What Could Have Been

Colson Whitehead, "The Colossus of New York"One of the other oddities of The Underground Railroad appears in the author’s biography, the very first sentence on the very first page of the book. The last words of the bio describe Colson Whitehead as the author of half a dozen novels as well as “a collection of essays, The Colossus of New York.” It doesn’t matter to me whether Whitehead himself wrote the bio or whether it was written for him. What matters is the extraordinary underselling of what is arguably his best book. The Colossus of New York is, as its title suggests, a love letter to a metropolis, but in no sense does Whitehead express his affections for Manhattan in the form of essays. You could maybe get away with calling Colossus a book of prose poetry, although even that label doesn’t fit well. There’s no easy way to say exactly what it is. Part of its power comes from that fact. To familiarise this unfamiliar thing by describing its contents as “essays” is to rob the book of its charms, shoehorning something idiosyncratic into the mundane. Continue reading

The Seeds of Mills’ Field

Poor Magnus Mills, the marginalised maestro of contemporary British literature. Although his début, The Restraint of Beasts, landed on the Booker Prize longlist almost twenty years ago, his ten subsequent titles haven’t won him much of a mainstream profile. In a sense, that’s no surprise. Mills makes little effort to appeal to a popular readership. His novels, especially, are abstract and opaque, recursive and pedantic, short on story and long on incidents of no apparent significance, and they loudly and proudly disavow any sense of purpose or relevance beyond their own pages. Still, it’s sad that his work has attracted only a niche following. His books are bitterly funny, belonging to that breed of deadpan absurdism and not-quite-fabulism pioneered by Donald Barthelme, and their narratives are supremely structured around elaborate schemes of concealments and revelations.

If you’re one of the many who haven’t yet jumped aboard the bandwagon, Mills’ latest novel, The Field of the Cloth of Gold, might entice you to make the leap. It contains a good dose of everything that makes Mills worth reading, and in fact it not only embraces the tendencies that colour his backlist but also brings them to a sort of apotheosis. Longtime fans may the book a little irritating, perhaps a compendium of retreads of some of Mills’ greatest hits, but for newcomers it will open up the perfect port of entry to his entire body of work and to the array of bizarre scenarios he has spent his career creating. Continue reading

Variations On a Single Tone

Picture this. You’re out on a date at a fancy restaurant when the waiter brings you the soup you ordered along with a plateful of hair. The restaurant is otherwise “nice” and tonight’s date is “the first [one] in months” and, to judge from the way your partner looks down at the plate of hair and then looks expectantly at you, you can’t be sure if this particular dish has been ordered by mistake or if your partner ordered it for you while you were in the bathroom. You don’t want to screw this up. You need to show manners and social graces. If you find yourself in this scenario, what are you supposed to do? And if you’re a writer for whom this scenario sets up a short story, how do you allow your protagonist to react to it? Continue reading