Saturday, 13 September 2014
Thursday, 11 September 2014
First off, the novel is not called J. It is called J-crossed-through-with-two-horizontal-lines. The fonts with which my computer is supplied do not have the actual letter, but you can see it on the title page there:
The best I can do is:
Which brings me to
And in a way, the first third (or so) of the novel—before
This, then, is where the novel starts. The tender but cranky relationship between Ailinn and Kevern is well drawn, and their world, though in many ways schematic and sharply tendentious in its dramatization, sort-of works. Which is to say, it works as the setting for a fable, a Saramago-like milieu. A second story strand is woven in early-on, from a generation before: a young girl called Esme Nussbaum is looking-into WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. Uncoincidentally she is knocked down by a motorcycle and hospitalised in a coma. A third strand, the least successful of the novel I think, centres on a series of violent murders in the village, and the policeman Gutkind, much given to conspiracy-theories, who investigates them. These killings are there to illustrate Jacobson's belief that literally murderous violence is always bubbling away millimetres below the surface of ordinary English village life. This is also the moral, surprisingly, of the Miss Marple novels; and I have to say I don’t really believe it, in either textual incarnation. And actually, to speak more practically, the murders are also there to give some narrative heave and motion to what is otherwise a pretty static piece of novel-ising.
Still, as we move into the second two-thirds of
I’m hissing like that because, from here to the end of this review, the snake-tongue
This second Holocaust seemed to me a fundamentally unbelievable thing. What I mean is: I do not believe there is any prospect of a second Holocaust in Britain in the near future; and I certainly don’t believe that it is liable to happen out of a sort of spontaneous action of the twittering classes, suddenly deciding en masse to pick up tire-irons and anything else to hand and brain all the Jews (this is, more or less, how Jacobson portrays the WHAT HAPPENED). Mind you, and rather cleverly, my reaction is already part of the structural fabric of Jacobson’s novel. His point (and it is a powerful one) is that people thinking ‘it could never happen here’ has always been the prelude to it happening. The Jews in multicultural, civilised 1930s Germany believed it would never happen there, and they were catastrophically wrong. Insofar as his novel acquires the kind of weight and resonance that justifies its place on the Man Booker shortlist it is by framing its catastrophe as un-rememberable, not because it is forgettable but precisely because it is unforgettable. That-which-cannot-be-spoken is the leitmotif of the book. The word ‘Jew’ nowhere appears in it, except that it appears with every doubly-struckthrough J, from the title page on.
The pogrom was proceeded by ice-cream vans—of all things—touring the countryside.
‘Those vans were going round the country painted with the slogan “Leave Now or Face Arrest”. Bethesda Academy did the artwork.’These vans keep their chimes: ‘Greensleeves’; ‘You Are My Sunshine’. Jacobson is not afraid of walloping his readers pretty hard with the irony stick. Elsewhere he gives over a long, long section to one of the murderers, a regular Briton, justifying his killing of a nine-year-old Jewish girl (burned to death in an art gallery because said gallery traded Jewish art) as ‘necessary’ and ‘inevitable’. The closer it gets to its melodramatic death-plunge ending, the clunkier the novel gets.
‘Telling people to leave?’
‘Come on, Kevern. You know which people.’ 
Perhaps I say so because I’m a gentile, and complacency about the level of anti-Semitisim in my homeland is my part of my white privilege. I don’t think so, though. The self-evident foolishness of the dodo's ‘it could never happen here!’ is not the universal solvent Jacobson perhaps thinks it is. Now, it should not need saying, but always bears repeating: there is never a ‘justification’ for genocide. But saying that is not the same thing as insisting that the desire to murder Jews is fed by the quasi-mystic ancestral darkness that has always swirled in the violent hearts of gentiles since time immemorial. The man who murdered the nine-year-old confesses his reasons to his schoolgirl lover (he is himself a middle-aged schoolteacher) in a long speech like something out of The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H. He desired the girl’s Jewish mother in direct proportion to how much he hated her and wished her dead. ‘The more I hated her the more fascinated I became’. This Jewess is the defining Other to his gentile masculinity:
‘It's you or them. You can’t both breathe the same air. Some people are too different. I am who I am because I am not them, you tell yourself. That’s why you fall in love at first—this clean break with yourself. Because if you are not them, they are not you. But then you realise it isn’t anything about them that you love, it’s the prospect of your own annihilation. They say before the executed die they fall in love with their own executioner.' He says having sex with this Jewish lover was like being ‘in a sarcophagus making love to a mummy’. There was ‘something ancient about her. I don’t mean in appearance. I mean in what she represented. She went too far back. History should have finished with the likes of her by now.’ As for his actual murderous actions, he claims ‘they weren’t mine alone. I was just repeating what had been done countless times before … I’d been culturally primed to do it.’ The ultimate effectiveness of this novel, it seems, will stand or fall on whether you buy this. I don’t. It is possible to insist that there can never be a ‘justification’ for things like the Holocaust whilst also insisting that things like the Holocaust happen for reasons of ideological and socio-political specificity, not out of a mystic swirl of ancestral hate. And I really couldn’t piece together in my mind the circumstances in which the people of Britain would spontaneously rise up and beat all the Jews to death with tire irons. I didn’t see how—let’s say—outrage at the Gaza situation would scale up. (Jacobson gives us no specifics). I’m certainly not trying to pretend that there is no anti-Semitism in Britain. But I suppose I am suggesting that it has to jostle in the scrum alongside the pervasive anti-Catholicism, anti-Black and anti-Pakistani prejudices, not to mention Islamophobia, Euroscepticism and general dislike of foreigners. The Jew is not the only Other.
Jacobson’s belief in this malign form of Jewish exceptionalism speaks to his personal situation as a prominent British Jew, of course. But his novel has to make it work as more than just the sophisticated paranoia of an individual well-versed in the last millennia European history. I don’t mean that to come over as dismissive. How have moral panics actually manifested themselves in Britain recently? Take a word beginning with
No laws or duress. A compliant society means that every section of it consented with gratitude—the gratitude of the providentially spared—to the principle of group aptitude. People of Afro-Caribbean were suited by temperament and physique to entertainment and athletics, and so they sang and sprinted. People originally from the Indian subcontinent, electronically gifted as though by nature, undertook to ensure no family was without a functioning utility phone. What was left of the Polish community plumbed; what was left of the Greek smashed plates. This is aiming for a wry deadpan, I know. But even so. The problem is that Jacobson can’t resist the allure of the sweeping, vatic statement; as if the business of the novel is very much not to give you the specific details of actual lived-experience, but instead always to extrapolate to the pretentious-general. ‘Women talked of resisting love because it weakened them,’ says the narrator . Really? Is that what 'women' do? When his girlfriend chides him that he’s not having a crisis, Kevern replies ‘the behaviour of men is the proof we’re in a crisis.’ ‘That’s a tautology,’ she returns . Wait—really? Discussing art with a librarian called Rozenwyn, Kevern agrees that ‘to be an artist is to have the freedom to think anything’, including ‘the freedom to think evil.’ Rozenwyn agrees, and recalls a (fictional) writer called Everett, of whom she says: ‘he likes to play with the idea of wrongdoing. It thrills him. He’d be another Sade if he had the balls. They all would.’ . Wait: all of us?
This is where the greatest strength of Jacobson’s novel becomes, I think, its greatest weakness. That strength is in the way he has reconceptualised near-future dystopia, or post-apocalyptic writing. It has hitherto almost entirely been the case that post-apocalyptic novels, from On the Beach to The Road have predicated their stories upon an actual material catastrophe—comet collision, zombie uprising, whatever. Jacobson does something much cleverer: his catastrophe is a moral one. And he is, I think, absolutely right to insist that living in the aftermath of a moral catastrophe—like the decisions taken by the German state to murder all its Jews—is as materially damaging as any zombie-phage-asteroid-collision fantasy version would be. He's also right that this post-apocalyptic situation is a collective, rather than just a personal, one. Hence, 'dystopia. But, that said, the lineaments of Jacobson’s version of this post-traumatic social logic are full of holes. ‘Operation Ishmael’, by which the nation collectively tried to forget what it had done, entailed amongst other things people and places abandoning their old names and taking on names like Cohen and Solomons. Is this supposed to be like the planetary settlers in Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles? Or a counter-intuitive psychological tactic? Un-memory doesn’t work this way.
Remember the word beginning with
Jacobson’s J is not about the Gaza conflict, or modern Israel (neither place is mentioned; and this absence is not freighted in the way the lack of the word ‘Jew’ is). Jacobson’s novel is about Britain; and a very unflattering portrait it paints, a country filled with casually violent, beer-swilling, blinkered idiots and fools. Maybe that’s true. But I don’t think so; or to put it more precisely, I don’t think that’s the whole picture. It lacks nuance, and that’s a problem—because Jacobson’s labour in this novel is all about suggesting not telling, about the potency of inflection and the eloquence of innuendo. It has to be, because if we strip it back it might look as if the response of one of Britain’s most esteemed novelist to the recent Gaza war is: ‘why do you keep going on about those dead Palestinian children? It’s Jews who are the real victims here. Jews are the ones at risk!’ And put like that, without nuance, that looks a little, shall we say, crass.
Reading the novel put me in mind of Lyotard’s Heidegger and the ‘jews’ (1990), not only because of that work’s insistence (reinforced by the deliberate use of scare-quotes and the lower-case-j) that ‘jew’ is a larger category of abjected and persecuted Other than ‘Jew’. Jacobson’s book is about not just present dangers but about the actual, measurable psychic and social violence a people does to itself by refusing to remember its history. Lyotard has a different perspective on the injunction ‘never forget!’ What does it mean to insist that the Holocaust must always be remembered?
Here to fight against forgetting means to fight to remember that one forgets as soon as one believes, draws conclusions, and holds for certain. It means to fight against forgetting the precariousness of what has been established, of the reestablished past; it is a fight for the sickness whose recovery is simulated. [Lyotard, 10]This looks more tricky, perhaps, than it actually is: for Lyotard is saying that categorical ‘remembrance’ is as or more distorting than the evasions and repressions of traumatised non-recollection. Genocide has been a ghastly feature of human history for millennia, but the Nazi Holocaust, of all genocides, is surely the one that most runs the risk of becoming the kind of calcified ‘officially remembered’ reification that Lyotard is talking about here. When, a little later he says that where trauma is concerned ‘psychoanalysis, the search for lost time, can only be interminable, like literature and like true history (i.e., the one that is not historicism but anamnesis): the kind of history that does not forget that forgetting is not a breakdown of memory but the immemorial always “present”’ , it made me wonder if Jacobson’s novel isn’t too terminable. This is how Lyotard’s short book ends, and where he finally defines what he means by ‘jews’:
The debt that is our only lot–the lot of forgetting neither that there is the Forgotten nor what horrors the spirit is capable of in its headlong madness to make us forget the fact. “Our” lot? Whose lot? It is the lot of this nonpeople of survivors, Jews and non-Jews, called here “the jews,” whose Being-together depends not on the authenticity of any primary roots but on that singular debt of interminable anamnesis.‘Which people?' ‘Come on, Kevern. You know which people. All people.’ Still: the moment I find myself asking 'ah, but is the anamnesis of Jacobson's novel sufficiently interminable?' is clearly the moment to give all this a rest. Is this novel a masterpiece? Is it fundamentally rubbish? It's very hard to say.
Wednesday, 10 September 2014
My friend Graham Joyce died yesterday. He was 59, far too young for anyone to die; but with Graham it is especially shocking, especially grievous. He had always been so emphatically alive. He lived life with what we could call an unforced, mature joy. That wise quality infuses his writing too. My happiest memories of him are of our team, which always lost, at the highfalutin 'pub quiz' held intermittently at the Century Club on Shaftesbury Avenue: James Barclay, Rob Grant, Simon Spanton, myself and Graham. I think it was at the last of these that he tried to persuade me to join him on the 'England Writer's' football team that toured the Continent. I promised him I was a rubbish player. 'You think I'm not?' he countered. 'You should definitely come; it's a laugh.' I wish I had, now.
He taught creative writing at Nottingham Trent University, and at some point decided it would be useful for his career to have a PhD in the subject. So he submitted work for a PhD by Publication (he put in Leningrad Nights and Smoking Poppy, together with a specially written critical commentary). To ensure impartiality Nottingham appointed two external examiners: myself and Farah Mendlesohn. Since the creative work was to all intents and purposes flawless, we concentrated our attention on the critical commentary and gave him a pretty rigorous viva and some key re-writes. But of course he was awarded the PhD. Later Private Eye published an article accusing Nottingham of corruptly gifting one of its employees a soft PhD. So I wrote them a pompous letter, which of course they printed, insisting upon the scrupulousness with which the process had been carried out (as indeed it had been), and informing them that PhD by publication is a standard pathway in the sector. Graham thought the Eye article was hilarious; but he thought my pompous rebuttal even funnier. He was as far from pompous as it is possible to get. Some time after that viva, he was my interviewer at a BSFA night, and with the best grace in the world put me through the ringer. I don't know anyone in the writing or publishing world who didn't love him dearly.
But most of all, this. I daresay it's a symptom of the narrowness of my horizons of judgment; but since I am a writer, this is the highest praise I can think of (and it applies with tremendous force to Graham): he was a superb writer. You must go and read his books.
Monday, 8 September 2014
Already a hardback bestseller, longlisted for the Booker, one thing The Bone Clocks does is cement Mitchell’s post-Cloud Atlas reputation as the English novelist today who most prominently combines critical kudos with commercial chops. It’s not hard to see why: he’s a deeply readable and entertaining storyteller who is both hospitable to ‘genre’ and willing to play not-too-alienating-to-the-general-reader formal games in his writing. The critical kickbacks (for of course there have been some big klout-swinging reactions) have mostly taken the line that Mitchell’s dalliance with ‘fantasy’ demeans his literary ambitions—it being axiomatic to a certain kind of critic that genre stuff is both silly in itself and brings a contaminating silliness to anything it touches. Read Robert Collins’s unguardedly pompous and hostile Spectator review for an example of what I mean.
Of course my own feelings about the place of genre in the contemporary novel lie along a 180° orientation away from Collins's. And I enjoyed The Bone Clocks very much. It is a big and rather loose-limbed novel, roping multiple stories together with cords more like battleship chains than Austenian fine threads. The narrative hops from the Thatcherite 80s through the present-day into a climate-change ruined near future; there’s a Frith-canvasful of characters, starting with the genuinely likeable teenager Holly Sykes who runs away from home in 1984 to move in with her 24-year-old car salesman boyfriend. Her voice is, I thought, well handled (so much so that I entirely forgive her for incorrect use of the subjunctive in the novel’s very first sentence!), and it sets the tone for the rest. By that I mean: Mitchell embroiders a carefully trompe-l’oeil texture of actual lived experience in order to frame artfully concealed references to the real meat of the novel—in this case, that Holly hears voices, her 'radio people'. They are not, whatever Holly thinks, symptoms of her ‘nutso’ tendencies. Other narrative braids do similar things by way of balancing closely observed actual life against intimations of something beyond. Those intimations come into the open in the books’ fifth section, revealing a coherent and, despite a slightly hokey, over-familiar vibe, effective fantasy through-line. Two species of ‘immortals’ are fighting a sort of cosmic war. On the one hand are the ‘Horologists’, disembodied entities who it seems are incapable of dying—though they may wish to do so—and are repeatedly incarnated in mortal human existences. The Horology is composed of, basically, 'goodies'. But there are also baddies: the ‘Anchorites’, beings who commit ‘soul-murder’ (‘animacide’) to elongate their own existences.
The Bone Clocks certainly provides its reader with variety. Some of these elements worked better than others, I thought; but this is precisely the old variety theatre rationale: if you don’t like whichever act is on stage at the moment don’t worry; another will be along in a bit. So, for example: I thought the ‘Crispin Hershey’ section tiresome: an extended sort-of satire, or riff, or splurge, on the contemporary (or, strictly, near-future) literary world. Hersey is a transparent puppetus sockus for Martin Amis (a writer ‘so bent on avoiding cliché that each sentence is as tortured as an American whistleblower’) who vents a series of vehement jealousies and hatreds; and his voice wasn’t really funny, or deft, or relevant, or even bilious-sparky enough to earn its keep, I thought. Perhaps it is a narrowness in my sense of humour that means I fail to smile at spleen of the ‘who on God's festering earth does that six-foot wide corduroy-clad pubic-bearded rectal probe think he is?’ sort. Then again, I liked the sinisterly sociopathic Hugo Lamb, a Patricia Highsmith-y villain working his way through Cambridge. I think it helped that I grew up in East Kent (where young Holly goes on the lam) and studied at Cambridge last century, and that I recognised both worlds as Mitchell writes them. There's also a storyline about a journalist (Holly’s fiancé in 2004), wedding-ceremony bored and thinking back to the horrors of the Iraq warzone he has covered, which is a little over-padded.
In a characteristically thoughtful review over at the New Atlantic, Alan Jacobs wonders whether the novel isn’t about the grounds and force of human love; and whether an existence un-limited by death would be capable of love in the deepest sense that is available to humans. But Jacobs makes a telling negative point too: the novel is too long (“I don’t wish that the book were shorter; but I do very much wish that it had been equally long in a somewhat different way. There is occasional tedium here for the reader, or for this reader anyway — a shocking thing to experience in a David Mitchell book.”) I thought that too. Indeed, I found myself comparing it to Stephen King’s recently published sequel to The Shining, Doctor Sleep (2013), a novel close enough to Bone Clocks that I wondered if Mitchell was writing a kind of homage. (I’m surprised, actually, that reviews don’t seem to mention the parallel).
King’s tale is also about soul-murdering immortals interpenetrating the contemporary human world. And King likewise writes long novels. It's just that King handles length in a very different way to Mitchell. One area where King is nonpareil is the generation of narrative tension—he draws a story out by way of ratcheting the screws inside the reader’s head. Since the unsaid-but-anticipated acts in vastly more potent ways upon the imagination than the explained-and-revealed, this means his writing is capable of generating immensely potent and uncanny atmospheres. The slow burn, and slow reveal, can also invest even the silliest narrative premises (and written down in summary form Doctor Sleep's torturing-children-to-death-so-as-spiritually-to-devour-the-‘steam’-they-release ‘True Knot’ surely sound pretty silly) with the illusion of that weight, that affective profundity, without which terror cannot be trout-tickled out of the cold pond depths of the reader’s soul.
This is where Bone Clocks falls down for me. I’m perfectly amenable to High Fantasy hokum about supernatural beings fighting for the very fate of the world in Swiss mountain fastnesses. But although the first four sections of the novel might look like they're doing the King-y slow burn, gradual reveal thing, they’re actually not. They’re just too busy. Mitchell doesn’t trust his reader not to get bored, or doesn’t trust himself not to bore his reader, so he keeps piling in, loading his rifts with as much ore as they can manage and thereby fatally swamping the creation of the mood needful for the supernatural reveal properly to work. As a read, Bone Clocks is generally diverting and entertaining; but I, for one, missed the sensation of accumulating dread that would have boosted the cosmic battle out of the realm of hokum into something more powerful. Textual restlessness can achieve a number of things, but here it is pulling unhelpfully against the larger momentum of the book.
As of this Monday morning, the e-book Sibilant Fricative is the 65,614th bestselling title on amazon.co.uk, but only the 796,975th bestselling title on amazon.com. What's the problem, America? C'mon! You can do better than that.
I've also discovered this auspiciously-titled academic article from Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research: "Quantifying the Robustness of the English Sibilant Fricative". Do you think it would be too misleading if I used that as a cover-blurb? I might need to shift it around a little. "The robustness of the English Sibilant Fricative has to be quantified to be believed! Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research"
Friday, 5 September 2014
This was published in January, so I come to it a little late. This means I picked up the paperback to find it already weighed down with big-name endorsements, like the chains draped around Marley’s ghost—‘magisterial’, ‘singularly brilliant’, ‘caustic, comic and clever’ -- this last from James Wood himself. All of which interpellate me into a grumpy, contrary place: because I really didn’t like it. It seemed to me an arch, laboured and frankly irksome piece of work. But when the praise is as big-gun as this, it’s hard not to feel that I’m missing something.
What though? Does literature really need yet another big, baggy Foster-Wallace-wannabee, faux-Franzen novel about the eccentric interactions of a narrow clique of patrician New Yorkers? Not, I’d hazard, if it’s as hit-and-missy as this one. But, look: why would you trust my judgement? Look at all the big name critics who have praised this novel. I daresay your own experience will align with theirs rather than mine.
& Sons is based about a Salinger-y writer at the end of his life. In his youth A. N. Dyer sold millions of copies of his novel of adolescence Ampersand (hence the ‘&’ of Gilbert’s title); but now he's a creaky, cranky recluse. He has a couple of sons from his marriage, and a much younger third son from a late life dalliance with a much younger woman, and the book is about these father-son relationship (hence the ‘sons’ of Gilbert’s title). The narrator of this rather strenuously tricksy narrative is a different son, the offspring of Dyer’s best friend, Charles Henry Topping. The novel starts with Topping’s funeral, to which Dyer has been coerced into attending to deliver the eulogy. But Dyer, panicky and hating being out in public, fluffs his speech badly. From there the narrative spirals out into a variety of filial stories. Philip Topping, our narrator, has a rather unhealthy fixation on Dyer, whom he hopes will endorse and otherwise facilitate his own stalled literary career. Dyer’s oldest biological son is an ex-druggie, now drug counsellor moving into the world of cinematic screenwriting; which gives Gilbert the opportunity to write scenes set in the world of movie pre-production, about which I could—as I believe they say in America—care less. The second biological son Jamie is wilder, more damaged individual with a fixation on death and disaster. The teenage third son Andy is fixated upon losing his virginity before he hits eighteen, since losing it after that landmark birthday would be, somehow, demeaning.
It aims, as I say, at a certain Foster Wallaceness. It does not hit that elusive target. This is partly because what it has to say, beneath the flurry of its look-ma-no-hands! prose, is pretty banal: ‘when you have grown up sage and comfortable, you often find yourself admiring the poor and desperate, as if they are somehow more honest’ ; ‘so much happens to us without our knowing’ ; ‘you can never really know something’ . OK then. But what sank the novel for me were the similes. Occasionally these are good, like this one:
The windshield carried the grimy aftereffects of snow, the wiper blade describing an arc similar to an open book. Others were less so (‘Richard kicked the ground with his breath’, 382. Say what?). And most were bad, poorly judged or ill-thought-through, straining for that comedy zing but instead of zinging only zanging, or zoinging, or sometimes zzz-ing. ‘Andy and Emmett jingled the ice [in their drinks] like a nest of exotic but short-lived creatures’ ; ‘his face was colored with almost exotic damage, like a psychological tan. He. Had. Lived.’ ; ‘The fire said Fuck you and Richard said Fuck you back before he laid the wet towels on top and there was a hiss and a mini mushroom cloud’ ; ‘one of those awful airport restaurants that reeked of disinfectant, as if Mr Clean were decomposing in the corner’ ; ‘Eyes so shrunken a blink might tear the skin’ ; 'his expression [was] so flinched as to be flinchless' . They keep coming, say-what? after say-what? Since the whole novel depends from the hook of Gilbert’s chatty, simile-sprawly style, too much of this kind of thing slayed it for me. There’s also, as a bonus, some genuinely dreadful sub-Updike descriptions of vaginas: ‘her pussy—Jamie wondered if this was being disrespectful to the dead or if the dead begged for these memories—but her pussy was perfect, with its mitten of dark blond, its interior the impossible smooth of a conch.’  We get long quotations from Ampersand, and Dyer’s other books, none of which leads me to believe his literary reputation would have been what Gilbert repeatedly tells us it is. It turns out Topping is an unreliable narrator, with a distinct streak of curlywurly-cuckoo about him. All in all: Bellow's Seize the Day this is not.
Philip Larkin used to review jazz records for The Daily Telegraph through the 1960s. I have no interest in jazz, but enough interest in Larkin to have at least browsed these pieces, collected in All What Jazz: A Record Diary 1961–71 (1985). One review particularly struck me: it was of an early Beatles LP, and it read (I quote from memory) ‘the jazz content of this record appears to be nil’. I love that, and am tempted to re-apply it in modifed form here. I can't, though; because the SF/F content of this novel is not actually nil. There's a [SPOILER, I suppose] midpoint revelation about paternity that draws on some mildly speculative genetic engineering, very handwavily introduced. Little is made of the 'palingenesis' pseudo-cloning point; some characters refuse to believe that it explains Andy Jr, others use it to riff on the same-but-different nature of the whole pater-filius dynamic. And actually, if I think about it, there are clearly some jazz inflections, howsoever faint and background, to early Beatles records. Taste the SF mouthfeel of this novel: the Larkinesque judgment still holds.
Monday, 1 September 2014
'Damning with faint praise' is a peculiar idiom, isn't it? When I eventually slip down that facile avernus slope and find myself in Hell, I might well consider myself lucky, on balance, if the chief tormenting devil limits himself to a tart 'well your dress-sense isn't that bad, considering you're a straight, middle-aged academic'; or to saying something passive-aggressive about my hair-do. Shouldn't we expect something a bit more, well, damnatory? What is so bad about inflecting our praise? I suppose our mind's-eye is drawn to the 'faint' rather than the 'praise' part. It could be that we're so down-and-trodden, so used to being criticised, that we've forgotten what 'praise' even looks like. Or is it faintness itself to which we are allergic? How deep into our assumptions has it sunk, that fundamentally evangelical belief that the only proper response to anything is vehemence? So then because thou art lukewarm and neither cold nor hot I will spue thee out of my mouth? 'Faintness' is where many of the most beautiful aesthetic effects are found; pastels and watercolours, nuance and subtlety. What is 'faintness' but a treading lightly, rather than going galumphing on? What is it except an mode of anti-extremism?
You can tell what's coming. Because faint praise is all I can muster for this novel. It's a debut, written by its author at the age of sixteen. Which is a genuinely impressive thing: I mean, not only planning a novel and sketching out maps of one's own Fantasyland (which is what I was doing at sixteen) but actually writing and finishing the whole thing; and then getting it picked up by a major publisher and turned into an actual book in real bookshops. And it's not a wholly terrible novel. It stands comparison with many other commercially produced fantasies. It's set here:
This is sort-of 18th-century Europe, except with robots ('mecha') and television and, most of all, flying sailing ships that soar through the skies. Our heroine is Lucy Hunter, daughter of a posh 'Anglya' family, which nation is to all intents and purposes at aerial war with Mericus. The war means that the children of poor people (not rich people, though) are press-ganged at regular intervals, which is causing a quantity of social unrest. But Lucy's more immediate worry is that her father wishes to marry her off to some brattish young man. So she dresses as a boy, calls herself 'Cat' and stows-away aboard the sky-ship Stormdancer. So let the expected adventures escape and flee/rolling along the grooves of genre Fantasy. There's a lot of stuff chucked-in, and much of it can be dna-tested and located in the reading that its author has done. It's no surprise that a teenage author writes a story about how the war-mongering government cannot be trusted: this is a post-Blair fantasy novel, in which 'war' is a big lie designed to make the lives of adolescents horrible. Nor is it a surprise that 'Cat', by sheer force of her specialness, is able to turn the tide against a system that has dominated for decades. Wish-fulfilment fantasy is a fine and doubtless psychologically healthy business. I've been scolded for lacking a proper sense of 'fun' before, and with good cause.
But there's that other sense of 'faint' which connotes 'mediocre'; and of course that's where the real force of 'damning with faint praise' kicks in. Take Back the Skies isn't a very good novel. Stylistically there are too many adjectives and adverbs; too much telling and hardly any showing; expression reverts so frequently to cliché that it becomes a default: Cat feels sick in 'the pit of her stomach'; a cross person has 'a face like thunder'; eyes linger wistfully, or are rolled ('Fox scoffed, rolling his eyes'), teeth are gritted, gasps are stifled. The pacing is all to whack (as I believe the technical term has it). I would have liked more stuff actually on the rather nicely imagined 'skyships' and less faffing around on the ground, and I would have liked that faffing to be less predictable and generic. The love-story is very much wibble-wibble, only partially redeemed by an unexpected tragic ending. Fainter and fainter, I could neither greatly love or greatly hate this novel. But then, I am, as the Devil in the first paragraph pointed out, a balding middle-aged geezer. It might just be that a gushing, gnashing YA-romance steampunk fantasy of 'one special teenage girl' leading a world revolution against governmental corruption isn't really aimed at readers like me. So, you know: pinch of salt and all that.