Tuesday, January 07, 2020

On the Konds of India and their earth goddess Tari

"The Konds also related a certain myth, in which Tari made a revelation to humankind by taking the form of a woman, called Amali Baeli, one of their first ancestors. The myth runs as follows. At the time when the earth was created, every place was simply a swamp and the whole countryside swayed and shook continually. At this primeval time there was a Kui house shaking in the morass; a woman and a man lived there and their names were Amali Baeli and Bumi Kuari. When the man was out one day, Amali Baeli was peeling vegetables for the pot. She cut her little finger and the blood oozed out, not falling on the vegetables, but on the ground. Then the heaving earth solidified and became very fertile. Amali Baeli said, 'Look, what a good change! Cut up my body to complete it!', but the Konds refused. Thinking she was a Kond, they were unwilling to sacrifice her, instead, they resolved to purchase victims from other peoples. Believing that without the falling of human blood on the ground there is no fertility, Kond's ancestors sought a way of burying human flesh; and so began the mrimi sacrifice.

"According to the tradition of the Konds, men still complained to Tari that they were poor and troubled in many ways. The goddess therefore demanded an extension of the human sacrifice, which had to be performed on many more occasions, with new ceremonies and new arrangements for the provision of victims. In addition, she told them that she would no longer limit the value of human sacrifice to her worshippers, but would extend its benefits to all humankind. The Tari worshippers thus believed that they became responsible for the well-being of the whole world, with the result that they practised human sacrifices in great numbers."

from "Human Sacrifice among the Konds" by Lourens van den Bosch

Wednesday, January 01, 2020

Best new films of 2019

1. The Irishman
2. Gemini Man in 120fps 3D
3. Little Women
4. Monos
5. Can You Ever Forgive Me?
6. Marriage Story
7. Support the Girls
8. Her Smell
9. Midsommar
10. Us

Best non-2019 films seen for the first time in 2019

1. Bloody Sunday (2002)
2. Big Night (1996)
3. Swing Shift director's cut (1984)
4. Mikey and Nicky (1976)
5. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
6. Salesman (1969)
7. Melvin (and Howard) (1980)
8. High Noon (1952)
9. La Verité (1960)
10. Golgo 13: The Professional (1983)

Monday, January 07, 2019

Best new films of 2018

1. Mission Impossible: Fallout
2. Roma
3. The Old Man & the Gun
4. The Post
5. Phantom Thread
6. First Reformed
7. The House That Jack Built
8. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse
9. The Favourite
10. Cold War

Best non-2018 films seen for the first time in 2018

1. Sense and Sensibility (1995)
2. Sorceror (1977)
3. Frankenhooker (1990)
4. Josie and the Pussycats (2001)
5. Grand Hotel (1932)
6. Heathers (1988)
7. Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
8. Hunger (2008)
9. Onibaba (1964)
10. Society (1989)

Best albums of 2018

1. Mitski – Be the Cowboy
2. Ice Age – Beyondless
3. Dilly Dally – Heaven
4. Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy
5. Son Lux – Brighter Wounds
6. Iglooghost – Neo Wax Bloom
7. Rival Consoles – Persona

Thursday, June 07, 2018

"The New Testament (NT) recalls Jesus as having experienced and shown behavior closely resembling the DSM-IV-TR–defined phenomena of auditory hallucinations, visual hallucinations, delusions, referential thinking, paranoid-type thought content, and hyperreligiosity. He also did not appear to have signs or symptoms of disorganization, negative psychiatric symptoms, cognitive impairment, or debilitating mood disorder symptoms. NT accounts about Jesus mention no infirmity. In terms of potential causes of perceptual and behavioral changes, it might be asked whether starvation and metabolic derangements were present. The hallucinatory-like experiences that Jesus had in the desert while he fasted for 40 days (Luke 4:1–13) may have been induced by starvation and metabolic derangements. Arguing against these as explanations for all of his experiences would be that he had mystical or revelation experiences preceding his fasting in the desert and then during the period afterward. During these periods, there is no suggestion of starvation or metabolic derangement. If anything, the stories about Jesus and his followers suggest that they ate relatively well, as compared with the followers of his contemporary, John the Baptist (Luke 7:33–34)...

"There is a 5%–10% lifetime risk of suicide in persons with schizophrenia. Suicide is defined as a self-inflicted death with evidence of an intention to end one’s life. The NT recounts Jesus’ awareness that people intended to kill him and his taking steps to avoid peril until the time at which he permitted his apprehension. In advance, he explained to his followers the necessity of his death as prelude for his return (Matthew 16:21–28; Mark 8:31; John 16:16–28). If this occurred in the manner described, then Jesus appears to have deliberately placed himself in circumstances wherein he anticipated his execution. Although schizophrenia is associated with an increased risk of suicide, this would not be a typical case. The more common mood-disorder accompaniments of suicide, such as depression, hopelessness, and social isolation, were not present, but other risk factors, such as age and male gender, were present."

from "The Role of Psychotic Disorders in Religious History Considered" by Evan D. Murray, Miles G. Cunningham and Bruce H. Price

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The best things I ate recently during five weeks in Thailand


Laap ped at Somtum Jinda in Ubon Ratchathani

This is my number one. I spent time in Ubon Ratchathani and Khon Kaen, two towns in Isarn province in north eastern Thailand, because I wanted to eat Isarn food, and specifically I wanted to eat laap ped, or spicy minced duck salad. (This is a very thorough explanation of laap.) At Somtum Jinda I had the best laap of my life, far better, even, than any of the other laaps I ate in Isarn. Although 'salad' is the consensus translation of laap into English, most of the time it feels like an awkward misnomer; this dish, however, really did feel like a wonderful salad, in the sense of a carousel of distinct ingredients whirling across your tastebuds. On another night I had a curry of fish belly with fish eggs, which was almost as good.

Although I went all over Ubon Ratchathani in search of laap, Somtum Jinda was directly opposite my hotel – clearly, a higher power led me to this restaurant. They even have a menu in English, which is surprising: no Western tourists come to Ubon Ratchathani, because there isn't really anything to see or do there. And that's the problem with a recommendation like this – realistically, none of you are ever going to go to Ubon Ratchathani. But if for some reason you do, you must eat here.

Grilled pork neck at Gai Yang Rabeab in Khon Kaen

There may be no better place to eat the classic Isarn lunch of grilled chicken, som tam (papaya salad), and sticky rice. And on weekends, they also serve kor moo yang (grilled pork neck, above). Mark Wiens has written about this place on his useful website Eating Thai Food. Everything was superb, including the chilli dip – in Khon Kaen they serve a dip that tastes a lot like a Mexican chipotle en adobo, so it presumably must involved smoked chillis. If you ever go to Khon Kaen – again, there's no reason why you would apart from the food, but I don't know, perhaps you'll get embroiled in some baroque scheme to accumulate air miles which requires you to fly to Khon Kaen – and you want to eat kor moo yang, but it's not the weekend so they're not serving it at Gai Yang Rabeab, I can recommend a restaurant on the main drag with the straightforward name of Kor Moo Yang Khon Kaen.

Can I note at this point that I am not a person who takes photos of all my food? Only when I have a hunch that it's going to be amazing.

Nam prik ong at Sorn Chai in Chiang Mai

The best thing I ate on my prior trip to northern Thailand, a year ago, was the nam prik ong (spicy pork and tomato dip) at at a little place called Sorn Chai which I heard about from Robyn Eckhardt's blog EatingAsia . But I was there on my first day in Thailand, and at the time I couldn't be quite sure that the sheer exhilaration of being back there wasn't distorting my judgement. So on this trip I went as far as to book a hotel near Sorn Chai, and block out a whole day on my calendar, for the express purpose of verifying this nam prik ong. (Obviously it didn't take a whole day, but I just couldn't leave anything to chance.) And it was just as good as I remembered. In fact, if not for Somtum Jinda, this would have been the best thing I ate in Thailand for the second year in a row (which would have been pretty boring, so I'm especially grateful for that laap).

Khao soi at Khao Soi Loong Prakid Gard Gorm in Chiang Mai

Khao soi is egg noodles in yellow curry sauce with beef or chicken. There are certain khao soi places in Chiang Mai that come up again and again, and this isn't one of them, but I think it's my favourite I've had there. This has apparently been featured on the recent Netflix series Somebody Feed Phil, BUT I WENT BEFORE THAT AND I CAN PROVE IT.

Mango sticky rice 'nigiri' at Fruiturday in Chiang Mai

I don't think I've ever eaten a dish that was such blatant Instagram bait, but to be honest with you I really enjoyed it.

Boat noodles at Chen Long Boat Noodle in Hat Yai

Kuaytiaw reua, better known as boat noodles, are rice noodles with meatballs in pork broth. This is one thing I never realised about Thai street food before spending time in Thailand – on the whole, Thai people are not eating pad thai, tthey are not eating green curry, they are not eating anything you've ever eaten in a high street Thai restaurant – they are eating boat noodles. Boat noodles everywhere. In a lot of places you see as many boat noodles stalls as you see all other kinds of stalls put together. In practical terms, boat noodles is the national dish of Thailand. And yet it hardly exists in the west. Personally, I'm not a big boat noodle guy, but I think this one is the best I've ever had.

Bak kut teh at Ko Ti Ocha in Hat Yai

Bak kut teh is pork rib stew. Yes, that is an entire head of garlic in the bowl. This might be a good place to note that Hat Yai was my 'discovery' of the trip. As with Isarn province, almost no western tourists go there, but I found it an enchanting place: it's the fifth biggest city in Thailand, and the closest major city to the Malaysian border, which makes it very multicultural, 40% Muslim but also full of Chinese influence. If you've ever been to Penang, it's quite similar – not as beautiful, but almost as stimulating to walk around. And the food is spectacular. This, characteristically, is a Malaysian-Chinese dish, which I heard about from Austin Bush's Thai Eats map.

Curries at Khao Gaeng Khong in Hat Yai

Thailand is full of khao gaeng – rice and curry – shops, but this is the only one I've ever been to that operates as a buffet. They give you a plate and you can just serve yourself anything you want! My hands were shaking I was so intoxicated with possibility! I suspect it's down to the Malaysian influence, because the only other self-service curry place I've eaten at in south east Asia was in Penang. I went here twice and everything I tried was fantastic. It's only open after dark, and it's on Google Maps under its Thai name ข้าวแกง5โค้ง – just copy and paste that if you want to find it.


Pad si ew at Nai Lao

Pad si ew is flat rice noodles stir fried with pork, egg and Chinese kale. I read about this place on Taste of Bangkok, and I think it was the best thing I ate all week. You can't tell from the unflattering photo above, but somehow it looked like something you'd get served in a Michelin-starred restaurant, and it tasted like that too. It cost 40 baht, or 91p, and the place wasn't even busy. Bangkok is an extraordinary place.

Goat biryani at Muslim Restaurant

This is only available on Mondays and Fridays. The texture of the goat meat was just uncanny, like they'd put it through some kind of experimental matter transmuter from Star Trek. More about this on Eating Thai Food.

Yellow chicken curry at Krua OV

Extremely good. More about this on Eating Thai Food.

Green catfish curry at Jio

Also extremely good. I read about this on Leela Punyaratabandhu's blog SheSimmers. It's only open for breakfast and early lunch.

Mango sticky rice at Boon Sap

This is the closest thing I've ever tasted to a perfect mango sticky rice, although I wasn't able to compare it to the nearby Sor Boonprakob Panich because that was closed for Chinese New Year. More about this on Streetside Bangkok. The first time I tried to go, around lunchtime, they'd already sold out, so go early. I cannot recommend making the trek out to the much-praised Maewaree, which I found unexceptional. This is an illustration of the perverse and Sisyphean reality of being a 'foodie': when I first visited Thailand, I was thrilled by any random mango sticky rice from Chatuchak Market, but now half the time I just feel mild disappointment at the pudding's faults. What a way to live.

Pork satay at Jay Eng

Until I ate at this stall in Chinatown, I'd thought of satay as something you only ever eat in situations when you wish you were somewhere else having a real dinner: the canapés are coming round at a boring launch party, or you're in an awful central London bar with an 'Asian' menu. But here I learned that satay can be a remarkable thing. I came across it using Wongnai, the Thai version of Yelp.

Pad thai at Thipsamai Pad Thai and Orawan Pad Thai

I queued for almost an hour to eat the famous pad thai at Thipsamai. Yes, it was impeccable, but the thing is, there are neighbourhood places you can eat a pad thai which is almost as good and you don't have to wait at all. One of them is Orawan, which I read about on Streetside Bangkok.

Egg noodles with roast duck and roast pork at Prachack Pet Yang

This wasn't on the level of what I ate in Hong Kong and Macau in January, but it was still pretty great. More about this on Eating Thai Food.

Nang Loeng market

There was no one thing at this market that would have made this list on its own. But if you eat 1. a couple of curries at Khao Gaeng Ruttana, 2. saikrok pla naem (pork sausage with fish powder) at Mae Lek, 3. khao kluk kapi (fried rice with shrimp paste) at Sonthaya, and then 4. kanom gluay (banana cake) at Nanta, you may find yourself, as I did, almost tearfully grateful for the sheer beneficence of Thai cuisine. Three of those four are listed on BK.

Special mention: banana leaves

Most days in Thailand, my breakfast would be something wrapped in a banana leaf from a street vendor. I say 'something' because I don't speak Thai, so the contents were a surprise every single time; sometimes it would just be sweetened sticky rice; sometimes, best of all, it would be sticky rice with coconut milk and banana; once it was full of tiny sardines cooked with chilli and herbs; once it was just a wad of seasoned raw pork mince! (I was told by a nearby Thai person that although you're normally expected to put one of these in a microwave, you can, if you want, just eat it raw; so I had a taste, but it wasn't delectable enough for me to take the risk of eating the whole thing. After that I learned to check that the banana leaf was darkened by steaming or grilling.) I wish all breakfasts could involve unwrapping a mystery.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Why were the 1860s the most boring time in history to take a long voyage from England?

"Prior to the 1850s, it was common for ships sailing to India and Australia to stop en route for water and provisions, and many passengers were thankful for the break at Cape Town. In the 1870s, with the advent of the steamship and the opening of the Suez Canal, the journey not only became shorter, it had to be interrupted for frequent coaling stops. But for most of those traveling during the third quarter of the nineteenth century—and only a minority traveled on the celebrated clipper ships—the voyage was made nonstop and out of view of land for almost the entire distance. For those going all the way to Australia, the average journey took one hundred days.

"Additionally, whereas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries many voyagers had been thrilled to make natural and scientific observations, by the mid-nineteenth century, most of what there was to identify had been identified – and how much more was there to say about the albatross? In short, by the third quarter of the nineteenth century, oceanic travel had become much more monotonous: it was less dangerous, the route was well known, there were few if any stops, land was rarely in sight, and there was little novelty in seeing birds and fish that had been seen and described before. This routinization of travel parallels the bureaucratization of work."

from "Imperial Boredom" by Jeffrey Auerbach

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Two remarkable stories from Bioterrorism and Biocrimes by W. Seth Carus

"In early 1991, several French physicians reported on a case in which a 41-year-old woman tried to commit suicide by injecting herself with two to three milliliters of HIV-contaminated blood taken from a friend who had AIDS. Two hours after the event, she went to a hospital emergency room, where she was treated with zidovudine. Despite the treatment, three months after the injection laboratory tests indicated that she was infected with HIV."

"According to an official of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Mexican contract workers involved in a screwworm eradication program may have deliberately spread that pathogen among livestock. Although the perpetrators were never charged, the workers apparently spread the screwworm because they were seeking to protect their jobs, which would have disappeared once the parasites were eliminated. The releases apparently took place in an area of Mexico about 50 miles south of the border with the United States."

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Favourite new films of 2017

1. Logan
2. The Florida Project
3. 20th Century Women
4. Dunkirk
5. Jackie
6. Blade Runner 2049
7. Raw
8. Lady Bird
9. Good Time
10. The Handmaiden

Favourite non-2017 films I saw for the first time in 2017

1. A Face in the Crowd (1957)
2. Cutter's Way (1981)
3. Paterson (2016)
4. The Bad Seed (1956)
5. The Color Wheel (2011)
6. A Letter to Three Wives (1949)
7. Lincoln (2012)
8. The Overnighters (2014)
9. Dark of the Sun (1968)
10. Christmas, Again (2014)
11. Michael (2011)
12. 10 Rillington Place (1971)
13. The September Issue (2009)
14. In the Heat of the Night (1967)
15. Incendies (2010)
16. River's Edge (1986)
17. California Split (1974)
18. The Whole Shootin' Match (1978)
19. Chuck and Buck (2000)
20. Tampopo (1985)

Favourite albums

1. Lorde – Melodrama
2. Jay Som – Everybody Works
3. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 3
4. Vince Staples – Big Fish Theory
5. King Woman – Created in the Image of Suffering
6. Kllo – Backwater
7. St Vincent – MASSEDUCTION

Friday, December 15, 2017

The five best things I ate during two months in New York recently
Veggie burger at Superiority Burger
Hot chicken sandwich at Endless Summer
Tuna carpaccio at the Four Horsemen
Char kway teow at Taste Good
Big plate chicken at Nutritious Lamb Noodle Soup

Five non-food establishments I also enthusiastically endorse

The John M Mossman Lock Collection
Twisted Lily
VR World

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Salt smuggling and cholera in the Ottoman Empire

"On the sea coast, the government salt monopoly had to compete against daring smugglers who brought in salt from the salt pans of Cyprus and Crimea. In some interior regions, such as Aleppo and Yemen, the salt works were exposed to incessant depredation by nomad tribes due to the proximity of the desert. Particularly in Yemen, the revenue had almost entirely disappeared.

"In the Black Sea region, the Ottoman Public Debt Administration itself assumed responsibility for the transportation of salt from İzmir to reduce its price in the region and wipe out the contraband. However, it failed to compete with the Crimean salt smuggled into the region and asked for the government’s cooperation to guard the sea coast. The government often ignored the smuggling activities until 1892, when the Porte was forced to establish a sanitary cordon along the Black Sea coast due to the prevalence of cholera in Russian Black Sea ports. To enforce the quarantine cruisers were sent to patrol the open sea. The Annual Report of the Corporation of Foreign Bondholders in 1892 notes that ‘the smugglers were unable to elude the vigilance of the cruisers or break through the sanitary cordon’. As a result, the OPDA’s salt revenue in the Black Sea Region increased by approximately 50 percent within a year."

from The Political Economy of Ottoman Public Debt by Murat Birdal

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

London: the Ned Guide
Above: BYOB champagne at Needoo Grill, my favourite restaurant in Whitechapel

Ever since I published my guide to New York – which is now severely out of date, so I wouldn't recommend planning a holiday around it – people have been asking me if I was going to do the same for London. I've scarcely been able to keep up with the requests, which have been coming in at a rate of one, sometimes even two a year.

I wasn't sure about it, though, because I knew I would have less to offer. Firstly, I am not as tireless an explorer of London as I was of New York. Secondly, even when I do venture out, I don't find as much that I like: London is one of the worst cities in the western world to drink in, and although the food there is getting pretty good these days, New York is still way ahead.

However, since the most recent phase of my life in London has just come to a close – I've moved out of Clerkenwell and I'm going to be abroad for several months – I thought I might as well offer a reckoning. So here is a Google Map of my favourite London establishments.

"Favourite" in this case means I've been at least twice (with visits counted across both locations in the case of two sister restaurants, such as Salvation in Noodles or Berber & Q. Further to this topic, I've left off Dishoom, Tonkotsu, Pizza Pilgrims and Franco Manca, because there are so many branches of each they would clog up the map, even though I do endorse them).

There are seven bars on here, but I decided to leave off pubs completely. I have a complicated relationship with pubs – complicated in the sense that I detest them, but I am also an Englishman, which makes that a fraught attitude to go through life with. For the record, the only pubs in London for which I feel any real fondness are the Exmouth Arms, the Scolt Head and the Palm Tree (the last of which is likely to close).

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Some events

August 14th: with Martin Macinnes at the Edinburgh Book Festival
August 15th: at Waterstones Deansgate, Manchester
September 13th: at Waterstones Gower Street, London
September 18th: at 5x15, London
September 26th: Ink Academy masterclass at the Library club, London

Saturday, July 01, 2017

My fourth novel, Madness Is Better Than Defeat, will be published in a bit less than two months, and I've written a Frequently Asked Questions about it. I did this with Glow, and the same preamble applies. Because the book isn't out yet, most of these Questions I haven't even been Asked once, let alone Frequently. And it might seem a bit too early to start talking about it in detail. However, plenty of proof copies have already gone out, and I'm told that reviews are already being written. So the following FAQ is mostly for interviewers and reviewers, anticipating some of the more obvious questions that they might have.

How did you get the idea for this book?

Like many people, I'm fascinated by the production histories of Apocalypse Now and Fitzcarraldo – the sense that, if you set out to make a film about white men who go into the jungle and fall victim to tyrannical hubris and latent insanity, you are yourself doomed to have the exact same thing happen to you. In this book I wanted to ask, what if there's a secret reason for that seemingly inescapable pattern, beyond the morass of overstretched budgets and tropical storms and colonial legacies?

Also, in 2010 I did some research into the construction of the Panama Canal. The Canal Zone, with its workforce of thirty thousand, had courthouses, post offices, a newspaper and an army, like a miniature independent nation. The chief of the project, the former army engineer George Washington Goethals was described as 'an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent ruler.' It made me think of Coppola and Herzog ruling their film sets.

Three of your four books have been set in the 1930s/40s/50s. Do you have any misgivings about that?

Serious misgivings. It's a pretty monotonous output for a writer whose jacket copy advertises him with words like 'eclectic' and 'imaginative'. However, The New Adventures of Tarzan, the first Hollywood film ever shot on location in the rainforest, came out in 1935, so the book couldn't realistically have taken place any earlier than that. And it couldn't have taken place any later, I think, because with each successive decade of the twentieth century, the events herein would become even less plausible.

Other reasons: I wanted to catch the last years of the robber baron era, when the names of living individuals like Rockefeller, Morgan, Vanderbilt, Hearst and Ford resounded more than the names of limited liability corporations; the Second World War had various useful functions in the background of the early part of the plot; and I liked the idea that the Hearts in Darkness, the Hollywood screwball comedy that begins filming in 1938, had a provenance in common with 1940's The Philadelphia Story, my favourite comedy.

'Beauman, clearly chastened by the mixed reception for Glow (2014), his sole venture into the present day, has now retreated to the safer ground of the interwar era in the hopes of recapturing his earlier critical success.'

I had the idea for this book in 2010, I started it in late 2012, and by the time Glow was published in hardback I was already about half way through, so I couldn't possibly have reacted to the


OK, don't let me stop you.

Also, there is once again a Nazi involved.

This is the last time, I swear.

To go back a bit, how is it possible that by the time Glow was published, you were already half way through your next book? Is it because you dash off your novels in between suit fittings and croquet matches?

Although that does seem to be the general perception, the reality is that Glow took about eighteen months to come out after I delivered a first draft, so I had time to make plenty of headway on the next one. Subsequently, my progress flagged for various reasons, so all in all I was working on Madness is Better than Defeat for about four years before I sent a first draft to my editors, and several more months of editing followed.

Look, I write pretty fast, but I'm not a freak of nature. Jonathan Franzen wrote Freedom (570 pages) in 14 months. Marilynne Robinson wrote Home (352 pages) in 18 months. Nell Zink wrote The Wallcreeper (200 pages) in three weeks! As I've said before, I am in good health, I have no dependents, I have no day job, I don't leave long gaps between projects, and I don't make many false starts. Given those factors, I don't think there is anything especially impressive – or discreditable, depending how you want to look at it – about my productivity.

What are some central influences on this book?

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Apocalypse Now dir. Francis Ford Coppola (and Hearts in Darkness and Notes)
Fitzcarraldo dir. Werner Herzog (and Burden of Dreams and The Conquest of the Useless)
Bioshock dir. Ken Levine
Fordlandia by Greg Grandin
'The Economic Organisation of a P.O.W. Camp' by R. A. Radford
The Sweet Smell of Success dir. Alexander Mackendrick
'The Aleph' by Jorge Luis Borges
'Monadology' by Gottfried Leibniz
American Tabloid by James Ellroy
Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
Citizen Kane dir. Orson Welles
Declare by Tim Powers
The City and the City by China Miéville
'The Horror at Red Hook' by HP Lovecraft

Will this book be impossible to enjoy if I haven't read Hearts in Darkness or seen Apocalypse Now or Fitzcarraldo?

I hope it won't make much of a difference. I deliberately didn't re-read or re-watch any of the three while I was writing this book in order to ensure that it wouldn't be too larded with references. However, if you have never experienced one or more of them, then under no circumstances should you read my book yet, because a much better use of your time is available.

How much did you plan in advance?

Although I get asked this question constantly, I've never been able to come up with a very interesting or useful answer. I knew many of the beats I wanted to hit, as screenwriters say, but I also left myself a plenty of gaps and flexibility. I wouldn't say I was improvising, because there was always a margin of planning, so I knew in detail what was coming a certain distance ahead; and of course a host of essential things were in place from the very beginning. But a lot of what ended up in the book – the prominence of certain characters, for instance – would have been a surprise to me when I started it.

OK, how was that? Riveting?

Did you set out to write a complicated book?

Yes, in the sense that I chose to write a novel about a large cast of characters, over a long period of time, under the sway of various shadowy and baroque agendas. Given that, it would not only have been structurally impossible to make the book 100% streamlined, it would also have been a mismatch between material and approach. Obviously, I didn't want to explain everything right away, because I wanted to preserve some suspense for the reader, and also because I wanted to evoke, as viscerally as possible, the sense these characters have that they are in the mouth of some enormous dark beast.

But, no, beyond that, it's not supposed to be confusing. The plot was originally going to be even more expansive, but it got trimmed down, both in the planning stages and in the editing stages, because I was acutely conscious of this issue (and so were my editors, of course). I do find it interesting sometimes to prickle or confound the reader, but I don't want to alienate anybody for good. If you get lost at any point, you can just email me. I'm serious! Just tell me what page you're on and what you don't understand, and I'll fill you in.

Did you go to Honduras?

No. I also didn't go to Burma for Glow and I didn't go to Berlin until I'd written most of the Berlin chapters of The Teleportation Accident. It's just not my approach. These are not rigorous or reportorial books.

Why does the narrator refer to 'CIA' and 'OSS' without a definite article?

That was how employees of these two organisations often used to talk, and indeed still do. For instance, the very first paragraph of the CIA's internal style manual remarks that 'the information CIA gathers and the analysis it produces mean little if we cannot convey them effectively.' For comparison, we wouldn't say 'the MI5'. (Conversely, however, the narrator refers to the CIA as 'the Agency', when really he would have referred to it as 'the Company'. I felt I had to sacrifice authenticity here to avoid confusion with the United Fruit Company, which also has a role in the book.)

Do you use a lot of long obscure words just to show how clever you are?

Sometimes, there is a word which conveys the meaning you are trying to convey more precisely and economically than any other word in the English language, and that word, although an exquisite specimen, happens not to be in common use. I refuse to say, 'Well, nobody else is using that word, so I can't either.' If you think like that, the only trajectory for words is towards death – once a word falls below a certain threshold (or never reached that threshold in the first place), it might as well be purged from the dictionary. But no word is inherently obscure or difficult – we use technical words and long words and foreign words all the time – some of them are just more familiar than others, partly as the net result of a long series of usage decisions by writers at their desks. In the OED there are thousands and thousands of fabulous, irreplaceable words that deserve a chance to shine – and if a literary novelist can't give them that, who can? The only words I won't use are words marked in the OED as 'obsolete' or 'archaic', even though I often want to.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Selected journalism from the last few years

(I will continue periodically to update this list, which is limited to what's available online.)

On the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show for the AnOther website

On Olafur Eliasson for the New York Times' T magazine

On Mica Levi for the New Yorker website

On Craig Green for the New Yorker website

On William Gibson for the Observer

On Ford Madox Ford for the Guardian

On 20 Fenchurch Street for the Guardian

On Jane Jacobs for the Guardian

On permutation for Aeon

On William-Adolphe Bouguereau for Literary Hub

On meaning threats for the Frieze website

On La Specola for the Frieze website