Tuesday 15 December 2020

Jennifer Egan, Elizabeth Kolbert, and Martin Amis


This reminded me of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: each chapter focuses on a different character remote from the rest, and stands alone almost like a short story - and yet there are links between the stories.  In this case, the links lacked the linear simplicity of Cloud Atlas or Homegoing however; I sometimes found them difficult to follow (not unlike life then).  At one point, I decided just to keep reading, instead of tracing connections back and forth between chapters, and hopefully all would become clear.  It didn't work - the connections were loose, faintly detailed; they didn't all come together at the end.  Despite this, I wanted to know what they were.  It's like hearing some piece of gossip: as an anonymous set of facts, it's of limited interest; it's different when you find out that it relates to someone you know.

It's difficult to say what this book is about.  As I said, it's a series of connected stories.  In each one, whatever the action level, something happens - not building towards an ultimate conclusion - but a moment in itself.  For example, the first chapter concerns the kleptomania of one of the characters, and her being almost caught in the act.  Chapter two is about chapter one's ex-boss: a music producer - middle-aged, divorced, trying out wacko cures for his low sex drive.  Chapter three is chapter two as a teenager, but the focus is on one of his friends, who has what seems like a terribly unequal, exploitative relationship with an older man - again, a music producer.  Chapter four is about the afore-mentioned music producer, older, still with a poor attitude to women, but with a young daughter about the same age as chapter three, and a young son who despises him.  I guess, looking at it like this, there is a kind of give-and-take about the chapters: you see characters when they're young, and when they're old, and if they're not exactly paying for the actions of their younger selves, it's interesting to compare the two.  So you could say that this book is about personal history - the way people deal with the spectre of their younger selves, the way they change.

I enjoyed the way Egan wrote, and looked forward to going back to this book every time.  Although there was one character who seemed to appear more frequently than the rest, there was no single strong lead.  I would usually find this off-putting, but not here for some reason.  Egan also writes about things I would usually shy away from reading - exploitative relationships, loneliness - but it wasn't so awful; partly, I think, because these were things happening in the past, so you saw people passing through their bad moments, coming out the other side.

Another thing I found interesting was that Egan seems to purposefully avoid the powerful pull of nostalgia: that thing where a past life is looked back on, and the memory built up into something beautiful and fated, which reality could never actually match - like in Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca.  Egan treats past events in present-day terms: they are as grubby and underwhelming as those that occur later.  The result is gentler and more fluid and again, prevents the focus from building up around any one character or relationship.  It's a concertedly multi-focused book (but not very multi-cultural).

This is a cracking book - incredibly interesting.  Elizabeth Kolbert is/was a staff writer for the New Yorker.  She manages really well the feat of explaining science to non-scientists without either speaking over their heads, or treating them like fools.  On p.71 for example, she describes 'the giant asteroid that ended the Cretaceous period and caused what may have been the worst day ever on planet earth.  By the time the dust - in this case, literal as well as figurative - had settled, some three-quarters of all species had been wiped out.'  Describing the day a giant asteroid hit as the worst day on earth feels like casting off the cool, objective (sometimes alienating) language of science, and viewing it through ordinary, every-day eyes.

There's a great account of the way our understanding of the earth's history developed - particularly with the work of the French naturalist, Cuvier (the first of the catastrophists) who, at the end of the eighteenth century, basically invented the idea of extinction by examining fossilized bones and, instead of trying to link them to dissimilar modern creatures, made an enormous conceptual leap by positing that they belonged to a completely new species, which had died out a long time previously.

Later came Lyell and Darwin in the nineteenth century who ran with the idea of extinction, but, taking a uniformitarian approach, regarded it as a slow, evolutionary process which took enormous amounts of time.  Much later still - and back to the catastrophist side - came Walter and Luis Alvarez who, in 1980, introduced the idea of an asteroid collision that killed off the dinosaurs.

The process of paradigm change described here is fascinating.  Kolbert paraphrases Thomas Kuhn, in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 'data that did not fit the commonly accepted assumptions of a discipline would either be discounted or explained away for as long as possible.  The more contradictions accumulated, the more convoluted the rationalisations became.' (p.93)  When I studied history at university, I think I was asked to read a chapter of Kuhn's book, and I found it just as eye-opening back then.  Ten years later, I saw a book for sale by Immanuel Kant, and I thought, 'that's him!  That's the guy who's book I read in college and really liked!'  I bought it, but couldn't get past the densely philosophical first page - I was terribly disappointed!  It's a great relief to know that I haven't, in fact, become less intelligent, since I left university - albeit slightly miffing to realise that I never was actually intelligent enough to understand Kant.

Back in Kolbert's book, there's a terrible chapter about the extinction of the Great Auks.  Gathered on a remote little island to breed, they seemed to end up as a convenient lunch station for ships travelling long distances and running short of supplies.  These big, awkward, lumbering birds - like big Humboldt penguins, unable to fly - were simply herded on board in vast numbers, to be eaten en route, or confined in concrete pens to be killed later.  There's an awful description of how we did away with the last breeding pair.  It seems gratuitously violent to quote it out of context, but it certainly emphasises the cavalier attitude and horrifically brutal behaviour of people towards other living creatures.

Despite this, Kolbert's conclusion as a whole seems not to be directly critical of people.  The problem, she suggests, is not our selfishness or propensity to violence, but the rate at which human beings are changing the environment.  Other species - those facing extinction now - do not have the time to adapt.  Furthermore, 'this capacity predates modernity, though, of course, modernity is its fullest expression.  Indeed, this capacity is probably indistinguishable from the qualities that made us human to begin with: our restlessness, our creativity, our ability to cooperate to solve problems and complete complicated tasks.  As soon as humans started using signs and symbols to represent the natural world, they pushed beyond the limits of that world.' (p.266) I understand this argument, but I wonder whether it lets us off the hook too easily: surely we could do to protect other species; surely our ability to do more is as integral to the equation as our restlessness and creativity.

Kolbert's conclusion is ultimately pessimistic.  The book has the air of a friendly warning about what is happening to other species: it is clear about the dangers whilst being unforthcoming on how the situation can be turned around.

No.36 on the Guardian's best books list: another really good book.  It's a tricky one to categorise - it's autobiographical, but primarily focuses on Amis's relationship with his father.  There are large areas that go undiscussed - his own marriages, for example, and his sister appears very seldom.  Also, while he writes about one of his father's affairs in some detail - the one that led to his second marriage - I thought he made him appear like a two-women man (duogamous?) until two-thirds of the way through the book (when it's too late to dislike him), when he suddenly says that his father loved adultery.

The book is not just about Kingsley Amis though.  The author returns repeatedly to his cousin, Lucy Partingdon, who disappeared in 1973, and was later found to have been a victim of Fred West.

I've read a fair few books about serial killers, and although I know it's often argued that such an interest is cheap and sensationalist, and exploitative in its own way, I've come to terms with it.  I don't find it surprising that the boundaries of human behaviour, and what causes certain individuals to cross them, should be interesting.  Having said that, I've never wanted to read about the Wests - perhaps because their crimes involved children.  Amis seems to have read exhaustively on the subject - driven by his family connection and the need to know what happened to his cousin.  There are several books he refers to which I would like to read - particularly those by West's surviving children.

Some of the best bits of this book were about Martin Amis's own route to becoming a writer.  The book is indispersed with letters from his teenage self, written to his father and step-mother, concerning his reading and writing, and the money and accommodation concerns of student life.  They have that familiar, self-conscious, jovial tone - the humour spelt out in capitals in every paragraph.  Is it youth that does that, or is that the way writers of any age tend to start out?  Whichever, it's reassuring to see that even writer's like Amis start off less than subtle.

I loved the way he talked about reading too.  In one of the letters, he argues against his getting a teaching post in what, presumably, was a private boarding school, because he'd have no time to read.  It would be far better, he wrote persuasively, to get an ordinary job and 'get on with my reading at a far more spanking space'. (p.56) Of course, he was studying English, so reading was everything.  Nonetheless, reading seems to have retained that high level of importance for him later on.  I suppose I am just envious: I had a strange (and very long) period in my life when I stopped reading altogether, but now the inclination seems to be coming back.  I would love for it to be central again - but when you're an adult who's job doesn't require reading, can it ever be as central again as it was in childhood?

On the subject of his father, I'm going to have to seek out some of the books of Kingsley Amis.  I find it strange that I've never read anything by him before.  The quotes from his books were very funny, in a dry, understated, British sort of way.  (And, he lived in a house called Lemmons.)  I would also like to read something by Elizabeth Jane Howard (KA's second wife).  I think I have one of her books - bought on a recommendation by someone else - and it has a terrible chick-lit-style cover.  I dread to think of the number of books by female authors which I've been put off reading because of their covers.

Anyway, this is beautifully written - Amis is very engaging, with a wonderfully clear, straightforward style.  And it's a book about novelists, full of literature and poetry.  I love the fact that he uses footnotes, the lack of which is one of my major problems with modern non-fiction books.  Although it's not important to the book, I would also like to know why the child in two of his photographs cannot be named 'for structural reasons'.

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