Reviewer: N QUENTIN WOOLF
Clearly, getting the hump with a book because its cover sucks is not an especially good approach to reviewing. So that’s not why I’ve got the hump with it.
All of which said, whoever designed the cover of this book is either very good at making memorable designs, in the manner of an industrial accident being memorable, or very bad at winning friends. They can cross me off their Christmas card list, anyway. Not since last year, when a female co-commuter clocked a chauvinistic Bukowski sex scene I was reading for this column, has a book left me looking more like a slime in the eyes of my fellow man. It’s not like I’ve any choice but to read in public, anyway, not now the bloke in the flat upstairs has bought himself that noisy dog.
So there I was, out and about with the Osha book, looking like a creep. I ask you: naked dollies. Even Irvin Welsh’s publisher (never shy of banging out a striking cover graphic) stopped short of making his books baby pink and decorating them with pictures of bare-assed Sindys, which adornments, glimpsed in the soft lights of a Starbucks, or on the bar of a London boozer, were easy to mistake for actual nude women, giving the impression to all and sundry that here before them was a man who likes nothing more than to settle down in public with a nice beverage and a volume of Readers’ Wives. Yup, someone tried hard to make me hate this book.
The publisher, Future Fiction London, says on their website, ‘Ecstasy, corporal reality, neo-globalism, and the War on Delusion are our foci.’ A number of their titles show women displaying naked breasts, men wrapping each others’ heads in polythene – that sort of thing. The cover of this particular volume probably makes sense, in this context.
Still, it is a truth universally acknowledged that it is inadvisable to make assumptions about the contents of any given edition merely by surveying its external features. (If only someone would dream up a neater phrase to convey that idea!) No: if you’re going to take against a book, it needs to be for good reasons, reasons founded on the text itself.
But we’re not talking about textual small-fry. It is not enough, having been riled by the cover, for one then to read the first line (‘The window panes had a sombre cast as rain streaked down them like half frozen tears.’) and realise that there is a hyphen missing, and an apparent unintended contradiction between the sluggishness of something half-frozen and the rapidity suggested by ‘streaked’, and feel that sinking feeling as one reflects that if this is the first sentence, and already there are problems, the book itself is going to be a damned long slog (as if by way of affirmation, the very first word of the next sentence is also wrongly punctuated). No, that’s not OK. One has to give a writer a chance.
One has a responsibility, certainly, to try to engage with the text with an open mind. When one reads that ‘the rain was making slow water noises’, one has a duty to imagine that perhaps other people would find this sort of thing perfectly acceptable, and perhaps one is being precious in thinking it odd and ungainly. When one reads that ‘night is the breeze I see before me’, one tries to persuade oneself that the perverseness of seeing the invisible is intentional. I’ve now read the sentence ‘Sometimes I had hoped to deliberately refuse to shift my myriad social interactions to enjoy the beauties of ambiguity, the sole mystery behind the thoroughly poeticised experience’ about twenty times, and I still don’t think I know what it means. But that’s my problem, no? These ought not to be the sort of trivialities upon which one bases one’s judgement.
By the bottom of the first page (yes: that’s as far as we’ve gotten), I was fighting a battle with myself over this book. One of the ways one judges a writer’s intentions is by gauging how tightly they control language; if other readings, or double meanings, are allowed to sneak in, seemingly beneath the writer’s radar, or, worse, if the scribe seems to be screwing up, a question mark starts to appear over every place where intentionality is an issue. I’d started to wonder whether the writer was doing it on purpose. Did he hate me? Yes, that was it: he hated me, and this was punishment for something I’d done.
By page two, we’d had mazes described as ‘labyrinthine’, and cars described as ‘metallic insects pursuing unbending goals with their mainly yellow flashlights’. The idea of ants with torches isn’t sufficiently cute to distract from this pile-up of a sentence. On the next page, a paragraph starts ‘One of my greatest problems has been my inability to hold onto a single end of the pendulum.’ Not long after that, ‘the silence rang out like a dirge’. It gradually dawned on me that instead of reading for plot, I was actually watching the book conduct its own bad metaphor competition. ‘…vice hung like expanses of ponderous clouds from which no one could escape’ seemed like it should have been in the running. ‘The portentous silence seemed as oppressive as a hail of bullets’. ‘Outside, night was re-living its own virginity.’ What? ‘Broken armies of seemingly endless people continue the long trek home.’ Really? Seemingly endless people, eh? My favourite, I think, was, ‘This living language was killed by a highly metallic silence that worked incessantly like some super efficient lawn-mower until an impenetrable speechlessness came into existence.’ The story lurched from overwrought, nonsensical sentence to silly metaphor and back, high on its own importance, reminding me a) of the sort of shit poetry I wrote when I was seventeen and b) how glad I was this book was only 170 pages long. The writer definitely hated his reader. No attributions were given for speech – nor any speech marks. There appeared to be no plot to speak of, other than some aimless domestic awkwardness between two unlikeable, dull characters. Every time a character did anything, a sentence was included to explain what it was the character had just done and why, just in case the reader got fancy ideas about being allowed to enjoy working it out for themselves. The initial first-person viewpoint of one of the characters was inexplicably abandoned, never to return, leaving one with the impression of being cast adrift on a swamp, like a… super-efficient lawnmower.
It would have been easy to dismiss this novel were I not aware how much effort and dedication writing a novel takes. For all the preposterous language, the writer obviously cared about the piece. He seemed to be trying to say something. My belief that the writer was himself engaged helped me to keep reading, but it was a close call. Without being able to trust that, I think my local Oxfam might currently be better-stocked, to the tune of one copy of Naked Light and the Blind Eye.
See, the relationship between the reader of fiction and the writer of fiction is all based on trust. The reader wants to be lied to, and they want to be lied to well. They want to believe in that lie. The bubble gets popped if the writer becomes conspicuous; be it through trivial errors that remind one that one is reading a book, or by the writer somehow failing to win, or hold on to, the reader’s belief.
Take something as simple as the writer’s name. If a writer narrates from the point of view of someone whose experiences he or she does not obviously share (be it across the race gap or the gender divide, or whatever), some readers, perhaps not unnaturally, may occasionally imagine that, because the story is obviously entirely made-up, it is unreliable in one respect or another; the same text under a name that seems more in keeping with the life described gains an aura of authority, irrespective of whether or not it happens to deserve one. We’re generally better predisposed to believe in the veracity of the cultural details in The Jewish Boy if it is written by Irwin D. Baumgarten than if the name Theresa Villalobos appears on the cover, even if in truth Baumgarten is the pen-name of some Alaskan grandmother, and the reader’s been done up like a Yom Kippur. Does reality grate? It does, if the reader has invested faith in the ‘truth’ of the writer. It feels like a betrayal. It is possible, even when they are reading a book that is clearly labelled as ‘fiction’, for some readers to feel that they are being lied to.
(A friend describes how, at a Lionel Shriver talk signing, one member of the audience was first surprised and then offended to discover that Ms Shriver had not in fact had a child like her creation Kevin – and actually had no children.
“You mean you made that up?” said the guy in the crowd, fast sinking into shock.
“Yes,” said Shriver, slowly, “That’s what I do.”)
Osha, about whom I knew nothing, and who nevertheless detested me, was testing my faith in almost every literary sense. The narrative voice kept changing every time one of the many domestic arguments took place – at those times it became urgent and exciting – but when the argument was over, the voice switched back. The story was going nowhere, just drifting through character after character, none of whose point of view was given more weight than that of the others. After thirty pages or so I gave up picking out daft phrases, as the process was starting to feel gratuitous. Was Osha in fact one of my ex-landlords, exacting revenge for some long-forgotten gas bill? Some jilted fling from the nineties? I couldn’t think. There were no answers (and no chapter breaks), resulting in a sensation of drowning. Apart from the momentary diversion offered by one of the characters trying to get his wife back (which we’re told from the outset will be successful), there’s no plot whatsoever in the first twenty pages, which describe misery. Oh, I certainly got the misery.
The one thing that was keeping me in the saddle was Osha’s detail-rich descriptions of places and social behaviour, which started out strong and kept getting better. If one could manage to look through the language to the images behind it – that is, if you forgot about what he’d written and imagined what he probably meant – it was easy to be convinced that Osha knew his subject intimately – that he had been to every one of the places he depicted. Even when talking about the grisliest spectacles, the originality of the images and the muscularity with which they were described had me buying into the author’s experience.
‘Further on, more gory merchandise was on display. There were mounds of female breasts in their dried and fresh states. There were genitals of both sexes, dried and fresh. There were also human heads both male and female that kept endless waves of flies swinging about. At a dark end of the market, marijuana smoke was wafting.’
From this sensationalism to the depictions of miserable poverty, and mainly by dint of the level of detail, I was totally convinced by this stuff.
And then, with a groan, I remembered Lionel Shriver. I flipped forward to the biographical note, and learned that Sanya Osha is a philosophy professor in Cape Town, and for a moment I felt resentful that I’d kept clip-clopping on against all my instincts, in the half-formed belief that I was doing a favour to someone from a difficult part of the world, someone with something to say. I realised how fucking patronising it was for me to have thought that way. I grasped that I well deserved this kick-in-the-pants realisation that all the stuff about breast stalls and monkeys fingering little girls was pretty implausible in the cold light of day. Somehow, I’d committed the sin of assuming that there must be a grain of lived experience in the stories a writer writes. Rubbish – of course there doesn’t! Like Sam Goldwyn said: ‘Acting is all about sincerity – fake it, and you’re in’. Writing is just the same. It makes no difference whether you’ve experienced something or not: the skill is in persuading the reader that the fiction comes from a place of insight. Yes, I’d gotten embarrassed about panning the writing, and had tried to be generous to the text, and in doing so had dreamt up a writer-construct, an assumed writer, a figure that had perhaps struggled up from poverty in or around the Nigerian slums, a writer whose extravagant vocabulary was a result of auto-didacticism against the odds. (In mitigation, I would point towards the character of Ayimola, a young writer whose style – we see it – is exactly similar to that of Osha, who is the single character who attempts to engage with the world beyond Nigeria and whose strand of the story is the only one with any warmth or positivity to it. Did I imagine that Ayimola was Osha’s avatar in the book? Yes. And do I still? Perhaps. It does seem that Ayimola is meant to stand for the future hopes of the country. The moral and political growth of the character, and the tenderness with which he is drawn, suggest that Osha’s affections and perhaps even his meaning, are bound up with this character.)
And then the penny dropped – at last! My upstairs neighbour! The one with the girlfriend with the shoes like gunshots, and the parties until six a.m., and that bloody dog! Yes, this was exactly the sort of thing he’d do!
In conclusion, and in spite of all I’ve said about his prose, Sanya Osha (or Jason Wilkinson, as I believe he is actually known) made no mistake in writing this book. He made a humdinger, though, in publishing it, at least in its present state. Naked Light and the Blind Eye is either a necessary preliminary exercise before writing the next novel – the real thing – or else a first draft that somehow never got the editor it deserved. Over the course of 170 pages, it is easy to see the development of Osha’s style, as his confidence grows and he jettisons the pretentious style of the early pages in favour of a more assured mode; as though he now wants us to understand, rather than be impressed by, his prose. Attributions begin to appear in exchanges of dialogue. The flavour left in one’s mouth by the closing pages is beautifully bitter; it allows room for interpretation, unlike the rest of the book, and leaves one wanting more. One gets the impression, by the end of the book, of a writer who has learnt on the job finally hitting his stride.
The range and acuteness of Osha’s (Wilkinson’s) vision is impressive, his emotional maturity sometimes startling and his ability to use pathetic fallacy and the objective correlative to generate mood not to be underrated. One gets the impression that this is a writer well able, and now well-positioned, to put together a novel of lasting significance, one able to capture a particular milieu and set it in its historical and global context. Yes, that’s the final thing to say: this book is an ensemble piece, and it shows the writer’s distinctly un-European knack of thinking societally, rather than as a lone ego.
In the light of that ability, I wish more than ever he’d stop slamming his bathroom door every time he goes for a piddle at four o’clock in the morning, otherwise I’ll have to be up there again for more of the same argy-bargy we had last month. And I wish he’d stop that dog barking, too. Bloody dog.
A London-based writer, arts broadcaster and creative writing coach, Quentin chairs several successful critique groups, a book group for young professionals, and teaches creative writing to new writers, as well as running a calendar of literary events.