Welcome to this month's book club! On the fourth Monday of each month, we post a round-table discussion about a speculative work (or work of interest to readers of SF), and we invite you to join us for further conversation in the comments. December's book is Fire in the Unnameable Country by Ghalib Islam (review here), and other forthcoming picks are listed here.
This month's book is Tigerman by Nick Harkaway. Published earlier this year, Harkaway's third novel is the story of Lester Ferris, British Army Sergeant, posted to the former colony of Mancreu as a caretaker consul. The island is polluted, depleted, and now exists in a legal grey area, scheduled for evacuation while being too useful to the powers that be as an "Interventional Sacrifice Zone" for that evacuation to ever come about. During this limbo, Lester has formed a friendship with an island boy who loves comics and calls himself Robin. When things get complicated, for the sake of his young friend Lester finds himself donning the mantle of a would-be superhero, the Tigerman—and then things get more complicated still.
Discussing Tigerman are:
Niall Harrison, Editor-in-Chief of Strange Horizons.
Maureen Kincaid Speller, a critic, freelance copyeditor, and graduate student. She is working on a PhD focusing on indigenous contemporary literatures in North America. She has reviewed science fiction and fantasy for various journals, including Interzone, Vector, and Foundation.
Aishwarya Subramanian, a critic and PhD student working on post-war British children's literature.
When the selections for this year's Goodreads Readers' Choice Awards were announced, Nick Harkaway put up a rather heartfelt post about how gratified he was to see Tigerman in the "Fiction" category. Are we about to dampen that buzz by claiming his novel for genre? Put more generously: this is a novel that engages with a lot of different contexts; what contexts are you bringing to it, and how do you think they shaped your engagement with it?
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I guess it depends on what you mean by "context." I've read this novel three times now, and each time I feel I've come at it in a different way, and I've no reason to suppose I wouldn't read it completely differently again next time. I don't think I've read it explicitly as a genre novel, but I don't tend to read novels in order to claim them for genre (and here I would take genre to mean something that we are calling science fiction, but which I'm not planning to define in any kind of detail). As a term, "genre" doesn't seem to me to be a helpful label any more, certainly not if it implies that a novel is either a member of a particular group of novels, defined in a particular way, or not a member of that group.
What I could say, and probably will, is that Tigerman, and indeed Harkaway's earlier novels, is in conversation with tropes and ideas that are also actively explored in contemporary work specifically identified as being science-fictional, and as a result it is popular with a certain set of science fiction readers. But I'd also say that Harkaway's work resists being bound by the "genre" label (as indeed does all the best science fiction—I'm not going to make this easy for anyone).
As to the contexts I bring to this novel, I've read it three times at least, and I've read it differently each time (not deliberately, but each time a different theme has come to the fore).
The first time, I read it through a colonial/postcolonial lens. I have an MA in Postcolonial Studies and my PhD research is partly concerned with issues of identity, nationhood, sovereignty, and indigeneity, as well as cultural and territorial displacement. Tigerman practically begs to be read through that lens.
What's striking throughout is how little voice or agency the indigenous peoples of Mancreu seem to have. We could have a discussion about what indigenous means in the framework of Mancreu, of course, as in who was there first. I like that their own language is called Moitié—half, in French—with so many layers of implication about who these people are (and I am reminded of the way in which one of the characters identifies where on the island the Boy is most likely from by the way he speaks, showing that there is no single island identity—and that's before we get to his actual parentage).
And yet, it's clear that the islanders seek greater agency—it surfaces not just in the Leavings, the rioting at the end—everything is about trying to take some sort of control. The presence of Shola's bar as a symbol of "normality" is both whimsical and yet hard-won.
The dispersal of the Mancreuans reminds me of things like the displacement of the inhabitants of Bikini Atoll before it was used for nuclear testing, and more recent and probably most pertinent in this instance, the removal of the inhabitants of the Chagossian archipelago, a British territory, at the insistence of the U.S..
Here there seems to be no fully developed evacuation plan (you just know that at the last minute those remaining are going to be rounded up and forcibly removed), no proper discussion, no sense that local people are in any way involved. Lester's failure as a diplomat is that he "sees" the inhabitants and shows himself to be a human being in doing so. Except, of course, that he has to do so in disguise, and his assistance is limited.
Much of this seems to me to be very pertinent to things being discussed in the kinds of contemporary SF I like to read, even before we get to what one review splendidly called the "handwavium" of the goo in the cavern and the Discharge Clouds, which are overtly "genre" yet almost unbelievable. I admire the way that Harkaway manages to convince us that just because this hasn't happened before doesn't mean it might not in the future.
Subsequent readings of the novel have taken in the fracturing of relationships, particularly family relationships—there doesn't seem to be a single normative relationship in this novel—every relationship is fragmented in some way. (And we could even note that the fact that Lester is a Brevet-Consul positions him on the edge of that mysterious diplomatic "family" the British government likes to posit.) Yes, it's overtly about making families out of lost souls, but I wonder if Harkaway isn't also asking why we need to shape it in such traditional terms.
And the third time, I read the novel after having re/read Jan Morris's Last Letters From Hav and the Myrmidons of Hav, and found myself thinking about a slew of other books which create fictional islands or isolated places and use them as spaces in which to explore political and cultural ideas. Here I'm thinking very much of Hav, Len Jenkin's New Jerusalem too, and to a lesser extent Olondria and Communion Town.
What I'm not doing, however, because I don't really know that much about them, is reading it through the lens of comics and superhero stuff, except on the most basic level—again, fractured families, damaged people—though I am interested in the way mythical figures arise in the book to provide voices for those who otherwise don't seem to have them—Jack as much as Tigerman.
Aishwarya Subramanian: Like Maureen, I come to Tigerman first as a postcolonialist. More specifically, my academic work is on British fiction negotiating the loss of empire, and while academics are notorious for reading our own interests into everything I feel like mine are legitimately all over this book. (But more on that when it becomes directly relevant to every single question during this discussion.)
I thought Harkaway's post about genre was interesting for a few reasons—one of them being that most of the "fiction" writers he mentions as an honour to be classified alongside are also writers SF fans have attempted to claim for the genre. I'm not particularly interested in the genre debate where it's a means of shutting down discussion by fixing books within pre-existing categories, particularly when this is done for the purpose of gaining prestige for a genre. What I am interested in are the ways in which placing a book in multiple genre traditions can open up the ways in which we read it. And Harkaway's work (I've not read Angelmaker, I have read The Gone-Away World) is so deeply engaged with other texts and other literary traditions that it really does invite that sort of reading.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: You know, it really hadn't occurred to me to specifically articulate it in those terms. I suppose when I talk about collapsing boundaries I have the same implied result in mind, but by categorising through absence rather than actively promoting a plurality of categories.
(Though I fear the taxonomising tendency would then fight over what it's more or most like, rather than allowing for cross-genre mobility, but let's swerve away from that.)
Aishwarya Subramanian: I'd like to think we could have both—the freedom to come to a book entirely on its own terms, alongside the ability to read it within a plurality of traditions simultaneously. But the impulse to taxonomise is strong!
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Unreasonably strong. I deplore the need to pin a book down the way so many people seem to want to. And how they insist that unless something is constructed within very precise guidelines it doesn't count. I like the way things overflow so-called genre boundaries (well, maybe not Charles Stross's attempts to do sci-fi Wodehouse but even I have a limit).
But given we all, or most of us at any rate, have our understanding of texts shaped by influences from all over, I honestly can't see why we shouldn't read from a plurality of traditions.
Niall Harrison: Whether or not I want to claim the novel for genre (which I am also using in an ill-defined "what I point to" sense) is a tricky question. Pop culture references do not a genre novel make, but like Maureen, I find that in my mental library it does sit companionably with other recent British novels that were published as SF—I'd mention Nina Allan's The Race, EJ Swift's Cataveiro, Simon Ings' Wolves—in a way that I find tricky to pin down, other than to say that they feel like a set of British genre novels that set out to think about where the country stands in the twenty-first century, politically, environmentally, culturally. That makes me reluctant to let Tigerman roam entirely free.
Aishwarya Subramanian: This seems sufficiently (because not overly) pinned-down to me?
Niall Harrison: Perhaps so. And as you note, if this cat is out of the bag then so are any number of others: the Goodreads category puts him alongside Haruki Murakami, David Mitchell, Margaret Atwood, and Emily St. John Mandel, and I can see links there, too.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I think this might take us back to Aisha's sense of it being in different places simultaneously. Again, I admit I'd not thought of it as sitting companionably with other recent British novels, but now you mention it, I can see that (though I've not read The Race as yet). It does feel very . . . British, in some respects, though that might be another characterisation that gets us into trouble.
Niall Harrison: Or maybe we're declaring the novel itself a kind of Interventional Sacrifice Zone, outside the claimed literary territories.
Aishwarya Subramanian: Never.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: We might be. I think I'm still more inclined to set it free as a novel, participating in genres as it wishes rather than confined to one in particular. Literary bricolage, perhaps?
Niall Harrison: Actually, the book that remark brings to mind for me is Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being. One of the things I found really striking about that novel was how it almost co-opted modern pop-cultural form—the first-person YA novel—and literally subsumed it within a larger, "more grown up" literary framework. I see a slight similarity with the way Harkaway positions the Boy as Voice of the Internet in Tigerman—the cruel way of putting it would be to say that it lets him have both his genre and literary cakes and eat them both, the charitable way is to say that I think he's trying to "make literary" central aspects of the twenty-first-century experience that are often absent from "literary" fiction.
Aishwarya Subramanian: Here are some more possible contexts:
- The setting of the island on top of whatever they've managed to create down there, which is very much in the tradition of the sort of literary SF that uses a dubiously SFnal setting to examine an Idea but doesn't really engage with it otherwise. Here we have colonialism, the politics of waste disposal and pollution, the corporatisation of science, all conveniently bubbling away under Mancreu.
- Policemen and spies on sunny islands! I'm thinking of things like Our Man in Havana, I suppose, but also I feel like I've seen it in (cosy) crime fiction as well. This is one of the genres I suspect is specifically alluded to by this book—at least, I felt its presence at several points when Lester's policeman duties came up.
- I don't know if the story of the Decent-but-Angry Policeman in Rapidly Changing World is a genre of its own or if I've read too many of the Discworld City Watch books, but that was another lens through which I kept seeing this. One consequence of this was that I've spent so many years thinking about the issue of Sam Vimes vs The Other that it was sometimes tempting to transfer all that critical work to this completely separate book. I didn't, of course. Or not much.
- Superhero comics. This is too obvious to be stated, probably, since the characters' genre awareness of comics shapes the plot. The Boy, and I suspect even Lester, knows more about comics than me and there are probably a lot of clever references that I missed, but I enjoyed the ones I did catch.
- The middle-aged-man-angst that is sometimes used as a reductive stereotype to mock (capital L) Literary fiction—though if we discuss this aspect of the book I'll probably want to qualify that description.
- Allegory for the end of empire? So tempting, but as with all allegories, once you've said it I'm not sure there's much left to discuss.
- On a much smaller scale, this is also a form of end-of-the-world fiction (not post-/apocalyptic, but something quieter and sadder), and I came to it expecting some of the overwhelming melancholy that you often get with that genre. I wonder if the relative lack of this is one of the consequences of, as Maureen described it, creating fictional spaces to use them to explore ideas; that they ultimately figure in our minds as constructs and not as places with lives and histories involved?
Niall Harrison: And here are my contexts: in no particular order, I see myself coming to Tigerman as: a reader of speculative fiction; a reader of previous Nick Harkaway novels; a fan of Marvel more than DC; a white, British (English) man; and someone who's only read the novel once. I do think all of those affected how I read the book. In some cases that meant expectations confounded—I think I was expecting more from the transformative effects of the Discharge Clouds than ever materialised, for instance, although I like Maureen's point about their plausible-genre quality. I was anticipating a certain degree of narrative sprawl (another expectation that was largely confounded), and a subtextual political anger (which was a bit less than subtextual this time; it always surprises me when people don't see the politics or anger in The Gone-Away World and Angelmaker, but there's no missing it here). I was not always as sympathetic to some elements as I think the book might have assumed—by no means do I want to position myself as a comics authority, but I've never much cared for Batman, who is clearly one of the significant influences. And yet ultimately, my combination of contexts meant that I felt an emotional connection to the novel that's hard to deny.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I was expecting more from the Discharge Clouds as well, to be honest, and I've still not made up my mind whether they seemed to . . . er, recede as the story unfolded through poor storytelling or because of some other reason. Certainly, I think their importance receded. Similarly on the narrative sprawl. What particularly struck me about Tigerman was how controlled it was by comparison with Harkaway's earlier novels. Which is not to say that he doesn't retain his trademark meandering style but this time the novel seemed a lot more focused, as a result of which the subtextual political anger was indeed much less subtextual.
Niall Harrison: Thinking a bit more about the way I connected with the novel: I've had conversations with several friends about Harkaway's previous novel, Angelmaker, and specifically about the marketing characterisation of its protagonist, Joe Spork, as an "everyman"; because he's not. He embodies a sort of white English middle-class haplessness, and you wouldn't necessarily think we were short of that sort of character in genre, but for me at least there are surprisingly few that are characterised precisely enough to actually trigger recognition and identification—whereas Joe Spork seems quite real. Something similar is true of the Sergeant here, albeit to a lesser extent, because his life experiences and competencies are very different to mine. Perhaps this is the qualified middle-aged-man-angst that Aisha mentions—I am not, nor have I ever been, nor am I particularly likely to become, either a soldier or a father. But there's still something in Harkaway's novels that prompts self-reflection in me, thinking about my masculinity and whiteness and Britishness, in a way that not many writers achieve. In this case the recognition is perhaps more formulaic, about the kind of story he has to navigate, the positions that being British in this place puts him in (colonial and otherwise), the choices he has to make.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: That's interesting. It's been a year or so since I read Angelmaker but what Joe Spork made me think of is the kind of character that turns up in Ealing comedies and their clones. Essentially decent, well-intentioned, but somehow out of step with their environment. There was a sense, I felt, that through the novel Joe sketched a trajectory moving from that sense of anachronistic haplessness to a character fully embedded in the twenty-first century while continuing to participate in some sort of absurdist slapstick in places.
Aishwarya Subramanian: A thing I'd love to see is a really good contextual reading of Englishness in all of Harkaway's books—I'm hoping it's blatant enough in Tigerman that someone will finally do it.
Also a big part of my wanting to qualify "middle-aged-man-angst" was to do with the fact that Lester really isn't what I'd consider middle-aged (he's in his late thirties, if I'm remembering that correctly?), though he does seem to see himself that way.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I have an impression that some men of that age do regard themselves as middle-aged, which interests me because the media tend to present them as being still fairly young, whereas we all know that a woman over forty is over the hill.
I'm almost precisely the same age as the composer James McMillan and well into his forties he was still being described as a "young" composer, whereas I was being positioned by society as now past it.
Niall Harrison: I can't remember a clear statement of his age. I do remember this, from early on:
And it was just as inevitable, given his official position and his advanced age in the eyes of the local champions, that upon his arrival at the cool half-basement which served the Beauville [boxing] club as its headquarters he should instantly be accorded the status of referee. [ . . . ] It was a no-win situation for the younger boxers. If he was a poor fighter, they might lay out the Brevet-Consul, a middle-aged geezer with a dodgy guard and weak ribs. . .
Which I think indicates a couple of things. First, middle-aged is a state of mind. The Sergeant is old relative to the Boy, relative to a lot of the inhabitants of the island that he mixes with, and he's aware of that gap; so subjectively he feels middle-aged. Second, middle-aged is a state of status. As Brevet-Consul his position on the island is one of authority, which implies experience, which implies age. So the novel presents him in such a way as to encourage us to see middle-aged-ness in him. And we could add to this that his experience as a soldier is the sort of thing that might age someone, make them feel their years (or that we might expect to do so). In contrast, I can't think of very much that encourages us to see youth in the character.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I wonder if this is a way to get at something I've been thinking about Tigerman (the superhero alter-ego) and what he represents to Lester. On the one hand, there is the sense that he's performing this role for the Boy (proving himself as potential adoptive father material? "Playing" with his putative son?) but at the same time I can't help thinking there is also a sense of playing for himself, recapturing a childhood he never really had.
And there is no doubt that as Tigerman he is free to act in a way that he can't as Brevet-Consul, no matter how much he might want to. One might say, I guess, that the formality of the diplomatic role means that he can't act as his heart desires, but I have the impression that there are protocols involved in being a superhero as well and I'm curious as to whether this homegrown superhero transgresses those as well or whether he plays by those rules.
(For that matter, it strikes me that there is a large portion of this novel that is about different sets of near-monolithic rules coming up against one another—assorted diplomatic protocols, army rules, superhero rules, local rules, and so on. )
Probably the strongest emotional thread in Tigerman is the relationship between the Sergeant and the Boy. What sorts of characters are they? Which aspects of the relationship work? Which do not? What contexts do we use to understand their relationship?
Niall Harrison: They are: father and son; bros; hero and sidekick; hero and villain; coloniser and colonised. They are the Sergeant and the Boy, Lester and Robin, Tigerman and Jack—names are titles in this novel, and always significant. (Which makes it very interesting to me that we seem to have mostly defaulted to calling the Sergeant Lester, when the novel only does that very sparingly.)
In a sense I think the relationship works to the extent that these "aspects" are not easily severable. In what ways is the father and son relationship like a hero and sidekick relationship? What motivates the Sergeant to become Tigerman is precisely his pseudo-paternal affection for the Boy, a desire to impress and do right by this person that he perceives as younger and needing his care. And of the three of us I'm the one who's not a postcolonialist, but it also seemed to me that the Sergeant is at least somewhat aware of the ways in which his pseudo-paternal affection might be consequent on the difference in status between the two of them, and more generally between the nation-state entity he represents and the stateless space the Boy represents—he wants to take the Boy away, to save him, to give him what he sees as a more stable identity.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: It's also interesting to read Lester against Dirac, as the representative of the French, another significant colonial power, particularly bearing in mind that Dirac has been exiled to Mancreu for undertaking a flagrant act of defence on behalf of the local people. I think there is a tension between Dirac as the pragmatist and Lester as an idealist. Dirac has already done the things I suspect Lester wished he had done, or hasn't yet been able to fully articulate. (And worth noting that the French Foreign Legion is often positioned as another surrogate family.)
Niall Harrison: In one sense the novel is using its generic elements to make fatherhood, and the emotions therein, "safe"—not as direct or raw as a straightforwardly realist novel might be, filtered through the superhero lens. And yet in another sense the transposition of that superhero narrative, which is always about the assertion of individual power, into a context which questions how individual power runs up against systemic powers, strikes me as both ambitious and risky. So another way to answer how well the relationship works is to ask what we think of how it resolves—my unexamined emotional reaction was that it didn't feel easy, and that was the key quality. (Contrast with the resolution of the subthread about the Sergeant and Kaiko, which felt distinctly convenient.)
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Delightful as Kaiko is, that last element didn't seem to me to gel. Then again, there is a difference in that this time Lester just acts without endlessly working through the possibilities. But yes, a little too convenient.
As to the actual question: where to start? Speaking now as a middle-aged white woman, twice married, no kids.
The first thing that strikes me about this relationship is the masculine silence that surrounds it. It's companionable on the one hand, as though arising from a very well established relationship that no longer requires words because its participants are very comfortable with one another.
And yet there is something about it that buys into the stereotype of men not knowing how to talk to one another about anything except, say, football, or comics. The implication that there is no emotional intelligence at work.
But as we are privy to Lester's thoughts, we know that there is a continual internal monologue about what he should do or say in response to the Boy, which reminds me too of a young man too tongue-tied to ask out the girl of his dreams. Which is in itself a problematic image, because there is a flavour of uncertain courtship about the whole thing as well.
And of course we have no access to the Boy's thoughts except when he speaks so we know nothing more about him than what we get from Lester, which turns out to be less than he realised.
But then again, I wonder about the Boy's silence, whether it isn't also being presented to some extent as the silence of the inscrutable, unknowable Other (and I might even bring de Beauvoir in, just to add another layer of unknowability). Which brings us back to the colonial reading as well.
The more I look at this relationship, the more complicated it becomes, and then I find myself wondering if I am simply putting theoretical complications onto something which really is just two blokes in a bar, being companionable. Or if I should just read it as a youngish man thinking about the traditional trappings of British manhood—wife, family, etc.—and trying to build some sort of facsimile of it with the materials to hand.
Aishwarya Subramanian: I think one of the reasons this is difficult to answer is because that relationship is so central to the book and is so many things at once. It's tempting to start by distinguishing between the Sergeant and the Boy as characters who have a personal relationship and the Sergeant and the Boy as representatives of a larger dynamic that is the "real" subject of the novel; but I'm not sure if that's ultimately helpful.
But. Okay. There's the parent-child relationship that Lester craves; the extent to which it would be a traditional father-son relationship (whatever that is) is a separate issue. What we're shown (from Lester, we're not given the Boy's point of view) are—an urge to protect, mentor, and ultimately take this child away from the horrible doomed place and give him a good life elsewhere. That last one I find particularly interesting because it resonates with so much of the hackles-raising discourse around international adoption (and I find it interesting that when Lester considers it he mentally places himself at a disadvantage to some hypothetical American who might want to adopt the Boy); and that chimes with a general sense of places like Mancreu as spaces to rescue people from.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I don't think I realised just how central the relationship was until I began to try and analyse it. I'd thought there was another story winding around it, one about Mancreu itself, but I'm less and less convinced about that, the more I look at this novel. Which is exciting in terms of analysis, but also deeply, deeply frustrating.
And here I am saying lots about Lester, while noticing how easily the Boy eludes discussion, as indeed he eludes actual notice in the novel. We rely on Lester for a reading of him because it's all we have, and it's clear in the end that Lester has to a large extent shaped his view of the Boy according to his own needs (inevitable, I guess).
The Boy's view of Lester seems more difficult to access. Is he manipulating Lester because the island needs someone like Lester to help it with its problems? He's clearly manipulating Lester to some extent to keep up with what's going on yet I find I want to believe that there was at least some element of genuine friendship between them, some sense of connection. Possibly that's what the construction of the Tigerman identity is about.
Niall Harrison: I think the framing of their relationship as being about competing silences is fascinating, and very powerful. It's interesting that for a novelist as garrulous as Harkaway we might end up focusing on what is not said—perhaps this is another aspect of the feeling of control mentioned earlier, the gaps feel deliberate—or perhaps even more than that, in some cases we know what is not said and we are left asking why it is not said.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Striking too that Lester has spent so much of his life in specifically masculine environments (army), or almost solely among men (much of his family life). Shola's bar is another specifically male environment, and again another one where people don't seem/don't need to talk, and then there is the emptiness of the official residence as well. I'm still poking away at an assumption within the novel (unspoken, naturally) that silence will heal Lester of his war experiences, and that a posting to an isolated place as the sole representative of Britain is in some way restful.
And there are so many other silences here. The Boy's mother can no longer speak, so her intended academic career is stopped before it begins. it's tempting to see the Boy's exuberant speech as somehow compensating for her silence.
Though I note too that this is a very masculine island. This may be a (double) cultural thing—and Lester must remain an outsider—but he rarely seems to see or "see" women. His relationship with Kaiko, fragile as it is, exists mainly because she makes the running, and because she could be represented as yet another superior officer (which also implies a form of exploitation of the silence that must perforce exist between a superior officer and their subordinate).
And Tigerman may not be silent but his speech is of course distorted.
Niall Harrison: As Maureen asks, do Lester's feelings go unstated because of inhibitory masculine codes, or because of a more fundamental uncertainty about what relationship is possible between them? Do we lack access to the Boy's point of view to keep him Other (intentionally or not), or for logistical narrative reasons (to maintain plot twist potential), or can we assume it is as ambivalent as Lester's?
Maureen Kincaid Speller: One of the most shocking things in the novel, to my mind, is the discovery that the Boy is "Jack" and was the target of the assassination in the bar all along. He's suddenly propelled from his role as surrogate son to the role of father; it's probably not unreasonable to describe him as the paterfamilias of the island, which I think means that he addresses Lester as more than an equal. Certainly, if, as I'd like to suggest, Lester's official role is pretty much that of the diplomatic "son" of Britain, representing his "family's" interests.
Aishwarya Subramanian: For all that Lester's feelings for the Boy are real, I wonder if there's a recognition that the relationship he wants is partly a construct. Towards the end, when he unwittingly confesses his feelings, he says of the Tigerman persona that
"I don't need it. I don't want to be this . . . character. Not much. What I want . . . I want to be his dad. And that's all."
But how far are the two really different?
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I wondered all the way through why he seemed to find it so difficult to express his feelings out loud. Taken on one level, it could be read as a personalisation of that famous British reticence, but I wonder if it could be taken less metaphorically, that he knew that the relationship was a construct. Then again, what are we to make of Raoul tricking him into making the declaration to the Boy without him being aware of his presence? Is it that Raoul is thinking of the Boy's future in terms of getting him off the island and somewhere else, or is he acknowledging the reality of Lester's feeling for the Boy?
Aishwarya Subramanian: Which is where I think this ties in with the larger issues of race and history and global power dynamics. As I said earlier, it would be easy to read both the Sergeant and the Boy as symbols of one side or the other of those dynamics (not-tangentially, I've been reading a lot recently around twentieth-century depictions of the Commonwealth as a big, global happy family with Britain as well-meaning patriarch—I'm not sure what one can do with that comparison other than make it, so I'm just leaving it out there). For now I'm more interested in what the book suggests about the possibility of individual relationships within those larger contexts. I've been using "Lester" to speak of the Sergeant's personal life and "the Sergeant" to speak of his position, but of course I can't do that for the Boy because he doesn't let Lester, or us, have his real name. He makes himself unknowable, gives us a series of false identities (Robin the sidekick, Jack the villain; these choices are obviously revealing in terms of how the Boy can conceive of himself fitting into this superhero narrative), will not share who his family are, etc.
Niall Harrison: So far as the names he adopts go, I may have missed something, but—what significance are you getting from "Jack" as a name/title? Also: in addition to sidekick and villain, he does self-identify with one other role, when he makes a Firefly reference: the hero, but doomed.
Aishwarya Subramanian: I don't think there's a specific reference I'm aware of attached to the name Jack, no. What I meant was: the Boy is consciously constructing a story for the world to consume—much of this is PR. As you say, he's the one immersed in pop-culture narratives and the options they offer; within his constructed public narrative the potential roles he can see himself as believably (for the world, at least) inhabiting are villain (Jack) and sidekick (Robin). Obviously I'm reading race and non-Britishness as reasons for this (Lester also angsts a bit about how the brown friend/sidekick always gets killed off in books right after the book has killed off Shola); age is probably a part of it as well.
This is complicated by the fact that, while we don't have much access to his thoughts, I get the sense there at the end that he's also making sense of events for himself by creating a private narrative that Lester is briefly given access to—I think that's where the Firefly quote comes in. I describe this narrative as private because the Boy's changed plan casts him in the public eye not as the hero but as a victim; another role he seems to think more palatable (to his global audience) than that of protagonist.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: One thing that strikes me is how very generic a name Jack is—nursery rhyme name, fairytale name (Jack the Giant Killer), a criminal name (Jack Sheppard, Jack the Ripper) and so on. It strikes me as consciously ordinary name. I wonder if the Boy/Jack isn't actually playing a very complex role as child and authority figure.
He is a child to Lester, because he appears to be physically a child, and to have a child's enthusiasms. But he is, as we know, a concealed figure of authority, as parent to his own mother, who has become as a child because of the Discharge Cloud (which makes him, in an odd way, also his own grandfather—and it's interesting that he insists on Tigerman receiving Raoul's sanction, too) but also, through some process of heredity we never quite get to grips with, patriarch of the island, except that no one knows this. His concealment of his role as father is deliberate whereas Lester's desire for fatherhood is concealed through reticence. And at the same time, even if we grasp that the Boy is creating a private narrative, that narrative is also much more layered than we might initially realise. Indeed, do we ever realise its full extent?
Niall Harrison: I don't think we do get a complete sense of the Boy's private narrative, but we get glimpses, partly because, as Aisha mentioned, he's masterminding a public narrative as well. I went back to re-read the big reveal scene between Lester and Jack, and was struck by how overtly it's about control of narrative:
The Boy nodded. "Yes [ . . . ] Tigerman's last will and testament. 'This mess was made to order. It is a lie from the beginning. The island need not burn, but if it might burn then it is an un-place and all the dirty deeds can be at home here.' Two weeks ago, no one would care. Today, from Tigerman! It is the greatest show on Earth! Now tell me they would carry on! Tell me they would dare, after Tunisia and Egypt and Libya after Khaled Saeed and Mohamed Bouazizi! No. No. People would march around the world. Tigerman for ever! For Mancreu! They would. It is a great story. Everyone wants to touch that kind of story." He punched the air, then slumped. "Already there are shirts. Shirts, and a band in Kentucky. By tomorrow there will be dolls. In six months, a movie. And it would have been an Oscar winner, too."
That obsession with story is there from the start of the novel—the Boy talks about it on page two—and it's one of the things that trips our genre buttons, isn't it? Genre being patterns of story and all that. And in some ways this quote fits into the Bond narrative, the villain's climactic speech to the hero . . . but it's also, I think, about genre narratives losing, about realising that your story isn't going to work out the way the Hollywood movies say that it would.
Aishwarya Subramanian: I think we can't use the Boy's name to speak of his personal relationship with Lester because the Boy doesn't believe that such a relationship is possible outside the larger dynamics that frame it, while Lester, who is frequently uncomfortably aware of those dynamics, is still able to conceive of their relationship as something separate. Whether or not he's right about this is, again, debatable; there's a lot going on towards the end there. There's this: "Jack. He tried the name in his head, didn't like it. Too much came with it. The Boy was the Boy, and that was that, and if he needed another title then it should be 'son'." This is a moment where Lester's feelings for the Boy are incompatible with all that the Boy is, when he wants him to come without all the baggage that he does come with.
Niall Harrison: That's brilliantly put. In the terms I was using, it's a moment when he is stuck in one story and doesn't realise the Boy is in another, and that there's a gap between those stories that can't be bridged . . . and it's probably not coincidental, now that I think of it, that it's the Boy who is immersed in contemporary pop-culture narratives. He's much more self-aware about his role, I think, than the Sergeant ever is (perhaps I should say, than the Sergeant ever has to be).
Aishwarya Subramanian: Yes! Seems to me that the Boy is the storyteller in some ways, because he is to at least some extent orchestrating Lester's actions. He can, in his child persona, inveigle Lester into "playing" at superheroes, but it is as an adult that he needs Lester to enact his previous role/current honorary role as policeman/peacekeeper on the island but can only obtain that by deliberately manipulating Lester.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: It's a lot of baggage, too. I wonder, when Lester goes to rescue Sandrine, who is he rescuing? Raoul's daughter, the Boy's mother. Where does she stand if he does take the Boy from the island. Would he take her too (on the assumption that she could actually be carried away)? And what kind of relationship does that then place them in with regard to one another? It's a very lopsided sort of relationship, given she's unaware of much of what's going on around her. They can't construct a traditional family relationship, and indeed we've no reason to suppose they might have done had she not been affected by the Discharge Cloud.
There's a lot of incipient wish-fulfilment in this.
Aishwarya Subramanian: On the other hand: he finds out that he was going to be sacrificed for a cause by someone who has cause for great bitterness towards him and who hadn't got many other alternatives; that his white English maleness was going to be objectified (is that the right word there?) and weaponised and he still loves the Boy. As Niall says above, much of Tigerman is written from the perspective of (and to be identifiable with by) a certain sort of white British man, but this was my big moment of angry postcolonial wish fulfilment.
Niall Harrison: My own relationship to the Boy feels like a much more delicate subject than my relationship to the Sergeant, but here goes. Let's start with, who do we think Harkaway thinks his audience is, and who do we think it is? I would be surprised if I'm not comfortably within his readership's demographics, in terms of age, ethnicity, nationality, maybe a bit less so gender—and I think we can probably assume that a lot of his readers are pop-culture-infused or just plain nerdy. That last category means that as much as I'm primed to identify with and empathise with the Sergeant, there is also a way in which I am primed to identify with and empathise with the Boy, namely: I get all his jokes. (Actually, not all of them, the Boy is significantly nerdier than I am about comics. But Firefly, yes.) To be clear, I don't mean that nerds are all youngish anglophone white guys! Nor do I mean that Feels about Firefly are equivalent to the life experiences of the Boy. I mean that a lot of youngish anglophone white guys are nerds, and from the point of view of those readers I think it's a clever move to channel the postcolonial anger and defeat through a character like the Boy—it provides an easy way in to some complex emotions.
Mancreu is only the most recent entry in the extensive literature of mythical/allegorical islands/places. What are the advantages/disadvantages of using a quasi/fictional setting to discuss issues of colonialism, nationality, and sovereignty?
Aishwarya Subramanian: I said earlier that one of the "genres" I read Tigerman in is the end of the world (though on a small scale, of course, since it's the end of this particular island), and that I'd expected a much more melancholic tone to this aspect of the book. That there isn't such a tone is I think a partial result of Mancreu's allegorical-ness (shudder at that word); it's not a thing in itself and therefore cannot itself be lost.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Allegoricality? Yeah, that's pretty horrible too. (Both have been used in reputable places, according to Google, but not with what you might call conviction.)
I am now wondering if "not a thing in itself and therefore cannot be lost" isn't actually the fundamental weakness of the novel, which is in itself a rather startling thought to have after living with the book for a while—though equally, that one can change one's mind at this stage is no bad thing either.
Aishwarya Subramanian: One of the issues with Mancreu's fictionality for me is that it ends up having to stand in for a lot of former colonies; and since this obviously can't be done through engaging with the specificities of different colonised spaces, we have to have what feels like all the clichés. We're aware that all of this is filtered through Lester's perspective and Lester himself is aware that this perspective can be prejudiced, but it's the one we've got. And so we have Mancreu's fresh fruits and "dubious" cheese; its language made by a fusion of languages (but its English is taken entirely from the media, there's less sense of it as something the islanders can claim and adapt and treat as if it belongs to them); the leaving parties that are compared to a form of Sati (with all the historical baggage that term coming from a man like Lester holds). I'm tempted to specifically dig out all the instances where we're asked not only to view Mancreu as a violent place, but as one of many violent places, the sort of places where certain sorts of things tend to happen. Obviously, as I say above, the book is (at least partly) aware of this: witness Lester's wince when the Boy speaks of "Good men fighting to protect and serve in a town where there is no law". But it seems to me that for Mancreu to work as a concept for the reader we need to accept the ways in which the book signals the ways Mancreu stands in for other places . . . and therefore we have to (partially?) accept the book's depiction of those places as being like Mancreu.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: It occurs to me too that this novel needs us to accept an awful lot—there's the dodgy science as well. While it's true that all novels ask us to accept a certain amount—suspension of disbelief and all that—this one is really stretching the "ask," and that in turn leads me to wonder what, if anything, we can "safely" accept about it. And by "safely," I think I mean, is there anything in this novel that isn't immediately questionable? And how much of that questionability is accidental?
I think, though, that the idea of Mancreu "standing in" for other places is interesting, in part because it resonates with all those comic-book towns that stand in for real places (not the least, Gotham). Which brings with it the unpleasant thought that it's OK to use a space like Mancreu because, as Aisha says, it's not real. And equally OK to make places not real in order to do things with them. Mancreu puts me in mind of, among others, Bikini Atoll and Diego Garcia. There seems to be an assumption that if you remove the people or establish a distance, they're not real. Or don't have to be real. The old people in the beautifully kept little square don't have any individuality; they are the "old way." Young people on quad bikes are the "new way," none of them differentiated. And of course, quad bikes have come from elsewhere, which is bad. It is as though Lester is, still, for all his surface unease, still trying to build an idea of "home" that owes more to an excess of Englishness (I keep thinking Falkland Islands here) than a realistic attempt to see the island on its own terms. (We mostly see the island as island, beyond the town, when he is Tigerman, I notice, so is Tigerman supposed to be his island identity?)
Aishwarya Subramanian: A big part of the Boy's anger is that for countries more powerful than it Mancreu is "an un-place and all the dirty deeds can be at home here"; that its very doomed-ness (a result of the actions of those powers) makes it a place where they can do anything. I'm connecting this, in a tenuous way, to Lester's reminiscing about Afghanistan, where "[t]he Brits shared with the locals a tacit understanding that nothing done here would make any difference, that this was just another layer of bloody patina on the cold hard soil" (the locals share this belief? Really?); in both instances there's a sense of the colony, or former colony, as being outside time and change and reality and only existing for the European's plots to occur in (think, as well, how quick Lester is to claim the plot and the island for his own when interrogating the prisoners, "these bastards who had done this bloody, brutal thing on his doorstep, who had come into his special place, his town, his island and killed his friend"). Which, since we've spoken so much about narrative, is basically the nineteenth-century adventure novel. Insofar as it's a book about narrative, a big part of Tigerman is Lester's realisation that he's been making a lot of assumptions about his own role.
But due to the way that Tigerman is structured, in order for Lester and the reader to be reminded that the rest of the world does not exist for white dudes to have feelings in, a fictional island has to be created for a white dude to have feelings in. In order that we learn that the world is not disposable to those who live in it, a disposable island is created.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: But the subsidiary point may be, I think, that he still can't have feelings because he's brought his institutionalised white dudeness with him. Or rather, he can dress up as a superhero and he dresses up as two—Brevet-Consul and Tigerman—but it's only as Tigerman that he sees himself as fully identifying with his notion of what Mancreu is. As Brevet-Consul he's supposed to be a superhero for Britain, defending it from outsiders. When he opens the consular building as a refuge I think we're supposed to see him as Lester, but I wonder if we're not actually seeing him as the Sergeant, doing what Sergeants do, which is to very cleverly manipulate the regulations to his advantage. Which is not idealism so much as authentic barrackroom lawyering and sophistry.
Aishwarya Subramanian: I think I may have stumbled into declaring all fantasy fundamentally immoral.
Niall Harrison: I don't think you're necessarily declaring all fantasy fundamentally immoral, but perhaps you're pointing out a moral weak point in any fiction that interpolates a fictional place to stand for real ones. You've got me thinking about two other examples I've come across recently. First, in the third season of The Newsroom (set in 2013), our heroes get the opportunity to break a story about U.S. propaganda supporting an African government that led to riots and deaths in that country; the country in question is "equatorial Kundu." My guess is that this is in part because earlier seasons got dinged for having the heroes appropriate the real-world journalistic work of others—but inventing an African "failed state" (referred to as such) to act as the background of a story about a (primarily) white American cast has its own obvious issues. Second, the Marvel Universe country of Wakanda, which—as I understand it, I haven't read Wakanda stories directly—is almost precisely the opposite, a rich, advanced fictional African state (due to show up on screen because of the Black Panther movie). I saw a very interesting article, for which I now cannot find the link, discussing the problems with inventing a success story country—and thus eliding real successes on the continent.
The question, I guess, is whether we think any of these stories does enough good things to justify (balance? forgive?) the problems their methods raise. In the case of The Newsroom, the whole premise is so flawed that the show probably should just not have been made in the way that it was; Kundu is a problem, but also emblematic of a larger problem. In the case of Wakanda, I think you can make a decent argument that for the cinematic universe Marvel should have considered trying to adapt the existing story to a real-world location. (Interestingly I can imagine more justification for keeping Wakanda in a DC universe, which already has fictional Western locations like Metropolis and Gotham—but the MCU is supposed to be recognisable as our Earth to a greater degree, I think.) In the case of Tigerman . . . maybe? I enjoyed it enough, and it hurt me enough, and it made me think enough, that I want to say it walks the tightrope successfully; I don't want to say it is as inherently flawed as The Newsroom. Yet I agree with Aisha that for the story to work we do have to at least partially accept what it is telling us about what "those places" are like, and even without changing the author or the basic perspective of the story, it's possible to imagine a more confronting, less fantastical version—or alternatively a more purely science-fictional version, perhaps set on another planet far removed from our historical context—that is less susceptible to that issue, while doing many of the same things as the novel we have. I think I'd like to say that those alternate versions would not be better or worse in an absolute sense, but better or worse in certain ways, for certain readers, at certain times. But I don't actually know.
In a moment of serendipity, one of the books I'm currently reading is Rebecca Solnit's collection Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics (University of California Press, 2007). On the first page of the introduction, before I'd even got into the book proper, I was struck by this:
. . . the very term place is problematic, implying a discrete entity, something you could put a fence around [ . . . ] What we mean by place is a crossroads, a particular point of intersection of forces coming from many different directions and distances.
For me that speaks to the nature of the invention that Mancreu represents: it literally is a discrete entity, both fictively and geographically, where its author can control the forces intersecting on it. But perhaps Solnit is also saying that any representation of place is to some extent invention, because no real place is entirely containable, any real place is more complex than any representation of it. If so, that suggests to me that a version of the problem Aisha identifies will always obtain: any act of representation has moral dimensions, and to be provocative, is always to some extent fantasy.
For further discussion:
- What is the role of Shola's cafe? Is it (even before Shola's death) the Great Good Place that it appears to be?
- Tigerman is saturated with signifiers of nationhood and indicators of national character. Is Harkaway critiquing the idea that such a thing exists? How well does he succeed?
- Where does power reside in Tigerman? How do institutional and individual uses of power conflict—or collaborate?
- Tigerman draws on many different influences and genres. To what extent is it doing so nostalgically, and to what extent does that matter?
- Do you imagine yourself in the world of this novel? Where do you imagine yourself? Why?
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