Three months of books and audiobooks. Ulysses casts a bloody massive shadow – I finished it at my fourth attempt – but the Gorbachev biography is also very highly recommended. On the audiobook front, Lincoln in the Bardo is like nothing I’ve ever heard before – multiple voices weave in and out, it could be confusing, but it is not. It’s magnificent.
I’ve just listened to the first episode of the BBC’s adaptation of Paradise Lost, with Ian McKellen as Milton and Simon Russell Beale as Satan. The adaptation, by Michael Symmons Roberts, is exquisite, but I had some thoughts on Milton’s work itself, and why it’s endured for so long. Yes, the poetry is transcendent, but it’s the storytelling that comes through beautifully in this adaptation.
Basically, Milton was a screenwriting don. Look at the evidence.
Start in the middle of the story
We open with Satan and his hordes groaning in the pit. How did they get there? What will they do once they’re there? We’re right in the story, with zero exposition.
Milton uses the demons themselves to explain Satan’s plans. One suggests war. One suggests doing nothing. One suggests revenge, in cold, hard verse. Guess which one the Fiend goes for?
Use flashback creatively
Raphael tells the story of the Fall to Adam and Eve, which allows Milton to absolutely go to town on describing the bloodbath (plasma bath?) on the fields of heaven.
Set up the what before the why
We know what’s going to happen to Adam and Eve. But Milton’s got a better plan to keep us on the hook. It’s not what they do, it’s why they do it. In fact, it’s not even why, but what in Heaven were you thinking, Father and Mother, given how clearly the danger had been laid out for you. The inevitability of the sin is remorseless. We’re locked into it as surely as Eve is. It’s cold and hard and awful.
So, if you’re thinking of trying your hand at an epic poem about Original Sin, the Fall, and the Birth of Humanity, remember this: it’s gotta have a story. However good your versification is.
I went to Berlin last year and asked Twitter what to do there. I got a ton of responses so I’m putting them here for the Public Good (and more immediately because Rachel asked for them and I needed something to link to).
Naomi Alderman’s The Power has had momentum since it was published in 2016. It won the Baileys Women’s Prize For Fiction in 2017. It’s been acquired for television adaptation. And, most enticingly of all for impenitent liberals like me, it was one of Barack Obama’s best books of the year.
The premise is disarmingly simple: what would happen if women were to develop, almost overnight, the capacity to seriously injure others – and by others I mean, in the main, men? How would the world shift if the fundamental determinant of sexual relations – that a man is physically stronger than a woman – was turned on its head?
Out of that, Alderman develops a novel that is one part dystopian thriller and one part sly deliberation on gender politics. The book works perfectly well as a thriller. As a satire, it’s bravely magnificent, although it is occasionally really hard to read. It contains scenes which some readers will find distort their impressions of the whole book – one good friend of mine found herself disliking the book because of some of these scenes. I guess this post is a kind of argument with her, even though she doesn’t know I’m writing it.
You have to say this about The Power: man, it’s cold. I mean really, really cold. The logic of the inversion of gender power that she has invented leads Alderman to treat of sexual assault, and she follows that logic down into depths which some readers won’t want to descend – it is these scenes which my friend objected to. Those scenes are some of the most chilling things I’ve ever seen or read or heard (and I consumed The Power as an audiobook, more of which in a second). One particular episode in a refugee camp towards the end of the book is so extreme that it might lead you to push the whole book to one side, in some disgust.
But the political logic of what Alderman is doing in The Power demands that scene. Nothing she describes in it hasn’t happened the other way around. There are places in the world where it is probably happening right now. It happened in Europe within living memory. It will happen, and it will go on happening. That’s cold, woman. And it’s true.
I think these almost satirical aspects of the book are more powerful than the story itself. Just before I started scribbling these words, I read a fantastic profile of Jordan Peele in the New York Times, and it got me thinking about the resonances between The Power and Peele’s magnificent Get Out. Both are works wearing the trappings of popular entertainment that make potent remarks about political injustice. Peele uses horror movies as his framework, Alderman apocalyptic thrillers.
But because Peele’s story is so focussed on individuals, on a single sequence of events that could happen over a weekend, the narrative is more concentrated and, I think, more powerful. I’m talking here, as I always talk about these things on this blog, as a writer who’s trying to understand how other, better, writers do things. I think Get Out is a work of narrative genius because of its compression, and because of its humour. The Power is more sprawling, more epic in its scope – and I know (from bitter personal experience) how hard it is to maintain narrative tension on a broad canvas.
A quick word on the audiobook. The main narrator is Adjoa Andoh, with whom I’ve been a little bit in love for most of my adult life, and it’s a hell of a thing she pulls off here, because there are so many voices to encompass: an American politician and her daughter, a British gangster, a Nigerian journalist, a Moldovan maniac. I’ve only come round to audiobooks recently, and I’ve come to the realisation that the performance of them is as much to do with their success as the words being performed, and Andoh’s performance is prodigious.
And there’s another thing. Alderman very cleverly frames her story with fragments from a correspondence between a man and a woman of the future, discussing the events of the story from the ‘other side’ of the gender shift. This man and woman are historians and writers, and they are debating the book itself. The final exchange – the epilogue, I suppose – rounds off the book magnificently. The last line is an absolute dream and punches as hard as anything that goes before it.
Adjoa Andoh doesn’t read these sections. There are four other voices on the credits: Thomas Judd and Phil Nightingale are the two male voices, but there are two other female voices. One is Emma Fenney, and the other – the one who might be reading the words of the female historian and writer which close the book – is Naomi Alderman. You’ll have to read the book – or listen to the audio – to discover just how delicious that is.
A lovely fortnight on the Costa Blanca has just ended. I got through five books.
Four alternate worlds – and Kim, which reads like an alternate world in Kipling’s extraordinary imagination.
In 2015, Mark Zuckerberg – he of the social media leviathan and the sweaters – started a book group on Facebook, the idea being to open up a publish (ish) discussion of a book a fortnight for a year. The final list is pretty interesting – you can get more details on it here.
Creativity, Inc – Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace
Sapiens – Dr. Yuval Noah Harari
The Rational Optimist – Matt Ridley
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions – Thomas Kuhn
Why Nations Fail – Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson
The End of Power – Moisés Naím
The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander
Genome – Matt Ridley
Portfolios of the Poor – Daryl Collins, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford
Dealing with China – Henry M Paulson
The Varieties of Religious Experience – William James
The Better Angels of our Nature – Steven Pinker
The Three-Body Problem – Cixin Liu
Gang Leader for a Day – Sudhir Venkatesh
Energy: A Beginner’s Guide – Vaclav Smil
Orwell’s Revenge – Peter Huber
Rational Ritual – Michael Suk-Young Chwe
The Muqaddimah – Ibn Khaldûn
The Player of Games – Iain M Banks
On Immunity: An Inoculation – Eula Biss
The Beginning of Infinity – David Deutsch
World Order – Henry Kissinger
The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation – Jon Gertner
If you’ve read any of my books, you’ll know I’ve got a thing for the Thames, and for the Estuary in particular. Charles Horton himself sails downstream and out into the Estuary in The English Monster, and there are various comings-and-goings across this extraordinary stretch of water in all of the books.
I’ve done the journey myself a few times, most memorably on two separate occasions aboard the SS Waverley, the world’s last oceangoing paddle-steamer. She’s a beautiful thing, maintained by volunteers and run as a charity, and if you can get on board I heartily recommend it.
The second of my Waverley trips was only last week, so I thought I’d put some photos – and a bit of video – up here so people can see, in glorious amateurish technicolour, some of the places I’ve previously only described in words.
The destinations for this particular trip were the Maunsell Sea Forts, which were sunk into the sands of the Estuary during the Second World War. We visited the forts at Red Sands and the lovingly-titled Shivering Sands – these were the Army forts designed by Guy Maunsell, built at Gravesend and then towed out into the Estuary and sunk into the sands.
According to Wikipedia, these extraordinary constructions were responsible for downing 22 aircraft and 30 flying bombs during the Second World War. However, the Luftwaffe dropped 163 high-explosive bombs on St Katharine’s and Wapping alone from October to June 1941 – and in the process almost certainly destroyed the tenement block in which Charles Horton once lived (perhaps with his wife Abigail, though I confess I made her up).
If he’d have seen the Waverley, he’d have seen a vessel powered by technology that he would have recognised and understood. I picture him looking down into her engine and thinking to himself, if we can build this, what else can we build? Then he looks out into the Nore, the ancient mustering point for the English Navy, and sees the future shadow of concrete-and-steel forts, and from the East, the distant deep rumble of bombers.