Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Stand Magazine

Lovely surprise this weekend: a copy of the latest issue of Stand Magazine plopped through my letterbox, containing a new story of mine, 'The Relentless Pull of Gravity' - a story, based around the idea of black holes, about the difficulty or ease of escaping the weight of the problems of past generations. I'm thrilled to be in great company in the issue, as you can see from the cover above.
Buy the issue here, or subscribe, which I urge you to do: Stand is one of the longest-running lit mags and has been responsible for supporting countless well-known writers in the early days of their careers - Angela Carter to name but one - and on: writers go on feeling that it's a privilege to be published there.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Review: The Gospel According to Cane by Courttia Newland

The Gospel According to Cane by Courttia Newland (Telegram)

Beverley Cottrell lives alone in a tiny flat, once a week teaching an evening class in Creative Writing to local troubled and disadvantaged teenagers. It's a kind of equilibrium after her previous life - a full-time teaching job, a lawyer husband and weeks-old son Malaky - was blown apart when Malaky was stolen from her husband's parked car, never to be found again. But while desperate to make connection with her students and seeming to do so - calling them 'my kids' - Beverley is troubled by their seething, chiefly suppressed violence. In addition, she has disturbing dreams in which her family (light-skinned and 'wealthy for generations') are displaced to their ancestral Caribbean past. In these dreams her real-life parents are freed slaves involved in the slave trade and hated by the other Africans; fleeing the vengeance of the latter, Beverley is trapped in a forest of sugar canes. Then one day in her hum-drum real life she realises she's being stalked by a youth who eventually breaches the security door in her block of flats and comes knocking and claiming to be her long-lost son.

Is he really her son? Beverley is sure of it, knows it even before he comes knocking and saying who he is - though when she first notices him, not only does the thought not occur to her, she is afraid of him. Others, including her family, are dubious or sure he can't be. The novel is a study in ambiguity, an ambiguity brought into stark relief by a shocking conclusion. The book takes the form of Beverley's journal, written to 'make sense of the pain', and the events and memories are strikingly interspersed with text-book definitions of physical pain. There's an energy to the prose, though at times I found the language, in particular the dialogue, coy, and consequently Beverley's psychology and emotions as a mother faced with her regained but stranger son seemed incompletely realised. But there is no doubt that the novel keeps you guessing, gripped to know the outcome, and it's a striking exploration of the ambiguities of loss and love and of the ancestral legacies of betrayal, schism and belonging: the gospel according to cane.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Reading group: Roger Fishbite by Emily Prager

This is a book, the Lolita story updated to the nineties and recast from the viewpoint of the 'nymphet', which Trevor has kept mentioning as brilliant ever since I strongly recommended it to him some time ago, so finally, to his delight, and to that of Jenny who had also read it and admired it, I suggested it for our November group discussion.

Whereas Lolita is a fictional memoir narrated by the paedophile Humbert Humbert, awaiting trial for the murder of the man who turned out to have corrupted the child Lolita before him, this book is the fictional memoir of the 'nymphet', Lucky Linderhof, awaiting trial for the murder of the Humbert figure, the man she calls Roger Fishbite - a reversal which can be seen as a literary redress. Whereas in Lolita Humbert's desire is fulfilled by the convenient accidental death of the mother he married in order to gain sexual access to her twelve-year-old daughter, Roger Fishbite is the purposeful murderous agent of his wife's death - a comment, as I see it, on the authorial 'killing off' of the women in Lolita, and thus the complicity of the author. Such literary stratagems have led some critics to deride Prager's book as an over-simplistic, if not crude recasting of Lolita, which, as we noted in our discussion of the earlier book, subtly portrays the duality of both characters and Humbert in particular. However, it seems to me that the story seen from the viewpoint of the molested child would inevitably be more black and white: the moral complexities of a perpetrator caught in romantic obsession with unsullied youth would be unavailable or only dimly available to the child and indeed irrelevant to the trauma of her experience. In this case, as our group agreed, the book is making an important point especially relevant in our current culture where widespread sexual abuse of young girls, and the voices of the victims, are for the first time being acknowledged. The point is that we need to see abuse from the viewpoint of the child.

In fact, Lucky is a complex character and her feelings for Fishbite are complicated: even when she is drearily trapped with him, moving from deserted hotel to deserted hotel, she has moments of seeing him as the father figure for whom she always longed (one reason she paid him attention in the first place), and she is fiercely jealous of the girl she calls 'Evie Naif', the child beauty queen with whom, it turns out, Fishbite is also sexually involved.
Was I in love with Fishbite? Sometimes, when the light hit his shoulder in a certain way, or he made a game of chasing me down one of the empty corridors, or at a mall when he was paying at the register, I could forget the iniquity and a wave of warmth would rush over me and I'd have to kiss him. I did like him, after all. I always liked him or none of this would have happened.
What the book thus conveys is the way that the needy impulses of children, both sexual and non-sexual, can make them open to abuse, and the moral imperative of adults not to abuse those impulses.

Having read the book again in a hurry just before the meeting, I hadn't quite formulated these thoughts when I came to introduce the book. What I did say was that I was most impressed with the narrative voice (which beautifully conveys the complexity of a sassy and precocious girl caught in a searingly painful situation). I said also that the book is concerned not just with sexual abuse, seeing it as one aspect of a wider abuse of children (including the child slave labour which Lucky and her friend Eg try to expose in a street theatre and the foot binding of Chinese girls, recalled in the little shoes collected by Lucky's mother), and everyone agreed.

Jenny then said that once again she had really enjoyed the book, but that, actually, this time around, she hadn't been quite convinced by the voice, which seemed to her too adult, conscious and knowledgeable for a thirteen-year-old. Ann said that that had occurred to her too, although she had very much enjoyed the book nevertheless. I didn't agree: it's made quite clear from the start that Lucky has always been intellectually as well as sexually precocious and is particularly good with words (she's also had the benefit of an exclusive private academic education), and her early experience of attracting sexual attention has given her a wisdom and cynicism beyond her years. Clare, however, said that the very sassy wise-cracking tone of the voice had put her right off at the start of the novel, and although she eventually got used to it, she found herself as a result less in sympathy with the prose than the rest of us. For instance, she found unconvincing and erroneous the fact that in dialogue characters refer to each other by the nicknames Lucky has bestowed on them, and didn't find it acceptable as a stratagem of Lucky's memoir.  She also questioned Lucky's old-fashioned convention of constantly addressing 'Readers and Watchers' (Lucky has a dream to get her own Oprah-style television show to expose stories of child abuse). Personally I very much like it: by taking overt narrative control in this way Lucky has triumphed over a situation created through her childish lack of control over her life. Jenny had said that although she had found Lolita a very upsetting book, she hadn't been upset by this at all, even though it was told from the girl's viewpoint, and I suggested that this was precisely because the girl is given power by being given narrative control. This led someone to wonder about the ending, in which Lucky's dream has come true: it is a kind of epilogue narrated not by Lucky, but the Executive Producer of the show which Lucky presents from the facility where she is now incarcerated, having been found guilty. Does this mean that Lucky really has been not a victim but some kind of clever manipulator all along? The section addresses this very question:
...people have asked me, 'Warma, is she for real or is she just a clever killer?

And what I say to them and to you is this: the jury found her guilty of second degree murder, which makes her a killer. During the trial, her news conference on the plight of children raised ten million dollars for global children's charities including her own ... and completely bankrupted the Pike's Peak sneaker company, which makes her very clever. And she carries in her purse a little ragged piece of her infant blanket which she calls 'Peco' and which, when I see her with it, makes me feel she is very real.'
thus movingly portraying the mix of preociousness, intelligence and childishness which made Lucky - and can make adolescents generally - vulnerable to abuse yet unfairly held culpable.

Before this, there had been some discussion of characters' motives, led by Trevor, who kept saying how brilliant the book was - it 'had everything'. We also discussed the covers of our different editions, which we found generally inappropriately titillating and thus unfortunately proving the book's portrayal of our culture as paedophilic. We were particularly shocked by one featuring the back view of a young girl with a plait wearing a pale bathing suit and her feet tucked under her: from any distance she looks as though she's in a vest with her knickers pulled down exposing her buttocks, and we did not think that that was accidental (as far as I can remember, at no point does Lucky go swimming). Everyone thought the book was very prescient - the scene where Fishbite gets a crowd of child beauty queens to surround and stroke him when he falls down in an asthma attack is horribly reminiscent of footage of Jimmy Saville surrounded by young girls - and the discussion soon moved on in a spirited way to the recent scandal and the issue at large.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Two launches

It's a while since I managed to keep up with reporting things right away or even at all, and here are belated photos of a launch I attended at the end of November, that of Jane Rogers' Hitting Trees with Sticks (Comma), her first short story collection after a string of award-winning novels. The moving title story here was shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award; others in the collection were first commissioned by Comma's Ra Page for the science-based anthologies he has published, and previously, at a Manchester Science Festival event, I had heard Jane read her stunning story, 'Morphogenesis', about Alan Turing. Twice now I have heard Jane say that she isn't instinctively a short-story writer and only began writing stories on the urging of Ra, which, since this is the result, goes to show what a great promoter of short stories Ra is. Jane has also been writing for radio - when I was decorating in Wales, a wonderful play by her came on the radio - and 'Where Are You, Stevie?' is a story in four parts with four different narrators, written with radio in mind. At the November evening, Jane read an engaging and finally off-the-wall ghost story from the collection.

She was supported by Annie Clarkson, another contributor to Comma anthologies, who read a beautifully wry and ultimately searing story of two young girls and their elderly male neighbour.

 A week later I popped down the road to Didsbury Oxfam to hear my very good friend Livi Michael talk about and read from her new novel for young adults, Malkin Child, about the Pendle Witches, which was commissioned by the Lancaster Literature Festival. Livi talked most intriguingly about the subject of the Pendle Witches, and her book's original take on the story - the viewpoint of the young girl Jennet on whose testimony her relatives were convicted. And of course when Livi read I was entranced by the gutsy prose. Apparently the book has been as popular with adults as with teenagers, and it certainly went down well with the adult audience that evening.