Everything Is Nice

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She’s Got Issues

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A couple of years ago I reviewed The Flood by Maggie Gee. It isn’t a very good book and one of the main ways in which it isn’t very good is in its incredibly clumsy handling of issues like race and politics. Still, Gee is well regarded (she was one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 1983) so when I saw a copy of The Ice People in a secondhand bookshop I thought I’d give her a second chance.

The book gets off to a unfortunate start with the way the publisher has truncated its cover quote from Jeremy Paxman: “A remarkable novel… very funny.. up there with Orwell and Huxley.” Well known jokers, both. Inside, Gee’s own words are equally unintentionally eyebrow-raising. The issues are back and they are back in abundance. Here we have narrator Saul reflecting on his childhood in the future (AKA pretty much now):

I started to hate these foreigners. There wasn’t enough to share with them. We lived in a three-bed brick twentieth-century cottage with plasterboard doors that never quite shut, and my parents worked harder than anyone.
One day when my mother had come home exhausted from an all night run to Edinburgh, I told her I hated black people. She came into the garden in her dingy pink nightgown, and begged me to stop slamming my football against the shed. I did three more kicks, then went and lay down on the prickly yellow lawn, ignoring her.
‘What’s the matter?’ she asked. ‘For heaven’s sake.’
‘I don’t like black people,’ I said. ‘The screen said even more of them are trying to get in.’ To me they seemed like liars and scroungers who would keep my family poor for ever. ‘I hate black people. Why must they come here?’
She looked at me with a little frown, a puckered white thread in her sun-reddened forehead. ‘Saul – they’re not all the same, you know. You can’t go hating black people.’
‘It’s true, Mum. I saw the pictures.’
‘You don’t understand.’ She sounded peculiar. ‘Saul, listen … look … there’s something …’ She stared at the ground, her mouth working. Then something burst out like a stone at a windscreen. ‘Haven’t you noticed your father’s black?’ (p.7)

Actually, I take it back – this isn’t eyebrow-raising, it is agonising. Our narrator continues: “In the bathroom mirror I looked for the truth. My skin was golden, as it was before, but I watched it change and become light brown. Spots, I saw, and curly black hair, and features broadening with adolescence. My nostrils, flaring. Yes, and my lips. I saw Dad’s face behind my own.” (p.8) We then skip forward ten years to the 2020s and from race, we move to gender:

…the fashion was for shaving, of heads and bodies. Why was that? Hard to recall now, but it lasted for decades, that egglike baldness. Perhaps it was a kind of streamlining, an attempt to keep cool at any cost. And the style appealed to both men and women. The fashion of the time was for androgyny, so hair was suspect, for it signalled gender.
And yet, though our clothes and hair denied it, a great gap had grown up between the sexes. Segging we called it. From segregation. Almost everything we did was segged. Girls with girls, boys with boys, great droves of animals bypassing each other, eyes darting across, wild in the neon, jostling, signalling, twisting through the night, two big streams that couldn’t make a river. (p.12)

George Melly says the book can be read as “an analysis of the widening gulf between men and women.” I must have missed that. Saul’s role in the novel is to represent men in this laughable gender wars set-up. In particular, he embodies pig-headed conservative masculinity which means that he has to fall in love with Sarah, the first woman with hair that he sees:

‘Oh god,’ the woman said. I looked at her. She had long hair. Most females under fifty had short hair, unless they were under ten, that is. She was small, slim, in a loose white dress, not fashionable, a ‘pretty’ dress. What my mother would have called a pretty dress… That weird waterfall of hair. Such childish hair. Reddish-brown, shiny, glinting like conkers against their white shell, and her skin had tiny freckles like dots of honey. She looked miserable, but her eyes were very blue. She came closer. The music gathered and poured. My heart swelled absurdly. (p. 14)

Sarah is a new type of teacher for this brave new world where humanity has spontaneously given up on heterosexuality:

‘It’s a new post,’ she said, shy. ‘I’m something called a Role Support Officer.’
‘What does that mean, then?’ I asked her.
‘The government’s decided that boys and girls have to be taught to get on together. It’s partly political, I’m afraid. They’re making appointments all over the country. Because the fertility figures are down again, and they have to seem to be doing something. Elections next year, of course.’
‘How do you mean, get on together?’

‘Well – I mean – you know – ‘ She was intensely embarrassed. ‘Live together, I suppose. Try to get them living together again.’ (p.15)

I was pretty intensely embarrassed by this point too. Is Gee joking? The tone isn’t comic and there is nothing to indicate satire but this can’t be meant seriously, can it? (As with The Flood, you can tell when Gee is doing satire and it is bloody awful: the Conservative Party have become the Conserver Party, theatres have become lloydwebbers, etc, etc.) If it is a joke, it is in pretty poor taste:

‘I like the look of you. You’re – different. You’re not just English, are you? What are you? French? Spanish?’ She looked straight at me. Her curiosity was like a kiss. Then she lit up. ‘You’re beek, aren’t you. You must be, of course! Tell me I’m right.’
And she had seen the thing that I wanted her to see. Beek was short for bicolor, the French insult that black people themselves had taken over to mean ‘mixed race’, and she used it so easily.
‘Yes, I’m beek. Most people don’t notice. My father’s half-African, my mother was white.’ Had I ever said it straight out before? She made me feel I could be myself.
‘That explains why – well, you look good to me.’ She finished the sentence in an awkward rush. ‘I’m very interested in all that. It was part of my Ethnicities diploma course.’
I’d always disliked the word ‘ethnicity’ – it sounds like someone cleaning their teeth – but on her lips, it seemed tolerable. (p.16)

This would be bad enough in its own right but Gee seems not to have considered that it might be problematic to make your misogynistic avatar of everything that is primitive and base about masculinity a black man. This is how Saul acts when they are first together: “She made the food; I ate it, gratefully. She washed the clothes; I put them on. I never really noticed that she was doing more (but she could have spoken; she could have complained) until one day we had our first quarrel.” (p.24) And here he is after ten years have past: “I was slow to resume our sex life after Luke was born. I wanted to be sensitive. I spit with derision to think of it now, but I didn’t want to hurt her where she had been hurt. If you love a woman you don’t want to hurt her. And then you want to smash her, rape her, kill her. (p.42)” Gee’s ability to inhabit the male psyche is uncanny! Everything is is so baffoonishly broad that you suspect it was written in crayon. Here, for example, is Saul’s entirely realistic reaction to discovering he has a low sperm count:

I was angry, and hurt. Sarah claimed I exploded. ‘Oh, you don’t know it all, then?’ I sneered at him. I tore his form in two, then in four. ‘Do you think that’s a surprise to anyone? Science knows fuck all about making babies –’
‘He’s upset,’ said Sarah, pre-emptively. ‘I’m sorry, Dr Um – I can never remember your name. Sorry.’
‘Wang. Dr Wang –’ (I laughed, rudely) ‘we quite understand these are stressful experiences.’
Dr Wang ‘understood’ – but no one understood. I had just been told my sperm was semi-fertile. My balls were no good, that was what I heard. They were big and firm, I had trusted them, I’d secretly believed the problem was Sarah’s – (p.33)

Dr Wang? “Big and firm”? This is unreadable and, impossibly, the depiction of fertility treatment that follows is even more offensive than the rest of the novel. I very rarely put down a novel but after 50 pages I could take no more. I started by mentioning Paxman’s quote on the front cover but there is an even more troubling one on the back: “Martin Amis once said Gee was the only female author of his generation he would bother to read.” Let that be your warning.

Written by Martin

11 May 2013 at 19:28

Posted in books, sf

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The Flood

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thefloodAn unknown narrator reminisces about their life in “the earthly city”, a life that preceded – we assume – some catastrophic flood. Where is the earthly city? What is the earthly city? We aren’t told. Instead our narrator immediately disappears and we are introduced to a range of characters from the city. First there is May, a widow, who is reflecting on the soap opera of her family life. Specifically, she is thinking about her daughter:

Yet the choices Shirley made had set the cat among the pigeons. She liked black men. Elroy was black.
Sometimes May felt Shirley had wrecked their lives, because Dirk, May’s son, was still in prison for killing Winston, Elroy’s brother. His own sister’s brother-in-law.(p.12)

Then there is Lottie, “a rich woman”, who owns Edward Hopper’s Morning Sun (which is actually in the Columbus Museum of Art) and believes it perfectly captures her nature. She is indolently lounging in her bed, reflecting on her sleeping husband:

And in certain respects, certain private respects, where Lottie had always had high standards, Harold was very – satisfactory. He satisfied here, every time.(p.15)

May’s quote is frank, Lottie’s is coy but both display an irritating pedantry on Gee’s part. Warning flags are raised. Finally there is Bruno, a Christian fundamentalist. Unlike May or Lottie there is not even an attempt to make him a real person, instead his Travis Bickell-style yearning for a cleansing rain to wash away the decadence of the city establish him as the mouth piece for discussing religion and an obvious conduit for later action. This is obviously going to be a book with a lot of Themes.

The narrative has floated across the city, briefly alighting on these people before moving on. The next chapter opens with more of the same. This time it is Shirley herself, a welcomingly rounded presence, who also demonstrates that Gee is occasionally capable of great lines such as when Shirley’s babysitter is described as being “at the sullen epicentre of her teens” (p.20). Unfortunately we then move on to Dirk, every bit as much a pitiful cipher as Bruno. We discover that the murder was a queer-bashing with more than a hint of suppressed attraction:

…but then the man played with himself, in the dark, and Dirk had to kill him to save himself from the red raw hunger that came upon him.(p.25)

Gee ratchets up the soap opera quotient and continues to chalk up more items in the Themes column: Race, Religion, Redemption, Repression. Also note the use of the word “coloured”. Within pages we have “darkies” and “half-caste”. We might not know where the earthy city is but we now know when; Gee appears to be stuck in the Seventies. (There is something cringeworthy about her treatment of race in general with her stereotypically Black names and embarrassing attempts at slang.)

Then we move on to Faith, mother of Shirley’s babysitter. Are you keeping up? It is at this point that Gee reveals her hand: she is writing a satire. Until now, all her characters – except Shirley – have tended to the functional and schematic; Faith is such a caricature bitch that we realise this was all warm up. This is hammered home by the next two characters.

Firstly there is Delorice, sister of Elroy and Winston and rising star of the publishing industry. This means we are forced to sit in on a painfully contrived decision meeting regarding a book called A Breast In Winter, “an upbeat rural cancer saga”. It becomes evident that subtlety is not one of Gee’s concerns. Secondly, there is Mr Bliss, president of the earthly city, who has a habit of peppering his sentences with an imploring “guys” and is currently planning a pre-emptive strike against a neighbouring city. Hmm, who on Earth could President Bliss be based on?

Christ almighty, this is tiresome stuff. Only 42 pages into the novel, I was in need of reassurance so I went on the internet. The Flood was published in 2004. It was preceded by The White Family (2002) which appears to be the story of May, Shirley and Dirk. Her third novel was Light Years (1985) which appears to be the story of Lottie. Both appear to be set in our world. Rather than reassuring me, I was starting to fear that The Flood was an unholy mash-up of everything Gee had ever written filtered through the Guardian’s comment section.

To make matters worse, you can easily see a much better novel hidden away inside The Flood. Once the book has had a chance to bed in, Shirley and Lottie (if not the other characters) start to develop and take on some of the texture of the real world. Similarly there are moments where Gee perfectly captures the affect she is seeking:

Yet twenty minutes later Gerda was in the water, the clear blue water with its minnows of sunlight, warm as happiness, swimming, swimming, and Davey, on the other side of the pool, cleaved powerfully, blindly through his programme, and Lorna stood on the side and watched them, wishing that she had learned to swim, wishing that she were young again, understanding and forgiving Gerda, and all the knots of passion and pain were dissolved in the moment, and floated away.(p.171)

These moments are few and far between though. More often the are crowded out by ghastly artistic decisions, a convoluted and contrived web of serendipity, baldly re-stated back story, leaden “mediations” on Themes, characters who are relentlessly over-share in the most banal terms and dialogue that clearly issues form the author’s mouth rather than those of the characters. As I’ve hint, there are also far too many characters and most are used merely as props to be wheeled out as appropriate.

Then there is Gee’s use of the fantastic. This mainly consists of over using the definitive article when it comes to naming areas of the city (the Gardens, the Institute, the Towers) and slightly altering the names of countries (Turko, Malai, Anaturia). When Lottie goes to the opera (just called the Royal Opera, naturally) to see Madama Butterfly we are treated to the following exchange:

Pinkerton told the American ambassador about his plan to take a temporary bride from the imaginary country of Japan.
Davey, on Delorice’s other side, told her in a whisper, “America is really Hesperica, of course”
“That’s obvious,” she hissed back. (p.147)

Is this supposed to clever? Or witty? It is neither. So America becomes Hesperica, New York, appallingly, becomes New Work and the earthly city itself is clearly an alternative world version of London. Gee also makes some cowardly decisions to de-fang her satire; the names of political parties are conspicuous by their absence and the newspapers all have joke names like the Daily Bread. But this is an alternative world where everything else stays the same; as well as Hopper and Puccini, Gee proves her street cred (ho ho) by mentioning Jamiroquai and Coldplay. The major religions are all the same and in one typically clumsy scene May is corrected for referring to a Pakistani man as an Indian. Presumably Gee was so caught up by her Theme that she forgot she was meant to pointlessly shuffle the letters of each country. On the other hand, All of which poses the question, why isn’t The Flood set in our world?

At this point, I feel the need to talk about The Year Of The Flood, although it feels faintly disrespectful to compare a writer like Gee to one like Margaret Atwood. Both novels want to have their cake and eat it in similar ways; the straddle realism and farce and use the fantastic as a cloak for refusing to commit to either. I am a huge admirer of Atwood but I found her most recent novel absolutely infuriating for its combination of stellar prose and silly satire. A compendium of my complaints follows:

Atwood’s worldbuilding in all its awesome weakness… geographical incongruity and bloody silly set-dressing… Atwood has upended all her ideas onto the page and left them bunched together there… alas, although Atwood has now started in on the puns, she is unfortunately only warming up and has many more to come… sometimes it is hard to tell which are worse, the puns (implants for bimbos equal “Bimplants”) or just the ugly assaults on proper spelling (a spa called “AnooYou”)… a blush of childlike naivete.

Unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, which takes aim at our world whilst remaining true to its own world, The Year Of The Flood buys into the idea that science fiction is essentially a satirical rather than speculative genre. It is a mistaken belief but one that is relatively common amongst non-genre SF writers (the dabblers, as Iain M Banks would put it). Incoherence is not an issue because the writer is deliberately presenting an exaggerated version of our world. Unfortunately this often means that the complexity of reality is traded in for cartoonish approximations.

All of my complaints about The Year Of The Flood could equally apply to The Flood but Maggie Gee does at least have the excuse that she isn’t actually writing science fiction. She certainly has in the past – The Ice People (1999) is set in a dystopian future where the world is in the grip of another ice age – and a skim of the synopsis of this novel convinced me she had again. This assumption was wrong; rather it is a fable, a form that allows even greater scope for incoherence and is a refuge for lazy writers. Shouldn’t I just be able to accept The Flood as a fairytale where coherence is immaterial? I’m afraid I can’t; I find it too close to our world to allow it to function in this way. Personally, I find its incoherence an affront, a fundamental lack of respect for the reader.

The other issue is that Margaret Atwood has the get-out-of-jail-free card of being Margaret Atwood whereas Gee is not so blessed. So much of The Flood is just outright bad, that there is precious little left to enjoy, even if you are inclined to accept that Gee’s world is not meant to make sense.

She saves one last unpleasantly nonsensical surprise for the end. As signalled from the beginning the flood does indeed come, taking the form of a vast tsunami caused by an asteroid hitting Earth. The city is destroyed… and everyone turns up in Kew Gardens. Because Kew Gardens is heaven? Or the book was all a dream? Or Gee likes hanging out at Kew? The narrator of the introductory section – Gee herself? – never returns and we are left to draw our own conclusions. It is a magnificently complacent ending to a magnificently complacent book.

Written by Martin

23 May 2011 at 13:42

Posted in books, sf

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