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Friday, 3 August 2018

Book review: The Rapids, Sam Twyford-Moore (2018)

I feel almost ashamed to give this book a negative review, but there’s nothing for it. Reading it was like watching an articulated truck backing from a busy city street into a narrow laneway. Lots of beeping and shouting but not much movement.

The author wants to talk about his mental illness and he frames his narrative within the finicky structures of a simulacrum of Joan Didion but there’s little of real substance and none of the subtle insights that his model achieved in her journalism during the post-war period. Didion’s specialty was the ability to look at things sideways so that they suddenly appeared to be quite different from what you had learned to expect. It was a type of “making strange” that we usually go to poetry to find.

That she managed to make this style credible in the normally unimaginative world of journalism is nothing short of phenomenal and she is right to be hailed as a pioneer. But the ways that people use the discoveries she unearthed can often fail, as in this case, to provide the same wisdom she delivered in her published pieces.

But Didion was writing in an era when high art still provided subtlety, irony, and nuance. The author Vladimir Nabokov said that art should never be made to be in the service of ideology, and given his background (his family were dispossessed of their land after the October Revolution and he ended up living in Germany in a community of emigres) that is not a surprising thing to hear from him. His brilliant 1938 novel ‘The Gift’ (which was finally translated into English in 1963) has a long chapter about a Russian writer, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, who was said to have been Lenin’s favourite author. Needless to say, Nobokov ripped into him with a vengeance for his use of literature to push an ideological line. The novel when it first appeared was so controversial in the community that this chapter of it was omitted in the publication the rest of it appeared in, even though the émigré community was largely politically against the Soviets.

But now Nabokov’s dictum has been forgotten and we are constantly reminded of the utility of art in blockbuster movies based on superheroes adapted from children’s comics, where different characters “stand for” something or “represent” a certain set of values.

We live in a humourless and black-and-white era where your work if you are an artist is put to use in larger public debates in order to achieve well-defined policy outcomes and, if possible, the implementation of legislation that favours one sector of the community or another. And online the debates that are carried out are characterised by intolerance and incivility as people declare their allegiance to one team or the other in the never-ending battle for ideological supremacy that threatens to undermine the very foundations of pluralistic democracies everywhere they exist. The most extreme views online get the most shares and people will unthinkingly share views that agree with their own. This is the age of demagoguery.

Getting back to the book, it seemed to me as I was reading it that the author hadn’t understood his own illness or properly imagined the best way to write about it. The content of the book is undercooked but the delivery is over-thought.

I felt like sitting him down and talking to him about my own mental illness. You don’t have to imagine that the average person will not “get it”. People understand. You just have to be truthful. Don’t pussy-foot around, just tell people what it’s like.

And the work is everything, its likely reception immaterial. The frame around the work is just content for lame author interviews in glossy magazines that people read on weekends over smashed-avocado-on-sourdough. You don’t pitch your work to readers so that you look good on Instagram. You have to write with an eye to the centuries if you want to be a good writer.

Twyford-Moore came across as to me too well-educated for his own good. He aimed so high that it was impossible for him to orient his payload so that it could find a stable berth in the rocket he wanted to launch. A few sparks flew when he lit its fuse but the bloated thing never got off the ground and the whole shebang just sputtered fruitlessly until it fell over and the taper went out ingloriously with a fizz.

The other day as I was walking back down the street returning home from the city, I saw a child holding the hands of two adults, one on either side of him. As he walked along the pavement in his black-and-white jacket, he clung to these supports and danced with his feet, flinging one foot after the other out in front of him and making exaggerated steps, pretending to be a big person. It reminded me of Twyford-Moore and his borrowed armoury of stylistic devices. The ambition is enormous but the experience, knowledge, and artistic vision mean that the execution is defective.

I managed to read to page 19 when the choice between pulling my hair out or putting down the book became urgent. There are 280 pages in the printed book. Including a blessed bibliography.

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