I have just finished watching The Killing II. There won’t be any spoilers here; I’m not going to talk about individual plot twists and developments.

I’d heard this series was not as good as the first one, and I agree that it’s not quite as compelling. But that’s partly because it’s trying to do something different from the first series.

One of the things that made the first season so intense and gut-wrenching was the show’s strong focus on the effect of the crime on the victim’s family. The investigation followed both the police and the family in equal measure, taking us into highly emotional territory. The new series doesn’t do that – we see very little of the families of the victims – and it investigates a series of linked crimes rather than just one killing. It’s not about the emotional fall-out of a crime – although you could argue that it’s about a different kind of fall-out: the political fall-out known as blowback.

What it does share with the first series is a dazzling ability to keep twisting and turning; to keep setting up new prime suspects, episode after episode, and make each one believable and intriguing, so with each new episode you finally feel like you’re uncovering the real truth. But then the plot keeps turning, the discoveries keep coming, and what seemed so clear is unravelled, to be replaced by another, equally plausible explanation.

This is the show’s genius, and it’s what makes it so maddeningly compelling. There is never just one suspect, or one or two, who are eliminated one by one. The show’s action throws up one completely believable scenario after another, leading you ever deeper into the darkness.

If the latter half of the second season has been marked by a tendency for the investigating characters (Sarah Lund, and the Justice Minister, Thomas Buch) to lecture people about their responsibilities to their office, or the truth, which then prompts them, not entirely believably, to do the right thing and confess something, there are enough turns of the screw and surprises to make this series ultimately very compelling, in that “let’s watch just one more” kind of way.

Which leads me to a question for any crime fans out there. The Killing uses highly complex plotting designed to uncover one question: who is the perpetrator? In both series, this question is never conclusively resolved until the last episode, and the exploration of opportunity/character/motive, the spinning out of possible scenarios, is what makes it so exciting. But what if the perpetrator’s identity wasn’t a mystery until the end? Could you still make it suspenseful? I’m particularly thinking of TV here – novels can get away with that sort of thing.

But can you make a TV show about a crime compelling and exciting if the audience already knows whodunnit?


I love this post from Lindsay Zoladz about the world of music libraries. My day-job in advertising sometimes has me listening to music library tracks – and also new tracks commissioned from the composer we work with regularly. (Recent conversation: “it needs to be upbeat, but not so sparkly“). In it, she writes about the traditional divisions between art and commerce, and how they’re not always as clear-cut as you might think. She writes about music libraries and the artists who worked creating musical content for them. Muzak? Maybe. But also, oddly, a place where experimentation and creativity was possible.

Zoladz writes:

most people who want to spend their lives making music find a peculiar freedom in anonymity, and that they’d much prefer to hone their craft quietly, without the peculiar burdens of fame and superstardom.

“With library music, you can do what the hell you like,” Lee says. “You don’t have to have a fan-base, you’re not selling to a fan-base, you don’t have a career arc that people know about, nobody’s expecting your record to sound like the one you just did. You can do heavy-metal one day, hip-hop the next, and something orchestral the week after. It allows for a great deal of creative freedom from an artist.”

To me, this is the most radical aspect of library music, the way it completely confounds the things we take for granted about music and celebrity.

For me as a writer, I always dreamed about finding a little corner of the world exactly like this: a little groove you could work in, honing your craft, following your own artistic inclinations, making art, and pulling down a regular paycheck. No-one was going to know your name and you weren’t going to change the world. But you could carve out a little corner for yourself, doing exactly what you wanted to do, and still have the money to pay the rent. And the cool thing about that kind of job is that you still, hopefully, get to also make the grand statement-y things that might yet make you a household name. (I know it doesn’t always work out that way. But still.)

I also love the way Zoladz prods at her own discomfort with the idea of “selling out”, which, to be honest, I’ve never shared. The music industry is a different beast, I guess. But this piece is a fascinating spin on what art does and is for. Definitely worth checking out.

I am bored to death with superhero movies. I don’t have a store of cherished childhood memories of poring over X-Men and SpiderMan comics. So the repeated riffing on the old tropes and origin stories doesn’t hold any special thrill for me.

I don’t think superheroes work. Maybe they did once, back in the Golden Age, or the Silver Age. For me, the problem isn’t superheroes themselves: they are interesting, in a way, because they’re a way of representing some cool stuff we’re all interested in – fantasies of power, our belief in our own uniqueness and strangeness, secret identities and the way that they stand in for the feeling that there’s a great contrast between the face we present to the world, and the real self within. The secret interior self is so much weirder and wilder than the public face.

The problem is supervillains. Because for superheroes to work, they have to do something, and so there have to be supervillains. Supervillains represent all those evil forces we feel at work in the world. The 1%, the secret world government. Y’know – those faceless, shadowy guys.

But we don’t get faceless and shadowy in superhero world.

We get Arnold Schwarzenegger in a freezer suit. We get Willem Dafoe on a flying green-winged skateboard. We get Alfred Molina with robot arms. And we get a lot of female Hollywood stars in shiny, shiny catsuits, doing evil in stiletto heels. And it’s stupid. Supervillains are stupid.

I always thought one of the things that derailed the last Batman franchise (Michael Keaton/Val Kilmer/George Clooney) was the stupid multiplying supervillains. It meant the movies were stuffed with stars, but the plots couldn’t make sense. How could they? Because what are supervillains really after, anyway?  Money? Jewels? World domination? What would that even look like? And wouldn’t they be better off  signing up for an internship at Goldman Sachs?

Although I’m not a huge lover of the Nolan Batman franchise either, one of the things he does is make the villains make some kind of (doomy, lugubrious, psychopathic) sense. I might even be tempted to go and see the latest incarnation, when it settles gloomily on a squillion screens. (I like Anne Hathaway, and I’d like to see what they do with Catwoman.) Maybe.

But the latest SpiderMan reboot? No thanks. I love Emma Stone, and I love a bit of quirky rom-com (like the director’s previous effort, 500 Days of Summer, which was charming and surprising). But I don’t need to see it tucked into the gaps between the CGI and the mad-scientist monsters.

I chose this for my book group’s next meeting. I’d heard good things about it, and then it won the Orange Prize just as my turn to pick was falling due. As a group we always used to read the Booker winner every year, and then we had a run of disappointments, so now it’s no longer a certainty that we’ll give the Booker winner a go. I rather like the idea of making the Orange Prize winner a permanent fixture, or at least something we put into regular consideration. I’m interested in writing by women, and in reading the best of it in every given year, so the Orange should deliver on that front, right?

So what has it delivered this year? Madeline Miller is a first-time novelist with The Song of Achilles. She is a classical scholar, and uses her knowledge in the best possible way. She retells the story of Achilles, hero of Homer’s The Iliad, beginning in his youth and showing him growing into manhood and taking his prophesied role as a great hero. Her narrator is Patroclus, an exiled prince who is sent to the court of Peleus, the father of Achilles. After initial mistrust, the two become friends.

The story of Achilles has been told many times, and from many angles. Retelling these stories, in different ways and different segments, is one of the great traditions of Western literature. Miller’s intention here is to burrow down into one of the central relationships of the literary canon – that of Achilles and his dearest companion, Patroclus – and bring it to life, in the kind of psychological reality that makes sense to a contemporary reader. Although she clearly knows a lot about the world, its people, its material culture, its history, the world she shows us is minimal in its detail – close-up, domestic, familiar.

Miller finds a language that is simple and clear to tell her story, in a way that reflects the directness and clarity of her source material. It feels neither too contemporary, nor self-consciously archaic. The story is told in the first person by Patroclus himself, which gives a personal feel that the epic poems, told by a separate narrator, could not have. The voice, artless, simple, clear-sighted, truthful, is a voice out of young adult fiction: the Patroclus who begins the story as a bullied, unloved child is essentially unchanged by the end of the story. And the story that the voice tells is a love story.

Reading Homer, one of the strangest things to come to grips with for a modern reader is the way the gods step in and out, casually, all the time, and make things happen. Characters are one-dimensional: Odysseus is wily, Penelope is faithful, etc etc, but gods twist things around and mess things up. Gods make contradiction and change, they bring violence and unpredictability. Miller is careful about the way she uses her gods. They remain almost entirely unseen, with the exception of Achilles’ mother, Thetis, who is a sea-nymph. Miller’s Thetis is terrifying and alien, cold and implacable. Whenever she appears, the world goes silent in reaction to the wrongness of her. Driven by dark emotions – rage, resentment, ambition – and involved in off-stage machinations we never see, she represents the terror and complexity of the world of the gods – and she’s not even one of the important ones. (There is also a late appearance by Apollo, but this could be a hallucination.)

Happily for Patroclus, Miller’s Achilles inherits none of this from his mother. He gets his personality entirely from his dad’s side: he is breathtakingly honest, because he is so beautiful and so physically gifted he’s never needed to be anything else. The young Achilles is guileless – a natural prince, even-handed and kind. He already fights better than anyone else in the world, although he has never been trained. His gift is innate, from the gods, requiring no practice – although he does a little practice, alone. Miller’s simple prose works well as she conjures their steps toward friendship, the first stirrings of sexual awakening, and the awkwardness as they admit their desire for one another and become lovers. This part of the story feels fairly contemporary – a boy coming to homosexual awareness in a world which sneers at homosexuality. In this world, it is something boys grow out of, or something lords and kings do on the side. It is not a legitimate choice adults make. That Achilles and Patroclus do manage to make a life together is something only made possible by Achilles’ exceptionalism. He is the greatest warrior who ever lived, and so as long as he’s discreet, he can do what he likes.

While the novel works rather sweetly  as a teen romance, things start to get ropey when we hit the Trojan war. Characters that made sense until  now start making rather less sense, because they’re not in action invented by Miller. The meshing of Miller’s pure-hearted Achilles with all the Homer-era worry about fame and honour and immortal reputation feels awkward. We’re building up to the wrath of Achilles, of course, but when his wrath comes it feels out of character. His behaviour around Briseis (fleshed out rather nicely here) doesn’t quite make sense, and when he lets Patroclus go and fight for him, that doesn’t make ANY sense. But it has to happen, because it’s in the poem.

The problem is, these aren’t modern characters. Turning Achilles into a young gay romantic hero gives him an interesting  new dimension, but it also robs him of the martial context that makes his actions make sense. Achilles’ own investment in his own legend is something that arrives late in the book and never feels properly integrated, and yet it drives all the decisions he makes. Miller’s war scenes are good, but she steers clear of too much combat: Patroclus does not fight, finding a role in the medical tent instead (does that make him the Hawkeye of the Trojan War?), and creates a little family of virginal slave girls, led by Briseis, who have been rescued from becoming war prizes. Miller keeps the brutality of the war at a distance: rape happens off-stage, and Achilles retains his nobility as he slaughters his way through every day. The ugly business of fighting wars and running armies is kept at a remove; neither Achilles or Patroclus is interested in or capable of the whole gamut of unpleasantness involved in what they’re doing, from the politicking and scheming involved in managing the fractious kings and their armies, to the sadism of armies on the loose. All these negative qualities are parcelled up into Achilles’ son, the thoroughly unpleasant Pyrrhus – who is not, of course, Miller’s creation, but his cold-hearted sadism is contrasted strongly with Achilles’ purity of spirit.

For me, the spirit of teen romance which lurks at the heart of this novel sits a little uncomfortably with Homer’s original. But nonetheless, this is a strong and accomplished debut.

I’ve just read (belatedly) an interesting piece in the New Yorker on the financial novel in China. This genre, which is virtually unknown in the West, is huge in China. These novels are about life in the workplace, but they’re about a very American theme: how to survive, get ahead, and get rich. Their plots revolve around sales teams competing against each other, the rise and fall of stock prices, or the day-to-day corruption needed to get ahead in the Chinese bureaucracy. Romantic and emotional entanglements are unwanted and superfluous (editors advise writers to downplay such plot elements). Instead of romance, they have office renovations; their happy endings revolve around the purchase of an apartment and a big-screen TV.

To a Western reader, these plots and concerns seem mundane, and not the stuff of fiction. But as Chang points out, the competitive workplace is a new thing for the Chinese.

Competition in the workplace is a new experience. For decades, people inhabited familiar and stable settings – the village, the work unit. A nationwide system that assigned jobs to all college graduates was abolished only in the late nineteen-nineties. A decade later, promoting onself in meetings and interviews still feels unnatural; one person’s advancement means that everyone else is left behind. Workplace novels present white-collar jobs as a form of gladiatorial combat, because to most people that’s how it feels.

These novels are doing what the novel has always done: offered advice and instruction on how to function in an area of society which is new and frightening, opening up to a terrible new kind of mobility, advising on pitfalls and opportunities. A massive cultural change is taking place in China, and this new fiction – enabled, as Chang describes, by changes to the Chinese publishing industry – is helping Chinese workers to understand and navigate that change, using techniques drawn from both fiction and the self-help manual.

We see very little fiction in the English-speaking world which is even slightly interested in exploring our relationship with the working world. This is probably at least in part because of the rise of the professional writer – one of the perks of being one is you don’t have to spend a lot of time immersed in office culture.

But an awful lot of other people are, and I feel like fiction is doing us all a disservice by not examining it. My day job has very civilised hours – there are not that many advertising emergencies requiring my attention before 9 am or after 5 pm, although they do come up – but many, many of my clients work for organisations which routinely expect their staff to work well into the evening, and which have corporate cultures that require you to be willing to move cities or even countries in order to get promoted. This is awesome if you’re single and want to travel the world, but not so awesome for anyone who has a partner, or family responsibilities, or a life outside the workplace.

I think many of us have a creeping sense that the world of work is out of control, in a lot of different ways. There’s the sense that the financial sector is out of control and oeprating on a different level of reality from us, the sense that our corporations are more powerful than our governments, and at a personal level, that work, for a lot of people, is colonising every corner of our lives, in ways that are unwelcome but difficult to avoid.

And this, I think, is new, especially for women. Men, I think, have long accepted that their lives will be dominated by work. Women are still negotiating all this, and struggling with it: this is why you get so many anguished and angry arguments about the relative merits of having a career or dropping out to have babies, and the difficulties of trying to do both.

There is nothing new about this either – women were trying to find a place in the workforce in the 1890s, in the  1920s, in the war, and constantly since the 1960s – but whats IS new is that workplace culture for professional people at all levels seems to have become so all-consuming that it crowds out everything else. How do you manage a family life when no-one can leave the office until 7, 8 or 9 at night? When do you see your partner? Or your friends? And given that you spend so much time with your workmates, what does that do to your emotional life? What kind of relationships do you have when you haven’t chosen most of the people you spend your days with?

And then there’s the question of the work itself: if you’re spending 10 or 12 hours a day on work, what kind of satisfactions does that work offer? Surely it has to offer some kind of emotional satisfaction to justify that level of input, right? Right?

These are all questions that the novel could answer, or at least address, but it rarely does. Women’s magazines are talking about it – I think it’s kind of fascinating that mags are more interested in this kind of social inquiry than novels are – asking questions about how it feels and what the consequences are when you become hooked on the adrenalin rushes of work crises, for example. Women still aren’t used to thinking of ourselves as professional people, drawing a sense of self, of status, of being important, of being fulfilled, from the work that we do (unless it’s in the traditional caring professions). Women’s fiction still ignores what we do for work and what we get from work, in favour of our relationships outside of the office. It’s as if the professional self is someone we can’t really see, or know how to analyse yet, beyond the cliched representations of the ballbreaker, the back-stabbing office bitch, the psycho bitch boss…

So I think the time might be right for a new fiction of office life. Something that brings the nuanced understanding of office politics you see in Mad Men to our new, globalized, high-stress, total-connectivity, team-built lives.

I’ve been thinking about this question of whether the source of an idea influences (or constrains) the form that it eventually takes, especially in relation to fiction that’s based on real events or real characters.

I was thinking about this because I’ve just finished reading Anna Funder’s novel All That I Am, which has been garnering very positive reviews and some major awards, and is currently on the shortlist for the Miles Franklin Award and is a hot tip to win (“See?” you can hear them saying already, “we do give it to women! So there!”). As with her previous book, the very successful non-fiction Stasiland, a book about East Germany, she has found a very interesting subject: the plight of left-wing Germans in exile, trying to fight the rise of Hitler and the movement towards war, and living in fear of harassment, arrest and assassination. There is something fascinating and terrifying about the situation of people who find themselves outside the rule of law, outside the normal safe rules that the rest of us live by, surrounded by this terrible sense of threat, while all around them, the world goes about its business as if nothing is happening. (There are many people in the world today living in exactly this situation, of course, and we still go about our business as if nothing is happening, because where we live, nothing is.)

Funder tells the story of Dora, a young woman activist, and tells her story from two viewpoints: Ruth, who has known Dora from childhood, and Ernst Toller, a playwright and revolutionary in exile, who was one of Dora’s lovers. The narrative has an elegiac tone, because both these people are looking back at Dora and reflecting on her life, and both journeys of memorialising are prompted by books.

We see Ernst Toller working on a memoir which will write Dora back into life. We see Ruth, in advanced age and living in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, remembering Dora because Toller’s book has suddenly appeared on her doorstep.

So at once, both sets of stories and memories are mediated by writing, and this has the effect of setting the narrative at one remove. From the very beginning of the story her fate is already sealed, not just because we, the readers, know how the Hitler business turned out, but because both memorialists already know that she is dead. In a narrative that is ostensibly about bringing someone back to life, it seems rather unnecessarily framed by her death.

Toller, Ruth and Dora are all real people, and Ruth was a woman the author knew personally. (She, too, has now died, so this book stands perhaps as a memorial to another remarkable woman, although the character is self-deprecating about her own contribution to history.) And while the book is well written, with plenty of well-researched detail, and I felt Funder had a real feeling for the milieu these  people lived in, there was something about the very bookish structure she’s chosen, and the way she keeps her main character at several removes, which suggests her way of thinking about this world and these characters is constrained by what she’s read.

There are many ways to tell a story, of course. Showing a character through the perspective of others, while never giving us direct access to their thoughts, is a perfectly legitimate way to show a character. Fitzgerald does it, to give just one example, in The Great Gatsby. But this technique is often used as a way of getting some distance on a character so that you can explore their contradictions. The mood here, from both perspectives, is largely elegiac; both of them loved and admired her in an unambiguous way, because she was brave and daring and beautiful, and then the Nazis killed her.

It’s unfair to criticise a writer for not writing the book you want them to write, but sometimes when writers let you know about the source for something they’ve written, you immediately see why they wanted to write it, and wish they’d just written that. (I felt the same thing about Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child: it’s based on a Russian fairytale which she reproduces at the back of the book, and the tale has all the weirdness and wildness and crazy energy that folk tales have, in just a few dazzling pages. Ivey’s novel, which also has an interesting milieu, and a strong sense of place, captures some of the longing, but drains the energy out of it – or at least it did for the first 150 pages, which is as far as I got before deciding I’d got the general idea.) One of Funder’s sources, scrupulously documented at the back of the book, is a thesis (?) which tells the story of Dora’s strange death by poisoning.  As soon as I read about this document I thought, now that’s where the story is. A death, an inquest, as the way into a fascinating milieu rife with activism, fear, treachery and betrayal. Fabulous! It’s the kind of non-fiction work popularised by English author Kate Summerscale (The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace) which hangs an exploration of a moment in social history on the framework of a sensational court case. (The same format could work just as well as fiction.) Now, I haven’t read that thesis, so maybe that book has already been written. And to be honest, to take that approach would simply do the same thing I’m complaining about from another angle: instead of having one set of characters looking back on Dora via documents, you’d have a different set of characters, prompted by a court case, looking back on Dora. But at least the business of a court case gives you something that’s at stake: will the perpetrators be revealed and punished?

Funder’s novel is more literary – Orpheus trying to bring back Eurydice – and more diffuse, using the techniques of memory to build up a picture out of moments and elements. And while there is a narrative – the two narrations move forward more or less chronologically, telling us of the events that lead to Dora’s death – the end is never really in doubt. It is a novel that tries to evoke what it was like for that group of people to live through those times.

And I suppose this is where my frustration with the novel comes in. By removing Dora into the past, we never get to really feel her frustrations, her doubts, her hopes, her experience of living through this moment. We see her doing things, and she tells us things, and we observe things, but we don’t really get it as it’s lived. It’s all filtered by people who already know the outcome. The multiple viewpoints allow us to see a lot of people and touch on a lot things, but I wished for a narrative with a bit more focus. It could have been the story of Dora and her work and its tragic end, complicated with her relationships with Toller and Wolf and others; or it could have been the story of Ruth and Hans and her gradual, terrible discovery of his betrayal. As it’s written, the novel does tell both these stories, but the narrative arrangement never really makes it work as a story. Ruth is a fascinating character, and her journey of discovery is a terrible one; if the young Ruth was telling this story as it was happening to her, as she was discovering it (her own story twinned with Dora’s), it would have been far more dynamic and a much more gripping read. A more conventional novel, perhaps. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

I know, I know, that’s not the book Anna Funder chose to write, and I don’t think it’s because she can’t. She writes beautifully. She just made different choices about how to tell this story. They’re not necessarily the wrong ones either – I enjoyed this book, and engaged with it, and found it fascinating, and learnt some things, and also wished I had her knack for uncovering amazing stories.

Which brings me back to my original question: is there something about finding great stories in historical sources that makes it difficult to break away from the form you found them in? That is, if you find your characters with your historian’s hat on, is it harder to make them your own? When you’re inventing them from the ground up there is complete ownership, whereas if they really lived and really existed – and especially if you actually knew them – is it harder to freely invent where you need to?

They’re a funny thing, happy endings.

Children’s books always have them. (Or almost always.)

For a long time in the history of the novel they were pretty much the only ending. (Yes, there were also tragedies. But if you’re talking about the novel, which I mostly am, happy endings greatly outweigh the tragic ones.)

Then something happened. Happy endings started to look… not very serious. They were simplistic, or naive, or unrealistic, or too pat. They pandered to a reader’s desire for a sense of completion, rather than representing the provisional nature of reality, the complexity of human existence, etc etc. They were too easy.

I’m thinking about the last few books that I’ve read that were written for adults, and while they tend to move towards a sense that a change has taken place, a shift has occurred from one emotional state to another, a cathartic moment of sorts, I don’t know that they really give you a sense of happy ending. But they’re not really those sorts of books.

I’m thinking about this because I spoke to a group of writing students the other night and was talking about happy endings, amongst other things. The book I was talking about, The Voyagers, has a happy ending. I think anyone who read it would have been gutted if it didn’t.

My previous adult novel, Fivestar, does not have a happy ending, and I now think that was a mistake.

At the time, I thought I was writing a comic novel. I had various satirical targets in mind, and a few things I wanted to send up about music and popular culture. In order to do that, I had to kill one of my characters. So I killed her. When I submitted the manuscript of that book, both my agents asked, Does she really have to die? And so did my editor and my publisher. Yes she does, I said. And at the time it seemed like the right choice. I was closer then to my university studies and my head was full of ideas about subverting reader expectations and representing reality in all its disappointment. And, you know, I thought it was interesting the way our culture values dead artists more than living ones (hello, Whitney Houston) and also the kinds of grotesque shenanigans reality TV has given us when bands who’ve been filleted of a valuable member turn the business of replacing them into a televised sideshow.

But now I think, was it really that important to have those moments? Did she really have to die? And the answer is no, she didn’t. Because the death doesn’t arise organically from character or action. She died because I had some points to make. And they disrupted the pleasure of the text in a major way.

And that pleasure is important. How you resolve the story does have a big impact on the way the reader views everything that’s come before. I’m beginning to think that withholding that kind of pleasure from readers is unfair. And it also does the work a disservice. The wrong ending can spoil a book, and if what you want is for people to like your book enough to want to give it to other people to read, how you end it really does matter. If you’re a writer who’s fundamentally dealing in wish fulfilment, as I am, getting to the end of the story and not fulfilling the wish is an act of bad faith. Or bad manners.

Sometimes I fantasise about republishing Fivestar with a different ending. It would be quite simple to do, and I know exactly how I’d do it. (I’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about this.) It wouldn’t take a lot of rewriting. And it would make the whole thing an entirely more pleasurable experience.

Bad idea?

I have just finished Lauren Groff’s new novel Arcadia, which follows the life of Bit, the child of hippies, who grows up in a commune, the titular Arcadia. This is a beautiful, sad book, with a strong emotional charge. It moves through four time frames: beginning with Bit’s early childhood, then his teenage years, adulthood as a young father, and then as the father of a teenager. But really this novel has two halves: in Arcadia, and after Arcadia.

Bit has a powerful sense of belonging, to his family, to the community of Arcadia, the myths and stories the community tells itself. He is a believer, and he loves the idea of the community that he belongs to, and is powerfully protective of everything about it. But there is an anxiety in his attachment: his narrative, his descriptions of his world, seem shot through with an apprehension of their loss, a  terror that none of this can hold, that it will all fall apart, that the love and closeness he believes in and longs for could at any moment disappear. Bit’s narrative, espeically in the first half, when he and his parents are part of Arcadia, conveys a sense of balancing on a knife-edge, a perilous awareness of the nearness of loss.

One of the beauties of Groff’s novel is the way Bit’s perspective allows her to convey both the passionate belief in the community’s shared ideology, and the friction between adults as they try to strike their own individual balance between the community’s ideals and their human failings. There is something of the striving animals in Animal Farm about the people of Arcadia, especially Hannah and Abe, Bit’s parents, fighting poverty with lots of idealism and effort, but not enough knowledge.

The novel also provides a fascinating counter-narrative to our cliched imaginings of what communes were for, and about. The community Groff represents is radically austere, living largely off the grid, vegan, with ideals of shared property. There is plenty of sex and plenty of dope, but apart from that the community runs with the strictness of a medieval monastery: everyone must contribute, everyone must work, all goods must be held in common. In the novel’s second section, there is a heart-stopping sequence where the community’s day of celebration is over-run by party people, free loaders, drug-addled maniacs, and creepy people, who descend like a plague of eating, dope-smoking, raping locusts, and lay waste to the community. The original founders of Arcadia believed in ideals of hard work and communal living, but the people who’ve come in afterwards – and there are vast numbers of them – seem to be looking for a drug-fuelled free-for-all where there are no controls and no rules. It is terrifying and heart-breaking.

This is a novel built around a series of losses: of community, of loved ones. The novel builds toward an extended sequence depicting a death; reading it, it felt very raw, the kind of plot element that gets critics asking if the author has recently experienced a loss. In fact, the whole novel seems to be constructed around a terrible sense of the nearness of death, the closeness of mortality. The community falls to ruins, and many of the beloved children are lost. Bit, although he survives, is a lost soul, endlesly gazing back at a beautful lost past which he could feel dissolving beneath him even as he lived it.

The novel begins in the late 1960s and ends in 2018, with a world rapidly coming apart from the effects of climate change. A SARS-like epidemic rages in the background of the fourth section of the novel. The world of plenty which seems so alien to the young Bit, living in vegan simplicity on his farm, is disappearing by 2018, a time which is plagued by mass extinctions and losses great and small: Tuvalu, lettuce, bees. The pace of destruction is accelerating. Although this is background detail – the focus here, as always, is very strongly on the characters and their relationships – there is a terrible sense of bleakness through this section of the book which linked back strongly for me to the last book I read, which was Colson Whitehead’s Zone One.

That, too, has a prevailing sense of despair, of end times, of our culture being at the end of things. There’s a fin du monde spirit to both these books, as they look out at a world which is dominated by images of collapse, of destruction, of despair. And although both of them try to bring a kind of upbeat spirit to their endings, the underlying sense of desolation is more powerful than the closing actions and attitudes of the narrators in both novels. Both novelists, in their different ways, seem to be describing the engines of history – with humanity’s hands on the controls of those engines –  tearing things apart. Whitehead creates a terrifying vision of an enormous mass of the unstoppable hungry dead, vast and appalling, as they sweep through Manhattan. Groff creates a different kind of vision of destruction, as the idealistic dream of community is torn apart by a mixture of internal and external forces. In both cases, the action is too large for the individual narrators to affect, or stop. There is nothing they can do. They can only watch and respond according to their nature; Lauren Groff’s Bit responds with grief, but a kind of patient fortitude; Whitehead’s Mark Spitx, a character stunned into numbness by trauma, sparks into rat-like survival mode. While both end up determined to survive and carry on, the over-riding sense is one of powerlessness.

Tonally, and in turns of subject matter, these novels have little in common; but there is an underlying sensibility to both which felt similar to me. But perhaps that’s the sensibility of the reader, rather than the authors.

I have been watching and enjoying Smash, the TV drama about putting on a Broadway show.

It’s part of a venerable tradition, of course. Backstage musicals are a staple of the musical genre as a whole, especially on screen, where you can overcome the weirdness of people bursting into song by using the fact that they’re in a show as a framing narrative. (This show also uses dream sequences, karaoke nights, and parties to explain the singing.) If you’re into musicals, as I am, you don’t mind that people suddenly burst into song to express complex emotions. If you don’t like it, you won’t like this show. And you’ve probably already stopped reading this post.

One of the things that’s sort of charming about Smash is the way that everyone in it behaves  like they’re in a musical (and not a dark, modern musical either – a chirpy, first-half-of-the-20th-century  kind of musical). There are wisecracks and one-liners, and characters speak  the subtext at one another (briskly, pithily, dewily) so we can all move onto the next sequence without wasting time. The characters are bright and simple and all on the surface, and are not too far from stock characters: the director is English and a love-rat; the producer has just been left by her husband, also a producer, for a younger woman; the ingenue is from Idaho (or is it Ohio?). The writers are not afraid of cliched situations either; I’m just dying for the moment when Ivy breaks her leg hours before opening night and the director turns to Karen and says ‘You’re going out a rookie, but you gotta come back a star.’

The singing is spine-tinglingly good, and the songs themselves – a mix of new songs from the show supplemented with some karaoke favourites – are fun (I particularly like “Let me be your star”). All the musical numbers are well-staged, but it’s one of the oddities of the show that everything looks fresher and more interesting in the rehearsal room than in the (imaginary) fully-staged versions. Many of the cast are charming, especially Jack Davenport as director Derek, Katharine McPhee as ingenue Karen, and Christian Borle as composer Tom.

So the show is a lot of fun. But it’s not a show that brings much complexity to anything that’s going on: particularly the interpersonal relations between characters, which are soapie and predictable, and also the representation of the creative process. To me this is a missed opportunity, because what goes on in creating and then staging a show, that collaborative process, is fascinating.

Smash is a fairly conventional TV drama in which people happen to sing. I guess I want to see a show that says something more about the creative process. Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sunday in the Park With George does this. A musical loosely based on the life of Georges Seurat, it’s a show that explores the competing demands of art and life.  I know, I know – interesting for artists, not so interesting to the rest of the world. But if you’re dealing with actors and writers and musicians coming together, making a show, putting it on and then parting again, you’re dealing with a strange, enclosed, emotionally intense world. There are so many relationships that are interesting in this situation: firstly, there’s the relationship of the composer and the lyricist (if they’re two people, as they are in Smash); their relationship with the director who must bring the show to life, the producer who must find ways to pay for the show, and then the cast. If you’ve ever been in a show, you know what a strange and intense emotional environment it is:  you’re placed into situations where you have to be open, to explore emotions, to expose yourself in a variety of ways in front of complete strangers, and not mind. It’s emotionally risky, and it asks you to inhabit an emotional world which isn’t real, but which you have to make real, at least as long as the show lasts. It’s really no wonder so many actors fall for each other while they’re rehearsing a show or shooting a film. Pretend to feel something intensely enough for long enough, and you may well start feeling it.

All of which is to say, there’s a lot of complexity and intensity and strangeness and ambiguity in the world of show-making, but  we don’t get much of that in Smash. Yes, we get casting couch, and lyricist getting off with leading man. We get the producer selling her Degas to raise funds. And we get ingenue struggling to win over bitchy diva and her supporters, until the supporters are won over by ingenue’s good heart.  But there is no sense of struggle or complication in the relationship between the lyricist and the composer, for example, who are gay man/fag hag besties. The composer doesn’t much like the director, because the composer is nice and the director is mean. But we rarely get a sense that there might be any conflict between the director’s vision and the original creators’ vision. Everyone is smoothly in accord on the stuff that really matters – if only those writers would just get their pages written!

There is another Sondheim show, the troubled but wonderful Merrily We Roll Along, which has at its heart a show-writing team, and the complexity of that relationship generates some of that show’s best songs. Sondheim is great on murky emotions and ambiguity, but also the joy that comes from creating.  I think I’m bummed at Smash for not being Merrily We Roll Along.

It isn’t fair to criticise a show for not doing something it never set out to do in the first place, and I know that’s what I’m doing here. The thing about Smash is, it makes me wonder whether you can, in fact, represent the creative process  in a convincing way in a drama. A show like Mad Men, which is excellent on ambiguity and murky emotions, and also on the complex tensions of the workplace, is at its least convincing when it tries to show Don Draper having his creative inspirations. (After Season 1 they haven’t really gone there much.)

I’m not convinced that it can’t be done.  But I don’t feel like I’ve seen it yet.






And now, a little bit of trumpet-blowing.

My novel The Voyagers has just won the FAW Christina Stead Award for the best novel of 2011.

Those of you who would like to have a look at it can find the e-book on Amazon here:

It is also available with covers here, and here.

The judges comments can be found here.  My congratulations to all the other award winners and the commended and highly commended books.