Here’s a too-easily-imaginable near-future world where everyone is attached to a device, books are obsolete, people walk around half-naked and rate each other’s bits, the American empire is failing, and it’s hard to make a true and lasting connection.
The writer of this book is a very perceptive man. He shows us that things are very tragic and sorta funny at the same time.
The main characters are Lenny, of Russian Jewish descent, who works in the ‘indefinite life extension’ department of a large corporation; and Eunice, a young, beautiful but insecure and damaged Korean-American.
Lenny falls for Eunice after they meet in Rome. She calls him ‘nerdface’.
Eunice majored in Images with a minor in Assertiveness. She loves shopping on AssLuxury, on her äppärät. She helps out the old people in the building and the displaced families in the park. She thinks her sister is fat and should stop being so ‘Political’. She doesn’t like Lenny’s friends, even though they are ‘Media’ and their broadcasts are popular. People aspire to work in Media, Credit or Retail.
Lenny still likes books, and has a wall of them. When he pulls one out on the plane, the guy across from him says: ‘Duder, that thing smells like wet socks’. Lenny struggles to learn all the acronyms. ROFLAARP. His boss, a father-figure, is receiving ‘indefinite life extension’ treatments and is getting younger.
Lenny is getting older.
This book is FM, FTW. <3 <3 <3
Here’s the first batch of mini reviews I commissioned from some of my Twitter followers. They get a free book, I retweet the review to my followers and publish it here (slightly edited). It can be over two tweets. Enjoy!
Boys of Summer by Peter Skrzynecki. Great coming of age story set in Sydney’s western suburbs during ’50s. Really captures Polish migrant life & the role of the church. The novel’s pivotal events are told with great impact, & deal with very current issues.
Room by Emma Donoghue engages our pity and horror by turns, and leaves us with a profound sense of empathy for 5-year-old Jack. A fairy tale for the modern world – & like all good fairy tales, dark and uncomfortable. Unputdownable.
Evil in Return, Elena Forbes – Competently structured London-based crime novel, using suitably conflicted hero Mark Tartaglia and his URSTwhile partner Sam, is let down by transparent authorial machinations which result in a lack of genuine tension.
Sam Lipstye’s novel The Ask, delivers clichéd penis humour that died in the ’70s – Portnoy’s Complaint, it ain’t. Protagonist ‘Milo’, is a middle-aged, underachiever, with boring contemplations that fail to grab audience attention.
A version of this review originally appeared in the Byron Shire Echo.
Grey North lives in the small town of Mary Smokes, outside of Brisbane. Grey’s mother dies giving birth to his little sister, Irene, and from this traumatic event the novel, and Grey’s character, emerges. On the night his mother dies, there is a cruel juxtaposition – fireworks and the delighted squeals of children on show rides, while Grey has just found his mother bleeding on the floorboards. His relationship with his sister begins as one of resentment, later turning to protection and attachment, as she begins to more resemble the mother he has lost.
Grey becomes involved with the boys he used to watch at night, the ones his mother called the ‘Wild Boys’, as he imagines the ‘nights of the wild boys charged with secret meaning’. He becomes close to the half-Aboriginal boy Eccleston. Grey’s father is a drunk and a failure, and Grey has no concept of the ‘heritage’ his grandmother speaks about. The past, for him, is just his mother.
Patrick Holland’s sentences are tight yet lyrical – swift, like the passing of time in this novel. Soon Grey is in his twenties and a severe kind of attachment has formed between he and his sister, Irene. This is a novel about a very small group of isolated people who have gone through trauma, change and loss, and so cling to each other – seeming casual, carefree about it at times; and at other times openly intense – desperate to hold on. The depth of their attachment is often uncomfortable for the reader, but this is because Holland never tells you too much. He gives space for the reader to interrogate the characters’ motives.
Though the novel is set in contemporary times, it feels old-fashioned, in the best possible way, and this is suitable to the themes of change, and loss. The town of Mary Smokes transforms – bulldozers, roads, shopping malls. But there is a continuance of quiet and space – an old drive-in theatre, a meteor shower, a desolate service station late at night, a paddock full of horses, the river. It also feels more like the American West, than the outback, at times – but beautifully so, in the tradition of American Gothic – in the vein of literature and film of insular, struggling, dramatically-charged lonely towns and people.
For some of the book, you are galloping along with the characters, but their issues keep resolving themselves, and you wonder, where is it all going? But you’ve forgotten about a few little plot points Holland has thrown out, and they all come together in a devastating climax. Along the way, there are incidents of theft, gambling, longing, fights, sickness, survival, narrow escapes, protection, and standing up for others. The conflict is quick and constant, almost episodic, and if I had any qualm it would just be that I would have benefited from more clues, earlier on, that bigger struggles, and changes, were afoot – but the writing and characters were certainly enough to keep me glued. The ending is unexpected, but you do feel that Grey, who as a child was ‘moved swiftly to tears and violence’, and his story, could not have resolved any other way.
I think about a book like Philipp Meyer’s American Rust, in terms of some of the setting and themes – friendship, violence, isolation and most definitely change and transience; combined with the insular, things-only-getting-worse narrative of something like the Coen Brothers’ film A Serious Man; but with selective and beautifully rendered features of Australianness, like in Matthew Condon’s The Trout Opera. The closest thing I’ve read recently is Chris Womersley’s Bereft, which would make a nice companion.
This is Holland’s second novel, after The Long Road of the Junkmailer (UQP), which was nominated for the Commonwealth Writers Prize, South East Asia Region, and won other awards. Holland grew up in outback Queensland and, as evident in the skilled descriptions of the horses and their handling in the novel, worked as a horseman in the Maranoa district and a ringer in the top end. He has traveled, studied and been published widely. I look forward to reading more from him.
In the Summer of 1989, I left my father’s home, which was never my home, not after my mother died. I couldn’t stand it there, in my father’s home, in the dark there, with the recessed windows and the ceilings, so low I used to bang my head on the doorjambs. The smell was what really used to get to me, as if it had seeped into the stone floors.
Child of an unfortunate father.
In the Summer of 1989, I left my father’s home, which was no longer my home. I left for Liverpool, knowing that I would only be there a few months, until I went north to university in October. I had no job and no money, but an older friend had just bought a gutted house that he was planning to renovate. I could stay there in one of the upstairs bedrooms.
A delicate appeal for a small temporary accommodation.
There was a streetlamp directly outside my window, which had no curtains. I turned the bare lightbulb off before I undressed, and I slept under the orange glow of sodium, on the floor, in a sleeping bag, on cushions I borrowed from the sofa downstairs. I took the cushions back downstairs every morning.
I shared the house with three other young men: two mechanics and a binman, who were in the habit of lying around watching television and eating takeaway food when they got home, in their workclothes, lying on the same sofa I used for my bedding. So the cushions were never especially clean.
Some things in the house worked. The toilet in the bathroom flushed, and there was an electric shower mounted over the bath that emitted a thin, feeble stream, which alternated between scalding hot and lukewarm as the circuit breaker kicked in and out. The cold tap in the kitchen also worked. But that was it for water. You had to boil it on the gas stove if you wanted it really hot, and most of the washing took place in the kitchen sink.
Faculties evidently decaying.
The boards on the kitchen floor had been ripped up in preparation for redoing the plumbing, exposing the gas pipes feeding the cooker, and the only heat source in the house was a fire in the living room, the same room with the sofa and the television. The electricity was supplied by a meter system, into which coins had to be fed regularly.
Nobody had figured out the local council’s garbage collection system, but there was a backyard, so whenever a garbage bag filled up, one of us tied it off and threw it out the back door. No-one dared to go out in the yard after dark.
The flies trouble you, don’t they me dear?
It was entertaining enough for a couple of months. I was glad to get away in October, but it was still the only available place to stay when I came back to Liverpool after my first term at university. I didn’t want to go to my father’s home. I couldn’t go back there. He wasn’t speaking to me. So I was back sleeping on the smelly sofa cushions. Still, it wasn’t so bad. It’s never bad with people who care about you.
I’m a friend. Remember?
A film version of Charles Dickens’ novel Little Dorrit was part of the Christmas television schedule that year. It was a six-hour adaptation, shown in two separate three-hour parts.
I decide to give it a go. Thirty minutes later, I’m hooked, but there’s hardly any credit left on the electricity meter, and there are no fifty-pence coins anywhere in the house.
Nobody’s to blame. Noise, fatigue, a moment’s inattention.
‘Turn everything off except the television’, I say. ‘All the lights, the fridge, don’t take a shower, don’t use the microwave, don’t wash your clothes, don’t dry your hair, don’t listen to music. If the power cuts before the film ends, I’m going to go crazy’.
Paid to squeeze. Squeeze to pay.
I haven’t read the novel, so I can’t even guess how it’s going to end – except that probably somebody is going to get married, and probably somebody else is going to die.
‘What are you watching?’
‘Three hours? Bloody hell’.
‘Six, actually. Two parts’.
‘Are you mad?’
‘Humour me. I want to know what happens’.
Pancks the gypsy. Fortune-telling.
Another thirty minutes later, I’m shivering in the twilight glow of the television when the doorbell rings.
‘Can you get that?’
‘Merry Christmas!’, someone outside says. ‘What’s up?’
‘Sssh! We’re watching Little Dorrit!’
‘What’s Little Dorrit?’
‘Come in. I’ll explain’.
We watch Little Dorrit, together.
The meter turns, infinitesimally slowly.
How can you speak of forever to a maimed creature like me?
The story advances, faster.
All phrases in italics are excerpts of dialogue taken from the film version of Little Dorrit, dir. Christine Edzard (1987). Jonathan Walker is the author of Five Wounds: An Illuminated Novel and Pistols! Treason! Murder!: The Rise and Fall of a Master Spy.
Interviews + Profiles
Oct 18, 2010
Read part one here.
Angela Meyer: Just going back to what you were sort of talking about, the excessive nature of Kraken (Aus, US, UK) and chucking everything in – I’m really interested in your writing and I just find it so rich but at the same time I found I still was reading it quite quickly. I’m just wondering how long you’d spend on a sentence? Like is it very much in the first draft that it all comes out or do you go back and really work on a paragraph?
China Miéville: Oh I do, I do – with Kraken I worked quite a lot, it went through several drafts. It varies book to book but I do pay a lot of attention to the prose. I mean, I like prose and I don’t mind prose that asks the reader to make an effort, and that sort of knotted prose. I really wanted Kraken to have this sort of peculiar register almost as if the book was kind of absent-mindedly chatting to you. It’s very much kind of a homage to Pynchon, really. I like Pynchon a lot. I always like the way his books have these incredibly powerful rambles. And so, yes, I work quite hard at the sentence level and I wanted to try and create a kind of prose register which felt a bit odd.
AM: But it’s still has a hip, kind of *snaps fingers* pacy thing to it, like it has a rhythm…
CM: Well I’m glad you think so. I mean, it’s a comedy, y’no, and so I wanted it to be quite…
AM: It’s very fun.
CM: A lot of the rhythm is *palms table like a drum* – y’no there’s a certain kind of set-up, delivery, set-up, delivery, set-up, delivery type thing…
AM: Yeah – boom boom ching…
CM: Yeah exactly, and also it’s a London rhythm and a lot of it is to do with the street rhythms of London. I spent a lot of time like some kind of creepy old man listening to teenagers on buses and stuff, listening to the way they talk to each other, and the *click click click* creativity of *click* slang is just constantly joy-making to me, so yeah – I was trying to work at that, trying to kind of triangulate between modernism and slang.
AM: So like stream-of-consciousness, rambly but…
CM: But riffing, but riffing. Y’no, like when you’re with a mate and you know each other really well, and you maybe might be like slightly drunk and…
AM: Yeah, you have your own language…
CM: And you’re kind of riffing off stuff, and one of you will say something and you’ll get the jokes and you’re *click click click* kind of riffing.
AM: Yeah like my boyfriend and his best friend call each other Daddy.
CM: Yeah, like these absurd rants – you’ll start talking about Russell Crowe and then the next thing you’ll marry each other to Russell Crowe and then you’ll talk about this crazy stupid stuff, so I wanted to kind of riff on that.
Benjamin Solah: Whereas, with The City & the City, some of the language is more true to the hard-boiled detective genre which I really liked – I read a fair bit of detective fiction when I was in high school. Another thing was that you took the point of view of a cop – Marxists and socialists are against the police, but I didn’t find that compromising or anything, like I still sympathised with that cop character and I thought that was about being true to the genre…
CM: Y’no people have talked about this before and to me, it’s kind of a non-issue. I mean there is a tradition amongst some on the left of having a rather fallacious notion of what culture is and how it works and what fiction is, and so you get this kind of pious and unconvincing sense of, y’no, ‘if you are a socialist you shouldn’t…’ or whatever, and I think – it’s not a job recruitment form, it’s a novel, it’s doing a different thing. I’m not asking you to agree with him. I’m not asking you to agree with his choice of job, I’m not asking you to agree with a single decision he makes in the entire book.
I mean for me, and this would be a *spoiler*, for me the decision he makes at the end, you know the structures he becomes part of, I think is crazy – but that’s not what fiction’s for, and it’s particularly the case with this book, from people on the left. Other books, like Perdido Street Station, I have people saying to me: ‘well you know I didn’t agree with the decision you made at the end’. I didn’t make a decision – one of the characters did something. And I’m not trying to cop out – I think you do have a certain kind of political responsibility, to think about the ramifications of what your book is saying. But the idea that narrowly, if a sympathetic character does it you support it, is just bananas, it’s just crazy, so…
AM: Christos Tsiolkas was going through that in the UK, the media calling him a misogynist and things like that because his characters are misogynistic.
CM: Yeah, it’s tricky because sometimes it can also be used as an exoneration, it can be like ‘well, look, I’m just depicting someone who’s a horrible rascist’ and it’s like ‘yeah, there’s something about the way you’re doing it that’s making me really uneasy’, but it’s a case-by-case thing, you know?
BS: Yeah. Like with Tsiolkas’ book, there are misogynistic characters, but I think you’re meant to hate those characters…
AM: Oh yeah, absolutely, it’s supposed to say something about the era. I was going to ask you just a bit about the characters. I suppose through some of them you’re exploring that language aspect, like through Collingswood, for example, she’s really great. For some reason the one who stayed with me was Wati, I don’t know why – something about his being persistent through the ages, but fragile. I imagine it’d be different for different readers because there are so many different characters. Marge – she stayed with me too, I think because she was the ordinary one who was fighting. She didn’t quite know why she was, but that was really great. I was just wondering, did you have a soft spot for any of the characters? Or was it hard to let that particular cast of characters go?
CM: I’m not sentimental about my characters as in I’m not one of these writers who says: ‘I had a conversation with my characters’. I’m like, ‘no you didn’t – they don’t exist’, or I’m not someone who says that I don’t know what my characters are going to do. But that said, you get affection towards particular ones, but they exist within the bounds of that book, so I really like Collingswood, I think she’s a bit horrible but I really enjoyed writing her, I enjoy the riffing. I really like Wati – those two probably, above all others, are the ones that loom largest for me in that book. But it’s not a problem for me to leave them behind when the book ends because they don’t for me exist beyond the bounds of that book, y’no, they’re very much functions of a particular text, so they were a great pleasure to write, but I was fine when it ended. Having said which… there has been some talk about doing more books based around Collingswood and I’m open to that, so – it doesn’t preclude going back, but yeah, those were probably the two that were the most fun to write and I think that generally means the most fun to read.
AM: We don’t have much time left. Flexible time – I love that in the book. The Star Trek phaser – that awesome intertextual…
CM: Well the book is a kind of loving, teasing of fandom, y’no and I was never a Trekkie…
AM: My Dad is, so I totally got it. This will be my last question: did you do any research into religious lore or cults or anything like that as you were planning it?
CM: Somewhat, but more at the meta-level, I’m very interested in faith per se, more-so than the specifics of individual cults. I don’t particularly sign up, it always seems to me that there are a few religions which get treated as whipping boys for the kind of craziness of religion among a certain group of rather vulgar atheists, so people would be like ‘oh God y’no Scientology it’s really crazy, and Mormonism it’s really crazy’ and I’m always like ‘well have you read the Bible?’ I mean, if you’re not a religious person, any set of religious beliefs is crazy, and you’ve got two ways of dealing with that: you either do the kind of Dawkins thing and say ‘well, it’s all stupid’ which I think is really unhelpful and disrespectful and it’s based on a bad theory of religion; or you can say: I don’t care what the content of what you believe is, because there’s all kinds of complicated reasons why people believe all kinds of things, y’no, the question is: what do you do? How do those beliefs impact your behavior? You can be a Christian and firmly committed to social justice; you can be a Christian fascist – you know? And that’s my issue – if it’s in the name of Christ that you’re doing something that I politically agree with, then I’m not going to argue with you about that, I mean – that’s a separate discussion, we might have that discussion, but I’m not gonna sit there like Christopher Hitchens and say ‘this is all stupid’.
So I’m very interested in faith and the way it works, and sociologically what religion does, psychologically what it does – and I say that completely respectfully, y’no? I’m an atheist but I have no interest in dissing faith, it seems faith is often a very beautiful thing – people have created some of the most wonderful works of art in history through faith, faith can move people to do unbelievably heroic acts. So I’m interested in the way it works as a function. The specifics of individual cults don’t interest me that much which is why I had fun inventing my own. I’m not overly interested in existing real-world religions – more than a social phenomenon – but there is always this tradition in science fiction of the ‘strange cult’ and that’s a great tradition to feed in on, and then I could just invent my own ridiculous cult, so that was a huge amount of fun. So the cults are not allegories for really existing cults, they’re intended to be crazy…
BS: I was curious about how you negotiate being edited as a political writer because I’ve had various experiences. I was wondering, when you started out, how could you tell when people were changing the way political ideas were expressed through the fiction – or whether it was just that people disagreed with you and wanted to take ideas out?
CM: I’ve never ever had a problem with political editing, that’s all I can say. I mean, I like being edited – and I don’t always agree with my editors, but it’s never a political disagreement, it’s always, y’no, ‘this sentence would work better with a comma’, or ‘you need more of Collingswood, she disappears for this chapter’, it’s that kind of thing. I can honestly say I’ve never had a situation where I’ve suspected that the editing is a political thing. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, and maybe if you were dealing with a particularly contentious political issue – if you were writing explicitly about, I don’t know about Palestine or something and you had an editor who disagreed with you about that then maybe it would happen – it’s never happened to me, and I can be pretty sure it wouldn’t happen with either of my editors at the moment.
I think, fundamentally, what they’re interested in is, do they think you’ve done as good a book as you can? In any professional publishing, the question of ‘good’ is a kind of uneasy oscillation between commercial and quality, which are two different things, and obviously they want to sell as many as possible, but it’s also not true that publishers don’t love books. Most of them do, and many times I know full well they might say ‘it would be more popular if you did this, but I think this is beautiful as it is, let’s leave it’. Y’no, there’s no point parodying them. When I wrote Iron Council if it had been purely a commercial thing they would have said: ‘this is a fantasy novel about gay trade unionists, stop it’, y’no? So it’s both those things, and your editor’s not your enemy, most of the time – and maybe I’ve just been lucky with editors but I’ve never had a political issue with it.
Thank you China Miéville and PanMacmillan Australia.
Interviews + Profiles
Oct 15, 2010
China Miéville’s Kraken (Aus, US, UK) is savvy, exuberant, sci-fantastical fiction – a novel about a stolen giant squid and the ensuing adventures of museum curator Billy Harrow. It’s a super-fun read, set in a richly imaginative alternate London, filled with sassy, dirty, sweet, dangerous and apparitious characters.
It was great to be able to have a two-on-one with China Miéville, alongside Benjamin Solah – political writer and blogger – whom I knew to be a fan of Miéville’s work and outlook. Miéville was in town for the Melbourne Writers Festival and AussieCon4. I’d first seen him the previous year and was enraptured by his intellect and gentle articulate nature (somewhat contrasted by his shaved head and buff bod).
We met at Miéville’s hotel. He was running a little late so Ben and I sipped whisky and gin, took advantage of the free cookies in the boardroom, and I drew a ‘welcome squid’ on the whiteboard. The view of the city was gorgeous and when Miéville arrived, we began by chatting about just that, cities…
Angela Meyer: I love the role that the city of London plays in Kraken, the literal entrails of it, the mood of it and the way the citizens react to it – those attuned to the shifts that are happening and then those who just feel something. I was wondering if you could talk a little about the role of London in the book and how that formed – did it form like a character alongside the other ones, or…
China Miéville: Well some of my other books have been very consciously riffing off London. This one came from a different direction – I knew I wanted to do the book about the giant squid because there was one in the London museum, so London followed from the fact that that’s where my local squid was, not because it was London per se. And specifically because it was a squid in a tank – which was really important for the book. But I’ve always been interested in that kind of tradition, of London phantasmagoria and so on – so it was also kind of riffing off a tradition. And there’s a very strong tradition of that kind of alternative London writing, you know, Moorcock, and Neil Gaiman, Thomas DeQuincey, Ian Sinclair, Peter Ackroyd and people like that – and I suppose to some extent I’ve always wanted to kind of homage that tradition a little bit. King Rat – although it’s a supernatural thriller – it’s probably a more realistic London. This is more of a kind of dream – it’s much more exaggerated and almost kind of absurdist. It’s supposed to be kind of a dream-logic London. And the idea of the city dreaming itself – so you’re walking through the city’s own dream of itself, and the book’s dream about the city’s dream about itself – if that makes sense…
AM: It does, it does when you’ve read it.
Benjamin Solah: Another thing to do with the city – because I’ve read King Rat as well, and I was obsessed with the thing about London, then The City and the City, well it’s all about the city, and the city is itself almost a character. Have you read anything to do with architecture? Because there are all these architectural descriptions in The City and the City that are quite extensive.
CM: I don’t have any expertise in architecture. My first academic essay from like 1998 or 1999 is a piece about architecture, the sociology of architecture. I have read some stuff, and I like architecture, and I like urban specificity, and I like trying to poke at what makes London different than Paris, different than Sydney, different than New York, you know. There’s nothing terribly unusual about loving different cities and writers liking cities but I do like big cities and every time I come to a city – you almost try and get a kind of mouth feel for it, you know, and it’s amazing how quickly it happens. You can get out of the plane and spend two minutes walking through a city you’ve never been to before and you can feel that it feels different from the last one you were at and you’re like okay, what is that? Trying to put words to that. In a way it’s trying to put words to that sense of the specificity of place that I hope is what you’re talking about – it’s very much trying to express that. It’s quite ineffable.
AM: I went to Europe for a month and I went to thirteen cities…
CM: Oh my God.
AM: That was my getting a mouth feel…
CM: Which was your favourite?
AM: Edinburgh and Prague are pretty tied. But – do you know PD Smith? The author? Because he’s just written a book on cities. He’s a science-culture writer, he’s amazing. He’s really good, have a look out.
CM: Okay, cool, I should chase it.
AM: I love how there’s a real mish-mash of ways of being and ways of communicating in Kraken – through morse-code streetlights, telepathic text messages, bla bla bla. Was it fun to come up with these different modes of communication? And do you think it’s in part reflective of the multiple streams and channels of communication in society now?
CM: Well I’m sure it is, but it wasn’t consciously that. Kraken is a very undisciplined book, and hopefully it’s undisciplined in a good way – I mean there’s a certain thing you can tap, with a certain rombustuous ill-discipline, that you can’t get with a more tight book. So with Kraken, when I was talking about, you know, passing messages, I was trying to think of the various ways that you could do that that were in some way really tied to the city. And it was a book that I sort of felt like – if I had an idea that I liked, that I thought was interesting or exciting or whatever, I would find a way of putting it in. I wanted it to be very excessive, you know? When it comes to modern communication and stuff I’m certainly not a luddite but I’m not particularly interested in it. I don’t tweet, I don’t Facebook, I don’t blog – and I’m fine with that, and I’m not opposed to any of these things it’s just not particularly what I wanna do. But I do text, I text a lot. And I like the way texting changes speech and I like the way text-speech is a new specific thing that has its own flavour, its own rules, and I like all that stuff, so yeah, it was not consciously riffing on all that but I’m sure it was all there.
AM: That stuff is just the context…
CM: Yeah, you can’t help it…
BS: One of the things I wanted to ask you about is the talk you did at a Marxist conference called ‘Marxism and Monsters’?
CM: Oh yeah, God.
BS: Because I was obsessed with that talk for ages, and my comrades and stuff we always talk about it. So you talk about these origins of monsters, and the socioeconomic origins, and then I was thinking – nowadays we don’t really invent new monsters, we kinda riff off old monsters like vampires and zombies, we use them over and over again. I wanted to know whether you thought we’d exhausted our ability to create monsters or is there a reason today’s society doesn’t really invent monsters like we used to?
CM: I’m not sure I’d agree, I mean, I think there’s two different levels. On the one hand there’s this kind of endless degraded reiteration of the old tropes, so you get these endless endless endless zombie or vampire films or whatever, but at the same time there is also, I mean particularly within geek culture, that kind of fascination with the monster creation. So, with movies there’s always this thing with like, y’no, ‘did you get to the monster shot?’ ‘Did you see the monster?’ and it’s like ‘what’s it gonna be?’ You remember when Cloverfield came out and everyone was like: ‘what’s the monster going to be like?’ You know, there was all these debates about it. There is still an attempt to create, or self-consciously an attempt to create monsters that haven’t been seen before. Or you think about something like Doctor Who where they’re always trying to come up with the new, y’no – but for me, as you know if you’ve heard the talk, I think the early 20th Century was the high point of absolutely explosive creation in the monstrous. But I would say, at the moment – particularly at the level of vampires and zombies – it’s very tired.
I think probably the ’20s was the anomaly rather than now, I think it was more of a question of that being a particularly fecund time than this being a particularly degraded one. And I think there’s probably more teratological innovation going on now than there was in the 1880s for example. I think it’s very culturally specific and at various moments there’s a kind of upsurge of creativity and others there’s not, so I think at the moment things are roughly sort of in balance, you know – we have a lot of very very tired stuff, there’s still some things that are interesting, but most of the time monsters disappoint. Like Cloverfield when the monster is revealed you’re like, uh. *laughs* And that’s a separate issue. But as to the social reasons, why there is such an obsession with sparkly vampires, or whatever it might be, I mean that’s a whole other question – then you have to get into the specifics of each case. And these things are very fashion driven, so, angels are something they’re trying to do at the moment. Angels are very trendy. So overall I think this day and age is kind of middling, in terms of monster creation.
Part two can be found here.
Reviews + Analyses
Oct 13, 2010
Page Seventeen, 2010
Reviewed by Derek Motion
I often have to catch the bus out to the university, and from the stop near my house the journey takes around 15 minutes. This parcel of time is – if you get straight on to the task and don’t waste any time looking out the window or at other people on the bus – large enough to allow you to read through a small chapbook of poems, a book such as Tiggy Johnson’s First Taste. Accordingly I have used this bus trip to read First Taste through a number of times. It seems a suitable way to read the collection – you read all the way through without stopping, then you put the book in your bag and walk to the building where you work, the poems still working in your head. Later in the day, when your mind is tired, you nevertheless get back on the bus and open the book again.
There is a definite narrative arc underpinning this collection, one that encourages the ‘full read’. Johnson’s seventeen poems take you from her early memories, through romance, to family and children (particularly childbirth), and finish with musings on death. The arc is particularly easy to grasp – indeed the cover image of the poet as a young girl encourages you to read this way. But it’s not because of this arc that the book is readable and fulfilling. In lesser hands a collection spanning childhood to adulthood could easily become pedestrian. I felt real delight sharing some of the poet’s experiences via this book. It’s probably because I didn’t feel as though deep poignancy or wisdom were the key things on offer – if there are any lessons about life within this book they are not simple and satisfying, not sermonic titbits that you’ll repeat in your mind with a contented smile after reading (possibly reclining in a rocking chair). We bumble along through life just like these poems, wallowing in tastes and experiences often because the mud just feels really good. We are unsatisfied and unsure. In the titular and opening poem you find a couple who:
with decisions over
chocolate or caramel
docked dry fruit in port
before baking the proverbial
Obviously the etching of a relationship and the subsequent decision to start a family are key elements of this poem. But what stays with you – and must stay with the poet – is the food. This writing makes you want to eat things, to go home and seek out a recipe for a triple chocolate cheesecake, to celebrate things with ‘premium ice-cream / swimming in chilled muscat’. It makes sense to write a poem that foregrounds these deliciously sensory images. On the rare occasions when I am preparing a meal for myself only, I don’t go to much effort. Toast is always at hand. But when I prepare meals for my family I plan and try to achieve more. There is a shared experience on offer, a communal eating experience that can be enhanced with really good food. Johnson offers us this social aspect of her life with the opening poem. It’s a great beginning, and it’s easy to see why all of the blurb writers have chosen to mention the taste of ‘butterscotch sauce’, a taste that in the first stanza ‘pierces the heart’ of both poet and reader.
However the decision about having children seems to function as a segue here, one that leads to poetry about the poet’s own childhood. Recently I happened upon a Youtube clip of a song by Big Star, the song ‘13’ (it was a cover version by Elliot Smith that I watched first however). I found it interesting how childhood was rendered in this song. There’s nothing particularly wistful about the lyrics, in fact they are quite plain: ‘Won’t you let me walk you home from school? / Won’t you let me meet you at the pool? / Maybe Friday I can / Get tickets for the dance / And I’ll take you.’ But nevertheless the song is sad, poignant, nostalgic. A lot of this is to do with the vocal delivery – articulating the words in a way that suggests that time of being 13, those dramatic concerns that were so lovely and innocent, and allowing and encouraging the audience to compare it with now. Is it harder to do though when you are a poet, when your words must do the work on the page for you?
Now, you try to communicate your nostalgia to others who don’t care. Implicit (or is it?) in the poem ‘Coburg High’ is the fact that the ‘kids’ in question won’t be too interested in the house you used to live in. They have their own, more pressing concerns, and live in the present. Wallowing in times past is for adults. Johnson knows this, places the whole exercise (the potential pulling off the road to look at her former high school) as a ‘retreat’, even while it doesn’t stop her going through with the act via the poem. Things are listed that are very particular to her life (we assume) and at least some measure of Big Star poignancy is gained. Some of the incidents identified are overly personal, meaning I can’t quite go there with the poet (‘walking up Bell Street with Mark Garnham’ is an interesting example) but I don’t care too much, because I feel for the poet and her plight. As I am to find with the rest of this book, Johnson is very good at creating a specific mood. A few years back I considered getting off the highway to drive past the house I lived in as a 6 year old, a house in Werribee. The GPS was saying it would only add five minutes to our journey. But I didn’t do it, and furthermore, I didn’t even voice the idea to my wife and kids. After a long day on the road and still with a couple of hours to go to reach our destination, I just assumed the visit would have been deemed silly. But then as I drove I thought about that house, for a long while. I, for one, would be interested in seeing the house Tiggy grew up in. Maybe I could show my kids too – force them to be interested.
And everything about this book is preparing the reader for the kids. The poems dealing with memories of childhood are all about positioning the poet and reader as child again, forcing you to consider the world from that viewpoint. As a poet, when I undertake this sort of writing, I hope that some of the childlike insouciance can be regained, while avoiding the sentimentality. It’s hard though. In her list poem ‘I remember’ Johnson continues compiling images of childhood and place, before finally admitting: ‘I don’t remember / ever missing it’. It’s the place she once lived, but also the innocent point of view, the living in the now. Now, we miss it.
I know Tiggy – we’ve met and talked on a few occasions – and though I don’t know her closely, I think I do know her as someone you might call ‘straight-talking’ (as poet, blurb-writer, and AAMI television commercial extra Nathan Curnow does), someone who enjoys living, doing, and experiencing, and of course writing about these things without embarrassment. This comes across in her poems about ‘adult’ life too, and so there is an authenticity here, something that suggests she hasn’t lost all of that special something-or-other that makes childhood, well, special. Even as she goes on to suffer the unavoidable discomforts of pregnancy. In ‘Week sixteen’ the poet really hopes there’s something medically wrong,
so I might be treated, fixed, returned to normal
in just a fraction of the five months
I otherwise face
But of course there’s nothing wrong. It’s just another individual living inside her stomach, causing the unrest. We sometimes have a perverse desire to be told there is something wrong, because of course then it can be fixed. Troubling things that can’t be fixed are troubling. When my daughter falls over and gets a mild bruise a bandaid will take the trouble away, despite the fact that there is no medical need for the bandaid (I’ve tried explaining this to her). Some poetry simultaneously suggests the chaos that is un-orderable, fixable, while fixing this (at least a little, even if in a placebo way) with poem-ness. It gives us a measure of comfort.
Johnson devotes quite a lot of the space in this book to pregnancy, and children, and as a male reader it’s something I liked. At the time of writing this my wife is pregnant (our child due in about five weeks) and so although I am able to observe and hear about what it is like, first hand, there’s something extra that this poetry offers me. It’s a real sense of being inside the experience. Poems such as ‘It’s like…’ and ‘The Facts’ submerge you fully in the experiences of morning sickness and giving birth. There’s a matter-of-fact delivery in these poems (devoid of artificial after-the-fact sentimentality) that is both funny and real:
whispering to your husband
you were sure the baby
was going to come out of your arse
only to discover later
there is no such thing
as a woman in labour
But I liked the foci of the book, and not only because these poems enabled me to become a woman giving birth (although perhaps this is reason enough?), the poetry is organised well, leading the reader quite naturally from one thematic concern to another. The move from giving birth to a poem about a stillborn niece is moving – our own worries about the demands of parenting become petty when faced with this image of a father, a man constantly trying not to imagine what his daughter’s milestones would have been like (birthday parties, Christmases) had she lived. There is life and there is death. There is food and there is poetry.
‘Concluding’ brings all these things together. A visit to the hospital and the poem is directed straight at the patient:
I focus on the baby
who’s too young to form a single lasting image
but old enough to visit a stranger’s ward
or to pull at one of the cords affording you life.
The cupcakes presented will not be touched, but the ‘stories of our recent times’ are all that is needed at this point. I assume – based on the final short poem ‘Dear Dad’ – that ‘Concluding’ is a poem for the poet’s father. We don’t need to know exactly how his story concludes, because the idea of family is what is presented. Family lingers with us in a peculiarly unanswerable way. The links and ties and repetitions provoke us to think, to question, to write, but we rarely come up with anything definitive. The closest we can get is an acceptance of the story, the recurring motifs. Memories of childhood; anticipation and rumination on ageing. The patterns of child-rearing and habitation. You sink into these ideas in a sensory way, much in the same way as you revel in the comfort of a trusted food.
If I have any criticisms they are minor and as follows. Firstly, the poem ‘Us’ left me worried that I was excluded from some of the depth of meaning, simply because as a reader I am not one of the two people isolated by the term and focus of the word ‘us’. But then the piece does fit in with the arrangement, and there are connections between this poem and others in the book. Secondly, a couple of the later poems disrupt the book’s flow a little (there are two prose poems and two that borrow language from a context of women’s fashion). But then on reflection I also came see these pieces as ‘veers’: the prose form a stylistic deviation that suits the emotional clutter of the poems, and the tangential forays into advertising language a reflection of the way other vital themes arise in the book. So overall any concerns I had with this collection faded quickly, and I just ‘liked’.
There is a lot to like about Tiggy Johnson’s First Taste. The lineation and formal construction of individual poems promotes readability, and the personal voice the poet has created is consistently foregrounded. As I mentioned previously, the poetry stays with you. This is strong work. I recommend you obtain First Taste, and have a read.
Of course you’ve heard of it. I liked it. I appreciated it, really. It took over me a little while I was reading it. I felt really blue. The characters get inside of you, because they’re so fully-formed, and there’s much space for them. The opening reminded me of Richard Yates. Why did I feel blue? Because of the overpopulation stuff. Powerful. And the exasperation and powerlessness, and the desperation, and the sarcasm, and the disconnect. This isn’t a review. Enough people have reviewed this book. Here’s a good one, which isn’t really a review either. But it’s a now book, too. I wonder how it will stand up. I was creative-lethargy-blue, too, because in my WIP and thesis I am in some ways trying to express the kind of ideological nature, the orthodoxy, even, of freedom – in the West, in consumer society – and there Franzen is expressing it so well. I just have to say, too, in regards to all the hype (and remember this isn’t a review), I don’t think it’s the most wonderful book, but I did find it a very rewarding reading experience – difficult, deep, moving, complex. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.
I also recently read Iran: My Grandfather by Ali Alizadeh (wonderful), which I’m reviewing for Mascara Literary Review; and I’m currently reading Catherine Harris’ short story collection Like Being a Wife (Vintage), which I might knock up a blog review for soon.
Received (and dipped into)
The Empty Family
Picador, released November 2010
You may remember I interviewed Tóibín a few months back about his novel Brooklyn, which he has now followed up with this collection of short stories. I have dipped my toe in this deep and quiet pool – I read a story about something missed, and it just dangled from the heart-strings. The press release says in the collection, Tóibín ‘delineates with a tender and unique sensibility lives of unspoken or unconscious longing, of individuals, often willingly, cast adrift from their history’. More on this one to come…
Kill Your Darlings Issue 3
The latest issue of the hottest new journal on the Aus lit scene includes an interview with Booker prize-winner DBC Pierre, about his new novel Lights Out in Wonderland. There is fiction from Karen Hitchcock, Nick Smith, Annie Condon and David McLaren. I read Condon’s story ‘Nothing Broken’, about a family welfare/abuse worker who is having personal trouble – accomplished and moving. I really liked it. There’s a mixed-bag of nonfic, including an essay by Antony Loewenstein on his continued frustration, post-election, with Australia’s bipartisan support of Israel; Emmett Stinson on tertiary creative writing programs; Andrew Mueller on his perilous book tour of the UK (I read this one, entertaining); and Clementine Ford on returning to the Centrelink queue.
GriffithREVIEW30: The Annual Fiction Edition
So, I picked it up and saw some familiar names. Thought I’d start with Chris Flynn’s ‘Panther’, which opens with a mutt dog discovering a severed kangaroo foot. I found it quite amusing, after conversations Chris and I have had about how much we enjoy reading sex scenes, that there’s a hot sex scene with a character called Angela, but anyway… cool story. I plan on soon hitting up stories by Krissy Kneen, Peter Temple, Anna Krien, Eva Hornung, Kate Holden, Linda Jaivin, Luke Davies and Patrick Allington.
Also recently received
The latest in Affirm Press’ Long Story Shorts book series Gretchen Shirm’s Having Cried Wolf – stories revolving around friends Alice and Grace, in a small coastal town. From the blurb: ‘Having Cried Wolf draws their partners, families, friends, neighbours and strangers into a rich tapestry of shared experience: of love, tragedy, success and failure’.
John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Harbour (Text), where a girl disappears into thin air on the ice of the Swedish archipelago. By the author of Let the Right One In.
Author of The Reader, Bernhard Schlink’s latest The Weekend, where in a secluded country home, a group of friends and lovers meet for the first time in 25 years.
Toni Jordan’s Fall Girl (Text) – which sounds like so much fun, about a professional con artist, and the good-looking millionaire she meets… I do plan on getting to this one soon.
The Taste of Apple by Jaimes Laider & Don Stewart – a book, verse novel, CD, ebook, something radical. But that’s the format. The story is about a guy called Pedro, living in housing commission with his Filipino immigrant mother (his father has fled). He gets involved with a ‘mad’ street busker and the East Timor freedom movement. The blurb calls it a ‘gritty story of self-discovery, justice and belonging’.
I’ll read very soon Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story as it seems in the genre/s I’m writing towards – a sort of tragi-comic absurd near-future or alternate reality love story. Yep. I like David Mitchell’s quote on the press release: ‘Super Sad True Love Story is an intoxicating brew of keen-edged satire, social prophecy, linguistic exuberance, and emotional wallop…’
And last but best, for my birthday my lovely man gave me A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates by Blake Bailey, which was recommended by one of you in a blog comment! It’s a massive book, with tons of praise on the inside cover. I have just been falling in love with Yates’ writing and I like that this is a biography of his work as well as his life. I think it’s going to be quite a heartwrenching journey but I’m looking forward to it. I might try and save it for when I have some time off in January.
NB: I’m definitely sending out some of the received books for guest reviews.
Other People's Words
Oct 7, 2010
Reviewed by Elizabeth Bryer
This is one of those books that comes with baggage. Cult status? Check. Author plucked from obscurity? Check. Endorsement by guy with cultural cache? Check. (The latter was Spike Jonze, by the way, who at one stage acquired film rights to the title.) Light Boxes has certainly reached our shores amid much hype, which makes it easy to overlook the fact that it was written by Jones in his parents’ basement, and that when it was published by small indie press Publishing Genius, only 500 copies were sent out into the world (author and editor felt at the time that they were working on ‘a cool little art project’, nothing more). In other words, this is a book of tenuous beginnings, which makes its rising star all the more remarkable.
Penguin has created an appropriately whimsical cover and the book’s petite dimensions make it feel like a little treasure. The typography changes a lot (when characters whisper, for example, the font size is smaller, and when the perspective is from one character in particular, the section has a ragged right edge). Such variation has always felt a little gimmicky to me. But other aspects of the experimental layout are, to my eyes, a success: a few pages display only one sentence, which is clever because the white space around the type gives the distinct impression of the winter that is the subject of the book. This sense must have been more prominent in Publishing Genius’s edition, the cover of which was similarly spare.
Light Boxes is about a town that has endured the depth of winter (a personified ‘February’) for more than three-hundred days, with flight the latest thing to be banned. Multiple viewpoints describe what happens next in the war against this deity-like creature, with the vignettes eventually leading the reader toward a metafictional twist. The mood is sombre, with characters oscillating among, at the darker end of the scale, grief, despair and anger, especially when the townspeople’s children begin to disappear. But what prevails at all times is hope, which seems almost audacious, given that it is pitted against the might of February.
‘Saccharine’ seems to be the dismissal most often levelled at the work by Jones’ critics, but I enjoyed the occasional whimsical touches (the painting of balloons on the bottoms of teacups, for example; look out for a later reference to this act of rebellion, which made this reader smile). This is a book best read for the experience offered by its visual imagery and the atmosphere Jones manages to imbue in every line. The world Jones conjures constantly surprises with the breadth of imagination it encompasses.
I don’t know if Penguin planned to release this in Australia just in time for our winter but, if so, that was a clever ploy. But now that, after Sunday’s weather, we seem to be safely through to the other side, read this chilling, fantastical first novel in the sure comfort that winter is (almost) a memory. At least until next year.
Elizabeth Bryer’s writing has appeared in Australian literary journals. She has recently started a blog on reading, writing and translation called Plume of Words
Oct 3, 2010
After James Bradley’s ‘Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)’.
David Bowie was really the first artist I found on my own as a young adult. Bowie came to me in a humorous, intertextual way, through watching Zoolander at the age of about 16 at Birch, Carroll & Coyle Cinemas, Coffs Harbour. I worked there so movies were only 50 cents, and I must have seen Zoolander about four times. Some of you may remember the moment where Bowie shows up, to call the ‘walk-off’. When the legend steps into frame, just a small section from ‘Let’s Dance’, plays: ‘Let’s dance… duh, duh duh duhduh’. Well this refrain haunted me. I found myself sitting in class, trying to concentrate on Othello and ‘duh, duh duh duhduh’ would repeat, over and over. I knew this song, from one of my favourite teenage movies Gia, starring Angelina Jolie as the tragic, bisexual, gorgeous and wild ‘original supermodel’ Gia Carangi. I’d liked the song watching the film when I was 14, 15, 16 – but now, it was absolutely glued in my head. I also remembered reading, in the biography of Gia (Thing of Beauty by Stephen Fried), about her being a ‘Bowie kid’ in the ’70s, and I remembered the fact of his open sexuality – this being a big thing that attracted me to cultural icons in my teens as I was struggling with being open about my own attractions.
But it was the song itself – that tiny part, which began the obsession. The first CD I bought was ChangesBowie, a best-of, which of course included ‘Let’s Dance’. It features magic from all eras (‘Space Oddity’ through ‘Blue Jean’). I recognised many of the songs though never knew they’d been by the same person. My parents had the Pretty Woman soundtrack when I was a kid, and there on ChangesBowie was ‘Fame ‘90’! Those-in-the-know started to recommend albums, the first being Hunky Dory – and I fell in love with the song ‘Life on Mars’ and, being an Andy Warhol fan, dug the song about him: ‘I’d like to be a gallery/Put you all inside my show’.
Every time I bought an album I was astounded by the lyrics, and then the way the music & lyric combo had this sad, nostalgic pull on me. What was I nostalgic for? And yet the songs also made me feel wrapped-up and warm (perhaps covered by moondust). I find that the songs are complex – the upbeat songs often have an undercurrent of collapse; the blue songs have a playfulness to them. There’s history and science and spirituality and love and mirrors and magic and intellect and the ordinary and the universe in an album. And definitely transience, and death. There are stories – the album Diamond Dogs, inspired in part by Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, is a glam-carnivalesque, tragic, epic science fiction ode to desire, dreaming and oppression. In the past two or three years this has become my favourite album (along with Low – particularly the second half). From ‘We Are the Dead’, a fucking amazing song:
‘We feel that we are paper choking on you nightly
They tell me, Son, we want you to be elusive
But don’t walk far
For we’re breaking in the new boys
Deceive your next of kin
For you’re dancing
Where the dogs decay defecating ecstasy
You’re just an ally of the leecher
Locator for the virgin king
But I love you in your fuck-me pumps
And your nimble dress that trails’
For my seventeenth birthday my good friend Simon bought me the Best of Bowie DVD: two discs of his incredible film clips (now my most-watched DVD). I was fascinated by the weird, druggy, soft-focus post-modern direction of David Mallet, who did many of his film clips. I was inspired by the transgressive, chameleonic appearance of Bowie – his camera-flirt face, his bony hips in tight circuit-patterned jumpsuits, his ‘coolness’, his glamour, his paleness, his sadness, his out-of-itness (the hilarious ‘DJ’ clip), his regret, his silliness (‘Dancing in the Street’ with Mick Jagger, his evolution (jazz, synth, metal, hip hop, techno – see ‘The Heart’s Filthy Lesson’ or ‘Hallo Spaceboy’). He’s always new. He’s the artist you never get sick of because you just go through moods with him – the different albums, the different eras, the different styles – and this through-line of drama, emotional complexity, and other-worldliness (fighting the constraints of this world).
Although my parents had listened to Bowie when they were young, he wasn’t someone they listened to when we were growing up. Bowie belonged to a certain set of memories and emotions, particularly for my Dad, who was in his teens and early 20s in the 1970s. In the early days of my Bowie discovery, I sat down with my dad and played Hunky Dory. ‘Space Oddity’ is a great song, my dad said. When it came on, he cried, and I hugged him. It was a song that had made me cry, too, in the privacy of my room, but I wasn’t sure why. ‘Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing we can do’. For my dad, it brought back a specific time and place, and was also a reminder of the time that had passed since then, I’d imagine.
In 2002, when I was in Year 12, the album Heathen came out – a predominantly melancholy, lamenting album. ‘For in truth, it’s the beginning of nothing/and nothing has changed/everything has changed’. And in 2003 Reality was released – a little more upbeat, with some themes of getting older, change again, time, memory, art, conflict, love and still the fantastical. From ‘Fall Dog Bombs the Moon’:
‘Fall Dog is cruel and smart
Smart time breaks the heart
Fall Dog Bombs the moon
A devil in a marketplace
A devil in your bleeding face
Fall dog bombs the moon’
In 2004, David Bowie came to Australia on the Reality tour. My boyfriend at the time bought us very expensive tickets – we were in the twelfth row at the Brisbane concert. It was one of the best nights of my life. I remember feeling smug that I was one of the only people at the front who seemed to know the lyrics to both the old and new songs. Bowie looked incredible – blonde, fit, dressed modern and relaxed. When he sang Life on Mars and Five Years my heart beat so fast. In Be My Wife, I sang along, pointing at Bowie as I sang ‘please be mine, share my life, stay with me, be my wife’. To my delight, Bowie and I locked eyes as I was pointing and singing – he pointed and leaned back, smiling broadly at me. My face burnt red, my stomach left me. I turned to my boyfriend and said ‘DID YOU SEE THAT?’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘David Bowie looked at you.’
For all the joy of that night, Bowie and I have shared some dark times. Because, really, he spoke to a part of me that not a lot of people around me saw, or wanted to see – or, I wouldn’t let them see. Wouldn’t, y’no, ‘burden’ them. I’m sure my teenage problems aren’t any more special than anyone else’s, but at the time I felt alone, and often: alone, swallowed, at the end of the world. I have the greatest family and friends, there were no visible problems, no causes. My dad was sick, and that was hard, but it wasn’t that, the word ‘overwhelmed’ came into my mind a lot. Everything required so much effort. Being, living, making something of it all, knowing the things you can never change, knowing that when you’re happy that moment will end, etc. I was extra-sensitive and kinda shocked by reality. And Bowie was one of my saviours, a space blanket, an inspiration. He told me I could be creative and open and eccentric and do big things and that it would be okay if, on some level, this feeling remained.
And so I write.
There is one more major role Bowie has played so far in my life – one of connection. When I lived in Coffs Harbour I’d try and put on Bowie at a party, and be practically booed from the room. They didn’t want Bowie, or Pink Floyd, or the Doors, or even Elton John. My stupid old sad music, my ‘bring down’. Don’t get me wrong, I like to dance, too. I love it, actually. But just once, I wanted them to listen, and appreciate (and connect). My mates. Some did appreciate him in private, but there was this type of person you always had to become in a party context – and there is that in me – but some part always felt thwarted. I still feel sad when I think of some of those nights – On my nineteenth birthday I was desperately unhappy. Hardly anyone came to my birthday, I watched a video the next day of my drunk-on-Schnapps self watching a music DVD, despised what I saw, and over the next year I lost over 20 kilos becoming what I thought I should be.
But now, oh, Melbourne! I can play Bowie to my heart’s content. My friends like Bowie. They also like jazz, and musicals, and sad country music, and Nick Cave, and Fleetwood Mac, and then even that stuff you can dance to. About two years after I’d moved to Melbourne, I was spending the afternoon with one of my best friends at ACMI, sipping red wine, and we had a conversation about life, the universe and everything, then he went off to a movie and I went home to watch Rocky Horror and Stingray Sam. We texted each other all though our movies (pictures of round faces and corsets) and afterwards I asked G what he was up to. ‘Just walking around the city, looking at the stars’, he said. I invited him over to hang out, we’d been hanging out more and more lately and I was jittery and yet ecstatic about what was possibly growing. After all, he was the best person I knew. When he arrived, we watched my whole David Bowie DVD, both discs, and I thought – how wonderful it is to find someone who loves this like I do. At the end of the DVD, Bowie shot his Cupid arrow and our hands, so naturally, came together.
Other People's Words
Oct 1, 2010
review by Annie Stevens
Reading Melissa Febos’ memoir, Whip Smart, reminded me of when I first read Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho. So graphic and stomach-churning is some of the content that I had to have short ‘rests’ between chapters. What makes Whip Smart even more searing is that Febos resonates: she is human, flawed and real. Febos is a professional dominatrix, a drug addict, and a top student with a bright future. In this memoir – which details her time working at a high end S&M den, ‘The Dungeon,’ the sort of place where men pay to be pooed on – Febos manages to go beyond merely shocking us. Instead, in Whip Smart, Febos touches on universal themes such as the thrill of desire, the headiness of power and how sometimes it can be hard, and lonely, to grow up.
When Febos moves to New York from Boston, as an already hardened 19-year-old, the secret, dual life she lives gives her a certain rush. By day she is a student with a backpack and books. By night she is a dominatrix – ‘Justine,’ the ironically chosen name of the famous submissive – who is paid, handsomely, to torture men. The account of the years Febos spent working at the Dungeon is intersected by graphic descriptions of her shifts there. We read of men who want to be infantalised, raped, tortured, humiliated. The descriptions are so vivid you can almost smell the rubber gloves and the desperation. For much of this time, Febos is a junkie. She snorts, injects and smokes just about anything she can get. Wanting more, getting it by any means possible. She craves the high, the escape, the delirium; and lies, cheats and steals to get it. She pisses in a bottle in her room just so that her housemates don’t have to see her pathetic state. Febos spares no details. But the time of which she writes is an uneasy, murky fog of truth and untruths.
In the book, Febos insists to herself, and to the people that she selects to surround herself with, that she is special; she is not like everybody else. She describes her job as a dominatrix as a ‘lifestyle choice,’ ‘just a job’; or insists she is something of a ‘cultural anthropologist’. And in some ways she is. But as this carefully constructed life begins to be unpicked, and becomes grasping and sad, her seemingly limitless world loses its sheen. Febos believes her specialness renders it impossible for her to live within the confines of the ‘normal world,’ and as life goes on around her, as her housemates study for their final exams, as commuters rush by her on the train, she is ‘choked’ with envy at the ease in which they live a life that Febos has ruled herself out of. The writing at times seems smug, bloated with self-importance, but that comes quickly undone with the kind of honesty Febos possesses. Learning that you are not, in fact, as unique and special as you had thought, can be a crushing first step into adulthood.
Because as Febos gets better at her job, as the men get more wretched, as the heady rush is replaced with numbness, the specialness starts to feel as sweaty and used-up as the Dungeon without its ambient lighting. There is – as Febos discovers on a squeamish, candidly rendered downward spiral – a price for the thrilling highs of being so desired, so unique, so needed.
Whip Smart makes for some uncomfortable reading. However, as Febos works her way through the sticky residue of a sordid dual life, the truths she discovers, about herself, about others and about life, are illuminating. And even, uplifting. With its raw and bruised honesty, Whip Smart provides a glimpse into humanity at its most vulnerable and brutal, and serves as a warning of the dangers in setting and breaking your own limits.
Annie Stevens spent her childhood with her nose in a book, and not much has changed since. She would sooner go into the pantry and read the labels on the boxes and tins, than suffer the dread and dulling sensation of having nothing to read. Annie is a Melbourne based freelance journalist who writes mainly for the Age newspaper. Her writing can often be seen in the A2, M magazine, and on the arts and opinion pages. Her favourite writer is Nancy Mitford, and last year she dragged her long suffering boyfriend all over England to gawk at the childhood homes of the Mitford family.
Annie’s (mostly up-to-date) portfolio can be found at http://www.annie-stevens.com.