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Black Dogs

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I picked up Ian McEwan’s Back Dogs at a second hand book fair on the Central Coast – a first edition with an intriguing inscription from Peter to Spanner ‘computer correspondent, writer and journalist’ and worthy friend to Peter. Spanner sounds like a busy man, but surely not as prolific a writer McEwan. I have read (in reverse order) Machines like Me, Atonement, Amsterdam, Enduring Love and now Black Dogs, and that’s only one fifth of his published novels. This one at least is short – 174 pages with generous margins.

Black Dogs starts with a preface in which the narrator confesses to a fascination with other people’s parents, having lost his own to an accident at the age of eight. Soon enough his wife’s parents, June and Bernard, have taken centre stage and it is they who are the subject of the story to unfold. Our narrator, Jeremy, is thus both biographer and storyteller with a writer’s neat tricks, like this one: ‘I have taken a number of liberties, the most flagrant of which has b…

The Debt to Pleasure

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Last year at a conference I was reading aloud what I hope will one day be the opening of my next published novel when a well spoken young academic suggested I read John Lancaster's The Debt to Pleasure. Maybe it was the hint of ego in my narrator, or a suggestion of his unreliability. There is certainly nothing culinary or sinister about my own manuscript. I took up the suggestion, none the less -- listening to others is a trick of the trade I've learnt rather later than most. 
Let us start with the novel's epigraph by Bertrand Russell: ‘My German engineer was very argumentative and tiresome. He wouldn’t admit that it was certain that there was not a rhinoceros in the room.’ Now turn the page to the ‘Preface, Acknowledgement and a Note on Structure’ where author/narrator Tarquin Winot writes (in tiresome fashion): ‘This is not a conventional cookbook. Though I should straight away attach a disclaimer to my disclaimer and say that I have nothing but the highest regard for t…

The Death of a Restless Young Romantic

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On Friday 24 January 2020, a small group of Sydney Rush fans gathered to attend a Sydney 'wake' for the recent passing of Neil Peart. The following text was my contribution to the formalities. Rush never toured Australia and didn't really have a hit song here. But Neil Peart's lyrics, and his phenomenal drumming had a great impact on each of our lives.  I've quoted freely from Neil Peart's lyrics, which are available for all to read on the Rush website
Neil Peart was a prolific reader who thought deeply about his craft as a writer. There are probably lots of great articles out there -- here's just one I found from 1986, after Power Windows was released.  “The Songwriting Interview: Neil Peart” (Bruce Pollock, Guitar forthe Practicing Musician, October 1986, transcribed by Gregg Jaeger). 
This is a step away from my usual practice on this blog of writing exclusively about fiction. That's because Neil Peart's work may come with a 7/8 time signature in…

Oracle Night

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Paul Auster’s Oracle Night was published in 2004. I must have first read it that year, or else the next. I know I enjoyed it. The premise of footnotes that carry over several pages to set up alternative methods of reading the text stayed with me; the typical Auster trick of running several narratives at once and moving in and out of them astounded me then as now. Part of the reason I returned to it recently was to admire, once again, how smoothly Auster creates a series of embedded narratives.


Layer 1: Sydney Orr, Brooklyn Author, is recovering from a near fatal illness. He buys a blue notebook and begins to work on a new story, based on a character from Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (a clue – hardboiled detective fiction rarely ends with events “set right”). This layer concerns Orr’s life as a writer, husband and friend to another writer – a more successful one, and a rival of sorts, John Trause.


Layer 2: Footnotes. Orr uses footnotes to explain the story behind the story, and to give…

The Shepherd's Hut

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Tim Winton tells the story of The Shepherd’s Hut in the convincing vernacular of a wild boy on the run -- a young man lacking refinement, caught in circumstances beyond his control. In doing so, Winton conveys deep despair and a search for meaning and survival in the (coming) apocalypse. So far, the reviews have focused on the Christian parable in the story, as well as his treatment of masculinity. I read the novel as a post-apocalyptic tale, as bleak as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which at least had a father rather than a protective priest as the guide for the survivor in a fallen world.
The novel opens with Jaxie driving in a vehicle somewhere outback, alone ‘like [he is] in a fresh new world all slick and flat and easy … like you’re still on earth but you don’t hardly notice it anymore’ (3). Chapter 2 takes the reader back to ‘the day the old life ended’ (6) – when his father died and he hit the road, afraid to be blamed for the accident after years of abuse and violence at his fat…

Their Brilliant Careers

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In her foreword to Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers, Anne Zoellner praises O’Neill’s ‘skill and empathy’ in rendering pen-portraits of ‘famous, infamous and forgotten’ Australian writers.
We are used to sporting stars speaking of themselves in the third person, but rarely do they get to invent a critic speaking on their behalf.
The condensed lives O’Neill recalls in these sixteen ‘biographies’ of invented Australian writers follows various literary traditions, including Nabokov’s playfulness -- Shannon Burn's suggests Pale Fire (1962) in her Sydney Review of Books article. Personally I remembered John Clarke. I’ve read a few of Clarke's pastiche-poems at some point – his website certainly suggests that they once existed:
‘For many years it was assumed that poetry came from England. Research now clearly demonstrates, however, that a great many of the world’s most famous poets were Australian. This project puts on record the wealth of imagery in Australian verse.’
The same…

Zorba the Greek

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Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek is one of those famous books that is nothing like what you expect when you start to read it. That, at least, was my experience. Perhaps I had expected something purely comic: a Don Quixote of modern Greece. Since the novel does have a comic duo of sorts in the intellectual narrator (‘Boss') and his much more passionate sidekick (Alexis Zorba) setting out on an adventure, full of illusions – there may be something in that comparison. Another starting point might be to consider Zorba the Greek alongside The Great Gatsby – where the character under study by the narrator is a down-to-earth working- man, rather than a grand dreamer and great liar. Both novels have bookish narrators who admire another man’s zest for life. In both books, the narrator is searching for some meaning beyond the material concerns of his age.
The new translation by Peter Bien opens with a prologue not included in the standard translation. The first line reads ‘I often wished…