I loved the film. I died for the costumes. I was delighted with the actors, the cinematography, the sound, the script. Janelle Monae killed it playing an engineer in NASA’s obligatory high heels, though she did not convince me as a mother or wife. Taraji P Henson was stupendous as Katherine Goble, then Johnson, and nearly convinced me as a mathematician. Octavia Spencer just glowed, especially when she stole so righteously from the library. I also liked the book that sparked the film, now posting on Vulpes Libris. You might too.
This is the prequel, or preceding companion to Maxwell’s fantasy creative writing course Drinks With Dead Poets, in which Maxwell writes urgent, obstreperous essays about how to read, write and think about poetry. On Poetry feels like a book written for practitioners at all levels. It’s certainly a hugely useful teaching book, full of admonitions and exasperated noises, as well as passionate explanations of the how and the why of meter and rhyme. I was reading it while teaching poetry boot-camp to my first-year students and came across a passage vehemently refuting the things I’d been teaching the day before. It’s from the chapter called ‘Chime’.
As we saw – or heard – with meter, it’s clear that the shorter the meter the more evident or present is the form. With rhyme what matters is the distance between rhymes, so that couplets – two lines together that rhyme – have no interest in concealing their effect, whereas a more complex stanza might separate rhyming words by six, seven, eight lines, in which case the impact of the rhyme is subconscious, kin to musical motif. As Joseph Brodsky writes: ‘In poetic thought, the role of the subconscious is played by euphony.’
Some poets say about their work or someone else’s that they use a lot of ‘internal rhymes’ – rhymes that are not at the ends of their lines – when what they mean is that some of the words sound quite like each other. I don’t think, by the way, one can ‘use enjambment’ either – that is, a line flowing without punctuation to the next line. For one thing, as I said before, the line-break is punctuation, it’s just white instead of black, and for the other, some effects ought to be subconscious in a poet, and I think enjambment and internal rhymes are things you say you’re doing but can’t help doing. The same goes for anything you call ‘assonance’. I imagine I get through a shed-load of assonance.
I gave that to my students to read in their next class. I have no idea if they liked it or not, but a bit of contradiction will be good to stimulate their minds for the exam.
On Poetry is not an instruction manual. It’s a set of opinions and heartfelt beliefs about how poetry works and why. It’s also a loosely-formed story about four creative writing students of whom I would be terrified in my own class, so attitudinal and know-it-all are they. There isn’t much theory, and hardly any of the scary big words that give prosody a bad name. (Stephen Fry and The Ode Less Travelled, I’m looking at you, you great lunk of show-off wordery.) Maxwell is not prescriptive. He blunders about in an expert’s scruffy working clothes and shows us that he knows his stuff. Good for enough for anyone.
Glyn Maxwell, On Poetry (Oberon Books, 2012)
From time to time I binge on Discworld. This week, on holiday, I’ve been rereading some of the Terry Pratchett novels that tackle bigotry and racism. They are deeply satisfying combings from the beard of his invention. They don’t offer a unified theory of how people could be nice to each other, but they are superb as reflections of the human condition.
Feet of Clay (1996)
This one has a very high joke count, including the immortal ‘We can rebuild him, we have the pottery’, which only readers of 50ish will ever appreciate fully. * Feet of Clay is The One About The Golems, in which Lord Vetinari is incapacitated by a mysterious poison, Nobby Nobbs is raised to the peerage, Cheery Littlebottom is encouraged to express her feminine nature with illicit lipstick, jewellery and high heels, though she refuses to shave her beard off, and dwarf bread makes its terrifying entrance as a fighting weapon.
Cheery transitions from a standard if slightly nervous male dwarf demeanour to a more feminine self-presentation with the help of a well-established non-human, Delphine Angua von Uberwald, the only werewolf on the Watch. It’s not just because they’re both minority females in a professional milieu full of males, but they are both struggling with how to reconcile their natural feelings. Cheery wants to be able to wear a skirt and not be shouted at by male dwarfs who think openly-displayed femininity is disgusting (we’ll find a much more precise sandblasting of this mindset in The Fifth Elephant). Angua would like to not have to hear (muttered) jokes about what and who she eats. Pratchett’s deft slicing apart of the layers of social prejudice is done with the sharpest of filleting blades. Class, sex, lineage, race, species, deadness, aliveness: all participate in a complex plot jostling with remarks about how it’s normal to hate different people because They and Everybody says so.
The golems show this most concisely, since a golem is a not a person, and is not legally alive. Yet how can a machine be accused of murder? Once the religious confraternity have begun fighting among themselves on this question, one golem learns to speak, develops self-awareness, and develops the financial acumen to work out how to free the other golems by earning enough to buy them. This is a rather nice result from a pyramid chain, since Carrot started it by buying Dorfl for one dollar: one good turn produces an autonomous new species. We are only left with the problem of who organised the poisoning.
* The Six Billion Dollar Man? Steve Rogers? Blonde man with permanent sun-squint runs very very fast in slo-mo? YOU remember ….
The Fifth Elephant (2000)
The One In Which Vimes Goes to Uberwald. I love this novel because it has the Igors, the traditional servants of the vampires who are accomplished surgeons and recyclers of body parts. Vimes goes to Uberwald to represent the city-state of Ankh-Morpork, and to solve the crime of the stolen Scone of Stone, without which the Low King of the dwarfs cannot be crowned.
The Lady Margoletta (is that an echo from Arthur Ransome’s Coot Club …. surely not) is a vampire on the wagon, a modern vampire lifestyle about which we will read a great deal more in The Truth. She goes to mutual support groups and drinks a nasty red drink that probably tastes like cough mixture, but otherwise has a keen interest in sporting events involving werewolves chasing Vimes through the snow. Angua’s father, the Baron, is clearly almost completely wolf, while her mad brother Wolfgang is a Nazi with fangs. Pratchett puts black and silver fascist insignia on Wolfgang’s racial purity nonsense to ram that point home: fascism is beastly and savage, and does not belong in civilised society. Wolves, and other dogs, are completely civilised and natural within their own ecological niche. Werewolves are simply terrorists of nature.
The dwarfs have an internal problem, traditionalists versus reformers, and their hardcore deepdowners refuse to look at sunlight or even go above ground. These traditionalists call Cheery Littlebottom some very foul names because she wears a skirt, but under pressure even they are forced to use the feminine pronoun. This is a dark novel, due to the fundamentally uncompromising nature of fanaticism, but accommodations can be made as you step around the bodies.
The deep vein of sardony (from which Pratchett mines his sardonic) can be seen in the plot twists around the stolen, faked and mysterious Scone of Stone. It is a fundamentally silly thing, a super-toughened lump of dwarf dough, carrying the echo of our own dear Stone of Scone, upon which the monarchs of Britain are crowned. Tradition bestows truth and meaning on the most ridiculous and ordinary objects, like a stone and like bread, and people die if these are disrupted or changed. Pratchett’s genius lies in moving his narrative from comedy to tragedy in the flip of an adjective.
The One With ‘Where’s My Cow?’ When you need dramatic tension, you add a baby, psychotic fundo dwarves with flamethrowers, race riots and the steadiest werewolf on the Watch attacked by class consciousness and sexual jealousy. This one has everything. The anniversary of the Battle of Koom Valley is approaching, a historic conflict between dwarves and trolls, but no-one knows who won. Dwarves are being murdered underground, and there’s finally – finally! – a vampire on the Watch, and she can hear heartbeats in the next room. The phenomenally attractive but very innocent pole-dancer Tawnee is taught the facts of life, and her choices, by three friendly non-human female Watch officers in a night of dubiously named cocktails. Trolls do drugs, dwarves do religion, and everybody has to show a little bit of adaptation and compromise if we’re going to make progress. Vetinari even uses italics for emphasis, something I don’t think we’ve seen before.
The central idea of the plot – that the historic antipathy between trolls and dwarves is being exploited by somebody or something – is beautifully expressed in the central metaphor of the game of Thud, a board game with two halves. You play your opponent either as a dwarf or a troll, and then you play it again from the other side’s perspective. This seriously brilliant concept leads to young dwarves and trolls playing peace games in a cellar, learning about each other’s culture and mindset. The older generation haven’t done this, and they’re the ones who cause trouble, and keep Vimes from getting any sleep for what seems like a week.
As Pratchett matured his art, his themes became more universal and more perfectly expressed to model human behaviour. I really do think Thud is one of his finest novels, up there with I Shall Wear Midnight (community responsibility and male aggression), and possibly also Lords and Ladies (power and violence do not a ruler make). The debate is open.
I’ve posted reviews of other Pratchett novels here and elsewhere, which you can get at through this link to The Shepherd’s Crown.
I haven’t seen Arrival, but I wanted to read the book because the story as told to me by someone who had seen the film interested me greatly. I spotted the book in the bookshop because of the Amy-Adams-in-a-spacesuit cover, and was surprised to see that a whole film had been based on a short story. I’d heard of Ted Chiang, but only vaguely. I’ve finished all the stories in that collection now. Oh my.
Ted Chiang appears to be a polymath. ‘Towers of Babylon’ (a Nebula Award winner) is about Bronze Age architecture that can build a tower to Heaven. ‘Understand’ is about accumulating intelligence and quantitative cognition. ‘Division by Zero’ is about maths, really intimidatingly high-level maths. ‘Story of your life’ (the story the film was made from, and the winner of three awards including a Nebula) is about linguistic theory. ‘Seventy-two letters’ (a Sidewise Award winner) is about two (not one but TWO, darn it) invented pseudo-sciences in an alternative Victorian England. ‘The evolution of human science’ is a three-page short short about how humans can continue to work on science when metahuman science has long since outstripped human understanding. ‘Hell is the absence of God’ relies a little bit on OT theology but is otherwise fairly ground-level sf. It won four awards, including a Nebula and a Hugo: it’s the story I liked least. Hmm. ‘Liking what you see: A documentary’ hauls us right back to the hard stuff by theorising about gnosias that prevent our brains’ perceptions of beauty, and other human things.
Stories of Your Life and Others (the original title of the collection known as Arrival) will expand your mind relentlessly. The knowledge is only part of it: you don’t have to be a computer scientist to be pulled along by the scientific dilemma in ‘Understand’ because it is utterly human. All the stories are about being human, and dealing with the extraordinary. ‘Story of your life’ is the highlight for me; a perfect, beautiful story, beautiful in how the structure reflects the evolution of the story and what we learn from it as we read (the as-we-read bit is important, because this story is about the accumulative process). ‘Tower of Babylon’ was strange and deeply satisfying, and ‘The evolution of human science’ is a pocket firework.
I have some grumbles. ‘Tower of Babylon’ ignores the economic perspective: if a society is building a tower to reach to heaven, so high that the work continues not for weeks or years but generations, who pays for it? And why is that society, which will presumably be weakened by this constant and unproductive drain on its economy, left unmolested and uninvaded by its neighbours over the years that the building continues? ‘Understand’ ends with a titanic battle between two men: WHY? Why does every opposition have to end in conflict?
However, I was most irritated by the immensely long ‘Seventy-two letters’, which is really a novella, rather than a short story. It is set in Victorian England, and we quickly learn that it is an alt universe Victorian England, in which Robert Stratton learns to reprogram his toy golems to see how rewriting their names will affect their behaviour and refine their design. So far, so very steampunk. He becomes a nomenclator, designing new names to create new functions, and his radical new thinking on automaton design enrages the sculptors who make them by its threats to their livelihoods. Meet the Luddites at the Industrial Revolution. Stratton is asked to join a secret science project which is accelerating the development of homunculi from spermatozoa. This is the second pseudo-science of the story, a form of IVF that combines with the faux-genome mapping of the nomenclators to create a superb milieu of steampunk science without the explosions.
The invented sciences are marvellous and slightly chilling, treading closely on the boundaries of dystopia. But I am annoyed that no-one told Chiang that he can’t write British English dialogue. Both the third-person narrative voice and the ‘English’ characters make blooper after blooper, despite Chiang’s exceptionally good reconstruction of Victorian England. The story might have worked better if he had set it in New York, because then the Americanisms would have been appropriate. But to create an English society so faithfully, and not even posit that it was somehow American-English, and then drop clangers in phrasing, social usage and syntax, is just not good enough. No-one in England, now or 150 years ago, ever talks of a ‘steer’ when they mean a cow. Maybe the narrative voice is supposed to be American (but why?), which would explain why ‘Lionel had Robert wait outside’: no English voice would say that, not now or in the nineteenth century. No school-teacher scientist would address a peer without adding ‘my lord’ at the end of his request. No Victorian peer would drink ‘whiskey’, and he certainly wouldn’t pour it himself.
There are many more maddening small errors, and I’m not including the American spellings. It’s annoying to see detectable mistakes in otherwise brilliant work. If you’re going to recreate England AS England, why not do the job properly, or get someone to check it? But apart from that, I love these stories (most of them) and have joined the legions of Chiang admirers.
The continuing adventures of Sofia Khan have been much anticipated. I adored Malik’s first novel, Sofia Khan is Not Obliged, and its sequel begins very satisfyingly with the immortal words of ‘Reader, I married him’. This is of course the burning question at the end of Sofia Khan when she’s flying off to Karachi with Conall, whom she has only just realised has become a Muslim (the beard, the not drinking, the Muslim friends: none of that clicked before). Would they actually get married, or just save the world chastely together? Conall – her inscrutable, kind Irish neighbour – is all Sofia has ever truly desired, and one month into their new married life in Karachi she realises that she hardly knows him.
Malik clears that point out of the way briskly so we can carry on with their story, which is not so much the story of a marriage as learning what you’ve got once you are married. It is very pleasing to read a novel that tackles marriage as something that needs work, and that needs total honesty. Unfortunately one of this happy couple has not been wholly honest, and has to rethink some priorities in life, dragging the other partner in the marriage along to a bravely bleak ending.
Pause for a realism break. The conventions of fiction mean that a page and a half of dialogue has to stand in for the days of necessary intermittent, accumulating communication that make a marriage work. Sofia certainly talks to Conall, and he does listen. Occasionally he talks to her. But in this novel, almost every plot point and character arc depends on non-communication, the failing to divulge, and characters’ reluctance to pass on crucial information. The Other Side of Happiness depends on these non-communications for the story, and Sofia, to wind their way into your affections.
Everyone is distracted, or unnaturally reticent, or withholding information, although they know they ought to hand it over but haven’t the nerve, or don’t think it’s important, or think that it’s so flaming obvious that anyone who needs to know, will. I have rarely read a novel during which I wanted to scream TALK TO HER! so often, to so many characters, Sofia included. Again and again a massive load-bearing plot twist depends on X not having told Y the facts about Z. It gets to you after a bit. All the female characters spend their lives on social media, texting, talking in bedrooms or living-rooms, yet Things Don’t Get Told. The men are the really taciturn ones, except Conall’s brother Sean (I absolutely relate to Sean), who spends the novel asking helplessly why X hasn’t told Y the truth about Z, thus revealing Z to the grateful reader.
Meanwhile, in Sofia’s personal trajectory, she has a book launch and a wedding, and an unexpected trip to Ireland where she sings the hymns during Mass and does not comprehend Irish dialect. She becomes a publisher’s reader. She tries to work out how to write her next book, on Muslim marriage, when everything she thought she knew about it is getting tragically complicated and too bloody real. She rises, though. Our Sofe rises up, she keeps afloat, her beloved friends bob along with her, and even her mother does extraordinary things. Conall is Sofia’s problem: a more annoying, aggravating, monosyllabic, lovable lunk I have yet to read.
The Other Half of Happiness is not the fascinating, delirious page-turner that Sofia Khan was, keeping me trapped reading it on a sofa for hours. It’s deeper, it’s more serious and a lot braver, in terms of writing about marriage. It is a tear-jerker, though I also laughed out loud. The one-liners may be fewer, but they still devastate.
Ayisha Malik, The Other Half of Happiness (Bonnier Zaffre, 6 April 2017), ISBN 978 17857 607 30, £7.99
In a review posted this week on Bustle, E Ce Miller gave us a list of the 50 great / important works by women we should all read. Imagine my feelings of smug self-validation when I found that I’d already read about a third of them, and that I was in the middle of reading (actually, galloping through) another: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.
I knew about Alison Bechdel from her culture-changing idea of the Bechdel Test, that thing you ask of films, books and other cultural productions. If two or more women are having a conversation, if it about something / someone other than men? If the film or book can answer ‘yes!’, then it has something to say to more than one segment of the population and has a fair chance of not being gender biased. She was also awarded one of the 2014 MacArthur ‘Genius’ Awards, to allow her to keep writing and creating. Fun Home is far more than a graphic novel, because it’s a memoir, not fiction at all. (It was also made into a smash hit musical.) It’s painful, beautiful, poetic and symmetrically chilling. It’s about Alison Bechdel’s childhood in Pennsylvania in the 1960s and 1970s, during which time she grows to realise that her father is more than an obsessive house renovator and the grim community mortician (Fun as in Funeral). He oppresses his family, but he also loves them, and he loves boys too, though is too closeted to come out. Thus the circle of escape, obsession, dictatorialness and unexpected admissions of pleasure continues. The story moves back and forth in time like a weaving shuttle, so the reader experiences layer after layer of story, with each new layer gaining texture and resonance from its foundation.
The sad and ordinary fact of Bruce Bechdel’s death, hit by a truck as he crossed the road, is examined again and again for clues and for answers. He took the children camping, he took them to stay with friends in New York (where he could go cruising at night on Christopher St), he had them cleaning and doing chores every day, he taught them to swim. Helen Bechdel, a former actress who gave up her dreams to be the mother of a family, endures her husband’s erratic ways and endless, casual affairs with angry endurance. She retreats into acting and a thesis, while he is in a world of his own, sourcing chandeliers and Victorian glassware, and foolishly buying beers for underage boys. The children separate as well (the renovated house certainly has enough space), so isolation and private experiences become normal.
When Alison goes to college she works out the name and the meaning of her own sexuality, which adds another layer to her relations with her father. She had loved men’s shirtings and suits as much as he did, and she fetishised the lines of a man’s body, wanting that shape for herself, as much as he wanted their bodies. The artwork tells more than half of this complex, shifting story, with frames repeated to silently show that yes, there was more going in here, in this particular exchange or event, than the younger Alison had noticed. Although the seven episodes of the book move back and forth in time in a patchwork of recollections and linked stories, the language of the narration begins simply, increasing in complexity as more understanding emerges. When moments of comprehension surface in the small or adult Alison’s mind, the effect is stunning: word and image working together simply and beautifully to hit the reader for six.
You can read this as a memoir of family life with an unusual proximity to death and its processes (I’ve barely mentioned the family funeral home business: that’s an entirely separate story). You can read it as a sad story of closeted homosexuality (Bruce), or as a satisfying and wryly self-deprecating memoir of an out lesbian at ease with herself and her life. You can read this as a book about the importance of reading the right book at the right time to realise the truth about sexuality, in all its manifestations. You can certainly read this book as a pointed rebuke at the pretentiousness of college English literature tutorials, and the dangers of obsessing over one particular text (Bruce was also a high school English teacher). We don’t read a lot about Alison’s brothers as adults, and perhaps that was by their wish. At the end of the book, her first acknowledgement is to her mother and brothers for ‘not trying to stop me writing this book’. Her portrait of her mother is understanding but also unsparing: Helen was an expert mother and an understanding woman but not warm or friendly. Those children lacked hugs. That family lacked warmth. It was not a fun home, by any means.
Alison Bechdel, Fun Home. A Family Tragicomic (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006), ISBN 978-0-224-08051-4, £12.99
Warning: part-way through this novel about the author teaching poetry and drinking with Keats and Walt Whitman, I realised that it’s a sequel, of sorts. I’ve now got a copy of it, Maxwell’s On Poetry, but I haven’t read it yet. So I might have missed something in this review. Bear with me.
Glyn Maxwell, real-life poet, playwright and novelist, wakes up in a dream where he’s a poetry tutor on Thursdays, in a small village that has more pubs than shops. It also has an Academy, whose staff are none too pleased that Maxwell has been scheduled to run his extra-mural, ungraded classes for their students, who ought to be studying more important things with the real staff. Drink and rebellion against administrative regimes seem to be important for this poet’s mission. Maxwell is confused about why he’s there with no explanations, but he gets on with the classes anyway.
He gulps, but takes it in his stride, that he’s got guest poets arriving each week to do readings and meet the students: John Keats, Emily Dickinson, John Clare, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman, Charlotte Bronte, both the Brownings and Yeats. Edward Lear is also in attendance, shyly sitting with the students rather than performing his own work. We encounter a clutch of almost indistinguishable British First World War poets in their cricket pavilion watching the fireworks, but I think I spotted Ivor Gurney, Isaac Rosenberg and Wilfred Owen.
It’s a lovely conceit that succeeds because as a practitioner Maxwell is steeped in poetry, and I personally would like to be taught by him. His classes are anarchic but also intensely informative: by making the students write poems he shows how it’s done, how poetry works. His students have strong characters, so their evolving community makes a novel out of their classes and encounters with the poets, as we learn more about them (and pick up on stories that seem to be left dangling from On Poetry). Maxwell has more scope with the students as fictional characters because he’s invented them. He can’t invent the poets, because he has restricted himself to only showing them as they are historically known to be, in their clothes, what they say, what they are known to have thought. He patches their dialogue so cleverly into the narrative that the dead poets live, magnificently: they are, variously, formidable, charming, friendly, shy, magnificent, dangerous, irresponsible, self-effacing and always elusive.
Maxwell himself works as a character because he is only confused when he’s not teaching or talking about poetry. In the episodes when he’s trying to find out where this extraordinary village is, how to leave, wondering what his real life is up to out here beyond the fog of this bubble of time, he is just a bit tiresome. When he’s fighting the Academy staff and its philistine autocracy (and, most unexpectedly, having a fling with one of them) he’s pig-headed, brave but irritating. When he’s moderating the uncontrollable poets, he’s desperate, juggling their wellbeing as ghosts with feelings, with the needs of his students and their emerging private lives that need a lot of taking care of.
What emerges is a passion for poetry, and a longing to have known how the great poets did it, how they thought about it. I loved this book. There’s a hint that he might be teaching plays next. I’m reading On Poetry now.
Glyn Maxwell, Drinks With Dead Poets. The Autumn Term (Oberon Books 2016), ISBN 9781783197415, £12.99