Sunday, September 30, 2012

Hooray! It’s the return of old-style blogging!

This blog has been going nearly seven – count them – not that it’s all that much effort to count them – unless you’re really bad at counting – although, thinking about it, that “nearly” does make it a bit trickier, so maybe the last one’s a sort of “seve” rather than a “seven” – years. And this is my 1,251st post, which means... well, it certainly means, although whether it means anything in particular, I’m less sure. Maybe that I missed some sort of milestone in the last post? Dunno. Anyway, yes, right, and in that time, well, woo, hasn’t everything changed? Well, not really, give or take a few iPhone models. But this blog has changed, and so has blogging as a whole.

I mean, back in those oldenny timey days I had no shame in doing compendium posts on any number of only tangentially related subjects, usually ending with an arbitrarily chosen picture or YouTube clip; and everyone would weigh in with their contributions and contradictions and corrections and it was, as the sainted Patroclus called it, one big conversation; but then something happened somewhere along the line; and I’m still blogging, but Cultural Snow seems to have turned into a continuum of discrete articles, each about a subject. And plenty of people are reading what I’m writing (I don’t know if it’s more or less than it was in the old days, because I’ve only had the magic thingy wotsit that tells me how many people are reading for the past three years) but far fewer are commenting.

So, if I were blogging now under proper old-style blogging conditions (only one substitute allowed, two points for a win, highlights later on Match of the Day), I’d probably have some choice words for Booker judge and all-round silly sausage Peter Stothard, who said of the rise of literary bloggers:
Eventually that will be to the detriment of literature. It will be bad for readers; as much as one would like to think that many bloggers’ opinions are as good as others. It just ain’t so. People will be encouraged to buy and read books that are no good, the good will be overwhelmed, and we'll be worse off. There are some important issues here. which I’d point out that bloggers are simply people with opinions, just like professional literary critics and that while there are doubtless some literary bloggers who are a bit crap, anyone who tries to argue that every paid literary critic on a highbrow newspaper or magazine knows what s/he’s talking about is either arrogant or stupid or probably both. And then I’d point out that criticism is no longer (never was, to be honest) about a select few handing down verdicts from above; it’s about argument and dialectic and kite-flying, and about how very often a statement can be wrong, but can still have value because of the intellectual fireworks it provokes in others; and I’d probably remind my readers that this is what Stothard is saying is pretty much what Andrew Keen said, and Keen was talking bollocks as well. But it doesn’t matter because between them they’ve prompted me to say something far more sensible, which is how this whole thing works, so thanks guys, you bloody imbeciles. And this would have been pretty much par for the course, because looking back, we didn’t half blog a lot about the nature and purpose and meaning of blogging.

And that line of argument would sort of trail off a bit, and I’d start talking about how I don’t much like the sound of Steven Poole’s new book, which appears to argue that because he’s not that interested in food, we shouldn’t be either. And then I’d remember that I was quite rude about his previous book as well, and then felt very guilty because he was subsequently very generous about my Radiohead book, but in fact I didn’t feel guilty, it was just an excuse to squeeze in a mention of my Radiohead book and maybe some of the others.

But then I might have changed tack completely and reflected on the most recent episode of Dr Who, with its scary cherubs and time paradoxes and, ooh just a little splash of Dennis Potter, maybe. And then I’d ponder the metafictional nature of Melody’s pulp novel, with its plot lines that the characters are doomed to follow, which rather obscures the fact that the characters are really doomed to follow the diktats of Steven Moffat, who wrote the script. And I’d ask whether the Doctor cheated by reading the chapter headings, whether they exist in advance of the action or in parallel to it. 

And I’d make a clumsy effort to pull together various elements of the above (blogging and self-aggrandizement and postmodernism, basically) and suggest once again that you really ought to be reading my Infinite Jest blog, in which I am currently exercised by David Foster Wallace’s cavalier attitude to chapters and chapter headings. Oh, and snot. There’s lots of snot going around.

And then I’d say, yay! That Rockmother’s blogging again!

And finally I’d probably put in a picture of Helen Mirren and/or Charlotte Rampling not wearing very much, but still tasteful, like. OK, Helen it is:

But of course I won’t do any of that, because we don’t do that old-style blogging any more, do we?

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Social Me, a name I call myself

Undeterred by my fleeting flirtation with Klout and passively encouraged by that digital pimp Everett the-sometime-Legend! True, I have joined some grisly entity going under the name of Social Me, which essentially casts a baleful eye over one’s Facebook posts and treats them to a bells-and-whistles version of what we used to call the Gunning Fog Index. So:
  • I like to talk about Literature, Social Media, and Philosophy. I am Artsy and Confident. (Really not sure about the last one.) I post statuses to Facebook most often in the morning.
  • My posts are most often Humorous, Loving, Excited and Happy. (Yeah, right. And some of them seem to come under the heading “Your Day” which implies a certain diary-like banality. Gee, thanks.)
  • I post about 9 statuses per month. The average person posts 12.8 statuses per month. (So I’m officially below average. Yay!) I posted the most statuses in one day on Jan 18, 2009 (which was the day after I joined Facebook) with a total of 6 statuses.
  • I am Extroverted, Confident, Strong-Willed, Organised, Artsy. (In most of these, only on Facebook, I’d suggest. And the only one that sounds at all valid is “artsy” and I’m not sure what it means, especially as its antithesis is given as “Traditional”.)
  • I have posted as many words as a book. (32,049 at about this time yesterday; and not including the Facebook post that will be automatically generated when I publish this blog post. How meta is that?) In fact, I have posted more words than Charlotte’s Web, which has a total of 31,938 words. (Yes, but it’s a very short book. I’ve actually written three books that are longer than that. To be fair, none of them was as successful or as good as Charlotte’s Web, although they did make me cry almost as much.)
  • My most popular updates were smartarse one-liners about Kindles, Mo Farah and Rebekah Brooks. Here’s where it gets interesting, though:
  • I use more words per sentence than 88% of people.
  • I use more emoticons than 90% of people. :)
  • I use more commas than 87% of people.
  • I use fewer exclamation marks than 94% of people.
  • I use more apostrophes in his writing than 86% of people.
  • I use longer words than 96% of people.
  • I use words with more syllables than 96% of people.
  • I use fewer concrete words than 97% of people.
  • I use fewer imaginative words than 99% of people.
I’m guessing/hoping that “imaginative words” is a euphemism for words that don’t really exist. And to be honest, all the stats about punctuation and so on are pretty irrelevant unless we know whether I’m using the many apostrophes and few exclamation marks properly. And it’s only particularly relevant if you’re labouring under the misapprehension that the real “you” exists within the ones and zeroes of your Facebook profile; whereas mine is on Twitter, of course. The real “real me” went out to buy some milk some time in 2008 and hasn’t been seen since. So I don’t know what any of this means. And I’m still baffled about the whole “confident” thing. Oh go on, you do it for yourselves and come back and tell me what it says and give me your best guess as to how accurate it is. Especially the stuff about commas.

Of course, no sooner had I disgorged my Zuckerbergoid self into the Social Me bucket, I remembered that there’s another method of self-analysis via one’s own writings that doesn’t focus on the banal, superficial blatherings of my pokey/likey persona. So I pasted a few recent posts from Cultural Snow into I Write Like and discovered that I write like HP Lovecraft, which is intriguing because I’ve never knowingly read more than two or three sentences of Lovecraft’s prose. And then I did the same thing with some text from my new David Foster Wallace blog – which you’re all reading, I know – and was informed that, no, actually I write like the late David Foster Wallace. Which is at one and the same time entirely to be expected and also a bit weird, as if I’ve been typing on someone’s grave. To coin a tortured simile that DFW would probably spurn; although he does at one point come up with the sentence “He went to the bathroom to use the bathroom” which is pretty bad. Hey, I can say that! I write like him! Which means I’m pretty much him.

Doesn’t it?

Monday, September 24, 2012

Roger Moore and the all-you-can-eat cultural buffet

Out of Bangkok for the weekend, we flick on a movie channel and find, of all things, The Man With The Golden Gun. It’s a justly derided effort, the point where knob gags and silly sound effects finally got the upper hand; the egregious Sheriff JW Pepper returns, the Jar Jar Binks of the franchise; and although some previous Bond girls had been pretty inept standard bearers for feminism, surely Britt Ekland’s Mary Goodnight was the first to be a certifiable moron? The only reason we end up watching it is to catch my brother-in-law’s cameo as a voiceover artist. (He dubbed the cocky Bangkok urchin who helps Roger Moore fix the motor on his boat, and then gets pushed into the khlong for his troubles.)

The depiction of the Thai capital is culturally confused, to say the least, especially when it comes to the martial arts scenes. Although Bond attends a muay thai (Thai boxing) bout, he also finds himself tussling with sumo wrestlers (Japanese), then confronted with what appears to be a school of kung fu warriors (Chinese), a couple of whom dabble in krabi krabong (Thai swordplay); and he’s finally rescued by a pair of feisty sisters – one speaking Thai, the other Chinese – who show off their karate skills (Japan again). And when we finally get to Scaramanga’s lair in Khao Phing Kan (now more commonly known as James Bond Island, on Thailand’s Andaman coast), we’re told it’s in Chinese waters. We’re being presented with one big, homogeneous exotic Orient, like one of those pan-Asian restaurant buffets where you’re encouraged to pile inept renditions of satay and sushi and green curry and dim sum on the same plate.

The following day we stop off at a place called Palio. It’s essentially an open-air shopping village, supposedly designed to resemble an Italian town, although the attention to architectural detail and authenticity doesn’t appear to have extended to the stuff in the shops. There are several places selling sort-of antiques in a non-specific European style, with Capodimonte knock-offs and faded French tapestries jostling against Union Jack cushions and a few postcards of Audrey Hepburn; in one, we’re serenaded by a compilation of German love songs. Lots of Thai people like the notion of Europe, and the veneer of sophistication it brings with it; but actually engaging with the details at a level deeper than a fake Gucci bag seems to be too much effort. Maybe this is Asia taking its belated revenge on 007.

In between we pay an all-too brief visit to Khao Yai national park. It’s the rainy season, so the forest is at its peak of lushness; and the macaques are as endearingly obnoxious as ever. There are meant to be wild elephants but I’ve never seen one there and neither has anyone I’ve asked. Occasionally you see the evidence of their fleeting presence: piles of dung; crushed foliage; maybe a footprint. And I wonder if someone on the park staff has the best job in the world, going out just before dawn to create teasing, hopeful hints of something that doesn’t actually exist.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Frescogate: Cecilia Giménez goes a bit Damien Hirst

More intrigue from the Santuaria de Misericordia in Borja, as that nice old lady who turned the image of Jesus into a sad-eyed monkeybeastling has announced that she wants a slice of the tourist revenue. If we are going to have such a socio-aesthetic construct as outsider art, creativity that benefits from its amateur, outlying, renegade status, does it cease to be worthwhile the moment the artist tries to cash in on it?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Bangkok: mythbusting on the MRT

There are plenty of myths about Thailand, believed and disseminated even by some people who have spent a long time here. One is that it is a hotbed of sexual libertinism. Well, sex goes on, and there’s a thriving and lucrative sex trade that can cater to pretty much any taste, some of them pretty nasty. But at the same time it’s a very conservative culture in many ways and to a westerner, the level of primness, naïvety and downright ignorance about sexual matters, even among otherwise sophisticated and educated people, can be pretty startling.

Another prevalent fallacy is the idea that all Thai people are sweet and kind and helpful and charming and smiley. Well, there are some utterly lovely Thai people, naturally; and at the same time there are some entirely despicable arseholes, amoral, arrogant, dishonest, hypocritical and vile; and a hell of a lot of humanity somewhere in between. Just as I’m sure is the case in Trinidad or Togo or Tuvalu or anywhere else in the world. Of course, if your sole contact with Thai people is limited to the various service staff in your resort hotel, you’re going to come away with the idea that all 60 million people in the country exist in a state of readiness to put aside whatever they’re doing to bring you a drink, and give a graceful wai and smile as they do it. And it makes perfect sense for the tourist trade to propagate that image as well.

If you really want to disabuse yourself of the notion that Thailand is a culture of altruistic angels, try using Bangkok’s ever-expanding-but-never-quite-enough public transport system at rush hour; specifically the MRT (the underground/subway), BTS (aka the SkyTrain) or the Airport Link, on which only about 10% of the passengers appear to have come from the airport, the rest being opportunistic commuters who happen to live and/or work somewhere in the vicinity of one of the idiosyncratically located stops.

I mean, it gets crowded. No news there, it’s part of modern urban life. But the real fun comes when you try to get off. Again, there are some helpful people who will move aside, even step off the train for a moment if it makes things easier. But very often there’s an obstinate clot of bodies, standing stock still in the middle of the doorway, exuding a heady cocktail of stupidity and selfishness as other passengers try to negotiate the gaps around them. I know this behaviour is not unique to Thailand and that passengers in London and New York, Paris and Hong Kong can be pretty arsey on occasion. But I don’t recall a time when exiting a packed carriage in Bangkok *hasn’t* involved negotiating these bovine obstructors. Rather than an occasional irritant, it’s a norm, a default position.

I’ve wondered about the reasons for this. Maybe it’s because Thai society is deeply hierarchical, with the nature of social interaction very much determined by relative ranks in age and status. The eco-system within a carriage is far more homogeneous; the very poor don’t go there (because they can’t afford it) and nor do the very rich (because they’d rather take twice as long in their chauffeur-driven Mercs). The very young and very old are also thin on the ground at peak times. So nobody knows where they exist in relation to anybody else, nobody knows whether they should wai first or wait for a wai, push through or step aside. Rather than being actively obstructive, these people are simply rendered immobile, frozen in a stasis of social embarrassment, desperately trying to avoid getting caught in an “after-you-no-after-you” loop for eternity.

Or maybe they’re just doing it to annoy me.

(Photo by Danijel Kostic)

Monday, September 17, 2012

Absolutely the last word on Kate Middleton’s frontbumps

Oh dear. All sorts of issues bump together; the privacy of the individual; the status of the celebrity; the power of the media; the implied misogyny of the male gaze; hooray, boobies. And yet what is there to say? Essentially, it was wrong of the photographer to take the photos and wrong of the various magazines to publish them; but it was probably also a bit dumb of the Palace to get quite so openly annoyed about it or to take it to court; a deep sigh of disappointment might have done the trick better. (And the same goes for Muslim reaction to that idiotic film that probably doesn’t even exist in its full state.) Essentially, this is the sort of crappy thing that happens to celebrities these days. Do the royals really want to be celebrities in the modern sense? Because they do have a choice, to some extent at least.

But it could be worse for them. Imagine that someone took the photos, and nobody wanted to publish them; not out of any sense of propriety, or even because of fear of legal sanctions, but because they didn’t think that anyone would care one way or the other. What would that say about the status of the monarchy today? Or – worse for the Duchess herself, maybe – what if the pictures were spurned because the dugs in question didn’t match some industry standard for bounce and perkiness? Or imagine that they were published and ignored because it turned out that all that wishful blather about the Olympics finally shaking us out of our celebrity semi-coma had come true and for now on we would only get excited about people with real talent and real personalities. And their tits, of course.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Jean and Haruki sitting in an artificial tree, K-I-S-S-1-Q-@-∫-¶-¿

I seem to remember that I once joked, probably on this blog (because, frankly, who else would listen?) that if Haruki Murakami and Jean Baudrillard were ever to meet, something inside my head would happen akin to that science-fiction trope of two parallel worlds coming into contact, which usually means the destruction of everything, or something. But I can’t find it anywhere, so maybe I imagined it or dreamed it, or said it in real life, which doesn’t have a search function. And anyway, then Baudrillard died.

Well, here’s the next best thing, or next-next best at least. From a review of Murakami’s 1Q84, by Jess Row, in The Threepenny Review:
The dispersal and demise of modern subjectivity has long been evident in Japan, where intellectuals have chronically complained about the absence of selfhood. The postmodern erasure of history is the stuff of Japanese nativist religion (shintoism) in which ritual bathing is intended to cleanse the whole past along with evil residues from the past. Japanese hostility to logic and rationalism is a clichéd source of embarrassment to native philosophers… so much so that Karatani Kojin and Asada Akira could boast to Derrida that there is no need for deconstruction because there has never been a construct in Japan. Even Baudrillard might find Japan’s devotion to simulacra a little frightening. And finally, so desubjectified and decentralized, citizens simply live—produce and consume, buy and sell—in late stage capitalism, and politics (that is, a critical examination and intervention in interpersonal and intertypological relationships) has been practically abolished.
Oh, Jess. You had me at “intertypological”.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The camera-friendly bloody-mindedness of Yohansson Nascimento

Having been away from London for the whole summer, I feel a little disconnected from the all-pervading jubilation that seems to have seized the city. Not that I didn’t love the opening ceremony and punch the air over Mo Farah’s triumphs and I’ve even grinned a wee bit at the non-Olympic excitement that will inevitably get folded into the cake mix of memory, such as Andy Murray’s nailbiter a few hours ago. (I bet when Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France, he thought “Well, that’s the BBC Sports Personality of the Year wrapped up.” Now he may not even get a nomination.)

And I did notice this vignette from the Paralympics, in which the Brazilian sprinter Yohansson Nascimento pulled up injured but insisted on crossing the line. Of course, Lu Xiang did much the same thing a few weeks before in the 110m hurdles; and older readers will recall Derek Redmond being helped towards the finish by his dad in 1992, a clip that always makes me well up.

Now, I’m not a professional athlete, so I’ve no idea what it feels like to have all your dreams dashed in a split-second, all that training gone to dust, your body turning round and biting you on your/its own arse. What are they setting out to prove by staggering, stumbling, falling over the line? We know that they can cover the distance. And we know that they’re injured, so we understand why they haven’t won. In the depths of their misery and agony, maybe they think, “At least if I finish I’ll make it onto the feelgood clips at the end of the tournament, when they play the Chariots of Fire music.”

And it’s only in race events, isn’t it? After Murray won the US Open, I bet Djokovic didn’t knock a few more balls over the net, just to prove he could.

PS: You are reading my Infinite Jest blog, aren’t you? It’s jolly good, you know. And not as long as the book. Yet.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Another bloody blog

Small Boo is away looking at dinosaurs, leaving me alone in the house for the weekend. I suppose it’s a sign of my advancing decrepitude that instead of staging a wild and destructive party, my immediate instinct was to go to YouTube in search of that Yellow Pages advert about wild and destructive parties. Oh, and to start a new blog as well. Ha! That caught you out, didn’t it? Or maybe not. Anyway, this one’s about the novel Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. It’s over here, although it hasn’t really started yet. 

Older readers may recall that I tried something similar a few years ago, but I’m hoping that this will be a bit more satisfying. Chasms of the Earth was an attempt to work out why such a badly written book was so successful. Actually reading the bloody thing was easy enough, like gorging on cheap chocolate, but finding something worthwhile to say about it was a tougher call and I gave up at about the halfway point. (To be fair, I had by then answered my initial question; lots of short sentences.) Infinite Jest, on the other hand is rather longer and – according to those who have attempted it – better and more difficult. Even if Bret Easton Ellis begs to differ.

Anyway, we shall see how this one goes. Normal Cultural Snow business will be maintained as per usual, although I suspect there may be one or two blog posts about blog posts appearing. And now I’d better go and start reading the bloody thing...

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Stephen Leather and the sock puppet blues

There’s been something of a commotion in that murky space where writing and commerce meet on the web. The thriller writer Stephen Leather has admitted to creating various online identities with which to praise his own titles and disparage those of his writers and RJ Ellory has been caught out doing the same; meanwhile, John Locke bought 300 reviews to raise the profile of his self-published titles. This is nothing new of course; the novelist John Rechy was caught out as far back as 2004. Before these misdeeds are dismissed as a problem solely for the cut-throat market in genre fiction, let’s not forget that the (previously?) respected historian Orlando Figes was busted on much the same charges a couple of years ago; and as Christopher Howse points out, Walter Scott and Walt Whitman also transgressed, albeit not on Amazon. Much of the more recent nefarious activity has been exposed thanks to the sterling efforts of the author Jeremy Duns, and he’s among the signatories to a letter in the Telegraph deploring such activities and vowing never to transgress in a similar manner.

Now let’s put this in context, which is not to acquit Leather and Ellory and co of any apparent wrongdoing. There are too many books and far too many authors and not nearly enough readers. This has always been the case. In the last few years, technology has made it even easier for wannabe authors to get product into the public domain, but they usually have to do so without the professional advice and support of conventional publishers. At the same time, those who do have professionals behind them find that the level of back-up is being reduced; a publishers will attend to editing, printing and distribution but the burden of raising a work’s profile increasingly falls on the author. And someone who knows how to write a readable thriller or cook book or erotic blockbuster may also have the savvy for self-marketing and social media, but it doesn’t necessarily follow.

And this is where things start to get a bit grey. Ian Hocking has mused with his customary sagacity about the dilemmas encountered by self-published writers. I’ve always had a bit of corporate heft behind my own modest efforts, but I’ve still had to do quite a bit of donkey work. I haven’t taken to bestowing five stars upon my own books, but I have made efforts to raise my own profile on Amazon and elsewhere. If I send free copies to friends, on the understanding that they’ll write an online review at some point, is that a bad thing? When posting such reviews, should they make clear that they know me? (Some do; some don’t.) Am I entitled to get annoyed with the ones who don’t keep up their end of the bargain. Or do I just assume that they’ve posted negative reviews under a pseudonym and haven’t told me? What about the Amazon Vine system, or LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers, by which free copies are sent out to people who request them? Is that more or less needy than sending a review copy to The Guardian or the New York Times? What about the mutual back-scratching that Private Eye always identifies with its round-up of the books of the year. Is that better or worse than what RJ Ellory has done. Are there rules? Conventions? Should there be a law?

I don’t doubt the sincerity of the writers who signed the Telegraph letter, but I’d hazard a guess that Ian Rankin, Lee Child and Joanne Harris don’t feel compelled to check into Amazon every 20 minutes to check incremental shifts in their sales ranks, or whether “A reader from Norwich” has given their latest opus three or four stars. And again, I don’t condone what the likes of Stephen Leather have done. But I’ll admit to a twinge of sympathy for someone who pushes the ethical envelope a little too far in an effort to rescue his or her life’s work from oblivion.

Of course, the problem isn’t confined to authors and similar fey ponces. Review sites for restaurants and hotels become all but useless when they’re taken over by PR hacks. And despite all the  complaints about Wikipedia being a platform for know-nothings, I get far more annoyed when a page has clearly been tidied up by someone rather too close to the subject. I’ve said before that Andrew Keen got things wrong in his silly book, but as social media becomes ever more important, I start to see that the reality is the exact reverse of what he describes. Pretty soon, it’ll be just another Cult of the Professional. And they’re the ones who really should know better.

PS: Alison Flood in The Guardian covers much the same ground, but some of the comments are interesting. Not sure if the pro-Leather one is sock-puppetry or sarcastic or sincere or what.

PPS: More on the historical perspective.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

The half-arsed metafiction of Ian McEwan

When I was young and thin and floppy-haired and given to spouting Situationist one-liners while wearing my late grandfather’s trilby and drinking tequila, the book we were all talking about was If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, by Italo Calvino. This was a piece of metafiction, a novel that acknowledged and drew attention to and played about with its own fictional status. You could tell this from the off because the first line was “You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter's night a traveller.” 

Of course, metafiction wasn’t new, even that long ago; think Tristram Shandy, Don Quixote, back to The Odyssey and probably even earlier than that. But once you’ve had your eyes opened to it, you see it in the unlikeliest places. The example I always use to explain it is this reaction shot from the movie Trading Places, where Eddie Murphy doesn’t so much demolish the fourth wall as tap it lightly for a moment, just to remind you it’s there. In fiction, it seems to drift in and out of fashionable acceptability. Douglas Coupland, David Mitchell and Jennifer Egan have had fun with it in recent years, but champions of earnest, caring seriousness such as Jonathan Franzen disapprove of such japes. And there appears to be a worrying new trend opening up somewhere between the two schools of thought, where it’s acceptable to write 95% of a serious, straightforward, linear novel with a beginning and a middle and no characters who share the author’s name and then in the last few pages to say, look, sorry, all that stuff you were just reading? All that emotional investment you made? I didn’t really mean it. It was Just A Story. Now, where’s the invitation to Hay? It’s as if metafiction has been degraded, from an attempt to challenge complacent literary conventions, to a lame punchline, the and-then-I-woke-up ending that’s taken an MA in creative writing. The revolution went backwards; Elvis joined the army and all we were left with was Pat Boone and Cliff Richard. Yann Martel did it in Life of Pi, as did Jonathan Coe in his most recent, deeply disappointing effort, The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim.

But the big one was Ian McEwan’s Atonement, in which a good chunk of the plot is revealed at the end to be a self-redeeming fiction created by a novelist suffering from dementia. Whereas Calvino or Sterne would be happy to introduce the befuddled writer at an early stage, drifting in and out of the narrative, challenging and cajoling the reader who might be expecting a nice little country house potboiler, McEwan doesn’t trust us. We have to be fully absorbed into the world of the characters or we may just jump ship. In fact, it would be quite feasible to read the book without the dénouement.

Atonement did very nicely, thank you, and they got a big movie out of it, but you would have thought McEwan might have got the whole metafiction thing out of his system, or alternatively had the guts to write a metafictional narrative that was upfront from the first line. Instead, he’s written Sweet Tooth. On the face of things, it’s a spy thriller. The most obvious debt is to John le Carré, but most specifically to the recent movie version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, because McEwan really piles on the early-1970s period detail; le Carré didn’t bother, because he was writing in the 70s, so he didn’t need to discuss Ted Heath and the IRA and the three-day week and Jethro Tull. It wasn’t period detail, it was now. (In the acknowledgements, McEwan thanks several of those pop history books about the 1970s that everyone was reading at the end of the Noughties, when they should really have been reading about the Noughties. Just thought I’d mention that.)

Although Sweet Tooth shares the glum griminess of le Carré’s Circus, McEwan’s protagonist Serena Frome is far down the pecking order from George Smiley et al. Rather than overseeing deep-cover agents in Moscow or Belfast, her role is to headhunt and subsidise writers whose work might provide intellectual heft to the western, anti-communist cause, without them realising they’re effectively MI5 stooges. Serena loves books, especially novels, although parental pressure contributes to her reading mathematics at Cambridge (and getting a third) rather than the Eng Lit degree she should have taken. This gives McEwan the chance to place in her mouth disobliging remarks about postmodern jiggery-pokery and how she favours more conventional narratives. “I said I didn’t like tricks, I liked life as I knew it recreated on the page,” she declares. And:
I suppose I would not have been satisfied until I held in my hands a novel about a girl in a Camden bedsit who occupied a lowly position in MI5 and was without a man.
which is followed by a dig at Borges and Barth. We also get walk-on parts from literary big hitters of the time, including Martin Amis, Angus Wilson, the publisher Tom Maschler and the editor Ian Hamilton. But McEwan doesn’t write himself into the plot (as Amis did in Money), presumably because that would tip off the reader that something funny was going on. Tom Haley, the author that Serena inveigles into her scheme (and with whom she embarks on an evidently doomed relationship) clearly has some similarities with the novelist, not least his background at Sussex University and the content and style of his short stories; although the novel that makes his name seems to be a reworking of The Road, albeit one written 30 years before Cormac McCarthy had the idea, which takes us into Death of the Author territory. The combination of all these nose-tapping hints suggests to the alert reader that there’s something clever-clever coming along at the end, which makes it feel even more like a gimmick. I won’t spoil things if you’re going to read the book, but just remember that one of the central characters is a novelist. OK?

McEwan can still write of course. The first line of his first book is still one of my favourite opening gambits: “In Melton Mowbray in 1875 at an auction of articles of ‘curiosity and worth’, my great-grandfather, in the company of M his friend, bid for the penis of Captain Nicholls who died in Horsemonger jail in 1873.” And that skill hasn’t deserted him in Sweet Tooth: “Arguing with a dead man in a lavatory is a claustrophobic experience.” But it would be nice if he remembered how to tell a story; and to have the guts, where necessary, to tell us that he’s telling a story from the beginning, rather than leave it as a lame, postmodern punchline.