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Nothing is True and Everything is Possible, Dead Girl Walking and Chasing the Scream

Disappeared diva, Russia and the War on Drugs

By Mark Diston, 31 Jan 2015

Page File El Reg bookworm Mark Diston reviews the latest litery treats with a look at Russia's uneasy balance of state control and capitalism through the eyes of Peter Pomerantsev. Top-notch Scots crime writer Chris Brookmyre has another gripping investigative outing for Jack Parlabane and Johann Hari looks at the reality and practicality of legalising drugs.

Nothing is True and Everything is Possible

Peter Pomerantsev is the London born son of emigre Soviet parents. He found himself returning to Russia in the early 2000s to work in television. Pomerantsev worked for Gazprom media channel, TNT. The station’s slogan is “Feel The Love”, which, translated worldwide, hits into a Russian format.

His experience at TNT is ultimately disillusioning – contriving happy endings so that the population: “Keeps watching the TV, while everything turns to shit” and so his book is born.

Nothing is True and Everything is Possible introduces a cast of characters from the New Russia, including oligarchs, gold diggers, Christian fascist bikers and plain survivors who give voice to the reality of living in 21st century Russia.

“This isn’t a country in transition, but some sort of postmodern dictatorship that uses the language and institutions of democratic capitalism” gives way to “A market organised by a still feudal state structure” and “The country’s leader imitates gangsters…”

Peter Pomerantsev, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible book cover

Peter Pomerantsev proves himself a skilled journalist and he gives his interviewees free rein. Although there are a few loose ends and non sequiturs, their voices seem unfiltered by the author’s prejudices.

Pomerantsev inserts a few nice incidentals. “Neon soft drink signs that reflect in our Lipton’s tea and Dustam’s glasses” contrasts agreeably with how the “corruption and kleptocracy of the Russian regime” is revealed through the struggles of its people, both ordinary and super-rich, where “everything is PR” and “the state is the great coloniser you fear and want to avoid or cheat or buy off”.

All this is nothing new. I once read a fine book by Tibor Szamuely called The Russian Tradition, which was a roll call of despotism and revolution stretching back to Ivan the Terrible. What is new is that the Russians have adopted our methods and succeeded in showing Western capitalism a side of itself that it would rather forget.

As Pomerantsev states: “London is the perfect home for money laundering… terrific lawyers… great bankers… weak cops”. In fact, to our Russian oligarchs: “London and the West can be said with a light disgust as the place that shelters and rewards and strengthens the very forces that oppress them.”

Pomerantsev’s views are insightful and holistic. His book does not omit the role of the rest of the world, as when he describes the oligarch’s tastes for “fake art confirmed by Western art historians… they play the same role as the Swiss and English lawyers who act as ‘nominal beneficiaries’ for money-laundering shell companies.”

The Russian elite is ironically referred to as the “21st century geopolitical avant-garde”.

This is a most excellent work that brings to life the reality of modern Russia. But the great thing about this book is that by focusing on a distant and extreme place, Pomerantsev brings into sharp focus the inequities and absurdities of modern capitalism worldwide, without pulpit or soap box.

This work poses more fundamental questions than the recent, more parochial offerings of Owen Jones and Russell Brand combined, without any apparent agenda. Peter Pomerantsev is a fine observer and an engaging writer. I hope this work frees him from the tyranny of the television, lest he suffer the fate he has in mind for future Russians: “We begin to live in a parallel reality of video ghosts”.

Peter Pomerantsev, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible book coverAuthor Peter Pomerantsev
Title Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in the Modern Russia
Publisher Faber & Faber
Price £14.99 (Paperback), £7.99 (eBook)
More info Publication web site

Dead Girl Walking

Christopher Brookmyre, Dead Girl Walking book cover

Genre fiction is really not my bag, but one of my most satisfying guilty pleasures of this job has been getting absorbed in a good old tartan noir yarn. I may sometimes be disparaging about the UK literary scene, but Scotland’s output of quality writers over the last quarter of a century has been astonishing.

The likes Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner and Laura Hird in literary fiction and crime writers such as Val McDermid, Chris Brookmyre and Ian Rankin seem to have developed a sub-genre of their own. All are very prolific and consistent at turning out high quality pared down writing with downbeat heroes and a grim sardonic underlying humour.

Dead Girl Walking is the sixth novel by Chris Brookmyre to feature Jack Parlabance, an investigative journalist who seems to be living on borrowed time after obtaining a general’s laptop by nefarious means. The authorities, to quote our protagonist are “dangling the electrodes pretty close to my bollocks.”

He gets a call from Mairi, a dead mate’s sister who now manages up-and-coming indy rock act Savage Earth Heart, whose frontwoman Heike Gunn has disappeared. Parlabane is engaged to find Heike.

The story is told via two narrators: Parlabane, and the tour blog of Monica Helcrow, Savage Earth Heart’s fiddle player, whose story unravels parallel to Parlabane’s investigation. These two angles combine to deliver a realistic and downbeat account of the touring musician’s life. Throw in some sex trafficking, prostitution and the rather obligatory Slavic gangsters and we’re all set for much derring-do.

Dead Girl Walking is a blast. It’s slick, fast paced and superbly crafted. There are some great pearls of wisdom, like the protagonist’s advice to his imaginary son: “Beware the woman who sees you as a work in progress.” Conversely, the muso girls agree amongst themselves that “men talk about their feelings like they talk about their periods”. The legendary Hunter S. Thompson misquote is appropriated too: “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs… there is also a negative side.”

No doubt more by accident than by design, Dead Girl Walking also has almost the lowest body count possible in a book of this genre and with this title. I know that it is considered bad form to divulge too much of the plot in tales of this nature, but I will say I found the rope descent wearing Louboutin heels unfeasible – though, not having tried this stunt myself, I can neither verify not deny its possibility.

In a strange case of life imitating art, Brookmyre includes these lines about the iniquities of middle age: “The old fart made to sit three rows away from junior and his mates even though he was the one driving them home after watching Slipknot or Korn or whoever.”

A flatulent friend of mine went to see a double bill of both of the above on a family outing three days before I read Dead Girl Walking, only he chose to sit down as he was too old and knackered to mosh.

Brookmyre’s twentieth is as good as Val McDermid’s thirtieth and the flood shows no sign of relenting. This is probably the best crime novel you will read – until one of those clever Scottish people writes another.

Christopher Brookmyre, Dead Girl Walking book coverAuthor Chris Brookmyre
Title Dead Girl Walking
Publisher Little Brown
Price £18.99 (Hardback), £9.49 (eBook)
More info Publication web site

Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs

Johann Hari is most notorious as the ex-Independent journalist who left the paper after having been discovered to have built his entire career on plagiarism. Chasing the Scream is a story motivated by close friends of the author succumbing to addiction.

Johann Hari introduces the century-old war on drugs through three characters: Harry Anslinger, the archetypal narc, Arnold Rothstein, the original drug gangster and Billie Holliday, the celeb addict. It all starts to get a bit vintage Pulp Fiction, James Ellroy or William Burroughs. Johann evidently has a penchant to fictionalise.

Even so, Hari is a talented writer, though, as is common with journalists, he does tend to push all the human interest buttons at once. His argument is persuasive, insistent and a tad preachy; his prose, though well formed, is too much in-your-face, as there is a lack of irony and nuance.

Hari travels to ghettos, drug frontier towns and most of the current areas of recent legalisation. He meets many dedicated and inspiring individuals, such as Dr Bruce Alexander of Vancouver who equates addiction with dislocated individuals cut off from meaning: “The inner void is not limited to people who become drug addicts, but afflicts the vast majority of people of the late modern era” and former addict Dean Wilson, who tells us “Addiction is a disease of loneliness”.

Chasing the Scream book cover

There are many bereaved relatives and casualties of the drug wars who are lined up to support the argument. Hari’s visits to Colorado, Washington, Portugal and Uruguay would seem to indicate that even doubters, such as right wing politicians and police chiefs, are now positive about the local effects of legalisation.

Hari’s argument would seem to be won and we are just waiting for legislators with the guts to make changes. So what is the point in this book? Degenerates, hedonists and libertines don’t need a manifesto. On the cover, Russell Brand describes Chasing The Scream as: “Intoxicatingly thrilling” which begs the question: what drugs is he on?

Naomi Klein, Elton John, Noam Chomsky and Stephen Fry, all the luvvies love it. According to the latter it’s “Screamingly addictive”. If this book isn’t designed to derange the senses of the liberal left, then it is doing a mighty fine job.

Chasing the Scream has an impressive narrative, that will, I think, appeal to few at the coal face, as it is too showbiz for the sociologists. Hari is one to linger in on the poignant soundbite and his subject is in danger of becoming a pet celeb charity in places. It is likely to confirm the prejudices of liberal journalists and would-be liberal journalists, dwellers in think tanks that dress to the left and that ilk.

It is not badly written and I agree with most of what he says. Yet his inability to assess his own penchant for narcolepsy medication against other’s stimulant abuse is rather telling. He is kind of righteously annoying, too ready to mount his soapbox and with a prose style that gives you little space to think for yourself.

Indeed, Hari seems a broad rather than a deep writer, and his talents would probably serve him better on TV or writing polemic for new left politicians. This is a strange book, well written with a compelling argument, yet curiously uninspiring as a read. By the end my human interest buttons were all but exhausted and I craved another spliff. ®

Johann Hari, Chasing the Scream book coverAuthor Johann Hari
Title Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs
Publisher Bloomsbury Circus
Price £18.99 (Hardback), £16.99 (eBook)
More info Publication web site

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