While You’re at Bloomsday, I’ll be seeing your Wife.

Back to life. I wanted to keep out of Bloomsday chat, because it’s a mess, and because I look down and sneer at those whose puny brains linger over Joyce’s journeyman offering (real men read the Wake). However, I’ve been drawn in by a good article

I’m not always wild on Sean O’Hagan; he usually leaves me a little flat. but I think the piece on the commercialisation of Bloomsday from The Guardian is good (i.e., I agree with with chunks of it). There’s no real point about going on at length about the ambivalence that you have to feel about the commodification of Ulysses, since most of it is covered in the piece: opening Joyce up to those outside the academy vs. the potential for flattening and misunderstanding there; the damn hypocrisy of the thing (i.e. he got the fuck out of Ireland – and Ulysses read one way is one of the greatest of all satires on the Irish tendency to blather (that link’s meant as a shout to, rather than criticism of, a site that I like. Especially this. Though, pace Moore, I believe Northampton to be more depressing than Leicester); and this paragraph’s gone on too long.

There’s a thorny issue it touches on, but doesn’t get to the bottom of: Ireland in the early twentieth century exploited its made-up history for political purposes, brilliantly (y’know I still hear the Shan Van Vocht calling me to die for liberty. I try and tell her that it’s kind of complicated, and anyway if Ireland’s so great, why couldn’t they even qualify for Euro 2004?); the economic exploitation of similar cultural resources is sensible, and can’t be condemned if it brings good money into a country that, for all its Tigerosity, is very small, and usually on the verge of being slightly fucked. But it still leaves me feeling uncomfortable.

And I’m not sure the article should use throw around the word ‘vulgarisation’. English modernism (i.e. the Bloomsberries) has a bad streak of snobbery when it comes to Joyce – we oughtn’t forget Virginia Woolf’s remark in a letter to Strachey:

Never did I read such tosh. As for the first two chapters we will let them pass, but the 3rd 4th 5th 6th — merely the scratching of pimples on the body of the bootboy at Claridges.

Mi-aow Ginny! Cool it a little, wildcat – go take a dip in the river.

I feel obliged to add that I’ve met some perfectly delightful staff at Claridges.

Oddly, I couldn’t find a good source for the usual version of that quote: the one about a “queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples”. If she kept at the figure she’s clearly got severe class/authority issues, or perhaps some kind of skin problem.

There’s another reason not to say that Ireland’s vulgarising Joyce: he’s quite vulgar enough to start with. Letter to Nora of 8 Dec 1909:

You had an arse full of farts that night, darling, and I fucked them out of you, big fat fellows, long windy ones, quick little merry cracks and a lot of tiny little naughty farties ending in a long gush from your hole. It is wonderful to fuck a farting woman when every fuck drives one out of her. I think I would know Nora’s fart anywhere. I think I could pick hers out in a roomful of farting women. It is a rather girlish noise not like the wet windy fart which I imagine fat wives have. It is sudden and dry and dirty like what a bold girl would let off in fun in a school dormitory at night.

Ricks to Lecture: I Pity the Poor Listener

Ricks got the Poetry Professorship. To celebrate, the Guardian offer us an extract from his book on Dylan.

Now, I have way too much to say on this topic, but to start with, some questions for Ricks:

  1. Are you taking the piss?
  2. Is this the best use of your cleverness?
  3. Have you got the right tool for the job? i.e. Is it sensible to use a critical methodology formulated in the early-mid 20th century, one most consistently succesful with Modernist and Metaphysical texts, in order to analyse the creative output of a man working in, and completely formally exploiting, the medium of recorded music?
  4. Are you sure you’re not taking the piss?

It shouldn’t be allowed

Coming soon to a cinema near you: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, one of those so-so movie blockbusters useful for killing time to the grave. The plot is simple – a group of Victorian fictional characters team up to fight a technological madman called ‘The Fantom’.

But what’s interesting about The League is not the film itself but the comic book that inspired it: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, written by Alan Moore, and illustrated by Kevin O’Neill.

Moore is quite simply the greatest comic writer there’s ever been. Watchmen, his most famous work, was a main player in the ìComics: not just for kidsî ruckus of the late eighties and, when that fad died down, he dug deeper and got darker. His work became still more mature, with From Hell (later twisted in to a film starring Johnny Depp) the most grown-up of all, exploring murder, psychogeography and hermetic Victoriana. Then, after he’d prodded around in the darkest chambers of the human heart, he decided to bring fun back to superhero comics, which had grown up a little bit, and were going through a moody phase. This reinstitution of jollity and adventure led, eventually, to the foundation of America’s Best Comics, and the publication of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

It’s almost a companion piece to From Hell, set at the tail end of the Nineteenth Century, but mining melodramas, adventures and heroes, rather than killers, squalor and pain. Immediately, it’s a joy to look at, thanks to Kevin O’Neill’s art. Always one of the most engaging and distinctive artists in 2000 AD, his old instinct for organic-mechanical spikiness meets a nicely mannered humanity.
Moore’s end of things is even better. Good characters, for a start: he’s paid a lot of attention to the works he’s taking from and spots that Dracula’s Mina Harker is well-organised, and a good deal more firm-spirited than her boring, wussy husband; that Captain Nemo is by far the best thing about 20,000 Leagues under the Sea; and that there are still fresh things to be done with the Jekyll and Hyde double act.

Moore’s Invisible Man plays around the same ethical limits as Wells’ Nietszchean ubergeek, and only Allan Quatermain, decrepit drug addict, comes off a little predictably. (The line-up and their personalities are altered in the film. Since this is inevitable – a laudanum-addled Connery being bossed around by a woman is unlikely to open well in Wisconsin – it can bring neither surprise nor dismay.)

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There’s a terrific story, too. The final issue of the second volume is due soon, and so far, it’s been tremendous, horrible fun. A martian invasion, traitors, mutant animals, weird represso sex, grotesque anal violence – everything you could possibly want in a narrative is here, with a salutary helping of super-smartness.

The central conceit of the comic is that, with incredibly density and consistency, its world has been made from other fictions. It’s not just the central characters: everything in it comes from the imaginative commons. Volume Two starts on Mars with John Carter talking to Gullivar Jones about a military campaign. They’re fighting alongside Martians and Sorns, against alien invaders. This is already dense: Carter is an Edgar Rice Burroughs creation, and Jones comes from books by the more obscure (there’s a lot of obscure) Edwin Arnold. The Sorns are taken from C.S. Lewis’s science fiction. The invaders are Wells’s aliens from War of the Worlds; they abandon Mars to invade earth: when they land near London, the League arrive to investigate.

They observe as a peace party is incinerated by the Martians: it’s the famous early scene from War of the Worlds, down to fine details. The comic doesn’t make a fuss about any of this, and doesn’t expect you to get, or care about the references. You can enjoy the story, watch the strange relationship between Mina and Mr. Hyde develop, or simply nod, and think ëYes. That is what he’d say’ when Hyde calls the Aliens ëSky-Wogs’. Its wit and drive save it from the indulgences of post-modernism.

However, if you do want to play the reference game, that can be fun too. Harker and Quartermain are sent to see a scientist. We’re in Wells country again, and we’ll be meeting Dr. Moreau, creator of horrific man-animal hybrids. Something creeps up on the couple as they surrender to passion in the woods. It’s one of Moreau’s monstrosities, a shambling, drooling man-bear, in red jumper, yellow-check trousers and scarf. It’s one of the many minor incidents that offer some proof of Moore’s genius: rather than just saying ìman, Rupert’s fucked-upî, after the fashion of a lazy stoner or bad stand-up, he takes that instinct, magically shakes it up with Moreau, and makes a strange, brain-twisting scene from the first sniff of oddness.

Out past the fun of the story, there’s a very important point about the League. Moore makes no fuss about this either, but a lot of the comic should be illegal in England: all the H.G. Wells, along with Rupert the Bear, and Edgar Rice Burroughs isn’t out of copyright for another decade-and-a-bit. He’s pushing beyond the legal bounds of fair use here, into the murkier area of ëderivative works’. The film dodges the problem, excising anything from Wells, but it’s there throughout the comic. It’s an issue tangled up with Moore’s general creative approach, as he’s always enjoyed reimagining extant characters, rebuilding Superman again and again, as Dr. Manhattan, Miracleman, Supreme, and others. Now he’s done this same thing with classic pulp fiction – exactly the kind of action that the blob of copyright legislation consuming the world is determined to prevent.

Copyright endures longer now: America is ëharmonising’ with Europe, by introducing the ëdeath plus seventy years’ formula. Europe arrived at this in 1995 by ëharmonising’ to the standard of Germany, the member with the longest copyright term. In addition, America is also creating a form of perpetual copyright: Disney, who stood to lose profitable cartoons if the law remained unchanged, successfully lobbied for a copyright extension act, which effectively allows them to hold Mickey to their bosom, and love him forever and ever.

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It’s true that an artist should have the right to enjoy the fruit of his creations: royalties should be able to keep the great creators and their offspring at least ankle-deep in coke and hookers for some limited span. However, it’s not the interests of artists or their families that are being served by this legislation, it’s those of the corporate world. It takes material away from the creative community, forbidding acts of imagination unsanctioned by the representatives of stockholders, who will not be happy until you pay money every time you listen to one of ëtheir’ songs, or watch one of ëtheir’ DVDs. They don’t see themselves as middlemen, fostering communication between you and the artist: their end is profit for themselves and their shareholders.

They dream of a byzantine administration of watchers, counters and lawyers who decide whether you calling your cat Buzz Lightyear is fair-use and good publicity, or an actionable infringement of copyright.

The corporate world would come in its pants if it could properly own the rights to Dracula. Whatever legislation they secure, they never could, of course: the Dracula we have is the child of Stoker and Lee and Lugosi and Ingrid Pitt and Grandpa Munster and Buffy and sketches on Swap Shop and a thousand other imitations, adaptations and homages. The fact that everyone can get their hands on him is what gives him texture and substance. Superman is not a modern myth, since DC own him, and they can say what we can and can’t do. Fighting the evil Dr. Nick O’Teen – good; having anal-sex with Batman – probably not going to happen.

There’s a lot of bad copyright-whacking art out there (stand up, Negativland); but there are also a lot of people doing good things to create the infrastructure for a real revolution, one that takes some power away from the business world, and hands it back to artist and audience. The Creative Commons group (www.creativecommons.org) is the obvious example: they’ve drawn up a set of licences for works that allow certain forms of re-use: an artist creating under these licences can put his or her work into a limited public domain. It’s early days for the scheme yet, but it has the potential to nurture a lot of interesting projects.

The League is another example. Blasting aside copyright restraints is not its explicit aim, nor the best thing the comic does; but it does show the importance of having an imaginative commons: inherited land that we can all share. It doesn’t matter that a lot of what gets done with this land is dull – Shakespeare rewritings, anti-corporate ëStarfucks’ stencils, SG-1 fanfic – it just matters that this is freely available, since it’s the stuff that culture is made of.

Inaugural Lecture: “Mighty Hunters Before The Lord: Milton’s Nimrod & Quinn the Eskimo”

I have returned. Enough of Up Jenkins – to the world of higher things!

You’ve got a monkey in your pocket. Or possibly a pony. You’ve resisted the call of Paddy Power, Coral and William Hill, but that urge to wrestle with destiny overwhelms you – surely Ladbroke’s can take that money off your hands?

The Dogs in Sheffield? Strictly small time. Chevalier Bayard in the 6.35 at Newton Abbott? Don’t trust the going. Norwegian Pop Idol? Save it for ACME There’s only one interesting bet for the sporting man – who’ll be the next Oxford Professor of Poetry?

Here’s how they stand:

Christopher Ricks 2-1
Anne Carson 5-2
Peter Porter 4-1
Ian McMillan 5-1
Mark Walker 5-1

Seems silly to bet against Ricks – he’s a name, and has good support on the lists. But you’re a fool to yourself if you don’t put a saver on Porter. Though Ricks has the academic establishment behind him, Porter has most of the good poets and writers.

Let’s go popbitch! Which poet has a nominator who, in a fit of rage, shat on their partner’s chest while he slept?

Higher things, like I said.

Porter’s my own favourite of the candidates: I like McMillan, and rate Ricks as a critic, but PP’s been so good for so long, it’d be nice to see him win this, no matter how insignificant the place and post.

But I Still Want Keats and Yeats on My Side

In the literary weeklies, you can read some good stuff. The TLS has Roy Foster on Iseult Gonne:

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You are not going out like that, young lady.

Fascinated me. As a raw youth, I was a big Yeats fan. I blame him, personally, for a lot of my stupidity about girls: I was not Yeats, she was not Maud Gonne, and I wasn’t about to turn suffering into great art. Never, ever try to figure out romance by sitting around and reading Yeats. It gives you the idea that unrequited love is an extreme sport made for uncoes:

[…]every year I have cried, ‘At length
My darling understands it all,
Because I have come into my strength,
And words obey my call’

It should be banned. I feel sorry for the poor young ladies who have to put with moony, bookish boys sitting round offering them dorky and charmless adoration, particularly when the lads get tearfully puzzled at the lack of reciprocation. To any fourteen-year-olds out there, remember the wise, clear words of Goodbye Lucille #1: “She is a person too:/She has her own will.” Or take better advice.

But I forget. You’re different. And so’s the delightful she.

Over at the lerb, we have the terrific Kitty Hauser on contemporary Japanese design. Declaration of interest: I DJed at Kitty’s wedding (Bride’s favourites: The Bottle, by Gil Scott Heron, and The Crown, by Gary Byrd and the GB Experience. Good taste, no?)

Don’t tell me I’m not connected.

Give me an ‘A’! No, Not You, Paulin.

Now, my recent absence has led to me slipping up on the grand plan of talking about Hazlitt a lot whenever the Guardian run something on him – I missed this article on the great man:

Some patron saint. No offence.

Unfortunately, it’s by Tom Paulin, who’s my least favourite defender of W.H. Paulin gives great panto on the Late Review, but I cannot stand him as a poet, and have gone off his criticism. I liked Minotaur, but The Day-Star of Liberty was a poor book: “Blah blah journalism, blah blah unitarianism, more unitarianism, blah blah, let’s do some practical criticism.” Plus, his forays into the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries have been really poor. Professional friends in that area observe with clenched teeth and curled toes.

I hate that thing he does of taking one word from a text, then extrapolating to make a big, radical political point. He does it in the essay (the misbroken verse is sic, from the website):

Recalling this as I followed a twisting path above Grasmere, I thought of these lines from “Tintern Abbey”:


“the tall rock,
The mountain, and the deep and
gloomy wood”.

The mountain in French, I remembered, is “la montagne”, and that was the name given to the sloping benches in the French National Assembly, where Robespierre and his fellow Jacobins sat. Wordsworth is here remembering the Jacobins…

This is so eccentric, so semi-demi-hemi-rational, that there’s really only one way to argue. I could research Wordsworth for a few years, build up a sophisticated argument about the text, publish a book (Dreary Intercourse: Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey and the Topographical Bathetic), and possibly win some coveted academic position (shortly afterwards lost in a scandal with a student. A heated debate about Rochester, too much wine, I fell), but it would still amount to the same thing: “No he fucking isn’t. He just fucking isn’t you fucking divwad. Stop saying weird, dull stuff. And get a prose style.”

That last is a bit pot/kettle. Sorry world.

Oh, we’ll be coming back to Paulin.

Here’s the best resource for Hazlitt’s essays.

Jim Dodge: Not Fade Away

America. Funny old country. Great admirers of the gun and the car, but slightly hypocritical when it comes to sex and money. A lot of chatter about being happy with oneself – for all that we agree the children are our future, we’re not quite sure how “learning to love yourself… is the greatest love of all”, as dear, addled Whitney puts it. Especially when they express this love by means of a mosque-flattening excursion around the sunny east (a.k.a., Feel the Fear and Invade Them Anyway.)

That said, we’re sometimes a little ashamed to be European when faced with honesty and energy of Americans. Don’t they know they’re doomed to fail? That we all are? That the big man with the scythe waits on every corner? That every attempt to live communally, or build a better future will be ended by some Nietzsche-spouting wacko who gets most of his calories from Acid, or a messaniac nut who sports a brutal erection every time he hears the word ‘power’?

These honest beliefs are a little embarrassing to cynical Europeans. They should stop enthusing when we’re trying to smoke. However, while we rub our temples and sigh at their childlike naivete, it’s salutary to recall that they make the Simpsons and rule the world. The enthusiasm gets things done, even though their mantras of freedom and self-belief too often amount to one simple lie: “I am special and should be allowed to do whatever the fuck I want.”

Jim Dodge is one of the few writers we’ve ever read who justifies this mad, dreaming America. He can make you see, in flashes, what is so brilliant and powerful about the country, with its absolute belief in freedom, and fresh starts; the cult of rebel heroes, and the search for a happy life. Dodge is around 60, and he’s written four books. May not seem like much, but he’s been busy: a long CV includes stretches as an apple picker, a pro poker player, a woodcutter, a shepherd and currently, a teacher of creative writing.

Fup, his greatest success, is a novella about a 99 year old, his giant grandson, and a duck. The other two have the edge: Stone Junction is the story of Daniel Pearse, and his education at the hands of AMO, The Alliance of Magicians and Outlaws. He’s taught safe-cracking, drug-taking, poker-playing, the arts of disguise, and how to vanish, literally (You start by making your bones glow. We haven’t made much headway). He’s also got to find out who killed his mother. Its subtitle is ‘An Alchemical Potboiler’, and that’s how it reads, fast and funny, with lines that trip you up and plunge you to the deeps.

Not Fade Away, which Canongate are re-issuing in April is just as good. It’s a 60s-set tale chronicling a trip across America made by George ‘the Ghost’ Gastin. He’s stealing and wrecking vehicles for an insurance scam, until he has to smash a car intended as a gift from a now-dead virgin spinster to Rockabilly hero The Big Bopper (‘Chantilly Lace’ is his most famous work, though we’d point the curious to the mighty ‘White Lightnin”. He shares an endearing habit with Jerry Lee Lewis and Bo Diddley of referring to himself in the third person at some point in most of his songs. The London News Review approves.). Since it’s “a heartfelt crazy gift meant to celebrate music and the possibilities of human love”, George decides to deliver the car, rather than wreck it. ‘Ray! As the Bopper died in the ’59 Holly-Valens plane crash, this isn’t especially straightforward. Boo! Nevertheless, George sets off on a confused trip which might be to the Bopper’s grave – not that he knows where that is – or to the site of the accident. It’s a messy pilgrimage, where the ride matters as much as the shrine.

It sounds like we’re all set up to swing into Kerouac’s America of red wine, jazz and bennies. But where On The Road is all indulgence and still-born prose poetry, Dodge is a loving tumble through a crowd of good people. In his world, there are kind souls who work hard to stay independent. Crazy stories get told, and odd, funny nuggets of advice are swapped. It’s sometimes close to the folksiness that has never really washed in Britain (our grown-ups want Mark Twain barking at Hadleyburg rather than yarning about Aunt Polly’s fence). Dodge seems like he might be taking us into that territory. But though his one-liners can sound a little down-home cute, they actually kick hard and true.

The best thing about Dodge’s books it that they see what’s glorious about America, and try to show how to make that glory real. We need that here. No-one especially seems to believe anything in Britain right now. It’s a cramped, tense country where the press shout down the people, and we’re being made slaves to fear: the government rattles its keys and shouts for lockdown, as we’re told terror is inevitable. It’s at times like these that we need to understand exit routes, and find ways not to play their game.

Reading Dodge is good for exit plans: we need to be outlaws, just not in that way that American culture usually fetishises outlaws. Bush casts himself as a cowboy, the plainsman who lived a little wild, a little on the edge, and that’s just a sick deception. Put it on the list: Morrison struggling with police after cock-flashing; Ayn Rand trampling over cripples to build skyscrapers; and the in a mountain cabin posting his back-to-nature mailbombs. All part of one dull, untrue vision of wild heroes and villains above the law.

However, Dodge shows us how to fight the system, and gives us the stories of those who choose to creep out past the perimeter guards. He believes in the honourable outlaw. As he puts it: “Outlaws only do wrong when they feel it’s right; criminals only feel right when their doing wrong”. His novels are populated by an Awkward Squad, who can’t be mustered, but collude and support. The subtitle of Stone Junction is again relevant: it’s ‘alchemical’ in part because it’s about this crew, the kind of people watched for by Hermes, the god of language, trickery, magic and secrets.

He’s also got a feel for the limits of this outlaw dream; it needs hard work and faith to sustain the underground. In both Junction and Not Fade Away, the heroes have visions that are wrong, stupid or too selfish. They believe in dreams a little too much and make dumb mistakes, losing themselves, or getting shot at. Though freedom is the best thing, it’s also a difficult one.

However, Dodge is an optimistic writer, and one with an astonishing and intoxicating faith in people. He understands that if we’re willing to try it, to trust ourselves and trust each other, tell true from false and take honest responsibilities, then freedom is the most wild crazy fun. We’d really better make sure we’ve got a firm grasp on what’s going to happen if we choose to live permanently stoned with a Polish magdalen in a jerry-built Black Hills rock fort (and refuse to pay taxes). But if we’ve got a handle on that, then we’re ready to go. Why should anyone tell us not to do it?

Luke Sutherland, David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas David Mitchell Sceptre £16.99 March 4, 2004

British fiction’s a vigorous beast at the moment. It feels exciting; a new generation’s coming through, and they’re good, in ways that no-one’s quite pulled off before, pop-funny and heavy-clever all at once. Granta’s list of the 20 best young novelists from last summer is a half-decent guide to the names, but has the kind of blind spots that one would expect from the noble – but not quite hep – folk at our leading literary magazine: taking an author, like the terrific Dan Peace, who’s coming from the one respectable genre, Crime, but ignoring the knockout China Mieville, who’s made a deep impact in ever-disreputable Fantasy. There are other puzzling omissions: Daren King, for instance, who plays hard with language, and manages to twine strange fun and mental illness together in unsettling, brilliant ways. The list does a lot of fine names: Peace; Mail-snubbing folk hero Hari Kunzru; and, best of all, Dan Rhodes, whose odd, plain charm belies the weight and depth of his completely realised pen-portraits of alien minds. All these authors are digging towards something more interesting than Parsons-by-Hornby dicklessness, or coke-heist gangland grime.

Luke Sutherland’s Venus as a Boy is a fine example of what’s best and most exciting in British fiction right now. It’s a fine achievement, a seeming-simple story of a man who’s turning to gold. This premise could be fairy-tale cutesy, or a rejected-organ Magic Realism transplant. He manages to skip round this potential trouble, since he’s got a firm and lovely grip on the plain and the sad, the small cruelties of life, and its deeper joys.

The narrator, before his transformation, moves from Orkney, through Glasgow, to London. The Orcadian scenes are lovely and dark: full of the stupid cruelty of country kids, and the power of nature. The London portion has its own power: Sutherland runs high off a riverside nightscape, the names of City Churches, and the intoxicating thickness of life in the capital. He’s got a winning tone when dealing with other lives, a way of taking tangles of race and sexuality and making them seem common-sense normal. It’s a great virtue in this generation that it doesn’t occur to the interesting writers to be overly impressed by the exotic: there’s an unspoken ‘but of course’ that’s an effective riposte to post-colonial simpering over Otherness. As long as love for the world is crippled by love of the exotic, the imagination gets hurt.

Sutherland (also unrecognised by Granta) showed a lot of potential in his previous books, and now he’s almost there. The style is cleaner than before, less wrapped up in itself. In his last novel, Sweetmeat, sentences got wrapped up in their own sound, and leaned a little too much on long-vowel assonance – a trick that sounds alluring when sitting in front of Word, but grates on the reader. The style’s been toned down, and now everything is clearer and more honest. Sutherland’s move to Bloomsbury has also served him well – Sweetmeat was an ugly book, with bad type and lazy design grinding against writing that aimed for beauty, while Venus As A Boy is a desirable, well-made artifact.

There are odd echoes of the earlier novel here: an adored blonde prostitute who disappoints the hero; a failed attempt to run away; gender blurring handled with matter-of-fact clarity. But there’s much more control and conviction in this book. It’s a novel that gets works hard to wrap the reader up in the passionate belief which drives Sutherland’s writing: that love matters, even when deluded or disappointed; that love can change things. It’s a hard thing to say without a crazy kind of faith, and this is a religious book – in ways it’s a story straight from Gnosticism, the hippest religion of this millenium, a parable about Cupid-cum-Jesus and his Venus-Magdalenes. However, it never veers into alchemic-magickal lunacy and jargon: rather he sees and feels all the cynicism of the age, and still wants to say something urgent and unsentimental about love. He’s a brave writer, and one with a good heart.

The good heart’s an important quality, and one he shares with David Mitchell, whose Cloud Atlas looks likes a landmark. It’s early yet, but he may have established himself as the most compendious young talent in the country. He really is terrifyingly good.

Mitchell can do near enough anything. Cloud Atlas has six interlinked stories, and in them, Mitchell demonstrates that he’s able to write, perfectly, historical narrative, 30s Waughery, Watergate paranoia eco-thriller, the English comedy of mishaps, and Science Fiction, in both political dystopian and post-apocalyptic low-tech flavours. Nothing fails. An English writer, for the first time in what seems like an age, has strolled ahead of the Americans. It’s better than Eugenides, and better than Franzen. Did someone mention Eggers and McSweeney’s? Please excuse us. We’ll stop laughing in a moment or two.

There’s really not much to say about the book that won’t be made redundant after you obey our orders, and read it. The novel wins the reader, again and again, through the irresistable force of narrative. Mitchell loves stories and voices, and this complicated novel has a simple engine: you want to know what happens next. This simplicity commands attention when the book says something. The reader’s never left snoozing in a lecture theatre. This is remarkable, because it’s tricky to keep a crowd awake when you’re playing with a Borgesian recurrence, an argument about the value and cost of civilisation, and those addictions that lure us into slavery and polite barbarism. In ways, it’s a political book, and a powerful one, more persuasive than something written to make you cry a bit about the terrible life of Asylum Seekers. It’s trying to understand the world, and find ways to change it, despite the pessimism that has to take take hold when any sane person thinks for a while about power, those who have it, and what they do with it. Sympathy, humanity and honesty are potent political weapons in an era of callous lies and dead ethics.

So, it’s again this point about the good heart. It’s the great virtue of this new generation of writers. Compare them to the Godfather of British Fiction, Martin Amis, He’s never managed to create a character that one can truly give a shit about: brilliant bits of business, and many fun sentences, but uncomfortably cold at the end of the day. In both Mitchell and Sutherland, there’s a generosity of spirit that isn’t crushed beneath literary ambition. We don’t get telegraph summaries of a life to display the virtuosity of an author; instead there’s immersion, empathy and imagination, winning virtues all.

We should be thankful that our generation is getting a stream of fiction better than it deserves: from what we’ve managed so far, we ought to be gawping at ranks of vicarious hooligan thrills, rave memoir, I-don’t-get-on-with-daddy Man books, and Manolo paperbacks for busy girls about town. Authors like Sutherland, Mitchell, Rhodes and King are helping us to break a dull consensus, and offer books that are real, complicated, and, above all, a source of pleasure. We’re stuck in a selfish society, and the best parts of these writers are a corrective to this indulgent egotism. They’re investigating voices, trying on different identities, and these acts of sympathy and imagination offer medicine to a generation of readers otherwise only attentive when hearing about themselves. It’s a heartening literary scene right now: there’s hope for us as long as we can make and read books that are clever, funny and kind.

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: So You Think You’re Human

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto is the Professor of Global Environmental History at the University of London. He’s a distinguished author on the largest scale: the titles of ‘Food: A History’, ‘Civilisations’, and ‘Millennium’ suggest their scope. Here is the thesis of his latest work: “I’m a monkey! Ooh! Ooh! Give me some bananas! See me masturbate in public! You’re a monkey too!”

So You Think You’re Human is an odd book. It shares its central question with the PG Tips adverts: if chimps can brew tea, move pianos, and enter the Tour de France, why do we as humans privilege ourselves so? What does it mean to be human, and can we put together a decent ethical framework for getting through life?

Put like that, it sounds a little heavy. However, the book has some serious pleasures. Fern·ndez-Armesto has the great virtue of knowing an awful lot: he knows a lot of interesting facts, and shows no fear in press-ganging them into an argument. So, we get to find out about the ‘Hottentot Venus’ of 1810, Saartje ‘do the’ Baartmann, and where we can see her pickled sexual organs. We’re told what happened when Darwin’s *Beagle* took up three Polynesians – called Jemmy Button, Fuegia Basket and York Minster – ‘civilised’ them, then dumped them back in Tierra Del Fuego. We also learn about St Guinefort, who was a dog, and Lord Monboddo’s belief that orang-utans can play the flute. Plus, he tells us about the philosophical thoughts of Wang Ch’ung. (This unfortunately, is the Chinese thinker of the first century A.D., rather than the 80s pop-rock outfit.)

It’s a slim book, so you want more on some of these subjects: you wish he’d hang around on totemism for longer, or dig a bit deeper into the origins of racism, and the pseudo-science which has always surrounded it. There are also some bigger problems. He’s at his worst when he’s putting forward an ethical argument. He gnaws away at the idea of humanity, and human specialness, barking down the claims that tools, or language, or culture separate us from the apes; at the same time he wants to believe in something unique to us, rejecting the potential for machine consciousness, and getting himself in tangles over the spiritual aspect of the mind. Felipe may be in trouble once Our Robot Masters enslave humanity.

He’s just a little too conservative to wrassle with the world of now. Genetic modification, or Turing Tests are subjects that make him look a little slow: there’s clearly a good reason he became a historian. The worst example is when he takes a hard-line anti-abortion position, albeit in a tangle of qualifications about the good intentions of those involved. It amounts to saying “No offence, mothers and doctors – don’t take it personal – but you’re murderers committing a second holocaust.” That’s a shame: there’s a sharp contrast in moving passages where Fern·ndez-Armesto describes Neanderthal burial rituals. You feel persuaded by his moral outrage at the academy’s refusal to accept the worth and meaning of that species’ life.

The cover has a quote from John Gray, who calls it “brilliant”, and it has a lot in common with his Straw Dogs from last year. In both cases, you get a sense of learned gentlemen who potter around their institutions, and spend their lives immersed in a dead world – they read through thousands upon thousands of pages of history, economics, and philosophy. One day, looking up from a volume of Voltaire, they notice that the world is a piece of shit riddled with suffering and injustice. They decide it’s time to act. This action takes the form of writing a slim book that compresses a lot of erudition and thought into a melancholic, aphoristic set of meditations on the nature of humanity.

Fern·ndez-Armesto can’t measure up to Gray here. Straw Dogs is a great, despairing book, a miserable vision of humanity which sees every attempt at making a better world as doomed. Gray argues for us being the most hideously evil creatures imaginable, or rather the only evil creatures possible: a jellyfish can’t betray another jellyfish, and most bison are incapable of creating a hell like Stalin’s Russia. It’s a cruel, right-wing argument, at heart: despairing of human nature, finding us rottenly corrupt, and choosing the company of animals over that of men. It gives up on the potential for change, and for hope. Revolution’s just bloodshed, and democracy is pointless. Pass the razor-blades.

So You think You’re Human? is healthier than Gray’s book, but less of a thrill. It hasn’t reached the hysterical level of despair that makes *Straw Dogs*, if you’re in the right mood, a terrifically funny read. It still wants to find something to believe in, and although it’s silly in places, and offensive in others, it’s a collection of incidents, examples and questions that stands a chance of stirring people to thought or action.

Francis Wheen: Holywell Music Room, Oxford, 26 March 2004

The audience is middle-aged. They have a solid understanding of fashion – grey goes with grey. They read broadsheets and only listen to Radio 4. We explained to a twin-set in the neighbouring seat that if you fiddle with wireless dial, music comes out. She was intrigued, but sceptical.

We were all here to listen to Francis Wheen, major contributor to Private Eye, Biographer of Karl Marx, and now author of How Mumbo-jumbo Conquered the World. It’s a likeable book, but a frustrating one. Wheen argues that over the last 25 years, there’s been a rise in irrationalism, from the crystal and candles of New Age dippies, to the obfuscating pontifications of Derrida, Lacan, and their ilk.

It’s an annoying thesis, nearly right but not quite. The fag-end of 60s is a likelier birth-date for modern bunkum – always blame the hippies – and Wheen simply isn’t so great at the Social Sciences. Just like our second favourite Romana-shagger, Richard Dawkins, he doesn’t get how complicated the models for understanding belief are, and doesn’t seem thorough in his sources. He’s a bit shallow when he’s playing with the big ideas, conflating ‘modernity’, ‘the Enlightenment and ‘niceness’ in a slack way. He mistakes anecdotes for evidence, and just doesn’t seem to get the interesting stuff.

You can get results by throwing common sense out the window. Once, Samuel Johnson kicked a stone to disprove Bishop Berkeley’s belief that all things were ideas sustained in the mind of God. Fat Sam couldn’t make the theory go away: it haunted the writing of Yeats, Borges and Beckett. Weird thoughts can have interesting children. However, this isn’t a crowd who go for strangeness and challenges. We’re here to have our beliefs confirmed by a nice, funny man, and that’s what we get: there’s witty outrage over Faith Schools and Creationism; mockery of Cherie’s gullibility; and some guffaws over the old statistic about 2m Americans believing that they’ve been abducted by Aliens.

There’s the rub. We’d guess he’s talking about the Roper Poll of 1992, in which case the figure it gives is actually 3.7m. It was a procedurally flawed study: big inferences were drawn from leading questions. It’s essentially invalid. The lesson: don’t claim to be standing for reason, science, and ‘enlightenment values’ when you’ve got a wonky way of sifting evidence.

But we all enjoyed a jolly critique of crazy pseudo-scientific systems that have plunged the world into miserable torment. The best joke of all? All this from a great admirer of Marx. That’s a beam in your eye, buddy!