Review: Borrowed Time by Naomi A. Alderman

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture review on 3 July 2018.

From a career perspective, the middle initial is the would-be sci-fi writer’s greatest asset. Especially if you also hope to maintain a career in the Literary Sphere, a good middle initial can demarcate your science fiction from the ‘real world’ stuff, while still reeling in your inbuilt audience. Hence Iain M. Banks, Jenny T. Colgan, and the subject of today’s review, Naomi A. Alderman. Now world-famous as the author of 2016 bestseller The Power, in 2011 Alderman was “only” a very successful and respected literary novelist, known for titles including Disobedience and The Lessons. Apparently at the request of her younger cousin that she ‘write something for him to read,’ Alderman donned the middle initial to pen a Doctor Who novel featuring Matt Smith’s Doctor for BBC Books. The result, Borrowed Time, is a thoughtful and exciting Doctor Who story about nefarious bankers and alien con merchants, seeing a re-release this month to capitalise on Alderman’s still-rising star. 

Given the commercial reasons behind this re-release, it is perhaps ironic that Borrowed Time concerns itself so heavily with late capitalism. The first chapter follows a day in the life of Andrew Brown, a harassed and overworked junior analyst at Lexington International Bank, as he oversleeps, forgets his sister’s birthday, and turns up late and under-prepared to a meeting. At peak frustration, he is approached by two sinister businessmen, Mr Symington and Mr Blenkinsop, who make him an offer he can’t refuse:

‘Mr Brown, we can loan you time.’
‘That’s right, Mr Brown. We can lend you as much time as you need. As much time as you can handle. As much time as you could ever desire.’”

But of course, this offer comes with a catch: 

“‘Now of course, Mr Brown, that time will have to be paid back.’
‘At what we think you’ll agree,’ muttered Mr Blenkinsop, just a little too fast for Andrew to fully catch, ‘is a very reasonable rate of interest.’

A few months later, the Doctor, Amy and Rory arrive to find strange goings-on at Lexington International Bank. Its employees are almost inhumanly productive, apparently spending more time at work than there are hours in the day, and its new boss, Rebecca Laing-Randall, seems to be hiding something… 

The novel’s basic setting and concerns have aged well. Borrowed Time came out three months before the start of Occupy Wall Street in 2011, and the intervening years have seen repeated controversies surrounding bankers’ bonuses, austerity, Corbynism, and even Doctor Who itself explicitly fighting ‘capitalism in space’ in the 2017 episode Oxygen. There’s a maturity to the way Alderman deals with these concepts that feels refreshing for a Doctor Who book, not to mention being ahead of the larger franchise. That said, Borrowed Time is nothing as dull as ‘Doctor Who for Grown-Ups’. Alderman is unashamedly writing an all-ages action adventure with all the requisite monsters and chases (including a rather fun runaround with some giant cockroaches under the Millennium Dome). 

This all-ages remit is hard-wired into Doctor Who. Originally conceived as a family programme, intended to bridge the gap between Grandstand and Juke Box Jury in the BBC One Saturday evening schedule, its original cast consisted of two middle-aged schoolteachers, a teenage girl and an older man — designed to be as demographically diverse and thus broadly appealing as possible (within the limited range of people who could attain starring roles on BBC One in 1963). This family focus, always present to one degree or another in its subsequent 26-year run, meant the show was ripe for a revival in the early 2000s wave of ‘crossover’ children’s fiction marketed to adults. The standard-bearer for this wave was the Harry Potter franchise, and Russell T. Davies repeatedly cited J.K. Rowling as an influence over his 2005 revival of Doctor Who (at one point even speculating about casting her in an episode). This literary tradition was further played up when Steven Moffat took over in 2010, emphasising the show’s ‘fairy tale’ qualities, and it’s broadly this tradition that Alderman writes in here. The ostensibly ‘adult’ setting of the bank is made accessible to children through the familiar figures of the Doctor and his companions, while the abstract threat of financial disaster is made more visceral through the use of monsters. 

Everything about Borrowed Time points to a writer who fundamentally “gets” Doctor Who. The book has twenty chapters of near-uniform length, each containing an interesting set piece, from ‘our heroes are trapped in a confined space with alien crabs’ to ‘the Doctor attempts to blend in at a business meeting and fails utterly’. These keep the action nicely varied while still advancing the main plot, creating a brisk pace that ensures no idea outstays its welcome. It is by no means a revolutionary structure, but it does demonstrate that real thought has gone into shaping the story and making it engaging to younger readers. References to Doctor Who old and new are sprinkled throughout (seeing a Respected Literary Author reference The Masque of Mandragora is a rare joy for the long-term fan) and the basic idea of ‘aliens wreak havoc in contemporary London’ owes a clear debt to the 1970s iteration of the show, as well as its more modern incarnations. There’s even a revival of the show’s educational mandate, with the revelation that the book’s villains are exploiting the human race’s craving for time by lending it to them at impossibly high rates of compound interest, resulting in them owing more time than they could ever repay. This not only turns the novel into a sci-fi retelling of the 2008 financial crisis, it also leads to a pleasantly kid-friendly explanation of how compound interest works, through layers of icing stacked upon a slice of cake:

‘The interest goes up much faster than your actual borrowings. Once an hour, a slice of icing for every hour you’ve borrowed.’
‘That’s a lot of icing.’
‘That’s how compound interest works. Eventually, the icing you have to pay on the icing is thousands of times more than the cake.’
Amy stared at the soft sweet brown mass of icing. She’d never disliked icing before, but she wasn’t sure she ever wanted to eat it again now.

By making the villains’ scheme hinge on a real feature of the financial system, the book manages to highlight the potentially predatory nature of that system without resorting to raw didacticism. In this moment, we are not merely asked to contemplate the possible danger of compound interest — we are made viscerally aware of it, with the knowledge that Amy has herself been borrowing time and now owes thousands of years. By evoking the existing financial system, and subjecting a character we care about to a particularly brutal iteration of it, Alderman demonstrates the unfairness of that system while providing a moment of dramatic horror. 

On top of that, the book has a number of clever riffs on the idea of money in Doctor Who generally, and how the show tends to obscure concrete economics. At one point Rory gives a homeless woman money, musing:

It was funny how, living in the TARDIS and travelling with the Doctor, money began to feel less important, even meaningless. There were seemingly limitless supplies of all kinds of exotic alien currencies piled up in some of the TARDIS’s rooms… but they never found anything much to spend money on, and the things they did and saw couldn’t have been bought at any price. He’d brought loads of money, just in case, but now he only carried his wallet out of habit, and this woman needed its contents more than he did.

This is a clever observation, and one which naturally extends from Rory as a character. Not only is Rory a generally kind person, he’s also someone who notices and comments on the rules governing the world of Doctor Who (in series five, for example, he twigs how the TARDIS works before the Doctor can explain it to him). Amy is similarly well-served by Alderman, with an entire chapter dedicated to her over-borrowing time, neatly demonstrating the seductive power of the villain’s offer. If anything, the Doctor is the one given the least attention in the character department, with relatively little insight into his emotional state as he dispenses jokes and exposition. Mind you, this is far from unusual for the series, and is made up for by a well-developed supporting cast, including three employees of Lexington Bank whom the Doctor and his friends help rebel against their corporate masters. 

Even with its shiny new edition, Borrowed Time is likely to remain a footnote in Alderman’s larger career. But as career footnotes go, it is far more interesting than it has any right to be; an imaginative, intelligently-structured Doctor Who story with lots of jolly anti-capitalism for the kids. Indeed, on the strength of this book, it’s easy to see why Alderman was tapped as one of the first authors to write for Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor in prose, with an as-yet unnamed story featuring the Thirteenth Doctor set to drop next March. One can only hope that story will continue in the vein of Borrowed Time; exciting, characterful, and unmistakably Doctor Who. 

Oh, and it also contains the greatest thematic riff ever written on Attack of the Cybermen. 

Borrowed Time is re-released in paperback now. It is available here, RRP £7.99. 

Review: Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review on 26 May 2018.

Earlier this year, The Sun ran a story about a new edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, with the headline “FLAKENSTEINS: Snowflake students claim Frankenstein’s monster was ‘misunderstood’ — and is in fact a VICTIM.” The article was mainly a thinly-veiled excuse to sneer at, among other things, the concept of human rights, but the story was also picking up on a similar article in The Times earlier that week: “Frankenstein’s monster? He was stitched up, say millennials.” The Sun piece caused a predictable round of social media guffaws thanks to its reactionary tone and apparent ignorance that reading Frankenstein’s monster sympathetically is common practice.

This mildly amusing social media storm casts an unexpected light on Jonathan Wright’s translation of Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad. Also published this year, and shortlisted for the Booker International Prize, one of the themes that Frankenstein in Baghdad explores is the relationship between press sensationalism and the politically complex nature of victimhood. The title ‘Frankenstein in Baghdad’ itself appears in the novel as a sensationalist media headline, grafted by an unscrupulous editor onto a more sober article by one of the novel’s journalist characters. All the news reports we see are distorted and partisan, and a general atmosphere of confusion and distrust permeates the novel, suitable for the book’s setting between 2003 and 2008. As one character remarks, “We are in the middle of an information war,” and the nature of Baghdad’s ‘Frankenstein’ is one of many contested facts.

The plot is, if not straightforward, at least easy to follow; a Baghdad junk dealer, Hadi, begins collecting the stray limbs and organs of the city’s many bomb victims, stitching them together into a gruesome “Whatsitsname” in the hopes that it might be “respected like other dead people and given a proper burial.” When a hotel guard, Hasib, is vapourised by yet another suicide bomber and his soul is left with nowhere to go, he possesses the Whatitsname and begins pursuing bloody vengeance on the killers of its constituent body parts, attracting the attention of, among others, the Baghdad press, government, and occupation forces.

The book’s large cast means the reader never gets comfortable with a single perspective, and the book’s structure is consistently wrong-footing. Each chapter is broken into five sub-chapters, an appropriately fragmented style which jumbles the chronology and subjectivity of the book’s events. This structure also serves the novel’s absurdist sense of humour, the more outlandish conceits blending in with the surreal detachment from the rest of the war. (A personal favourite moment comes just after the Whatsitsname’s escape: “Hadi went outside and looked up and down the lane for a sign that something strange had happened, but he wasn’t willing to stop any of his neighbours to ask, ‘Excuse me, have you seen a naked corpse walking down the street?’”)

The Whatsitsname himself is a compelling presence, even if the novel’s structure means he’s out of the picture for longer than one might expect. When we do hear from him, it is usually via people who have some professional interest in his existence. His longest section of narration comes via a digital recorder handed to a journalist (the veracity of which is questionable; the possibility that the tape is a hoax is repeatedly brought up). Our experience of the Whatsitsname is deliberately mediated (at one point via a literal medium), and this formal distance prevents the reader from ever trusting or siding with him completely.

What little we do know is continuously warped by rumour, or by simple misinterpretation. At one point the Whatsitsname commits a triple murder in which three homeless men are found dead, having apparently strangled each other. The authorities perceive it as almost artistically perverse (“If Hazem Abboud had seen this and taken a picture, he would have won an international prize”) but the Whatsitsname later explains it was a darkly comic accident. This disconnect is further heightened when the Whatsitsname is profiled in the Baghdad magazine al-Haqiqa (literally ‘the Truth’ in Arabic), and is illustrated by a photo of Robert Deniro from the 1994 film adaptation of Frankenstein. The media, along with almost every other character in the novel, consistently misinterprets and misrepresents the Whatsitsname, contributing to a general sense of unease and distrust around the creature.

In his own telling, the Whatsitsname discovers that, as he takes revenge on the killers of his constituent parts, the avenged parts decay and drop off. To retain a complete body, therefore, necessitates further killings to acquire new parts. At one point he acquires a cult of followers who end up stealing the corpse of a man killed fighting in the streets, forcibly grafting his less innocent organs onto the Whatsitsname’s body, before they themselves are mostly wiped out by infighting. From there, the Whatsitsname begins killing less and less discriminately, even starting to murder innocent people, implicitly because the murderous intent of his new body parts has been incorporated into his personality.

The Whatsitsname’s anxiety over his own makeup is a fascinating tension throughout the novel. Composed of a multitude of people’s remains, from a wide variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds, at one point he declares himself “the first true Iraqi citizen.” This mixed identity bleeds into later anxieties about the morality of his actions:

The Whatsitsname was now at a loss for what to do. He knew his mission was essentially to kill, to kill new people every day, but he no longer had a clear idea who should be killed or why. The flesh of the innocents, of which he was initially composed, had been replaced by new flesh, that of his own victims and criminals.

This blurring of victimhood and guilt is one of Saadawi’s clearer inheritances from Shelley, though Saadawi’s setting means that the provenance of the monster’s parts is more central here than in the original. Put simply, it matters who has died, and how, to create Saadawi’s monster. What’s more, the idea of a multitude of parties, combined in one messy, unstable body, whose violence only begets more violence, is a functional metaphor for the war itself. It’s a context far removed from Shelley’s Romantic anxieties, and one possessing a disturbing power of its own.

If the novel has flaws, they mainly come in the last few chapters. The late introduction of the character of “the Writer,” who interviews the rest of the cast and diegetically writes the novel itself, feels a bit too neat for a book so otherwise invested in untrustworthy mediation. Also frustrating is a late twist in Hadi’s own subplot which, while an amusingly sick joke for lovers of the original Frankenstein, feels underdeveloped, blazed past without the space to properly move or horrify.

Overall, Frankenstein in Baghdad is a thoughtful, engaging, and darkly amusing novel. It feels particularly relevant not only post-Iraq War, but in our current age of fake news and cultural warfare. Saadawi’s Whatsitsname, like the original Frankenstein’s Monster, is both victim and villain. The struggle to reconcile the two, and to understand their intersections — a task not helped by hyperbolic, even misleading media portrayals — feels more important than ever.

Frankenstein in Baghdad is available to buy, RRP £12.99. The novel is translated by Jonathan Wright.

Review: The New Oxford Shakespeare: Modern Critical Edition

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review on 16 January 2017.

With any new publication, especially concerning the “universal” bard, it’s worth asking, ‘Who is this for?’ The New Oxford Shakespeare is no different. Coming to us from general editors Gary Taylor, John Jowett, Terri Bourus, and Gabriel Egan, Oxford University Press’s fourth iteration of the complete works is actually not one book, but four: The Complete Works: Modern Critical Edition (under review here), The Critical Reference Edition (containing the folio and quarto texts in their original spelling), the Authorship Companion (explaining the editors’ choices in detail), and an online resource gathering all of the above. The Complete Works’ modern spelling and slick cover design marks it as one for Waterstones’ shelves, but its prospects for this audience seem dubious. At fifty pounds it’s hardly in the ‘stocking filler’ price range, and it comes at a time when access to Shakespeare is widening anyway, through live streams of major productions and online resources like Folger Digital Texts. Despite apparently having taken 27 credited editors and consultants ten years of work, The New Oxford Shakespeare seems uncertain of its audience, and for all its critical insight it never quite satisfies.

This lack of satisfaction is partly due to a frankly bewildering introduction. The first part, ‘Why Read Shakespeare’s Complete Works?’, takes the standard tack of listing every major historical or literary figure to ever say anything vaguely positive about Shakespeare. This routine list is enlivened by the editors’ knack for cringeworthy phrases. We are told that “Shakespeare is the ghost with the most”, and that The Complete Works is “an anthology of extraordinarily powerful and varied virtual reality game worlds.” Besides the fact that they mix metaphors like a sea of troubles, lines like these feel incredibly patronising, especially addressed to a reader who has already picked up the Complete Works, and so presumably does not need persuading of Shakespeare’s importance. The presentation is also woefully inconsistent. One section attempts to refute accusations of racism in Shakespeare’s plays with a bullet-point list of notable non-white people who have interacted with the bard. All of Shakespeare’s other appreciators are generously discussed in continuous prose rather than simple listing. The introduction also mentions both Delia Bacon and J. Thomas Looney, without once stopping to clarify who these people are, despite its stated aim to create “something more accessible”.

This inconsistency further manifests in the second part of the Introduction, ‘Why Read This Complete Works?’, which explains the book’s editorial decisions. The editors note that this is “the first edition of Shakespeare’s complete works to include music for the songs, whenever a reliable original score is available”. While this is slightly less radical than the editors state (the 2015 Norton Shakespeare’s online edition featured recordings of the original music), it is a genuinely worthwhile move. The Tempest, for example, reads very differently with a more pronounced emphasis on music, and this simple change does more to inspire fresh reading than any waffle about virtual reality. Similarly good are the performance notes accompanying each play. The Tempest opens with the following:

“The play begins aboard a ship at sea. This is often accomplished through the uses of wind machines or sound effects, and ropes and sails manipulated by the actors. In early modern stagings a cannonball was rolled down a wooden trough to simulate the sound of thunder.”

This running commentary draws attention to the gaps and ambiguities of the script, as well as to different periods and types of staging. But while these performance-centric details are admirable, the authorship choices are baffling. Collaboration is this edition’s watchword, reflecting the trend in Shakespeare scholarship over the last fifteen years or so, as seen in books like Shakespeare, Co-Author and William Shakespeare and Others. This edition has grabbed a few headlines for listing Christopher Marlowe as co-author of the Henry VI plays. Yet its other choices betray its bardolatry; Shakespeare is interminably front and centre, even when his hand in a play is minimal. The collaboratively-written The Spanish Tragedy and Sir Thomas More are represented only by the bits ‘probably’ written by Shakespeare, with no indication of what came before or after, obscuring his impact on the overall script, and frustrating any reader unfamiliar with the plays. This fragmented presentation comes to a head with The History of Cardenio. A lost collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, it was adapted by eighteenth century playwright Lewis Theobald as Double Falsehood. In presenting it here the editors have used specialist software to identify the words most likely to have been written by Shakespeare, and left out everything else. This approach results in unreadable gobbets of text:

RODERICK   Why he hath pressed this absence, sir I know not
But [             ]  letters [
Wherein [Cardenio], good Camillo’s son,
[             ] (as he says) [
[                                 ] gold
To purchase certain horse that like him well

know the value of

There is some critical value to an exercise like this, but presenting it this way is not only frustrating to read (and hardly accessible for the general reader), it contradicts the sense of co-authorship the editors seek to emphasise. It may have been better to include the complete texts while typographically demarcating the collaborators. The Oxford Middleton, for instance, put Middleton’s additions to Macbeth in bold, and the Arden Titus Andronicus presents an inserted scene in a different typeface. The insistence on isolating Shakespeare serves to increase his iconic stature, rather than qualify it.

All told, The New Oxford Shakespeare has a distressing tendency to miss the wood for the trees. For the most egregious example we must return to the introduction. In relating Shakespeare to today’s theatre, the editors spend a page on Hamilton, ‘the most conspicuous theatrical event of the 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death.’ The influence, it turns out, is fairly minor, but the truly shocking moment comes in reference to playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda’s dedicatory sonnet at the Tony Awards. The editors dutifully mention that it contained “the very Shakespearean tautology “And love is love is love is love is love”.” What they fail to mention is that the sonnet was written in response to the Orlando nightclub shooting that happened the same week. This is The New Oxford Shakespeare in a nutshell. For all its worthwhile contributions, its careful attention to detail, and its slick presentation, it suffers from a near total divorce from the context in which its material appears, be it that of 1616 or 2016.

‘The New Oxford Shakespeare: Modern Critical Edition’ is available to buy in hardback, RRP £50.

 

Review: The Tempest at the Donmar Warehouse

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 29 September 2016.

Shakespeare has many faults, not least his failure of the Bechdel test. Director Phyllida Lloyd has taken it upon herself to correct this, and since 2012 she and her team have staged a trilogy of all-female productions for the Donmar Warehouse, with the final instalment debuting this week. The trilogy has grabbed a few headlines for its setting in an all-female prison, and it’s certainly a bold move. The Tempest is about a powerful wizard in command of a mysterious exotic island, so setting it in a chilly concrete cell seems counter-intuitive. In its best moments this produces an interesting tension, but it often feels like the play is struggling against its own concept. Rough, strange, and a little bit shambolic, there’s a lot to like in this production, but there’s also a sense of a gimmick wearing a bit thin.

The play starts with the cast lining up, and Harriet Walter announcing she is serving a life sentence for “a politically motivated bank robbery”, before taking up her role as Prospero. The story unfolds as a performance, or shared fantasy, of the prisoners, with the realities of prison life intruding at key intervals. It’s a good idea, but it feels a bit arbitrary — guards are constantly harassing Sebastian and Antonio, but they never come near Prospero, despite her constant tricks on her fellow inmates. This ought to be ambiguous and fantastical, but comes across muddy and confused. Lloyd jams in some extraneous musical numbers, mostly sung by Ariel, and while they’re mostly competent they disrupt the flow significantly. Ariel’s final song painfully drags out one of the play’s best moments, repeating the same lines ad nauseam rather than coming up with new ones. The stage dressing is minimal, but nicely evocative, strewn with rubbish befitting Sophie Stanton’s interpretation of Caliban as a kind of mad bag lady.

While Caliban and Ariel are fun, it’s Prospero who anchors the play, and Harriet Walter excels in the part. She’s every bit the weary old scholar of Shakespeare’s text, but she’s much less spiteful than the usual interpretation. Strolling around with hands in her pockets, her contemplative attitude makes her louder moments stand out, such as her unhinged delivery of the ‘insubstantial pageant’ speech. (A rather beautiful moment involving video projections onto a cloud of white balloons, emphasising the otherworldly splendour). Her affection for Leah Harvey as Miranda is genuinely touching, and Harvey manages the shift from youthful joy to adolescent wonder impeccably. Between them they form the play’s emotional core, and it’s nice to see a Shakespeare production focused on a mother-daughter relationship rather than the Bard’s paternalism. Jackie Clune and Karen Dunbar are funny as Stephano and Trinculo, and Jade Anouka makes a fine Ariel, even if her rapping was a bit weak at the preview performance. The rest of the cast don’t make much impression, but to be fair these are hardly Shakespeare’s most memorable characters, and finding depth in Gonzalo is a challenge few actors have met.

The Tempest is a potpourri, then, but not without its charms, and, more importantly, not without relevance. The boldest choice comes at the end — in the original Prospero ‘abjures’ his magic, and returns to Milan, a moment many have read as reflective of Shakespeare’s own decision to retire. Lloyd’s ending goes beyond Shakespeare’s text — Walter delivers her final monologue, and then steps out of character, becoming a prisoner again. We then hear a set of messages from Walter’s friends and family, including the daughter she left behind when she was arrested. The message is clear: don’t give up. The light returns to the harshness of the prison, the voices fade into the whirring of a vacuum cleaner. The final impression is of resilience rather than resignation, and for that alone it’s worth applauding. It’s a wonderful subversion of Shakespeare’s text, and one that could only have been done with this cast and this setting. Because, let’s face it, after 400 years, the male angst version is played out.

Review: I Sold These Poems Now I Want Them Back by Brian Sonia-Wallace

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 15 September 2016.

Some books are brilliant and original. Some are predictable and clichéd. And some manage that strange combination of both, by being not quite as original as they at first appear. Brian Sonia-Wallace’s debut collection, I Sold These Poems Now I Want Them Back, fits the latter. Sonia-Wallace has spent the last few years as a self-styled ‘RENT Poet’, braving the streets of L.A. with a typewriter, and taking on-the spot commissions with an aim to create “a society of patrons for the arts starting at $1”. Each of these poems was “written in 5-10 minutes for a stranger who shared themselves with me on the street or online”. Sonia-Wallace then photographed his output for re-sale purposes, and here presents the best of what he produced on the job. A good idea for a collection, but Sonia-Wallace seems convinced that his scheme to “write poems for cash” is somehow revolutionary. He declares that “you can keep your high art, I am shamelessly for hire”. But street artists have been around for centuries, and working on commission is as old as the arts themselves. All of that said, there are some solid poems to be had here, even if the ‘RENT Poet’ persona fails to boggle the mind.

Given its street origins, it’s not surprising that the collection feels like all human life has traipsed through it. From grieving relatives to frustrated teachers, from squabbling kids to hopeful parents, there’s a real range of subject matter, handled with spontaneity and wit. The opening of the early poem ‘Courage’ is a good example:

We all begin as voyeurs,
flies on the wall
with frogs in our throats

eating our words
to get more salt in our diets.

What’s in our throats
eats us up,
consumes us, sticky-tongued,

throat frogs and stomach butterflies—
let them drown.
I’m done with being Noah’s Ark.

The lines are misshapen, yet coherent, shifting between twisted haikus and deformed couplets, the poetic voice alternately creepy, bitter, acerbic and weird. The sense of emotions turning against us as “throat frogs and stomach butterflies” is subtly unnerving, and the comparison of the human psyche to Noah’s Ark is rich in its implications. This complex yet elegant style is where Sonia-Wallace really shines. It makes one curious as to its original commissioner, as many of these poems do. Sonia-Wallace sadly includes only a handful of his poems’ backstories in the end-notes, a combination of poetic licence and patient confidentiality, and ‘Courage’ is not one of them.

There are moments where he’s wonderfully playful with form, as well as with his own role as a poet. ‘Eulogy for a Poem’ is particularly dry: “Cause of Poem: unknown./ Time of Poem: 8:18 PM./ Rest in poem,/ Poem.” It’s a pleasing send-up of death’s banality, and the final couplet borders on the profound: “Here lies poem/ survived by us all.” But while Sonia-Wallace is extremely daring within his short time frames, he occasionally lets his pen run away with him. This results in peculiarities like “eating breakfast off the tits of destiny”, the sort of cringeworthy line which would hopefully not survive a more thorough compositional process. That line also points to the book’s irksome casual sexism. The penultimate poem, ‘Watching You Go’, exemplifies this:

I guess your ass is a peach.

Not a melon but a sort of stone fruit. Juicy.
It’s already hot out here.
You’d better watch what you do with that thang

your body is a novel.
I’m a voracious reader.

It feels like leering dressed up as insightful artistry, which is no excuse. On its own it’s objectifying and crass, but as one of the final poems in the book it leaves a bad taste. One can only speculate as to its original commission, but the poor woman’s reception is probably worth a poem in itself.

I Sold These Poems is a perfectly decent collection, whose better moments transcend their hurried origins. Sonia-Wallace’s work ethic and commitment to populism are admirable, even if there are moments that can be accused of thoughtlessness. The book’s status as working poetry cuts both for and against — its roughness gives rise to poetic brilliance and rushed-out nonsense, and there’s no easy way to separate the two. But if, as Sonia-Wallace asks, we judge it as a purely commercial item, it’s easy to recommend — at $15 for 31 poems (a wholesale price of less than 50 cents a poem), this book certainly represents value for money.

Review: Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing by Melissa Mohr

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 30 July 2016. It contains some bad language. Obviously.

It is the greatest binary in human thought. The divine and the earthly. The sacred and the obscene. Or, as Melissa Mohr puts it in her debut book, the Holy and the Shit. Mohr has a PhD in Renaissance Studies from Stanford University, which puts her expertise in the middle of the period covered by Holy Sh*t, which chronicles foul language from ancient Rome to the present day. The basic appeal of the book is a kind of Horrible Histories for grown-ups: an examination of the rudest aspects of human speech, lent respectability by virtue of being published by OUP. Your opinion of the book will likely depend on whether seeing the dialectic of history applied to swearing causes you to shake your head or grin like a schoolboy. But while taboo thrills are certainly fulfilled, the book provides an interesting glimpse into history and culture, even if this 2016 paperback release hasn’t added much in the three years since the hardback came out.

The book starts with ancient Rome, and the Latin ancestors of modern swearwords. Subsequent chapters focus on swearing in the Bible, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and then the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. Mohr states from the outset that her primary focus is on swearing in Britain and North America, and she distinguishes between two types of swearing – oaths, and obscenities. That is, swearing in a religious sense (such as ‘By God’s bones!’ or ‘Oh my God!’) versus swearing which refers to taboo acts or body parts (words like fuck or cunt). It’s an intriguing dichotomy, even if it seems to leave a lot out: positive obscenities, like ‘fucking brilliant’ or ‘it’s the shit’ don’t get a look-in. But Mohr handles her topic with wit and panache, and the book is most interesting when the two categories begin to bleed together, as in phrases like, well, ‘Holy Shit!’

The Holy, originally, was the more powerful of the two. Mohr notes that “Medieval people were, to us, strikingly unconcerned with the Shit… The Holy provided the strongest taboos and most highly charged language.” It was even believed that swearing could physically wound Christ himself. Mohr recounts a fourteenth-century fable in which the Virgin Mary confronts a swearer with her son’s mutilated body. “Here is my son… his head all broken, and his eyes drawn out of his body and laid on his breast, his arms broken in two, his legs and feet also. With your great oaths you have torn him thus”. It was with the decreasing power of religious institutions from the Renaissance onwards that “the Shit started to make a comeback”, and swearing by the human body started to become more offensive than swearing by divine ones.

But the Holy and the Shit, while entertaining in themselves, are a lens to focus on the wider culture of the historical periods in which they were used, and Mohr’s anecdotes provide entertaining colour. Her treatment of the Victorians is especially interesting, as she tells us that John Ruskin was shocked at the sight of his wife’s vulva, and that Robert Browning used the word twat in one of his poems without apparently knowing what it meant. Mohr argues that euphemistic Victorian language “covered up twat and the rest of the female body so thoroughly that that they disappeared altogether for our two eminent Victorians”. The erasure of the female body in language is rich in its implications, and insights like these are proof that Mohr’s potty-mouthed approach can yield valuable historical insights.

In this same chapter a new type of foul language crops up, which represents a problem for the book. Mohr argues that the rise of European nationalism “also led to the creation of a whole new category of swearing – racial and ethnic slurs.” It’s an awkward moment – Mohr is unflinching in her discussions of racist words, but she’s conscious that they do not fit comfortably into the Holy/Shit paradigm she’s been exploring for the last two hundred-odd pages. Racial and ethnic slurs haven’t even been mentioned up this point, despite Mohr’s admittance that they existed prior to this. As such, the theme feels under-developed – the following chapter, on ‘Swearing in the Twentieth Century and Beyond’, does better, but the transition still jars. The book spends so much time on the power of the Holy and the Shit that it seems unwilling to introduce a third category, only nodding towards such language when it reaches critical mass. This final, and many would argue most heinous, type of obscenity is left without a category of its own.

There are also some minor nitpicks, most notably that the ’Postscript’ of this 2016 release feels tacked-on and brief, adding little of value to the book overall. It serves to drag out an already disappointing epilogue, which offers little beside lukewarm speculations about the future of swearing. But while the ending is a disappointment, the journey is undoubtedly worth taking. Mohr takes obvious pleasure in her subject, and the book has a light touch which makes the intricacies of Renaissance theology just as entertaining as the etymology of the work fuck. Calm, precise, and terribly good fun, Holy Sh*t is a must-read for the foul-mouthed and the clean.

Review: Shakespeare’s First Folio by Emma Smith

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 21 July 2016.

Emma Smith’s study of Shakespeare’s First Folio sets out with the aim “to contextualise the material Shakespeare”. As such, it’s less a book about the material of Shakespeare than the material around Shakespeare, less about the text itself than about note-taking, performing, and doodling in the margins. Smith presents a thorough, cogent, and highly readable history of this landmark publication, and while her sense of structure is occasionally idiosyncratic, this is a definitive work of Shakespeare bibliography. It’s also a refreshingly materialist piece in a year of gaudy Shakespeare pageantry.

The book is organised into five chapters: ‘Owning’, ‘Reading’, ‘Decoding’, ‘Performing’, and ‘Perfecting’. The history is organised thematically rather than chronologically, and this is true even within the individual chapters. At first this can be a bit disorientating, as the first chapter lurches from eighteenth century book collectors, to the use of the Folio in the first ever National Lottery broadcast, then back to book collecting in the twentieth century. But once the reader has found their sea-legs it makes for quite an appealing style, governed by associative logic rather than strict chronology. It allows Smith to play the raconteur – she is ultimately less interested in Shakespeare’s Folio than the stories surrounding it, and the anecdotal approach brings them vividly to life. Colourful characters, bizarre misreadings, and facetious marginalia abound – an effective conversation-starter might be to ask readers what their favourite stories are.

Some of the best sections concern the efforts of librarians to get their hands on the Folio. Smith relays the story of the Bodleian Library’s first ever fundraising campaign, an attempt to purchase the First Folio from a student (the gloriously named Gladwyn Turbutt) in 1905. The observation that “the wheels of the university ground very slowly” in securing funds hits close to home, and the details of the 2012 ‘Sprint for Shakespeare‘ Campaign to preserve and digitise the Folio are a fascinating case of history repeating itself. But my favourite story is the tale of the Birmingham Shakespeare Library, the only public library to own a copy of the First Folio. Smith notes that “the dominant ownership mark… is the purple library stamp of the Birmingham Free Libraries Reference Department on several of its pages” as well as the charming detail of “the faint tread of a cat’s paws across a page of Henry VI Part 1″. Smith’s prose is clear and measured, but she takes a clear delight in relaying these minute observations, resulting in a book that feels richly detailed and slyly playful.

But while the stories told are many and varied, certain themes recur throughout. The spectre of capitalism haunts the First Folio, as the book is almost always a prop for the rich. The introduction details the first recorded purchase, by up-and-coming nobleman Sir Edward Dering, and from there we see the rise and fall of English aristocratic ownership, before American hyper-capitalists (most notably Edward Folger) move in, a battle Smith refers to as the “squirearchy” vs. the “squillionaires”. This commodity-fetishism repeatedly crops up, as do the book’s own inadequacies – printing errors abound, and Smith documents the various owners’ attempts to correct them. Smith also touches on female ownership – she points out that “attested female readers of Shakespeare’s First Folio seem more numerous than for many other early modern books” – but the theme feels a tad under-developed. One gets the feeling that the search for a “Feminist Folio” would be worth a book in its own right.

Smith’s prose is crisp and clear, but retains some of the annoyances of academic writing. Almost every chapter begins with Smith baldly telling us that ‘this chapter will explore x’, instead of getting on with exploring it already. There are also occasional typos and a variable layout design, with easily-missed slithers of the main text appearing beneath large photos, which interrupts the natural flow of the prose.

Nitpicks aside, Shakespeare’s First Folio is a marvellous bit of scholarship. Detailed without being dry, playful without being silly, it’s a well-researched, thoroughly balanced account of this ‘iconic’ book, and one which remains aware of its flaws. The Folio is riddled with typos, mistakes, dirt and marginalia. And that’s OK – more than that, it’s what makes it worth documenting. Smith concludes with the sobering reminder that “it is quite possible to over-value this most valuable of books”, and it’s a fitting message for this Year of Shakespeare. It’s the plays themselves that we love, and they are worth far more than the paper they are printed on.

‘Shakespeare’s First Folio’ is available to buy from Oxford University Press, RRP £19.99.

Review: Upstart Crow

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 23 May 2016.

William Shakespeare’s life should be prime sitcom material. The stresses of one man trying to work within a theatre company, while having to deal with stroppy actors and the Master of Revels breathing down his neck offer plenty of opportunities for comedic scenarios. The portrayal of the bard as an acerbic social climber, similar to Edmund Blackadder, ought to be an absolute stunner, especially with an actor as good as David Mitchell in the role. Sadly, the ambitions of Ben Elton’s Upstart Crow, part of the BBC’s much-hyped ‘Shakespeare Season’, seem limited to showcasing the party pieces of familiar comics. It tries to do precisely the above, but the plotting is lazy, the jokes are obvious, and the pacing slipshod. Every episode opens with Shakespeare squabbling with his family in Stratford, before travelling to London to bicker with his fellow actors and household servants. The repetitious structure kills any momentum, as episodes open with around ten minutes of filler before the premise emerges. But despite all that, does Ben Elton’s series have something positive to contribute to this year’s Shakespeare celebrations?

There is occasional wit, such as the first episode’s closing gag about sending a corpse to Cambridge: “They found him cold, uncooperative, and expecting advancement without effort or talent. In short, a perfect member of the English establishment.” It’s the sort of gag Elton did well on Blackadder, but in the absence of strong collaborators – such as his former writing partner, Richard Curtis – Elton’s worst instincts come to the fore. The Shakespeare-specific humour is particularly uninspired: we are reminded that the playwright’s comedy often requires footnotes; that the Henry VI plays can be a bit dull; and that ‘wherefore’ sounds like it means ‘where’ when in fact it means ‘why’. The result is a disappointingly shallow view of Shakespeare, which is odd for a show ostensibly made in celebration of him.

But while Upstart Crow does not do justice to Shakespeare’s output, there is a defence to be made of the way that the show treats Shakespeare the man. Just as Elton is at his best when working with others, the Bard of Avon is best understood as one man amongst a team of playwrights, actors, and theatre personnel. Shakespeare collaborated with other writers throughout his career, and worked extensively with his fellow actors in penning plays. This has been a notable thread in Shakespeare scholarship over the last decade, spearheaded by books such as Brian Vickers’ Shakespeare, Co-Author (2002), which surveys five collaboratively written plays, and Simon Palfrey and Tiffany Stern’s Shakespeare in Parts (2007), which highlights the vital role that actors had in shaping the plays.

This trend came to a head in 2013, with the publication of William Shakespeare and Others: Collaborative Plays, a definitive collection of Shakespeare’s co-writings, including A Yorkshire Tragedy, Sir Thomas More, and even Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. But in the last few years this trend has subsided; as the anniversary year approached, scholars returned to focusing on Shakespeare and his text, with titles like Emma Smith’s Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book and OUP’s upcoming New Oxford Shakespeare. Just as Elton is often credited with making Blackadder one of the wittiest, most original sitcoms that British television has ever produced”, Shakespeare is often given sole credit for the brilliance of his output, as if nobody had helped or encouraged him along the way.

In Upstart Crow, Shakespeare is not a divinely inspired artist casually tossing out classics. The plays go through drafts: we see Will discussing them with his fellow actors; we see them submitted for approval, accepted, or rejected. It’s hardly the most nuanced or historically accurate vision of Shakespeare’s life, but nor does it pander to the easy cultural assumption that he was the only guy writing plays back then.

So for all its faults, Upstart Crow does have an important place in this Year of Shakespeare, as a welcome antidote to the prevailing attitudes of awe and reverence. It demonstrates a much shrewder and more sensible view of the bard than its simplistic humour may suggest. It may be ultimately forgettable, but it’s a good deal more grounded than many more serious treatments of Shakespeare’s life.

Review: It’s About Time by Stanley Moss

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 8 May 2016.

Stanley Moss is an undisciplined poet. He deliberately conveys the messy, contingent, and complicated nature of personal and political history, through a frequently chaotic, untidy poetic method. His style is typified by the book’s cover, a murky picture of a grey sky and stormy sea, a battered brown hat tossed carelessly into the middle of it. That’s It’s About Time all over – muddy, moody, and understated in its human elements. Moss’s main weakness comes in his transitions between the sublime and the personal; rather more comfortable in the latter register, he never quite manages to make them fit together as smoothly as they should.

A recurring feature of Moss’s poetry is the sudden appearance of the solid, rhythmic, and memorable line in an ocean of strained and uneven ones. They are quiet, subtle, and easily missed, and for all their eloquence the excessively long buildup diminishes their power. A good example comes in the poem ‘What’, a meditation on the ambiguity of existence. Its opening stanzas are an excessive tangle of signifiers, a pileup of rhetorical questions and real world allusions which convey the frustrations of life in a world both deeply ambiguous and repeatedly quantified: 

What is an atheist on the temple mount, and way of the cross.
What says ‘Rome’s Wolf is younger than Manhattan’s Mastodon’.
Rivers of what, what, what, what,
run into the ocean, flood two thirds of the world.

But in the final stanza Moss produces this little passage:

Now death is in fashion but love’s not out of style,
whatever the hemline, glove or cuff.
I don’t see proof death’s worthwhile.
It never says enough.

Here, a moment of clarity; the poetic voice is questioning, curious, but his choice of symbol is concrete and homely, uniting with the straightforward language to create something memorable. The meditation on death contrasts nicely with the “hemline, glove or cuff”, and the gradual reduction in line length emphasizes the point. This is followed by the wonderfully rebellious line “I spit in death’s ocean”, a simultaneous rejection and submission to the ambiguity of death, a statement both rebellious and humble. Unfortunately, the poem then returns to the death-as-clothing image, with the revelation that “Life and death are hand and glove”. There’s nothing wrong with a good mixed metaphor, but this feels like the least interesting option to take, returning to the inevitability of death rather than continuing the subversive play around it. This is a recurrent problem with Moss’s poems; he’s usually having a bit too much fun with his conceits to draw entirely satisfying conclusions.

That sense of playfulness also informs Moss’s religious themes. His poem ‘Hell’, for instance, is a charming and witty riff on George Herbert’s ‘Heaven’, aided by a more scatological style than Herbert would have dared, and managing a few laugh-out-loud moments. That irreverent attitude towards theology also lends his reflections on religious conflict a brutal honesty, such as in his poem ‘Song of Jerusalem Neighbours’, where he declares the concept of God an aphrodisiac for warmongers. However, these aside, the best poems in this collection are undoubtedly the most personal. Reflections on Moss’s dog are an unexpected highlight, funny and heartfelt, their domestic scale piercing Moss’s self-conscious textuality to create genuine pathos:

My good dog Bozo ran wild with my shoes.
Because I sleep and dream old news,
secrets I keep from myself, I smile in deceit,
while my dog smiles, mounts a wolf at my feet.

It is this voice, generous, witty and self-deprecating, that Moss truly excels at, and which does more to indicate an awareness of time and memory than any number of ponderous metaphysical exercises. Unfortunately, this voice is by far the less present of the two, and over 170 pages that sense of inconsistency becomes exhausting. At the end of the day, the best I can say of It’s About Time is that it has its moments.

‘It’s About Time’ is published by Carcanet Press, and available to buy from their website.

Review: This Census-Taker by China Miéville

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review website on 7 May 2016.

Imagine a fairy tale written by Samuel Beckett. Dense, dark, and utterly mesmerising, This Census-Taker is in some ways typical of China Miéville. A leading light of the New Weird (think H.P. Lovecraft minus the racism and with added Marxism), one of Miéville’s favourite themes is the inadequacy of language in describing the bizarre and the profound, expounded in such novels as Embassytown and The City and the City, as well as his superlative short fiction. The entire novella is shrouded in mystery — almost no-one has a name, and there is a sense of several narratives going on just outside the reader’s field of view. The story operates on the margins, its meaning never quite made clear, the reader left to puzzle it out for themselves. It’s quintessentially Miéville, but with a level of precision and depth he’s never quite achieved before, and therefore perfect for the curious reader new to his work.

The tone throughout is one of unease, reflected in the ever-shifting prose. The novella opens with the line “A boy ran down a hill path screaming. That boy was I.” That sense of dissociative fear is key to the book’s technique. When the boy reaches the town at the foot of the hill, he blurts out that “My mother killed my father!”, but after a few minutes’ confusion this is revised to his father having killed his mother. The haziness of details like these is endemic to the book, as the limits of both language and memory impede our perception of events. We are repeatedly told that English is not the narrator’s first language, and that “He was nine years old, I think”; details are fuzzy and adults uncommunicative. This extends to the nature of the setting – there are several details which could be read as supernatural, but could just as easily be childish fantasy. The narrator tells us that “Our house was at the same level of the slope as those of a few weather-watchers and hermits and witches”, but it’s hard to tell whether this is a case of genuine magic or local superstition. Similarly, we’re told the boy’s father makes keys, not for locks, but for “love, money, to open things, to know the future, to fix animals, to fix things, to be stronger, to hurt someone or save someone, to fly”. Again, is the father genuinely some sort of magical locksmith, or is the boy simply misunderstanding his father’s real profession? Contradictions abound — the boy says his father’s clients are never seen again, then offhandedly mentions conversations with them, the father is estranged from the town and then accepted again without explanation, and the nature of the mother’s disappearance is constantly elided. The novella provides multiple answers to the many questions raised, but refuses to settle on any one of them. Even the main character remains an enigma — at one point he confesses that his identity is a “mystery story” even to himself.

In the hands of a lesser writer this would be infuriating, but Miéville creates a setting that is richly textured as well as oblique. It’s a world in which street children fish for bats over abandoned bridges, in which giant lizards are kept in too-small jars, and when the narrator asks how this is possible he’s told simply “Magic, mate”. The titular census-taker cuts an intriguing figure; absent for three quarters of the book, he ends up as a kind of bureaucratic fairy godmother, listening to the boy where other grown-ups have written him off. It’s implied that he’s somehow broken away from his fellow bureaucrats when towards the end the father yells: “They were recalled! Why’s this one still counting? This man thinks he knows what I’ve done? When? Always?” The idea of a data-gatherer gone rogue is an appealing one, and apposite for a novella in which all information seems elusive and suspect.

This Census-Taker is by no means an easy read. It’s a frequently beautiful, occasionally maddening exercise in uncertainty, and the sense of a truth always just out of reach may alienate some readers. But for those prepared to go with it, it’s a fascinating labyrinth to get lost in. Its short length (at only 206 pages) means it’s tight and focused as well as dense, and it will surely reward repeat engagements. The book is itself a kind of census-taker; you must, eventually, scrape together answers to the questions it poses. But you know full well it will be back before long, and your answers will have changed in the interim.