Benjamín Labatut, Claire Keegan, and Megan Nolan

A genius, a journalist and a little gem

A bit of lucky timing cannot be begrudged


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

“Nobody knows anything” was William Goldman’s succinct precis of the film industry, but it applies to all the consumer arts, particularly publishing. Editors follow the market to some extent, but most new novels are published on a nose and a hunch. Books are thrown overboard weekly in their thousands, and most drop so far and so fast you don’t even hear the splash.

A bit of lucky timing cannot be begrudged. Did Pushkin Press know when it acquired Benjamín Labatut’s The Maniac (his first book to be written in English, “a work of fiction based on fact”) that two of its featured subjects, J. Robert Oppenheimer and artificial intelligence, would be high on the news agenda bang on the time of publication? Hell, it even features walk-on parts for Elon Musk and messenger RNA. Perhaps, perhaps not — either way, full credit to the publishers for not plastering the cover with Cillian Murphy’s face.

It was more likely the success of Labatut’s previous book When We Cease to Understand the World (2020) that drew them to publish him again. That was an eccentric, gripping compendium of the permeable barrier between genius and madness — and between fiction and non-fiction. Described by one critic as a novel about nature’s revenge on man, it was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize.

The Maniac, Benjamín Labatut (Pushkin Press, £20)

To begin with, The Maniac reads like an offshoot from the previous book: the characters are all real people, and elements of scientific brilliance and mental collapse are threaded throughout. However, after an opening riff on Austrian physicist Paul Ehrenfest, who killed his son and himself in September 1933 from fear of the rise of the Nazi party, the book settles into a linear and single-stranded story. It focuses for most of its length on Hungarian-American mathematician Johnny von Neumann, “the smartest human being of the 20th century”.

“There are two kinds of people in the world: [Johnny] von Neumann and the rest of us,” said his colleague Eugene Wigner, a Nobel Prize winner who nonetheless felt inadequate in his company. Von Neumann had a hand in everything from computing to nuclear physics. He “couldn’t stop thinking, his mind was in a state of constant hunger”. As a child when he saw his mother staring into space, he asked her, “What are you calculating?” As an adult, Wigner “once saw him take two books to the toilet, for fear that he might finish the first one before he was done”.

What von Neumann wanted most was to find a mathematical basis for reality, which we infer was as much to justify to himself his own interpretation of the world, as to uncover what was really always there. Genius doesn’t go unnoticed, though. Soon he was brought into the Manhattan Project — cue Oppenheimer — and its “terrible opaque brightness” that “erased the entire world”.

All this is told in oral history format by colleagues and relatives of von Neumann, though most speak in the same tone. (Indeed, it’s only when Labatut attempts riper voices for physicist Richard Feynman and computer engineer Julian Bigelow that they paradoxically sound less convincing.) Labatut is very good on making science exciting — why shouldn’t it be, given where it’s taken us? He conveys complex ideas less through their technical details than by expressing the human experience of ignorance being swept away, with wonder put in its place.

Often, of course, fear was put there, too. The final part of The Maniac draws a line between von Neumann’s work in creating the first computer that could beat a human in a simplified game of chess, the Mathematical Analyzer, Numerical Integrator and Computer (or “MANIAC”) and the development of modern AI-powered machines. The story here focuses on Go, the ancient game with a near-infinite number of possible moves. It covers the shock in the gaming community when DeepMind’s computer AlphaGo beat one of the world’s highest-ranking human players, Lee Sedol, in 2016.

It’s doubtful whether this final section needs to be as long as it is, but there’s no denying Labatut’s ability to control all the traditional fiction levers from character to suspense. Toward the end of von Neumann’s life, we’re told that his raging cancer left him unable to think. “There was no longer anything left of the faculty by which he defined himself.” As AI encroaches on all aspects of uniquely human endeavours, the rest of us might soon be feeling the same thing.

Another example of good publishing comes with Megan Nolan’s second novel Ordinary Human Failings. Mostly good, that is: the cover, which makes it look like generic sad-gal-lit (half-hidden female face), grossly undersells the content, which is both broad and deep.

Ordinary Human Failings, Megan Nolan (Jonathan Cape, £16.99)

Set largely in London in 1990, Nolan’s novel is a book that wastes no time. Over and done in 200 pages, the story opens full throttle with the discovery of a dead child — Mia — and “the mud of grief” that ensues. Mia was last seen playing with Crystal, the daughter of a “rotten family”, the Greens, Irish immigrants who immediately become prime suspects. That epithet “rotten” comes not from the police or community, but from Tom, a reporter from the Daily Herald. He works with pathological cynicism in what Gordon Burn in Fullalove called “the wall-shinning, nose-poking, leg-in-the-door end of the trade”.

Tom pursues the Greens with zeal, befriending them and putting them up in a hotel “once almost elegant and now almost quaint”. This is how Nolan gets us to hear the voices of Crystal’s mother Carmel, Carmel’s mother Rose, brother Richie and others. The narrative never lets up, with brilliantly conceived and achieved set-pieces on admittedly grim topics: an abortion attempt; an alcoholic decline; a coercive relationship.

That is their lives, though. The novel describes the lines of society: on one side the driven and ambitious, represented by Tom and his boss Edward (for whom absence from work is not permitted for “ordinary human failings such as hangovers, broken hearts, etc etc etc”); and on the other, the struggling and sinking under, whose lives are composed of “ordinary human failings, tragedies too routine to be of note”.

There is structure, too, with the story rising to a confrontation and then a satisfying conclusion. If Ordinary Human Failings has a weakness, it is that the writing is too consistently articulate. It sounds more like an omniscient narrator than the character whose thoughts it is representing. That is better than the alternative, though. Part of the pleasure in reading this novel is seeing the value of a publisher committing to the development of a gifted writer.

Two years ago, reviewing a Claire Keegan book would have required a brief introduction, probably including the phrases “well-kept secret” and “writer’s writer”. Now the secret is out, ever since her short novel Small Things Like These was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2021, when it became what we might call the people’s winner.

Now — after reissues of her previous three books — we have the smallest book yet by this writer of small books. So Late in the Day in fact is a single short story, published in the New Yorker last year and now plumped up with large type into a single hardcover volume.

So Late in the Day, Claire Keegan (Faber, £8.99)

Those who came to Keegan with Small Things Like These or her earlier novella Foster (2010) may expect a tale of kindness, but they will be shocked. So Late in the Day has more in common with the ugly title tale that opened Keegan’s first collection Antarctica (1999), though it is far more subtle.

We are in the head of Cathal, an Arts Council worker in Dublin at the end of July 2022. As he leaves work on a sunny Friday afternoon, we get the first sense that there’s a story hiding from us. “Down on the lawns, some people were out sunbathing and there were children, and beds plump with flowers; so much of life carrying smoothly on, despite the tangle of human upsets and the knowledge of how everything must end.”

Over the course of Cathal’s journey home, we are filled in on what is missing from his life — or rather who. In a book as short as this, it’s impossible to disclose much without spoiling it, but the essence is in a relationship with a French woman, Sabine. When one of the first thoughts Cathal shares about Sabine is that “her command of the English language sometimes grated”, we know we aren’t heading to sunlit uplands.

With Keegan, it is not just what happens but how it happens that is important. When Sabine’s engagement ring needs to be resized, and Cathal says, “Do you think I’m made of money?”, he “immediately felt the long shadow of his father’s language crossing over his life”. Slowly it builds. As with Small Things Like These, the story seems to turn on a single phrase. This time that phrase is “It’s simply about not giving”, which is in diametric opposition to the earlier book’s “Was there any point in being alive without helping one another?”.

So Late in the Day is a small good thing that rewards rereading. Publishing a single unit of literature of this quality as a standalone book makes perfect aesthetic sense, though at £8.99 for around 6,000 words, its publication may damage the government’s chances of halving inflation by the end of the year.

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