Tuesday, January 02, 2007


Last night I watched Sky News' live report from Fatboy Slim's beachside party for 20,000 paying guests. However, even without the TV, from my armchair I could hear the music. It wasn't intrusive and I didn't mind. Much worse are the regular booming firework displays from the pier. Window panes wobble in their frames. For a few moments, it's unclear what the hell is going on. Then there's silence save for a few flapping seagulls. Tim Footman relates a similar experience in Bangkok over the weekend. He hears news of the bombs.
I send a mass email, to say I'm OK, hope you are too. Half a dozen bounce back. Out of office. Happy New Year. Back Tuesday. Maybe. A firework goes off outside, and I jump, but just a little bit. Someone's rigged up a sound system. Heavy bass. I look out. You'd never know there was anything wrong. Just like the coup, and the tsunami before that. The dogs bark, but the dogs always bark.
Death is elsewhere. The novelty of being so close to the horror and glamour of a news event prompted a familiar question. How close is so close?

We watch Saddam experiencing the injustice he inflicted upon so many others, the same footage showed again and again as if in search of something hidden, and it's not enough. We want to know how and what he felt. The ghost of the fact is the story with which we're preoccupied.

The silence broken by dogs and seagulls, and the repetition of the search, remains under-explored in fiction, and is always under threat. Kafka turned towards it by turning away.
The fact that there is fear, grief and desolation in the world is something he understands, but even this only in so far as these are vague, general feelings, just grazing the surface. All other feelings he denies; what we call by that name is for him mere illusion, fairy-tale, reflection of our knowledge and our memory. How could it be otherwise, he thinks, since after all our feelings can never catch up with the actual events, let alone overtake them. We experience the feelings only before and after the actual event, which flits by at an elemental, incomprehensible speed; they are dream-like fictions, restricted to ourselves alone. We live in the stillness of midnight, and experience sunrise and sunset by turning towards the east and the west.
Yet when an author wanders into this space, the critics hunt in packs. Joseph O'Neill joins those rejecting Franz Bascombe's latest spectral appearance in Richard Ford's The Lay of the Land. He says the final volume is unconvincing compared to the two previous.
Those books ... are anchored by very real familial misfortunes (the death of a child, the disintegration of a marriage, the troubles of an anguished fifteen-year-old son) that Frank, anomie notwithstanding, cannot help but humanly experience and communicate. The Lay of the Land, it transpires, has no comparable anchor - and this is where the trouble starts.
The trouble for O'Neill is that it doesn't ring true.
Thus it struck me, about a third of the way through, that Frank Bascombe repeatedly says, does, and thinks stuff that nobody would, not even Frank Bascombe. I ended up - like Kingsley Amis reading Virginia Woolf - muttering to myself, No he didn't; no, that isn't what he thought; no, that's just what she didnt say. [sic]
Well, yes, Kingsley Amis, Virginia Woolf! In my own apparently stillborn review, I wanted to make this aspect of the novel the real tragedy; not the deaths, break-ups and troubles - so very real that O'Neill's forgotten they're fictional - but that, despite Frank's extraordinary articulacy, his readers are in the same alienated position as his ex-wife and children. Even as the news increasingly resembles genre fiction, a literary novel is not the news.

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