Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Tenuous Politics Football World Cup 2018 : Semi Final 1!


Tenuous Politics Football World Cup 2018: Semi-final !  France v Belgium
T


he clash of two impressive that border each other should be a fascinating clash tonight.   Although some of us are stick with the bombardment of the inaccurate slogan “Football’s coming home” over this week another slogan may be aired tonight: “France is Back”.
This has been used by technocratic capitalism’s dream politician Emmanuel Macron who despite his electoral victory in 2017 is now plunging new levels of unpopularity.  He has faced protest from many sectors of society – public sector workers, students, farmers and pensioners have all taken to the streets in the last few weeks against his “reforms”.  He is seeking some reflected glory from the football team and will attend the match tonight. 
The French team need some redemption Euro 2016 was held there despite the permanent state of emergency.  This has now been lifted but much of the police powers are still in place.  France lost in the final in Paris against a fairly limited Portugal team.
They are now reliant on a band of young exciting players mainly from les banlieues – the poor suburbs of Paris where there are multi-cultural immigrant communities.  The biggest star so far is M’Bappe  who comes from the “Bondy” and is a local hero there where his Cameroon born Dad also used to play.  The Premier League stars  and key French players Pogba  (whose brothers play for Guinea) and Kante (parents from Mali) also come from les banlieus.
This positivity only temporarily covers the racism  which is still rife in many sections of French society though.  There has been riots in Nantes (see above) after the police (armed in France) shot dead an unarmed young North African immigrant last week.  One of the stars of France Griezmann had to apologise for posing in “blackface” make up last December ( an offensive image see below).  A crassly insensitive move for a French player against his teammates and indeed the whole of France where the National Front polled over 10 million votes against Macron.
Hopefully if France are victorious it can help fight the racist anti-immigrant feelings in France – like the 98 team of Zidane  victory did if only for a short while.


Monday, 9 July 2018

Tenuous Politics Football World Cup 2018: Last 16 knockout and Quarter Finals!


The knock-outs began with pressure on the big guns... What an outcome.  Europe asserting its authority over Latin America?

Croatia v Denmark. 
The impressive performance of Croatia in this tournament (winning all 3 of their games so far) masks a real crisis in Croatian football and indeed their national team. Earlier in June just before tournament Zdravko Mamic - the power of Croatian football since independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 was sentenced for 6.5 years for fraud relating to transfers when he was head of Dinamo Zagreb (in the early days of indy known as Croatia Zagreb). He has fled into Bosnia rather than face prison. Several of the players he made millions from are in the national squad including club captain Luka Modric - man of the match in recent Champions League Final - and Liverpool defender Lovren. Modric gave confused and weak testimony in Mamic's trial (see below) and has been charged with perjury - which he will have to deal with after tournament. Lovren also gave contradictory evidence and is currently being investigated for perjury
. Mamic was also Vice President of the national Croatian Federation - Cacic (the coach duirng Euro 2016) was widely seen as a dupe of Mamic and was sacked as Mamic was charged. Their new coach Dalic has been brought in from UAE football where he managed fairly impressively. Perhaps more significantly he has no links with Mamic although ironically given Mamic's self imposed exile he is a Bosnian Croat. 
Whether the excitement of the World Cup can overcome these tensions for the next couple of weeks we shall have to see. 
The Right Wing governments of both Croatia and Denmark met at the EU Summit on Immigration last week - Croatia refusing to host any processing camps for migrants. Denmark has also taken a strong anti-immigration stance with the growth of the populist right wing Danish People's Party. In the last few years welfare payments to asylum seekers has been slashed provoking protest s (see below)The moderate Social Democratic Danish party (Labour's sister party and one of the models for the SNP Growth Commission) is now indistinguishable from the far-right on immigration - calling for a cap on asylum seekers amongst other things - meaning other left groups have broken all potential links with it. The Danish team have a number of players whose families arrived as refugees from Africa in a more welcoming period.


The Mexicans will take to the pitch this afternoon in the afterglow of a massive left wing landslide victory for Obrador. (see below) He gained over 50% of the votes with a left wing populist programme - in defiance to the country's establishment and (obvioulsy) Trump's Presidency. Many Mexicans speak of overturning the "theft" of the 1988 election where the leftist candidate Cardenas' victory was stolen - with the neo-liberal governments that followed across Mexico and Latin America in the 90s this could have sparked a very different history.

One year later in Brazil Lula the veteran trade unionist also almost won the Presidency with the Workers' Party. Now the situation is very different. Lula was jailed in April this year for corruption charges - he is now barred from standing in this year's elections where he was leading the opinion polls. This follows the "coup" which overthrew the Workers' Party President and torture survivor - Dilma Roussef in 2016. She was also impeached on misusing government funds. This has created the basis for a right wing movement in Brazil - the leading candidate in the opinion polls is Bolsonaro (see below) - a far right ex-army officer. He expressly praised the torturers in Brazil's miltary dictatorship of Roussef before her impeachment. He is also explicitly homophobic and has advocated sterilisation of poor familiies. The fact that the Left (despite the moderate nature of the Worker's Party in power - they still had a large degree of support) has no candidate to counter Bolsonaro is really worrying. To such an extent Tite the Brazilian coach who has turned the team round after the humiliation of the 7-1 defeat to Germany at home was named as most Brazilians' favoured Presidential candidate. Tite has dismissed this out of hand though if he wins the World Cup in Russia - this momentum may become unstoppable!!

The Quarter Finals!
One outside bet for the tournament are Uruguay who have won every game so far and only conceded one goal with a strong defence. One inspiration for the team is to win it for their manager Oscar Tabarez (see below) whose health is visibly failing with alleged Guillain-Barre syndrome. Tabarez is the longest serving manager at the World Cup (in post since 2006) and made the semi-finals in 2010. He has revolutionised Uruguayan football and has moved it away from the brutal team that played Scotland in the 1986 tournament. He is known as El Maestro - he has a background as a primary school teacher- and is close to the leftist President Tabare Vazquez. Vazquez was also involved in football being the Chairman of Montevideo team Progres in the 80s (when it won the league). His Broad Front coalition have faced some protests in January this year from farmers allied to the right wing parties who have been excluded from power for 15 years who wanted more tax subsidies (see below).
At his house Tabarez has a quote emblazened on his wall ascribed to Che Guevara "One must harden oneself without losing tenderness.” He also named his daughter Tania after Che's comrade in the Cuban and Bolivian struggles. His support for Che ensured he was popular with Argentinian club Boca Juniors who he coached to a title in early 1990s.
His philosophical approach has gone down surprisingly well with the Uruguay team who have a few big names in their line up notably Suarez and Cavani. In Tabarez' own words "Football is a collective game not an individual one. When I want to see stars I look at the sky. I do not coach stars I coach people." Good luck El Maestro!
 England v Sweden. This afternoon's match has historically two closely aligned teams. Swedish football followed English football tactically and structurally very closely for many years. Eriksson and Hodgson (both ex England coaches) won a number of league titles in Sweden early in their career. Southgate in many other ways a breath of fresh air as no connections with that form of tactics - allowing him to develop a more mainland European direction ironic given the Brexit era. The Swedish coah Andersson like Southgate has only ever managed in his domestic league. They also both are keen students of other sports to see what they can learn - Andersson with handball and Southgate with American Sports - notably basketball and their form of football! 
The future for English football as a whole regardless of the outcome of today and indeed the tournament is in a lot of doubt. Every member of the England squad plays in England although the number of English players in the league is a minorirty (see below) - in contrast to few of the Swedish squad playing domestically. 
On the day after Theresa May announced plans to adopt a soft-ish Brexit she spoke of a work permit system across EU rather than free movement. This system already operates in English Football Leagues (including the Premier League) and indeed Scottish leagues for non- EU players. Essentially this means the player needs to be a regular international with a lot of caps or young and you have paid a lot of money for them recognising their potential The big money dominance of the Premier League from 1992 onwards coincided with the expansion of the EU allowing the cream of European football in England with minimum immigration law fuss - even Scotland got Laudrup and Larsson in the 1990s (established Scandinavian internationals).
Academic research shows that if the free movement of EU footballers had not existed in the Premier League Era and instead a work permit system - which looks quite similar to May's proposals - was in place only 40% of foreign players would have been allowed to play in England. This ban would have included big names like Anelka, Fabregas, Vialli, Mahrez, Kante and Alonso. Post Brexit the English Premier League may become something very different. Southgate may see this as an advantage as his young team may get more English players around them at their clubs. Or it could mean the influence of the more skilful European possession football could diminish. 
Sweden itself had its own ambiguous relaionship with the EU - it only voted to join in 1995 with a majority of 52% - the reverse of the 2016 Brexit vote. The current Social Democrat PM Lofven (see below) (an Anglophile Spurs fan!) has shifted to the right on immigration like his Danish counter part and has vowed to cut refugee numbers in half pandering to far right populists. A close match in political leaders as well as football history - let the best team win!

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Tenuous Politics Football World Cup 2018: 1st Round.

On June 14th the World Cup kicked off.   Call it a coping strategy.  Call it first rate global analysis.  Call it a bit of time wasting.  Here is my tenuous political take on the first round of the tournament.   




2 nations met in the opening match who are both adept at using football for political ends. As they chatted over the demolition of the Saudi football team Putin and Prince Salman must have been feeling pretty happy with themselves.
It is a year this week that Saudi Arabia launched their economic assault against their Arabic neighbours/ rivals (and world cup hosts in 2022) Qatar. Using their football federation they have attempted to take over the running of the Arabic Football area and have refused to allow Qatari refs to take charge of games involving Saudi Teams in their Champions League. Critically the day before Saudi used their votes and their acolytes including Bahrain and the UAE to award the World Cup to the USA and others in 2026 rather than their fellow Arab League State Morocco (who also lost narrowly today). Futher cementing the bond between Trump and Salman (Saudi being one of Islamic countries that avoided his travel ban last year) and isolating Qatar. Significantly Iran narrow victors against Morocco refused to back either. Cuba also abstained if you're interested
Meanwhile Putin has used the platform of the World Cup to cement his power despite the UK led attempt to destabilise it in the preceding months. Perhaps unsurprisingly Russia also backed Trump's bid for the 2026 Cup The opening match was a bit of a proxy also for the Syrian conflict with the Saudis- who have funded the Anti -Assad rebels. A 5 nil pretty victory must have confirmed Putin in his arrogance
Meanwhile tonight the workers' cooperative led Spain (sacking their manager 2 days before tournament) meet old rivals the pragmatic Euro champs Portugal. Who said football wasn't political, No me!

Argentina v Iceland - battle of the economic crises this afternoon.
In 2000-2 the Argentinian economy and state essentially collapsed due to neo-liberal policies applied brutally in 1990s. (See picture below) A foretaste for the end of the 00s where the banking collapse almost destroyed Iceland who were heavily reliant on finance capital.
Argentinian football was deeply affected and the humiliating perfomance in the 2002 World Cup (England even beat them!) underlined this. Messi and Aguero were both becoming teenagers at that time - Messi had to leave the country aged 12 as his team cashed in and went to Barcelona. Aguero's team Independiente kept him for a couple of years until he moved to Atletico Madrd as a 16 year old. Even with Messi at is prime it took well over for a decade for Argentina to recover - they reached the final last time in 2014 and the Copa America final twice in 2015 and 2016. Always runners up though: falling at last hurdle. Again facing an economic precipice this maybe one last shot for this team - Messi being 31 next week..
Iceland are in their first World Cup a remarkable achievement given the collapse of their infrastructure10 years ago. In aftermath of 2008 crisis even Scotland finished above them in 2010 World Cup qualifying group. We beat them twice! Turning to developing the grassroots facilities and allowing Icelandic young footballers to go abroad (as Argentina did) they have turned this round. This culminated in getting to the quarter finals of the Euros in 2016 humiliating England along the way May be a tournament too far but the fact they are here at all is amazing.
 Germany v Mexico - electoral battles.
The political classes of both these states face their own crises in the next week. Angela Merkel the leader of World Cup holders Germany that dominates the EU could be forced out of office tomorrow because her right wing Home Secretary Seehoffer wants to introduce a hard line immigration policy in defiance of her and the EU. The right wing in Germany have been bolstered by the elevation of the hard right Freedom Party into power in Austria in December 2017. It is likely the coalition will fall causing another election. Ironically the strength of the current German team has been based on fully integrating 1st and 2nd generation immigrants to amazing effect.. Sami Khedira's brother is part of England's opponents Tunisia tomorrow. Ozil's grandparents came from Turkey in the aftermath of WW2
Meanwhile in Mexico - also the target of virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric this time from Trump and his "wall" - have an election on 1st July where it is likely a left wing Populist leader Obrador will win. He has a radical economic and anti-corruption programme which is shaking up the establishment. His roots are in the PRD which 30 years ago in 88 - came from almost nowhere to win the Presidency in what was seen as a one party state in Mexico. He currently has a 17 point lead and his victory will shake Trump to his foundations! It remains to be seen if the Mexican team can follow his lead today. Viva Obrador!


England v Tunisia. Battle of austerity.
Tunisia was the starting point of the Arab Spring in 2011. Since then there has been more or less a democratic regime. In fact they began a trial of their dictator Ben Ali last month. It was in absentia though as Ali now lives in Saudi Arabia. One problem though is that the Tunisian government are captured by the IMF.
A loan was given to the country in December 2016 with the usual conditions of privatisation and cuts. A visit from the IMF in April this year demanded more changes. The government duly delivered with an increase on fuel prices announced on June 1st. This followed price increases for basics like bread which sparked major protests in January (see below) - this has caused major polarisation between rich and poor.
Their national football team symbolises thier freedom as it was recognised immediately after their independence in 1956. Their first international was against Algeria who did so well at last World Cup(in the middle of the war) in 1957.The Tunisian team have become reliant on players with familial links to the country -although they have been at the World Cup 4 times they have struggled in recent years - last winning the African cup of Nations in 2004
England have also suffered 8 years of austerity although self imposed not by the IMF - though the Premier League has been a cocooned protected zone for the super -wealthy footballers. Uniquely at this tournament Brexit England are the only squad with no players from outside their domestic league. Who will triumph between the two discredited economic models!

Poland v Senegal. Present at this afternoon's match will be Senegalese President Macky Sall who will meet with Putin before hand to discuss Gazprom's involvement in Senegal's oil fields. Sall s brother had to resign in 2016 from a leading oil company due to conflict of interests. The Senegal state has recently teargassed his own population in April this year (see below) over the proposal to prevent smaller political parties contesting future Presidential elections.
Senegal have struggled since reaching the quarters in the 2002 World Cup (the year they won the African Cup of Nations). In fact this is first time they have qualified since. This is Africa's last chance to win a first game here with all others narrowly losing after England s last gasp winner over Tunisia.
Poland have a crisis of their own with the EU trying to overturn the far right government's reform of the courts. The Law and Justice Government are also attacking abortion rights in the country and seeking control over Universities. This has sparked demonstrations and occupations across all of Poland in the last few weeks. Backing Britain's governmental boycott of Cup the right wing Polish President Duda will not attend!

 

Iran v Spain. Battle of the almost dropped players.
Tonight's match sees Iran attempting to build on their opening lucky victory against Morocco. It their line up is the same their left back Hajsafi and attacking no. 7 Shojaei are worth watching. They were dropped from the squad after playing with their Greek league team Panionios in a European tie in Israel against Tel Aviv. Iran does not recognise Israel and accordingly punished the players. Their Portugese born manager (ex deputy at Man United) Queiroz intevened and the players were allowed to re-join the squad. As more Iranian players are operating at a high level in Europe which recognises Israel as a member of UEFA this is likely to be a recurring problem. However the team now have official backing and President Rouhani watched the match wearing a strip last Friday (see below).
Never dropped but Spain defender Gerard Pique announced in the immediate aftermath of the contested Catalonian referendum last October that he was prepared to stand down from the Spanish team because of his support for Catalan independence and some low level booing when playing for Spain. The same issue has seen Guardiola reprimanded for by the English Premier League 4 of Spain's line up against Portugal were Barcelona players (although Iniesta announced his retirement) and 3 of them are Catalans. The manager was happy to keep Pique - although he has now been sacked. The Spanish success depends on cooperation between the Spanish players - mainly Barcelona and Real Madrid stalwarts! Wonder if any of the 3 potentially banned players could score?



 France v Peru.
There is an element of people power and solidarity around this Peruvian team. Captain Guerrero was initially banned after testing postive for cocaine - he claims it was a tainted test coming from an unclean tea cup! All captains of his opposing teams in this group France, Australia and Denmark stated their wish for Guerreo to play and there was demos of thousands across Peru. The ban was cut and Gurerro can now play.
This World Cup is a big deal for Peru - the right wingPresident called a national holiday when they qualified last year. He is no longer in post having to resign in March 2018 due to a corruption scandal. Unfortunately the main opposition forces in Peru are right wing populists "Popular Force" led by Keiko Fujimori - the daughter of 90s President who introduced neo -liberalism at same time as Menem in Argentina. Unusually for Latin America the left are relatively weak largely because of the legacy of the defeat of the Shining Path and Maoism in Peru which Fujimori senior carried out using massive armed forces. People have taken to the streets though particularly over the pardon granted to Fujimori in December 2017. Expect massive celebrations if they beat Les Bleus this afternoon.



Serbia v Switzerland.
Tonight's match has an added dimension with the struggle for Kosovar Independence in the background. The Swiss had a relatively open policy to immigration through the 2000s which was only challenged in the last few years by an anti-migration referendum (the most common way legislation is made in Switzerland) Their first team has a number of Kosovo Albanian refugees whose family arrive at that time - notably Shaqiri and Xhaka (whose brother plays for Albania) from the English leages. Shaqiri even has a Kosovar flag on one of his boots.
Serbian striker Mitrovic has been pretty dismissive saying if they support Kosovo why don't they play for them. Kosovo was recognised by UEFA in 2016 - though are not allowed to play Serbia for obvious reasons (they do not recognise the state). Although the Swiss players took citizenship way before the Kosova football team was recognised.
Serbia was wracked with protest in 2017 (see below) over the election of Presidnt Vucic - seen as introducing right wing authoritarianism. They have big ties with Putin's Russia so will get big support tonight.
Panama v England
England's lunchtime opponents are at their first ever World Cup. Like Peru a national holiday was called last October when they qualified over the USA. A massive achievement for a country of 4 million. The coach Gomez is worth watching, a Colombian who is one of the few managers that has got 3 different unfancied teams to the World Cup - Colombia in 1998 and Ecuador in 2002 and now Panama. England beat Colombia in 98 (subject of a Kirsty McColl song!).
The Panamaian President Varlea has faced protests this year in the second city Colon near the Panama Canal (see below - banner saying Colon not for sale). He has introduced a free trade zone in the city and opened it up to corrupt construction contracts - which are a scandal across Latin America involving the Brazilian company Odebrecht. This extreme neo-liberal form of gentrification is seen as an attack on the poor.
The stratification of the mega rich was also involved in England's last encounter with Panama - the leaking of the Panama Papers in 2015 which showed the tax dodging methods of off-shore companies organised by the Panamanian law firm Fonseca (although the tax dodges were not in Panama). The papers named ex PM Cameron as one of the clients. Cameron resigned during Euro 2016 4 days before the England Manager Roy Hodgson did...
Can this Panama formation cause equivalent ructions?

Spain v Morocco
Morocco play their last game in the World Cup tonight after narrowly losing their first two games. As mentioned before their first loss came before the tournament when losing out to the USA in hosting the 2026 World Cup. The Moroccan regime is attempting to spread its influence in the West and across the Islamic world - in oppostion to Saudi in particular (who also play their last game today) who voted against them hosting the World Cup.
It also has faced a popular uprising in the Northern Rif region since October 2016 (see below) - caused by the death of a fish seller who was challenging authorities regulations on markets. Like in Panama this movement was against gentrification, but also for democracy (Morocco is still a monarchy) and Berber identity rights. The army was called in by the KIng of Morocco and the leaders jailed - one of them Zefzazi is currently undertaking a hunger strike after facing solitarty confinement. The West have been generally silent about this.
Morocco and Spain have a long history with Morocco ruling Spain for 800 years. Spain still permanently occupies two towns in Morocco - Ceuta and Melilla. Spain have been fairly impressive without a manager who was sacked almost in parallel with the Spanish PM Rajoy who had to resign at the start of June over corruption claims. Viva the collective!

Australia v Peru.
Australia have an outside chance this afternoon of qualifying for the second round of the World Cup for the first time ever. This would be welcome in a tournament that is so far going to form. The Socceroos have an international flavour about them of first and second generation Australians - in the A-League (the Oz soccer league) only around 1% of the players are from an indigenous background.
Oz's team come from a variety of backgounds Lebanese (Nabbout), Serbian (Rogic), German (Mooy), Turkish (Behich), Croatian (Jedinak). Their young hope for the future 19 year old Daniel Arzani who made a difference when he came on against Denmark was born in Iran. This reflects the multi-cultural nature of Australia.
However new immigrants coming to Australia may not get that chance to play for the national team. Although Trump's horrible anti-immigrant attitude and use of cages on the Mexican border has gained much publicity in the last week - Australia detain asylum seekers on islands miles from the country - notably the Nauru detention camp (see below) in terrible conditions. This was introduced by right wing Iraq war supporting Howard's government in the 00s as a "Pacific Solution". Despite protests and reports of horrific conditions the Nauru camp has remained open. On Friday June 15th an asylum seeker (also from Iran) killed himself - just as the World Cup was getting started. This brings the total who have died in the detention camps to 12. The system has been backed by the two main parties in Australia.
The International migration crisis is one of many that is ongoing as the World Cup continues.


 England v Belgium.
Like their evening opponents Belgium have always struggled with their identity. The team is currently a mixture of Flemish born speakers - De Bruyne, Alderweid, Vertonghen and the more urban French speakers the Hazard brothers, Lukaku, Kompany etc. The brutal imperial legacy of Belgium in Africa is also represented with a key core of players having Congolese routes - Lukaku and Boyata's fathers were footballers in Zaire/Democratic Republic of Congo, Batshuyai had the opportunity to play for the DRC. Holding the team together well is Spaniard and ex Premier League boss Martinez. Belgium have rarely used foreign coaches although a Scot was one of the first managers of the national team. So Martinez marks a shift Their last coach Wilmots was viewed as arrogant and aloof and was also a right wing Francophone politician for the party of Government for a couple of years.
Belgium hosts England's other opponents at the moment - the EU! - but the Belgian government imposes its own policies - again notably on immigration - with a hardline right wing position. There are make-shift immigration camps in Brussels and there has been protests over mass deportations of refugees. to Sudan (see below) in cahoots with the Khartoum government, The EU is having a summit today in Belgium on the topic of immigration with Merkel feeling pressure from the right wing. Could she shockingly get knocked out like the German team too!

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Each Night I Ask The Stars Up Above : The Adolescent by Fyodor Dostoevsky


At first glance it seems a strange decision for a writer in his mid 50s to decide to write a first person narrative in the voice of a teenager.   Even now in the big publishing business (relatively) of "young adult" fiction it is unusual  for an established writer to give themselves over to such a form. If we leave aside the hilarity of Adrian Mole's Diary the viewpoint of a semi-articulate and not fully grown human is a problem.

It is also a modern conceit of popular social history aided by TV and radio documentaries that the "teenager" is a 20th century phenomenon.  Not until the post war boom of the 50s with full employment and disposable income did the young population manage to establish their own identity - rock and roll,fashion blah blah blah.

Of course the truth is more complex as modern biological and psychological research as illustrated in the recent excellent Infinite Monkey Cage discussion shows that teenagers walk among us but they are not the same as us oldies ! Generational differences which are so central to our post Yes movement, Brexit, Corbyn societal discussions are also hardly new either.

Russian literature of the 19th century Tsarist police state period  had  recognised this prior to this book particularly with Turgnev's Father and Sons from 1862 - seen almost as a document of the growth of nihilistic political theorising amongst the young.

But over a decade later Dostoevesky's decision in 1875 to write this work still seems a strange turn.  As usual he never does things by half measures and he throws himself fully into making the work sound like an adolescent or a "raw youth" as some translations have it.

This creates one of the first problems of the work - teenage years although a necessary part of our lives are incoherent, messy, overblown and contradictory.  That's what happens when your adult brain and personality form.  It even partially explains Morrissey's arrested development in some areas.  In prose form it is difficult to follow though - particularly when the whole fictional world is viewed through this prism.   Add to the mix a fairly convoluted plot about hidden letters, disputed wills  and revealing family secrets and so many characters that a guide/list to them is provided at the start of the book (never a good sign in my view) you can see whilst despite being FD's penultimate 'big' novel it is largely hidden and forgotten.

But there are some pleasures to be had from struggling through the mood swings of a young adult's thoughts. In a sense FD was catching up with a new mood in Tsarist Russia - living there again after a few years in Europe.  Radical politics had shifted a little from the small conspiracist groups he had attempted to lambast in his last major novel Demons to a peasant based movement Narodnism.  This idealised (to an extent) the rural lifestyle and encouraged young radicals to "go back to the country" and live amongst the peasantry. 

This was something which on the face of it FD would have been sympathetic to - it was Russian in origin - did not idealise European political thought (like the anarchism of Bakunin or the economic socialism of Marx) and recognised the central role of the peasantry.  It was also not as explicitly irreligious as the other political trends were.

So to write about young people now would perhaps not necessitate as much polemic as Dostoevsky had engaged with in previous work, including arguably Crime and Punishment.  Indeed the novel's publication was even in the radical journal Notes of the Fatherland (Closed by Tsarist authorities in 1884)  this would have been unthinkable a few years earlier with Demons.  One of the theoretical fathers of Narodnism Mikhailovsky gave his endorsement of the work and its publication even though it contains a critique of a group of radicals albeit in a very slight way which is distant from the rest of the work - unlike the full scale attack of Demons

This illustrates another problem with the work is it feels a little like a sticking together of ideas from previous works - the inward problems of small radical groups although mentioned almost in passing, the nature of suicide, doomed unrequited love, the fixation on roulette gambling  the pure religiosity of the Russian peasant - with little original direction.  The toning down of the political critique also makes the central relationship in the work a bit more oblique. 

Ostensibly similarly to Turgenev this is a paternal conflict - between father and son but Dostoevsky does put a modernist and intelligent twist on it.   For the title character adolescent Arkady is a living victim of the strict hierarchies of Tsarism.  He is the illegitimate son of an aristocrat who seduced the young wife of one of "his" peasants in the pre serf emancipation days of Russia.  In a society where even now your name is determined by your father (the patronymic) this was critical for identity - Arkady literally does not know what his name is.

The central tension of the work - though this is tested by the plot convulsions - is Arkady's obsession/hatred/love for his father the seemingly dissolute Andrei Versilov.  At least that is what is ultimately revealed because the work is  also disjointed.  Sometimes this is an inevitable consequence of the periodical nature of publishing lengthy novels (this one was published in three parts) but I think the bitty nature of the work exacerbates the problem.

It starts in a slightly different vein with Arkady seeking to make his way in the world and make himself independently wealthy.  Or in the vaguely anti-semitic and conspiracy theorist words of the work - make himself a "Rothschild".  For an illegitimate child of a member of the aristocracy whose named father is a peasant this was a pretty radical ambition - despite Versilov paying for his private (unhappy) education. 

This ambition sort of gets lost in the plot which involves Versilov entangling himself and indirectly Arkady with obscure legal battles for contested inheritance.   Their growing relationship really become the central element of the work.  Yet another title of the work is  "The Accidental Family" - arguably the most appropriate. This allows various quasi - parental conversations to occur although the anger that Arkady feels about his second class status does not take long to surface.  In a way this allows FD to personify Versilov as the older "nihilistic" generation - who despite his social status is anti-religious and pro-European enlightenment figure.  Even his relationship with Arkady's peasant mother - who right until the end of the novel he seems to romantically love hints at his challenge to the structural hierarchy.  But for the most part these conversations are fairly obscure and don't really put their cards on the table on what they are really about.  In part this feeds into the problem of having a naive "raw youth" reporting on this discourse - the reader finds it difficult to see behind this.  It is one of the inherent problems (or in other contexts opportunities) of first person narrative.

His father's fractious love life causes the growing relationship between Arkady and Versilov to break down a few times in the work.  At one point both are in love with the same figure - Katerina - who is tied up in a pretty confusing way with the battles over inheritance and that missing letter could (or could not) be vital to her. Arkady's attitude to the female characters - including Katerina, his (also illegitimate sister) Liza verges between tragic and hyperbolic - again pretty much like a teenager in love.  Although there are a few worrying scenes early in the book on how Arkady used to harass women whilst at school with fellow male pupils - showing the misogyny revealed by the #Metoo movement are far from a 21st century phenomenon.

There are potentially interesting narrative forms that FD also uses in the first person teenage form.  In modern cinematic terms he use jump cuts a lot - running ahead of himself  "I need to tell you what happens in a few chapters for this to make sense" and looking backwards.  In the overall confusion of the novel though this merely adds to it and again in the style of the adolescent the "really important" events are actually pretty minor.

There is no real revelation or learning exhibited by the end of the novel which again is in line with adolescence.  The legal disputes (after encountering a clumsy blackmail action) are sort of resolved but they become so difficult to follow the reader finds this difficult to notice. 

You could say this work was a bit of an experiment for Dostoevsky and for a writer nearing the end of his professional (and actual) life this is quite encouraging.  It does mean the work is sprawling and unlike say the Idiot has no arc of resolution within it - the conclusion can only be seen through the eyes of Arkady.  The plot is also an issue - I note the Wikipedia page of the book does not even attempt a synopsis - and that sort of collapses in on itself in the work.   A bumpy journey of a read but a few sights worth remembering along the way.

For me a step towards completing all of FD's novels - only one (major) work to go.








Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Media in our Mess "Age": The Circle by Dave Eggers

I often wonder when the perils of social media are discussed there is an almost exclusive focus on cyber-bullying and trolling.  Sure, it is horrible behaviour and the facilitation of aggressive, abusive , discriminatory language can never be tolerated.  Ultimately though it is not a new crime - social media had just made being nasty or a bully easier to communicate but it is literally just that a medium for hate speech.  Twitter, Facebook and the rest though are doing something more insidious to our society though.  Arguably these phenomena are what is novel about social media or the Internet 2.0 as I believe it was labelled in another age (or in realtime about 16 years ago).

Dave Eggers' funny, prescient and genuinely scary novel The Circle nails it in a way which I think raises the book from the rest of his catalogue and indeed most modern American fiction of the last 20 years.

The vehicle for this study is Mae.  A young graduate - and like really young - post millennial almost in her mid twenties she nets a job at Internet giant company via her college pal.

The Circle is the name of this cyberworld behemoth and it is really an amalgam of Google, Apple, Yahoo and Wikipedia and so on- all the friendly faces of ruthless capitalism that have emerged in the last decade.  Eggers does manage to transcend any specific parallels though which I think Franzen struggled with when trying to lacerate Assange by proxy with the character of Wolf in his millennial novel Purity .

For the Circle is more than a workplace (in Mae's world contrasting sharply with her job in a utility company) it is a way of life.   It seeks to unify all information available on the Internet into one with the ultimate aim of "Closing the Circle".   Its base is in effect a mini-city with everything from cinemas to intimate gigs with famous singer songwriters to medical care to accommodation available,  Meaning the workforce never has to leave work.  On top of this each employee is expected to spend a large amount of their worktime engaging in Social Media - both personal and professional with their  equivalent of Twitter/Facebook - Zing.

It is here that I think Eggers really identifies the insidious nature of the current Internet.  Not only can all individuals be monitored they willingly spend hours of the day doing so.  Further that form of "interaction" becomes more important than human contact.  There is a sad scene when Mae returns to her parent's house where her ex- boyfriend Mercer where she shuns discussions with them to Zing comments to complete strangers.  It is a portent on the break of communication to come.

Such an observation may be a bit trite indeed go and sit on a bus or train or watch groups of friends at cafes or pubs the level of actual human contact will be minimal even with people that are actually "socialising".  But Eggers exposes how such developments are ideal conditions for big business.  By giving themselves over to the Circle completely there is a compliant workforce more than that they will vigorously defend their employer in the nature of a religious cult because they provide the products and software that sadly define their lives.   You get a sense of this when you walk into an Apple "Store" and many service based industries try to ape this "employee loyalty" from Weatherspoons to Pret  A Manger to Starbucks.

Thus the worker is Un-alienated.  The Circle is the ideal way of studying this as it is sort of creating a mega corporation from scratch.  If capitalism could do this across the board the Circle would be its model and in a sense there is a distant echo of benevolent  19th Century employers who provided villages and shops even medical care for their workers - as long as you remained tied to the factory,  In such a context the Human Resources department takes on a different dimension.  One of the funniest scenes involves Mae's interview after a few weeks in the job with HR which involves almost every aspect of her life.

Mae is fast-tracked through the Circle starting off in Customer Services but she does not wholly commit to the lifestyle and complete absorption which the Circle demands.  She has a number of liasions with a mysterious man she meets in the Circle complex Kalden although he is unidentifiable in this highly monitored world.  Kalden is sceptical, even resistant to the direction in which the Circle is going.

Mae's other interest significantly is kayaking and interacting directly with nature.  The scenes where she is peacefully on water trying to spot seals and fishes contrast sharply with the frenetic pace of the rest of the work,  In fact nature is a continual motif in the book.  It provides the calm in the heart of the storm.

I think Eggers may have been influenced here by the work of Marshall McLuhan.  McLuhan (memorably performing a cameo in Annie Hall) wrote in the 1950s(!) about the useless noise our new media age was creating.   In his time he was talking about the growth of TV in particular in America with its emphasis on consumerism. McLuhan died in 1980 but  now in 2017 this noise has exponentially increased as much of the Western world is almost permanently connected - in fact some employers (like the Circle) almost demand you are.  Not only is a lot of this noise pointless it also affects harmfully human development.

As a reaction against this McLuhan converted to High Catholicism and attended Mass every day.  This space for him was time for silence and contemplation against the wider world.  In our more secular age at least in the West the placing of religion in this role would be unrealistic so the wider natural world places this role.

However the Circle even tries to control this aspect of life - in quite a disturbing scene one of the founding fathers of the Circle brings a  shark along with other sea-life into the heart of the Circle.  Although the symbolism is clear and maybe a bit over the top it is a genuinely unsettling moment in the book.

Nature is also partially Mae's downfall and in a sense responsible for her complete immersion in the Circle.  After an incident whilst kayaking she becomes open to being a living experiment for the Circle. This involves part of their new technology the See Change camera which essentially is so compact and disposable it can monitor human beings anywhere and everywhere.   The main evangel for this is Bailey (another founding father and ostensibly the most benevolent a la Steve Jobs) who believes there is no such thing as privacy - that See Change provides the ultimate transparency.   In another very believable part politician after politician signs up to be filmed at all times.  Mae as a result of the hold the Circle has on her succumbs fully to this and opens up her whole life to this,

In the second part of the book Mae is almost completely assimilated she turns on her family and her ex-partner Mercer (who introduced her to kayaking) in another very disturbing scene,  Her human desire to escape the endless chatter and mindless drone of social media interaction is almost completely dissolved.   One of the brilliantly observed parts of this is the passive aggressive way in which people communicate in this format - as McLuhan said the media is the message.

Her rejection of Kalden and embracing of another young man Frances is symbolic of this.  He is very immature and his only sexual activity is almost cyber and very distant. However he is very popular in the Circle - Mae rejects the more physical and real world of Kalden,  The sex scenes are a little less icky  by being written by a 40 something guy than Franzen's equivalents in Purity and are making a clear point.

The book progresses to a fairly bleak conclusion as at one reading we could say our society is as well if we maintain our relationship with our technology.  In contrast with Mae's "ascendancy" her friend who got her the gig Annie has a startling decline - showing the limits of complete openness particularly about the past.  There is also a revelation about identity - which as the novel progresses becomes less shocking.

Eggers could be accused in other works of neglecting character to make allegorical points - his sparse prose style aids that.  For the most part I don't think this is the case indeed it becomes more appropriate as Mae loses her character as the novel progresses and the allegory really overtakes the work.  The tone suits the direction of the work

I am aware of the irony of recommending this book on a blog which I have writtten online and which I am sharing on social media but I am!  An essential read and shows the power of fiction (and quasi-science fiction) to expose reality in a way that non-fiction cannot. There is also a film due out but looking at some of the casting decisions I am not sure that it will work.  So read it - in analogue fashion as an old battered paperback,  I'll share my copy and physically hand it over,..







Saturday, 25 February 2017

The Good, the Bad and the pretty Ugly, Demons (A novel in 3 parts) by Fyodor Dostoevsky.




A mountain climbed.  It's not so much the 750 pages (with 35 page appendix) or the dense text but finishing this book really feels like an achievement of that magnitude.  But also like that task you wonder why you did it.

"Because it was there" doesn't seem like a good enough reason.  On the face of it this is not a novel that should attract me - it is in (large) part a polemic of Dostoevsky against "radical" groups - their ideology, membership, leaders and purpose.  Further it essentially is novel of ideas - which  is a big ask over hundreds of pages.  Other writer/philosophers like Sartre and Camus hone their narrative philosophical fiction over much smaller length.  And yes these are problems - I will expand on this later- but I stuck with it.  In a lesser writer's hands this whole project would fall apart.  Ultimately the study of character and quality of prose shine through.  But there are problems and an underlying tone of nastiness that sticks to you as reading.

Russia in the 19th Century was a society of massive contradictions.  A huge land of feudalism amongst the sea of pioneering capitalist states.  Slavery or Serfdom abolished in 1861 (on a par with the American Civil War) - but a massively stratified society meant the vast majority of the populace lived in grinding poverty with no prospect of escape.

However the elite of Russian society had different options.  Most attached themselves to the Tsarist regime and attempted to give it a liberal sheen - fuelled by trips across the European continent.  A small section though were attracted to other European phenomena like revolutions and democratic change.

From this grew a myriad of small groups with "revolutionary" aims.  As they operated in a police state and were (largely) from the upper echelons of society their influences and ideas were all over the place.  Anarchism and individual acts of heroism./terror (based on perspective) were particularly strong in such a context.  Bakunin (born in 1814) and Herzen (born in 1812) were two of the key figures.  Assassinations (successful and attempts) were very common - even the act of creating a work of art or in particular literature could be seen as a revolutionary act against the Russian state,  What is to  be Done was a very successful novel advocating revolutionary change in Russia - Dostoevsky hated it - a few scenes here are spoofs of that work.  Lenin later used the title in partial tribute for one of his key political writings.

The absence of large industry and the nature of agricultural peasant life meant that belief in collective action was more theoretical and not central to change in the way Marxist thought envisaged.  Russian groups existed with that perspective but they were even smaller and more isolated - it took the 20th Century and mass revolutionary action for these to develop.

Dostoevsky obviously knew of this phenomenon  because he was part of it.  As a member of the Petrashevsky Circle he was exiled to a Siberian prison (after facing mock execution)  in 1849.  Demons has often been cited as the work that utterly repudiates this past and partly that is true but there is more to it than that.

An actual topical incident inspired Dostoevsky  the  revolutionay Nechayev a follower of Bakunin murdered an associate in his group  "People's Vengenence"  He fled the country in 1872 but returned and was sentenced to 20 years in jail where he died.   Prior to this he had also gained a large inheritance from Herzen to spread revolutionary ideas and published a short pamphlet "The Catcheism of the Revolutionary".

Dostoevsky saw this incident as an opportunity to dissect and dismantle the entire Russian radical movement and he didn't limit it to the new generation of radicals which Nechayev represented.   Nechayev was actually from a poor ex-serf background - interestingly Dostoevsky choses not to have either of his main protagonists from that stock.   He also wanted to expose the ideas underpinning individual revolutionary action as essentially anti- human.  Nechayev had written in his pamphlet that a revolutionary has no identity or being at all it was consumed by the one purpose - revolution.  Of course these groups were explicitly athiest too - another long-term target of Dost.

So he had his targets - yet one of the problems of reading this work now - is the time it takes to make that clear.  The actual incident of the internecine killing of an ex-revolutionary  (Shatov) now recanting his ideas and the movement occurs well into the 3rd "book" of the novel.  Around this a massive artifice is constructed in the rural anonymous Russian town where the work takes place.

Bravely and in an interesting narrative device for the 19th century time  the first book does not mention or explore the key characters that will emerge later in the work  the charismatic villainous "revolutionaries" - Peter Verkhovensky and Stavrogin.  In fact you would struggle to identify what the novel was about at all and this is over 200 pages long.  This ends fairly abruptly with a confrontation at the end of this part.  

Modern novels or any other form of narrative art would struggle with the absence of the main "protagonists" from the first third.  Although cinema often kills off a main character shockingly early - think Janet Leigh in Psycho - it doesn't often refer to a character off camera for the first third.

So Dost was ahead of his time in this area but it does mean the novel has no hook to click onto and means the first part is the hardest slog of the work.  It asks a lot of the reader to essentially read the length of one book to establish the premise for a much longer work and even then it is hidden given it focuses on the machinations of underground radicals.

I don't think this was purely a narrative  trick for FD though. The focus on the first part of the work is on (confusingly) the father  of Verkhovensky and the mother of Stavrogin.  He (Stepan)was a teacher to Stavrogin and she is a local widowed landowner.  Stepan was/is a contemporary of Dostoevsky himself and held radical ideas then but is appalled by reports of what is now going on.  The mum is a Europhile and devoted to her son.  The two have an unrequited/sad and quite destructive relationship.  It is clear that put bluntly Dostoevesky blames the parents and indirectly the intellectual milieu of the early 19th Century for creating these immoral empty violent revolutionaries.  Stepanlitters his speech with French - to a ludicrous extent by the end.

As the work develops it becomes clear that Stavrogin and Peter V have returned to the town to kill Shatov - the underground printer desperate to recant his previously held views. Or rather Peter V will mobilise the rag-tag secret "group of 5" who live in the town - underground radicals.  This emerges as they both destabilise the town by enthralling and splintering the local elite - particularly around the Russo-German Governor and his wife.

This part is also pretty complex - and you can see why the edition I read had a list of characters with full Russian names to keep track. It also  exposes another problem in the work - the narration.  There is an identified narrator (Stepan's friend) who I think is meant to be some sort of moral observer of events.  However it is unclear to me how he knows everything that was going on - particularly as the work becomes more and more complex and delving into the underground.

Complex as the artifice is the essence of the work I think is the question of what sort of character do you have to be a revolutionary like Nechayev in the real world or Stavrogin and Verkhovensky?  Dostoevesky is pretty clear - you have to be a villainous psychopath incapable or uncaring of feeling - love or otherwise.  In the creation of a bad guy Dostoevsky with his masterful skills of describing the characters of humans has come up with one of the best literary examples I would say with Peter Verkhovensky.  Duplicitous, charming and ruthless - he sees the opportunity of the underground revolutionary movement for him to dominate and control others and create general chaos in broader society.  It is him that organises the killing of Shatov and takes the lead on coordinating the group of 5 and seducing (not literally I don't think) the governor's wife.

Stavrogin is the more charismatic and secretive one but essentially a complete psychopath and narcissist who most of the aristocratic women seem to fall for with more or less tragic consequences.  He is from the aristocracy but marries a disabled poor girl just because he can and then abandons her - in 19th Century feudal Russia essentially destroying her life.  He is emotionless when others express their love for him and are promptly destroyed.  He has open disdain for everyone but they seem to want to be in his company

Dostoevsky even wrote a chapter which has Stavrogin in quite explicit language for the time confessing to a monk of his child abuse of a young girl in Petrograd.  The editors thought this was a step too far and it was removed.  It is contained as an appendix here in this addition  So a psychopath, narcissist, satyr and a peadophile!  Hardly subtle.

Of course modern critics and opponents of what happened in Russia 50 years later with the October Revolution have stated this shows Dostoevsky's foresight - that only dangerous and isolated characters are attracted to revolution and in particular revolutionary organisations.

There  is a point that subterfuge and small groups (not necessarily left wing or even political ones) attract people who have their own issues.  It may allow them to dominate and exploit but the specific characterisation of these two who could be defined as the leadership goes over the top to express this point.

Indeed you could go further and state that the Left in particular have (or perhaps had) an obsession with gaining a charismatic leader who could advance ideas.  You don't have to go very far to see that as I know in Scotland.  Indeed Peter envisages Stravogin for that role (their own relationship is pretty spikey) - linking him to Ivan Tserevich - a significant figure in Russian folk history/mythology.

But Dostoevsky's point is much more than this.  It is essentially that the act of wanting to change a society and having a vision or ideology is in itself worse than any society you would be fighting against.  Modern political philosopher John Gray essentially endorses and underpins this position.

FD's position is made clear not so much by his portrayal of the two protagonists but of the ordinary Russians who make up the radical  group manipulated by Peter V- local functionaries, students, midwifes, teachers.  The contempt for their attempts to alter the way they live drips from the prose - portraying them all (without exception) as witless or arrogant or boring or buffoons.

There is one scene where a group of disgruntled workers from a nearby factory approach the local governor and he sends the army to whip them.  This is exploited by Peter V for his own ends.  However the way it is written sneers at the reporting of a political protest and the overreaction of describing it as brutal.  I think it is clear Dostoevsky believes the act of collective protest against a regime like post-serfdom Tsarist Russia is worse than acceptance of it.

It is in another artistic universe to the prose of FD but I was reminded a little of the lightweight drama concocted by Liverpudlian TV writer Alan Bleasdale in the early 1990s - GBH.  It was in part a political hatchet job on the struggle on Liverpool Council and the Militant in the 80s - however it became more than that.  It was actually an attack on those who would challenge authority - they are as bad as the ruling elite and attract the dislocated and dangerous.  The plot of GBH sort of collapsed in on itself outlining the similarities between the rebels and the ruling class.

The historic role of those who struggled for democratic, feminist and socialist ideals in the Russian police state of the 19th Century is boiled down to a psychological disorder or as an enablers of psycopaths and dictators.  Which probably was Dostoevsky's position.

However it is a scattergun approach which feeds into the sprawling nature of the work.  Noone who has touched radical ideas in any sense is safe.  He mercilessly lampoons his contemporary Ivan Turgenev through the character Karmazinov as a pompous hypocrite feeding into the underground movement but distancing himself from it by planning to live abroad.  He attacks the Germanic Governor and his wife for facilitating Peter V and his more open and acceptably liberal arguments which for FD are only used as a front for the destruction of society by more revolutionary methods.  This is symbolised by a literary gala day and dance which is meant to use liberal art education to help the masses of the town and stop revolutionary ideas spreading organised by the Governor's wife.  Of course this is manipulated by Peter V and becomes a shambles culminating in utter disaster - a well written few chapters.

FD comes close to putting the case through the prose that any form of liberalism in Russia encourages the more dangerous elements that he dissects - hence his savaging of Stepan and Stravogin's mother.  The true radicalism comes from internal individualism - most notably an individual's relationship with God.  There are no real heroes in this book which in and of itself I don't have a problem with in fiction but it does mean you struggle to get a grip of the  moral centre of this work.

The closest apart from the frustrating narrator and the renegade Shatov (who lambasts Stravogin in one chapter over his abandonment of God) is a character called Kirillov.   He like Shatov is distancing himself from the "group" but has internalised it.  He plans to kill himself - allowing a few very Dostoevskian passages on the nature of suicide and its relationship to religion and existence.  Peter V hopes to exploit this and persuade Kirillov to admit to the killing of Shatov in his suicide note - thus saving all the other murderers.

It is quite a violent work which fits in generally with the themes and the murder of Shatov has predictably bloody consequences.  The corpses pile up pretty quickly by the end of the work.

So is it worth it?  Well the characterisation is impressive and although Dostoevsky is polemical his writings on the nature of humans - even when he is attempting to caricature them is impressive.  Some of the quieter scenes for example on the relationship between Stepan and Stravogin's mother are really good.  The prose and  senses of people will stay with you if you can stay the course for the work.  It is long though with many chapters essentially philosophical discourses through the medium of conversations.  Overall though I think the settling of scores and the polemic against radical change overbalances the work as a whole.

You can see why critics of the left or specifically revolutionary change use this work to show the innate danger of such ideas but this work itself is one-sided - quite deliberately so.  Dostoevsky's shift to supporting the status quo in Russia was as much an inspiration for this book as his attempt to expose the anarcho-individualist actions of the Russia Underground and the radical movement.

This book though long, difficult and ultimately flawed will still cause disputes, discussions and fights among those who read it and 150 years on I would say that is some achievement.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Catching the Millennial Bug? Purity by Jonathan Franzen



When my birthday came round I had two matching sized presents (from different generous people) - two big hard gift wrapped blocks.  Both were the new book Purity - the latest from probably my favourite contemporary writer Jonathan Franzen - the gift givers know me well.  The novel had a weighty feel (literally) to it.  Great I thought,  an epic up there with Freedom and Corrections - fiction so strong I speculated that JF may give up on that style and just focus on new journalism (which he also does very well).  But...no.  

Purity is a disappointing work.  Not terrible nor unreadable but a meandering mass.  The sharpness of tone and language is there in parts as is his understanding of  America's place  in the world yet overall it is blunted.  I think there are several major issues 


The title first of all is not an abstract concept with which to view the body of the work like “Freedom” or in Austen or Dicken’s work “Pride and Prejudice” or “Hard  Times”.  Well it is sort of but not just that as it is also the name of one of the central characters of the piece – a twenty something female college graduate although she is known universally as Pip. This nod to Great Expectations – explained in a pointless interaction in the work and indeed Victorian novels and novelists in general is an apt comparison.  For in many ways it seems that Franzen is trying to create a big old school 19th Century novel.  However unlike his previous large works (which I think could be put into this category) this seems a lot more contrived and inorganic as the themes rather than the structure of the work ape conventional Victorian novelists.

At the core of the book is a search for identity – Pip grew up alone with her mother and wants to know who her father was.     Their existence is a meagre one in almost complete isolation.  There is no mention of her father apart from one story of escaping an abusive partner and having to change her name. Tied to this comes a puzzle of missing legacies and challenging inheritance.   These devices could come straight from Thomas Hardy or George Eliot.  The problem though is that the plot becomes over powering and invades the areas which are Franzen’s considerable strengths : character development and understanding contemporary issues.  In fact at its lowest ebb (which is not maintained throughout) it becomes a little like crime fiction where the plot distracts from any other aspect of the book.  Not a whodunit but a who is Purity’s dad?  When I was most frustrated with the work I had flashbacks to the trashy 80s book Lace with its equally trashy Dynasty/Dallas style mini-series and its tag-line : “Which one of you bastards is my father….”  Not helped by the cover design of the dust sheet which looks like a glossy 80s piece of work.

This problem is exacerbated because it ostensibly is a book of big themes – notably the modern tyranny (an analogy over used and abused throughout) of the internet and social media.  Moreover how this has overflowed into a generational gap – with the coming of age of the so-called millennials who have emerged into the post credit crunch capitalist world to discover everything is broken and it’s their parent’s fault amongst other things.  In fact in a way (and if it worked properly as a novel on these terms) it could provide an explanation for the remarkable Bernie Sanders campaign of 2016 (or in a way Corbyn’s landslide Labour leader victory in the summer of 2015) the basis of which has largely been this group.  And STOP PRESS  the massive gulf between the Brexit vote where there was a landslide for remain amongst the younger generation - the plus 50s swung it for Brexit in England  These worthy and important themes are drowned out by plot but this leads to another issue: voice.  

It is always a big gamble when a male novelist adopts a female protagonist and tries to see the events through her eyes.  Although JF does not attempt a first person narrative - big chunks of the work are the perspective of Pip (unsurprising given the title of book) and a sizeable chapter from an older woman journalist Leila.    The work similar to Freedom adopts a number of perspectives throughout  - male and female, older and young. This in itself can be problematic particularly when intimate or sexual feelings are discussed.   Add to this Pip's age - she is the millennial in the work - and her approach to social media.  Potential boyfriends tell her to look at their relationship status,  key points in the work are revealed through short texts, communication through text and online chat is second nature and her identity is determined by her digital profile.  In theory this is an accurate picture of Pip and her generation but at points you can see JF  (a self -confessed opponent of social media) as someone at least 25 years older struggling with the terminology and the use of digital media like a pensioner with the screen of  a smartphone.    Thus an attempt to contrast the younger generation with the older characters (who make up the majority of the work) struggles with the lack of deftness in this area.

The focus on Pip seeking her father has a global dimension.  Although Pip is a debt laden graduate living in the Bay Area at a crappy telesales job (another plight of the millennial) her life in an alternative squat -type community (this part of the work lets JF make some fairly funny and accurate comments on the Occupy Movement of a few years ago)  leads her into an entanglement with a global star of the Internet - Andreas Wolf - a German in his 50s known for leaking international information through his online empire.  It turns out he has another motive for dragging Pip into his circle as becomes obvious as the overbearing plot intervenes.

Wolf  (predator - geddit?)...you say you mean Assange surely a charismatic man of a certain age with a dodgy past and aspect to his character.  Well no and this leads to another major problem of the work.  Explicitly Wolf is not the Australian embassy dweller as Assange is mentioned as a person in relation to Wolf.  This is poor form as the work carried out by Sunlight Project  is almost explicitly the same as Wikileaks.  Further in the lengthy piece outlining Wolf's back story growing up in East Germany - the son of leading bureaucrats in the Stalinist regime-  where he exhibits a controversial sexual interest in alienated teenagers and the development of an eventual uncontrollable narcissism.  Given these traits even though he is not Antipodean I could not get image of Assange out of my mind wherever Wolf is involved in the work.  Try it!  Franzen obviously has struggled with this in writing this hence the crowbarring in of mentions of Assange.  Apparently Daniel Craig has been pencilled in for this role in a TV adaption (the plot makes this an easier proposition to televise than Franzen's other work) - even he is going to struggle to give Wolf another face than the Australian facing investigation over sexual offences. 

As well as the Assange problem the character of Wolf has other issues.  In writing his background JF goes over the top with a Hamlet analogy.  His mother is a Professor in English Literature and leading party apparatchik as is his father.  However she is promiscuous as witnessed by a young Andreas and there are question marks about his parentage.  He is even visited by the "ghost" of his biological father twice within the works. There is also an Oedipal dimension to his relationship with his mother - a theme explored in many productions of Hamlet.   The Shakespearean quotes and metaphors are completely overdone and don't go anywhere.  They are also incongruous in a literary sense as it seems the work is meant to be like a nineteenth century novel not a Shakesperean tragedy - it just seems tapped in.  It also disappears after this part even though Wolf is involved in much of the rest of the book 

 In Wolf's past something happens (plot device) involving a young woman who is being abused by her stepfather and murder .  Wolf becomes obsessed with Annagret who in turn becomes a key figure in the work and in Pip's life eventually.  This event dominates even in an unspoken way the rest of the novel.  What is done well in this part (along with the description of East Germany which seems accurate and non accusatory) is the growth of narcissism amongst men and those who try to be leaders of anything.  Wolf becomes a dissident in Stasi-East Germany but really as an act of maternal rebellion and becomes a "leader" in 1989 really because he wants to cover up his past and hide his identity - not from any real commitment to anything.  This ego mania is very much Assange and others I could mention and have seen close up.  Franzen is perceptive in his analysis of this and this stands out from many others who buy the whole Assange myth.  But there is the problem - it is viewed again through the Assange prism not from the work as a whole.

This leads into further problems when Assange brings Pip into his world in Bolivia.  JF sets up a sexual tension between the two - which is only partly resolved.  This in itself is tricky for me given the 30 year age gap and Wolf's past.  The scenes are difficult to read in for this reason which I wonder if is deliberate on Franzen's part especially as he explores the nature of abuse with Annagret who is also younger then Wolf but not in the same dimension.  It is also problematic because of Pip's unresolved paternity - given the plot leaps is it not possible that Wolf is her father?  There is a particularly unconvincing part where Wolf admits his love for Pip - incongruous given his narcissism and his eventual end which I will not reveal.

The other major character (along with journalist Leila) is Tom Aberant - an old style investigative journalist and magazine editor who has had an entanglement with Wolf way back in the heady days of 1989.  His job allows for lots of comparison with the new media and the old ways/values of journalists.  Aberant hires Pip who is essentially working undercover for Assange (whoops sorry Wolf) and is still intent on finding her father.  Is it Tom?  Well another "clue" - that blooming plot again - comes from a lengthy journal/essay/unfinished memoir written by Tom which is presented in full.   This part is by far the best written section of the book outlining a difficult and tempestuous relationship between Tom and performance artist/alienated heiress Anabel growing up together from the early 80s on.  This is JF's time obviously and the ease with which he does this contrasts with his struggles over Pip's time and place.  

But even this is a problem as it is a device used almost identically in Freedom where the pivotal points of the relationships between the protagonists are revealed in Patti (the leading female character in Freedom)'s journal which is published in full as the central part of the novel.  It is an effective device but using the same approach in subsequent novels is disappointing for a writer of JF's quality.  

All comes to a head in the concluding characters and fathers are revealed, inheritances are received and Wolf's destiny comes to a predictable conclusion.   It ends with an argument between Pip's parents and her contemplating that "it had to be possible to do better than her parents, but she wasn't sure she would". The essential millennial problem now being played out in full in post-Brexit UK.  This would be also more valid if Pip had not just inherited millions of dollars- but again this is central to plot!


There are good elements to the book - Tom's writing, the dissection of narcissism, the understanding of Occupy.  But other points there is just a hint of Franzen's skill.  When Pip is confronted by Tom about Wolf she breaks down in a very young immature way which contrasts with her general persona - this was very well written but not explored enough.  There are hints of Franzen's love of nature and wildlife but in very small patches unlike his previous work. These give a glimpse of what JF is and potentially what Purity could have been but sadly it is not these things.  A meandering and problematic disappointment and I never thought I would write that about a work of Jonathan Franzen.