The Electric Michelangelo – Sarah Hall

27 December 2009
Section 1: Bloodlights…
…which isn’t a chapter, as such, more a collage. I can’t think of any other way to describe the way that (mainly) one- and two-page stories or story fragments give us an impression of what it feels like to be one particular young boy in Morecambe during the First World War. Sometimes the fragments form a sequence that feels like a conventional chapter in a boy’s life. And sometimes they don’t: Sarah Hall will use all her powers as a writer to take us into a century-old mindset, or the specific dangers of quicksand, or the visceral revulsion a seven-year-old might feel when confronted with the coughed-up products of chronic illness. Visceral. It’s no accident that she begins with the precise look of a bowl of bloody sputum. If there’s one thing we all know about childhood it’s that life is turned up to 11 on the vividness dial, and Cyril’s sense of horror is at a pitch of intensity that Hall returns to often.

Obviously, when an author uses this sort of technique things don’t tend to unfold in a neatly chronological sequence – that’s part of the point. Instead we get slow, or jerky, accretions of understanding. We find out different things about Cyril’s mother: her no-nonsense approach to the consumptive guests – very useful for paying the bills in these hard times – and her no-nonsense approach to parenting. And, oh yeh, there’s that thing she’s involved in where young women come to her in the middle of the night and cry out a lot. We get this oblique take on her Vera Drake existence fairly early on, and it helps in building up that impression of Northern Gritty. In the second decade of the 20th Century, it isn’t only the kids who live life at a viscerally corporeal level.

Is there any plot? Er…. There are incidents, sure, but they’re there to get us deeper inside Cyril’s head, among other parts. We get the game of seeing who can piss furthest (which reminded me of Anne Enright’s The Gathering, a Booker entrant a couple or three years after this one, in which the brother does something similar.) The burning-down of the pier becomes another intense physical experience… and the near-fatal game of dare in the quicksand takes us to another level of vividly-felt corporeality. Blimey. It was near the end of Bloodlights that I started to wonder whether Hall has an almost symbolist agenda based on the elements: we’ve had earth and water in her different descriptions of the Bay with its sands and tides. We’ve had air – the air that is the town’s unique selling point and provides Cy’s mum with an income. And fire we know about – described, from the child’s point of view, almost entirely positively.

But the section’s title contains elements of a different nature. If the early sections focus on the blood, the end gives us as vividly imagined a vision of light as Hall can offer: the Aurora Borealis. It’s another of the town’s selling points, but the description of its appearance one night has nothing to do with commerce. As the consumptives look out along with Cyril and his mother and everybody else Sarah Hall seems to want to remind us that, well, even though the nitty-gritty of our physical lives is undeniable it isn’t the whole story. Blood, sure, but light as well.

2 January 2010
The Kaiser and the Queen of Morecambe
She’s a tease, Sarah Hall. A few pages in, we think we know who the Kaiser is, and who the queen of Morecambe is. They’re both characters from Cyril’s tumescent early adolescence. The queen is a chilly bathing beauty with nipples like broom handles who has the power to send Cyril home to the privacy of his room and a batch of comedy euphemisms. Only later, when a girl called Eva comes to stay at the guest-house, do we get more frankness as Cy’s ‘basally controllable cock’ (whatever that means) forces him to act. How we laugh when he fails to notice her kissing his pal, the one who was supposed to be helping him to court her – and who points out that he’d have been too tall anyway and would have bayoneted her in the ribs with his ’you-know-what’. There are pages of this stuff, beginning with the comic set piece of the opening section, when Cy accidentally refers to a sea-creature called pisces vaginales. It leads to his diligent teacher giving the poor fatherless lad a man-to-man talk that almost traumatises him – but prepares him for the engorged embarrassments to come.

The Kaiser is the Kaiser, or an effigy of him that Cy is press-ganged into cutting down from outside the window of one of Morecambe’s notorious personalities. As soon as he meets this new character we know we’re in for it, because Sarah Hall does that thing where she turns up the descriptive dial even higher than usual. This is Eliot Riley, and we don’t see much of him at first…. And then, once Hall has had enough of describing the indignities of puberty, we do. The tone changes as she seems to admonish us to take this man very, very seriously.

The tacit metaphor of most of this section is of the shaman or sorcerer and his hapless apprentice. As though by some magical force Riley chooses Cyril to carry on his practice of the Dark Arts (if it isn’t called this in the novel, it feels as though it should be), and Cyril, well, just can’t help but be drawn in. For dozens of pages, Cy is shown being bowed down by the misery of it – Riley is a hard taskmaster, and gives the boy the most menial of jobs to do – but he can’t help himself. After his mother’s death he thinks he’s chosen the sensible option, of going to live with his aunt across the Pennines – until he gets off the train and buys a one-way ticket back to Morecambe. This takes us right to the last sentence of this section.

Maybe the Kaiser is Riley: tyrannical, arbitrary in his behaviour, perpetually wrong-headed. But… Hall is keen to show him through Cyril’s eyes – and he is a genius. The fact that this comes out in the least respectable art-form known to early 20th Century Morecambe – tattooing – is part of the allure. And it gives Hall the chance to explore blood, and flesh, from a whole new angle. As in Bloodlight, she wants to celebrate – if that’s the word – the visceral wonder of being human. A tattoo forces us to bear pain in the service of a glorious celebration of the human spirit. This is what Riley keeps insisting – and Hall lets him persuade us. We start to believe that this isn’t seaside gimmickry – there are plenty of inferior practitioners around in the novel to soak up any dismissive judgment of that sort – it’s a continuation of the great art of the past.

Phew. And, in case there isn’t enough to tie Cyril to this guru, it turns out his mother knows Riley well. During the course of her final illness – and we would have been surprised if Hall hadn’t described it, and all its attendant excretions, in exactly this kind of unsentimental detail – Cy overhears them talking. He isn’t Cy’s father – at least, he isn’t the man she married – but the boy detects (in one of Hall’s less convincing metaphors) the ‘rusting chassis’ of some previous relationship. And they’re both outsiders, both involved in practices that respectable Morecambe would rather ignore. So… we suspect it isn’t an accident that he’s been born with the right abilities: maybe it’s in the blood. So to speak. And that means that if Riley’s the Kaiser, then maybe she’s his queen.

3 January
Salvaging Renaissance
This is where I began to get annoyed. In this novel Sarah Hall has always used descriptive prose like Eliot Riley uses hatching lines: over the course of a paragraph (or three paragraphs, or four) she will go over the same ground at a slightly different angle, building up an illusionistic impression of solid actuality. Sometimes you’ll get rows of sentences in which everything appears to mean something – the vocabulary and grammar go together to make some sort of sense – but it’s just words words words.

For instance. By the end of this section she needs us to believe that Cyril, now grown up and on his way to America (yes, I know), comes to a revelatory understanding of what it is that the tattooist is able to achieve. Somehow we are to believe that the true tattooist captures the essence of a person. Sure, he’s confined to the design they’ve asked for – but the choice is always significant, oh yes, and he adds something, er, special to the execution of it. The person leaving the shop has somehow – there’s that word again – become more essentially the person who entered. The same, only more so – as Sarah Hall might say in one of those dangling not-quite sentences she uses all the time. Cyril thinks back to something he’s never been able to understand until now. Riley doesn’t paint rampant lions or naked ladies, or any of the other clichés of the tattooist’s trade:

– No no, lad, I paint hearts. And I paint souls.

Yeh, sure. Hall has spent pages leading up to this line, which comes just before this section’s final paragraph, and… well, we’ll have to take the chronically unreliable Riley’s word for it, because nothing Hall has said convinces.

But what about the other 40 or 50 pages in this section? Nothing we wouldn’t have predicted, that’s what. She has to get Cyril from where he is at the start of it – the callow apprentice – to being the sadder, wiser, full-grown man at the end. Along the way – because, I suppose, she needs him to be for the (presumably) American half of the novel to have any psychological purpose – he’s been badly knocked about. If Riley is a father-figure – and Hall often spells out for us that that‘s just what he is – he’s one of those who passes on all the brutalisation he himself has suffered. And, boy, is he brutal.

I’ll spare you the details, which Hall doesn’t, obviously. But… we get the parent who belittles absolutely everything that the boy does; years of unsuccessful early efforts practised on his own body; the grudging, unspoken acceptance that the boy has, after maybe a decade of this treatment, learnt his trade; years in which Cy has to step in to save a man sinking ever deeper in alcoholism. I could go on. In fact, I will go on, because Sarah Hall does.

In the two earlier sections we’ve had Cyril’s introduction to the inconvenient physicality of life in general and sex in particular. In this novel, which from the start has been a kind of obstinately unsentimental Bildungsroman, Hall now needs to get on to the subject of real sex. It’s one of the two things in this section that are nastier than all that’s come before, as brutal as everything else in Riley’s shop – and I mean, in the shop. This is 21st Century literary fiction, and Hall knows we know all about pornography… so that‘s what we get. Sordid couplings, not relationships: Hall has set it up so that Cy has it all to learn in America, I suppose.

The other horrid thing is death. The death of Cy’s mother in the second section is a stroll in the park compared to Riley’s – to the extent that it made me think of those set piece deaths you get in action movies, when the psycho villain gets it in a blaze of righteous ferocity. Riley certainly gets it, starting with the lovingly described horror of his hand being smashed up, finger by finger, and followed by his year-long no-alternative suicidal binge. Do I need to go on? No. Except one thing: there is no bodily fluid (or solid) you can name that Riley doesn’t end up lying in on the road to squelchy death. Later, Hall reminds us that there is also no such fluid that Riley hasn’t used while tattooing. Isn’t she a caution?

9 December
Babylon in Brooklyn…
…I.e. Coney Island. The title of the section gives a taste of the cornball hyperbole of Hall’s writing here: she will spoil a vivid description with that cross-hatching I’ve talked about, smearing clichés and unsurprising insights into the life of a fairground stallholder. Which is what Cy becomes. At first I thought Hall was going to do something radical: the section begins with him established in his tiny booth some years – she’s always vague about how many years exactly – into his not-quite-legal new life. Is she going to cut to the chase for a change? No chance. After dozens of mini-chapters of backtracking and flashback we find out how he got there; we get the modest reputation he’s able to build up on the ship, the first surreal sight of Manhattan (‘surreal’ is a word Hall overuses), the introduction – by two carnival types who are larger than life to a clunkily literal degree – to the world of the Coney Island tattooists. And other stuff.

It‘s dull: putting the book down is a lot easier than picking it up when a writer, basically, keeps saying the same things in only slightly different ways. If Hall has done any research, it’s at a Google (or Google Image) level. Which is why nothing seems surprising. In the 1930s, Coney Island is past its heyday; it’s a bit like Morecambe, except more brash, more extreme, more American; people want tattoos there for similar sorts of reasons as in England; the place is full of freaks, literally, because it used to be full of freak shows. Well, you don’t say. I’ve been wondering if this is a picaresque novel (and I don’t know why I keep trying to label it), but I’ve decided not: picaresque novels take you to places, and all that happens in this one is Cy gets stuck. Twice.

What to say? Cy carries on tattooing people, either in his booth or in the back room of a Brooklyn barbershop. He meets people along the way, and they are usually larger than life. He finds another alcoholic binge drinker who needs rescuing, just as used to happen with Eliot back in England.

I’m struggling, because that’s about it. Novels that are mainly about place need something that Hall doesn’t give us: a real relationship between the locations and the characters. What we get instead – and this was true of the Morecambe sections as well – are encounters with place, not relationship. And something else we don’t get, amazingly in such a colourful location as this, is any sense of the visual. Hall can’t describe what it looks like, however many paragraphs she might spend.

In fact, I decided fairly early on in this section that Hall doesn’t really look. She describes what Cy sees from the window of his apartment – and what he is a choice of shadow-cinema: the actions of different neighbours projected by the light from their windows on to the opposite building. This is nonsense, as anybody who has ever tried it will know. You only get shadows if there’s an uncovered bulb at about waist height directly behind. Doesn’t happen – so one of Hall’s very few attempts at a cinematic moment falls down. She’s aiming for a kind of hyper-reality, as in another overtly visual moment: the first sight of Manhattan. That one doesn’t work either: she says nothing about the view that we don’t know already.

One thing that’s missing is sex. In the previous section it was everywhere, and it was not pleasant. Here: nothing. Until, teasingly, at the end of a long and ordinary description of how, unbelievably and astonishingly (yawn), chess is the game of choice in the local bar… ‘then there was Grace.’ Who she? Or, if Hall wants to surprise us on this more blatantly self-gratifying side of the Atlantic, who he? The alcoholic that Cy looks after keeps getting beaten up for being gay – so there is sex, after all, however problematic – so maybe Grace is a transvestite. He or she would be just the latest in a long line of outsiders.

12 January
The Lady of Many Eyes
Hmm. If the novel appeared to be stalled in the previous section, it doesn’t start moving in this one. Yes, he does meet somebody called Grace. No, she isn’t a transvestite – but yes, like Riley and the gigantic German couple, she is larger than life. Metaphorically this time, like Riley. She’s a childhood émigré from Europe, and… she’s intense. She plays chess as though it’s war, although she usually loses because she’s over-protective of her queen. And yes, that is a clue: Grace is given an almost symbolic role as an icon of women’s power.

In fact, the symbolism is laid on thick. For instance, one of the shadow-plays Cy has seen from his apartment window appeared to be a woman with a horse – and, reader, she really does keep a horse. She’s a circus performer and practises riding on it bareback or, magnificently, standing on it as it gallops along. She speaks about 12 languages, argues abrasively with anybody about everything, knows her own mind in a way that nobody in this novel has previously demonstrated. She’s a force of nature. And, oh yeh. If I’ve implied that she’s anything other than feminine, she’s also capable of showing quiet, sisterly (‘sororal’) solidarity with other women. The giantess can’t have children and keeps visiting the premature babies’ ward and weeping. Grace is, as they say, there for her.

But she’s really there – there in the book, I mean – to show Cy a thing or two. Ooh, good, we think, at last Cy’s going to have some experiences to compensate for the non-life he had with Riley in Morecambe. He’s going to find himself a good woman, get himself a proper relationship. He’s going to learn how to live.

Hah. Sarah Hall doesn’t do relationships in this novel. Cy might have found Grace, but he doesn’t know what to do with her. He doesn’t at first, and he never learns. He gets drunk, thinks about her, decides (after a process I didn’t ever recognise as being the way a full-grown, sexually experienced man might think about a woman) that he is going to ‘let Grace in’. And yes, these punning events are as clunky in the novel as they sound here.

This happens about a quarter or a third of the way through a 60-odd page chapter, and after that: nothing. He goes to her door once, gets introduced to the horse (bless!) doesn’t attempt any chatting up. Some months – or years? – later, she tells him she wants a full-body tattoo, so he’s finally got her to himself every afternoon for weeks. Inevitably, the devoutly wished-for consummation doesn’t happen. It’s about to when, exactly at the moment when clothing is beginning to get loosened, a customer arrives to make a loudmouthed complaint. Not predictable at all. Cy can deal with it, because customers often have second thoughts and come to complain. But before he can get rid of the idiot Grace has to butt in: her razor-sharp knife passes close enough to his nose for him to feel its breeze and embeds itself next to him. He pisses off. As you would.

As I wrote during the first Coney Island chapter: Cy gets stuck. He’s still stuck all these pages later. Hall seems to realize she’s not giving us enough, so a lot of the mini-chapters are about Grace. She even changes the point of view for a dozen or so pages: we’re inside the heads of Grace or the giantess as Hall has a go at giving us the interior lives of women. In fact, it’s no more convincing than the interior lives of Hall’s men, as the ‘sororal’ relationship is confined to a kind word and a companionable hand on the sister’s shoulder.

One last thing. Hall has another go at the significance of tattoos. Grace thinks about her template and she discusses the meanings of different designs with Cy. Grace is a European, so she can talk derisively about what the Nazis have done to the ancient swastika symbol. Ok. But how’s she going to subvert the ready-made symbolism of Cy’s usual templates? In one of the Morecambe chapters we heard all about women and sea-serpents (Hall even attempts to make a case for the apparently sexless mermaid representing a sublimated image of women’s sexuality) but it doesn’t wash with Grace any more than it did for me when I first read it. Grace needs something new – so she invents her own. As a true icon of feminism she’s going to turn the tables on thousands of years of female objectification: tired of being endlessly looked at, she’s going to cover herself in eyes. Let all those ogling men see how it feels.

Fine. At the end of the chapter she’s covered and she’s ‘the Woman of Many Eyes’. But in order to show the tattoos, she’s going to have to take her clothes off – she’s very clear that she wants nothing showing in the areas of the body not covered by normal clothing – so… how logical is her stance? Her protest about male expectations is to charge men for seeing her near-naked. Hmm.

26 January
History’s Ink…
…which is the final chapter. What a relief – not because Sarah Hall ties up all the loose ends and dissatisfactions, but because it’s over. One of the problems I have with it is that she left behind the collage-style narrative some time during the previous chapter, and now it’s tiresomely chronological. It wouldn’t be so irritating if she didn’t keep getting things wrong. In this chapter we get rationing ending in 1950, the boom in package holidays (and the consequent demise of the Morecambe holiday trade) well under way by 1965, and punk rock happening when Cy is 65, i.e. in the early 1970s.

As these dates make clear, once she’s got the sordid little assault/revenge story out of the way (tell you later), Hall races through decades. The only function of this appears to be so she can round things off neatly: on his 65th birthday an 18-year-old arrives in his tattoo parlour, with broken dreams of art college and ready to settle for tattooing instead. And guess what? She’s a girl. But he’s still the same old Cy – you know, the one who doesn’t appear to have developed in any way since the early days in Morecambe. Of course, he’s met the love of his life – but only to have her get herself covered in acid by some sort of lunatic fundamentalist and, after one last kiss (y’know, down there as Cy’s new apprentice calls it, referring to her own boyfriend) to walk, very carefully, out of his life. It’s all uninvolving and pointless.

The revenge story is like everything else. Following an unfeasibly elaborate pre-planned assault, involving acid followed quickly by an alkali to halt the process, the said loony – who considered the eyes thing an abomination against God – is put in an institution. But, as Hall is keen to tell us, Coney Island is its own little world, and you can always get things done. Such as get yourself into the loony-bin and burn out the eyes of the poor nutter, no questions asked. The ever affable Cy is happy to help. As you would be, if you’re as morally vacuous as he has seemed to be all along. It should have been a narrative coup, but we’re not bothered: it’s just Sarah Hall heaping on the nastiness in that way she has.

He gets out of there – as in, out of the USA – as easily as he got in, fights in Europe (it’s 1941, and he obviously wants to join all those brave Americans who’ve been out there since the fourth chapter), and goes back to Morecambe. Where nothing happens except the decline of another resort to go with the decline he’s already seen at Coney Island. Things in his home town are sort of familiar, sort of not. In the worst simile of the novel, it feels like putting on a comfortable shoe. And at another point Cy realizes that whatever extraordinary places you go to, you’re still you. Well, duh. Somehow, for all the prose-laden extraordinariness of the novel’s events, Sarah Hall has managed to make her main protagonist a cipher and there’s a tedious predictability about the way his life comes full circle. This boy was never going anywhere.

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