What can we learn from dystopian fiction?

+++ Originally published in The Cambridge Student on 1 May 2017 +++

The most popular adjective in recent book blurbs and review snippets must be ‘prescient’. Whether referring to dystopian classics such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or more contemporary fiction in the vein of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, there seems to exist a yearning for literary clairvoyance. We are often so intuitively drawn to these world-gone-wrong tales that it can be easy to forget to ask what – aside from gazing at the spectacle of imagined disaster – kindles our fascination with their seemingly measurable accuracy?

There undoubtedly lies a perverse pleasure in recognising our own reality in a writer’s invented future, as though we were allowed to stealthily observe fictionalised versions of ourselves. When this happens, it can act as a confirmation of political beliefs – a ‘told-you-so’ attitude. There are, after all, few things as convincing as well-written fiction that seems to speak to developments it never could have known.


It’s no coincidence that, after Donald Trump’s election win, Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here saw a massive sales spike. For readers who found themselves somewhere between disbelief and a desire to explain the result, the quite unabashedly polemical book promised to offer a coherent, contained account of how ‘it happened here’ on that dreary night of November 2016. Both the Guardian and the New York Times published pieces that declared the novel had “predicted Trump”.

But there is also a danger in giving in to the temptation of placing real, contemporary figures such as politicians inside the parameters of fictional blueprints Lego-man style. Buzz Windrip, the anti-Semitic demagogue who, in Lewis’s book, defeats Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1936 election, is not Donald Trump (though there certainly are troubling parallels). It would be all too neat and simple to say that we live in a dystopia written eight decades ago in which the United States is allied to Nazism.

Make no mistake, books that strike a chord with circumstances of their relative future do fulfil a function of the cautionary tale. Read critically, It Can’t Happen Here leads us to fruitfully question ideological and historical certainties – about both ‘then’ and ‘now’. If we realise that dystopian fiction is not the product of successful fortune-telling, but rather an exercise in thinking beyond empirical fact, we can gain valuable insights into human nature. Setting our own lives comparatively beside those confined to the page, then, becomes a matter not of par-for-par translation but indirect self-study. We are, to put it abstractly, made to see how we are wired.

More recently, for instance, Dave Eggers’s internet nightmare The Circle has managed to hold up a mirror before our generation’s smartphone-dazed eyes, reflecting back a likeness both urgent and pragmatic. The 2013 novel is named after a powerful California-based tech company – made-up but virtually screaming Google and Facebook – which is moving fast towards a dehumanising monopoly of user data. We might not be quite so far gone as Eggers’s characters, but whenever readers find versions of themselves in fiction, that literary mechanism has worked that continually drives us to consider, and recoil at, possibilities closer to home than is comfortable. Then again, Eggers might not be exaggerating.

Be that as it may, it is thoughts like this that imbue dystopic works with the potential to alter our discourse for the better. Fiction is fiction, but our imaginations hold a pervasive power over our actual future; such worrisome visions as those penned by Eggers, Lewis, or Orwell are first dreamed up and then, as time passes and readers in turn imagine, influence the ways in which we decide to shape our lives. As Huxley writes: “Words can be like X-rays, if you use them properly – they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.”

Review: Shining a light on ‘Hidden Figures’

+++ Originally published in Varsity on 21 February 2017 +++

Hidden Figures is no ordinary incarnation of Hollywood’s recent space fever. NASA isn’t trying to bring home Matt Damon from Mars, nor have linguistically advanced aliens landed on Earth. Instead of exploring futuristic science-fiction, this Oscar contender, which is based on true events, offers a look back on the less famous pioneers of space travel.

 The year is 1961. The Soviet Union has just successfully sent Yuri Gagarin into the cosmos, with NASA still scrambling to achieve tangible success in the Cold War race for space. Meanwhile, the Civil Rights Movement is well underway. The film combines both strands of American history, because embedded in the grand national space narrative are the personal stories of three NASA employees working in an all-female, all-Black computing division.

Image: FOX 2000 Pictures.


Screening the lives of three real human beings while retaining depth is not an easy task, but director Theodore Melfi makes precisely the right decision in subtly foregrounding Katherine Johnson (Tajari P. Henson) as the main protagonist, without flattening Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) into mere bystanders.

 As Soviet space development threatens to outclass the United States’, Johnson is promoted to join the Space Task Group, a team frantically working on NASA’s first manned mission. ‘Manned’, incidentally, is a fitting description of the environment in which Johnson finds herself. Timidly approaching her new desk, she is welcomed by the disapproving gaze of a dozen-some pairs of eyes, her new co-workers epitomising the 1960s workplace: black ties, white shirts, white men. The ensuing humiliation of having to run across NASA’s entire campus just to use the only ‘colored’ ladies’ room is as painful to watch as her male colleagues’ rejection of her evident mathematical genius.

 But this is also the film’s greatest strength. With sass and candour, the audience is invited to see the comicality of insecure masculinities, as when a slightly simple-minded patrol officer is dumbfounded by the fact that the three Black women whose car has broken down by the roadside should be on the way to their jobs at NASA – a place of American progress, of all things. Humour, of course, has an empowering capacity, and such scenes shine a spotlight on neglected aspects such as the beauty of Black intellectual emancipation and women in in the history of STEM. The film relishes pithy, slogan-ish lines (“Here at NASA, we all pee the same color”), that, while occasionally lightly overdone, are immensely quotable.

 As with any Hollywood film involving NASA, an element of American patriotism is spread on rather thickly, which at times verges on cheesy. But neither does the JFK and MLK video material from the archives overshadow the characters’ genuine human struggles, nor does the movie’s humour drag it into glib silliness.

 Ultimately, the parallelism between sending an astronaut to space and overcoming racism and sexism makes this story a powerful one. Both trajectories show the potential for accomplishing the unthinkable through working together: a man – yes – in space, but one sent there by the hard work of Black female engineers and mathematicians.

 This Oscar-nominated film is one with big aspirations and a strong delivery. An homage to persistence, the story is both touching and funny, and in the end manages to inspire.

Review: Wilco at the Brixton Academy (London)

+++ Originally published in Varsity on 25 November 2016 +++

Image: academymusicgroup.com

What do you do when your essay is due in 24 hours, your word count is at zero and you’re still not through the 900-page novel that you’re meant to read by tomorrow?

You go to see Wilco in London.

Cambridge sometimes feels like you live to work, with your choice of musical outings confined to the Corn Exchange and the Junction, lest you stray too far from your college library. So, when, in the late afternoon of last Saturday, I made my way down Regent Street towards the station to board a southbound train for London, I felt a mix of guilt and exaltation for allowing myself this night off, deadline looming and nothing yet to show for.

But if there was any part left in me saying that I wasn’t meant to be there when I positioned myself somewhere in the third row of the Brixton Academy just after 7 o’clock, those doubts were blown away completely when frontman Jeff Tweedy and guitarist Nels Cline took the stage to open with ‘Normal American Kids’, off the band’s latest record Schmilco. After the opener, the remaining members of the sestet joined and launched into the acoustic-driven ‘If I Ever Was a Child’, in which Tweedy sings: “I jumped to jolt my clumsy blood / While my white, green eyes / Cry like a window pane / Can my cold heart change / Even out of spite?

That’s all it takes: a group of excellent musicians together on a stage, a minor chord at the right time, a beautiful image carried by a unique voice – I was happy like a child. If the crowd of just under 5,000 still needed any more jolting, the ever growing crescendo of ‘I Am Trying to Break Your Heart’ and the subsequent thunderstorm of a song ‘Art of Almost’ promptly delivered, and catapulted the audience from foot-tapping approval into sonic ecstasy. Glenn Kotche drummed like a beast, while Mikael Jorgensen and Pat Sansone drew all the right notes from their keys, the latter switching back and forth between piano and guitar throughout the night.

With ‘Via Chicago’, the band played another of their more well-known pieces, in a show which managed well to balance tried-and-true material and new energy. Sounding like a hybrid between Neil Young’s ‘Helpless’ and a noise rock performance, the song off 1999’s Summerteeth had Tweedy and bassist John Stirratt placidly harmonising through some of its verses, while the rest of the band raged like a tempest, only to return right afterwards to perfectly timed ballad-playing. On the last stop of their three-month world tour, Wilco’s members were finely attuned to each other, and seemingly eager to play one last all-out show before heading home – they succeeded.

Week Five brought its promised academic blues to Cambridge; Week Six saw dreadful election news from across the pond; Week Seven sent America’s premier alt-country band to the rescue. After a cathartic ‘Impossible Germany’, Tweedy said into the microphone: “Take that, Trump.” He won’t care, to be sure, but I know we did. A doubtlessly recent graffito just outside the venue read in big white letters “MAKE AMERICA HATE AGAIN.” Wilco certainly spread a very different spirit during the evening: “This is what love is for / To be out of place / Gorgeous and alone / Face to face.”

‘Jesus, Etc.’ during the first set of the six-song encore had the crowd singing back every word, creating the sense of community among strangers that only music can accomplish. The band finally closed the show with ‘California Stars’, on which the evening’s opening act guitarist William Tyler was invited onto the stage, and a strong rendition of ‘A Shot in the Arm’.

Along with hundreds of fellow concertgoers, I made my way back towards King’s Cross on the Tube, some getting off at Oxford Circus to change, some riding past my intermediate destination, perhaps heading home to a London suburb. The last train of the night delivered me back into the Cambridge bubble at 1:22am, after a good hour of being squashed in the overheated window seat next to a sleeping woman, but buzzing with abundant Wilco energy for the entire journey, via Stevenage, via Royston, via Chicago.

I walked back to college in the pouring rain, my shoes soaked all the way through when I made it home just before two in the morning. I won’t pretend I got enough sleep that night, but I didn’t for a second wish I hadn’t gone. It was liberating to remember that the Cambridge music world doesn’t stop at the Corn Exchange. London has wonderful shows to offer almost every night, not quite as far from Cambridge as it may feel. My Wilco night has only convinced me that our big southerly neighbour can simply be an extension ground to our little university town.

“You’ve Been through All of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Books”: Why Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize in Literature Is Good News

+++ A slightly shorter version of this appeared in Varsity on 28 October 2016 +++

Varsity print edition, 28 October 2016, p. 30.

Last Thursday, the world of literature was split into two camps. As word spread that the 2016 Nobel laureate was not Don DeLillo, not Haruki Murakami, but in fact Bob Dylan, voices of dissent and of approval began to engage in an argument over a fundamental, deceptively easy question: is this literature?

With previous winners including T. S. Eliot, John Steinbeck, and Toni Morrison, Dylan joins an eminent host of American writers who have received the distinction. Sceptics, however, argue that he doesn’t belong among these ranks, simply because he is not in the business of literature. Indeed, the native Minnesotan is the first musician among the 113 honourees in the award’s history.

But it’s too narrow-minded to dismiss Dylan solely on the grounds of medium and genre. Granted, every Introduction to Literary Studies lecture impresses upon the starry-eyed undergraduate that the three major genres of literature are prose, drama, and poetry. Then, where do you put Dylan? Advocates of his win came running swiftly, proclaiming Dylan the poet, Dylan the 20th century Bard. But although he was hailed “the greatest living poet” by Van Morrison decades ago and continues to be labelled in the same vein, this also misses the mark.

Dylan is that somewhat awkwardly branded breed called ‘singer/songwriter’, and there is no shame in saying it out loud. Literature and music have always been sister art forms; nothing speaks against a significant intersection between the two. Dylan won the prize “for having created new poetic expression within the great American song tradition”. What if not evolve material from their national song tradition did the likes of Wordsworth and Tennyson do in their day? They printed their poetry in books; Dylan presses his songs on vinyl and CD. They have in common the immensely innovate treatment of the English language and its cultural heritage.

But it’s not just the folk tradition handed down from Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly that gave Dylan his artistic credentials. In his 2004 autobiography Chronicles, he writes of his early interest in literature ‘proper’. Poems by the English Romantics and novels ranging from Dickens to Dostoyevsky fascinated him profoundly. He later befriended Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and, in an admittedly rather marginal volume of prose poetry entitled Tarantula (1971), even made his own foray into book writing. The 75-year-old certainly didn’t win the Nobel Prize by pure association with all things literary, but his legacy is far bigger than that of a mere folk troubadour.

There is one piece whose lasting influence Dylan stresses over all others, and which should serve as a reminder that the lines of medium are blurred in the field of verbal art. ‘Pirate Jenny’, a song from Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera (1928), served as a “prototype” for the budding storyteller, then in his twenties. Brecht was Germany’s most prominent modern playwright, Weill a successful composer. Well, what is it – literature or music? Surely not neither. Surely both.

It should be obvious that the clean separation of one from the other is a futile project. Poets such as Leonard Cohen may come along who have a strong affinity to music, and songwriters may exhibit inspired engagement with the printed word, as Suzanne Vega has done in her most recent album. In Friday’s Telegraph, former Cambridge professor Christopher Ricks, a leading literary critic and long-time scholar of Dylan’s work, made the case for viewing the newly crowned laureate’s work as just what it is – an inseparable aggregate of various art forms: “[I]t doesn’t make sense to ask which element of a compound is more ‘important’: the voice, or the music, or the words? (Which is more important in water, the oxygen or the hydrogen?)”

And so there are also favourable opinions in the literary establishment. Toni Morrison called the award “an impressive choice”, and Salman Rushdie, himself often considered a Nobel contender, declared that “Dylan towers over everyone”, concluding that “[t]he frontiers of literature keep widening”.

The Nobel Committee, perhaps usually perceived as a stuffy institution, has opened its doors and with Dylan ushers in a people’s writer – not in the sense of an avid interaction with fans on Dylan’s part – on the contrary, he is notoriously laconic and avoids publicity – but in the wide-reaching ways in which his work has touched the life of the everyman; listening to Highway 61 Revisited or Blood on the Tracks is arguably less intimidating than the perusal of the collected works of Samuel Beckett. Novelist Nick Hornby, whose most famous story, High Fidelity, is set in the world of popular music, expressed it with humour: “Bob Dylan! The Nobel Prize for Literature! But…I know his stuff!”

Those still apprehensive should be comforted, for the awarding of the prize to a songwriter doesn’t mean that next year’s laurels won’t go to a writer of the more conventional kind (in fact, they most likely will). If anything, the Nobel Prize has strengthened its significance by demonstrating a progressive, non-prescriptive understanding of literature.

The wonderful richness of Dylan’s songbook ranges from readily approachable folk balladry – those songs in which he recognisably carries the torch of the American song tradition – to the puzzling realms of modernist poetry. Nobel Prize or not, Dylan’s work is that of one of the greats. Be it “To dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free” from ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ or “Einstein, disguised as Robin Hood / With his memories in a trunk / Passed this way an hour ago / With his friend, a jealous monk” from ‘Desolation Row’, his images never fail to strike a special note – in the listening eye as in the reading ear.

“Keep Me Singing” by Van Morrison (2016)

+++ Originally published in Varsity on 12 October 2016 +++

Keep Me Singing mixes impulses from soul, gospel, and blues into a good, though not exceptional, record. Van Morrison moves with ease between the musical idioms that have long been his home ground. While the gospel-infused title track is reminiscent of a late 1970s Bob Dylan, ‘Going Down to Bangor’ sees a Muddy Waters-like 12-bar blues transplanted to Morrison’s native Northern Ireland. Appropriate for the season, ‘Memory Lane’, a string-supported ballad, offers a melancholic meditation on bygone days while the first leaves of autumn touch down. In other places, listeners may be reminded of Sam Cooke (‘Every Time I See a River’) and fellow blue-eyed soul singer Mitch Ryder (‘The Pen Is Mightier Than The Sword’), and ‘In Tiburon’ evokes San Francisco’s beat generation and the trumpet of Chet Baker. Overall, Morrison’s 36th studio album is a mellow take on the various directions that have influenced him over his long career, the execution of which leaves little to be criticised.

Varsity print edition, 7 October 2016, p. 31.

Morrison’s hand is clearly recognisable throughout, in both the songwriting and the production, (co-)producing being a role he has assumed in the recording of his albums for nearly five decades. Despite being 71 years of age, he has retained his vocal class, and the familiar phrasing paired with the slightly slurred drawl doesn’t depart much from the days of Astral Weeks andMoondance. The record comfortably joins the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee’s oeuvre, without delivering any big surprises. Still, Morrison and his studio band ultimately shine with excellent musicianship assuredly demonstrated in convincing arrangements and instrumental sections, and Keep Me Singing can be recommended as a high-quality contribution to the soundtrack of this autumn.

“Nutshell” by Ian McEwan (2016)

+++ Originally published in Varsity on 29 September 2016 +++

My review on varsity.co.uk

Nutshell is a novel of filial love, murderous conspiracy, and comedic tragedy. But first and foremost it is a story told from a wonderfully weird perspective.

“So here I am, upside down in a woman.”

Thus the nameless narrator of Ian McEwan’s new book Nutshell introduces himself to the yet unknowing reader, who quickly realises they are being granted an extensive glimpse into life before life, as told by a foetus in his last weeks before birth. But even in utero, something is rotten: before baby must leave the cosy abode of his mother Trudy’s womb, he overhears that she is having an affair with his uncle, Claude. Worse still, Trudy and Claude are plotting to kill baby’s father, John, in cold blood!

Trudy? Claude? A near-incestuous affair and spousal homicide? Sound familiar? That’s because the novel is an ingenious retelling of Hamlet. Transferred from medieval Denmark to present-day London, it lends modern clothes to Shakespeare’s best-known play, blows some dust off the Elizabethan tale, and invigorates it with an absurd kind of black humour which – oddly enough – works.

This not least because baby Hamlet is not your usual, blissfully ignorant minus-one-month-old. Through eavesdropping on outside talk and avid listening in on Trudy’s radio news and internet podcasts, he has become quite the intellectual. He can give a short lecture on Russian-Ukrainian relations, is acquainted with Roland Barthes’ The Pleasure of the Text, knows Schönberg from Schubert, and is, rather tragically by way of Trudy’s drinking habits, a respectable wine connoisseur.

But as over-the-top as this all may sound, the novel’s general tongue-in-cheek attitude never slips into silliness. There are moments of earnestness that give the story weight at the right times. What does it mean for a son to be torn between the instinctual love for his mother and disgust at her deeds? When does one leave the land of innocence and enter that of worldly experience? What portion of a person’s life is determined even before his or her official personhood is reached? To be or not to be?

This, McEwan’s fourteenth novel, proves once again that he is a writer finely attuned to how the heart beats. He knows how to make his reader feel entertained, happy, and sad, all within twenty pages – an expert in the craft of the sad smile, so to speak. There is a certain tenderness with which his characters come to life (literally, in this case) and yet he manages to steer clear of kitsch. The feat of successfully maintaining the curious point of view while also playing around with a text as eminent as Hamlet could only be pulled off by a masterful stylist. McEwan is one.

If you’re looking to get into his books or if you’ve been scouting the bookshop displays for a quick read to squeeze in before term begins, Nutshell can only be recommended. Or maybe you didn’t enjoy Hamlet, forced to read it by your English teacher when you were sixteen and never particularly cared for the cryptic play within the play, the power games of long-gone Danish royals, and the melodramatic discourse upon one inexplicably famous skull. Be assured – you don’t have to be a fan of the play to read this novel; it is a pleasure in its own right.

“Help, angels! Make assay!” So cries the guilt-ridden Claudius in Hamlet’s act 3, scene 3. “Bow, stubborn knees, and heart with strings of steel, / Be soft as sinews of the new-born babe. / All may be well.”

Will all be well in Nutshell? See for yourself.

“The Heart Goes Last” by Margaret Atwood

28503851+++ SPOILERS +++

Stuck in a totalitarian regime that treats its citizens like cattle? Married to an unfaithful wife who is the braindead murder puppet of your insane dictator? Today is your lucky day! Because it’ll all work out in the end! All you need to do is have your wife think she has been drugged und made to undergo brain surgery equivalent to emotional rape and your marriage will be saved! Disclaimer: must be dead-inside hypocrite with immature understanding of other people’s lives; must be OK with inhumane measures of revenge; must be able to only care about himself.

As this novel moved towards its close, I couldn’t believe how cheap, predictable, and pointless the ending was going to be. I’d had high hopes for my first Atwood, but this was truly awful. The shallow story is full of despicable characters who fail to interest you in any other way than, at best, wanting to know how the plot that they happen to be inside of progresses. But not even the plot manages to redeem the book, because the only thing that the eventual outcome suggests is, “World still fucked up, but protagonists happy ever after; life is good.” This felt like a dime novel: good enough to pass the time, but ultimately empty, ridden with cliché, and inconsequential.