Ellis Sharp: Lamees Najim
This is the third novel Sharp has published in 2015 but is certainly different from the others. If you are wondering about the title, as I was, it refers to the niece of Ghassan Kanafani, a Palestinian author and activist, who was murdered by a car bomb in Beirut, assumed to have been planted by the Mossad. Lamees Najim was in the car with him and she was killed as well. This has some relevance to the book. The first mention in the book of Lamees Najim are the last two words of the book.
The book tells the story of a writer called Ellis (in the third person), starting in May 2015, shortly before the UK general election. A straightforward reading of the book can seem quite dull. It merely recounts the relatively uneventful life of Ellis. We follow his daily routine which varies little. We learn about what he eats. We learn about the newspapers he reads (mainly The Independent during the week, and also, occasionally, The Guardian, and The Sunday Times on Sunday). We learn of the films he watches (not an impressive selection). We see the books he reads. Most of all, however, we see his interaction with both the daily papers and, more specifically, the Internet.
At first glance, this seems the sort of Internet browsing that many of us do. He looks at the news (and comments on it). He reads book reviews. He specifically ignores the reviews of certain books. He is particularly interested in (modern, popular) music and reads a lot about that. For example, not only does he read about the music of Florence and the Machine, he reads about the somewhat chaotic life of Florence Welch. Neil Young is another favourite. Whenever he watches a film, he seems to recognise one of the characters as having appeared in another film and checks that out (presumably on IMDb, though sometimes on Wikipedia.) Indeed, as in his other books, he gives us clues about several things without actually giving us the full information. For example, a book he is reading is clearly S J Watson’ Second Life though nowhere is that mentioned. He wittily mentions that the publisher is clearly aiming for the US market (though Watson is English), presumably because he uses the word bathroom, meaning toilet, to which I would retort that he uses the word queue in the same sentence, when, in the US, they would say stand in (on in New York) line. He mentions a criticism of a well-known Russian classic, that is clearly Мы (We). He goes out with people described only as companions.
All of this looks seemingly mundane and routine, perhaps a bit like Knausgård, whom he makes a point of mocking by citing an article damning him (lack of art and absence of thought). However, there are two things going on we should be well aware of. Firstly, with all his reading, some of it trite, some of it that any of us might peruse, he gradually insinuates articles and comments on politics. These range from the 2015 general election in the UK, including the follow-up involving the Labour Party leadership to the economic situation in Greece, where he generally takes a view (or rather, reads articles that take a view) sympathetic to Greece and opposed to the EU institutions. Climate change and global warming appear early on and then, towards the end, he admits that there has not been much on this subject. The rise of ISIS, gun culture, drones, executions, the Nazis, Afghanistan and the Arab world all feature. He mentions anti-Muslim discrimination, specifically mentioning this article. However, the key political issue he raises and one that has been dear to his heart, is the Palestinian one. The title, of course, indicates this but I suspect that few readers would be aware who Lamees Najim is (I certainly was not), though he comments on this in the last sentence of the book.
Everyone has heard about Anne Frank, thought Ellis… But who in the USA, say, or Britain, say, or in, say, France, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Israel or the Netherlands has ever heard of Lamees Najim?
Initially, the comments on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are mentioned along with the other political comments. However, towards the end, we gradually get more and more of them, till virtually everything is about this issue. They then gradually fade away and we are back to where we were, with mixed comments and reporting of his daily life. The obvious comparison I can think of is a classical symphony as the main theme comes to dominate entirely, till it gradually fades away at the end. Naturally, his view is very much pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli, with lots of references to the 2014 Israeli attack on Gaza and its aftermath.
The other factor is the few comments he includes about experimental writing. Once, but only once, he comments about writing this novel and even quotes from a few paragraphs before. However, he quotes from comments made by Steven Shaviro on Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren (a novel, I must admit, I could never come to grips with). The lines he quotes are They are wholly gratuitous signs. They cannot be ascribed to any one particular cause. They don’t mean anything in themselves, but they provide endless matter for speculation, which could well be a somewhat tongue-in-cheek commentary on this work. He then quotes from an interview with Christine Brooke-Rose, where she says Experiment, then, means two things. One is that you’re groping, you don’t quite know where you’re going, and you make discoveries about language. And the other is that you decide on a constraint, which produces a different style, the reader doesn’t know why but he feels it, the physical signifier is made more physical, the signified less important. This could also be clearly relevant to this book. He later quotes from an online discussion damning Brooke-Rose but does not himself comment on it.
However, it is a quotation from an article entitled On the Exaggerated Reports of a Decline in British Fiction that is telling. The article – an interesting read – clearly implies that things are not as bad as some critics might think with the state of British fiction. However, Ellis quotes a sentence from the opening paragraph There’s something rotten about British culture that somehow fails to nourish the writing and reading of new fiction, where in fact the authors are not saying that so much as saying that that is what many people feel (as I do.) Ellis, of course, is clearly writing the opposite to that, and showing that there is something rotten with the state of British fiction and something rotten with the world.
Does it work? As I have stated in reviews of his other works, it all depends whether experimental writing is something you enjoy and appreciate. It is not for everybody, not least because it takes a strong political position that many people will disagree with. There is no plot, no story. But Ellis Sharp is saying more in this book, which, on the face of it, is bland and mundane, than virtually all current British fiction writers do in their books and I, for one, am glad that there are writers like Ellis Sharp still writing and small publishers like Jetstone still publishing this type of work.
First published 2015 by Jetstone