By the end, this novel really got under my skin. It is former Guardian journalist James Meek's first book since his highly regarded, wonderful book The People's Act of Love.
We Are Now Beginning our Descent is about a war reporter, Adam Kellas, and is partly set in Afghanistan, during the US-led invasion, partly set in the UK and the US, to where he travels to try and win the heart of a particularly complicated woman he falls in love with while in Afghanistan. There are lots of people who are pretty but who are 'only curators of their own beauty ... Astrid was one of those other ones, who inhabited her looks'.
Kellas's character has written a novel and the book is very good on journalists who want to write literature, which I found interesting. There's a couple of great scenes. SPOILER ALERT! One is where he trashes a London dinner party where his variously literary / media type friends are assembled and the second is in Afghanistan where he is with the Northern Alliance and his request for them to use a tank results in some enemy Taliban in a truck being incinerated (thus contravening a rather essential journalistic war reporting credo of non participation).
At the dinner scene, there is this wonderful rant by Kellas. It is obviously informed by an anxiety that he and his friends, who were obviously quite left-wing in their youth are now somehow sellouts. Kellas tells them:
'... the price of caring is set so low. You just have to say you care and you've paid. You don't have to give anything up ... You can talk as radical as you like here on the island and you can live such a, such a comfortable life and people'll still call you a Marxist. When you're so safe. Your house is safe, your money is safe, your family is safe. Your reputation is safe, and so's your sanity. Your British passport's safe. Even your spare time is safe. How can you write about so many jeapordised people so self-importantly when you're so unjeapordised yourslef? When did it happen that the people who stand up for the losrs began to be so afraid to lose anything at all?
The novel does not quite have the inspired conceits of People's Act of Love (SPOILER ALERT! the castration cult and the lost Czech unit and the escape from Siberian prisons with another inmate to use as potential food). But it has a raw, and I'm guessing here - autobiographical? - true edge to it.
In an interview with the Independent, Meek, who is an amazing journalist and wrote wonderful articles for the Guardian, seems dismissive of all things hackery.
'By the time he was grown up, Meek decided he needed a real
career. Journalism beckoned, but not for any glorious reasons. "I
needed to eat," he explains matter of factly. "More than that though –
I didn't want to be poor." He stills wonders, he says, whether such a
demanding career delayed his writing success – but then without its
experiences, perhaps his writing would lack its stirring worldliness.'
There's a rather great portrait of Meek, which you can see in full size on the article, by Mark Chilvers.
I loved Drown,
Junot Diaz's first book, a collection of short stories, published in 1996, which rippled
with atmosphere and sadness; he's from the Dominican Republic and lives
in New York. The stories were partly from his growing up and partly
from his experience as an immigrant.
There's two bits I remember from it. One of the characters sleeps with
an ex-girlfriend and wakes in the morning and she has gone and has
rifled through his jeans and taken his money, leaving his pockets
hanging outside the trousers "like elephant ears ... she didn't even
other to put those fuckers back in". And then there's a bit where a guy
is having an affair and takes his son with him to the woman's house and
he has to wait in the living room while his dad is upstairs. In the
family home the affair is this unmentioned phenomenon like a crater in
the living room.
Diaz, so feted in places like the New Yorker, has taken 12 years to publish his next book, his first novel. I enjoyed The Brief Wondrous Life
of Oscar Wao, though it perhaps does not dazzle quite so much as his
stories. It is funny and easy to read. I like the fuku, the curse that dooms Oscar's family, and the
evils of Trujillo make a great backdrop to the book. Trujillo, as he Guardian describes him, was the 'kleptocrat and Rwanda-style génocidaire who ruled the country from 1930 to 1961'.
The book won a Pullitzer, so must be pretty good. And it got lots of good reviews. The Guardian notes Diaz manages the transition from the short to the long form: 'Happily, unlike some successful short-story writers, he seems
comfortable with the impresario aspect of novel writing: making them
laugh, making them cry, bringing on the dancing girls and so on.'
This was an exhibition I saw a while ago at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, which has a nice cafe. I wondered about writing a blog about the cafe's in art galleries. I once had quite an embarrassing exchange with a guy in the lobby of the Met in New York.
Me: "Do I need to buy a ticket if I just want to go into the cafe?"