One day a cockroach decides to leave the safety of the wood panelling in the Palace of Westminster, head across the road and into 10 Downing Street. In the morning, the cockroach discovers he has become Jim Sams, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
It seems the cockroach has made this metamorphosis at a time of national crisis - the population has narrowly voted to embark on Reversalism - a crazy idea of reversing money flow - and the Government is determined to deliver this outcome despite the manifest lunacy of doing so. This is obviously a parody of Brexit, although in one scene Jim Sams considers how Revarsalism might work when adopted by only one EU member state. Presumably this scene is enough to throw Brexiteers off the scent so they won't realise they are being lampooned.
This is not great literature - although it is also not bad. The main selling point is the topicality and obvious speed with which it has been thrown together and published. Some of the details - the arrival of Boris Johnson, the attempt at proroguing Parliament, the expulsion of long-standing members of the Conservative benches for opposing hard Brexit - are barely weeks old yet they play a pivotal role in this novella.
What is really depressing is the plausibility of the conceit that the Government (and perhaps President 45) are really cockroaches in disguise, running the world into the ground just for their own immediate self-interest. Does Boris Johnson lie awake at night and fondly remember his missing set of legs and his exoskeleton?
The Cockroach is (hopefully) a quirk, a piece of ephemera that will forever look like an oddity in the canon of a literary giant. It probably owes a big debt to Kafka, and the metaphor and the aliases are very transparent. The ending will really bug you [can you see what I did there?].
But it is as good an illustration of the madness of Brexit and the frustration at the lack of any real backbone in the opposition - especially its leader - that you'll find. It is shows how significant an issue Iain McEwan thinks it is, that he is willing to put his name and his branding to something so obviously created at speed.
Hame is a satirical takedown of romanticised Scotticism with its bards, bagpipes, and tartan trews.
The basic premise is that Mhairi McPhail, a Scot by birth but with a New York accent, is returning to her homeland to establish a museum on the Isle of Fascaray dedicated to the Isle's famous son, the poet Grigor McWatt. The novel is made up from interleaved sections of Mhairi's diary, her published work A Granite Ballad - The Reimagining of Grigor McWatt, various essays and writings of McWatt from published sources, and McWatt's poems. Together they make up the story of McWatt, compared and contrasted to the experience of Mhairi as an incomer. But they also paint a portrait of a Scottish island community; of the Scots arts and literature community; of Gaelic and Scots; of Scotland as a whole.
The result is hilarious. As real islanders worry about the weather and fuel supplies; shopping trips to the mainland; how to get seven days' work done in six - McWatt and those like him spend their time banging out doggerel poetry in a mish-mash of Scottish dialects purporting to be a language; pontificate on the decline of traditional values; and drinking in the comfort of bars in Edinburgh's New Town.
Fascaray itself is a fictional island, but much of it bears a close resemblance to Lewis, with a fair dose of the Inner Hebrides thrown in (especially Islay and Jura) and even the odd nod to the St Kilda archipelago. The issues feel authentic: the tension between preserving the natural beauty and exploiting natural resources; the tensions between the faiths; and the quest to curate/create a visitor attraction that will bring the tourists rolling in. Some of the events are real: the annual guga hunt is a real thing in Ness; the threat of offshore wind farms (and onshore wind farms) have divided real island communities; islanders really have protested against the establishment of Sunday ferry crossings; and the Morvern peninsula really is being slowly excavated.
The literary angle to Hame also rings true. In small communities across Scotland, poets and writers are local legends despite the dubious quality of their works. Their works are published by small presses that survive on arts council subsidies, sold in souvenir shops and read by nobody. The writers augment their earnings by penning diaries and editorials for local newspapers. McWatt was a mainstay of the Auchwinnie Pibroch - his opinions given credence because of his fame, and his fame deriving from giving opinions. McWatt's poems are truly terrible: translations of great works into Scots dialect. The typical reader is unlikely to understand all of the verse - the dialect is too obscure - but will understand enough to see how the metre and the imagery have been ripped away from the original poems. And please don't be tempted to translate the verse back into English as that would be just as pointless as McWatt's original translation. The whole Scots dialect thing is paraded for comic effect; we can imagine arty Glaswegians professing to understand all the Scots because it is their language (and requires less effort to learn than the real language of Gaelic), yet failing to agree with each other about what the words actually mean.
Hame is an absolute gem of a work; relatively long and at risk in the early sections of not having enough of a story to hang together. But as the book builds momentum, so the stories build and the multiple strands come together. The ending - the twist - is perfectly predictable but no less funny for its obviousness. It is rare to coe across a book with quite so much going on and for it all to land.
By Rod Beecham
Dear BGO Members,
I write to draw your attention to my eBook, ‘The Evidence of Our Senses’: Language, Belief and Britain’s Great War. The book is the product of a student of English literature whose interest, in postgraduate years, turned more specifically to history and the relationships between language, patterns of thought and decision-making. The book examines the confection of a British sense of national identity during the second half of the nineteenth century and relates this to the illogicality and irrationality of the British decision to intervene in the European war that broke out in 1914. It examines the language of English poetry of the war, avoiding the sterile labels of ‘pro-‘ and ‘anti-‘ war verse. It gives the most thorough account to date of Siegfried Sassoon’s 1917 protest against the war’s continuation, demonstrating that the incoherence of that protest is attributable to the incoherence of the war itself (i.e. there was nothing identifiable against which to protest). It reviews British military conduct of the war, demonstrating that the shortcomings of senior British commanders are attributable to their subscription to the meretricious value-system confected in the nineteenth century. It reviews the Treaty of Versailles, confirming both that the Treaty was an improvisation and that the tenets of economic orthodoxy are fundamentally incompatible with a world-view that accepts the possibility of war. It reviews the factitious ‘war-books’ controversy of 1930 and indicates that latter-day attempts to attribute negative British perceptions of the First World War to the influence of a handful of literary works are recrudescences of the mind-set that created the war itself. In this sense, the book is an allegory of the contemporary Zeitgeist. An earlier version of Chapter One appeared as, ‘Confecting a British Identity’, in The New Nationalism and the First World War, ed. Lawrence Rosenthal and Vesna Rodic (Basingstoke and New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), pp. 19-46. An earlier version of Chapter Three was delivered as the paper, ‘Gesture and experience in “patriotic” and “anti-war” poetry’, at the English Association Conference, ‘British Poetry of the First World War’, at Wadham College, Oxford in September 2014. An earlier version of Chapter Seven appeared as, ‘Fiction and Memoir of Britain’s Great War: disillusioned or disparate?’, in the European Review of History: Revue européenne d’histoire, 22:5, 791-813. In an age of ‘fake news’ and labyrinthine relativism, I believe my book is extremely important. At the very least, it could start a discussion about the nature of truth and how we are to establish it. I think that is a discussion we need to have.
I hope I have not committed a solecism by advertising my work here. Of course, I hope that people will be interested in my book, but I understand that advertisements can be irritating!
By robert eggleton
Following is the most recent review published on the named blog (reprinted by permission).
A Universe On the Edge RARITY FROM THE HOLLOW. Robert Eggleton. Doghorn Publishing. Published 2012.
Lacy Dawn is a little girl who lives in a magical forest where all the trees love her and she has a space alien friend who adores her and wants to make her queen of the universe. What’s more, all the boys admire her for her beauty and brains. Mommy is very beautiful and Daddy is very smart, and Daddy’s boss loves them all.
Lacy Dawn, the eleven year old protagonist, perches precariously between the psychosis of childhood and the multiple neuroses of adolescence, buffeted by powerful gusts of budding sexuality and infused with a yearning to escape the grim and brutal life of a rural Appalachian existence. In this world, Daddy is a drunk with severe PTSD, and Mommy is an insecure wraith. The boss is a dodgy lecher, not above leering at the flat chest of an eleven-year-old girl.
Yes, all in one book.
Rarity From The Hollow is written in a simple declarative style that’s well- suited to the imaginary diary of a desperate but intelligent eleven-year-old – the story bumping joyfully between the extraordinary and the banal.
The central planet of the universe is a vast shopping mall, and Lacy Dawn must save her world from a menace that arrives in the form of a cockroach infestation. Look again and the space alien has made Daddy smart and happy – or at least an eleven year old girl’s notion of what a smart and happy man should be. He has also made Mommy beautiful, giving her false teeth and getting the food stamp lady off her back.
About the only thing in the book that is believable is the nature of the narrative voice, and it is utterly compelling. You find yourself convinced that “Hollow” was written as a diary-based autobiography by a young girl and the banal stems from the limits of her environment, the extraordinary from her megalomania. And that’s what gives Rarity From The Hollow a chilling, engaging verisimilitude that deftly feeds on both the utter absurdity of the characters’ motivations and on the progression of the plot.
Indeed, there are moments of utter darkness: In one sequence, Lacy Dawn remarks matter-of-factly that a classmate was whipped to death, and notes that the assailant, the girl’s father, had to change his underpants afterward because they were soiled with semen. Odd, and often chilling notes, abound.
As I was reading it, I remembered when I first read Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” at the age of 14. A veteran of Swift, Heller, and Frederick Brown, I understood absurdist humour in satire, but Vonnegut took that understanding and turned it on its ear.
In the spirit of Vonnegut, Eggleton (a psychotherapist focused on the adolescent patient) takes the genre and gives it another quarter turn. A lot of people hated Vonnegut, saying he didn’t know the rules of good writing. But that wasn’t true. Vonnegut knew the rules quite well, he just chose to ignore them, and that is what is happening in Eggleton’s novel, as well.
Not everyone will like Rarity From The Hollow. Nonetheless, it should not be ignored.
by Bryan Zepp Jamieson