Mixed media: Books
The Incendiaries by RO Kwon (Virago, ISBN 978-0-3490-1187-5)
Will is a born-again atheist who, having tried and failed to resurrect his belief in a god to whom he had dedicated his life, is on a mission to save his American-Korean girlfriend, Phoebe, from being drawn into a shady religious cult, with links to North Korea, led by the enigmatic John Leal. At one level, this is a simple story of love and loss, set against a backdrop of student life at a prestigious US university, complete with the usual philosophical angst (and enthusiastic enjoyment of drink and drugs). At the heart of the novel, though, is an existential yearning – for perfection, for belonging, for revelation, for meaning and purpose – combined with a desire to shake off the past and to start afresh.
The Incendiaries is a compelling story which builds up a sense of dread inevitability as the tale enters darker territory and moves towards a dramatic finale. But what makes the novel so extraordinary, especially from a new, young writer such as RO Kwon, is the author’s ability to create a world in which the credibility of her characters is both unquestionable and deeply suspect. The protagonists are artfully drawn and utterly believable, but narrator Will admits to being a liar, and most of Phoebe’s words and thoughts are reconstructed by him. Throughout, the reader is left uncertain – how much of this is conjecture, or blatant fabrication? – and many questions remain at the end.
A wonderful debut, written with quiet elegance and self-assurance, which underlines the challenges of living with and without god.
Betraying Big Brother by Leta Hong Fincher (Verso, ISBN 978-1-78663-364-4)
In 2015, five women activists were jailed for the ‘crime’ of organizing a campaigning event against sexual harass-ment. The Feminist Five are part of a network of Chinese women, bravely taking on the misogyny of society and the Communist Party. China didn’t even have a law against domestic violence until 2016, and President Xi Jinping has promulgated, around his own hyper-masculine personality cult, the view that feminism is a Western ideological infiltration that threatens Chinese traditional values. Though not as in-your-face as Russian punk band Pussy Riot, the protest art and activism of the Feminist Five and their supporters, struggling as they must against an even harsher patriarchal authoritarianism,isequally subversive.
Enlightening and engaging, Betraying Big Brother places the story of the Feminist Five within the context of women’s rights in China, from the apparent gender equality of the 1949 Revolution to the recent social media crackdown against dissenters and the ban on foreign support of NGOs. Given the dire state of human rights in the country, it is incredible that these women are managing to make their voices heard, but Leta Hong Fincher echoes the guarded optimism of the activists themselves. After all, she argues, nearly one out of every five women in the world lives in China. That’s more than 650 million women who, as the economic miracle turns sour and public dissatisfaction increases, may find that change is possible. ‘No matter how much they try to shrink our space,’ says activist Zhang Leilei, ‘nothing can stop feminists from sprouting up everywhere.’
A Radical History of the World by Neil Faulkner (Pluto, ISBN 9780745338057)
The scale of the task Neil Faulkner sets himself in this book is staggeringly ambitious. Beginning with Stone Age toolmakers, hunter-gatherers and the development of agriculture, his ‘history of the world from below’ takes us right up to the financial crash of 2008 and the Occupy and 99% protest movements against neoliberalism. History, as he says, is a weapon, and the author’s aim is to show how human progress has been won by popular struggle in the teeth of opposition from despots and oppressors. Faulkner draws heavily on the series of online blogs he wrote between 2010 and 2012, greatly expanding the text and also the scope, adding sections on Spanish and Latin American history. His approach is avowedly Marxist and if this leads him into some avoidable blind alleys, he is refreshingly non-partisan and one does not often get thesense of a party-line being pursued.
This is a chronological and episodic history – although there are frequent digressions to explain a concept or explore an argument – and the author’s excellent suggestion is that, rather than being read cover to cover, it can be approached as a series of analytical essays. There are illuminating chapters here on the Ottoman Empire, the English Civil War and the Portuguese Revolution, to take just three examples from many. Finally, though, the thread binding this exhaustive overview together is the belief that a constant in human history is the struggle to create a better life. The message is that we, the many, have the power to change the world.
Rupture by Manuel Castells, translation by Rosie Marteau (Polity Press, ISBN 9781509531998)
The central assertion of Manuel Castells’ spiky little book is that liberal democracy is undergoing a crisis of legitimacy. Trump’s election, the UK vote for Brexit, and the surge in popularity of far-right, openly xenophobic parties across Europe all betoken a growing disaffection with mainstream political parties. The malaise is clearly far-reaching, with the same trends being witnessed in widely differing contexts. Everywhere one looks, traditional parties, manifestly unable to meet the challenges posed by globalization, terrorism or financial crises, are heavily punished at the ballot box. As Castells states, ‘more than two-thirds of people on the planet think that politicians do not represent them (and) that governments are corrupt, unjust, bureaucratic and oppressive’.
In his investigation of this state of affairs, Manuel Castells takes an oddly oblique approach. Rather than a broad academic overview, he chooses to drill down into selected areas, examining each in detail but not carrying his argument from chapter to chapter. Thus, he gives us stand-alone essays on Trump, global terrorism, Macron, and recent political developments in Spain, particularly the rise of Podemos and the Catalonian independence movement.
To say that Castells presumes rather than makes his case that democracy is at a crossroads is not necessarily a criticism. Few informed observers would argue the contrary. It is just that he writes so well on such a range of topics that his short book could have stood a little more analysis to add to the descriptive passages; providing the connecting tissue to bind his flashes of inspiration into a cohesive, overarching argument.