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, nothing without a tree. 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, the fresh blast of pine, 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 site, that tree. What a site. No use, no; 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 in the passenger side or one lain across its backseats. Once, inside the 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, 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 once a woman, one had once— Stop now. He says this. Stop now. No past, no remembrance. A tree. He shouts this. 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 realises where he’s 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. Even after everything, Noel believes he can manipulate the world, can bend it to his will. He has said many times 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 vaults a rank of black cabs. 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 bastard. 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 was young, uniformed and ready with a clip 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 fa├žade 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; it can buy you good fortune. His strategy is to start at the top of the building at the back of the store and work his way to the front, floor by 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.

The first five rooms are full of clothes. The sixth has kitchen equipment. These are the wrong kind of stores. This is stock. Under his layers he begins to sweat, scentless now, at least to him. 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 cut crystal grazes his cheek. Positive. He says this. 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 breast, 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, so many times, 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 had 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.

Noel walks to the wards where the sickliest of the children had 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’. Noel sings out his lungs and in every line and verse he waits for that tremor, a tremor that will never come.

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

Friday, 29 November 2013

Books of the Year 2013

It’s been a year of reading in splurges and jags – unsurprising, probably, in a year otherwise occupied with the birth of my first child and writing a new collection of short stories. I’ve probably also read proportionally fewer new books this year than in any previous year: there has been some glorious raiding of the shelves, including The Leopard by Lampedusa, which is still kicking around in my head months after reading as well as collection of Joseph Roth’s journalism, On the End of the World.

All of this has made me feel somewhat removed from this year’s fiction, much of which has not stuck as fast as I would have hoped.  All That Is, by James Salter felt at the time like it should be the apex of the year, but weirdly now feels like a very good meal one has eaten: difficult to remember in detail, despite the few exquisite memories. The Collected Stories, however, do feel like the real thing. A resonant and shimmering collection, one that feels more lasting than this novel.
In terms of novels, the best were uncompromising and unusual, marked by a sense of playing a different game to others. Eimar MacBride’s debut A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing (Galley Beggar Press) has to be the book of the year, for its originality, its refusal to compromise and its wholesale re-invention of the tired coming-of-age novel. I have rarely felt as passionate about a debut as I do about this novel, rarely has a book hinted so darkly at a fresh, inventive future for fiction.
David Peace’s Red or Dead (Faber & Faber) was not the book I had expected. When I had first heard about Peace taking on the life of Liverpool manager and icon Bill Shankly, I expected a companion volume to The Damned Utd; all seething hurt and seventies paranoia. But the genius – and I do think this is a work worthy of the word – of Red or Dead was to ignore that. To present a life without thought for expectation but aligned to artistic necessity. This is a novel that feels closer to conceptual art than mainstream literary fiction, and is all the better for it. A much longer piece on it can be found here.
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Man in Love (Harvill Secker) was another book that sears itself into your consciousness, and frankly there’s no one else I’d rather read right now. A Death in the Family, the first book in the My Struggle sequence, was excellent, but this novel goes way beyond in complexity and fictional art (You can read my Observer review here). I found a similar excitement in Javier Marias’s The Infatuations (Hamish Hamilton), a spiralling and dizzying novel of lies and loves and death and life. It has led me back to his books, and I am already hooked on his intelligence and craft.
Mention must also be made of Zadie Smith's The Embassy of Cambodia - a short story that suggests the mixed but always interesting NW could prove to be her transitional work. This is peerless, near-faultless writing, perfectly in control of its material. For the space of sixty or so pages I was lost in Fatou's halfway existence, one foot in the past, the other in the future. I can't praise it highly enough. 
Three of the books that I loved this year also happened to be by friends. This should not put you off. Nikesh Shukla’s The Time Machine (Galley Beggar Press) is the best thing he has written, perfectly showcasing his ability to find humour in the dark and warmth in the chill. (it’s only a quid, and some of the money goes to charity, so do buy it). Lee Rourke’s new novel, Vulgar Things (4th Estate), is out next year and I was lucky enough to read an early draft. It is superb: challenging and unusual, strangely beautiful yet maddeningly unnerving. Even for Gavin James Bower, his book Claude Cahun: The Soldier with no Name  (Zero Books) is short, but his depiction of this obscure yet fascinating artist is vivid and arresting.
In non-fiction, Philip Davis’s Reading and the Reader (OUP) was wildly inspirational, and essential for anyone interested in the acts of reading and writing. I found myself going back to books I loved reading sentences in a new light, perhaps the way you would after reading a good biography of a band and listening to their records all over again. It also made me hate Wordsworth less, which a quiet triumph all of its own. Sebald’s essays, A Place in The Country (Hamish Hamilton), are a joy as you’d expect. Another friend, William Atkins, allowed me to read an early draft of his book The Moor: The Landscape That Makes Britain (Faber & Faber). It will be one of the most celebrated and well-reviewed books of 2014.