Undercover: Johnny Rotten’s Soul Sister (10/20/77)


One only has to think back to the music of the time to recall how open the possibilities of English life seemed ten or twelve years ago. One only has to read the papers, or note the terror the Sex Pistols have struck in some British hearts, to understand how closed those possibilities are today. British society seems to have come to a dead end, to have turned back on itself, to be strangling on its own contradictions. Though they were more than that, the promises of the British Sixties—particularly the promise that easy money, a spirit of high adventure and a revitalized popular culture shared by all would finally make the killing strictures of the English class system irrelevant—now seem like naive illusions. Today, there is no easy money, there is little adventure, and popular culture, to the extent that it is alive, is divisive, not unifying. The country seems to be shrinking. The pervasive sleaziness of the center of London today, the way Piccadilly has turned into one great den of pornography, seems to speak for an England that can no longer raise an image of itself that it wants to look at. England seems a vacuum, and ugliness, physical and spiritual, is filling it. Resentments are everywhere, and for the moment, blind, without satisfying objects.

It is this reality that both the Sex Pistols, with “God Save the Queen,” and Margaret Drabble, in her new novel, The Ice Age (Knopf, 295 pp, $8.95), are confronting; their subject is the attempt of people in present-day England to live without a belief in the future. There are, certainly, differences between Johnny Rotten and Margaret Drabble. He’s a young punk singing about, and for, kids from the working and lower-middle classes; she’s 38, a celebrated and widely read novelist, writing for, and mostly about, educated people in their 30s or older. But both are deeply British, both are scared, and both are responding to an overwhelming sense that their culture—political, economic, and aesthetic—has collapsed around them, leaving them stranded in a society that seems not only without prospects, but without meaning.drabbleNowhere have I found the full weight of this burden assumed with such honesty and feeling as in The Ice Age. It is a rich book, full of characters that come to life in a page and grow throughout the novel—a building contractor in the Sixties who bids to escape his class and in the Seventies finds himself in prison for fraud; a spoiled, angry teenager eager for oblivion; a classics professor retreating not only from the present but from all signs of life in the past. But its richness is not really in its plot, which centers on two people in their late 30s, Alison Murray and Anthony Keating, who are trying to build a relationship in the midst of personal disasters and public decay. The richness of the novel has to do with the way Drabble connects the private lives of her characters to the public miasma they are forced to share.

The Ice Age is most effective as a series of troubling incidents, bitter reflections, and small tragedies; the formal plot is a little soapy (there are three dead dogs, which is three too many), and the action seems to run away from Drabble at the end. Here, too much happens disastrously too fast, most of it outside England, which subverts the connection between the private and the social in which the novel is based. Drabble’s last lines, though, are as chilling as any I have come across in a long time: reading them, not quite accepting them as her last word, I turned to the next page, but it was blank.

What matters here is Drabble’s ability to put across what it means to try to live with sanity and decency—with some vague, utterly necessary sense of “virtue” in a society that no longer seems to value either; a society which, while randomly punishing some who transgress against it, can no longer afford to protect the sick or the old, or to reward those who have lived according to the values in which they were taught to believe. “All over the nation,” Drabble writes,

“Families who had listened to the news looked at one another and said, ‘Goodness me, or, `Whatever next,’ or ‘I give up,’ or ‘Well, fuck that’: before embarking on an evening’s viewing of color television, or a large hot meal, or a trip to the pub, or a choral society evening. All over the country, people blamed other people for the things that were going wrong—the trades unions, the present government, the miners, the car workers, the seamen, the Arabs, the Irish, their own husbands, their own wives, their own idle good-for-nothing offspring, comprehensive education. Nobody knew whose fault it really was, but most people managed to complain fairly forcefully about somebody: only a few were stunned into honorable silence. Those who had been complaining for the last twenty years about the negligible rise in the cost of living did not, of course, have the grace to wish they had saved their breath to cool their porridge, because once a complainer always a complainer, so those who had complained most when there was nothing to complain about were having a really wonderful time now.”

When this happens, Drabble says, people freeze up, and that is what she slowly works out in The Ice Age. On the sleeve of the Sex Pistols’ latest 45, “Pretty Vacant,” you see two buses, destinations clearly marked: BOREDOM and NOWHERE. In The Ice Age these are not destinations, because Drabble’s characters have already arrived. People who can afford it are “more ironic, more cynical, more amused by more things and less touched by anything”—as true and hard a statement about the Seventies as the Seventies have produced. People like Anthony Keating do not merely suffer from boredom, they cultivate it, as an escape from anxiety. One man feels himself “turning into a tree,” and he is grateful, because he no longer has to think. Alison Murray returns from a country that may as well be Albania—a cold, brutal place that seems like nowhere—but it is when she reaches London that she understands nowhere is where she lives, where she comes from. The place is shabby—a word that recurs throughout The Ice Age—mean-spirited, selfish, unfriendly and brutalized. Hideous new buildings have broken up communities that took centuries to form; people, Alison among them, can no longer connect to the landscape in which they grew up, because it speaks for things that no longer really exist, or that they do not want to know about. Personal tragedies—an IRA bomb attack that kills a friend and mutilates another, a child with cerebral palsy (not a setup like the child in Play It as It Lays, but someone whose tragedy is real because the reader gets to know and find interest in her as a person), a financial disaster, a friend in prison—all come to seem fated, necessary, signs of a greater loss of will and efficacy: a common price some of which everyone will sooner or later have to pay, in money or spirit.rottenHanging over every page of The Ice Age is the contrast between the Sixties and the Seventies: between narcissism and self-pity, delight and despair, easy money and depression, a lust for good times and good ideas and the willingness to settle for what in the Seventies is called “survival.” It is a chill on the soul, and Drabble perhaps renders it best in the name she invents for a tranquilizer given to children with physical defects: “Oblivine.”

Most novelists today, especially in America, where social bonds have always seemed looser than in England, write as if to disengage their characters, and by implication themselves, from the society in which they live. Margaret Drabble writes to connect her characters to a reality larger than their own, and to discover what can be made of that connection—how it works, what it promises, what it costs. In The Ice Age she is saying that post-industrial society, the corrupt welfare state, has passed beyond its ability to order itself, to posit values worthy of respect and to maintain the kind of community that binds people rather than separates them. Depression and political disorder are not causes, but signs by which everyone interprets their own life. What is shared here is a feeling of sordidness, and each person finds his or her own way to turn away from it. Both Drabble and the Sex Pistols, and the new bands in their wake, are working to turn their audiences back upon that sordidness, because that is the only honest thing to do. When things are as Drabble describes them, that is the only way to hang onto a sense of what it means to live without lying, without betraying yourself and everybody else.

Star-Making Machinery: Inside the Business of Rock and Roll by Geoffrey Stokes (Vintage, 234 pp., $3.95 paperback). From the board rooms to the studio to the streets, Stokes chronicles the failed attempt of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen to sell out, and the result is the best book about how rock works, and falls apart, since Robert Greenfield’s S.T.P.

Working [I Do It for the Money] by Bill Owens (Simon and Schuster, $9.95 paperback). This badly printed, overpriced, deadeningly middle-brow collection of photos-with-quotes does not contain a single image that might stay with a reader ten minutes after the book has been closed. Most of the pictures are of men and women just looking up from their work, as if Owens had casually caught them in the act; they look not at you, as the subjects of Walker Evans’s or Lewis Hine’s photos do, but merely at Owens. After a few pages, he seems like the real subject of his camera. He uses his lens not to examine the roles played by others in society, but to celebrate his own role: the wandering picturemaker, dipping into America for a long, cool drink of complacency. In a better world, Owens’ work would appear in house organs where it belongs.

Youthful Writings by Albert Camus with an introductory essay by Paul Viallaneix (Vintage, 280 pp., $2.95 paperback). Almost a non-book: Camus’ 1932-34 literary and music criticism, journalism and philosophical speculations—stiffly written, often badly thought out—combined with a hundred-page treatise by a French critic who presumably wants to tell us what Camus was trying to say and instead provides a perfect, if overlong, example of what we American critics mean by the word “philistine.”

Dreamland, a novel by George V. Higgins (Atlantic-Little, Brown, 181 pp., $8.95). Higgins, well-known for The Friends of Eddie Coyle and other pretentiously literate crime fictions, has produced a completely satisfying novel about fathers, sons and spies. This time, Higgins seems to write not to impress himself but to get closer to his story here told by one Daniel Compton Wills, a Boston lawyer, in a tragically repressed voice that in itself brings the attempt to untangle the truth about his father into astonishingly tight focus.

The Never-Ending Wrong by Katherine Anne Porter (Atlantic-Little, Brown, 63 pp., $5.95). Porter has one thing to say in this skimpy memoir of her brief involvement with the protests against the 1927 execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, a book which she strangely calls “a plain, full record of a crime that belongs to history.” The one thing she has to say is that a Communist coworker told her that the two men would be worth more to the cause dead than alive, and because she has nothing else to say, she says it four times.

A Moment of True Feeling, a novel by Peter Handke (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 133 pp., $7.95). Handke, a young Austrian who is one of the most interesting writers in the world, sets out to prove that the sense of life set forth by Sartre in the late Thirties, in Nausea, still matters today. He does prove it. But this is no longer one of the most interesting things in the world to read. Though there is much beautiful writing here, and a few chilling, perfectly controlled scenes, A Moment of True Feeling is more a formal tour de force built around a single idea than a novel with a life of its own, and after Short Litter, Long Farewell, and A Sorrow beyond Dreams, it comes as a terrible disappointment.

The Dead Cat by I.M. Grimalkin (Stewart Press, 99 pp., $4.95 paperback). The latest in a slew of commercially successful books about felines, this collection of photos, paintings, and drawings has already sold over a million copies in hardcover. It’s easy to see why; the book includes pictures of cats in every form of, shall we say, repose: mummies in Egyptian tombs, skins nailed to fence posts, mangled bodies with intestines protruding from their mouths on suburban streets, rare time-lapse shots of a whole litter of newborns (taken with a camera placed inside the gas chamber of a city pound), and perhaps best of all, a fine reproduction of Norman Rockwell’s banned masterpiece, Fourth of July/Cherry Bomb Time.

Rolling Stone, October 20, 1977

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