And yet the internet has certainly changed the way we read. For a start, it means that there is more to read, because more people than ever are writing. If you time travelled just a few decades into the past, you would wonder at how little writing was happening, outside a classroom. There would be no people sitting in coffee shops urgently stabbing their laptops with two fingers, or updating the social network with the headline news of their lives. You might see the odd person signing a cheque or pencilling in an appointment in their Filofax. But mostly writing would be farmed out to professionals, and appear only in print.
In the analogue era, writing was read much later than it was written. Digital writing is meant for rapid release and response. A text or tweet is a slightly interrupted, virtual way of having a conversation. An online article starts forming a comment thread underneath as soon as it is published. This mode of writing and reading can be democratic, interactive and fun. But often it treats other people’s words as something to be quickly harvested as fodder to say something else. Everyone talks over the top of everyone else, straining to be heard.
Wasn’t it time, after all, to ditch that hoary, male-perpetuated chestnut about women deriving sexual pleasure from gazing moistly into their partners’ eyes? Is not the female libido equal to, if not more robust, than the male’s?
This is the case she seeks to make in “Untrue,” her new book about the nature of women’s sexuality, the title a simultaneous reference to an archaic word for faithless and the much-debated doctrine that women by nature are inclined to be “true.”
To speak in such sweeping terms of any artwork would be to edge perilously close to fawning over-appreciation, yet the scale of “The Clock” is one that warrants it’s almost cult-like following across the art world. Consisting of movie clips spliced together, all featuring a clock or referencing time, viewers are able to watch in real time as 24 hours (and crucially, 1440 minutes) are depicted on screen and in sequence. In a darkened room at 9:24 am, those that sit and watch “The Clock” will find a film scene that depicts the exact moment when the camera panned away to reveal a clock face reading the time, 9:24 am. It’s a dangerously brilliant concept and by-and-large seemingly impossible to make.
In 1893, Boston was bustling, especially after the sun went down. “Night owls of all classes” roamed the streets, wrote the Boston Daily Globe, including “workers, idlers, pleasure seekers, spendthrifts, tramps and bums.” At some point, all of these people would want something to eat. The wealthy could get their quail on toast at any hour, observed the writer. For everyone else, there were the night lunch wagons. While they served inexpensive eats, the wagons themselves could be as fancifully decorated as music boxes on wheels.
At some point my wheelchair will resemble a spacecraft, with rods and pads and dials and bleeps. I will tell my story to my youngest son – of baby Jimmy, the astronaut in nappies, and journeys to the Milky Way. Life will change again. I used to think the presence of children elevated my condition to tragedy. I no longer think that; I think the opposite. I think we’ll tell new stories. And those who love us will tell these stories, too. We’ll find new ways. Because we have to.
As a writer, I have been stuck for years. But I think a terminal diagnosis is the very finest tool a writer can have; it’s the view from an escarpment of both the beginning and the end. It has enabled me to write with a lightness about my life and this time. The book I’m writing is for my two children, no one else, so that when they are in their 20s or 30s or 40s and want to know who their dad really was, they can find out. I want them to know how remarkable this time was.
On a good day, all of humanity’s accomplishments feel personal: the soaring violins of the second allegretto movement of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7, the intractable painted stare of Frida Kahlo, the enormous curving spans of the Golden Gate Bridge, the high wail of PJ Harvey’s voice on “Victory,” the last melancholy pages of Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. These works remind us that we’re connected to the past and our lives have limitless potential. We were built to touch the divine.
On a bad day, all of humanity’s failures feel unbearably personal: coyotes wandering city streets due to encroaching wildfires, American citizens in Puerto Rico enduring another day without electricity or potable water in the wake of Hurricane Maria, neo-Nazis spouting hatred in American towns, world leaders testing missiles that would bring the deaths of millions of innocent people. We encounter bad news in the intimate glow of our cell phone screens, and then project our worries onto the flawed artifacts of our broken world: the for lease sign on the upper level of the strip mall, the crow picking at a hamburger wrapper in the gutter, the pink stucco walls of the McMansion flanked by enormous square hedges, the blaring TVs on the walls of the local restaurant. On bad days, each moment is haunted by a palpable but private sense of dread. We feel irrelevant at best, damned at worst. Our only hope is to numb and distract ourselves as well as we can on our long, slow march to the grave.
Dark Water is historical fiction with high literary ambitions, employing a variety of narrative techniques – letters, court records, the confession of a man accidentally mesmerised by light on the sea. It asks big questions – who can claim with certainty to be sane? – and it is lent satisfying substance by Lowry’s conjuration of a past society, complete with its prejudices and its cooking, its sturdily handsome domestic architecture, its chilly domestic relationships and, above all, its particular forms of madness.
Nevertheless, Boyd’s drama builds powerfully towards its ending, when at last Brodie arrives in the Bay of Bengal, and where he unwittingly mouths (in German) some of Chekhov’s own words. In its poignant closing scenes, the book balances the sad and ordinary randomness of life – its bathos even – with a kind of transcendence born out of Brodie’s longing. It’s a finely judged performance: a deft and resonant alchemy of fact and fiction, of literary myth and imagination.