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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Adam Thirlwell

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To purchase Politics

Title: Politics
Author: Adam Thirlwell
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003
Length: 261 pages
Availability: Politics - US
Politics - UK
Politics - Canada
Politique - France
Strategie - Deutschland
Politics - Italia
Política - España

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Our Assessment:

B+ : playful relationship-novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 15/11/2003 Edwina Preston
Daily Mail . 27/8/2003 Jonathan Myerson
Daily Telegraph . 18/8/2003 David Flusfeder
L'Express . 15/1/2004 André Clavel
Le Figaro . 15/1/2004 Manuel Carcassonne
FAZ . 28/1/2004 Felicitas von Lovenberg
The Guardian . 30/8/2003 Alfred Hickling
The Independent A- 23/8/2003 Matt Thorne
Independent on Sunday . 17/8/2003 Henry Sutton
Libération . 15/1/2004 Natalie Levisalles
New Statesman B- 25/8/2003 Phil Whitaker
The NY Times Book Rev. . 14/12/2003 John Hartl
The New Yorker . 24/11/2003 .
The Observer . 31/8/2003 Adam Mars-Jones
The Spectator . 6/9/2003 Robert Edric
Süddeutsche Zeitung A 28/1/2004 Ijoma Mangold
Sunday Telegraph . 28/9/2003 Edward Smith
The Times A 20/8/2003 Neel Mukherjee
TLS . 29/8/2003 Christopher Tayler
The Village Voice . 31/10/2003 Amy Farley
Die Welt . 24/1/2004 Thomas David

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus: some very enthusiastic, others with many reservations

  From the Reviews:
  • "Politics is a fine novel, written with clever self-consciousness, wit and absolute unembarrassment. It is serious without taking itself too seriously. Funny without being wise-cracking. Sensitive without being snaggy." - Edwina Preston, The Age

  • "This is a clever book. This is a fantastically clever book. (...) Out of a doctoral inquisition into the strangeness of sex comes a funny and strangely insightful romance. A genuinely original book." - Jonathan Myerson, Daily Mail

  • "Any excerpted section or episode of the book would make enjoyable and stimulating reading but, over a novel, the style and the presumption just weary (.....) Nice or not, Thirlwell's psychological investigations never lead anywhere satisfactory. The facile charm of the delivery so quickly fades that the enterprise is diminished into an irritating inconsequentiality." - David Flusfeder, Daily Telegraph

  • "(U)ne bouffonnerie à la Buster Keaton. Le mélange est explosif, déconcertant et particuliérement réjouissant: il fallait du culot pour déboulonner la statue du sacro-saint Eros de cette manière-là." - André Clavel, L'Express

  • "Adam Thirlwell est agaçant. Sa phrase elliptique, foisonnante en adverbes et en références, consciente de ses effets jusqu'à annuler le romanesque, est prodigieusement énervante, et d'ailleurs fort bien traduite par Marc Cholodenko. Adam Thirlwell est un masturbateur littéraire." - Manuel Carcassonne, Le Figaro

  • "Eine Weile liest sich das ganz amüsant. Doch spätestens nach den ersten hundert Seiten wird der Trick schal und der selbstgefällige Plauderton des Erzählers ebenso enervierend wie dessen eingeschobene Exkurse zu Situationen im Leben von Stendhal, Bulgakow, Kundera, Stalin und anderen, die als Lehrstücke zur jeweiligen Nana-Moshe-Anjali-Situation feilgeboten werden. Sowenig Thirlwell mit dem sexuellen Inhalt seines Buchs spielt, so sehr kokettiert er mit seiner Erzählweise." - Felicitas von Lovenberg, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "Thirlwell's insistent narratorial interjections begin to acquire the ring of an over-assiduous tour guide, whose determination to ensure that no detail goes unnoticed removes your liberty to enjoy the view. (...) Ultimately, one is left with a sense of failure for having fallen short of Thirlwell's expectations of an ideal reader." - Alfred Hickling, The Guardian

  • "His authorial voice is not entirely original: he is so heavily influenced by Milan Kundera that he has to negotiate his relationship with the author in the later sections of this novel (.....) But Politics has a flexibility and muscle that elevates him above most debut novelists. The novel has an oddly 1970s feel, partly due to the louche voice of the narrator and partly the subject (the story, ultimately, of a ménage à trois), but a great deal of its content feels genuinely new." - Matt Thorne, The Independent

  • "While Thirlwell can be warm and funny, and very astute about fledgling relationships among 20-year-olds, his characters don't exactly leap off the page. This is partly to do with the whole artifice of the novel. Those heavy references are all very impressive, but you get the feeling they are meant to be. And despite them, and the desperately hip, multi-ethnic undertones, Politics is a surprisingly light novel, lacking much punch." - Henry Sutton, Independent on Sunday

  • "En fait, tous les personnages, et même le narrateur, sont bons, ou ont en tout cas la bonté pour horizon : il n'est pas exagéré de dire que Politique est un roman sur la bonté, sur la générosité." - Natalie Levisalles, Libération

  • "Thirlwell is interested in the politics of the personal - the discordance between the exterior world of words and actions, and the interior life of thoughts and feelings. Encounters between his characters are probed and examined from every conceivable angle. (...) Politics shows promise. Thirlwell displays a pleasing ear for the rhythms and pronunciations of the spoken word, and offers some good insights into the mixture of motives, and the failures of understanding, that characterise our interactions. But the cumulative effect is enervating." - Phil Whitaker, New Statesman

  • "But the three people at the center of the book are charmingly drawn, and their slapstick-sex adventures carry Politics past its occasional embarrassments." - , John Hartl, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The author makes enjoyable sport of the contemporary taste for porno-chic transgression, but, in repeatedly halting the narrative to liken his characters’ callow problems, hesitancies, and dilemmas to episodes in the lives of Stalin, Mao, and Vaclav Havel, he sacrifices narrative engagement to the display of his own virtuosity." - The New Yorker

  • "But the moments of presumptuous analogy in Politics aren't actually meant to convince. The ideas refuse to disappear into the narrative, just as the grandiose title refuses to justify itself. These are just more alienation effects. (...) Adam Thirlwell has simply underestimated the amount of charm needed to make good what he has subtracted, in Politics, from the pleasures of reading." - Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer

  • "Any longer and the devices, interlocutions and reflected surfaces might have begun to infuriate. What does begin to pall, however, are the somewhat contrived asides (.....) It is intriguing in its aspirations and, as previously noted, in view of Thirlwell’s intent wholly successful. The detached eye and antiseptic prose are both precisely controlled and telling." - Robert Edric, The Spectator

  • "Wir haben uns mit Thirlwells Strategie prächtig amüsiert. Seine Totalkontrolle über Stoff, Figuren und Leser ist die Kehrseite seiner Virtuosität: Wie ein Jongleur hat er alle seine Bälle immerzu im Griff. Dass der Leser dabei selbst zum Ball wird, halten wir für kein moralisches Problem, auch für keines der Selbstachtung. Das Ganze ist doch zu sehr ein großer Spaß, um als Wiedereintritt in die selbstverschuldete Unmündigkeit unter Beobachtung gestellt werden zu müssen." - Ijoma Mangold, Süddeutsche Zeitung

  • "It is true that Politics leaves nothing to the imagination -- no finger is left unaccounted for, no awkwardness or messiness glossed over. This isn't romanticised, soft-focus stuff. But that doesn't mean it isn't pornography. Like most porn, it has a specific readership in mind (.....) Politics might be a book for the moment, clever and modern enough to cash in on our Sex in the City obsessions." - Edward Smith, Sunday Telegraph

  • "(O)ne of the funniest, most stylish and utterly original debuts to hit the stands in recent years. (...) But the central character in the book is the unnamed first person narrator who lays bare the entire craft of storytelling in a breathtakingly poised performance of reflexivity and self-consciousness." - Neel Mukherjee, The Times

  • "Politics is greatly concerned with self-consciousness, and -- to steal a line from Ian Hamilton -- it risks courting self-consciousness's hyphenated pals (satisfaction, indulgence). On the other hand, Adam Thirlwell should be applauded for his dedication to doing things differently, and for his unembarrassed approach to the niceties of sexual embarrassment." - Christopher Tayler, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Thirlwell has written a book for our times, one in which sex is a subtle affair, and politics, once so aggrandized, now reflects the intricacies of the bedroom." - Amy Farley, The Village Voice

  • "In Strategie, diesem feinen, aber kleinen Versuch über die sexuelle Etikette unter der aufgehenden Neonsonne des 21. Jahrhunderts, verbindet Thirlwell die privaten Obsessionen seiner Figuren auf respektlose Weise mit der Fantastik einer obszönen Öffentlichkeit." - Thomas David, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Politics doesn't have much to do with politics -- but arguably politics is everywhere and in everything, so in a way it does. Politics is about relationships, but over the course of his story author Thirlwell likes to offer insights drawn from the political (especially the Soviet experiment). He mentions, along with much else, the fates of Osip Mandestam and Mikhail Bulgakov, the falling out between (and approaches taken by) Milan Kundera and Václav Havel (familiarly referred to by first name), the dirty secrets of the sex lives of Mao and Hitler, and even quotes Nikolai Bukharin's Economics of the Transition Period (surely rarely invoked in a fiction as an explanatory text). Politics, clearly, is inescapable -- and Thirlwell shows it is, as all interpersonal relationships of any other sort are too, fraught with misunderstandings and complications and dependent on whims, sacrifices, and philosophical and moral choices.
       Politics is the story of a father and a daughter: Papa ("the benevolent angel of this story") and Nana. It is also the story of Nana and the man who becomes her boyfriend, the half-Jewish actor Moshe, -- a relationship that eventually also draws in Anjali, in a ménage à trois that never quite finds a perfect balance.
       After an introductory prologue-scene from near the end of the story (involving an experiment in anal sex and "pink fluffy handcuffs" that aren't small enough for the wrists they are meant to bind -- i.e. where things are not going well at all), Politics returns to the beginnings, setting the scene, introducing the characters, and then following the arcs of their relationships. The bulk of the book is in the middle section, eight chapters whose titles already suggest the two cycles the main characters go through:

3. 'They fall in love'
4. 'Romance'
5. 'Intrigue'
6. 'They fall in love'
7. 'They fall out of love'
8. 'Romance'
9. 'Intrigue'
10. 'They fall out of love'
       There's not that much to the relationships. They're as simple (and as complicated) as most are. Romance isn't romanticized here. (Thirlwell even spells it out (as he does too frequently and unnecessarily): "Nana and Moshe were an unromantic romance".)
       The addition of Anjali -- more homo- than hetero-sexual, but not absolutely sure of where she stands -- and her effect on first Nana and then Moshe does complicate matters a bit, but not extraordinarily so. And Thirlwell revels in the near-banality of it all -- especially of the sex.
       He describes a good deal of the sex, but this is neither erotica nor pornography. His descriptions and discourses are painstakingly (and occasionally painfully) realistic, and by focussing on all the attendant details -- the mind that wanders, the penis that slips, the confusion and uncertainty that plague the participants -- the sex isn't very sexy. There's a great deal of fumbling (in word and deed); as Thirlwell explains: "But this is what sex is like. It is lots of thoughts and movements." (This doesn't stop Thirlwell from claiming: "When it comes to kinkiness in prose, I am a better writer than the Marquis de Sade.")

       In Politics Thirlwell doesn't merely relate a story from the distance: the authorial presence is a prominent one. Thirlwell also imposes himself on the reader: it's not enough for him to analyse and comment, he goes so far as to acknowledge the reader -- and occasionally oversteps his bounds with baseless assumptions and ambitions. The second paragraph of the novel, for example, reads:
     I think you are going to like Moshe. His girlfriend's name was Nana. I think you will like her too.
       (He does not go on to specifically explain why readers might like these characters -- or why he might think they would. Nor does he go on to make the characters particularly likable. Sympathetic, perhaps, but hardly likable.)
       Elsewhere he goes so far as to claim:
And I know what you are thinking. You are thinking that you have had quite enough of their sex life. You want something else entirely. You want a description of a mining community in Sakhalin, or Siberia. You want more shopping.
       (It seems unlikely that this is exactly what any reader of the book is thinking at this point (Sakhalin ? come on !) -- so what exactly is the point of this ? Why so presumptive ?)
       Still, it's the tone and approach -- a story told with asides that never let one forget the author's guiding (not so much of the story but of how the story is to be understood) presence -- that are the most remarkable aspects of the book. Thirlwell presents the story in short pieces -- sub-chapters often only a page or so in length -- and often in very short sentences and paragraphs. Most of this fairly effective, though it makes for an occasionally jerky, halting progression to the narrative.
       Too much is made explicit -- not the sex, which is curiously anti-climactic and properly incidental, something his characters worry and puzzle over more than, for the most part, actually enjoy, but Thirlwell's intentions and ambitions:
This book is not about sex. No. It is about goodness. This story is about being kind. In this book, my characters have sex, my characters do everything, for moral reasons.
       Thirlwell isn't secure enough in his artistry not to hammer home these points. "This book is universal" he has to tell his readers, apparently fearing they might otherwise not grasp that that is what it is meant to be.

       Politics is an interesting, often clever, quick-paced (and yet nicely roundabout) relationship novel. It doesn't always strike the right notes -- and isn't always sure where to go -- but it's a decent read.

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Politics: Reviews: Adam Thirlwell: Other books by Adam Thirlwell under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Adam Thirlwell was born in 1978.

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© 2003-2015 the complete review

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