Archive for E-H

The Friendly Ones by Philip Hensher

It’s a novel of reflections, also a novel for our times: In a Brexit world of increasingly closed boarders and fear of new arrivals, it emphasises the benefits and enrichment that our society has gained from those who come from outside (albeit posh, skilled ones).

Hensher states that he took his story from “The Winter’s Tale” and “Eugene Onegin” Though we did know these well, iy seemed that the unjust death of young prince Mamillius corresponds with the presumed death of Sharif’s brother taken away from the family home by the Pakistani military forces. This would haunt the family for generations to come. From Eugene Onegin, Tatyana’s love letter to Onegin baring her soul is also replicated and her letter is received and rejected in a similarly dismissive manner in Hensher’s novel. From both stories, long time-lapses and people trapped in the mores of their times.

Who are the friendly ones? The Bangladeshi freedom fighters, the ‘hosts’ to immigrants? Collaborators with the Pakistani regime in these evil days called themselves, like the Eumenides, ‘the Friendly Ones’.

That one character became an ‘extremist’ is topical but was it necessary?

I liked it where young Leo became randy aged between ages 15 – 19 – a dwarf claiming to be big

p. 89 all get prizes – the first newspaper article | read by him was obsessed by the seeming lack of competition in schools so he writes here, glowingly, of sports teams and youth orchestras.

He also writes about CUs but Oxbridge has OIKU and CICCUI instead.

I would have liked a map of Sheffield – as in ‘The Northern Clemency’.

One member read it twice and found it ‘superb’.

‘It does go on a bit. Needs editing’.

It started as a cohesive narrative but became ‘straggly’.

The Bangladeshis return home frequently to see their family whereas the British rarely undertake the smaller journey to do so. Some hardly ever go home.

The various mothers come across badly.

Scenes from Early Life was remarkable partly because it used the same method to bring 1970s Dhaka vividly to life, plunging the reader deeply into the quiddity of the objects that made up that world. When The Friendly Ones moves its action to “Bangla Desh” – the original name for the country – in the second half of the novel, the Dhanmondi home of Sharif and Nazia in the time leading up to independence felt familiar to those who’d read Hensher’s earlier book.

There is, at one level, something scattershot about the narrative structure. In the

I started to get bored about three-quarters of the way through when the action abruptly changes to Dacca.

p. 439 has a good description of children encountering and marvelling at aeroplane food for the first time.

There’s an odd masochism scene with Josh towards the end – out of the blue unless I’ve missed something.

Though it is symmetrical, starting and ending with a perty, it peters out

Do gluttons explode? cause one’s stomach to rupture, which has very unpleasant consequences. In real life chances of survival are 50-50, but in a fictional work it’s usually portrayed as being lethal.

I had to look up khitmatgar  = A male servant, with responsibility for waiting at table.

also ‘haslet’ or acelet +  a pork meatloaf with herbs, originally from Lincolnshire. The word is derived from the Old French hastilles meaning entrails.

also ‘moue’ = a pouting expression used to convey annoyance or distaste.

Quotations:

“A bird was singing in the elm tree, a loud, plangent, lovely note, as if asking a question of the garden”

“the lawn, the red box of the barbecue, the white-shirted help”.

“He would not know how to begin to forgive Sharif for being Sharif, for being humorous and singing about the place, an old Tagore song, a funny old song he had just heard.”

“A woman passing a remark and walking away… the gaze and the hidden opinion”.

‘very supercilious and angry’.

‘Short men,’ she adds dismissively, ‘… very difficult in my view.’

“This is my wife’s country. This is where we will live and where we will go on living. The sea, the houses, the shops, the English sky: this is part of our country, and we will walk through it.”

If I lived in a cave and you were my only visitor,
what would I tell you that the walls had told me?
That people are unfinished and are made between
each other …JACK UNDERWOOD,`Second’

`Why don’t you put in for Oxbridge?’ Leo said once, in the pub where they thought they could-get away with it. Pete was untidy, scowling, pugnacious, and he kept his hair in a short­back-and-sides: he didn’t hold with sideburns and big hair and anything that would come and go. It made him look older than he was, though not always old enough to get a drink. He could have been in employment, even.

‘I’d love to,’ Pete said. ‘But it’s not for me.’

`I don’t see that,’ Leo said. It’d be for you if you got in.’

`There’s no hills,’ Pete said. ‘I couldn’t be doing with no hills. Oxford – no hills. Cambridge – definitely no hills. It’s Leeds for me. That’ll suit me all right.’

‘I thought you said you needed to test yourself in life,’ Leo said.

`I’ve tested myself,’ Pete said. ‘I don’t need to test myself until I fail and then understand that I’ve failed. There’s a world out there. They’re just men and women, writing their tests and seeing if you’re going to fit in. You and Tom Dick.’

‘He’s all right, that Tom Dick,’ Leo said bravely.

The next Wednesday he drove into the car park with a firm idea in his mind. The children from Gower were there. He made a small performance of shyness as he got out of the car. They would not shout if they thought he was likely to turn round.

`There’s that fooking Paki,’ one cried out. Was it the same one every time? ‘Paki! You fooking Pala in your fooking shirt and tie! Fooking look at the little Paki!’

Sharif turned. His expression was forcibly mild. He walked up to the fence. The children stood- exactly where they were, not moving and not quailing. They had the right to this land: that was what was in their minds. He had not looked at them closely before now. There were seven of them. The one who, he thought, had shouted was short and sharp-featured, with very dark hair. that stuck up at the back and paper-white skin. They all wore shorts and T-shirts; one or two wore those drapes of wool around the ankle called legwarmers.

`Did you call me a Paid?’ he said.

Tald’s come over,’ the boy shouted, with something like affected glee. The others were less sure.

Did you call me a Paid?’ Sharif said again. ‘I am not a Paki. I am certainly not a Paid. If anything, I am a Bangi.’

`You’re a Paid,’ the boy said, but not shouting now, speaking with derisory contempt to Sharif on the other side of the fence. `Look at you in your shirt and tie.’

`That is because I teach at the university here,’ Sharif said. `And I am not a Paid. If I were. Pakistani, I could understand your shouting “Paki” at me. I would not like it, but I would understand it. Do you know what I am? My country was Bangladesh. I have more reasons to hate the Pakistanis than you They ruled my country for twenty-four years. They robbed . They forbade us to speak our own language. When we voted or one of us to run the country, they annulled the election. They murdered people I knew and loved, and they murdered my brother. How old are you?’

Taki’s asking how old we are,’ the sharp-featured boy said. He was intelligent-looking. He could have done well. The other children were dull in their faces. They had no spark,or interest; they could not even walk away through self-awareness. Towards them was coming a larger person, a grown man.

`It was only ten years ago,’ Sharifsaid. ‘You weren’t born then.’ Took off,’ the boy said, and some of his friends started to laugh. ‘I’m fooking fourteen, I am.’

‘I’m fifteen,’ another boy said, his hair almost white, his jaw square, like- a hero’s, his eyes empty of anything.

`There was a war,’ Sharif said. ‘I had a brother two years older than you. You would have called him a Paid too. But he wasn’t a Palti. He was fighting the Pakistanis and they took him away. We never saw him again. My mother never knew what had happened to him.’

`Ay, but if he were in war, fighting as soldier, like,’ a boy offered from the back.

-`They tortured him,’ Sharif said. ‘The Pakistanis tortured him and they killed him and he was much the same age as you are. So I am not a Paki. You can shout out at me and call me a Bangi. But do not call me a Paki. Do not call me a Paki.’

The man was here. He was brisk and ginger and thirtyish; he looked as empty as the boys. His head was -shaved around -the back and sides and his shoulders bulged from the sleeveless T-shirt he wore. Are you talking to my boys?’ he said. ‘What do you want with them?’

`I am not talking to your boys, as you- call them,’ Sharif said. `They shouted inaccurate abuse at me and I was correcting their inaccurate misapprehension.’ –

`You little bastards,’ the man said, but affectionately. ‘What they bin shouting?’

`They called me a Paid; Sharif said. ‘I am not going to be insulted when I am parking my car at my place of work, and your boys —’

`They called you a Paki? It’s not exactly wrong, though, is it?’ the man said. Are you Pakistani? I don’t see there’s much wrong with —’

`I was explaining precisely what is wrong with what they were shouting,’ Sharif said.

‘If you called me a Brit —’

`I don’t care to be called what they called me,’ Sharif said, with a level gaze. If you are in charge here, you will see it doesn’t happen again.’

`I’ll see they don’t indulge their animal spirits in your direc­tion again,’ the man said un-seriously. ‘They’re good lads. This is our first team. They’ll be looking at trials for clubs in two years.’

`You should teach them how to read,’ Sharif said, walking away. He was not quite sure what the man meant. He understood that it was a world of no significance that he spoke about, in which his boys would in any case fail. ‘That,’ he turned his head, ‘would be of more benefit to them than the ball in the net.’

`Hey!’ the man was shouting, but Sharif went on walking, into the faculty. He walked with a certain buoyancy in his stride. Those children would dream of football and kick balls around until they could kick balls into nets six or seven times out of ten. Then they would fail in their dreamt endeavour and

would have to be sent off to learn how to read. Sharif knew that they could not read, or not much. No person who could read looked like that, so animal in the gaze, either docile or blankly raging. They didn’t know what they were here on earth to do. That was the future for the English.

There was ten minutes before his first student, and he could hear the shouting and whistling from the pitch behind the building. He picked up the telephone and dialled an internal number. In four minutes he had extracted a commitment from the registry that they would speak to the headmaster of Gower

I and extract a number of commitments in turn, before school was allowed to use the university facilities again. ‘f put the telephone down. He had ruined a child’s life – mewhere, one of those sharp-featured boys in the crowd had talent with the unlettered ball and an instinctive understand‑

of the spatial dimensions of a trajectory that needed no arks on paper. A dog could catch a thrown ball, after all. The brilliant moron, somewhere in that crowd, would have to do without the support of the university’s facilities, and he would fail in life because of it. Sharif was glad. And in a moment Mr Wentworth and Mr Tan knocked on his door, and he welcomed them in and began to explain, yet again, about ductile fracture equations.

There had been a note in his pigeon hole from Mr Ghosh, the manager of the hospice, asking if he would- come to see hi at the end of his shift. At first, long ago, these notes had ma him nervous. For along time now, however, they had appe when Mr Ghosh needed Leo’s help in a difficult matter. He worked there much longer than anyone else.

 

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Gay Life Stories by Robert Aldrich

(Only briefly discussed by the group but written in a personal capacity.)

This book gives a voice to more than eighty people from every major continent and from all walks of life and it includes poets and philosophers, rulers and spies, activists and artists. Alongside such celebrated figures as Michelangelo, Frederick the Great and Harvey Milk are lesser-known but no less surprising individuals: Dong Xian and the Chinese emperor Ai, whose passion flourished in the 1st century BC; the unfortunate Robert de Péronne, first to be burned at the stake for sodomy; Katharine Philips, writing proto-lesbian poetry in 17th-century England; and ‘Aimée’ and ‘Jaguar’, whose love defied the death camps of wartime Germany. With many striking illustrations – including paintings, drawings, photographs and archival documents – Gay Life Stories will entertain, give pause for thought, and ultimately celebrate the diversity of human history.

It takes an eclectic, multinational view of the subject which introduced many figures I had not heard of. It includes the female as well as male experience of gay life too. Some times the essays were just a little too condensed, leaving one wanting more

You can dip into this book anywhere – there are interesting thematic chapter divisions – but I found myself reading it cover to cover as if it was a cultural survey, and that’s testament to its sheer readability. Lovely book, brilliantly written, great illustrations, quality production values: a book to treasure.

Most gays live obscure, unreported lives: those which have been documented are exceptional. Nor should it surprise anyone that figures who have written about their sexuality predominate.

There is even room for the deeply unpleasant Ronnie Kray, a London gangster who could hardly be said to be a LGBT role model. Nonetheless, Kray’s story reveal something about “gay” life in London in the 1960s and Kray’s dealings with the decidedly dodgy Tory grandee Bob Boothby who stood uo for homosexual law reform).

I hope that when reading the book, readers take away several things. First of all, “we are everywhere,” to quote the gay liberation slogan. Though individuals and their societies have lived out their same-sex yearnings in very different ways, the ancestors of today’s gay men and lesbians were omnipresent. This doesn’t mean that antiquity’s “pederasts,” the early modern age’s “sodomites,” and today’s “homosexuals,” “gays,” and “queers” are all the same — far from it. And in the non-Western world, the profile of those with same-sex orientation is different again. I hope readers will learn about the diversity of gay lives.

Particularly interesting were:

Alair Gomes – the construction of this photographic world aimed to “transcend his personality,” creating a “proto-religious” state.

Image for The Genius of Donald Friend. Drawings from the Diaries 1942-1989Donald Friend – Born in Sydney, Friend grew up in the artistic circle of his bohemian mother and showed early talent both as an artist and a writer. Friend did not mince words about his sexual preferences, depicting himself as “a middle-aged pederast who’s going to seed” in his journal. His relationships were mostly with adolescent boys. For example, in the 1960s Friend wrote in his diary of a 10 year old boy: “[He] spent the night with me. I hope life will continue forever to offer me delicious surprises … and that I will always be delighted and surprised. He goes about the act of love with a charmingly self-possessed grace: gaily, affectionately, and enthusiastically. And in these matters he’s very inventive and not at all sentimental for all the caresses.” A few boys became his lifelong friends, particularly Attilio Guarracino, whom he met when Guarracino was 19 years old, however, in interviews with Kerry Negara, some of Friend’s former victims report being ashamed and traumatised by their childhood sexual experiences with him.

Especially interesting were:

Magnus Enckell – symbolist painter. “His love affairs with men have not been denied … Enckell’s naked men and boys are openly erotic and sensual.”

Eugene Jansson – a Swedish painter known for his night-time land- and cityscapes dominated by shades of blue. Towards the end of his life, from about 1904, he mainly painted male nudes. The earlier of these phases has caused him to sometimes be referred to as blåmålaren, “the blue-painter”.

Tannis Tsarouchis – filled his canvases with images of vulnerable men and (to a much lesser extent) strong women

Tamtsu Yatu  – Japanese photographer and occasional actor responsible for pioneering Japanese homoerotic photography and creating iconic black-and-white images of the Japanese male. He was a friend and collaborator of the writer Yukio Mishima

Lionel Wendt – a Ceylon pianist, photographer, literature collector, critic, and cinematographer.

”In some ways, a sex act is in most senses over and done with rather quickly. It may be public or private, it may be repeated or it may be casual. But it doesn’t so much undermine society as the idea of a continuing emotional relationship because that sort of relationship – love, if you like, or even a long-term partnership – tends to undermine the idea that homosexuality is a deviance, that it is something that is relegated to dark rooms and back streets.

”That then imposes questions, as we see today with discussions about gay marriage, about the normality of standard relationships … It also makes it more difficult for people to close their eyes to it.”

”As a historian, I’m fascinated at how, in a place like Colombo in the 1930s, there could be someone like him, whose sexuality was an open secret that didn’t seem to cause any problem.’And his artistic works combined many of these elements of Western and Eastern traditions in what we would today call cultural hybridity.”

”Even in our own liberal Western countries, we know there are lots of acts of violence against homosexuals; comments by political figures on the right wing about homosexuality,’

‘Some were ‘out and proud’ but some wouldn’t have known what that meant,’. Most of them have left some traces of their sexuality – those traces are in their art, writing, memoirs, and sometimes in the court records that are available, because they were arrested and tried for various crimes.””would no doubt have had sexual liaisons with young men” and, even in old age, was said to chase young fellows because Athenian mores ”not only tolerated but applauded emotional and sexual intercourse between men, though with certain caveats”.

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Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow -YUVAL NOAH HARARI

(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

The near-blasphemous title alludes thus: Homo deus — a much superior human model. Homo deus will retain some essential human features, but will also enjoy upgraded physical and mental abilities that will enable it to hold its own even against the most sophisticated non-conscious algorithms. Since intelligence is decoupling from consciousness, and since non-conscious intelligence is developing at breakneck speed, humans must actively upgrade their minds if they want to stay in the game.

Most predictions of the future extrapolate from the past and get it wrong.  This book is probably no exception.

The optimism of this book reminds me of Stephen Pinker’s ‘The Better Angels of our Nature.  Both these books are not realistic about ‘original sin’.

He labours under many errors: spirituality does not grow out of dualism; indeed it seeks to overcome it; official Catholicism does not teach ‘blind obedience to the pope’ (which he clarified later in the book) nor that the Bible was dictated by God. For Muslims, Muhammad did not ‘found’ Islam – he revived it.

Homo Deus argues that through advances in science (plastic surgery, genetic mapping, anti-aging products etc.) we are transforming into something that isn’t quite homo sapien. If you could select a gene for your child that would improve his/her memory, would you? What if everyone else is doing it?

He uses ‘due’ when he means ‘owing’ and puts to much trust in bankers, forgetting the system that props them up..

Apparently, the author is only 40,and is a gay Israeli vegan historian who meditates for two hours a day.

Summary

what we have achieved up until today and where we may take life in the future – from many different perspectives from agriculture, technology, economy, geography and medicine to psychology, politics, sociology, existentialism and science

The next section of the book covers how we brought the world to be in the last 2 or 3 centuries

Ranging from dating to medical diagnosis, from the care of the elderly to household work, entire industries now stand to both benefit and be complemented or even superseded by the march of the machines. Mr. Harari speculates about a bold vision in which most manual labor has been taken over by machines and true human input is limited only to a very limited number of people, many of whom because of their creativity and demand will likely be in the top financial echelons of society. How will the rich and the poor live in these societies?

Quotations:

Given our twentieth-century accomplish­ments, if people continue to suffer from famine, plague and war, we cannot blame it on nature or on God. It is within our power to make things better and to reduce the incidence of suffering even further.

Having secured unprecedented levels of prosperity, health and harmony, and given our past record and our current values, humanity’s next targets are likely to be immortality, happiness and divinity. Having reduced mortality from starvation, disease and violence, we will now aim to overcome old age and even death itself. Having saved people from abject misery, we will now aim to make them positively happy. And having raised humanity above the beastly level of survival struggles, we will now aim to upgrade humans into gods, and turn Homo sapiens into Homo deus.

What might have happened if a rare mutation had created a squirrel who, after eating a single nut, enjoys an everlasting sen­sation of bliss? Technically, this could actually be done by rewiring the squirrel’s brain. Who knows, perhaps it really happened to some lucky squirrel millions of years ago. But if so, that squirrel enjoyed an extremely happy and extremely short life, and that was the end of the rare mutation. For the blissful squirrel would not have bothered to look for more nuts, let alone mates. The rival squirrels, who felt hungry again five minutes after eating a nut, had much better chances of surviving and passing their genes to the next generation. For exactly the same reason, the nuts we humans seek to gather — lucrative jobs, big houses, good-looking partners — seldom satisfy us for long.

Over those 20,000 years humankind moved from hunting mammoth with stone-tipped spears to exploring the solar system with spaceships not thanks to the evolution of more dexter­ous hands or bigger brains (our brains today seem actually to be smaller).” Instead, the crucial factor in our conquest of the world was our ability to connect many humans to one another.

Yet of all the projects currently under development, the most revolutionary is the attempt to devise a direct two-way brain computer interface that will allow computers to read the electrical signals of a human brain, simultaneously transmitting signals that the brain can read in turn.

“The modern world does not believe in purpose, only in cause. If modernity has a motto, it is ‘shit happens.'”

Biblical Judaism, for instance, catered to peasants and shep­herds. Most of its commandments dealt with farming and village life, and its major holidays were harvest festivals. People today imagine the ancient temple in Jerusalem as a kind of big syna­gogue where priests clad in snow-white robes welcomed devout pilgrims, melodious choirs sang psalms and incense perfumed the air. In reality, it looked more like a cross between a slaughter­house and a barbecue joint. The pilgrims did not come empty-handed. They brought with them a never-ending stream of sheep, goats, chickens and other animals, which were sacrificed at the god’s altar and then cooked and eaten. The psalm-singing choirs could hardly be heard over the bellowing and bleating of calves and kids. Priests in bloodstained outfits cut the victims’ throats, collected the gushing blood in jars and spilled it over the altar. The perfume of incense mixed with the odours of con­gealed blood and roasted meat, while swarms of black flies buzzed just about everywhere (see, for example, Numbers 28, Deuteronomy 12, and i Samuel 2). A modern Jewish family that celebrates a holiday by having a barbecue on their front lawn is much closer to the spirit of biblical times than an orthodox family that spends the time studying scriptures in a synagogue.

Fiction isn’t bad. It is vital. Without commonly accepted stor­ies about things like money, states or corporations, no complex human society can function. We can’t play football unless every­one believes in the same made-up rules, and we can’t enjoy the benefits of markets and courts without similar make-believe stor­ies. But the stories are just tools. They should not become our goals or our yardsticks. When we forget that they are mere fic­tion, we lose touch with reality. Then we begin entire wars ‘to make a lot of money for the corporation’ or ‘to protect the national interest’. Corporations, money and nations exist only in our imagination. We invented them to serve us; why do we find ourselves sacrificing our lives in their service?

During the Second Temple period a rival religious elite gradu­ally formed. Due partly to Persian and Greek influences, Jewish ars who wrote and interpreted texts gained increasing promin­ce. These scholars eventually came to be known as rabbis, the texts they compiled were christened ‘the Bible’. Rabbin­ic authority rested on individual intellectual abilities rather than birth. The clash between this new literate elite and the old priestly families was inevitable. Fortunately for the rabbis, the Romans torched Jerusalem and its temple in AD 70 while sup­pressing the Great Jewish Revolt. With the temple in ruins, the priestly families lost their religious authority, their economic power base and their very raison d’être. Traditional Judaism — a Judaism of temples, priests and head-splitting warriors ­disappeared. In its place emerged a new Judaism of books, rabbis and hair-splitting scholars.

 

Not from reading the Bible, St Augustine or Martin Luther. Rather, it came from reading texts like Michel Foucault’s The His­tory of Sexuality or Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto’. Yet Christian true-believers — however progressive — cannot admit to drawing their ethics from Foucault and Haraway. So they go back to the Bible, to St Augustine and to Martin Luther, and make a very thorough search. They read page after page and story after story with the utmost attention, until they finally discover what they need: some maxim, parable or ruling that, if interpreted creatively enough means God blesses gay marriages and women can be ordained to the priesthood. They then pretend the idea originated in the Bible, when in fact it originated with Foucault. The Bible is kept as a source of authority, even though it is no longer a true source of inspiration.

That’s why traditional religions offer no real alternative to lib­eralism. Their scriptures don’t have anything to say about genetic engineering or artificial intelligence, and most priests, rabbis and muftis don’t understand the latest breakthroughs in biology and computer science. For if you want to understand these breakthroughs, you don’t have much choice — you need to spend time reading scientific articles and conducting lab experiments instead of memorising and debating ancient texts.

That doesn’t mean liberalism can rest on its laurels. True, it has won the humanist wars of religion, and as of 2016 it has no viable alternative. But its very success may contain the seeds of its ruin. The triumphant liberal ideals are now pushing humankind to reach for immortality, bliss and divinity. Egged on by the allegedly infallible wishes of customers and voters, scientists and engineers devote more and more energies to these liberal pro­jects. Yet what the scientists are discovering and what the engineers are developing may unwittingly expose both the inherent flaws in

 

If the economy doesn’t grow, and the pie therefore remains the same size, you can give more to the poor only by taking some­thing from the rich. That will force you to make some very hard choices, and will probably cause a lot of resentment and even violence. If you wish to avoid hard choices, resentment and viole­nce, you need a bigger pie.

Modernity has turned ‘more stuff’ into a panacea applicable to almost all public and private problems, from religious funda­mentalism, through Third World authoritarianism, down to a failed marriage. If only countries such as Pakistan and Egypt could maintain a healthy growth rate, their citizens would come to enjoy the benefits of private cars and bulging refrigerators, and would take the path of earthly prosperity instead of following the Fundamentalist pied piper. Similarly, economic growth in coun­tries such as Congo and Myanmar would produce a prosperous middle class which is the bedrock of liberal democracy. And in the case of the disgruntled couple, their marriage would allegedly be saved if only they would buy a bigger house (so they don’t have to share a cramped office), purchase a dishwasher (so they stop arguing whose turn it is to do the dishes) and attend expensive therapy sessions twice a week.

Economic growth has thus become the crucial juncture where almost all modern religions, ideologies and movements meet. The Soviet Union, with its megalomaniacal Five Year Plans, was as obsessed with growth as the most cut-throat American robber-baron. Just as Christians and Muslims all believe in heaven, and disagree only about how to get there, so during the Cold War both capitalists and communists believed in creating heaven on earth through economic growth, and wrangled only about the exact method.

 

Evolutionary pressures have accustomed humans to see as a static pie. If somebody gets a larger slice of the pie, so else inevitably gets a smaller slice. A particular family may or may not prosper, but humankind as a whole is not going to produce than it produces today. Accordingly, traditional religions Christianity and Islam sought ways to solve humanity’s pro with the help of current resources, either by redistributing the existing pie, or by promising a pie in the sky.

Modernity, in contrast, is based on the firm belief that economic growth is not only possible, but absolutely essential. Prayers, good deeds and meditation might be comforting inspiring, but problems such as famine, plague and war can o be solved through growth. This fundamental dogma can summarised in one simple idea: ‘If you have a problem, you pro ably need more stuff; and in order to have more stuff, you must produce more of it.’

Modern politicians and economists insist that growth is vital for three principal reasons. Firstly, when we produce more, we can consume more, raise our standard of living and allegedly enjoy a happier life. Secondly, as long as humankind multiplies, economic growth is needed merely to stay where we are. For example, in India the annual population growth rate is 1.2 per cent. That means that unless the Indian economy expands each year by at least 1.2 per cent, unemployment will rise, salaries will fall and the average standard of living will decline. Thirdly, even if Indians stop multiplying, and even if the Indian middle class can be satisfied with its current standard of living, what should India do about its hundreds of millions of poverty-stricken citizens?

The most important question in 21st-century economics may well be: What should we do with all the superfluous people, once we have highly intelligent non-conscious algorithms that can do almost everything better than humans?

This is not an entirely new question. People have long feared that mechanization might cause mass unemployment. This never happened, because as old professions became obsolete, new professions evolved, and there was always something humans could do better than machines. Yet this is not a law of nature, and nothing guarantees it will continue to be like that in the future. The idea that humans will always have a unique ability beyond the reach of non-conscious algorithms is just wishful thinking. The current scientific answer to this pipe dream can be summarized in three simple principles:

  1. Organisms are algorithms. Every animal — including Homo sapiens — is an assemblage of organic algorithms shaped by natural selection over millions of years of evolution.
  2. Algorithmic calculations are not affected by the materials from which the calculator is built. Whether an abacus is made of wood, iron or plastic, two beads plus two beads equals four beads.
  3. Hence, there is no reason to think that organic algorithms can do things that non-organic algorithms will never be able to replicate or surpass. As long as the calculations remain valid, what does it matter whether the algorithms are manifested in carbon or silicon?

True, at present there are numerous things that organic algorithms do better than non-organic ones, and experts have repeatedly declared that some things will “for ever” remain beyond the reach of non-organic algorithms. But it turns out that “for ever” often means no more than a decade or two. Until a short time ago, facial recognition was a favorite example of something that babies accomplish easily but which escaped even the most powerful computers. Today, facial-recognition programs are able to identify people far more efficiently and quickly than humans can. In 2004, professor Frank Levy from MIT and professor Richard Murnane from Harvard published research on the job market, listing those professions most likely to undergo automation. Truck driving was given as an example of a job that could not possibly be automated in the foreseeable future. A mere 10 years later, Google and Tesla can not only imagine this, but are actually making it happen.

99 percent of human qualities and abilities are simply redundant for the performance of most modern jobs.

In fact, as time goes by, it becomes easier and easier to replace humans with computer algorithms, not merely because the algorithms are getting smarter, but also because humans are professionalizing. Ancient hunter-gatherers mastered a very wide variety of skills in order to survive, which is why it would be immensely difficult to design a robotic hunter-gatherer. Such a robot would have to know how to prepare spear points from flint stones, find edible mushrooms in a forest, track down a mammoth, coordinate a charge with a dozen other hunters and use medicinal herbs to bandage any wounds. However, a taxi driver or a cardiologist specializes in a much narrower niche than a hunter-gatherer, which makes it easier to replace them with AI. AI is nowhere near human-like existence, but 99 percent of human qualities and abilities are simply redundant for the performance of most modern jobs. For AI to squeeze humans out of the job market it need only outperform us in the specific abilities a particular profession demands.

As algorithms push humans out of the job market, wealth and power might become concentrated in the hands of the tiny elite that owns the all-powerful algorithms, creating unprecedented social and political inequality. Alternatively, the algorithms might themselves become the owners. Human law already recognizes intersubjective entities like corporations and nations as “legal persons.” Though Toyota or Argentina has neither a body nor a mind, they are subject to international laws, they can own land and money, and they can sue and be sued in court. We might soon grant similar status to algorithms. An algorithm could then own a transportation empire or a venture-capital fund without having to obey the wishes of any human master. Before dismissing the idea, remember that most of our planet is already legally owned by non-human intersubjective entities, namely nations and corporations. Indeed, 5,000 years ago much of Sumer was owned by imaginary gods such as Enki and Inanna. If gods can possess land and employ people, why not algorithms?

So what will people do? Art is often said to provide us with our ultimate (and uniquely human) sanctuary. In a world where computers have replaced doctors, drivers, teachers and even landlords, would everyone become an artist? Yet it is hard to see why artistic creation would be safe from the algorithms. According to the life sciences, art is not the product of some enchanted spirit or metaphysical soul, but rather of organic algorithms recognizing mathematical patterns. If so, there is no reason why non-organic algorithms couldn’t master it.

There are some safe jobs: the likelihood that algorithms will displace archaeologists is only 0.7 percent.

In the 19th century the Industrial Revolution created a huge urban proletariat, and socialism spread because no other creed managed to answer the unprecedented needs, hopes and fears of this new working class. Liberalism eventually defeated socialism only by adopting the best parts of the socialist program. In the 21st century we might witness the creation of a massive new unworking class: people devoid of any economic, political or even artistic value, who contribute nothing to the prosperity, power and glory of society. This “useless class” will not merely be unemployed — it will be unemployable.

In September 2013, two Oxford researchers, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, published “The Future of Employment,” in which they surveyed the likelihood of different professions being taken over by computer algorithms within the next 20 years, and they estimated that 47 percent of US jobs are at high risk. For example, there is a 99 percent probability that by 2033 human telemarketers and insurance underwriters will lose their jobs to algorithms. There is a 98 percent probability that the same will happen to sports referees. Cashiers — 97 percent. Chefs — 96 percent. Waiters — 94 percent. Paralegals — 94 percent. Tour guides — 91 percent. Bakers — 89 percent. Bus drivers — 89 percent. Construction laborers — 88 percent. Veterinary assistants — 86 percent. Security guards — 84 percent. Sailors — 83 percent. Bartenders — 77 percent. Archivists — 76 percent. Carpenters — 72 percent. Lifeguards — 67 percent. There are, of course, some safe jobs. The likelihood that computer algorithms will displace archaeologists by 2033 is only 0.7 percent, because their job requires highly sophisticated types of pattern recognition and doesn’t produce huge profits and it is improbable that corporations or government will make the necessary investment to automate archaeology within the next 20 years.

Most of what kids currently learn at school will probably be irrelevant by the time they are 40.

Of course, by 2033 many new professions are likely to appear — for example, virtual-world designers. But such professions will probably require much more creativity and flexibility than current run-of-the-mill jobs, and it is unclear whether 40-year-old cashiers or insurance agents will be able to reinvent themselves as virtual world designers (try to imagine a virtual world created by an insurance agent!). And even if they do so, the pace of progress is such that within another decade they might have to reinvent themselves yet again. After all, algorithms might well outperform humans in designing virtual worlds, too. The crucial problem isn’t creating new jobs. The crucial problem is creating new jobs that humans perform better than algorithms.

Since we do not know how the job market would look in 2030 or 2040, today we have no idea what to teach our kids. Most of what they currently learn at school will probably be irrelevant by the time they are 40. Traditionally, life has been divided into two main parts: a period of learning, followed by a period of working. Very soon this traditional model will become utterly obsolete, and the only way for humans to stay in the game will be to keep learning throughout their lives and to reinvent themselves repeatedly. Many, if not most, humans may be unable to do so.

The coming technological bonanza will probably make it feasible to feed and support people even without any effort from their side. But what will keep them occupied and content? One answer might be drugs and computer games. Unnecessary people might spend increasing amounts of time within 3D virtual-reality worlds that would provide them with far more excitement and emotional engagement than the drab reality outside. Yet such a development would deal a mortal blow to the liberal belief in the sacredness of human life and of human experiences. What’s so sacred about useless bums who pass their days devouring artificial experiences?

Some experts and thinkers, such as Nick Bostrom (TED Talk: What happens when our computers get smarter than we are?), warn that humankind is unlikely to suffer this degradation, because once artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence, it might simply exterminate humankind. The AI would likely do so either for fear that humankind would turn against it and try to pull its plug, or in pursuit of some unfathomable goal of its own. For it would be extremely difficult for humans to control the motivation of a system smarter than themselves.

Even preprogramming an AI system with seemingly benign goals might backfire horribly. One popular scenario imagines a corporation designing the first artificial super-intelligence and giving it an innocent test such as calculating pi. Before anyone realizes what is happening, the AI takes over the planet, eliminates the human race, launches a campaign of conquest to the ends of the galaxy, and transforms the entire known universe into a giant supercomputer that for billions upon billions of years calculates pi ever more accurately. After all, this is the divine mission its Creator gave it.

as time goes by it becomes easier and easier to replace humans with computer algorithms, not merely because the algorithms are getting smarter, but also because humans are pro­fessionalising. Ancient hunter-gatherers mastered a very wide variety of skills in order to survive, which is why it would be immensely difficult to design a robotic hunter-gatherer. Such a robot would have to know how to prepare stone tools, find edible mushrooms in a forest and track down prey.

a more sinister note, the same study implies that in future presidential elections Facebook could know not only the polit­ical opinions of tens of millions of Americans, but also who among them are the critical swing voters, and how these voters might be swung. Facebook could tell that in Oklahoma the race between Republicans and Democrats is particularly close, iden­tify the 32,417 voters who still haven’t made up their minds, and determine what each candidate needs to say in order to tip the balance. How could Facebook obtain this priceless political data? We provide it for free.

And this is just the beginning. Today in the US more people read digital books than printed ones. Devices such as Amazon’s Kindle are able to collect data on their users while they are read­ing. Your Kindle can, for example, monitor which parts of a book you read quickly, and which slowly; on which page you took a break, and on which sentence you abandoned the book, never to pick it up again. (Better tell the author to rewrite that bit.) If Kin­dle is upgraded with face recognition and biometric sensors, it will know how each sentence you read influenced your heart rate and blood pressure. It will know what made you laugh, what made you sad and what made you angry. Soon, books will read you while you are reading them. And whereas you quickly forget most of what you read, Amazon will never forget a thing. Such data will enable Amazon to choose books for you with uncanny precision. It will also enable Amazon to know exactly who you are, and how to turn you on and off.”

And this is just the beginning Today in the US more people read digital books than printed ones. Devices such as Amazon’s Kindle are able to collect data on their users while they are read­ing. Your Kindle can, for example, monitor which parts of a book you read quickly, and which slowly; on which page you took a break, and on which sentence you abandoned the book, never to pick it up again. (Better tell the author to rewrite that bit.) If Kin­dle is upgraded with face recognition and biometric sensors, it will know how each sentence you read influenced your heart rate and blood pressure. It will know what made you laugh, what made you sad and what made you angry. Soon, books will read you while you are reading them. And whereas you quickly forget most of what you read, Amazon will never forget a thing Such data will enable Amazon to choose books for you with uncanny precision. It will also enable Amazon to know exactly who you are, and how to turn you on and off.”

Yet even if we take into account all human species that ever existed, that would not come close to exhausting the mental spec­trum. Other animals probably have experiences that we humans can barely imagine. Bats, for example, experience the world through echolocation. They emit a very rapid stream of high-frequency chirps, well beyond the range of the human ear. They then detect and interpret the returning echoes to build a pic­ture of the world. That picture is so detailed and accurate that bats can fly quickly between trees and buildings, chase and cap­ture moths and mosquitoes, and all the while evade owls and other predators.

Bats live in a world of echoes. Just as in the human world every object has a characteristic shape and colour, so in the bat world every object has its echo-pattern. A bat can distinguish between a tasty moth species and a poisonous moth species by the different echoes bouncing back from their delicate wings. Some edible moth species try to protect themselves by evolving an echo-pattern similar to that of a poisonous species. Others have evolved an even more remarkable ability to deflect the waves of the bat radar, so like stealth bombers they can fly around without the bat knowing they are there. The world of echolocation is as complex and stormy as our familiar world of sound and sight, but we are completely oblivious to it.

One of the most important articles about the philosophy of mind is titled What Is It Like to Be a Bat?’ In this 1974 paper, the philosopher Thomas Nagel points out that a Sapiens mind cannot fathom the subjective world of a bat. We can write all the algo­rithms we want about the bat body, bat echolocation systems and bat neurons, but that won’t tell us how it feels to be a bat. How does it feel to echolocate a moth flapping its wings? Is it similar to seeing it, or is it something completely different?

Trying to explain to a Sapiens how it feels to echolocate a but­terfly is probably as pointless as explaining to a blind mole how it feels to see a Caravaggio. It’s likely that bat emotions are also deeply influenced by the centrality of their echolocation sense. For Sapiens, love is red, envy is green and depression is blue. Who knows what echolocations colour the love of a female bat for her offspring, or the feelings of a male bat towards his rivals?

Bats aren’t special, of course. They are but one of countless possible examples. Just as Sapiens cannot understand what it’s like to be a bat, we have similar difficulties understanding how it feels to be a whale, a tiger or a pelican. It certainly must feel like something; but we don’t know like what. Both whales and humans process emotions in a part of the brain called the limbic system, yet the whale limbic system includes an entire additional part that is missing from the human structure. Maybe that part enables whales to experience extremely deep and complex emotions that are alien to us? Whales might also have astounding musical experiences that even Bach and Mozart couldn’t grasp.

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Golden Boy – ABIGAIL TARTTELIN

(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

This is her second book. It was described as a “dazzling debut” by Oprah’s Book Club. Published in 2013, the book has rapidly been translated into numerous languages and saw the author listed amongst the Evening Standard’s “25 people under 25.

It’s about an intersex teenager and, as such, is rare. There’s a family in crisis, a fascinating exploration of identity, and a coming-of-age story

I now understand why some politicians want more time to spend with their family.

It’s accessible; written in a popular style and I wanted to keep on reading to find out what happened next. It’s written for the mainstream, no for some minority audience.

All families have secrets. The Walker family is good at keeping secrets from the world. They are even better at keeping them from each other. When a childhood friend abuses his trust in a horrific way, the family starts to unravel and, ultimately, seek to try to come to terms with its secrets.

Golden Boy won a 2014 American Library Association ALEX Award for Best Adult Books For Teen Readers and was shortlisted for a LAMBDA award for debut LGBT fiction!

But, after all that football, how did max cope in the changing rooms?

I liked the multiple narrators, seeing the characters through their own eyes and those of other people, and how they appear differently in each.

Tarttelin has described how she explores intersex to look at gender roles, expressing the view that, “I don’t particularly think men and women are very different”. In discussion with Interview Magazine, Tarttelin comments that gender is arbitrary, but “a lot of it is socially constructed”. She is concerned that some mainstream analysis of trans children exhibits a narrow world view and limited expectations of gender roles. Nevertheless, she argues that gender determines “whether you are physically intimidating vs. being physically intimidated”. Interviewed at Goodreads, Tarttelin says, “I could explore gender through the eyes of someone who had no need to define themselves as either male or female, but was pressured to do so by their family and community”. She deliberately placed her protagonist within an “‘average’ community and a loving family”, saying, “I often feel characters with alternative genders and sexualities are treated as outsiders in art, when in fact they are us, and they belong inside our communities. I wanted Golden Boy to take place in a town that readers could see as their own town”.[

 Fundamentally, autonomy is the issue at the heart of this book, rather than intersexuality

I wondered how true to life this was and then discovered that Golden Boy has also been well received by intersex audiences. The director of Intersex Campaign for Equality, describes the book as a “thoroughly engrossing novel with a pioneering perspective … The novel explores heavy, complex these with a disarming wholesomeness that elicits nostalgia for the novels of adolescence, making it a perfect fit for teen readers as well as adults.

Karen, a career-oriented lawyer whose self-conscious attitude especially toward outward appearances and the paranoia of what others may or may not think, compel her to be instinctively unhappy and controlling.

Steven, a moral and understanding father, yet busy lawyer whose active ambition tears him away from the knowledge and experience of his children’s emotional turmoil.

Max, an attractive, intelligent, athletic, obedient, and favoured all-star both amongst his peers and his family, is the center of the story’s narrative and the Golden Boy in which the book is named.

Daniel, Max’s highly intelligent, younger brother is an inquisitive, creative, but often overlooked little boy whose avid love for robots and video games affords him an escape from his mother’s critical eye.

Sylvie, a quirky and independent-thinking, social outcast befriends Max in a special way that essentially shows him a window to acceptance and love.

Hunter, Max’s childhood friend not only knows Max’s secret, but abuses it, which catapults and endangers their relationship to a complex level.

And Archie, a doctor who inherits the knowledge of Max’s crisis who learns to be an active advocate on his behalf and possibly others like him.

Interview with Author:

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis https://zaraalexis.wordpress.com/2013/05/21/book-review-and-author-interview-the-golden-boy-by-abigail-tarttelin/

  1. The subject of gender is a complicated one. What made you decide to write a book about the intersex experience?

I was thinking more than ever about how living as one gender or another defines us, and I began to believe that the differences between us are less biological and more to do with how we are treated by each other, and what treatment we accept. Having seen XXY in 2009, an Argentinian film featuring an intersex protagonist, I began to wonder how someone who was brought up as a male might feel to suddenly find their body insisting on their womanhood, and if approaching questions about gender from this perspective could highlight how gender makes a huge difference in our experience of the world, particularly in terms of our physical vulnerability and social expectations of how we should behave. In researching intersexuality, I came to understand that conditions that weren’t life threatening were being treated as such. I was particularly perturbed by statistics and stories about the loss of fertility and sensation experienced by individuals following operations on intersex children, and the parallel between this and the way women today disregard their own comfort to perform painful rituals to maintain their beauty and acceptability in society.

  1. What do you think is most challenging personally and socially for an individual who is intersex?

Society’s preconceptions and constructions surrounding gender force intersex individuals to make choices for the benefit of acceptance and not their physical health. In the case of Golden Boy, Max feels so much pressure from so many people to conform to these standards, but these standards are arbitrary and Max is a healthy individual. I do think standards are changing, and on blogs like Tumblr, there are certain courageous young people choosing or inventing their own gender labels, or deciding not to label themselves at all.

  1. How can people help in better supporting an individual who is intersex to ease those challenges?

Finding an online community like Tumblr where people can explore how to be, while remaining as anonymous as they like, could be really helpful in the case of intersex individuals. I think meeting people of any  ‘non-binary’ gender identity would help to realise that they are plenty of ‘different’ people in the world, and at the same time aiming to break down stereotypical gender roles within your community and household, so that there weren’t these strange, arbitrary lines drawn between us, would be beneficial to intersex people as well as women, men and LGBTQIA people in general.

  1. Do you think gender is more influenced by genetics, or an individual’s environment, or both?

I do strongly believe in genetic determinism, which is to say that the genes of an individual, along with environmental factors, determine the physical and behavioural development of an individual. I think more of our behaviour than we know can be attributed to our instinctive need to contribute to the evolution of our species, whether that behaviour be our urge to create art, or argue, or fall in love with a member of the same gender. When it comes to gender, aspects of our genetics, particularly our sex chromosomes, are significant factors in our development, but ‘gender’ itself is a human invention, a word we use to define the difficult to define, the in flux, the strange and unknowable. Like ‘gay’, ‘straight’ or ‘bi’, ‘woman’, ‘man’ and ‘intersex’ are finite terms human beings use to describe things that are not truly finite.

  1. The character, Max, in your book wasn’t told the details of his intersex genetic makeup, nor was his intersex spoken about or addressed by his family, and this seemed to be a crucial mistake in raising him since he had to deal with many unanswered questions about his gender growing up. How does a parent of a child who is intersex raise him/her in a healthy environment without imposing gender upon his/her child until which point the child may identify him/herself as a boy, girl, both, or neither?

To be honest, I think parents of children of all genders – intersex, female, male etc. – should attempt to bring them up neutrally with regards to gender. This is such a hard thing to do, particularly when there are many outside influences on children, and I applaud any parent who is making that really courageous and fairly self-sacrificial attempt. I think it’s important to read up on the subject to make yourself aware of how, for instance, toys are marketed in a gender-specific way, or girls are expected to be less rambunctious than male children, and how meek or fearful behaviour in a boy is often punished, but accepted in a girl. I’m currently reading Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind the Sex Differences by Cordelia Fine.

***

  1. You included statistics on intersex in your book. What is the ratio of individuals in the UK/Canada who identify themselves as men? As women?

I am not personally aware of a study that demonstrates the ratio of individuals who identify as male or female in Canada or the States. But if you find one, I’d love to be!

  1. Can babies who are conceived by individuals who are intersex, come to full-term and survive?

Not in every circumstance, but sometimes yes. For years intersex individuals were widely regarded as infertile by the medical community but, although certain conditions like CAH require immediate treatment to save the life of the baby, it is now known that intersex individuals can be fertile and thought that infertility in the past might have often been due to operations on the genitals at birth.

  1. Is it more likely for an individual who is intersex to have a baby who is also intersex?

Not that I’m aware. The rate of certain conditions is higher in some populations than others, but certainly not every intersex condition is passed down from a parent. As I understand it from my research, it is more likely for an intersex baby to be born to a female-male parental partnership, and for a female or male baby to be born from an intersex parent, than the alternative.

  1. Of all the characters in your book, who is your favourite one? Your least favourite one? Which character in your book was your favourite one to write?

Max is my favourite, but I’m very fond of Sylvie too. They are both heroes in my book. The Daniel/Max scenes were probably the most fun to write, but Max was certainly the most interesting character to be inside. I don’t hate anybody in the book, I try to present all characters – even the ‘bad guys’ – ambiguously.

  1. Of all the characters you have created, who do you believe is most like you?

There are aspects of me in every character in Golden Boy, but I’m probably most like Max and Sylvie. A little less bold than Sylvie, and a little more insistent than Max.

  1. What first inspired you to become a writer?

Everything inspires me to write. Writing is a compulsion for me and I can’t stop!

  1. Who are your favourite authors? Which authors do you think have greatly influenced your work?

When I was sixteen or seventeen, my English teacher gave me a copy of The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan, and I realised that I could write about anything, literally anything. Until then I had just read the classics, and although I love them, they didn’t show me that contemporary culture was an acceptable topic for a novel. I don’t have specific favourite authors, but one of my favourite books is The Good Women of China by Xinran.

***

  1. What are your top three favourite books?

I couldn’t choose three! I think the point of books is to read hundreds. Three of my favourites are The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson, The Women’s Room by Marilyn French and Just Kids by Patti Smith.

***

  1. What book are you reading right now?

Children of the Jacaranda Tree by Sahar Delijani. It’s phenomenal, and because we share the same US and UK editors, I know Sahar and she is SO lovely, so for both these reasons, I recommend people read her book.

***

  1. What does your working schedule look like? What is your writing process like?

Right now it’s crazy, because we are in the run up to publication and at the London Book Fair so I am getting my website up, meeting my publishers, doing reading events – which I love! When I am writing, I switch that world off. When I am beginning a novel, the writing comes in dribs and drabs. When I reach 21,000 words (my tipping point), I run away from society and write for five to six hours non-stop every day to get the first draft done. Usually this takes about a month.

  1. What are you working on right now? If you’re working on a second novel, can you tell us a little bit about it?

My second novel has to be in to my publishers in a year. I have a few ideas but I haven’t begun to write them yet! I am looking forward to touring the US and Canada and making notes about the different places I go to. I think that might get me inspired!

  1. What are some techniques you use to combat writer’s block?

I think you just have to ease up on yourself and not be mean to yourself! I can push myself too hard, where the best writing comes instinctively. The best thing to do is to get out into the world and live your life – that’s the really inspiring stuff.

  1. What do you like to snack on when you read or write?

Sometimes to keep myself going I get jelly babies. It doesn’t help, but my Mum always gets them when she needs a bit of a sugar rush and I’ve picked up the habit just because it reminds me of her! I tend to neglect food when I’m writing because I get too distracted by it’s yumminess, but I always think a big, hearty meal after a good writing session is needed, because it does take a lot of energy! I like a nice beef burger and fries!

***

  1. What kind of music do you enjoy listening to when you’re working on a novel?

Usually nothing, but I do like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and if maps was playing over and over in the background, I think I could write. I listen to The National a lot but that makes me get up and dance too often.

Yeah, for the Yeah Yeah Yeahs!

***

  1. Which is your favourite genre to read? To write?

To read: literary fiction, whatever that means. I like a book to be lusciously written, with beautiful prose and words I don’t know. I like to get to know a character and learn something meaningful about life. I don’t really read thrillers that often, unless they are the quiet, intense, character led kind. I think I’m still finding my voice in terms of writing. I enjoy writing in the first person, and I hope my use of language will continue to develop.

  1. What’s your favourite saying or quote?

“Worry is like a rocking chair, gives you something to do but it doesn’t get you anywhere.”

That’s from Van Wilder, Party Liaison.

  1. You’re house is on fire! What three things would you take with you before escaping the smoke and the flames?

Laptop, humans (includes one teddy bear), hard drive.

  1. If you could have dinner with three people at the same time, who would they be and why?

My Mum, my Dad and my brother. It would be hilarious.

  1. If you could describe yourself in only three words, what words would you use?

Cheerful, hopeful and interested.

  1. What do you enjoy most about creative writing?

A lack of boundaries.

  1. What’s the best advice you can give someone who’s an aspiring writer?

Don’t throw everything else away. Live your life out in the world too, because a writer’s words are only as good as their inspiration.

Thanks, Abigail, for taking the time to share a little bit about yourself and your thoughts on your new novel, The Golden Boy! It was certainly a pleasure to read the book and to get to know you through this interview. Congratulations on your publication and the best of success for your next project! – Zara

***

Quotations:

“I guess you’d maybe be under this category?” I say, pointing to ‘Not XX and not XY.’
“I guess so. Wow. One in one thousand, six hundred and sixty-six births. That’s a lot.”
….”Though, I had an oveotestis when I was born, and it says here that’s one in eighty-three thousand.”
“…What’s an ovotestis?”
“Um…where you have tissue of both an ovary and a testes in the same gonad.”

“absorbed your twin in the womb, giving you both your own female genitalia and his male genitalia.”

You’re in Sylvie’s bedroom, says my brain.
Yup
Are you gonna do it with her?
No, how can I?
Oh, go on. You want to bury your face in her hair so bad. What’s the worst that could happen.”

“due to societal pressure to be normal and fear of differences, being intersex may just ruin their life.”

“I don’t get what the difference is between a girlfriend and a friend who is a girl. Max has said things about them being attractive, but is that the only difference?”

 Now I’m too tired and scared to say anything positive, to be proud of who I am, to be a good big brother to Daniel, to be anything but indifferent. I don’t believe in anything I used to believe in anymore. Growing up, you believe the friends you have are good people, you believe your parents are always right, you believe that when the hard times come, you’ll know what to do, you’ll get through it, you’ll be the hero.

But then the bad things happen and everybody lets every­body else down. And you realise that old friends can be bad people. Your mum and dad can’t fix everything. You’re not the hero you thought you were. It was just that you hadn’t had anything that difficult to deal with yet, so you didn’t know that you were really the coward. That you were really weak. No. I don’t believe in the things I used to believe anymore.

I already have apathy about everything surface-deep, and everything deeper is changing for the worse and it’s my fault: Mum, Dad, Sylvie, Daniel, all of it. I used to think I wasn’t trying at all to be the best brother, the best son, the best footballer, the best friend. Now I realise I was trying really /hard. I’m starting to understand that attempting to be perfect has been the goal of my life. Our lives. Attempting to be this fault-free, smiling person in this loving, happy family that fits so perfectly in this pretty, inoffensive little town. What was so bad about that goal, after all? Only that I couldn’t do it. That I let everybody down. I’ve been so down about it, so depressed thinking about all the balls I was trying to juggle that I’ve dropped, and now the cogs are turning towards total apathy about it all, everything, and all I can think is that I am a shell of a human being. I’m a pushover. I’m to blame.

It’s not Hunter’s fault that I didn’t push him off me, and it’s not Mum’s fault that I didn’t stop the abortion before that last second. I guess I wouldn’t have kept it, but I can’t help thinking that I might have, if things were a little different, because I’ve spent so much time recently thinking about it and feeling sorry for it, and crying over it. Because it wasn’t the poor baby’s fault how it was conceived, no more than it’s my fault that I’m intersex.

But it is my fault, how I’ve reacted to my diagnosis, how I’ve dealt with it. Who I’ve become.

It was my turn to make the hard decisions. I had to count on me and me alone to hold my life and my family together. But I let all the voices get too loud and I didn’t listen to my own voice, that central thing at the heart of me that was beating like a drum, insistent, like falling rain on a window, saying that I should stop, give myself time, that I shouldn’t just do what everyone else said, that I should fight back and be who I am rather than who everybody else wanted me to be. I’m not the hero boyfriend Sylvie deserves. I’m not the hero big brother Daniel needs. I’m not the perfect son my parents wanted. I’m not the champion, or the parent the baby needed.

Dealing with trans individuals in the clinic did not prepare me for dealing with Max, because being one gender and wanting to be another is a completely different thing, perhaps even the opposite, of feel­ing, as perhaps Max does, OK as you are, but forced to choose. As a doctor, most of the health issues we work with involve a clear-cut right or wrong way to be. It is not OK to be obese, it is not OK to have cancer, it is not OK to eat sugar all the time. Many moral issues are the same: it is wrong to be racist, it is wrong to pay men more than women for the same job, it is wrong to murder. Perhaps this is why intersexuality is so controversial. The ‘norm’ is to have two separate genders, and when someone presents as different from the norm, we think they are ‘wrong’, we call their condition a ‘disorder’. But how detrimental is intersexuality, really, to a person’s life?

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Forbidden Territory (Coto Vedado): The Memoirs of Juan Goytisolo

FT 2The author is a connoisseur of experience but not of commitment. He fantasises a lot.

In the light of current events in Catalonia, it is very relevant now. We wanted to know more about Franco’s Spain but it’s an interesting history of dissidents.

It might have been more interesting had we read some of his novels – he alludes to things and then says that he has dealt with them elsewhere, in such and such a book.

His name means “The Garden of Secrets.” At one stage, he describes himself as n extrovert but it is quite clear that his schoolboy behaviour was extremely introverted, bordering on Asperger’s Syndrome.

He one slept through a whole day, not sure whether it was 8.00 am or pm; an experience I have also had.

Spanish writers tended to censor personal failings – maybe as a result of the confessional which wipes the late clean.

The translator has done a good job at creating some evocative prose – particularly at the end of this volume. There are beautiful descriptions and he is good at putting across what a child might feel but his style is impenetrable in places. There are too many long sentences with lots of sub clauses.

Goytisolo is a ruthless critic of Spain and its upper classes and no less a ruthless critic of himself. He was struggling with the stranglehold of a family in a fallen and irrelevant aristocracy that welcomed Franco, with the emergence of his homosexuality in a culture rigidly opposed to any sign of it, to the censorship of books that were his lifeline to becoming a writer, to bad Argentine translations of American literature — so many things that say so much about Spain during that period.

He recalls a childhood that included the Civil War when his mother travelling into Barcelona and was killed by bombs from an air raid. Was it this blow or a combination of it and being molested by his grandfather that gave him such an entrenched feeling of not belonging? He shook off the influence of religion and Franco early on and eventually emigrated to France to write. He was a communist in spirit but never fully a member, became a long-time lover of a French woman despite knowing of his own latent homosexuality. Only in his 30s does he reconcile his sexuality and find a certain peace within himself.

It is in some sense very clinical, and the sense that Goytisolo may be a clinician studying Goytisolo, is emphasized by the occasional switching of tenses. Sometimes he speaks of Goytisolo in the third person, more often the second (addressing the actions of a “you” which is actually himself). In some passages this appears to be done as a way of taking a certain amount of distance from personal ownership of actions.

He deals with the complications and micropolitics surrounding the doomed journal Libération and those concerned with getting the records straight, family, relationships, consciousness-raising, and sexuality.

In 1963, Goytisolo was cited by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as the Spanish author most translated into various languages, second only to Miguel Lopez de Cervantes. Some consider De Biedma to be a worthy heir to Federico Garcia Lorca. His new approach to writing poetry, influenced by T.S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, made him bridge the gap between the old Romanticist Spanish writers and the post-Franco avant-garde movement called the Movida, which he prefigured.

It is said that Goytisolo’s theme is moral decay and in a powerfully violent prose he conveys his belief that literature should be committed to social progress. Kessel Schwartz describes him: “A disoriented victim of his own idealism …, he denounces with nightmarish intensity the system which falls so much short of the impossible paradise he once visualized….”

FTQuotations:

spinster, who looked like a guardsman according to Leopoldo, surrounded by a small band of curates and canons. They accompanied her in her life of leisure and benefited from her generous charity. In decorative lapdog role, they would come to her society gatherings, her an arm when she crossed the street and obsequiously hold her sunshade. In this way, Uncle jokingly concluded, these pious leeches inherited all her wealth when she died.

A much-handled copy of a Prayers to St. Joseph, which I just happen to have with me as I write these lines, meticulously gathers er a series of miracles in which Divine Justice fulminates indiscrimi­nately against freethinkers, blasphemers, trade unionists, Repub­licans, masturbators, and enemies of the Pope: “In one town there was an ple of Heaven taking revenge. At about midday the priest was taking holy Communion to a sick man. After leaving the church he walked in front of an inn where there were three men seated at a table. Two got up and took their hats off as they saw the most holy sacrament. The third man, rather than imitating them, began to mock them, and, as an example of his courage and wit, he blasphemed horribly against Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Hardly had the wretched man uttered his blasphemy than he fell unconscious to the ground in the presence of his terrified companions. A doctor was called, so was the parish priest, but all to no avail: on three separate occasions the priest came to confess the dying man, but always in vain. That blasphemy was his last word on earth. He shook with horrible convulsions for ten hours; delirious, he cut his tongue with his own teeth and then expired. … Another individual who was very fond of reading immoral newspapers saw his daughter, dressed in white about to go to a neighboring village where the bishop was administering the sacrament of Confirmation; flew into such a rage that he tore off her veil, snatched away the bouquet she was carrying and shut her up in a room. After a few days a wild horse ran through the village without hurting anyone, went in the thoughtless father’s house, knocked him down, and stamped on him till he was dead.”

While the idea of the family has for years ceased to have any meaning for me, the strangeness of our surname and a purely atavistic reflex action can explain my mania for consulting the telephone directories of the cities I visit in the vague hope of happening upon a remote member of the clan. However, except for Mexico City and New York, I have never discovered any trace of distant relatives by this means.

My unhappy contribution to his second death fills me today with sadness and embarrassment. Little, very little, survives of the work of this rebel thrust by an untimely birth into a society traditionally hard on dissidents and whose harsh therapy in times of crisis would find an unfortunate complicity within the heart of his own family. His Notes poetiques, subtitled Poesia is llibertad, printed at the beginning of the century, have never reached my hands and I know nothing about them apart from the odd passing reference by his nephew, my mother’s first cousin, Professor Josep Calsamiglia. In spite of that, the few details I have to construct his history and character convert him into one of the few ancestors with whom I feel affinity and a moral closeness beyond the fortuitous, uncertain ties of blood, an affinity stained in his case with remorse and melancholy. The writing destroyed and torn to shreds by me as a child has perhaps unconsciously infected me and insi­diously emerged in all I have written and write. Whether true or not, the idea of that possible transmigration consoles me for my unredeemable action, which it transforms into a rebirth if not a gentle form of afterlife.

How could the second, hidden existence have tolerated the pedestrian, mediocre life of the first? The compromise between the two must have been real, since I can see nothing to indicate that she endured marriage and domestic life as an annoying burden. She had probably fashioned for herself an inner, spiritual life where she could take refuge through writing and reading. My father and the rest of us were no doubt the pillar of her life: but it was a life with its hiding places, havens for rest and meditation, pleasant, protective shade.

a priest came in civilian dress and, before celebrating mass and giving communion to the adults, he called me to his side and said he wished to hear me confess. Although I followed to the letter his instructions and searched out, bewildered and confused, anything that might give cause for reproach, I never conceived the idea of establishing a connection between that act and the nebulous notion of sin. I evoked or invented some theft or fib and received absolution from that man without feeling any emotion.

Ar times, with the help of the very few photos of the period, I have to reconstruct our busy day-to-day existence in those first squalid months. My brothers and I unfailingly appear badly dressed—I’m wearing castoffs—with my hair cut almost to nothing, dirty knees, in my shoes, a strange mixture of orphan and street urchin. Our status was confusing because of its ambiguous, imprecise character: were surrounded by pupils from bourgeois families but the experience, manners, and clothing of everyone else were clearly different from ours. Viladrau period—with the rather wild freedom we had got used to, a ferocious fondness for reading, a liking for solitary life, self-taught its—separated and would always separate me from the rest of my friends. Although the school life we were entering tended toward uni­formity and discipline, the centrifugal attraction of our tribal existence was more forceful and won out in the end.

I already felt the true harshness of life: their childishness, sociability, affected ways were totally incompatible with my love of solitude and wading contracted in Viladrau. Except for geography and history, in which I immediately shone to the point of correcting my teachers, at least mentally, my marks were usually average. At recess, I would retreat to some corner or hidden spot with a novel or an illustrated geography book. Efforts to make me play football always failed miserably. In the annual psychopedagogical reports they made to parents, the fathers would anxiously emphasize my isolation, lack of enthusiasm for games, disin­terest in my classmates, my furtive reading. My odd appearance, reserved character, and surliness did not help to integrate me into the class Referring to the excessively long sleeves of a jacket that was already quite old, one of these elegant, refined boys had remarked sarcastically: “You’re so young, are you already inheriting?” This comment left me with a feeling of humiliation and helplessness and intensified my misanthropy. The childish hobbies of my schoolmates, their social code, which I did not share, brought me back to my personal world: the house in Pablo Alcover,

a victim of my own timid, antisocial ways, I ingenuously sought out opportunities to astonish others with sudden demonstrations of largesse or daring. My grandmother used to leave her purse in her room while we were eating, and I would use any pretext to leave the table and casually pinch her money: first, five peseta notes; then, twenty-five peseta notes—a big amount in those days. With the fruit of my thefts, I used to walk up Calle Mayor in Sarria and go to the sweetshop that still belongs, I believe, to the Catalan poet I most admire today, the surrealist J.V. Foix. There, my grandmother’s notes were exchanged for big bags of sweets, which, once at school, I gave out condescendingly to my peers. This lavish generosity—highlighted by the fact that my own lack of pleasure in sweets kept me, scornfully, on the edge of the subsequent scramble—earned me interest and friends and flattered my feelings of vanity and revenge.

Any revelation of my religious agnosticism, Marxist ideas, sexual behavior would have been an unbearable blow to him. It would have been gratuitously cruel to lead the conversation around to any of these topics. Condemned to dis­simulation, I remained emotionally distanced from him, not worrying too much about his sad, frustrated life, mentally prepared for the time when t would disappear completely. Only after he was dead, after the unexpected meeting with him, alive, real, almost flesh and blood, the night I delirious after taking too much majoon, could I judge him more objectively.

One night, when the whole house was in darkness, I had a visitor. Grandfather, wearing his long white nightshirt, came up to the head of my bed and made himself comfortable on the edge. In a voice that was almost a whisper, he said he was going to tell me a story, but began straightaway to tickle me and cover me with kisses. I was surprised by this sudden apparition and above all by its furtive character. “Let’s play,”

Grandfather would say and, after putting out the bedside lamp by which I sometimes read before falling asleep, and which I had switched on upon hearing his footsteps, he stretched out by my side on the bed and gently slipped his hand down my pajamas until he touched my penis. His touch was upsetting but I was paralyzed by fear and confusion. I felt Grandfather leaning over my lap, first his fingers and then his lips, the viscous trickle of his saliva. When after several unending minutes he seemed to calm down and sat down again on the edge of the bed, my heart beat rapidly. What was the meaning of all this playing around? Why did he make a kind of groaning sound after fingering me? I had no answers and while the unwelcome visitor tiptoed back to the adjacent room where Grandmother was sleeping, I lay there for a while sunk in a state of anxious confusion.

The incident with grandfather and the reaction it aroused in the family certainly had a traumatic effect upon me. My father’s visceral hatred of homosexuals—Grandfather provided the nearest loathsome example—sometimes reached morbid extremes. He once related with great satis­faction to Jose Agustin—who wasted no time in repeating to me—that Mussolini ordered the summary execution of “all queers.” Although at that time I had not the slightest idea about my future sexuality, the news, rather than exciting me, filled me with unease. Of course, I thought that Grandfather’s behavior toward me was reprehensible; but  his punishment, cheerfully trumpeted around the house, awoke my sense of injustice and earned my condemnation. Mussolini’s crude therapy must have been mentioned by my father, just as a simple piece of information, in the presence of my grandfather, who accepted it without protest—as usual. His submission to other people’s judgments, his passive acceptance of his pariah state as natural, his inability to react against the attacks he continuously suffered much later provoked in me tremendous pity for him. His compulsive pederasty, shamefully hidden for decades, had been lived out as a secret tragedy: a vice condemned by the religion he believed in and the society that surrounded him Since he did not have the moral temper necessary to control it, he had no choice but to offer his head to the executioner’s axe each time he had the misfortune to give in to it and was then exposed to public pillorying. The memory of this self-contempt resulting from the scorn of others, of the shame that was accepted and transmuted into inner guilt, weighed very heavily in my decision to affirm my destiny whatever the cost, and to set everything out clearly for myself and others. When Monique published her first novel, entitled Les poissons-chats—a work that describes the love of the heroine for a homosexual—Grandfather Ricardo read it, two or three years before he died, and was terribly shocked. Luis told me how he had explained in tears that the passions explored in the book were a hateful sin, that he had suffered from them throughout his life, and that whenever he yielded to them he had most deeply offended God. The idea that I might follow in his tracks, that I too might resign myself to a miserable, broken existence was the best antidote for my doubts and hesitations when, not entirely surprisingly, I found myself in the con­tradictory position of enjoying an intense emotional relationship with Monique and discovering the physical happiness I had not felt till then with a Moroccan construction worker living temporarily in France. With wise timing, death saved my father from this final cruel blow: the rea­lization of his secret fears, perhaps his darkest forebodings, had finally been expressed in me.

My sister used to buy the film magazines of the time and to ‘d the tiresome, annoying business of describing characters, I got the of cutting out photos from them and sticking them on the pages of my exercise book with simple captions indicating their identities. This vice—the discovery and use of which would no doubt have modified the novelistic art of such conscientious authors with an eye for detail as Balzac and Galdos—allowed me to get on with the ins-and-outs of the exploration of the Amazon, which I was describing, without worrying about useless character sketches or tedious particulars. I was a most pre­cocious author of photo-novels and was also pioneering a way into that soon-to-be-fashionable world of behaviorist narrative. No commentaries or digressions—straight to the point! With a similar facility and enthusiasm, I wrote a sentimental novel about Joan of Arc and introduced some anachronisms into it. I am unsure if they were unconscious or not but they would now no doubt be greeted by the most prominent critics as examples of a daring, outspoken desire to innovate: rather than die on Bishop Cauchon’s bonfire, she died on Robespierre’s guillotine after a dramatic confrontation with him I have a much vaguer memory of my other fifteen­year-old creations: I think there was one about the French Resistance to the Nazis, another with new scenes in the life of Kit Carson, in an episode of my own making. The films shown in the two Sarria cinemas that I visited regularly with Luis were a source of second-rate ideas, characters, and settings for the proliferation of plots. Fortunately any notion of originality and plagiarism was not yet part of my personal literary baggage.

Not one of my teachers or masters played a role in the development of the literary tastes I have just mentioned. My reading evolved exclusively within the family, without the slightest connection with what they taught or tried to teach us at school. The idea of giving us texts of the classics to read rather than stuffing our heads with dates of births and deaths and the titles of their many works had not yet even penetrated the brains of the ignorant, small-minded priests in charge of our literature classes. The only book that deserved the honor of being read in class throughout my secondary school life was a volume of Father Coloma’s stories, in my last year with the Jesuits. We didn’t even get that at the Bonanova school: the good brothers of the Christian Doctrine referred body and soul to the learned critical judgments and proven knowledge in the subject of Guillermo Diaz Plaja. Considering the educational system we suffered, it is not surprising that my love and interest in literature derived from other sources: first, Uncle Luis’s advice and then my mother’s library. Self-taught like almost all the men and women of my generation, my culture, which was tentatively shaped, would for a long time retain the mark of the prejudices, gaps, and insufficiencies of barren, sunbaked Spain choked by the censorship and rigors of oppressive regime. It is very significant that the books I would soon upon would be almost without exception by foreign authors. I read novels that I devoured between eighteen and twenty-five either in French or in the second-rate translations that were smuggled in from Buenos Aires.

When I began to masturbate at the onset of puberty, the incredible new pleasure casually discovered on a summer’s day became one of the centers,’ if not the epicenter, of my life. This potential for enjoyment sited in my body overwhelmed at once, with raw strength, the religious or moral speeches that stigmatized it. In bed, in the bath, at Torrentb6, I regularly surrendered to respect for a material law that, for the space of a few seconds, confirmed me in my isolated, private existence, my irreducible separation from the rest of the world. However, I do not mean that traditional Catholic doctrine on sex, which was drummed into us in classrooms, confessionals, pulpits, religious manuals, made no impression on me. The idea of sin—of mortal sin with its hair-raising consequences—tortured me for several years. Dozens of times, kneeling opposite one of the local parish or church priests, I confessed my guilt and tried to reform myself. I knew full well that hours or days later that vital source of energy bursting out of me would impose its law and would imperiously destroy the fragile framework of precepts that condemned it in vain. Aware of this I escaped the reproaches of the same confessor or spiritual director by regularly changing my church and confessional in a kind of hide-and-seek, the absurdity of which was only too obvious.

It is only the content of books that attracts me, they are an object for immediate consumption: once read they get in my way and I’m happy to get rid of them provided I can buy them again whenever I may need them.

I feared, quite rightly, that wretched time in the lecture theatres might make me hate what I made for, the precious field of my future vocation and inclinations.

As bitter as crab apple: that’s how the boy defines his own region, the boy who, lying on the sand next to you, vaguely flourishes his arm toward the harsh, burnt countryside, the beach blurred by the mist, the plain, white town sunk in the lethargic depths of the siesta: ravaged, bloodless land, abandoned mines, ruined chimneys, blackish profusion of stag: evidence of past euphoria aggravating the unwelcoming impression of poverty: horizontal lives, yawning caves, calcareous desolation, ancestral stubbornness: women in mourning, prematurely worn out, laden with pitchers next to the freshet: sleepwalking peasants, strings of mules, sad, silent men peacefully sheltering under a sunshade: no change nor likelihood of change: solitude, repetition, monotony, desire to escape, to throw the dust off the soles of their shoes: emigration to Madrid, Barcelona, France, wherever: the price of a bus ticket and a suitcase with their only inheritance: their brutal life-sentence and also their hope.

A drowsy, decrepit, colonial city: police dressed in drill and wearing white tropical hats: horse-drawn carriages sway indolently: the marketplace bustles pro­miscuously: the Hotel Simon with its ancient rooms.

Discovery of rhythms, smells, voices, sweet apprenticeship in idleness: tentative exploration of the urban scene, horror and fascination intermingle, inner civil war, insoluble contradiction: plurality, alternating current: creative, spermal spark, product of a simultaneous collision: an exercise in ecstatic contemplation of a world that in another way wounds your defenseless moral sensibility.

The harsh, guttural or singsong accent of the south, through which your love for your language will perhaps mysteriously be filtered: territory conquered inch by inch, listening to the dull tones of resignation and poverty, gradual dual appre­hension of a possible belonging and of the uncertain, chance nature of the doubtful identity granted to you.

Your indifference to Spain—that incomplete, fragmentary entity, which is sometimes obtuse and pigheaded, at other times brutal and tyrannical—in whose negligent bosom you have grown, will suffer the impact of the brief fruitful trip through the region of Almeria: to your youthful tiredness with the pobre, brut, trist, dissortat native town beautifully evoked by Espriu, and to the dreams of escaping to some place in the north where the people are neta i noble, culta, rica, lliure, desvetllada i felic will be counterposed henceforth to the image of a radiant, captive landscape whose power of attraction will divert your compass and draw it toward the tormented configuration of its tracks, hills, and steppes: your first holidays with Monique, on the eve of your journey to Paris, will thus be cause for an unforeseen, fertile combination: source and subject of nostalgia, compensatory vision of a frustrated homeland, glimpse, hint, forerunner of a world that is still fantastic but already present in your mind, silent, near, lying in wait for you.

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Falconer by John Cheever

Falc 3There is no emotional involvement – is he deliberately detached? Or is this like a dream because of the methadone?

It can be grotesque yet funny at the same time.

There is an obsession with physical attraction.

There is denial of homosexuality yet he misses Jody. We don’t even hear about Jody until half way through – is this an example of the closet case withholding information?

The author has spent his life in institutions: the army, the Church, marriage, prison.

The prison seems better than today’s US prisons –rooms rather than cages.

Those who have read it twice say that it’s definitely worth re-reading.

Some say that “Falconer” is a prison novel only in the sense that Falconer is a metaphor for the life of a closeted homosexual. Others think of it as the Great American Novel, with all the ambiguities of American life – attention to the surface nor what lies underneath, pleading innocence, ‘saving the world’ rather than imperialism (after all, it was written at the end of Vietnam), alienation, coming down from the high of the Summer of Love.

Cheever was a lifelong Episcopalian, so it it about fall and redemption, the tension between flesh and spirit, and the movement from suffering to joy?

 The management of the prison behaves like any that of any other institution. The inmates relate to the warders much like pupils to teachers.

The Latin on  pp. 118-9 is not that of the Mass. Nor would communicants receive the wine (p. 131).

Prison is one of those places for going mad or getting philosophical; occupations which are not always mutually exclusive.  It’s an institution where brutal, Darwinian order reigns and the embodied nature of existence asserts itself relentlessly as an inescapable truth. In amongst this malodorous, piss-filled world, sexual drives continue unabated and are in fact heightened – assuming a primary value as a commodity to trade and as a means of control and release. This dictatorship of the flesh and of regimen has of course knock-on effects in the minds of its inhabitants, giving flight to fantastical imaginings, postcard memories and studied delusions – all of which feature prominently in Falconer.

The story goes that John Cheever started his days by dressing for work; putting on his good suit, his felt hat and taking the elevator down with all the other men of a certain class on their way to the office. But from the lobby of his New York apartment building he would take the stairs to a windowless storage room in the basement. He would hang up his hat take off the suit and sit, in his underwear, typing until lunch time when he’d get dressed again and rise to the surface.

It was written after the author spent a month getting sober at the infamous Smithers Treatment Center in New York City, a facility that Truman Capote once described as Devil’s Island.  In her family memoir Home Before Dark, Susan Cheever writes of her father when he was sober, saying that it was like having back the man she remembered from her childhood, humorous, tender, engaged. After his time at Smithers, Cheever never drank again.

Falconer’s protagonist is Ezekiel Farragut; a college professor and heroin addict who is sentenced to prison at the Falconer State Penitentiary for killing his brother Eben. Ezekiel is married to Marcia with whom he shares a child, Peter.  To say the marriage is strained is an understatement, but not simply because of the position Ezekiel’s fratricidal outburst has put his wife in. As Cheever makes clear early on when flashing back to their pre-prison relationship, Marcia has frustrated lesbian interests while Ezekiel has a latent, bisexual inclination and as such their marriage has become largely asexual. Outside the significant sexual issues, Marcia also blames Ezekiel for her failed artistic career and sub-par material surrounds, all of which manifest in her adopting a maudlin, pernickety disposition.

 One review makes exaggerated claims regarding redemption for Ezekiel from his unhappy marriage based on an affair he will have with a fellow prisoner, Jody, but in fact this affair is an episodic event, not the fulcrum of the novel.  While the affair lasts, it lasts, but when Ezekiel’s lover Jody escapes in a daring enterprise involving a cardinal and a helicopter, Ezekiel doesn’t pine for long.

 When Ezekiel dreams in jail about his family, despite the fact they are well-to-do and engaged in philanthropic projects, he always envisions them in his dreams as highly-strung, petulant, never finishing things, always leaving somewhere in indignation. The Farragut family donate skinny chickens to poor people in tenements and read George Eliot to blind, snoring octogenarians – foisting their benevolence on a needy that don’t need – but at home, in their private moments rather than in their public displays, it’s misery. The father goes to the local amusement park “pretending to drink from an empty bottle” and making very public suicidal gestures before being bought home by a teenage Ezekiel. Eben is an alcoholic who is involved in an intense and miserable marriage, with a son in jail for anti-war protests and a daughter who has attempted suicide multiple times.  Ezekiel’s mother is cavalier about her broken relationship with her husband, an open family fact about which there is no attempt at concealment or resolution. Things are broken in the Farragut family but no decisions are made, no-one exercises their agency and things roll along with missing wheels and broken spokes into a black oblivion into which everyone is dragged. Instead of that common motif in literature of individuals suffering as a result of their isolation, each member of the Farragut family draws other members into their pathologies, and so Ezekiel’s alienation is inseparable from and a result of being enmeshed with others (family, prison inmates) to which he has no connection other than the geographical and physical.

Its beginnings lie in the writing class that Cheever taught at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in the early ’70s. (As Cheever biographer Blake Bailey notes: “Almost every set piece in Falconer—almost every detail—appears somewhere in Cheever’s journal entries about Sing Sing.”)  At a meeting with the inmates there, one said, “You told a lot of the stories of this place in your book,” he said. “You told the story of the C.O., Tiny, who went crazy, pissed off, and killed all of the cats we had around here. You got that one right,” he added. “We all know that one. But what about what you got wrong? You wrote that scene—that scene about jerking off? Mr. Cheever, you wrote a group jerkoff in the urinals. If that scene was the truth, we’d all be animals,” he said. “We’d be dogs, not human beings. You know what I mean? We’d be eating dog food out of bowls.”

Cheever finally looked up. His jauntiness was gone. He spoke slowly. “I’m sorry. I wish I had never written that scene,” he said. “I would change it if I could.”

Escape and freedom are recurrent themes in the novel. Ezekiel – reflecting perhaps the views of Cheever who felt himself somewhat sequestered in a heterosexual marriage and addiction to alcohol – pursues a sort of negative rather than positive liberty; a freedom from rather than a freedom to. The heroin addiction acts as a sort of bridgehead from misery to…anywhere else.

We learn that Ezekiel started receiving a ‘yellow cough syrup’ in the war, which allowed men to enter into battle at peace. From there he graduated to Benzedrine and beer and from Benzedrine to heroin. Yet there’s no sense here of a tragic fall, Cheever states quite clearly that heroin gave Ezekiel a broader view of the human condition. “

Cheever depicts Ezekiel’s addiction in its full scope, convulsions in jail as he goes through a methadone program, but also the attractions. He would shoot up before lectures and marvel at the post war world; bridges he drove across like ‘mechanical Holy Ghosts’, the planes he flew on which ‘arced luxuriously’ across rarefied air. Ezekiel saw his addiction as elevating, indeed “a life without drugs seemed in fact and in spirit a remote and despicable point in his past.”

Tiny asks, “Why is you an addict?” It is precisely that basic question that Ezekiel spends the novel trying to answer. At the end, he is redeemed from his literal drug addiction even as he is redeemed within himself from the disgust and destruction that he had both caused and accepted for himself.

Fairly frequently in this novel, Cheever extends the terms of tradition and heritage far beyond the simplistic child-psychology talk that is used to explain the way some of the characters behave. Ezekiel’s aristocratic New England background is mirrored in the age of the prison, whose name has been changed several times over many years, reflecting the shifts in penological and judicial fashions.

Cats are important to the prisoners, as are plants. Even Tiny, who tears off the head of one cat, keeps plants as an antidote to loneliness. The portrayal of the Falconer prisoners tends toward tolerance, to see these people as worthy of tolerant love, of dignity, even though they are hopelessly fallen. That effect is partly accomplished by Cheever’s not lingering over the well-documented sorts of violence, racism, and terror that pervade prisons.

Although Ezekiel does not express regret or remorse about his homosexuality, he often speaks of his penis as an uncontrollable, separate entity, an independent member of some community with him only part of it: “What he saw, what he felt, was the utter poverty of erotic reasonableness.”.

The (sparing) detail of Ezekiel murdering his brother Eben does not feature until the end of the novel but not in order to give us some clarifying motive. After a fight in which Eben states that their father organised a doctor to have Ezekiel aborted, Ezekiel strikes his brother with a fire iron and kills him. However the effect of this abortion ‘revelation’ is muted, tired – not some critical piece of information which stirs Ezekiel’s passions. The abortion story is a known fact in the family and to Ezekiel and the reader already and thus the murder is described in sparse, cursory detail.

Time has marked the prison guards’ faces more severely than the captives, The world of the prison is evidently not a place of redemption, it’s a terminus from which Ezekiel’s lover Jody, and eventually Ezekiel himself, escapes and it houses the occasional petty tyrants you’d expect to inhabit such a place.

‘But they look so nice,’ someone says… as the newly arrived felons march quickstep across the yard of Falconer Prison, which was recently and briefly renamed Daybreak House. Throughout the author artfully plays the comic and tragic off each other, relieving the burden of his true depth with a laugh.

At the end of Chapter One, Chicken Number Two, a fellow prisoner, tells Farragut, ‘There has to be something good at the end of every journey’ and that he will have thousands of visitors, including his wife, ‘She’ll have to come and visit you. She ain’t going to be able to divorce you unless you sign the papers and she’ll have to bring them here herself. So all I wanted to tell you, is what you already knew—it’s all a big mistake, a terrible mistake.’

Cheever is acknowledging the divide, the deeply dangerous gap between a man’s public self, his projected image versus his true self, how he is experienced or experiences himself from the inside out. Appearances mean everything to Cheever; his men want to be read as successful, they want to have the right wives, children, careers, they are terrified of their impulses, their rage, the prospect of age, of literally and figuratively losing their hard-on for life, for slipping in one way or another and yet they are human—all too human. While in solitary confinement, Farragut crafts letters to his governor, his bishop and his girl, a stiff starched sheet with a stolen pen. These letters are incredibly eloquent, lush, graceful, filled with a heady heightened prose that hovers on the precipice of the hallucinatory.

Cheever takes the mythic, the biblical, the Cain and Abel of it all, and weaves a story of how one brother, Ezekiel (Farragut), was pushed to murder the other, Eben. It was in fact Eben who always wanted Farragut dead and who goes so far as to remind Farragut that their father called the abortionist to come and get rid of him before he ever came to life, and who in a subtle attempt to kill his brother, encourages him to swim in unsafe waters.

Falc 2Quotations:

The main entrance to Falconer — the only entrance for convicts, their visitors and the staff — was crowned by an esutcheon representing Liberty, Justice and, between the two, the soverieng power of government. Liberty wore a mobcap and carried a pike. Government was the federal Eagle holding an olive branch and armed with hunting arrows. Justice was conventional; blinded, vaguely erotic in her clinging robes and armed with a headsman’s sword

[On arrival, he is escorted to cellblock F.] “F,” said Tiny the warden, “stands for … freaks, fools, fruits, first-timers, fat-asses like me, phantoms, funnies, fanatics, feebies, fences and farts. There’s more, but I forget it. The guy who made it up is dead.”

Falc3“The bars had been enameled white many years ago, but the enamel had been worn back to iron at the chest level, where men instinctively held them.”

The accident or what they called the murder had taken place, Farragut thought, because of the fact that whenever he remembered or dreamed about his family he always saw them from the back. They were always stamping indignantly out of concert halls, theaters, sports arenas and restaurants, and he, as the youngest, was always in the rear. “If Koussevitzky thinks I’ll listen to that . . .” “That umpire is crooked.” “This play is degenerate.” “I don’t like the way that waiter looked at me.” “That clerk was impudent.” And so on. They saw almost nothing to its completion, and that’s the way he remembered them, heading, for some reason in wet raincoats, for the exit. It had occurred to him that they may have suffered terribly from claustrophobia and disguised this weakness as moral indignation.

Farragut was a drug addict and felt that the consciousness of the opium eater was much broader, more vast and representative of the human condition than the consciousness of someone who had never experienced addiction.

Your sentence would be lighter were you a less fortunate man,” said the judge, “but society has lavished and wasted her riches upon you and utterly failed to provoke in you that conscience that is the stamp of an educated and civilized human being and a useful member of society.

She had an authenticated beauty. Several photographers had asked her to model, although her breasts, marvelous for nursing and love, were a little too big for that line of work…”You know,” [Farragut’s] son had said, “I can’t talk to Mummy when there’s a mirror in the room. She’s really balmy about her looks.” Narcissus was a man and he couldn’t make the switch, but she had, maybe twelve or fourteen times, stood in front of the full-length mirror in their bedroom and asked him, “Is there another woman of my age in this country who is as beautiful as I?” She had been naked, overwhelmingly so, and he had thought this an invitation, but when he touched her she said, “Stop fussing with my breasts. I’m beautiful.”

‘And I remember when we first met, and I am today and will be forever astonished at the perspicacity with which a man can, in a glimpse, judge the scope and beauty of a woman’s memory, her tastes in color, food, climate and language, the precise clinical dimensions of her visceral, cranial and reproductive tracts, the condition of her teeth, hair, skin, toenails, eyesight and bronchial tree, that he can, in a second, exalted by the diagnostics of love, seize on the fact that she is meant for him….I can remember this and I can remember the sailboat race too, but it is getting dark here now, it is too dark for me to write anymore.’

Marcia walked down the hall to their bedroom and slammed the door. The sound was like an explosion to him. In case he had missed this, she opened the door and slammed it again. He became faint and in the distance heard Marcia ask: “Is there anything I can get you?” Her tone was murderous.

“Some sort of kindness,” he had said. “A little kindness.”

“Kindness?” she asked. “Do you expect kindness from me at a time like this? What have you ever done to deserve kindness? What have you ever given me? Drudgery. Dust. Cobwebs. Cars and cigarette lighters that don’t work. Bathtub rings, unflushed toilets, clinical alcoholism, drug addiction … and now a massive attack of heart failure. That’s what you have given me to live with, and you expect kindness.”

We have either missed the train or there is no train or the train is late. I don’t remember… All I really remember is a sense of your company and a sense of physical contentment.

FalcHe had desired and pursued women who charmed him with their lies and enchanted him with their absolute irresponsibility. When he bought diamond earrings he had deliberately judged the sexual mileage he could expect from these jewels.

Yesterday was the day of anxiety, the age of the fish and today, his day, his morning, was the mysterious and adventurous age of the needle.”

But each day Farragut must wake and must search for the image, whether it be a man in prison grays feeding bread crusts to a dozen pigeons or whether it be the actions of visitors to Falconer .

And indeed how unappreciative of freedom these people were – the visitors.

They were free free to run, jump … drink, book a seat on the Tokyo plane. They were free and yet they moved so casually through this precious element that it seemed wasted on them.

As the last of the visitors departs, he feels like crying and howling for he is among the living dead. Even a simple activity like jogging gives him an illusion of freedom. So he jogs to the mess hall, to the bath house and around the yard.

“Sometime in April, twelve years ago, I was diag­nosed as a chronic drug addict by Drs. Lemuel Brown, Rodney Coburn and Henry Mills. These men were graduates of Cornell, the Albany Medical School and Harvard University, respectively. Their position as healers was established by the state and the federal governments and the organizations of their colleagues. Surely, when they spoke, their expressed medical opin­ion was the voice of the commonwealth. On Thursday, the eighteenth of July, this unassailable opinion was contravened by Deputy Warden Chisholm. I have checked on Chisholm’s background. Chisholm dropped out of high school in his junior year, bought the an­swers to a civil service test for correctional employees for twelve dollars and was given a position by the De­partment of Correction with monarchal dominion over my constitutional rights. At 9 A.M. on the morning of the eighteenth, Chisholm capriciously chose to over­throw the laws of the state, the federal government and the ethics of the medical profession, a profession that is surely a critical part of our social keystone. Chisholm decided to deny me the healing medicine had determined was my right. Is this no treachery, is this not high treason when the Constitution are overthrown at the whim of one single, uneducated man? Is this not an offense punishable by death—or in some states by life imprisonment? Is this not more far-reaching in its destructive pecedents than some miscarried assassination attempt? Does it not strike more murderously at the heart of our hard-earned and ancient philosophy of than rape or homicide?

“The rightness of the doctors’ diagnosis was, of course, proven. The pain I suffered upon withdrawal of that medicine granted to me by authority in the land was mortal. When Deputy Warden Chisholm saw me attempt to leave my cell to go to the infirmary he tried to kill me with a chair twenty-two sutures in my skull and I will be crippled for life. Are our institutions of penology, correction and rehabilitation to be excluded from the laws kind has considered to be just and urgently to the continuation of life on this continent a this planet? You may wonder what I am prison and I will be very happy to inform thought it my duty to first inform you of the criminal treason that eats at the heart of your administration.”

“As Your Grace well knows, the most universal image of mankind is not love or death; it is Judgment

Day. One sees this in the cave paintings in the Dor­dogne, in the tombs of Egypt, in the temples of Asia and Byzantium, in Renaissance Europe, England, Rus­sia and the Golden Horn. Here the Divinity sifts out the souls of men, granting to the truly pure infinite serenity and sentencing the sinners to fire, ice and sometimes piss and shit. Social custom is never in force where one finds this vision, and one finds it everywhere. Even in Egypt the candidates for immortality include souls who could be bought and sold in the world of the living. The Divinity is the flame, the heart of this vision. A queue approaches the Divinity, always from the right; it doesn’t matter what country, age or century from which the vision is reported. On the left, then, one sees the forfeits and the rewards. Forfeiture and torment are, even in the earliest reports, much more passion­ately painted than eternal peace. Men thirsted, burned and took it up the ass with much more force and passion than they played their harps and flew. The presence of God binds the world together. His force, His essence, is Judgment.

“Everyone knows that the only sacraments are bread and water. The hymeneal veil and the golden ring came in only yesterday, and as an incarnation of the vision of love, Holy Matrimony is only a taste of the hellish consequences involved in claiming that a vision can be represented by thought, word and deed. Here, in my cell, is what one sees in the caves, the tombs of the kings, the temples and churches all over the planet being performed by men, by any kind of men the last century might have bred. Stars, dumbbells, hacks and boobs—it is they who have constructed these caverns of hell and, with a familiar diminishment of passion, the fields of paradise on the other side of the wall. This is the obscenity, this is the unspeakable obscenity, this stupid pageantry of judgment that, finer than air or gas, fills these cells with the reek of men slaughtering one another for no real reason to speak of. Denounce this cardinal blasphemy, Your Grace, from the back of your broad-winged eagle.”

“an escutcheon representing Liberty, Justice and, between the two, the sovereign power of government.”

“And I never got laid free, never once. I paid anywhere from fifty cents to fifty dollars, but I never once shot a lump for free … I just wish I had it free, once.”

“Long ago when they first invented the atomic bomb people used to worry about its going off and killing everybody, but they didn’t know that mankind has enough dynamite right in his guts to tear the fucking planet to pieces. Me, I know.”

‘I’m so glad you ain’t homosexual,’ Jody kept saying when he caressed Farragut’s hair.”

“He promised to wait for me.”

“The day was shit.”

Considering the fact that the cock is the most criti­cal link in our chain of survival, the variety of shapes, colors, sizes, characteristics, dispositions and responses found in this rudimentary tool are much greater than those shown by any other organ of the body. They were black, white, red, yellow, lavender, brown, warty, wrinkled, comely and silken, and they seemed, like any crowd of men on a street at closing time, to represent youth, age, victory, disaster, laughter and tears. There were the frenzied and compulsive pumpers, the long-timers who caressed themselves for half an hour, there were the groaners and the ones who sighed, and most of the men, when their trigger was pulled and the fusillade began, would shake, buck, catch their breath and make weeping sounds, sounds of grief, of joy, and sometimes death rattles. There was some rightness in having the images of the lovers around them opaque. They were universal, they were phantoms, and any skin sores, or signs of cruelty, ugliness, stupidity or beauty, could not be seen. Farragut went here regularly after Jody was gone.

When Farragut arced or pumped his rocks into the trough he endured no true sadness—mostly some slight disenchantment at having spilled his energy onto iron. Walking away from the trough, he felt that he had missed the train, the plane, the boat. He had missed it. He experienced some marked physical relief or improvement: the shots cleared his brain. Shame and remorse had nothing to do with what he felt, walking away from the trough. What he felt, what he saw as the utter poverty of erotic reasonableness. That as how he missed the target and the target was the mysteriousness of the bonded spirit and the flesh. He knew it well. Fitness and beauty had a rim. Fitness and beauty had a dimension, had a floor, even as the oceans haye a floor, and he had committed a trespass. It was unforgivable—a venal trespass—but he was reproa­ched by the majesty of the realm. It was majestic; in prison he knew the world to be majestic. He had taken a pebble out of his shoe in the middle of mass. He remembered the panic he had experienced as boy when he found his trousers, his hands and his coattails soaked with crystallizing gism. He had learned from the Boy Scout Handbook that his prick would grow as long and thin as a shoelace, and that the juice that had poured out of his crack was the cream of his brain power. This miserable wetness proved that he would fail his College Board exams and have to attend a broken-down agricultural college somewhere in the Middle West. . .

Marshack…was very useful. He was indispensable at greasing machinery and splicing BX cables and he would be a courageous and fierce mercenary in some border skirmish if someone more sophisticated gave the order to attack. There would be some universal goodness in the man – he would give you a match for your cigarette and save you a seat at the movies – but there was no universality to his lack of intelligence. Marshack might respond to the sovereignty of love, but he could not master geometry and he should not be asked to. Farragut put him down as a killer.

Farragut walked to the front of the bus and got off at the next stop. Stepping onto the street he saw he had lost his fear of falling (he had forgotten how to walk as a free man). He held his head high, his back straight and walk along nicely. Rejoice, he thought. Rejoice.

“Who would want to riot in order to get out of a nice place like this? In the paper now you read there’s unemployment everywhere. That’s why the lieutenant governor is in here. He can’t get no job outside. Even famous movie stars with formerly millions is standing in line with their coat collars turned up around their necks waiting for a handout, waiting for a bowl of that watery bean soup that don’t keep you from feeling hungry and makes you fart. Out in the street everybody’s poor, everybody’s out of work and it rains all the time. They mug one another for a crust of bread. You have to stand in line for a week just to be told you ain’t got no job. We stand in line three times a day to get our nice minimal-nutritional hot meal, but out in the street they stand in line for eight hours, twenty-four hours, some­times they stand in line for a lifetime. Who wants to get out of a nice place like this and stand in line in the rain? And when they ain’t standing in line in the rain they worry about atomic war. Sometimes they do both. I mean they stand in line in the rain and worry about atomic war because if there’s an atomic war they’ll all be killed and find themselves standing in line at the gates of hell. That’s not for us, men. In case of an atomic war we’ll be the first to be saved. They got bomb shelters for us criminals all over the world. They don’t want us loose in the community. I mean they’ll let the community burn before they’ll set us free, and that will be our salvation, friends. They’d rather burn than have us running around the streets, because everybody knows that we eat babies, fuck old women up the ass and burn down hospitals full of helpless cripples. Who would ever want to get out of a nice place like this?”

the Cuckold cleared his throat and said, “If you was to ask my advice about marriage, I would advise you not to put too much attention on fucking. I guess I married her because she was a great fuck—I mean she was my size, she came at the right time, it was great there for years. But then when she started fucking everybody, I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t get any advice from the church and all I could get out of the law was that I should divorce her, but what about the kids? They didn’t want me to go, even when they knew what she was doing. She even talked with me about it. When I complained about her screwing everybody, she gave me this lecture about how it wasn’t an easy life. She said sucking every cock on the street was a very lonely and dangerous way to live. She told me it took courage. She did, really. She gave me this lecture. She said that in the movies and in the books you read it’s a very nice and easy thing, but she’d had to face all sorts of problems. She told me about this time when I was on the road and she went to this bar and restaurant for dinner with some friends. In North Dakota we have these food divorcement laws where you eat in one place and drink in another, and she had moved from the drinking place to the eating place. But at the bar there was this very, very beautiful man. She gave him the horny eye through the doorway and he gave it right back to her. You know what I mean. The horny eye?

“So then she told me that she told her friends, very loudly, that she wasn’t going to have any dessert, that she was going to drive home to her empty house and read a book. She said all this so he could hear her and would know that there wasn’t going to be any husband or kids around. She knew the bartender and the bar­tender would give him her address. So she went home and put on a wrapper and then the doorbell rang and there he was. So right in the hallway he began to kiss her and put her hand on his cock and drop his pants, right in the front hallway, and at about discovered that while he was very beat also very dirty. She told me that he could bath in a month. As soon as she got a whiff of him she cooled off and began to figure out how him into a shower. So he went on kissing her and getting out of his clothes and smelling worse and then she suggested that maybe he bath. So then he suddenly got angry and said that he was looking for a cunt, not a mother, that his mother told him when he needed a bath, that around looking for sluts in saloons in or when he needed a bath and when to get and when to brush his teeth. So he got went away and she told me this to illustrate how a round heels takes all kinds of courage.

“But I did lousy things too. When I road once I said hello and went upstairs to take a crap and while I was sitting there I noticed this big pile of hunting and fishing magazines besides the toilet. So then I finished and pulled and came out shouting about this constipated man she was fucking. I yelled and yelled. I said it was just her speed to pick up with a boob who a fly or take a shit. I said I could imagine him sitting  there, his face all red, reading about catching the gamy  muskallonge in stormy northern waters. I just what she deserved, that just by lool could tell it was her destiny to get ream those pimply gas pumpers who do they magazines and can’t cut a turd. So she cried and about an hour later I remembered that I had subscribed to all these hunting and fishing magazines and when I said that I was sorry she really didn’t care and I felt shitty.” Farragut said nothing—he seldom said anything to the Cuckold—and the Cuckold went back to his cell and turned up his radio.

It’s online here

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The Farm by Tom Rob Smith

(We have not discussed this in the group but it was a ‘spin off’ from one of our meetings and this review is in a personal capacity.)

Crime readers are on such friendly terms that they conflate books from Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland under the banner of “Scandi”. The author gained some fame in the UK with his TV series London Spy.

Daniel believed that his parents were enjoying a peaceful retirement on a remote farm in Sweden, the country of his mother’s birth. But with a single phone call, everything changes.

Your mother… she’s not well, his father tells him. She’s been imagining things – terrible, terrible things.In fact, she has been committed to a mental hospital.

Before Daniel can board a plane to Sweden, his mother calls: Everything that man has told you is a lie. I’m not mad… I need the police… Meet me at Heathrow.

Presented with a horrific crime, a conspiracy that implicates his own father, Daniel must examine the evidence and decide: who is telling the truth, his mother or his father? And he has secrets of his own that for too long he has kept hidden…

The picturesque but boring village ringed by isolated farms; a district dominated by a strong but taciturn patriarch; the disappearance of a vulnerable young woman, which is uncovered by an unreliable female investigator; the veneer of respectability that readers soon begin to suspect masks something rotten in the state of Scandi. But Smith, whose mother is Swedish, is playing a long game. The world he has created may initially appear full of enjoyably restful conventions, but any cliches in The Farm exist to wrongfoot us. This is a neatly plotted book full of stories within stories, which gradually unravel to confound our expectations.

The great bulk of the book is a two-hander between Daniel and Tilde as she sets out the evidence for her claims. It becomes a sort of therapy session: Daniel listens patiently as his mother brings forth notes and exhibits to back up her claims.

We hear very little about Dan’s partner.

In real life: Smith’s parents had retired from their careers as antique dealers in London to live on a farm in Sweden. As far as Smith knew, all was going well until the day his father phoned to tell him he suspected his mum was mentally ill. Hours later, she arrived in Britain.

‘She was slightly more animated than usual,’ recalls Smith, ‘but she would have been if she really had gone through a terrible conspiracy as she claimed. Otherwise she seemed normal. I was bewildered.’

Quotations:

I’m sure your father has spoken to you. Everything that man has told you is a lie. I’m not mad. I don’t need a doctor. I need the police. I’m about to board a flight to London. Meet me at Heathrow.

 

“In the service station …I washed my face with a dollop of pungent pink soap from the dispenser, straightening my hair, taming the wild strands.”.

 

“I was seated next to Mark, who was seated beside my dad, seated beside Anders, the four of us side-by-side…

If you refuse to believe me, I will no longer consider you my son…

“You mistrust that word?

Villain.

You think it sounds unreal?

Villains are real. They walk among us. … ”

“Here’s the crucial point. As the fact of isolation sinks into our consciousness we change, not at first but slowly, gradually, until we accept it as the norm. … It alters our notions of how we should behave, of what is acceptable, and most important of all, what we can get away with.”

 

“It was increasingly apparent that the way in which I listened to her story changed the story itself, and I reaffirmed my intention to present a neutral front, giving little away.”

 

“Do I even know my parents? My fondness for them had drifted into a form of neglect.”

 

“…Except when I was alone. I’d hate myself. It’s how we feel about ourselves when we’re alone that must guide our decisions.”
“Let me quickly remind you that the allegation of being mentally incapable is a tried and tested method of silencing women dating back hundreds of years, a weapon to discredit us when we fought against abuses and stood up to authority.”
“Standing at the point where these photographs were taken, you’re immersed in the most unbelievable quiet. It’s like being at the bottom of the sea except instead of a rusted shipwreck there’s an ancient farmhouse. Even the thoughts in my head sounded loud, and sometimes I found my heart beating hard for no reason except as a reaction against the silence.”
“I’d mistaken familiarity for insight and equated hours spent together as a measure of understanding.”
“cycling down the road. Her movements were erratic, almost out of control, pedaling at alarming speed as though she were being chased. As she passed the gate, I caught sight of her face. She’d been”
“You crave security, Daniel. You always have. Let me tell you. There is none. A great friendship can be swept aside in an evening, a lover changed into an enemy with a single admission.”
Children rot when they’re indulged in too much love.

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