Plenty of atmosphere –– but only one ha-ha

If you want spice without obscurity, or the 1990s unfiltered, why not read something written back then?

This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Shy, Max Porter (Faber, £12.99)

This month’s selections give the lie to the common complaint that fiction today from mainstream publishers is generic, unadventurous and formulaic. There is a lot of that stuff about, true, and it pays the bills — but they aren’t the only stories. Indeed, what’s most interesting is that in our increasingly fragmented media age, the stuff at the fringes stands as much of a chance of making it big as the fiction-by-numbers does. Is it always good? Well, one step at a time.

Take Max Porter. The former bookseller and editor in 2015 made a huge success of the most unexpected material: inspired by Emily Dickinson, Ted Hughes and his own idiosyncratic imagination, his debut Grief is the Thing with Feathers won all the awards going and continues to sell handsomely. His second novel Lanny (2019) blended English rural mythology with a missing-child page-turner.

His new novel Shy is a blend of the two. (Singer PJ Harvey says she was “changed” by it, but we won’t let that put us off.) It shares Lanny’s vulnerable hero with Grief’s polyphonic style and brevity. Where Lanny was soft, Shy is hard — a 16-year-old boy, troubled or troublesome depending on viewpoint. He’s one of the kids at Last Chance, a special school currently facing closure.

Shy and the others “each carry a private inner register of who is genuinely not OK, who is liable to go psycho, who is hard, who is a pussy, who is actually alright and so on. As a bonus, the landscaped setting of Last Chance makes Shy one of the few novels to feature a ha-ha that isn’t written by L.P. Hartley.

Porter tells Shy’s story in a blizzard of styles, with different typefaces representing variously Shy’s present (as he tries to run away from Last Chance), his memories of childhood with his mother and stepfather, and the voices of his therapist and others. His stepfather asks when “the Jekyll and Hyde shit” will end; his mother goes on large-print, double-page rants (“Have you any idea of the hurt you’ve caused? Are you trying to destroy our lives?”). Shy pretends to be sorry for the things he’s done to people, and the mental health professionals chunter their way through their bullshit bingo card. “This is a Loss-Focused thinking style, right?”

For Shy’s viewpoint we get run-on sentences studded with repetition and rhythm (“Find me the bindweed fine weed bind to the mind weed all the time never mind leave me behind weed”), which reflect his passion for drum and bass music and his desire to make his own. We carbon-date the narrative to 1995 from cultural high-point references swimming around Shy’s badgered brain such as the launch of Lynx Africa, Page 3 favourite Jo Guest, and Madge Bishop from Neighbours.

It’s atmospheric but doesn’t produce much narrative drive, until the last 40 pages when we are held in Shy’s mind solely, as the stones in his backpack and the pond on the book cover start to mean something. He struggles to articulate his anger (“it’s like a roll of barbed wire scrunched inside me”). This is part of the problem with the book, which you feel would like us to empathise with Shy rather than just nod and frown. 

Greek Lessons, Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Won (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99)

The brevity and the scattered narrative mean it’s hard for the reader to build the emotional connection with Shy, which we need to stop Porter’s impressive technical ability from seeming like an exercise in style. Indeed, as new kinds of books go, it feels a bit old, drawing on elements Porter has given us before. It is perhaps unfair to criticise someone who has broken new ground before for not metamorphosing with every book. Still, in Lanny, Porter showed that he could write a sustained narrative at greater length, and a fusion of that with the structural innovations of Grief could have been truly breathtaking. Shy, for all its charm and diversions, feels less like progress than a treading of water.

South Korean writer Han Kang is another surprise success. Her novel (really a triptych of stories) The Vegetarian won the International Booker Prize in 2016. It became an unexpected popular hit: unexpected, that is, by anyone who underestimated the market for fiction about violent sexuality and disordered eating. The next of her books to appear in English, Human Acts, was a more straightforward tale of war’s aftermath, followed by The White Book — a fragmented meditation on grief, spare but clear.

With Greek Lessons, which was first published in Korean in 2011, Han shows yet another side of her art. In one sense it is a straightforward story, and a classic “pairing” narrative: a young woman who finds herself inexplicably unable to speak takes a course in Ancient Greek led by a teacher who is losing his sight. 

Yet that simple summary took me some time to work out. Indeed, when I was part-way through the book, I stopped and read the blurb for the first time, only to find that I had misunderstood the relationships between the characters, and even the sex of one of them. I started again, which helped, but this remains a book which gives up its secrets unwillingly. It contrasts with Han’s earlier works not just in its gentler tone, but in its obliquity.

The woman’s and man’s chapters alternate, and we slowly pick up more details about their lives, such as her son, whom she only sees once every two weeks. Instead, most of the narrative is taken up not with what’s happening: with memory and anticipation of what has happened and is yet to come. Themes and motifs emerge — blue ink and blue veins, the blind polymath Borges, lightness and darkness.

The abiding experience of Greek Lessons is a book about difficulty in communication that obscures communication with the reader. When the story focuses on the everyday surroundings of the characters, the effects are often beautiful. There are echoes of the old Han boldness (one character is whacked in the face with a block of wood), but mostly it was (sorry to capitulate to the obvious) all Greek to me.

Rent Boy, Gary Indiana (McNally Editions, £14.50)

If you want something spicy without obscurity, or a portrayal of the 1990s that isn’t filtered by the decades, why not read something written back then? Gary Indiana’s novel Rent Boy, first published in 1994, is the latest reissue by the reliable McNally Editions. It is literature with the filter off: on the one hand, an account of life as lived outside mainstream acceptance; on the other, a telling entirely unrestrained by political correctness.

Danny — if that really is his name — is a rent boy in early 90s New York (“I was working the toilets at the Port Authority”), and a denizen of the Emerson Club along with other hustlers, johns and allied tradespeople. We see everything he sees, from muscular young men with brains “the size of a flashlight battery”, to Frankie G, a “weird little person who’s had a female-to-male sex change, and whose penis suggests “they can’t graft erectile tissue or maybe nobody was willing to donate any”. Best of all, there’s Sandy Miller, a writer of pornographic novels such as The Devil’s Panties, “but literary, you know. One minute Sandy’s getting banged by an Arab Negro and the next minute she’s a sixteenth-century pirate on the high seas, or Emily Brontë or something.”

There’s lots on the peculiar rubric of an enclosed world (“You’re not supposed to come onstage, other people would have to step in it”), and the relationship between the hooker and the client: how guilt makes men treat prostitutes badly; how the sex workers manipulate the men with made-up sob stories about “abusive parents”. Danny is also keen to remind us that this is the oldest profession of all: “The Hagia Sophia was built by the fourth Roman emperor, Justinian, in honour of his wife, Theodora, who happened to be a big whore.”

Danny, of course, is not as carefree as he makes out, and Indiana’s gift is to let us see slowly through the veils. Sometimes “I can feel like something’s opening up and becoming possible … like the next trick’s going to shake something loose that’s frozen inside me.” Indiana has said that Danny’s character was in part inspired by Warren Beatty’s in the 1973 film Shampoo: “If he stops moving for one minute, he’ll have to reflect on what his life really is.” 

That being the case — Danny’s life being perpetual unplanned motion — it’s no surprise that a plot only develops half-way through the book. When it does come it’s a zinger, involving a rich doctor and an organ harvesting scam. There’s a foundation of sadness in Rent Boy: this being the 90s, AIDS was still raging as a killer. “This has death in it, this is life and it’s also death,” thinks Danny in the moment, whilst seeing “guys a year later weighing ninety pounds and pretending they’ve never been healthier”. 

In a short space, Rent Boy is a multi-faceted little gem, a world of “Versailles at 78rpm, and the sort of funny, sick, weird little book you never forget. 

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