Affirm Press, 9780980790429 (Aus)
Reviewed by Rachel Edwards
Australia has seen an increase in the publishing, and the recognition of, short stories and their authors over the last few years. Cate Kennedy and Nam Le set the bar high, and Affirm Press are presenting reading audiences with some refined new voices through their innovative publishing of the ‘Long Story Shorts’ series (a gorgeously designed series of small format paperbacks).
Leah Swann’s book Bearings is the fifth in this series from Affirm Press. It’s an intense collection of stories of varying length, each with well-formed characters and a distinct voice. The stories vary profoundly in point of view and subject matter though they all have a similar style and examine similar conundrums about the human condition.
The first story in the collection, ‘Street Sweeper’ plays with the second person voice – a voice that is hard to embody effectively without grating didactically on the reader (and recently carried off with aplomb by Tesarsch in the new Australian novel The Philanthropist). The narrator is revealed, carefully, on page two of the story to be a young man who observes his faded hippy mother and her friends, and is on the cusp of adulthood. His observations of her and the events that follow gently augment all the characters to reveal mannerisms and foibles. This story truly glows.
‘The Easter Hare’ begins with an almost medieval description of a corpse hanging from a tree – juxtaposed immediately with a contemporary family walking through the bush. A jogger, a soon to be father, finds the corpse first and is able to warn the family before they reach the body, the body which has been seared to the jogger’s retina. This is a story about life and death – about the transitory. It captures a tiny moment that has vast consequences.
‘Silver Hands’ is, by far, the longest story in the collection. It is subtitled ‘A Novella’. Told in the first person, it is the story of a potter whose hands begin to ache. The character is also a mother who may or may not be losing her husband. There is so much to this story, nothing is simple, there are no smooth resolutions. For the reader, the confusion of human relationships, the completely unapparent ways that we interact, is told in a hearty manner and the mildness of the ‘resolution’ of the story does not impede the powerful telling of the story of human interactions.
The last story in the collection, ‘The Ringwood Madonna’ is a beautiful contrast, from the title onwards. The slightly flat premise of a disillusioned young middle-class mother who turns to art for salvation and respite from familial drudgery is given a twist when she begins to paint glowing Madonna iconography on a Ringwood underpass. She meets a young, lost graffiti tagger, who becomes the protector of the Madonna. The story tells of the transitory nature of art, the ability of art to transform not only the personal but the environment in which it is placed. It also tells a more traditional story of the awkward friendship between a young middle-class mother and this lost teenage boy.
Swann doesn’t make the stories easy or straightforward. They are far from clichéd. It is through nuance that characters are revealed. It is, strangely, the stories that are most traditionally structured (background, climax, resolution) that are the weakest – but even at its weakest points this book remains strong. Why is it that the resolution makes the story seem weaker? It may be because Swann is adept at reflecting back the confusing human condition – that her writing helps us to understand the vagaries of our existence.
Whether or not Swann set out to examine the strangeness of our time on earth, or whether she merely utilised these mundane and everyday interactions is not important. They have coalesced to create prisms for the reader to view the world in new ways. These are stories that resonate on a number of levels ranging from a good yarn to a harsh examination of human nature. They sing, sometimes discordantly and sometimes angelically, but always clearly. They are stories that resonate and pose as many questions as they answer.
Rachel Edwards is a broadcaster, blogger and bookseller. She has recently been appointed Emerging Editor of Islet, the online journal for emerging writers and visual artists which has grown from Island, Tasmania’s most established literary journal. She is the Executive Producer of her alter-ego, Paige Turner, who hosts the weekly Book Show on Edgeradio.org.au and blogs at paigelovesbooks.blogspot.com. On Twitter, she is @paigelovesbooks
Other People's Words
Jun 9, 2011
Reviewed by Raili Simojoki
If you’ve read any of Craig Sherborne’s writing, you’ll know not to expect a rosy-eyed view of the world. The Amateur Science of Love follows the grim journey of a love affair gone wrong.
Colin leaves the unglamorous environs of his parents’ farm to pursue an acting career in London, seeking recognition in the eyes of others and satiation of his own ego. In London, Colin meets Tilda, a young artist whose hint of tragedy and complexity only makes her more attractive. In the fiery early stages of their affair, love and lust are almost inseparable; an all-consuming, visceral illness. Even love, Colin realises, is a small-scale form of fame and power.
Consumed by this desire, so heady and self-affirming as to be a kind of vanity, the two lovers set up a life together, moving to country Victoria. Beset by a series of mundane events, and strained by the stifling banality of a deadbeat country town, the lovers’ hastily rendered relationship sours into something deeply unpleasant.
As the affair deteriorates, Colin’s unkind thoughts grow like a cancer, rotting his integrity. He abjectly neglects moral responsibilities (there’s one particularly horrifying example), and treats Tilda like inconvenient baggage. He determines women’s worth based on callous assessments of their physical appearance. Colin’s dark ruminations, laid bare by Sherborne, are both confronting and utterly familiar.
Yet Colin’s not entirely devoid of moral conscience – he periodically segues into a retrospective voice, regretfully ruminating on his ‘lopsided record’ and expressing a desire to ‘square his soul.’ There are even times when he genuinely cares for and looks after Tilda, although we’re still left guessing whether it’s more about his ego.
Tilda, physically vulnerable and sensing Colin’s fading interest in her, is naturally insecure, making her fits of jealous pique, manipulative behaviour and vindictiveness understandable. But it’s difficult to pity her, as we’re never given a sense of her inner self. And this is possibly the author’s intent; the cardboard cut-out version of Tilda is a realistic perception of her through the eyes of self-obsessed Colin.
Sherborne’s humour is acerbic, his prose fluid and sparing. He tells cruel human truths in poetry, often with caustic, biting humour – ‘just a thought-sip of suicide, nothing more’ (a failed interview), and ‘it was like he was from hospital and she was from Spain’ (lusting after the glamorous wife of a cancer patient). The tale moves at a cracking pace, and Colin’s recollections are used to foreshadow his inevitable comeuppance, creating a sense of foreboding which culminates in the uneasy ending.
Colin and Tilda experience the common epiphany experienced by young people with aspirations; that in reality, life can be mundane and unrewarding, that it’s not necessarily a carnival designed for your own enjoyment, or an indomitable escalator of achievement. Colin is left feeling hollow, and wondering whether other people, like him, are living what they feel is a second-class life. Yet there’s still a sense of possibility; the future is pulling him to an unknown destination.
Sherborne doesn’t let much of what’s human slip through his net, especially if it’s unsavoury. The Amateur Science of Love is a brutally honest exploration of what can go wrong when naïveté, vanity, and unrealistic aspirations meet with the curse of misfortune. It’s packed with psychological juice.
Raili Simojoki’s articles and reviews appear in The Big Issue, Crikey and The Drum, and she blogs at www.railisimojoki.wordpress.com. She is currently working on a writing project with older people through Banyule City Council.
Other People's Words
May 2, 2011
Reviewed by Imogen Baratta
Helen Hodgman’s Blue Skies tells the story of an unnamed young wife and mother living in the ‘heart shaped island’ of Tasmania. The agonising banality of her day-to-day life plays out within the confines of stark, suffocating suburbia, amid the manicured lawns and expensive white goods. But our protagonist is adrift; trapped in an unhappy marriage, her days punctuated by empty affairs, the tick of the clock and her controlling mother-in-law.
She moves through the book in a dream-like, anti-depressant haze: her reactions are slow and her hearing poor, she is plagued by nightmares; her emotions are deadened by boredom, ‘her nature beaten-back’ by depression.
Blue Skies is a psychological study of a young woman on the brink of a breakdown; like an elastic band that’s stretched too tight and about to snap. She spends much of her time sleeping, or waking from sleep, her disorientation disrupted by the rumble of domestic machinery: lawn mowers, washing machines and fridges. Despite the heat of the summer, darkness, shadows and ghosts lurk all around her, even in the salty, sweaty coastal town where she lives.
Despite her emotional distance, our protagonist is raw and vulnerable: ‘too soft’, ‘fleshy’; ‘a shell-less crab’. The other characters in the novel are purposefully two-dimensional: the nosy neighbour, sleazy bus driver, her philandering husband and meddling mother in law. Even her daughter Angelica, or as she refers to her, ‘James’ daughter and the baby’ coos and gurgles occasionally, as if reminding her mother of her presence.
Blue Skies evokes a sense of foreboding that’s palpable: the ticking clock counts down the hours, hinting that the scorching horror of suburban Hobart could erupt at any minute.
Hodgman’s style is reminiscent of another Australian author, Madeleine St John, with its sharp observations and savvy dissection of relationships. Both writers have had their novels re-released in the noughties, I suspect to capitalise on the fashionable ‘chick-lit’ movement. (Apparently female authors who write about female characters are classified as ‘chick-lit’. Just so you know).
When Blue Skies was first published in 1976, the novel was critically acclaimed. More recently, author Nicholas Shakespeare called it ‘A memorable novella – sensuous, strange, prickly as a sea-urchin.’
What is remarkable about Blue Skies is its relevance today: Hodgman’s prose, themes and imagery are as snappy now as they were 35 years ago. Her other novels include; Jack and Jill (1978; winner of the Somerset Maugham Award), Broken Words (1988; winner of the Christina Stead Prize), Passing Remarks (1996), Waiting for Matindi (1998) and The Bad Policeman (2001).
Blue Skies is an unashamedly feminist novel. Our protagonist is an anti-hero – anything but maternal, sexually adventurous, emotionally inept, and a prisoner of her own self-absorption. She’s not a likeable character, but she’s definitely a familiar one.
Blue Skies revels in the mundanity of Australia’s suburban landscapes, much like other cultural exports Howard Arkley and Dame Edna Everage. The novel crackles along, brimming with dry, sardonic humour and the Australian inclination to understatement.
Blue Skies is cheeky, wonky and just a little bit sleazy. Two thumbs up.
Imogen Baratta is a media officer by day and writer by night. She has written for yen, mX, My Career, Crikey and Pearson among others and has started a Twitter account for the sole purpose of posting pithy tweets on Q and A. On Twitter she is @ImogenBaratta.
Other People's Words
Apr 26, 2011
Reviewed by Alice Grundy
The cover of Adam Ross’ first novel, Mr Peanut, is swathed in praise from no lesser lights than Stephen King and Michiko Kakutani. The title page features a reproduction of Escher’s ‘Mobius’ flagging the role of the double in the plot. All the signs point towards a serious literary work. One which is dark and twisted.
And Mr Peanut is indeed a disturbing book, opening as it does with a husband – who happens to share my husband’s name – plotting to kill his wife, who happens to share my name. David is a successful games designer, working secretly away on a first-person novel. He’s become tired of his life and is struggling in his relationship with his obese wife. Barely 20 pages in, David is sitting in an interrogation room, the detectives having concluded he’s killed Alice. Not least of their evidence is David’s novel in which the protagonist, David, hires a hitman to murder his wife, Alice.
To further complicate matters, David’s questioner is Sam Sheppard, a fictionalised version of the 20th century American doctor who was convicted of brutally murdering his wife, but was then acquitted after ten years in prison. In Mr Peanut, Sheppard has turned detective and judges David to be ‘Guilty, guilty as sin’.
The middle section of Mr Peanut takes place in 1950s America. It retells the Sam Sheppard story from the perspectives of Marilyn, the murdered wife, Richard, the cleaner and Sheppard himself. Ross’ imagining of this time vibrates with as much energy as the contemporary sections, with added tension generated by our modern imaginings of what kind of life Marilyn could have expected if she’d been born as a bright middle-class woman fifty years later. His characters are people we know; their internal lives are fully formed. Each of them is at the centre of their own universe. The exception to this is Alice who always feels a little under-realised. But perhaps this is intentional given this is a book about marriage, its overwhelming intimacies and irrevocable distances. It seems Alice remains something of a shell because David is never quite able to comprehend all of her.
The novel spirals in on itself, winding tight like a slinky as the final third returns us to David’s meta-fictional project; his novel, and Alice’s remarkable transformation shedding tens of kilos and the days which lead up to her death.
While the plot is twisty and the devices self-proclaiming, I prefer to read an exciting project – a suggestion for the future of the novel – as Ross offers here. For the first time in a while, reading this debut novel made me feel as if I’d struck on something new. Last year, with the release of Franzen’s Freedom and the associated media frenzy over dark-rimmed glasses and Oprah’s Book Club, I was feeling flat about the future of fiction. Certainly Franzen is a master of his craft but I wasn’t excited at the prospect of reading him. I didn’t fly through the pages and wish that I could read them again for the first time to feel that shiver of wordy delight. When the world feels as if it’s collapsing, reading needs to feel essential.
At times it does seem as though Ross’ devices are overtaking their characters or that, at other moments, the plot has been over-exposed – perhaps for fear of losing readers in the complexity – and so the images become washed out. But for the most part this is a genuinely scintillating read. It is not only intellectually stimulating but has that special quality, the reason why we still reach out for greatness, of making time seem irrelevant and the world fall away.
Other People's Words
Apr 19, 2011
Kill Your Darlings: Issue Four (Aus)
Ed: Rebecca Starford
reviewed by Lisa Down
Call me a philistine, but I wasn’t previously familiar with the Australian quarterly Kill Your Darlings. It means I don’t have a standard by which I can judge this edition but I walked away satisfied that it had provided the ‘fresh, clever writing’ the KYD website describes.
Issue four of Kill Your Darlings devotes space to three pieces of short fiction. Beyond that the focus is on nonfiction including reviews, essays, commentary and an author interview. With no assigned theme the subject matter is diverse, though I did find some common threads.
‘Harvey Street’ by Peggy Frew, ‘Hind’ by Michael Sala and ‘A Clean Kind of Dirt’ by Louise Swinn are stand-alone stories but there is a commonality in how they centre on women who are splintered, restless, and dogged by the past. The Frew and Sala seemed to flow into each other in particular – both possess a lyrical tone and use sublime descriptive language to create the unsettled mood within the headspace of their female protagonists. The simplest of sentences becomes a delight to read as a result, for instance from Frew: ‘I dip my finger in the glass, in the little trail of grit that runs up the side of it’.
‘Harvey Street’ is more of a traditional narrative that benefits from careful structuring, while ‘The Hind’ is less accommodating for the reader, guiding you toward an unexpected climax and leaving you there to glimpse personal implosion: ‘She at last felt her lover who was not her lover… his hand pressed against the mouth of the river exactly where it opened up… as if this was the last part of her that he wanted to see.’
I initially dismissed Swinn’s ‘A Clean Kind of Dirt’, but upon re-reading admit that this was a terrible miscalculation. The story of Carly’s reunion with school friends, complete with partners and an army of children accumulated throughout adulthood, doesn’t read poetically – but for good reason. Carly is dissatisfied and has detached herself from life, more of an observer than an eager partner, mother or friend. The prose is stripped right back to reflect that: ‘Carly began, somewhat halfheartedly, to get people eating. It was something she knew women did.’ The stifling heat of an Australian summer also echoes a suffocated spirit: ‘if you were to stop and stand for a moment, you ran the risk of drying out completely’. It’s thoughtful writing deserving of multiple readings. And isn’t that one of the best things you can say about any piece of writing?
The lead essay by Emily Maguire – an uncomfortable portrait of life for full-time carers – leaves the greatest impression out of the nonfiction. Maguire deftly anchors statistics within the stories of her interview subjects, carers who are ‘exhausted from getting up every two hours throughout the night… exhausted from the stress of considering the wellbeing of another person… without relief.’ Particularly interesting – or perhaps infuriating – is the mention of the gendered nature of care, where the role of carer falls to women within families often as it is considered to ‘come innately’. Maguire handles the issue and her interviewees with care though its overall scope is a little ambitious for the space allowed. It feels as though she has enough content to write a book.
At five pages, Luke Ryan’s ‘Where Have My Ideas Gone?’ is short but sweet. It’s an entertaining piece on the link between boredom and creativity and how we urge the brain into ‘creative flux directed towards… endless stimuli rather than being left to pursue its own ends’. It’s not a new idea, yet it remains an interesting topic to ponder as we continue to accumulate more shiny things to distract and amuse us. Ryan mixes the intellectual with the personal and doesn’t overstay his welcome. And afterward I did attempt to last five minutes without fiddling with my mobile and failed miserably. Don’t judge me; you’re probably reading this on your iPhone.
‘Leaving’ is the promising taste of a memoir-in-progress by Olivia Guntarik, who was a young girl in 1977 when her mother emigrated from Borneo to Australia. The content is already interesting and she has the skill to vividly reconstruct a sense of time, place and environment: ‘The sun is seeping through the leaves, slanting shards of gold… across my body. A breeze pants on my face.’ However, problems arose for me with some of Guntarik’s internal dialogue. It felt disjointed and became a barrier to connecting fully with the overall piece.
Hannah Kent’s interview with author Sally Vickers is perhaps overlong but the line of questioning is excellent, and fully displays Vickers’s intelligence and thoughtfulness as a critically acclaimed writer.
Whether a deliberate move by the editors, another common thread emerges in KYD with analysis of three different but highly exposed figures in literature today. The first is of course Jonathan Franzen. Despite suffering from Franzen Fatigue (that glasses gate episode really did it for me) I have to hand it to Caroline Hamilton, whose piece ‘Jonathan’s Corrections’ avoids adding to the hyena-like frenzy (Franzy?) and instead provides us with a well-researched and fair examination of the man and his motivations. She mentions how he aims ‘to write himself into the role of chronicler of the contemporary American middle class’, to be a ‘reader’s writer’, and his discomfort with the industry of book promotion that destroys the possibility of being the archetypal lone writer.
From one polarising literary darling to another, Bethanie Blanchard in ‘Notes from the Underground’ explains why Bret Easton Ellis’s work fails on film. A PhD candidate on the writer, Blanchard dissects the books and their film adaptations with authority. Her argument rings true for those familiar with his work: that without the dark, spare prose of Ellis, interpretations of his stories ‘merely slide down the surface of the works, conveying only a beautifully glossy vision of 1980s America’. They are shallow, violent and lacking the meaning imprinted by Ellis’s writing. Those who consider him to be a shallow, unnecessarily violent and overrated writer in the first place may not get much out of Blanchard’s essay but admirers should appreciate it.
And then there’s Eat, Pray, Love. I haven’t actually read Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestseller yet, but I’m all for Kate Douglas’ ‘Read, Preach, Defend’, a counter attack to those who have blasted Eat, Pray, Love. I’ve spent many hours defending some of my apparently ‘shameful’ literary favourites and Douglas gamely responds to the critical assaults that it’s anti-feminist, patronising, culturally insensitive, badly written New-Age trash. I don’t know how many new fans she will win on behalf of Ms Gilbert and the way Douglas congratulates her for writing a book with a certain amount of ‘artifice’ is discomfiting, but it defends the right to enjoy whatever writing you want regardless of what the ‘important people’ think.
‘Read, Preach, Defend’ is slotted into the review section of KYD but it feels more like commentary, especially compared to the reviews that go alongside it. Jake Wilson’s review of Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer explores the nuance and atmosphere present in much of Polanski’s work without sounding sycophantic. Hannah Kent and Ben Gook review musicians Florence Welch of Florence + The Machine and Darren Liddiard from The Drones respectively. These are both top-notch pieces that aren’t overly critical but create an interesting narrative around these eccentric musical figures, as well as analysing the music itself.
Kill Your Darlings is overall a high-quality Australian journal. It feels plucky, youthful and open to experimentation. Rather than plunge through each piece like I initially did, I advise you to take your time, allowing the individual merits and nuances to show themselves and be appreciated. Well-edited and put together, an undertaking like Kill Your Darlings that provides a platform for writers certainly deserves our wholehearted support.
Note: Kill Your Darlings: Issue Five has also just been released, featuring Matthia Dempsey on Australian bookshops, Emilie Collyer on how alcoholism affects families, Daniel Golding on video games and fiction from Patrick Cullen, Sonja Dechian and Eva Lomski.
Lisa Down works for an online bookseller, which legitimises her joint passion for literature and sitting on Facebook all day.
Other People's Words
Mar 21, 2011
Sydney University Press
reviewed by Matthew Giles
In his CAL/Meanjin essay of last year, Paul Daley argued that young Australians aren’t coerced by the state to think about their history in militaristic terms. He said that they do it on their own, because a militarised history is naturally more interesting.
He was rebutting Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds who, in their book What’s Wrong With Anzac?, claim that the disproportionate focus on military involvement in our history is the result of an ideological process, rather than a natural one. Daley said that, as a birth-of-the-nation narrative, Gallipoli is ‘just more alluring because of its mournful narrative of sacrifice overseas’. Though he agreed that the facts of Gallipoli contain very little in the way of nation-building material, he believed that the narrative of Gallipoli, fact or no, will always trump other foundational narratives for one reason: they are boring.
To rebut, I ask: is cross-dressing boring? Are male, cross-dressing prostitutes boring? Is a woman who travels on her own by boat from Ireland to Australia, who poses as a man, who marries three women, who, apparently, fathers a child, and who makes international headlines when her impersonation is discovered after 20 years of getting away with it, boring? Or is this not the stuff of legend? Are these figures drab, or do they possess every ounce of cunning, chutzpah, and readiness to sacrifice as the figure of the Anzac soldier? Historian and teacher Lucy Chesser is banking on the latter with her first historical book, Parting With My Sex.
The first thing to know about this book is that it is an academic work, written mainly for an academic audience, or at least an audience already interested in gender or Australian history. Chesser recreates famous incidents of cross-dressing in Australia from the mid-19th century to the early 20th, informing the reader about those incidents and what they meant within their contexts. She writes of the cultural myth, partially rooted in fact, of colonial girls dressing in male clothing in order to get work and avoid harassment in a male environment. In the mid-19th century, this particular story was used to numerous ends, including but not limited to: accentuating Australia’s reputation as a land of inversions, where dogs did not bark, trees did not give shade, and women dressed as men; illustrating the pragmatic nature of Australian women, and to thus imply Australia’s superiority over bourgeois, fanciful Europe; and providing an exciting sexual potential to relationships between pioneering men (ie. could the man you pan for gold with, and with whom you share a tent, be a woman?).
According to Chesser, in the mid- to late-19th century Australian culture regarded cross-dressing as curious rather than taboo, and it was tolerated to a surprising degree. Then, at the turn of the century, cross-dressing came to be seen as an expression of deviant sexuality, alongside other forms of social progress like the women’s rights movement. It was seen as a symptom of a deep social crisis that threatened to fundamentally alter the Australian way of life. Chesser shows that the changing meanings of cross-dressing over time register important cultural shifts in the development of Australia, and even reveal the historically and culturally contingent nature of similar arguments being made today about issues of gender and sexuality, particularly gay marriage.
Though the book is academic, it is also highly accessible. Cross-dressing is interesting in itself, but the idea of it taking place in colonial Australia is utterly fascinating. Daley is right to say that non-military Australian history as it is presented to us in popular and official forms is fairly dry, but the cases that Chesser recounts dissolve the church wafer version of history in the juicy illicit sexuality and grand deception.
These qualities are embodied in the figure of Edward De Lacy Evans, the above-mentioned woman who lived as a man for 20 years, marrying three wives and working as a miner. Chesser admits that many of the most urgent questions about Evans cannot be answered, but the questions themselves make him an interesting figure. Newspaper articles about Evans suggested that he deceived his wives, that they genuinely did not know that he had the body of a woman, and that he was driven to pose as a man and sleep with them by a severe case of nymphomania. But this warrants the question, how could Evans’ wives have not known his secret? They must have known, and if so, must they not have been similarly attracted to him? Isn’t this a sign of genuine love and sexual attraction, rather than mere nymphomania? The bordering-on-comedic naïveté they betray regarding the practicalities of Evans’ relationships opens up factual gaps from which traces of queer sexuality emerge – traces that suggest radical similarities between homosexuality and heterosexuality.
Difficult sentence: what I like most about Parting With My Sex is that it reveals how the boring narrative of Australia’s history that Daley claims drives schoolkids, in a non-ideological fashion, to the Anzac myth, is itself ideological. The existence and struggles of cross-dressing individuals in colonial-era Australia was unthinkable to me and the people with whom I spoke about Chesser’s book, because it and other struggles of marginalised identities has been de-emphasised in, or entirely erased from, mainstream accounts of Australian history. In What’s Wrong With Anzac?, Lake and Reynolds point out that Aboriginal resistances to colonisation, union and women’s movements have played a far greater role in shaping Australia than the invasion of Gallipoli, but that these histories are known to historians but not to the public, thus relegating to obscurity several versions of Australian history that could conceivably generate more interest and pride in young people than the one we currently have, without disproportionately focusing on military achievements. What this implies is that official historians and designers of curricula do not believe that Australians are able to take pride in the stories of people who aren’t white, male, heterosexual and gender-normative. Parting With My Sex powerfully challenges that belief.
Other People's Words
Feb 22, 2011
Reviewed by Matthia Dempsey
Laura van den Berg has particular skill in capturing the strangeness that can come at times—the sense of being a stranger to your own life and the world. For many of the women in her stories this feeling is the result of a specific grief, but it also confronts characters who cannot point to an easily identified cause.
In ‘Up High in the Air’ a woman who finds herself being unfaithful to her husband and ‘taking her life apart piece by piece’ captures this strangeness when she describes her ideas about what to do next as being ‘at once intensely possible and as intangible as fog’. In ‘Still Life With Poppies’ a woman whose husband has left her and disappeared struggles to adjust: ‘Her marriage ending was not a shock. It was the spectacular strangeness of it that had left her staggering. She had been an ordinary person with an uneven marriage and a good job and the occasional adventure, unprepared for this life of peculiar and slippery grief.’
Van den Berg’s protagonists are women who have found themselves in lives they don’t want and in cities or countries they don’t belong, from Scotland to France, the Congo and Madagascar. Some have left a former existence willingly and others have had new cities, countries and responsibilities bequeathed them by circumstances such as death, separation or the will of another. Some know exactly how they ended up where they are, others try painfully to puzzle it out.
Peculiar and slippery grief is everywhere here. In the opening story a would-be actress jokes about channelling personal pain into her performances. ‘Only it turned out that nobody wanted to see real suffering, that no director or casting agent wanted the kind of pain that would, even for an instant, make anyone want to turn away.’ Van den Berg’s sights are fixed firmly on this kind of pain. In ‘Goodbye My Loveds’, a young woman who has taken on the care of her younger brother after the death of their parents wants to tell someone how ‘sometimes it felt like we were the only people out there with losses so raw and gaping’, but senses the woman she is talking to will not want to hear it.
The story brings us close to heartbreak, not because of the young woman’s grief, but because her experience is that universal one of responsibility versus freedom, writ large: ‘It still came on every now and then when I watched Denver toss in his sleep or stare too long at his map of South America—nothing more than a shudder of strange, liquid energy, but sometimes I had to stand outside the apartment until it passed, the air sweeping into me like some kind of cleansing light, pushing out thoughts about voices and solitude and the possibility of living a different kind of life’.
In this, my favourite story, and in others, van den Berg acknowledges not just the way grief can change a person, but ‘the way one life can collapse into another and different people can stir within the same body, like bats thrashing inside a secret hollow’.
Read in one sitting, the narratives in What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us can blend together. Themes overlap and images echo across stories. A character in the opening tale dreams of a time when the world was nothing but water, and in the closing story a woman gives her daughter a postcard with the eponymous description of the world without any water left. Husbands and partners in these narratives are dead, missing, have left or been left.
Mythical creatures recur too, from the aspiring actress who dresses up as Big Foot and scares hikers who have paid for the privilege; to the narrator of ‘The Rain Season’ who watches locals in the Congo draw pictures of the fearful Mokole-mbembe in the dirt; in ‘Up High in the Air’ the narrator’s husband becomes obsessed with the fabled mishegenabeg of Lake Michigan; and in ‘Inverness’ a group of scientists search for the Loch Ness Monster. The search for mythical and not-so-mythical creatures—scientific adventure is a recurring thread too—provides a sense of purpose for many of the secondary characters in these stories, but the women themselves are usually at a painful loss for anything more than survival to give their lives direction.
Early in the book a character says she feels as if there is ‘no room for anything except staying above the tide’ and the phrase seems to apply to each of these women; for tales so packed with myth and exoticism, there is little sense of wonder. It’s not that these women aren’t searching for precisely that, and in some stories there are flashes—the thrill of a watching a meteor shower, delight in watching a tropical fish, bought on impulse—it’s just that through grief or, it sometimes seems, an inability to look in the right places, these moments of wonder are few. Instead, in personal relationships we hear ‘the truth’ about ex-husbands’ irritating qualities, but little about what made them loved in the beginning. In exotic locations we frequently find the mundane. In the end, it makes for bleak reading.
The modern world can be this strange and stark, where endless freedom of choice still runs up against a reality in which people die, people leave, wars break out. Van den Berg captures that disconnect: her women are surviving the big tragedies of their lives while second-guessing the steps along the way, trying to work out where they’ve taken the wrong path, with a sense that if they could just stop a moment they could work out how to get back on track.
This is where the strangeness comes from—the gap between a life where an endless ability to choose gives the illusion of control, and a concurrent life in which the big events are uncontrollable. How to find meaning? Van den Berg gets this messy struggle onto the page. The result is a collection of stories where ‘strangeness is everywhere and everything makes you tired in the end’.
Other People's Words
Dec 21, 2010
Remember that Renaissance sculpture you admired, briefly, in a Roman or Florentine church, cool and hard and chiselled and, perhaps a little too dramatically posed? Reading John Mateer’s collection of poems The West, gives an analogous sensation. The sculptors worked in marble that kept its material nature, the hardness lost in their flow. Mateer’s poems are worked out in words that never seem spontaneous, which, although natural in sound, are the result of hammer-work and chisel; and which are not the worse for it. His pieces also have the same static tension as those sculptures, they are expressed with the same realism: a stylised realism – though perhaps with less ease. There is nothing in The West, for example, to match the casual pose of Donatello’s David in the Bargello museum. Mateer is too self-conscious for that.
That self-consciousness marks another parallel, in another medium. Mateer’s persona is expressed through abstraction in even the most personal moments; the voice is remarkably similar to Bowie’s Thin White Duke of the Station to Station era. Bowie’s music in 1976 was built on rhythms that have nothing to do with dance, marking time behind glass in the same way as might an electric motor on display in some educational institution. It’s a trick taken from The Velvet Underground and then-contemporary ‘krautrock’ (which they in turn had from Glass, who had it from others; but this isn’t the first chapter of Matthew), and it’s an abstraction of the rhythm – intellectually comprehended rather than viscerally. So Mateer gives his reader passion and emotion, but the mood isn’t that of passion. The mood is of a curator.
A two poem suite, ‘The Sunlit Room’, illustrates both these aspects of Mateer’s work. When he writes in the first of the poems, ‘Her Ethiopian Crucifix,’:
When I’d stood watching
her on the bed, her lying with back
propped by her elbows, I had wished
for a photographic memory. I had told her I’m always embarrassed
by poems that aren’t specific enough.
it’s almost a set-piece of his virtues, as if a student had been set the exercise of writing Mateer rather than Cicero. I’ve said his work reminds its reader of Renaissance sculpture in its natural and yet difficult language. Taken in short fragments these phrases might be anybody’s: ‘When I’d stood watching her on the bed’, or ‘I had wished for a photographic memory’. These phrases could be heard on the train, allowing perhaps for the more frequent elision of spoken words (‘I’d wished…’ is more likely to be produced than ‘I had wished…’, but the point is still the same). Taken together they would have been said by nobody. I doubt even Mateer speaks like this. It’s everyday language, as everyday as even Wallace Stevens could demand, but it isn’t transcribed speech.
The difference is in the rhythm and the poor fit of the words with the moment (which is not a complaint). The rhythms, although irregular, are not chopped up, not prose: ‘I had told her I’m always embarrassed/by poems that aren’t specific enough’. After a couple of anapaests at the beginning, we transition to the falling off dactyl of ‘memory’; the sentence then settles into succeeding iambs which make a textbook piece of iambic tetrameter. Mateer’s triumph is that most readers won’t notice this as the poem’s foundation. As in Bizet’s idée fixe, iambic tetrameter reappears often enough to bring unity without ennui. This again is his affinity to the Renaissance sculptures, who created tension from geometry hidden beneath emotion.
The poor fit of the words to the moment is pure Bowie. Like EM Forster’s Cavafy standing at an angle to his world, these words are incongruent, unparalelled to the emotion of the moment described. Like Bowie’s plastic-soul rhythms which never make you dance, for all their brilliance, Mateer doesn’t bring you into the scene, doesn’t put you behind the poet’s eyes. Instead he makes it an object of curiosity, to be apprehended with thought rather than the emotion from which, undoubtedly, the poem grew. Just like Bowie’s ‘TVC15’ which puts on show its relationship to disco indifferently, as if it were a friend’s family tree and not its own genealogy. This is also where Bowie and the Renaissance sculpture intersect, at this point of stylised representation. Plastic-soul is mannered, not a natural expression of what Nietzsche might have called the will to dance; Renaissance sculpture presents dramatic scenes as they would never have been acted; and Mateer’s word-painting is equally stylised, setting off one aspect of the scene the better to bring out the whole. It is realism, you feel it is from the poet’s personal history (although it might very well be entirely imagined), but it is not a photographed bedroom scene.
Another two-poem suite, ‘The Diwan’, illustrates the same properties. Here’s half its first poem, ‘New Year’s Eve’:
Behind the white gables of Perth Mosque,
around the corner from the block of flats where she used to live,
she who held my heart in her hands like an injured bird,
whose laugh tinkled like a meditation bell waking me,
down a narrow street of old workers’ cottages, in a friend’s backyard
a bearded man, whose eyes are Sumerian,
whose deep voice is calm and burning like Zorastrian fire,
recites a classical Persian poem
The second couplet triggers more affect than did ‘Her Ethiopian Crucifix’, possibly because the emotion it expresses is the already indirectly nostalgic. There’s a twinge at the heartstrings. And still they words are too thought-out for undistilled emotion. They’re worked as 15th century marble was worked, with art and thought. In the uncertainty of self (‘a meditation bell waking me’) it could almost be Bowie singing ‘It’s not the side-effects of the cocaine/I’m thinking that it must be love’. Stylised realism comes again in the Sumerian eyes, chiaroscuro for the character of the bearded man. And its rhythms are a slightly free blank verse. (Mateer’s interest in the ancient world, here the Sumerians and their successors in the Tigris-Euphrates area, the Persians, elsewhere the Greeks and Romans, is another fascinating area, and might give a key to his control of his material; unfortunately there isn’t space here to discuss it).
It might seem a paradox that Mateer, poet of detachment, is weakest when writing from a less-personal point of view. Poems like ‘Adelaide’:
The city’s grid is a mirrored maze
surrounded by parkland only wide enough
to deter Russian cannonballs. Proudly
free of convicts, punctuated by statues
of a grimacing warhorse and four metre archangel,
office blocks crowd around Victoria Square
haven’t any force in them, seem anaemic. Interesting historical facts, sure, but it sounds more like a dull tourist brochure. The answer is possibly that his habit of abstracting only works when the original subject has sufficient force to animate the poem. The city of Adelaide is already an abstraction – nobody can experience the city all at once, it is a collection of associated ideas, so, further abstracted, it loses any interest at all.
The greatest weakness of The West is Martin Harrison’s introduction. ‘There is a personality, a grungy intelligence, a contemporaneity about his work; but, as a consequence, there is no room for a naivety or an indifference as to how the poem operates in the world’. Apart from the fact that the consequence does not follow from the antecedent, even in context, there is a very serious question as to what that actually means. What is ‘contemporaneity’ and how do we know Mateer has it? Why is his intelligence ‘grungy’? And then, four pages of adjectives and adverbs strung together list-wise gets tiring. Mateer’s poems deserve a better introduction.
They should have had more because their representation of the world has poise, in its Thin White Duke abstraction and Renaissance mannerism. Because in his stylised writing Mateer provides an answer to so much confessional poetry; because when you read his poems you think of Donatello and David Bowie. Who else can do that for you?
Greg Westenberg is a Sydney-based aspiring writer, whose reviews have appeared in Cordite and Blue Dog. It is his ambition to one day be taxed for writing.
[LiteraryMinded apologises for any formatting issues in the extracts that may have arisen through copying and pasting from Word to WordPress.]
Other People's Words
Nov 9, 2010
Reviewed by Genevieve Tucker
Much has been made around the traps of the fact that Colm Tóibín published a story in his last collection that used the word empty (and words deriving from it) fourteen times, though no one has bothered to acknowledge that the story in question was about an Irish bank robber trying to move a Rembrandt on the black market.
While it’s convenient to consider that The Empty Family has loss as a leitmotif, it takes a fan to recognise that it also functions as a Tóibín theme park: most of the stories dip into subject areas he has expanded on at length elsewhere. He now possesses the house more or less described in the title story, as well as the view on the coast he has written about so often in his fiction set in Ireland.
He has spoken of his delight in being able to take a firmer hold on a sense of place in his fiction upon first reading the work of Alistair MacLeod, the revered Canadian writer of the Scottish diaspora. However when Tóibín does this, it’s as part of a larger project that takes in other travellers, who (among other things) also ask themselves questions about possession.
I sometimes think that his entry into international writing appeared careful to the point of neutrality, his fiction peopled by figures intent on disguising their emotions and claims on others, until his astonishing performance in his award-winning bio-fiction about Henry James, The Master, where he displayed a surefooted use of American history sources. Tóibín is a history graduate and has written about Irish history in mainstream publications, reviewing Roy Foster’s groundbreaking leadership (perhaps invention) of the school of Irish revisionist history for the London Review of Books, among other things.[i]
That security with historical material is only one of the girders beneath the beautiful structure that houses his recreation of James’ life between the failure of the play, Guy Domville, and the purchase of Lamb House, his final home in Sussex. The other is the Jamesian control he has sought to develop throughout his writing career of indirect free style. That this technique would uncover such a rich and telling depiction of James himself, free of the slightest hint of parody, remains one of the exciting discoveries of modern fiction.
In a story collection, of course, indirect free style (or ‘third person intimate’ as Tóibín has recently called it) has a place, though some stories are more equal to its discursive challenges than others. This collection sees the use of first person narrative and the occasional shifting-spanner second person for perhaps the first time in any work I’ve seen by this writer, which may be a result of the time he has spent in recent years teaching writing in the USA. Where it is used, quite sparingly, it provides a welcome shift of pace, allowing the prose to breathe with an easier, more lyrical rhythm than the deeply reflective strictures of Jamesian narrative allow. It also allows for a more direct expression of emotion than one often sees in his work, including, characteristically, a confession from one narrator towards ‘a feeling as close to anger as I will ever be able to manage.’ The opening story, ‘One Minus One’, contains a reference to the faces of his countrymen in American airports and how easily they are identified that is all the more haunting for a cleaner attack on the matter:
“You know that I do not believe in God. I do not care much about the mysteries of the universe, unless they come to me in words, or in music maybe, or in a set of colours and then I entertain them merely for their beauty and only rarely. I do not even believe in Ireland. But you know too, that in these years of being away there are times when Ireland comes to me in a sudden guise, when I see a hint of something familiar that I want and need. I see someone coming towards me with a soft way of smiling, or a stubborn uneasy face, or a way of moving warily through a public place, or a raw, almost resentful stare into the middle distance. In any case, I went to JFK that evening and I saw them as soon as I got out of the taxi…”
For perhaps the first time also, I hear in ‘The Pearl Fishers’, a story about sex abuse in a seventies Irish college, and ‘Two Women’, a story about a visiting Irish set designer, a new toughness, both in dialogue between the Irish characters and in the protagonists, that sees him entering the domain of his peers, Roddy Doyle and Anne Enright. Tóibín has not been known for embracing Dublin demotic, having infused his earlier books set in Ireland with a quieter, less aggressive county idiom. There is an interest building in Tóibín towards a deeper engagement with the whole country in his fiction that may be something to watch.
I also saw a brief, cynical aside about ‘seventies theology that I’d love to hear more about:
“It was awful, some of it, like Teilhard de Chardin crossed with Donovan or bad Bob Dylan. I know that Grainne must remember how involved I became in it, how profoundly I talked to God!”
The final story, ‘The Street’, is the longest and although its subject matter is Pakistani immigrant workers in Barcelona, it is closer in style and emotion to Tóibín’s other works about struggling, closeted gay men in restrictive cultures. While there is some violence breaking into the story of Malik, a bonded immigrant, this is an understated piece and the tenuousness of such a life is suggested, but at times is threatened with erasure by the smoothness of the descriptive surface. The movement at the very end of the story is characteristic of Tóibín’s tight yet elegiac control of emotion to date.
I found the story of Carme, the Spanish communist, returning to her village and reclaiming her grandmother’s beachhouse from her family (‘The New Spain’), more engaging, though I also enjoyed ‘Silence’, a story about a raffish poet that might or might not have been shared by a lady with Henry James.
There is more than a glimmer of future changes in subject matter and style for Tóibín afoot: in ‘Barcelona, 1975’, an account of sexual adventure that reads like memoir, there is a pretty clear and timely statement of intention to break free from bookclub strictures about what’s ‘nice’ to read.
I was very happy to hear him say in Melbourne earlier this year that if anything he has more ideas to work on than ever before. The Empty Family is far from ‘nice’– rather, this collection is a rich, inviting global airport lounge of a book from a great craftsman of our age, whose interests continue to ripen.
Genevieve Tucker is a freelance reviewer and semi-retired book blogger who has an internet scrapbook at Mulberry Road. She came to reviewing after the first editor of the Australian Literary Review read her blog. She blames Google for everything that has happened since.
[i] “New ways of killing your father.” London Review of Books, 15(22), November 1993. Available at: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v15/n22/colm-Tóibín/new-ways-of-killing-your-father
See also ‘Emmet and the historians’, originally published in The Dublin Review in 2003 and available on the Colm Tóibín website: http://www.colmtoibin.com/content/emmet-and-historians
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