Saturday, December 23, 2017

the last book I read

The Human Stain by Philip Roth.

Coleman Silk is an ex-professor of classics and former dean of faculty at a New England university. Despite being of retirement age (seventy-one) the "ex" bit was not entirely of his own volition; he resigned a couple of years before the book opens to avoid the fall-out from an accusation of racism following some careless (or entirely blameless, depending on your point of view) use of language during a lecture.

Various things were set in motion by these events: Coleman's wife Iris died (a death caused, in Coleman's mind at least, by the stress of the racism affair), Coleman engaged his friend, novelist Nathan Zuckerman, to help write a book repudiating the accusations, and Coleman embarked on a relationship with Faunia Farley, a woman half his age who survives by working multiple menial jobs in the local area including some cleaning and janitorial duties at the university.

Even though Coleman has no marital ties, has left the university, and therefore it's not really any of anybody else's business, the relationship ruffles some feathers in the local community. Faunia's ex-husband Lester, a Vietnam vet with a nasty case of PTSD and an associated simmering disdain for the rest of the human race, gets wind of things and is none too pleased. Delphine Roux, Coleman's ex-colleague at the university, takes it upon herself to mount a feminist crusade to rescue Faunia from the filthy patriarchal old scrote who's just out to exploit and demean her.

Coleman cools off on wanting Nathan Zuckerman to be the agent of his literary revenge and decides just to chill out and concentrate on banging Faunia; unfortunately Lester Farley isn't too keen on letting them get on with that unmolested and after a couple of highly-charged encounters at Coleman's house ups the ante somewhat by running Coleman's car off the road into a ditch and killing both of them. It's at Coleman's funeral (through a meeting with Coleman's sister) that Zuckerman makes the shocking discovery that far from being of Jewish descent, as he'd always allowed people to think, Coleman was in fact African-American, and had made the conscious decision after leaving the US Navy as a young man to cut all his real family ties and pass for white, this being the best way for a plausibly pale-skinned black man to get on in post-war America. Zuckerman decides that this would be a much better subject for a book than what Coleman had originally suggested, and decides to call it The Human Stain.

So we're in the realms of revelations of the "and that book was.....THIS ONE that you've just been reading, haha" variety, just as we were with Sweet Tooth and a few others over the lifetime of this blog (a few other examples are linked to from that Sweet Tooth review). Nathan Zuckerman is pretty clearly an authorial alter ego, a means for Roth to effectively insert himself into the story, though not as obviously as in The Plot Against America and various others which feature a central character called Philip Roth.

The central revelations about Coleman's ancestry and the general unfolding of the plot don't happen as linearly as I've described them above; there is a lot of hopping about along the story's timeline and shifting of narrative viewpoint: mostly Zuckerman, but occasionally Faunia, Delphine Roux or Lester Farley. While Faunia's inner motivations are directly relevant to the plot, a load of backstory about Delphine and a couple of interludes describing Lester's outings with his post-Vietnam support group trying to re-integrate him into polite society serve a purpose which isn't ever very clear. Delphine Roux, in particular, seems to exist only as a receptacle for some disproportionate authorial hatred (of, presumably, educated and uppity women, or perhaps just women in general) in a way that's faintly disturbing. Her motivations for doing any of the things she does are entirely unconvincing, and she just seems to be a personification of some notions of "political correctness" that Roth dislikes. Indeed there seems to be a general inclination to rail against the mostly imaginary concept of "political correctness" here, from the idea that Coleman should be held entirely blameless for some intemperate - though unintentional - use of racially-charged language to a more understandable distaste for the prurience and hypocritical puritanism underlying the Clinton impeachment hearings that happen in the background to the story (which is set in 1998).

Seventysomething authors need to be wary of this sort of stuff lest it make them seem like some out-of-date old git; Roth is too clever and writes too well for that charge to stick, but there was an unpalatable undertone of "the world's gone mad" which left a slightly sour taste. A few other quibbles: while it seems that Faunia has been lying about being illiterate, she's not meant to be highly educated, and the same goes for Lester and Coleman's sister Ernestine. Nonetheless they all have lengthy expository passages which seem far too wordy and articulate, almost as if written by a professional novelist who couldn't quite bring himself convincingly down to their level.

Quibbles aside this is powerful stuff; its central themes of identity and how we choose to define ourselves to others are still highly relevant. It's a deeper and more serious book than Portnoy's Complaint, the only other Roth I'd read, though that was one of his early works, published in 1969. The Human Stain won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2001, as did Bel Canto and Independence Day. It was made into a film in 2003 featuring a few odd casting decisions: Anthony Hopkins as Coleman Silk (I'd pictured him as looking more like Alan Arkin) and Gary Sinise as Nathan Zuckerman (much younger than in the book where he's meant to be a rough contemporary of Coleman).

Roth is one of the holy trinity of modern American novelists, along with John Updike and Saul Bellow, both of whom have featured here before, and both of whom are dead (though in both cases the death bit came first). Roth's days on this earth are of course now numbered.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

sage and uncle stuffing and granberry sauce

A couple of examples, as if further proof were necessary, that Electric Halibut surfs the very bleeding edge of the Zeitgeist, protected only by a stout pair of comfortable shoes. It's all about death, but then, isn't everything, ultimately?

Firstly, I heard a bit on the Jeremy Vine Show on BBC Radio 2 the other day about an attempt to set up a facility in Sandwell in the West Midlands to do what's now apparently being euphemistically referred to as "liquid cremation" or "water cremation" but is basically the same alkaline hydrolysis process that was referred to here (the people doing it seem to have settled on "resomation" as a nicely incomprehensible brand identity). Given the objections that were raised to the ridiculously benign and environmentally-friendly proposal to use the heat generated by a crematorium to heat a swimming pool (not far away, in Redditch, so maybe this is a West Midlands thing) you can imagine the sort of bullshit complaints that people will have raised here, and sure enough the project has been indefinitely delayed because people didn't like the idea of the harmless liquid residue being flushed down the drain, and thereby indirectly into the drinking water system.

No-one raising this objection could offer any logical reasoning for objecting, just an ill-thought-out "yuck" response and some annoyance at being obliged to think about death, something most people are intensely weird and irrational about. What they imagine happens to all the decomposing liquid goop that drains out of bodies buried in cemeteries I have no idea, let alone all the actual shit that gets flushed down people's toilets every day.

Secondly, anyone considering the standard salt and pepper shakers at the dinner table might want to consider a third cruet option to jazz up their Christmas roasties and sprouts a bit: the cremated ashes of a loved one! That's what Debra Parsons from Folkestone is going to do this year, and why not? Well, I mean, I can think of a few reasons, but maybe that's just me being up-tight and conventional about post-death rituals. And there I was laughing at people who think death can be transmitted into a swimming pool by heat in some way!

Just to be half-serious for a minute, I'm not convinced that either laughing at or uncritically nodding approval of what are clearly some deep-seated and Complex Issues is really serving Debra Parsons' best interests (her mother's best interests are pretty much irrelevant at this stage), but presumably the various newspapers paid her for her time, so I suppose it's all good. I imagine the inevitable gargantuan Boxing Day morning shit will have an extra poignancy to it for her as well. Anyway, the important point, as always, is that I thought of it first! As it happens I do think my method is better - if you must do it on Christmas Day then wash the capsule down with some celebratory bubbly or something, rather than ruin a perfectly good Christmas dinner by sprinkling grit all over it.

Friday, December 15, 2017

elektrischer Heilbutt: jetzt mit farbstoff

One thing I noticed while sitting around in a pair of crusty urine-soaked underpants morosely swigging neat whisky out of the bottle the other day was the small print on the back of my (now empty) bottle of Auchentoshan, in particular some stuff that appeared to be in a foreign language.

If you're struggling to read it, perhaps because you're sitting around in a pool of your own piss swigging whisky out of the bottle and the salty tears of despair and self-loathing are making your vision go all wibbly-wobbly, what it says is:
Mit farbstoff. Farven justeret med karamel.
The first thing that's slightly odd about this is that it's not in English; the second thing that's slightly odd is that it's actually in two different languages. The first bit is in German and just means "with colourant" or "with dye"; the second bit is is Danish and means "colour adjusted with caramel". What both of them signify is that there has been the addition of a quantity of E150a during the bottling process to darken the colour of the whisky.

I was in Tesco a few days later and snapped a few pics of some more bottles that bore the same legend. This is by no means a comprehensive survey, it's just to illustrate how widespread the practice is. From top to bottom these are Ardmore, Bowmore, Laphroaig and Old Pulteney respectively.

The whisky community are a funny and perhaps slightly obsessive bunch, and there is much discourse around the rights and wrongs of artificially colouring whisky. A lot of this stems from the entirely nonsensical idea that whisky is some sort of "natural" artisanal product, water from the crystal-clear distillery stream, peat-fired stills stoked by some Groundskeeper Willie-esque be-kilted lunatic striding in through the mist every morning with a hod of peat on his sinewy shoulder, the resulting spirit lovingly filtered through the unruly ginger pubes and down the milky inner thighs of a laughing freckle-faced Scots lassie while the evocative skirl of bagpipes wheezes wispily from a nearby glen, and finally re-collected and left to mature in a rustic barn, tended lovingly by some infinitely wise bearded custodian until the mystically-divined moment of perfect readiness and then being drunk in chunky tumblers by square-jawed types in Aran sweaters in front of a roaring log fire while munching on shortbread. In fact it's a highly industrialised process and whisky acquires colour and flavour from plenty of places not directly related to its original distillation, most obviously the casks in which it's matured. It's worth also noting that those who claim that they can taste the caramel in the finished product are almost certainly lying or mistaken, unless perhaps you go for one of the comedy "black whisky" products like Loch Dhu or CĂș Dhub, which claim to derive from heavily charred casks, and maybe they do, but you can bet your ass they also have a colossal amount of E150a dumped in as well. And don't get them started on chill-filtration!

I can't honestly say I'm much bothered about it either way; a gazillion other food and drink products have far more noxious colouring and flavouring products in them and they haven't done me any harm, my word no, apart from these terrible headaches and the occasional murderous rages and blackouts. What amuses me about the labelling is the weaselly nature of a clearly English-language product bearing statements in (I assume) only the languages of the two countries which legally require explicit disclosure of these kinds of additive, in (presumably) the hope that most people's eyes (including the subset of people who might care to the point of going and buying something else if it were printed in English) will just skate over it uncomprehendingly. 

I suppose, just to backtrack on that slightly, what may be a concern is if the whisky producers are using caramel colouring to give a false impression of age to the sort of no-age-statement whisky that many are now offering as their entry-level product. The Bowmore shown here is a good example: I have a bottle of this, it's called No. 1 and it's cheaper than the 12-year-old that I tried a while back (and liked very much). But is it as good? Well, to be blunt, no - it's perfectly nice and quaffable but doesn't have the depth that the 12-year-old has. And that's pretty much what you expect from something containing whisky that hasn't matured for nearly as long (a good chunk of it is probably between 5 and 8 years old). Obviously from an economic perspective the younger and rawer the spirit you can foist off on the consumer the better it is for you, long-term storage being an expensive business. Whether it's better for the consumer is another matter. Caveat emptor, though, innit, as they say in Denmark.