Thursday 7 August 2008

Non-fat fiction? No thanks

Granta 102: the nature of writing, edited by Jason Cowley

Granta 101 was greeted with fanfare as the issue that brought the distinguished literary journal firmly into its second century, with a new look and renewed aim to give top writers space to meditate contemporary political and social issues. In his introduction to Granta 102: The New Nature Writing, editor Jason Cowley explains that this edition is intended to provide a forum for ways of writing about one big issue (nature) which are not in the ‘lyrical pastoral tradition of the romantic wanderer…(something which is) urgent, vital and alert to the defining particulars of our time’.

Does it succeed? The early signs are not promising – Cowley begins with the by now familiar story of Christopher McCandless’ suicidal retreat from modernity in the Alaskan wilderness (filmed as Into the Wild) and goes on to discuss the ‘state of emergency’ of a world of soaring oil prices and the emergence of China, India and Brazil with their ‘new wealth and aspirational middle classes’ staking a claim to ‘finite resources’.

There is only one piece of traditional literary fiction, which is bitingly disappointing in one of the few major outlets for the short story in UK publishing. In its place we have a work of wordless graphic fiction entitled ‘Classic combo’ depicting mean-eyed workers engaged in the repetitive production line process which results in the average fast food meal, culminating in the torture, slaying and dismemberment of a cow. There is a field-report from Israel about the government’s attempts to rid birds from the skies to avoid harming their planes and gunships. Kathleen Jamie joins a pathologist in the dissection of human anatomy, reflecting on how close our colons are to pigs’. Matthew Power recounts a legal battle with Giuliani to preserve New York’s public gardens.

Welcome to this experimental, shocking world, folks: where cows get slaughtered to make hamburgers, the Israelis oppress everything, we remind ourselves that human are basically animals and some hippies fight the Man by singing ‘This Land Is Our Land.’ It’s okay to be scared – the unfamiliar always is.

You are braced for a repeat of Neal Astley’s slightly unhinged introduction to the recent Earth Shattering Eco-Poems anthology, in which he refused to include ‘egocentric’ poems that ‘exploited’ nature for metaphor and personal reflection or were written in ‘less environmentally enlightened’ times.

But Cowley, to his credit, included a crucial caveat in the specification: that the ‘writer (should) be present in the story’. Writers are thoroughly egocentric human beings after all, and unlike Astley’s apparent disgust at the ways humans dare use nature to talk all about themselves there is at least a tacit acceptance that we can, and should, have an active presence in the world we inhabit. Admittedly he does then say that they can appear ‘bashfully’ (literary code for self-loathing) and offers a little hand-wringing over one’s ‘carbon footprint’ and how you can learn just as much about yourself in the ‘local and parochial’ as you can from clocking up air-miles on some vulgar budget airline (one assumes).

If there is a sense that the politics and motivation behind this collection are already done and dusted, the results are at least (on the whole) interesting. There is a palpable tension at work between the initial desire to condemn humanity for its mistreatment of the environment, and a sense of wonderment not only at the power and complexity of nature, but at the human potential to work with it and sculpt it to its own ends.
This is most evident in Kathleen Jamie’s Pathologies: A startling tour of our bodies (colourful interpretations of the nature of ‘Nature’ are one of the greatest pleasures on display). Inspired by the recent death of her mother, she visits a pathologist and gets taken on a detailed study of human anatomy, looking at its frailty and decay, finally getting to watch the whole deal in a ‘live’ autopsy.

Jamie is inclined to go for the obvious morbid clichés – the aforementioned realisation about colons, a giddy obsession with the bacterial processes and how we abuse our complex and marvellous natural selves with our wicked earthly pleasures. But what really shines through is the dark humour of the pathologist (‘Let’s go and get a sandwich. That’s the tradition’ he says post-autopsy) and an acceptance that the frailties of our bodies is an adequate price to pay for the experiences of ‘joy and discovery’ and that we should be free to ‘negotiate’ the unfairness of the bargain. She then follows this up with a slightly baffling desire for someone with a rucksack full of ‘antibiotics and antiseptics’ to ‘plead for the non-human and cry halt to our rapacity,’ but I suppose formaldehyde does funny things to your brain.

Robert Macfarlane’s Ghost Species is a 21st century reworking of Robert Blythe’s classic 1960s study of rural decline Akenfield, where poetic laments for a changing world are replaced with the cold science of the title, which describes the remnants of a doomed species who ‘have been out-evolved by their environment.’ Whereas Blythe’s interviews with Norfolk farm labourers revealed an ambivalence about the impact of modernity – highlighting the gruelling nature of the work, and the cloying boredom of rural life felt by the younger generation – Macfarlane seems to view it as part of the natural cycle, a karmic revenge for the destruction of the world’s reefs (amongst other crimes). Lurking under this, you feel, is a worrying delight being taken at human beings getting their just desserts. But the abiding image of one of the Shropshire labourers, Eric, grieving the loss of his wife to Alzheimer’s – the particular irony of this old man left with only memories of someone who had none brings a neat reminder of Jamie’s piece, and the precise importance of her euphemistic ‘negotiate.’

A similar effect appears in the notebook jottings of Roger Deakin, which are the gentle meanderings of a procrastinating writer, in the vein of The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, injected with a little bit of green-angst on top. But Macfarlane’s introduction tells us that Deakin died of cancer in 2006. With this knowledge, the final observation (as it is presented) is deliberately and effectively tender:

In my cabin I learnt the sheer luxury of daydreaming. It has been my making and my undoing too. How many days, weeks, months have I lost to it? But perhaps it isn’t time lost at all, but the most valuable thing I could have done.

Compare this to the preposterous whine of Matthew Power describing the break-up of his relationship on the grounds that ‘the revolutionary excitement of the garden fight, the belief that we were changing the world, were hard to maintain in everyday practice’. The fight he refers to was to stop the auction of some public gardens in New York. No, seriously.

Cowley says that through the local we can find ‘exoticism in the familiar, the extraordinary in the ordinary’. Power’s tale of moving to a condemned building in the Bronx and setting up a hippy nature refuge contains about as many clichés as you could hope: their delicate utopian dreams in constant battle with the property developer fascists (headed by Giuliani), bohemian living (junkies! Mexicans! A community theatre in the basement!), taking peyote from a Navajo medicine man, and the aren’t-they-so-down-to-earth-and-yet-have-such-a-finely-honed-sense-of-humour comments of various passing eccentric Noo Yoikers. Exotic? It makes going to Thailand and getting really into Buddhism seem like Salammbô by comparison.

At least Lydia Peelle’s short story Phantom Pain uses a familiar tale – an ageing artisan struggling to adapt to his changed circumstances and relate to the younger, more liberated generation who have already taken his place in the world – as the launchpad for a quietly efficient character study. Strongly reminiscent of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming Stories in its themes of faded masculinity and small-town angst, as well as her spartan prose, Peelle uses her protagonist’s mourning for a lost limb as an effective metaphor for the sense of a way of life slowly disappearing for the survival of the whole.
Perhaps the simile of the ‘Classic Combo’ is apt here: Granta 101 was the reliable favourite, filled with lots of tasty treats and still on the whole good for you. Granta 102 is the fad diet, grounded in Real Science and somehow different to all those other ones, which advertises itself on the subtext that by following it you will be better (morally and physically) than those boring, die-hard traditionalists.

Indeed, much of Cowley’s rhetoric is even couched in a similar language to food marketing – it is locally-sourced, it is free range, it is ethical (it agrees and conforms to the expectations of a liberal-left audience) and it leaves you feeling ‘urgent, vital and alert’ (none of that fatty junk in here). It’s just a shame it’s so terribly bland. But of course it works – just look at how great Emile Hirsch looked in that film.

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