[Book review] The Believers by Zoë Heller

Zoë Heller, The Believers (Penguin, £7.99)

Heller’s saga of a left-wing New York family reconciling itself first to the slow death of its patriarch, and then to the mortifying revelation of his secrets, has lots to enjoy – wit and insight, sympathy and intelligence. But it’s a family novel, and not in the end the saga of faith and doubt that the title hints at.

That isn’t to say that Heller lacks intelligence when it comes to believing, and she invests her characters with various forms of devotion: marital, maternal, filial, political, and religious. Yet despite the range of commitment she presents through the Litvinoff family, it seems as though every faith is cultivated to a point beyond the abilities of Heller’s sympathy. Once The Believers attain their belief, Heller’s narrative closeness falls away.

An example? In the early stages of the novel, it’s older sister Rosa who dominates – a dedicated socialist whose political convictions were undone by a long stay in Cuba and some untold romantic disappointment. But as her trajectory draws her into Orthodox Judaism, Heller loses the ability to draw her inner world: faith cuts her off from the world. By the end of the story, the free indirect discourse emanates mainly from younger sister Karla, whose direction is a more worldly, more fleshly one.

The same is true of their mother, Audrey. The phases of her anxiety (in her case, anxiety about her devotion to her husband) are drawn with a riveting rawness. Once she’s reached a resolution though, she falls away, becoming far less interesting. Is this just because the state of reaching is so much more active than the state of knowing? Or is it that Heller is simply better at delineating doubts than certainties? It’s hard to say, but it certainly feels like a loss when Heller has brought you so far with a character – yet won’t take you into what is, for the outsider, the most fascinatingly incomprehensible phase of all.

Uncertainty isn’t a problem that plagues the story itself. There isn’t a gun on the mantelpiece that doesn’t explode in someone’s face: the classes become a conversion, the flirtation becomes an affair, the steely and controlling lady remains steely and controlling. Almost everything makes sense within the novel’s own terms – if only, though, that consistency could have been achieved with a few surprises thrown in. As it is, there are only maybe two and a half things which register any degree of suspense, and in every case they slide towards the most-expected conclusion.

It’s not a happy novel. In fact, it has a groggy undertow of cynicism in many parts – something that frequently distracts from the compassion demanded by this sort of big novel with its many interacting characters. If one of the principals can find it so hard to see merit in other people, and go without narrative censure for her withdrawal, what sort of concern is the reader supposed to work up for that character?

Heller is exquisitely sensitive to the emotional negotiations which generate the compromises on which family is built, but seems able only to half-heartedly applaud them – whereas as faith seems to erect a boundary through which criticism is pointless, or impossible. A novel, then, for which faith is admirable but also uninteresting. A well-made novel, but one that in the end fails to be totally engaging or satisfying.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

[Filmstar] sleep furiously

Sleep Furiously cover

That arrestingly contradictory title? It’s taken from a linguist’s game, devised by Noam Chomsky as an example of a grammatically correct but meaningless phrase: “colourless green ideas sleep furiously”.

This quiet, rhythmic, carefully-observed documentary of rural life in Wales seems absurdly far from such academic exercises – the hill-farming community of Trefurig it observes is embedded in everyday realism. Villagers debate the closure of the under-subscribed local school. Cakes are baked. Sheepdogs compete in trials. Calves are delivered in a slither of blood and mucous.

But this is an imperilled community, desperately close to becoming as non-existent as Chomsky’s colourless green ideas. The residents are mostly elderly, and the services which bind the community are astonishingly fragile: even the sign posts are falling apart. That accounts for the sleepiness.

The fury comes out in moments of small desperation, such as the frantic snuffling of newborn piglets, or the dust and ghosts of an abandoned farm. Time-lapse photography and the lack of a storytelling narration are reminiscent of the Koyaanisquatsi films, and the Aphex Twin soundtrack has a similar elusive expressiveness to Philip Glass’ work – but this is a film that gets close enough to its subjects to show their faces. Remarkable, beautiful film-making.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009

Features update: [Book review] Still Learning

The features page is filling out. I’ve just added my review of Alasdair Gray’s Old Men In Love, originally published in the Oxonian Review Of Books:

From most novelists, a title like Old Men in Love would be an unappealing prospect. It contains intimations of one of the more distressing sub-genres of fiction — the dirty novel by the aging writer, unaware that there are few things as unpleasant as an old man taking an interest in the sex lives of young women.

Read the rest of the review here.

[Guest post] One man against the movies

Chris – of Vs Cinema fame – set himself the target of watching one film for every day of this year and writing about it. This is what it’s done to him…

I’m trying to watch and review one film for every day of the year. I go through a weary routine, once a day, of deciding what to watch. It’s usually late, and I scrape through the ever-growing stack of DVDs to find the one nearest 90 minutes in length (less if I’m lucky) that I haven’t watched. As a result there’s a group of historical epics that are taunting me from the corner, but that’s a lot of Sunday afternoon material to wade through.
 
I’m not complaining: this has been a revelation for me. At the start of the year I faced another 365-day stretch of my twenties wandering through a life brimming with potential I had no intention of ever tapping. A sudden decision on 1 January to watch a string of films I’d had knocking around became a nascent idea. The idea, with some help from a few friends, became a set of rules, and then a website (with an AWESOME banner from artist Ed Clews). All of which follows gently in the tradition of Dave Gorman and Danny Wallace, but with less booze.
 
I’m forcing myself to write constantly as a result. I’ve always fancied earning some money through writing – it seems like a wheeze, right? The Vs Cinema idea has given me something I haven’t had before: structure. It’s given me a focus on writing and I couldn’t be more pleased about that. It’s also forced me to admit one thing I may have taken for granted at the outset – I’m not actually that good at writing. I’m working on, it but I’m certainly not happy with what I produce yet. There are moments, but they aren’t common enough to be called form.
 
There been some other huge benefits from this. Initially I asked around for some help on gathering some of the classics but it wasn’t long until the requests started. People in my office brought me DVDs unsolicited and asked for a review; some arrived by post wanting my input and my opinion on the blog. It’s a fantastic feeling, such a boost to an ailing ego, to have even the tiniest interest from anyone else – even if you do end up giving their film a kicking.
 
Then there’s the downside. Watching the endless stream of disappointing, turgid dross that some people actually like. At times I feel like cinema’s own self-appointed Simon Cowell watching one entry after another, with deeply average results. Except I don’t get millions of pounds for it: I don’t get a penny. So far, my one attempt at pitching an article to a publication resulted in one of the most disappointing brush-off emails I’ve ever read. But I’ll have another crack at it.
 
This year hasn’t turned out to be the quiet 365 I expected. Firstly, I’m due an addition to the family in a month or so. I hope he likes historical epics. Second, I start training to be an English teacher around the same time. Some pretty big changes that suggest I’m not going to hit the target. Nowhere near at a guess. But I’m not too bothered – I’m enjoying it too much.
 
I’m pretty certain that I’ll be Vs Cinema for a while now, perhaps not as prolific, perhaps with a touch more quality control and probably with a quick change to that banner too. But still battling on through the stacks.

© Chris Warrington, 2009

Theatre review: The Caravan

The Caravan performed by Look Left, Look Right at the Ustinov, Bath

the caravan

Look Left Look Right bring their audience onto the stage with them. Performed in a rickety-looking caravan by a cast of four to groups of six, the actors are never more than a few feet away from the playgoers seated on the built-in sofa, and are always performing with rather than to them. The interaction is subtle – the actors look you in the face as they speak, offer round a plate of custard creams, and occasionally brush against you as they move around the tiny space – but profound.

The Caravan, you see, isn’t a fiction: it’s theatre-verité, the script drawn from interviews with those affected by the 2007 floods, and delivered in extraordinarily conversational style (possibly directly imitating the original recordings, which are available to listen to before the show). There’s an incalculable tension is every hesitation and forgetful second, and you wonder how the actor will get to the end of the line.

It’s in the bathos of small losses that the grave horror of losing home and security is revealed: the possessions that are rediscovered washed halfway up a tree, the laminate that’s relaid in the wrong direction. In the intimate world of The Caravan, you feel those losses too. Superb.

stars copy

Edit 11 August 2009 Related: “Washed out”

© Sarah Ditum, 2009. This piece originally appeared in Venue, issue 877.

Picturehouse: American Gigolo

(Paul Schrader, 1980)

American GigoloIn a detective story about a prostitute, you’d think that the sex and the judicial bits would be the most persuasive. But there are two section of American Gigolo which feel conspiculously out of place: the love-making montage (a static, unconvincing take on the one in Don’t Look Now, with a similar narrative role of cementing the central relationship) and the judicial-procedural bits at the end, with Gere mostly stuck silently behind glass).

These parts are unwanted digressions in an otherwise impeccable progress from the sleekly beguiling opening (Gere pretty and cocksure in his Armani wardrobe, with the filming and editing around him as impeccably stylish as the tailoring of his suits) to the noir-ish disintegration that overtakes the film as the plot takes hold. The soundtrack does a lot of work here, with Moroder pulling Blondie’s raging statement of desire, Call Me, into increasingly sad and unravelling forms. But the star is everything. Gere isn’t in that many films I enjoy, so I probably underrate his acting – here, he’s fantastic, with a restrained charisma that goes a long way to explaining both why all the society ladies want to fuck him, and why everyone else wants to fuck him over.

It also means he can carry the films morality lightly, unshowily. Like the similarly Schrader-written Taxi Driver (which gets an explicit shout out in a shot of Gere, seated with his hands on his knees, resigned in the moments after violence) there’s a thread of justice running through the whole ambivalent story, with Gere as a grubby innocent seeking absolution. Maybe it’s me being seduced by the movement of dissolution, maybe it’s just that Gere gets increasingly lovely the further he’s broken down, but I could have happily left the film before the final lift towards redemption.

Picturehouse: In The Loop

In The Loop Tucker posterI once got to drink wine with a junior civil servant and ask a million questions about government. The thing about ministers, I was told, is that they don’t succeed on their intellect or their analytical ability (anyway, there’s more information sloshing around than any individual could handle – that’s what the researchers are there for). The skill that makes a ministerial career is memory: having the right figures ready to pull out at the dispatch box, and the right lines in place when an awkward question comes up.

The plot of In The Loop (the feature film adaptation of sweary satirical sitcom The Thick Of It) launches from a minister who doesn’t know what to say. Hapless Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) of the Department For International Development is a simple man caught between vanity and careerism, making the occasional desperate clutch at doing the right thing. After he tells an interviewer that “war is unforseeable”, he’s obviously on the long slide out of the cabinet. Oblivious to the cool competence of Gina McKee’s Judy Malloy (his department’s head of communications), witlessly reliant on Chris Addison’s Toby Wright (new to the department and ineptly ambitious), and on the wrong side of Malcolm Tucker’s fury (Peter Capaldi, of course, whippet-slim and whipsmart with the magnificently obscene dialogue), the only issue is whether the hawks or the doves can get the most use out of him on the way down.

If you’ve had one eye open anytime in the last six years, you’ll know exactly how the story is going to play out – and if you’ve paid any attention to British sitcoms at any stage in their history, you’ll know that they’ve got dubious form when it comes to big-screen spin-offs. So, what makes In The Loop work? For one thing, it’s not the narrative that grips but the detail – the agonising complexities of compromise, self-interest and error that cause things to happen, rather than the things that happen themselves. This feels like the way politics probably really does happen, and the terrifying thing is that politics is screwed not because of some elite conspiracy, but because the people doing it are as prone to stupidity and self-preservation as everyone else.

It doesn’t suffer the normal pains of transition from TV to movie because it cleverly holds onto its style while expanding its scope. Shot in the  handheld DV style of the series, but making expansive use of outside scenes and locations in DC and New York, In The Loop translates its TV ancestor into cinematic terms brilliantly by not clinging too tightly to the original material. Cast of the TV show appear in different-but-similar roles – a ploy that could have been confusing but actually works fine, because the characters are mostly functions of the jobs they do. It doesn’t really matter that Chris Addison’s performance as Olly Reeder is nearly identical to his performance as Toby Wright – the two characters have nearly identical roles, so it makes sense that they’d look the same, talk the same, and have doppelganger girlfriends.

Of the Americans, James Gandolfini as a Pentagon general doing everything he can to avert war is easily the standout, and a satisfyingly fierce opponent to Tucker. In fact, Tucker finds Washington a whole lot tougher to roll over that Whitehall. Seen from high over DC running frantically to get to a meeting, looks unexpectedly small and vulnerable.

And while the film is viciously funny, it’s also got a note of the tragic: the President and the Prime Minister, the most powerful characters in the film, are godlike in their absence, directing events towards a predetermined conclusion which makes all the organs of diplomacy redundant. “We have all the facts we need”, says a war-hungry American minister as he flicks away an analysis of the potential invasion’s costs: “In the kingdom of truth, the man with one fact is king.” It’s that funny, and (for people who are quite keen on truth) that tragic, all the way through.

Paperhouse reads: Bad Science

bad-science

My dad would bring the works of Stephen Jay Gould along as his holiday reading for our family weeks in France, and one day he showed me a two-page spread comparing two pictures of dots. In one, the dots were scattered about the page; in the other, they were clumped into whorls and clusters. “Which of these”, asked my dad, “do you think has a pattern?” Obviously, I cheated and looked at the captions so I could get the answer right, but all the same my first inclination was to go for one that with the twists and the spirals.

That was the wrong one: any pattern I’d seen was the result of my grasping brain seeking relationships between randomly positioned objects on the page, while the random-looking sprinkled dots on the other image had been generated with a simple rule governing the space between each point. So, I learnt two things about my judgement. First, that I was very very bad at seeing order in absences; second, that I would eagerly interpret a pattern in any number of things that fell close enough together to seem connected. And, according to the text of the essay¹ this illustrated, most people made the same mistake I did. Human beings are ferociously good strange coincidence detectors, and absolutely horrible at interpreting relationships within large quantities of information.

How horrible? Well, if you read Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in the Guardian, every week has a new example of either general failure to comprehend research and statistics, or cynical exploitation of this general failure. The book pulls together some of the great narratives of irrationality covered by Goldacre on his blog and for the paper: the great greasy mess of the Durham fish oils trials, the strange power of homeopathy, the depressing momentum of the MMR scare.

And what feels invigorating and entertaining as a weekly debunking takes on a more depressing character as it builds up into a bigger argument about the weakness of the media and the failure of public understanding of science. Christ, it really is dreadful. Newspapers and broadcast outlets routinely distort figures, present corporate press releases as interesting facts, and confound unlikly anecdotes with evidence – partly because the average jouralist is no better than any other average person at understanding figures, and partly because of the brutalising demands of churnalism and the economic need to pull out a striking headline.

Bad Science is an excellent tutorial in recognising the shabby stories and filtering out the nonsense from your news consumption (you’ll never read a report about nutrition without muttering, “Yes, but are they a dietitian?” to yourself). Once you’ve started disgarding the misinformation and the mangled data, though, there’s almost no science coverage left to read: some Saturdays, there’s probably only Goldacre. And even with his sharp writing and smart jokes, it’s undeniably all a bit bleak.

But you don’t just get your faith in journalism smashed out of you. You also get a high-speed course in all the mental distortions that make mistakes like mine with the dots, or Nick Cohen’s with the MMR, so easy to make. And then you get a breezy walkthrough of the ways science has developed to compensate for these crippling freaks of perception: placebo controlled trials, statistical analysis, things so sublimely elegant that once they’re explained it seems extraordinary that anyone ever got anything right without them – and so precisely counter-intuitive, it’s astonishing that people worked them out at all.

For regular Bad Science readers, a lot of the book will feel familiar. But the force and clarity gained by putting everything in the same place is great, and even if you’ve soaked up everything Goldacre’s ever written – every post, tweet and blog comment – you should still buy and read this book, especially now it comes in a new mass-market paperback with the previously-withheld-due-to-legal-proceedings Matthias Rath chapter. (If you’ve already paid out for the first edition, the extra chapter is available to download. Lovely.) There aren’t many things you can buy that will genuinely make you smarter, but by giving you a thorough education in your own – and the media’s – ignorance, this book is worth an ocean of fish oil.

¹ Look, I know it’s pretty shabby to have started out a review of Bad Science with an unsourced anecdote. I think the essay is in Bully For Brontesaurus, and if anyone’s got a copy to hand and can correct my shambling memories, I’d be powerfully grateful.

Paperhouse reads: Liver

Liver‘s subtitle is “A fictional organ with an anatomy of four lobes” – because it’s a collection of four short stories all set in the same fictional universe. Between the gory physicality of that summary and its literary precision, Will Self gives a perfect biopsy of his style. Funny, bleak, grotesque, dispassionate: Self’s liver is a bilious organ.

liver-cover1

I started reading Self when he was doing the cult books segment for Mark Radcliffe’s graveyard shift show on Radio 1: every few weeks, he’d show up and laud a work of fiction, and a bit later I’d borrow it from the library and add it to my store of teenage pretension. I read Lolita, Perfume and Kafka on Self’s recommendation. I also read Self’s Quantity Theory, Grey Area and Cock And Bull, really enjoying the mixture of dismal sex and absurdist satire. But then Tough Tough Toys… was a bit disappointing, and the columns in the Indy felt laboured and drab, and I let Self drift out of the circle of things in which I was interested. Look, I was 18, barely out of Point Horror and working my way through the best books ever written. It’s almost completely not my fault that I totally underrated Self.

I even managed to miss this happening. But I’ve started to catch up now, and Liver is a decent place to start. All of the extended short stories take place in the same fictional universe, with characters moving between as connecting tissue, although each narrative is essentially self-enclosed. And, more jarringly, each one twists distinctively out of realist-satirical mode and into another genre of its own: Greek mythology, supernatural interventions, sci-fi. The lobes of the book are separate but related, forming a whole from which any part could be lost without changing the function of the book (apart, obviously, from the function of being like a liver).

And it’s also about livers, and the abuses the organs are put to by human appetites. Scabrous about consumption and acute about addiction and desire, there’s a striking lack of compassion despite all the close observation. Sometimes – especially with the characters who stick around across more than one section – this feels almost too hard to take. It’s not the dreadful things Self does to his characters that you mind: it’s that he can’t say anything nice about them while he’s acting as their tormentor.

But the mysanthropy’s the only thing you can see coming. I’ve never read a fiction narrated by a chorus of microbes before. Nor have you (I imagine), and Self throws out these unexpected inventions with the ease of someone who can make this shit up with some to spare. And he can write, too: not just slinging together a few well-constructed sentences, but rolling out perfected phrases by the pageful. His language is excessive and his vocabulary ripe, but it’s controlled excess – the abundant swears have a well-timed precision, and the moments where he throws in one deliberate cliché too many are rare enough to be tolerable.

Paperhouse at the picturehouse: Helvetica

helvetica-poster

Designer Erik Spiekermann is expressive in his indifference to the Helvetica typeface when interviewed for Gary Hustwit’s documentary: “It’s air, you know. It’s just there. There’s no choice. You have to breathe, so you have to use Helvetica.” But even he acknowledges that the font represents the ultimate refinement in sans-serif clarity. In the extras, spitting out contempt for Microsoft’s Arial, Spiekermann says that the MS font is an imitation of Helvetica – and because Helvetica is “perfect”, Arial was designed by making arbitrary changes to the Helvetica template. “So of course, it’s even worse”, fumes Spiekermann. (See this link for more prime Arial disgust.)

For modernist designers of the fifties and sixties, Helvetica’s sleekness and balance made it perfect for the clean and orderly vision they were pursuing. In the documentary, Massimo Vignelli and Mike Parker speak with genuine passion about this supposedly anonymous typeface, and it’s power to sweep away the whimsy and clutter of postwar design. Within two decades, though, a Helvetica hegemony had risen up, and it’s easy to sympathise with the frustrations of the typographers interviewed here who are bored by the the font. Seventies radical Paula Scher voices the fiercest criticism, identifying the font with globalisation, capitalism and Reagan-voters. So there’s a quiet and beautiful contrast between these intense reactions and the concentrated craftsmanship of the opening, which shows a typesetter at his exacting work.

Helvetica type

The font was designed, and named, by the Haas foundry specifically to serve the international market. And even though it became the native tongue of desktop publishing and municipal signage, its development was a reassuringly manual process of drafting, adjusting, weighting and perfecting until an exactly satisfying alphabet was achieved. When the font’s characteristics are explained – the perpendicular stroke-endings, the careful narrowing of a curve beside an upstroke – it’s easier to understand what makes Helvetica itself, even if it doesn’t explain why it feels so good to look at.

In the documentary, Lars Müller denies that ubiquitous Helvetica is the typographic maniestation of capitalism and calls it instead the typeface of socialism – because it’s accessible to everyone. (If I ever publish anything, I’ll get it set in Helvetica and have “Typeset in the font of socialism” printed in the front matter.) And then, more lyrically, he describes it as “the perfume of the city. It is just something we don’t notice usually but we would miss very much if it wouldn’t be there.” Hustwit’s documentary encourages you to look at something that’s everywhere and consider its history, its function and its meaning: not just Helvetica, but graphic design of all kinds.

The suggestion at the end of the film is that design has become democratised, more or less. Software makes the skills of graphic design available to anyone who can stump up for an Adobe suite, and the importance of online identities means that people are increasingly taking to design in the way that an earlier generation took to DIY to define themselves. (The designers are delicate enough not to mention self-expression through flashing gifs.) Screen-friendly, powerfully elegant on its own and unobtrusive when combined with other elements, Helvetica is ideal for the amateur. In the documentary, Rick Poyner says, “The designer has an enormous responsibility. Those are the people, you know, putting their wires into our heads.” And maybe the future of desktop designers is one where more people will think critically about what design is persuading them of; probably, it will be a future with even more Helvetica in it.