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Sunday 27 October 2013

Internet addiction and you

intravenious mouse

It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction. – Jonathan Franzen

Self control is something most of us struggle with from time to time. I’m struggling with it right now. The groceries got delivered today and Carrie had ordered two meringues as a treat. She decided she wanted hers right after lunch and so, as I can’t see green cheese, I had mine. The thing is I’m not (oddly enough—see below) that big of a fan of meringues—with the exception of some mint ones my mum used to buy back in the nineteen-sixties—and I wasn’t that hungry, having just had my sandwich, but if she was having one I was going to have one too, which I did and didn’t really enjoy. Now it’s nearly three o’clock and about the time I would have a fresh cup of coffee and a couple of biscuits, which I want and will go and get as soon as I’ve finished this paragraph, but I don’t really need them.

(Three minutes and two (I really wanted three) Lotus caramelised biscuits later…)

Okay I can think now. And I’m trying to think of an excuse to go back into the kitchen to get that third biscuit. (If you’ve ever tried them you’ll appreciate how incredibly moreish they are.) I admit it. I have an addictive personality. I discovered that when I hit puberty. I’ve always been a collector and enjoy seeing (but especially owning) sets of things. I’ve never developed a drink or drug habit though. I never got hooked on cigarettes but since I didn’t inhale (I never realised you were supposed to) I guess that explains that. I do have a sweet tooth and I’m frankly amazed that I’m not built like the side of a house now considering all the junk we Scots consume.

Then again maybe I don’t have an addictive personality. Maybe I’m just a greedy bugger.

When I think of an addiction I think about someone who has passed control of their happiness onto a third party. I use the term ‘happiness’ loosely and make no apologies for reminding everyone of this absolutely wonderful quote from Brave New World:

Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensation for misery. And of course stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.

Not being unhappy is not the same as being happy: happiness is not a toggle. A drug addict will indeed be miserable if he or she is in need of a fix but are they genuinely happy once the drug begins coursing through their veins?

ugly-americans-on-the-boatOne of my guilty pleasures is Ugly Americans, an animated cartoon set in an America where demons and freaks are all a part of everyday life. In this particular episode (Season 2 Episode 7, ‘Wail Street’) Randall (Mark’s zombie roommate) tries to put Mark's oversized soul up for sale. Lots of people apparently have been selling their souls and replacing them with NuvaSoul™ , an artificial soul that’s almost as good as the real thing if you don’t mind the diarrhoea. And that’s all fine and well in a cartoon even if it is being satirical. And then today I learned that you could replace your self-control with SelfControl, well, at least if you run a Mac. From the website:

SelfControl is an OS X application which blocks access to incoming and/or outgoing mail servers and websites for a predetermined period of time.

For example, you could block access to your email, Facebook, and twitter for 90 minutes, but still have access to the rest of the web. Once started, it cannot be undone by the application, by deleting the application, or by restarting the computer – you must wait for the timer to run out.

It’s a simple enough concept. I suppose it would be like me putting locks on the cookie jar and the biscuit drawer (and I would probably need locks on the tin with the chocolate bars in it and one on the fridge where I keep the Maltesers to keep them cold). You see it’s never just the one thing is it? It used to be just phone calls and then it was e-mails and then it was text messaging, Facebook and RSS feeds and now it’s tweets and Pinterest and Christ knows what’s coming next to steal a wee bit of your happiness away from you. Read me! Look at me! Click on me! Poke me! Like me! Think of something witty and write me a comment. Retweet me! Retweet me now!

  1. Addictive behaviour is maladaptive or counter-productive to the individual. Instead of helping a person adapt to situations or overcome problems, it tends to undermine these abilities.
  2. The behaviour is persistent. When someone is addicted, they will continue to engage in the addictive behaviour, despite it causing them trouble.

If you have a bad habit this is an addiction. There are worse things to be addicted to than biting your fingernails (which I have never done although I did use to bite the edge of my index finger on my left hand when I was a kid) but that’s what it is. The Internet is something all of us use habitually. It is my habit to get up in the morning, perform my ablutions, eat my breakfast whilst watching BBC Breakfast and then I pick up my tablet, check my e-mails, my news feeds and Facebook messages in that order—this is a weeding process rather than a reading one—before moving to my laptop where I check my other e-mail where I have forwarded things I actually intend to action. That’s not an addiction; that’s a routine. At lunchtime I do the same and again in the evening. Other than that I virtually never open Facebook or Feedreader during my workday although I do tend to leave my e-mail open, but only because I don’t get very many e-mails to my laptop.

Apparently Nick Hornby, Dave Eggers and Zadie Smith are among a growing group of novelists who struggle with Internet addiction. Whether they’ve been formally diagnosed with IAD I don’t know. IAD stands for Internet addiction disorder which some claim is a real thing. Although it’s not to be found in DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition) it will now be included in the appendix in the upcoming revision of the DSM-V.

It’s official, at least according to researchers at Norway’s University of Bergen: Facebook is addictive.
This may not come as a terrific surprise when you stop to think that the site claims some 500 million users on a daily basis.

But what is surprising is the researchers’ conclusion that Facebook addiction produces symptoms similar to those observed in substance and alcohol addiction. Some studies have found that heavy internet use has actually led to a “rewiring” of the brain with striking similarity to drug and alcohol addicts. – Studies find Internet Addiction Disorder exists!, Centre for Internet Addiction, 18 July 2012

Whether it’s an addiction proper or a symptom of another existing disorder I’m not going to try to argue. What I can say is that any time anyone feels that they’re not in complete control of their lives then something isn’t right. IAD comes in a variety of flavours apparently:

  • Cybersex Addiction – compulsive use of Internet pornography, adult chat rooms, or adult fantasy role-play sites impacting negatively on real-life intimate relationships.
  • Cyber-Relationship Addiction – addiction to social networking, chat rooms, and messaging to the point where virtual, online friends become more important than real-life relationships with family and friends.
  • Net Compulsions – such as compulsive online gaming, gambling, stock trading, or compulsive use of online auction sites such as eBay, often resulting in financial and job-related problems. 
  • Information Overload – compulsive web surfing or database searching, leading to lower work productivity and less social interaction with family and friends.
  • Computer Addiction – obsessive playing of off-line computer games, such as Solitaire or Minesweeper, or obsessive computer programming.

In a recent article in The Telegraph entitled ‘Shutting out a world of digital distraction’ Carl Wilkinson writes:

NWTucked away in the acknowledgements at the back of her new novel NW, along with the names of friends, family, editors and publishers who have helped her, Zadie Smith thanks freedom and self-control “for creating the time”.

Every writer needs the freedom to be creative and the self-control to stick with a project until completion, but Smith has something rather more 21st century in mind: Freedom [which works with both PCs and Macs] and SelfControl are computer applications that can be downloaded and configured to increase productivity by blocking access to the internet.

Just like SelfControl, Freedom works by disabling your Internet connections for the time period you specify. When you run Freedom, you’re not able to get online. Freedom makes no permanent changes to your computer. If you need to get back online, just reboot.

Ned Beauman goes even further than Smith:

There are five layers of technological solutions I use. I edit my host file to block some websites, but that’s too coarse grain. I use K9, which is a parental control application, to block certain pages within websites, and I use an ad-blocker, not to block adverts, but to block the comment sections of many sites. And when I’m working I use Nanny for Google Chrome and SelfControl to block certain websites.

It’s all to do with importance. Let me tell you what I hate: the BBC News Channel. I don’t hate it all the time but I do hate it at 11:30 on a Saturday morning which is when my wife and I generally sit down to watch their technology programme Click except when there is some breaking news and we either get the truncated fifteen minute version or the whole thing is cancelled. And not once let me tell you has there ever been any news that critical that I have to watch it as soon as it has happened. There was one day when poor ol’ Nick Robinson was hanging around outside No. 10 Downing Street trying to grab a word with a load of politicians as they were going in for a meeting. What could they possibly have to say before the meeting? And I had to miss my Click whilst all that was going on. Could it not have waited thirty minutes? I honestly can’t see people writing into Points of View outraged because the Beeb neglected to cover that momentous non-event.

And it’s the same with e-mails and tweets and all that crap: none of it is so desperately important that it could not wait an hour or two. You’re not missing out on anything. I belong to a writers’ group on Facebook and I keep seeing these exchanges going on and I wonder to myself: How the hell do they get any writing done? Yes, it’s important that we show face every now and then but it’s not that important. It’s a matter of weighing up the return on your investment. Time is valuable.

In the comments thread to the Guardian article M. K. Hajdin has this to say:

Accusing someone of being "addicted to the internet" is like accusing them of "being addicted to family and friends".

Anything that provides any kind of stimulation whatsoever can become "addictive" or distracting.

The internet's a tool.  Like any tool, it has no moral value of its own, and depends entirely on the person who uses it.

She makes a fair comment. I can only work in the living room along with my wife because she’s so quiet. If she nattered away to me all day long I’d pack up and relocate to my office. If the bird gets too squawky he gets shifted to a shelf in the bathroom until he’s got whatever’s bothering him out of his system.

TCF-OriginalWhen I came online all those years ago I cannot pretend that I wasn’t distracted. Everything was fascinating and you simply could not get me off my PC. I was the same with colour TV when it arrived although I can’t say that I’ve been as impressed by Hi Def. But back in 1967 we’d just sit and stare at the test card. It took a while but I now think of the Internet as something very ordinary. I know it’s not—it’s incredible when you think about it—but that’s what happens with all technology. I like that I can get answers immediately. It changes how I write. When I wrote my first two novels there was no Internet and research involved trips to the library. I could go back to that but I’d rather not.

So what are the signs of IAD? Dr. Kimberly Young has likened Internet addiction to addictive syndromes similar to impulse-control disorders on the Axis I Scale of the DSM:

  1. Do you feel preoccupied with the Internet (think about previous online activity or anticipate next online session)?
  2. Do you feel the need to use the Internet with increasing amounts of time in order to achieve satisfaction?
  3. Have you repeatedly made unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop Internet use?
  4. Do you feel restless, moody, depressed, or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop Internet use?
  5. Do you stay online longer than originally intended?
  6. Have you jeopardized or risked the loss of significant relationship, job, educational or career opportunity because of the Internet?
  7. Have you lied to family members, therapist, or others to conceal the extent of involvement with the Internet?
  8. Do you use the Internet as a way of escaping from problems or of relieving a dysphoric mood (e.g., feelings of helplessness, guilt, anxiety, depression)?

Meeting five of the above symptoms were considered necessary to be diagnosed. There is a test of Internet addiction that you can take online over at which is where I copied that table from. My score was 27. That means, according to the site:

You are an average on-line user. You may surf the Web a bit too long at times, but you have control over your usage.

You see that’s the thing, the Internet is a great tool and my life does revolve around it, but I don’t depend on it for happiness. It can and does make me happy—when I get an e-mail telling me a poem or a story has been accepted for publication I’m happy—but I’d be just as happy if they sent me a letter or phoned me up. I think if I were more of a social person and relied on interactions with people to make me happy I might have more of a problem. My best friends I interact with maybe once or twice a week. They have online presences but they don’t hang out online if I can draw the distinction. Anyone who doesn’t take advantage of the Internet in this day and age is an idiot. New technology needs to be embraced. That said I don’t own a Smartphone and barely use the mobile I do have. I watch Click every week but frankly I wonder about the lifestyles of the people who would use most of the apps they promote. The Internet hasn’t really changed me; I’ve cherry picked.

If I’m addicted to anything it’s writing. The longer I go without writing the unhappier I am. The thing is I don’t think about my need to write as any different to my need to eat, sleep or breathe. For me writing is a natural thing. I can barely go a minute without breathing but to suggest I’m addicted to air is preposterous. I can go for days on end without writing. And yet you should see Carrie and me if we lose our Internet connection for more than a few minutes. I have got so used to looking things up there and then that I get very frustrated when the option is taken away from me but I see no difference here to being able to make a cup of hot coffee whenever I want if only as an excuse to have a couple more of those scrummy biscuits. I’m used to that but I’m not addicted to it. Electricity is a part of my life as is the Internet. I don’t go through withdrawal symptoms without coffee—I’ve been drinking decaffeinated for years—but it is an inconvenience because the scrummy biscuits taste better with a cup of coffee. And that’s all the Internet is, a convenience. When I first gave up driving—I’ve not owned a car for over fifteen years—it was a pain because I’d got used to zipping here and vrooming there; I left everything to the last minute and crammed my life to bursting point. The relief I felt simply not being able to do that was incredible. So if something happened—some alien virus, I don’t know, use your imaginations—and the World Wide Web disappeared overnight I’d cope a helluva lot easier than most. I have the addresses of my best friends and we’d just start writing the old-fashioned way. Personally I miss letters. I’m a practical person so I don’t send them but I do miss them.

There has been some recent talk about scientists finding an “internet-addiction gene”. Apparently it’s CHRNA4 in case you wondered.

Genes_0Recent studies from Asia provided first evidence for a molecular genetic link between serotonergic and dopaminergic neurotransmission and Internet addiction. The present report offers data on a new candidate gene in the investigation of Internet addiction-the gene coding for the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor subunit alpha 4 (CHRNA4). A case-control study was carried out. The participants were recruited from a large gene data bank, including people from the general population and from a university setting. A total of 132 participants with problematic Internet use and 132 age- and sex-matched controls participated in the study. Participants provided DNA samples and filled in the Internet Addiction Test Questionnaire. The T- variant (CC genotype) of the rs1044396 polymorphism on the CHRNA4 gene occurred significantly more frequently in the case group. Further analyses revealed that this effect was driven by females. Combined with the findings from other studies, the present data point in the direction that rs1044396 exerts pleiotropic effects on a vast range of behaviours, including cognition, emotion, and addiction. – C. Montag, P. Kirsch, C Sauer, S Markett, M Reuter, ‘The Role of the CHRNA4 Gene in Internet Addiction: A Case-control Study’, US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, September 2012

It makes good press—the first sentence does anyway (I was lost after that)—but as Robert Wright pointed out in his article in The Atlantic in response to this report:

[T]he internet, like a pack of cigarettes or lots of cocaine, lets you just sit in a room and repeatedly trigger reward chemicals that, back in the environment of our evolution, you could trigger only with more work and only less frequently. That's why an internet habit, like a cocaine habit, can reach dysfunctional levels.

[All these] forms of internet dependence—porn, Facebook, TMZ [a new one on me], Twitter, YouTube—are just a few of the possible ingredients of any one case of internet "addiction." And each of these ingredients itself involves God-knows-which neurotransmitters and neuronal receptors and, by extension, God-knows-how-many genes. And all of us have lots and lots of these genes—genes that make us susceptible to internet addiction. Because what the internet does is take lots of things that natural selection designed us to find gratifying and make them much easier to get.


These genes are really just genes for being human. That's why using the internet well is a challenge for us all.

I have never gambled. I don’t see the point to it. I just don’t get it. I don’t get how one man can be sexually attracted toward another man. I don’t get that either. I don’t get how anyone can spend hours every day on Facebook. I don’t get opera or rap. Or deep-fried Mars Bars. Or paying more than five quid for a bottle of wine. Everyone is different. I do get hope and I suspect that’s one of the things that writers become addicted to and the Internet facilitates. Every time we open an e-mail we hope there’s going to be good news. Every time we open Google Analytics we hope our stats are going to be up. Every time we log into Smashwords or Amazon we hope people are going to have bought our book. Every time we post a blog or write a comment we hope that that one person is going to read it. We hope every day we’re going to be discovered. Hope is a hard thing to give up on or even to cut back on.

Aimee Mann said, “In the '70s, everybody thought drugs were just good times. People didn't really know about drug addiction, or that such a thing existed. When I grew up in the '70s I thought you had to take drugs. It was almost like I didn't think you had a choice.” You might think there’s a world of difference between taking drugs and using the Internet but there is one thing they both have in common: you have no idea what it’s like for anyone else. I look at the activity of some people and I am amazed. Where do they find the time or the energy? But they’re doing it so I need to try to keep up. That’s how most of my mates started smoking. All the cool kids were doing it and so soon everyone else was.

The Internet itself is not a fad or a fashion—it’s bigger than that—but a lot of the things it enables you to do are. The first step along the line to recovery from any form of addiction is acknowledging there’s a problem. It depends on who you are after that in how you cope with it. For me the best thing my wife ever bought me was that tablet. I wasn’t addicted but I was burdened. Now if I want to check in I need to physically get off my backside and go get the tablet and that’s all it took. I’ve recommended this to others too. Computers are relatively cheap. Have a writing machine and an all-other-things machine. Do something though.

Sunday 20 October 2013

The Quarry

The Quarry

I know Guy’s cancer is not contagious. You can’t catch it off him. That’s the thing about cancer. It’s all yours—it’s entirely, perfectly personalised. – Iain Banks, The Quarry

It’s said you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead and this admonition is most stringently enforced when it comes to the recently deceased as can be seen by the early reviews in the dailies of The Quarry, the late Iain Banks’s latest and last novel:

[A]n urgent novel and an important one – The Observer

This is vintage Banks, full of heart, black comedy and vitriol, and is sure to delight his fans – Sunday Mirror

The Quarry is very, very good – The Independent

When it comes to the dying, however, the dying can (and often do) speak ill—or at least their mind—of anyone they damn well please. In most cases those at the receiving end of such diatribes are close family members and medical staff. When you’re a famous novelist and you learn that the book you’re in the process of writing—have in fact almost finished writing—is going to be your last and unless your publisher gets their finger out is not one you’re likely to hold in your hand, you might have a few things to get off your chest. And Banks does. Not in the genial, gentlemanly tones we normally associate with Iain Banks when faced with an audience or a television camera but in the vociferous, foul-mouthed raging against the dying of the light of his last great creation: Guy Hyndersley.

Guy is not the book’s narrator, though; his son, Kit (short for Kitchener—seriously) is. He rarely swears. In fact if a DNA test hadn’t been carried out to confirm that Kit was his offspring you would be hard pressed to find any similarity between the two. The reason for the test?

[Guy] tells people he came back drunk from the pub that night and assumed the warm bundle inside the front porch was a takeaway meal delivery he’d forgotten ordering. He claims to have been quite peeved when he discovered it was actually a newborn baby.

Also there is some question regarding the identity of Kit’s mother:

Not knowing who your father is is not so unusual; not knowing who your mother is is just plain weird. Guy … has variously claimed that my mother is an emigrated-to-Australia ex-barmaid from a long-closed pub in Bewford; a married, middle-aged member of the aristocracy somewhere between one-hundred-and-fiftieth and two-hundredth in line to the throne; a disgraced Traveller girl now settled quietly in County Carlow (which is in Ireland); an American exchange student from the Midwest with hyper-strict parents, belonging to some bizarre religious cult; or possibly just some random girl/conquest he promptly forgot about even at the time, who literally abandoned me on his doorstep one evening.

Or it might be Hol, Pris or Ali. Along with Guy, Paul, Haze and Rob, the three girls formed the core of “Bewford Uni Film and Media Studies Faculty Ninety-Two Intake”, all of whom once lived together at Willoughtree House and have somehow remained friends ever since. Pris and Haze used to be a couple; Rob and Ali are currently a couple but it looks like Guy at least has known all three women, although he only had what might be called loosely ‘a relationship’ with Hol. Kit is probably closest to Hol. Whether any of them is a blood relation is neither here nor there: this is his family and like all the best literary families it’s as dysfunctional as hell but in a good way.

The events described in the book take place over a long weekend, what everyone expects will be the last weekend the group will spend together before Guy dies. So if anything was going to happen, if things that needed to be said were ever going to get said, this was when it has to happen. Maybe this is when Kit will finally learn the truth about his mother. Unlikely. The main thing that seems to be on the group’s collective mind is a certain video tape which everyone agrees were it to find its way into the public domain would be … “embarrassing” is their understated adjective of choice. Kit expects that it’s a sex tape but no one seems to want to confirm or deny that.

‘What is this tape you’re looking for?’ I ask her. ‘I might be able to help. I know the house better than Guy does now. I know where most stuff is stored.’

Holly stares at the suds in the sink, then lifts out one yellow-gloved hand and takes up her wineglass, drinking. ‘Just an old videotape,’ she tells me. Her voice sounds sleepy, the words slightly slurred. ‘Something kind of embarrassing on it.’ She shrugs. ‘If it’s even still around.’ She looks at me. ‘An S-VHS-C; old format. Thick as a VHS cassette but about, I don’t know, a quarter of the size. Small enough to fit into a hand-held camera of the day but you could play it … Well, you could play them straight from the camera, but if you’ve got this’ – Holly is waving one gloved hand around, distributing foam – ‘mechanical sort of gizmo the size and shape of a VHS tape, then … you inserted it into that and then put the whole shebang into your standard VHS video player under your telly and played it from that.’


At first everyone just shrugs off the tape—if we find it we find it, if we don’t we don’t—but as the days wear on Kit starts to add two and two together, especially when more (albeit gentle) pressure is placed on him to locate the thing. Eventually all pretence at indifference vanishes, the house is divvied up and everyone sets out to try to locate said tape which does turn up, you’ll be pleased to hear, but when they do find it what’s on it is not what any of them anticipated and is probably even more … let’s just go with ‘damning’ … than what they expected to find.

The tape is, of course, a MacGuffin:

In TV interviews, Hitchcock defined a MacGuffin as the object around which the plot revolves, but as to what that object specifically is, he declared, "the audience don't care". [George] Lucas, on the other hand, believes that the MacGuffin should be powerful and that "the audience should care about it almost as much as the duelling heroes and villains on-screen". – Wikipedia

I’d have to go with Lucas here. The tape is not unimportant but it’s not what the book’s about. Remember the novel’s called The Quarry but it’s not really about the quarry either. The tape’s the quarry. Holtarth Moor Quarry is there in the background, it gets talked about—Kit, since Guy won’t survive that long, will have to move out of his house as the quarry expands—but it’s really just a metaphor for that which devours us over time. For Guy that is obviously his cancer but life has nibbled away at everyone in this book and continues to do so and it looks as if this weekend it’s preparing to take a big bite out of everyone. Inevitably Nietzsche gets referenced:

‘Yeah, but it’s true, isn’t it?’ Haze says, nodding slowly, eyes partially closed, staring into the middle distance, or at least whatever portion of it is available within the confines of the sitting room. ‘When you stare into the void, it, like, stares back at you.’

‘Does it, fuck,’ Guy snorts.

Haze looks at him, blinking rapidly.


‘Whoa, dude. I’m just saying what I felt,’ Haze says, through a small cloud of exhaled smoke. Ali, sitting nearby, waves it away with quick, sharp flaps of her hand.

‘No you’re fucking not,’ Guy tells him. ‘You’re just repeating a load of ego … drenched, self-regard-saturated, pseudo-mystical bollocks.’

Hol mutters something about ‘calling my homie Freddy N on one of his greater insights’, though she says it so quietly I think maybe only I hear it as Rob sighs and says,

‘Just give up now, Haze.’

‘Is that from Touching the Void, that climbing—’ Ali says, as Guy jabs one bony finger at Haze.

‘How does the fucking void stare back at you?’

‘I was just saying, I was looking into the quarry this morning—’ Haze begins.

‘How the fuck does the fucking void stare back at you?’ Guy demands, louder. He’s already complained about having a headache this evening and he’s taken more painkillers than he really should. Sometimes when he’s in a lot of pain he gets more angry and combative and, well, vicious. ‘Where are its eyes, where is its fucking nervous system, where is the brain that is receiving the results of this so-fucking-directed staring? Staring implies looking, looking implies – requires, fucking demands – something to stare with, something to interpret and consider and fucking philosophise about the results of this “staring”. How does any fucking absence of rock or other material cobble together the intellectual wherewithal to do anything as organised as fucking stare?’

‘I think,’ Paul says, ‘it’s generally regarded as being just a metaphor for the connection you feel when you gaze upon something … profound.’

newcastle_brown_ale_can‘Really?’ Guy sneers. ‘I think it’s an excuse for the intellectually challenged and … pretentious to make themselves feel important. Wow, man,’ Guy says, suddenly switching to a deeper, stoned-sounding, slightly posher voice and slowing down a fraction, ‘like, I’m so fucking the centre of the world I can’t stare into this crack in the ground without it showing me the respect of, like, staring back at me, like, you know? Cos I’m, like, as vacuous as it is, yah?’ He shakes his head, switches back to his normal voice as he says, ‘Jesus,’ and drinks from his can of Newcastle Brown.

Banks learned about his own cancer—inoperable cancer of the gallbladder—in March 2013. In an interview with Stuart Kelly only days before his death in June he says what he did next:

"On the morning of 4th March"—after he had been sent for a CT scan—"I thought everything was hunky dory except I had a sore back and my skin looked a bit funny. By the evening of the 4th I'd been told I had only a few months to live. By that time I'd written 90% of the novel; 87,000 words out of 97,000. Luckily, even though I'd done my words for the day, I'd taken a laptop into the hospital in Kirkcaldy, and once I'd been given the prognosis, I wrote the bit where Guy says, 'I shall not be disappointed to leave all you bastards behind.' It was an exaggeration of what I was feeling, but it was me thinking: 'How can I use this to positive effect?' Because I was feeling a bit kicked in the guts at this point. So I thought, 'OK, I'll just give Guy a good old rant.' Like I say; that's reality for you, it can get away with anything."

The thing is most of the rants in this book aren’t actually about cancer unless cancer is also a metaphor. In this book we get to look back on that peculiarly amorphous of things: ‘a generation’. Never been quite sure what ‘a generation’ means. My brother’s three years younger than I am and I don’t feel a part of his generation. When I was sixteen and he was thirteen there was a gulf but now I’m fifty-four and he’s fifty-one are we a part of the same generation? If so, when did that happen? Suffice to say Kit is the outsider here, the voyeur, our proxy and since he has “a reputation for obsessive-compulsive behaviour, Asperger’s and/or” he comes across as a rather dispassionate narrator. His only real passion is for the online game HeroSpace, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game probably something along the lines of the board game Heroscape. And he does have a bit of a soft spot for Hol, although ‘soft’ is not really the right word if you catch my drift and that could be problematic. He describes himself as on "a spectrum that stretches from 'highly gifted' at one end to 'nutter' at the other, both of which I am comfortable with." So, a fairly typical Banksian teenager then.

Banks, via this miscellany of characters, gets to say a lot about the legacy his own generation has left the world with and he does not mince his words. Politics inevitably crop up and this quote is as good a one as any:

Paul spreads both arms, looks round at everybody else, as though appealing to them. He even looks at me. ‘Holly,’ he says, when his gaze returns to her, ‘I don’t know what to say to you when you’re in this sort of mood. I don’t know how to handle you. Politics is politics and there are some decent people on the other side just like there are some twats on our side, and until you accept that you’re always going to sound like some Spartist caricature. Get a fucking grip, why don’t you.’

‘Can we talk about something else?’ Alison asks.

‘I’m not arguing there are no decent people in the Tory Party,’ Hol says to Paul. I think she’s trying to keep calm now. ‘But they’re like bits of sweetcorn in a turd; technically they’ve kept their integrity, but they’re still embedded in shit.’

‘There you go,’ Paul says, laughing lightly.

‘Yeah, come off the fence, Hol,’ Haze says. ‘Tell us what you really think!’

‘Things have changed, Hol,’ Rob tells her. ‘Phase-changed, even. We’re just not where we were.’

‘I’m being serious here,’ Alison says. ‘Can we talk about something else? I mean, does any of this really matter?’

Hol shakes her head. ‘What a choice: Neo-Labour, the toxic Agent-Orange-Book Lib-Dems or the shithead rich-boy bastardhood that is the Tories. We really are all fucked, aren’t we?’

‘Finally a note of realism,’ Paul says, shaking his head.

‘There’s always UKIP, Hol,’ Haze says.

Hol looks at Haze as though she’s about to say something, but then her face sort of screws up and she just makes a sound like ‘Tschah!’

For all that, this is an understated book. Seriously, not much happens apart from a lot of talking. A lot. Seriously. Lots. Pages and pages of conversations. The one-on-ones are okay, the rants are simply wonderful and must’ve been great fun to write, but once everyone’s in the one room drunk and/or high there’s no way you can keep track of who’s talking and Banks wisely—although I’m sure some creative writing teachers will frown at this—simply gives up on speech tags; it doesn’t matter who’s talking. Frankly most of the minor players are a bit two-dimensional anyway and deliberately so; none has maximised their full potential even the ones who’re more financially secure than others. Banks, himself, refers to the book as “a relatively minor piece,” and I’m not going to argue but a relatively minor piece by Banks will still wipe the floor with most other authors.

That said the book was rushed to print and would’ve benefitted from some tighter editing. In his review in The Independent Brian Morton notes:

Dennis PotterGiven the hasty completion of a book that Banks lived long enough to see in print, if not in public circulation, there are inevitable slips, or apparent slips. It was, for instance, Dennis Potter not Harold Pinter who dubbed his tumour “Rupert” (after the media proprietor), but then one wonders if this is a deliberate mistake and if Banks is steering us simultaneously to the realist/science-fiction split of Potter's own last works, and to the broken communications and stilled lives of Pinter's plays. It's a sign that we are dealing with a narrator who doesn't know everything after all and is most interesting when he doesn't.

The version I read, however, says quite clearly:

‘Come on,’ Hol tells him. ‘Come to the pub, if you’re up to it; won’t be the same without you.’

‘I’m up to it, Rupert isn’t,’ he says, though he is now pulling on his knitted hat, which might be a positive sign. Guy calls his cancer ‘Rupert’, an idea he says he got from the dead playwright Dennis Potter.

I could find no reference to any ‘Harold’ so maybe it was an ARC Morton got hold of. That said I did get more lost than I would’ve liked during some of the lengthier—not that there are many short—exchanges. Occasionally we change scene and there’s nothing, not even a space to let us know this is a new section; that was also a bit sloppy, although I’ve just read a Roth where he does exactly the same but I didn’t like it there either. Perhaps if they reprint it—can’t imagine them not reprinting it (not sure any of Banks’s books are out of print)—they could tweak it then.

Iain BanksIf you’ve never read Banks before I’m not sure this would be the best place to start off. The tabloids may have been mostly forgiving but Joe Public hasn’t been as you’ll see from the one-star reviews on Amazon and some by long-time fans. He can, and has, done better. Mostly he’s done different. Different isn’t necessarily better. I was reminded of Ian McEwan when I read this. McEwan’s done a lot of growing up since his first two scandalous short story collections and Banks is also not the same man who wrote The Crow Road and The Wasp Factory. He’s matured. The Quarry is a grown-up novel. He might not have gone out on a bang but he certainly doesn’t go out on a whimper either. Just a damn shame he had to go at all.

Sunday 13 October 2013

The Novel Cure: An A to Z of Literary Remedies

The Novel Cure

Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint. –Mark Twain

The Novel Cure: An A to Z of Literary Remedies, to give it its full title in the UK—its full US title is The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You—is an odd book. It has the look of an old-fashioned medical textbook. My father owned such a tome and it was one of the two books in the house I coveted following his death (the other was his annotated Bible) despite the fact that the art of self-misdiagnosis had moved on in leaps and bounds since then and we can now easily go online and convince ourselves we’re suffering from all kinds of life-threatening maladies but it is a book for which I hold a great sentimental attachment; if nothing else, it taught me the rudiments of sex. On the surface then that is indeed what The Novel Cure is, a medical textbook, although an odd one indeed because it extols the therapeutic benefits of reading books … well, novels (apparently short stories and nonfiction don’t do anyone any good) ... and almost completely ignores established treatments like cold compresses, hot chicken soup and daily doses of castor oil.

I’m not a hypochondriac (says he trying to keep a straight face) but I am a man and as such have suffered from the dreaded man flu on more than one occasion and the actual flu once. (And I thought man flu was bad!) For some unknown reason considering the epidemicity of the condition it was not one of the many ailments commented upon in my dad’s medical textbook and so what’s a man to do but suffer in silence? (Yeah, right.) If only at the time I had in my sweaty paws a copy of The Novel Cure: An A to Z of Literary Remedies because on page 262 of that very book the authors propose a remedy: massive doses of Victor Hugo! Specifically Les Misérables—both volumes—although not necessarily in the original French and only after “a great deal of sympathy … soft pillows … mugs of tea, hot water bottles, meals on trays, a TV with a remote control, and messages of support and commiseration from family and friends” has not proven up to the task in hand. Then it’s time for the big guns. The book goes on:

Our ‘cure’ – and this is one of the occasions in this book where we must use the term most loosely – is a two-volume edition of Victor Hugo’s classic novel of human torment and suffering, Les Misérables. Your patient might consider himself too ill for the application of a novel cure – and in fact urge you to turn to the entry in this book on dying. However, it is important to have a firm hand in administering it, despite les_miserables_bookhis resistance. We assure both you and he that within a few pages he will have lost himself completely in the woes of Jean Valjean and Fantine, Cosette and Monsieur Marius, Éponine and police inspector Javert, recognising his own suffering in theirs, and taking great comfort as a result.


Those responsible for nursing the victim, a round-the-clock job, will find him to be less talkative while taking the cure, thus giving everybody a chance to recover and delve more deeply within themselves to find unending supplies of love and sympathy. In the most effective cases, the cure might even enable the sufferer to forget about his symptoms completely, and bring about a return to good humour, vivacity and pleasure in life – even interest in others – which will seem quite miraculous when it occurs.

So, you get the idea. Once you strip away the veneer all this book is is a recommended reading list and as such open to debate. If you handed me a book of that length whilst in the throes of man flu the only thing stopping me hurling it straight back at you would be the wasted condition I would obviously be in. (You women have no idea!) Even once I was fighting fit I still wouldn’t thank you for it, me being the megabibliophobe that I am.

But what if I really was dying? What would The Novel Cure recommend then? Surely there’s no cure for death. Well, no, and the authors acknowledge this:

Death cannot be deferred forever, and when the time comes, we need to be ready. In the West we have a tendency to avoid thoughts of death, and to more or less obliterate the fact of death in our everyday lives. Gone are the days of the memento mori, a daily reminder that we must die. It is however, essential both to live in the presence of death – and be sure we are always fully alive – and to prepare ourselves with appropriate literary companions.

To that end they suggest Pearl by The Gawain Poet and Metamorphoses by Ovid which, okay, are poems but they’re damn long poems (fifteen volumes in Ovid’s case). Again I’m not sure if I was dying I’d could be jugged wasting what little time I had left wading through fifteen volumes of ancient Latin verse. Give me Death of a Superhero instead. Or Death: The High Cost of Living. Or Reaper Man. But what if it’s not you that’s dying? What if you have to cope with the death of a loved one? Well one book I would’ve expected to see would’ve been Shadow Child by P.F. Thomése but it gets excluded as it’s a memoir rather than fiction. Instead they have After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell, Incendiary by Chris Cleave and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, three 21st century takes on death. Since we’ve been popping our clogs since, like, forever I would’ve thought someone, somewhere along the line might have pretty much said everything that needed to be said about death long before now. Also since terminally ill people tend to want to cut to the chase what about the great poems on death like ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’?

No one is ever going to be able to create a 751-books-to-read-before-you-die-list that is going to suit everyone or even anyone if it comes to that. But there will be books that should be on everyone’s list especially if that list is 751 books long. And 751 books is not that long a list. I reckon I’ve got another thousand in me before I kick the bucket—easily—which is why it’s handy that The Guardian back in 2009 provided a list of 1000 novels everyone must read although only one of the books mentioned so far in this article (Les Misérables—but I’m still not reading it) made it onto their list.

So, what books would I say you should have on your list? These are some of the books that had a major impact on me. Billy Liar. Not mentioned. A Time of Changes. Not mentioned. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Not mentioned. That would definitely go in my ten best novels to read whilst in prison list. They have a few such lists: ten best novels for teenagers, ten best novels to cheer you up, ten best novels to read on the loo. Here’s one for me:


To the Wedding JOHN BERGER
Breakfast at Tiffany’s TRUMAN CAPOTE
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? PHILIP K DICK
The Good Soldier FORD MADOX FORD
The Children’s Bach HELEN GARNER
An Imaginary Life DAVID MALOUF
I was Amelia Earhart JANE MENDELSOHN

OfMiceAndMenOkay, a book 62,000 words long (which the Philip K Dick is) is not by any stretch of the imagination a novella. But even putting that aside for the moment there are so many other great novellas that I can think of that aren’t here. Of Mice and Men for one. That said the book does include Of Mice and Men under hope, loss of and I can see why it’s there. I thought perhaps they had a rule where a book could only get mentioned once but that’s not the case because The Great Gatsby is listed under cures for broke, being; the ten best audio books and the ten best novels for seeming well-read.

There are some glaring omissions like Everyman by Philip Roth which traces a man’s life by reference to his life’s illnesses leading up to his death and Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal which deals with the therapeutic affects books can have in a way no other novel—novella actually—does. There are also some obvious choices. What do you think the recommended reading is if you’re suffering from hunger? That would be Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and yet if you have a problem with gambling surely you’d reach for the Dostoyevsky—and why wasn’t that in the novella list?—before Luke Rhinehart’s The Dice Man, after all Dostoyevsky wrote the The Gambler to pay off gambling debts. And there are some peculiar sicknesses too like housewife, being a (and although maybe not great literature but surely Irma Bombeck was in with a shout there); coffee, can’t find a decent cup of; traffic warden, being a; missing your flight and DIY. DIY, of course, is not an ailment but as “[i]n the UK, six hundred people are injured every day in their own homes” due to fool heartedly thinking that hanging a shelf or assembling an IKEA bookcase is within their capabilities it is definitely a causal factor and prevention is better than cure. I’m also not sure that being foreign counts as an illness but the first book that I would reach for under those circumstances would be Stranger in a Strange Land and not Everything is Illuminated. Science Fiction authors are not ignored in the book and that’s good to see because there’s a lot of great literature out there hiding under often gaudy (or at least inappropriate) covers. There’s a nice entry in the book under sci-fi, fear of too as well as helpful advice on live instead of read, tendency to; skim, tendency to, non-reading partner, having a and tome, put off by a. (No, I’m still not going to read Les Mis.)

There was no entry for masturbation—but with entries for adultery; libido, loss of; coming too soon; orgasms, not enough; lust; sex, too little; sex, too much and seduction skills they probably reckoned they’d said enough on the subject but that also means that Portnoy’s Complaint is not one of their Top 751 reads although if they’d widened the scope a little and allowed in some nonfiction then Dick, A User’s Guide would probably have been a better choice. (I’m being facetious.) Dementia was also missing and although they do have entries for aging, horror of; old age, horror of and senile, going I think I would’ve preferred to see it get its own entry even if no great fiction—none that jumps to mind—has been written on the subject. And who says we’re only allowed to read fiction? Keeper by Andrea Gillies is a great memoir, a real eye-opener on the subject. And that’s part of the authors’ problem here. Their goals are lofty—one might even say idealistic—but they are commendable:

The fact is, one simply cannot hope to read every book that exists. Or even every good book. If thinking about the size of the reading mountain out there sends you into a blind panic, breathe deep. Extreme selectivity is the only solution. Reading time is hard to come by, and you don’t want to waste any of it on even a mediocre book. Reach for excellence every time.

The Novel Cure is a good place to start when picking a more discerning path through the literary jungle. Consider also booking a consultation with a bibliotherapist, who will analyse your reading habits and yearnings as well as where you’re at in your personal and professional life, then create a reading list tailored especially for you.

The_Best_Punk_Album_In_The_World_Ever_album_coverBibliotherapy is a real thing by the way. When I first read this section I thought they had their tongues firmly in their cheeks but they’re deadly serious. Reading is therapeutic. At the very least it provides distraction; it takes our mind off ourselves. When we’ve just broken up with our boy or girlfriend what do we do? We slouch off home and listen to some mournful music—Leonard Cohen or the The Smiths on repeat or something—and let it wash over us and when we’re happy we stick on The Best Punk Album in the World … Ever!, roll up our sleeves and get stuck into the housework. If it works with music then why not books? Okay, the authors of this book present their case in a light-hearted and occasionally downright flippant manner but they do have a point and a good one. Their list has some gaping—dare I say ‘unforgiveable’?—holes in it but there’s also a lot of good stuff here.

Who the target demographic is is another matter. When I was nineteen I only read books by writers who’d won the Nobel Prize or, since I was also into science fiction at the time, a Hugo or Nebula award. That did me no harm whatsoever and I wish I’d kept at it because one of the things that I did realise as I flicked through the index at the back—not that I was ignorant of the fact—was how many great books I’ve never got round to. It’s frankly embarrassing. Personally I would give this book to a young bibliophile. My wife has a granddaughter who’s nearly seventeen and I’ll probably pass my copy onto her; her needs are greater than mine and she’s got more time than me, a good seventy years most likely. You can get a lotta reading done in seventy years.

There’s a handy website to go with book. You can find it here and it addresses some of my concerns with the book itself because it affords ‘patients’ the opportunity to submit their ‘ailments’ and receive a personal consultation. For example:


Dear Ella and Suze I thought I was going to do something that would make a huge difference in the world but, heading towards 50, any impact I have had on anything has been pretty local rather than global and I feel I've missed the boat-of-greatness. Regards, Low Wattage

Dear Low Wattage, Don't underestimate the importance of the local impact you have made! Read The Mystic Masseur by VS Naipaul for an illustration of a man making a huge difference to the people in his immediate vicinity, which is just as important as the wider influence you have. But 50 is the new 30! You still have decades in which to blow your fuse and go out with a bang. Read Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby Junior to galvanise you into making your dreams a reality, not letting them slip through your fingers. Yours, Ella and Suse

We prescribe – The Mystic Masseur by VS Naipaul, Requiem for a Dream by Hubert Selby Junior

If you click on REMEDIES you can read a number of excerpts from the book itself.

I like the idea of this book. It’s isn’t perfect—it never had a snowball’s chance in hell of being perfect—but as a template it works: ten out of ten for presentation. It aims to make people think about books differently: they’re not just for entertainment; they have real power. I have to agree. When I first picked up the book I thought there’d be excerpts from novels rather than reasons to read these novels but that works too. So the books—and the poems, the stories and the plays—that changed my life were mostly missing. So what. Not every piece of writing is going to have the same effect on everyone. I read Billy Liar when I was about thirteen or fourteen and it had a powerful effect on me even more so than Catcher in the Rye. And, actually, it’s a book I’ve never grown too old for. It was the right thing at the right time and it continues to be the right thing. It’s a wonderful thing when a book meets its ideal reader. For some people The Novel Cure will be one of those books.


2027Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin met as English Literature students at Cambridge University, where they began giving novels to each other whenever one of them seemed in need of a boost. Ella went on to study fine art and become a painter and art teacher. Susan became a novelist (Sunset Over Chocolate Mountains and The Voices, both Fourth Estate) and in 2003 was listed by Granta as one of the Twenty Best of Young British Novelists. She also teaches creative writing and writes travel pieces and book reviews for various newspapers. In 2008 they set up a bibliotherapy service through The School of Life in London, and since then have been prescribing books either virtually or in person to clients all over the world. Though they are now divided by an ocean (Ella lives in England and Susan lives in the States) they still regularly send each other fictional cures to keep them on the straight and narrow and ensure that they are living life to the full. The Novel Cure is their first book together.

Sunday 6 October 2013

Isabel's Skin


All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another. – Anatole France

This is an historical novel but it really doesn’t need to be and most of the time I was reading it I forgot when it was set. It was only when a horse and cart appeared rather than a car that I was reminded. This is not a criticism. It simply underlines the timeless quality of the work. Actually it’s quite typical of the kind of story that Hammer Films would’ve been interested in adapting in the sixties—perhaps as a follow-up to The Reptile—and if they’d only read half the book they’d have probably jumped at the chance to bid for it. Of course once they’d got their hands on it they’d have ripped out 90% of it, beefed up the horror angle and rewritten the ending probably lopping off the whole last section which would’ve been a crying shame because there’s actually something worthwhile going on here.

Alma Books describe Benson’s new novel as follows:

Peter Benson’s new novel is a slick Gothic tale in the English tradition, a murder mystery and a tour of Edwardian England. More than this, it is a work of atmosphere and unease which creates a world of inhuman anxiety and suspense.

It’s a fair description but also a little misleading; there, for example, is no mystery about the murder (there’s invariably a murder in a gothic novel) as we get to witness it. It does, however, borrow heavily from the popular tropes/motifs attached to Gothic fiction:

The setting is greatly influential in Gothic novels. It not only evokes the atmosphere of horror and dread, but also portrays the deterioration of its world. The decaying, ruined scenery implies that at one time there was a thriving world. At one time the abbey, castle, or landscape was something treasured and appreciated. Now, all that lasts is the decaying shell of a once thriving dwelling.

The Gothic hero becomes a sort of archetype as we find that there is a pattern to their characterization. There is always the protagonist, usually isolated either voluntarily or involuntarily. Then there is the villain, who is the epitome of evil, either by his (usually a man) own fall from grace, or by some implicit malevolence. The Wanderer, found in many Gothic tales, is the epitome of isolation as he wanders the earth in perpetual exile, usually a form of divine punishment.

The plot itself mirrors the ruined world in its dealings with a protagonist's fall from grace as she succumbs to temptation from a villain. In the end, the protagonist must be saved through a reunion with a loved one. – The Gothic Novel, David De Vore, Anne Domenic, Alexandra Kwan and Nicole Reidy, University of California

Benson’s hero, David Morris, isn’t quite as charismatic as your bog-standard Byronic hero—he’s really not the slightest bit charismatic…

I lived the life of an average bachelor, settled into what I thought was comfort, inured to the city, dreaming of something else but not sure what, lost in work and habits and the conventions that cloaked my work.

jk1…although Hammer would’ve probably (mis)cast Peter Wyngarde in the part—but he comes to realise through the course of the novel that he’s more flawed and conflicted than he might’ve admitted at the start and also discovers that he isn’t beyond acting in ways that could be considered morally questionable as long as it gets the job done.

The villain, Professor Richard Hunt, appears at first to be very much your run-of-the-mill mad scientist although we never do get to see his laboratory. This is how Morris describes him in part:

His hand was ice-cold, his skin was too smooth for a man of his age and his face had a sucked-in, skeletal look. His hair was dark and thin and combed carefully over the crown of his balding head. I guess he must have been sixty, but he could have been forty-five.


I assumed he was English, but an edge to his accent made me think he was German, maybe, or Austrian. His eyes were grey and cunning and looked straight into mine.

443px-Donald_Pleasence_Allan_Warren_editBaron Frankenstein isn’t a mad scientist in the book although he was completely off his trolley once Hammer had finished with him; Shelley makes her character more rounded and his mental instability more subtly portrayed. Hunt, like Frankenstein, is not a bad man but his obsession with forbidden knowledge has driven him over the edge or at least that’s how it seems because we never get to sit him down with a nice cup of tea and talk to him; it’s too late in the game for that. (Hammer would’ve been courting Donald Pleasence for the part I’m sure.)

The monster is every bit as articulate as Frankenstein’s creation and only driven to extreme actions by extreme circumstances. I can’t say any more about it without ruining the book. Some suspension of disbelief wouldn’t be out of place though.

Jane AsherThere is, too, the obligatory love interest (Jane Asher maybe?) but (thankfully) Benson’s women don’t spend all their time screaming and swooning even if they are a tad tamer than their twenty-first century counterparts. She is trapped, though, and it falls on Morris to rescue her and more than once. There’s also a housekeeper although she’s much more Mrs Hughes (Downton Abbey) than Mrs Danvers (Rebecca).

The setting of the Gothic Novel is a character in itself. The plot is usually set in a castle, an abbey, a monastery, or some other, usually religious edifice, and it is acknowledged that this building has secrets of its own. It is this gloomy and frightening scenery, which sets the scene for what the audience should expect. – Wikipedia

The old dark house, Belmont Hall, is nowhere near as dark and gloomy as it might’ve been despite the build-up it gets from the neighbours. An urchin Morris encounters on his way to Ashbrittle wants to know where he’s headed and when he’s told the lad doesn’t have much good to say about the place:

“Wouldn’t go there. Not like it is.”

“What do you mean?”

“There’s bad things there.”

“Bad things? What do you mean?”

He shook his head, looked at his black, calloused feet and hitched up his trousers. “Ma says there’s bad things in Ashbrittle. Crawling things. Evil, she says.”

“Evil? What sort of evil?”

“The screaming kind,” he says. “Ma says you can hear her in the night time. Sometimes in the day too.”

If it is a character in the novel it’s only a bit player. It’s certainly not alive (as in The Fall of the House of Usher) or menacing but it does provide a setting where we can look inside the hero’s head: the only scenes of importance in the building are in the library; Morris is a book-valuer and he’s there to appraise a collection of original editions by authors of the French Enlightenment and this is the one room in the house he should feel at home so in that respect it conforms with the gothic tradition of providing vital insight into the hero’s character. What’s interesting about The Fall of the House of Usher is that the house does double duty—it’s both setting and monster—and Benson pulls off a similar trick in his book but that’s all I’m saying on that score. Only a fraction of the novel takes place at Belmont Hall anyway and nothing major. The house in which he writes down his story is probably more important:

[T]his is my house at the edge of the marshes with its roof, floors and chairs, and there go a flock of geese, and this is my house too. It is like everyone’s other house, a place where secrets, promises, dreams and terrors are kept. Mine is like this.

It is not a lasting state, this house, but it changes every day. It holds things that never leave – the memory of the first time I saw her, the sound of her cries echoing in the night, the smell of her sweat, the feel of her – and it grows, twists and adds things to itself.

It could be mad or it could be angry, or it could double back on itself and become taller than the tallest building in a city you visited once and wish you could see again. It could be yellow and black and talk in a language only it understands. It could whisper about careless times, or flare like a candle and become the person you loved, someone who took your life and wrenched it away. Her name could chime, and when you are so lonely and you pull her image from an envelope and stare at it in the middle of the night you know she was the love of your life and you will never forget her. You can smell her skin, the skin that hurt so much, but then the smell passes. It has gone, and before you have a chance, you find yourself screaming in the night and wailing into the day.

horror of draculaThe storyline in a gothic novel is frequently presented by means of a series of secret manuscripts or multiple tales—Dracula is a good example—but that’s not the case here. Here we have one narrator looking back at these life-changing events from some time in the future but there are three stories: the main tale, the visit to Somerset, the encounter with the madman, the rescue of the girl (the consequences of which are dealt with when the action moves to London and subsequently Norfolk); the story of Morris’s friend Timothy who he met in Edinburgh whilst at university and who he runs into again briefly in London (wonder if Benson was looking to cast Timothy as the wanderer archetype?) and the story of Morris’s relationship with his father who happens to be a clergyman and so that covers that motif. The book features flashbacks heavily—essentially the whole novel is a flashback and so we have flashbacks within a flashback—and although they flesh out the character of Morris they also serve to disguise a rather thin main plotline which might bother some readers; me, I think plot’s overrated.

There’s no magic in the book—nothing supernatural at all—although there are a few dreams. It mixes elements of the classic gothic horror with historical romances, the psychological thriller and also the bildungsroman because our hero does a lot of growing up in these 269 pages.

The novel is prefaced by a quote:

We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. – 1 Corinthians 15:51

It is a recurring theme throughout the book:

[W]hat are our lies and imaginings? Is one the lie of the idea that you can never change? The lie of a father’s religious truth? The lie of one man’s myths? And are the imaginings telling of a sweet and perfect love, one moored to a solid stone quay? One with sweet voices in the morning and the smell of woodsmoke drifting in still air?

There are a lot of questions in the book; more questions than I think I’ve ever read in a novel and most unanswered. The quote above comes from a whole page filled with questions. Inevitably Morris is changed by what happens to him and what he has to do. At the end of the book he writes:

I am different now, changed. I do not imagine I am clever, and I do not think I am pleased. When I remember things I have done and places I have known, I realize I was never true to them or true to myself. I spent too much time lost between what I thought made me happy and the ideas of happiness that were fed to me. But happiness only comes when you stop playing games and realize the only thing you have is your state of mind. This is all there is, nothing more.

I said this book was a gothic horror and a romance and a thriller but it’s also a literary novel. A lot of time is spent in introspection and this does slow down the action considerably as do the lengthy descriptions that Benson is famous for and, let’s give the man credit, damn good at; his descriptions of the house are nothing to write home about but once he gets into his element outside he comes into his own:

The moon was swollen, and its full light gave the land a flat, endless look. The wood was a rash across the side of the hill, and the tops of the trees gashed the skyline. The cats were prowling and ran from me as I crossed the drive and jumped the gate into the orchard, and then I was under the apple trees and past the chicken coop. The hens scratched and rustled their wings. A fox was near. I smelt it and as I turned my nose to the scent, I heard a howl.

I’m not a big fan of long (or even short) descriptive passages but I do like introspection and I suppose before everything else I’ve just mentioned this book is first and foremost a character study.

Structurally the novel’s a slow burner; it picks up towards the middle and we’re left to rake through the ashes at the end. It’s framed by a prologue and an epilogue and at first I thought there’d been a printing error because the epilogue reads so like the prologue:

Prologue: I wrote this story in a wooden house at the bottom of a thin garden. Turn your back on the sea, cross the lawn, walk past the bushes, the flower beds and the pond with the statue of a dog. Stop, take a deep breath and look.

Epilogue: I wrote this story in my low house at the bottom of a small garden. Turn your back on the marshes, cross the lawn, go past the trees and flowers, and the pond with the reeds and frogs.

This continues for a couple of pages. Of course they’re different but I found the technique quite compelling. You can read the entire prologue here. It really is interesting reading basically the same text a second time once you know what’s happened. Very clever. That said, I felt he said a little too much in the prologue and some of my assumptions proved right; I think I would’ve rather not had my head pointed in certain directions too soon.

rebeccaThe problem the novel has—although how much of a problem this will pose will depend on a) how well-read the reader is and b) how much they care about these things—is that it’s not one thing nor t’other: it’s not Frankenstein and it’s not Rebecca. Nor is it Jane Eyre (i.e. no madwoman in the attic) although I did think for a bit that it might head off in that direction. And it’s not Poe. I wouldn’t go as far as saying this is a pastiche—it rankled me when a reviewer referred to my novel Milligan and Murphy­ as a pasticheso I’m not going to do that to someone else, although a couple of other reviewers have. Benson tips his hat to everyone from Horace Walpole on but this book is very much his; the gothic is a skin that is shed by the end of the book and that’s only right and proper because this is a book about transformation. Love is what changes Morris but this is not the kind of love that one would expect had this novel been written at the time during which it’s set. I appreciated that. Love’s complex and too many novelists do it a disservice, attaching an on/off switch to it or making it some kind of panacea. Saving the girl shouldn’t guarantee getting the girl. I can say no more without spoiling the ending but if you’re looking for boy meets girl, saves girl, loses girl, saves girl properly this times and lives happily ever after with girl then think again. The literary device of the gothic novel was an interesting choice but it’s also a bit distracting and I know I wasn’t the only reader who went through ticking off the clichés as I read. On the whole I liked it though and actually think it might be a far better book than some reviewers have judged it; it just needs a second read wherein you’re not focusing on the plot.

This is the third book I’ve read by Peter Benson. I wasn’t crazy about Two Cows and a Vanful of Smoke but I could see he had something and so I volunteered to review The Levels when it was rereleased as an ebook; it was much better and so I was looking forward to Isabel’s Skin when I heard he had a new book coming out and would happily read him again.

There’s an interesting article on Benson in The Independent here. Apparently he’s busy writing the third in what he calls his "loose Ashbrittle trilogy". Can’t really see the scope for a series but you never know with writers; I killed off my protagonist at the end of my first novel and still managed a sequel with him in it.


.Photo©Andrew Baker in 1956, Peter Benson was educated in Ramsgate, Canterbury and Exeter. His first novel, The Levels (which I reviewed here), won the Guardian Fiction Prize. This was followed by A Lesser Dependency, winner of the Encore award and The Other Occupant, which was awarded the Somerset Maugham Award. He has also published short stories, screenplays and poetry, some adapted for TV and radio and many translated into other languages. His latest work is a play co-authored with Alessandro Gallenzi, The Two Friends, a theatrical retelling of Gogol’s famous story of the two Ivans squabbling over a trifling insult.

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