Adam Mars-Jones

Adam Mars-Jones’s novel Batlava Lake was published by Fitzcarraldo in June.

Make ’em bleed: ‘The War for Gloria’

Adam Mars-Jones, 27 January 2022

Goodhealth connects us with the world, illness forces us back onto ourselves. When Gloria Goltz, the title character of Atticus Lish’s second novel, The War for Gloria, in her early forties, clever, unfulfilled and the mother of a teenager, is diagnosed with the degenerative illness ALS, her life shrinks. Meanwhile her son Corey, who is fifteen when she is diagnosed, both acts as her...

Orificial Events: ‘The Promise’

Adam Mars-Jones, 4 November 2021

The appetite​ for an authoritative portrait of the new South Africa was both catered to and resisted by J.M. Coetzee’s Booker Prize-winning Disgrace, in which a narrative of disintegration and one of reconstruction were superimposed on each other, leaving it to the reader to decide which was the lower layer. (The last page might clinch it.) Twenty years later, Damon Galgut’s The...

There isn’t any inside! William Gaddis

Adam Mars-Jones, 23 September 2021

The reader’s experience of The Recognitions (this reader’s) is of being alternately abandoned and spoon-fed. How many times does a child from downstairs need to ask party guests to supply sleeping tablets for her mother for the reader to understand these are irresponsible people? In The Recognitions it happens four times. 

At first glance​ the title of Sarah Schulman’s remarkable history of the Aids pressure group ACT UP in New York has a cool authority at odds with the turbulent energy of the group itself, although justified by the meticulousness of her scholarship. Let the Record Show was also the title of a 1987 agitprop artwork devised by a collective that later called itself Gran Fury, and...

LightPerpetual starts with a description of a V2 about to explode on a Saturday in 1944. The tone is one of uneasy technological rapture: ‘a thread-wide front of change propagating outward from the electric detonator, through the heavy mass of amatol’. Francis Spufford has written about rockets before, in his non-fiction, engaging imaginatively with the Russian space race in

Human Origami: Four-Dimensional Hinton

Adam Mars-Jones, 4 March 2021

Charles Howard Hinton​ was a Victorian mathematician and theorist of the fourth dimension, the scandal of whose conviction for bigamy led him to lose his job as a schoolmaster and to exile himself with his family, travelling first to Japan and then to America. Mark Blacklock’s novel shrewdly and even slyly manages to reflect Hinton’s theories without staking the success of the...

Thetitle of Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s first novel, a bestseller in their native Holland and the winner of this year’s International Booker Prize, makes it seem like an Italian metaphysical painting, perhaps a de Chirico piazza or colonnade enigmatically bathed in Mediterranean light, when in fact the book is set on a Dutch dairy farm like the one on which its author was raised.... Jenny Offill

Adam Mars-Jones, 2 July 2020

During​ the US presidential campaign of 2016 Louis Amis wrote a scabrous satirical story from the point of view of a member of Trump’s team, a daring exercise in fantasy that was revealed as hopelessly timid when the election result was announced. Jenny Offill’s novel Weather is an attempt to grapple with a future that is hard to inhabit imaginatively, the consequences of climate...

Thetitle of Fernanda Melchor’s unrelenting novel brings together disruption and regularity, a break in the pattern but also the pattern that underlies the break. Early in the novel reference is made to a particularly apocalyptic hurricane that results in a disastrous landslide and an avalanche of mud. We’re told the event took place in 1978, but for the impoverished Mexicans...

Reminder: Mother: Helen Phillips

Adam Mars-Jones, 2 January 2020

HelenPhillips’s disconcerting new novel starts on a note of thrillerish urgency. Molly, at home alone with her small children, hears footsteps in the other room. She clasps them to her, though she needs to move away from them if she is to defend them. Ben, the baby, is too young to feel a sense of emergency, but Viv, at three, is old enough both to co-operate and to do the opposite...

Faithful in the Dusk: Tessa Hadley

Adam Mars-Jones, 15 August 2019

The autumnal title​ of Tessa Hadley’s new novel, almost in the resigned mode of Barbara Pym, is both truthful and deceptive. Relationships of love and friendship with deep roots in the past are thoughtfully examined, but the occasion is a drastic severing, placed on such an early page as to be exempt from any embargo on the revelation of plot. Zachary Samuels, who runs his own London...

A bid​ of ‘Misère’ in a game of solo whist means that the player undertakes to lose every trick – it’s a sort of grand slam in reverse. Dag Solstad’s contract with the reader, on the basis of these two books, is similar: he undertakes not to make the best of his materials, producing an apparently methodical collapsing of novelistic machinery. The...

In​ the acknowledgments to Her Body & Other Parties Carmen Maria Machado strikes a note of respect for her predecessors that isn’t far from abasement: ‘Every woman artist who has come before me. I am speechless in the face of their courage.’ The stories in the book don’t really match this, their attitude being closer to a productive impertinence. In...

Oud, Saz and Kaman: Mathias Enard

Adam Mars-Jones, 24 January 2019

Behind​ its grand and oblique title, derived rather surprisingly from Kipling, Mathias Enard’s new book is a fictional account, no more than novella length, of a visit by Michelangelo to Constantinople in 1506. Sultan Bayezid II had already commissioned a design for a bridge over the Golden Horn from Leonardo da Vinci, and rejected it. Now Michelangelo, far from immune to rivalrous...

Big Books

Adam Mars-Jones, 8 November 2018

A big​ book is a big evil. That’s what Callimachus said, but really, what did he know? A book wasn’t a bound and folding thing for him, a codex. He could only have known scrolls, like the ones that toga-wearing actors consult with bogus assurance in plays set in classical times, as if what they were holding was some sort of Kindle-in-waiting. And in the 1960s anyone who...

The First Time: Sally Rooney

Adam Mars-Jones, 27 September 2018

Normal People doesn’t bear much resemblance to apprentice work. The evenness of Rooney’s attention is a huge asset, page by page, and the sign of an unusual sensibility. The only question is whether she gives quite enough shape to the story of ‘the chemistry between two people who, over the course of several years, apparently could not leave one another alone’. The exemplary architecture of sentence and page has no real equivalent on a larger scale, and the meticulousness and lack of hurry that are so effective locally work against a sense of climax or growth, producing a final impression almost of fizzle.

I’m a Cahunian: Claude Cahun

Adam Mars-Jones, 2 August 2018

Rupert Thomson’s​ new novel follows the contours of a remarkable life. Lucy Schwob, born in 1894 to a cultured and prosperous Nantes family, moved to Paris in 1920, where she developed strong links with the Surrealist movement and adopted the name Claude Cahun. Though she produced work in a number of media, and in her lifetime was known as a writer, she is now remembered for her...

Leaves Sprouting on her Body: Han Kang

Adam Mars-Jones, 5 April 2018

Han Kang​ won the International Man Booker Prize in 2016 for The Vegetarian and The White Book is the second novel of hers to be published in English since then. This rate of publication telescopes the appearance of her books in the original Korean (The Vegetarian was published in that language in 2007) but even so her development has been rapid, with remarkably little overlap of theme or...

The essay​ can seem to be the cosy heartland of belles-lettres, a place where nothing urgent is ever said. Recently, though, publishers have seemed willing to take on and even promote this landlocked genre. Notting Hill Editions, which publishes essays exclusively, has established a prize of £20,000 for an unpublished submission of up to 8000 words. Fitzcarraldo awards a prize of...

Endocannibals: Paul Theroux

Adam Mars-Jones, 25 January 2018

Big families​ are rare now in the West – even Catholic countries in Europe aren’t exactly prolific, though Ireland holds out against the trend – but even when they were commoner in life they didn’t loom large in fiction. Literature isn’t a branch of sociology, and drama favours a stage without too much human clutter. Veronica, the narrator of Anne...

Mike McCormack​, the winner of last year’s Goldsmiths Prize with Solar Bones, could seem to be redressing a balance by making his book a single undivided utterance. A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, the novel by Eimear McBride that won the inaugural prize in 2013, was prodigal in its use of full stops: there were often three or four in a line of print. By banishing the mark altogether...

Tied to the Mast: Alan Hollinghurst

Adam Mars-Jones, 19 October 2017

Alan Hollinghurst​’s tally as a published novelist is six books over 29 years, so that’s more than two thousand pages of astonishing responsiveness to light, sound, painting, the past, social nuance, music, sensation both sexual and otherwise, buildings inside and out, the inner life of sentences – this is only the beginning of a list. He is saturated in the literary past...

Constellationality: Olga Tokarczuk

Adam Mars-Jones, 5 October 2017

Olga Tokarczuk’s​ novel Flights could almost be an inventory of the ways narrative can serve a writer short of, and beyond, telling a story. The book’s prose is a lucid medium in which narrative crystals grow to an ideal size, independent structures not disturbing the balance of the whole. Thirty pages seems to be the maximum dimension for her purposes – only one story...

There’s​ a strange moment in Ha Jin’s new novel when the narrator, Feng Danlin, an expatriate Chinese journalist writing on culture and politics for an independent news agency based in New York, is asked by one of the organisers of a festival of Chinese culture, held in Berlin, to assess a dozen or so translated novels that have been chosen as representative of modern writing in...

John Maltby​, the studio potter and sculptor, used to say that you can’t make a teapot about your father’s death. Grayson Perry’s whole career assumes the opposite, that you can express any amount of personal and social comment through traditional forms of craft, not just pottery but tapestry and textile design: the Tate sells a printed silk headscarf of his that...

These eight stories​, by the author of last year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Sympathiser, are clear-eyed and effective, uniform in length, evenly pitched in tone. Viet Thanh Nguyen dedicates the book to ‘all refugees, everywhere’, but his focus is on those who came from Vietnam and settled in California. There are nuances of displacement, and in some ways the...

The Pills in the Fridge: ‘Christodora’

Adam Mars-Jones, 30 March 2017

The Christodora​ of Tim Murphy’s novel is a New York apartment building, ‘handsomely simple’, built on the corner of Avenue B and 9th Street in the 1920s. By the 1980s the area had become known as the East Village, and the building had come down in the world. After a fire it was refurbished and turned into a condominium, in which Steven Traum, an urban planner, bought an...

V-2 into Space: Michael Chabon

Adam Mars-Jones, 2 March 2017

Every​ now and then a novelist produces a book that has a novelist at its centre, bearing his actual name (the condition affects males disproportionately) and drawing on aspects of his life that are in the public domain, while also exercising the freedom to invent. This isn’t done because of a shortage of real-world material, let alone from self-importance – it’s an...

Even My Hair Feels Drunk: Joy Williams

Adam Mars-Jones, 2 February 2017

Hard to imagine​ a brisker, bleaker opening than this one from the title story of Joy Williams’s 2004 collection, Honoured Guest:

She had been having a rough time of it and thought about suicide sometimes, but suicide was so corny in the eleventh grade and you had to be careful about this because two of her classmates had committed suicide the year before and between them they left...

Even with the support of the Shakespearean framework the murder plot seems very thin. All the boldness has gone into the choice of point of view, leaving nothing left over for the world outside the womb. True, Claude the property developer is in need of money (he’s down to his last quarter million), and would dearly like to get his hands on the house in Hamilton Terrace, while Trudy’s love for John has turned to an exasperated hatred, made fully toxic when she discovers, or imagines, that he has a new partner of his own. But somewhere along the line what started out as cosmic tragedy has turned into an example of the despised Hampstead novel.

Chop and Burn: Annie Proulx

Adam Mars-Jones, 28 July 2016

The ‘barkskins’​ of Annie Proulx’s huge and hugely unsatisfying novel should by rights be trees – things that have bark for skin – but she attaches the word to people who are involved with trees in whatever capacity, destructive or protective. She preserves a certain amount of ambiguity, just the same, delaying the word’s appearance in the text until...

The Unpronounceable: Garth Greenwell

Adam Mars-Jones, 21 April 2016

The practice​ of modelling in negative space, making absent volume perform as part of the dynamism of the whole, is a standard technique in visual arts, in sculpture above all, but there is a parallel set of strategies available to writers, even if it doesn’t formally go by that name. When Rayner Heppenstall published Four Absentees, his version of an autobiography, for instance, he...

Sight, Sound and Sex: Dana Spiotta

Adam Mars-Jones, 17 March 2016

Long before​ electronic media came up with the phrase, literature had been relegated to the status of preferred ‘content provider’ for films. Bestsellers achieve special ontological status on the screen, and the classics get retrospective plastic surgery, so that Jay Gatsby receives the looks first of Robert Redford then Leonardo DiCaprio. Anne Hathaway’s blandly pretty...

Max Porter’s compact and splendid book, a polyphonic narrative with elements of the prose poem, cracks open a set of emotions that has become spuriously coherent and tractable. Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, in which a being that resembles Ted Hughes’s Crow appears to a bereaved husband and his sons (the father happens to be writing a critical book about Hughes), qualifies as a novel by the familiar logic of its not fitting any other category. It is rich in hints about the place, or non-place, of death in our lives.

Room 6 at the Moonstone: Bill Clegg

Adam Mars-Jones, 5 November 2015

Bill Clegg​’s novel starts with a bang, when an explosion destroys a house in a small Connecticut town and kills four people just before a wedding. The casualties are the bride and groom, the bride’s father and Luke, the young boyfriend of the bride’s mother – who had been a scandalous match for glamorous June in the eyes of the town, and not just by reason of his...

Sheer Cloakery: Joshua Cohen

Adam Mars-Jones, 24 September 2015

The​ American novelist Joshua Cohen arrives with the reputation of a wizard in the making, but his magic is as likely to blow every fuse in the house of fiction as transport it into a new dimension. There are wonderful things here cloaked with an invisibility spell, tucked away in the middle of the book, where only the stubbornest seeker after enchantment will find them. Three mighty...

The Love Object: Anne Garréta

Adam Mars-Jones, 30 July 2015

In Lord Dunsany’s​ 1936 novel, Rory and Bran, a fantasia on Irish folk themes, Rory’s parents worry about whether he can be trusted to take the cattle to market on his own. They decide that Bran should escort him, and feel confident that their rather dreamy boy will be well looked after. And so the pair set off. An English reviewer at the time remarked that Bran was rather...

As seen​ by the English-speaking world, the Spanish Civil War was a screen on which certain images could be projected, images of harsh sunlight, moral clarity and sacrifice. It was an emblematic, almost allegorical war and a test case for conscience, a political crisis so thoroughly appropriated that the Penguin Book of Spanish Civil War Verse hardly needed to point out that its...

Shovelling Clouds: Fred Vargas

Adam Mars-Jones, 23 April 2015

Devotees​ of the gritty police procedural must brace themselves for shocks when they enter the world of Fred Vargas, whose fine detective stories have won her three International Daggers. In her new novel, Temps glaciaires, a man is brought in for interrogation in connection with four murders. He is offered wine, and not just any wine but the 2004 white that Commandant Danglard sources from...

Micro-Shock: Kazuo Ishiguro

Adam Mars-Jones, 5 March 2015

It’s typical​ of Kazuo Ishiguro’s low-key, misdirecting approach to the business of fiction that, although the book contains such creatures as dragons and pixies, the buried giant of his new novel’s title should be an analogy explained only a few pages before the narrative ends. The revelation comes as a micro-shock or nano-coup, a slow burn converging on a fizzle....

Ghosts in the Picture: Daniel Kehlmann

Adam Mars-Jones, 22 January 2015

Daniel Kehlmann​’s new novel, F, takes the risk of starting with a set piece. The first sentence runs: ‘Years later, long since fully grown and each of them enmeshed in his own particular form of unhappiness, none of Arthur Friedland’s sons could recall whose idea it had actually been to go to the hypnotist that afternoon.’ The risk is that a memorable opening...

Diary: Dad’s Apology

Adam Mars-Jones, 20 November 2014

My father​’s background in congregationalist Denbighshire was teetotalitarian: his own father took only one alcoholic drink in his life, and that was (fair play) a glass of champagne at my parents’ wedding reception. I imagine him choking it down as if it were sparkling rat poison. The early prohibition left traces: not having a taste for beer, Dad rather disapproved of pubs,...

A Town Called Mørk: Per Petterson

Adam Mars-Jones, 6 November 2014

Per Petterson​ makes a small detour in the course of his latest novel’s action, as he steers one of his characters into a bookshop to pass comment on the major Scandinavian cultural export of recent years:

All the new fiction, I didn’t know any of the authors’ names, and on two long tables there were three stacks of fat crime books next to each other, most of them...

Room Theory: Joseph O’Neill

Adam Mars-Jones, 25 September 2014

If the first page​ of a novel is its front door, then the epigraphs that some writers like to install on the approach to it correspond to value-adding features such as carriage-lamps or stone lions, often having more to do with the resident’s self-image than with the architecture. Grandeur has its obligations: if your three epigraphs are from Antigone, Bunyan (Grace Abounding) and...

A Family of Acrobats: Teju Cole

Adam Mars-Jones, 3 July 2014

It’s​ not entirely clear which of Teju Cole’s books, Open City or Every Day Is for the Thief, has seniority. Open City made a strong impression when it appeared in 2011, and now Every Day Is for the Thief has arrived in consolidation, though it first appeared in Nigeria in 2007. Neither book offers much of the structure or imaginative texture of fiction, with Open City...

If Beryl Bainbridge​ had published, as her last novel, a satirical farce about the machinations behind a famous literary prize, she might have managed to weather the accusations of pique. Better yet if she had held it back for posthumous publication, to show that she could wait out her own ego. Anyone else is likely to be seen as settling a score rather than diagnosing the ills of the...

Reality Is Worse: Lydia Davis

Adam Mars-Jones, 17 April 2014

In her approach​ to story-writing Lydia Davis might almost have taken a vow of chastity, of the aesthetic sort publicised by the Dogme 95 group of filmmakers. Dogme principles included shooting on location, recording the soundtrack at the same time as the images (so as to exclude music other than what the characters could hear), using natural sources of light and a hand-held camera....

Diary: Not the Marrying Kind

Adam Mars-Jones, 20 March 2014

If there’s a spectrum of Celtic moods then my father tended towards its capricious end. Though he saw himself as rock-solid in the consistency of his principles, you could never quite tell how he would react to anything. The mixture of gravitas and unpredictability made him a remarkable judge, but it was less of a winning formula in the domestic setting of kitchen or sitting room. This was something I had to try to anticipate when I realised, in the late 1970s, that I would have to break the news to Dad that I belonged to the category he hated and feared.

‘Not I’

Adam Mars-Jones, 6 March 2014

Lisa Dwan​ has been performing Samuel Beckett’s immensely demanding Not I since 2005. What audiences saw at two short London runs this year, at the Royal Court in January and the Duchess Theatre in February (the production now tours), differed markedly from the published text, though this is not a body of work where experimentation is welcomed. A literary estate is more like a guard...

In the Egosphere: The Plot against Roth

Adam Mars-Jones, 23 January 2014

Claudia Roth Pierpont met Philip Roth at a birthday party in 2002. She was a fan, but managed not to alienate him with clumsy enthusiasm. A couple of years later he sent her a photocopy of a newspaper article he thought she might be interested in. They met for coffee and became more relaxed with each other. Later he recruited her as a member of the small rotating committee of friends, an editorial micro-minyan, to whom he sent drafts of his books. Roth Unbound has his blessing but wasn’t vetted by him, and Pierpont feels free to criticise his work.

Peroxide and Paracetamol: Alison MacLeod

Adam Mars-Jones, 12 September 2013

Hindsight is the way we make sense of the world, and the events and impressions of the morning are reworked any number of times before evening, with the result that any historical novel is bound to be as processed as spray-on cheese. What makes a narrative come alive is the Stendhal touch, a flick of the tail that propels the reader up past the rapids to a pool where things haven’t...

To go on a starvation diet in terms of the comma (including the inverted ones that designate speech), as Eimear McBride does in her remarkable, harshly satisfying first novel, may not seem a particularly drastic discipline, set beside such feats as eliminating the letter ‘e’ (Perec’s La Disparition, Englished by Gilbert Adair as A Void) or telling Ophelia’s side of the...

If Taiye Selasi’s debut novel was as fascinating as its acknowledgments pages the book would be a triumph. Acknowledgments in books have gone the way of Oscar acceptance speeches in recent years, with ever more exhaustive tributes – though in the case of a book no prize has yet been awarded. Selasi’s list contains more than 150 names, and begins: ‘I am so very grateful...

Darkness and so on and on: Kate Atkinson

Adam Mars-Jones, 6 June 2013

Kate Atkinson is in no danger of prosecution for misrepresenting goods. Life after Life does exactly what it says on the spine of the book, offering a number of versions of the life of Ursula Todd, born in 1910. These lives aren’t exactly alternatives: it’s unclear what happens to the (very slightly) variant worlds when she dies in them, but then how would this information be...

The screams were silver: Rupert Thomson

Adam Mars-Jones, 25 April 2013

Where Jim Crace’s Harvest refused all the conventions of the historical novel, Rupert Thomson’s Secrecy seems to run eagerly towards them, and yet the effect once again is of a genre being unpicked and rewoven.* A superabundance of signposts, it turns out, can be as disorienting as their absolute absence.

Exposition of period and person is almost caricaturally lucid in Secrecy,...

Beating the Bounds: Jim Crace

Adam Mars-Jones, 21 February 2013

Jim Crace is as much ‘out-of-pattern’ as the narrator of his new novel, a settled outsider. He can hardly even be said to resist the pull of publishing convention, any more than aluminium resists a magnet. He’s attracted to unlabelled, marginal or parenthetical times and places, environments that might seem unpromising as settings for fiction, even actively hostile to the...

Speak for yourself, matey: The Uses of Camp

Adam Mars-Jones, 22 November 2012

Back when the Independent was young and thriving, the paper used to sponsor lunchtime ‘theatre conferences’ at the Edinburgh Festival in association with the Traverse. The description ‘theatre conferences’ makes these public discussions sound starchier than they were. I was happy to do my bit chairing events in exchange for the train fare and somewhere to sleep. One...

The Casual Vacancy is as much an event as a novel – J.K. Rowling’s first book for adults! – but only the novel aspect can be reviewed. Incidental atmospherics don’t come into it – an astronomer trying to establish the composition of a comet will try to look beyond the streak it makes in the sky. On one level, nothing could be more natural than that a successful...

Draw me a what’s-it cube: Ian McEwan

Adam Mars-Jones, 13 September 2012

A penis in pickle, and a dreadful wife made to vanish into another dimension by means of an esoteric yoga pose. A narrator who rapes and murders his wife, gratified that the two climaxes coincide (‘I came as she died. That much I can say with pride. I know her death was a moment of intense pleasure to her’). When he wakes up he vomits on the corpse, a reflex of horror and remorse...

Anti-Dad: Amis Resigns

Adam Mars-Jones, 21 June 2012

To rate his achievement at its least, Martin Amis has been for upwards of 25 years the By Appointment purveyor of classic sentences to his generation. In Money he achieved something that was as much of a breakthrough for our insular literature as Bellow’s had been in The Adventures of Augie March for American writing, a manner electric, impure and unimpressed, except sometimes by itself, mixing refracted slang with swaggeringly artificial cadence. It seems astonishing that Money is now nearly as old as Augie March was when Money itself was published.

Mrs Winterson’s Daughter: Jeanette Winterson

Adam Mars-Jones, 26 January 2012

I was friendly with Jeanette Winterson in the 1980s – we even went away for a weekend together. I went slightly cool on the friendship, though she didn’t exactly do anything wrong. We ran into each other occasionally after the publication of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, and we once read to an audience of nine in Burnley (I doubt if even one of the nine was there to hear me). Otherwise my memories are from the period before she was ‘Jeanette Winterson’, the outsider who gatecrashed the canon, or alternatively the self-sabotaging golden girl and egomaniac who could never match that first success.

When the Costume Comes Off: Philip Hensher

Adam Mars-Jones, 14 April 2011

I remember being struck in the late 1970s by the vigour of gay culture in the American marketplace. Two novels were selling strongly and being urgently discussed: one was lyrical and would-be Proustian (Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance); the other was bilious and aspired to satire (Larry Kramer’s Faggots). I disliked them both, but that wasn’t the point. The point was...

Matthew Herbert’s Plat du Jour is an album of dance tracks united by the theme of food. Herbert has made a name for himself as a producer from collaborations with Róisín Murphy and Björk, but Plat du Jour is a different kettle of fish, a personal project that has taken a couple of years to devise and record. As the opening track makes clear – it’s called...

His Socks, His Silences

Adam Mars-Jones, 3 October 1996

Colm Tóibín’s frustrating new novel starts from a pleasingly skewed perspective: its narrator Richard Garay (less often, Ricardo) was brought up in Buenos Aires, child of an Argentinian businessman and an English woman who never adjusted to her new surroundings and clung in imagination to a country she had left in the early Twenties. She spoke to Richard always in English, and the combination of his flawless accent and fair colouring ensured that he grew up thinking of himself as English. It also enabled him to get work at a language school despite the mediocrity of his talent as a teacher. When Argentina invaded the Malvinas (the year after his mother died, thankfully, so that he was spared the inevitable chauvinism of her reaction) every-one expected him to be pro-British or at least divided in his loyalties. Instead he found himself part of a general mood of excitement and belonging, which afterwards people preferred to forget.

Cinematically Challenged

Adam Mars-Jones, 19 September 1996

This book by its own admission goes for breadth over depth in its consideration of disability in film. Like many a cultural archaeologist coming upon a rich site, Martin Norden does what Schliemann did at Troy and sinks his shafts in haste, turning up many treasures but profoundly disturbing the strata in the process.

Homophobes and Homofibs

Adam Mars-Jones, 30 November 1995

These three books show some of the range of contemporary gay thinking in Britain and America, and also manifest a clear hierarchy of intellectual ambition. Here are Gay Studies Advanced, Intermediate and also Rudimentary.


Adam Mars-Jones, 21 September 1995

When novelists tell us that the world is made of God’s love or the same green cheese as the moon, we expect them to dramatise their perception – to force their philosophy on us as a magician forces a card – so that we can see how it feels to share it, if only for as long as it takes to read the hook. The same expectation holds good when a novelist proposes, as Gordon Burn does in his new novel Fullalove, that not green cheese or God’s love but black pus – meaningless suffering, and an appetite for meaningless suffering – is the basic building-block of the universe.’

Doing It His Way

Adam Mars-Jones, 11 May 1995

Was it Randall Jarrell who defined a novel as a long piece of prose fiction with something wrong with it? By that yardstick, Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard is a novel thousands of times over. Timothy Mo has decided to go solo with this book, and has set up his own press for the purpose. This is not vanity publishing as that phrase is normally understood (Mo has in the past made money for himself and his publishers) but vanity certainly seems to come into it. What was intended as a declaration of independence reads as an inadvertent tribute to the missing – to the many people who, in the case of a conventionally published book, intervene with their skills between the originating ego of the novelist and the bookshop of final destination.


Adam Mars-Jones, 24 March 1994

The hero of The Fermata has an intermittent gift for stopping time, which he exploits entirely for purposes of sexual satisfaction, but Nicholson Baker’s trademark as a novelist has always been a fetishising descriptiveness that retards the speed of events almost to the point of non-existence and has in the past generated much literary joy. The ‘action’ of his first novel, The Mezzanine, consisted of the lunch-hour of a single working day, as experienced by an office worker, but time under the discursive microscope changed its nature. The trivial and quotidian were dignified by the attention given them, and the self-consciously important found no place in the novel’s scheme. Towards the end of the book the hero read in his Penguin Marcus Aurelius the gloomy aphorism that human life is no more than sperm and ashes, and felt no sympathy for it. The modest richness of his day refuted this downbeat Roman smugness.

Tomb for Two

Adam Mars-Jones, 10 February 1994

Praise The Father. Praise Sharon Olds. Celebrate the autobiographical mode in American poetry, its risks and rewards. Praise directness cut with understatement, starkness with an obliquity that can still take the reader off guard. Salute, with unease, elegies that are also episodes of psychodrama, stages of a struggle that bereavement alters in key but hardly interrupts.

Tweak my nipple

Adam Mars-Jones, 25 March 1993

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, which started appearing as a newspaper serial in the mid-Seventies, and in volume form a few years later, are little classics of light literature: in their lightness they outweigh any number of more earnest enterprises. Maupin’s San Francisco is a carousel lightly disguised as a city, a continuous party where everyone is welcome without any tedious obligation to fit in, and even the hangovers are fun.

In 1948, Tennessee Williams published a short story (and collection of the same title) called ‘One Arm’. It is about Oliver Winemiller, a magnificent young navy boxer who lost an arm...

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Zero Grazing

John Ryle, 5 November 1992

Seventy-four years ago a viral pandemic began in America, most likely on a pig farm in Iowa. Fifteen months later it had killed over eighteen million people, 1 per cent of the world’s...

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Plague Fiction

Charles Nicholl, 23 July 1987

It sounds like it’s something to do with helping, but that is very far from its meaning. I can’t remember when we first started hearing it; no more than five or six years ago, surely....

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Ugly Stuff

Ian Hamilton, 15 October 1981

William Trevor is bewitched by childhoods and by second childhoods: the ‘grown-up’ bit in between is for him a dullish swamp of lies, commerce, lust and things like that. For Trevor,...

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