9780980595406, 2009, Australia
Several truly amazing, innovative and startlingly written stories are contained within the pages of The Lifted Brow No. 4. Unfortunately, there are so many stories in this issue that several ordinary, often pointless and quirk-for-the-sake-of-it ones have also snuck in, making it a bit of a treasure hunt read. The book also comes with two CDs which I admittedly haven’t listened to closely yet, but if you want value for money, there is an absolute wealth of fiction, graphic fiction, experimental forms, and poetry here.
While there are so many stories, some themes and elements pop their heads up regularly – such as lots and lots of stories with guns. There is a lot of violence and death in general. There is pessimism, absurdity, and bleakness.
I did find it refreshing to read stories in all different settings, as the Brow commissioned some of their favourite overseas writers, as well as the cream of fresh Australian voices.
My notable mentions, in order of reading them, go to Karen Russell’s sweet and well-written Cottage Gardening, about the characters at a Spanish farm where women come to heighten their fertility in a miraculous well; Christopher Currie’s absolutely charming story of a modern wannabe noir hero The Maverick; Joanna Howard’s stunning classically-influenced ocean-set prose in Troubled Waters; Ben Greenman’s mature story of an affair, through one person’s letters The Hunter and the Hunted; Hannah Pittard’s simple yet deep conversation at the end of an affair Wars & Winters; Josephine Rowe’s moments in Murder in the West Wing – she’s so good at mood, just sweeping you up in it – ‘And you feel you’re too young to feel this old’. Also John McNally’s very original, terrific voice of a town in Village Sins; and Samantha Hunt’s amazing prose, in the story of a one-time superficial affair at a trade fair Personal Growth – ‘Barbara turns to the man and through her disgust and wonder, a magnet clicks. Opposite indeed. She imagines him naked. Barbara’s blood turns liquid, robotic, sinful.’
But two stories just knocked my silver pointy-toed shoes off. Joe Meno’s No Triumphant Procession has such an appealing, stylistic sense of time, character and place. His work is rooted in reality, yet there is something fantastical and unrecognisable about it – I would almost say cartoonish, except that makes it sound as if it were one-dimensional. Instead, there are many complex layers of emotional meaning, humour, aptness. You just have to read it.
And the story that just about made my brain explode is Heidi Julavits’ Santosbrazzi Killer – an ingeniously clever, subtly poignant, perfectly formed, slightly surreal and completely original story for our times. She has gone on the sell it to American Harper’s. She deserves every success for it. Somehow she uses a kind of verbosity in her prose that absolutely works – it establishes the character’s self-important voice from the beginning. The author also makes up words, and it seems as though no other word would do – something like the ‘woggly black line someone had painted on the wall’. There is a multitude of tiny details that make up such a complex, lasting picture of the character and his world. The ‘horseshoe shaped’ bar and the ‘effect of the bottles in front of the pink lightbox was that of leftover skyscrapers silhouetted against the twilight ruins of a prettily bombed city’. I haven’t been able to get it off my mind. I must give you a little bit more of a taste:
‘The day was a usual day. I arrived with my insulated travel mug filled with clearly superior off-site coffee, I stood against the sheetrock perimeter of the wall-less playpen of an office and, at moments when the action seemed most unworthy of note, jicked my ballpoint and started writing. I’d perfected the timing of my jick, and without thinking now could sense the most innocuous moment to employ the jick, thereby creating, amidst the outfit staff, a Chinese Water Torture kind of expectant dread’.
And events take a surreal (and existential) turn when he orders a cocktail called the Santosbrazzi Killer, but I won’t ruin it for you…
I should mention that this journal has so many stories as it was based on a ‘fake bookshelf’ that has a long story behind it (in Ronnie Scott’s introduction), and each of the titles in the adopted bookshelf coincide with the titles of the stories. While the collection is worth it for the treasures, I’d love to see a more selective volume next time, that gives these fresh and thoroughly enjoyable voices room to breathe, stand out, and be amongst worthy stories and peers.
Some stuff in my week:
* A photo shoot for Emerging Writers’ Festival promo material with freelance/TV/ comedy writer Mia Timpano (I love this article of hers, have a look around her website while you’re there); librarian/comedian Josh Earl; games writer (and writer in various other mediums) Paul Callaghan; and comedian Xavier Michelides. We had to ‘pretend write’, talk and also look serious. The shoot was on the roof and within a plush vintage room at Madame Brussels. Can’t wait to see how they turned out.
* Some reading (duh). I don’t review everything I read as sometimes it gets exhausting, and to just read some books without having to remember to write everything down keeps reading fresh and pleasurable, and reviewing fun. But a couple of books I’ve read lately I would like to at least mention in passing. The latest Sleepers Almanac is one of the best short story collections around. The stories and poems are celebratory, overall. That is not to say there isn’t variety, and grumpiness, anger, destruction, sadness, and woe in these tales, but there is a certain life-affirming mood shared throughout the book. Families, lovers, children, friends, husbands and wives – humorous and poignant moments, situations and journeys. Favourites are Simon Cox’s sweet ‘How to Talk to People at House Parties’; Ryan O’Neill’s playful ‘Anatomy of a Story’; Liza Monroy’s memorable ‘Elvis, Husbands, and Other Men in Costumes: A Memoir’; Dan Ducrou’s gorgeous and relatable ‘The Etymology of Love’; Rose Mulready’s absolutely hilarious ‘Welcome to Romance Writing 1A’; and the poems ‘Off-white’ by Grace Yee, and ‘The Honeyeaters’ by Myron Lysenko.
The other book I enjoyed recently without taking a single note (nonetheless attacking with dog ears) was Frank Moorhouse’s Room Service. I wanted to read Moorhouse after his article in the ALR a couple of months ago, and this was a really fun introduction. The short pieces are collected travel writings of Moorhouse and his alter-ego Francoise Blase. Hard to tell which is which at times! I was hooked from the opening piece about him trying to cool his beers on the windowsill, but being afraid of the bell captain who charges 50c for ice. He sits in his room and has all sorts of suspicions about the bell captain and eats at the hotel and doesn’t go and explore New York. Many of the stories revolve around hotels and bars, and banal discussions about travel and beer and somehow they manage to be f**king hilarious to me. And I find it odd that I relate to this strange, obnoxious, snobberous old man kind of character (despite a few uncomfortable racial-type snipes etc. from Blase). All-in-all the level of my amusement means I have three more Moorhouse books in the reading pile.
* We’ve been following closely and reporting on at work the Productivity Commission’s look into the systems of territorial copyright and the parallel importation of books in Australia. The Productivity Commission’s draft report has come out, seemingly ignoring much of the detailed submissions put forward by the industry. It’s covered in detail with comments from all sides in the Weekly Book Newsletter. Have a look.
* The Sydney Writers’ Festival program is out. I can’t go as much of it clashes with the Emerging Writers’ Festival. Hopefully I’ll get there next year. Ahh, just noticed Philipp Meyer is going to be there – the author of American Rust, a book very much on my to-read list which comes out here in May. The author also stole my Dad’s name and spelt it differently. Meyer used to be original…
* I realised last week I forgot to mention the Miles Franklin longlist. We’ll discuss it more when the shortlist comes out. This year I may even try to read more of them. We all know I loved The Slap. I also have Toni Jordan’s Addition here. I have to admit, though, that not all of them are books I was interested in when I first read about/heard about them. Do you guys love any particular books on the longlist? If so, why?
* The Australia Council have some great publishing/producer mentorships that you can apply for.
* If you’re in NSW (or want to travel to NSW) tickets are available for the 2009 Contemporary Fiction Festival, taking place on April 5. Just look at this set of names: crime bestseller Michael Robotham; fantasy author Ian Irvine (who was one of my first mentors back in Coffs Harbour); true crime sleuth Tom Gilling; as well as award-winning literary writers Georgia Blain, Gabrielle Carey, James Bradley and Mandy Sayer. Also writers and anthology editors Frank Moorhouse (wish I could go!) , Delia Falconer and Aviva Tuffield.
* Last night I had a blast at a ‘prop party’. This is a very fun idea for a party which my lovely friends acknowledged they ‘borrowed’ from my parents. I got props for best prop:
He made the rounds all night. There were also fox stoles, gross-feeling plastic-spiked ‘rave’ gloves, an Alien prop, 3D glasses, two riding crops (which very innocent things were done with), a leaping frog statue, label maker, children’s keyboard and more! But I really am not sure what I’m doing out of bed now – not because of the alcohol consumed, but because I’m sneezing all over the keyboard. Not fun. Off to rest up.
The second simultaneous book and film review by LiteraryMinded’s Angela Meyer and Celluloid Tongue’s Gerard Elson.
Reading a graphic novel is an experience already half-way between literature and film. The opening ‘frames’ of Watchmen are like a series of shots from moving cameras, with the ‘voiceover’ of a character we will soon come to know, Rorschach. Immediately, the picture of this world is grim, skeptical and bleak – ‘…now the whole world stands on the brink, staring down into bloody hell, all those liberals and intellectuals and smooth-talkers’. His words here and throughout remind me somewhat of Taxi Driver’s malcontented, morally and politically ambiguous Travis Bickle.
Rorschach (whose guise is indeed a transforming inkblot image) is one of the few remaining active masked vigilantes in a city that outlawed their activity via the ‘Keene Act’ in 1977. The vigilantes are introduced soon into the story, after the Comedian is murdered at the beginning. Rorschach suspects a conspiracy against masked vigilantes, and that someone is picking them off, one by one. Each chapter gives the reader a detailed background of one character, while keeping the present action rolling – exiles to other planets, love and deception, more deaths, secrets revealed from checkered pasts; and what the washed-up superheroes do with their outfits, their ships, their basements, their spare time, money and their minds. The story is rich and full at the time of writing I predict the cinema version will have nowhere near the amount of detail contained within the pages.
The format of the book is also interesting – along with each chapter is an informative/interesting fragment from the world of the story – such as an extract from the original ‘Night Owl’ Hollis Mason’s biography Under the Hood; sections from a right-wing newspaper running stories on the vigilantes being the only hope against ‘Red Armageddon’; extracts from the new Nite Owl’s ornithological articles, and so on. The book is set in 1980s New York, an alternate Cold War era, and the characters are all uncomfortably ambiguous in terms of what they stand for, and how they stand for it. Most are far, far darker than the dark knight, Batman. Skewed notions of justice, righteousness, peace and anarchy are all brought to the fore, but not so much engaged with or ‘solved’ – merely presented to the reader. It makes for compelling, but uncomfortable reading. I’m not sure I was rooting for anyone – what drew me on was the compulsion to know more about their motivations, to see if my fears would be confirmed, to find out if there was any hope.
And I was completely gutted by the ending.
I must mention some other points of interest. The character of Jon, or Dr Manhattan, recreates his own molecular structure after a radioactive accident (his father was a watchmaker, it all makes suspended-imagination-sense). What I enjoyed about his chapter (Chaper IV) was the way he introduced his awareness of non-linear time. This is always something that has fascinated me. And as his story is recounted, the panels change between past, present, and even future – ‘Perhaps the world is not made. Perhaps nothing is made. Perhaps it simply is, has been, will always be there.’ And everything that is revealed about the characters, and the different (and distant) ways they view life, time, the world, and humanity will have relevance in the final pages.
One last point of interest, and I seriously wonder if this can be translated to film, is the scenes which have a newspaper vendor waxing lyrical about the state of the world to customers, to the air, to the unseen reader. While he talks (and talks) and doesn’t get through to anyone (it’s oh so bleak), a young man reads a comic book beside him. As he reads, parts of this seafaring story are relayed simultaneously, with the vendor’s rants. In some ways, the two characters are beside each other, and attempting to find out the same things on different levels, through different mediums. Then in their one chance for connection, the vendor is misunderstood, and it is missed. The streets become filled with fighting – people turning against each other – people misunderstanding each other’s personal struggles and personal values – and soon the streets are filled with much worse.
One thing that irked me was a definite lack in developed female characters. The females are all clichéd caricatures – sexually and emotionally vulnerable (or else lesbian) – which is a real shame. But, it’s not as though any of the male characters are truly rounded anyway. Their detailed backgrounds conveniently explain every tic, but by the end, it’s an outcome of competing concepts. The only character who felt three-dimensional to me was Rorschach, but I’m not sure if this is a subjective, comparative, recognition of aspects of the drawn character, or that he was written with more depth by Alan Moore. Much of the writing and dialogue is also bordering on corny – the laments about the scum of the earth and a dying world etc. – a little clunky, but nonetheless relevant to the overall themes.
The above points are not at all to say I didn’t enjoy the book – it was compelling and darkly entertaining all the way through. The story is rich, and most definitely resonant. The drawings by Dave Gibbons are really spectacular and remind me to read more graphic fiction. I would also recommend Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta (which you may also have seen the film of).
(directed by Zack Snyder, screenplay by David Hayter & Alex Tse, 2009 – now on DVD/blu-ray)
USA, 1985: With the nation on the precipice of nuclear war with the Soviets (the protracted Cold War about to turn hot), and Richard Nixon still in office, nervy finger on the button, America’s in the direst of straits. The costumed avengers who once marshalled the streets are long outlawed and now out of action, returned, for the most, to lives of anonymity, left to watch impotently on as society devours itself. And the world’s sole honest-to-godliness super-powered miracle-man – at once both national security policy and walking WMD – is growing increasingly apathetic to the plights of humanity; the existence of life is a highly overrated phenomenon to the indestructible inhabitant of a quantum universe, after all.
Welcome to the darkly imagined world of Watchmen, arguably comicdom’s most analogous offering – in both esteem and complexity – to the meticulously weaved intricacies of The Lord of the Rings. Much like Tolkien’s sturdy tome pre-Kiwi can-do, writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons’ ambitious fusion of superhero subversion and societal treatise had long borne the branding ‘unfilmable,’ with an enviable inventory of Hollywood hit-men left vexed and perplexed in its wake. Enter Zack Snyder, geek auteur du jour, who proved keenly attuned to the idiom of the medium with his operatically absurd/deliriously enjoyable big-screen mounting of Frank Miller’s 300. Now, credit first where credit’s due: that Snyder’s Watchmen even made it to cinemas is alone nothing short of a coup, the relative novice succeeding where many more seasoned (and venerated) reputations had failed, having joined the grumbling Moore, slighted by cinema’s high-profile muck-ups of his works in the past, in his unswerving belief that his serpentine opus is a tale tailor-made for exclusive existence on the panelled page. Yet film the unfilmable Snyder has, and cause for greater celebration is the simple truth that Watchmen is far from the unintelligible mess it so easily could have been. In fact, the filmmaker has shown a fanatic’s reverence for his source, shepherding Moore’s blockbuster-unfriendly ideas into multiplexes relatively intact, and Watchmen stands cowled head and caped shoulders above expectations.
When thoroughly distilled, at Watchmen‘s heart beats the jigsawed intrigue of a noir-ish whodunit. A mask’s been murdered – the cigar-chomping misogynist, The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), one of the few vigilantes left active by engaging in government-sanctioned political subterfuge. Pitilessly pummelled to within an inch of his life before being dealt a spectacular death by defenestration, it’s not long before the city’s lone still-illegally-practicing disguised gumshoe, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), arrives at the scene to investigate and the murky shadows of conspiracy start to rise all around.
Though as with Watchmen in print, this isn’t that simple, with Snyder and scripters David Hayter and Alex Tse boldly shunning the acute narrative streamlining of the more-or-less successfully Moore-sourced V for Vendetta and making an admirable effort to allow ample exploration of their colourful cast’s spider-webbed geneses and individual backstories. So there’s Dan Dreiberg, AKA Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), mild-mannered Clarke Kent-alike, with his inability to get it up unless garbed in his now-closeted costume; Laurie Jupiter, alias Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), former torch-carrying stiletto-filler for mother, Sally, the original Silk Spectre (Carla Gugino), herself a crimefighter cum pinup babe back in the roarin’ ’40s; Adrian Veidt, or Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), pinnacle of Aryan perfection and self-styled ‘Smartest Man in the World’; and cerulean super-being, Dr Mahattan (Billy Crudup), atomic age danger made manifest and boyfriend of Laurie – not to mention particle-manipulating straddler of his own concurrent personal timelines.
It sounds like a lot to swallow, but Snyder brings neophytes swiftly up to speed with an ingenious opening credits montage set to Bob Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’, presenting a crash course in Watchmen‘s alternate history in which costumed heroes have had a hand in momentous modern American – and indeed, world – events; iconography re-dressed in spandex. But from here, Snyder ditches the neighbourly concern for the unconverted and launches into a no-punches-pulled, near blow-for-blow rendering of the meat and potatoes of most heavily lauded graphic novel of all time, which, despite its estimable exertion to realign the kapow-to-character ratio in support of the latter, still feels perversely snipped short at 162 minutes. In this theatrical cut (we’re promised two lengthier iterations further down the line), it should be clear to aficionado and virgin alike where the pruning’s occurred, for, after the leisurely measure at which Watchmen develops its first two acts, the dash it makes for the finish feels all the swifter by compare. But even the most ardent of purists should find no cause for lament in the film’s skilfully reworked finale, which – fans will note – plays out sans calamari but to equally conflicting effect, managing both organic thematic and narrative culmination whilst providing the period setting a welcome jolt of immediacy by tapping into the contemporary fears of the zeitgeist.
If you’re starting to feel Snyder’s proved himself up to the task, you’re certainly not far off the mark, though the director’s stylistic tics might have been better left checked at the door, as the self-conscious showiness of his ‘mid-shot ramping-then-decelerating frame rate’ routine is here both intrusive and counterintuitive; to sex up the violence of Watchmen is to negate its purpose – it’s hard to feel appalled whilst thinking ‘Gee, whiz!’. Thankfully, it’s a gimmick the filmmaker keeps on a fairly tight chain, trotting it out only so often enough as to re-rouse those attentions attendant in hopes of a high-octane serving of superheroics from the man who made a limb-lopping ballet of the Battle of Thermopylae, using his God-given aptitude for ocular opulence to sugar the pill of Moore’s cynicism for the folk in the cheap seats.
Of equally varying success are the tunes Snyder lays down on the soundtrack, which careen wildly from the dubious (witness a behemoth Dr Manhattan stride the Vietnam warfields to ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ and think only of Apocalyspe Now; watch two Watchpersons’ nigh-on gratuitous induction to the mile high club advance on the cringe-worthy as they tenderly boff to the strains of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’), to the flat-out inspired (Philip Glass’ suitably sci-fi sounding ‘Pruit Igoe & Prophecies’ is the pitch-perfect accompaniment to Manhattan’s origin-exposing Martian sojourn; a violent riot’s lent irony by KC & The Sunshine Band as The Comedian struts his stuff to the funk of ‘I’m Your Boogie Man’), with the more triumphant inclusions going some length to atone for Tyler Bates’ wearily perfunctory score. Crucially, Snyder’s knack for filling a role is much more reliable, Watchmen‘s casting perhaps its strongest suit. Best of the bunch are an emotionally aloof mo-capped Billy Crudup, letting it all hang out as the faultlessly-sculpted blue demigod, a va-va-vooming Gugino as the sexy Silk Spectre (a vision in girdle and garters), and, second to none, Earle Haley as Rorschach, the film’s hardnosed and stiff-tongued morally unflinching epicentre. His masked face an oscillating inkblot symbolic of the tumult inside, the actor’s guttural growlings the aural equivalent of Gibbons’ squigglingly-scrawled comicbook word balloons, if the character doesn’t come off as alarmingly bigoted as he is on the page, blame the script: Earle Haley is Rorschach.
Definitive judgement’s reserved for the Ultimate Extended Collector’s Edition, in which Snyder will presumably reinsert as many of the experience-enhancing and here-jettisoned subplots as he was able get away with arranging before cameras, but, taken as is, this is a graphically spectacular and staggeringly faithful translation from celebrated page to screen. Akerman’s acting chops may falter, critical plotlines might feel shortchanged, and we’re never quite given enough of Dean Morgan’s brilliant embodiment of The Comedian, but the sheer conceptual density and the filmmaker’s tightly-packed frames will ensure return viewers are richly rewarded. This is blockbuster moviemaking with a capital ‘Ballsy’ – and Synder’s to be commended for erring on the side of fidelity to the book.
And of Moore’s sour promise to never sit down for a viewing of the most loyal take on his work yet put to screen? Ask Snyder and he’ll likely borrow a line from Watchmen‘s most despicable realist: ‘Bitter? Fuck no – I think it’s hilarious!’
Angela’s post-film notes…
Watchmen worked as a film. Two highlights for me were the casting and the soundtrack. Music is one of the only things literature can’t do, and in most parts the choice of classic songs (it was almost the soundtrack for Easy Rider) had mega impact, and often humour. Only a few times were the choices slightly off, and the score for the film itself was unremarkable – nothing like the moody, memorable soundtrack of The Dark Knight. Rorschach, The Nite Owl, Dr Manhattan and most other characters were perfectly cast – giving suitable voice and expression to their individual tics. I still haven’t gotten over the fact that I find Nite Owl so incredibly attractive (sensitivity/awkwardness with whiff of danger/toughness? – but then I hate his weakness also!). Silk Spectre was a little young, and her character just as one-dimensional as in the book. I have more to say on one other character but it could give away the ending, so I won’t. It was an entertaining ride – the opening and credit sequence gave me chills (I’m sure Gerard has described in detail). All fans of the book will agree that it is a shame a few things/characters were shunted, but you can understand why for narrative’s sake. The extended cut on DVD will be much richer for those who have read the novel. Ultra-violence and nudie scenes bordered on schlocky. The moral dilemma is in tact in the ending, but feels quicker (even though some parts are played out longer) and not as bleak somehow. Rorschach seems more heroic than he should, and less disturbingly complex. Overall, enjoyed, and would definitely watch it again.
Prompts – LiteraryMinded.
Responses – Steven Amsterdam.
I was inspired by a few loose pieces in the news, from life, the partisan splay of the 2004 election in the US, and my nervous mind, so I wrote ‘The Theft That Got Me Here’. When I wrote the last line, ‘I’ll keep going as far as the money takes me,’ I realised that it could be part of something bigger. I sent it out as a stand-alone piece, but started fishing around the pond of my brain for what other excitement this guy could get into.
Around that time, I picked up a copy of Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs. He was a general (for the good side) in the Civil War and president from 1869-1877, two presidents after Lincoln. In retirement, he toured the world, very well loved. During a financial boom and bust in the 1880s, he lost most of his savings by investing his money with some scammers. Suddenly in deep debt, he did what people do when they want to make money fast: he became a writer. He serialised his life story for $500 a pop, which is not at all bad. Turned out he was a good storyteller. He finished his memoirs (Mark Twain was his publisher) just before his death from throat cancer. The book earned his family close to half a million dollars in royalties which paid a lot of bills back then.
Reading his stories, I loved the notion that a person of this stature and ongoing national importance was still subject to the times, (war, assassination, financial turmoil). I was also struck by the fact that his stories didn’t always hinge on the importance of the historical moment he was living through. Instead they were often filled with details of interpersonal oddities, behaviour.
At first I was going to ape Grant’s whole thing, take some key moments and storify them in my imagined future. That quickly became too confining and dull. Still, I held onto the idea that the character would become president at the end. I was sure of that.
We all know exactly what the city of the future is going to look like, right? Either shiny and sleek or grimy and run by gadgets gone bad. The first story I wrote (the second chapter) took us out of the city. What would nature look like? What would it look like just outside of the barricades? Who would live there still? What privations would they suffer? The next one, ‘Dry Land’ goes on and explores that idea, with the urgency of a biblical/climate change rainstorm in the background. The narrator is an urban character, by birth, but for most of the book he is roughing it outside of a city. A city boy myself, it was fun to roam the countryside and imagine this changed landscape.
People don’t get sick enough in fiction, unless it’s sick fiction (and then it’s the whole point). But everybody in the real world gets sick sooner or later and one of the major reasons they feel like crap about it (on top of the prognosis or the limitations that come with it) is that they haven’t seen enough people being incidentally sick in fiction and movies. I wanted illness, not just bird flu and the like, to have a part in this future.
Ok, on rereading what I just wrote, it sounds like a con. I didn’t write the book to uplift sick people everywhere. This is the problem with interviews, or at least ones you can take your time with. I fabricate too easily. This is why I don’t keep a blog.
Still, there’s a truth in there somewhere and that led me to imagine a scenario, kind of like the world we live in, where people live well beyond their die-by date, but medical technology can keep them going further and farther. It’s not a huge leap to extrapolate adventure tourism for people with advanced cancer.
I wouldn’t have latched onto the various scenarios that the character endures if I wasn’t susceptible to a bit of worry myself. I have been known to worry about many things, including Y2K, pandemic, climate change, war. You name it.
The End of the World: A History (here)
This book by Otto Friedrich was last printed in 1994. Chapter by chapter, he looks at the accounts of people who lived through devastating wipeouts – plagues, earthquakes, Pompeii, Auschwitz, Hiroshima. It’s healthy reading for a worrier, because the point is that the world keeps going (just maybe not with you in it). The book was written in the 80s, so it has this fear-of-nuclear-war spin to it. Remember nuclear war? Remember Chernobyl? How come we don’t worry about meltdowns anymore? Did that problem get all sorted out or did we move on to other concerns?
Getting the future wrong:
I was well aware that trying to write a big dystopian book was a thankless exercise in some regards. I hadn’t read enough to know what had already been done. I didn’t know enough about politics and technology to be able to begin to meaningfully predict what would happen. Remember 1984? Because of that book, so much meaning attached to the year as it drew near. All that remains in my mind now is Reagan’s reelection and a song from the Eurythmics. So what did we learn when New Year’s 1985 came around? Nothing works out, least of all worst-case scenarios.
So I wondered, Why should I get stuck describing one doomsday? This freed me up from getting caught in a particular groove (eg. drought), and let me explore all the terrible futures that are thrown at us every day. It also freed the book from being a standard dystopian extravaganza. Shoot wide, I say.
In ‘The Forest for the Trees,’ where the narrator watches Robocop in some tank-like vehicle ten years from now, and smirks at the poorly-predicted future, that’s my out for everything I get wrong. The book is less of a prediction than an exorcism of my fears.
‘If all the world hated you, and believed you wicked, while your own conscience approved you, and absolved you from guilt, you would not be without friends.’
– Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
My narrator, who started as a relatively opportunistic teenager, was never going to be wholly innocent. I wanted to maintain his passive sense of shiftiness in each part of the book. At one point, an early reader suggested that the story would work better in the third person. That’s one of those comments that writers love, up there with ‘why don’t you try rewriting everything from the dog’s perspective and see how it looks?’ I did try it, briefly, and immediately saw that we would absolutely lose sympathy for him if we didn’t have the closest view into his conscience. Additionally, being trapped there is what keeps the book intimate and concerned with the conduct of people, rather than the apocalypse.
In general, one should consider the greatness of Jane Eyre as much as possible. It’s got everything you need from fiction in one handy volume. It’s sugar as well as salt. Likewise Lolita (which has a particularly offensive narrator who we all seem to overlook). They’re both fully balanced versions of their form like The White Album (the Beatles’ and Joan Didion’s). I can think of no greater praise.
Track 29 (here)
Ok, this movie is probably awful and I haven’t seen it for years, but it still gets so much goodwill from me because I loved it when I was in my early 20s. It was written by Dennis Potter who dramatises the conflicted, happy sad moments of life so so so well.
Do you know The Candidate? It’s a Robert Redford movie from the 70s, where this smart, good guy, runs a long, difficult campaign for the presidency. In the last minute, he’s won, and he’s being led through hotel corridors and elevators to make his acceptance speech. (I may be remembering it wrong so, true fans, please forgive me.) He has a moment that I’ve always loved there, kind of like when they’re on the bus at the end of The Graduate. This candidate has gotten exactly what’s he’s been chasing and now he’s at a loss: What do I do next? I wanted the book to end that way, with him finding himself president and bewildered (as any of us would in the same position, really). In the end, Obama became too real a prospect and the American presidency was something that was getting way too complicated by modern-mythology to touch. I had to change my plan for my narrator.
But I liked that What do I do now? moment. Like Wile E. Coyote standing a few feet off of a cliff with a hint of victory still in his smile, in that split second between elation and terror. It seemed like a good feeling for each chapter to end on. Maybe not with the same doom as Wile E. Coyote, but with a similar sense of confusion and chagrin. Plus, the emotional uncertainty provides a more engaging close, I think, than an upbeat resolution or a downturn of events.
‘And all that mother-loving freedom’
– Things We Didn’t See Coming
Mother-loving is a cleaned up version of a much stronger adjective that begins with the same first word. The narrator thinks it when he’s feeling utterly duped, dejected, and dumped. The last thing in the world he wants is freedom. Why he invokes his mother at that moment, I’ll leave to the shrinks.
I like it that readers have to reorient themselves with each new chapter. It seems life-like: In the space of a few years, anyone can wind up with a new world of associates, a new job, a new set of priorities. (I know I have.) It was there in Grant’s Memoirs. You evolve with the times, for better or worse. Every cell in your body is new, and all that. You don’t really have a choice.
This gave me freedom to not write every moment of the character’s life, which let me focus on the exciting bits, which is good for the reader. At the same time, it kept me from feeling like I was working on anything as daunting as a novel, which was good for the writer. In my mind, I was working on short stories, not a novel. I wrote them without a complete plan and out of order (the last chapter was written second, the first chapter was written last). It wasn’t till it was mostly written that I became sure about the chronology. This arrangement, which I’ve since been informed is discontinuous narrative, served my mood, my insecurities, and my purpose.
Nothing Surprises (here)
For a while I kept hearing about couples where one partner worked hard, brought home the bacon and resented the one who stayed home looking after the house and kids. Of course this was the traditional role setup in Western families (of a certain class) for a long time. The resentment seemed strange to me. Another thing I’d been wondering about was heroes and their personal lives. Following these threads, I wondered what would happen if one of these stay-at-home fathers figured out he could fly. That’s ‘Nothing Surprises’.
From that, I’ve written a few other stories about heroes. One was accepted for the Readings 40th Anniversary Anthology, the other I’ve just started sending around. I have no idea where this theme is going. All I know is this: I doubt it will turn into the book I imagine.
These were what I made for the Melbourne launch of Things We Didn’t See Coming. I wasn’t working that day and had to do something.
The recipe I have calls them Mexican Wedding Cookies, but I’ve also seen them called German Wedding Cookies and Austrian Wedding Cookies. I haven’t been to a wedding in any of those countries, so how can I know? The cinnamon is my addition, let’s add a pinch of salt, which never hurts and call them Launch Cookies.
Preheat the oven to 150 C. Paper line cookie sheets.
Take 120 grams walnuts and grind with 60 grams of caster sugar. (Note: The walnuts benefit immeasurably from being lightly toasted first; they give off a caramel-ish unctuousness that, I swear, makes a difference).
In a mixer, cream 450 grams of room temperature unsalted butter with 120 grams of sugar and a few teaspoons of vanilla extract (or a scraped bean).
With the mixer on low, pour in 500 grams plain flour and a teaspoon of salt., and two tablespoons of cinnamon. Mix until just combined, then add the nuts.
This batter doesn’t spread much, so just roll them into the size of small plums or large cherry tomatoes and put them reasonably close to each other on the baking tray.
Baking time depends on the size and the oven, so it’s not exact. Mine take between 20 and 30 minutes. They should just be getting browned around the edges.
While they’re warm, pick them up gently, roll them in icing sugar and put them on another piece of baking paper. When they’re cool, do it again.
This recipe makes about 100 bite-sized cookies. The dough freezes well, so you can bake half a batch and save the rest for another time.
See also Steven Amsterdam’s official website.
(Yes, I’ve changed the format of my titles, it’s not a boo-boo).
I attended the Summer Read Awards at the State Library yesterday afternoon (winner I am Melba, Ann Blainey), and was still surprised (but shouldn’t be) to hear that most of the voters were of the silver set – and voted by snail mail *gasp*. Seriously – how come book-related things atill aren’t getting to so many youngsters? I know a great part of my audience here on the blog are young (going by Facebook fan page, Twitter, emails etc.) Are we generally just too busy to send in voting forms? That may be all it is. Retired folks have more time to read, participate in public book discussion, and attend writers’ festivals.
The most gorgeous part of the ceremony (besides Alan Brough’s funnies) was a moving Greek performance/reading by Arnold Zable (from his book The Sea of Many Returns) and two musicians. In Greek culture, Zable told us, music is intertwined with language, and with life in general. What a beautiful thing.
Got to re-meet Toni Jordan after having finally bought Addition (added to the pile). She is such a lovely, warm person. And also got to meet Zable and Steven Conte. I have such admiration for Arnold Zable – I have heard him speak quite a few times. He’s a passionate storyteller and the president of the Melbourne chapter of PEN. Steven Conte, as you may know, is last year’s winner of the 2008 PM’s Award for Fiction with The Zookeeper’s Wife. He was also lovely but I’d drank too much champagne too quickly and told him I felt inadequate because I hadn’t read his book yet. I suppose I should stop apologising for just being one person with one set of eyes! Anyway, you should buy all these books from Mary Dalmau at Reader’s Feast because she’s a legend.
After the awards I had a fantastic catch-up chat with Genevieve, whose blog is one of the most intelligent, well-written litblogs you’ll come across. I loved learning that she is able to read in French. What a wonderful skill to have. Besides lots of individual book title-talk, we also discussed the challenges of reviewing poetry, and our place in Australia’s cultural sphere as recognised litbloggers. Genevieve holds an interesting place, as a freelance writer for print and web arenas, and a very strong advocate for well-written cultural blogs. She was on the selection panel for the Summer Read program (introduced at the opening as a blogger, and at the awards as a freelance library journalist).
I then attended the launch for another new journal Stop Drop and Roll. The design is tres modern and I’m looking forward to a peek inside. Chris Currie and Josephine Rowe are among the contributors. There were many beautiful hipster-looking folks at the launch and I enjoyed the people-watch. There were two girls who looked like Diane Keaton and Shelley Duvall circa 1977. There was a smiley, glasses-clad, very tall skinny pale lad with a torn white T-shirt showing his ribs. There was a very attractive girl in leather jeans, a scarf on her neck, a plastered down fringe and long eyelashes. There was a broad-shouldered guy in a white skirt. I don’t know where they all come from or what they do in the daytime. The Lifted Brow launch had a similar sort of crowd. Will these lovely wide-eyed oft-broken-edged kind of beauties (or is it surface/fashion only?) come to the Emerging Writers’ Festival? Do they read anything that isn’t designed chicly?
To some round-up stuff. There’s a lot today but perhaps bookmark some links that interest you for later (and come back and comment!):
* Writerly friends! The guidelines and nomination form for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards have arrived. There are many categories for published writers. And of course there is the prize for an unpublished manuscript for an emerging Victorian writer. Wait… that’s me! I’ll have to scrub something up for entry. All you talented folks should enter also.
* Professor Eric Williamson — a card-carrying liberal in full tweed glory — argues that ‘the entire culture has become narcotized.’ An English teacher at the University of Texas-Pan American, he places the blame for students’ dim reading squarely on the unfettered expansion of capitalism. ‘I have stood before classes,’ he tells me, ‘and seen the students snicker when I said that Melville died poor because he couldn’t sell books. ‘Then why are we reading him if he wasn’t popular?”
Oh, isn’t it SO depressing? Is it happening in Australian universities too? I know that during my BAHons through CQU I was actually exposed to a large, wonderful variety of literature – from the classic to the modern and the postmodern. I think it still depends on the university, the lecturers, and the students themselves – but the article does paint a bleak picture. The above quote just makes me want to vomit in horror.
* The Castlemaine Festival is taking place very soon – from March 27 to April 5. See the full literature program featuring such lovely talented folks like Alex Miller, Cate Kennedy, Nathan Curnow, Alex Skovron and more. Unfortunately I can’t make this one!
* The Queensland Writers Centre is holding an event next Friday, the 27th called Wordpool: The Future of the Book. QWC says ‘Join Bob Stein, Founder and Co-Director of the Institute for the Future of the Book, and Founder of The Voyager Company for a lively discussion on the impacts of the digital revolution. He’ll be joined by QWC CEO Kate Eltham, fresh from her participation in the O’Reilly: Tools of Change for Publishing Conference in New York.’
* April Bookseller+Publisheris out! It has Ray Martin’s face (repeated) on the cover. After seeing the cover I couldn’t get Eric Bana’s Full Frontal version of Ray Marting out of my head. Remember naughty Neville and Beulah? ‘Hello Raaaaay’. But seriously – in this issue I round up titles coming out for Mother’s Day, and review David Malouf’s Ransom. Did I love it? Yes. Particularly the middle section. Here’s an extract of my review:
‘In some places, descriptions of Priam are reminiscent of King Lear, in his reversions to childlike innocence, and his rash instinctual decisions. The centre of the book is philosophical, moving, and hard to shake from the senses. Recurring Malouf themes of masculine roles and ways of relating between classes are present – including an obseration of intimate versus reserved fatherhoods. There is also the notion of chance versus the divine hand, and related to this, death’s inevitability, along with birth and other renewals. In Priam’s recognition of small things, like the trickling stream around his feet, or the curiosity sparked in him by the common man’s description of his daughter-in-law, we recognise our smallness and common ground with others, even our enemies.’
The book is slim, but dense and descriptive (as suits the classic narrative) but once you get through the first chapter you slip into a rhythm with it and are opened up to the both earthly and fantastical story.
There are also interviews with Richard Harland and Garry Disher (so eloquent and a great crime writer, I’ve read one of his previous novels). There are articles on the growth of online bookselling; my trialing of online book networking sites (see how I ended up with Shelfari!); and the goss from the Tapei Book Fair from Text’s Anne Beilby – pus a gazillion other reviews.
* Speaking of Malouf – he’ll be appearing at Reader’s Feast Bookstore in Melbourne on March 31 to talk about the novel. I’ll be there – it’s $6 and you can RSVP to [email protected]
* The Emerging Writers’ Festival has done a callout for its Living Library. This means you get to ‘borrow’ and expert for 15 minutes during the fest in May – get in quick!
* If you’re in Hobart, I’m very jealous, because you can go see this theatre version of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, complete with music by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. It sounds unbearably awesome. Damn you!
* I’m a new Alan Moore fan. The Watchmen Read & Seen is forthcoming, and I’ve just gotten a copy of Promethea Vol. 1 to see how the bleakmaster does female heroines. Beattie led me also to this interesting article about the Lost Girls pornographic comic he has made with his wife. I’m very, very intrigued. There’s also a fair bit about him, Watchmen and how he feels in general about his film adaptations. Worth your time if you’re getting into graphic novels as I am.
* Speaking of which, I’m very disappointed with the lack of complex female characters in graphic novels in my search thus far. Here’s a great (and worrying) essay I found on the topic. And seriously, for some reason not many people understand what I mean when I say complex. I don’t just want some feisty leather-clad busty babe (read: still objectified and one-dimensional). I want someone as complex as Rorschach. Someone angry and controlling like Margo in Margot at the Wedding with maybe a few superhero stunts on the side. I want to be challenged by her. I haven’t even come across any relatable Peter Parker types yet. *sigh* I know they’re out there and I’m new to this but it’s been very frustrating. I know a lot of people will say the predominant audience for GN is men and boys, but don’t men get bored by all the flat boring women as well (once they’re done imagining them tying them up?) And I’m not being a boring prude either – we all like a bit of fantasy, fun, complete escapism, chest shots – but it would be nice to see more choice and variety, not a complete perpetuation of glossy, surface-based capitalist, women-as-objects culture. BUT, I have found this site, which will assist my future endeavours I’m sure. And I know, I will have to write my own anti-consumerist appeal-to-both-sexes complex, dramatically compelling, still sexy comic one day… Oh, and PS, I do love the film of Persepolis, I’m sure I’d like the GN too.
* New Cordire Poetry Review is up! Haikunaut…
* Contribute a postcard to A Book About Death.
* You know when you’re watching a movie and you’re like ‘hey, that’s that guy, from whatsit!’ Well, here’s something fun for you.
MONDAY – Steven Amsterdam ‘responsive’ interview. You know you’ll love it.
I arrived home from Adelaide to find Lord Mayor of Melbourne had been quoted as saying Adelaide should be ‘shut down’.
The feeling of oddness was still with me from traipsing up and down Hindley Street all weekend – sex shops and tittie bars (and cyber sex cafes – the point?); R&B-type slick and shiny clubs open at 9am and quite full; bogan beats cruising up and down the street; being kept awake all night by pop-rap crap and ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and some guy yelling ‘woo’ until 5am … but pockets of delicious culture (bookstores, old buildings, the Format Fest and wider Fringe fest); and such enthused, lovely people everywhere – be it the Keno counter or the zine fair tables.
Isn’t the boredom of a small city and the way people amuse themselves of cultural interest in itself? A crazy man in the street stopped to tell us that the Hell’s Angels had taken over, treating Adelaide like a birthday party. He then jogged off, peering cautiously over both shoulders. Past the heavy-breasted women in windows my friends and I found two of the best comic book stores I’ve been to, and one of the most comprehensive and passionately-stocked antiquarian booksellers. Note my haul:
That’s Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; Frank Moorhouse’s The Electrical Experience as I’m just in love with him right now; John Fowles’ The Magus (loved The French Lieutenant’s Woman and am told this is even better); James Joyce’s Ulysses (yes – I’m going to give the ‘great book’ a go); Edgar Allan Poe’s Forty-Two Tales (have read many – love the illustrations in this edition); my own copy of Alan Moore/Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen (I borrowed Gerard’s to read it); and in my search for a comic with a strong female character I somehow ended up with erotically-charged vampire story Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter: Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K Hamilton. Oh well, it’ll be fun at least!
The Saturday also featured a zine fair as part of the Format Festival. Here’s my haul from that:
On Saturday night we found a classy place called The Apothecary 1878 (which used to be just that) and had a sherry, darling, and then we moved on to an even classier joint, the Woolshed. Unfortunately we didn’t see the mechanical bull in action but we enjoyed gargantuan steaks (so fat and juicy) while shifting around Phil Collins, Supertramp, Little River Band, Fleetwood Mac, Bowie and co. on the jukebox. Sus, Sus, Sussudio!
The Sunday opened with large coffees after the night’s endurance of drunken shenanigans in the apartment above. Gerard and I ran our blogging workshop – too early for most people but a fun and fascinating discussion (I’ll bring up some points when I’ve refined my ‘on blogging’ post). Our Watchmen Read and Seen is coming soon too… I participated in three other panels – Indie Publishing, Writing and Activism, and Style Council. The intimate and engaged audience often joined in the discussions.
* People engage in indie publishing as a radical act (defying monopolisation), to innovate, break new ground and support emerging writers and art forms, but also because they just love it. There was so much goddamn passion in that venue.
* It was generally agreed that both nonfiction and fiction writing can have activist qualities, but it’s important not to ‘preach’ and alienate readers. Agendas must be presented with honesty and yet not forced. Nonfiction writing can be just as engaging and personal as fiction or poetry. The actual ‘acts’ of activism were discussed (many had worked/lobbied etc. on the front line) but all found there is meaning in everyday activism. One panellist was a poet but also runs her own shop – completely fair trade, environmental etc. There was much talk of subverting the norms.
* People wear animal hats. People are chameleons. People use fashion as a filter (if someone will judge them, they’re not the kind of person they want to be around). People wear yellow pants with elastic ankles and palm trees while hitchhiking in America. Women are still unsure what the whole leg hair things signifies. Style can be a signifier of mood, interests and personality. Muumuus can look hot with a belt. Recycling/swapping clothes is good for the environment.
It’s good to be back in the best city in Aus – but if the silly-buggers really were to shut down Adelaide somehow they might as well shut down all the other places I’ve been that have a whiff of the same character – Newcastle, Armidale, Canberra, Wollongong, good ol’ Coffs – one could go on forever. Sometimes we live in a vacuum in Melbourne or Sydney. It can all get a bit pretentious and wanky. Everyone needs to get bored and drunk and find themselves on the back of a mechanical bull, or emerging from a cyber-sex cafe to an aesthetically confused street, or pumping the bass from a hotted up vehicle once in a while.
Riley Rose hasn’t cried since the death of her mother. This plus-sized, take-no-shit, gorgeous, rebellious character is sent to a Christian camp by her father and his dull girlfriend for acting out. But Riley’s drug, sex and rock & roll ‘tude isn’t going to be tamed by a bunch of commandments and Jesus songs. She’ll stick by her manifesto, somehow get through the first few days, then escape via a plan by her bestie Chloe, making it to Ben Sebatini’s party. But purple-haired Riley didn’t count on making friends with fellow misfits and ‘mutards’ like seemingly autistic brother and sister duo Bird and Oliver; Sarita who is ready to come out of her shell; and the mysterious wheelchair-bound Dylan.
I love the fact that in this book, our sassy main character always sticks by her main principles. It’s strong, intelligent and realistic. Riley Rose is an incredible character, and the book is warm, fun, and completely enjoyable.
Everything Beautiful, along with Notes From the Teenage Underground prove that Simmone Howell is a writer really in touch with young adult language, humour, desires, pop-culture obsessions, curiosities, and knowledges. Howell is so far removed from clichés and patronising writing by adults for teens with ‘messages’. Instead, you’re just given it as it is. Yes, intelligent and good-natured teenagers want to be bad sometimes. They also have transcendent experiences which come about in unique ways. For Riley, it is not religious, and never will be. It’s about people. It’s not about changing yourself, ‘improving’ in societal terms, or being healed – it’s about opening, realising a thing or two, finding beauty where you didn’t think to look, becoming overhwhelmed by it a little bit even, but being okay with that.
I’m doing an interview with Simmone Howell for a forthcoming issue of Lip Magazine. I’ll let you know when it’s out.
As many of you know, I’m off to participate in the Academy of DIY as part of the Format Festival in Adelaide this weekend. I’m flying off after work today, and I may not get a chance to blog (not back until Sunday night and I don’t have a laptop, how old-school!). Also, my phone doesn’t like Twitter, the bastard, so I may not be cyber-synchronous for a whole weekend. Ironically, I will be speaking about how connected I am…
If you’re in Adelaide, please make sure you come along. Gerard and my ‘Blogging Roundtable’ will be at 11am; I join Vignette publisher Lisa Dempster and others for ‘Indie Publishing’ at 1pm, and ‘Politics, Activism and Writing’ at 3pm; and finally, at 5pm I’ll be part of the ‘Style Council’… See the full program (last pages). It’s all happening at 145 Hindley Street.
Some links to keep you entertained over the weekend:
Have they found Shakespeare’s true likeness? A rather handsome chap methinks.
Following the Tournament of Books is lots of fun. (via Chris) Mark Sarvas over at The Elegant Variation (with his book Harry, Revised) was stunned to beat Booker winner Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger in yesterday’s round.
Coming up – I’ll finalise my ‘On Cultural Blogging’ post, once I’ve chatted to others during the Format Fest roundtable; a poem by Geoff Lemon; ‘Responsive’ interview with Steven Amsterdam; Read and Seen: Watchmen; Charlotte Wood’s ‘Literary Space’, and many more reviews…
Amanda Curtin’s atmospheric novel begins with a bizarre and horrific murder at the Sinkings, in Western Australia, 1882. Flash forward to the present and reclusive, aging writer/editor Willa is reflecting upon the daughter that has gone away from her. Tying these two narratives together are the hermaphroditism of both ‘Little Jock’ – the victim in the past, and Willa’s daughter Imogen.
Willa is drawn to the story of Little Jock, particularly due to the detail that upon his death, his mangled body was first thought to be that of a woman’s. Willa becomes obsessed with Little Jock’s story, and partakes in extensive genealogical and historical research, all the while dealing with her own reluctance to be around other people, and the guilt for the way she handled her own daughter, Imogen. Willa has had a difficult life, and feels some decisions were forced upon her without her knowing what else to do. Her regret consumes her, and she wraps herself up in the past to try and understand her daughter, herself, and the plight of hermaphrodites throughout history better.
Little Jock’s story, though, is the gripping, absorbing part of the novel. After we know his fate, we are taken back in time to his superstitious birth in Ireland, his first years as a girl, his journey to Scotland during the Irish famine in the 1840s, his lucky escape from a freak-show scout, his adoption into a new family after their own son is lost (and his subsequent treatment as male), and his many years imprisoned, finally ending up in Fremantle Prison, Western Australia. All of Jock’s story is so well-rendered, it is easy to become lost in scenes, empathising with his fear at being discovered. There must have been a great deal of research involved for Curtin, but also a great deal of vivid imagining. Her descriptive sentences and perfect dialogue draw you deeply into the past.
That said, while Willa’s story in the present is also well-written and brings forth a modern-day connection (how little social mores have changed, how complex absolute tolerance is, the connection between the happenings to Jock and the cosmetic mutilation Imogen underwent), I found it much less interesting. It was hard not to skip forward to the next chapter set in the past. I think Willa’s story is necessary, but I didn’t feel she had to be so present so much of the time, doing the same things – sitting at a computer, stroking her cat, Lucifer. The cat comes up far, far too much for no real reason than to scratch at things and draw Willa to look at them.
Despite this small gripe, I did really enjoy the novel. And the ending was surprisingly and pleasantly unexpected. Curtin is a really wonderful writer and there is so much of interest in this novel. An absorbing, dark, and detailed story of prejudices, the past, and what tending to the roots of it might change; and what will, and sometimes should, remain unchanged.
In October 2006, I was sitting at the airport in Bali after the Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival, and Eva Hornung (then Sallis) and her gorgeous little boy came and sat next to me. I had seen her speak during the festival, and read her book Fire, Fire, which I found quite confronting. We talked about the festival, and about writing (I’d just finished my very first novel draft), and then she told me she was actually off to Russia to research her next novel. She told me about a street kid, in freezing cold temperatures, who lived with dogs. I can’t remember any of the exact wording of the conversation, but I know that the story stuck with me, and ever since then I have been waiting for news of this book. When I finally got to read Dog Boy and review it for Bookseller+Publisher I found it ‘ultimately moving, frightening, and heartbreaking.’ I was really glad that Eva agreed to answer a few questions about the book, her writing, and activism.
What inspired you to tell the story of Romochka?
Many things, but a news story about a boy living with dogs in Moscow catalysed it.
Why was it important to describe Romochka’s world, and his interaction with the dog family in such raw detail?
I’m not sure why, really. In hindsight I can say that the book needed that, but at the time I was really just following my nose, exploring an idea. Really I began seeking out for myself what it might be like, and then found the novel growing from that.
I was very moved by Dog Boy. I was also moved by your recent, incredible, story ‘Life Sentence’ published in Overland 193. Do you think literary fiction has the ability to create empathy, and encourage further learning?
I think literary fiction can at its best give us a thought- and feeling-provoking semblance of experiences outside our own. As this is one of the great seductions to which humans are susceptible, literary fiction can be persuasive, engaging, transforming. What it brings us, however, can be fine or trite, truthful or distortive, and not even authors always know what they are doing. All we can do as authors is serve our project with passion, the best honesty we can muster, and attention to craft.
We are usually the first seduced, the first to fall, and often self-deceiving. I’m glad you liked ‘Life Sentence’ – I was very seduced by it: idea, enaction, final effect, metaphors. At the time when Overland unexpectedly accepted it, I had begun to think it was a piece I had written for myself and the very few readers who know cockatoos well.
If literary fiction is capable of creating empathy, encouraging further learning, then it is as dangerous as all political tyrants believe it to be - and this goes both ways. This would of course mean fiction is capable of evil. Fortunately, I think the capabilities of author and artwork are more modest, and despite the many historical instances of art in service of state, or in service of revolution, I have a feeling that fiction that is great speaks to our private growing selves, not our public performance selves, and so it is a more profound and more impotent artform than all praise or fears would make of it.
Do you have a favourite author? What/who are your influences?
I have different favourites at different times. At the moment my favourite is Tolstoy, particularly the short stories. My literary influences are, sketched broadly, TS Eliot, Dostoevsky, the 1001 Nights, and the philosopher FH Bradley. My other influences are too numerous, but the most prominent are the languages I have studied and the effect they have had on me, especially Arabic, and these days to a lesser degree Russian and Adnyamathanha.
I would call Dog Boy a novel with universal meaning. It has notions of our own animal needs, instinct for survival, and themes of displacement. Is it being published/translated in other countries? Who would you want to read it the most?
Yes – Thanks to my marvelous agent Jenny Darling, Dog Boy is to be published in Canada, UK, US, Germany, Netherlands, Spain and Italy, the last four in translation. I haven’t really thought about who I want as readers, except perhaps to hope for a lot of them. Also, I have thought that beyond the first part it is probably not for kids. I read the first bit to my son.
Can you tell us a little about some of the human rights work/projects you have been involved in?
All the projects I have worked on have started with a good idea, a bunch of creative people, and a curiosity to see whether we can make that project happen. AAR itself was formed to make these projects happen. We have discovered that inspiring projects find their people, and find their funds or pro bono contributions, and with time we have become strangely convinced that we can do anything we put our minds to. None of us are paid – we do it almost as a dare to ourselves, and that gives each project a terrifying energy. Some take three years to reach completion; some are ongoing. We have made a TV commercial and aired it in primetime; a major billboard/poster/postcard campaign; two national story competitions with very successful anthologies published by Wakefield from winning stories; a Young Australians Parliamentary Forum, held in Parliament House, Canberra; publication of Czenya Cavouras’s Rainbow Bird, a children’s picture book, named an Honour Book in the CBCs; setting up and sustaining Ozarabic, a small ongoing language course in Arabic for children; and, in the last two years, the setting up of an Aboriginal Language and Culture course, Inhaadi Adnyamathanha Ngawarla, which now takes all our time. Creating resources for Adnyamathanha has extended into several major projects, included a published book by Aunty Lily Neville, two book manuscripts with Uncle Buck McKenzie, and a DVD animated movie, Wadu Matyidi, which should attract a lot of attention when it comes out.
I have been intimately involved in all these projects, sometimes as writer, researcher, and sometimes in the driving seat. I have discovered quite a few entrepreneurial skills I didn’t know I had.
Not sure. I have had a disturbing drought for a while now. I hope Dog Boy can keep me for a while until the next one bites.
Thank you so much Eva.
According to my dashboard, this is my 200th post since I started this blog in May 2007. And you know what? In the past couple of years through this blog, my novel manuscripts, my short stories and thesis, and my work, I’m quite sure I have written over a million words. I mean, I probably average 2000-3000 a day! Other numbers: I exercise on average one-and-a-half hours a day, I read on average two hours a day (wish that were more), I sleep on average four to five hours (I’m working on this), and thus lie awake stimulated/frustrated by thoughts and ideas for about three hours a night, I see one or two movies a week, I spend on average three nights at events or with friends, I spend five days at work, I spend a very small amount of time of washing clothes and dishes, I take five minutes to put make-up on, and I watch zero television.
I was the only person in the cinema by myself last night, that I could see. This interests me. Because it doesn’t bother me to be alone. I have many friends that I could have invited, whose company I enjoy. Instead, it was just me and chocolate and Rorschach (Watchmen ‘Read and Seen’ coming soon…). Last Sunday night I saw Taxi Driver and Easy Rider alone at the Astor. I did invite someone at the last minute, but they were busy. There were many people alone in that session. I think there is a very fine line between solitude and loneliness. Solitude I enjoy, I crave, I need – but loneliness can slip in easily and unexpected. I relate to Travis Bickle at the same time as he makes me cringe, feel hollow. I love Midnight Cowboy because it speaks deeply of connection – so fleeting, possibly hurtful, possibly impossible. I love it when it all goes wrong for the characters. I feel it is truthful. I feel scooped out by the end of Easy Rider but also feel like someone has looked me in the eye and told me the truth about freedom. Often I’m afraid to share the experience with someone in case they don’t feel the same – in case they try to gloss it over. By the end of the weekend it can sometimes tip into loneliness.
* I went to two great launches this week. Bel Schenk’s book of poetry Ambulances & Dreamers was launched at FAD Bar/Gallery, down one of those fun little lanes off Chinatown. The poems are simple, modern, resonant – and many also engage with the subject of solitude.
The other launch was of Sleepers Publishing’s first book, Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming, which I reviewed earlier in the week. I got to meet Steven and eat his delicious cinnamon cookies. The introduction from Toni Jordan, author of Addition, was gorgeous. She said to the small, eclectic (and quite distinguished) room ‘look around you, look at the people on either side of you, lock this in your memory – because this will be a moment in history’. I don’t doubt it. For the record I was standing next to Dan Ducrou, who is a launch-whore like me and has been shortlisted for the Vogel, is also a Varuna alumni, and has been published all over the place; and a guy called Gus. The new editor of Voiceworks, Bel, was nearby, as was Jessica Au, a writer I’ve admired for a long time and now have met. Was very excited to hear she is working on a novel. I also got to see Emily Maguire briefly, but she had to go before I could go and gush to her about how great I think she is. I hope I’ll have a chance to talk to her properly one day. Steven Amsterdam wrote in my book ‘Be prepared for anything’. I’m not quite sure how I can do this, except perhaps keep going to the gym so I’m fit and strong and can superhero my way out of any situation (sorry, still Watchmen on the brain). I should probably also stock up on Steven’s cookies for emergency energy needs. And decide on those ‘desert island books’ that many people I know keep talking about.
I’m very happy to report that Steven will also be doing a ‘responsive’ interview for LM.
* Just finished reading this month’s Australian Literary Review. My favourite piece was Mark McKenna’s ‘Silence Shattered With a Whisper to the Heart’, because it engaged me and taught me about a writer/activist and his works – Henry Reynolds. A friend on Twitter remarked that they were disappointed with the ALR because it had no new voices. I’ve been thinking about this a bit over the last few days. My opinion is that as long as ‘established’ voices provide interesting insight (and the ideas are fresh), I don’t have too much problem with ‘established’ writers/critics taking up the pages. It’s a small country, and it is very difficult to break into the realms of reviewing and intellectual debate in some of the major newspapers/magazines, but surely we do need something to aspire to? It would be great to see ‘new’ voices, but not just for the sake of it – for the fact that they’re providing some essential addition to public cultural discussion. And there were, actually, a few names in there I hadn’t heard of, so I don’t know if it’s technically true. What do you think about old/new voices in mainstream media? I would very much miss Robert Dessaix if he got shunted just because he was becoming old hat.
* You might recall that I am curating the 15 Minutes of Fame segment at the Emerging Writers’ Festival. I have been handed the shortlist by the lovely organisers, and I am trying to put together an interesting program of a mix of fiction, nonfiction, poetry and children’s which will run over three or four nights during the festival. I didn’t realise how hard it would be. I can think of questions I’d like to ask them all. I’m grateful for the opportunity to do this, and also for the opportunity it gives these writers, many of whom don’t really have the resources to promote their work otherwise.
* Only one week until my participation in the Format Festival! Please come along if you’re in Adelaide (the 15th of March).
* Here’s a really handy blog/site created by Sophie Moon on where and when to submit stuff! It’s called SnUfft. Thanks Sophie for collecting these mags and comps for us.
* Pick-‘n-mix links:
Adoring Carly-Jay Metcalfe’s blog Chasing Away Salt Water; discovered New Zealand artist WD Hammond after I saw his artwork on a book cover; awesome to see one of my favourite writers, Joe Meno, talking about the influence of music on his work and learn about his new novel in the process; writers on writing for a living – a joy or a chore? (via Beattie) – what do you think of this?; The Short Review names 96 short story collections published in February; March 2009 in the US is ‘Small Press Month’, great idea!; a wonderfully haunting short story recommended to me by Ryan O’Neill – ‘Mary Postgate’ by Rudyard Kipling – save this for when you’ve got a moment to read and let me know what you think.
* Coming soon: Eva Hornung interview; Charlotte Wood’s literary space; a poem by Geoff Lemon; Read and Seen – Watchmen; and tons more reviews…
Things We Didn’t See Coming is a series of vignettes, from different stages of the unnamed protagonist’s life in a dystopian alterno-present/future. It is a post-apocalyptic story, but told in a hard-boiled, yet highly resonant literary style. The sentences are sharp, the character is hard and the environment is one of rapid change and ruin – but throughout there is also deep resistance. The book acts to massage you at your core, and every secondary character met along the way (no matter how fleeting) leaves a poignant stain on character and reader. They are examples from all of humanity’s shredded social standings – how different people would deal with natural disasters, segregation (between urban and land environments), political situations (and radical politics), survival against disease, and more. There is so much imagination at work in describing employment the character undertakes throughout the novel, and in his family situation, his love life, and his drive for physical and emotional survival. Though it is a series of stories, they run linear – from a small boy taken to his grandparents house on the eve of Y2K (which isn’t named, but that’s what the situation seems to be) and his father’s rant about the world we live in, to a conclusion which shows that through all the rapid fluctuations in the world, some people don’t change, and there will always be pockets of good, of nature, of things that don’t make sense at the time. There will always be meaning to a fleeting existence.
The character is adamantly nonreligious, but there really is a spiritual essence in this book – in his personal ethical struggles, and the overriding hope within the bleakness. The character fights with his instinctual nature to steal, and to live for survival and himself alone. This is a great part of his journey that isn’t played out overtly, but is present in his actions throughout the novel.
There are many moments of struggle and sadness, such as the chapter ‘The Theft That Got Me Here’, an incredibly poignant escape with his grandparents, on the day his grandmother’s pills kick in and she becomes herself again, fleetingly.
There are also moments of pure imaginative fun – sexual encounters; a difficult and moving love story; a cocky kid the protagonist has to guard; the jobs; the conflict; and the pharmacopia.
One interesting thing to note – the setting of the book is unknown and never made explicit. Deer are mentioned, and some landscapes that seem North American, so it will also sell in that market, I presume, but my imagination still planted the story in Australia. I know it’s due to my awareness of the author’s origination, but I think one of the points of it is it could be imagined in just about any Western country. A kind of nowhere-land of modern Western civilisation and societal mores, politics, religions, etc.
Another experience of reading this book, is the realisation that so much of it actually seems plausible. It is rooted in a speculative framework, but it is very near-future, or even alternate future. Droughts and floods, for example, don’t seem so implausible – and the political situations that may arise due to technological class divisions, generation gaps and opposing urban/nature mindsets. Not to mention evolving illnesses and an ever-increasing cocktail of drugs. Of course while much of it is imaginable, much of it is highly fantastical, and both prove the quality of Amsterdam’s skill and imagination.
Things We Didn’t See Coming is bleak yet inspiring, a little like retro-future text Blade Runner. It’s a completely refreshing literary work from an Australian writer who I predict huge things for.
See the official website for the book.
Chris Currie has pulled back the curtain and revealed our names alongside our stories after his ‘Sneaky Celebrity Writers Month’ on Furious Horses in February. Krissy Kneen was the one who guessed the most correctly and won a grand Obama-themed prize. Lucky thing!
Here is my story ‘Velocity‘.
Also – Krissy is herself having guest writer contributors on her blog, Furious Vaginas, throughout March, so she can concentrate on the final edits for her memoir, which Text are bringing out later in the year. I may or may not have contributed an anonymous, erotic story…
Reviews + Analyses
Mar 2, 2009
James is eighteen, works at his mother’s gallery in New York, and is trying to worm his way out of going to Brown in the fall. Why? He prefers the idea of buying a nice old house out in a ‘quiet’ state, and not being around other people his own age. James finds people generally say obvious things ‘and then they repeat it about thirteen times’. His sister Gillian is studying linguistics and is particular about her name being pronounced with a hard G. His mother’s honeymoon in Vegas has failed, with her new husband betraying her on their first night away. James is young, but he is weary.
I often forgot that this understated, mature and often sly novel was meant to be YA. The voice of being ‘unsure’, was assured, if that makes sense, and you had a feeling that James will never feel quite right in any social situation – that he will continue to run away, backchat, play tricks, and swear preference to being alone.
James did experience something majorly traumatic a few years before (as did much of New York in close range) but you get the sense that it only confirmed or enhanced his burgeoning negative feelings about people and the world, rather than sparking them.
James’ grandmother, or Nanette, is the only one he truly feels comfortable around, and is sometimes the only one he’s got. Although a few times he mistakes connection with others, to be left disappointed.
This novel is quiet, there are no bells and whistles. It is occasionally beautiful. James watches a couple on the street:
‘Something about watching them made me sad. I think it was too lovely: the summer night, the open-toed shoes, their faces rapt with momentarily tamped-down joy. I felt I had witnessed their happiest moment, the pinnacle, and they were already walking away from it, but they did not know it.’