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Sunday 30 March 2014

Under the Skin

Under the Skin

Mulder: They're here, aren't they?
Deep Throat: Mr. Mulder, they've been here for a long long time.

I should’ve read this book a long time ago. I knew of it but didn’t know much about it. I didn’t know what it was about and really that’s the best way to approach this book so, if you’re willing to trust me, then read no further; find yourself a copy and read it before you even think about seeing the film. (I’ve just watched the trailer and as much as I admire Scarlett Johansson, this looks as if Jonathan Glazer's loose adaptation has about as much in common with Faber’s book as I, Robot had with Asimov’s short stories.) If, however, you’ve already had the surprise spoiled—as happened to me by accident—this is no reason not to read the book. I can’t imagine many people have sat down to watch Planet of the Apes and not had a pretty good idea what they were in for even if it was nothing like the book; scriptwriters can occasionally improve on the source material.

The first I heard about the novel was when Canongate brought out its run of Canons with their minimal covers (the film tie-in reprint has just been published). The blurb intrigued me:

Isserley spends most of her time driving along empty, winding Highland roads in her red Toyota. She is interested in hitchhikers—so long as they are male, well-muscled and alone. But once she has coaxed them into her car, what she does to them is truly astonishing. Meeting Isserley is only the beginning of their journey, and a gateway to a new world.

Cutting across different genres, Under the Skin is a wildly inventive, bold and beautifully written book that launched Michel Faber's international career and was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Book Award. And in Isserley, Faber created one of the most memorable and singular heroines of modern times.

but as I recall at the time I was spoiled for choice; I picked two others, The People of the Sea and Chronicle in Stone and pretty much forgot about Under the Skin. The next I heard of Faber was a television adaptation of his 2002 novel The Crimson Petal and the White which my wife and I watched but to be honest I wasn’t a huge fan and I’m glad the book never came my way; it would’ve been a chore to read. Looking at the reviews on Goodreads and Amazon of Under the Skin I see a lot of one-star reviews and a few of them state the reason was it wasn’t The Crimson Petal and the White and for those who loved that book I can see why Under the Skin might be a huge disappointment. All I can say is all credit to the man that he can pull off two such different books with aplomb because there are a lot of people who loved Under the Skin and I was one of them.

It’s not perfect. I know I say that a lot in reviews but if we only sought out perfect books we’d probably have them all read in a month and then what would we do? What it manages to be—despite the fact that it is derivative at times—is original. Some have likened this book to Animal Farm whilst others have objected strongly to the comparison but I can see both sides of the coin: just as Animal Farm is not a fairy tale, Under the Skin is not a science fiction novel but like Animal Farm it uses one story to tell another. Faber could’ve written a Scottish My Year of Meats to make his point with a lot less subtlety. Instead he wrote Under the Skin.

For me the book is fundamentally about understanding or the lack of and it’s not a new one. Blacks, gays, Jews, women, the mentally disabled: all these have (and continue to be) discriminated against as not fully human. I remember reading something in Clare Dudman’s 98 Reasons for Being how it was once believed that the mad couldn’t feel the cold and workers in asylums would think nothing of dumping their charges into ice-cold baths completely insensitive to their protestations. There are those who also believe that lobsters don’t feel anything when boiled alive despite the evidence to the contrary.

RestaurantAtTheEndOfTheUniverseThere’s a scene in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe where the diners are introduced (literally!) to the Dish of the Day:

"Good evening," it lowed and sat back heavily on its haunches, "I am the main Dish of the Day. May I interest you in parts of my body?" It harrumphed and gurgled a bit, wriggled its hind quarters into a more comfortable position and gazed peacefully at them. […] "Something off the shoulder perhaps?" suggested the animal, "Braised in a white wine sauce?"

How would we feel if our food was sentient and could communicate directly with us? Cannibals appear to have no problems with this but the rest of us do. The idea of eating another human being is completely alien to us which is why in science fiction one of the things aliens do is eat people. And mostly we view this literally but science fiction wasn’t always so literal. Look at what was produced in the fifties, all those Cold War stories. Just like fairy stories filled with anthropomorphic animals, science fiction novels packed with bug-eyed monsters are the perfect medium for getting us to look at things with fresh eyes. Which is why the cute variety of aliens are also effective, like Mork or ALF or Uncle Martin (from My Favourite Martian), all of whom see themselves as superior (at the very least technologically) to the humans they find themselves living amongst.

In science fiction humans come from Earth. Aliens sometimes call them Earthlings just as we might call the indigenous population of Mars Martians but what would the Martians call themselves? Would they regard themselves as humans and the inhabitants of Earth as aliens? What exactly does it mean to be human? Isserley certainly regards herself as human. She looks human, a short human female of slight build with thin arms and disproportionately-large breasts, breasts certainly large enough to distract the attention of the exclusively male hitchhikers she routinely stops for along the A90; if they looked a little closer at her they might start to think that maybe she wasn’t quite as perfect as she first appeared:

He could not see her face when she was looking ahead, which was a pity. It had been very remarkable. She wore the thickest corrective lenses he had ever seen. In Germany, he doubted that a person with such severe visual impairment would be approved for a driver’s licence. Her posture was, in his opinion, suggestive of some spinal problem. Her hands were large and yet unusually narrow. The skin on the edge of her hand, along her pinkie and down to the wrist, had a horny smoothness that was texturally quite different from the rest, suggesting scar tissue following surgery. Her breasts were perfect, flawless; perhaps they, too, were the product of surgery.

She was turning towards him now. Mouth-breathing, as if her perfectly sculpted little nose had indeed been sculpted by a plastic surgeon and had proved to be too small for her needs. Her magnified eyes were a little bloodshot with tiredness, but startlingly beautiful, in his opinion. The irises were hazel and green, glowing like … like illuminated microscope slides of some exotic bacterial culture.


She was tough, that was for sure. Probably had been through hell, growing up funny-looking in one of those little seaboard villages. Balintore. Hilton. Rockfield. No, not Rockfield. He knew every single person in Rockfield.

How old was she? Eighteen, maybe. Her hands were forty. She drove like she was pulling a wonky trailer-load of hay over a narrow bridge. Sat like she had a rod up her arse. Any shorter and she’d need a couple of pillows on the seat. Maybe he’d suggest that to her—maybe she’d bite his head off if he did.

Daybreakers_ver2In science fiction terms the core of Under the Skin has been done before: V, Quatermass (the 1979 serial), Torchwood: Children of Earth, Daybreakers—humans as product. Of course if you look at these four examples they’re all different and so is Under the Skin. To say more would spoil the book but we’re faced here with us being the aliens: virtually the whole book is written from the perspective of the … well, we never find out what they call themselves other than ‘human’ because, as far as they’re concerned, they’re the humans; they call the indigenous population vodsels.

In the fifties all aliens are evil and out to destroy us. Well, apart from maybe Klaatu. Later on the notion of aliens with principles started to find an audience and that’s what we have here. More than any other of her kind Isserley has the most direct contact with the vodsels; she has to interact with them, buy petrol from them, offer them lifts and make conversation with them because not every hitchhiker is suitable for their purposes. She’s like a serial killer—in fact for a while one might be forgiven for thinking that’s exactly what she is but that’s Faber doing his best to misdirect his readership in the early pages of the book—she’s very selective and often will abandon the men at the agreed upon drop-off point rather than risk doing anything that might draw the authorities’ attention to her true purpose.

She spends hours and hours driving every day:

Isserley had been doing this for years. Scarcely a day went by when she didn’t drive her battered red Toyota Corolla to the A9 and start cruising. Even when she’d had a run of successful encounters and her self-esteem was high, she’d worry that the last hitcher she’d picked up might prove, with hindsight, to be her last truly satisfactory one: perhaps no-one in the future would measure up.

In truth, there was for Isserley an addictive thrill about the challenge. She could have some magnificent brute sitting in her car, right next to her, knowing for sure that he was coming home with her, and she could already be thinking ahead to the next one. Even while she was admiring him, following the curves of his brawny shoulders or the swell of his chest under his T-shirt, savouring the thought of how superb he’d be once he was naked, she would keep one eye on the roadside, just in case an even better prospect was beckoning to her out there.


She tried to project herself forward in time, visualizing herself already parked somewhere with a hunky young hitch-hiker sitting next to her; she imagined herself breathing heavily against him as she smoothed his hair and grasped him round the waist to ease him into position.

Maybe it’s all about sex. She like a praying mantis. (Did you catch the ‘biting his head off’ reference?) Maybe that’s why she’s only interested in the males—she’s ‘cruising’ (definite double-meaning there) and imagining men naked—and this wouldn’t be the first science fiction story where the aliens have come to earth to have sex with us although it’s usually the males who want our women (e.g. Mars Needs Women).

Of course Faber drip-feeds us clues and within a couple of chapters you’ll be dismissing some of your early ideas. And by the time you’re a third way through the book you’ll definitely know what’s what. So what’re we in store for in the rest of the book? Are the police going to close in? Is some secret government alien hunter going to appear and go all Schwarzenegger on them? Actually, no. What happens is the boss’s son, Amlis Vess, appears and it turns out he’s a bit of a tree-hugger, at least that’s what he might’ve been on his home planet if the trees were worth hugging. At one point he says:

‘[E]ven though it was pitch dark, I saw … what looked like … trees, except absolutely enormous, taller than this building.’ His plummy accent was pitiable now; he was like a child, trying to sum up the grandeur of the universe in the stilted language of the playpen.

He doesn’t much approve of the family business and sets his sights on Isserley. Maybe he doesn’t have enough clout to close down the mine but maybe he can blunt the drill bit at the coalface.

Isserley is a bit of a loner though although she’s not entirely immune to his charms. Her job demands it and her job is her life. What life she once had has been sacrificed to enable her to do her job so she might as well glean what satisfaction she can from it. There’s no going back. Would she even want to go back? She’d been saved from a life in the Estates. Tough choice. Of course picking up hitchhikers can be problematic especially if you’re a single female and the men whose company you prefer could snap you in half like a twig. But needs must. And rationalisation is a terrible thing:

The thing about vodsels was, people who knew nothing whatsoever about them were apt to misunderstand them terribly. There was always the tendency to anthropomorphize. A vodsel might do something which resembled a human action; it might make a sound analogous with human distress, or make a gesture analogous with human supplication, and that made the ignorant observer jump to conclusions.

In the end, though, vodsels couldn’t do any of the things that really defined a human being. They couldn’t siuwil, they couldn’t mesnishtil, they had no concept of slan. In their brutishness, they’d never evolved to use hunshur; their communities were so rudimentary that hississins did not exist; nor did these creatures seem to see any need for chail, or even chailsinn.

And, when you looked into their glazed little eyes, you could understand why.

She could be an explorer in deepest Africa or the Amazon talking about some tribe: the Pirahã have no concept of a supreme spirit or god; the Amondawa people have no concept of time or age; the Nukak have no concept of money, of property, of the role of government, or even of the existence of a country called Colombia. Or she could be a Nazi talking about the Untermenschen—the sub-human Jews. Maybe the inhabitants of planet Earth are primitive compared to Isserley’s people. Does that mean they have no rights? Does that mean they’re not also human?

So is Under the Skin an allegory, a satire, a darkly comic sci-fi or a work of metaphysics? There’s no reason why it can’t be all of these but asking a book to succeed at all of these is a tall order and it does run out of steam a bit towards the ending which was probably inevitable even if by the end of the book I’d completely Never_Let_Me_Goforgotten about the aviir, whatever the hell aviir is. Oddly enough as I write this I’m reminded of Never Let Me Go where, again, the issue is the nature of humanity: Do clones have souls? Are they real humans? It’s also a book that refuses to fall neatly into a single genre and has a fairly inevitable ending.

Is it a bit preachy? Without a doubt. That said some people still drag themselves out of bed of a Sunday morning and deliberately go to a building to get preached at. Preachy isn’t necessarily bad. And the best kind of preachers are those whose message is one that many people in different situations can apply to themselves. Faber’s sermonising’s not new. We’ve lived on this planet long enough that someone at some time has come up with every moral that could possibly end any story but the trick for modern day evangelists (or didactic novelists) is to reinvent the wheel, to make the blindingly-obvious seem like something new. And Faber has a good crack at that.

I will watch the film when it comes out. I never saw Sexy Beast but I quite enjoyed Birth and I do appreciate a filmmaker who takes his time over projects. You can read a review of it here which also includes the trailer and an interview with Johansson.

You can read an excerpt from the book here.

Once you’ve read the book might I also suggest having a look at 'It is a Question of Words, Therefore': Becoming-Animal in Michel Faber's Under the Skin by Sarah Dillon (Science Fiction Studies 38:1 (2011), 134-54)?


michelfaberMICHEL FABER has written several other books, including the highly acclaimed The Crimson Petal and the White and The Fahrenheit Twins . The Apple, based on characters in The Crimson Petal and the White, was published in 2006. He has also written two novellas, The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps (2001) and The Courage Consort (2002), and has won several short-story awards, including the Neil Gunn, Ian St James and Macallan. Born in Holland, brought up in Australia, he now lives in the Scottish Highlands.

You can read an interview with him here.


Sunday 23 March 2014

The First True Lie

The First True Lie
They always say that you shouldn’t tell lies, but without lies I’d already be in an orphanage – Marina Mander, The First True Lie

I’ve a problem with books narrated by young children and I’ve read a few now: I never truly believe that it’s a child that’s talking even when, as Mander does, the author goes out of his or her way to point out that their narrator is intelligent. In Luca’s case we have the word of his mother:

Mama says it’s because I was born at seven months, and seven-month babies are more intelligent.

and his teacher:

Luca displays self-confidence and a lively disposition. He is endowed with considerable intelligence and a sense of responsibility. The pupil succeeds in all subjects. He consistently applies himself, and the results are excellent. He has demonstrated a good deal of interest and ability in artistic activities and a notable interest in science and history. Kindhearted and generous, he does all he can for his classmates and is full of initiative.

We’re never told exactly how old he is but from the way other adults treat him and his physical limitations—“I’ve never been able to reach so high, above the fridge, except with the chair”—I don’t think he’s older than seven:

On the kitchen door frame you can still see the notches where Mama marked how much I’d grown: two years, three years, six years…She always makes me stand against the same wall and act serious, while she puckers her lips in a stern, professional way.

Luca lives with his mother—his father vanished years ago (he thinks of himself as a “half orphan”)—and their cat, Blue; “We called him Blue because of his breed and also because Mama loves the blues.” His mother is lonely, always on the lookout for a man but never seems to find the right one and can’t hang on to those she does manage to hook up with. She clearly loves her son but he does appear to be a handful. He’s clever, possibly precocious, but he’s still a little boy and all little boys are handfuls:

        Adults like to use words like in-laws, power steering, expenses, colleague, mortgage, sciatica, and nostalgia, and especially words that end in gy, like psychology, energy, strategy, and allergy.
        Mama suffers from all the gys put together.
        She says that psychology’s no use to her, that no matter how much she sleeps she has no energy, that she has nostalgia for a time when a man was a man but all the same you need a strategy to find him or else to make more money, that with the pollen every year her allergies just explode, and that the vaccines aren’t worth a damn.
        As for me, I’m vaccinated against all this.
        Mama complains constantly, and sometimes it’s sad. But what’s strange is that when she’s truly sad, she stops complaining. She just drifts around the apartment, superslow and without saying a word, like a pouty angel.

She sounds depressed. She probably is depressed. She takes pills to help her sleep:

        When Mama has nightmares, she says it’s not even possible to sleep in peace in this world, and that’s what I think too. Other times she says the pills have stolen her dreams, that sleep is just an inky-black nothingness, and she wakes up confused and doesn’t know which way is up. Sometimes she makes coffee without putting in the water, or else the coffee.
         “Don’t talk to me, don’t ask me for anything. I don’t know anything about anything this morning.”

And then one winter’s morning she doesn’t wake up. So what does Luca decide to do? Such is his phobia of becoming a fully-fledged orphan—being “a half orphan” is bad enough—he decides (using a child’s logic, of course)—that the best thing he can do is continue as normal. He gets dressed and goes to school. He feeds himself and the cat. He even bathes. At first he’s not a hundred percent certain that she is dead (although he’s pretty certain even from the very start) but when he comes home that first night and finds her still where he left her it’s pretty obvious but for the next couple of days he clings onto the hope that she might still recover from whatever has stricken her. Once, however, she begins to smell he has to resign himself to the inevitable. Which is him living on his own with the cat and taking care of himself. He knows where to find the code to her cash card and how to keep under the radar—little boys can become invisible when they set their minds to it—and that seems to solve most of his problems. Until the clean clothes start running out.

The Cement GardenChildren left to their own devices following the death of a parent has been dealt with before—Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden (although the children were older) jumps to mind—but having Luca fend for himself (he doesn’t even confide in a schoolmate) does provide an interesting perspective. He’s a thoughtful and insightful wee boy although I wasn’t convinced that the scope of his knowledge could be as broad as it comes across no matter how clever he is. He’s bright but no genius. His world experiences feel a bit too wide, his vocabulary a tad too expansive and his insights a little too deep. And then he lets the side down and pees himself. A lot of what happens to Luca is believable. That his mother’s best friend, Giulia, just happens to phone up and say she’s going on vacation for a few weeks is terribly convenient but what the heck. Stranger things have happened at sea.

Manders is not the first author to have a very young child as a first-person narrator. The book most people will think of in this regard is Emma Donoghue’s Room although there are others—In Search of Adam by Caroline Smailes and What I Did by Christopher Wakling (both have six-year-old narrators)—but the book I was most familiar with was The Way the Family Got Away by Michael Kimball who has two very young children as the narrators; no ages are mentioned but I would guess five and three and the action mostly takes place in the back of a car. Most recently I read Jessica Bell’s novella The Book and in my review I talked at length about the problems facing authors who choose to have very young characters take centre stage in their novels. None of these succeed completely in my opinion, not that I think I could do better. Far from it. And that perhaps is part of my problem here in that I’m almost fifty years removed from being a six-year-old boy. I really can’t remember what concepts I had a firm grasp of back then and I was a bright kid. I recently listened to some reel-to-reel tapes my dad recorded in the sixties and I have to say I was shocked to hear how childish I came across as at six and, as I’ve said, I was not a stupid child. But I clearly was still very much a child.

Fear can be a powerful motivator though and really at its core that’s what this novella is about, more than loss or grief or blame: Luca’s paralysing fear of being sent to an orphanage:

        If Mama is dead, I can’t tell anyone. If I tell, they’ll take me to the orphanage.
        This is terrible.
        I don’t want to go.
        I don’t want to be a complete orphan.
        Anything else would be better.
        Better to say that Mama’s left.
        Or else say nothing and act like it doesn’t matter.
        Better to find a way to make do. It can’t be that difficult. Better to try to survive.
        Better to keep it a secret and smile.

Of course we know he won’t be able to keep it up forever although he manages longer than I expected. And then a knock comes on the door. And the book ends. This was a big problem with a number of reviewers. We don’t find out what happens Lord of the Fliesto Luca. Does he get sent to an orphanage? Does he end up in foster care or even adopted? Leaving things on a cliffhanger is an okay way to end things but even a short coda set six months or a year or two later would’ve clearly been appreciated by some. In her defence Lord of the Flies just ends. Adults arrive on the island and we realise the boys are going to be rescued and some of them will probably be in therapy for years but Lord of the Flies is not real life; it’s a novel and novels have to end somewhere even though there will always be more to tell. That’s why we have sequels and Luca’s an interesting enough character to tempt an author into writing a sequel but I suspect she’ll be wise enough to leave him where she leaves him. Of what there is to the book, though, I have to say I was kept entertained. Luca’s a wee charmer and it’s impossible not to root for him. Not quite sure in what way I wanted him to succeed—surely not to get away with his subterfuge for years on end—but we Brits do have a soft spot for underdogs.

Despite my reservations there’s a lot good about this book. The boy works hard to keep his mother alive in his memories whilst struggling with… I suppose you’d call it survivor’s guilt; if only he’d made her happier none of this would’ve happened. I would’ve liked to know exactly how old Luca is supposed to be because I did get hung up on that and I wasn’t the only one. A couple of reviewers said he’s a ten-year-old—but I can find nothing to back that up—and then one still says, “I just could not accept that a ten yr. old (and I have a very bright ten yr. old grandson) would act or figure out a few of the things he did.” To my mind you need to put that to the side. He’s realistic. He doesn’t need to be real. We get the idea. In that respect the character of Luca is not a child, he’s a child-shaped vehicle for adults to inhabit for a hundred and fifty pages or so and by making him brighter and more insightful than he probably would’ve been in real life he becomes a more comfortable proxy for us.

The book is sad though—how could it not be sad? I defy anyone not to get even a little choked up when Luca celebrates his mother’s birthday—but I didn’t find it depressing like some, harrowing or jarring. Luca’s a survivor. Maybe that’s why we really don’t need to know where he ends up because we know whatever life throws at him after this he’ll survive it. Even an orphanage.

You can read an excerpt from the book here.


ManderMarina Mander was born in Trieste in 1962 and received a degree in contemporary literature at the University of Venice. Today she lives in Milan and works with a number of magazines and newspapers including Il Piccolo. Her books include the story collection Manuale d'ipocondria fantastic (A Fantastical Manual of Hypochondria) and Catalog degli addii (A Catalogue of Farewells) illustrated with drawings by Beppe Giacobbe. The First True Lie is her first book to be translated into English. Her new Italian novel is entitled Nessundorma.

Sunday 16 March 2014

Are you a virtual litter lout?


Say what you have to say and get off the page – Me.

I’ve been writing for forty years. Longer actually. That’s a long time. I could tote up how many novels, novellas, short stories, flash fictions, poems, plays, children’s books, songs, blogs and essays I’ve written and if I did—I’m not going to—it would not be a figure to be embarrassed about. It would be more than a great many great writers. In fact I’m often taken aback when I look up such-and-such and find he’s only published, I dunno, three novels or something. What’s he been doing with his life? I don’t write a lot these days. Last year I only completed eight poems and (surprisingly) a novella but that was it. So far this year I’ve written a single poem. It’s a good poem. But it’s still only one poem. Maybe by the time I get round to posting this I’ll have written a second.

And then I go online and listen to what everyone else is doing and people are doing SO MUCH STUFF and it’s… well, it’s depressing. That I’m easily depressed doesn’t help but that’s life. And that’s the thing about depression, being around happy people is, well… it actually can drag one down even further. For the record I’m not depressed. At least I’m not depressed-with-a-capital-d. Not at the moment. But I have been. And it is not fun. Some people run hot, some cold. Most people looking at me would think I’m a bit down in the dumps but I’m not. I’m normal for me. But I do wish that people wouldn’t go on so much about what and how they’re doing.

I’ve mixed feelings about the Internet. In principle I’m in favour of it. It has many positive and time-saving features. I can write an article and have it out there for the world to see in minutes. Scary really. I don’t work that way. I write my articles, send them to my wife to edit them in case I’ve said something politically incorrect (which I have nearly done on several occasions)—“Jimmy, you can’t say that?” “Why not? It’s true.” “You just can’t say that. Not that way.”—and I’m grateful to her plus she fixes my many (sometimes many, many) typos and brain farts. And then I usually sit on the damn thing for weeks so that by the time I get round to posting it I’ve forgotten what the hell I was on about in the first place. That’s the good thing about the Internet.

The bad thing is all the other people. I don’t really get this social thing. I’m on Facebook and Twitter and I do endeavour to participate but I don’t really get them. My personal view of them is that their core function (for me at least) is a way of reminding people I’m not dead. Because I don’t have much to say and what I do have to say I tend to reserve for blogs like this or if it’s really important then I’ll write a book or something. I don’t find there’s that much important going on right now. Not to me. I listen to the news on the good ol’ BBC and I know there’s stuff going on that matters, that should matter but I find I don’t have anything to add that wouldn’t get lost in the morass of comment that already exists and then again who cares what I have to say?

My opinions on the things I care about are known. Most other things I don’t pay enough attention to to have an opinion. Most of what I’ll ever have to say has been said already. If not by me then by people cleverer and far more articulate than I’ll ever be. I have bits and pieces lying all over the flat, half-finished poems and beginnings to novels (I’ve got three of those at least) but I can usually tell pretty quickly that they don’t need to be finished. Mostly I can tell before things need to be started. Which makes me wonder: What’s all this stuff that other people feel they desperately need to say? I wonder how many other writers ask themselves that question before they put pen to paper or open up a new Word document. In 2012, according to The Booksellers Association—the last year figures are available for—there were 75,000 paperbacks published and 58,000 e-books in the UK alone—and I really would like to know how many of those books needed to be written. No, let me correct that. How many needed to be published. People write books for all sorts of reasons and then they do the right thing and stick them in a drawer and forget about them.

I’m wondering now if I need to write this. I’m not saying anything radical. We all know there’re not enough hours in the day to do the things we have to do including read the books we want to read let alone write the books we need to write. Maybe now I’ve got this out of my system I’ll just delete this file and go and watch some mindless TV. But I won’t. Even as I’m typing this I know I’m going to post it. I need to post it. I’m expected to post it. I committed to posting regularly. People would worry if I didn’t post. Because Jimmy always posts on schedule. Because that’s the kind of bloke he is. They’d start dropping me e-mails asking if Carrie was poorly.

(Just as an aside that’s what happened the day my dad had his first heart attack. One of his workmates—Dad only worked over the hill—walked over, knocked on the kitchen door and said, and I remember his words so clearly, “Jimmy, your dad’s not at work. Is your mum all right?” My dad was like me—well, the other way round—he was dependable and I take pride in being too.)

But do I need to post this? We’re all about being green these days. Click on this link. Go on. It’s a link to a site called worldometers. And you can watch, live, how many blogs are being posted this very second. Around the world an estimated 2.73 million posts are written every day on average. I doubt that much litter’s dropped in a day. (Actually I checked: 2.25 million pieces of litter are dropped in the UK alone! So I’m way off. But you get my point.)

earthhourparodyTalking about being green, you might’ve heard of Earth Hour. Earth Hour’s a worldwide grass-roots movement for the planet organized by the World Wide Fund. The event’s held worldwide towards the end of March annually encouraging individuals, communities, households and businesses to turn off their non-essential lights for one hour as a symbol for their commitment to the planet. Does it make a difference? The Earth Hour Global FAQ page states:

Earth Hour does not purport to be an energy/carbon reduction exercise, it is a symbolic action. Therefore, we do not engage in the measurement of energy/carbon reduction levels for the hour itself. Earth Hour is an initiative to encourage individuals, businesses and governments around the world to take accountability for their ecological footprint and engage in dialogue and resource exchange that provides real solutions to our environmental challenges. Participation in Earth Hour symbolises a commitment to change beyond the hour.

What do you think would happen if we all boycotted Facebook for a day or skipped one blog a year? Probably nothing. It’s probably way too late anyway for empty gestures anyway.

There used to be a TV programme back in the seventies (although, on checking, it seems it ran right through to 1995) called Why Don't You Just Switch Off Your Television Set and Go and Do Something Less Boring Instead? Do I really need to explain what the premise of the show? Someone should start a podcast: Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Computer and Go and Do Something Meaningful Instead? I wish I could. I wish I could do more meaningful things. It’s not enough to do less boring things. It shouldn’t be enough anyway.

Of course I’m oversimplifying. But it’s something to think about. And I think it was worth writing about too.

Sunday 9 March 2014

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes


“I am inclined to think— ” said I.
“I should do so,” Sherlock Holmes remarked impatiently.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Valley of Fear

I have to be careful what I say here because Watsonian thinkers like me and—unless you’re Sherlock Holmes—you will be prone to jump to the all the wrong conclusions. Is it sunny where you are? Or raining? Have you just been for a long walk in the country or had a bath? It all counts you know. If there’s one single thing I came away with from this book is that we’re incredibly untrustworthy creatures. Even when we’ve seen things with our own eyes. Do you realise just how little your eyes actually see? “Strange how the brain controls the brain!” mused Holmes in the short story 'The Adventure of the Dying Detective'.

I suppose I should’ve applied the Holmesian method when approaching reading this book but I’m afraid I made up my mind about it within a few seconds. Some of my initial impressions proved to be right but I’ve no reason to pat myself on the back; even lucky guesses can be right every now and again. My initial opinions were heavily influenced by Canongate’s marketing and art departments. They presented a book to me that had a cartoon on the cover and a fun title. It wasn’t called something like Grounding Cognition: The Role of Perception and Action in Memory, Language and Thinking (yes, it’s a real book); it was called Mastermind. The author graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, where she studied psychology, creative writing, and government but there are no letters after her name or the cover, perhaps to make her seem more approachable. The real clincher was the subtitle because surely no one would write a heavyweight treatise around a fictional detective. This was popular science, science for the rest of us, probably of more appeal to the Holmes fan than anyone with a serious interest in the human mind. I wouldn’t have been surprised to discover—which I did later on—that the book began life as a series of blogs for Big Think.

On reading the book I was proved right. The book’s heavy on the Holmes, not so heavy on the science, and, rather than use Holmes to illustrate the science, it does tend to use the science to explain how Holmes works (and Watson doesn’t), all of which makes it a very entertaining read, although the author can actually be (bearing in mind the book’s only about 250 pages long) a bit long-winded at times; she tends to make her point and then underscore it a couple of times when once would suffice. Some of the material was familiar to me and as I don’t read a great many nonfiction books I can only assume that it was from my recent reading of Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. The book is, however, under no delusions it’s more than what it is and at the end of the book there’s a Recommended Reading List where those whose interests have been piqued can shoot off and bury their heads in weightier tomes.

Holmes was not real. Just saying. I’m sure there’re people out there who think he was. And that King Arthur was too. Holmes was, however, based on a real person, two actually according to Konnikova:

Holmes’s very name speaks at once of an intent beyond a simple detective of the old-fashioned sort: it is very likely that Conan Doyle chose it as a deliberate tribute to one of his childhood idols, the philosopher-doctor Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., a figure known as much for his writing as for his contributions to medical practice. The detective’s character, in turn, was modelled after another mentor, Dr. Joseph Bell, a surgeon known for his powers of close observation. It was said that Dr. Bell could tell from a single glance that a patient was a recently discharged noncommissioned officer in a Highland regiment, who had just returned from service in Barbados, and that he tested routinely his students’ own powers of perception with methods that included self-experimentation with various noxious substances.

And, of course, we shouldn’t discount Doyle himself who applied similar deductive reasoning in real life to secure the release of George Edalji who’d been sentenced to seven years of hard labour for supposedly mutilating a pony. Holmes is an ideal, a freak even, and as the author points out a man who has trained himself over decades to think in a decidedly unnatural way. Like everyone else he was born a Watson but chose to transform himself into a Holmes. (Not actually sure where Mycroft—Sherlock’s smarter brother—fits into any of this because he’s never mentioned.)

O'BrienOn checking James O’Brien’s book The Scientific Sherlock Holmes it does seem, however, that there were others who also may have been an influence like Sir Henry Littlejohn who was one of Doyle’s medical school instructors. In addition to lecturing at the medical school, he was Police Surgeon in Edinburgh. A forensic expert, he frequently served as an expert witness at trials. And one mustn’t forget the writer Edgar Allan Poe:

[W]hile Doyle may have wanted to compliment his old mentors Bell and Littlejohn by naming them as models for Sherlock, it was Poe who influenced Doyle most when he took up his pen to become a writer. – James O’Brien, The Scientific Sherlock Holmes, p.15 (the link contains a lengthy excerpt from the book)

O’Brien provides several examples to substantiate his claim. I cite this only to show that Konnikova isn’t always as thorough as she might be in providing evidence to back up her claims.

[O]ur minds aren’t meant to think like Holmes by default. But on the other hand, new thought habits can be learned and applied. Our brains are remarkably adept at learning new ways of thinking—and our neural connections are remarkably flexible, even into old age.

I’m not actually sure I’d want to become a Holmes but I think it is helpful to understand what it means to be a Watson. In this respect the book provides us with some surprising—and disappointing—truths about ourselves. For example:

When we think as a matter of course, our minds are preset to accept whatever it is that comes to them. First we believe, and only then do we question. Put differently, it’s like our brains initially see the world as a true/false exam where the default answer is always true. And while it takes no effort whatsoever to remain in true mode, a switch of answer to false requires vigilance, time, and energy.

Why is it so hard to pay attention?

[O]ur minds are made to wander. That is their resting state. Anything more requires an act of conscious will.

And as for multi-tasking?

The modern emphasis on multitasking plays into our natural tendencies quite well, often in frustrating ways. Every new input, every new demand that we place on our attention is like a possible predator: Oooh, says the brain. Maybe I should pay attention to that instead. And then along comes something else. We can feed our mind wandering ad infinitum. The result? We pay attention to everything and nothing as a matter of course. 

How’s your eyesight? Fine, you say. Think again:

Our vision is highly selective as is—the retina normally captures about ten billion bits per second of visual information, but only ten thousand bits actually make it to the first layer of the visual cortex, and, to top it off, only 10 percent of the area’s synapses is dedicated to incoming visual information at all. Or, to put it differently, our brains are bombarded by something like eleven million pieces of data—that is, items in our surroundings that come at all of our senses—at once. Of that, we are able to consciously process only about forty. 

I could go on. And, indeed, the book does. Plenty of scientists are referred to along the way. To illustrate that first point about us always believing the first thing we hear (which my wife insists she does not) the author references Daniel Gilbert a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University:

Psychologist Daniel Gilbert describes it this way: our brains must believe something in order to process it, if only for a split second. Imagine I tell you to think of pink elephants. You obviously know that pink elephants don’t actually exist. But when you read the phrase, you just for a moment had to picture a pink elephant in your head. In order to realize that it couldn’t exist, you had to believe for a second that it did exist.

I’m not saying she’s wrong but I couldn’t find out exactly where Gilbert makes this assertion. But, of course, we Watsons don’t mind. If she says it’s true then it will be. People don’t make up stuff, do they? (Actually Jonah Lehrer did but none of the scientific reviewers I’ve read have suggested such a thing with regards to Konnikova.)

Holmes’s technique is an approach born out of the scientific method so a more serious consideration of the material might’ve been entitled How to Think Like a Scientist (Author Chad Orzel is currently writing such a book) and Konnikova does take us through what would be required of us to modify our thinking in that way. On ScienceBlogs Orzel explains the scientific method as follows:

Stripped to its essentials, science is a four-step process: you look at something interesting in the world, you think about why it might work that way, you test your idea with further observations and experiments, and you tell everybody you know what you found.

Holmes no doubt would chide him for that loose definition. To take the first point: we look at things all the time but do we truly observe them? It’s not enough to look; we have to look with intent:

        The steps to 221B Baker Street. How many were there? It’s the question Holmes brought before Watson in ‘A Scandal in Bohemia…’ As Holmes and Watson sit in their matching armchairs, the detective instructs the doctor on the difference between seeing and observing. Watson is baffled. And then, all at once everything becomes crystal clear.
         “When I hear you give your reasons,” [Watson] remarked, “the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning, I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe that my eyes are as good as yours.”
         “Quite so,” [Holmes] answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”
         “How often?”
         “Well, some hundreds of times.”
         “Then how many are there?”
         “How many? I don’t know.”
         “Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”

Of course only being able to see forty bits of information per second doesn’t help. Or am I making excuses for Watson? (This from the man who lived in a flat for several years and never noticed there were butterflies on his curtains.)

Really what Konnikova does in this book—and does reasonably well—is take all the advice that Holmes gives Watson and backs it up with science. She explains why Watson—our reliable proxy—is the way he is and how far he/we would have to go to shake off what’s become second nature to us. There’s precious little advice on how to stop being who we’ve been for decades and are very comfortable being. It’s not that kind of book and so in that respect the title is a little misleading but we don’t care; we were entertained for a few hours and we’re happy with that plus we’ve learned that we’re prone to priming, stereotyping, confirmation bias, the conjunction fallacy, probabilistic incoherence and the default effect… to name just a few. It’s scary really. In layman’s terms we need to think twice before doing anything basically. Including, apparently, thinking. And do look twice before you cross the road.

fairyI particularly enjoyed the chapter on the Cottingley Fairies. Today we see these photos for exactly what they are but what’s so amazing is how easily Doyle was duped. The answer is a simple enough one: he wanted them to be true. When our brains have that obstacle to overcome no amount of evidence will even be enough and to be fair to Doyle he did try to be scientific.

And have we come that much further today? In the United States, as of 2004, 78 percent of people believed in angels.

Oddly enough I don’t find it so odd that people might believe in angels—no doubt my religious upbringing has much to do with that—but fairies? Nah.

I’ll leave you with a wee video where Konnikova talks about the book and covers all the stuff I never got round to talking about above. Actually she does a pretty good job of summarising the whole book in nineteen minutes:


KonnikovaMaria Konnikova is a writer living in New York City, where she works on an assortment of non-fiction and fiction. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University, where she studied psychology, creative writing, and government, and is currently a doctoral candidate in Psychology at Columbia University. Before returning to school, she worked as a producer for the Charlie Rose show on PBS. Her writing has appeared online and in print in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, Slate, The New Republic, The Paris Review, The Wall Street Journal, Salon, The Boston Globe, The Observer, Scientific American MIND, WIRED, and Scientific American, among numerous other publications. Maria blogs regularly for The New Yorker and formerly wrote the Literally Psyched column for Scientific American and the popular psychology blog Artful Choice for Big Think

Most mornings, Maria can be found in a yoga studio. Most afternoons, she can be found writing, reading, or conducting definitive explorations into the workings of the human mind. She lives in the West Village with her husband. Her second book, on the psychology of the con, is scheduled for publication by Viking/Penguin in the winter.

Sunday 2 March 2014

The Crane Wife

The Crane Wife

George was eight, and at eight the definition of normal is whatever is happening in front of you. – Patrick Ness, The Crane Wife

As I was going through this book I highlighted only a single passage:

Stories do not explain. They seem to, but all they provide is a starting point. A story never ends at the end. There is always after. And even within itself, even by saying that this version is the right one, it suggests other versions, versions that exist in parallel. No, a story is not an explanation, it is a net, a net through which the truth flows. The net catches some of the truth, but not all, never all, only enough so that we can live with the extraordinary without it killing us.

It’s an important passage. The book, as did another I read recently, reminded me of The Owl Service by Alan Garner. In Garner’s novel an old story is being constantly re-enacted (a story from the Welsh Mabinogion, specifically portions of the story of Math) and that’s pretty much what we have in The Crane Wife, a reliving of the Japanese folktale, ‘Tsuru no Ongaeshi’ (lit. crane's return of a favour):

The Crane’s Return of Favour

Injured craneOnce upon a time, there was a young man. He worked very hard in the field. But he was poor. One day, he found an injured crane. “Oh, what a sad thing!,” he said. He felt very sorry for the crane, so he decided to take care of it. He nursed the injured crane back to health, and it flew away.

One day in the night, a very beautiful young woman visited his house. “May I please stay here?” she asked. The young man was very surprised, but he said yes. They lived together and were very happy. One night, she said to him, “I am going in this room to work. Don’t open the door completely. Please don’t watch me.” He said OK and went to bed.

The next morning, she gave him a very beautiful cloth. “Please, sell this cloth,” she said. He sold it in town for a lot of money. At the market, everyone said, “How beautiful!” The young man started to become very rich. Every night, the young woman would return to the room, and every time, she would tell him “Don’t watch me!” She became very slender, so one night the young man went to check on her. He opened the door and gasped. There was a crane weaving its own feathers.

“Oh my gosh! You look completely different!” he said. “Sorry! Sorry!”

The crane replied, “I was the crane that you helped. I came to your house to repay you for your kindness. But you know the truth now, so we cannot live together anymore.”

The next morning, the crane flew away. And she never came back.

Stories from the Inaka

There are only (arguably) only seven plots but look how many variations of those exist! Stories, of course, are lies and fibbing is generally frowned upon in the real world but for some reason writers can get away with it again and again. The truth—the facts, if you like—is not important because the reader decides what any book’s truth is for him or her. In The Crane Wife, for example, George tells us about a car accident when he was eight-year-old boy living in America:

When George told this part of the story, he invariably found himself saying ‘This actually happened’ and ‘I’m not making this up’ because it seemed too cruel that the car that had run the red light and knocked into Roy and the bike and him should have been driven by an eighty-three-year-old lady who could barely see over the steering wheel.

Sadly, it was the truth. If George had ever learned her name, he’d long forgotten it, but he’d remembered that she was eighty-three, that she was barely taller than him or Roy, and that the words she kept repeating afterwards were, ‘Please don’t sue me. Please don’t sue me.’ For the dignity of old ladies everywhere, George often wished this part of the story hadn’t happened, but there you were, sometimes life didn’t oblige with appropriate variation.

He relates the story as he remembers it, from his perspective, having no other, but what he’s come to realise as he’s grown up is that that’s not the only version of the story available. He has his version of events. Everyone who was there on that day will have their equally valid version:

Did it matter? George thought perhaps it did, and not in terms of finding the truth or of any hope of discovering what really happened at any given moment. There were as many truths – overlapping, stewed together – as there were tellers. The truth mattered less than the story’s life. A story forgotten died. A story remembered not only lived, but grew.

Many years later in a garden in England George is provided with an opportunity to enter someone else’s story. It’s an old story (see the Wikipedia entry) but it gets replayed centuries later as always a little differently but at its core it remains the same. It begins in exactly the same manner as the original: a crane appears in his garden in need of assistance:

[T]here it stood. Alone in the middle of the modest stretch of grass that made up the modest back garden of his modest detached home.

A great white bird, as tall as he was, taller, willowy as a reed.

A reed made of stars, he thought.

Then, ‘A reed made of stars’? Where the hell did that come from?

The bird was illuminated only by the moon in the cold, clear winter sky, shades of white, grey and dark against the shadows of his lawn standing there regarding him, its eye a small, golden glint of blinking wet, level with his own, its body as long as he’d been when he was at his teenage gangliest. It looked somehow, he stupidly thought, as if it was on the verge of speaking, as if it would open its pointed, clipped bill and tell him something of vital importance that could only be learnt in a dream and forgotten on the instant of waking.

The bird’s been injured, shot through with an arrow, which George extracts from its wing somehow and the next thing he knows it’s flown off into the night.

Crane Wife

Ness’s method of storytelling is an interesting one—he jumps back and forth in time and changes perspective (when George’s daughter appeared immediately after Kumiko wanders into George’s shop I wondered what the hell was happening) but it’s a good way to hold the reader’s attention and to help him reassess what he thought he understood. At one point, for example, there’s a fire and Ness provides five different ways in which the fire could’ve started. My assumption is that the last one was what really happened but it doesn’t really matter; in alternate realities any of the five could’ve happened and the result would’ve been the same. I wrote in a poem once that I didn’t believe in destiny but I did in inevitability. I think that’s what we have a case of here: the set-up is similar, the people are similar and so the outcome will be similar. Close enough for government work as my wife is fond of saying.

One of the problems with folktales is that the characters are archetypes and there’s not much depth to them. Well art found its third dimension—just think of how flat the cave drawings were and even the clever Egyptians’ art still had no depth—and the same has happened with literature. We regard folk stories and fairy tales as primitive forms of storytelling. Nowadays we want character development. Just look at the recent films based on fairy tales. Bad though many of them have been they’re on the right track. And so is this book. George, his daughter, his grandson, their friends, families and exes are all real. The only really two-dimensional character is Kumiko. Because she’s straight out of a story. Not so different to Arnold Schwarzenegger bursting off the screen in Last Action Hero.

That Kumiko is the embodiment of the crane George rescues at the start of the book is no big surprise. That she might come with baggage was. Granted her back story is a folktale but it’s still her back story, a love affair with a volcano of all things. Of course the real world ending explains everything away as hallucinations; they’re easier to cope with than the fact magic might exist.

George is a nice guy. Literature is full of nice, decent blokes, the Arthur Dents of this world, who get caught up in extraordinary events and just get on with it in a very British sort of way (even if, as is the case here, they’re not actually British). They’re also really annoying. Not that George is perfect—we learn enough along the way to realise that George is human—but (and I recall this being true of the comedian Tony Hancock) people forgive him rather too easily. George’s assistant expresses this perfectly when he says:

‘It’s because you inspire loyalty. No one wants to let you down. Which, frankly, makes them all vaguely irritated with you most of the time – I know it does me – but they stick around because they want to be sure you’re all right.’ Mehmet shrugged. ‘You’re likeable. And if you like them, well, that means they’re really worth liking, doesn’t it?’

I think I might’ve liked George if he’d been just a bit more flawed. In that respect his foul-mouthed daughter is a far better character.

Not a hard read by any means but very much a story. You want to get to the end, you want to see what happens to everyone but if you forgot to read a couple of paragraphs on a page then you didn’t feel like you were missing anything really important. To dismiss the book as a beach read would be to do it a disservice; it’s better than that, but it could’ve been even better. I came away from it dissatisfied. It reminded me of numerous Star Trek episodes where a guest star appears to play someone’s love interest and they do fall in love, big time but for some mysterious reason they can’t be together. That always bugged the hell out of me. And the same here. There was no reason why things had to end the way they did. Stories can change. Romeo and Juliet don’t have to commit suicide at the end of the play.


Patrick NessPatrick Ness was born on Fort Belvoir army base, near Alexandria, Virginia in the United States where his father was a drill sergeant in the US Army. He then moved to Hawaii where he lived until he was six, then spent the next ten years in Washington State before moving to Los Angeles where he studied English Literature at the University of Southern California.

After graduating he worked as corporate writer for a cable company. He published his first story in Genre magazine in 1997 and was working on his first novel when he moved to London in 1999. Since then he’s published three children’s books, two adult novels and a collection of short stories. The Knife of Never Letting Go, his first novel for children, won numerous awards, including the Booktrust Teenage Prize, the Guardian Award, and the 2008 James Tiptree, Jr. Award. In January 2010 he won the 2009 Costa Book Award for the category children's book for The Ask and the Answer. Monsters of Men won the CILIP Carnegie Medal and was shortlisted for the 2011 Arthur C. Clarke Award.

He taught creative writing at Oxford University and has written and reviewed for The Daily Telegraph, The Times Literary Supplement, The Sunday Telegraph and The Guardian.

He has been a Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund and is currently first Writer in Residence for Booktrust.

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