Sometimes, I love my job.
When I’m knee-deep in tracking spreadsheets, or filling in endless forms to please the bureaucrats from the exam board, or, as has happened all too frequently in the last six months, remapping the curriculum (again. Re-remapping?) to accommodate ANOTHER of Michael Gove’s big ideas for education, I feel less than enthused. But when I get to teach a novel I think is great, well, it’s pretty bloody awesome.
Fortunately for me, I’m currently doing just that.
For the second time in the past few years, I’m teaching William Golding’s Nobel Prize-winning novel, Lord of the Flies, and, although it may sound a little bit gushing, it feels like a privilege.
I first read Lord of the Flies when I was at school, and remember really enjoying it. My tattered copy was annotated to within an inch of its life, with beautiful colour-coded underlinings (ah, the days before ‘clean exam copies’…) and a neat little key on the index page. My conscientious note-taking obviously paid off too, as I did pretty well in my English Literature exam (A*, thanks for asking). However, it was only on rereading it a couple of years ago in preparation for teaching, that I think I truly appreciated its brilliance. And now, after 4+ readings, it’s even better.
For anyone not lucky enough to have studied or read this seminal book (and if you fall into that category, I strongly advise that you do something about it, sharpish), it is, in brief, a tale of a group of young boys, marooned on a desert island somewhere in the Pacific after the plane on which they are travelling crashes. No adults survive, and the boys are left to fend for themselves. What follows is the story of their survival on the island, and the ways in which they deal with this strange and terrifying situation.
Not well, in case you were wondering.
Almost instantly, the more sensible older boys recognise the need for rules. They attempt to establish a sense of order within their newly formed community, electing a leader, assigning roles, and putting into place a plan for getting rescued (which extends to, essentially, a big fire). However, this quickly disintegrates, and what started as a gun-ho, jolly old public school boy adventure becomes a haunting dissertation on the savagery of humanity. It’s almost apocalyptic in its bleakness.
The island becomes a microcosm of society, and within this, we see not only the darkest and nastiest individuals (Roger), nor simply the power-mad (Jack), but also, the easily-corrupted (Sam, Eric, Maurice, Robert, and, actually, pretty much everyone else). Even our heroes, Ralph and Piggy, succumb to savagery at times, begging the question, are we all, in reality, capable of evil?
It’s no surprise, really, that Golding’s view on human nature was so jaded. Written in the early 1950s, as the world was learning to live with the horrors of the Holocaust and the realisation that not enough was done, Lord of the Flies is representative of everything World War II taught us about ourselves; most notably, that we’re all pretty bloody horrible actually. Each and every one of us.
There is one beacon of hope, though, in this torrent of despair: young Simon.
Simon is the only one who understands the source of the fear that is gripping the boys. He is enlightened and knowledgeable; he is thoughtful and perceptive. Plagued by crippling shyness and a child’s inability to express himself coherently, Simon is a visionary unable to express his vision. He is, much like another famous outsider, one with a cross and a thorny crown, burdened with the weight of understanding. Simon, ‘crying something about a dead man on a hill’, knows of man’s ills.
It is not just Golding’s characterisation that makes Lord of the Flies such an incredible book. His writing, too, is so skilfully crafted: seamlessly he switches from dreamy, hypnotic descriptions of the island, to extraordinarily apt representations of the British middle classes (‘Ralph reached inside himself for the worst word he knew. ‘They let the bloody fire out!’), to a lexicon of pseudo-rape brutality when the boy’s trap and slaughter the pig. There is so much richness (and obscenity) in his descriptions, it’s as though Golding wrote his novel with generations of GCSE essay-writers in mind.
And yet, while the language is incredible, it is the message behind it that resonates most strongly. I love novels that teach the reader something. While pleasure can be found in humour, or horror, or action, or romance, true fulfilment, I believe, comes in being made to think. In forcing me to consider the humanity of the boys, and of people in general, in making me question my own nature, and that of everyone I know, Lord of the Flies, did just this. It taught me to think. And for that reason alone, it will remain one of the most important books I have ever read.
Hopefully, my Year 10s will feel the same.
The older you get, the more you notice the relentless march of time. Weeks, months and years pass with ever increasing speed, so that everything that has happened seems to have happened in some unquantifiable recent past, and the 80s still seem like they were about 20 years ago.
Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit from the Goon Squad explores exactly this issue; it is a story about time and how it carries on regardless.
Written as a set of 13 linked, but self-contained stories, the novel is unusual in that it does not have a singular protagonist – instead it is based loosely on a music producer named Bennie Salazar, his assistant Sasha, and various other people who are connected in some way to these two. It is also structured unusually; as previously stated, each chapter can be taken as an individual story, and as a consequence, there is no over-arching narrative thread. Instead, there are a series of events and their effects. In the same way that the characters at times overlap, so the events in one chapter may influence those in another. However, this is merely incidental.
In this way, the structure of Egan’s novel cleverly emulates life. It is not a clean narrative arc, but a series of mini-narratives with a changing cast, just as life is. There is no climax or resolution; there are no heroes.
Egan also plays about with time in A Visit from the Goon Squad. The chapters flit back and forward as frequently as the narrative perspective shifts. Often, it is possible to sequence these into the larger tapestry of the novel – the chapter that makes reference to a family holiday to Africa, for instance, occurs after the chapter featuring the holiday itself. Obviously. However, at times it is less clear cut. What is clear cut, though, is the sense of movement, of time constantly shifting.
Each character, no matter how peripheral their part in the novel, feels the effects of time. Its forward movement carries them with it, not always in the direction they expected to go. From Bennie’s former bandmate, Scotty, whose punk-rock aspirations have found him fishing in the East River, to Lou, the philandering, sex-obsessed music executive whose body surrenders to aging more willingly than his mind. No one is exempt.
Of all the characters in A Visit from the Goon Squad, it is aging rocker Bosco, who understands this best: ‘how did I go from being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares about?’ This question encapsulates the whole novel; it conveys the sadness, the resignation, the cynicism, which Egan imbibes into her tale, because, in some way, it is true of everyone. There will be a point in everyone’s life when they shine most brightly, as definitely as there will be a time when they are merely a shadow of their former self. Albeit a particularly large shadow, in Bosco’s case.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. A Visit from the Goon Squad is a genuinely funny book. It’s characters are often sassy, even those who are hopelessly jaded (think cokeheads, rapists, etc.), and there is some surprising warmth via a detailed powerpoint presentation (honestly) from Alison in chapter 12.
Most of the warmth in the novel seems to come as a result of children, in fact. This is partly to imply, perhaps, that parental love is more real and more important than any other form of love, but also, because, to quote Whitney, the children are our future. As yet unspoilt, they will determine what is cool in the future, in much the same way that Bennie and his peers did in their youth; and they too will have their shining moments, while the cool kids of the present fade away.
Being a secondary school teacher, I inevitably (and sometimes unfortunately) spend a fair amount of time with teenagers. While for many adults, the images of those formative years are viewed exclusively through the gauzy curtain of nostalgic memory, for teachers, the angst and inertia, the trauma and excitement of a burgeoning life about to be lived are ever-present (and at times, at odds with the lesson plan). Though time marches on to cries of ‘it wasn’t like that in my day’, what you realise, when so ensconced, is that it actually was. Alright, some attitudes have changed; contemporary teenagers have a more marked predilection for celebrity, technology and the abstract concept of respect than perhaps their forebears did, and they certainly have different aspirations and opportunities to previous generations. But what still exists are the feelings: the desire for acceptance and the struggle to create a personal identity, the realisation that the surrounding world is not a cocoon of parental devotion and protection, but a place where love and loss are as inevitable and unavoidable as change.
This goes some way in explaining why there is such an extensive catalogue of young adult fiction available to modern readers. It also explains the popularity of Stephan Chbosky’s novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Originally published in 1999, the novel has experienced something of a resurgence of popularity of late, largely thanks to a recent adaption staring Logan Lerman and Emma Watson (both of whom, I would say, are an excellent way to get the teenage girls on board). Certainly, I have seen several students (female, incidentally) toting the book around school since the film’s release. However, it is worth noting that this is not just a book for girls.
Told in an epistolary form, the novel is narrated by Charlie, a 15 year-old boy about to embark on his high school career, and the eponymous ‘wallflower’ of the novel. His missives are an insight into his hopes and fears, his likes and dislikes, and are packed with his personal observations of the world (or at least the middle-American town in which he inhabits) and people around him. They are also a catalogue of some excellent early 90s pop culture.
As an archetypal wallflower, Charlie exists on the periphery, primarily (and thoughtfully) observing. He sees a good deal, although understands less.
His frank admission that his only friend, Michael, killed himself a year earlier, marks Charlie out as a potentially troubled soul from the very start, and his obsession with The Smiths’ song, ‘Asleep’, arguably compounds this. There is nothing wrong with loving The Smiths, of course – I do – but their music is undoubtedly synonymous with social isolation and habitual disaffection. After all, one doesn’t engage with the lyrics of ‘How Soon is Now’ because one is feeling chipper.
It was with a sense of trepidation, then, that I followed Charlie’s story, as he tentatively formed relationships with his peers, unable to escape the creeping sensation of some undefined yet unavoidable catastrophe.
Much like life, though, there is not one big catastrophe. There are lots of little ones, instead, and it is from these that we, and Charlie, learn and grow.
These mini catastrophes (catastrophettes?) are entrenched in the bread and butter of teenagers: love, friendship, sex, experimentation… As an inexperienced participator in life, Charlie is more naïve than some, and yet he blunders along in much the same way as his peers, trying, failing and coming to terms with the consequences of his actions, and those of others. This is undoubtedly why this novel is so popular with modern teens: they can relate. They might not know who The Smiths are (or at least, they won’t until they read this book), but they understand Charlie’s struggles, because, to some degree, they’ve felt them too.
Adult readers will know The Smiths (and the numerous other cultural reference Chbosky includes). They will also know what Charlie is going through. In much the same way as their nostalgic memories of their teenage years are rose-tinted with the realisation that life generally turns out okay, so Charlie’s cautious optimism at the end of the novel is reassuringly familiar. It enables us to understand Charlie, rather than to see him as a representative of youth culture that is now alien to us.
It enables us to love Charlie. And love Charlie, I did.
Throughout the novel, the person in receipt of Charlie’s letters remains unknown, and it is this device that galvanises the reader’s sense of attachment to the narrator. We feel as though Charlie is writing to us, personally. Unable to respond to Charlie’s epistles, we too become wallflowers, passive observers of his burgeoning and often troubled life. Sometimes we feel impotent and frustrated by our inability to engage and support, at other moments we feel exhilarated or proud, hopeful or glad. Ultimately, our feelings are a reflection of Charlie’s. We mirror him, and he mirrors us.
As the novel concludes, Charlie steps out of the shadows as tentatively but certainly as we step in. He is ready to start living. And we can all feel a little nostalgic for that.
I’ve developed a bit of an obsession with buying books in charity shops. Aside from the pleasant feeling of making a small contribution to a worthwhile cause (and it is small. £2 for a book? That’s a steal.), what I love is the pot-luck nature of charity shop book buying. Unlike a trip to Waterstones – where everything is neatly categorised and alphabetised – or a search through Amazon – where, let’s face it, you can find pretty much ALL the books – a delve in a charity shop is a delve into the unknown: there is no guarantee of the stock of books they will have on offer, and, in fact, this often varies widely from one visit to the next; there is, in some cases, no guarantee that their selection of literature will even be displayed in a coherent order. It’s a game of chance, really. And I like it.
Oxfam Books in Crouch End has become one of my favourite places for such visits, and I’ve spent many a happy hour rummaging through their collection. These rummages have been fairly successful. I’ve found myself several cut-price editions of the kind of books everybody thinks they should read (you know the type, they’ve probably won the Booker Prize, or the Nobel Prize. The kind of books that are only definable as ‘literature’, and that gain you infinitely more intellectual kudos in a conversation than admitting you’re a big fan of Poirot). The book I’m going to talk about now is one such acquisition, although I would like, at this stage, to note that my charity shop purchasing is not solely snobbish. I have also indulged in a fair amount of Adrian Mole, but more of that another time.
The Sea, The Sea is my first, and to date only, foray into the extensive catalogue of literature by Iris Murdoch. It won her the Booker Prize in 1978 – fourth time lucky – which would suggest that a panel of people, at least, liked it. Unfortunately for me, I did not.
It’s not that I am incapable of appreciating the sophistication of Murdoch’s prose. I will admit that some of her descriptions of the sea are truly wonderful. However, it is the obviousness of her metaphor, and the repugnance of her narrator that I take issue with.
The man in question, Charles Arrowby, is a successful West End director who decides to retire to a small cottage in a bleak coastal village, dreaming of a life of simple seclusion and introspection that is a world away from the self-indulgent decadence of the theatrical world he has previously inhabited. He takes it upon himself to start writing about his life – a sort of memoir cum journal, if you will – and it is in this form that the novel is written. It is also, through this form, that we are first made aware of our narrator’s arrogant, narcissistic nature. After all, there is something a little crude about assuming that people will want to hear your story, is there not?
Arrowby’s selfish nature is much further evident in his long, drawn out ponderings of his past love affairs. He paints himself as an innocent victim of Love’s cruel wrath, and then, in transcribing letters from former partners, is swiftly contradicted. In doing this, Murdoch was, no doubt, keen to malign a very particular type of person, but in making her narrator so unlikable, she has made her book suffer the same fate.
Never in my life have I read a book and so little wanted the narrator to succeed. In a sense, I suppose, that’s quite an achievement on Murdoch’s part. I mean, how frequently do we read books and root for the hero? To actually hope that they fail? That’s something new, surely.
Thankfully, fail he does.
Arrowby’s obsession with his ‘first love’ Hartley, who he happens upon in his new village (neat coincidence), is as ill-fated as their original teenage relationship. His actions in attempting to resurrect this love are foolish and deplorable, as is the way in which he ignores all the sensible advice from his mysterious cousin, James (who is, incidentally, the only reasonably likeable character in the whole book). It is some comfort, then, that Charles is at least unsuccessful in his plans.
Less comforting, is the lack of enlightenment. There would be something redeeming about The Sea, The Sea, if we witnessed a clear moment of realisation from our narrator, if he experienced some profound regret for the way he has treated Hartley (and the numerous other women silly enough to fall for his ‘charms’). It is implied through Murdoch’s clumsy symbolism that some sense of understanding has dawned (pre-enlightenment, the sea offers Arrowby a monster, while after it presents him with seals), however I found this unsatisfactory. In the dwindling end of the narrative, he doesn’t actually feel any different. There is still a pomposity to his reflections and delusions of grandeur in the way he interacts with others. He also returns to his London life, begging the question, what has this little adventure really taught him?
But perhaps that is it. Maybe all Murdoch is trying to say is that you truly can’t teach an old dog new tricks. A message that’s probably true, but also, probably, could have been said in a few less pages. And from a different narrative perspective.
Still, at least it was only £2.50.
It’s been almost exactly a year since I posted anything on here. When I started writing this blog, I told myself that I’d make the effort to keep it going – not because I thought anyone was particularly interested in what I have to say, but because I genuinely enjoy writing, and, obviously, love books. Unfortunately, moving city and job, and then breaking my laptop and taking an appalling seven months to get around to fixing it (in part because it was quite liberating knowing that I couldn’t do work at home), all seem to have contributed to my failure on this front.
Still, life has settled down a bit now (or rather, it’s still the school holidays, so I have a little time on my hands), and I have performed a feat of technological mastery (worked out how to restore factory settings), so I shall endeavour to do some writing.
Luckily, in my blog-free year, I still read a lot of books, so have plenty of material to chose from. It’s really, I suppose, just a question of where to (re)start.
About eight years ago, I read Birdsong and loved it. The smouldering sexual relationship, the harrowing depictions of war, and the sadness and hope that wrestle with one another throughout the narrative all justify, as far as I’m concerned, its frequent inclusion in ‘books to read before you die’ lists. Seemingly, its place in such lists would also imply I’m not alone in thinking this.
However, since then, I’ve struggled with other Sebastian Faulks novels. Both On Green Dolphin Street and Human Traces, I started, and then got distracted, and then got distracted some more, and then forgot what was going on and gave up. I’m not convinced this is because they are particularly bad books, just that, for whatever reasons, life got in the way a bit, and I hadn’t found them engaging enough to persevere.
You could say, then, that my relationship with Faulks is a complicated one.
It was within this context – and as a bit of a challenge, I think – that I was recently leant another of his novels: A Week in December.
Never one to refuse a challenge (some say pig-headed and stubborn; I prefer sporting…), I started reading.
Initially, I have to admit, I was highly dubious about my chances of enjoying this book. In the first chapter, for starters, a character called John Veals talked A LOT about hedge funds. Now, I don’t have a background in economics, but I do take an interest in current affairs, and if you take an interest in current affairs, and live in Britain in the 21st century, it’s pretty hard not to be aware of banking and the economy. In fact, I’d go so far as to say you’d need to have actively spent the last five years or so with your head buried in the sand not to be familiar, at a cursory level at least, with the various banking crises that have plummeted us into a double dip recession.
Having said all this, I don’t understand what a hedge fund is.
John Veals certainly does though, as, through his complex financial dealings, he masterminds a plan that will bring down the British economy while making himself and his hedge fund millions of pounds, and becomes the villain of the piece. Which is pretty impressive, when there is also a potential suicide bomber in our midst.
Perhaps I should explain.
A Week in December is about a diverse group of characters (think tube driver, acerbic book reviewer, stoned and spoilt teenager, fundamentalist Muslim, impoverished lawyer, immoral hedge funder, and numerous upper-class mothers suffering varying degrees of alcoholism/anorexia), all living in London, and charts their lives across, well, a week in December. December 2007, it should be noted. Linked together by the tube, a dinner party, and a devil-may-care cyclist, this unlikely – and often unlikeable – group march (sometimes) blindly towards catastrophe. What form this catastrophe will take is uncertain, what with Veals and Hassan (resident fundamentalist) vying for the role of Most Blindly Destructive Arse.
To unfold his narrative, Faulks flits between these characters with varying frequency. Veals and Hassan take a substantial share, perhaps unsurprisingly, as they most easily allow the writer to present his moral message, although he does this through the other characters also. However, perhaps moral message isn’t the right phrase. A Week in December is something of a social commentary; an essentially damning reflection of the modern capitalist society in which these characters reside. Many of the most affluent within the novel are vulgar and vacuous – concerned primarily with superficial and self-obsessed pursuits. This is a culturally bankrupt society: reality television has taken to exploiting those with psychiatric problems; sex and nudity are everywhere; people create lives for themselves on the internet, rather than actually living for real; money is the primary signifier of a person’s worth. Sound familiar?
Hassan’s inclusion in the narrative, although initially appearing to reflect the dangers of extremist views, actually serves to point out how flawed our society is. After all, is it any surprise that people turn to the assurance of a fundamentalist belief when the world they live in is so socially isolating and so culturally bereft?
Essentially, Faulks is implying that Hassan is not entirely to blame for his terrorist intentions; nor are the organisers of his cell solely responsible. The ultimate fault, according to the writer, seems to lie in the empty consumerist society created through a flawed economics of greed. In the novel, John Veals is an orchestractor of this society, ergo, he and his kind are to blame.
Britain, and the world’s, current economic problems make Faulks’ subject matter particularly topical. We are truly living in the aftermath of John Veal’s amoral actions. Unfortunately, what the writer does not do is offer a solution. There is no indication of what we need to do to improve this dismal situation, just a general sense that something needs to be done.
And it does, no doubt, if we are to bring ourselves back from this precipice.
A Week in December is a very different sort of book from Birdsong. Despite this, not only did I finish it, but I actually enjoyed it. I appreciated the multiple narrative strands, plethora of vile characters, and thought-provoking theme; I liked the unsubtly veiled criticisms of various politicians and companies, the realism and the pervading sense of doom. I even tolerated all of the economic detail.
Although, unfortunately, I still don’t understand what a hedge fund is.
This week, I went Wodehouse.
Following on from my previous post about Agatha Christie’s social commentary, and at the subsequent recommendation of a friend and now ex-colleague, I delved into the 1920s upper-class world of Bertie Wooster.
And what a world it is.
Stephen Fry, on the back cover of my copy of The Inimitable Jeeves, describes it as ‘sunlit perfection’; on the inside cover, Marian Keyes heralds it a ‘far, far nicer’ world than the one we live in; and, although I can’t quote her directly, the lovely shop assistant in Waterstones was, it’s safe to say, equally as gushing. All in all, the general consensus seems to be that inside the pages of a Wodehouse novel is a pretty special place to be. And I can’t help but agree.
For starters, you simply cannot help but like the characters. Wooster, for example, in another guise could be quite repugnant: a work-shy member of the elite whose social and financial privilege means he can lead a life of absurdly vacuous luxury. Yet, in Wodehouse’s hands, he is a delightful narrator: he bumbles harmlessly along shouting ‘what ho!’ every few minutes, pouring money into his friends’ hair-brained schemes, and rashly adorning himself in outlandish cummerbunds and risqué spats.
His valet, Jeeves (who, incidentally, was not a fan of the spats. Or the cummerbund, for that matter) is a whole different kettle of fish: shrewd, intelligent, and logical, he aids Bertie and his hapless friends (particularly Bingo Little, who excels in haplessness) as they inevitably get themselves into scrape after scrape. His propensity for solving problems is legendary. Inimitable, indeed.
This reversal of the social stereotypes – Jeeves, though presumably of a lower class, is superior to Wooster in intellect and eloquence (and, I suspect, sartorial elegance) – makes gentle mockery of a class system that is uniquely British and undoubtedly insane. After all, why should folk who rely on patronage from rich family members and fill their days lunching in exclusive gentlemen’s clubs be considered better? Or cleverer?
But Wodehouse’s mockery is gentle. He doesn’t want – it seems to me – his audience to loathe Wooster. The latter’s genial manner and willingness to help out a friend in need (however futile his efforts) is testament to that. Instead, he wants us to laugh. He wants us to laugh with Wooster, and sometimes at him as the symbol of an outdated and irrelevant system that he is, but never, I would argue, does Wodehouse want us to laugh cruelly, because, Bertie Wooster, with his ‘what the dickens?’ and his ‘right-o old thing’, is purposely inoffensive and charmingly eccentric.
Both this eccentricity, and the subtle self-satire that permeates The Inimitable Jeeves are unmistakably British traits. Danny Boyle demonstrated these traits in his opening ceremony for the London Olympics, and Boris Johnson has made a political career out of them. Wodehouse, though, is the master. He makes an ugly face of our social history – the prevalence of a ruling elite – seem silly. He makes class an irrelevance, and, as Mr Fry so aptly put it, he makes the world seem like a sunnier place.