Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen (2020)

The purpling corpse of Uric Burns still hung from the bridge abutment. Photographers clambered around like coked-up marmosets.
(Squeeze Me, page 186)

I suspect that the outstanding feature of this novel was intended to be the extended mockery of President Donald Trump and the First Lady, Melania Trump, who both appear as speaking characters, the former blustering at press conferences or failing to get it up with his mistress, the latter relieving the boredom of her gilded cage by having an affair with her Secret Service bodyguard, on one memorable occasion emerging dripping naked from her bath and ordering her to **** her.

However, two things militate against the book being quite the excoriating sensation Hiaasen and his editors may have planned:

  1. Trump has finally gone, as of January 2021, and it’s surprising – but then again, maybe not – how quickly we’ve stopped giving a damn about him.
  2. Trump has been trumped by the small matter of a worldwide pandemic which has rocked every aspect of our societies, and shows no signs of going away.

Presumably Hiaasen was putting the finishing touches to this novel in spring 2020 when the pandemic first arrived. He’s been canny enough to slip references to it into the narrative but it doesn’t affect the plot at all, indeed, it would be difficult to see how you could have a comedy thriller set during a lockdown. But somehow even the fleeting references to COVID (pages 8, 29, 56, 105) are enough to drag the reader out of Hiaasen’s grotesque fantasy-land and into our all-too-real present.

Plot summary

As usual, as soon as you open a Hiaasen novel the reader is bombarded with a host of characters, each with their own complex backstories and history, who are brought together by a a premise, by one specific incident, the more garish and grotesque the better, whose ramifications rumble on and spread out and ensnare everyone in comic (and sometimes very violent) consequences for just shy of 400 pages.

Angie Armstrong

Angela ‘Angie’ Armstrong runs a wild animal control company ‘Discreet Captures’ i.e. if you’ve got a wild raccoon in your kitchen or a bear blunders into your garden, Angie’s the woman you call to sort it out. She’s five foot three tall and her Army father taught her to address all males as ‘sir’. She was married for a while to Dustin, 21 years older and a good-looking life coach (p.44). However, Dustin didn’t like critters at all, which put a strain on the marriage, then Angie caught him being unfaithful (as happens in most Hiaasen marriages), in this case with an equestrian named Alexandria, so they divorced. She still keeps in touch with Dustin’s son, grown-up, reasonable Joel, who comes to stay every other weekend. Angie’s latest boyfriend is a Merrill Lynch banker named Jesse, who gets casually dumped fairly early on (p.106).

Angie got a job as a wildlife officer with the state of Florida but blew this when out on patrol she saw a drunken slob deliberately run his airboat over a grazing deer. Angie motored straight over and arrested the ‘fuckstick’ (p.37) who continued to insult and abuse her so intensely that she fed his left arm into the maw of a tame alligator named Lola. Yes. Angie takes no nonsense.

The case went to court where she learned the fuckstick’s name was Pruitt. He was fined but Angie was sent to Gadsden prison for 14 months for use of excessive force and discharged from state service. Now, every day at 6pm, Pruitt phones up from a different payphone and breathes revolting threats and abuse down the phone. Angie gives sardonic replies and drives him mad by never losing her temper and referring to him as ‘sir’ throughout.

Angie is, in other words, the latest in a line of tough Hiaasen heroines such as Merry Mansfield in Razor Girl, Honey Santana in Nature Girl, Jolayne Lucks in Lucky You or Erin in Strip Tease.

The Burmese python

Late one night Angie gets a call from Tripp Teabull, manager of the Lipid Estate in Palm Beach. This is a huge mansion complete with ballroom, manicured grounds and ornamental lake where very up-scale parties, receptions and fund raisers are held. Costs quarter of a million to hire for the night without catering.

Teabull is calling because the head gardener, Mauricio, and his crew have discovered an eighteen-foot-long Burmese python lazing in the branches of one of the trees in the grounds with a big lump half way down it. As so often, Hiaasen pauses the narrative for a few pages to give a background explanation of an aspect of his novel, in this case the genuine proliferation of Burmese pythons in South Florida: they were originally bought as pets but managed to escape into the wild, whose tropical climate suits them perfectly.

The novel opens on the night of a big right-wing political fundraiser being given at the Lipid Estate and attended by the usual set of South Florida millionaires, their wives and widows. It opens just at the moment when one of a circle of rich widows, 72-year-old Katherine ‘Kiki’ Pew Fitzsimmons has gone missing, leaving only a cocktail glass and one shoe down by the lake.

Little old lady missing? Huge python with a suggestive bulge in its gut? You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to instantly suspect the two are connected.

So Angie is called out to the Estate and charged with getting rid of the python without using a gun or anything which might scare the super-rich guests up in the main house. After some faffing she decapitates the python with a razor sharp machete and gets some of the estate’s bigger guys to roll it up into a coil, stuff it into a box along with ice, put the head in a separate (smaller) box, and carry them to her pickup truck.

Then she drives it to the storage units (Safe’n’Sound) where she stores dead animals on ice before she’s got enough to make a full load and it’s worth driving a hundred miles west into the wilderness where she’s developed a secret burial ground for them. More respectful, and causes less questions, than just dumping them in the garbage.

Uric and the Prince

Job done, right? However, shortly afterwards Angie’s apartment is burglarised, the crims taking her checkbook and laptop. This, we discover, is at the behest of none other than Teabull, the Lipid Estate manager. Terrified that the python really ate the old millionairess Kiki, he wants to totally get rid of the evidence and so commissioned a couple of lowlifes, Uric Burns, and his assistant, ‘a dull-eyed fuckwit’ (p.48) who insists on being called Prince Paladin (real name is Keever Bracco, p.83) to find out where Angie stores her dead animals and to steal back the python corpse and safely dispose of it where cops will never find it.

These two dumb gimps stole Angie’s laptop in order to find out what storage depot Angie uses, in order to break into that and steal the python, but they are so immensely dim that after driving round all night, they report right back to the Lipid estate to ask Teabull where to take it. The latter is understandably  furious since the whole purpose of the heist was to remove the snake as far as humanly possible from the Lipid Estate and here they are, having brought it right back and risking maximum incrimination!

Teabull hurriedly gives the crooks details of a new construction site going up out west, which is still having the foundations laid, with big holes being filled with cement. Teabull pulls a favour with the site foreman, Jackson, buying his crew lunch at a local restaurant so that the site is empty at just the right time for Uric and the Prince to rock up and excavate a hole in the soggy cement. But when they open the boot to bury the snake they find it has thoroughly defrosted and not only that, it has kind of unzipped to reveal a little old lady folded up inside its gut. After they’ve stopped throwing up, the pair bury the lady in the hole in the concrete but there isn’t time to find a new bit of fresh cement and dig a hole in it, before the crew start arriving back from lunch so the two dimwits drive off at speed with a decomposing python in their boot.

However, there’s a detail. Uric is quicker to stop leaning away and throwing up when they first open the boot than his accomplice Prince Paladin and so spots that the decaying lady is wearing big diamond earrings and a necklace of conch pearls. He grabs them while the Prince is still puking. But in trying to get the pearl necklace off, Uric snaps it and a number of pearls roll free into the boot.

Second unfortunate thing is that, when the crims drive off at speed they, hit one of those railway lines crossing the road and embedded in it, which gives the car enough of a big bump to spring the boot open with the result that the snake corpse goes flying out along with some of the incriminating pearls…

Fay Riptoad

Back to Kiki’s rich friends. It is a minor riff but quite funny the way Hiaasen characterises the really rich whose circle old Kiki inhabited by showing that everyone belongs to this or that eminent family the source of whose wealth is humorously signposted along with their surname. Thus Kiki was the grand-daughter of Dallas Austin Pew ‘of the aerosol Pews’; her first husband was Huff Cornbright, ‘of the anti-freeze and real estate Cornbrights’; after Huff drowned while fishing, she remarried Mott Fitzsimmons ‘of the asbestos and textile Fitzsimmonses’; and she is good friends with Fay Alex Riptoad ‘of the compost and iron ore Riptoads’. (The same gag is repeated again on page 122).

This latter lady, Fay Alex, is head of the POTUS Pussies, shrill ageing cheerleaders for ‘the new, crude-spoken commander-in-chief’ (p.8). Being tremendously bossy, on the night Kiki goes missing, Fay takes it on herself to phone and summon the local Palm Beach chief of police, Jerry Crosby (backstory p.53) and insisting that he drop everything to search for her missing friend. Luckily Jerry has developed ample skills at handling the very rich without losing his temper.

Enter the First Lady

Now, I hear you ask, where does the president’s wife come into all this? Well, she is travelling in the usual ten-car motorcade from the president’s residence, the ironically named Casa Bellicosa, when it draws to a halt because the car in front has come across a decapitated python lying across the road. Yep, the First Lady’s motorcade has come across the very same snake corpse which flew out the boot as Uric and the Prince fled the building site where they’d buried Kiki only a few minutes earlier.

In other words, Tripp Teabull wanted the python disposed of as discreetly as possible but instead, due to Uric’s incompetence, it has come to the attention of the President’s wife and the US Secret Service.

The president’s wife’s bodyguards and secret agents swarm everywhere talking into their lapel radios like they do in the movies, before establishing it’s just a weird coincidence rather than some kind of terrorist threat. But one thing leads to another and the security forces identify Angie Armstrong as a leading animal wrangler in the locality. With the result that the Secret Service calls her in to deal with the snake corpse and she is, understandably puzzled, that she is dealing with the very snake corpse she had safely stashed in the storage depot a day earlier. At this point she tells the authorities all about how her apartment was burgled and then her storage area broken into and the snake being stolen, and they all ask themselves: Why?

So this is how Angie finds herself being interviewed by Special Agent Paul Ryskamp, who’s tasked by the Feds with following up on the weird incident which delayed the First Lady’s motorcade. He’s a nice guy. She’s a nice girl. Can you see where this is heading?

Diego Beltrán

So far, so macabre and gruesome and satirical. Things take a notably more serious turn when we discover that on the very same night that a drunk, stoned Kiki was eaten by a giant python, a small people smuggling boat hit the beach not far away, carrying illegal immigrants from Central America including one Diego Beltrán who is to become a dominant figure in the narrative.

As it happens, Diego has already been resident in the States where he had a visa to stay while he completed a degree, so he’s well educated and fluent in English and duly returned to his native Honduras. But life didn’t work out back home, so now here he is, having paid to be smuggled back into the States, along with 20 other illegals.

After they’re dumped on the beach, the passengers all split up. Diego is tramping along a highway when he discovers, at the place a rail line crosses it, something gleaming down in the groove of the track and picks up a shiny conch pearl, obviously one of the pearls from Kiki’s necklace. It is a fateful moment.

Diego goes on to get a low-paid manual job but a few days later is picked up in a sweep by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. When he’s taken to the police station and turns out his pockets, everyone sees the conch pearl. It is listed and reported, and this triggers a match with missing person Kiki Fitzsimmons, who is reported as last seen wearing diamond earrings and a conch pearl necklace.

So before he knows it, Diego has been accused by the cops of murdering Kiki. Not only that but, because the python corpse held up the First Lady’s motorcade, the FBI get involved, too. Not only that, but the name of this suspect and the fact that he’s an illegal have been quickly gathered by the poisonous Fay Riptoad and passed on, via her close contacts, to the dim, racist, know-nothing, knee-jerk ‘commander in chief’ and, to the horror of all the good reasonable people in the book (namely Angie,  local police chief Jerry Crosby and Paul Ryskamp) the C-in-C delivers an ad lib speech from his golf course, where he singles out the murder of his ‘good friend’ Kiki Fitzsimmons by illegal immigrant Diego Beltrán as just the kind of dire threat from foreigners and criminals which America is facing. ‘That’s why we gotta build a wall, folks, to keep these murderers and rapists out of our beautiful country’ etc.

Within hours an angry mob of C-in-C supporters has assembled outside the Palm Beach County jailhouse where Diego is being held, egged on by right-wing talk-show radio hosts, demanding his immediate lynching or hanging. His name is quickly converted into a slogan chanted by the mob and repeated in the media: ‘No More Diegos!’

This barely needs any commentary. It is intended to be scalding satire on the stupidity and bigoted xenophobia of the moronic president and his base.

Uric and the Prince are identified

Angie, Jerry and Paul had each in their ways been quietly following up on identifying the crooks who burgled Angie and stole the python. They have got as far as identifying Uric and the Prince Paladin aka Keever Bracco from various photos and CCTV footage.

Now there is a further plot development because, when a reward is offered for any news about Kiki, not too bright Uric decides he’ll claim it, so he calls the anonymous crime hotline and reveals where the body of Kiki is buried in the recently laid concrete of a new housing development and also accuses the Prince of carrying out the crime.

When Kiki’s body is then found, it confirms Uric’s story, and closed circuit TV from the site confirms the make of car the crims used, and also shows it driving off at speed. A related camera at the railway crossing shows clear as day how this same car momentarily jumped into the air as it hit the rail bump, the boot flew open and a massive snake corpse flew out.

The good guys form a team

Angie is the link between Jerry the police chief and Paul the FBI agent and by about page 200 she invites them both to a bar for a meal where they meet and form a kind of team. By now they have pretty much all the evidence they need to piece together the sequence of events:

  • python swallows Kiki
  • Angie kills python and takes it to storage on ice
  • Teabull commissions Uric and the Prince to break into Angie’s apartment, find the name of the storage site, break into that and steal the python
  • they go to bury it at the building site but discover Kiki’s body inside the snake, bury that and run out of time to dig a separate body for the snake so drive off at speed
  • when they hit the rail line the boot flies open and the snake flies out but they carry on driving
  • minutes later the First Lady’s motorcade arrives and is halted while the Feds check out the weird dead snake, then eventually move on
  • Angie is called for a second time to dispose of the snake and is brought into contact with the authorities
  • that night Diego Beltrán is walking along the same road when he spots a conch pearl amid the rails
  • a few days later he’s picked up by the authorities as an illegal and the pearl is discovered, connecting him to Kiki
  • somehow the connection between dead Kiki, the pearls and an illegal immigrant is leaked to the President who immediately shapes it to his anti-immigrant narrative and he gives an extempore speech in which he blames Diego for Kiki’s murder
  • a crowd assembles outside the Palm Beach County Gaol where he’s being held, the story goes all over the national press and Diego becomes a symptom of everything evil and wicked which is threatening the US of A

Angie, Jerry and Paul are agonisingly aware that Diego is completely innocent, but the thing has now got so big and so inflamed that it’s going to be hard if not impossible to shift the narrative, and risky for the two lawmen to get involved. Difficult for individuals to go up against the full force of the Presidential propaganda machine and his attack media. The whole thing has spiralled into, as Angie puts it: ‘a five-star clusterfuck’ (p.153).

Donald and Melania Trump

I knew Trump was referenced in the book but I was curious to see how Hiaasen would handle it. Initially he is a peripheral figure, satirically referred to throughout as ‘the commander in chief’. Presumably it is for legal purposes that he is never referred to by name. His Miami home is jokily referred to as ‘Casa Bellicosa’. Some of his (fictional tweets) are quote verbatim, full of spelling and grammar mistakes.

It is a winning piece of satire that the rich old ladies have formed a club named the POTUS Pussies, referencing the commander-in-chief’s famous quote about grabbing pussy. He is referred to as crude and blustering, as ‘that dysfunctional hump in the White House’ (p.189) – all in all, par for the course, by the standards of American liberals who subjected Trump to four years of scathing criticism.

Then about half way through the novel things change when the Trump figure directly intervenes in the Diego case. Things change from being generalised satire about his crude blustering character to becoming a concrete demonstration of what his rabble-rousing xenophobia means for a real individual, a real person whose life is being wrecked. The commander-in-chief figure changes from being merely pathetic to becoming positively malevolent.

In the earlier parts of the book there are more scenes featuring Melania Trump, riding in the motorcade, prowling her private apartments at the Casa Bellicosa, bored and horny.

I wonder whether it was for legal reasons that neither of them are named. The president is referred to as  the president or commander-in-chief, never by name. Indeed, early on Hiaasen adopts the comic strategy of referring to both of them by the codewords assigned to them by the Secret Service.

Thus Melania is never named, but referred to throughout as Mockingbird, her codename, a curiously poignant name. The president’s codeword is Mastodon, which he loves because it sounds mighty. With typical ignorance he asks if he can visit a zoo to see some real-life mastodons but nobody is brave enough to tell him that mastodons, a generic term for woolly mammoths and suchlike, died out during the last ice age.

We see Mockingbird in her car, interacting with her dishy bodyguard, named ‘Keith Josephson’ (which is actually a pseudonym assigned him by the service; his birth name was Ahmet Youssef which, understandably, the Service want to keep concealed from the xenophobic commander in chief, p.86, another piece of satire on the president’s idiotic xenophobia. Youssef’s full backstory is given on pages 281 to 283).

Possibly the most scandalous thing in the book is that Mockingbird is described as having an affair with Youssef/Keith. We first realise this when she insists he hands her a towel as she emerges naked from a luxury bath, and she then orders him to **** her. Then we get used to her ordering him to service her at short notice in a variety of luxury locations. But as the story progresses we realise he, Keith/Youssef, is genuinely in love with her, genuinely thinks she is different with him, even after people start to talk and rumours about them to circulate.

Trump insults

The funny thing is that Donald Trump had already been referenced in a number of earlier Hiaasen novels, way before he showed any political ambitions, as an epitome of American over-wealthy  narcissism. It’s an epic irony that the man Hiaasen had been mocking for decades as an embodiment of American shallowness ended up becoming 45th President of the United States. The fact it happened is beyond satire and what it says about contemporary American society needs no comment.

The president, according to those who know him best:

  • has no memory
  • has feet like moist loaves
  • is a ‘fat toad’ (p.248)
  • is ‘paranoid, draft-dodging, whore hopping…’ (p.261)
  • is described as ‘Presidential Shitweasel’ (p.300) and ‘the climate-denier-in-chief’ (p.301) by Skink
  • is an ‘ignorant clown’ – Ryskval (p.369)
  • is a ‘lying puke-bucket’ – Angie (p.371)

He has a mistress, Suzy Spooner (p.293), a chunky pole dancer who calls herself a nutritionist. We meet the poor woman on several occasions, desperately helping the president to adopt a sex position which can work round his bloated gut and the fact he can no longer sustain an erection. It is typical Hiaasen/typical America, that Suzy is at the same time hawking round New York publishers a kiss-and-tell memoir in which she compares the President’s gonads to ‘dessicated chickpeas’ and describes how he snorts like a wildebeest when he climaxes (pages 293 and 294).

The president struggles mightily to have a bowel motion, emerging from the can puffing and panting, and then struggles to get a hold of his belt buckle ‘below the rolling sea of his gut’ (p.313). He’s portrayed as being fully aware of the ‘phoney Facebook ads’ paid for by his supporters (p.314). When he forgets that her dog died over a year ago, Mockingbird simply calls him ‘such a dick’ (p.315).

Tut tut. Not very respectful.

Plot developments

Uric proves what a scumbag he is by murdering his assistant, the dim-witted Prince Paladin aka Keever Bracco, weighingt down his body and dumping it in a canal near where he dumped the stolen car they drove the snake around in. This is a rookie crim error, meaning both are soon discovered by the cops.

Uric’s anxiety about the cops’ discovery is itself short-lived as he himself is swiftly bumped off by a hitman hired by the Lipid Estate manager Teabull, who is quickly emerging as the daemon ex machina of the plot.

Rather unprofessionally, Uric’s body is hanged from a suspension bridge along with a suicide note in which he claims complete responsibility for killing Kiki, stealing her jewels and then murdering his accomplice – this is Teabull’s pathetic attempt to get the whole damn story shut down. To little avail. When ‘our team’ of Angie, Jerry and Paul hear about it and read the note they realise how fake it is.

The paranoid rich i.e. Fay Alex Riptoad et al, and their attack dog media, soon embellish the Diego situation to have him being a member of the fearsome DBC-88, the ‘Diego Border Cartel’. Nobody knows what 88 means but it sounds scary (p.221). It is an example of the general fictionalisation of American life in which malicious rumours instantly become poisonous political fact.

To complete his tidy-up strategy, Teabull hires an arsonist to lure Angie in her truck to a fake call-out in a remote location as the sun is setting, and the guy lobs a firebomb in the back of her truck. Both she and Joel who she’d taken along, scramble out of the truck which melts down and is a write-off. But this doesn’t put Angie off, was never likely to.

In the event all Teabull’s efforts come to naught as he is sacked from his job at the Lipid Estate as the media furore around Diego snowballs. A TV station runs an entirely fictitious ‘reconstruction’ of the night Diego and his dastardly accomplices supposedly broke into the estate and abducted little old Kiki,  an entirely fictional recreation which leads to just about every rich charity cancelling its bookings at the Lipid mansion, hence Teabull’s sacking. It is also another example of the fictionalisation of American journalism, the triumph of fakery over news.

Mockingbird’s affair with her Secret Service man becomes increasingly intense. His superior, the same Paul Ryskamp who is beginning an affair with Angie, learns about Keith and the First Lady and warns him off, and steps are taken to reassign him, but Mockingbird intervenes to keep him around as her lover. She and the President never even touch each other, let alone sleep together. Anyway, he’s screwing Suzi Spooner so Mockingbird has no moral qualms.

The return of Skink

But the big revelation of the last third of the novel is the Return of Skink, yes everybody, Skink! Skink is back! And his trusty helper and minder, Jim Tile, an old man now, who walks with a cane and lives at the Rainbow of Life Senior Centre. It’s Jim who gets in touch with Angie Armstrong, tells her he sat in back during her court case for mutilating Pruitt on behalf of a friend who admired her style i.e. the old eco-vigilante and ex-governor, once known as Clinton Tyree, who has for a long time now (well, ever since Hiaasen’s second novel), gone under the pseudonym Skink.

Jim gives Angie a map to Skink’s secret base deep in the Everglades and she hires a flatboater to take her out there. Just to keep up his quota of outlandish concepts, Hiaasen tells us that in the empty  eye socket where Skink usually sports a glass eye, he is currently incubating an iguana egg. This doesn’t faze Angie, used to all kinds of weird critter situations, so she passes the Skink test.

He then offers her some roadkill coyote for dinner, which is standard. But we discover he has a new habit: he is continually micro-dosing himself with acid to stave off boredom and despair, and he has slipped a little into her rum.

Which explains why, when Skink takes her into his snake enclosure, Angie finds them glowing with fiery red eyes and changing colour. Snake enclosure? Yes. For it is Skink who has been collecting king-sized pythons and deploying them in Presidential hangouts. He was responsible for deploying mega pythons into: a vanload of the President’s favourite key lime pies; the First Lady’s favourite fashion boutique, plus 2 or 3 other random locations. Did he deploy the monster python which ate Kiki?

Anyway, his obsession with giant pythons explains why Skink’s camp is among trees from which hang hundreds of long dried snakeskins, which the pythons have shed. Half way through their meeting, Angie realises that Skink not only took interest in her trial but paid for her defence lawyer. So he has deep involvement with her going back some way. With that revelation, he shoos Angie back to the shore of the island where the airboat driver has returned to collect her, and she stumbles, dazed, back towards civilisation after this trippy encounter with Hiaasen’s great anti-hero.

The novel heads towards the traditional Big Climax, which is the so-called Commander’s Ball, hosted by Mastodon at the Casa Bellicosa. Seems pretty obvious Skink has got something big planned, like releasing all the pythons he’s been collecting.

Meanwhile, back in what you could call the dirty realist end of the plot, Diego, still in prison, foils one attack by a white supremacist, but is then badly stabbed and beaten up by some ‘Aryan Brothers’. (Look them up. American prisons are full of white supremacist groups. No wonder our media admire America so much: so much to copy, so much to learn from.)

Diego is hospitalised, his plight is dire, a friendly Hispanic tells him there’s a ten grand bounty on his head, eleven if they cut off his ‘nut sack’. His defence lawyers quit because they’ve been receiving death threats. The gaol guards are also threatened and/or tired of the extra hassle of protecting him. They include a new leather belt in his next laundry delivery. One of them gives him a full bottle of sleeping pills. These are not-too-subtle hints that he kill himself. Thus the fate of illegals in the US ‘justice’ system’ i.e. hounded to death.

The President’s Ball

Well, the President’s Ball does serve as the climax to the novel alright, though, to tell the truth, it is a little underwhelming. Highlights are:

1. Throughout the novel there’s been a running thread about the President’s tanning sunbed, and the guys who service and clean it. In the days leading up to the ball there are some unexplained malfunctions so it is no real surprise when it goes badly wrong just hours before the big event, turning the President’s face aubergine purple and burning his hair. With the result that he appears on the stage and delivers a big speech hiding his face behind the only thing they could rustle up at short notice – a Bakongo tribal fertility mask!!!! (p.350) More clearly than ever, you can see how Hiaasen goes way beyond ‘satire’ into a realm of lunatic farce.

2. Mastodon addresses his puzzled millionaire guests from behind his African mask but, when he turns to introduce his lovely wife, she isn’t there – and this is because she is in her private rooms having wild sex with Special Agent Keith/Youssef (in a tiny detail, she is riding him cowgirl style, the position which I’ve noticed, is favoured by all of Hiaasen’s strong, independent female protagonists)

3. As we might have predicted, a massive Burmese python does turn up in the grounds of the Casa Bellicosa, where it disturbs the most repellent of the POTUS Pussies, the cohort of super-rich widow supporters of the Commander-in-Chief, Fay Alex Riptoad. Unfortunately the python interruption occurs just as she is having the front of her expensive dress unbuttoned by an over-sexed guest, Stanleigh Cobo, who thinks he’s ingested a heroic amount of erection-inducing narwhal horn (a long story about erectile dysfunction and the lengths the rich will go to in order to secure cures).

Secret Agent Paul Ryskval had made sure to invite Angie Armstrong to the ball and so, when Fay’s screams attract all the guests, Angie takes centre stage, the only one with the balls and expertise to confront the huge swaying python and Angie suddenly realises that it is tripping. Skink is dosing his giant pythons with LSD.

Still, in the end, Angie manages to decapitate this one like the last one, although her pretty ball dress does get covered in spraying blood in the process. Once the body is taken away by ground staff, and the guests wander off gossiping, Angie goes to the ladies loo to have a good cry. When she comes out, gentlemanly special agent Ryskamp tells her how fabulous she looks and how brave she was. Which cheers her up, a bit.

Angie and the First Lady

The president addressing the crowd in an African mask and a tripping python menacing his chief cheerleader just as she is being undressed for sex, this ought to be funny, and it reads fairly funny in summary, but in practice, somehow, I found it a bit inevitable and, I’m afraid, under-whelming. Maybe I’ve read too many Hiaasens and know what to expect.

But if the doomed gala ball turns out to be a bit of a damp squib, maybe what follows at the end of the evening is the real climax of the plot. Angie is still at the ball and slips a message to the First Lady asking to see her. Mockingbird is curious to meet the woman who dealt with the giant snake and so agrees, and the two women meet on the seawall of the Casa Bellicosa (well, accompanied at a distance by all her security men).

Here Angie explains that a) she knows all about Mockingbird’s affair with Keith, and b) that Keith is a Muslim, which would play terribly with the C-in-C’s supporter, and c) she knows all about the President’s affair with the pole dancer, d) who is writing a no-holds-barred memoir about her affair with the President.

She, Angie, will blow all this wide open, leak it all to the press, ruin everyone’s lives, unless Mockingbird uses her influence, and this threat, to get the President to give Diego Beltrán a full pardon and fast track his appeal for political asylum.

Which is what Mockingbird proceeds to do, encountering the President as he stumbles out of a state room where he just tried and miserably failed to take the pole dancer from behind. Mockingbird makes plain she will blow the whole gaff, expose their sham marriage and list his many affairs to the press unless he releases Diego. So Mastodon caves in.

I hadn’t mentioned that Jim Tile had used some old connections to get invited to the president’s ball, dressing snappily and toting a stylish cane. Right at the end of the evening, after she has had her seawall meeting, he accompanies Angie out onto the steps of the mansion as chauffeur-driven cars line up to collect the super-rich. Jim climbs into one which, she suddenly realises, is driven by Skink. She races after it, flags it down, and is amazed at Skink’s stylish appearance. He has washed and combed his hair and put on a suit specially.

I thought the funniest thing in the entire book was the fact that the iguana whose egg he had been carrying in his empty eye socket has now hatched.

Skink smiled down at the breast pocket of his suit jacket. A little bright green head was peeking out. ‘We’re working on our manners,’ Skink whispered. (p.378)

It’s almost the only moment of gentleness. There’s plenty of humour elsewhere in the book, but it’s of the savage, violent, macabre or super-cynical fuckstick variety. This was one tiny moment of humanity. Thank you, Skink.

It’s quickly over though because when Angie asks what that loud banging is, Skink explains it’s her stalker, Pruitt, stashed in the boot of the car. Skink is going to take him out to the wilderness to teach him ‘how to be at one with nature’. That’s comedy, too, but of the more tough-minded, cruel variety.

Epilogue

Diego Beltrán is freed on orders from the president, is smuggled out the back of the gaol, given a wig and fake moustache and transported north to New Jersey.

Turns out that Skink unleashed not one but a host of monster pythons at a number of other charity balls on the same night. Police chief Jerry Crosby drove round to all of the events, shooting them dead, but was filmed doing so, clips which made their way onto YouTube and killed the Florida hospitality sector stone dead. Why have a party in Florida if a python might eat your guests? The industry’s anger falls on the chief and he quits before he’s fired.

Mockingbird has Youssef acknowledged as her lover, but still kept on by the Secret Service because she blackmails the Secret Service bosses with her knowledge of a hushed-up drug orgy among the agents.

On the last pages Angie hires an airboat and skims out through the Everglades to visit Skink in his new base. No more snakes, he transported them all north to freedom. And Pruitt? Skink attached an electronic tracking collar round his neck and set him free in the wilderness. He’s still alive, somewhere.

And then the punchline to the whole story: the huge Burmese python which ate Kiki Fitzsimmons? Turns out it wasn’t Skink’s idea. He didn’t set it loose on the Lipid Estate. It made its own way there. It was a normal, free python doing its own thing. Nothing to do with Skink, the incident only gave him the inspiration for his later battle plan. Angie laughs with relief, Skink is off the hook and takes none of the blame.

THE END.

The environment

This is the first novel in his long career where Hiaasen seems to have given up on saving the environment which is, I think, the appropriate response. The fight to save the environment has been decisively lost. Eco-systems around the world, along with the countless species they contain, are being exterminated on a daily basis. Global warming is only one aspect of the man-made destruction of the environment, of all environments, going on all the time, everywhere, as Angie mournfully reflects:

It didn’t seem to matter who was in power – nothing got better in the besieged, breathtaking world she cared about most. The Everglades would never be the lush unbroken river it once was; the shallows of Florida Bay would never be as pure and sparkling with fish; the bleached dying reefs of the Keys would never bloom fully back to life. Being overrun and exploited was the historical fate of places so rare and beautiful…

The President of the United States was a soulless imbecile who hated the outdoors but, in Angie’s view, at this point Teddy Roosevelt himself couldn’t turn the tide if he came back from the dead. All the treasured wilderness that had been sacrificed at the altar of growth was gone for all time. More disappeared every day; nothing ever changed except the speed of destruction, and only because there were fewer pristine pieces to sell off, carve up and pave. (p.318)

Fruity and novel language

Hiaasen’s characters swear freely and so does the narrator. ‘Fuckstick’, ‘shitbird’, ‘cockhead’ and ‘Señor Fuckwhistle’ (p.258) being some of the nicer expressions characters use about each other. Here are some other samples of state-of-the-art Yankee slang:

  • Prince was flipping through channels like a gacked-up chimp. (p.74)
  • ‘The Feds cut your time ’cause you flipped. You rat-fucked your friends.’ (p.74) = betrayed.
  • ‘Hit the shower, bro’. You smell like a fucking grow house.’ (p.173) I think ‘grow house’ means the kind of indoors greenhouse space used to grow marijuana.
  • Uric ended up paying the Prince the full three hundred he wanted, which he ended up spending on chronic. (p.173) ‘Among cannabis consumers, chronic can be used as slang for marijuana itself, but many users reserve the term for particularly potent strains of the plant’ (Dictionary.com)
  • nutsack = scrotum
  • knuckle bump, aka fist bump
  • ‘I got a dope new truck’ (p.214) – where ‘dope’ presumably means cool, neat, great.
  • ‘I can’t take a chance that he hasn’t suddenly stripped his gears.’ (p.242) presumably meaning lost it, gone mad, gone psycho.
  • Two white-clad Brits stood in wait while the driver, whose name was Guppo, backed up the gaily painted Betancourt Pastries chariot. (p.247) ‘Stood in wait’?
  • One day Nutter was approached in the chow line by an inmate who said a group of patriots on the outside was offering serious bank for the death of Diego Beltrán. (p.254) = big money
  • A buzz kill = something which destroys the mood, specially a romantic mood around sex (p.280)
  • Studly = like a stud, as in ‘a studly lover’ (p.326)
  • Reamed = getting reamed, being reamed = a strong telling-off (p.33)
  • Rails = lines of cocaine (p.366)
  • Toasted = stoned (p.380)

Fleabag

I was surprised when Hiaasen has his sympathetic protagonist, Angie, in a spare evening, catch an episode of Fleabag, the award-winning British TV series. He also has a character, the one-handed psycho Pruitt, reference Game of Thrones, specifically the one-handed character Jaime Lannister (p.257). Gotta keep up with the popular culture, I suppose.


Credit

Squeeze Me by Carl Hiaasen was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2020. All references are to the 2021 Sphere paperback edition.

Related links

Carl Hiaasen reviews

  1. Tourist Season (1986)
  2. Double Whammy (1987)
  3. Skin Tight (1989)
  4. Native Tongue (1991)
  5. Strip Tease (1993)
  6. Stormy Weather (1995)
  7. Lucky You (1997)
  8. Sick Puppy (2000)
  9. Basket Case (2002)
  10. Skinny Dip (2004)
  11. Nature Girl (2006)
  12. Star Island (2010)
  13. Bad Monkey (2013)
  14. Razor Girl (2016)
  15. Squeeze Me (2020)

Lucky You by Carl Hiaasen (1997)

‘He’s a whole different person,’ Trish whispered.
‘Good,’ Krome said. ‘He needed to be.’
(Lucky You, page 446)

Carl Hiaasen’s campaign to make you loathe and despise Americans for their stupidity, greed and violence continues in this, his seventh solo novel, set among the slimy lowlifes, retards, rednecks and religious nutcases of South Florida.

Each Hiaasen novel has a central theme from which a complex matrix of crazy events and related sub-themes unfurl. This one is the Florida state lottery. On the week in question there are two winners of the lottery who have to share the prize money of $28 million and this is enough to trigger a 480-page firestorm of greed, crime and corruption.

JoLayne Lucks

One of the winners is JoLayne Lucks, 35, a physically fit black woman who lives in a trailer park (Hiaasen’s favourite location for his collections of lowlifes and criminals). JoLayne’s hobby is breeding turtles. She has 46, all different species, in an aquarium outside her trailer (so they’re pretty small, 3 or 4 inches long with heads ‘the size of grapes’, p.379).

Bode and Chub

But what spices things up and drives the plot is that the other winners are a pair of educationally sub-normal rednecks: Bodean James Gazzer, 31, five foot six, who’s made a career of blaming everyone else for everything that’s gone wrong in his short shitty life, who’s recently gotten interested in anti-government militias of the Waco Siege and Oklahoma City bombing variety (backstory pages 18 to 22), and so who’s drifted into the white supremacist ‘culture of hate and hardcore bigotry’ (p.20). Bode makes a living creating forged documents.

A couple of months before the start of the narrative, Bode had hooked up with Chub, a beer-gutted six-foot-two, ponytailed, unshaven, unwashed, smelly slob (full name: Onus Dean Gillespie, backstory page 96). The two bond over a shared contempt for:

government, taxes, homosexuals, immigrants, minorities, gun laws, assertive women and honest work. (p.3)

In fact, as the story opens Bode has just decided to set up a militia named The White Rebel Brotherhood (p.36). For the rest of the novel Hiaasen has a lot of fun attributing every prejudice and bigotry going to the short, angry, venomous Bode, and his dumb, grunting sidekick, Chub. It is the couple’s ignorant but venomous race-hatred and bigotry which is the real subject of this novel.

Having read half a dozen Hiaasen novels I fully expected that Bode would end up committing a string of heinous crimes and then being grotesquely killed in the end and, having just completed it, I can tell you that’s exactly what happens.

Tom Krome the journalist

Hiaasen was and is a rather renegade, award-winning journalist and his first novels feature some very renegade journalists who, you imagine, are like fictional versions of himself let completely off the leash. The series starts with the protagonist of his first solo novel, Tourist Season, the award-winning journalist Skip Wiley, who goes beyond the bounds of ordinary journalism by setting up an eco-terrorist group.

Here in Lucky You there’s another of these journalist incarnations, this one named Tom Krome. Krome emerges as the decent bloke hero of the story. He also allows Hiaasen to share his thoughts on what’s happened to the newspaper business in the 20 or so years since he joined it back in the 1970s. This is that the newspaper industry has been eviscerated by accountants, keen to dispense with almost all the editorial content and to sack seasoned journalists, in order to turn newspapers large and small into efficient, advertising-revenue-generating machines with the result, as his managing editor comments, that the news gets softer and softer, contains less and less real journalism, more and more fluff about pageants and fetes, until nobody bothers reading it any more (p.321).

Interesting to read laments about the death of journalism and newspapers from 25 years ago. Newspapers are, nowadays, of course, in an even more parlous condition.

Anyway, Tom Krome is depicted as a good journalist, with old-school instincts for following a story. with the result that he’s found himself fired from a number of papers till he’s ended up at the minor league Register, where he has to answer to an idiot named Sinclair, Assistant Managing Editor of Features and Style, and stuck covering weddings and divorces. It rankles – a lot!

Grange, town of religious visions

Now JoLayne Lucks lives in an area called Grange, which is notorious for its religious sightings and miracles.

Grange’s meagre economy had come to rely on the seasonal Christian tourist trade. (p.420)

We know this from a number of storylines and events:

  1. Tom Krome’s new girlfriend, Katie (who is cheating on her husband, Circuit Judge Arthur Battenkill Jr.) is a True Believer in miracles and healing.
  2. One of JoLayne’s neighbours in the Grange trailer park, Demencio, operates a religious fraud: he owns and displays a four-foot-high statue of the Virgin Mary with a reservoir of scented water inside, which is operated by a footpump so that the waiting queue of the faithful each get to kiss the statue and see miracle-working tears trickle from its yes. That’s before or after they’ve bought some of Demencio’s over-priced mementos and merchandising, which is where he makes his money.
  3. But Demencio isn’t the only one. There are various other religious fradusters around who capitalise on the town’s reputation, not least a failed carpenter by the name of Dominick Armado who, one drunk night, at a very low ebb in his private life, drilled perfect half centimetre holes in both his hands and now touts them as miraculous stigmata, charging a few dollars a time to allow credulous pilgrims to touch them, pray to them or have their photo taken with God’s Chosen One (p.378).

As a character wonders, late in the novel, having encountered all this religious nuttery, and after Armado has insisted on showing her the new holes he’s drilled in his feet, surely there must be something which explains all the freakery:

Surely this could be explained – a radiation leak in the maternity ward; a toxin in the town’s water supply. (p.460)

Early plot

The plot gets going when Tom Kromer is reluctantly sent out out to Grange to interview some blah blah lottery winner on what he thinks will be the epitome of boring small-time journalism. But Krome is won over by JoLayne’s style and balls. He arrives to find her front door is open and, on knocking and entering, discovers her in her bath, butt-naked, covered in bubbles and holding a shotgun pointing at his groin. So: quite ballsy, then. JoLayne listens to what Krome’s got to say, then politely refuses to be interviewed or to feature in any news reports. He goes back to his motel to ponder his next move.

What drives the novel is that the two thick racists, Bode and Chub, are not content with getting half the week’s winnings. They want it all. So Bode insists that they, also, drive out to Grange, They quickly establish that there’s only one lottery ticket outlet in the little town, at a branch of the Grab’N’Go chain, and they work out that JoLayne is the likely winner by cross-questioning the shops’ dim assistant named ‘Shiner’, the useless son of a born-again Christian mother.

Bode and Chub drive to JoLayne’s trailer and beat the crap out of her in a bid to get her ticket. Their plan is that Bode will present to the lottery authorities with one ticket and claims half the $28 million, and Chubb will present with JoLayne’s and claim the other half. The lottery tickets are sold anonymously, there are no names attached, so whoever is holding it is the owner.

Bode and Chub savagely beat JoLayne, introducing a sickening note of violence into the book at an early stage. They punch her in the breasts and groin and push the barrel of their revolver into her mouth, demanding to know where the ticket is. But not before JoLayne uses her long fingernails to give them cuts on the face, to rip out half of Bode’s eyelid and half of Chub’s eyebrow. She’s feisty.

It’s a stalemate until the rednecks have a brainwave: they shoot one of her precious baby turtles and threaten to shoot all the rest, at which point JoLayne gives in and hands over the ticket. They beat her up a bit more and leave. On the way out of town they revisit the Grab N’Go where they recruit the idiot Shiner to their fledgling White Rebel Brotherhood, explaining to him that all his failure in life is due to a conspiracy of fags and blacks in Washington DC, and (the reason for making a fuss of him) persuading him to lie about serving JoLayne the winning ticket.

Tom Kromer is woken up in the dark of his Grange motel bedroom. It takes him a while to realise it’s JoLayne who’s snuck into his room. When she won’t let him switch on the light and he puts his hands up to her face, he realises she’s been really badly beaten.

She takes him back to her trailer which is wrecked, with blood everywhere. Tom begs JoLayne to go to the cops but she refuses. Tom eventually realises it’s because she thinks if the cops start searching for them, the two hoodlums will destroy the ticket and she needs that ticket. Why?

And here enters the environmental angle, which is such an important element in Hiaasen’s fiction and which had been missing from the narrative up to this point. Turns out JoLayne works as an assistant to Dr Cecil Crawford, Grange’s vet (p.51) and has a natural feel for animals. In her time off she likes to sneak into Simmons Wood, a lovely piece of unspoilt wilderness and observe the wild animals (backstory p.137).

The point is that one day JoLayne is horrified to see a notice up warning that Simmons Wood is going to be demolished and turned into a shopping mall. She wants the lottery winnings not for herself but in order to buy Simmons Wood and preserve it for future generations. So that’s why she doesn’t want to call the cops or have her story written up in the papers; because that might force the thieves to destroy the ticket and she needs that money.

(The wood is owned by an old man, Lighthorse Simmons, who used to love to hunt there. He’s gotten old now and on his last trip was accidentally shot by another hunter. Now it’s his two greedy children, Leander Simmons and Janine Simmons Robinson, who are selling the land off and greedily hoping to make the maximum profit.)

Mary Andrea Finlay Krome

Tom has a wife, Mary Andrea Finlay, who he’s been trying to divorce for four years. She fancies herself a leading actress, although she only appears in provincial theatres. Tom’s attorney, Dick Turnquist, has been trying to serve papers for divorce on her for years, but it’s one of the running gags of the story that Mary is constantly on the move, one step ahead of the lawyer and his endless quest. The narrative is punctuated by the lawyer periodically phoning up Tom for another bulletin on how he just failed to nab her yet again.

Katie and the judge

Then there’s Katie, wife of Circuit Judge Arthur Battenkill Jr. Tom has been having an affair with Katie for precisely 14 days, a whirlwind of sex and guilt, because Katie, in between blowjobs, is also a devout Christian, who has championship sex and then days of chronic guilt.

Because Kromer doesn’t ring her that night, from the motel in Grange where he’s staying, Katie has a fit of religious conscience and decides to admit to her husband she’s having an affair. More than that, in a fit of compulsive honesty she lists to the judge every sexual encounter she’s had with Krome, starting with the first blowjob she gave him in his car. American Christians are such fun! She’s also motivated by the knowledge that her 40-something husband is screwing both his legal secretaries, Willow and Vine. Katie hopes that if she confesses to her adulteries, he will too. Of course he doesn’t. But he is furious and instantly decides to take revenge.

Which is why, when Krome gets back to Miami from his brief trip to Grange, he discovers all the windows in his house shot out. Circuit Judge Arthur Battenkill Jr. had gotten his legal assistant, Champ Powell, to do it.

When Tom phones her, Katie drives right round, explains what has happened, apologises, says she thinks it’s best, under the circumstances, to call off their affair and, as an afterthought, mentions that she thinks her husband, in his psychopathic jealousy, is going to have Krome killed. Great. Just great. A few blowjobs and fancy fucks and now his life is in danger, thinks Tom.

When Krome checks back into the office of the Register his numbskull editor, Sinclair, declares the lottery story dead and assigns him something else. Krome refuses to take it. He wants to track down whoever beat up JoLayne, he wants to turn it into a real journalistic investigation. Sinclair refuses to budge. So Krome quits and walks out. He calls JoLayne and tells her he wants to help her get her ticket back and save Simmons Wood.

The mob

Then there’s the mafia connection. Hiaasen goes into some detail to explain that the people who want to buy Simmons Wood – who Leander Simmons and Janine Simmons Robinson are so keen to sell to – are actually organised crime.

Richard ‘The Icepick’ Tarbone is a major player in organised crime in Chicago. He regularly creams off large amounts from the accounts of a big union called the Central Midwest Brotherhood of Grouters, Spacklers and Drywallers International. One of the ways this is done is for the union to buy up land and make a big show of investing millions in some project, only to encounter a string of problems, such as lack of labour, strikes, shortage of materials, failure to secure the right permits and so on, which eventually let the project plough into the sand. No-one looks too closely at the accounts to see that the actual losses are over and above the ones posted – and that is the amount creamed off by the union (the process is explained in detail on page 139 and is, according to Hiaasen, common practice in Florida real estate deals: ‘Gangsters bought and sold real estate in Florida every day’, p.440).

Trouble is the realtor in charge of the sale, is Clara Markham, has now received a new bid for the land. It’s from JoLayne who, as soon as she realised she’d won the lottery, got in touch and said she’s outbid all other bidders to buy the wood.

The union’s lawyer aka the Icepick’s fixer, is Bernard Squires. When news comes in that there’s a rival bid the Icepick tells Squires to get his ass down to Florida and sew up the deal in person. Trouble is the realtor in question, Clara Markham, happens to be a good friend of JoLayne’s, not least because of JoLayne’s expert veterinary treatment of Clara’s Persian Cat, Kenny (named after Kenny Rogers, the country singer) and so when JoLayne begs her for a week’s grace (to give her and Tom Krome time to track down the rednecks who stole her lottery ticket), Clara is happy to play along, to Bernard Squires’ mounting frustration.

Moffit

Oh I nearly forgot to mention Moffit. He is a big, imposing, immaculately dressed Afro-American who is an old, old friend of JoLayne’s, they go back to high school and he’s always had a deep and enduring flame for her. And he happens to work for the US Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Agency.

There’s often a figure like this in Hiaasen’s plots, an old buddy who just happens to have access to government or police computers, a figure who can, therefore, conveniently join the dots and fill in plot holes. Compare with the FBI agent who helps Erin out in Strip Tease.

The quest

Thus it is that by page 100 the narrative has established two damaged people, JoLayne (veteran of six relationships with six loser men and now recovering from a bad beating) and Tom Krome (trying to juggle the demands of his psycho wife, possibly being chased by hitmen set on him by a judge, and now unemployed) decide to track down Bode and Chub (who, being morons, are continuing to use the credit card they stole from JoLayne, and so are leaving a fairly easy trail to follow) and get her lottery ticket back.

And this ‘quest’ is the motor for the next 300 pages of fast-moving, savagely satirical and often very violent narrative. If you are sensitive about racist language, psychology and scenes, this most definitely is not the book for you. The novel takes the reader deep into the damaged psyches of two violent and repellent white supremacists.

Highlights from the rest of the plot

Bode and Chub eat several successive evenings in Hooters restaurant where filthy, slob, face-scratched Chub falls in love with a leggy blonde waitress named Amber who smiles in order to get her tips but finds the pair disgusting.

Once Moffit has learned about JoLayne’s being beaten up and robbed he is very angry and uses computers and cop contacts to identify Chub and visit his apartment. He trashes it, searching thoroughly for the lost lottery ticket, discovering no end of white supremacist posters, guns and porn, before deciding to freak out the racist idiot by writing in three-foot-high red letters on the wall ‘FEAR THE BLACK TIDE’.

When they return to the trashed apartment, this message freaks Bode and Chub out so badly that they pack all their worldly goods and drive south, planning to steal a boat (the ironically named Real Luv) and hide out in the Everglades until they can claim their lottery money and organise their white brotherhood. (In case I haven’t mentioned it, that’s Bode’s plan; to use his winnings to set up a nationwide white Aryan militia.)

Shiner turns up to join them. He’s quit his job at the Grab’N’Go and, in an access of idiotic enthusiasm, has had the initials of the movement tattooed on his bicep. They agree with him to drive south and rendezvous on the coast where they can steal a boat. What the other two don’t expect is that, to please them, Shiner kidnaps Amber from the car park outside Hooters at the end of her shift.

Meanwhile, Tom and JoLayne track down the bad guys by calling her credit card company and finding out where money is being spent. They establish the pair keep eating out at a local Hooters, but spend a long time debating where and how to take the crooks. They have staked out Chub’s apartment so are able to trail them south to a marina where they watch Chub steal a speedboat. Tom and JoLayne  themselves hire a boat for a day.

Thus the main setting of the book shifts, rather surprisingly, from an urban setting to an uninhabited island off the coast of Florida, where Bode and Chub and wimpy fat skinhead Shiner and surprisingly tough waitress Amber rig up a miserable camp. A rainstorm hits. Jolayne and Tom have followed at a distance (not least because, like all Hiaasen heroes, Tom is expert on the water, has binoculars to follow the bad guys’ boat at a distance etc). Now they moor their boat on the other side of the island, and stalk and watch developments among the baddies.

The grotesque highlight

Each Hiaasen novel has a grotesque highlight, a memorably gruesome image which stays with you. In Double Whammy it’s the redneck killer with a dead pitbull’s head attached to his wrist. In Stormy Weather it’s the crooked property salesman crucified to an outsized satellite TV dish by a disgruntled customer. In this novel, it involves the drooling idiot Chub.

Chub, among his countless other vices, snorts glue or aerosols. At various points in the narrative he manages to make himself insensible on whatever sniffable substance he can lay his hands on. On the boat trip out to the island Chub makes himself so blotto on a tube of boat glue he finds, that he passes out with his hand trailing in the water only to wake and find half of it eaten off by a giant crab.

This section on the island drags on a bit, with various arguments and shifts in psychological dynamic between the three white supremacists and their waitress hostage described at what begins to feel like inordinate length.

Tom and JoLayne rescue Amber, Bode dies

Eventually, in a fury of frustration, Chub finally tries to rape Amber and she is fighting him off when there’s a gunshot. Chub is thrown off Amber’s naked body because Tom has just shot half his shoulder away, swiftly followed by a shotgun butt to the head which knocks Bode unconscious.

Tom and JoLayne patch up Chub to stop him bleeding to death, then put Shiner and Amber into the stolen boat, with a map and instructions to go back to civilisation, which they do without mishap.

But, as so often happens (as happened in the very similar situation in Stormy Weather), although they’ve tied up the bad guys, one of them – Bode – manages to get loose and makes a run for it through the mangrove groves to the other end of the island where Tom and JoLayne’s boat is moored.

Except Tom chases him and tackles him in the shallows, they both thrash around kicking and punching. Unfortunately, Bode kicks a stingray which was having a quiet nap on the mud floor and responds by embedding its big sting deep in his thigh. Bode lets go of Tom who staggers upright, himself half-drowned in the epic struggle, then pulls Bode in from the shallows onto the sand. And here he bleeds to death (p.397). Yes, I thought he’d meet a sticky end, Hiaasen’s baddies always do.

The judge, his assistant and the exploding house

This main central plank of the narrative is interspersed with two other plot developments:

Circuit Judge Arthur Battenkill Jr. gets cold feet. Having had all Tom’s windows shot out he becomes paranoid that Tom will track him down and do something bad to him and/or write about him in his newspaper. So the judge decides that he must not only scare Tom Krome, but kill him! So he gets his legal secretary, Champ Powell, to blow up his house. Champ is a whizz at the law but less so at arson and pours out so much gasoline round Tom’s empty house that he passes out, falling against the cooker as he does so, and blowing the house to kingdom come, killing himself. His body is charred beyond recognition in the ensuing fire. The point is – everyone now thinks the corpse in the house was Tom: everyone thinks Tom is dead, from his managing editor at the newspaper (who didn’t even know he’d quit), to his lawyer, his wife he’s trying to divorce, Katie his lover (who’d admitted everything to the judge) and so on. This sparks a complicated trail of interactions and consequences, while Tom is happily oblivious to it all, far away in the outback trailing the racists.

Sinclair becomes Turtle Boy

Quite a lot earlier in the plot, the editor of the Register had told Sinclair to get his ass up to Grange and find out what Tom Krome was up to and why he wasn’t reporting in to the office (we know it’s because he’s followed the bad guys out to the island but nobody else knows that).

Sinclair does so, and tracks down the house of JoLayne and her neighbours, Demencio and Trisha, but here something weird happens: he has a spiritual awakening.

When JoLayne left with Tom, she asked her neighbours Femencio and Trisha to look after JoLayne’s 46 little turtles and, business with the Weeping Virgin falling a bit slack, Demencio has a brainwave. Why not paint the faces of the 12 apostles onto the shells of 12 of the turtles and claim they appeared overnight? The scam is a runaway success, drawing in thousands of paying believers to the aquarium the pair set up specially for the ‘Holy Turtles’.

Now when Sinclair, poking around to find Tom Krome, is introduced to Demencio and Trisha, when they give him one of the lickle baby turtles to hold, Sinclar has a profound spiritual experience, is converted on the spot. He takes to wearing a white gown and immersing himself in the lined trench Demencio builds for the apostle turtles and letting them crawl all over him. He forgets about his job, he forgets about Tom Krome, he experiences otherworldly bliss and speaks in tongues.

Soon rumour gets round of the freak Demencio nicknames ‘Turtle Boy’, and Sinclair finds himself becoming a major religious attraction in his own right.

There’s quite a lot more plot complexity and detail, because one of the central aspects of the genre of farce is that it has a preposterously convoluted plot.

The bad judge is arrested

By the time Tom and JoLayne return safely to civilisation the threat against him has been lifted. The police have by this stage realised the corpse in Tom’s house was not him but the judge’s legal assistant, and the judge’s wife, Katie, has told the police all about the judge’s arsonical felonies, so that the judge has forgotten about Tom and is packing to escape to the Bahamas. Only to walk out his front door and be arrested by the FBI (p.430). So that storyline, which had taken up a lot of space and complexity, is happily resolved.

Thoughts and reflections

1. White supremacy and race anxiety

Religion is the most obvious and flagrant subject of the satire, what with Demencio’s weeping Madonna and the apostle turtle scams (not to mention Shiner’s born-again mother who I haven’t mentioned so far but insists she can see the face of Jesus printed on the local highway and eventually goes into a kind of religious partnership with Turtle Boy.

But the religious satire is overshadowed by the novel’s larger, more serious theme, which is race, or race relations in America. It is the central theme in Bode and Chub’s lives that they plan to set up a militia named The White Rebel Brotherhood dedicated to the salvation of the white race, against the great tide of blacks, Hispanics, gays and lesbians and liberals and Jews who they see as taking over their country. Their paranoia is satirised in Bode’s incoherent notion that a vast UN or NATO force is waiting on the Bahamas and, at any moment, will invade mainland America and suppress the white race in the name of the international conspiracy of thingummy, something – whenever he gets to this point, in his explanations to Chub or Shiner, Bode gets confused and angry, realising his paranoid delusions don’t actually make sense (pp.351).

The pair’s stupidity is satirised by the way Bode doesn’t realise the White Rebel Brotherhood is the name of a popular rap band. When he learns this it infuriates him, so that Bode changes the name of his little gang to the White Clarion Aryans, who:

‘We believe in the purity and supremacy of the Euro-Caucasian people.’ (p.299)

So far, so dumb, so satirical and so fairly funny. But it isn’t funny when they beat the crap out of JoLayne and grab her breasts and punch her in the groin calling her the n word. A ‘bad’ word here or there is piss in the wind compared to the force of their deep, raging, unrelenting, racist bigotry.

Hiaasen goes some way to investigating the roots of the problem, with periodic explanations that the roots of their hatred lie in the endless frustrations of lazy, stupid, badly educated, dropout, unemployed, lowlife, small-time criminals.

But towards the end of the book there’s a powerful scene where JoLayne cradles the badly wounded Chub in her lap, tending to the wound Tom has just shot in his shoulder (to stop him raping Amber) because she can’t bear to see anything die. JoLayne asks him directly the reason for his unrelenting rage. But all she gets back is cuss words (p.391). Nothing can be explained. These people are too damaged to change and too mentally limited to reflect on their own lives and beliefs.

Same when Bode is dying. JoLayne pitifully asks him:

‘Please. I’m trying to understand the nature of your hatefulness…What did I ever do to you?’ She demanded. ‘What did any black person ever do to you?’ (p.398)

To which Bode can only reply with a thin list of petty offences, none of which get at the real psychological root of such monstrous anger and hate.

On a different plane, the issue of race recurs in the ‘mixed race’ relationship between white Tom and black JoLayne. This mainly takes the shape of her teasing him about his white liberal guilt (p.346) and his honky ass. There’s the moment in the car driving south when she takes the mickey out of the way he only likes ‘white-boy rock’, triggering a spluttering defence on his part, which makes her crack up with laughter (p.244).

This is meant to be fairly light-hearted joshing but to me, at any rate, indicated yet another way in which racial differences seem to be so difficult to normalise. All I mean is that JoLayne and Tom are as liberal individuals as it is possible to imagine, and yet even for them, the difference in skin or race or ethnicity or whatever you want to call it, still creates nervousness and imbalances of power. Can it ever be completely neutral, a relationship between a black person and a white person, completely without an awareness of race? Not if this novel is to be believed.

Anyway, back to Bode and Chub and their pathetic white supremacy, Hiaasen gives it a thorough and extended hammering, but satire doesn’t change anything in the real world. Hiaasen was mocking white supremacy and ignorant bigotry back in 1997 yet Donald Trump came to power on the back of a huge sea of it 20 years later, and his presidency climaxed in the amazing scenes of the Proud Boys storming the Capitol and waving the Confederate flag.

The problem doesn’t seem to have gotten any better in the 24-odd years since 1997, does it? Writing savagely satirical novels isn’t enough. Nowhere near.

2. America, criminal state

Last time I went to New York I hated it. I watched American TV, listened to American radio, saw American hoardings, browsed in American shops, and felt suffocated by it, by the unrelenting commercialisation of everything. There seems to be little or no natural interaction between human beings behaving innocently, politely and candidly. Absolutely everything is monetised, is a deal, every service in a shop or hotel or taxi requires a tip. Money is front of everyone’s mind.

And that’s what comes over in Hiaasen’s books. There’s no character that doesn’t have an angle. They are all after something, and they all spend all their time calculating the odds, the profits and losses, of every deal and every venture. Demencio’s religious frauds are obvious butts for satire, but there isn’t much essential difference between that and the various crooked lawsuits we learn Circuit Judge Arthur Battenkill Jr. has been involved in. Everyone is faking and lying for money.

Hiaasen gives a particularly detailed explanation of how the judge swings one last crooked judgement before he realises he has to flee the Feds. He finds in favour of a well-known insurance fraudster, 70-year-old Emil LaGort who makes a living out of tripping or falling at supermarkets then suing them for negligence (p.374). Generally, LaGort’s claims are thrown out or he settles for small fees, but the judge rings up LaGort’s attorney and advises him to go hard on the next case. The lawyer is puzzled. The judge explains that, if the lawyer sues LaGort’s latest corporate target for $500,000, he (the judge) will find in his favour – on the understanding that LaGort’s attorney will then give him half that amount. Why? To pay for his hurried flight to the Bahamas.

In other words: the American legal system is not just a bit crooked, it is one enormous scam, from top to bottom, a vast system of interlocking scams and deals at every level, greased by money and bribery.

These aren’t generalised slurs. Hiaasen gives detailed descriptions of hos America’s countless scams and cons work in practice. He explains in great detail the mafia scheme for creaming money off failed building projects, described above. The mafia makes money by commissioning large-scale property developments which are then left deliberately incomplete and declared write-offs, so the mob can launder money through them. The result is to leave Florida covered with abandoned works, whose sole material impact is to devastate the landscape. And this is happening all the time, has been going on for decades.

Hiaasen’s America is all like that, at every level. You can visualise a hierarchy, like a medieval diagram of the ‘estates’, with scumbags like Bode and Chub at the bottom, organised criminals like The Icepick and his fixer Bernard Squires at a higher level, doing deals with bribeable cops, supervised by crooked judges like Battenkill, and then the crooked local politicians Hiaasen has lambasted in other novels sitting at the top, easy to buy and influence with big dollar campaign contributions, the whole thing covered by a TV and print media which are themselves only interesting in keeping the gravy train of corruption and payola spinning forwards in order to bring in those advertising dollars. Money money money. An unending panorama of greed and corruption in every direction.

And then, in a stroke of genius, you give all these crooks and retards and mobsters and hitmen high-powered guns and automatic weapons and let them loose on each other.

Everyone who lived in Dade County knew the sound of a semiautomatic.’ (p.311)

It’s a modern vision of the Inferno. It is contemporary America. In the week since I finished reading the book I think there have been three mass shootings in America, one just yesterday in Hiaasen’s own Miami. What a great country.

3. Americans have a word for it

As part of their can-do, get a move on, hurry hurry culture, Americans just seem to have snappy nouns and catchy phrases to describe things and actions that the English bumble over. A few examples being:

  • to cinch = verb, when you’re wearing a hat with a loop of string under the chin and a toggle which you can move up the two bits of string to tighten them up, you ‘cinch’ it tight; women cinch a scrunchie on their hair
  • a domelight = the overhead light in a car (p.249)
  • to fishtail = verb, to have the rear end of a car slide from side to side. ‘Recklessly he gunned the truck across Highway One and fishtailed into the northbound lane.’ (p.265)
  • a hummer = a blowjob (p.325)
  • a ride-along = someone who comes along for a ride in a car (p.400)
  • walk-ons = when you run a boat hire company in a marina and you get customers who haven’t booked ahead but just walk up and ask if they can hire

Credit

Lucky You by Carl Hiaasen was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1997. All references are to the 1998 Pan paperback edition.

Carl Hiaasen reviews

Stormy Weather by Carl Hiaasen (1995)

Nothing in her modest criminal part had prepared her for the hazy and menacing vibe of the hurricane zone. Everyone was on edge; evil, violence and paranoia ripened in the shadows.
(Stormy Weather, page 107)

Stormy Weather is Carl Hiaasen’s sixth novel. It is longer than usual, at 472 pages, and it feels decisively more nihilistic and misanthropic than its predecessors. Boy, is it full of scumbags and sleazeballs!

Just like its predecessors, Stormy Weather rotates around a central theme, in this case the impact of a big hurricane on South Florida (the setting for all Carl Hiaasen’s novels), from which all kinds of other topics and issues spin in gleeful riot.

Actually, I was hoping for some grand set-piece description of a hurricane but the storm itself is strangely absent. The hurricane happens off-stage, as it were, and has been and gone by page 30. What the text consists of is the adventures of a larger-than-usual cast of miscellaneous characters, often lowlife, often criminal, across the comprehensively devastated and trashed South Florida landscape after the hurricane has hit.

In the darkness, she couldn’t see Augustine’s expression. ‘It’s madness out here,’ he said. (p.51)

In most of the previous novels there’s been not only a central theme but a central crime or scam, which then spawns further crimes in a bid to cover it up (I’m thinking in particular of Skin Tight though the same structure informs his most recent book, Squeeze Me) and these subsidiary crimes ramify out into a luxurious growth of garish characters and grotesque incidents.

Stormy Weather feels like a distinct development or offshoot of the basic pattern, in that there is no central crime or scam: instead Hiaasen’s lowlifes and criminals roam across a devastated landscape, meeting, mingling, scamming and attacking each other at will. It reminds me a bit of the late Elizabethan epic poem, The Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser (1596). In each of the first two books of the poem one central knight undertakes one clearly defined quest and the reader knows what the themes and issues are. But in books 3 and 4 Spenser lets go this format, relaxes and introduces a fleet of knights and squires and monsters and enemies and lets them roam, apparently at random, across his fairie landscape, characters from one storyline unexpectedly popping up in another character’s story, or disappearing without explanation.

That’s exactly the sense of expertly controlled narrative chaos you get from this novel. And it is, as a narrative structure, of course, entirely appropriate to, and mimics, the main theme of post-hurricane chaos.

Characters

Chief among the characters is our old friend Skink, aka Clinton Tyree, the former governor of Florida-turned-environmental vigilante who’s featured in most of the previous stories (full backstory on pages 142 to 146). Skink catches two students chucking empty beer cans over the side of the Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys and terrifies them into tying him to the guardrail of the bridge so he can experience the full awesomeness of the hurricane’s primal energy. Skink, we are told, has spent the years since he quit as governor on:

a solemn hermitage interrupted by the occasional righteous arson, aggravated battery or highway sniping. (p.146)

Max and Bonnie Lamb are on a week-long honeymoon in Florida but Max (a junior account executive at a New York advertising company named Rodale & Burns) angers his new wife by cancelling their planned trip to Disney World in order to tour the hurricane ruins with a videocamera, even interviewing families shivering outside their utterly wrecked and flattened houses, speculating that he might be able to sell the footage to cable TV. Bonnie realises with a thump that she’s married a heartless schmo.

Edie Marsh is a typical Hiaasen lowlife. Before the hurricane she had been cruising Miami bars determined to hook up with a member of the famous Kennedy clan and marry rich. To her own surprise she does indeed manages to be wined and dined by a minor Kennedy one evening, but completely fails to seduce him. Instead, she finds herself teamed up with ‘Snapper‘ (real name Lester Maddox Parsons, p.386, full backstory, including his upbringing in a Ku Klux Klan family! pages 132 to 133) and, along with him, fakes a scene in which she appears to have been trapped and pinioned under a falling house in order to defraud an insurance company.

They’ve chosen one of a huge estate of houses which were completely flattened by the storm, on the recommendation of a crooked housing inspector they know, Avila, under which to pretend to have been injured. Unfortunately, they’ve picked the house next to Tony Torres, greasy scumbag ‘salesman of the year’ for a company called A-Plus Affordable Homes. Tony won the award for selling hundreds of flimsy trailers which blew away in the first strong wind, producing a cohort of very angry customers. The address Edie and Snapper have chosen is 15600 Calusa and it is destined to become the central location of the novel.

Anyway, at this early point of the story Tony sees through Snapper and Edie’s scam in moments. He’s a no-nonsense hardcase and makes them come and sit in the ruins of his house at gunpoint while he figures out what to do with them. He has two dachshund pets, Donald and Marla.

In other words, a lot of the characters are already two-timing scumbags, even before a big natural disaster like this brings out the worst in people. As Tony Torres says:

‘Because of the hurricane. The whole place is a madhouse!’ (p.31)

Augustine Mojack had just inherited his uncle’s failing wildlife import business when the hurricane hit. Augustine is 32 and independently wealthy. He doesn’t have to work because of the big insurance settlement he received after a boating accident. Augustine’s hobby is juggling skulls (an image picked up on the book’s cover art), medical skulls from hospitals or medical shops. He can juggle up to five at a time. He harbours fantasies of performing some big destructive spectacular theatrical event, though he doesn’t know what.

But the important thing about Augustine is he has just inherited a wildlife import business from his recently deceased uncle. When the storm hits, it devastates the animal compound and cages, releasing a bear, a Cape water buffalo, a cougar, a lion, miscellaneous snakes and lizards, and a bunch of monkeys into the wild.

Ira Jackson is a tough guy from New York (‘a stocky middle-aged stranger with a chopped haircut [and] a gold chain round his neck’, p.210). The mobile home belonging to Ira’s mother, Beatrice Jackson, was blown into fragments and she was killed by a flying barbecue from next door. Unfortunately, Ira remembers the name of the sleazy fat man who sold his mother the trailer and it only takes a phone call to the city records for him to find the address and come looking for… Tony Torres.

Long story short: Jackson finds Edie at Torres’s place, tells her to take a walk, then knocks Torres unconscious, drives him to a remote plot and nails him to an eight-foot satellite dish in the crucifixion position, impaling his body on the central node. Most Hiaasen novels have one or a few central gruesome and macabre incidents or images. Well this is it: a crooked homes salesman crucified to a huge satellite TV dish!

Plot developments

Max Lamb is in the middle of filming yet another distraught home owner in the wreckage of their house when a small monkey darts out of nowhere and attacks him, scratching his face before seizing his camera and scampering off. Max gives chase and is kidnapped by Skink. Skink had enjoyed being tied to the bridge during the storm but it wasn’t as totally awesome as he had hoped. Now he is going seriously off-piste, as indicated by the fact he has taken to smoking toad sweat, which is amusingly referred to as generating ‘Bufo madness’ (p.270).

Skink said, ‘Care for some toad?’ (p.170)

Skink fits an electric shock collar (a Tri-Tronics dog collar) around Max’s neck, tramps him out of suburbia, through woods to a waterway, forces him into a boat, takes him out to an Indian camp in the Everglades and subjects him to various humiliations, all the time asking what he’s doing, the pretentious New York jackass, coming down here to Florida, knowing nothing about the place or people or making any effort to learn etc? Over the coming days we watch as Skink, by repeatedly shocking Max, manages to train him, to make him as obedient as a dog.

Now abandoned, Bonnie Lamb is rescued by Augustine who is out in his car looking for his escaped animals and carrying a tranquiliser dart gun. In all Hiaasen’s novels there is generally one more or less normal, reasonably good guy, strong and capable. Augustine plays that role in this novel. When we see Augustine through Bonnie’s eyes, he is tall, square-shouldered and handsome. Rather gorge, in fact.

Just a reminder of Hiaasen’s good guys:

  1. Tourist Season – Brian Keyes, private eye, former journalist
  2. Double Whammy – R.J. Decker, private eye, former newspaper photographer
  3. Skin Tight – Mick Stranahan, private eye
  4. Native Tongue – Joe Winder, reluctant PR man, former reporter
  5. Strip Tease – the central figure is probably Erin the stripper, with the good guy role divided between Shad the bouncer and the recurring character, Miami homicide detective Al García

Over the coming days Augustine helps Bonnie try to find her husband, a quest which involves several trips to the city morgue which seem pretty peripheral to the ‘plot’ but give the reader an insight into what a big city American morgue looks and smells like, and a cross-section of corpses each coming with a particularly fruity backstory.

Since Skink periodically allows Max to use payphones (reminding us that this is all set years before the advent of mobile phones) he is able to leave messages on the couple’s answerphone in New York. When Bonnie rings the number, she gets Max’s messages saying he’s OK, but she is distraught and then disgusted to realise he is much more concerned about his work, about the fate of the advertising accounts he’s managing, than he is about her wellbeing or feelings.

As you might have predicted, slowly Bonnie falls for strong, well-armed Augustine, who every night takes her back to his place. He doesn’t lay a finger on her; it is entirely her choice when she chooses to snuggle up in his bed for comfort and then, a couple of nights later, to sleep with him.

Meanwhile, when Edie returns to Torres’ house (remember how Ira Jackson had shooed her away at gunpoint) to find him gone so she sets up base there, it’s as good as anywhere else.

Along comes Fred Dove, an insurance assessor (thousands of them are by now swarming all over the wrecked territory). At first she tries to con Dove into believing she’s Torres’ wife, hoping to get the full $141,000 which she discovers is the payout for Torres’ wrecked house. Unfortunately, Dove finds a wedding photo of Torres amid the wreckage which clearly shows that Torres’ wife was a petite but well-endowed Latina, not Edie. Edie immediately switches tack, makes schoolgirl eyes, apologises, bursts into tears, grabs Dove’s hand and kisses it and manages to seduce him on Torres’ (very uncomfortable) lounger. Having shagged him, Edie now ties him into her plan to defraud the insurance company and split the proceeds. Dove is understandably reluctant and scared of breaking the law, but also ‘pussy whipped’ (definition: ‘dominated or controlled by a woman – typically used of a man’).

A day or so earlier, Edie’s partner, Snapper, had gone on an exploration and fallen in with a bunch of crooked roof repairers organised by Avila the crooked standards inspector. In fact, this little crew know nothing about repairing roofs but realise they can gouge cash deposits from desperate home owners, promise to come back, then disappear with the loot. Snapper has a lucky break when he finds himself selling the crew’s dodgy services to the ditzy woman owner of a big luxury house now minus a roof, Mrs Whitmark, who is only too willing to hand over $7,000 in cash (p.150). With typical deception, he hides this from his fellow scammers when he gets back to the truck where they’re waiting, keeping the cash for himself.

When the woman’s husband, Gar Whitfield, returns and discovers what his wife has done, he is livid. Turns out he is himself a property developer and not only knows Avila but has actively been bribing him, with money, booze and porn to give legal approval to the sub-standard housing Whitefiled has been putting up for years.

So Gar Whitfield rings up Avila and tells him he has enough dirt on him to have him arrested the same day and in prison by nightfall, and has the clout to make sure Avila is put in the same cell as Paul Pick-Percy, a famous cannibal, unless he a) repays the seven grand b) pays for the actual repair of Whitfield’s roof.

This little vignette is a good example of the way Hiaasen depicts corruption within corruption, scumbaggery within scumbaggery. Everyone is corrupt. Everyone is deceiving each other.

What a cold shitty world, thought Avila. There was no such thing as a friendly favour any more; everybody had their greedy paws out. (p.276)

On the plus side, also making a reappearance is Skink’s good fairy, Highway Patrolman Jim Tile, the only black man on the force and the routine target of all kinds of racist abuse from redneck drivers and his own cracker colleagues. In this novel we watch Jim form a relationship with a fellow (white) woman police officer, Brenda Rourke. Unfortunately for her, we then see her try to arrest Snapper, who is ‘one mean motherfucker’ (p.200) and beats the crap out of her. When Jim Tile is called to the scene he is devastated to see his battered girlfriend and vows revenge. A landscape of corruption, theft, embezzlement and extreme violence.

Backstories

I really like the way Hiaasen creates and positions backstories for the characters, not when they’re first introduced but scattered cleverly throughout the text. These backstory interludes break up the flow of the narrative in a very enjoyable way as the forward engine of events is put on hold while we get 2 or 3 pages about the childhood, upbringing and previous adventures of various characters.

It helps that these potted biographies are themselves often every bit as florid and entertaining as the narrative itself, for example the detailed description of Snapper’s upbringing in a household of devoted Ku Klux Klan members is worth reading in and of itself for its sheer amazeballs. Other backstories include:

  • Snapper pp.132 to 134
  • Skink pp.142 to 146
  • Bonnie Brooks pp.216 to 219
  • how Avila and Snapper met at a brothel p.264
  • how Snapper shot his drug dealer partner Sunny Shea p.386

More plot developments

After crucifying Tony Torres, Ira Jackson discovers that he doesn’t really feel much better, so decides to go after the next person responsible for his mother’s death, the crooked building inspector, Avila, who he again tracks down from city records.

Ira kidnaps Avila and gets him to confess that he didn’t even inspect the trailer homes Jackson’s mother lived in, but ‘passed’ them after being paid a hefty bribe by the builders. Then Ira sets about crucifying Avila, too. He knocks up a makeshift crucifix nailed to a half-destroyed pine tree and tapes Avila’s wrists and ankles to it. He hammers a nail into Avila’s right hand and the latter faints but when he comes round he realises a) he’s alive b) he’s not in agony. He opens his eyes and sees a lion, a lion!!! finishing off Jackson. (The reader realises this is one of the animals who’ve escaped from Augustine’s wildlife centre). The lion has eaten half of Ira. There are bones scattered around and tatters of clothing. Avila freezes and watches the lion as it finishes its Ira Jackson meal, snuggles down and falls asleep. Then very, very slowly Avila unwraps the tape, frees his nailed hand and sneaks off.

Being Hiaasen, having a character eaten by a lion isn’t quite enough. Avila is a devotee of Santería, the Cuban voodoo religion and, as he tiptoes past the snoring lion, he bends down to retrieve one of the wet and glistening bones of what was once Ira Jackson. You never know. Might come in handy in one of Avila’s Santería rituals.

Skink motorboats Max Lamb out to a wooden house on stilts in the part of Biscayne Bay known as Stiltsville. He’s arranged a rendezvous here with Bonnie and Augustine. The encounter is suitably bizarre and surreal, Skink takes off Max’s electric collar and calmly hands him over but announces that he wants to spend some time with Bonnie who is intrigued but not scared byt Skink’s grotesque appearance but calm and polite manner. However, Augustine shoots Skink with the tranquiliser dart gun he’s been carrying round everywhere. Bonnie and Augustine had previously hooked up with Trooper Jim Tile who now supervises them taking tranquilised Skink back to the mainland and helping him recover.

Tile is conflicted. He knows he should arrest Skink for kidnapping Max, but will only do so if Max presses charges. But in the weird, post-hurricane atmosphere, Max realises he’s in more of a hurry just to get back to New York and his job than get involved in a prosecution.

Thus as soon as he can, Max showers, puts on clean clothes and flies back to New York. Bonnie says she feels too ill to accompany him, promises that she’ll catch the next plane. Of course she doesn’t, she misses the next flight, then the one after that, as she falls more and more deeply in love with Augustine. Eventually they sleep together.

The Max-kidnap storyline has run its course. The reader had been in suspense over how it would pan out, and now we know: it ends with a relatively peaceful handover and Skink being brought back into civilisation.

It is replaced as the main motor of the narrative by Our Gang (Jim Tile, Bonnie, Augustine and Skink) setting out to track down whoever it was who savagely beat Brenda. The Max Kidnapping has been replaced by The Brenda Beater Quest. We readers know it was the vile scumbag Snapper. (This creation of an alliance of the good guys, featuring solid Jim Tile and wacky but effective Skink, who then set out to get to the bottom of a crime or mystery, is the characteristic narrative shape of many of the novels.)

While Our Gang is meticulously tracing the stolen car in which the scumbag was riding who beat her up (Brenda remembers its number plate), the narrative cuts away to the further adventures of Edie and Snapper. The central idea is that Edie is now routinely shagging and blowing weak-willed insurance assessor Fred Dove with a view to getting hold of dead Tony Torres’s house insurance. But their plans are complicated by three developments:

1. Fred Dove alerts them to the fact that his supervisor from the insurance company is paying a visit to check on things. Thus Snapper and Edi (who are by this point at daggers drawn; he has tied her up and kicked her in the head, she managed to get free and smashed his knee with a tyre lever; it’s a very uneasy, violent ‘partnership’) are going to have to pretend to be Tony Torres and his loving wife for the duration of the visit. Comic potential.

2. Out of the blue a 71-year-old named Levon Stichler arrives to wreak vengeance on Tony Torres who sold him a crap mobile home which blew away in the storm. He mistakenly goes for Snapper, thinking the latter is Torres. He fails and Snapper beats old man Stichler very badly indeed.

3. Just after that happens, Tony Torres’s real wife, Neria, arrives, having made numerous bewildered phone calls from Eugene, Oregon (the couple are, of course, divorced) where she lives with her lover, Charles Gabler, a professor of parapsychology. Just to enhance the scumbag quotient this  fraudulent professor and exponent of crystals and auras and chakras and so on, had insisted they bring along one of his graduate students, big-breasted Celeste, for the ride to Florida, and Neria kicks him out of the VW camper van when she discovers him screwing the bosomy student.

All this takes place while Our Gang – Skink, Augustine and Bonnie – manage to track down the stolen truck from which Brenda was attacked to outside Torres’s house. They park themselves in a nearby wrecked house and watch the comings and goings listed in 1 to 3, trying to figure who’s who and what the devil is going on.

Journey to the Keys

Rather randomly the action then shifts to the Florida Keys. This is predominantly because Snapper has developed a mad, drug-addled plan to drive a hundred miles south in the stolen Jeep Cherokee he’s been driving, to stay at a motel whose owner owes him some favours, and photograph old Levon in compromising positions with a couple of local hookers Snapper knows (that’s how he knows Avila, they had a double date with these two hookers back in the day), and so blackmail Levon into keeping his mouth shut.

This seems improbably complicated – surely just shooting Levon dead would be more Snapper’s style. But then there’s an unexpected twist. At one point Augustine leaves the house where Our Gang are hiding out and spying on events at the wrecked Torres place, and no sooner has he left than Skink amazes Bonnie by simply walking out of their hiding place and walking bold as brass over to the Jeep Cherokee just as Snapper and and Edie are loading the body of Levon Stichler into it (still alive but gagged and wrapped in a carpet).

Bonnie doesn’t know what to do so goes running after him. Inevitably, Snapper, initially fazed by this strange visitation, simply points his gun and tells them both to get in the Jeep Cherokee and, within a minute, this unlikely foursome (Snapper, Edie, Skink and Bonnie, plus Levon in the boot) are heading south on Highway 1, then crossing the Card Sound Bridge (the very same one which Skink had himself tied to at the start of the story).

Snapper behaves like a pig all the way down, threatening Edie with the gun, a .357, pulling her hair, pushing the gun painfully deep into her breast, getting surly on painkillers and Jack Daniels, as Edie drives them all south. Skink is content to let it all happen but in several key exchanges confirms beyond doubt that it was Snapper who brutally beat up Brenda (and stole her mother’s wedding ring, which she  had been wearing on her finger, into the bargain).

Anyway, through devious plot developments, both Avila and Trooper Jim Tile and Augustine also make their separate ways after the bad guys’ Jeep Cherokee. Why? Avila wants to find Snapper so he can pay him back for pocketing the cash from Gar Whiteside’s wife without telling anyone else in Avila’s little roofer scam. Jim Tile sets off in pursuit because his investigations have led him to suspect Snapper is the man who beat up his girlfriend (something the reader has known all along). And Augustine is after them because he is now in love with Bonnie, and was part of the trio staking out Torres’s house till he snuck off to do a chore and, returning, discovered Skink and Bonnie gone.

(By the way, the Jeep is relatively for the other characters to identify since its mudguards have distinctive painted decals, easily spotted from a distance and confirmed closer up.)

Anyway, the novel rushes towards a farcical climax as all these characters pitch up at the ironically named ‘Paradise Palms’ motel (but then anywhere in Florida with a nice name becomes ironic merely by included in a novel by a novelist who believes Florida is a cesspit of unprecedented human corruption) in the middle of a hot, humid tropical rainstorm.

1. Avila

First incident in the brutal climax is Avila angrily chases Snapper round the car park yelling that he wants his seven grand back. Snapper hands Edie the .357 (why doesn’t she throw it away?) before turning the tables and chasing after Avila. Snapper chases Avila for quite a distance along a rain-drenched highway till they reach a bridge and, as Snapper raises the axle of some trailer over his head to whomp him, Avila jumps over the edge and into the water. The current carries him away. He takes off shoes and clothes and bobs into a block of plywood. He’s clinging to it at dawn when he’s picked up by the coastguard, given clean clothes, a coffee and taken onshore to Immigration control. Suddenly, surrounded by immigration officials who think he’s just another illegal immigrant, Avila realises that, rather than go home to face the wrath of his wife and mother-in-law and Gar Whiteside, what the hell,  maybe he should just let himself be ‘repatriated’ to Cuba and start a new life there.

2. Jim Tile

Trooper Jim Tile has followed the Snapper and Edie’s Jeep Cherokee all the way south. Now he parks aslant the entrance to the car park and walks towards the car. Now, when Snapper had been off chasing Avila, Edie, sick to death of the situation had offered to hand the .357 with its 2 remaining bullets over to Skink but the latter, in his perverse way, had refused and Snapper had snatched it back when he eventually loomed back out of the pouring rain having seen Avila jump off the bridge. Seems like a terrible mistake.

Now, as Jim walks towards the Jeep, Snapper winds down the window and shoots Jim smack in the chest, the trooper going over backwards. This really upset me. Earlier Snapper had shown everyone the ring he had yanked off Brenda’s finger and had casually thrown it into a canal. That upset me, too. The way he casually kicked Edie in the head back in Torres’s house upset me. Now I was upset and depressed by Jim being shot. Someone should have killed Snapper long long ago. Instead, he now drives off, skirting the patrol car, and Edie notices Skink has sunk down in the backseat, for once winded and beaten. Why didn’t he take Snapper’s gun from Edie when he had the chance?

In fact, Jim is not dead. He was wearing a kevlar vest, never goes anywhere without one, so his chest is badly bruised but he’s basically OK. The hookers Snapper had set up to look after and compromise Levon, call 911 and police and ambulance soon turn up. But still. For about ten pages everyone in the car (Skink, Bonnie, Edie and Snapper) think Jim is dead and I thought he was dead and it left a really bad taste in my mouth.

3. Augustine

Augustine had separately followed the Jeep Cherokee south, parked a little up from the motel and seen a lot of this transpire because during the Avila interlude he climbed into the back of the Jeep. A ways up the highway Snapper pulls over into a roadside restaurant car park and steals a new car, belonging to a French architect, Christophe Michel. Even this peripheral and marginal figure gets implicated in the theme of the poor building and design standards which have led directly to people’s homes being wrecked. Turns out Michel was himself about to be investigated for malpractice and so had packed up all his belongings and savings with a view to getting a plane out of America (p.398). It’s very bad luck that Snapper chooses his car (a Seville) to steal at gunpoint, turfs Michel out of it, hustles the three others into it and drives it off.

A little ways further up the highway, Edie notices the black Jeep Cherokee is following them. How? It draws abreast, Augustine winds down the window and fires his tranquiliser dart into Snapper’s neck. Simple as that. Snapper immediately passes out, Edie grabs the wheel and steers them onto the hard shoulder. Here Bonnie is joyfully reunited with big, sensitive and competent Augustine.

Now Skink leads them all on an extended tour into the bush, into the outback, through miles and miles of mosquito-infested backwoods until they eventually reach his camp. Skink lights a fire and cooks some roadkill. Augustine and Bonnie are amazed by Skink’s book collection, which he keeps in an old camper van. (Earlier, in this book’s version of Clinton Tyree’s biography we were told that Clint had, between serving in the army and standing in politics, been a literature professor. I think that’s a new nugget of information about him.)

Long story short:

Snapper bound After confirming it was Snapper who beat up Brenda, Skink ties his hands and wedges his mouth open with one of those security locks you apply to a car steering wheel.

Bye bye Edie Edie is seriously confused by what’s going on and the bewildering shifts in psychic dynamics among the group Skink has led into the outback over the next few days. She reacts the only way she knows how by seducing the alpha male in the pack, following Skink into the lake when he goes for a swim and nibbling and teasing him into making love to her in the water. Skink nonetheless gets her dressed and walks her a long way to a highway where he’s arranged for Jim Tile, now much recovered though still wearing bandages on his chest, to pick her up and drive her over the bridge to mainland Florida. She is back in civilisation. Ho hum. Maybe she can go to a bar and pick up a young eligible millionaire…

Neria strikes it rich For some time we have had bulletins on Tony Torres’ wife, Neria, as she drives with her professor boyfriend all the way from Oregon to Miami. In the final stages she is accompanied by a truckload of Bible-tattooed, God-fearing, in-bred Tennesseeans driving down to make a fast buck as cowboy builders amid the hurricane wreckage.

When she finally arrives at the wreckage of her and Tony’s house at 15600 Calusa, Neria tries to find out from the neighbour what’s been going on, coming across some of Snapper and Edie’s belongings strewn about the place which are, of course, a complete mystery to her. While she’s still puzzling it out, a Federal Express man arrives and hands her a letter. Inside is the insurance checks for $201,000. This is the money Edie spent all that time sucking off insurance assessor Fred Dove to get him to sign off and approve from his employer. Now, ironically, neither Snapper, Edie nor Fred are around to collect it. In fact Fred turns up with some flowers for Edie (throughout the story he’s been staying at a nearby motel on company expenses and motoring over to conspire with and/or be sucked off by Edi). But when confronted by a large angry Neria, timid Fred beats a hasty retreat. Now Neria is rich. Who cares what happened to her lowlife, worthless husband? She’s going to start a new life.

Max Lamb flies back down from New York. (Actually he flies via Mexico where he’s sent by his company to try and persuade the owner of a huge tobacco company, Clyde Nottage, who is dying of cancer, and being treated with sheep semen (!), not to cancelling his huge advertising spend with Max’s firm. To no avail.) Since Bonnie has been able to phone him now and then, she sets up a rendezvous where Max and Bonnie are finally reunited under the watchful eye of Skink and Trooper Tile. She tells him she doesn’t love him. He is livid. Trooper Jim Tile drives him back to the meeting point, a boarded-up MacDonalds, as Max kvetches and whines and complains about ‘women’. Then catches a plane back to the Big Apple and his snazzy career.

Snapper redivivus When Bonnie arrives back at the ‘camp’ after her uncomfortable reunion with her soon-to-be ex-husband, it’s to discover that Snapper caught Skink asleep, has beaten him up and heading off into the backwoods. Oh for God’s sake won’t someone just kill Snapper!!! Bonnie takes off after him which is (once again) plain dumb. She catches up with Snapper and jumps on his back but he easily throws her off, throws her to the ground and starts clubbing her in the head using the big metal car lock rammed in his mouth (it’s stuck in his mouth so he waggles his head from side to side to make the long metal handle clout Bonnie again and again in the face). Then Snapper is aware of someone grabbing him by the balls and a gun goes off at his temple.

Max and Edie Edie had been dropped off by Trooper Jim near where Max now collects the rental car he hired in Miami. Opening the car Max discovers she’s stowed away in it. He offers her a lift, they swap stories, Max begins to like her, Edie realises he’s a successful advertising executive. It’s a mismatch made in heaven.

Snapper abandoned Snapper broke Skink’s collarbone and several ribs. It was Augustine who tracked Snapper down and was tempted to shoot him dead but instead just shot his ear off instead. Augustine and Bonnie patch Skink up, insisting he see a doctor but he refuses. Instead he packs up the camp, packs bags and leads Bonnie and Augustine down a trail to a lake which they swim across, then to a road i.e. civilisation, leaves them there before himself disappearing back into the bush. Skink had told Snapper (with his mouth still wedged open by the car lock and now minus one ear) to make his own way to freedom, confident he won’t, that he’ll die of exposure.

Augustine and Bonnie come to the Card Sound bridge and walk up it. At the crest, at the high point of its gentle slope Bonnie asks Augustine if he’ll tie her to it, in readiness for a coming storm, just like Skink had done at the start of the book. She has become fully nativised.

Brief thoughts

By the time you stagger to the end of this 472-page-long narrative the reader is, I think, exhausted with the unrelenting panorama of scumbag lowlife amorality, violence and corruption. Not just that, but Hiaasen’s novels have a distinctive characteristic which is that they are packed with stuff. Either something is happening, generally something violent and garish, and being described in taut, snappy prose and super-pithy dialogue; or you are being filled in on the background of this or that scam (in this case, extensive explanations of how building regulations in Florida aren’t worth the paper they’re written on). It feels like every inch of the text is packed, there is little fat or respite or padding, nowhere for the reader to pause while enjoying a nice restful description. There is no rest or respite. It’s this unrelenting nature of the text which I think makes many critics describe them as ‘page-turners’, ‘gripping’ and so on.

In my opinion this is slightly wrong. Hiaasen’s novels aren’t really ‘thrillers’ or crime novels in the usual sense because by and large the reader watches the crimes being committed and knows exactly whodunnit. There is none of the suspense associated with crime novels: we saw it happen; we know whodunnit.

Instead the grip or pull of the narrative is the reader’s curiosity about what monstrous grotesque incident Hiaasen is going to pull off next. We don’t read for the plot so much as in eager anticipation of the next stomach-turning and mind-boggling atrocity.

This explains, I think, the sensation I often have of being a little disappointed by the final acts in Hiaasen novels. Quite often they don’t live up to expectations set by earlier macabre scenes. So, for example, I felt Snapper, the evil bastard, deserves a punishment of Baroque complexity and vehemence. It’s certainly grotesque that he ends his days staggering lost through the vast Everglades with his mouth wedged open by a car lock but… well… somehow it doesn’t feel quite adequate to the extended Sodom and Gomorrah of incidents which have preceded it, and to the long list of his disgusting brutality and mindless aggression.

I think Hiaasen often finds it difficult to cap, right at the end of his stories, the inspired grotesqueries he often features half way through. Thus nothing that happens later on can imaginatively outdo the incident of Ira Jackson crucifying Tony Torres on a satellite dish. Somehow that says everything about the society Hiaasen is depicting, its values and morality. He manages to outdo himself when crucifixion number two ends with Ira being eaten by a lion! But he’s set the bar very high in the Gruesome Stakes and, in a way, the entire second half of the novel, the long car journey south to the keys and the rather muddled sequence of events in the car park of the Love Motel in the pouring rain, although it has its moments, feels confused and like an anti-climax. In the end the plot only drags on for its last 100 pages because Snapper keeps hurting people and well before the end I just wanted someone to kill him and bring the novel to a close.

Still. Bloody funny, hair-raisingly amoral, shockingly gruesome, it’s a Hiaasen classic.

Minor details

Donald Trump

Ivana Trump was mentioned in this book’s predecessor, Strip Tease. In this one Bonnie Lamb indicates how shallow her husband is by telling Augustine he doesn’t read much and that the most recent book he’s been reading is ‘one of Trump’s autobiographies’ (p.109).

It’s interesting to learn that Trump and his wife were bywords for flashy superficiality 26 years ago, and all the more mind-boggling that 21 years later he was elected President of the Yoonited States. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer country.

Santería

Briefly mentioned in the last book and emerging as a running topic this one is the Cuban version of voodoo religion, Santería. Avila, the crooked surveyor, regularly sacrifices chickens to Chango, the god of lightning and fire, in a bid to escape the various investigations and prosecutions aimed at him.

To quote Wikipedia:

Santería, also known as Regla de Ocha, Regla Lucumí, or Lucumí, is an African diasporic religion that developed in Cuba during the late 19th century. It arose through a process of syncretism between the traditional Yoruba religion of West Africa, the Roman Catholic form of Christianity, and Spiritism.

The topic is played for laughs as Avila’s sacrifices keep going hopelessly awry, a billy goat he buys to sacrifice brutally goring him in the groin, a raccoon he buys later on scampering free and attaching itself to his mother-in-law’s towering hairdo till Avil sprays it, and her, in fire extinguisher foam. The more earnestly he sacrifices, the worse his luck gets.

It’s also interesting because Santería crops up as a theme in William Gibson’s novel Spook Country, published in 2007 i.e. twelve years after this novel. Interesting in itself, but also because Santeria’s inclusion in these two Hiaasen novels makes you realise it’s a less esoteric and obscure reference than the Gibson novel, and its easily-pleased reviewers, suggest.

Can I hear you knockin’?

You know that cheerful knock on the door pattern many of us give? I’d never heard it described onomatopoeically as ‘shave and a haircut – two bits’.


Credit

Stormy Weather by Carl Hiaasen was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1995. All references are to the 1996 Pan paperback edition.

Carl Hiaasen reviews

Footfalls by Samuel Beckett (1976)

Footfalls is a short play by Samuel Beckett. Although it consists of barely five pages of text, it lasts a good 25 minutes in performance because of the very frequent use of long, pregnant pauses and its division into four parts separated by intermissions when the lights go completely dark, while the audience hears the solitary chime of a distant church bell.

The action, the onstage activity such as it is, consists of one woman, May, pacing slowly across the stage, reaching the edge of the stage, turning and… pacing slowly back, all the time exchanging slow, moody dialogue with the voice of a woman offstage, who she refers to as ‘Mother’.

Stage directions

In terms of stagecraft, Footfalls is another example of Beckett’s fastidious concern with ultra-precise stage directions. Here’s his instructions for how it opens:

Curtain. Stage in darkness.
Faint single chime. Pause as echoes die.
Fade up to dim on strip. Rest in darkness.
M discovered pacing towards L. Turns at L. paces three more lengths, halts, facing front at R.

That’s the opening, but the full mise-en-scène is this, complete with a precise diagram showing the footsteps.

Strip: downstage, parallel with front, length nine steps, width one metre, a little off centre audience right.Directions for the actress to walk in Samuel Beckett's Footfalls

 

 

Starting with right foot (r), from right (R) to left (L), with left foot (I) from L to R.
Turn: rightabout at L, leftabout at R.
Steps: clearly audible rhythmic tread.
Lighting: dim, strongest at floor level, less on body, least on head.
Voices: both low and slow throughout.

Start stage right, take nine steps, length one metre, starting with the right foot, ending with the right foot, then turn and commence the return journey with the left foot.

The lighting is brightest at floor level to really emphasis the feet pacing and growing dimmer further up the body so the audience can barely see the walking woman’s face, making her voice disembodied.

The consolation of mechanism

I’m so glad I took the trouble to read Beckett’s shorter fiction because it’s in a relatively obscure autobiographical fragment, Heard in the Dark 2, that Beckett writes that:

Simple sums you find a help in times of trouble… Even still in the timeless dark you find figures a comfort…

This, for me, is the key which opens Beckett’s entire worldview. I’ve always felt the critics who dwell on the supposed nihilism and bleakness and existentialism of his worldview were missing or downplaying the equally important element of mechanism, his mechanical way of conceiving the human body and human activity, the obsessive enumeration of all the ways of performing deliberately trivial tasks which infests novels like Molloy and Watt, the obsessive visualising of the way human bodies are cramped and confined and bent at precise angles in the avant-garde prose pieces like How It Is or All Strange Away, and then the obsessive attention to precise measurements in all aspects of the later plays, not only physical distances such as the head of the actor being 8 feet off the stage in Not I but 10 feet in That Time, right down to the exact specification for duration of pauses or, for example in That Time, of the breaths (10 seconds).

Comfort. The boy Beckett found comfort in simple sums, counting and figures. The effect for the reader and viewer may to be powerfully alienated from the protagonists of the fiction and the performers in the plays, which emphasise an anti-humanist mechanistic view of the human machine.

And, when you read the stage directions of this play you realise that the words, the speaking of the words, must at moments exactly match the pacing of the feet. That must be extremely difficult to achieve in actual performance. It is bending the performer to become as precise as a musical instrument, as regular as a metronome.

The Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett tells us that, once he saw it in performance, Beckett changed the number of paces from seven to nine. It was crucial to the rhythm of the piece. Likewise, the period of seven seconds. He told the director of the German production that the first chime of the bell must die away in seven seconds and the light comes up in seven seconds. At the end of each of the three parts the light must fade away across seven seconds, and then comes back up for the next part in seven seconds. Exactly. Mechanical and precise as a composition by Bach.

Yes, we understand all that but… it transforms your understanding to realise that this entire worldview has its origin in an urge to control the world, and to control his feelings, felt by a lonely, solitary little boy, and a very clever, sensitive and isolated young man. To realise that the extreme mechanicalness of all these stage details is fraught with tightly controlled emotion. Ready to explode. Those phrases in Heard In the Dark 2 are the key which explains why such low-profile, muted, quiet, dimly-lit and precisely choreographed pieces of stagecraft are, in fact, bursting with suppressed fury.

Beckett on film

This is the Beckett On Film version, directed by Walter Asmus, with Susan Fitzgerald as May, the walking woman, and Joan O’Hara as the Voice, referred to as Mother.

The most obvious thing about it is that it ignores the purity of Beckett’s stage direction and complicates things visually by placing May behind a row of banisters and making it look like she’s on the landing of a house, pacing up and down outside two bedroom doors. Making it much less abstract and minimalist, much more specific than the play’s directions justify.

Themes

Numbers

Obviously it’s two women, a dyad but, in a way, more dynamic than the characters, is the play’s careful division into four parts: part 1 May and mother’s dialogue; part 2 the mother’s monologue; part 3 May’s monologue; part 4 the brief coda with no-one onstage.

Speed

The speed is the extreme opposite of Not I or Play in which the actors were told to rattle on at breakneck speed. Here it is the opposite, slow to almost to soporific, with long pregnant pauses between phrases. And the metronomic speed of the pacing steps is like the tempo of unheard music.

Voices

It is a play of voices, maybe most plays are, but Beckett’s more than most, where there is often no action at all, no interplay, just the haunting effect of voices. One aspect of voices-only drama is that the voices themselves can change identity in the way a physical actor cannot.

Decrepit

Beckett delights in the details of physical decay and decrepitude, hence the initial dialogue about the bedpan, dressing sores etc. Can the Voice really be 90 years old, 89 or 90? The woman onstage, May or Amy, she is quite old, too, certainly a wreck: ‘dishevelled grey hair, worn grey wrap hiding feet, trailing.’ Very often Beckett throws in a swearword or two. Maybe he was restrained out of respect for a woman actor.

Identity

Footfalls is divided into 4 parts by silence and the lights going down to blackness and then the distant chime of a church bell. It is very unnerving when the lights come up on part two and May is no longer speaking, but is addressed by the Voice, the alleged mother, in a sustained monologue, revealing creepy details about the woman we observe continuing her endless pacing. As the piece progresses their respective identities become more uncertain, as the Mother speaks vindictively about the daughter in part 2, before May appears to have a breakdown in part 3 as she becomes utterly absorbed into the anecdote about the mother and daughter in church, before she finally seems to reveal that the mother’s voice is part of her psyche.

And then all identities are cancelled when part 4 opens (briefly) on an empty stage. All gone like dreams, ‘such stuff as dreams are made on’ or, in this case, nightmares of personality disorder.

Pacing

How many Beckett characters are engaged on endless, pointless trudges, from Molloy and Malone in the Trilogy or Mercier and Camier on their pointless quest through to the more blighted characters in prose pieces like How It IsEnoughHeard in the Dark 1, or Lucky and Pozzo on their pointless circular journey in Waiting For Godot?

Footfalls in a sense zeroes in on just this aspect of Beckett’s small palette, zeroing in on more than the pacing to focus on the very process of footfalls, the falls of foot, precise and precisely notated, the loud, bocking noise of the hard woman’s shoes clod clod clodding across the carpetless floor, ‘however faint they fall’, in an endless sequence, forever.

Stephen King

One of the commentators on YouTube mentions Stephen King. It’s a reminder that Beckett exists in the real world, the wide world that includes Disneyland and Donald Trump, Xi Jinping and reggae. Seen from the perspective of ordinary people a play like this is a spooky ghost story. In fact Beckett’s obsession with people we can see – like May, here, or Joe in Eh Joe or the Listener in That Time – being haunted, bullied and harrowed by the voices of the unseen, they are very much like ghost stories.

The spine-chilling ghoulishness is brought on by the Voice telling us about the woman onstage, that when she was a girl, when other girls were out playing lacrosse, ‘she’ was already at it, at this, at this pointless pacing which has consumed her life. She has rarely if ever left the house, living a life of confinement and obligation to an aged parent. Trapped.

And then the vehemence of the apparently trivial anecdote of the mother and daughter in church, pretty pointless in itself but which leads into the terrifying last minutes where the woman we see, the actress onstage, appears to change from the ‘May’ who began the piece into the ‘Amy’ who featured in the church story. And now for the first time we appear to see that the voice of ‘mother’ is inside her head, as she expresses both characters, Mother and Amy.

It turns, in the final moments, into Psycho, an initially sensible, calm-seeming younger person apparently possessed by the personality of their dead mother.

Leading up to the very final stage instruction which is that, after the lights go down for the third time, after we hear the distant chime even more feebly than before, after an even longer wait for the lights to slowly, feebly go back up, a little…. there is NO TRACE OF MAY! She has disappeared. She was never there. She was a ghost in our minds just as her mother was a ghost in her mind.

For the play turns out to be about people who are not there, in multiple senses. May may only be a figment of her mother’s imagination. Or memory. And May’s rather violent anecdote of the mother and daughter in church may be a representation of the mother’s guilt, a confused expression of the accusation she know can be hurled at her of immuring her daughter, the mother realising her representation of the fictitious version of her daughter, Amy, is as incomplete as her actual daughter, May’s, actual life was. Hence Amy, and maybe her mother through her, claiming:

Amy: I was not there. Mrs W: Not there? Amy: Not there.

Maybe May only existed because her mother gave her being (in a literal and psychological sense, for which she apologises, like everyone in Beckett is sorry for being born) and then gave rise to an accusing imago, May, who berates her. And maybe none of them existed. Or existed for only as long as the audience watched the play. For before and after the curtain went up and down, none of them were there. No one was there.

Personal taste

Myself, I preferred That Time. It may be down to a number of factors: I preferred the lulling cadences of the boyhood memories in That Time which, probably against Beckett’s intentions, I found had an overall comforting effect.

Maybe it’s a gender thing: I found the stories of his earlier life which the Listener is subjected to, were vivid and empowering and adventurous, catching a midnight ferry, ducking into a gallery out of the rain. I identified with them. Whereas Footfalls seemed to me a very feminine story of entrapment, of a middle-aged woman whose life appears to have been stifled into becoming her elderly mother’s carer. It seems to be about a form of psychological imprisonment, immurement since girlhood, the complete loss of agency and, eventually, of identity. I found it demoralising.

Plus I really liked the voice of the Beckett On Film performer, Niall Buggy. I found it warm and enfolding, whereas, I’m afraid to say, I didn’t like Susan Fitzgerald’s performance. It may be apt and appropriate but I found her icy and unsympathetic and, towards the end of her monologue, harsh and shrewish.

Then again, maybe it’s neither performer so much as their respective plays, for Footfalls seems to me much more cold, calculated and detached. It is more spectral and spooky, certainly. It made me feel cold and rather scared. I only watched it once. Whereas I listened to warm Niall’s stories about running away to his boyhood refuge in the ruins on Foley’s Hill multiple times, and enjoyed it more each time I listened.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

The case against identity politics

Steve Bannon thinks identity politics are great for President Donald Trump. That’s what the president’s adviser told Robert Kuttner at the American Prospect. “The Democrats,” he said, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”

Anecdote

At the press launch of Masculinities at the Barbican I stood by the bar queuing for a free coffee. In front of me were two very posh art reviewers, laughing and joking about people they know in the art world. One was a man, one was a woman. They drank their coffee and set off into the exhibition where a massive introductory wall label asserts that GENDER is the decisive factor in power relations in Western society.

Is it, though? I was struck by the way both these posh people, man and woman, simply ignored the drone, the servant, the serf who poured them their coffees. When it was my turn, I asked him where he was from – Hungary, as it turned out – and tried out my one and only piece of Hungarian vocabulary on him: köszönöm.

There are well over a million East Europeans in the UK, performing all kinds of menial jobs, handing out coffee, working in warehouses, building, gardening, labouring. Bankers wives lunch together in the lovely restaurant at the Victoria and Albert Museum while foreign lackeys of both sexes serve and clean and wipe up after them.

So as you can tell, for me it’s not about gender; it’s about power and money and class, which can often be mixed up with gender, but just as often supersede and override it.

I’ve watched my friend Sarah, the banker’s wife, give her cleaner her tasks for the day and tell her au pair where to take the children, before going off to meet Gillian for coffee.

Maybe, as the feminists insist, all three of them are women and so share the same struggles and experience the same oppression, but it doesn’t look that way to me.

To me it looks as if one person in this situation has money, lots of money, and therefore lots of power over other people who have hardly any money and so have to obey the rich person. For me, in my opinion, money and power trump gender every time, and I am on the side of the people without money and without power.

Personal experience

I joined the Campaign For Homosexual Equality, although I am not myself gay, when I was 17 or 18 back in the late 1970s. I thought it was scandalous that gays and lesbians didn’t have the exact same rights as straight people, from the same age of consent to the same right to get married, have children etc. I used to like hanging round Windsor’s one gay pub where I was introduced by a gay activist to the colourful clientele and made a number of gay friends, far more fun and interesting than most of the boys and girls of my age.

At the same time, back in the late 70s, I attended Rock Against Racism marches and gigs, although I am not myself black. Again, I thought all kinds of legal and social discrimination against black people were disgusting and needed to be campaigned against, so I signed petitions and went on marches chanting lots of slogans.

Why identity politics is bad

1. Identity politics creates an equal and opposite reaction God knows how many articles I’ve read by ‘angry’ feminists, incensed by this, that or the other latest outrage against women.

And articles by angry Muslims, outraged by discrimination and Islamophobia, like Baroness Warsi.

And by angry black activists, outraged by racism and discrimination against persons of colour, like David Lammy.

And by angry Jews, outraged by anti-semitism, like Margaret Hodge.

But as they stoke a bottomless swamp of anger, none of these people seem to have considered two obvious points:

1. If you promote anger, permanent anger, about every single perceived insult and slight against every single section of society, you are, eventually, in effect, promoting an angry society. When I read puzzled articles in the liberal press wondering why society has suddenly become so angry, I reflect that at least part of the reason might be that you’ve been printing articles encouraging all women, all blacks, all Muslims, all gays and lesbians, and every other definable minority, to be as angry as possible.

2. What makes you think your anger is more righteous and holy than the anger of your opponents? The last decade or so has seen the new rise of ‘white anger’, in the States, in Australasia and across Europe. Why the surprise? If you demonise, mock, insult and abuse white people – and especially white men – as institutionally sexist, misogynist, racist, anti-semitic, Islamophobic, pathetic losers nostalgic for the vanished days of empire, well, why on earth would you be surprised if eventually this long-suffering minority (white men are a minority of the population in all these countries) might themselves develop a sense of grievance and get fed up of being insulted, blamed and abused all the time.

Hence the right-wing, and sometimes very right-wing movements, which have sprung up in the last decade or so all around the developed world, and especially in Eastern Europe.

I’m not in favour of these groups and parties, far from it. I’m just surprised that the hordes of identity politicians railing endlessly against men and white people are surprised that eventually these much-vilified men (all those mansplaining, manspreading, misogynist bastards), and these much-abused white people (the white racist, imperialist, whitesplaining bastards), have kicked back, set up their own political parties, and refuse to take it any more.

Why does it come as a surprise that they will begin writing and talking about their identities and their traditions and their communities and how they feel increasingly under threat from a globalised, neo-liberal economic order and its handmaiden, the globalised rhetoric of identity politics. In fact many of these post-industrial communities have had the stuffing kicked out of them over the past 30 years and are right be angry.

The great irony of our times is that woke identity politicians have created their nemesis, their mirror image. Western societies are drenched in feminist and politically correct rhetoric to an unprecedented degree. Which newspaper today doesn’t have an article about the terrible misogyny that all women have to face and the racism that all blacks have to face and the Islamophobia that all Muslims have to face and the homophobia that all gay people have to face.

In fact, more women, blacks and Asians, gays and lesbians are in positions of power and influence than ever before in world history, and has the result been the birth of a new, peaceful, calm and content society?

No. The exact opposite. It has resulted in the flowering of the Far Right: Trump, Brexit, the AfD, Five Star, Vox, Viktor Orban, and so on. In the European Parliament, nine far-right parties have formed a new bloc, and its name is: Identity and Democracy.

It turns out that the Left, the woke, and the politically correct do not have a monopoly on the rhetoric and discourse of identity. Other people can be angry about their identities and their communities and their beliefs being mocked and vilified, too.

So now all those angry black people and feminists and Muslims and LGBT+ activists I’ve been reading about for decades haven been joined by loads of angry white nationalists and racists and xenophobes and far-right conservatives.

As I’ve said, I have no truck with angry white nationalists and racists and xenophobes and far-right conservatives. I’m just stepping back, surveying the scene and marvelling at what a wonderful world we have created.

2. Identity politics divides and polarises society For a preview of how this will pan out, look at America, home of the most advanced feminist and BAME civil rights movements in the world. Is it, as a result, the most peaceful, calm and relaxed society in the West? No. It is the most poisonously divided Western society, where political opponents can’t even speak to each other, where all sides devote their time to sniffing out each other’s politically incorrect texts or tweets or speeches or jokes, and where the complete inability top laugh or joke about any of these issues is contributing to a toxic cultural atmosphere in which identity-motivated violence is growing. America is without doubt the most violent and socially divided country in the OECD.

3. Identity politics consumes conventional politics Back in the United Kingdom, look at the trouble caused in the Labour Party by the accusations about its supposedly institutional anti-semitism and, right now, the trouble leadership contender Rebecca Long-Bailey has got herself into on the tricky issue of transgender rights.

It’s difficult to take a view on transgender rights which someone else can’t criticise as bigoted and transphobic, or bigoted and misogynist. If you support the right of transwomen to call themselves women you upset quite a few feminists who insist they aren’t and they certainly shouldn’t be allowed into women-only spaces like changing rooms. But if you back this point of view, you are instantly accused of transphobia.

Trans rights are, in a sense, a quintessence of politically correct, identity politics because a really pure, ‘correct’ view which pleases all sides, is actually impossible. It calls for a degree of ‘correctness’ which isn’t actually achievable by mere mortals. Thus it will continue to bedevil the Left for the foreseeable future.

Anyway, is the net effect of all these squabbles over race and gender the creation of a happier society more at peace with itself?

No. The most obvious result is to wound anyone who gets caught up in these kinds of arguments because they are so poisonous and, once you’re embroiled in these sorts of controversies, they are extremely difficult to wriggle out of.

Will the Labour Party ever, ever again, be free of the taint of anti-Semitism which has it has been so comprehensively accused of?

And this is how you end up with people like Steven Bannon quoted as saying how great it is for people like him (former White House Chief Strategist to President Trump) when the Left go on about race and identity and gender – because it means they’ve handed over the entire debate about how to run the economy, how to tax and spend, about business and transport, about resources and the environment, about social and foreign policy, in fact most of the business of actual government, over to their opponents.

Identity politics means the Left becomes evermore focused on a handful of extremely contentious issues, and loses sight of all the larger problems which affect most people most of the time and which they look (often pretty reluctantly) to politicians to fix.

Modern, urban, university-educated identity politics has helped to make the Left seem totally irrelevant to the lives of huge numbers of people.

4. Identity politics condemns you to political impotence Thus the Left loses at a high, political and governmental level, but it also loses demographically, in terms of simple arithmetic.

Everyone in the woke bubble agrees with everyone else in the bubble, as I realised when I watched the very woke curator of the Masculinities exhibition at the Barbican explaining the very woke attitude of all the artists represented to the very woke audience of art journalists and critics who went off and wrote their very woke reviews to be read by the very woke readers of The Guardian etc.

But it is a minority bubble. Utterly pure social justice warriors – those who have such impeccably correct views that they cannot be criticised for islamophobia, racism, anti-semitism, misogyny, sexism or transphobia – are in a small minority.

They may – like on-message art gallery curators – share their immaculately progressive views with all the other artists and gallery curators and lime-minded progressives in America and Canada, and across Latin America and Australasia and Europe and Africa. How wonderful that all these like-minded people share the same values and support the same important causes!

But hardly anyone else does.

Jo Swinson wouldn’t stop telling everyone how proud she was to be the first woman leader of the Liberal Party, and I listened to a radio 4 interview just three days before the 2019 General Election, in which she spoke for nearly ten minutes about the burning importance of trans rights.

The result? The Liberal Party was slaughtered in the last general election and Swinson lost her own seat. So much for holding immaculately progressive views. For sure that makes you an immaculately progressive person, and it’s always lovely to be an angel and on the side of the good and the pure and the true. But in a democratic system, insisting on views held by only a tiny minority, means you lose and lose badly.

Look at the contenders to be the Democratic Presidential candidate against Donald Trump and how they’re using race and gender to tear each other to pieces. Elizabeth Warren is going to lose but not before she accuses all the men around her of being sexist pigs, abusers, harassers and misogynists, and a lot of that mud will stick.

Or look at the contenders for the Labour Party leadership struggling to address the issues of anti-semitism, racism and sexism. Any policies about the economy or industry or healthcare or the NHS or crime or immigration are difficult to make out through the blizzard of accusations of sexism and racism and transphobia which they’re throwing at each other.

And meanwhile, watch the bankers and heads of multinational corporations carry on wrecking the environment, paying their immigrant staff a pittance, and awarding themselves multi-million pound pay rises, happy in the knowledge that the Left is tearing itself to pieces with needless and bitter recriminations about which of them is more sexist or more racist than the other.

Watch Donald Trump and Boris Johnson sit back, rubbing their hands and laughing their heads off.

Conclusion

So my position is not that I’m against equality for women, LGBTG+ people, blacks, Muslims and so on. I am in favour of all these causes, and continue to vote for left-of-centre parties. But I think the never-ending rise of identity politics will:

  • in the name of ‘progressive’ values, permanently weaken the Left as a viable political force
  • lead to the permanent entrenchment of the Right in power
  • continue to create a more fractious, fragmented, angry and violent society
  • leaving huge corporations and the banks completely free to carry on business as usual

So this is the context for my reaction to an art exhibition like Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography at the Barbican, which I reviewed yesterday.

My reaction isn’t a knee-jerk negativity prompted because, as a white man, I feel somehow threatened by all these black artists or gay artists or feminist artists. I’m not threatened by them at all. I campaigned for black and gay causes when I was a teenager, and I really liked a lot of the black and gay and feminist art on display.

But taken as a political gesture, if the curators really take the word ‘politics’ in its simplest core sense, as ‘the activities associated with the governance of a country’, then I fear that exhibitions like this which are drenched in a rhetoric which attacks all men and all white people and all straight people, and blames them for all the injustices of the past – is in practice going to alienate the majority of the population, exacerbate social divisions, merely entrench the blinkered groupthink of a small minority of the hyper-woke metropolitan middle classes, and is part of the general cultural movement which is rendering progressive politics more and more irrelevant to most people’s day-to-day concerns.

The Barbican exhibition is drenched in the kind of righteous rhetoric which at best leaves most people cold, at worst actively insults some of the people we need on our side, and which paints the Left into an increasingly irrelevant corner and condemns it to perpetual powerlessness.

So it this analysis of the politics of the real, wider world, which lies behind my refusal simply to endorse all the anti-white, anti-male discourse enshrined in an exhibition like Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography.

I broadly support the political aims of all the groups represented (women, blacks, LGBT+). But I fear that the self-congratulatory elitism and the aggressively anti-mainstream rhetoric of the commentary and discourse which saturate exhibitions like this is not part of the solution, but are contributing to a really serious, long-term social and political crisis.


Articles against identity politics

Related blog posts

The Soul of the Marionette by John Gray (2015)

Everywhere , the self-assured confidence of priests, scribes and intellectuals has been mocked by unexpected events… (p.143)

‘Humanity’ is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything. (p.145)

The Soul of the Marionette

The Soul of the Marionette is a short, easy and very stimulating read. Its brevity is indicated by the way it’s set in a larger-than-usual typeface for a Penguin paperback in order to pad it out its 170 or so pages. Really, it’s two extended magazine essays linked by a common theme.

John Gray (b.1948) is a retired political philosopher. He mainly taught at the London School of Economics with spells at Yale etc, so he’s an academic by trade.

For the past thirty years or more he’s been writing non-technical and accessible books, as well as numerous articles and reviews, and from time to time popping up with thought pieces on Radio 4. All of them bang on the same theme over and over again:

1. Modern liberals are wrong Modern progressive thought is wrong. Modern secular thinkers are wrong.

How so? In several connected ways. ‘Modern liberals’ think history is progressing towards a good end, think that there is some purpose or end-point of evolution, think that human societies are heading onward and upward, becoming more enlightened, liberal, permissive and diverse.

The belief that evolution is advancing towards some desirable end is ubiquitous… (p.61)

BUT

Evolution has no attachment to the attributes modern thinkers imagine are essentially human… (p.143)

Above all, modern liberals think human nature can be changed. All Gray’s work presents a barrage of arguments designed to annihilate this position:

2. The survival of violence and barbarism disproves the idea that humans are ‘improving’ Evolution has no goal or plan or design or intention. Stuff is just changing and humans are mad if they think they can alter it very much. Progressives like to think that we ‘learn from history’ or that liberal values are succeeding around the world – but violence, terrible crude sadistic violence, is still practiced all round the globe. There may be no repeats of the two epic world wars, but violence and brutality haven’t gone away; they have merely been scattered and diffused into the form of asymmetrical conflicts in a variety of failed states such as Syria, or sudden eruptions of barbarism as in Burma, or the ongoing horrors of the war in the Congo.

Or else a permanent state of civil unrest, where violent protests teeter on the brink of uprisings and armed conflict. This is the new normal.

In a scathing passage, Gray describes how violence has been internalised in the West, in the ways that America, for example, the supposed ‘land of the free’, imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world, and experiences almost daily mass shootings, with the result that its entire police force is now a warzone militia armed with machine guns and bullet-proof vests.

About 40,000 people were killed by guns in America in 2017, compared to the 2,500 who died on D-Day. Gray’s point is that homicidal violence hasn’t gone away because world wars have cease; it’s just become normalised in other ways.

The normalisation of amoral hyper-violence in American culture. This movie is a ‘comedy’.

3. The popularity of dictators demonstrates that human societies aren’t particularly progressing On a purely political level, the elections of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Erdoğan in Turkey, the endless rule of Putin in Russia, and the increasing authoritarianism of Xi Jinping in China – all show conclusively that political or cultural history is not moving steadily upwards towards some progressive, liberal nirvana.

Even more disillusioning for progressives is that most of these leaders were democratically elected because, as one section of the book emphasises, people more than anything else want meaning, order and security in their lives. People prefer meaning, order and security to uncertainty and chaos. You and I, being enlightened progressives, may think that the leaders I’ve listed above are not going to provide the meaning and security which they promised their electorates, but that only proves Gray’s other point, that none of us are really in control of our lives: we choose one thing, we get something completely different.

Most people’s lives are demonstrably in the grip of various impersonal, suprahuman forces – but almost all of us desperately want to feel that we’re in control. Electing strong leaders with assertive agendas gives us electors the illusion of control, that we’re taking part in a fightback against them, the nameless forces which seem to be ruining the world.

4. Technology changes, but people don’t change Above all (to repeat the point, as Gray does again and again), modern liberals think human nature can be changed and improved – but it can’t. The amazing technologies we have developed over the past 200 years have given over-educated and under-experienced Westerners the deluded sense that we can change human nature. Technologies may change, but people don’t change.

Thus one of the book’s central strands is an allusive history of human attempts to create super-humans, from Frankenstein in 1816 to all the hype about artificial intelligence in 2020.

Gray makes the simple point: How can we hope to make better, superior versions of human beings, when we don’t even understand ourselves? Scientists still don’t actually understand how minds work, how consciousness arises from matter, how flashing synapses produce the strange thing called consciousness.

Eradicating evil may produce a new species, but not the one its innocent creators have in mind. Humans have too little self-knowledge to be able to fashion a higher version of themselves. (p.43)

And:

We think we have some kind of privileged access to our own motives and intentions. In fact we have no clear insight into what moves us to live as we do. The stories that we tell ourselves are like messages which appear on Ouija boards. If we are authors of our lives, it is only in retrospect. (p.137)

5. Artificial intelligence is doomed to fail for the simple reason that we don’t understand human intelligence. This is why all the exhibitions I’ve been to recently showcasing artificial intelligence seemed so pathetic and inadequate. (And it’s not just me saying that: the BBC journalist sent to review the Barbican’s exhibition about artificial intelligence also thought the sum total of the best examples of artificial intelligence the curators could assemble from across the world, was ‘pathetic’.)

It’s because any ordinary person knows that machines which can climb up a flight of stairs on their own or a computer which can beat the world chess champion or one which does cumulative facial recognition, are trivial and irrelevant compared to what it is like to be a person – a confused, sleepy, fantasy-driven human consciousness making endless mistakes about bus times or shopping lists or homework or the countless other chores we struggle with every day, as well as trying to manage personal relations with family, friends and work colleagues.

Compared to the complexity of being human, beating this or that chess champion is so very, very narrow an achievement on the part of the programmers who have been slaving away perfecting chess programs for fifty years or more, as to be almost sublimely, hilariously irrelevant.

In fact the most telling thing about artificial intelligence – which comes over very strongly when you read interviews with the scientists developing it – is how keen they are to rush towards a post-human future. But why? Because, Gray says, they cannot cope with the human present.

Struggling to escape from the world that science has revealed, humanity has taken refuge in the illusion that science enables them to remake the world in their own image. (p.30)

6. Communism and other failed utopias Gray reserves some of his most scathing criticism for communists, the followers of Lenin and Stalin, who – in effect – thought that it was worth murdering millions of people in the here and now in order to secure a remote future in which everyone will live in peace. And then in the Cold War era to foment small wars around the world (Africa, South America, South-East Asia) in order to bring an end to war.

Same with the Nazis, who thought they could create a better world by first of all exterminating all the Jews and then all the Slavs.

In the twentieth century the worst episodes of mass killing were perpetrated with the aim of remaking the species. (p.88)

All the atrocities of the 20th century were carried out in the name of building a better world. Gray mocks modern liberals who carry on the same mantra (obviously without the holocausts) because they are basing it on the same basic delusions – that you can remodel human nature. You can’t.

7. Humans are, at bottom, incapable In fact, the reality is that humans barely understand themselves, and are laughably unable to ‘take control of their own destinies’:

Today’s Darwinists will tell you that the task of humanity is to take charge of evolution. But ‘humanity’ is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything. (p.145)

Thus the comedy of climate change is that these pathetic people, this pathetic species, having created a global catastrophe, thinks it can change or fix anything. Oh no it can’t. Watch and learn.

8. The fundamental basis of all modern liberal thought – that things will get better i.e. history has a direction and an end goal – is based on Christian theology If you go back to the ancient Greeks or sideways to read the surviving works of the Aztecs, you find societies which were under no illusion that things – society of human nature – would ever change. Their religions and rituals were not linear and progressive but cyclical, based on the circular rhythm of the seasons plus the recurring astrological cycles.

Aztecs did not share the modern conceit that mass killing can bring about universal peace. They did not envision any future when humans ceased to be violent. (p.86)

The notion that history has a purpose and is heading for a Grand End-Point is a Christian idea (in fact it may be a Zoroastrian or Eastern idea originally, but it was picked up and incorporated in Christianity from its earliest days and thus spread throughout all Christian and post-Christian societies).

It is Christian theology which declares that history is heading to a Glorious End-Point when the Son of Man will return in glory and wind up history as we know it, at which point the dead will be raised and everyone will be judged and dispatched to heaven or hell.

Modern liberals unwittingly base their concept of history as a steady improvement towards some kind of nirvana or utopia on this very Christian theology, but without the subtle and complex insights into human nature developed by Christian thinkers over 2,000 years. Progressives have been:

reared on a curdled brew of Socratism and scraps of decayed Christianity… (p.160)

This is why progressive liberalism feels so shallow. It is piggy-backing on the back of Christian theology, but without the deep and penetrating insights into all aspects of the human psyche which tens of thousands of Christian theologians and writers carried out.

Secular thinking follows a pattern dictated by religion while suppressing religion’s most valuable insights. (p.19)

Instead, modern liberals join hands, sing Things Can Only Get Better and are shocked and amazed when they don’t. Their conviction that everyone is a progressive liberal at heart, if only they had enough education and the opportunity to read the right newspapers, cannot cope with the actual world in its often violent and even evil reality.

This basic naivety explains, in Gray’s opinion, the fact that ‘liberals’ are continually surprised at renewed outbreaks of human atrocity. ‘Liberals’ and ‘modern thinkers’ thought we had learned from the Holocaust and had ‘progressed’, and so they were unable to compute modern horrors like the wars in Yugoslavia, the Rwanda genocide or 9/11 or the Syrian civil war or the Rohynga massacres… and on and on it goes, the roll call of never-ending atrocities.

Events like that just don’t fit into the narrative that every day, in very way, we are becoming more tolerant and free and fair-minded and equal and ‘woke’ and aware. Oh no, Gray says, we aren’t.


Cherry picking from literature

The book’s strength is also its weakness. This is that it takes the form less of a sustained argument than of a kind of daisy chain of potted analyses of authors who Gray likes or whose works provide useful ammunition for his position.

It is very much not a work of political philosophy, in fact it references hardly any philosophers of any kind (apart from two or three pages about Thomas Hobbes and the same about Jeremy Bentham) and certainly no contemporary philosophers.

Instead Gray takes us on a hugely entertaining and colourful journey through the thought of a bright and shiny array of creative writers through the ages, cherry-picking authors whose mordant and gloomy points of view echo, support or anticipate his own.

This is exactly what Christians do with the Bible. The Bible is so vast, varied and contradictory, that you can find quotes to support almost any point of view, from the most socially conservative to wacky science fiction fantasies if you put your mind to it.

And as a literature graduate I know the same is true for the corpus of secular literature, especially if you broaden it out to include all European literature, and extend it back in time to the Renaissance, the Middle Ages or, as Gray does, back to the ancient Greeks.

There are now so many points of view, expressed by so many hundreds of thousands of authors, that – if you adopt Gray’s approach – it is easy to cherry pick ‘proofs’ and ‘evidence’ for any point of view imaginable.

Of course none of this is proof of any kind about human nature or human existence or consciousness or history etc. Proof in any of these areas would require an engagement with the latest scientific literature in areas of consciousness, AI, sociology and so on, with properly carried out studies, and with a world of data and statistics.

Gray skips lightly away from any such engagement and instead gives us an entertaining stroll through some of his favourite authors, who each get a thumbnail biography and then four or five pages summarising their thoughts and musing about human nature, history and so on.

And it comes as no surprise to anyone that all of these thinkers, plus his interpretations of various historical cultural events (his scepticism about the so-called ‘scientific revolution’, his dazzling reinterpretation of Aztec culture), all go to reinforce his anti-liberal, anti-modern secular bias.

A daisy chain of authors

This is a complete list of the authors and works referenced in The Soul of the Marionette:

Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811)’s essay The Puppet Theatre (1810) paradoxically suggests that it is the puppet who is free because he is not conflicted by a torn and agonised self-consciousness.

Novelist and poet Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) in The Avignon Quartet describes a modern-day Gnostic.

Communist crystallographer J.D. Bernal (1901-1971) speculated that human society would be replaced by a Utopia of post-human cyborgs.

Director of Engineering at Google Ray Kurzweil (b.1948) published a book with the sub-title When Humans Transcend Biology.

Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) wrote short stories on the theme of Gnosticism i.e that the world wasn’t created by a benevolent all-powerful God but by a blind or malevolent Demiurge, which explains why it is so botched and chaotic. Only those who come to know this (gnosis is Greek for knowledge) can, through an arduous apprenticeship and reading many mystical books, arrive at true knowledge of their place as souls trapped in fallen bodies in a badly made world, and break out towards the light of the True God.

Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) is famous for his sensuously melancholy verse but also wrote a long work of thoughts about human nature, the Zibaldone, which is bitingly pessimistic about human nature and ridicules the idea that science will improve humanity. He is particularly savage about Christianity which, he thinks (with plenty of evidence to back him up) promotes a universalist claim, Christ’s injunction to his disciples to convert the whole world, which – in practice – gave carte blanche to force everyone in the world to convert, at the point of a sword or under threat of being burned at the stake. This, in Leopardi’s view, explains why the barbarity of the Middle Ages far eclipsed anything known or comprehensible in the ancient, pre-Christian world.

American poet and short story writer Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) wrote some fictions which touch on the Gnostic theme in which characters have dreams which come true, or dream a better world into existence.

Mary Shelley (1797-1951) wrote Frankenstein, always predictably dragged out on these occasions as the forerunner of all ‘modern’ debate about creating artificial life or intelligence.

The Symbolist poet Villiers de L’Isle-Adam (1838-1889) coined the word ‘android’.

Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932) wrote The Golem (1915) another novel about people creating new uber-humans.

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) in his story The Circular Ruins imagines a magician whose dreams come true before he realises that he himself is someone else’s dream.

Polish science fiction author Stanislav Lem (1921-2006) in his novel Solaris (1961) imagines a planet whose surface seems to be alive and conscious in ways we cannot conceive, and which communicates with the humans in the space station orbiting it by creating people from their past or creatures from their dreams.

American science fiction author Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) wrote a whole series of novels exploring the possibility of alternative consciousness, and how individual consciousnesses might be able to bend and warp reality. Gray devotes an unusually prolonged passage to Dick and his works.

H.G. Wells (1866-1946) wrote The War of the Worlds suggesting other intelligences have no concern about us.

Michel Faber (b.1960) wrote Under The Skin in which aliens come to earth purely to capture and eat humans, whose meat is tasty!

Boris and Arkady Strugasky‘s novel Roadside Picnic is about people who venture into the forbidden zones where alien spaceships landed, settled, then took off again. The thrust of all three of these stories is why should we think artificial intelligences we create (if we ever do) will give a damn about us.

T.F. Powys (1875-1953) wrote a series of novels in the 1920s and 30s which featured God or Devil or Demiurge characters appearing as normal people, giving rise to a lot of discussion about creation and reality.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) masterpiece Leviathan is based on the idea that people will do anything, and submit to a strong central authority to avoid violence. But Gray thinks this is a chimera, a far too rational view of human nature. All the evidence suggests that people can initiate and put up with a quite staggering degree of violence i.e. human nature isn’t as one-dimensional as Hobbes paints it.

John Dee (1527-1608) was Elizabeth I’s astrologer and magician and an epitome of Gray’s view that what modern secular thinkers like to think of as ‘the scientific revolution’ was in fact deeply intertwined with all kinds of magical and voodoo beliefs, the prime example being Sir Isaac Newton who formulated the laws which underpinned the new scientific view of the universe but was also a mystic and heretical Christian who devoted an enormous amount of energy trying to decipher the prophecies contained in the Book of Revelation.

Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), mathematician and philosopher, helped the Manhattan Project, is acknowledged as the father of cybernetics, and envisaged a future where man makes machines which outdo man.

John von Neumann (1903-1957), mathematician, physicist and computer scientist, also helped with the Manhattan Project and founded game theory. The ideas of both men underpin futurists’ confidence that man can remake man, or make a super-man machine, or machines which can help people achieve super-lives.

Guy Debord (1931-1994) is popular with students of the humanities and the arts because of his book Society of the Spectacle which expands on Marxist ideas that governments control us by getting us to buy into the mindless entertainments of the mass media. More than that, even political protests or extreme events like terrorist attacks, are all part of The Spectacle. Gray is, as you might expect, bitingly sceptical about Debord, concentrating on his career after the 1968 revolution failed to materialise, wandering the French provinces, slowly expelling all the members of his organisation, the Situationist International, drinking heavily, coming to the despairing conclusion that there can be no revolution because The Spectacle can assimilate anything and eventually committing suicide in 1994.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) the ultimate in rationalist philosophers who formulated the ideas of Utilitarianism and said social policy should be judged on whether it promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Gray describes Bentham’s idea for the Panopticon, a prison built in a circle so guards at the centre could monitor all the prisoners, and then goes on to claim that we live in a surveillance society infinitely more thorough and extensive than anything Bentham could have imagined.

E.M. Foster (1879-1970) famous for his novels of Edwardian upper class life, wrote a striking science fiction story, The Machine Stops (which I happen to have read and reviewed). Gray criticises the story for giving no indication of how the bubble world entirely controlled by some vast central machine came into existence. But he mentions it in order to speculate about how our societies might collapse and fall.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) wrote his satirical vision of the future, Erewhon which predicted there would be labour-saving machines and robots in the future. Well, half of that was correct.


Straw men

Most debaters set up straw men i.e. simplify the arguments of their opponents in order to caricature and counter them. I was struck by the way Gray does just this – establishing an entity or group or party or movement of ‘modern secular thinkers’ which he then proceeds to hammer from all directions – struck because he doesn’t mention a single name. Instead he rings the changes on a generic set of terms for ‘the Enemy’, which I began to find interesting in themselves:

  • many people today…
  • modern secular thinkers believe mankind can be recreated in a higher form…
  • it does not occur to these sublime moralists that in human beings the good and the bad may be intermixed…
  • those who aim to fashion a higher humanity with science…
  • … Gnostic themes that unnoticed or repressed, shape much of modern thinking…
  • this view of things is nowadays close to being incomprehensible…
  • The modern world inherits the Christian view…
  • … human impulses that modern thinking denies..
  • … how tenuous are the assumptions on which western thinkers base their hopes of peace…
  • … modern humanity insists that violence is inhuman…
  • … believers in reason, lacking any deeper faith and too feeble to tolerate doubt…
  • modern individualism tends…
  • Today there are some who expect such machines to be among us within a few decades…
  • …this modern catechism is mistaken…
  • modern thinkers have imagined that humans can achieve a state of freedom…

You can see how the repetition of the central terms builds up an image of a straw man (or straw liberal) who is particularly dim and uninsightful – but without troubling to name names or quote any texts.

Mentioning specific named writers would, of course, instantly complicate the situation, because it is unlikely that any ‘modern secular liberal’ is quite as dim as Gray likes to make out.


Sick writers

There are many ways to be entertained, amused and informed by this lovely jumble sale of a book, but I noted another strand which unintentionally confirms one of my own bête noirs or obsessions: which is that writers – poets and novelist and playwrights and philosophers – are, on the whole, among the very last people whose advice you want to take about life and living, seeing as almost all of them have been sick misfits, with a variety of mental illnesses and substance addictions. Thus:

Kleist was forced to join the civil service which he hated, wanted to be a writer but struggled to produce anything which satisfied him, tried and failed to join up to Napoleon’s army and ended up committing suicide in 1811.

Schulz was forced to become a school teacher in order to support ailing relatives, hated his job, struggled to write, had a failed engagement to a woman, and, as a Jew, was murdered by the Nazis.

Leopardi was a hunchback with poor sight, who was frail and sickly all his life, having a long but unsuccessful involvement with a married woman, living most of his life in poverty, before moving to Naples and dying of TB aged 38.

Edgar Allen Poe was a disastrous shambles of a man, who never secured a regular income despite starting umpteen magazines and journals, living hand to mouth in poverty, a chronic alcoholic, before being discovered roaming the streets of Baltimore out of his mind and wearing someone else’s clothes, dying in a pauper’s hospital aged 40.

Philip K. Dick was mentally ill for most of his life, dosing himself with alcohol and amphetamines to fuel his prodigious output of disturbing novels until he suffered a full-blown mental collapse in 1974, during which he claimed to have a had a great Revelation about life which he spent the rest of his life struggling to understand. Psychosis, five marriages, heavy drug addiction, repeated suicide attempts.

Guy Debord heavy drinker, despair, suicide aged 63.

Not exactly role models, are they? More to the point, where are all the people of their times who lived healthy, happy, fulfilled and productive lives? Well, they were too busy living life to the full, to write anything.

In other words, writers, on the whole, are a self-selecting and self-reinforcing, self-supporting, self-promoting group of the sick, the mentally ill, the addicted, impoverished, failed and frustrated.

To put it another way, writers in their writings tend to give a wildly inaccurate picture of human nature and human society. The works and thoughts of any ‘creative’ writer should, therefore, be taken with a large pinch of salt and not treated as any kind of ‘truth’, let alone as lessons by which to live life.


Gray’s prescription – withdrawal

Seeing all around him chaos, resurgent barbarism, and an array of misguided beliefs in meliorism, social improvement and scientific advances, Gray recommends withdrawing into yourself and there seeking to achieve harmony through acceptance of the fact that you are an irrational, conflicted being which doesn’t understand itself, let alone the world it lives in – and cultivating an inner freedom.

It’s worth quoting the book’s final passage in full as this turns out to be a surprisingly frank and candid piece of advice about how to live.

We do not know how matter came to dream our world into being; we do not know what, if anything, comes when the dream ends for us and we die. We yearn for a type of knowledge that would make us other than we are – though what we would like to be, we cannot say.

Why try to escape from yourself? Accepting the fact of unknowing makes possible an inner freedom very different from that pursued by the Gnostics. if you have this negative capability, you will not want a higher form of consciousness; your ordinary mind will give you all that you need. Rather than trying to impose sense on your life, you will be content to let meaning come and go. (p.165)


My thoughts

I agree with him.

I too believe human nature is unchangeable, that Western progressive liberals make up a minority of the human population which they arrogantly and ignorantly claim to speak for, that their view of human nature is insultingly shallow (amounting to little more that shouting ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’ at anyone who doesn’t fit their narrow parameters) and that their shallow ideology:

  1. fails to grasp, understand or prevent the failure of their political movements, as represented by the election of Trump, Johnson, Brexit
  2. fails to understand why populations would democratically elect right-wing populists such as Bolsonaro or Erdogan and above all
  3. fails to understand or explain why people continue to be barbaric, violent and sadistic in terrible conflicts all around the world

It’s not that progressive liberalism is morally wrong. It is that it is factually inadequate, biologically illiterate, philosophically impoverished, and so politically and socially misleading.

It is doomed to fail because it is based on a false model of human nature.

As to Gray’s prescription, that we abandon the effort to understand either ourselves or the world around us, I think this is a nice idea to read about, here or in Ursula Le Guin, or in a thousand Christian or Eastern mystics. It is a nice fictional place to inhabit, a discursive possibility, in the same way that I – and billions of other readers – inhabit novels or plays or works of art for a while.

But then I am forced to return to the workaday world where I must earn a living and look after my family, and where simply ‘letting meaning come and go’ is not an adequate guide to life.

To thinking about life, maybe. But not to actually living it.


Related links

Patrick Staff: On Venus @ Serpentine Sackler Gallery

Across the bridge over the Serpentine is the second Serpentine Gallery, the Serpentine Sackler Gallery converted from a 200-year-old former gunpowder store by legendary architect Zaha Hadid. For the time being the Serpentine Gallery seems to be retaining its link with the Sackler family who are under attack in the States for owning one of the largest manufacturers of addictive opioid drugs, although other British galleries are severing their links with the controversial family.

This knowledge adds a pleasing level of irony to the exhibition on show here, for the Serpentine Sackler Gallery is currently hosting a FREE exhibition of work by Patrick Staff (a young British artist born in 1987) which very much focuses on The Body. To quote the gallery introduction:

Through a varied and interdisciplinary body of work, Patrick Staff interrogates notion of discipline, dissent, labour and queer identity. Drawing on a wide range of sources, Staff examines the ways in which history, technology, capitalism and the law have fundamentally transformed the way we regard the body today, with a particular focus on gender, debility and biopolitics.

Oh, I thought, another contemporary artist kvetching about gender.

The corridors

The gunpowder store was originally at the core of the building, protected by double thickness walls, with a square walkway around the two inner, rectangular powder stores, each not much bigger than a long domestic living room.

By far the best thing in this installation is that the walkways around the central rooms have had their floors covered with a yellow metal and the fluorescent lights overhead given a yellowy-green tinge. The effect is to make you feel like you’re walking through the set of a science fiction film or maybe some kind of specialist industrial facility. This is pleasingly freaky.

Installation view of Patrick Staff: On Venus at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery

Note the two oil drums. Several of these are placed in each of the four corridors. If you look above the head of the woman in my photo you can see a latticework of very small-bore pipes suspended from the ceiling. This network carries on round all the corridors and where they pass over a drum, they have a tap which is set to allow a steady drip-drip of fluids down into each drum. What fluids?

A piping network suspended from the ceiling slowly drips a mixture of natural and synthetic acids into steel barrels, suggestive of sharing intimate fluids, or the trafficking of viruses or data.

It isn’t suggestive of bodily fluids, though, is it? It’s suggestive of offices or factories where the overhead air conditioning or other piping has sprung a leak and facilities management have put in a bucket or other container to catch the drips while they phone a plumber.

The Ian Huntley room

Remember Ian Huntley? He was convicted of murdering two 10-year-old girls in Soham, Cambridgeshire, in August 2002, hence the name the papers gave the case, The Soham Murders, and sentenced to a minimum term of 40 years in prison.

Anyway, in April 2018 the Daily Star newspaper reported that Huntley wanted to transition to a woman, wore a blonde wig in prison and insisted on being called Nicola. The story was picked up by other tabloids with a predictable hurricane of outrage from the highly-paid bigots who write for those papers.

Only nine months later did pressure from Huntley himself force the Star to retract the story and admit that it was entirely false in every detail. This led to a storm of comment from the other side, from queer activists, the Guardian and some left-wing politicians, lamenting the way the story was just one among a steady stream of stories designed to criticise, outlaw and ridicule trans people.

So Patrick Staff has taken front covers from the tabs who published the story, along with some of the later retractions and turned them into detailed etchings on metal, reminiscent to us old guys of the kind of heavy metal type that old-style newspapers were set in before the print revolution of the 1980.

Installation view of Patrick Staff at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Photo by Hugo Glenndinning

My reaction to this was:

1. I’m not that thrilled about being reminded of Huntley and his pointless stupid murder of two beautiful young girls and the awful, awful suffering their parents must have gone through, especially as Huntley lied his head off to the investigating police for two long weeks of one of the most intensive searches in British police history.

2. I am a little staggered that a grown man is telling us that tabloid newspapers make things up. I thought that was the most obvious thing about them, that the tabloids make things up and pander to the crudest prejudices and stereotypes, turn the complex world into a series of cartoons and clichés in order to cater to the basest instincts of their badly educated readers. I’ve known that for nearly fifty years.

If they are having a go at transgender people, now, they’re only the latest in a long line of groups who have been victimised and attacked on the basis of their gender (Page 3 girls) or race (blacks) or marital status (single mums) or disabilities (welfare scroungers) and so on. They are a poisonous blight on the country but they cannot be defeated because lots of people identify with their values and way of thinking. And that is because a lot of people in this country are pitifully badly educated, with not only the reading age but the immaturity and general stupidity of a nine-year-old.

Good luck changing that. Millions of left-wing intellectuals, politicians and activists have tried throughout my lifetime. That said, change can be achieved. The Sun in particular was virulently homophobic when I was a young man and nowadays reports on Elton John’s marriage to David Furnish or any other gay or lesbian marriage in more or less factual terms.

Social attitudes can be changed and liberalised. But I’m not sure how much impact an art installation like this can have.

On Venus

The work On Venus is in the other powder room and consists of a screen hanging from the ceiling on which two films are projected.

One consists of scratched, warped and overlapping footage of the most disgusting aspects of factory farming, showing the management of animal commodities such as urine, semen, skins and furs. I glimpsed a few shots of cows in cramped pens having their stretched udders brutally sucked dry by metal pumps so we can have the fresh milk to pour onto our organic porridge every morning.

If you didn’t realise that most livestock farming is disgusting and immoral, you are an idiot. That’s what vegetarians have been saying for fifty years or more, and countless books, articles and documentaries have revealed over and over again, with little practical effect.

Installation view of Patrick Staff at Serpentine Galleries © 2019 Photo by Hugo Glenndinning

The second film is a poem describing life on the planet Venus, conceived as:

“a state of non-life or near-death, a queer state of being that is volatile and in constant metamorphosis, infused with the violence of pressure and heat, destructive winds and the disorienting lapse of day into night.”

Conclusion

These are big issues he’s taking on. After years and years of political engagement I have reached a stage of exhaustion and complete detachment. Maybe Trump will be re-elected, maybe he won’t. Maybe Boris’s crew will make a go of Brexit, maybe they won’t. So many things have happened during my life, that I have realised a kind of informed, observant detachment is the best way to preserve your sanity.

Otherwise you end up like my left-wing friends and all the columnists and commentators in the Guardian, Independent, London Review of Books, New York Review of Books, New Statesman, and all the curators of contemporary art, who ever since the referendum then election of Trump have lived in a state of permanent outrage and anger.

– I support the transgender movement, which has come out of nowhere in the past few years but does appear to be a genuine thing – not least because several of my daughter’s friends, and several of my middle-aged friends’ young adult children, wish to change gender. Fine.

– I support vegetarianism and would support any attempts to make farming less disgusting and less destructive of the environment.

– I’d sort of support banning all the tabloid media and their vicious, immoral, muck-raking, phone-hacking journalism – although that is never going to happen.

But Staff is clearly going beyond these specific topical issues, to ask bigger questions, or make interesting connections, or prompt more lateral thoughts – thoughts which you can sense but are just out of reach of the conscious mind, or the way we usually think about the world.

Something to do with what moral judgments are acceptable and unacceptable. Something to do with the power the tabloids exercise in defining reality for their audiences. But these are just sub-sets of the bigger question of how we define what is human and what is not, and apply treatments which are obviously inhumane and degrading to pretty much every other life form but ourselves – and even to ourselves as well.

How we long for an alien civilisation to come down from the stars and teach us how to live properly and run our societies like decent people. Quite clearly, we’re incapable of doing so ourselves.

Staff may be pushing towards some kind of change of attitudes and culture – but along with John Gray, I’ve come to believe that human nature doesn’t change. Cultural attitudes may, in some places, and for a while, be rerouted and redrawn – but the fundamental attributes of human nature don’t change.

Liberals castigate Trump and Johnson for their alleged racism or misogyny (defined as their supposed hatred of BAME people or women) but you only have to dip a little into left-wing print or social media to find equal or greater levels of anger vented against all conservatives or all republicans or all men or all white people.

Like Gray, I think a kind of informed detachment is the only practical attitude to exercise in our times, the only way to prevent yourself from being drawn into the steaming cesspit of anger which almost all political and public discourse seems to be becoming.

Patrick Staff talks about his Serpentine show

What I learned from Staff’s own introduction was a different take from actually visiting it.

I like his point that everyone lives as though everything is alright with the world when, in fact, it really isn’t. Seen from this perspective the topics he’s chosen here are just some of the things which have upset him or which he thinks lift the veil on our respectable passivity and reveal the intertwined horrors beneath.

Seen in this way, the four elements of the exhibition – factory corridor with leaking fluids, the tabloid lies about Ian Huntley which are also smears on trans people, factory farming, and the queer poem about Venus – become more like personal symbols than political statements – moments of horrified insight, from which he has constructed a personal mythology.

I find this a much more fruitful way of thinking about the installation, because it is the way many poets work, creating a network of everyday imagery which they manage to imbue with supercharged imaginative energy, and mould into a personal mythology.

The question then becomes why didn’t he or the curators explain this a bit more clearly on the one and only wall label by the front door which introduces the show and which was full of the usual curator boilerplate about bodies and gender and made Staff sound just like every other modern artist — when I had already begun to feel – and this video crystallises – the ways in which he’s not, in which he’s distinctive and interesting.

Having thought my way all around the issues and ideas and surrendered to the sensual impact of the installation, I ended up liking it much more than my initial negative impressions.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

All I Know Is What Is On The Internet @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Some exhibitions I respond to personally and emotionally; some I respond to intellectually, picking up on ideas or theories; and some leave me stone cold.

This is the text from the press release for All I Know Is What Is On The Internet.

All I Know Is What Is On The Internet presents the work of 11 contemporary artists and groups seeking to map, visualise and question the cultural dynamics of 21st century image culture.

Importantly, it investigates the systems through which today’s photographic images multiply online and asks what new forms of value, knowledge, meaning and labour arise from this endless (re)circulation of content.

Traditionally, photography has played a central role in documenting the world and helping us understand our place within it. However, in a social media age, the problem of understanding an individual photograph is being overwhelmed by the industrial challenge of processing millions of images within a frantically accelerated timeframe. Visual knowledge and authenticity are now inextricably linked to a ‘like’ economy, subject to the (largely invisible) actions of bots, crowdsourced workers, Western tech companies and ‘intelligent’ machines.

This exhibition focuses on the human labour and technical infrastructure required to sustain the web’s 24/7 content feed. The collected works explore the so-called ‘democratisation’ of information, and ask in whose interest this narrative serves. Paying attention to the neglected corners of digital culture, the artists here reveal the role of content moderators, book scanners, Google Street View photographers and everyday users in keeping images in circulation.

The exhibition considers the changing status of photography, as well as the agency of the photographer and the role of the viewer within this new landscape. The artists involved draw attention to the neglected corners of image production, making visible the vast infrastructure of digital platforms and human labour required to support the endless churn of selfies, cat pics and memes.

Taking its title from a Donald Trump quote, All I Know Is What’s On The Internet considers the digital conditions under which photography is produced , and the bodies and machines which help automate the flow of visual content online. Set against Silicon Valley’s desire to automate the processing of human knowledge, the exhibition seeks to make visible ‘the human in the algorithm’.

All I Know Is What’s On The Internet presents a radical exploration of photography when the boundaries between truth and fiction, machine and human are being increasingly called into question.

#Brigading_Conceit

The enormousness of the subject they’re tackling meant that each exhibit, object or installation required a lot of explanation. Take #Brigading_Conceit (2018) by Constant Dullaart.

#Brigading_Conceit (2018) by Constant Dullaart. Aluminium, automotive coating, forex, SIM cards, vesa mounts. Courtesy of Upstream Gallery Amsterdam

#Brigading_Conceit (2018) by Constant Dullaart. Aluminium, automotive coating, forex, SIM cards, vesa mounts. Courtesy of Upstream Gallery Amsterdam

It’s a very big installation hanging on a wall and looks, to me, like the cover of a laptop computer. In fact:

#Brigading_Conceit uses some of the thousands of SIM cards the artist purchased while building an army of fake followers on Facebook and Instagram. The most valuable fake accounts are PVAs (Phone Verified Accounts) which are registered on phone numbers bought in bulk in multiple countries. After verifying the account via SMS message, the SIM cards are often sold for the scrap value of the gold in the chip. Providing physical evidence of the industrial scale in which fake accounts are made, Dullart embeds these SIMs  in different materials, using arrangements reminiscent of army formations. The resulting compositions are representations of brigades made from artificial identities, a series of ‘standing armies’ to be deployed in ongoing and future information wars. Each image of the work tagged and uploaded to Instagram will attract the attention of Dullart’s army, who will bestow likes and automated comments. The semi-reflective surface reveals the form of each photographer whilst concealing their vanity in the effort of harvesting social feedback.

Quite a lot to take in, isn’t it?

And then, having read it all, looking back up at this butterfly made of silver laptop covers… what exactly are you to think? (It crossed my mind that Dullart might be a spoof name: Dull Art.)

IOCOSE A Crowded Apocalypse

IOCOSE A Crowded Apocalypse (2012).

IOCOSE A Crowded Apocalypse (2012)

This is, as you can see, a set of 18 photos arranged in three rows and six columns. As the wall label explains:

Crowdsourcing platforms such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk provide a means for outsourcing small, repetitive tasks (‘micro-tasks’) to a distributed online workforce. These platforms were used by IOCOSE to assemble a crowd which would create its own conspiracy and then protest against its protagonists and effects. Firstly, the artists hired hundreds of anonymous workers to generate a set of symbols, companies, religious groups and mythical creatures. These were combined into a series of slogans and conspiracy theories by another set of workers. In the final stage, further workers photographed themselves taking to the streets protesting against this global conspiracy.

By operating as ‘artificial artificial intelligence’ (as Amazon touts its platform) the workers transform a practice of activism into a mechanical process. The result is a collection of singular, anonymous protests, whose slogans and claims barely makes sense. The workers, and the people around them, appear at the same time as victims and beneficiaries, actors and spectators of network technologies.

Nothing Personal

Or take the wall of the gallery which was completely covered in a ‘wallpaper’ collage of imagery and texts from the brave new digital world, and titled Nothing Personal (2014-15) by Mari Bastashevski.

Nothing Personal (2014-15) by Mari Bastashevski

Nothing Personal (2014-15) by Mari Bastashevski

Apparently,

In the past decade, the industry that satisfies governments’ demands for surveillance of mass communications has skyrocketed, and it is one of today’s most rapidly expanding markets. Most surveillance technologies are produced by American, European and Israeli companies and sold to anonymous clients and law enforcement agencies across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

While most of these products are undetectable by design, the industry has developed a collective corporate aesthetic using detached technical jargon, stock photography and sanitised clip-art. Nothing Personal presents material from over 300 surveillance companies, including fragment of correspondence between their employees and clients the artist found online.

On closer inspection, the people working within these companies – from the spaces they occupy – to the emails they send – seem to match the very image of the ‘enemy’ depicted by their own marketing.

World Brain

World Brain (2015) is an installation of logs of wood, scattered with wood chip surrounded by small piles of books, and video screens on the wall, the work of Degoutin & Wagon.

Installation view of World Brain (2015) by Degoutin & Wagon

Installation view of World Brain (2015) by Degoutin & Wagon

Explanation:

World Brain is a sprawling journey into the architecture of data centres, the collective intelligence of kittens, high-frequency trading and the creation of transhuman rats. Mixing documentary film and fiction, the artists explore the utopian dreams and ideologies which underpin the idea of a worldwide network and the development of collective intelligence.

The film is presented here is the film in two parts, with accompanying literature. Part one (21 mins 8 secs) is a journey into the physical spaces of the Internet exploring the complex structure of global Internet traffic. The second part (51 mins 54 secs) follows the wanderings of a group of researchers who try to survive in the forest using Wikipedia, with the ultimate aim of securing the survival of humankind.

World Brain is also available to watch online at: tpg.org.uk/worldbrain

Ironically, when I tried to access this URL, I found the video is unavailable and got this message:

This video contains content from Arte, who has blocked it in your country on copyright grounds.

Which may, or may not, be part of the work itself. Or an ironic comment on the work. Or the internet. Or something.

So this is an intensely cerebral exhibition, in the sense that you really have to focus on each of the works, read the explanatory text carefully, and then bring quite a lot of intelligence and knowledge of the subject to bear on each piece to assess whether they ‘work’ for you.

A view

I have spent the past eight years working on the intranets and public websites and password-protected portals of four British government departments and agencies.

I have attended countless meetings, seminars and conferences about website design, data management and security, about government usage of social media, about how to convey messages or get users hooked on your website, and so on.

In fact I myself ran a 6-month programme of weekly seminars for the content team of a big government website on subjects like how to use Facebook and the rest of social media to transmit government messages, how to gather data about users, analyse and convey messages better, etc.

And for two years I was a data analyst on the password-protected portal of a major UK government portal, doing elaborate number crunching, producing infographics for all sorts of data, and merrily ‘repositioning’ the numbers to support the ‘official narrative’ put out by our department.

So I have a reasonable grasp of digital issues and I have, from the start, been extremely sceptical about the internet, about social media, and especially about mobile phone technology.

I refuse to own a smartphone because I a) don’t want to become addicted b) I want to relate to the world around me instead of staring at a tiny screen all the time c) I don’t want to be bugged, surveilled, followed and have all my personal data harvested.

All in all, I am confident that I understand the world these artists are portraying and that I understand a lot of the issues they’re addressing. I have grappled in person with some of them, as part of my job.

But I found it hard to get very worked up about any of the actual art on show and went away wondering why.

I think it’s something to do with accessibility. Web accessibility is a subject I’ve worked with personally, trying to present government information more clearly, both visually and textually. Even the dimmest of users must be able to read the text and use the transactions on a government website.

Whereas hardly any of the works on display here seemed very accessible. None of them leapt straight out ans made me think, ‘Yes, that’s the issue, that’s what we need to be saying / exploring / addressing’.

Instead I found it ironic that in the supposed Age of the Image, all of these works and installations required such a lot of text to get their point across.

There were quite a few younger visitors in evidence (unlike most of the ‘traditional’ art exhibitions I visit, which are dominated by old age pensioners).

Maybe this is art for a younger generation than me, accustomed to swiping screens, skimming information, cherry picking text. Maybe a lot of these issues and ideas will be new to them, or they are so accustomed to smartphones and apps and processing information, that the works will leap out and say something meaningful to them.

My over-riding sense of the Digital Age we live in is that most people, by now, know that Amazon, Facebook, twitter, and their phone providers are morally compromised, tax-evading, High Street-destroying, personal-information-harvesting creepy multinational companies, but…

It’s just so handy being able to order something from Amazon Prime, or send messages to your Facebook group, or share photos of your party on Instagram…

And none of the revelations about how smartphones track your movements and your conversations seem to have made the slightest dent in smartphone ownership or usage.

My sense is that most people just don’t care what iniquities these companies carry out, as long as their stuff turns up next day and they can share their photos for free.

It was a brave effort to put on an exhibition like this. I didn’t really like the works on show. Maybe others will.

Participating artists

  • Mari Bastashevski
  • Constant Dullaart
  • IOCOSE
  • Stephanie Kneissl & Max Lackner
  • Eva & Franco Mattes
  • Silvio Lorusso & Sebastian Schmieg
  • Winnie Soon
  • Emilio Vavarella
  • Stéphane Degoutin & Gwenola Wagon
  • Andrew Norman Wilson
  • Miao Ying

Related links

Reviews of other Photographers’ Gallery exhibitions

Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire @ the National Gallery

This is a fabulously enjoyable exhibition on numerous levels. It contains 58 works, the majority on loan from North American collections, focusing on a score of masterpieces by American landscape painter Thomas Cole – making this a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see so many of his works together in one place.

It also brings together some enormous paintings by Claude, Constable, Turner and John Martin to show how Cole studied and learned from them.

And, quite apart from the visually stunning impact of many of these huge works, it is rich in thought-provoking issues and ideas.

Four rooms and seven chapters

Thomas Cole is famous in the U.S. as the greatest American landscape artist of his generation, more or less founding the young republic’s tradition of landscape painting.

In fact he was British, born in Bolton, Lancashire in 1801 to a middle class family in reduced circumstances. So reduced that young Thomas was sent out to work while still school age, among other jobs working as an assistant to an engraver.

The story of his life, achievement and influence is told in the four rooms of the National Gallery’s ground Floor Galleries, which have been divided into seven sections or ‘chapters’. There’s also a handy timeline of his life on one wall, to give a sense of the flow and development of his career before he was struck down tragically young, dying aged 47 in 1848.

Chapter 1. Industrial England

Cole was born in Bolton near Manchester as the industrial revolution reached its first flood of development.

The first section includes a vivid depiction of the impact of this new coal and iron technology in Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg’s painting Coalbrookdale by Night, painted in 1801 the year of Cole’s birth. Note the enormous abandoned cogs and crankshafts at the bottom left and their resemblance to the ruined columns in paintings of Roman and Greek ruins i.e. the way older aesthetic forms lingered on in the new world.

Coalbrookdale by Night (1801) by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg © The Science Museum

Coalbrookdale by Night (1801) by Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg © The Science Museum

Not only was the physical landscape being devastated, but so were the people too, the old cottage-based artisan economy eroded by mass production in the new manufactories where people were reduced to ‘hands’, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to serve the machines.

This prompted a backlash. Nearby hangs a contemporary lampoon of a Luddite, one of the gangs of workers who smashed up the machinery in a bid to halt ‘progress’ and to keep work human.

When his father’s business failed, Cole, a sensitive well-educated teenager, was forced to take work engraving printing blocks in a local cotton mill. He had, quite literally, hands-on experience of the way industrial ‘progress’ was making work mechanical and alienating.

In 1817 the family moved to Liverpool where Cole got a job working in an engraver’s shop where he would have seen prints by the leading artists of the day.

Chapter 2. American Wilderness

When he was 17 Cole’s parents decided to emigrate. His family sailed to America and settled in Philadelphia. Cole was now determined to become a painter, borrowing all the textbooks he could find and taking lessons from an itinerant artist. In 1825 he moved to New York City and that summer took a steamboat trip up the Hudson river into the Catskill Mountains.

He made numerous sketches of this picturesque landscape, rich in hills, valleys, small rivers, abundant wildlife and forests stretching as far as the eye could see. Already it was a tourist destination for New Yorkers but Cole removed all human traces from his sketches and especially from the finished paintings he worked up from them, depicting the landscape as a virgin wilderness.

View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains (Sunny Morning on the Hudson) by Thomas Cole (1827) Photo © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains (Sunny Morning on the Hudson) by Thomas Cole (1827) Photo © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Although there are a few tiny sailboats on the river in the far distance of this painting you’d be forgiven for not seeing them. What you are meant to see is the wild and storm-battered trees and the outcrop of rock, highlighted in the foreground and set against the ominous dark shape of the mountain (Round Top) rising behind it.

In these paintings Cole was seeking, in his own words, ‘a higher style of landscape’. He was influenced by the prints he’d seen of the magnificent sprawling light effects achieved by J.M.W. Turner and the grandiose melodramatic effects of ‘end of the world’ John Martin. What makes this exhibition even more visually stunning than it would have been is the inclusion of some wildly dramatic works by Turner and Martin of the sort which inspired young Cole.

A classic example of Cole’s literary or melodramatic embellishment of landscape is this fantastical scene from James Fenimore Cooper’s classic novel of the wilderness north of New York, Last of the Mohicans, published just the year before, in 1826.

The humans are obviously dwarfed by the setting, an improbably fantastical circular ledge of rock on the right of the picture, allowing the left half to reveal a ‘sublime’ receding vista of successive rugged mountains, lakes, and more mountains. The very human passions of Cooper’s novel have been translated into an image of almost cosmic significance.

Scene from The Last of the Mohicans, Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund (1827) by Thomas Cole © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut / Allen Phillips

Scene from The Last of the Mohicans, Cora Kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund (1827) by Thomas Cole © Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut / Allen Phillips

These paintings attracted buyers, and word of mouth led Cole to be taken up by some very wealthy patrons. It was one of these patrons, Luman Reed, who paid for Cole to return to Europe and undertake a tour of Italy in order to improve his technique and his life drawing.

Chapter 3. London – Imperial Metropolis

So at the age of 28 Cole returned to Europe, stopping in London, where he visited the newly opened ‘National Gallery’ to study Old Masters. Here he actually met Constable and Turner. He was invited for a personal tour of the latter’s studio, where he admired the remarkable painting, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps.

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1812) © Tate 2018

Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1812) © Tate 2018

You can see how this kind of thing played to Cole’s interest in depicting absolutely massive natural landscapes, enormous cosmic or geographical motifs which dwarf their puny human characters.

But like everyone else who met him, Cole was disappointed by the contradiction between the sublimity of Turner’s paintings and the man himself, who was dirty, smelly, abrupt and inarticulate, having the appearance and manners, as Cole put it, of ‘the mate of a coasting vessel’.

At the Royal Academy Cole exhibited some of his own landscapes, such as the striking Distant View of Niagara Falls, which he actually completed in London from sketches taken at the scene, and which he deliberately painted with a view to wowing the London public. He was disappointed when they didn’t make much impact.

Distant View of Niagara Falls (1830) by Thomas Cole © The Art Institute of Chicago

Distant View of Niagara Falls (1830) by Thomas Cole © The Art Institute of Chicago

Chapter 4. The Grand Tour

Cole travelled quickly through Paris, which held no interest for him, and on to Florence, where he spent eight months getting to know the town’s close-knit artistic community, painting the city and going out into the surrounding countryside to paint landscapes and especially all and any remains of the once-great Roman Empire.

In 1832 he moved on to Rome itself, studying and sketching all the famous sites and also venturing out into the surrounding countryside, much loved by the French painted Claude Lorraine whose work he had admired in London.

This part of the exhibition displays figure studies Cole did in Italy, as well as oil paintings of Florence and of picturesque Roman ruins embedded in the tranquil Italian countryside.

Chapter 5. The Course of Empire

Cole returned to the States in 1832 and became a citizen in 1834. It was now, after all this training and preparation, that he began work on the ambitious cycle of five massive paintings designed to portray the rise and fall of an imaginary civilisation which he was to call The Course of Empire.

Visually, the ‘civilisation’ – i.e. the buildings, clothes and trappings of all the inhabitants – are based on ancient Rome, with its vast classical buildings, all pillars, porticoes and domes. But the landscape, the natural setting of the rise and fall, are recognisably the America of Cole’s Catskill paintings.

In this, the first of the sequence, a ‘savage’ dressed in a loincloth in the middle foreground on the left is chasing a deer he has wounded with an arrow, at the bottom and slightly to the right of middle. In the distance on the right is a circle of Indian teepees with a fire burning. Looming up out of the John Martin-style, over-arching clouds, is a sloping mountain topped by a distinctive boulder, which appears in all five paintings.

The Course of Empire: The Savage State by Thomas Cole (1834) © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

The Course of Empire: The Savage State by Thomas Cole (1834) © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

The sequence as a whole can be quickly taken in on Wikipedia.

The five paintings are:

  • The Savage State
  • The Arcadian or Pastoral State
  • The Consummation of Empire
  • Destruction
  • Desolation

As you can see, the paintings combine epic scale and deep perspective with a beguiling attention to minute detail. For example, in the second painting, look for the old man tracing geometric shapes in the sand with a stick, the first tremors of the ‘science’ which will give rise to ‘industry’.

The Consummation of Empire is in some ways the most visually pleasing. It’s physically the biggest of the five, but I think a lot of its success is due to the importance of light in bringing an unexpected sense of air and spaciousness to what ought to be a ridiculously crowded and crammed composition.

The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire (1835–6) by Thomas Cole © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire (1835–6) by Thomas Cole © Collection of The New-York Historical Society, New York / Digital image by Oppenheimer Editions

It adds to your appreciation to learn that the five paintings are conceived of taking place at different times of day: Savage at dawn, Arcadia in mid-morning, Consummation in the full light of a Mediterranean noon, Destruction in the late afternoon, and Desolation at moonrise.

A whole room is devoted to these five enormous paintings (with a handful of works from Italy on other walls so you can see where ideas of perspective, and especially of classical buildings and plant-covered ruins came from). It is a dazzling array of visionary genius.

Chapter 6. Cole’s Manifesto

Andrew Jackson was the seventh president of the United States, serving from 1829 to 1837, that’s to say at exactly the period when Cole came into his own as a professional artist, travelled to Europe and painted his epic Course of Empire series.

Jackson is controversial nowadays for the politically correct reasons that he was a slave-owner who also took a tough line with native Americans, leading the US Army in the First Seminole War (1814-19), and in 1830 signing an Indian Relocation Act which expelled native Americans from the South to the mid-West of America, causing an immensely destructive uprooting of peoples and cultures in which many died.

But contemporaries like Cole disliked Jackson not for these reasons, but because he was a demagogic populist who appealed over the heads of the Washington establishment to the broader electorate, claiming to speak up for ‘the common man’.

Several art scholars were on hand at the press view I attended and one of them said that Jackson was ‘the Donald Trump of his day’, claiming to stand up for the common man, but in reality paving the way for the spread of industrial capitalism into the West.

He said that if the figure in a red cloak riding in triumph across the viaduct in The Consummation of Empire can be seen as Jackson/Trump, then his empress, seated on a throne at the extreme right and bottom of the picture, must be Melania!

Why did Cole dislike Jackson so much? Because he objected to Jackson forcefully encouraging the opening up of the West for settlement and exploitation.

For Cole is seen by many as not only the first serious painter of landscapes in America, and founder of the Hudson River School of art, but also as one of the first American environmentalists.

Cole was deeply fearful that the Americans were about to repeat the mistakes he had witnessed at first hand in Britain, and were about to destroy their natural landscape in a misguided quest for industrialisation and ‘progress’.

This wasn’t just an opinion he expressed in painting. In 1836, while he was working on the Course of Empire paintings, Cole felt strongly enough about it to write an ‘Essay on American Scenery’ pleading for the preservation of the American wilderness.

Coincidentally and ironically, the same year saw construction begin on the Hudson Valley railway. In the final room, among other works, there’s a pairing of paintings Cole did before and after the railway was built through his beloved Catskill landscape.

View on the Catskill - Early Autumn (1836–7) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Juan Trujillo

View on the Catskill – Early Autumn (1836–7) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Juan Trujillo

The commentary very usefully pointed out the way Cole uses techniques borrowed from Claude Lorraine, namely the elegant trees framing the view, at the right, and the big eggshell blue sky, to convey a tremendous sense of openness and tranquility, against which his characteristically tiny people are framed.

The ‘after’ painting, made six years later in 1843, hardly depicts the end of the world; the changes are more subtle.

A moment’s attention shows that the trees have gone. The framing pair at the right of the earlier work, and the smaller one on the left, have disappeared, replaced by hacked-down stumps. Worse, where the entire lake was previously lined by an elegant sweep of trees, now these have all gone, replaced by low-growing bushes. Removing the trees eliminates the sense of depth and mystery from the view.

River in the Catskills (1843) by Thomas Cole © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

River in the Catskills (1843) by Thomas Cole © 2018 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The railway itself cuts across the middle distance and this also, once you focus on it, has a subtly undermining effect. Previously the view unfolded with a sense of limitless depths, a sense of mystery succeeding wooded mystery. Now, denuded of trees and bisected by this subtle but decisive line, the entire landscape now appears somehow more constrained and controlled.

The highlight of the last room is arguably Cole’s most famous painting into which he poured everything – his management of sheer scale and size, his sense for landscape, everything he had learned from Turner and Constable about clouds – all expressed in yet another realistic painting which lends itself to allegorical interpretation – View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm, generally known as The Oxbow.

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm - The Oxbow (1836) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm – The Oxbow (1836) by Thomas Cole © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This is a huge and hugely enjoyable painting, with much to note and savour. Moving from left to right, up in the sky, we pass from a violent thunderstorm (with forked lightning at the extreme left), to the storm petering out, whiter clouds and then a clear blue sky appearing.

This movement is paralleled on the earth by a movement from violently broken trees in the left foreground and dense virgin brush in the middle-left, suddenly giving way with a great sense of release to a huge vista down over the river valley to the mountains beyond.

And down in the river valley – in striking contrast to the dark, dark green of the wild brush in the left foreground, is the honey yellow of wheatfields in which stand tiny stooks of wheat. Scattered among the orderly yellow and light green fields are occasional settlements of good, honest, horny-handed farmers. Down at the bottom right is a ford with a few horses coming down to it and a raft crossing the river.

This is Cole’s vision of what America should be like, a land of free-living independent yeoman-farmers – the polar opposite of the urbanisation, the galloping desecration of the wilderness, and the encouragement of rapid industrialisation, all of which were taking place under Jackson’s presidency.

It was staring me in the face but I didn’t notice until one of the art historians pointed it out, that the river doesn’t just form a sharp loop – it is in the shape of a question mark. Which future will America choose, a federation of independent farmers, or go down the ruinous path of the Britain which Cole had himself escaped, towards industrialisation, environmental ruination and the transformation of free agricultural workers into a wretched proletariat?

More light-heartedly, Cole has painted himself into his work. At the bottom, just to the right of centre, you can see his head and hat emerging from behind a log. Here I am. I’m painting this beauty. What are you going to make of it?

Detail of the Oxbow by Thomas Cole, showing the artist himself

Detail of The Oxbow by Thomas Cole, showing the artist himself

The Oxbow has never been seen in the UK before. It is just one of about 20 paintings which are normally based in America, are rarely displayed together, and are well worth paying the admission price to see and savour.

Chapter 7. Cole’s Legacy

The final wall in the exhibition shows us the works of some of the painters who inherited Cole’s mantle. He died suddenly aged only 47, but not before he had taught the talented Asher Brown Durand and the exceptional Frederic Edwin Church. They both absorbed Cole’s practice of direct observation of nature, sketching and painting on site in the open air. There are several works by Durand and Church to assess them by.

Ironically, although Cole’s style and approach expanded into an entire ‘school’, almost all of his followers dropped his environmental concerns and adopted the new spirit of the times, the infectious optimism that America’s expansion West, its development and industrialisation, all represented a Manifest Destiny to become God’s Own Country.

Durand’s Progress (The Advance of Civilisation) was painted in 1853, just five years after Cole’s death, yet it celebrates the nascent taming of the wilderness.

At bottom right some cattle are being rounded up while a wagon is being driven up the road. To its left we can see a canal with a lock in it, over which, a bit further down, what looks like a railway bridge crosses over.

On a spur of land sticking out into the lake, in the distance, is some kind of town with a cluster of chimneys emitting the kind of smoke we saw in the first room of the gallery, denoting the British Industrial revolution. Meanwhile, half hidden among the broken trees to the left, is a group of three native Americans looking on – with awe, with regret, who knows? – but in effect characters made to pose and gaze in wonder at the unstoppable Progress of the White Man.

Progress (The Advance of Civilisation) by Asher Brown Durand

Progress (The Advance of Civilisation) by Asher Brown Durand (1853)

Absences and contradictions

There’s no slavery in Cole’s paintings. There are few native Americans. Politically correct curators can point out what – to our enlightened times – are these notable absences.

But then again there are no working poor of any kind. Farms we see, from a great distance, in The Oxbow, but none of the early starts and long days and hard manual labour involved in farming.

In fact people in general are conspicuous by their absence from Cole’s painting. Having never had a formal training, he was self-conscious about his ability to draw bodies and faces and so limited his depictions of people to distant puppets.

In any case, all this was part of his overall strategy, which was to cleanse the landscape of its human inhabitants (white or black or red) in order to present it as a bountiful and idyllic wildscape.

For example, the wall label tells us that there were already tourists at Niagara Falls, roads to bring them there and accommodation for them to stay in. But all of this was omitted from Cole’s primitivising vision of Niagara Falls (above).

The great irony of his career and art is, Who did he produce these visions of a pristine nature for, who did he sell them to?

The answer: to rich patrons in New York and Connecticut who had become rich precisely by laying roads across the wilderness, by selling dry goods to new settlements and, in the case of the New York bankers who patronised Cole, by funding the new railroads and industrial enterprises which were despoiling the very landscapes they paid him to paint.

Cole is praised as a founding environmentalist – but he is just as much a forerunner of that familiar figure, the modern artist who uses art to rail against capitalism, the West, exploitation, poverty and so on but – makes a career by selling their work to rich bankers or to art institutions founded and endowed by rich bankers, the lynchpins of the very system they purport to criticise.

A rapture of beauties

This exhibition would be worth visiting for the Cole alone, but the National Gallery has given us a real embarras de richesses by including masterpieces by the four European painters who most influenced him –

  • the enormous Snowstorm by Turner (Tate)
  • the ludicrously melodramatic Belshazzar’s Feast by John Martin (Yale, USA)
  • as well as five works by John Constable including Hadleigh Castle (Yale, USA) the Opening of Waterloo Bridge (Tate) and three beautiful sketches all usually kept at Yale University in the States, including some wonderful sketches of clouds

Cole developed a friendship with Constable and they exchanged letters and sketches. In fact there are a number of studies by Constable and Turner of skies, cloudscapes and so on, to compare and contrast with Cole’s own sketches. Some of the Constable ones are stunningly skilful uses of paint.

The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (1832) by John Constable © Tate 2018

The Opening of Waterloo Bridge (1832) by John Constable © Tate 2018

In fact one of the most fascinating snippets or sidelights of the exhibition was being shown the relationship between Cole’s anti-industrialising ethos and Constable’s similar sentiments. I hadn’t noticed before that the south bank of the Thames in the Opening of Waterloo Bridge (at the far right of the painting) is thronged with factory chimneys spewing out toxic smoke. Apparently, in his final years, Constable was depressed at the arrival of industrial blight in the landscape of the south of England.

I last saw The Opening in a large exhibition of Constable and powerfully disliked it. The curator pointed out that so does everyone else, but that was part of its point. It is an English version of Cole’s The Consummation of Empire, showing foolhardy pomp and circumstance while in the background industrialism is beginning to corrupt and destroy the culture.

Last but not least in the room showing enormous paintings which influenced Cole is Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula by Claude Lorraine. You can immediately see how his light-filled combination of water with classical buildings was absorbed and repurposed by Cole for the Course of Empire series, but there are plenty of pleasures to linger and enjoy just in this one painting.

Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula (1641) by Claude

Seaport with the Embarkation of Saint Ursula (1641) by Claude

The point is, this exhibition isn’t just about Cole. If you add in the couple of paintings each by Durand and Church to the Claude, Turner, Constable and Martin, the feeling is of encountering masterpiece after masterpiece in an exhibition which expands your mind and gladdens the heart.

While the rational mind is processing a raft of issues and ideas, the eyes are surfeited with quite rapturous beauty.

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

Other posts about American history

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