Remainder, Tom McCarthy

A couple of years back, Zadie Smith (who, for the record, is still way too hot for her profession – for maximum credibility you need to be either a hunched, macchiavellian ghoul like Martin Amis or an elephantine oaf like A.S Byatt) published a long essay called ‘Two paths for the novel’, which pretty much did what it said on the tin. Said potential paths were represented by two novels: Netherland by Joseph O’Neill and Remainder by Tom McCarthy. It’s an old argument with a twist, really, which comes down to how novelists these days deal with the aftermath of modernism – during which Joyce took the novel to one ‘what the fuck are you on about mate?’ extreme, and Beckett beat the shit out of it in a Parisian toilet whilst taking it to another.

One of Zadie’s two paths  – the lyrical realist highway – involves knowing that you’re peddling a bit of a shoddy and washed-up old bag of tricks, but doing it anyway (with the occasional wink or furtive flash of your still-crossed fingers to the reader) because, let’s face it, noone can really be arsed to read – or indeed write – Finnegan’s Wake or The Unnameable. This is the quickest and most convenient route to commercial success, and it’s the one taken by Joseph O’Neill, whose Netherland was magisterially accomplished in pretty much every respect, but ultimately so formally conventional as to be quite forgettable (Zadie’s argument less felicitously paraphrased, but I’m pretty much with her on this one).

The other way is the ‘scenic route’ – which involves being fancy, self-aware and META rather than just telling a story in nice pretty sentences. This is the less commerically viable route, as evidenced by the fact that Tom McCarthy’s Remainder – designated ambassador of the latter approach – took seven years to find a mainstream publisher. I’d already read Netherland (basically The Great Gatsby with more cricket) when I read the Zadie Smith essay but I’d never heard of Tom McCarthy. And I’ll be honest, I thought it sounded more my scene: a guy wakes up from a mysterious accident (involving ‘bits of technology’ falling from the sky) and has to have cognitive therapy to rewire him back into reality; he wins loads of money in compensation and blows it all on staging increasingly elaborate reconstructions of trivial events (later graduating to a gang execution and a fully-fledged bank robbery involving shootings and hijacked planes); he then re-reconstructs it by telling you about it (but he might actually just be making it up), and it turns into a bit of a Borgesian labyrinth of reconstructions to the power of reconstructions.

(It’s not as much of a twat-fest as I just made it sound, but I understand your concerns).

Those who have had the not-entirely-unmoderated pleasure of seeing it will at this point say ‘Isn’t that pretty much exactly the same as Synecdoche New York?’ (where a writer blows his Macarthur Fellowship money on elaborately re-staging scenes from his life in an apartment block). This had occurred to me, and two minutes on google revealed that Remainder was written before Synecdoche New York, but it wasn’t really very well known until recently, and Charlie Kaufman said in an interview he’d never heard of it (cough).

Not that originality is really what Remainder aims for – it’s packed full of literary samples, like an insanely highbrow mash-up: from the opening sentence’s tip of the cap to Gravity’s Rainbow to the waft of fried liver carried over from Ulysses to the private eye who seems to have drifted in via Molloy to do some of the interpretative leg-work for us, to the reconstructed apartment block out of Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. Tom McCarthy – who has been all up in the literary press since his new novel C was made this year’s token highbrow effort on the Booker longlist – has been quoted as saying that he thinks of writing as being a bit like DJing, and Remainder was certainly designed with the needs of the point-scoring literary train-spotter firmly in mind.

Unlike Synecdoche New York – which seemed to me to turn into a big theory-obsessed, kitchen sink-shaped mess about half way through – Remainder manages to keep all of the knowing post-grad jiggery pokery pleasingly under control. It’s so controlled, in fact, that it took until about half-way through for me to stop feeling underwhelmed. As sparely styled as Coetzee at his most stingey, this is a novel that makes no concession to conventional lyricism (and is all the more refreshing for it) – but this means that it is, as they say at boarding school, a grow-er not a show-er. In fact, the opening hundred or so pages – complete with scenes down the boozer, rubbish dates, house parties in Brixton, the occasional heavy-handed shout-out to pop culture (someone whistles ‘History Repeating’ by The Futureheads) – reads a bit like Martin Amis without the flashy prose.

As Tom McCarthy puts it in an essay on Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy (an incredible novel, incidentally), “literary realism is itself a contruct as laden with artifice as any other”, and in the often plodding opening section – in which McCarthy has yet to show his full hand – we are left with something initially resembling a half-hearted rendition of the sort of literary realism that McCarthy is writing against, without any of the stylistic luxuries we would normally associate with the genre. However, in the second part of the novel – where reconstructions spiral into reconstructions and the novel turns into a hall of mirrors – the original perseverance yields some serious dividends.

Whether I would place Remainder in the company of the literary heavy-weights it implicitly seeks to a align itself with is another matter – but the fact remains that accomplished, inventive and genuinely ambitious British novelists with mainstream recognition are few and far between. Whereas so many middlebrow lyrical realist novels seem to be merely going through the motions – like Wolf Hall, which though clearly very accomplished and painstakingly detailed left me catatonically underwhelmed – Remainder is a novel that isn’t afraid to look in the mirror and drop the convenient realist fallacy for long enough to explore some other potential ways of playing the fiction game. And with critics cueing up to sound the novel’s death knell, that seems to me to be a very good thing indeed.

I have, accordingly, purchased C in its imposing hard-back edition, complete with jacket copy modestly suggesting that it is “reminiscent of Bolano, Pynchon and Beckett”. It may or may not live up to the hype, but at least it won’t be reminiscent of every other carbon-copy, production-line middlebrow novel on the Booker longlist this year.


Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann

Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann

Let’s face it, if the first two words you read when you pick up a book are Frank and McCourt you tend to be in trouble – even if it’s just an ungrammatically gushing soundbite. “A blockbuster, groundbreaking, heartbreaking, symphony of a novel”, he declaims across the front cover of Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, taking a handful of unrelated words and ingeniously stringing them together using commas. He helpfully goes on to elaborate on the back cover, returning to the more familiar realm of cliché: “No novelist writing of New York has climbed higher, dived deeper”.

Not that I can put my finger on exactly why, but Frank’s majestically cadenced affirmations of this novel’s ‘lyrical’ and ‘poetic’ excellence led me to expect it to be a bit shite. After all, on face value it ticks quite a few of the boxes. Annoying title? Check. Written by ex-Westlife member? Check. String of platitudinously enthusiastic quotes from B-list novelists and critics all over the (outsized and annoyingly illustrated) cover? Check. Large jacket photo of author wearing jauntily-tied scarf over a suit jacket (known in the fashion world as ‘the Banville look’)? Check. Oprah’s book of the month? Sure.

I was therefore relieved on beginning to read it to find that, instead of being another pseudo-lyrical, parochial lament warbled from the banks of the Liffey – the genre-piece of Enright, Barrie, and McCourt fame – Let The Great World Spin comes over all Don DeLillo. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the set-piece description that begins the book is at times textbook Bad DeLillo, particularly the inauspicious opening sentences: “Those who saw him hushed. On Church Street. Liberty. Cortlandt. West Street. Fulton. Vesey. It was a silence that heard itself, awful and beautiful”.

This is reminiscent of the effortlessly comic Bad DeLillo parodied by The Onion:

From across America, they come to Minneapolis, to Denver, in herds, teaming hordes filled with sounds, smells. In great tidal flows of seething humanity they ease around the I-beam sculptures and move into the sports arenas. They are loaded down with noisemakers and paper and special hats.

The crowds are a slowly spreading ripple and moan. They heave and surge with some unexplainable animal intelligence. They have to walk slowly to accommodate their awe. Snatches of unattributed dialogue—absurdist, yet paradoxically naturalistic—come out of the mass of pressing bodies

However, it’s also at times a bit like Good DeLillo doing what Good DeLillo does best – describing a big, complex mass of phenomena and people by using the narrative eye like a camera lens, zooming in and out and piling images on top of one another to make us feel disoriented and buffeted from all angles. Like in the big set-piece descriptions he tends to slap down at the beginning of novels: the after-carnage of the twin towers falling in Falling Man, the baseball match in Underworld, the ceremony at the start of Mao II.

As is the case in DeLillo’s Falling Man, the description that opens Let The Great World Spin – of a real event, Phillipe Petit’s mindbowing tight-rope walk between the Twin Towers in 1974 (if you haven’t seen Man On Wire you really should) – serves to introduce the defining image that pins the book together (‘defining image’ in this sense is a reciprocal phrase – the image defines the narrative, just as the narrative is at some level an exercise in defining the image).

In DeLillo’s Falling Man, we begin with a virtuoso description of the 9/11 fan/shit collision, only to work our way  – via recollections, switches of perspective and a non-linear (slash non-existent) plot – back round to the symmetrical ‘ending’: the moment when the plane smashes into the tower (again). That moment itself is an evolving image, and the narrative is constructed as a means of rotating and re-examining it. Its meaning is fluid, and evolves over the course of the narrative – when we come back to it at the end, it has been altered, or re-contextualised.

Likewise in Let The Great World Spin, the defining image (Phillipe Petit bestriding the twin towers) is given a general articulation at the beginning of the book – from an overall, encompassing perspective – using snapshot and montage techniques to recreate the visual objectivity of film (it’s a bit Man With a Movie Camera). We are then over the course of the narrative shown a series of other, initially unrelated perspectives that are all in some way touched by the initial image – though for each it has a meaning, texture, significance and connotation that is radically different.

So the novel – through fragmented narrative perspectives and a plot that weaves itself around the streets beneath Petit’s hovering silhouette – holds the initial image of a man on a wire between the twin towers up to us, and turns it around, peruses it from different angles, placing it in the periphery of a range of narrative frames that are gradually revealed to be linked together by this central image. An eccentric and conflicted Irish monk and the prostitutes he devotes his life to trying to help – in particular a mother and daughter who work the streets together; a couple of elegantly debauched artists; a Park Avenue housewife, destroyed by the death of her son in Vietnam (a spectre throughout the novel, this being 1974) and quietly cracking up beneath the icy hauteur; her bit-of-a-self-satisfied-dickhead-but-ultimately-you-sense-not-such-a-bad-egg husband, who is the judge at the trials of the prostitutes and, immediately afterwards, of Philip Petit.

Let The Great World Spin never approaches the unreadable troughs of parts of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (another novel made up of a succession of different narratives), though as in that book it has to be said that some of its voices are a lot more convincing than others. Most of the cringe-factor, hammed up Bad DeLillo moments come during the generally unconvincing sections that describe – with mythological gravitas – Petite’s preparations for his stunt. The groping for profundity is just too in-your-face to overlook, and threatens to spoil the more subtle, cumulative effect of the overall design, which is basically a clever and sophisticated one.

As Cloud Atlas proves (sometimes the hard way), this sort of multi-voiced ventriloquism is a tricky act to pull off, and there are some cringe moments when McCann spends 40-odd pages writing in the voice of a New York prostitute – though overall this section actually works surprisingly well. The Diet Modernism stream of consciousness from the perspective of a monied housewife also falls rather flat. But overall the Fails are outweighed by the successes, even if those Fails do seem to come more frequently the more ostentatiously stylised the narrative voice becomes (whether this is an overdone, lyrical literary voice or unevenly pulled-off New Yoik slang).

Even if there are a few seams here and there, McCann’s multi-narrative design is a refreshing departure from the dominant mode of mainstream literary fiction. In many novels – bildungsromans or even Irish misery memoirs – the reference point or centre of gravity is a character or perspective whose evolution we observe as it is influenced by external events. The Real (if you capitalise it people think you’ve read Lacan) is often the predicate, with the perspective of a character or narrator the ultimate subject. With other narrative forms around that can operate in panorama more easily, subjectivity is what literature traditionally brings to the table, a claim to fame that it clings to – it can get inside a character’s head in ways that film can’t.

In Let The Great World Spin, this subject-predicate relationship is flipped round – the characters’ individual perspectives become the predicate that impacts on the subject, which is the image of Petite walking on a wire between the twin towers. Rather than exploring the significance of a chain of events as manifested in their impact on an imagined consciousness, McCann uses a series of imagined consciousnesses to explore the social impact of a strange, profound and artistic image.  On a fundamental level it’s a novel that explores the problems of defining – or even describing – a social experience. (Operating in this panoramic mode recalls a Modernist text that tries to reconcile literary narrative with the sheer scale and indefinibility of New York: John dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer).

Overall this is a novel that is refreshingly ambitious in its scope. Walking a risky narrative tightrope, there are undoubtedly a few wobbles along the way. But unlike Cloud Atlas – which falls off the wire and plunges to its sidewalk-besmattering death at around page 250 – Let The Great World Spin just about makes it to the other side.

Women in Love, D.H Lawrence

Like so much of that which Lawrence furiously ejaculated onto a page in the name of Art during his career, Women in Love is, to use the contemporary parlance, a complete and utter twat-fest. Lawrence doesn’t really do likeable characters, and that’s fine (some of my least favourite characters in literature are generically ‘likeable’: Amelia Sedley from Vanity Fair, Esther Summerson or John Jarndyce from Bleak House, Little Dorrit – in fact pretty much every Dickens good guy). But the extent to which Lawrence’s characters manage to provoke crippling misanthropy without ever really doing or saying anything that bad, is truly remarkable.

An ongoing discussion with a friend over which character deserves the title of all-time ‘biggest literary twat’ has thrown up some interesting contenders: Gilbert Osmand in The Portrait of a Lady; Stephen Daedalus; God in Paradise Lost; Martin Amis in Money; Paul Auster in The New York Trilogy. But within this debate, Lawrence is so far ahead of the game as to deserve his own sub-category.

Among the rich field of competitors for the Holy Grail of Biggest Lawrentian Twat, there are a few stand-out performers: Paul Morel, the pretentious, arrogant arsehole who miraculously turns up half-way through Sons and Lovers to render an already deeply tedious novel genuinely unreadable; Mrs Morel, the pretentious, arrogant arsehole who idles around polluting the world with her pointless negativity, patronising her poor bastard of a husband who spends 12 hours every day down a coal-mine, and fawning over her pretentious, arrogant sons; Lady Chatterley, the pretentious, arrogant arsehole who seems to think a bit of social missceganation is a whole lot more remarkable and transcendent than anyone else does; the interchangeable assortment of Brangwen morons.

But even within this constellation of prize tossers, Women in Love raises the debate to a new plateau. Following the lives, shags, homo-erotic naked Greco-Roman wrestling matches and moronic conflicts of two pretentious, arrogant, libidinous, insecure and disaffected Males (Gerald Crich and Rupert Birkin) and two pretentious, arrogant, stupid and ridiculously high-maintenance Females (Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen), the novel weaves its rich tapestry of cuntishness.

Rupert Birkin is an extravagantly obnoxious portrait of the artist whose semi-intelligible rants vie with his pseud’s-corner interior monologues (or Stream of Cuntishness) to tap into the reader’s most exquisite reserve of vitriol. Our first foray into Birkin’s Stream of Cuntishness sets a standard that is escalated to provoke ever more exhilarating spasms of rage as the novel progresses:

“Birkin looked down into her eyes, which were blue, and watching heavily. He could not understand them. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ he said to himself, almost flippantly.

Then he remembered, with a slight shock, that that was Cain’s cry. And Gerald was Cain, if anybody. Not that he was Cain, either, although he had slain his brother. There was such a thing as pure accident, and the consequences did not attach to one, even though one had killed one’s brother in such wise. Gerald as a boy had accidentally killed his brother. What then? Why seek to draw a brand and a curse across the life that had caused the accident? A man can live by accident, and die by accident. Or can he not? Is every man’s life subject to pure accident, is it only the race, the genus, the species, that has a universal reference? Or is it not true, is there no such thing as pure accident? Has everything that happens a universal significance? Has it?”


Plot-wise, highlights include: Hermione whacking Birkin over the head with a paper-weight and him wandering around the hills naked; Ursula and Gudrun staging their own waifish, frolicsome equivalent of a Kate Bush video surrounded by puissant young bullocks (a scene subtly interwoven with sexual symbolism); Gerald and Birkin letting off some steam by having a naked wrestling match before collapsing, exhausted, in each other’s sweat-slick embrace (the most homo-erotic scene in literature since Coriolanus put the ‘anus’ back into Shakespearean tragedy); and the climactic farce where Gerald’s murderous, cock-blocked rage turns the novel into an episode of Eastenders.

Now, this tirade is not necessarily to suggest that one should not read Lawrence. I mean, what could be more joyously entertaining than peeling apart the clotted pages to uncover such calorific, pullulating, jismatic splurges as this?:

“Their life and inter-relations were such; feeling the pulse and body of the soil, that opened their furrow for the grain, and became smooth and supple after their ploughing, and clung to their feet with a weight that pulled like desire, lying hard and unresponsive when the crops were to be shorn away. The young corn waved and was silken, and the lustre slid along the limbs of the men who saw it. They took the udders of the cows, the cows yielded milk and pulse against the hands of the men, the pulse of the blood of the teats of the cows beat into the pulse of the hands of the men. They mounted their horses, and held life between the grip of their knees, they harnessed their horses at the wagon, and, with hand on the bridle-rings, drew the heaving of the horses after their will.” (The Rainbow)

Did you notice how when he talks about the pulsing of the cows he uses monosyllables so that it sounds a bit like pulsing? Genius.

After all, Martin Amis was so overcome by admiration for this passage that he couldn’t resist the temptation to pay tribute to it in London Fields:

“The days passed. Though making himself no stranger to pub or club Keith drank nothing and worked hard because of the life that was in him. He sensed the pulse and body of the street-trade and heard the cars lowing in the furrows. Like new corn the young Swedes and Danes formed lines at his stall, and were reaped. He walked dog and burped baby and drew the keening of wife after his will.”

No, certainly read Lawrence – for comedy value he is unsurpassed. But for the love of God, don’t take him as seriously as he took himself.

Herman Hesse, The Glass Bead Game

There are certain books that you begin in the full certainty that, barring some hugely improbable contradiction of everything you have been led to believe by blurbs, friends, general knowledge, critics, and years of previous reading, you are probably in for something special. A few recent examples of books whose awesomeness I took in advance to be a given (and which didn’t let me down in this expectation): Roberto Bolano’s 2666, W.G Sebald’s Austerlitz, Milan Kundera’s Immortality. I won’t lie – The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse was not one of these books.

I’ve always viewed the unfortunately-named Hesse as an acceptable gap – one of those major authors, like, say, Gertrude Stein or Norman Mailer, whom you can get away with leaving pretty well alone. Allegorical and/or historically removed explorations of man’s journey into The Self in search of spiritual enlightenment, strongly influenced by Eastern mysticism and Jungian psychoanalysis, and written by a hermetic German in self-imposed exile in Switzerland? Nah, I’ll probably be alright cheers mate.

The Glass Bead Game is, to use the accepted parlance, Hesse’s ‘magnum opus’ (ie his longest book). He wrote it between 1931 and 1943, when it was published in Switzerland (it was banned in Germany by the Nazis – but then, you don’t really want your ‘magnum opus’ to not be banned by the Nazis, do you?). Like Camus’ The Plague, it allegorizes some of the moral and existential dilemmas thrown up by totalitarianism and war and God being dead and stuff, and explores them as general, universal philosophical issues by removing them from their immediate historical context (though this context is always a thinly veiled presence in the background).

The narrative takes place at an unspecified point in the future (alarm bells), in a society of whose circumstances, values and character we get few clues, but which Hesse said he conceived of as being around the 25th century AD. (I’m sure this was a crucial part of the conception of the novel – I mean, imagine how different it would’ve had to be were it set in the 24th century or, like, the 26th century).

So, most of the story is told from the perspective of a historian, recounting the life of the significant 23rd century personage Joseph Knecht (the protagonist). This section lasts a good 350-odd pages, and is followed by the ‘Legend’ of Knecht’s life (starting from the end of the bit covered in the history) as apparently narrated by his contemporaries. Then at the end, having been given an account of Knecht’s life up to and including his abrupt death, as in Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago we read a series of documents (poems and short stories written by Knecht) which cast a hitherto unseen perspective (his) on that story, and cause us, to an extent, to reassess what we have read.

So on one hand, it’s told as a bildungsroman with the slightly annoying charade of the imaginary historian (documents ‘edited by Herman Hesse’) – but on the other there is some reasonably elaborate multiple narrative framing going on in the second part of the novel.

The story is set in Castalia, a remote province designated by society as the ultimate intellectual ‘Ivory Tower’ – isolated from worldly concerns, and populated by monkish thinkers whose only purpose is to ponder intellectual, aesthetic and theoretical problems at their most pure, Platonic level: logical, abstract, non-applied, non-referential, unsullied by any consideration of their contextual relevance or application to the vulgar mutability and imperfection of the actual world.

The inhabitants of Castalia have devised the ultimate way of distancing the intellectual from the worldly and thus addressing ideas at their most abstract level – the ‘glass bead game’. This is an interesting concept that is never really explained in any detail, perhaps because its importance within the book is mostly symbolic – as a generally representative logical conclusion of Ivory Tower hermeticism, rather than something whose specifics have any real bearing on the narrative.

Vaguely what happens is, the game is played on some sort of huge abacus-like contraption, on which players make patterns using coloured glass beads. Based on music, one player starts with a theme (a shape or pattern) and other players respond with patterns of their own, all the time making the interconnections between themes and ideas more complicated and oblique – and also beautiful, because in a sense the glass bead game is a symbol of the aesthetic beauty of pure, non-referential, abstract thought at its most complex and rarefied. The patterns in the glass bead game are intricately interconnected but their reference is closed, private and internalised. Its only meaning is that which it creates within itself, and in reference to its own internal precedents.

So you can kind of see where Hesse is going with this. On the one hand you’ve got a Platonic binary separating ideas and things, with the Castallians elevating the former above the latter and recognising no necessary interdependence between the two. And on a more contemporary note, Hesse is gunning for one of the big themes in 20th century art, theory and philosophy – the relationship between symbols and symbolic structures (from signs, words and images to whole languages, pieces of art, literature, music etc) and the real world.

A few contextual examples: Wittgenstein wrestled with whether linguistic meanings boil down to anything more than word games serving to reinforce the internal structures of meaning contained within languages. Viktor Shklovsky conceived of artistic expression as a demonstration of technique whose real-world reference points were largely unimportant. Walter Pater thought art was a way of breaking down the barriers of form and content, naturally aspiring toward ‘the condition of music’, wherein the two are largely indistinguishable. Nabokov conceived of novels as self-contained ‘riddles with elegant solutions’, in which general ideas had no place.

Modernist music increasingly eschewed emotional content in favour of formal content, culminating in the ‘tone poems’ of Grieg etc, which are almost mathematical exercises. In Camus’ The Plague, the character Grande spends his time tinkering with the first sentence of his novel to make it so perfect that the only possible reaction of a reader will be to say ‘hats off, gentlemen’ (meanwhile the people of the town are dying). Formalism and New Criticism approached texts as purely aesthetic objects whose external reference was a secondary consideration to their formal design. The narrator of Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes declares that ‘words… are the great enemies of reality’. The theorist Rene Welleck referred to this category confusion between words and things as an unbridgeable ‘ontological gap’.

Modernism in general had introspective and sceptical tendencies that separated it from realism and placed it closer to the subjectivist world-view of the romantics. On one level, then, Hesse’s idea of the glass bead game is an allegory of the artistic and philosophical introspection characteristic of the first half of the twentieth century – and which, ironically, coincided with the catastrophic historical events in which the ‘real’ (which the hyper-rational Castalians treat with scepticism as an epistemologically inaccessible domain and a secondary consideration to the pure intellectual realm of ideas) flexed its muscle: like war, the holocaust and totalitarianism.

So on the one hand in the novel (and the historical situation it allegorises) you’ve got idealism (the pursuit of artistic and intellectual purity above the everyday utilitarian dross of mundane existence) alongside scepticism (which questions the knowability of the real world, and its compatibility with the signs and forms we use to represent it). A good thing up to a point, surely? Is it not in mankind’s collective interest to further theoretical understanding, to safeguard an elite whose only responsibility is to the incredibly complex abstract and aesthetic issues it serves to examine? In the novel this functions as a post-religious church, wherein the object of worship is the beauty of abstract thought at its most refined and abstruse.

But on the other hand, you’ve got the age-old whistle-blowing, parade-pissing consideration of ethical responsibility. On a pragmatic level, someone’s got to foot the bill for your fancy Ivory Tower, and the pursuit of knowledge and understanding by an intellectual elite paid for by the enslaved tax-paying masses becomes a parasitic form of decadence if that knowledge is subsequently hoarded by the elite for its own sake and not used to benefit the general populus. As Plinio Designori (the novel’s rent-a-social-conscience cipher) rants:

For generations you have left to others dangerous, daring and responsible things like economics, law and politics. Cowardly and well-preserved, fed by others, and having few burdensome duties, you lead your drones’ lives, and so that they won’t be too boring you busy yourselves with all these erudite specialities, count syllables and letters, make music, and play the Glass Bead Game, while outside in the filth of the world poor harried people live real lives and do real work.

Whether to withdraw from the world in the pursuit of transcendent ideals or use the privileges society has bestowed upon you to make life easier for others. When you pose it as a moral dilemma, it becomes a bit of a no-brainer.

Hang on though, the story. Which, if I’m honest, is the main problem with the book. The ideas are great, but the plot often feels burdensome, formulaic, and ultimately an obstruction rather than a vital way of channelling the more important ideas the novel sets out to explore.  Especially in the overlong first half of the book, the plot, outside of the interesting rhetorical trope of the glass bead game itself, seems to bring very little to the table. It made me think of this Dave Eggers quotation, used by David Shields in Reality Hunger:

I’ve always had a hard time writing fiction. It feels like driving a car in a clown suit. You’re going somewhere but you’re in costume, and you’re not really fooling anybody. You’re the guy in costume, and everybody’s supposed to forget that and go along with you

Now, I’m not trying to jump on Shields’ ‘make it real’ bandwaggon and I think plot is a far more complicated artistic tool than he gives it credit for (I also think several of his ideas are half-digested and outdated, but that’s for another time). But in the 350-page ‘history’ of Knecht’s life, the narrative charade (Hesse puts on the clown suit before the novel even begins with his rather silly ‘documents edited by Herman Hesse’ rider) seemed to me to achieve very little. The characters are transparently vehicles for ideas (that’s fine – it’s also often the case in authors whose work I love, like Coetzee or Kundera) but the plot seems to bog these ideas down rather than animate them, at least until the framing techniques come into play much later in the book. The prose and dialogue is also often plodding and lugubrious, in fitting with the sober austerity of the Castallian setting.

If The Glass Bead Game were a footballer, it would be Zlatan Ibrahimovic: looks great in a three-minute youtube highlights compilation, but in real time spends most of the game indolently loafing around achieving cack-all.

Actually, given that the story is a flimsy and largely extraneous coating for the novel’s ideas, let’s pretend it’s a book about football. The plot tells the story of Joseph Knecht (Cesc Fabregas), a prodigiously gifted player for his local youth team, who gets scouted by the Music Master (Arsene Wenger) to join the elite Castallian youth development squad at Waldzell, home of the Glass Bead Game. (An ineffectually and pointlessly virtuosic bunch of effete aesthetes who tip-tap it around and weave impossibly intricate patterns to no perceptible purpose, pouring Gallic scorn on the sweaty rabble who run around kicking people and hoofing the ball up the field in the hope of scoring goals, winning games and that sort of venal, uncouth loutishness).

A meteoric rise through the youth ranks ensues. during which the young Knecht is sent out on loan to a couple of other monasteries, where he gets a taste for using his Glass Bead Game skills to elevate and enlighten a couple of mid-table battlers, giving their long-suffering fans a glimpse of Waldzell-style joga bonito. Meanwhile, his socially conscious friend Designiori (Matthieu Flamini) comes through the ranks at the same time as Knecht, but is less favoured by the coaches, in part due to his fiery temperament, combative style and often incendiary opinions about the need to compromise Waldzell’s ‘total football’ aestheticism to achieve more outward-looking goals (manifested in a tendency to tackle people and shoot from outside the box).

Designiori defects just as his career looks to be taking off, drawn by the bright lights of the outside world and frustrated by the self-satisfied insularity of Waldzell – but he ultimately fails to adapt and spends a lot of time warming the bench on the sidelines of history. Knecht, meanwhile, continues his precocious career and becomes Waldzell’s talismanic and youngest-ever captain (Magister Ludi, or Master of the Glass Bead Game – a priest-like, iconic position as the accepted premier virtuoso with overall responsibility for ensuring the development of the game continues uninterrupted and free from the venal and pragmatic concerns of the real world.

And, after a tediously drawn-out and inevitable transfer saga, Knecht eventually follows Designiori out the door, vowing to embrace the real world and use his technique and learning to achieve real-world goals rather than limiting himself to onanistic virtuosity without an end product, like Paganini practising his scales. Abruptly and anticlimactically, however, he dies – attempting to engage in a faintly homoerotic swimming race with a young shepherd boy (Designiori’s son, to whom he has been entrusted as a mentor), he drowns in a stream in the beautiful mountains (ie fucks his cruciate ligament on his debut for Barcelona playing over-elaborate one-twos with Xavi).

So in summary, The Glass Bead Game is a game of two halves – some occasionally great ideas ruined by poor finishing, an over-crowded midfield, and too much aimless, lateral passing.  The opening section (accounting for about three quarters of the page-count) is a bit of a plod, from which, it seemed to me, you could extract a few genuinely fascinating ideas from a whole load of tedious and lugubriously styled, plot-based filler. In the second half Hesse tinkers with the formation, leading to a more open game after which one in hindsight looks at the first half in a slightly different light. However, that light is not sufficiently flatteringly to shake the impression that, with a decent editor, maybe a day job and about ten years fewer in which to write it, Hesse could perhaps have achieved a whole lot more with a whole lot less.

Days of Heaven by Terrence Malick

So, to continue on a Terrence Malick theme, on to Days of Heaven – which, having been blown away by Badlands, I watched pretty much the next day. Days of Heaven was made three years after Badlands, and it’s tempting to take the two films as companion pieces. Days of Heaven takes many of the things that I found most interesting about Badlands and develops them to another level

Again, a child retrospectively narrates an adult-themed story that she only partially comprehends over a visual narrative (this time with remarkably little dialogue) purportedly showing us these events. And once again the split between visual narrative and voiceover seems to deliberately call into question the relationship between the two – as well as disrupting any attempts we might make to come to a stable conclusion about that relationship.

Having cursorily scanned the Wikipedia page – a level of scholarly rigour and diligence I would typically reserve only for writing articles at work – apparently the voiceover in Days of Heaven was added pretty late in the day, when Terrence Malick had been descending into Jack Nicholson-esque insanity on his own in an editing room for a couple of years. (Apparently this is pretty standard practice for Malick; hence he only actually finished four (soon to be five films in the last forty-odd years).

To be honest, having pretty limited knowledge of the actual process of making a film, I’ll not delve into this too much. Except to say that, whatever the original intention (which, let’s face it, becomes largely irrelevant once a film enters the public domain), Days of Heaven ends up being in many ways an amplified version of Badlands. It expands the narrative trickery, goes to town on the lavish visuals and cinematography (and also incorporates camera tricks more obviously as part of its unreliable narrative strategies), at the expense of some of Badlands’ formal symmetry and tightness. And accordingly it seems to have split critical opinion rather more.

The plot itself is pretty melodramatic (Days of Heaven is not a film, either thematically or visually, that goes in for understatement – if it’s gritty realism you came for, you’re in the wrong place). Bill – played with taciturn reserve by a young Richard Gere (a kind of exquisite corpse, if you will) – is romantic and rebellious but shackled to a dead-end job in a Chicago factory and bereft of money or prospects. Early in the film he gets into some sort of argument with a foreman in the factory (we can’t hear what it’s about), and in a moment of rage twats him round the head with a fairly hefty-looking spade, apparently killing him.

Cut to a romanticised shot of Bill, his girlfriend Abby and his little sister, Linda (also the narrator) on top of a freight train, chugging through the autumnal countryside. Malick loves these juxtapositions and playfully oblique presentations – fairytale sentimentality interspersed with violence and squalor, toil and mundanity presented with the stylised indulgence of a Gucci advert.

The three flee south to the Texas Panhandle, where the rest of the film is set. Pretending that Bill and Abby are brother and sister, they find work as (underpaid and exploited) migrant labourers harvesting corn. Malick certainly gets his money’s worth from the cornfields aesthetically, and the harvesting scenes come across as a slightly incongruous cross between John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath – poor workers being exploited by ‘the man’ – and DH Lawrence’s hammy, over-pumped lyricism.

Apparently the film was shot almost entirely without artificial light, and mostly during the ‘magic hour’ before sunset, giving it an ethereal gloss that contrasts with the crushingly mundane, repetitive existence the characters are living out. While this can be taken as aesthetic indulgence for its own sake (it feels a bit sickly-sweet and heavy-handed at times, but some of the shots are astonishing), it becomes more intriguing when considered in combination with the other elements of the narrative. In this way, Days of Heaven feels very much like a continuation of Badlands. Style subtly jars with content in such a way as to bring the relationship between the two – their convenient grammatical separation, of which we conventionally have so few quibbles – into the spotlight.

Badlands contains lots of beautiful shots of badlands, and this presentation seems slightly dissonant in the context of a film about mass murder. Camera shots – so we generally hold to be the case – are chosen and styled in part to create a narrative atmosphere, and for a murder-themed film we might expect the director to go for something a little darker, more unsettling, more suggestive of a disturbed mental state. When taken in conjunction with Holly’s subtly misleading narrative, the incongruously stylised visual appearance of the film would appear to align itself with the fairytale music and the romanticised and clichéd voiceover. We appear to be watching Holly narratively refashioning the material that forms the historical basis of the story she is telling, subjugating and bending content (as it were) to fit a form lifted from elsewhere (the popular cadences and ‘sense of an ending’ that tend to feature in tales that we tell). All of these elements appear to cohere to fit in with some sort of narrative scenario – Holly is somehow responsible, we feel, for this presentation, and even though that doesn’t really stack up (she hasn’t actually edited the film and chosen the music), the obvious answer that what we are watching is a piece of fiction that doesn’t owe us overall tenability because it isn’t real, is rather mundane and spoils the effect.

In Days of Heaven this aspect is brought even more to the fore by both the more overtly aestheticised appearance of the film, and the way in which the story is visually ‘told’ to us. Malick apparently wanted to make a ‘visual poem’ in which images have greater narrative significance than dialogue, and part of the way he achieves this effect – undermining the primacy of the syntactically ordered and sequential narrative of the voiceover – is by editing the film in such a way that it doesn’t appear to be telling us the story in a coherent narrative order. Like a William Faulkner novel, it jumps about in fragments, usually declining to present us with an easy and established narrative or temporal link between one scene and the next. This means we have to fill in the gaps for ourselves, and also we are never sure that some significant event has not been concealed from us.

Whereas Holly’s voiceover is clichéd and seems to imitate storybook phrases and narrative patterns, Linda’s voiceover is semi-nonsensical (as well as being a lot younger than Holly – probably about nine or ten – she seems to have some sort of mental impairment). The fantastical aesthetic provided by the mood-lit cornfields seems to tie in with this narrative perspective – it gives the scenes a magical and incomprehensible quality that seems to be partially recreating the impression they would create from the perspective of a nine year old. The incongruously lavish visual style encourages us to detach the images we’re watching from their contextual significance – the misery of poverty, the backbreaking mundanity of the work, the wider social injustice and cruelty underpinning it all – and view it as a purely aesthetic spectacle.

This seems to align us with Linda’s perspective, who as a child with an incomplete understanding of the world around her and the forces that affect her, focuses on appearance more than meaning or explanation. Her narrative is full of observations about what things look, sound, or feel like, but she never really offers an opinion on how or why anything has happened. Likewise, the fragmented order of the narrative and primacy of images over words means that we have little explanation for much of what happens (it took me a while to work out that Bill and Abby aren’t actually brother and sister, for example). Thus we are placed in the wide-eyed and oblivious position of a child looking on, witnessing events without understanding their full significance and the adult motivations, causes and consequences that underpin them.

As the film goes on, then, this purely aesthetic focus seems to be in conflict with the fantastical, melodramatic and romantic arc the narrative increasingly takes on. It becomes clear that the rich farmer who owns the farm on which they work – shy, lonely, naïve and sheltered, and like Bill largely taciturn – is holding a torch for Abby. He is also immensely wealthy and, conveniently, dying of an unspecified terminal illness (again, due to the fragmented narrative style, we only really piece this all together in retrospect).

Bill (whom he thinks is her brother), realising the hopelessness of their life and the bleakness of their prospects for the future, concludes that a Faustian wager whereby they scam the farmer in the hope that he’ll soon die and leave them to inherit everything he owns, would be worth the pain of seeing Abby marry someone else. Eventually he persuades Abby to accept the farmer’s advances, they are married, and suddenly the three go from being farm labourers living in miserable poverty to living the life of lords of the manner.

As time goes on, the farmer’s suspicions are increasingly aroused about the relationship between Bill and Abby (when he confronts her about it she manages to persuade him, an only child, that an absurd level of heavy petting between siblings is in fact perfectly normal). Eventually he cottons on to the fact that he’s being scammed, goes appropriately ape-shit, and tries to shoot Bill. Problem is, he’s just a bit too nice to actually pull the trigger. Bill, who as we know is free of such prissy moral quibbles, manages to stab him through the heart while he procrastinates.

Now wanted for two murders, they move on sharp-ish and, like Kit and Holly in Badlands, hide out in the wilderness. After a pleasingly protracted chase scene, Bill is caught and gunned down by the police, directed by the hunched, ghoulish, paper bag-faced old foreman who was the farmer’s father figure, and who was on to them from day one.

And from there, we learn that Linda was sent to a boarding school (I’m guessing Abby still got the inheritance after all), where she makes a new friend, whom she runs away with. As the film ends, Linda seems to be setting off on a new adventure. Appropriately, they are walking off down a railway line. And, just as the end is a beginning, Linda’s voiceover narrative doesn’t end – she is still rambling on when the credits come in and cut her off.

This narrative u-turn undermines the plotted-ness of the film and the circularity of the story. But it also reinforces the purely aesthetic perspective that Linda provides – she doesn’t deal in interpretation, designation of narrative beginnings and ends, she just describes what she sees. So the ending detracts from any attempts we might make to read a ‘meaning’ into the story by preventing us from isolating it as a self-contained narrative whole.

It reminded me of the ending of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, when the two main characters, Frederic and Deslauriers, conclude that the most important and meaningful episode in their lives was in fact something that happened years before the narrative begins, and was in fact never in any way alluded to before. Just as Flaubert’s ending undercuts our attempts to read Frederic and Deslauriers as coherent and explicable characters, so the ending of Days of Heaven prevents us from deferring to the narrative boundaries, highly artificial structure and symmetry that it has established for us, by undermining it’s own finality.


This week, I have been mostly…


Watching Terrence Malik films. Or more specifically, I watched Badlands and Days of Heaven, the first two Terrence Malik films. He didn’t make another until The Thin Red Line (which I intend to see soon), about 25 years later. Which, if you ask me, is a damn shame. Both are fantastic. I’ll write about Badlands here and save Days of Heaven for another time.




I watched Badlands off the back of a recommendation from a guy I interviewed for an article I wrote at work.  He told me that it was beautiful, clever and used an unreliable narrator in an interesting way. He was right. But not necessarily in the way I’d anticipated.

My expectations of a Humbert Humbert-style manipulator spinning a narrative yarn were quashed by the drawled voiceover of Holly (‘drawled’ is a cliché, but I’m not aware of another word that better describes her slow Southern intonation).


Holly (Sissy Spacek) is about 15 in the events that we see, but she recounts them in retrospect – her intermittent voiceover acts as a kind of commentary on the visual narrative that shows the events themselves. There’s also a third ‘narrative’, if you like, which is the soundtrack. We don’t have many clues as to why she’s telling the story, under what circumstances, to whom (us? someone else?), and how long after these events have taken place – though we do find out that she later marries the lawyer who defends her in her trial, which happens some time after the narrative ends. She may have grown up by the time she tells the story, but she still sounds like a child.

Similarly, we don’t really know if the events we’re watching are ‘what really happened’ (as it were), or ‘what really happened’ as recalled from Holly’s perspective. The real backbone of the film is this subtle (and sometimes overt) dissonance between what we’re seeing and what she’s telling us – alongside the mystery surrounding what the ‘real’ relationship between these discourses is (is there a stable and established relationship between them, or do we just presume there will be because of the storytelling conventions that we’re used to?).

At face value, the plot is pretty straightforward. Kit (Martin Sheen) is a cocky kid from the wrong side of the tracks in a small dead-end town in South Dakota, some time in the late 1950s (the only thing that really dates it is his James Dean look, which is referred to a few times over the course of the film – we’re meant to pick up on this).

He’s good looking, charming and confident, but he seems introverted and a bit of a loner. Early on he tells Holly he’s ‘always got something to say’ which makes him lucky, because ‘most people don’t have much to say’. Similarly, Kit later tells Holly that he doesn’t mind the fact that she doesn’t talk very much, even if it makes others think she’s strange. This is ironic given that it’s Holly who gets to tell the story, whereas we never really hear what Kit thinks about anything.

At the start of the film Kit’s working as a bin man, but he soon gets bored, walks off during the middle of a shift and gets fired. On the way home he comes across Holly in her front garden, twirling a baton, wearing farcically short shorts, and generally looking young but uncomfortably nubile (horrible word, but it aptly describes her slightly alien attractiveness).

After her initial reservations (her daddy wouldn’t like her to be speaking to a bin man, she tells him), Holly falls for Kit and they begin a covert affair. He’s about ten years older than her. What’s more, you can’t get away from the fact that, as becomes increasingly clear as she tells the story in an escalating succession of romantic clichés, she isn’t quite playing with a full picnic.

Kit gets a job at a ranch, and a few months pass during which the affair continues. We’re shown various shots of Kit doing his job, which he obviously hates – herding cattle, trapping bulls in a sort of massive clamp and shoving a metal rod down their throats (I’m sure there’s a more technical term for that particular procedure in the cattle-herding profession), that sort of thing.

All the while Holly narrates Kit’s story to us in romantic clichés that clearly have nothing to do with the (probably quite unsavoury) things he’s thinking. At one point he seems to covertly kick a dead cow in the groin. Another time Holly elliptically refers to him waking up in the middle of the night hearing strange noises in his head. Her blithe tone, as well as the infantile things that she says, makes for a subtle but sinister clash with what we’re seeing – we can see that Kit is bad news and perhaps even mentally ill, but she apparently can’t, even though she already knows what happens in the story and we don’t.  The music makes for a three-way narrative clash – a chirpy, major-key vibraphone melody that sounds like the theme to a children’s film

This build-up of tension comes to a head peculiarly suddenly and unceremoniously, when Kit – having been rebuffed by Holly’s daddy when he tries to seek his approval – breaks into the house, tries to kidnap Holly and, when her daddy goes to call the police, shoots him in the back, killing him. We can see it as the culmination of the tension that has been building up, but – partly as a result of the subtly misleading voiceover, partly because we have no access to what Kit is thinking, and partly because of the disconcerting way in which Martin Sheen acts the scene – we, like Holly, still don’t quite see it coming.

From here on the film follows Kit and Holly as fugitives travelling from place to place. Kit burns down the house (with the body in it), and they go on the run, leaving a recording in which Kit says they have killed themselves in a suicide pact. They live for some time in a tree house in the woods, until three bounty hunters discover them and come to capture them, presumably in exchange for the large price that has been put on their heads by the police. Kit, who has constructed a military defence system to ward off intruders, ambushes them and shoots all three of them in the back.

More killings ensue, always apparently unplanned and on the spur of the moment. Holly is always passive and seems increasingly desensitised and apathetic. They attempt to stay with Kit’s friend (the bin man we see him working with in the opening sequence) at his ranch in the middle of nowhere. He tries to run off and call the police while they are distracted. Kit shoots him in the back. Following a series of increasingly close encounters with the police (Holly tells us of their increasing notoriety with a kind of vaguely bemused second-hand pride), they eventually head out into the desert in a stolen Cadillac, are surrounded by police cars and helicopters, and Holly finally makes her stand and refuses to run away with Kit any more.

He eventually turns himself in to the police – again, having no access to Kit’s thoughts, we don’t really know why he does this, and it comes as a surprise. Holly tells us that she ‘sometimes wonders what was going through his mind’ when he decides to do it. So do we.

And that’s it. Kit, we hear, is convicted of several counts of murder and executed. Holly is acquitted and marries her defence lawyer. The end.

So throughout the film there is an unresolved, three-way clash of dissonant narrative tones: between the visual narrative (increasingly violent and sinister), the voiceover (blithely innocent, clichéd, with the tone of a ‘they all lived happily ever after’ fairytale) and music (incongruously dreamy and carefree – though interspersed occasionally with music that seems more appropriate to the subject matter, such as the crescendo of sinister choral chanting that builds up to his murder of the bounty hunters).

But the clash is also one of narrative power dynamics. In the visual narrative we watch, Kit is the one who is in control of events, and Holly is a passenger – quite literally. When they go on the run, Kit drives her daddy’s car, the first of a series of cars he steals for them to ride in. In the story that we are told, however, he is voiceless and remains an enigma throughout. Holly is in control of the words that interpret and explain his actions to us – even though we know that that interpretation is naïve and incomplete. She gets her own back by reclaiming narrative control, even though she doesn’t seem to have any awareness about who she is telling the story to or why. So the two interlocking narratives are in a sense mirror images of the same story, each a kind of inversion of the other.

All of which brings us back to the central, unresolved mystery of the relationship between the voiceover and the plot. How do the sections that aren’t narrated by Holly relate to those that are? Is this taking place in her mind, transfigured in her memory? Is the voiceover in fact a transcription, or a kind of metaphorical stand-in, for her process of recollection? And why all of this thematic and symbolic convergence? Isn’t it all a bit too symmetrical? How much of this is present in the real ‘story’ that forms the basis for the story that Holly tells, and how much of it is of her invention? Is there even any such thing as a ‘real’ story? Isn’t every memory to some extent a fiction?

Because one thing about Badlands that is striking above all others is that it is pre-eminently a story. It’s full of the sort of artifice – convergences, repetitions, coincidences and narrative symmetry – that we associate with a story that somebody has made up. Not only is Badlands a film about mass murder narrated as if it was a fairytale – it is a film about mass murder that mimics the narrative shape of a fairytale. Just as Kit takes Holly for a ride in a stolen car, we are left wondering at the end of the film, is it not in fact we – and Kit – who have been taken for a ride by Holly’s narrative?







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