Wednesday 27 April 2016

The Panoptican & The Sunlight Pilgrims - Jenni Fagan

The narrator of Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon is Anais. She is 15, working class and she is TROUBLE. She takes drugs and starts riots, she fights and skives off school, she is disrespectful, she steals, she joyrides. She hates the police and any other authority figures. She is wildly out of control and it’s hard to know if you or I would be able to cope if we had a real Anais in our life.
   But she is honest too and hates bullies. She is fierce, charismatic and electric. I can remember a girl a bit like her at school—quite clever and funny when she wanted to be but always clashing with teachers, getting in fights, skiving, seemingly high on something or other a lot of the time. But she had a kind of integrity too—there was a hint of kindness behind the angry public fa├žade and she never tormented people. Of course we’ve all come across disruptive people who ARE bullies and seem to have few redeeming features and it’s then much harder to sympathise with the reasons that might influence their poor behaviour.

   As the novel begins Anais is in the back seat of a police car being taken to a young offenders’ home called the Panoptican. For those of you who don’t know, a panoptican is “a circular prison with cells so constructed that the prisoners can be observed at all times”. In a world where we are increasingly observed in every aspect of our lives - think security cameras and social media for instance - it would seem to be quite a potent symbol for our consideration and Fagan makes good on it. Indeed the novel makes you think about the things that people watch for and, crucially, all the things we fail to see or don't want to see.

   In the course of the novel you discover a lot about Anais’s past and about the lives of other teenagers at the home. On one level this might not sound too unusual but there are several reasons to recommend Fagan’s brilliant first novel. First is Anais’s voice - funny, irreverent, shocking, thoughtful, defiant, tormented, sad, sincere. She has a punk heart and she is a rebel and a fighter. You’d want her on your side and you’d want to be on hers. Secondly it is worth asking how many novels concentrate on working class lives? Not that many is the answer. And next how many do so without coming off as too worthy or didactic or idealistic? Hardly any. Instead Fagan gives us a novel charged with electricity and righteous anger. It rages at injustice, inequality and stupidity as it makes you laugh and cry. Thirdly, if you choose to examine them there are weird and uncanny moments in the text and philosophical ideas to contemplate too. When I'm recommending to our students I have to warn them there is a LOT of swearing, some sex and some very upsetting bits. Sometimes you see straight away that the wisdom of a book has been hard won and that the electrifying writing is a mixture of hard graft and a singular sort of thinking and insight. The Panoptican is one of those novels. 
    I should point out that Fagan’s treatment of sex, sexuality and gender in The Panoptican is pitch perfect. In her new novel The Sunlight Pilgrims she puts gender firmly at the centre of the novel. It concentrates on three characters: after the death of his mum Dylan finds himself unexpectedly moving to a caravan park in a remote part of Scotland. There he meets 12 year old Stella and her mum Constance. Stella has, thirteen months previously, made the transition from boy to girl and is facing bullying, incomprehension and distaste from her peers and others in the community. There’s more. The novel is set in 2020. With climate change accelerating, all the cold water pouring into the sea from the Arctic is causing the North Atlantic Drift to cool precipitating a dramatic fall in temperatures throughout northern Europe. When the novel begins in November it is already minus 6 degrees and getting colder and colder all the time.

   There are lots of reasons to recommend The Sunlight Pilgrims as it has many of the qualities of The Panoptican and I could read Fagan’s prose all day (she is also a poet) but what struck me most is this. At one point Stella ponders her situation:
Before it was just poverty, pestilence, terrorists, paedophiles, drugs, eating disorders, online grooming, meteors skimming a bit too close for comfort. Now every single person in this hall looks like they are terrified they’re all about to become frozen corpses”
   So in a world going (gone?) mad, the novel is asking: How do you find ways to live and still appreciate the moments of wonder in our existence? Perhaps even with bravery, integrity and kindness in spite of all our pain and bafflement? It would be SO easy to offer answers that are banal or nihilistic. Fagan just about manages to get the tone of her novel right by giving us hope, determination and wonder instead. The structure, symbolism and the mode of storytelling is striking - stream of consciousness flights of fancy mixed with beautiful descriptions of nature wrapped around a core of fable and fairy tale. Fagan concentrates on fairly short moments in time so that you witness the thoueght processes of Stella and Dylan, their sensations, their trails of thought, their observations, their worries and emotions: their yearning and desire for simple pleasures. The chapter breaks are fascinating too (and worthy I suspect of further investigation). There are passages that will live with me for some time: Dylan's walk in Chapter's 9 & 10, Stella's bike ride with the deer, are evoked lyrically and precisely; with great emotion and a touch of the surreal. I love the fierce and tender love of Constance and Stella and the voices and ways of thinking Fagan gives her characters. 
   Few novels have made have provoked and prodded me quite as much as this one all year even though Fagan's novel is essentially a kind and hopeful one. The reasons I suspect, are personal. I'm having a hard time knowing how to live at the moment. It feels like the world is going to fuck - with the Tories and Trump, and climate change, and refugees being treated like dirt and so on and on and on. And on top of that I'm lonely and dissatisfied; unmoored with no idea what to do with my life or how to make a difference. And it feels like I'll never get to love or be loved again. I try to tell myself to just do it day by day. To have small goals, be kind, drink less, go to the gym. The usual stuff. And yh, I know - first world problems and all, but its not easy at the moment. But Fagan's novel has a belief in people that I can't quite connect to at the moment. It's not that I can't have pleasant and kind exchanges with people - it's that I feel no connection. Fagan's text takes connection for granted. Obvious of course that texts will hit you in different ways at different times of life but this feels like a falsehood at the moment. Most obviously it's the way the relationship between Dylan and Constance is figured that doesn't feel quite right - there's a bit of whimsy and romanticism that doesn't fit. I suspect other readers will feel differently.

    I waded through The Panoptican feverishly, all in one day. I didn't want to read The Sunlight Pilgrims as fast. Maybe because there are more weird and uncanny sections and more description but mainly I think there's more to ponder and reflect on. Both novels feel urgent and necessary.

   I can think of no greater compliment than to say whilst reading the novels I kept contrasting and comparing with some of my favourite British contemporary novelists: Ali Smith, Sarah Hall, MJ Hyland, Liz Jensen, Jeanette Winterson: yes, Fagan really is that good. I urge you to get reading.

Sunday 10 April 2016

Easter reading and a Clarke shortlist

Easter reading

It's been a good couple of weeks of reading as I've sought to catch up on all the speculative fiction from 2015 that I hadn't already tackled for the Kitschies and the BSFA. In addition to many of the books below I also reread Jackie Kay's Trumpet and finally got round to Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend. Both are glorious and highly recommended.

Clarke Shortlist

113 novels were submitted for the Clarke but I've only managed a handful (17) even though it feels like I've been reading nonstop for most of the year! I tend to go for the ones that have good reviews at Strange Horizons or by people like Adam Roberts and Nina Allan. The 17 are by: Atwood, Charnock, de Abaitua, de Bodard, Hutchinson, McDonald, Ness, North, Pinborough, Roberts, Robinson, Robson, Smythe, Taylor, van den Berg, Walton, Wright.

Then there are excellent novels that I've read and aren't on the Clarke list at all: Clade, Elysium, Dark Orbit, The Fifth Season, Making Wolf and of course A God In Ruins. This is a great shame as there seem to me to be some important novels here. Why isn't everyone talking about Jennifer Marie Brissett for example? If any of those were in contention I'd have to seriously reconsider my list!

Anyway my shortlist would be:

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson
The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts
The Shore by Sara Taylor
The Swan Book by Alexis Wright
If Then by Matthew De Abaitua
Glorious Angels by Justina Robson

Three of the books are relatively easy and pleasurable to read despite all their challenges. Otherwise Robson requires patience in the first half whilst De Abaitua requires patience in its second half. Wright is extraordinarily pleasurable throughout but perhaps, not easy. All of them are accomplished and ambitious, full of ideas and great writing. I don't believe for a minute that either Taylor or Wright will get on the shortlist unfortunately - too close to literary fiction - but I'd love to be proven wrong. I read Roberts and Taylor at the start of the year and I still find myself thinking about them. I would have reread them already if I had the time.

However I wish they'd go totes crazy this year and have a shortlist of eight as it would be good to see two other novels get some limelight. I'm not sure they have the same kind of complexity as those six above but they are perfectly formed. Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind by Anne Charnock made me feel a little like I do when I've read an Ali Smith novel (or story) - like I've had a conversation with a very clever, very imaginative, very kind human being and I feel better about the world and more open to its mysteries. That's a rare and lovely thing. I'm not sure whether Sarah Pinborough's The Death House is a YA novel or not but it really doesn't matter. I've seen comparisons made with Never Let Me Go, The Fault in Our Stars and The Girl with all the Gifts - novels I like and recommend to our students all the time - and seen criticisms too, mainly that it is too predictable. I think it's own thing though: the characterisation of its young protagonists is brilliant and throughout it feels as compelling as a Shakespearean tragedy. [sorry if you think that's hyperbole, but I don't care!] It doesn't matter that you guess what will happen because it's really not the point. Pinborough's novel is pitch perfect and I loved it. I'll be ordering copies of this (plus James Smythe's Way Down Dark and Zen Cho's Sorcerer to the Crown; we already have The Rest of Us Just Live Here obviously) for the school library immediately.

Either way that's an extraordinarily entertaining and intellectually challenging - not giving in to any kind of populism - shortlist. They are excellent novels and I'd happily read them all again immediately and discuss them. If I had to choose a winner? Aurora - it blew my mind in many, many ways. If not I'd like to see it go to Wright or Roberts.

I'm missing out some good novels of course. I admire those by Dave Hutchinson, Laura Van den Berg, Ian McDonald, and Margaret Atwood especially. 

And still on my list of the novels I really want to read soon: Speak, The Galaxy Game, The Three Body Problem AND Ancillary Mercy. I'm sure there are others I'd enjoy. Alas never enough time.  

More thoughts on individual books to come.