Theo Tait

Theo Tait is deputy editor of the Week.

Dunthorne’s Punchlines

Theo Tait, 22 March 2018

The Adulterants is a very funny comedy of arrested development: a coming-of-age novel in which the main character is 33. Ray Morris is a shallow, infantile narcissist reluctantly facing the terrors of adulthood, in the form of his general lack of prospects, and the well-advanced pregnancy of his wife, Garthene, an intensive care nurse. (‘It is terrific to have a partner with the name...

Mohsin Hamid

Theo Tait, 16 November 2017

The real question​ raised by the refugee crisis of 2015, Mohsin Hamid wrote at the time, is ‘not whether the people of the countries of Europe wish to accept more refugees’. The real question is whether ‘they wish their countries to become the sorts of societies that are capable of taking the steps that will be required to stop the flow of migration’:


Hari Kunzru

Theo Tait, 26 July 2017

In​ 1903, W.C. Handy, the self-proclaimed ‘father of the blues’, was touring Mississippi with his band, the Colored Knights of Pythias, when he fell asleep at a railway station in Tutwiler, just south of Clarksdale, waiting for a long-delayed train. As he recorded in his autobiography, he woke with a start to hear the blues for the first time:

A lean, loose-jointed Negro had...

‘A Natural’

Theo Tait, 3 May 2017

The other day​ I heard someone summarise the plot of Tim Parks’s new novel. The synopsis went something like this: ‘It’s about a middle-aged writer, whose life is revolutionised by anal massage. And he has an affair.’ In that moment I was struck anew by the many excellent qualities of Ross Raisin’s new book. The school of writerly self-absorption has given us...

Jonathan Lethem

Theo Tait, 16 March 2017

Trying to make sense​ of Jonathan Lethem’s fiction as a whole is something of a fool’s errand: there is no easily discernible line from the early hipster science fiction to his big-selling detective story Motherless Brooklyn (1999), to his Cobble Hill coming-of-age novel The Fortress of Solitude (2003) to his intricate, ironic New York Buddenbrooks, Dissident Gardens (2013)....

J.M. Coetzee

Theo Tait, 3 November 2016

‘Growing detachment​ from the world is of course the experience of many writers as they grow older, grow cooler or colder,’ JC, the authorial surrogate in J.M. Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year (2007), writes.

The texture of their prose becomes thinner, their treatment of character and action more schematic. The syndrome is usually ascribed to a waning of creative power; it...

Raoul Moat

Theo Tait, 30 March 2016

When​ Truman Capote was looking for a news story to turn into what he called a ‘non-fiction novel’, he was initially concerned that such an event might date very quickly, that it might not have the ‘timeless quality’ he was looking for. Eventually, he settled on the killing of a farming family in Kansas, telling himself that ‘the human heart being what it is,...

Leonard Michaels

Theo Tait, 3 March 2016

A classic,​ according to Italo Calvino, is ‘a book that has never finished saying what it has to say’. I have read Sylvia by Leonard Michaels four or five times and I still don’t feel that I’ve got to the bottom of it. First published in 1992, it is a novel disguised as a memoir, or a memoir disguised as a novel, based on the author’s first marriage, to...

Le Carré

Theo Tait, 3 December 2015

You​ don’t need the detective powers of George Smiley, or a conspiratorial mindset, to divine that something odd is going on behind the scenes of Adam Sisman’s new biography of John le Carré. In the past, would-be biographers have been discouraged from poking their noses into the business of David Cornwell, the former spy who has written under that curious pseudonym since...

John Banville

Theo Tait, 19 November 2015

‘Have​ I said that before?’ the narrator of The Blue Guitar asks towards the end of the novel. ‘Nowadays it all feels like repetition.’ At this point in John Banville’s distinguished career it’s hard to ignore a sense that old ground is being worked over, again and again. It’s a safe bet that a new Banville novel will feature a male narrator, in...

David Mitchell

Theo Tait, 4 December 2014

David Mitchell​ is a career-long genre-bender. Only with his fourth book, Black Swan Green (2006), did he raid his own store of experience to write a first-novelish novel, a charming if low-key coming-of-age story, set in Worcestershire in 1982, full of references to Findus Crispy Pancakes, the Falklands War and playground slang. The rest of his work occupies the realm of pure story, with...

Ian McEwan

Theo Tait, 10 September 2014

For some years,​ I have nursed a modest hope concerning Ian McEwan: that one day he should write a novel without a catastrophic turning point, or a shattering final twist. That for once no one should be involved in a freak ballooning accident, or be brained by a glass table, or be wrongly convicted of a country-house rape; that no one should experience a marriage-ending bout of premature...

Water-Borne Zombies

Theo Tait, 6 March 2014

Near the end​ of H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, the Time Traveller finds himself on a desolate beach in the distant future. Under a lurid red sky, by a slack, oily sea, he is set upon by giant crabs, last survivors in a dying world – ‘foul, slow-stirring monsters’, with ‘vast, ungainly claws smeared with an algal slime’. If Wells were writing that scene...


Theo Tait, 6 June 2013

Dickens complained that ghosts ‘have little originality, and “walk” in a beaten track’. They are reducible, he said, ‘to a very few general types’: the chain-rattler; the ghostly walker or horseman; the forlorn-looking child; the pale doppelgänger; the wronged maid; the spirit of an evil ancestor whose painting hangs in a gloomy panelled hall; the friend...

Kevin Powers

Theo Tait, 3 January 2013

The book world has a tendency to go weak at the knees where men of action, and particularly soldiers, are concerned. If Dr Johnson was right that every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, then imagine the havoc the idea plays with book reviewing types, who spend whole days on the sofa and call it work. At any rate, the reaction to The Yellow Birds – the first...

Shark Attack!

Theo Tait, 2 August 2012

‘Many scientists don’t like to talk about shark sex,’ Juliet Eilperin writes in her entertaining study of sharks and their world. ‘They worry it will only reinforce the popular perception that these creatures are brutish and unrelenting.’ In as far as we understand the subject – only a few species have been observed mating – the business is ‘very rough’. Larger male sharks have to bite or trap the females to keep them around during courtship; marine biologists can tell when a female has been mating because her skin will be raw or bleeding.

Richard Ford

Theo Tait, 5 July 2012

The first two sentences of Richard Ford’s seventh novel have the ring of permanence about them: ‘First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.’ They encapsulate not just Canada’s events, but its mood and style, the balance of sensational goings-on with a ruminative, rueful delivery. They surprise, like...


Theo Tait, 7 June 2012

You might think that Adam Thirlwell, as an author of self-absorbed sex comedies, had no obvious credentials for writing about the Arab Spring (the title of his first novel, Politics, was a joke). But according to the narrator of his avant-gardeish new novella Kapow!, his lack of knowledge about the subject is what makes the project so interesting and avant-gardeish. At least I assume this is...

Ali Smith

Theo Tait, 26 January 2012

Last year’s Man Booker judges took a largely deserved kicking when they said they were looking for ‘readable’, ‘enjoyable’ books that ‘zip along’. But I felt some sympathy for Chris Mullin when he complained that the London literary world – ‘those who know best’ – had told him and his fellow panellists, from the outset, which...

Edward St Aubyn

Theo Tait, 2 June 2011

Edward St Aubyn began writing his Patrick Melrose novels in 1988. He finished At Last, the fifth and supposedly final book in the series, late in 2010. St Aubyn is a terrific prose stylist and, end to end, these 800 or so pages, covering more than 40 years, add up to something incontestably grand, the nearest we have today to the great cycles of upper-class English life published in the...

‘The Killing’

Theo Tait, 31 March 2011

The latest wave of the Scandinavian crime invasion: Sarah Lund and her woolly jumpers. The Killing, the powerfully addictive Danish crime drama running on BBC4 on Saturday nights, has become the latest TV series to inspire a devoted, evangelical following, just as it did in Denmark when it was first broadcast in 2007 under the name Forbrydelsen (‘the crime’). The series tells the...

Tristan Garcia

Theo Tait, 17 March 2011

Tristan Garcia was only 26 when this dazzlingly clever and assured first novel came out in France, published there as La Meilleure Part des hommes and now in Britain and America under the punchier title of Hate: A Romance. With its societal sweep, slick marshalling of grand ideas and extreme sex, it fits neatly into an established category of French novels that have sold well in the...

Gordon Burn

Theo Tait, 5 June 2008

Gordon Burn’s work takes place at a point where fact and fiction, public events and private lives, fame and death all meet. He began his career as a proponent of the non-fiction novel pioneered by Truman Capote and Norman Mailer; his first book, Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son (1984), was a painstaking re-creation of the life of Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper. He...

Peter Carey goes astray

Theo Tait, 6 March 2008

Queensland in the early 1970s was, according to the narrator of Peter Carey’s new novel, ‘a police state run by men who never finished high school’. This intriguing throwaway remark turns out to be not much of an exaggeration. For twenty years from 1968, Queensland was controlled by the corrupt, gerrymandering state governor Joh Bjelke-Petersen, variously described as the Hillbilly Dictator, a ‘bible-bashing bastard’ and – by himself – as ‘a bushfire raging out of control’. The son of a poor Danish Lutheran pastor, afflicted with a lifelong limp by childhood polio, Bjelke-Petersen sought divine guidance daily, accepted huge bribes, banned public protests, ignored endemic malfeasance in his police force and civil serv-ice, prevented the purchase of land by aborigine groups and claimed that Desmond Tutu was a witch doctor.

Alan Warner

Theo Tait, 25 May 2006

It’s not very clear what The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven is really about, or why Alan Warner has written it. It’s not that it’s conspicuously awful or straightforwardly confusing, like some of his other novels. It’s clear enough what’s happening and where; for the most part, it’s gently diverting, sometimes even entertaining. The wider questions, though,...

James Lasdun

Theo Tait, 9 March 2006

‘A woman threw her glass of wine at me,’ James Lasdun’s second novel begins. At a party held by a wealthy philanthropist in New York, a woman walks up to the narrator and asks: ‘Excuse me, are you Stefan Vogel?’ He says yes; she flings her wine in his face. In keeping with the novel’s mood of dreamlike self-absorption, the event is replayed many times....

Michel Houellebecq

Theo Tait, 9 February 2006

Houellebecq has established himself as one of the great international brands of popular literary fiction. But there is a great deal of disagreement over whether he’s a genius, a fraud or a reprobate. Responses to his novels largely fall into three categories. The first is euphoric: Houellebecq as visionary. According to this view, he sees the dehumanising effects of the market, the breakdown of religion and the family, and the unbearable tensions of Western life: the sexual misery, the inevitable conflict between Western morals and Islam. His novels are regarded as having a prophetic quality: Platform, published two years before the Bali bombing, ends with an assault by Islamists on a decadent tourist resort in Thailand. His then publisher, Flammarion, apologised for any offence caused by the novel on 10 September 2001. By this time, Houellebecq was in hiding in Ireland after receiving death threats. ‘You’re saved,’ the writer Michel Déon told him as they watched the planes fly into the World Trade Center.

Salman Rushdie

Theo Tait, 6 October 2005

With time and overuse, artistic style degenerates into mannerism. This is especially true of magic realism. Following the success of Gabriel García Márquez, a flood of semi-supernatural sagas was released all over the world – full of omens, prodigies, legendary feats, hallucinatory exaggerations, fairytale motifs, strange coincidences and overdeveloped sense-organs (all accepted placidly by their characters as part of the everyday run of things). Wonder and novelty were always an important part of its appeal, so the style had a built-in obsolescence: the decline into artificial gesture and cheap exoticism was inevitable (especially when British writers imitated South Americans, as they often used to do in the 1980s and 1990s).

Beyond the Barnes persona

Theo Tait, 1 September 2005

According to Flaubert’s famous rule, ‘an author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.’ For most of his career, the celebrated Flaubertian Julian Barnes has occupied the opposite end of the spectrum: less a transcendent creator than a garrulous master of ceremonies, unwilling or unable to prevent himself interrupting the...

Abdulrazak Gurnah left Zanzibar a few years after the violent revolution of 1964, when the constitutional sultanate installed by the departing British was overthrown. It was a time, in Gurnah’s words, of ‘state terror and calculated humiliations’: as many as 17,000 people were killed, the Omani-descended ruling elite was expelled, and thousands were imprisoned; the...

Cynthia Ozick has been described as one of America’s best writers, one of its leading women of letters, the Athena of its literary pantheon. She has won prestigious awards by the armful: she was recently nominated for the first International Man Booker Prize for career achievement, alongside Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Gabriel García Márquez, Margaret Atwood et al....

Holmes and the Holocaust

Theo Tait, 31 March 2005

As everyone knows, Sherlock Holmes only appeared to plunge into the Reichenbach Falls, locked in a deadly embrace with Professor Moriarty. In fact, using his knowledge of ‘baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling’, Holmes slipped Moriarty’s grip at the vital moment, watched his nemesis totter then fall, and was planning his next move before the Napoleon of crime had even...

Tom Wolfe’s Bloody Awful Novel

Theo Tait, 6 January 2005

“Behind all these things – status, virginity, animality, muscles – is the controlling Wolfe obsession: homomania. He is, as he says of one of his characters, ‘crazed on the subject of manliness’. Wherever he looks, he sees the struggle for dominance, the tournament, men butting like stags. It’s not just that all human endeavour comes down to this: there is really nothing else, whether on the basketball field or in the classroom or at a family picnic. Women are either willing notches on the bedpost, or else aping the male thing in a confused way. We are all of us forever acting out our machismo, like rappers or wrestlers before the fight, narcissistically preoccupied with an almost abstract display of prowess. Even weedy Adam, in the gym, glances at this own muscles in the mirror: ‘He was enjoying that temporary high the male feels when his muscles, no matter what size they may be, are gorged with blood. He feels . . . more of a man.’ This is it: the endless struggle for tumescence.”

Naipaul’s fury

Theo Tait, 4 November 2004

“Naipaul is often painted as a fearless critic of lazy left-liberal nostrums, a disillusioned scourge of mumbo-jumbo ancient and modern. He’s offering something much simpler here: a calculated affront to the egalitarian and multicultural values of modern Britain. But it’s also far stranger, more personal, and more excessive than that: the term ‘politically incorrect’ doesn’t begin to cover it – ‘politically obscene’ is nearer the mark.”

Patrick McGrath’s Gothic

Theo Tait, 19 August 2004

No one overwrites quite like Patrick McGrath. In a crowded field, he must be British fiction’s most prodigious overwriter. He made his name writing intense, florid novels about ‘wild delusions, ungovernable passions’, ‘insanity and obsessive sexual love’ (his words). But in Port Mungo he has written a book so lush, so fruity, so gorgeous – so in love with...

Paul Auster

Theo Tait, 18 March 2004

For a long time, Paul Auster’s novels were much more popular in France than in America. Perhaps this is because he sounds more convincing in French. ‘Ecrivain de la mégapole, de l’errance et du hasard, Paul Auster est devenu un auteur culte,’ one Parisian blurb-artist writes, catching the appeal in a way that his English-speaking counterparts find difficult....

‘Going Postal’

Theo Tait, 4 December 2003

In 1986, a postal employee in Edmond, Oklahoma ran amok with a gun, shooting 14 co-workers dead and wounding six others before killing himself. Nearly twenty similar incidents occurred at American post offices during the 1980s and 1990s, though on a smaller scale. As a result ‘going postal’ came to be used as a synonym for a berserk outburst of violence. Charles Bukowski’s...

Richard Yates

Theo Tait, 6 February 2003

Richard Yates faced some formidable obstacles: a broken home, tuberculosis, rampant alcoholism, divorce (twice), lack of recognition and manic depression – a combination that sent him, as he put it, ‘in and out of bughouses’. Even his triumphs seemed only to cause further distress. Though his first novel, Revolutionary Road (1961), was a critical success, sales were...

Haruki Murakami

Theo Tait, 18 October 2001

Haruki Murakami’s translator, Philip Gabriel, describes him as a ‘one-man revolution in Japanese fictional style’. His early novels and short stories of the 1980s – playful, wry, experimental, saturated in references to Western culture – made him the spiritual cheerleader of a new generation of writers. They rejected the prevailing naturalism of ‘pure...

Michael Ondaatje

Theo Tait, 20 July 2000

Even Michael Ondaatje’s most ardent admirers admit that there’s an act of faith involved in reading his work. Words like ‘precious’, ‘portentous’, ‘a struggle’ and ‘slightly implausible’ regularly crop up in even the most enthusiastic reviews – but are then explained away as necessary sacrifices to his higher purpose. His books are designed on grand, operatic lines; and they take everything – from love and death to 1940s pop music and bowling – very, very seriously. As a consequence, they risk pratfalls and sniggers. Is he poetic or ‘poetic’? Are his metaphors daring and striking, or patently absurd? Are his lyrical interludes spellbinding or stultifying? Does he turn out prose of Biblical grandeur or thumping pomposity? Is his narrative technique beautifully oblique and prismatic, or disconnected and frequently preposterous?’‘

Very Tight Schedule

Theo Tait, 1 June 2000

Jason Brown’s sometimes excellent first book is a collection of stories mostly set in and around Portland, Maine. His subject is what Sherwood Anderson, a pioneer of the genre, called the ‘buried lives’ of individuals. His narrators – loners, neglected children, thieves, substance abusers – are isolated, unsuccessful people, longing, more or less consciously, for some kind of wider community. Despite the small scale and determinedly regional focus of his fiction, Brown’s vision – like Anderson’s – is grand, even grandiose. It’s a way of imagining a huge, fluid industrial society.’‘

Dalton Trumbo

Theo Tait, 2 March 2000

In the mid-1940s, Dalton Trumbo was a screenwriter near the top of his lucrative but precarious line of work: fast, prolific and a consummate professional, he usually wrote at night, often in the bath, fuelled by large doses of Benzedrine. He was also a prominent and outspoken member of the Hollywood Communist Party. In 1947, the House Committee for Un-American Activities began their hearings into ‘Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry’. Trumbo, with nine others, pleaded the First Amendment, ended up with a citation for contempt of Congress and spent slightly less than a year in a Kentucky jail. When he got out, he and the other members of the Hollywood Ten were blacklisted and unable to work in the industry; hundreds more followed in a second wave of hearings. For 13 years Trumbo worked on the black market, uncredited, using various pseudonyms. He wrote the original story for Roman Holiday (1953) and, under the name Robert Rich, earned an Oscar in 1956 for his screenplay The Brave One. He passed on work and encouragement to other victims of the anti-Communist purge and began a vigorous media campaign to end the blacklist. In 1960, Kirk Douglas revealed that Trumbo had written the screenplay for Spartacus; President Kennedy crossed the thinning picket lines of Catholic War Veterans to watch the film in a cinema in Washington DC. The blacklist, at least in principle, was broken.‘

Weber and Norman

Theo Tait, 15 April 1999

In his unfortunate account of a Ter Borch brothel scene, Goethe earnestly identifies the leering john as a ‘noble, knightly father’ admonishing his wayward but honourable daughter (the prostitute). The pale mother, he explains, is sipping a glass of wine because she is delicate, and wishes to hide her slight embarrassment: she is, in fact, the procuress, depicted so as to suggest alcoholism and possibly a touch of syphilis. A discussion of Dutch realist painting in Adam Bede is similarly bowdlerised, but tilted towards the poor: Eliot stresses the dignity of the simple people depicted in these ‘faithful pictures of a monotonous, homely existence’. Ever sympathetic, she detects ‘expressions of unmistakable goodwill’ on the gnarled faces of the tipsy guests in peasant wedding scenes, where art historians would probably see emblems of human folly, or the sins of drunkenness. The death of Bergotte in A la recherche does more justice to two of the constant, and sometimes conflicting, preoccupations of 17th-century Dutch art: the representation of life and the omnipresent awareness of death. As Bergotte dies, he is mesmerised by the tiny patch of yellow wall in Vermeer’s View of Delft, which seems to outweigh his life and works in the celestial scales that appear before him. In John Banville’s The Book of Evidence it is an inexplicably entrancing portrait by an anonymous Dutch master which pushes Freddie Montgomery over the edge into homicide. Like Banville, Howard Norman and Katharine Weber write about stealing Dutch paintings, and they share a similar attitude to them. For them, Dutch art represents modesty of subject-matter, and precision – ‘the details’ is a phrase of some importance in both novels, and both are concerned with the ability of the small canvas to transform the large. So far, so George Eliot. But there’s also a hint in both novels of the other side of Dutch art – its preoccupation with death, obsession, loss of proportion.’‘

Magnus Mills

Theo Tait, 26 November 1998

In the mid-August silly season, excitement for bored hacks was provided by a rumour of mysterious origin, about a London bus driver who had received a fortune – the statutory ‘cool million’ – in advances and film rights for his first novel. Although the real advance was soon discovered to be substantially smaller, Brixton bus garage was besieged by reporters and photographers hoping to catch a glimpse of Magnus Mills, perhaps scribbling in the cab of his Routemaster, or discussing Joyce in rhyming slang. We have since been bombarded with features, interviews and increasingly laborious jokes, usually along the lines of Wendy Cope’s poem about men and buses (‘Typical. You wait years for an article about you. Then 20 turn up at once.’) Mills was amazed by the press stereotyping and the media’s apparently inexhaustible appetite for bus-related copy, but has done little to discourage it all. The poker-faced potted biography in his novel, for instance, slyly omits that he has an economics degree and has written regularly for the Independent, concentrating instead on his famous job and previous experiences working ‘with dangerous machinery’.’‘



2 March 2000

Jim Cook (Letters, 16 March) rightly pointed out a mistake in my review of Johnny Got His Gun. It is of course Terry Molloy’s decision to testify to the Crime Commission which provides the climax to On the Waterfront, not Joey Doyle’s. However, I think the film constitutes something worse than, as Cook puts it, one of Elia Kazan’s ‘wriggles around the fact that he betrayed his...

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