Book Review: A State of Change by Penelope Gilliatt

A State of Change by Penelope Gilliatt

A State of Change by Penelope Gilliatt

If State of Change were a television programme it would be a prime time BBC Four flagship show, starring a big British name who wanted to prove their acting chops after a successful BBC One cult series. It would have the critics salivating before they’d even seen the preview tapes while, glass of Pinot Noir in hand, the Twitterati would be scratching its head hoping someone will admit to not understanding – or worse – liking – this very well crafted but odd programme – before they have to hint in 140 characters that they would rather be watching EastEnders.

Penelope Gilliatts A State of Change, first published in 1967, is stylish and sleek; it’s also sparse and ephemeral. It feels both dense and lightweight. There is little plot; this is a novel driven by cleverly crafted dialogue, witty bon mots and sharp observations. It reads like a Pinter or a Beckett play – still, yet restless, superficially devoid of meaning, but with each word creaking under the weight of its significance. Gilliatt was once a big literary name: if she were alive today, she would most likely have been among the Women’s Prize for Fiction’s shortlist. She was a hugely versatile writer with a massive brain – according to the lovely introduction to this (badly subbed) Capuchin Classic edition written by the brilliant Ali Smith, Gilliatt was believed to have had a higher IQ than Eistein. She was a journalist and film critic, most notably for The Observer and The New Yorker and she wrote short stories and novels, she even wrote an opera libretto.

She is best remembered best for her Oscar-nominated screenplay for John Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday. Sadly, Sunday Bloody Sunday aside, Gilliatt is now rather forgotten, her books mostly out of print. She’s probably more remembered for once being married to grumpy old playwright John Osborne. Reading A State of Change it’s easy to see why she has fallen out of favour with modern day literary lovers. It feels very much of its time, but not in that rather twee, rose-tinted way that we seem to prefer our 20th century novels to be. There’s no gripping plot, terrible secret or big reveal. It can be bewildering as characters drift in and out of half-remembered conversations. There are time shifts and sudden dramatic changes that unfold behind the scenes that we, the reader, are never party to. As Ali Smith explains in the introduction, one of Gilliatt’s literary quirks was a “mode of unexplaining”, influenced by the ambiguity of director Jean Renoir’s films.

A State of Change revolves around Kakia who leaves her native Poland after the war for drab, war-damaged London where she meets two friends, Don and Harry who she falls in love with, one after the other. The three of them stay close friends over the years, despite the obvious difficulties. There’s no mud-slinging or 4am whisky-fuelled confessions. We’re never told how each character feels; we are made to draw our own conclusions from their actions and interactions. This seeming randomness, this way of writing that not only reflects real life but also celebrates the beauty of writing beyond a structured beginning, middle and end, is out of step in a world where we demand absolute transparency in everything. But Giliatt deserves a better reception from the 21st century.

A State of Change isn’t a warm book, it’s frosty but fascinating, like a glamorous aloof friend ,and it’s a novel worth digging out if you’re a fan of words and graceful writing.

by Suzanne Elliott

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Book Review: American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

Christian Bale in American Psycho

Christian Bale in American Psycho

Patrick Bateman needs little introduction. Like Miss Havisham, Dorian Gray and Frankenstein, Bret Easton Ellis’s character has walked off the pages of a mere novel into popular culture mythology. He’s shorthand for nutty behaviour, for 80s excess, for a certain kind of City boy and the evils of capitalism. He’s been immortalised on the big screen by Christian “oh, good for you” Bale in the 2000 film and is the subject of a Manic Street Preachers’ b-side. I may only have just finished American Psycho, but I feel as if I’ve known Patrick Bateman for years.

I have until now refused to read American Psycho. I’m super squeamish both to violence and to books that people use as easy slang for “well-read and cool” (see also Catcher In The Rye and Perfume). Plus I know enough about Bret Easton Ellis to know that enjoying something he’d written would annoy me. But then, I reasoned, you would never listen to music, read books, watch films, see great art and theatre if you only enjoyed culture created by people you wanted to go for a drink with.

So having been persuaded by a friend who studied American Literature, I finally relented and picked it up with some trepidation and reluctance. I was going to hate this, right?

American Psycho is less a story and more a series of events. A chapter called ‘Facial’ segways into ‘Date with Evelyn’ (Bateman’s despised, airheaded girlfriend). Bateman references future dates and gym visits that we never hear about. A chapter innocently titled ‘Tuesday’ turns out to contain the book’s first properly stomach churning scene. This seamlessly rolls into ‘Genesis’, a genius critique of Phil Collins’ band who Bateman describes as the “best, most exciting band to come out of England in the 1980s” – the novel’s second stomach churning scene.

Later, Bateman waxes lyrical about such musical luminaries as Huey Lewis and The News and Whitney Houston. These parodies of music writing are better written than many of the real things and tell us as much about Bateman as all those grisly murders. This is not a man we are meant to fear, he’s ripe for mocking. He takes his bad taste in music very seriously and is envious of friends’ business cards. He hates his girlfriend, and even his friends can barely remember his name. In a funny sort of way, we’re almost meant to feel sorry for him.

Half knowing something is of course far worse than knowing nothing and American Psycho naturally poured nasty, funny, clever scorn balls all over my half-baked ideas of what I thought the book was about (in summary: rats). For Bret Easton Ellis’s tale of a Wall Street worker with a thirst for torture and horrific mutilation was funny – proper chuckling-on-the-tube funny (bonus: laughing at American Psycho is a sure fire way of getting a bit more elbow room during rush hour on the Northern Line). And it’s clever, far more knowing and satirical than I had given it credit for.

I knew the murder scenes were going to be uncomfortable reading and, again, this was only a half-truth; they were way, way more brutal and gruesome that my imagination had stretched to. The torture Bateman dished out to his victims was so horrifying they left me dizzy and queasy. I felt spent by the end of each (seemingly more violent) murder and even skipped one towards the end (I was, rather foolishly, eating my dinner while reading it).

I find it difficult to defend violence in art and I think it’s largely justified simply because the flipside, the idea of violence being whitewashed from culture, is far more sinister. Art is there as much to challenge us as it is for our enjoyment. The world would be a much poorer place if bookshelves were filled solely with Sophie Kinsellas – a thought that brings out my own inner-Patrick Bateman. Shock value may seem attention seeking, even redundant, but cattle prodding people into seeing what’s under their noses is as much the work of good literature as whiling away a bus journey.

The savage murder scenes in American Psycho are only a small part of the book, but without them the novel would be little more than a amusing book about a Wall Street idiot, a very amusing book about a Wall Street idiot, but a slip of a book nonetheless that may have raised an eyebrow amongst the pinstripped masses of Canary Wharf, but wouldn’t have delivered the punch in the bloated face of a generation that it did on publication. And talking of bloated faces, American Psycho seems particularly apt at the moment when David Cameron and pals are ripping the metaphorical hearts out of their chosen victims while the real villains get to keep dining out on their expense accounts. “This is not an exit”, the book’s famous final line, sounds more like a threat than ever.

by Suzanne Elliott