals, it is hoped that, were they instructed, the name of the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, would easily be introduced to these continents and islands.
(8) To that end, on one of the principal islands, Christopher has already caused a well equipped fortress [tower] to be established and built.
(11) We command you, in virtue of holy obedience, to employ all due diligence, just as we also promise. We do not doubt that for the sake of your utmost devotion and royal greatness of soul you will appoint worthy, God-fearing, learned, skilled, and experienced men to these continents and islands to instruct their inhabitants and residents [natives] in the Catholic faith and train them in [imbue them with] good morals [using all due diligence in the premises].
(13) Let no man infringe or with rash boldness contravene this our commendation, exhortation, requisition, gift [donation], grant [concession], assignation, ordinance [constitution], deputation, decree, mandate, prohibition [inhibition], and will. Should anyone presume to attempt this, he is informed that he will incur the wrath of Almighty God and of his blessed apostles Peter and Paul.
(14) Given at Rome, at St. Peter’s, in the year of the incarnation of our Lord one thousand four hundred and ninety-three on the fourth of May in the first year of our pontificate.
(15) Gratis by order of our Most Holy Lord, the Pope.
(17) We have ordered these letters be copied, transcribed, and rendered public, deciding and wishing [decreeing and willing] that thereafter full credence be shown to this public transcript or copy in each and all places opportune [shall henceforth obtain full credence everywhere, in all and singular places, in which it shall be required], and that this transcript itself engender confidence and be explained as if the original letters themselves were to appear, be brought forth, and presented.
Note on the translation
by Helen Nader
“I confronted what at first seemed insoluble problems of legal prose style and vocabulary. Help came from the guidelines of the legal profession itself. Most of the documents in this volume were written in the jargon-laden and repetitive prose of any legislation or executive orders drafted by bureaucrats. Little would have been gained by transforming such Spanish into the equally tortured English prose of modern lawyers … In trying to find modern vocabulary of archaic expressions without going to the other extreme of erasing their legal implications, I have been guided by modern Spanish-English legal dictionaries.”