Languages of Truth: Essays 2003-2020 by Salman Rushdie (Vintage Publishing), £20.

Alastair Benn 

The venerable novelist Salman Rushdie’s Languages of Truth: Essays 2003-2020 is a decent compendium of his many qualities; occasionally inspirational, occasionally infuriating, sometimes both at once.

His faith in the original power of “the story” is infectious – he’s at his best when speaking up for the underground history of the anti-realist novel, the magical, fabulous worlds of Cervantes, Borges, Marquez and (needless to say) Rushdie, against the fashion for autofiction and “relatability”.

His reflections on the need for modern novelists to recapture the child’s genuine love of stories will ring true to any reader who found their first fierce love for reading in tales handed down by the great traditions of Arthurian legend, The Arabian Nights or Greek mythology. And there’s much to enjoy here in his elegant literary commentaries and trenchant and sorely needed defences of free expression.

And yet, when Rushdie moves to the world of current affairs, his essays tend to be quite repetitious, even rather dull. As you would expect from someone quite so annoyingly well-read, Rushdie’s up-to-date Covid essay is packed full of neat takes on, among several others, Daniel Defoe, William Golding, and Susan Sontag. Some of the diversions were quite revealing; others not so much. I was left with the impression not so much of wisdom worn lightly than of half-baked half-arsedness.

It is not as if he is incapable of blending the every day with high learnedness – his obituaries for Christopher Hitchens and Carrie Fisher draw out his appetite for discipline and focus. But Rushdie is at the stage of his anecdotage when he needs a really frank edit.

Burning Man: The Ascent of DH Lawrence by Frances Wilson (Bloomsbury), £25.

Nicholas Opfermann

In Burning Man: The Ascent of DH Lawrence, Frances Wilson asks herself, “How can a biography do justice to Lawrence’s complexities?” In this meticulously researched and energetic assessment, the author agonises over the judgements of former critics and offers a new perspective on DH Lawrence’s life and writings. Stepping aside and allowing the reader to develop their own judgement, her wonderfully structured three-part biography frames Lawrence during his mid-life; vignetting her portrait with the declamatory rejections of his contemporaries.

Carefully ordered anecdotes are presented alongside their historical and geographical settings during Lawrence’s spells in England, Italy and America. In each era, Wilson adeptly collates Lawrence’s own stories with those written about him during his “decade of superhuman energy and productivity.” 

Wilson tackles the split opinion of Lawrence’s work during his lifetime and its marmite “afterlife”. In doing so, she converts this seemingly incendiary and unapologetic radical into a patron saint of passionate intensity. Her loyalty to the writer is loyalty to Lawrentian instinct, and in seeking candidly to explain him, she commends his sincerity. Readers might not be so quick to redeem the writer, but she makes a good case. It is a job well done in illuminating Lawrence’s many complexities.

Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe (Pan Macmillan), £20.

Alice Crossley

This is not, the author writes, a study of America’s opioid crisis, but “a saga about three generations of a family dynasty and how it changed the world” through the invention of oxycontin. Patrick Radden Keefe puts together the wide-scattered puzzle pieces that connect the Sackler family to Purdue Pharmaceuticals, the mass distribution of oxycontin and the subsequent opioid crisis in the States. 

It is a story straight out of Succession; an ambitious forefather works his way up in the world by combining a medical degree with a natural skill for advertising and makes a fortune marketing and distributing drugs, elevating his family to the upper classes. Keefe paints a meticulously researched picture of the lives of the Sackler family and how their philanthropy trickled into almost every corner of London and New York’s cultural scene, while the root of their mass-wealth was carefully concealed. 

The reality of the crisis sobers the glitz and glamour of the Sackler’s lives. “More Americans had lost their lives from opioid overdoses than had died in all of the wars the country had fought since World War II,” Keefe points out. The potentially dangerous qualities of oxycontin were masked by an Emperor’s New Clothes technique; the Sacklers and Purdue Pharmaceuticals repeatedly spread the conviction that doctors would never fall for fake advertising, allowing ego to trump sensibility and intelligence. 

As the crisis spread and the drug was found to be a gateway to heroin and fentanyl, they changed tack; “it wasn’t the pills that were getting people addicted; it was the addictive personalities of the patients who were abusing them,” that was the problem.

That one family could have had such a significant stake in the death and devastation of so many lives is a hard truth to swallow. But Keefe’s book, all 515 pages of it, finally centres the Sackler family at the heart of the opioid crisis. 

Hopefully, the book will help close the gap between the addiction rampaging through America and a family who have tried to distance their name from the devastation they helped to manufacture.