‘Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea’ is one of Iris Murdoch’s pseudo-philosophising quotes, and at the moment we are emerging from the commercial wreckage of HMS Man Booker. Older works and future works will be updated so that bookshop shelves will be interspersed with by the Man Booker shortlisted author…, to which Deborah Levy’s next work is no exception. Her new work Black Vodka, follows up the middle class holiday gone wrong Swimming Home, with a collection of short stories that carries the themes of her earlier works. And to return to that Murdoch quip, the wreck of future works as well.
Who was the joke on at the Booker prize? A prize that reeks of middle class values, shortlisting a very middle class novel in Swimming Home, which was in itself swiping at the flooding in the market of the middle class novel. But there’s no need to be so cynical because Black Vodka is superlatively good. It is a collection of 10 stories packed into 126 pages. This doesn’t allow for much narrative, instead they are like postmodern remnants of ideas, ‘sketches’, with a narrative overture. Levy’s earlier works were reminiscent of Margaret Atwood, and Ali Smith, not as activist as the first and not as steady as the latter. With her short stories though, there is some Angela Carter style mixing of the fable and contemporary and a sly reference to a cavalier of the short story, John Cheever, for those who can spot it.
In Black Vodka, Levy’s primary concern is with the male and female. Black Vodka is a mediation of what these terms mean, because psychology particularly, has essentially reduced itself to a modern day Cartesian philosophy. Levy is a progressive, as it is best to understand this by rightly splitting the terms gender and sex. Sex is the biology. Gender is a much more complicated construction through the discourse of the society’s inhabitants, a melting pot of cultures and ideals. For this reason, we are constantly observing the man and woman playing opposite each other as they must battle the physical restrictions of their sex and also the physical restrictions of their location. It is “Vienna” the third, and the most triumphant that does this, which she tried to explain in her novel Billy & Girl. Levy thrives on the ambiguity and unease it creates for her readers constantly challenging our stereotypes. As it opens Marget is testing her new microwave in front of her husband (the all too simple, generic husband wife situation) as her husband “nods as if he is a secretary taking notes from an inscrutable Executive Director who wears purple lipstick to frighten the more timid of staff”. roles reversed, because stereotyping like our physical location is something we can become stuck in as the next passage shows as her husband considers his wife “She is middle europe he thinks. She is Vienna. She is Austria”, showing the machinations of the mind from the definitive security of this to the what his could mean “She is someone else’s property. He holds out his arms, inviting her back to her own bed, inviting europe to share her wealth, to let him steal some of her silver, to let him make footprints across her snow and drink her schnapps”. This defines the collection. The gender dichotomy is most powerfully challenged in the ironically titled Cave Girl, the 6th story,when Cass tells her brother she wants a sex change, not into a man, but into a new woman. It is the woman that all the men want including her brother, the one that the advertisers create and make us desire, psychological plastic surgery.
In “Pillow Talk” Ella and Pavel embrace each other in a hazy, dreamy Barcelona. Here, the characters must also battle, not just with the physical and metaphysical aspects of gender, but also their cultures. Pavel has to leave Ella to go to Dublin for a job interview, where he succumbs to the desires of another woman (a recurring male trait). Dublin becomes taboo, and Pavel with his two passports and Ella, born in Jamaica with a British passport are restricted by the physical boundaries of love ‘Surname. Given names. Nationality. Date of Birth. Sex. Place of birth. Date of issue. Date of Expiry’ The soulless questions andlegal requirements, read like questions of compatability on a dating website . Like in “Roma” the penultimate tale, they, like most of the other characters, they are tourists, but at what costs? The husband and wife in this story rarely interact instead they are cultural tourists and tourists of their own marriage,
“She stares into the salt lagoon. A stork stands in the mud. And another. Her husband takes a photograph of the two stalks”.
It is emphatic in saying that we have the desire to travel but we can easily become tourists of our own lives watching our downfalls enacting roles that we think we have to play. In the second story “Shining a Light” the protagonist is thrown in to familiar Levy disorientation when she loses her baggage in Prague airport where the baggage carousel is a ‘grey river’. Alice in a Carter-esque self discovery loses her western burdens.
The question of the physical and the metaphysical is most ironically employed in Simon Tegala’s Heart in 12 Parts, which is told in twelve numbered aphorisitic like sections. Its emphasis is on the cliché of the heart and its association with love, as Simon gives into his ‘hearts’ desires all too easily In a mocking of the arbitrary organ that we associate love with “Simon’s heart has two chambers: the upper and the lower chambers. Blood flows between these chambers. Simon Tegala’s heart is the size of a fist” as Levy reduces the heart of all its benign metaphysical associations.
“Placing a call” is her most experimental in style, which doesn’t add much apart from some poetic muscle flexing. And then Stardust Nation, pretentiously titled, and it stands out on its own too much, too political. Its an indictment on the advertising industry again and a slight criticism on mental health treatment and psychoanalysis. Nikos gets an unsettling phone call from his colleague Tom,sSlowly, it emerges that they are very similar, both beaten as children by their fathers, and the inevitable becomes obvious quickly as the Nikos ‘guard dog sister’ makes it a Freudian triumvirate. There is still some rewards to be taken from it though but to pack something as strong into 15 pages diminishes its impact.
The title piece Black Vodka is another one of those that can stand alone in its own right, but this time with more success. It is slightly unusual to open with the ‘main piece’, but it works. It culminates everything in the collection in a fairly linear narrative, as Ali working in an advertising agency trying to promote Vodka Noir. It is very European, in scope and style. Ali is introduced as having a hump on his back, alluding to Victor Hugo’s most famous creation. When Ali is doing a sales pitch he notices a woman in the crowd studying him intently drawing “A picture of a naked hunchbacked man, with every single organ of his body labelled. Underneath her rather too accurate portrait should I be flattered she imagined me naked) she’d scribbled two words: Homo Sapiens”. It encapsulates Levy’s main gripe about the western, consumerist world, so obsessed with perfection This is what makes us human, the trying and failing to be perfect.
In a revolving way, the first story could easily be the last, if it wasn’t for its title, “A better way to live”. Joe is contemplating life, life In the broadest of terms the life of the 20th century. When he lost his mother the loving role was taken over by Elisa, both of them united by orphanage. Joe is allowed to see history through his mother’s stories “Benito Mussolini smiling in a hat with an eagle on it, the wall street crash…Rosa Parks on a Montgomery bus in the USA the day the buses were no longer separated”. When you think you have lost that love, you find it in the most unlikely of places. The orphanage is a refuge of lost love. Two are orphans of the 20th century, two humans, too human dealing with the hangover of a binge by others by before them.
This is the Booker after party, the hangover after the award and Christmas sales, and now is not the easiest time to be selling books. It is all about hardcore sales now. Good reads out of the window to some extent. They want your money, which is why the Booker prize is such bountiful enterprise as the publishers with Booker writers in their roster look to capitalise on the popularity. Which is nice that Black Vodka isn’t diluted Levy, it is a strong cocktail conjured by Levy, and an addictive one.This is the wreckage
The poison is strong.
Black Vodka by Deborah Levy is out now published by And Other Stories in paperback. This review copy was provided by Necessary Fiction.