Book Reviews – April 2006

By David Clark

“Tooth and Claw”

T.C. Boyle, one of America’s most accomplished writers, is “totally committed to the short story”. This is his seventh collection, many of these have appeared in major American magazines, including “The New Yorker”, “Harper’s”, “Esquire” and “The Atlantic Monthly”.

The book brings his wit, energy and razor-sharp insight to bear on a variety of subjects: the two-strangers meet-in-a-bar of “When I Woke Up this Morning, Everything I Had Was Gone” and “In All the Wrecks I’ve Climbed Out of”; the natural world used as a metaphor, for example, the extinction of animals standing for the potential death of a couple stranded in the snow in “The Swift Passage of the Animals”or the cataclysmic strike of an asteroid representing the sudden death of a loved child in “Chicxulub”; and a deft satirization of a Disney-type community on “Jubilation”, where
the snap of a displaced alligator’s jaws out-trumps any film.

Boyle famously does his research. When a woman travels from Boston to New York in 1702 (“The Doubtfulness of Water”), her odyssey brings the smells, the feel of the time. In “Swept Away”, the reader is immersed in the Shetland Island – and its weather – along with its hero and heroine. A poignant lullaby is quoted (“Peerie mootie! Peerie mootie! O, du love, du joy, du Beauty! …”); and the twoword final sentence is perfect.

It may be that some will find one too many losers in these pages, addicts of alcohol, drugs or pessimism, whose confessional, blindly-reactive stance seem merely sordid, but no story is without its jolt of beauty or shock or fails to deliver startling descriptive clarity. Here is a deranged derelict striking another with a metal pole, “and there was that wet sound again, the percussion of unyielding metal and yielding flesh, and again, and again.” In the title story, a drifting young man finds himself suddenly, on the turn of a card, in possession of a caged animal, a cerval, and as the action develops, the banal, youthful funk of the “hero” can be wearisome. But nothing beats that last paragraph. Boyle is presenting experimenters, drawn from the counterculture. He’s looking at what happens when youth and reality collide.

If you only read one story here, don’t miss “Chicxulub”. This is how


“The Tent”

The Tent is a tiny book, 13 X 18 cms, with a thick dust jacket showing a faux naïf, woodcutty illustration, and embellished with a red marker ribbon. All the illustrations are by the author. What is it? It’s past Christmas, but it looks as if it belongs on the “cute gift book” pile. Don’t give up – it’s the latest from that prolific novelist, essayist, poet, myth-maker and demythologizer, Margaret Atwood. So, it must be good, right?

Nonetheless, it’s hard to classify what we have here, 35 short pieces – all with smart titles – not essays, not stories, but described by various reviewers as follows: “prose ripostes”, “a loose conglomeration of prose poems” and “the verbal equivalent of cartoons for grown-ups or satires”. Over twenty of the pieces (parables, poems, rants?) in the collection have been published previously.

Atwood is offering us the accumulation of her wisdom as a seasoned writer, her view of writing as a craft, her view of the world. In the title story, it is clear how bleak that view is, “You’re in a tent …. Made of paper. Paper won’t keep anything out. You know you must write … on the paper walls …. You don’t want to go out there … Some of the writing has to be about your loved ones and the need you feel to protect them ….. because not all of them can hear the howling in the same way as you do, some of them think it’s a picnic out there …”. Throughout these pieces, she is seeing a dark landscape, but bringing all her wit and ironic bite to the task of describing it.

Some pieces are intensely personal. In “Voice” she says, “What people saw was me. What I saw was my voice ballooning out in front of me like the translucent green membrane of a frog in full trill.” Is she burdened now,
with this voice? Has she said enough? Does she fear the
voice is dying? There is a definite flavour of
disillusioned rant around, but always leavened with her
accurate, skewering phrases and descriptions.
Amongst these Cassandra-like utterances is some
wonderful stuff, for example, a poem, “Bring Back Mom:
An Invocation”, which, if there was any justice in the
world, would stop all sentimental slop in the same vein
for good. Other great pieces are the scintillatingly
funny, “Three Novels I won’t Write Soon”, the divinely
satirical “Chicken Licken Goes Too Far” (give it your
teenager), the Faustian “Bottle” and the crisp joke of
“Our Cat Enters Heaven”.

All these inspired scribblings and drawings on the walls
of Atwood’s tent call for our attention – it’s always a
good idea to listen to the wise woman, even if there is a distinct whiff of self-indulgence here.

“Learning to Live in the Violent Society”

This book provides a remarkably broad outlook on both
human potential as well as human failings. Whilst the
initial discussion focuses on the manifold manifestations
of violence in society, the book seeks to present a more hopeful view of the future that goes far beyond the repetition of tidings of doom and gloom.

The message is that we can take measures to counteract
violence in society, that some of these measures are already in place, though much work still needs to be done. As Professor Moonman suggests, the challenge to humanity is not the elimination of violence as such, but, rather, its containment, through control and restraint. In the process of unfolding his argument, Moonman does not gloss over the extent of violence. He provides a detailed examination of trends in society, in the
workplace, the neighbourhood, on the roads, in hospitals and on holiday; violence is to be found everywhere. Global terrorism is not overlooked, and there are detailed vignettes and analysis of the state of terrorism
in many countries across the globe. The overall analysis clearly links all these different forms of violence, and
it is precisely this linkage that enables us to take a leap forward and envisage a brighter future.

This book’s particular contribution to the debate on violence is to demonstrate that we can learn from good practice in one area and seek to apply such lessons to other other areas of social life. Such a broad sweep approach leads to the realisation that a whole host of measures are already in place, in various policy areas, but that a more concerted effort is required. Effective measures require strong leadership and clear objectives, as well as involvement and participation from below. Moreover, because of the transnational nature of much current conflict, effective measures also require international collaboration in combatting terrorism, drug or people trafficking, or indeed football hooliganism.

The way ahead is already well signposted by good practice that currently exists. Thus, in combatting football violence, measures have been taken to provide better policing and surveillance, as well as restrictions on access. Yet, it is also at grassroots level that measures need to be taken to combat racism and violence, providing positive and constructive models of what society could be like. Community initiatives are already pointing the way. Initiatives such as FURD (Football
Unites, Racism Divides) in Sheffield, are working with young people and schools; the Millennium Volunteer project and Show Racism the Red Card, in other parts of the country, are also providing opportunities for individuals to take an active role in bringing about change in their own neighbourhoods, schools and clubs.

Such schemes cannot succeed on their own, but also require the willingness of public agencies to set a strong lead. Here Moonman is able to point to good practice as well as lament some of the lacunea in current practice. He cites an American manual on how to survive chemical, biological or nuclear emergencies as providing practical guidance as well as clear information. Yet, in Britain, information provided remains quite minimal, whilst the measure of preparedness on the part of public authorities is woefully inadequate. Trained cadres to deal with such emergencies do exist, but the resources devoted to emergency planning, devising procedures and stocking the necessary equipment falls far short of what is required.

Some of the measures that would be required for society to learn to live with violence are highlighted. Straightforward messages are essential, alongside educating the public about risks and practical steps
that can be taken in the event of an emergency. The media need to broadcast more programmes explaining the threat of violence and providing background information. The political leadership needs to provide reassurances to the public as well a real commitment of resources to deal with the issue of violence. There should also be increased international collaboration on such issues.

At the more local level, there is a need for restorative justice in relation to domestic violence and street crime, on the basis that the offender has a responsibility to the victim. Within communities, individuals need to feel that they can participate in an active manner and can make a positive contribution, as volunteers, mentors and facilitators, as well as having a direct input into policy making and decisions.

Much still needs to be done, but Moonman remains hopeful. We simply need to expand on what already exists, borrow ideas wherever they have been found to work, and take an enormous leap forward. This leap needs to take place at all levels of leadership in society, at local, regional, national and international level, as well as at grassroots level.