This month’s Six Degrees of Separation kicks off with Jane Harper’s The Dry which I haven’t yet read but has come highly recommended by a friend who knows more about Australian authors than I do. It’s a crime thriller set in a parched Australian farming community.
The Australian outback was the stamping ground of the legendary Ned Kelly. Whether you view him as a working class hero or an out and out villain, his exploits have proved to be rich material for writers. Peter Carey, another Australian, won the Man Booker Prize with his True History of the Kelly Gang, an is an imaginative reconstruction of Kelly’s life story in his own words. It’s quite a remarkable novel of a man who was in trouble with the law from the age of thirteen, descending from petty crime to robbery and murder. Kelly met his death in 1880 in a shootout despite having fashioned himself a protective iron helmet.
Frank Baum went considerably further than just an iron helmet – he fashioned a character created entirely from metal. The TinMan appeared first in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz but made several appearances in many of the subsequent books in the Oz series. Apparently there was a trend in late nineteenth-century America for advertising and political cartoons to feature male figures made out of various tin pieces. Baum, who was editing a magazine on decorating shop windows when he wrote The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was reportedly inspired to invent his Tin Man character after he made a similar figure for a shop display.
Baum’s novel was an immediate success but gained even greater popularity once it was made into a film in 1939. I’ll hazard a guess that a large proportion of the millions of people who have watched this film, have no knowledge of the book upon it was based. Still less that this novel, described by the Library of Congress as “America’s greatest and best-loved homegrown fairytale” has been interpreted as an allegory or metaphor for the political, economic, and social events of America in the 1890s. One historian theorised that the Tin Man represented the industrial workers, especially those in the steel industry. Others have claimed the cyclone which sweeps Dorothy to Oz was a metaphor for a political revolution that would transform the drab America into a land of colour and unlimited prosperity.
Since we’re talking political allegory the obvious choice for my next link would be George Orwell’s Animal Farm. But that’s a bit too obvious. I’m going to play instead with the idea that Baum was writing what’s loosely termed a “state of the nation” novel.
Authors have long used the literary form to examine contemporary society so I’m spoiled for choice. I’m plumping for a novel that was very much a product of the Thatcher years in the UK.
Capital by John Lanchester takes into the heart of London in 2008. It’s a city of conspicuous consumption and financial whizz-kids with million pound bonuses in their sights. But behind the gleaming office buildings lies an underbelly of political refugees and embryonic terrorists. In the eyes of the narrator “Britain had become a country of winners and losers.”
Lanchester was not alone in taking a pop at the money men. Anthony Trollope covered similar ground in The Way We Live Now which was inspired by the financial scandals of the early 1870s. Trollope, who had been living in Australia for 18 months, had returned to London in 1872, to find a society (as he saw it) mired in corruption. He satirised this society in the shape of Augustus Melmotte, a “horrid, big, rich scoundrel… a bloated swindler… a vile city ruffian”. His arrogance, ruthlessness and depth of corruption are traits we’ve sadly witnessed too many times in the decades since Trollope’s time.
The Little Red Chairs by Edna O’Brien is a reminder that these corrupt leaders don’t always get away with their actions; occasionally they are called to account. O’Brien’s novel takes its title from a tableau of 11,000 empty chairs created in Sarajevo to commemorate victims of the siege by Bosnian Serbs in early 1990s. Her main character – a fugitive war criminal discovered hiding in a backwater village on the west coast of Ireland – is modelled on the real life war crime fugitive Radovan Karadzic.
Just like the people of Sarajevo, the people of Gaza know what it’s like to live in constant fear of attack. The Book of Gaza is a collection of stories by writers from the territory and published by Comma Press. Reading this anthology you can’t help but admire the resilience shown by the people who inhabit a piece of land 26 miles long and 3 miles wide that has been the subject of hostilities for decades.
And so we reach the end of another round of Six Degrees of Separation, hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. This month we’ve travelled from a drought-stricken small Australian town to a besieged nation on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. As always all the books I mention are ones I have read, though not necessarily reviewed. Creating these chains can be challenging some months but the fun lies in seeing unexpected paths they take, and discovering how other bloggers have gone down vastly different routes. You can follow these on Twitter by searching for the hashtag #6Degrees, or checking out the links at Kate’s blog.
London in 2008: a city of conspicuous consumption and financial whizz-kids with million pound bonuses in their sights. A city with an underbelly of political refugees and embryonic terrorists. A city that relies on a stream of incomers from Eastern Europe to satisfy its needs for nannies, plumbers and builders.
John Lanchester‘s Capital is a state of the nation novel in which the lives of a group of disparate individuals intersect through their association with one fictitious street in a highly desirable part of the city
Pepys Road has undergone a transformation since the late 19th century when the houses were built for lower middle class families; respectable, aspirational people who worked as clerks for solicitors and bankers. Now they’re occupied by people like Roger Young, an investment banker, and his self-centered shopaholic wife for whom “…. Having a house in Pepys Road was like being in a casino in which you were guaranteed to be a winner. If you already lived there, you were rich. If you wanted to move there, you had to be rich.”
From the beginning of the novel it’s clear that TROUBLE lurks in this residential Eden. A mysterious hooded figure is seen surreptitiously filming the houses. Soon the inhabitants each receive an anonymous postcard bearing the simple message: “We Want What You Have”. More postcards follow, then videos begin dropping through the letterbox. All bear the same mysterious message.
Who is behind the campaign? Lanchester provides a host of candidates from Pakistani newsagents and Polish builders to au pairs from Eastern Europe and a political refugee from Zimbabwe who tramps the neighbourhood issuing parking tickets using a forged work permit. They’re all outsiders who are trying to establish a foothold for themselves and make a new life in England.
If they’re not having an easy time of it neither are the insiders. Roger’s hopes of bagging a million-pound bonus enabling him to sustain two homes, expensive cars and endless home improvements look increasingly precarious. Olive, an octogenerian who’s lived in the street all her live, discovers she has an inoperable brain tumour. And the Kamal family who run the newsagents on the corner have to contend with two unwelcome visitors. The friend from the past who flirts with Islamic fundamentalism is bad enough. But far worse is the annual visit by ‘Mother’ for whom nothing her sons and daughter-in-law can do, can ever be good enough.
We get to know them through more than 100 short chapters each of which takes us into the mind of a different character and shows us a different side of the city. It’s a narrative style that pushes the concept of the omniscient narrator to its extremes.
One moment we’re walking the streets with Quentina the traffic warden, contending with irate householders who can’t understand why, having paid a multi million pound price tag to buy the house, they have to pay even more for the right to park outside at any time they choose. The next we’re exploring the neighbourhood with the father of a young footballing whizz kid from Senegal and experiencing his bafflement at seeing a city filled with people in constant motion. “Even when they weren’t doing anything they were walking dogs, or going to betting shops, or reading newspapers at bus stops or listening to music through headphones or skateboarding along the pavement or eating fast food….” And then suddenly the focus changes to the perspective of a young religious zealot surrounded by “…women whose breasts were almost fully visible under , over, or through their thin summer clothes. Alcohol everywhere.”
As a commentary on the turbulent nature of London on the eve of the financial crisis, it works far more effectively than Sebastian Faulks‘ A Week in December which tried to cover much of the same ground but ran out of steam long before the final pages. An enjoyable read in many respects with some well drawn characters ( my favourites were Quentina the traffic warden and Roger the investment banker) but I’m not exactly sure what point Lanchester is trying to make.
In the prologue, the narrator reflects that “Britain had become a country of winners and losers.” It’s easy to see who the losers are in the novel; there is more than one character whose status and wealth have diminished by the end of the novel, or whose dreams have collapsed. The winners are less clear to see – one of the characters finds love by showing that he’s an honest man and another resolves to seize the chance given to him to change his life for the better. As for the others, without giving away secrets, all I can say is that one of them faces jail and another deportation.
If Lanchester’s mission is to merely to observe and convey a microcosm of life in one small corner of London, then he succeeded. But I wish he’d gone further and given some indication of what he saw as some of the underlying forces at work in this society and whether the factors that influence his characters’s behaviours are ones that present increasing concern. In short, I wish he’d come down from his perch on the fence. His book would have been all the stronger.