Dartmoor is the setting of Joanna Briscoe’s new novel ‘You’. It is about the obsession and intensity of teenage love. Drawing upon her own experience in drama school, Esther Freud’s ‘Lucky Break’ uncovers a world of ruthless ambition, uncertain alliances and success. At Ways With Words, the authors discussed how they recall the emotions of youth for their novels.
At the Sharp End: 'Righteous citizens wielding hemp bags make me want to stand in the hall switching the light on and off'
At the risk of having one's recycling box tampered with by baying hemp wearers, how many of us secretly think that much of this green malarkey is a pile of organic horseshit?
Yes yes yes, I can see it's the most pressing issue of our time on a global scale. Without urgent action, we'll all collapse into a heaving pit of floods and flames that'll swallow half of us while forming a carcinogenic sun bed for the other; there should, indeed, be any number of Kyoto protocols, and all other issues of life, starvation and mole growth hang on this. But on a smaller scale, it's hard to get too exercised when so much ecological activity seems to be either risibly insignificant, an excuse for moralising, or plain hypocritical. I find I can neither get too excited about polar bears (too far away); nor about the twiddly, fiddly little efforts we obedient households are supposed to make to ensure our planet keeps ticking along nicely. Yet, like the thoroughly conditioned member of the chattering classes I am, I do exactly as I'm supposed to.
I run downstairs and switch on the eco lightbulb. It flickers lethargically into life, turns pink for a while, then emits a flaccid urine-coloured glow through its U-bend. One of my kids shouts at me to turn it off again. I chuck every bit of paper I've clutched on my way down into the recycling bag, uncomfortably wondering whether I'm supposed to tear out the plastic windows in envelopes that tangle with glass jars and rancid milk containers, all allegedly to be sorted by a green army in gloves. I switch off the dishwasher button as the red light will waste a few micro-watts of global resources. Another of my kids delivers a lecture about saving our planet. It's always "our" planet. Since when did the majority of the world's population have any ownership of the land, wealth or power that constitutes "our" planet?
As I hoik the recycling out in time for the weekly pick up, an inevitable wheezing traffic jam clogs my senses as the recycling juggernauts thunder into place, wasting fuel and then further energy and water in washing, recycling or dumping at some carbon-unfriendly distance. To me, the equation simply doesn't make sense, and we will probably never know the true answer. Just as all these righteous citizens wielding their hemp bags advertising major supermarkets that screw impoverished foreign farmers should think twice before they look so pleased with themselves, because perhaps the solutions aren't quite as simple as we like to think they are. It makes me want to clap at the remaining Chelsea tractor drivers' chutzpah and stand in my hall switching the light on and off for something to do. Does it really make sense to take a cheapo, ozone-busting flight and plant a sapling to appease our guilt or our disapproving neighbours? Not really.
Channel 4 got rapped on the knuckles for its controversial documentary The Great Global Warming Swindle, and while the evidence that global warming is a reality convincingly exists – and you only have to watch Al Gore's film to get a bit of a fright and turn down your heating for a day – any questioning of eco-activism is seen as heretical in a climate of hysterical moralising. But this obsession with green will be temporary. Green is the new black, but fashions change. It will disappear from our news awareness (along with all those carbon-guzzling green supplements on recycled paper with their style-free design to indicate serious intent), and be replaced by the next scare. Ecopolitics are a stick for us to beat each other with, and our culture needs sticks for us to feel good about ourselves. For years, it was smoking. Now that's been tamed with a series of atmosphere-free venues, the pious and indignant can get going on recycling. And this they do with all the venom of tabloid-reading tomato-chuckers bellowing at police vans on their way to the courthouse.
As the journalist and lecturer Oliver Bennett says, "I think thrift is a good thing, but the whole Al Gore hug-fest around green issues is a kind of cosy consensus. The people who used to go from village to village in 1550 telling people they were doomed if they didn't pray every day, are the same kind as many people around today. If you're not a believer, you deserve to be burned. It's a vehicle for morality, and people moralise in terms of environmentalism instead of Christianity. It's a socially acceptable way to express virtue."
Environmentalism is a vaguely left-wing cause célèbre – a way to show how you care. Yet there are so many inconsistencies, and such a market for green consumerism, which has all to do with business opportunity and little to do with the much-mentioned planet. Conspicuous unconsumption is where it's at. Do we still want to fly off on holiday? Yes we do and yes we will. There's little that excites people more than feeling guilt while indulging.
I'm sick of being glanced at askance for carrying a plastic bag. I'd make a dress out of mine, but that would probably be seen as some planet-saving bid. So I recycle every old Post-it note – you can't get me there – and I don't believe in what I'm doing for one moment.
Paul Auster has created what amounts to his own, self-referential fictional world over the years, and Invisible is packed with typical Auster tropes. This is his 13th novel, and at times he seems to be both celebrating and lightly mocking his own oeuvre. There is the oddly detached male narrator roaming New York; a random dramatic incident that alters the course of a life; ruminations on the nature of writing, language and identity; multiple narrators; stories within stories; and general intertextual gadding about. And, as ever, fragments of Auster himself seem to feature – in this case, divided into two characters.
Invisible concerns the young Adam Walker, "a tormented Adonis", a notably gorgeous and intellectually gifted Jewish American born in the same year as Paul Auster, who studies at the same university. Or does it? And is he? And does he? As so often with such playful meta-fiction, we are increasingly uncertain. As is later revealed, there are different takes on the past, as well as projections of desire that warp or reveal, and Invisible is not so much a tale told by an unreliable narrator as a series of harmonising and clashing testimonies.
However, this makes the novel sound more arcane than it is. It is so well paced that it rocket-charges the reader through all its games and structural devices, and is a tantalising page-turner of great – if deceptive – lucidity. If we follow the initial and most persuasive version of the story, we are in Manhattan in 1967, where Adam Walker, Columbia undergraduate and aspiring poet, meets visiting professor Rudolf Born and his girlfriend Margot. The subject of Vietnam is ever present, and Born is a man of contradictory and frequently explosive political opinions. Born flatters Adam by proposing that he finance a literary magazine to be edited by the gifted student, and so begins an alliance that sees Adam engage in an affair with Margot and witness the increasingly unstable Born murder a young man who threatens him.
The book segues within moments from dinner party chatter to calculated slaughter. This is the incident on which the novel turns, and which skews Adam's life, its legacy of guilt and fury determining the direction he will take. Born, "a burnt-out soul, a shattered wreck of a person", evades arrest by decamping to Paris. Shortly thereafter, Adam follows, clearly subconsciously impelled to seek retribution, and soon he's back in Margot's bed and on Born's radar. Born, with his "blur of sophistication and depravity", is such an extravagantly creepy character, given to brilliance, manipulation and rage, that both his presence and absence cast a shadow over the entire novel. Adam's plot to exact revenge on him is so ill devised that it fails to be entirely convincing.
The story is unexpectedly taken up in 2007 by an acquaintance of Adam's at Columbia, who is now a famous author. Enter Paul Auster Mark II (possibly). Decades are covered in a sketch: the happily married Adam Walker has never achieved literary success, working instead in legal aid as a result of his role in Born's escape from justice, and he is now writing his memoir as fast as he can before he dies. In the chapters and notes he sends to the author, he writes about the death of his brother in childhood, and his own consensual sexual relationship with his sister, an episode that is later reinterpreted by the sister herself.
With the satanic Born still at large, a desperate need to know – that primitive but vital fictional engine – sends the reader scurrying to a conclusion that is more satisfying in terms of its ideas than its emotional resolution. By this time, the voices of the two possible Paul Austers have merged into one, the tale returning to the first person via the second and third, the momentum of menace increasingly powerful. Some of our assumptions come clattering down around us in a strangely satisfying way and, in exposing the mechanics of his storytelling, Auster paradoxically achieves an intensely felt authenticity. This is a fascinating and highly accomplished novel.