A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore 2009

A Gate at the Stairs

Lorrie Moore writes like an angel. A Gate on the Stairs includes a lot of poetry. They’re menus. One of the characters, Sarah, is a restaurant owner in a university town called Troy. Poetic menus are sui generis funny.

Moore’s first major jest, on p2, is to describe Troy, Illinois, as the Athens of the Mid West. Already Tassie, the book’s first person narrator, student at the University of Troy and seeker of child care work, has told us that, if around children too long, ‘I grew bored, perhaps like my own mother. After I spent too much time playing their games, my mind became peckish and longed to lose itself in some book I had in my backpack. I was ever hopeful of early bedtimes and long naps.’ Moore is a gourmet writer. Words are her ingredients. They’re usually surprising but always their combination is delicious and purposeful.

By p2, we know, furthermore, that Tassie is a farm child, climate change is afoot, and she’s thrilled that her Eng Lit professor wears jeans and a tie. By p3 we know we’re in late 2001 because the events of 9/11 – ‘we did not yet call them 9/11’ – seemed both near and far away.’

Tassie lands a job looking after the adopted two year old daughter of Sarah and Edward. There’s something a bit dodgy and sad about them. Tassie lands a handsome Brazilian boyfriend about whom there’s also something odd. Tassie’s brother is someone else who isn’t who he seems to be. Is Bonnie, Mary-Emma’s birth mother, caught up in a gang heist. And when will Mary Emma’s name stick to her? A lot then about identity. The book is partly about the fear of never knowing who a person is.

And it has a lot of tragedies, which ‘I was coming to realise through my daily studies in the humanities both in and out of the classroom, were a luxury. They were constructions of an affluent society full of sorrow and truth but without a moral function. … where the tables were only half full, the comic triumph of the poor was the useful demi-lie. Jokes were needed. … For understanding and perspective, suffering required a butchers weighing. And to ease the suffering of the listener, things had better be funny. Though they weren’t always. And this is how, sometimes, stories failed us. Not that funny. Or worse, not funny in the least.’

Moore brings her super-intelligence to bear on liberal multi cultural indulgence, on the intricate racism of middle America – Moore is white and uses a lot of dashes -, on grief, on not bothering to argue against God, on Nietzsche and the American military. She throws just the right amount of phrases like ‘a look of pale apprehension’ into the pot. Her 20 year old narrator goes through a sharp learning curve.

Lush nature passages reveal Moore’s serious heart. They aren’t so much at odds with her skinny latte wit as an index of where she turns when human tragedy and comedy just aren’t enough. Childhood innocence tumbles down the stairs round about the age of 4, despite the gate at the top of the stairs, and thereafter people will just keep on doing disastrous things. Here’s one of the more restrained nature passages: ‘and then it warmed just enough for a blizzard, followed by another, as if the prairie were in a hiccup. Wind howled in the chimneys and under eaves, knocking ice blocks from the roof. And then when the air was finally still, a stupor descended, induced by accumulated snowdrifts, which were baked against the sides of house like a comforter throw over to calm an agitated dog. There was in the air a cold resignation good for reading.’

More lessons in the humanities: ‘Edward wasn’t smiling. A shadow passed between them. A sepia tinge came over Sarah’s eyes. A horse-drawn sled jingled its harness bells off in the distance: this town would turn winter into a holiday if it killed them. “The family that sleighs together stays together,” Sarah murmured to me. Or, that is what I thought I heard, though there was no levity in her voice. She took one hand briefly away from Mary to squeeze mine in reassurance. Or in promise. Or in regret. Or in happy hope. Or else in some secret pact that involved a little of everything.’ Is it surprising human beings sheer off each other, taking a slice of flesh with them here and there, when interpreting our behaviour is as difficult as Moore suggests?

So, given the delicious delicacy and intelligence of her writing, why don’t I like the book? It has something to do with Tassie’s turn away from people – which explains her nature descriptions – when the going gets overly tragic. Something to do with a dropping away from the narrative consequences of the book’s many tragedies – which explains why she’s a wisecrack too far from the theory of tragi-comedy she’s expounded, itself an echo of mordent Jewish humour – Tassie’s mother is Jewish. Or something to do with the delight in words pretending not to be a weapon, if not of war, then of a cold heart. But I’ll give Lorrie Moore the benefit of the doubt: I dislike the narrator, not the book. Eight years after 9/11, it jokes its way through some of liberal America’s most pressing anxieties.

Brick Lane by Monica Ali 2003

Brick Lane

Reading Brick Lane 13 years after it was published, brought on a mix of déjà vu and amazement. Déjà vu because young pissed-off Muslim women and men are still being driven to extreme and textually unfounded versions of their religion by the failure of the country in which they were born to provide them with dignity, financial stability and hope. Amazement because although 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan appear near the end of this epic tale of London’s Whitechapel and the Bangladesh left behind by many of its newest migrants, it ends before the UK/US invasion of Iraq. Thus the UK’s Muslim community’s crucial involvement in organising immense popular opposition to the invasion doesn’t feature: 3 million people marched through London in February 2003 but were ignored by the majority of Labour MPs and by Tony Blair.

I imagine, but I don’t know, that the young Muslims who worked so hard to prevent intelligence service lies and media cowardice and Blair’s version of religious fundamentalism doing their deadly damage, were among those who then turned their backs on UK parliamentary democracy. It had been proved a sham. Today we in the North Atlantic world are more and more at war, not that we suffer direct hits. That’s left to other people and other continents, while our governments pretend they aren’t responsible either for the consequent suffering or the people desperate to escape it. Arms companies, financiers and religious zealots of all hues profit. History is ignored.

The virtue of a classical epic novel is that history is a main character. Tolstoy and George Eliot are its greatest exponents. Brick Lane is the story of Nazneen’s journey from Bangladeshi (East Pakistani) village girl to self sufficient Whitechapel citizen, of her beautiful sister Hasina back ‘home’, of her husband Chanu, a frustrated philosopher, her children Raqib, Shahana and Bibi, her friend Razia, anti-conformist on every front, her fly-by-night lover Karim, the cruel debt shark and userer Mrs Islam, and the multitude of other wonderfully conjured characters inhabiting spice-fragrant and piss stinking Whitechapel 60s estates. The book wouldn’t work without Bangladeshi migrants throwing their experiences, which includes the history of the Brits in India, at each other, and at the UK they, deeply disappointed, find themselves in. British parliamentary democracy? That’s the one that created the Bengali rice famine of 1941-42 in which at least 3 million people perished.

So the good Chanu eventually tells his skinny–jeanned eldest daughter, Chanu the possessor of corns like mini-pyramids which require an eighteen year old wife to trim them along with other unwanted body parts. ‘Before they went out today, she had to cut his hair. She was always cutting bits off him. The dead skin around his corns. His toenails. The fingernails of his right hand, because his left hand could not do the job properly. The fingernails of his left hand because she might as well do that while she had the scissors. The wiry hair that grew from the tops of his ears. And the hair on his head, once every six weeks when Chanu said, “Better smarten up a bit.”’ p90

Husbands don’t permit wives to leave their flats. English lessons are forbidden. College? A den of vice. Chanu has been rightly acknowledged as one of the great characters of English literature for his comic trajectory from realistic ambition – promotion always goes to his white colleagues – to illusory ambition – the computer he owes Mrs Islam for gathering the same dust as his books and papers and the flat’s too many armchairs – to ambition, via taxi driving, realized but sorely compromised. It’s a tribute to human beings’ antipathy to murder – war? ’S ok it’s not murder. It’s defence. The House of Commons said so – that in societies where women are financially powerless unless widowed, like the UK was until 1926, that husbands dead before their time do not litter the streets.

And Brick Lane does indeed belong to Nazneen, married, and her sister Hisani, single. They, unlike their 19th century counterparts Anna and Dorothea, are in command of both story and perspective. We’re inside their heads from start to finish. Ali solves the problem of inter-continental communication by giving Hisani the gift of vivid letter writing. To Nazneen she gives everything else. Hisani thus tells her tale of defiant optimism in the face of violent husband, rapist and pimping landlord, rapacious clients, and by the end of the book, skivvying to middle class Dakar, in, we accept, less than perfect Bengali. Ali doesn’t give the sisters phones. Phone conversations tend not to make good literature because no extra-linguistic language, the stuff of character, is going on, whereas Nazneen’s talents for observation and astute reflection are crucial to her character. ‘When Karim came last time he read from a magazine about the orphan children in refugee camps in Gaza. He was moved and Nazneen watched as the cycle of emotion started turning. It was possible – this she knew – to be deeply touched by one’s own grief on another’s behalf. That he was moved, moved him. As he explained the situation his eyes became watery.’ p275

In a world where metaphor abuse is always with us, Ali is a metaphor queen and therein lies much of her comic talent. Apposite verbs and adjectives flourish – ‘Chanu was disabled with anger.’ p275 – as well as those phrases which Flaubert’s fumigations failed to dispel from his work. When Ali needs to counter the shock of the 2001 Oldham riots as seen on TV in Whitechapel, she writes: ‘The picture changed to daylight and the camera swept across tedious deserted streets, enlivened now and then by the presence of the blackened carcass of a car. In Oldham the roads were pocked with holes and the houses packed together, tight as teeth.’ p276. Comedy can throw horror into sharp relief. Or it can dissipate horror’s impact on our hearts, which, in reading Brick Lane, have been well prepared for the riots. Nazneen’s intelligence – her husband’s, her friends’, her lover’s – has given us the insight we need to understand them.

So it’s a little disappointing that, along with black British women writers of her generation Zadie Smith and Andrea Levy, and Indian American writer Jhumpa Lahiri, Monica Ali brings some of the colonial chickens home to roost, but not enough of them, or not fiercely enough. Brick Lane’s final chapters abandon classical fiction, which doesn’t shy away from unadorned tragedy. Ali opts for comforting fantasy. I wish she’d been as intelligent as her heroines and hadn’t written these last two lines: ‘Razia was already lacing her boots. ‘This is England,’ she said. ‘You can do whatever you like.’ p492

Nazneen’s existential struggle has been with the female fatalism her mother fed her. I wanted a less banal resolution. At worst it’s a mendacious one put into the mouth of Razia. Razia is the novel’s truth-sayer. As far as I can remember, the UK in 2003 was only marginally more a land of universal freedom and prosperity than it is now.

Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler 1995

Ladder of Years

I finally read the author my ex-teacher loves so much. I was entirely hooked on the story of the woman who walks southwards along an eastern US beach and out of her family. After sixteen months, she, hugely disappointingly, returns. The book ends with a little homily on how to say goodbye to your growing up children.

The style is elegant, funny, lopes along quietly but vigorously like its narrator, is particularly exact on sense impressions – the perfect empirical novelist? – stays in a close but not airless third person and in the past tense, no messing around. Not one piece of dirt shows. No skid marks on Ms Tyler’s knickers. There are no references to wider events, all the families are middle class white Americans except for one or two side characters slipped in, one feels, to keep Anne Tyler’s liberal creds up. They’re all families is the point.

The final set piece is a large family meal, shown to be a messy affair, but the mess gets nowhere near tragedy. Family love is reconstituted, and mothers are shown to handle teenagers and cats cleverly, by approaching them sideways, never looking them directly in the eyes or confronting them. Structurally perfect – a prologue newspaper clipping sets up Delia’s departure – and plenty of red herrings and good surprises, eg the departure takes place early on, not as one expects, at the end; the daughter suddenly announces her wedding; Delia nearly gets off with Joel and nearly becomes Noah’s step mother. But no. The sinking feeling gathered. Delia was going to return to the fold and I nearly cried.

Tyler reminds me of Carol Shields, but Shields is harder, rockier, nearer tragedy. Alice Munroe, to whom The Observer also compared Tyler, is definitely a tragedian. Shocking that the hurtful contemptuous way in which Tyler’s narrator is treated by her family is considered normal and worth returning to, after a bit of soul searching about whether Delia too is contemptuous and manipulative. No we don’t think so. She’s a perfect desperate housewife.

Why don’t Tyler’s main characters do the bizarre things the minor characters sometimes speak of? Time is Tyler’s main preoccupation it seems – this one about a time bubble, turning the clock back, stopping time – but not about history. God forbid the weight of history should impinge on these white American families.

The Tin Can Tree by Anne Tyler 1965

the tin can tree

Told with almost as much dialogue as a loquacious thriller, Anne Tyler’s early novel is as perfect as the others of hers I‘ve read: Ladder of Years 1995 and The Beginner’s Goodbye 2012. For the former, see my next blog, whose prototype I wrote four years ago. For the latter see my 13.5.2015 blog. A 1964 caveat from Sylvia Plath: ‘Perfection is terrible. It cannot have children.’ I’m not saying that childlessness is a requisite for making good art. Plath may have thought so. The thought of her children missing her didn’t keep her alive.

Good dialogue conceals as much as it reveals – I’m thinking dought modernist dramatists Beckett and Pinter – even when one of the characters has, like Ansel in The Tin Can Tree, verbal diarrhoea and everyone, including himself, wants him to shut up. Dialogue in Tyler’s hands is the quilt into which even the emotionally clumsiest of her characters sews a square of gold and the little house on the tobacco plantation is where they all hang out, or rather where they share a verandah against the ferocious Baltimore summer: bereaved Mr and Mrs Pike with imported grown up niece Joan and ten year old Simon who’s been displaced in his mother’s affections by the accidental death of his younger sister; two damaged brothers James and Ansel (which name had me straight into Faulkner’s deep south 30 years earlier in As I Lay Dying) haunted by their own nuclear family; and the Misses Potter, two enchantingly nosey old maids as they were called back in the day who by definition are sans family.

The presence of the absent creates a filigree of accidentally colliding words. The wonder is that a human being ever understands what another human being intends to say, whether in speech or writing. Language is exposed as miraculous and beautiful just because of the odds against it.

Here’s a passage, authorially replete, that gives the characters’ larynxes a rest and tells us that these two, however much they do or don’t say, will never understand each other. ‘Joan took another sip of coffee. It still had no taste. A hummingbird swooped down to the window and just hung there, suspended like a child’s bird-on-a-string, its small eyes staring curiously and its little heart beating so close and fast they could see the pulsing underneath the feathers. Mr Pike gazed at it absently.’ p103. Open this book on any page and you’ll find just such a minute gem-like heart.

Family is where it’s at in Tyler’s novels, extended or otherwise. And her portrait of eight people, not all blood related, living under one verandah, plus the ghost of Janie Rose, lus the others who work in the tobacco sheds, are split asunder by the tiny events – Ansel refuses to cook, Mr Pike gives misplaced advise to Joan on her love life – as much as by the enormous ones – death, love sidestepped, paralysing grief. Tyler combines her characters in elegant narrative patterns: Joan and Simon’s story, Mrs Pike and James’ story, Simon and Ansel’s story, James and Joan’s, and so on. Everyone recasts Janie Rose’s story.

Group portraits, we learn from photographer James, are the hardest and most irritating of subjects. People keep shifting around. They move in and out of the lens’s frame. James would love to indulge in abstract nature shots. But people have to be dealt with. Each character, apart from Miss Lucy and Miss Faye, seeks salvation in escape at one point or another. Each returns and re-joins the group whom the photographer will freeze frame. The Tin Can Tree is a perfectly behaved novel about a group of imperfect human beings whose scope for bad behaviour, I was immensely relieved to find, is tiny.

Daddy Love by Joyce Carol Oates 2013

Joyce Carol Oates, in her latest novel, Daddy Love, discusses child abuse.

The first five chapters of Daddy Love, a grisly tale of child abduction and sexual abuse, are brilliant. I thought the prejudice which has prevented me reading ‘one of the female front runners for the title of Great American Novelist’ (Sunday Times, London) was mistaken.

Young mother Dinah relives the moment, its precursors and its successors, its surroundings, when she let go of her five year old son Robbie’s hand. In the supermarket parking lot. He was snatched from her, and she, her head broken by a blunt instrument, clawed at the door handle of the abductor’s van. It reversed over her. It broke an awful lot of the rest of her.

Each of these chapters narrates the horror from a slightly different angle, from her husband Whit’s as well. Time is fractured, and space. But it’s Dinah’s agony that drags us, spinning helplessly, to be impaled by the questions which, because they torture her, have become statements. ‘Why! Why d’you take him there. Why d’you let him go.’ p38.

There’s no question either that Oates, proceeding with the utmost skill to probe the psyche of Daddy Love the ghastly abductor and the psyche he forces with the utmost cruelty onto Gideon (Robbie), kept me hovering between pity and disgust for the man; hope and fear for the boy inside whose head we’re taken in the first throes of torture and then when he’s 12, no longer a pretty child; between violent sympathy for and impatience with the disabled mother, and the father as well. What’s going to happen? I yelled to myself. So Oates can tell a story alright, and in jagged prose that springs directly, like Athene from the mind of Zeus, from the minds of her characters. No soothing detached authorial voice here to cushion the blows thrown by a particularly perverted American psycho.

Furthermore, Oates takes on big questions like race – Whit is mixed race, the white abductor, greying ponytail and all, cons his preacherly way into a black church; Dinah’s mother is an interfering racist bitch. Oates takes on class – Daddy Love never had it good. Sex – it’s the mother’s fault always and forever. She takes every awful Americana on the chin.

Which is why I disliked the book. There’s a weird sense of Oates relishing the gore and horror. Devil’s advocate? No problem. But first you have to believe in evil and or at least in the inevitability of humans’ worse natures trumping (I know. A bad, possibly evil, joke well past its sell by date) their better ones. Daddy Love is no satire or overblown gothic tale, crows cawing, shiver up the spine. It’s a deadly serious, distinctly detached because so skilfully interior, dissection of a part of the heart of middle America. It’s not that I require novels to give me hope. Novels don’t work like that. But I do want the writer not to be enjoying her despair. I don’t know whether it’s called sadism or masochism. Neither turn me on.

The House of Ashes by Monique Roffey 2014


Although House of Ashes grew on me, so did a suspicion that Roffey would take cover in a spiritual resolution to her book. It certainly fits her attempt to deal out the moral goods even handedly (see my 19.1.16 blog on morality in novels). Difficult in a setting like the Caribbean (a fictional island doesn’t relieve it of its history), which has been subject to as much depredation as anywhere in the ex-colonial world – did Roffey, born and brought up in Trinidad, want to give her imagination a holiday after her 2010 The White Woman on the Green Bicycle? Would making a novel out of the 1990 Trinidad coup attempt have required her to abandon her personalised take on morality which leaves all of her characters both innocent and guilty?

            An armed band of young men, led by the Leader and his right hand man Hal, take over The House of Power in the island of San Amen’s capital City of Silk. They kill, maim and take government ministers and personnel hostage. They leave the House of Power after a week of horror. The story is told by one of the boy gunmen and one of the government ministers. A third narrator, another of the gunmen as he is today, concludes the book.

It’s excellently and cleanly written. The tension and filth inside the House of Power – no toilets working, no food, rotting bodies – builds enticingly. The climax, for those like myself who don’t know much Trinidadian history, is unknown. Would the army slaughter all the boys? Would the boys slaughter all the government people? Would the PM, one of the hostages, die of insulin deprivation? Would Ashes, the gunman narrator, escape? And what about the relationship developing between Breeze, 15, rescued from the streets by the Leader, and Aspasia, environment minister and mother of a girl and boy? Breeze is capable of rape and worse. Roffey rides the ambiguities high and dangerously.

Her cleverest trick in moral distribution is to give Aspasia a first person voice, Ashes an exclusive third person pov, and the ending of the book to a third narrator. She thus evenly distributes the reader’s sympathies. The boys have been duped by the Leader and his spiritual patina, but are responsible for atrocities. The government personnel are brave and kind but are responsible for IMF deals and the island’s majority impoverishment. The Leader is vain and ambitious. At least one of the gunmen is a mad ex-con.

The Trinidad coup was propelled by a home grown version of Islam, something like the Nation of Islam which attempted to give poor Black lives at least spiritual value. Roffey creates a hybrid of Islam and Christianity to do the same job. Most of the time it’s convincing.

Without giving the conclusion away, for Roffey is a very good story teller, I have my doubts, however, about her reliance on spiritual redemption and her restricted exploration of the idea and fact of power. She’s an optimist, always possible if you don’t take the personal too near the political.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan 2013

132.Richard Flanagan-The Narrow Road To The Deep North cover

One of the literary novel’s jobs is to be the site of moral debate and if that debate often comes out sounding a bit like BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze, that’s because the novel as we know it started life in Europe – in Spain with Cervantes’ Don Quixote, 1605. Europe’s genocidal and enslaving invasion of most other continents in the world climaxed in the 17th and 18th centuries. And thus was born capitalism. The moral maze version of the novel, usually written by the beneficiaries of this history, tends to avoid dwelling on it, and on its modern consequences, confining itself to questions of personal good and bad, of individual choice, of conscience, especially guilty, and of humanism with a dash of Kant along with Christ’s other cheek. Larger questions of systems of power and inquiries into collective cause and effect tend to get left out.

Fortunately, plenty of modern novelists come from elsewhere than the North Atlantic world, or have roots and relatives elsewhere. They’re a nice example of Malcolm X’s colonial chickens coming home to roost. The modern publishing scene, at least in the UK, is this very minute under pressure to publish and publicise more books, especially novels, written by colonial chickens like Marlon James.

Australian Richard Flanagan, winner of the 2014 Booker Prize, chooses Don Quixote as his hero Dorrigo’s literary and moral hero. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a classical European novel in the (drastically simplified) sense above. Just now I asked myself whether to qualify Australian with white. I decided not to. My reasons were first that it sounded clumsy, and second that I’ve no idea if black Australians are fighting for Australian to mean black as well as white, in the same way that 22 years after the old version of apartheid ended, the term South African doesn’t mean white South African, as it used to. But for now, Flanagan is part of the North Atlantic world.

Don Quixote was absurd. He hallucinated a lot. He was a serious follower of contemporary romantic morality. It was about the only thing his wobbly lance punctured. Flanagan’s Dorrigo is no such absurd figure, although he believes his status as a great Australian war hero (WW2) is absurd. He survived one of the Japanese POW camps that provided slave labour to build, without machines, medicines or more than a ball of rice a day, the Siam-Burma railway. He’s a surgeon. In the camp he not only saved lives but also provided the leadership the Australians in the camp needed not to turn into animals, that is, to love and care for each other wherever possible. Dorrigo believes he pretended to be a hero. Unlike Don Quixote, though, he doesn’t do contemporary morality any harm.

After the war he’s cruel to his wife, doesn’t love his children, is deeply bored by his professionally stellar life, and spends as much time in other women’s beds as he can. He’s looking for his true love, whom, because of a lot of plot twists, he’s lost.

Nakamura the camp commander, on the other hand and post Hiroshima, believes himself to be if not exactly a hero then at least an honourable follower of the Emperor, and in the latter part of his life a good man. He loves his wife and children.  It’s only when he discovers the extent of Japanese atrocities in WW2 that he doubts his essential goodness.

The book is beautifully written, uses the back and forth of time as a kind of paint brush, dives into as many minds and hearts as there are major and only just minor characters – each one a major character when Flanagan dwells inside them. It describes in detail without becoming pornographic or maudlin the violence and suffering of the camp, and describes in detail without becoming sentimental the scorching love Dorrigo loses. To the last page, the plot grips. In other words, it’s a wholly wonderful classical novel.

But what’s most interesting is its moral compass, which doesn’t swing so much as nose around, take a sniff at this and that and career back, tail waving, to the north where the moral maze dwells.

Is it only if you have no sense of injustice done to you personally and to your people that you can enter the MM? Is there no (yet) great classical novel of British atrocities in Kenya, of apartheid horrors in South Africa, of the Bengal Rice Famine in pre-independence India, of native American slaughter in the Wild West, of ongoing white Australian genocide, not just because higher education is even thinner on the ground in the rest of the world than it increasingly is in the North Atlantic world? You have to be highly educated to write a novel. (Gabriel García Marquez didn’t write about the conquistadores. Those who people A Hundred Years of Solitude are in fact the Spanish settlers.)

Is it also because you can’t or won’t enter your opponent’s head if justice has yet to be done? Toni Morrison has written great novels of slavery in the United States. But she barely enters a slave owner’s heart and mind. She’s been criticised for confining her fictional world to black America. Chinua Echebe establishes Okonkwo’s weakness and strengths in Things Fall Apart long before Mr Brown the missionary is given a brief confined point view. Marlon James wrote a great novel of post colonial crimes against his not particularly pleasant people. It debates their responsibilities – gang bosses’, politicians’ – for poor Jamaicans’ deaths. James does enter a US diplomat/CIA agent’s head and the head of an Agency assassin. But, except for a white US journalist, the rest of his 12 narrators are Jamaicans. His moral compass really doesn’t stop pointing at, blaming, the US empire.

Both he and Toni Morrison tip the novel form in the direction that suits their purposes, which, it seems to me, is to give voice to, narrator-of-the-story voice to, respectively, enslaved Africans and their descendants in the US, and to post colonial Jamaicans. Unless you believe the voice of economic growth charts and GDP stats and the slavering PR of investment banks, the post-colonial arrangement of the world for sure hasn’t brought peace, justice and prosperity to most of its inhabitants, which, when Things Fall Apart was published in 1958, was still a possibility. If given true fitcional voice, the 1% and their forebears are likely to fit (as does James’ CIA agent) the villain slot with ease and which literary writer wants to create a scenario of moral simplicity?

Flanagan, however, not only enters Nakamura’s head but Nakamura and Dorrigo become each other’s foil. Classically, Flanagan does so from the vantage point of an often omniscient third person narrator. He enters the head of the camp guard, a brutalised Korean. Post Hiroshima, the guard is hanged. The American and Japanese authorities conspire to let Major Nakamura and his sword-wielding friends, the ones who made the decisions, off the noose. Nakamura lets himself off by reflecting that the Emperor made the decisions, a spiritual entity anyway. Flanagan’s compass swings that far. His isn’t the following joke which is in horrifically bad taste, but he implies it: the Japanese took a roasting, and the scales (of justice), on which a heart plucked without anaesthetic from an American POW’s chest was weighed, trembles.

Other points Flanagan’s compass swings to are: Australian feeling against any Brit-inclined authority; the sustaining leveling quality of looking out for your cobber; Australian dry wit that did wonders when your legs were rotting from under you; the men’s love of freedom; the other hero of the camp, Dorrigo’s other foil, having, it transpires, a black Australian mother; the world (its inhabitants therefore) just is and no more, and from it, as from beauty, morality is absent. Only time and death and the wash of forgetfulness exist.

No way out of the classical moral maze, therefore, because it doesn’t exist – or good and bad, having been weighed on the scales of literature, cancel each other out. Despite handing the book’s title to haiku master Basho, and suggesting that only a kind of Zen detachment is possible in the face of suffering and monstrosity, Flanagan hasn’t actually dispensed with classical western morality. Dorrigo’s final act of heroism, which doesn’t at all preclude his loveless nastiness, brings him to a one word paragraph whose content spoiled the book for me, or revealed it to me, and I’m not going to be a spoiler. I just wish Flanagan hadn’t used the image of the anus sticking grotesquely out of a starved man’s disappeared backside twice. A grisly reminder of today’s post welfare state brutality came on p 222: ‘The least sick prisoners led the way, followed by the men with the seven stretchers carrying those too sick to walk but decreed by the Japanese fit enough to work …’ No wonder our best modern writers abandoned the classical novel long ago. It’s done its work, I think. It’s no vehicle for the modern world.