Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

"The Electric Michelangelo" by Sarah Hall (Faber and Faber, 2016)

Having much enjoyed her short stories I didn't expect this novel to be as much of struggle as it was to read. The main narrative voice is usually coloured by whichever character it's focussed through at any one time, but it's always wordy. The first paragraph has "If the eyes could ... If the eyes were not ... The trick of course ... The trick was ... If he kept his eyes away". The rhetoric repetition helps stoke up the story I suppose, but what about the following? - "The little smoulder gathered strength and in the strong sea breeze it spun into a persistent glut of flame. Then the fire, suddenly very confident, spread to the ground-floor ceiling of the structure and lay upside down across its rafters. The great pavilion of the Taj Mahal went up in a blaze the likes of which the town had never seen before. The golden dome of the building shone in the darkness as reddish flames leaped upwards from the wooden strutting of the deck" (p.42). "little smoulder"? "spun into a persistent glut"? "reddish"? And what about

  • He also possessed a boisterous, cane-happy left arm and a good aim for catapulting loose objects from the blackboard shelf at chattering individuals, but that was by the by (p.56). Who's saying that it's "by the by"? Why "loose"?
  • A man was wiping the bar down with a cloth, he nodded his head to Riley when he entered, in cursory greeting (p.71). I don't think "down with a cloth" is needed, nor "his head" or ",in cursory greeting". It's a run-on sentence too. Maybe just "A man wiping the bar nodded to Riley when he entered" would have sufficed.
  • The man appeared thunderous with concentration and premeditation, as if some kind of vendetta were in operation (p.76). Is the rhyming deliberate?
  • Like magic, like an illusion, or a trick of the light, or some other unspecified miracle (p.84) - why all the words?
  • she arrived a week later, smelling of old lace and apprehension (p.105)
  • Cy thought to himself (p.295)

We learn about the tourist trade in Morecambe, pissing contests, suffragette visits (don't know why), quicksand, a pier fire, Aurora, and the effect of the first world war. It sounds well researched. I liked the description of Riley on p.90-96, and the analysis of the tattooist-client relationship, the nature of tattooing, and the symbolism of the designs, and how they might summarise a person - "Humans had gone well beyond the red hourglass and the simplicity of natural informative markings. They had evolved, complicated life, refined it and lost touch. They had tried to push back the basics, the cruelty and poison, the seeds and urges, the nurture and beauty" (p.149). On p.140, Cy, the main character, now over 30, parentless and childless, suddenly goes to the States using a false passport. He opens a booth on Coney Island, calls himself "The Electric Michelangelo".

  • For all the city's obscure adaptions and unclear reveries, for all its urban confusion and impacted allegories, Brooklyn did have one uncomplicated feature. It had purity of light (p.172)
  • Coney Island, as it turned out, was Morecambe's richer, zany American relative. A fat, expensively dressed in-law with a wicked smile and the tendency, once caught up in the mood, to take things too far (p.182)
  • Coney Island offered up inebriation with startling dexterity and precision and for a time it could predict the vulgar thoughts of the masses like a mind-reader, responding with tailor-made surrealities and rides which were pure stimulant (p.189)
  • Coney now had all the desperation of a mistress high on some cheap substance, eager to please her lover, terrified and motivated by the knowledge that he was becoming less interested in her charms and she could no longer instinctively guess his fetish (p.194)

He has the gift of the gab now, he's even swotted up on The Dodgers. After a few years he meets Grace, who reminds him of his mother - "Grace has solemn eyes that were territorial and displaced and dark ... Her eyes said that she also arrived young in a foreign country, or on the cusp of two ages ... The eyes spoke somehow of abandonment and resolve ... They spoke of adopted parents ... They said something of failed immigration procedures" (p.214). "Her eyes, even in the inadequate light, were each a litany of struggle, strategy, and survival" (p.219). Grace wants him to tattoo eyes all over her. She thinks that "The secret was that if the city tipped just so against the light you could see a fine web between corresponding human hearts throughout it, like a spider's web ... And the beauty was, if you turned and looked behind you, perhaps you would see that you had spun a separate strand" (p.215). She has "a mind that went out like a rider on horseback to meet an enemy, both courageous and negotiating " (p.217). She plays chess. In the phrase "news of a queen's gambit broke" (p.213) I suspect "Queen sacrifice" is intended - there's nothing unusual about the Queen's gambit. It's 1940. He still has flashbacks to earlier times. They can feel rather forced - on p.293-4 the boggart and quicksand return. Only on p.231 did I realise that his mother was an abortionist. Grace tells him that in Europe Jews have numbers tattooed onto them. She asks if he's seen the work of Braque. He has. She's a victim of an acid attack done by a man who wants her skin restored to its original condition. She recovers, but it takes a while. He sees her skin grafts. He helps her to take revenge. In 1946 he returns to Morecambe, soon in decline. He resumes his profession and takes on Nina, a punk, as an apprentice.

I think some of the wordiness is sloppy, but most of it looks like a chosen style. I got used to it, though I prefer a more minimalist style.

On p.336 "unkown" looks like a typo.

Other reviews

  • Jem Poster (There's evidence in the detail of the text that the novel has been edited with rather greater haste than was good for it, but this doesn't significantly affect its essential virtues)
  • Kirkus Review (There is a torrent of whimsy and caressingly lyrical description, but the effect of all this poetry is not enchantment; it’s weariness. The characters are flat, the story travels far without ever really going anywhere and the occasional attempts to philosophize about tattoos are generally fatuous. A lot of flash, and not much more.)
  • Michael Caines (The Electric Michelangelo is not a light-footed novel, and its imagery jangles heavily as it plods through the years in chronological order)
  • Peter Mathews (The plot itself is linear and curiously pedestrian ... Hall ... is monotone in her heavy-handed attempt to generate meaning in her novel. Her metaphors are clumsy and unsophisticated, ... Even more questionable is Hall’s decision to engage with history in her novel. The vague references to the Renaissance, especially to Michelangelo, are so shallow as to be laughable)

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