21 Jan

The Long Take (Robin Robertson)

This is an unusual book that feels like it shouldn’t be unusual. A long poem or verse novel set in the post-WWII USA, The Long Take is accessible enough that I can easily imagine a world in which it kicked off a popular interest in its form. Perhaps if it had won the 2018 Booker, for which it was shortlisted, this wouldn’t feel like the kind of thing only bookish weirdos with English degrees read, novels-in-verse would be less of a rarity, and I wouldn’t have found this one in a remaindered book shop at a knock-down price.

Then again, The Long Take does suggest some reasons for the cynical to doubt it ever had a chance at mainstream popularity. Its cinematic motifs trigger the thought that poetry is not a form amenable to lucrative film or TV adaptations. (2018, incidentally, was the first year a graphic novel was longlisted for the Booker; I understand that form has had some success in the world of moving pictures.) The poem also puts across quite strongly the idea that human people might be more important to our cities than cars and car parks, a position this country is deeply suspicious of.1

I’d like to live in a world where there were more books like this on the shelves, but so far I have made no effort to seek them out for my own shelves, so I can’t really complain. Perhaps there are loads of recent verse novels out there waiting for me. If so, I’m grateful to The Long Take for prompting me to look for them; if not, I’m just grateful to have chanced across this one.

But I’ve seen what happens to people who seem unsympathetic to car parks on the internet, so to placate the most tedious 🤣-posters on Facebook, I award The Long Take no stars. ☆☆☆☆☆

  1. It’s not that hot on other ideas expressed herein, like ‘war is bad’ or ‘poor and disabled people count as people’, but it at least knows it ought to pretend sometimes. 

10 Jan

The City and the City (China Miéville)

I’m always delighted to approach books (and other works) with as little knowledge about them as reasonably possible. (If you’re the same, and you haven’t read The City and the City, then please forgo reading this post, which contains conceptual spoilers if not plot ones.) This novel, which sat vaguely on my reading list for some time until I received it as a Christmas present, occupied a middle ground: I vaguely knew the central conceit of its setting, but nothing beyond that.

How delightful, then, to discover that my understanding was wrong. I had The City and the City categorised as sci-fi; I thought its twin cities Besźel and Ul Qoma occupied the same physical space through some quirk of physics or magic. The novel doesn’t outright contradict this, but it certainly doesn’t require it: the two cities, and the skin between them, are seemingly constructed entirely in the minds of their citizens. The City and the City isn’t sci-fi: it’s polsci-fi.

And the real trick is that these two strange cities aren’t really all that strange. Detectives’ frustrations over jurisdictional issues are familiar from a thousand more conventional police procedurals. Citizens mark their belonging by dress and manner, as they do everywhere else on Earth. Their borders are imagined; so are ours. The difference is merely topological, but it is a difference that provides a valuable lens through which to view borders and nationality and citizenship. (And perhaps the topology isn’t so strange after all: the UK’s hostile environment shows us all too clearly that borders don’t stop at the border.)

The blurb of my copy tells the reader that the protagonist ‘must travel to the only metropolis on Earth as strange as his own, across a border like no other’. That’s the promise that gets the novel off the shelf: what makes it great is that the promise is a lie.

For misleading me in this way, I award The City and the City no stars. ☆☆☆☆☆

06 Jan 11:05
The most annoying thing about the unending BBC News notifications about the royal family is that I can’t even reasonably claim it’s an inappropriate thing for the national broadcaster to consider important.
05 Jan 19:02
Delighted by my son’s Duplo Jurassic World magazine, in which a successful dinosaur zoo ticks along nicely with only very mild incidents and nobody gets hurt.