Saturday, 3 August 2019

The Paper Men


The English writer William Golding – third in The Times 2008 list of ‘great British writers since 1945’ – needs no introduction, though I suspect that his 1984 novel The Paper Men might. The Paper Men was one of his late novels, published before the last two books from the trilogy To the Ends of the Earth (1987, 1989) and a posthumous novel, The Double Tongue (1995). Golding published 13 novels, though it is his first that everyone knows. Let me pass you the conch if you want to comment on any of Golding’s earlier works.

I found The Paper Men in a second hand bookshop in Katoomba and read it on the recommendation of a university professor after he had read a chapter of my current creative work in progress. Frank Kermode, reviewing The Paper Men in 1984, described it as ‘a concerto for piccolo.’ I am not usually in the business of quoting reviewers, but this is Kermode, and I am still trying to figure out what to make of the principal character, the alcoholic genius writer, Wilfred Barclay. Kermode sums up the tale and its range as the ‘meditations of a witty ruined immoral old writer, having to accommodate it to his sense of farce and his egotistic solitude and his coarseness.’ William Golding’s daughter Judy Golding, in introducing the novel, described Golding’s fear of becoming the subject of literary biography as ‘being mummified’. The novel she interprets as Golding covering his own sarcophagus with ‘silly drawings and rude words’. Golding’s Barclay takes on the post-structuralists head on. Not the passive ‘Death of the Author’, but the struggle to the death of self as author.

The novel opens in a farcical scene in which Barclay wakes in the night after a late drinking session to find a young American academic, Rick L. Tucker, ransacking his bin for secrets so that he might kick-start his literary biography on Barclay. Barclay is enraged: among the papers is evidence of an affair his wife would rather not acknowledge – beside the obvious betrayal of Barclay’s hospitality in hosting the American in his house. This is the beginning of the end of Barclay’s marriage and the start of his life on the road. He moves first to Italy where for a time he lives with a new woman until he is turfed-out. Soon after, he meets Tucker and Tucker’s beautiful wife in a Swiss mountain resort, where Tucker stages a fake rescue of the writer in an attempt to win over the rights to his private papers. Barclay escapes, and from here travels incognito and indulges in all sorts of immorality, staying away from England and – ostensibly – Tucker. To go much further than this would sum up the whole plot: this is a cat-and-mouse novel with a writer trying to escape his biographer, and take control of his future representation by whatever means possible.

Patrick White’s The Vivisector is one portrait of the artist as an unpleasant man, and White includes some interesting chapters later in the book when Hurtle Duffield has had a stroke and must learn to paint, and speak again. In Chapter XI of The Paper Men, Barclay is similarly struck down in a church, recovering and writing about his attempt to ‘relearn a foreign language, the one I am using now’ (126). Perhaps both White and Golding search for sympathy when great artist are so brought low. Around this point, Golding becomes more self-reflexive, with Barclay writing at the start of Chapter XII, ‘I haven’t the heart or courage to reread that lot’ (the previous chapter). Weighing up an unpleasant character, an unreliable narrator, a ruthless academic – I wondered about my professor’s recommendation. Did my manuscript suggest these features? I turned back to my notes and remembered that we were discussing the destabilisation of frames; the lack of mooring; debates between writers and academics – the sort of argument Kermode may have relished. There is plenty of that in The Paper Men. It isn’t a pleasant book, but then again, whoever said that the role of fiction was to provide solace? Tucker writes ‘I dissected myself into various portions that were once held together by the steel string’ (128). Not Pig’s head on a stick, then, but the writer's own, as the flies buzz, circle and gather.  

Sunday, 28 July 2019

Heart of the Grass Tree


Molly Murn’s Heart of the Grass Tree (2018) is a complex story and one that reveals her courage and ambition. In writing this, I know that certain readers will remember Sir Humphrey Appleby’s particular use of the word ‘courageous’ in Yes Minister to suggest something brave but politically risky. Murn’s novel is courageous in the more profound sense that she takes the reader into the ‘heart of the grass tree’ – and that heart means confronting historical injustices for the indigenous Ngarrindjeri people.

Murn obviously cares deeply about her subject matter; her approach demonstrates sensitivity, balancing scholarship with seeking permission from individual Ngarrindjeri people. This she outlines in the ‘Author’s Note’. The sensitivity is evident also in her narrative  structure. By including a contemporary story – a young woman grieving for her recently departed grandmother – the reader is introduced into the universal idea of ‘story’ and ‘place’ through the special memories Pearl has for Kangaroo Island and her grandmother – a woman of obvious strength, surprising Pearl even after her death.

Heart of the Grass Tree moves between a number of viewpoints, and between the past and the present. Nor is the past just one time and place: there is the story centred around William (1822), a sealer’s son who begins to know Ngarrindjeri ways and language through a young woman, Maringani. Nell’s story is another layer, slowly revealed – a story told in her own words which explains something of her toughness and which connects Pearl (as her granddaughter) to the deeper sense of place and hidden stories of the indigenous people. Then there is Pearl, her mother Diana, Pearl’s partner Nico, her sister Lucy, and the whole, sticky mess of complex loves, jealousies and resentments that make up a multigenerational family with skeletons in the closet.

The structure is complex and readers will need to be active in their approach to follow every strand. This said, Murn’s language is contemporary and her characterisation is empathetic. Dialogue is set out in the modern style without quotation marks so that we can move easily between interior and exterior viewpoints. Distinct sections within chapters assist transitions between viewpoints. I admire the novel not only for its courage, but also its success in mixing the dense and light, the poetic and dramatic, stories that are familiar with those requiring permission to tell. Fittingly the novel ends with a passage about grief and reconciliation: ‘Release it from the heart place where it grew – Nell’s love, her own grief, and all the ways we are connected to each other’ (280). Heart of the Grass Tree is about connection to place, to country, and ultimately, to each other. 

Friday, 19 July 2019

White Noise


It is hard to call yourself a Don Delillo fan when he has published 15+ novels and all you have read is Endzone (see earlier review), White Noise, and the short story collection The Angel Esmeralda. Still, I’m a fan. White Noise is a novel I’d heard about and perhaps wondered about for a long time. It was published in 1984, in the midst of the 1980s escalation of the Cold War and it has everything you would expect from a great novelist. A clever setup – Jack Gladney, lecturer in Hitler studies no less, is a man with a certain nervousness around his family and a insecurity complex coming in part from his lack of familiarity with the German language. 
Then the catalyst for change: a chemical cloud, an ‘airborne toxic event’ which hovers gigantic nearby and causes the evacuation of the university town where Jack lives, like a radiation cloud gone astray from its nuclear referent. Around this event the novel circulates, crackles even, with brilliance, particularly in dialogue. Here’s just a few examples. 
Gladney talking to Alfonse, an New York émigré, who explains the purpose of disasters in people’s lives: ‘Because we’re suffering from brain fade. We need the occasional catastrophe to break up the incessant bombardment of information’ (77). Then there’s Jack’s fear of death, a fear he shares with his wife Babette: ‘it’s being left alone that frightens her. The emptiness, the sense of cosmic darkness. Mastercard, Visa, American Express’ (119).

Sometimes Delillo in 1984 is so far ahead of his time it’s frightening. Among a tabloid’s psychic predictions for the coming year:  ‘Members of an air-crash cult will hijack a jumbo jet and crash it into the White House in an act of blind devotion to their mysterious and reclusive leader, known only as Uncle Bob’ (170). Move a few digits and letters left and right and you have the madness of 9/11.

Returning to the theme, Jack and Babette talk about their fear of death, and this piece of dialogue amidst all the comic darkness of the novel:

        'What if death is nothing but a sound?'
          'Electric noise.' 
          'You hear it forever. Sound all around. How awful.' 
          'Uniform, white.' 
          'Sometimes it sweeps over me … sometimes it insinuates itself into my mind, little by little'    (228).

In the midst of Jack’s crisis – his exposure to the chemical cloud, his unknown, incurable disease – this familiar sense of panic in a place where white noise is constant: ‘The supermarket shelves have been rearranged. It happened one day without warning. There is agitation and panic in the aisles, dismay in the faces of older shoppers.’ This passage, right at the end of the novel, is worth the price of admission alone. The terminals with their holographic scanners: ‘This is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living. This is where we wait together, regardless of age, our carts stocked with brightly coloured good’ (375). The nuclear fears, the consumerist logic, the uncertainty of the age, all brought together here at the checkouts. 

Is it possible to be a fan of a prolific author when you’ve only read two novels and a collection of short stories? Yes. You only need to read a few pages of a novel written in 1984 at a time when the world seemed incredibly fragile. As it still does, only more so. You hear it forever -- how awful. And how brilliant.   

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

The Butcherbird Stories


I very much enjoyed these Euro-Australian short stories, with an author A. S Patrić born in the former-Yugoslavia, and bringing to his fiction not only the ‘outsider’ perspective on Australian culture, but the alienation of Kafka, and something of the hard-edge of Raymond Carver.
‘Memories of Jane Doe’ could be a Carver story, or else Richard Ford – and yet sadly (thematically) also straight out of the Australian news. ‘Doe’ deals with the disappearance of a young European dreamer at the hands of a violent chef, with a wry and sad comment on a restaurant-owner who might turn a blind eye to preserve her business.
‘Among the Ruins’ sounds like Borges, but is the ‘backstory’ of one of the men who arrest Joseph K in Kafka’s The Trial, and here we are in European territory. This movement of sensibilities and styles intrigues me very much.
In ‘The Flood’ a self-educated European-Australian taxi driver takes an older man for a drive in his taxi, with suitcases and an ‘outmoded code of civility’ (European?). ‘The Bengal Monkey’ sees an Australian (Clara) back home but with her travels laid embarrassingly bare by her wayward ex-traveller boyfriend. In short – these are Australian stories but with the constant presence of elsewhere woven into their very fabric.
I don’t want to go too much further with a collection of stories – reviews tend to give away the punchlines and the leave the reader wanting less. So, just one or two more things to say. A quotation from ‘The Flood’:
‘Do you remember the first time someone showed you a picture of the planet and told you that’s where you live? … At some point you realise that there’s a layer of gases drifting over a vast mass of moving rock, trapped in an orbit around the sun. What we’re part of is an incredibly think membrane really, when you take in the size and density of everything else trapped by the same star. So it still feels precarious …’ (219).
In the previous story ‘Punctuated Air’, a migrant remembers his childhood in an outer-Melbourne suburb, and a fascination he had for a while with space and science-fiction. The story ends with this beautiful sentence: ‘When I put my ear to that white balloon I can still hear the lullaby of a vanished world’ (186). Putting these two images together, we have a fragile world, with stories of other places existing in a thin membrane, as paddocks fill with houses and migrants take on ‘makeshift names’(181) and their children know only patches of their language. The stories are tough, in a good way, disturbing but grounded in human experiences of love and family. A. S. Patrić is an authentic writer among the ruins.    

Monday, 21 January 2019

How to be a Public Author


Paul Ewen is a New Zealand writer who lives in London. His character Francis Plug manages to be both witless and funny at the same time, in the manner of Flight of the Conchords taking on New York with their folk-rock (in this case, Plug is an English gardener and would-be novelist). The Australian Text Publishing edition includes the summation that the book is ‘an affectionate satire on the world of literature’. It is comic, and many of the misadventures are of the more genteel kind, but I am not sure that the satire can be described as ‘affectionate’. In fact, what I liked best about Francis Plug’s How to be a Public Author was the juxtaposition of Plug’s generous eccentricity (albeit in an alcoholic haze) and the intolerance, indifference and meanness of both the middle-class audiences of literary events, and their self-satisfied authors. There are a few exceptions in Plug’s recollections of his visits to book readings, but Ruth Rendell’s “SHOO! SHOO!” (178) cuts to the chase.
The novel purports to be Plug’s memoir of literary events, and in this sense, non-fiction, though he introduces surreal elements into the story so that he might qualify for entry into next year’s Booker Prize. The current year’s Booker Prize evening is the climax of Plug’s current adventures, which have included various Booker Prize past-winner readings and an extended section at the Hay Festival, which Plug attempts to capture in a t-shirt line: The Hay Festival is a blank field filled with words (I, for one, would buy one).
At various points in the readings, Plug wonders about why the protection of hunting birds outweighs human poverty; how it is that heavy police protection guard the ‘young tanned bankers in their suits … laughing and carefree’. He observes ‘fittingly attired gents’ attend the ‘Booker’ and make ‘furtive eye movements’ at Plug’s ignorance when he asks if they are ‘putting on a JD tonight?’ (282) Class commentary such as this could easily come across as bitter rantings, so Ewen is careful to make manifest Plug’s foolish behaviour and social incompetence. Like Chaplin, or Laurel and Hardy, Plug has a way of re-emerging from beneath the most downtrodden and humiliating circumstances, while Ewen builds a narrative that gradually reveals Plug’s poverty and (hidden) despair.
When bookshops are closing, and festivals have turned genuine authors into literary show ponies, Plug both tries to 'plug' himself, and 'plug a hole' in the sinking ship of literature in the shallow age in which we now find ourselves. Even the collection of books Plug has signed made me wonder about the individuality of my reading. Sure, the Booker Prize is a significant literary achievement and sign of the very highest merit. But have I, too, fallen victim to the ‘ker-ching eyes’ (285) of publishers and their marketing departments? Probably, and Paul Ewen is right to point this out to me, though I am not sure that the Fancy Woman who breeches Plug’s personal space, or the bankers who Plug chastises for swearing in public would – as he tells them – ‘give a four-penny fuck’ (39) will “get it”. Better to laugh the whole thing off as affectionate satire.  

Friday, 18 January 2019

Infatuations

It is a painfully smug habit to begin a review by referring to other books you have read by the same author. In my case these are All Souls (1989); A Heart so White (1992) and Dark Back of Time (1998). All Souls involves a Spanish academic and an affair, and is – according to Penguin Books – ‘a masterpiece of black humour’. A Heart so White involves an investigation into the past of the narrator’s father, with echoes of Macbeth. A Dark Back in Time is so strange that it is it attracts reviews with words like ‘extraordinary’ and ‘dazzling’ – a sure sign that no one can make head nor tail of what Javier Marías had in mind when he wrote a book with a character named Javier Marías recalling the sources of his earlier writing. The Infatuations, I am relieved to say keeps its digressions and literary allusions under tight discipline, paradoxically through sentences that can only be described as ‘extraordinary’ and ‘dazzling’. This novel is difficult to describe without giving away the plot, so stop here if you intend to read in the next little while.
Our narrator is Maria Dolz, a name not so different from the author’s surname Marías, another game of the author’s I imagine, since he makes quite a deal of Spanish uses of first and second names in the novel. Dolz is a literary book editor used to the egotism of writers, with one particularly painful writer rehearsing an acceptance speech in Swedish for when he wins the Nobel Prize for Literature, an eventuality Dolz thinks rather unlikely. Dolz’s first infatuation is with ‘the perfect couple’ whom she observes each day at a café she visits before starting work. When the couple stop attending, and she finds out about the murder of Miguel Deverne, a new infatuation begins in imagining the life of Luisa Alday who has to live on without her attractive husband, the victim of a seemingly random and violent murder by a homeless man. From here, and by chance, Dolz begins a relationship with Deverne’s best friend and Alday’s support, Javier Diaz-Varela. Javier, you see, is the other half of the author’s name – so Javier and Maria are a couple in a novel written by Javier Marías.
Diaz-Varela, like Maria Dolz (or because of her, it’s impossible to know) is a gifted story teller who holds the floor with Maria in a relationship which is as much about narrative as it is sex. It is a temporary relationship, which like a story, will last only as long as the tale and not a moment more. In talking about his life, Diaz-Varela describes scenes from Duma’s The Three Musketeers and Balzac’s novella Colonel Chabert, while Maria – like Marías – is partial to allusions to Macbeth, with his (or her) Heart so White.
This editor is so imaginative that one wonders whether she isn’t in fact a writer in disguise (and in this sense, a partial explanation of the play on names already outlined). She (and the author) move in and out of character viewpoints, and allow sentences to last half a page or more at times, to digress and build ideas and images in a literary style that is truly a marvel to experience. As to what it all means – this story about infatuation and murder – the following sentence from towards the end of the book might get us somewhere (and characterise the thematic intent of the author more broadly across his titles).
‘When someone tells us something, it always seems like a fiction, because we don’t know the story at first hand and can’t be sure it happened, however much we are assured that the story is a true one, not an invention, but real. At any rate, it forms part of the hazy universe of narratives, with their blind spots and contradictions and obscurities and mistakes, all surrounded by shadows or darkness, however hard they strive to be exhaustive and diaphanous, because they are incapable of achieving either of those qualities’ (302).  
Oh, what a tangled (diaphanous) web we weave when first we practice to read an anti-detective novel by the masterful Javier Marías! Yes, as Maria thinks to herself on the second last page as she walks away from an imperfect couple – ‘there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that … When we get caught in the spider’s web …’
 



Sunday, 6 January 2019

4321


I have 13 Paul Auster novels on my bookshelves (14 if you include The Red Notebook) and each one of them has been duly read and loved – with degrees of love, admittedly, but always love. I bought 4321 when it was released but baulked at it until December 2018. When you read the first of its 866 pages, you can understand that a commitment of time is needed. Not only that, but because the story is really 3 alternatives to 1 story (or 4 closely related, alternate stories) there is no use reading a few pages each day because you will just get lost. In the end, with other duties to attend to, I started in the holiday period and set myself the goal of getting through 50-60 pages a day, and that is an approach I can recommend for this weighty tome.
Before starting the novel, I had understood the narrative strategy of providing the reader with different pathways for the main character, Archie Ferguson. However, it took me a few chapters to work out what was going on. Chapter “1.0” acts as a general prologue, with an ‘family legend’ of Ferguson’s grandfather arriving in New York as an immigrant from Minsk, and being awarded the name ‘Ferguson’ when his Yiddish (Ikh hob fargessen – I’ve forgotten!) is misunderstood by a custom’s official. Ferguson’s father Stanley – 3 Brothers Home World owner – and his mother, Rose, photographer, enter the picture and Ferguson, their first and only offspring, comes into the world. Chapter 1.1 begins with the child thinking he will one day marry his mother and ends with one of Stanley’s brothers robbing the store. Chapter 1.2 opens with a story of Ferguson’s near-death with a fever at age 6, and ends with the store burning in a fire, but insured. Chapter 1.3 starts with the death of a cousin in Korea, and ends with the tragedy of Stanley dying in the fire. In Chapter 1.4 the business is doing well and the family move from Newark to Maplewood, and ends with Ferguson being separated from his best friend in the fallout of divorce. You can get the general idea from this summary: each version of Ferguson’s life is a little different, even though the ingredients of his life have much in common – an every life in the 1960s – as family, education, politics, sport and world events circle around the growing boy.
For a big book, and from the opening chapter, you might expect Auster had taken on a family saga, generational in intent and sprawling out over the years. This is a saga of a different sort. The novel centres on those terrible teenage years when a person is discovering who they are – their talents and their limitations; their sexuality and their values and the timescale is thus quite limited. Auster attacks adolescence unflinchingly, including many moments which an individual would much rather bury in their murky past – love affairs, sexual encounters, selfish acts and blind-spots. The setting is largely New York, but Paris is a second city, with an extended stay for one of the Archie’s. All are interested in sport and in writing – we have an aspiring journalist, a poet, and a fiction writer; a basketballer, baseball player and sportswriter. And around and beyond all that, we have Paul Auster the metafictional writer whose narrative reminds the reader of the writer by simple virtue of its restarts and re-versions, with occasional thematic riffs (such as this one):
‘Everyone had always told Ferguson that life resembled a book, a story that began on page 1 and pushed forward until the hero died on page 204 or 926, but now the future he imagined for himself was changing, his understanding of time was changing as well. Time moved forward and backward, he realised, and because the stories in books could only move forward, the book metaphor made no sense’ (346).
Ferguson 4 writes extended stories, like ‘Mulligan’s Travels’ in a manner which is reminiscent of Auster’s novellas at the start of his career, collated in The New York Trilogy. Another Ferguson 4 narrative ‘The Scarlet Notebook’ also sounds very Auster: ‘a book about a book, a book that could read and also write … a story would begin to develop inside it that would thrust the fictitious author, F., into a confrontation with the darkest elements of himself’ (725). Finally Auster brings all this together, circling back to the story of his grandfather’s arrival in America, with Ferguson’s next book sounding very much like 4321: ‘Not one person with three names, he said to himself that afternoon … [but] he would invent three other versions of himself and their stories along with his own story (more or less his own story, since he too would become a fictionalised version of himself), and write a book about four identical but different people with the same name: Ferguson' (862). 
4321 is a Magnum Opus for Auster 4, the 14th Auster to enter my bookshelf, a book that has so unsettled me that I have started to imagine Gates 1.0, 2.0, 3.0 and 4.0 – re-reading old diaries and seeing the forking paths and where they may have taken me before I ended up here, in my study, always destined (I imagine) to read and write a few thoughts about Auster’s 4321. The study, my family, this computer – all may have been different – but the 866 page book in my hands was always going to be the same. I'm just the last man standing.