2001: I am not a fan of Malcolm Gladwell. Review of “The Tipping Point” from The Lancet.

I actually quite enjoy Gladwell’s articles – a bit solutionist at times but he can tell a story well. Like many other books by New Yorker writers whose New Yorker pieces I quite enjoy, Gladwell’s books tend to disappoint. From The Lancet in Feb 2001, here is a not very flattering article on The Tipping Point.

The Tipping Point clearly has influenced Nudge and a range of other small-things-make-a-big-difference approaches to social issues. As a principle it is not inherently wrong, and the examples Gladwell discusses are pretty interesting…. but the complexity and subtlety of a situation can get missed.

Looking back on this review, I was (am?) prone to some hackneyed phrases (“insightful pieces with quicksilver intelligence” for instance) and the piece doesn’t really hang together – I evidently dislike the book, but why? I seem to only cite literary grounds, finding Gladwell’s style here a bit annoying. Looking back, it is clear the solutionism is pretty rampant here, and I could have reflected more critically on that:

The new New Thing
Seamus Sweeney
Published: 03 February 2001

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(05)71540-3

The tipping point has much to recommend it—certain fascinating ideas and phenomena explained clearly. But it also has much to deplore—tendencies towards pop psychology and writing to match. The book is subtitled “How little things can make a big difference”, and Gladwell uses the sharp fall in crime in New York City in the 1990s and the sudden hipness of Hush Puppies, previously chronically unfashionable, to introduce the book, as examples of sudden, unpredictable trends. He claims to apply the thinking of an epidemiologist to how social and cultural trends spread. “The Tipping Point is the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point”, the tiny, decisive moment where the slightest push makes all the difference.

Gladwell tells us of the “Three Rules of Epidemics.” The first is The Law of the Few—in any epidemic, a small group of people infect a disproportionate amount of people. He uses the examples of Darnell “Boss Man” McGee, who infected at least 30 women with HIV, and Gaetan Dugas, “Patient Zero”, the flight attendant linked to over 40 of the earliest cases of AIDS in New York and San Francisco. The same principle applies to social and cultural epidemics. Gladwell defines who the few are: Connectors, who know a lot of people in different social groupings; Mavens, well-informed people who discover new products, concepts and trends; and Salesmen, who persuade people to try The New Thing. A social epidemic must touch base with representatives of all three groups. The second rule of epidemics is the Stickiness Factor. Gladwell uses the examples of the famous Winston’s cigarettes slogan (“Winston tastes good like a cigarette should”) and the story of Sesame Street to illustrate the properties of The New Thing that make it memorable. The third law of epidemics is the Power of Context. In 1964, a woman called Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in Queens on the street with her 38 neighbours watching, none of whom bothered to call the police. At the time it was cited as evidence of the selfishness induced by urban life. But subsequent psychological work found that in such events, the biggest factor that determines whether someone helps is the number of witnesses. The more witnesses, the less likely that an individual will take the responsibility to act; it is diffused among too many people. In other words, the effect of The New Thing depends on the context.

Gladwell invokes the tumble in New York crime statistics, and in particular the concept known as “Broken Windows”; apparently petty crime like graffiti or broken windows acts as a suitable context for violent crime. Thus minor changes such as cleaning up graffiti help spread the social epidemic of not committing crime. The lesson here is that context is crucially important in behaviour. A rather mean-spirited experiment on a group of seminarians is cited as proving this; they were asked to prepare a sermon and cross over to another building. Some were told to sermonise on “The Good Samaritan”, while others were given more general texts. As they headed off, some were told that they were running late while others were told they were early. En route they encountered a man who had collapsed on the ground and was in some distress. It was found that the seminarians who helped the stranger were those who were running early— even those who were about to speak on the Good Samaritan would hurry past if they thought they were late. Thus the physical context (lateness versus punctuality) was more important than the moralistic context (the actual content of the sermon) in determining behaviour.

Gladwell has many more examples than those referred to here; from the epidemic of suicide in Micronesia to the rise and fall of Airwalk sneakers. His universe is a giddy one, one where “with the slightest push—in just the right place—it can be tipped”. As an adventure through a world of ideas, it is highly enjoyable. But as a work of literature, it has an irritating factor of its own.

A critic quoted on the press release for this book compares Gladwell to Edmund Wilson. Another literary figure came to mind: Anthony Robbins, author of Unlimited power and Awaking the giant within. What sounds like a cross between popular science writing and cultural commentary instead occupies a no-man’s-land between books for salesmen and self help books for people who don’t read.

The tipping point marks something of a dumbing down for Gladwell, who writes thought-provoking, insightful pieces with quicksilver intelligence for the New Yorker. One can’t help thinking that Gladwell started writing a very different book, and commercial imperatives took over. Or possibly it is the condescension of the metropolitan New Yorker writer to the little folks out there in Middle America. There is a fascinating book to be written about Gladwell’s basic thesis—that little things not only make a big difference, they make the biggest difference. This is, alas, not it.


Review of “The Mystery of the Aleph: Mathematics, The Kabbalah, and the Search for Infinity”, Amir D Aczel, Lancet, 17th February 2001

Following on from a review of a book on Nabokov on butterflies, my second piece in a proper non-student publication was this review of Amir D Aczel’s book on George Cantor and infinity. I still find the topic of this book quietly mind-blowing. The “diagonal argument” is a wonderfully accessible “ah-a” moment. Around this time I read a lot of popularisations on maths – which may have given me an entirely false confidence in my own mathematical ability.


The French mathematician Henri Poincaré wrote that the work of Georg Cantor was “a malady, a perverse illness from which someday mathematics will be cured”; the equally legendary German mathematician David Hilbert held that “no one will expel us from the paradise that Georg Cantor has opened for us”. Cantor, working in isolation in a provincial university, was at the cutting edge of late 19th-century mathematics, discovering set theory, establishing notation for infinite numbers, and stating the continuum hypothesis, for decades regarded as the most difficult problem in pure mathematics.

Galileo demonstrated in 1638 that one can prove that the set of all whole numbers is equal in number to the set of all squares of whole numbers, which is a subset of the set of all whole numbers. How can this be so? If we list all the natural numbers 1, 2, 3… and so on, we can place each of these umbers in direct one-to-one correspondence with its square. We can also put each one in correspondence with a prime. Cantor would later use such thinking to define an infinite set as a collection of objects that can be put into a one-to-one correspondence with a part of itself. Cantor realised that the paradoxes of infinity produced weren’t just slightly bothersome games but required a new type of arithmetic. Sets that can be matched to each other like the example above are then said to have the same cardinality; Cantor dubbed such sets “countably infinite” and denoted their cardinality by “aleph-null”—the Hebrew letter aleph with the subscript zero.

Cantor proved that there are infinities larger than countable infinities by a remarkably ingenious argument—if we try to count all possible real numbers (numbers that can represented as decimals) between 0 and 1, we find we cannot put them in a one-to-one correspondence with the natural numbers of countable infinity. Suppose we list the natural numbers and correspond them with all possible decimals between 0 and 1, in no particular order, like so: and so on forever. Cantor constructed a “diagonal number” by taking the first digit from the first place after the decimal point of the first number, the second digit from the second place after the decimal point of the second, and so on. In this example we get the number 0·27267…which is made of a digit from every single number on the list. If we alter each digit in this number by adding one to it, we get a new number (in this case 0·38378…) which cannot appear anywhere on the original list, since by its very construction it differs by at least one digit from every single entry in the list. In other words, constructing the diagonal number creates a number that has at least one digit in common with every single decimal on the list—and by changing that digit we create a number that loses this common characteristic with each of the numbers on the list. So the decimals cannot possibly be put into one-to-one correspondence with the natural numbers—they are uncountably infinite and are denoted by the symbol C for continuum. The author also demonstrates how Cantor used the concept of the continuum to prove, amongst other things, that there are as many points on any given line as in any shape or volume, no matter of what size. “I see it, but I don’t believe it!” Cantor wrote (in French) of this result.

1 ………… 0.2345678 to infinity
2 ………… 0.5756037s to infinity
3………… 0.6729283 to infinity
4 ………… 0.2386412 to infinity
5 ………… 0.9877754 to infinity

The continuum hypothesis was Cantor’s next step. He wondered whether infinite sets exist that are intermediate in size between aleph-null and C. He thought they didn’t—in his own notation, he hoped to prove that aleph-one (which he defined as the next order of infinity following aleph-null) equalled C—but was unable to prove so. The problem increasingly began to haunt him. His work was under attack from the Berlin-based mathematical establishment, embodied in Leopold Kronecker, who sternly declared “God made the integers; all else is the work of man”. He longed for an appointment to the mathematical faculty in Berlin, and began to believe that his enemies were conspiring against him. Spending increasing amounts of time in the Halle Nervenklinik, he also became an enthusiastic advocate of the Baconian theory of Shakespearean authorship; Aczel represents this as Cantor’s tortured intellect taking refuge from the blinding light of infinity, which he compares to the infinite brightness of the chaluk, God’s robe in Kabbalah tradition. Increasingly Cantor gave the continuum hypothesis the status of dogma, declaring that “from me, Christian philosophy will be offered for the first time the true theory of the infinite”.

The mathematicians Kurt Gödel (who himself suffered from paranoia and hypochondria) and Paul Cohen would later show that, firstly, if we treat the continuum hypothesis as an additional axiom of set theory, it doesn’t contradict any of the other axioms of set theory, and secondly if we treat the opposite of the continuum hypothesis as an additional axiom of set theory, it doesn’t contradict any of the other axioms of set theory. Thus the continuum hypothesis is independent of the other axioms of set theory, and therefore can neither be proved or refuted from those axioms.

As he discusses Cantor’s existence in the provincial university of Halle, Aczel announces “mathematical research is best done within a community of good mathematicians. Research results can be shared and ideas exchanged, so that new theories can develop and thrive”. This is almost certainly true, yet within a few pages Aczel has discussed not only Cantor but two of his contemporaries who made spectacular advances working in isolation; the immensely likeable Karl Weierstrass (who developed the modern theory of mathematical analysis by night while working as a schoolteacher), and Richard Dedekind (who made equally important contributions to the definition of irrational numbers in the provincial University of Brunswick)—yet Aczel never even discusses the implications of this.

It is significant that a recent survey of American scientists’ attitude to the divine found mathematicians the most likely (with biologists the least likely) to believe in a God. Reading of the dizzying orders of infinity that Cantor explored, one feels perhaps that maths and music are the closest humanity can get to any sense of the divine. Aczel treats this potentially fascinating theme in a curiously perfunctory way; the Kabbalah is discussed in one chapter, belying the subtitle. There are some rather superficial references to the ability of the human mind to comprehend the infinite, with occasional references to the connection between Cantor’s fragile mental state and his work on the continuum hypothesis. Periodically Aczel announces that Galileo or Cantor or Güdel had the ability to face in full the concept of infinity, which most mathematicians and indeed human beings never do, but never explores precisely what this means.

All told The mystery of the Aleph deals with one of the most fascinating themes that mathematics holds for the general reader, and deals sympathetically with its central character. Indeed the rarefied world of infinity and its relationship with the divine is perhaps the most beguiling seductress mathematics can rely on to persuade the reflex numerophobes conditioned to see mathematics as dry, soulless, and worst of all, boring. Like Paul Hoffman’s The man who loved only numbers and John D Barrow’s Pi in the sky, this is another accessible introduction to the world of pure mathematics, although perhaps Hoffman’s work is more engaging. Aczel’s work belongs in the set of books dealing with fascinating tales and concepts that fall just barely short of greatness.

Review of Oliver Sacks, “The River of Consciousness”, TLS 13th March 2018

A Medical Education

I have a review in the current TLS of Oliver Sacks’ essay collection, “The River of Consciousness” . The full article is subscriber only so here is the opening….

Who is the most famous medical doctor in the world today? Until his death in 2015, a reasonable case could be made that it was Oliver Sacks. Portrayed by Robin Williams on screen, inspiring a Michael Nyman opera and plays by Peter Brook and Harold Pinter, Sacks took his followers far beyond the confines of neurology.

In their Foreword to The Rivers of Consciousness, a posthumously published collection of Sacks’s essays, the editors recount the time Sacks appeared in a Dutch documentary series, A Glorious Accident. Along with, among others, Daniel Dennett, Freeman Dyson and Stephen Jay Gould, Sacks discussed “the origin of life, the meaning of evolution, the nature of consciousness. In a lively discussion, one thing was clear: Sacks…

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Peter Reason on being a pilgrim and being a tourist

I recently re-blogged a section from Peter Reason’s new book, In Search of Grace. I’ve been reading it over the weekend and am sorely tempted to simply copy out sections. I hope to write a fuller, more considered review in due course but also hope to blog responses to particular themes. Reason’s “ecological pilgrimage” touches on a huge range of topics related to nature connection, silence, conservation, pilgrimage, and time and whole range of topics close to my heart.


It is an engaging read which is helpfully upfront about the messy human reality of pilgrimage – very far from a continuous series of flow experiences, epiphanies of so on. His pilgrimage is ecological rather than explicitly religious and draws on a wide range of traditions, including secular/scientific ones – but with a great deal of respect for the religious underpinnings of pilgrimage.

He is also unsentimental – observing for instance that as the “Sixth Great Extinction” began pretty much once homo sapiens showed up, blaming the depradations humans have wrought on the planet on “Western” or “modern” man is a mistake.

Anyway, there is a huge amount to get to grips with and I hope to feature some highlights and thoughts here over the next while. For the moment, one theme which is relatively minor but highly significant is the distinction between the pilgrim and the tourist. I have blogged on this before – or rather on the distinction often made between being a “tourist” and a “traveller” – my own preference being for honest tourist rather than pretentious traveller.

For Reason, these reflections are most acute on Inishmore, largest of the Aran Islands. Aware of the tension inherent in bringing economic benefit to an isolated community (although as he writes, given the preponderence of day trippers the main beneficiaries are the ferry companies), he also notes his own preference for solitude in sites like Dun Aengus. Yet, is he so different from the mass of tourists? As he reflects afterwards:

I sailed north with a heavy heart, disappointed with my visit. Inishmore is a remarkable place. First for its lessons in geology: it is one thing to read about how erosion creates limestone pavements, quite another to actually walk over them. Second, for its lessons in history: while this is not my part of the world, I know is has been deeply influenced and impoverished both by its own conflicts and those imported from England. For me, however, these qualities were overwhelmed by the visitor culture, not so much by the curiosity of the people who visit, but by the infrastructure that is required to cater from them and to profit from them. The tourist business requires that large numbers of visitors move through the sites fairly quickly and are returned to the tourist hub where they can spend their money.

It is all too easy to make a crude distinction between tourist and pilgrim. We are all both. The line is a subtle one that I found myself continually crossing and recrossing, never entirely sure which side I was on. Indeed, nature writer Paul Evans refers to people like me who go in search of wild places as ‘wilderness tourist.’ Religious pilgrims who go to sacred places in search of a holy realm will often take time out for sightseeing; and tourists visiting the same place may find themselves affected more profoundly than they had bargained for. The tourist may see a haughty arrogance in the pilgrim’s claim to a higher purpose, and the pilgrims may look down on the superficiality they see in the tourists.

Reason goes on to write as to why he finds the distinction still worth making; I don’t want this to turn into simply posting extracts from his writing so I would urge those who wish to know more to seek out the book For me, sites like the Louvre and the British Museum do acquire the status of pilgrim sites, and when somewhere is described as “touristy” it is usually because there is something worthwhile there. Of course, the experience of visiting it may be wrapped up in a lot of tiresome tat and overcrowding, but it was ever thus …

‘British Army Gothic and Innocent Landscapes’ : The Troubles in Photographs (review of”The Maze”, Donovan Wylie, Nthposition, 2004)

‘British Army Gothic and Innocent Landscapes’ : The Troubles in Photographs (review of”The Maze”, Donovan Wylie, Nthposition, 2004)

(Nthposition seems to be no longer live, so the text is recovered from this blog and photos from Wylie’s book are reproduced here.)

“The Maze”
by Seamus Sweeney
Nth Position Book Reviews

Review of:
The Maze
Donovan Wylie
Granta, 2004

Prisons often have strangely poetic names. Think of Strangeways in Manchester or Parchman in Mississippi, think of Sing Sing or Spandau. Even Wormwood Scrubs has an evocative ring – the juxtaposition of the Book of Revelations book Wormwood and an image of the mundane labour of scrubbing. Some prisons display reverse nominative determination – Mountjoy in Dublin is anything but joyful. But no prison that I know of has as apt a name as The Maze near Belfast.

I had always assumed “The Maze” was so called because it was literally a maze, a medieval sounding fortress-prison. In fact, the townland on which the prison was built was known as “An Má” – the plain – as Gaeilge, which became “The Maze” over time. Yet the Maze is exactly that. Like something out of a Borges story, the building is deliberately designed to baffle and confuse. Entering the world of Donovan Wylie’s photographs is to enter a world of “steriles” and “inertias” – open spaces, the former a stone surfaced space designed to immobilise the prisoners, the latter a void running immediately along the wall of the prison designed to detect any movements near the seventeen-foot high perimeter wall. It’s a world of roads that are almost all cul-de-sacs, where any one point in the prison looks exactly the same as sundry other points.

Northern Ireland. The Maze Prison. H-Block 5. Excercise Yard B. 2003 photo by Donovan Wylie via http://we-make-money-not-art.com/donovan_wylie_vision_as_power/

The Maze, from the evidence of Wylie’s photographs, was and is a prime example of a distinctive architecture those familiar with the Northern Ireland landscape will instantly recognise. The watchtowers, many now dismantled but many still present across the landscape, the courthouses and police stations surrounded by high walls and enmeshed in barbed wire – British Army Gothic, it could be called. For many who didn’t have to actually live there (and, I suspect, not a few of those who did) the apparatus of militarisation gave driving through the North a certain frisson of excitement. It was part of what made Northern Ireland distinct, and for this Free Stater, part of the sense of the place not being the same as Galway or Cork. There was a certain heaviness in the air, palpable at the sight of one of these inscrutable structures. Margaret Thatcher’s aphorism that Northern Ireland was as British as her constituency Finchley was widely ridiculed, but to call it as Irish as Spiddal or Mullingar betrays an even tinnier ear to the unique atmosphere of the Six Counties/Ulster/Northern Ireland.

As that last splurge of strokes indicates, it’s almost impossible to write about the wider topic of Northern Ireland for any length without betraying yourself – I use the word “betraying” judiciously. One’s allegiances are revealed in the very terms used to describe the Troubles/conflict/armed struggle/security situation. Even the attempt to be linguistically neutral will probably alienate both sides more than anything else.

Northern Ireland. The Maze Prison. Inertia Stage 2. 2003 Photo by Donovan Wylie via http://we-make-money-not-art.com/donovan_wylie_vision_as_power/

Dr Louise Purbrick, Senior Lecturer in the History of Art and Design at the University of Brighton, provides a clear-sighted essay on the photographs that manages, on the whole, to avoid the partisan traps language sets for the unwary (although – here’s the inevitable “although”) her account of the start of the “Troubles” is a bit simplistic. Like a lot of penological literature, there’s a strange void in Purbrick’s essay – no mention of what the prisoners had actually done to end up in jail. One almost feels a deus ex machina has deposited them there.

Purbrick is strong on the history of the Maze, and the thinking in prison construction and design that underlay its conception. The Maze was built in 1976, beside the existing internment camp of Long Kesh. The paradox was that to enforce the end of special category status for paramilitary prisoners, a special prison had to be used. The Maze was unique in British prisons in that it was a complete maximum security institution – elsewhere in the UK, the policy of ‘dispersal’, incarcerating high security prisoners in Special Security Units scattered throughout the prison system, had been in place since the Sixties and continues to be. Housing prisoners in separate cells, as opposed to the dormitories of Long Kesh, was expected to break up group loyalties.

Northern Ireland. The Maze Prison. Chapel, Phase 3. 2003. Photo by Donovan Wylie via We Make Money Not Art site (see link above)

The H-blocks which became part of the iconography of the Troubles were prefabricated concrete units whose shape was dictated by economy rather than any aspiration to symbolise anything. The advent of prefabrication in prison architecture could even be seen as part of the International Modernist glorification of functionality over traditional ideals of form. If Le Corbusier felt a house was a machine for living in, prefabricated prisons were machines for incarcerating people in. Built by the Royal Engineers, the Maze is British Army Gothic Triumphant – Wylie describes how the walls initially appear entirely grey, such is the volume of barbed wire around them.

The Hunger Strikes of the early Eighties (there were two major ones, the second during which Bobby Sands and ten others died, and a less well known strike in 1980) and the dirty protests, as well as creating a potent Republican martyrology and searing the H-block into Irish consciousness, ultimately ended the debate on special status. Purbrick cites the Chief Inspector of Prisons during this later phase in the conflict that “there is no point in pretending that it is a normal prison.”

Wylie’s photographs both gain and lose something for being taken when the Maze was unoccupied. There’s an eerie, JG Ballardian atmosphere to the photos of vast institutional structures now disused. There is little difference between the inertias and steriles, and indeed navigating the photographs becomes disorientating – have I been here before, one asks, even while turning the pages. This is a hint of the derealisation that the Maze itself must have provoked.

The pictures of now-empty cells, their flowery curtains the one hint of lively colour in the book, again strike one largely with their sameness. But how much of this is the sameness of institutional buildings – from hospitals to schools to barracks back to prisons – anywhere? How much of our reaction to these photos is their presumed context – was this cell wall covered in excrement, did a hunger striker lie on this bed? In these images, life is drained out- but is it because the prison is empty or because of the nature of the building itself?

The images are reminiscent of David Farrell’s Innocent Landcapes (published in book form in 2001). In 1999, after the Northern Ireland (Location of Victims’ Remains) Bill was passed in the Commons declaring an amnesty to help the identification and location of the remains of those “disappeared” during the Troubles, six locations were identified where eight people had been buried after being murdered by the IRA. Their fate and the location of their bodies had been unknown to their families since the Seventies. Farrell’s photographs were pastoral landscapes, with the unmistakable signs of a forensic search for a body discreetly in the middle distance, like a shepherd in a Poussin painting. Hannah Arendt’s thinking on the banality of evil are often discussed, but Wylie and Farrell portray the banality of much else that we think of with fear and trembling – the banal reality of maximum security and of murder and hidden burial respectively. Wylie and Farrell complement each other in other ways – Wylie portrays the architectural embodiment of the state’s forceful authority, while Farrell shows us the smiling hills where the IRA forcefully asserted its authority. (edit in 2017 – Farrell continued his project beyond the time this review was written, see here)

Image from Innocent Landscapes, David Farrell, via http://www.galleryofphotography.ie/innocent-landscapes-by-david-farrell-010101-010201/

The Maze now lies empty, closed since October 2003. A public process of consultation is ongoing as to its fate – the interested can visit the site at New Future for the Maze. Predictably, there is a sectarian edge to the various proposals – museum, suburban centre, stadium – for its future. Wylie’s photographs may be closest we will get to simply leaving the Maze intact, neither the burden of interpretative centres with a no doubt contentious interpretation nor the simple erasure of history, but simply leaving it as it is.

Innocent Landscapes, Resumed search, Oristown, March, 2011 from http://source.ie/blog/?p=1659

Review of “Wild Abandon”, Joe Dunthorne, TLS, August 19th 2011


This is a brief review of an entertaining second novel by Joe Dunthorne. It didn’t quite have the success of Submarine, which was a pity, since in many ways the focus expanded quite effectively. Some tendency towards journalistese (see the Happy Mondays quote I mention below) it was a very effective comic novel that did a certain justice to its characters. With thanks to Maren Meinhardt for sending me the full published text.

Joe Dunthorne’s first novel, Submarine (2008), depicted a Swansea teenager’s comically sex-obsessed, self-dramatizing existence and his tragic attempts to keep his parents together. In his new novel, Dunthorne broadens his canvas to a commune in South Wales, but the focus remains on growing up, family life and marital breakdown. These, the novel suggests, are equally painful in unconventional families and in nuclear ones. Blean-y-llyn is a secular, non mystical exercise in communal living, conceived in the early 1990s by Don Riley and his companions. The Welsh name is not significant since all the communards are English, and it is known to the locals as the Rave House after a legendary fifteenth birthday party for Don’s daughter, Kate, which turned into an all-night affair.

The opening scene, in which seventeen year-old Kate and her eleven-year-old brother Albert have a shower together – it is the only way to get Albert to wash – suggests the eccentricity of the Riley ménage, in which Freya, the children’s mother, is increasingly alienated from Don. While Kate leaves every day to attend a sixth form college, Albert, who feels “puberty’s greasy palm on his shoulder”, is still schooled in the commune, with only six-year-old Isaac for company. Sensible Kate is one of those exasperated daughters of ostentatiously countercultural parents, but Albert has absorbed the apocalyptic beliefs of Isaac’s mother Marina, a serial commune-dweller and a believer in the upcoming cosmic dislocations of 2012.

Don Riley is a monster of righteousness and ill-judged humour. In one excruciating scene he tells his unwilling eleven-year-old son how he lost his virginity: “he leaned down to Albert’s ear and whispered conspiratorially in a tone that he hoped would show his son that, one day, the two of them could be friends. ‘She had a climber’s body but alpine tits’”. Also disturbing is Don’s use of the Personal Instrument, a self-built device for the focusing of consciousness, as an initiation for the commune’s children into adulthood – he inflicts this modified motorcycle helmet on Albert as a desperate and futile attempt at control. At times the larger-than-life Don threatens to dominate the book to the detriment of its wider themes.

Dunthorne creates sympathetic adolescent characters. Kate’s alienation from the commune reaches a crisis point, and she leaves to stay with her boyfriend Geraint and his nice, average suburban family – local television news producer dad, devoted and supportive mum. Having grown up on a diet of films depicting bourgeois life as a repository of hidden dysfunction, Kate expects dark secrets amid the mown lawns and plasma screens, and some of Dunthorne’s most acute humour exposes the limits of Kate’s apparently clear-eyed world-view. There are some false steps – a long expository section dips into Sunday supplement generalizations (“Black Monday revealed the vulnerability of the stocks markets; the Happy Mondays revealed the quality of drugs coming from the continent”) and the final rave seems set up for a sentimental resolution. Fortunately, a powerful last scene is able to reconcile Kate’s new maturity, the altered dynamics of the Riley family, and even Albert’s millennial anxieties, and Wild Abandon comes to a satisfying close.

“the overbearing mother, the emotional repression, the teasing sort-of girlfriend, the constant guilt and fear ” – draft review of The Cure, Rachel Genn, TLS, 2011

The TLS ultimately used a much edited version of this review of a book I evidently didn’t like. Perhaps I was uncomfortable with the line “having sex with Séamus in a pub toilet.” Bad sex writing ahoy!


Eugene Mahon is a familiarly depressive fictional Irish male, living a
life of quiet desperation in Salthill, Co. Galway. He is kitted out
with the accoutrements of his type – the overbearing mother, the
emotional repression, the teasing sort-of girlfriend, the constant
guilt and fear. His father, Séamus, died some years before, marinated
in alcohol – his drinking accelerating after a Shoreditch building
site accident which left another man worse off than dead. And in a
familiar move both in reality and fiction, Eugene lights out for
London town; specifically to work on the sites and to live in The
Beacon, the pub lodgings where his father had stayed.

Della, landlady of the Beacon, receives Eugene’s letter announcing his
arrival with dismay. She recalls, in a passage that alternates
logistical and lyrical modes, having sex with Séamus in a pub toilet
(“Between the sink and the toilet there wasn’t much room for the V of
her thighs – ‘Weightlifter’s thighs,’ Seamus had kidded, his fingers
digging into the underside of them for a second … Even then, at the
moment where wanting becomes having, she had known that she would wake
with the barbs of who and where carelessly jagging over her” ). Jack,
a confrere of Seamus’ from the old days, is still is residence at The
Beacon. Della’s Oxbridge educated daughter Julia (“Little Miss May
Balls” as her mother mockingly calls her), and Julia’s shiftless
philosopher-boyfriend Rhodri (working on a volume of aphorisms and
daydreaming of a column: “’Grey Matters – where Psychology meets
Philosophy meets the Popular.’ The better Sunday supplements were
crying out for it. Perhaps even the TLS if he shaved off the
expletives.”) also populate this dive.

Upon arrival, Eugene goes to work on a site presided over by the man
who employed his father, tough but benevolent Buck O’Halloran and his
far from benevolent son Noble. The sites are no longer the preserve of
Irish refugees from miscellaneous misery; this is a truly
multinational crew. Eugene livens up – a little. Of course, an
Irishman in a novel cannot be all that happy for all that long, and
Eugene eventually wakes in a police cell, with a charge of racially
aggravated assault and no memory of how he got there or what lead to
the charge.

“The Cure” reminded me inescapably of Fitzgerald’s dictum that “Begin
with an individual and you end up with a type, begin with a type and
you end with – nothing.” Eugene’s almost stereotypically miseryguts
Irishman may live a little in London, but never takes on a spark of
life. His mother, his brother, his girlfriend back in Salthill – all
seem barely reheated leftovers from an Edna O’Brien novel. The writing
is slightly livelier, slightly more engaging, dealing with the
multiethnic crew of the site – but even these figures feel half formed, and tend to speak in the contemporary equivalent of Kipling’s aspirate-free Tommies.
Of all the characters, Rhodri’s absurd philosophising and pretension
(“he believed that writing in pencil let more of the self out”) are
closest to memorable, striking attributes.

While the flashbacks to Salthill largely read like an updated Angela’s
Ashes, there are some moving moments. The rain-sodden depressive
Irish caricature has a basis in reality, and Genn captures some
elements of the mother-son relationship very well – but more in discursive
passages (“it was obvious to her that her children had been trying to
get one over on her since the day they were born so she countered this
with apocalyptic predictions”) than in action or dialogue. These moments aside, The Cure moves with plodding overinclusiveness towards an unearned epiphany.