Book review: Number 11 by Jonathan Coe

In his notes about the movie What a Whopper!, reclusive, obsessive Roger notes the film is a “sort of sequel” and tags it with ‘Sequels which are not really sequels. Sequels where the relationship to the original is oblique”. That also sums up this book’s relationship to Coe’s peerless satire of Thatcher era Britain, What a Carve Up! In that postmodern classic, obscure writer Michael Owen was hired to write the biography of the villainous Winshaw family, who had managed to infiltrate numerous arms of British life: politics, the media, high finance, art collecting, arms dealing. They ended up meeting a grisly end, but like some hydra they’re back in Number 11, dominating Blair’s Britain and beyond.

A savagely, sourly funny writer who structures his novels like Escher paintings, this time round Coe takes aim at the dismantling of the welfare state, the poisonousness of social media and the ultimately facile nature of political satire, all within a panoramic framework where plot paths diverge and re-join in unexpected ways and seemingly irrelevant details become major turning points.

The gothic prelude sees childhood friends Rachel and Alison have a creepy encounter in the woods and find a tarot card showing a grotesque spider woman. In that same formative summer, Rachel becomes haunted by the suspicious death of biological warfare expert David Kelly, a kind of generational loss of innocence moment.

The two girls go their separate ways, divided by a social media snafu. While Rachel ends up in Oxford, Alison makes her way in the art world, painting homeless people dressed as royalty. Meanwhile, Alison’s mother Val, a one-hit wonder pop star, tries to revive her fading fame on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!, but finds only humiliation, the format being a poisonous reinstatement of the class system and public abasement.

The Winshaws make a more successful gambit for renewed fame in the art world with a prize in their name. Its first incarnation was to honour an artwork in any format, though that increasingly abstract idea was abandoned after one year it went to ‘That smell at your grandma’s house when you open a biscuit tin that hasn’t been opened in years’. Instead, they decide to pit the various existing prizes against each other and the result turns into a delicious satire of the prestige industry.

They’re also returning to prominence in the media with Josephine convincing her father to give her a newspaper column, though she needs some advice from her callous parent on the nuances of writing rage bait. When she tries to finger a “black, one-legged lesbian” as the straw man in one piece, he advises her that nobody would believe such a person exists. Simply casting the villain as Muslim, he suggests, will have the desired effect in provoking an outraged response.

Josephine’s right-wing ranting becomes a favourite topic for stand-up comedians the nation over, who promptly start disappearing. Enter the earnest PC Nathan Pilbeam, a bookish detective digging deep into Freudian psychology to uncover clues about the crimes. It’s a fine comic sequence in a career studded with them.

Coe has never been as darkly paranoid as he is here and he seems energised to produce some of his most brilliantly caustic satire. Eventually though, he seems as defeated as Alison watching her mother slide back into an abusive relationship: “Inside she was letting out a long, deep sigh of resignation. It was going to happen all over again”. In this waking nightmare, Britain is drunk-dialling its ex, and Coe is the friend slumped beside them at the bar, watching helplessly.

Book review: Sweet Caress by William Boyd

Returning to the “full life” format of his critical and popular hit Any Human Heart, William Boyd’s latest tells the story of Amory Clay, complete with found photographs she apparently took throughout her eventful career. Beginning in 1908, it spans her life chronologically, though occasionally interspersed with vignettes from her louche twilight years in the late 1970s.
The daughter of a short story writer haunted and almost psychologically destroyed by his war experiences, she struggles with feelings of inertia and listlessness as a teenager before discovering photography when her dandyish uncle Greville gives her a camera. She finds her niche as something between an artist and documentarian, becoming enraptured by the burgeoning medium’s ability to “stop time’s relentless motion and hold that scene, that split second”.

Told in a matter-of-fact voice and sometimes falling into languorous rhythms at odds with her intrepid demeanour and complex personality, the narrative follows her to the sex clubs of Berlin, where she covertly takes documentary photographs that ultimately score her the scandal and notoriety she craves.
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The fallout of that scandal sees her whisked off to America, where she gets in over her head in a messy affair. Later, she ventures to the war zones in France and Vietnam, where her skill and fearlessness as a reporter get her into more precarious tangles.

The globetrotting narrative is alternately a strength and a weakness, enabling Boyd to expand on the largely untold story of the role women photojournalists played in the growth of the medium, but also giving the book an unavoidably episodic feel.

An unusual mixture of traditionalist and formal innovator, Boyd has developed a winning knack of pulling the carpet out from under the reader and Sweet Caress continues his penchant for blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction, straight historical novel and experimentation.

As with his Any Human Heart, where real literary figures such as Virginia Woolf and Evelyn Waugh convincingly mingled with Boyd’s creations, there are many characters here who you’ll have to look up to determine whether they’re a fascinating photojournalist whose story Boyd has unearthed or a convincing fictional person.

The lasting impression, however, is of Amory’s almost bullish desire for an eventful life, always a boon for a protagonist. If the most important thing you can do is “feel life’s sweet caress”, as the novel’s (fake) epigraph would have it, Amory felt it more than most.

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/books/sweet-caress-review-adventure-behind-the-lens-20151201-glcews.html#ixzz40wz3fPPZ
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Gig review: Chvrches, East India Youth @ Enmore Theatre, 4 February

East India Youth’s last record, the immaculately produced Culture of Volume saw William Doyle pushing his intellectual brand of electronica in a more pop direction, something like the Pet Shop Boys beset with paranoia. But in this live setting, where he is a manic, jerky presence behind a laptop, the chilliness of his music is pushed to the fore.

It’s compelling stuff, with the seven minutes of ‘Hearts That Never’ throbbing with dread and doubt, spluttering out into a maximalist freakout. ‘Entirety’ is similarly dark, a burnt out look at our media-saturated culture which flirts heavily with white noise.

Though working in at least broadly similar territory, Chvrches music comes from a much warmer place, aiming for something anthemic and affirming, rather than the missives of alienation East India Youth specialises in. They play with one of the most spectacular light shows the Enmore Theatre has seen in recent memory, an industrial array of cool pastels and neon, and the backdrop adds significantly to the epic feel.

These are genuinely huge, streamlined soundscapes from the opening ‘Never Ending Circles’ to the bubbling synths and surging optimism ‘We Sink’, while the hook-laden ‘Make Them Gold’ shows their almost machine-like efficiency in creating bright, sugary synthpop.

Admitting to having initially “stood still on stage and wished for the ground to swallow me up”, Lauren Mayberry is now a genuinely energetic frontwoman, small in stature but with star power and vivaciousness to spare. The Enmore stage can dwarf less charismatic performers, but she works the expanses between the two banks of synths expertly.

‘Leave a Trace’ and ‘Clearest Blue’ are also pristine, building patiently before exploding into choruses big enough to fill stadia, while ‘Empty Threat’ sees the ever dynamic Mayberry pounding the drums with gusto. Martin Doherty’s Scottish brogue on ‘Under The Tide’ and the almost torch song languor of ‘Afterglow’ are welcome changes of pace, but for the most part it’s the irresistible formula perfected in ‘Recover’ and ‘The Mother We Share’ which dominate, crystalline melodies floating over a base of clattering beats.

Flick through the new music playlist on Spotify any given week and you’ll find at least half a dozen bands imitating their festival-ready brand of shimmering synthpop, but Chvrches remain the leaders of this burgeoning movement.