12 September, 2011

Hungry City - Carolyn Steel

I've rarely enjoyed the pleasure of a non-fiction book that brings together so many of my favourite themes for consideration.

I came across Carolyn Steel as the presenter of the keynote address for this year's State of Design festival. Steel is an architect by trade, but some years ago started researching how the design of our cities reflects, is influenced by and (especially in modern cities) ignores our relationship with food and its supply.

Steel is a rapid and enthusiastic speaker, unable to resist delving into tangents, then berating herself for not sticking to the vital facts in her allotted time. Despite both the restrictions and diversion, she did an impressive job of precising much of the book's 300 pages of content in an hour. Steel is clearly intimately engaged with her subject and it's a further credit to her that the book is so nuanced; she doesn't run away with passionate polemic, but her message is forceful regardless.

So what is that message? Hungry City argues that we cannot persist with building cities that ignore the realities of food supply. The 'sustainable city' is a common theme in today's media, whether in discussions about more bike paths, urban gardening or solar power rebates. Steel's argument, however, is more fundamental than that. It's not about improving what we have, it's about rethinking design and paying closer attention to the chains of power that control the supply of food around the world.

This is also about much more than food miles, which themselves aren't a new phenomenon. In Ancient Rome, the citizens dined on delicacies from as far away as Egypt and Spain. Steel traces the history of town- and city-building back to Sumerian times, when the first zoned habitable areas appeared out of a need to store and trade grain. (Ironically, it was our evolution to eat grass, rather than just meat, that was the first step in the journey that led to today's megalopises - we were no longer limited to town sizes that could be supported by the amount of livestock within walking distance.)

The story travels from Sumeria to Rome to post-industrialisation, to the development of the shopping mall in mid-20th-century America, the decline of independent stores in Britain and absurd zoning allowances for megamarkets, all the way through to a futuristic city of vertical factories. It's a lot to stomach, but in a fulfilling way.

01 September, 2011

'Small World' - Matt Beaumont

In 2000, Matt Beaumont published e, a novel written entirely in email exchanges between the employees of an ego-drenched London advertising agency. Its humour and observations would appeal to any fans of The Gruen Transfer. I've followed his work since that first novel had me chuckling and referencing for days.

Where There's a Will continued the vein of comedy, but added a more bittersweet twist. It tells the story of Alvin, a perennial do-gooder, whose philanthropy is out of kilter with the cynicism and solipsism of those around him. It featured some wry and worthy observations, but the plot relied a little too heavily on coincidence and circumstance.

Enter Small World, wherein Beaumont combines key elements of both of those earlier novels, to varying effect. Clearly not one to be too limited by straight prose, but wanting something other than a modern 'epistolary' novel, Beaumont presents a story told from a dozen different perspectives. The first-person narrator switches within scenes, within pieces of dialogue, introduced simply by the character's name and a colon.

It's unbelievably off-putting at first, and my experience of this novel very nearly ended within twenty pages. We firstly meet a group of three married couples - tricky enough to remember who is friends with whom, who is married to whom, who fancies (or indeed stalks) whom. The perspectives then branch ever further: a policeman arrives at the house where the six are having a dinner party, and enters the first-person milieu. So does his girlfriend, who's the PA to one of the Original Six, a HR manager. So does the nanny of the HR manager, and the nurse she sees at the hospital when she takes her young charge for treatment. The nurse is the mother of the boyfriend of the shop assistant for another member of the Original Six (who is being stalked by the husband of the HR manager).

It's a complex latticework, and one that does stretch the boundaries of credulity a little bit. Some characters seem to be there just to add to the complexity - not all of them manage a distinctive voice, nor do all their stories contribute significantly to the overall plot momentum. The differences between each character voice are subtle for the most part, and that's one of the most curious elements of the novel. Normally books with multiple perspectives present each voice in large chunks, giving the reader time to get to know the character through their voice, mannerisms and reactions. With such rapid changes between perspective, there would be no narrative cohesion if Beaumont did that: the language remains much the same; at least it does between the white upper-class characters who make up the bulk of the cast. When it comes to Jenka, a Czech nanny, Beaumont is cruelly stereotypical and patronising, giving her broken, comedic English and furnishing her only with a desire to have her nose reshaped to look like Charlize Theron.

But what of the story? Just as this group of characters is implausibly connected (it would seem only ten or 15 people provide all the services and action in north London) their lives contain the melodrama of a daytime soap. Characters die, get attacked, have surgery, almost lose family members, end marriages, lose jobs and generally have a pretty shit time of it for much of the novel. For most, their saving grace is the power of the people around them to help, whether friends or strangers.

Beaumont weaves a tight web of interactivity, and with so many characters funnelling their experiences into the plot the reader is presented with several stereotypes - of mothers (or women desperate to be mothers) in particular. The connections between the characters do become ridiculous, especially with a long lost half-sister finding herself (unknowingly) on the same hospital ward as her sibling, although they live hundreds of kilometres apart. Perhaps, however, Beaumont was aiming for archetypes. With so many characters to empathise with, they need to be quickly sketched so we know who we're dealing with as the narrative perspective continually changes. (At times the perspective changes mid-dialogue just to give us a first-person reaction that could as easily have been described in the third-person.) The intended effect was perhaps to remind us of the propensity to find love and support in any of our relationships, and that anyone we meet could be connected to us in a way that means they deserve our respect and attention, rather than admonition and judgement.

Of course, attendant to that is the idea that people who do bad things could just as easily be closely connected to us. The 'bad guys' in Beaumont's novel are not fully redeemed, although they do reach a state of contrition.

In some ways, this novel can be compared to Christon Tsiolkas' The Slap (which has done very well in England), in that it details the machinations of a closely connected group of (mainly) young people, who are as connected to their urban environment as they are to each other. It does have some provocative themes. A character undergoing IVF is frank about the negative effect of the treatment on her emotions and the unfair impact this has on her husband. It has a character to match Harry, Tsiolkas' most hateful creation: Keith the policeman, an unsatisfiable arsehole of thwarted ambitions. Nannying and the respective responsibilities of paid help versus parents get a look-in as well.

The novel's ending is far brighter than much of the dark humour that has pervaded throughout, but given the licence taken with all these intersecting lives it's hardly surprising that things end up unrealistically cheesy as well. Beaumont manages to create enough intrigue for us to crave a conclusion, but I'm not convinced that this story and its message were strong enough on their own, separated from the conceit of multi-perspective narration.