By Anna Aslanyan.
Sebastian Groes, The Making of London: London in Contemporary Literature, Palgrave Macmillan 2011
What do a living organism, a laboratory, and a latrine have in common? They have all been used as metaphors for London, respectively, by Peter Ackroyd, Zadie Smith, and Martin Amis. Each of these writers has a special rank in the army of contemporary London chroniclers – the army whittled down to a mere dozen in Groes’s critical study. The Making of London is an ambitious project, and one that would inevitably leave many people disappointed by the author’s choice of subjects. London writing is a phenomenon so vast, for every name mentioned there are bound to be numerous omissions. Why Ackroyd but not Jeanette Winterson with her magnificent historical canvas, Sexing the Cherry? Why Iain Sinclair but not Stewart Home who is, in the words of the former, “commanding the desert around the northern entrance of the Blackwell Tunnel” (the only nod to Home made in the book)? Why Maureen Duffy but not Stella Duffy with The Room of Lost Things? After all, it is not every day that Loughborough Junction becomes a setting for a book, and well written at that. And why put Will Self on the jacket if he is only going to make a guest appearance? But, as Sinclair is quoted as saying in the introduction, “I never feel that writing should be judged by what it doesn’t do, it should be taken to task for what it actually does”. Let us therefore see what Groes’s work does do.
It starts with a description of London as a collection of all things imaginable, among them “the Congestion Charge sign stamped in New Labour red onto the city and Boris Johnson’s Tory blue Super Cycle Highways”. This should not be taken as a random picture, for the book is concerned with New Labour and Thatcherism as two sides of the same coin, one perpetuating the other, and the way they have influenced London literature. Groes gives various examples, from Smith and White Teeth hailed as “the New Labour dream model” of multiculturalism, to Ian McEwan’s “satirical view of Thatcher’s Britain as an unredeemable narcissistic and egotistical society”, but fails to explain convincingly what it all has to do with London in particular. Can the same arguments not be applied to the rest of British literature? If anything, London, especially if you believe Ackroyd with his theory of timelessness, is less likely to be affected by transient politics. But, since Groes aims to demonstrate how London is shaped by its fiction, establishing what colours are imprinted on those pages does make sense.
Each chapter of The Making of London focuses on a single writer, from Michael Moorcock to Monica Ali, and several of their books. Instead of extending his list, Groes goes for a detailed analysis with each of his subjects. The same can be said about his selection of books by each of the picked authors: in his essay on Ackroyd he spends a dozen pages on The Plato Papers, providing useful commentary, but never tackles The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, the latest novel by the great biographer of the city, set in the 1820s London. There must be some reasons for Groes’s choice; they may become clearer if we assume that his book is intended for Eng Lit students struggling with their required reading list. However, those who are past cramming but still want to get a new perspective on London fiction will find a lot of fascinating insights in this work.
Groes goes for unusual angles. The article on J. G. Ballard, for instance, opens with an interesting comparison between High-Rise and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, followed by the observation that a terrorist character in Millennium People bears certain resemblance not only to Osama bin Laden, but also to Tony Blair. The quoted passage, describing him as “a messenger of the truth [...] smiling with a kind of shy confidence”, could fit Julian Assange just as easily. If this “veiled reference to the psychological make-up” of the former PM sounds far-fetched, wait for a subchapter titled “Amis’s scatological economy of postmodern London”. It begins as a study of the relationship between money and excrement, often explored by Amis, and later on states that “in London Fields, Nicola Six’s penchant for anal sex must be read as a […] metaphor that equates labour with economic power”. Answers on a postcard, please.
A less obscure point is made about Ali’s Brick Lane, which hints at similarities between Britain under New Labour and the Muslim world; the author is referring to the many regulations imposed by both. Parallels are often highlighted in the book, as they should be in a work of literary criticism. One example is James Joyce’s Dublin contrasted with London – an apt juxtaposition, especially if one remembers a Situationist practice where a map of one place is used to navigate around another. That London is a dark place is a recurring theme throughout: the more obvious examples, such as Ackroyd’s shadows and McEwan’s accidents, are joined by other, less predictable ones; if you peer inside, “in the light of [one] excerpt”, even the bright White Teeth are not without a dark tinge.
The two colours Groes constantly plays with, red and blue, serve as a backdrop to another question he addresses, that of modernism versus postmodernism. Most of the authors he deals with are not exactly pigeonholed, but classified accordingly. This is perhaps another send-off to British literature as a whole rather than London writing per se. Groes clearly has strong views on this dichotomy; although he keeps a straight face as a literary critic, avoiding discrimination, it is easy to guess that he gravitates to the blue, postmodern corner.
The study, sometimes sagging under its academic weight, would read better if it were not for its style, at times repetitive, even clichéd. It is as if each writer is assigned a keyword whose iteration seems more Google-friendly than necessary. For instance, what Iain Sinclair does is “mock”: first he “mocks the meaning of the word ‘deconstructed’”, shortly after “utopian speeches and their attempted revisionism”; he never scoffs or derides, for a change. Well, he satirises occasionally. With Smith, you get a lot of “testing out”. Ackroyd is forever “aligning himself” with certain intellectual traditions, sometimes twice in two consecutive sentences. The author of Hawksmoor would probably chuckle with satisfaction at this proof of his point that modern English is bland and inexpressive compared to what it used to be three hundred years ago. Some sentences in the book, such as “Yet Eros is still loose on London’s streets, even in the twenty-first century”, make you cringe. One quote from Yellow Dog is helpfully accompanied by “This chain of visual impressions of Camden is released in language” (italics are Groes’s); did we expect Amis to illustrate his text with a few high-res snapshots?
Reviewing The Making of London is a task almost as complex as the one Groes sets himself in this serious, well-informed, if not all-encompassing study. Its conclusion evokes the Great Fires of London, producing, as you scroll down your mental catalogue, an image of books devoured by flames. Perhaps what is missing here – Adam Thirlwell’s Politics, Tom McCarthy‘s Remainder, Lee Rourke‘s The Canal, to name but a few favourites – will one day be digested into another book. Until then, if you are interested in the authors included in this one, you should give it a read. Some of its ideas will strike you as fresh, some will cause disagreement. With the most puzzling bits, such as “Ackroyd’s alignment with the Gothic mode of writing should be viewed as an indirect reaction to the ways in which the Thatcherite programme of privatisation and decentralisation expresses itself in the London landscape”, you can always turn to the original and let it be your guide in the textual labyrinth of London. You may even be goaded into writing something about it yourself – a good chance to paint the city whichever colour you like.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, October 29th, 2011.