Tag Archives: satire

The Square: Rosie Milliard

“If you just drove in and out of the Square all day to deliver your child to The Prep, which is ferociously exclusive and expensive, you would feel as if life was a sort of planet of plenty, thinks Tracey, who knows full well from her clients who buy cosmetics from her that it is not.”

The Square, a novel from Rosie Millard is a satire which lampoons the lifestyles and values of a handful of residents of a neighbourhood of expensive London Georgian mansions that were “built for the Victorian bourgeoisie, fallen into disrepair, divided up, broken down, reunited, refurbished, [now] they are serving descendants of their original class once more.” Everyone who lives in the Square is proud of their address, as if living there is some sort of achievement. Most of the characters’ primary concern is appearances, so in this delightfully malicious look at class and materialism, we see characters who think they’re unique when in actuality, they are ultra conformists who have “knock-through kitchens,’ send their children to the same schools, compete with ridiculous dinner parties, and show off designer labels as if they were medals.

All those women with husbands who work in the City, dressed in their silk shifts and tweedy jackets, makeup so subtle it looks like it’s not even there, hair beautifully blown. It is the handbags which are the signifiers, though. Soft, buttery leather bags. Purple and green and black, with clinking accoutrements to announce their presence; silver locks and heart-shaped key fobs and gilt chains, and huge stitched handles which fit just so under your arm.

The residents/characters in the book include:

  • Tracey and Larry: who won the lottery but find that maintaining the lifestyle expected of residents of the square is beyond their means. They have two children–Belle and Grace and an au pair, Anya. Belle is old enough to remember her working class, pre-lottery days.
  • Jane and Patrick: Patrick “who has gone to seed,” brings home the big money while mega bitch Jane, known to her husband as “Der Führer,”  brings home her lover, Jay for frantic afternoon trysts. Their only child George is the most mature person in the household.
  • Harriet and Jay: overweight and unhappy Harriet doesn’t fit in with the other ultra slim wives, and Jay busies himself with an affair with ultra-skinny Jane.
  • Pretentious, obnoxious artist Philip Burrell and his nutty Russian wife Gilda who dresses like she “just stepped out of theatrical clothing emporium, or is trying to represent a painting by Watteau.” Philip hires a young man from the local council estate to build his pricey works of art: reproductions of golf holes which sell for up to 50,000 pounds a pop.

The novel follows the various complications in the lives of the characters and culminates in the residents’ fundraising talent show (the council refuses to pay for new iron railings. Sob…). We see Tracey, with her “tarty outfits,” who doesn’t fit in with the other wives, trying to make a living as a door-to-door cosmetic salesperson. Realising that the family will not be able to sustain the lifestyle of the Square for much longer, she hunts down financial makeover guru, television personality Alan Makin, while Philip Burrell decides to move on from making models of golf holes to making models of marathon courses. Meanwhile the resident children, unbeknownst to their parents, struggle with their own issues.

the squareVenom flies in to even the small scenes with two or three characters, but the major laughs break out when the residents come together en masse. The funniest scene in the book IMO takes place at Jane’s dinner party. Jane is the sort of character we  love to hate, and here when she’s on show, at her most pretentious, she’s very funny.

With characters such as these–the pencil-thin rich bitch, the cuckolded husband, the neglected overweight wife, and her slimy cheating spouse you know that you are reading about types rather than individuals–so don’t expect character development here. Yet in spite of the fact that author Rosie Millard’s novel concentrates on stereotypes, we can all too easily imagine people we know in these roles. I struggled with the character of Jane’s son George. He was too mannered, and the segment concerning George’s film seemed constructed for laughs rather than credibility. It’s hard to sustain humour in satire, and when the novel moved towards the fundraiser, the humour lagged and tired as slick wit weakened, and as Jane says as one point, it’s “sort of like realizing that modern British life is indeed modelled on a Carry On film.” But bravo to the author for nailing the pretentious crowd who live in the Square–a place, oddly enough that sounds a lot like Rosie Millard’s own neighbourhood, and a place even more strangely that sounds exactly like a neighbourhood here in N. America…

Opposite the blackboard is the obligatory ‘island’. Every kitchen has one, a marooned stone rectangle surrounded by a cluster of chrome stools. Somewhere on it there will be a single, commanding tap. There might be a recipe book propped up on a lectern, like a religious text.

Beside the island is a colossal, humming fridge and a vast six-burner appliance capable of feeding an entire church choir, should one drop in. This is known as the ‘range’. It is not used very much. Hot meals still tend to come from the microwave, or local restaurants, whose takeaway menus are pinned to a cork board.

The entire room glories in laboratory-style cleanliness. There is an entire cupboard devoted to cleaning implements and chemicals. There is a bespoke bottle for the kitchen’s myriad surfaces, each of which has been quarried, quartered, buffed and bullied into a properly gleaming state of submission.

Kitchens in the Square are a miracle of processed nature. Marble, granite, steel, quartz, slate, with accents of wood and chrome brought together in one glorious assemblage. The kitchens are like a geology lesson.

At night, the au pairs creep out of the small rooms. They enter these bright, soulless places and erect computers upon the marble islands. they perch on chrome stools and talk via Skype to their families in languages which to Belle’s English ear sound like falling water. Alone and undisturbed they explain to their fascinated relations how things are in the Square, a place full of money, nerves, and giant unused ovens.

Review copy

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The Notebooks of Major Thompson by Pierre Daninos

I have a very clear memory of a history class in which the subject of venereal disease was mentioned. I’ve long since forgotten how the topic started, but I recall the teacher explaining that the French called it, “the English disease,” and the British called it “the French disease.” This memory flooded back as I read The Notebooks of Major Thompson by Pierre Daninos, the second book from a virtual book exchange with Emma. I hadn’t heard of the book before, and since I enjoy comic fiction, I looked forward to reading it. The secondary title to the book is: An Englishman Discovers France and the French, and I suspect Emma selected this particular book as she knows that I enjoy watching films or reading books about people’s behaviour abroad. (Suggestions welcome)

Translated by Robin Farn, the novel includes a number of illustrations by Walter Goetz. The book is written from the viewpoint of Major Marmaduke Thompson, a rather affable fellow who finds himself, in late middle age, married for the second time to a French woman named Martine. He’s now living in France and trying to understand the natives. Several times throughout the book, Thompson references the author as P.C. Daninos–a man “who is naturally distressed that he is not English,” and that Thompson first met when Daninos was a liasion officer of Thompson’s battalion. It is Daninos, according to Thompson, who edits the ‘notebooks.’

Each chapter takes a loose approach to a topic in which Major Thompson attempts to illuminate the differences between the French and the British–the “two most dissimilar peoples on the earth,” and chapter 1: What is a Frenchman? starts with an anecdote of sorts in which Major Thompson claims that a brain surgeon friend of his “opened up an Englishman” in his Harley Street office and found a number of items–most of which are indelibly connected to the British “royal” family. In contrast Thompson begins his definition of the French as a people of vast “contradictions.” He can’t make sense of the fact that this is a nation of Republicans who worship the queen of England. I don’t know enough French people to know if this is true, so I can’t comment on that, but as a relic of the British Empire, Thompson seems a little uneasy about the French Revolution. The topic crops up frequently in his “notebooks” almost as if he’s afraid another revolution might suddenly erupt at any moment, and at one point he calls the French “these guillotiners of kings.” To give you an idea of the sort of humour within the book, here’s a quote:

The American pedestrian who sees a millionaire going past in a Cadillac dreams secretly of the day when he will be driving his own; the French pedestrian who sees a millionaire going past in a Cadillac dreams of the day he will get him out of it and make him walk like everyone else.

He doesn’t say what a British pedestrian would do…

Chapter 4-The Land of the Handshake had me a bit confused. I always see French people kissing each other on the cheeks, and I’m not sure of the etiquette of that custom. Thompson argues that “for the French–and for many others–England is the land of the handshake.” He then argues against this position and states that the French have perfected the art of handshaking to include “various nuances.”

According to Thompson’s fictional biography he appears to have retired from the army in 1945, and so he is a relic of the British Empire, serving in India, Palestine, and Egypt. He makes a perfect stock character for an Englishman, a great stereotype, and yet at the same time he is a bit dated. I, for one, can’t relate to some of his “Englishness” as his background is pro-royal, aristocratic privilege. But at the same time, I can relate entirely to other sections: The Case of Count Renauld de la Chasselière in which Thompson describes the “silences” of the British, for example. I’m frequently told I’m ‘aloof’ and ‘cold’.

Readers brings  their own experiences to the books they read, and so I read this book through a rather complicated prism. I’m probably a different sort of reader for this book as I’m British but live in America, and so while I read Thompson’s attempts to understand the French, I brought in my own experiences of being British in yet another foreign country. When Thompson made comparisons between the French and the British attitudes towards royalty for example, I found myself marvelling all over again about the royal worship I’ve encountered in America. For some reason, most Americans seem to think I should worship the royal family, and that I glue myself to the television set for every so-called royal wedding as if I feel some connection. I have literally been lectured by Americans for not having ‘proper respect’ which is hilarious to me since America had a revolution, ostensibly (yes we can argue that other motives were afoot) to get rid of the monarchy. But I digress….

My favorite chapter was My Dear Hereditary Enemy  in which Thompson discusses the upbringing of his son and the dreaded governess Miss ffyfth–a formidable woman whose history lessons include a pro-British (read anti-French) version of history:

Meanwhile, Miss ffyfth was striding onward through history. She was sorry for Joan of Arc, who was burned as a witch, but she was careful to point out that the tribunal which condemned her was composed of Frenchmen, and that King Charles VII did nothing to aid the girl (monstrous!). Soon she would get to Napoleon. Without even speaking of Trafalgar or Waterloo; Wellington had already beaten Napoleon at vimieiro–remember: Vi-miei-ro. In the end, the tiresome little man with his funny hat had never been able to realize his dream, which was to go to England. For there was the sea–la mer–and, above all, the Br–the Brr–the British navy, dear….

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Moonlighting and Raving on Gummie’s blog

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a fan or Australian author, Max Barry. Gummie from Whispering Gums asked me to write a guest post about Max, so go here to read the article which includes links to reviews.

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Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

“I don’t want to wear a uniform any more.”

Catch 22 is a savagely funny, bitter, and terrifying novel. How can such diametrically opposed terms be applied to the same book? The answer is simple: Catch 22 is brilliant. The novel appears on many ‘top novels’ lists, and justifiably so. This anti-war satire is set in WWII and the story gravitates around Yossarian, a bombardier stationed in Europe and subjected to an ever-extended number of bombing missions. The more missions he flies, the more missions he is ordered to fly. Yossarian realizes that he will never go home, and thanks to the “spinning reasonableness” of Catch 22, he can’t escape.

Surrounded by an insane military complex, with two rival generals and competing, glory-seeking colonels who “never hesitated to volunteer” the bombardiers for endless missions, Yossarian concludes, “the enemy is anyone who’s going to get you killed.” Behind the battles and the air strikes, there’s the shadowy war profiteering system known as the Syndicate engineered by the ultra-capitalist Milo. The Syndicate places the bombing missions in as much danger as the German anti-aircraft weapons. Frozen eclairs are smuggled in by the French underground, but parachutes and morphine are missing at crucial moments. In a war bureaucracy designed to “elevate mediocre people to positions of authority” the good, the decent, the young and the powerless die, and the officers who command them award medals to the dead, and send meaningless letters of condolence home to the survivors.

In spite of the subject matter–which is just about as depressing as it gets–most of the humour in the novel comes from the decent characters’ attempts to deal with the circular logic and insane, meaningless orders hurtled down from the upper ranks. There are some marvelous characters here–Colonel Cathcart, Colonel Korn, Orr, the arch rivals General Peckem and General Dreedle and the generous Nurse Duckett. Yossarian is one of the greatest antiheros of all time, and he’s one of those rare fictional characters who remain long after the book’s conclusion. I grew particularly fond of Yossarian’s friend, the Chaplain who struggles to keep his faith while realising “immoral logic seemed to be confounding him at every turn.” He tries to stick up for the men, but he is soon involved in accusations that he is the mysterious letter censor, Washington Irving.

If you haven’t read Catch 22, I urge you to do so. It’s one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century–not a particularly easy read for many reasons–but brilliant nonetheless. The author never loses control of the prevailing sense of insanity, and while I laughed at some of the craziness here, the book carries a powerful, timeless message.

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