Friday 8 March 2019

Write Her Name - a new story for International Women's Day

In 1962, Beryl Swain became the first woman to compete in the Isle of Man TT motorcycle races. After finishing 22nd, her licence to race was revoked under new rules about minimum weight for riders.

Write Her Name

You expect to begin among Manx hills and driving rain; sea wind lifting the long hair fringing the collar of her leathers. You expect to hear idling motorcycle engines, muffled and hushed by the interior of her helmet, and to see her slender legs astride her 50cc Itom. You expect stray looks from other riders, from red-coated marshals, from the road-lined crowd. You expect her to focus on the man with the damp flag in his hand, checking the time on his pocket watch; to close her eyes, briefly, just for a second, and for her to mutter a sectarian prayer. 

You expect then to slip into interior thought. You expect to know it all: her drive and determination; her fear and pride; the compromises and convictions that have brought her here: a lone woman amongst men, goggled and helmeted, a gloved hand on the throttle. You expect access. You expect to know it all. You expect from there to go backward, to unravel time.

You expect to be present at the first meeting with her future husband: an older man, the owner of a motorcycle repair shop. You expect to glide through their swift courtship and marriage, his initial encouragement of her ‘hobby’, and, later, its slow curdling. You expect tension and argument, an ultimatum. You expect him to say it’s me or the bike, and for him to know as soon as he has spoken that he has lost. You expect him to say he is only thinking of her safety and for her to say, no, you’re only thinking of yourself. You expect him to refuse to attend the Isle of Man TT races, and as she waits for the flag, him to fiddle the wireless dial in search of commentary. You expect him to pray that she does not die; to secretly hope she wins.

You expect, then, to return to her, running through her tactics: to hit the corners hard; to punish the hills; to respect but not fear the descents. You expect her to smile at the rider to her left, a man called Archie with whom she has been flirting. You expect him to salute and mouth the words good luck, and for her to blow him a kiss and mouth the words, eat my dust. In the rain and in the wind, you expect the starter to raise the flag, then let it fall. You expect to feel the adrenaline, the lurch of the bike forward. You expect her to crouch, aerodynamic and purposeful; to weave left and right, already overtaking men and youths.

You expect, then, a further reaching past-wards. A story from her schooldays, illustrating her independence, her singularity. You expect a teacher to tell her there are things women cannot do, and for her to say: pray tell, name me anything a woman can’t do? You expect the schoolmistress who canes her to say her arrogance, hubris and lack of respect will one day see her at the end of a rope. You expect her, arse-lashed and holding back tears, to refuse to believe there is anything a woman can’t do. You expect her to stick with that belief. For it to be the formative event in her life. This you expect her to think as the gradient steepens.

You expect to find her in the leading pack as they complete the first circuit. You expect her to settle into her ride, to feel every lean into every bend, to follow the giddy sensation of descent, to stare through her goggles’ steam. You expect panic on a stretch of flat as she changes up and realises top gear will not mesh. As she is overtaken by the men and youths, you expect her to turn the grey air blue, to curse and shout conspiracy. You expect her to tell herself to forget it. To concentrate on finishing. You expect to cheer as she crosses the finishing line: twenty-second, but always first.
In the afterward glimmer, you expect rush and joy. Rush and joy quickly, too quickly, swallowed by rage. You expect her to hunt for likely saboteurs; to accuse anyone and everyone of tampering with the bike. You expect her to leave the scene, escorted by marshals, shouting that she will be back; she will be back and she’ll beat the lot of them.

You expect resignation and anger in the aftermath. You expect her vitriol as she sees the picture of her in the next edition of the motorcycle magazine she reads; not on her bike but beside it, not in leathers but in a dress and court shoes. You expect her disgust as she reads the article’s patronising words. You expect her to stifle tears as she reads the last paragraph. The news of a rule change. That for safety reasons a minimum weight for each rider has been introduced: a weight that no woman will be able to make. You expect her to walk out the door as her husband says it is for her own good. You expect him to say I am proud of you to a still-slamming door.

From that day on, you expect the race to plague her days and nights; for her sleep to be interrupted by dreams of Manx hills, twice traversed. You expect her to be taken there by any available stimulus: a motorcycle speeding past, any mention of the TT race, the showing of the film Girl on a Motorcycle on a late-night television channel. You expect her life pivot around her laps of the mountain course, her adult life cleaved by it.

You expect a battle with mental health, with depression and anxiety, with alcoholism. You expect a messy divorce. You expect her husband to shout home truths at her, and for her to tell him she does not care. You expect her to disappear into normal, ordinary life; changed though, unlike those around her. All of this you expect. No. You demand all of this.

You demand all of this and you expect her to be pleased. But she is not pleased. She is not pleased and will not give you any of what you want.
She will not meet your expectations. She will not give in to your demands. She has no interest in rehabilitation. She has no desire to be thought of as a heroine. She does not want your sympathy, empathy or understanding. You expect her to want this, but she does not.

If she were here, she’d tell you herself.

But she is not here. Has not been for years. You would not have known of her existence had it not been for a portrait, one of a series graffitied on boards cladding a new housing development, up the road from your house. Beside local-hero musicians, sportsmen, a politician and a celebrity chef, she is depicted in her leathers: helmet on, face set in determination, name and one line of achievement below it. It is the first time you see her name. The first time you read of her story. You look her up online. You read her single obituary from a national paper of record. A short elegy. The first woman to compete in the Isle of Man TT road race. No children. Divorced. Taken by Alzheimer’s. A career, post-race, working in supermarkets.  

You expect to be able to use these cues. You expect something from them. You know what that is. You expect to use her Alzheimer’s as a reversal at the end of the story. For the memory of the race and its aftermath to be one she is constantly reliving. A once-great woman, caught in a memory loop she cannot escape. You expect this will add a further layer of emotional engagement. You expect this will resonate. You expect this to perfectly end her story.

She is sorry to disappoint you.

You argue with her. You tell her that her story has everything. You tell her she is a character that will inspire. You tell her this is a story for the ages. You tell her such stories go untold all the time. You tell her women need stories such as hers. You tell her the trash-can world we live in now is ready for her story. You tell her all the elements are there. What a story! What a life! What an opportunity to bring her in from the cold!

She says there are enough stories like that. She says there are enough stories about against-the-odds battlers, about women’s buried achievements, about lives defined by one pivotal moment. She says she is not interested in heading back to the track. She says you should respect her decision. She says you should respect her memory and her achievements. She says, let me tell you a different story.
You plead and you beg. You ask about how she felt before the race. After it. How it felt for the gears to break. You ask her, please, to tell you her story. You beg again.

She will not be dissuaded. She says again, let me tell you a different story. This is the only story. This is the only story you can have.

You say nothing. You sit and you wait and you expect. And you listen.  

There was a motorcycle, she says, a 50cc; a black one, I couldn’t tell the model.

You take cautious hope in this; hope soon dismissed. It is not a bike her husband sold or repaired, but a motorbike with binbags obscuring the licence plate, ridden by a young man in an all-black helmet. She says that the year is 2002, and your interest declines further. Before the onset of dementia, just after her retirement. A dead space, rent of drama.

You listen as she describes walking down the high street on the way to the Women’s Institute, as she did every Tuesday and Thursday. You try to interrupt, but she talks for some time about her WI activities. It clearly kept her busy.

She says, I’d retired by then and it was the same route I walked to the supermarket when I was working.

You imagine her at the checkout, punching in the price of Heinz Tomato Soup and frozen haddock fillets, weighing bananas and taking change, the ache of her back at the end of shift.

Don’t think I was on the checkouts, she says, don’t you think that. I was a store manager. A good one. Respected around the east of London. A career that. Not pin money. Not keying in prices and weighing bananas. Checking sales figures. Suggesting changes to the store layout. Organising rosters and attending divisional meetings. I met the J himself once. The chairman, you know. He told me, were all his managers as good as me, we’d be the only supermarket in the country.

You try to interrupt. You want to know whether those at the supermarket knew her past. She ignores you and continues to talk supermarkets. It clearly kept her busy.

She says, I was the fourth, no fifth, female area manager. I oversaw all those innovations you now take for granted. Mine was the first store in the country to get a barcode scanner. I pushed and pushed for that. Others were sceptical. Not me. I always saw the future. I was always looking for the next thing. We were the first store to have Polish food on the aisles; the first store to actively recruit retirees. We were the first store to trial the premium range and the first to trial the economy brand.

You try to ask her if determination on the track influenced her work ethic at the supermarket, but she wants to talk about fair pay for dairy farmers, the profit margins on organic fruit and vegetables, the vexed problem of a minimum price for alcohol. You feel she could bruise the night with talk of retail conditions and footfall. You listen, but you are still trying for an angle to bring her back to the race. 

You no longer expect to succeed.

She says, they made me retire. I would have gone on another five years, same as the men, but they made me such an offer I couldn’t say no. A big party we had. The biggest retirement party I’ve ever seen. Champagne and canapes from the premium range. Faces from the past gathered, and a long speech I delivered without notes.

You ask her if she mentioned the motorcycle race in her speech. She ignores you.

She says, supermarkets were my world. They are the world. Not just to me, but to everyone who comes in to a supermarket. You can see the whole world in a supermarket, and fill your basket too. Who wouldn’t want to do that every day? Who wouldn’t want to feel at the centre of the world?

A pause here. And again a chink of hope. You know this is the perfect moment. When else would she say she was at the centre of the world? On the bike, surely. Surely, that the true moment: the world condensed to woman and bike and road and wind.

The pause continues. It is unclear to you whether she is considering this. Unclear as to whether she is weighing the more distant past against more anecdotes about groceries.

Eventually she speaks. She says, so I was on the way to the WI. I had money to deposit at the bank. I didn’t often do that. Usually Hettie did that. She made the best Victoria Sponge you’ve ever eaten, Hettie. Always a kind word, always laughing and making you feel like life was just one quick step to a Broadway show tune. Oh, Hettie, she says. I miss her. Anyone who ever met Hettie missed her when she was gone.

You try to hurry up the story. She does not listen.

I was walking to the WI, she says, same as I do each morning. And I saw the motorcycle. A 50cc, couldn’t make out the model. It was leaning against a wall and a young man was standing by it. I’ve got good eyesight, always have. I watched him as he flicked down his visor. Watched him as he turned the throttle and weaved out into the road. He could have been killed, I suppose. I thought that as I saw him coming towards me: you’re lucky to be alive, son; your days are numbered on that thing.
I was thinking that, she says, and then I noticed the bike was heading for me. Wrong side of the road and heading for me. I didn’t know what to do. I just froze, I expect. The bike came towards me and quick as you like, he grabbed the handbag from my shoulder. Fluid motion it was. Snatched the handbag and pushed me to the ground. I heard the bike speed away and the sound of his top gear as I tried to get back up.

You want to say I am sorry, but you do not say anything. You wait for her to say something more. You wait for a good, long time.

She says, pretty soon after a woman came to help me up. She got me to my feet. Men from the café came out and stood in a pack smoking, but they did nothing. I dusted myself down. I coughed and the woman gave me a sip from her bottle of water, offered to call the police. They came quickly, the police. They took me to the station. Gave me tea. The policeman opened his notebook. He asked if he could take my statement.

I said I couldn’t remember anything. They said they’d been a lot of it about of late. That they were doing everything they could. Everything they could? The lying hounds. I was furious. All that WI money. It was quite a lot, you know. I knew I’d never see it again.

She pauses. If she could, she would lean in closer.

As we were leaving, the policeman stopped me by the interview-room door. He looked down at his notebook. He shook his head. He said, excuse me, Mrs Williams, but your address is awfully familiar. 
Wasn’t that where the motorcycle shop was on Forest Road?

I nodded. I nodded and he told me all about the bike he bought there. How he’d had to give it up when he had kids. He asked me to remind him to my husband. I nodded again. And then I told him I’d be sure to do that.

A pause. You wait.

This is my story, she says. This is the one you can have.

You say nothing.

Are you disappointed? she says. Is it not what you expected? Is it not the story you wanted?

You say nothing.

Well, she says, it’s the only story I have. The only story you can have. You can take it or leave it. Either way, you leave me alone. I will not talk to you again.

You read her story again. Her only story. All the stories she could tell, but this the only story. The only one she will give you. You read it back one more time, looking for meaning, parsing her sentences for import and for resonance. You are disappointed.

You want to bring her back to the Manx hills. You want her young and lithe, ready to kick against the pricks. But you have nothing. You have a story about a woman’s purse being snatched. A story any number of women could have told. You had a story. What a story. You could have done something with that. You could have made something special from that. You expected you’d write something that would resonate. And now all you have is silence.

You have one line. The opening line. The soft lift of the wind splayed her hair, distracting the riders. You think of that line in her silence. You think of the disapproval in that quiet. You think of what she has told you and what she would not tell you. You think about what that means.

You write the line anyway. A day or a week or a month later. You write that line and you write several more. It is silent as you write. You wonder if she will break her promise and speak to you again. Tell you to stop. She does not. She is silent and you write more in that silence. You take it for complicity.
You write a page, a further page. You consult books and newspapers, technical manuals, maps of the route, old Pathé newsreels. You write line after line. You fill further pages. You try to talk to people who knew her, but they will not speak to you. Most are dead anyway. You save your documents and back them up to a flash drive. You decide to visit the Isle of Man.

In the wind and squall, in the rain and temper, you hire a 50cc and an all-black helmet and retrace her tyre-tracks. You stay at the same inn she did. You edit your pages sitting with a pint of beer in the window seat of an unfriendly pub. And she says nothing. Not a word. You write her name and hope to hear her, but you only hear the chatter at the bar, the low tin of the radio. You write the last line there. 

You write the end of your story and she doesn’t say a word.

You have finished. You are elated. You go to the bar and order another drink and ask the locals if they’ve heard of her. If they have any stories, any recollections. Every one of them does. The barman, the woman drinking gin, the man necking Guinness, the pot-washer and the man with the dog. They tell you stories you have already heard, stories you have already written. And each one of them has your voice.

They all talk in your voice. It is your accent, your cadence, your word-order and syntax that you hear. Your words, even. You listen and hope to hear her voice just one more time, over your voice, correcting the untruths, setting straight the record. You listen but all you hear is your own voice, telling these old, old stories that do not belong to you.

You expect that to be a triumph. You expect that to be the moment of victory. You sit and you listen and you expect to hear her, but only ever hear yourself. You leave the bar. Every one you pass is telling stories of her. Every one of them has your voice. Every one of them uses your words. In the wind you walk and hear your voice and know you will only ever hear yourself.

You had expected better.  

Wednesday 27 July 2016

Booker Longlist predictions

I think everyone's said that this year is a bit of a mystery; I'm not able to disagree with that. I think there are some that are givens - Garth Greenwald and Sarah Perry - but even them, with the 'wrong' judges could fall short.

I have done very badly over the last few years - I think par would be to get 5 - any more than that is a bonus. I still think the book to beat is Edna O'Brien.

What Belongs to You - Garth Greenwall
I Am Here – Jonathan Safran Foer
Beatlebone – Kevin Barry
I am Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout
The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry
The Lesser Bohemians - Eimear McBride
Augusttown - Kei Miller
The Sport of Kings – CE Morgan
The Association of Small Bombs - Karan Mahajan
Infinite Ground – Martin McInnes
The North Water – Ian McGuire
The Tidal Zone – Sarah Moss
Little Red Chairs – Edna O’Brien

Tuesday 16 February 2016

Another 100 word short story


I called mother and accused her of being a liar.

'You said you took Gracie to a farm for a better life. But you put her down, didn’t you?’

Mother insisted I had it wrong. She drove me to a farm just outside Newhaven. There was Gracie. She looked deliriously happy.

‘You really expect me to believe she’s alive after all these years?’ I said.

‘Believe what you like,’ she said. ‘Now, come on, let’s have lunch.’

She turned away, and I waved goodbye to Gracie, hoping it really was her, nosing at the cloven hooves of ewes and sheep.

Sunday 13 December 2015

The Last Noel: a Christmas Story

[I asked Twitter and Facebook for a subject or idea for a Christmas story. I received a wide variety of sensible, weird and filthy ideas; but the combination of television and radio superstar Noel Edmonds and a post-Apocalyptic London was irresistible. Merry Christmas. God help us, everyone.]


He walks the streets to find a tree; it’s no use, no, the day is nothing without a tree. And it must be the right kind of tree. The word on his mind is fulsome. The word on his mind is plump. The word on his mind is proportioned. A spruce or grand fir, potted with damp earth, decked with paperchains and popcorn, a fresh blast of pine from the sharp of its needles. Once he had stood atop a kind of crow’s nest, over the square, looking down on the crowds and started the countdown. At its end, he hit a red button to light up the Norwegian Spruce, the coos and ahs reaching him in waves of childlike delight. What a sight, that tree. What a sight. No use, no; the day is nothing without a tree.

He crosses the river, the trench where once it flowed, and looks in every car he passes, though he knows them well and not one has a tree lain across its backseats. Once, inside a Jaguar, he found a cigar and lit it just for the smell, the memory of leather-backed chairs and cognac; of men talking, gently drunk and half-eyed at the end of dinner. He would like to find a cigar today, but there isn’t even a cigarette or a book of matches in the fourteen abandoned vehicles. He knows this, but he looks anyway.

Mother used to bring him, the first week of December, into the city on the train. They would disembark and walk the teeming streets: the hats and umbrellas, the smell of chestnuts and damp cloth. She held his hand tightly and took him to department stores and boutiques, allowed him to carry the bags, the cardboard ones with tissue paper inside his favourite, the strong smell of sprayed perfume lingering on his skin as, at the end of the day, they rode the rails out east, the two of them strap-hanging, the bags clenched between his legs.

He walks up the Charing Cross Road, its slight incline and remembers strip joints and peepshows, cars which took him from one bar to another, then out to Surrey. He has long since found the last surviving sex shops and looted all the magazines that interest him. By Any Amount of Books, he remembers a woman he once knew, a woman who had once— Stop now. He says this out loud. Stop now. No past, no remembrance. A tree. He shouts. A tree, that’s all. I have come for a tree and I will not leave without a tree. I will not be denied.

Inside one of the bookstores, somewhere, there could be a tree. But these shops are a last resort; their trees, if they have any at all, will be puny little things, small and dusty and without the trimmings. Threaded tinsel, at best. To his left, Chinatown. No trees to be seen there. Lanterns, perhaps. One day he might need lanterns. Once there was a lantern bobbing from a string, inside a restaurant; a wife, his wife, telling of an affair. How these things come to one, just from the saying of a word.

Tree, tree, come out, come out, wherever you are!

He jumps over the bonnet of a black cab. A tic now. A superstition. If he sees one on his side of the road, he feels he must vault it. It slows his progress, but at least he does not think of lanterns or strip joints. Charing Cross Road meets Oxford Street and Noel now realizes where he is heading. He has decided on the place that surely will have a tree. Even after everything that has happened, perhaps because of it, Noel believes he has agency. Noel believes he can manipulate the world, can bend it to his will. He has said many times that there is no such thing as death. And in this, at least in his case, he has proved himself correct. He is therefore certain that John Lewis will have, somewhere in its rooms and halls, a tree. There is no need to look elsewhere, duck into what was once HMV, or Tower Records. Energy in the body, unlike the mind, is limited. One must focus instead. Energy burns but lightly when focused.

He takes some jerky from his pocket and chews as he walks. He passes a McDonald’s outside of which he was once mobbed. That’s what they said in the papers, but it was only five people, and at least one of them had called him a bearded twat. He cannot recall the year it happened. A million lifetimes before at least.

He has seen this street more often from a helicopter than at pavement-level. To his knowledge he has never taken a bus along the road. He can not recall the last time he rode a bus. He jumps aboard an open-doored 73. There were clippies when he was young, uniformed and ready with a smack round the ear for cheek. The buses smelled of metal and ash, grime in the upholstered seats. This 73 smells of plastic and rot, the floor sticky with what once was drink. He gets off the bus. He vaults a lone taxi and slows his pace until he stops outside the grand façade of John Lewis. Its doors are open, wedged. It welcomes him. You have come for the trees, Noel, it says. The trees are here and waiting for you.

To be positive, one needs strategy. Noel has strategy. On his gameshow, he talked a lot about strategy, about how it can buy you good fortune. His strategy is to start at the back of the top floor and work hise way to the front, then move down a floor if need be. The stores are at the top of the building, he believes, and so this is the perfect strategy to deliver a tree. Not just any tree: the perfect tree. Not some wire coated in silver streamers, but a tree that looks like a tree. Branches and roots: something convincing.

He perspires after the hectic leap up the emergency stairs. The first five rooms are full of clothes. The sixth has kitchen equipment. These are the wrong kind of stores. This is stock. He pulls out some more jerky from a pocket and chews as he upends boxes too small to contain a tree of any sort. He kicks a few things, they skid across the linoleum. In one room he throws eighteen red-wine glasses against a wall, only stopping when a shard of crystal grazes his cheek. Positive. He says this out loud. Be positive.

Five hours and Noel is on the ground floor. He heads to the back of the store and pushes open double doors. There are mannequins, faceless, but with breasts, faceless but with bulges at the crotch. With one he dances, just a quick minuet, then pushes one of them to the floor. He kicks it so hard its head comes away. He watches the head roll towards a cluster of child models and stop like a football at the shin of a child wearing winter clothes. And behind the boy, there is the tree. He can see it, just behind some metal cages, just a tip of a branch, just enough to announce itself. 

Noel pushes everything aside. The tree is the same height as him, and has a fur of fake snow on some of its needles. The frame is dark and wood covered; perfectly believable. It stands, eventually, after some wrangling, fulsome and plump and proportioned. He touches the tree and it even feels real. Beside it is a box. There are paperchains and tinsel, fairy lights, and an assortment of gingerbread men, angels and penguins. The box goes under one arm, the tree under the other. He is hot but will not take off his layers. He pauses by the exit of the shop. He takes in a long breath and lets it longly pass.

I’ve got the tree, he shouts. I have the tree. Look. I have the tree!

Back on Oxford Street he does not vault the taxis and does not turn back down Charing Cross Road. He has a tree and at the junction of New Oxford Street and Holborn, he knows what must do with it.

He walks the streets. He does not know them as well as he thought. Cars and crew always bringing him; one year the helicopter. He circles his destination for some time, but then remembers a street corner and knows he has arrived.

The hospital is a kids’ hospital. For years, he spent every Christmas Day there. With the kids. With the crew. Delivering presents for the dying, the almost dead, the getting better. The emotion always got to him. Every year the break in his voice, the slight nudging away of a tear as the credits rolled. They cancelled the show via fax, one July afternoon. In a rage he called the Director General of the BBC and demanded to know the reason. They don’t believe your tears, the Director General had said. Noel, they think you’re faking it.

Noel walks to the wards where the sickliest of children slept: their drawings still taped to the walls, their coloured blocks and dollies on the floor. The kids never thought he was faking. Never them.

He looks out of the window, out over the city. He dresses the tree the same way he always has, with as much on each bough as possible. He does not have the Santa suit, but he can remember how it felt, the scratch of the beard on his beard. He stands in front of the tree and he remembers the moment when he surprised the children. The way their eyes extended, stalked out, then came back in, punctuated by squeals. The way the strength returned for a moment as they ripped away the paper to reveal a present. Something expensive, something to make the world feel a righter place. It made him feel alive. He watched them and felt a tremor that connected him to every person on earth. And they said he was faking it.

He puts the angel on the top of the tree. It is a magnificent tree, the finest he has ever seen. He turns to ask the little boys and girls if they would like to join him in a carol. As always, they all scream yes. He hears their cracked, off-key voices join his in ‘Hark! The Herald Angel Sing’ and the chorus of voices shakes the boughs of the tree. Noel cries as he sings, cries and thinks of all the boys and girls. All of teh boys and girls getting better, being well, and not being here next Christmas. 

Thursday 4 September 2014

Man Booker 2014 - Shortlist Predictions

After an astonishingly poor showing for my longlist predictions - just one out of 13 - it's probably not a good reason to pay any heed to my shortlist choices. But a tradition is a tradition, so here we go with my thoughts for the six that will go toe-to-toe later in the year.

  1. The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Richard Flanagan (Chatto & Windus)
  2. The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt (Sceptre)
  3. The Lives of Others, Neel Mukherjee (Chatto & Windus)
  4. How to be Both,  Ali Smith (Hamish Hamilton)
  5. The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth (Unbound)
  6. J,  Howard Jacobson (Jonathan Cape)
It's interesting that if I were right - which seems unlikely, but still - then only one of the shortlist would be American. From what I've read of the longlist, my favourites have been The Lives of Others, The Wake and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour.

Anyway, there you go. Let's see if I haven't jinxed all of the above...

Friday 15 August 2014

Murakami - normality versus the ordinary

This is the original text of the lecture I gave on the eve of publication of Haruki Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage at the Big Green Bookshop, London.

Murakami – normality versus the ordinary

In the autumn of 1997 I was a bookseller in Birmingham. The sales rep for Harvill came into the store and told me that he had a book I would love. He said don’t bother about the cover; it really is something. I took it home. I had no money and when the electricity meter went off I had to light candles as I was already on emergency. I picked up the book and started reading, still somewhat put off by the horrible yellow jacket. I was still reading some six hours later, six hours in which I thought I had finally found my writer. 

I hadn't dared re-read the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle until a week or so ago. Re-reading is a dangerous thing to do to books you have fallen for so deeply and not had chance to return to. Declan Kieberd wrote in his introduction to Ulysses that you do not read Joyce’s book, Ulysses reads you. And to me that’s a fair assessment of any book: timing, mood, manner of discovery, the place where it was read have a profound effect on the experience. Reading the Wind-Up Bird would be to go back to that bedsitting room, strange cooking smell coming from the man below me, the burr of the heater that didn't work even had there been electricity. It felt a suitably Murakami thing to do. At least it wouldn't mean sitting at the bottom of a well.

The temptation was, of course, to read the new book first - Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. I had an advance copy ready to read, the thrill of that never ceases, and I could easily have just elected to read that and spoil  the whole reading experience for you by giving you my cock-eyed opinions. But I went back, primarily to work out what it is that we’re all doing here. What it is that makes this writer different to any other literary writer in the world? Why are we here, on a Monday night waiting for a new book to be allowed to be sold?  What is it that we read in Murakami that we don’t get anywhere else?

What surprised me perhaps the most was the freshness of those opening pages of the Wind-Up Bird. Fresh despite having a clear memory of reading it, fresh despite so many of the tropes we have come to associate with Murakami being present inside the first six or so pages. Here’s the opening page.

[I read the opening page, I can’t type it out, sorry]

To me this, up until the section break on page 6 is the ur-Murakami text. Almost all of his tics are here: cats, food, music, sex, the surreal and the normal clashing while the narrator shrugs his shoulders and tells us he’s just a normal, regular guy. It felt fresh despite this, fresh also in comparison to his other subsequent big books – Kafka on the Shore and 1Q84. These are words and sentences worth analysing, picking apart. The music is important, because Murakami is a musical writer, not just in the sense of his appropriation of everyone from Nat King Cole to Duran Duran, Janacek to The Lovin’ Spoonful, but in the way he builds his stories. As Jay Rubin says in his excellent book Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, “Murakami knows how stories are told – and heard” which is getting closer, I think to the crux of the matter. Murakami knows where the white spaces are, the silences, the beats you miss because you’re concentrating on the complete sound of his world.

Let me explain what I mean. In that opening section of the Wind-Up Bird, we have Toru explaining his routine and how it has been interrupted by someone wanting to get to know him, later who will talk dirty to him down the phone. What we hear, as described by Toru is an ordinary person to whom something extraordinary is happening. 

Incidentally as a quick aside, this is why so much of modern British literary fiction is so anaemic. British literary fiction has a tendency to invert what all great American and world fiction understands, that being a normal person thrust into an extraordinary situation is what gives a story its great narrative drive. A lot of British fiction does the opposite: it puts extraordinary people in ordinary situations. There are too many geniuses, writers and grotesques in British fiction. One of the reasons Harry Potter was so popular was because he was just an ordinary boy, who was suddenly caught up in something incredible. Read Martin Amis, later Ian McEwan people like that – their characters do not understand what it is to be normal; they exist in a privileged, extraordinary manner.

And even though that’s an aside, it comes back to my initial point about what Murakami does that is so appealing: the ordinary. He present ordinary brilliantly, and the extraordinary brilliantly too, but it is the ordinary which has me in awe. And it comes back again to the music, and what we really hear.
Let’s take again that opening of Wind-Up Bird. This is a guy making lunch listening to the radio when a woman starts talking to him as they are close confederates, then she hangs up, he makes the pasta, goes back to his library book, then the phone rings and it’s his wife suggesting he works for a poetry magazine, who then reminds him to go and look for their missing cat.

On the face of it, this is entirely the notion I described earlier, an ordinary man for whom the extraordinary happens. Except, Murakami is playing a kind of jazz brush drum beat in the background that if you don’t listen closely enough to, you’re likely to miss.

Yes, this seems fairly normal: man listens to radio while cooking food. But the normality that Toru is so insistent he represents is not actually so normal at all. Firstly he is cooking pasta at 10.30am, which isn’t the kind of thing regular people do. Secondly, he is out of work, we later learn, simply because he quit his job, with nothing to go to, with no plan in mind and no interest in what happens next. Then a woman calls him for some phone sex and he just sounds…mildly irritated. Phone Sex he says, Fantastic.

What we therefore see as a ‘normal’ life is far from that, he is, like most of his characters, not normal, not regular, not even close to a Joe Schmo slob. The voice is intoxicating, didactic even, telling you what to listen to, while leaving everything else in the background. It’s this I think that gets to heart of Murakami’s great gift: making everything seem normal, when actually, there is nothing normal to cling to.

One thing that grabbed me on the second read of Wind-Up, which I had forgotten from the first time around, if I even noticed it, is the clear evasions of Toru’s wife. She is coming home later and later, seems now, all of a sudden happy with her husband sitting at home all day, is a different woman than she was just a few months before. Toru registers this, but does not investigate it. A normal reaction would be suspicion, but he just lets everything slide. The normal world, such as it is, is no less dangerous than the one that can be found at the bottom of a well.

It’s a popular idea that Murakami writes two different kinds of novels, the big, surreal opus like Hardboiled Wonderland, Wind Up Bird and 1Q84 and the smaller, more winsome tales such as Sputnik Sweetheart and Norwegian Wood. However, I’d argue that all actually come from the same space and from the same yearning: to see the world in a more magical, yet more real way than it often is presented in fiction. Even at his most faux-realistic, the nature of Murakami’s prose means that it inhabits a fictional realm means it feels other, strange, but distinctly our own. He is playing with our own notions of what we want from life – love, sex, food, adventure – while also subtly showing that it is here in our own lives if we look hard enough.

This section of the Wind-Up Bird originally appeared as a short story, the opening to his collection The Elephant Vanishes. This is a book I have read many times, perhaps because it includes the other great pillar of Murakami’s work, a very short story called "On seeing the 100% Perfect Girl one Beautiful April Morning". It is, to me, one of the very great short stories: simple, but heartbreaking, stylistically and formally inventive, but with a story as old as humanity. If The Wind-Up Bird is Murakami’s masterpiece, this story distills his gifts of love, sex and fate into just a few pages.

[Here I read the story, you can too, here]

The crucial line in the story, for me is the two cliche's tucked in to the end of the second paragraph: "The moment I see her, there's a rumbling in my chest and my mouth is as dry as a desert." These are faux-naif words, but one that immediately grounds us in the ordinariness of the narrator. He is one of us, one of those people who gets tongue tied and can't really explain the world around him in any great or significant way. The simplicity sets up an expectation of realism and normality. We are in the realms of a pop song - where hearts beat like a drum and love is everlasting and permanent.

However, this set-up is reversed in paragraph four. "Much as I like noses," he writes "I can't recall the shape of hers - or even if she had one." It could be a joke, the style is conversational and wouldn't feel out of place in that kind of comic deadpan way. Yet it actually puts a tremor through the still and normal world Murakami has created. How normal is this set up anyway? How can one be so sure that someone is the 100% perfect person for you? The normality is false here; there is something strange right from the get-go; Murakami just doesn't allow you to fully see it. 

It's this, I think, that draws us to his work, draws us deeply in. His work tells us that really, we don’t need a Malta Kano, a wild sheep or a talking cat to see the strangeness abound; we just need to look around us to take in the fantastical oddity of the world we inhabit.

Monday 21 July 2014

Booker Longlist predictions

If any year is going to prove a tough one to call, the first Booker Prize with added Americans is it. As I compiled this list, I kept wondering why it was that for the first time, I was struggling to see a large dividing line between the US and all other countries. Of the ones that went instantly on my list, only one was American. After spending all that time fretting we wouldn't be able to keep up, were non-American's just limbering up. I don't know. One thing this year proves is the only way to really judge is to read all 160 titles submitted.

That said, these are my predictions. These are based on what I think will make it and those which I loved too much not to exclude. In 2011 I got 8 out 13 correct; since then I've got no more than two. Here's hoping for a better return this year.

A God in Every Stone – Kamila Shamsee
All the Days and Nights – Niven Govinden
Dept. of Speculation – Jenny Offill
I am China –Xiaolu Guo
Munich Airport – Greg Baxter
Eyrie – Tim Winton
The Emperor Waltz – Philip Hensher
The Free – Willy Vlautin
The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt
The Lives of Others – Neel Mukherjee
The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters
The Zone of Interest – Martin Amis
Upstairs at the Party - Linda Grant