Fiction and the Poverty of Theory

John Sutherland

  • News from Nowhere by David Caute
    Hamish Hamilton, 403 pp, £10.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 241 11920 0
  • O-Zone by Paul Theroux
    Hamish Hamilton, 469 pp, £9.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 241 11948 0
  • Ticket to Ride by Dennis Potter
    Faber, 202 pp, £9.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 571 14523 X

A drunken American historian once lurched over to David Caute at a party and told him: ‘Having read your last novel, or part of it, I’d advise you to give up writing fiction – if you weren’t such a lousy historian.’ Caute, a connoisseur of masochism, tells the story against himself (in Contemporary Novelists, 1976). The insult was unfair on a number of counts. Not least because it assumed that Caute the historian and Caute the novelist were divisible. One of the author’s more quixotic aspirations in his varied literary career has been to make a genuinely historical – or, as he used to call it in his Anti-University days, ‘radical’ – novel: that is to say, fiction which will not just understand the world, but change it. (On the good Brechtian theory of erst fressen, Caute has also written money-spinning soft-porn thrillers as ‘John Salisbury’.)

Like his previous attempt at mixing 100 per cent proof world history with the small beer of English fiction (The Decline of the West, a title to rank with Mel Brooks’s History of the World, Part II), News from Nowhere is a crashing failure. But it’s a monumental failure, a Spruce Goose or Centre Point of novels that will stand as something of a literary landmark.

First the title. Morris wrote the original News from Nowhere (1890) at a poignant moment in his career. His most utopian vision of future socialism, the work coincided with the old man’s forced departure from his paper (in which it was serialised), the Commonweal, and with his resignation from the Socialist League, ousted as a sentimental fogey by the new militant generation of theorised anarchists. Thereafter, Morris’s few remaining years were apolitically devoted to the Kelmscott Press. The hero of Caute’s News from Nowhere, who himself writes a visionary News from Nowhere, is at the end of the narrative ousted by the editorial board of a journal called Thought and Action (transparently based on New Left Review) and retires to comfortable nonentity in the BBC World Service. In short, Caute’s novel returns to that recurrent crisis of British socialism he earlier analysed in The Confrontation (1972): namely, the conflict between old (sentimental) socialism and the new (hard) left. The hero of News from Nowhere, Richard Stern, updates Caute’s earlier hero, middle-aged, middle-of-the-ideological-road Steven Bright, the fortyish academic trapped between two eras whose crack-up was portrayed in The Demonstration (1970) and The Occupation (1971). The formal advantage of the novel for Caute’s purposes is that it can (as the historical essay or political journalism can’t) give full weight to the sexual and familial complications of this conflict.

In this novel, Stern is tugged one way by filial attachment to a set of patriarchal male intellectuals older than himself (Russell, Sartre, ‘Harry Marquis’), and another way by simple heterosexual lust for a trio of younger revolutionary women: Beth the Marxist Feminist, Esther the Rhodesian dissident and Liberty the firm-breasted, AK 47-toting black guerrilla. The narrative has lots of sexy bits of the ‘he impaled the warm meat of her loins on his questing finger’ kind.

News from Nowhere begins with the 1968 May ‘revolution’ in Paris: a great and blissful moment. It ends with a ‘loving’ wire break at Greenham Common by a grotesque band of de-sexed, hate-filled harpies who represent for Caute the very end of the line. The first sections of the novel, which are by far the most coherent, resurrect the great problematic of the late Sixties: the primary role of ‘theory’ and the vanguard part to be played by ‘student unrest’ in building the bridge from theory to action. As New Left Review, having recently sawn off its liberal dead wood, declared in July 1968, it was the ‘production and circulation of theory’ in the French universities that had led ‘to the greatest mass upsurge seen in Europe for thirty years’. Theory was the new locomotive of history. But this put us on this side of the Channel at a terrible disadvantage. English socialism rested complacently on an ‘absent centre’, a lot of inarticulate Morrisite touchy-feely heart-felt good intentions. Led by NLR, the young (and would-be young) theory-brokers undertook a massive injection of Benjamin, Brecht, Lacan, Althusser, Balibar, Gramsci and Macherey into the Anglo-Saxon intellectual system.

On one level, the operation has been brilliantly successful. We now have Continental theory brimming up to our nostrils: not an undergraduate writing on Dickens but can’t nowadays drop a knowing word or two about heteroglossia or the unconscious of the text. But manifestly all the production and circulation of theory haven’t brought about the desired upsurge. An older generation of Marxists (led by the unvanquished E.P. Thompson) have counter-attacked with the ‘poverty of theory’ and continued to assert the validity of a traditional British socialist heritage going back at least to the 17th century.

All this is given full play in Caute’s narrative. Richard Stern is a young academic drawn away from his Oxford ivory tower to the LSE (where it’s at) to work with the political philosopher Harry Marquis. Marquis is a socialist of the old school. A fighter pilot in World War Two, his distinguishing physical feature is a ‘dissident’ thatch of prematurely white hair. A brilliant rhetorician and provocateur of student action, Marquis is a maverick politically, having left the Party in 1956. The founder of Thought and Action, he has lost control of the journal to a younger clique of more fashionable ideologues. Marquis himself condemns the ‘utter poverty of theory’, and has defined his political ideal in ‘a celebrated study of the Utopian Socialists from Robert Owen to William Morris’. Marquis is also, it emerges, a dirty-minded lecher who betrays his disciple Richard sexually and intellectually before being carried off raving to the lunatic asylum. He returns at the end of the novel to lead the fight against Cruise missiles.

Stern despairs of the English university as the site of revolutionary political action. His wife cuckolds him, crops her hair, steals his and her Nato admiral father’s property, aborts his child and joins a feminist commune. A (not unreasonably) disillusioned Richard goes off to become a foreign correspondent in rebel Rhodesia. Here he is drawn into clandestine alliance with ZANLA and his destiny intertwines with the cause’s Joan of Arc, Esther Meyer. She seduces, uses and betrays Richard. Professionally, Richard is taken under the wing of a veteran hard-bitten journalist, Leonard Tanner, who (you’ve guessed it) betrays him, leaving him to be arrested and tortured by the Rhodesian Special Branch. The only characters in the novel who keep faith with Richard are the dusky peasant girl, Comrade Liberty (bandoliers fetchingly draped round her ‘splendid body’), and a young ex-hippy New York Times reporter, Berny Holzheimer. Berny is untimely cut off, half-way through the last sentence of the narrative, killed, one assumes, by a Beirut sniper. Richard meanwhile has given up the struggle in the bush for a quieter life in Bush House.

Politically, News from Nowhere is over-poweringly pessimistic. Nowhere is where the struggle ends up. But its abstract conclusions will not, I think, constitute the novel’s main interest for British readers with even the vaguest knowledge of the socialist who’s who. News from Nowhere offers the more accessible, not to say tacky attractions of the roman à clef. With its teeming dramatis personae it plays a strip-tease game of hinted-at, then denied personal identifications. At one point, for instance, Stern records: ‘I offered to review a book about Rhodesia for the New Statesman but the literary editor told me that was his preserve. He sounded rather pompous on the phone; I gather he’s at war with a bunch of dazzling literati of my own generation who have declared politics to be the mortal enemy of literature. They will win of course.’ David Caute was the literary editor of the New Statesman who also wrote on Rhodesia and was (reportedly) forced out under Bruce Page’s politicised programme for the paper. But then, in another part of the narrative, we learn that Stern is writing a series of long obituary articles on Sartre for the New Statesman. David Caute, as I recall, wrote these articles. To what extent is Caute his hero, Richard Stern? The question may seem sophomoric, but on almost every page of News from Nowhere the reader is teased into asking it.

The dead and therefore legally incompetent Russell and Sartre can be safely introduced in their own persons for cameo parts: Russell inhabits the novel’s most amusing scene. And nowadays government ministers don’t slit the noses of scribblers who lampoon them. Hence conversational slanders like the following are permissible (the scene is the Reform Club on the eve of Carrington’s Rhodesia conference): ‘A Cabinet of eunuchs. Geoffrey’s being taught his two times two on the Dame’s knee, Francis is being shown how to curtsy in drag, both of Willie’s Cumberland balls are on pawn in her handbag, and as for your boss little Peter, he’s rushing off to kiss the great Nigerian arse.’

The real problem for a novelist comes with the cast of living public figures firmly under the protection of the English libel law. Clearly, to write a documentary novel about the British Left and its intelligentsia 1968-86 and not allude to, among others, E.P. Thompson, Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, Perry Anderson, Robin Blackburn, R.D. Laing, and the personnel of the New Statesman, would be to create another kind of absent centre. Caute solves this problem by resort to the teasing deceits of the Disraelian political romance. That is, he daringly hints at real persons with his characterisations and then prudently erases or smudges the portrait before it becomes too unmistakable. It’s a risky business, and I imagine Hamish Hamilton’s lawyers must have pondered certain passages in News from Nowhere with unusual care.

Technically, News from Nowhere is as lousy a novel as Caute has written. For long stretches his writing, where it’s not show-off clever, is appallingly careless. The plot is self-indulgently romantic, and Stern’s escapades in Africa are about as believable as Indiana Jones’s. Much of the narrative is propelled by petty spites (against feminism, notably). But with all its faults, News from Nowhere seems to me to be that rarest of British things, engaged fiction.

It is odd to find Paul Theroux writing an imaginary voyage. One’s first thought is that the author has run out of exotic countries to visit. Perhaps the Theroux passport has expired. Or perhaps he is simply tired of the road and has decided to make up his faraway places. For whatever reason, O-Zone is, as its publisher warns, ‘unlike anything Paul Theroux has ever written’. It’s not unlike what legions of other writers have written, as a brief summary will indicate.

O-Zone’s setting is the indefinite future. America has decomposed into urban enclaves occupied by the ‘owners’ and policed by airborne death squads (‘Godseye’) who shoot ‘aliens’ (i.e. the propertyless) on sight. Outside the cities is wilderness and a few remaining pockets of old America. In the Mid-West is an area called the O-Zone. It is off-limits, as a nuclear desert (the result of a massive toxic-waste screw-up in the 1980s). Now the radiation has cooled. A party of super-rich New Yorkers make a New Year’s party trip by helicopter to a deserted condo in the O-Zone. Their craft is piloted by a precocious but physically repulsive boy genius, ‘Fizzy’, the product of his mother’s two-year attendance at a sex-therapy clinic (i.e. state-run brothel). The festive New Yorkers stumble on an alien encampment and, as law-abiding Americans will, blast everything in sight. They go home to their fortress apartments in Coldharbor Tower (the name is one of Theroux’s little in-jokes about his beloved Brixton). But inexorably they are drawn back for their own reasons to the forbidden territory. One has fallen in love with an alien girl whom he saw in his photographic gunsights. Another wants to exploit the area with a rain-producing thermal mountain (Theroux’s scientific imagination is sometimes a bit wonky, I find). And back they indeed go to more adventures and to unexpected discoveries about their inner selves.

All this may be a new world for Theroux, but it’s been mapped out by any number of SF writers. Among many other stories, Tom Disch’s 334 and J.G. Ballard’s Highrise are echoed in O-Zone. And in the later sections there’s more than a suggestion of William Nolan’s Logan’s Run.

Given the vast length of O-Zone (compared to the wafer-slim novella Doctor Slaughter), one has to assume that Theroux means it seriously: 469 nine on ten-point pages can’t exactly have been thrown off. But it’s hard to believe that Theroux wants permanent membership of the Science Fiction writers’ club. One assumes the work belongs with the sizeable library of one-off SF works by non-SF writers: The Old Men at the Zoo, Lord of the Flies, 1984, Clockwork Orange, Ape and Essence. O-Zone is not as good as any of these (nor as good as Theroux’s previous best). But it’s good enough. The conventions of dystopia give some fresh scope to the author’s fixed ideas about civilisation and barbarism. And the plot element dealing with the evolution of the odious Fizzy from nerd to manhood is gripping. The main fault is that the idiom of the work too often strikes the ear as unconvincing. This is particularly so with the future slang Theroux coins. At one point a character in all seriousness is made to say (about the latest New York dress styles): ‘You’re going to see some dongs and dimbos running around naked, pretending they’re starkies. Guys in horror masks. Women in aprons with their bums sticking out and their oinkers joggling. It’s the fashion.’ Oinkers are, in my view, clunkers.

The situation of Dennis Potter’s Ticket to Ride (like the title) has a slightly used feel to it. A man comes to consciousness on an Inter-City train. He has no memory, and no clues to his identity on his person. ‘I? Who is I?’ he asks himself. On arrival at Paddington the station announcer gives details of a train departing for Cornwall ‘and Estrangement’. To his alienated (or new-born) eye, ‘the station forecourt was a gaseous swamp in which noisy and ungainly bipeds moved with difficulty, baying and grunting, stickied and unclean. How do such shambling creatures reproduce themselves? Sticks of bone and sinew poking into hairy holes.’

One grits one’s teeth expecting pages of Gabriel Josipovici or Martin Amis-style prose of defamiliarisation. But, gratefully, the narrative promptly exfoliates into a series of hard and sequential plot lines. Intercut scenes to his deserted wife and house reveal that the traveller is John, an advertising man. John has just been let go from his agency. But there is another murderous John within him: bred by childhood rebellion against his puritanical father. This newly released self has come to London to kill a whore, Penny. Penny is, it emerges, the previous (and murderous) self of John’s respectable wife, Helen. The bloody purging of their pasts moves the novel from experimental fantasia to conventional thriller.

Ticket to Ride introduces a number of familiar Potter themes, devices and situations: guilty paid-for sex in hotels, doubles, the indelible residues of childhood guilt, love, murder, and the insubstantiality of middle-class decencies. But the amnesia gimmick suggests a direct inspiration in the film noir of the Forties and Fifties. It was used, for instance, by Hitchcock in Spellbound, where the hero loses his memory so as to repress the childhood killing of a brother. Less celebrated is Victor Savile’s blacker than black The Long Wait (1954), where the amnesiac hero comes to by a car wreck, with even his finger prints burned off. And (not to give it away) the ending of Ticket to Ride seems to owe something to the tricksy last scene of Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window (1945). Potter’s addiction to Hollywood musicals is well-known. I suspect his art may be as steeped in the sinister screen melodramas he watched in his boyhood.