Non-Fiction: Fear by Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster UK)
In Fear, Bob Woodward paints a strange picture. A White House in perpetual panic mode. A President with the temperament of a toddler. A team of staff who scramble to put out fires that rage left and right.
It’s not so much of a surprising book – it doesn’t have the shock factor of a tell-all exposé. Instead, it reinforces much of what is already out there. But it is precisely because of this that Fear enters the uncanny valley. A world we recognise, but not quite realistic. How could it be? Woodward opens the book to Gary D. Cohn, Trump’s former chief economic adviser, and Rob Porter, Trump’s former staff secretary, desperately trying to make sure certain documents stay off Trump’s desk. It is these kinds of scenes that should strike fear into the hearts of even the most die-hard Trumpian.
There is something darkly comic about the whole thing, like a novelised spin-off of Armando Iannucci’s The Thick Of It. The way that Woodward writes is so plain and simple, so unaffected, that some lines carry a deadpan weight: “They smothered the President with facts and logic.”
A presidential campaign is already fertile ground for drama and Trump and his team do not disappoint. Stephen K. Bannon takes centre stage for the first part of the book, commanding the show. As said by Bannon about Trump: “I’m the director, he’s the actor.”If anything, this book goes to show just how important Bannon was to Trump’s campaign. He knew what had to be done against the immense political figure that was Hillary Clinton. In this topsy-turvy David vs Goliath story, Bannon is the stone that brings down the giant.
But as the book goes on, and we catch up to where we are now, the events become tiresome. Maybe because we are so inoculated to everything, it doesn’t have the right kind of punch. Some people might yawn at yet another Trump centred piece. But Fear is the perfect time capsule. It will be looked back to in the future as an authoritative account of the beginnings of the Trump era. Right now, it may be impossible to see the forest for the trees. But in the midst of the turbulent time we are in now, it is easy to feel blind.
With reality being bent by the post-truth White House, Fear takes the facts, lays them out cold, and airs Trump’s dirty washing for all to see.
Fiction: Paradise Rot by Jenny Hval (Verso Books)
‘There, and not there. Outside the hostel window the town is hidden by fog’. The opening to Jenny Hval’s debut novel sets the eerie tone of protagonist Jo’s arrival in a new city to study biology. After a series of depressing house viewings, rejected in favour of tanned and confident Canadian girls, Jo moves in with Carral, a bitter English Literature graduate in precarious temp work. Disgusted after sleeping with Pym, their neighbour, Jo then sees Carral do the same, complicating the nascent queer desire she develops for her housemate.
Alien and alienated, it is Jo who is there and not there; dislocated in manifold ways as she tries to navigate a new life in a nightmarish setting. Hval delivers a succession of images submerged in flat affect—a throbbing ring road, a bombardment of faded advertisements, a crumbling city hall—infusing Paradise Rot with a macabre and abject, yet strangely muted atmosphere, as if all the blood had been let from the world. Like the new city, Jo seems trapped, ‘closed off in all directions’ and unable to find her place in it
It is obvious that Hval is first and foremost a musician, having released six solo albums, both under her own name and the moniker Rockettothesky: the novel resounds with alliterative language and, as Jo explores her new city, hearing is the dominant link connecting the self with the world. Isolated, Jo is nevertheless compelled to engage with the discomfiting symphony of her new environment. In an especially melancholic moment, that listening is turned back on itself: among the babble and excitement of the first day of university, Jo’s ‘booted steps were inaudible’.
The novel’s central concern is with the hypersensual Jo as she confronts sexual desire for the first time, and as she learns that the physical body, its leakages, and its abjections are the nightmarish reality counterposed to the romantic fiction that haunts her dreams. Beneath the novel’s surface lurks a dim psychoanalytic subtext, as castration theory, where repression and Freudian slips dot the text. Yet Hval’s understated style means the novel never becomes too theoretical or academic.
As a debut novel, Hval’s a mournful, harrowing read. There are hints of Hval’s inexperience—some of the description verges on the mechanical, the characters could be drawn in more detail, had the book been longer—yet Paradise Rot is a beautifully crafted ghost story that confronts the harsh realities of sex, sexuality, and sensuality in unremittingly frank fashion.