Wednesday, 18 January 2017

End Zone

I begin by confessing my state of relative ignorance about Don Delillo, or the fact that he is a new acquaintance (take your pick). Up to reading End Zone, I had only read the collection The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories. Actually, that’s probably not a bad way to start, representing works of fiction from 1979 – 2011. End Zone is Delillo’s second novel; the year of publication is 1972 and the world is the midst of the Cold War. It’s a bleak intellectual landscape; the overall tone is a comic take on nihilism and apocalyptic expectations. Or, maybe that’s just my reading on hot January days in Sydney in the age of climate change.

Delillo makes a few unusual choices in writing this book which give it startling originality. First, he writes in the first person as a footballer (American Football, that is, in the voice of Gary Harkness, a troubled but evidently talented blocking back). The setting is a small Texas college named ‘Logos’; much of the book concerns the ‘logic behind the argument’ of not only football, but the strategies of nuclear war. The second choice, then (and this is not to cast any aspersions over football players) is that not only Gary, but every team member he represents through remembered conversations, speaks like a learned professor who has mastered his discipline. The characters, in other words, all live up to Logos, even if the football team itself is rather minor by the country’s standards. Some of these logicians are, indeed, fairly illogical, like Billy Mast who takes a course whereby he has the job of memorizing a long poem in German but must avoid understanding its meaning (or indeed, the meaning of any German words if he can manage that feat). Gary records many conversations – with his hulking room-mate, with a girlfriend-of-sorts, Myna (an idealist who wants to escape to Mexico and puts on weight to avoid the responsibilities of beauty). The intricacies of football logic are captured in a stop-start play-by-play chapter (much like the game?) at the centre of the book, which includes pages of football discourse described from Gary’s point of view in the key game against the only really worthy opponent in the relatively lowly competition. For example, ‘Hobbs faked a trigger pitch to Taft, then handed to me, a variation of the KC draw’ (p.113).

From his lecturers, Gary also befriends Major Stanley, who speaks to him about the steps of and to nuclear war, something that inspires Gary’s (unusual) passions. Like the football chapter, Stanley’s logic is reproduced in paragraph fragments, with sometimes the shortest having the longest half-life; like this: ‘The average lethal mutation in an autosome persists for twenty-two generations’ (p.81). Then there is the wonderful planetary biologist, the understandably paranoid Alan Zapalac, who in a different way speaks to the end times signified by the title ‘End Zone’ (also, of course, a part of the football ground):

‘As I smoke my pipe and play a quiet game of chess with my lovely wife, the mother of three fine boys by a previous marriage, I like to ruminate on the nature of man. What brought us forth from the primordial slime? Whence are we headed? What is the grand design? And pondering these vast questions over cheese and port, I come to the realization that one terminal bomb more or less makes small difference in this ever-expanding universe of ours’ (p.204).

In the penultimate chapter, Gary plays a winter war game with Major Stanley during which the two players take on the positions of two superpowers as minor cold war skirmishes escalate with terrifying and simple logical steps to ultimate likely annihilation. The final chapter is almost as disturbing (spoiler alert, if you can have one for a book published so many years ago). The titanic Coach Creed is confined mysteriously to a wheel chair; the expanding Myna has decided to become a beauty with responsibility after all; Taft, the mysterious Black back finally speaks in typically unexpected ways (‘maybe I crave the languid smoky dream’ p.223; ‘I believe in the static forms of beauty’ p.228). This is hard to describe quickly, but let’s say simply that Gary has just been made a captain by Creed for the next season and seems set to take on the grounded responsibilities that this requires. But the team’s structure and success has been built entirely around Taft and at the moment of his likely success, Taft has decided to give up football and concentrate on his studies. Gary is off-balance and novel ends with a clear indication of his impending mental illness (unless you consider some sort of hunger strike as being logical with this mixed-up world).

I was impressed by this book. The (at the time) young writer appears quite fearless. The comic and yet bleak writing cheered me up, too, in a strange sort of way. It’s the listening to weird logic, cleverly put into the mouths of the everyman, that brings a strange sort of hope. That is, at least from 1972 until today, we’ve hung on, despite the logic that things aren’t going well. The final word to Zapalac:

‘Science fiction is just beginning to catch up with the Old Testament. See artificial nitrates run off into rivers and oceans. See carbon dioxide melt the ice caps.  See the world’s mineral reserves dwindle. See war, famine and plague. See barbaric hordes defile the temple of the virgins … I said science fiction but I get I meant science. Anyway, there’s some kind of mythical and/or historical circle-thing being completed here. But I keep smiling. I keep telling myself there’s nothing to worry about as long as the youth of America knows what’s going on. Brains, brawn, good teeth, tallness’ (p.154).

Terrific, isn’t it? It’s the teacher’s dilemma – knowing what’s ahead, when you admit it to yourself, but remembering the need to inspire your students at the same time. To balance knowledge with hope. These little asides, captured by Delillo, in a book about football. Only an American writer could do this, I think, and that’s why American fiction matters so much, in the final analysis.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Wood Green

Novels and films that explore the relationship between a young, would-be writer, and a more experienced writer-mentor are not necessarily new but Sean Rabin’s Wood Green has done something a little different with this ‘genre’. The idea seems to appeal: think of the success of Joël Dicker’s The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair – a murder mystery of sorts, with a younger writer living with and assisting his mentor. Then there is the very engaging thriller – John Colapinto’s About the Author, which is not so much about the mentor but the idea of literary theft as a shortcut to success. Sean Rabin plays around with some of these ideas, as young Michael arrives in Hobart to assist Lucian Clarke put together his papers (for posterity, or for some biographical project, yet to be determined). At several points, Michael, who has completed a PhD on Clarke, considers how he might either make use of Lucian’s papers for his own purposes, or else appropriate Lucian’s incomplete manuscript as he, too, begins a work of fiction.

Set against this ‘crime’ aspect (as seen in Dicker and Colapinto), Rabin paints a more comic picture of his young writer and the aging, reclusive author. Not being that an young author himself (Rabin is a more experienced man of the world), Rabin’s portrait of the artist(s) is a less ‘Hollywood’ version of authorial success. There are no fast cars or lavish parties for this fellow: Michael might envy Lucian’s CD and book collection, but that would be about all. There is a bachelor pad of sorts – if you consider an isolated old house with a glorious view of Mount Wellington a ‘pad’. There are pictures in Lucian’s bedroom and details in his papers to show he has lived an adventurous life, though it doesn’t appear to have been a happy one – more of a set of experiences that have enabled him to write ‘real’ literature. Michael, too, is a rather dishevelled, dissatisfied soul – coming to Hobart, it seems, to escape an overly fussy girlfriend and … Well, not much else. He is what many young men are: a half-finished project; perhaps working with Lucian will finish him off? (That’s not bad, actually, if you have read the book).

I did wonder, at times, about the point of some of the minor characters. Some are comic, like the egotistical B&B owner, Andrew, fussing over his guests and offended when they don’t consider him lifelong friend material. Paul, Penny and the nastier Carl are various examples of single men and women who perhaps compare to Michael and Lucian in dealing with life’s ups and downs on their own. There are no happy couples at all in the novel at all – the other ‘minors’ are Tim and Maureen, in the process of splitting up, just as soon as they can sell their corner-store business. Yet each of these characters allows Rabin to expand indirectly on key themes. For example, here’s Maureen thinking about the meaning of objects and memory (a key idea for Lucian in the latter half of the book):

‘As she passed through the house noting how small it looked without any furniture, Maureen lamented the way every detail would eventually fade from her memory, just like all the other houses she had lived in. The thought perturbed her, and she looked about the shop – the only room left undisturbed – to try to memorise its features’ (p.284).

The notion of biography, or autobiography, or gathering one’s papers (or employing someone to do so) is very much a literary expansion of this commonplace feeling of the abandonment of places and the feeling of emptiness it brings. Writers and artists, Rabin seems to suggest, are in a race against time to capture or recapture experiences and places before they fade away. A lot of pot is smoked in this book, and that can’t help – though there is also the ‘mindfulness’ it brings of listening to music in the present moment, intense and bright (‘the light that burns twice as bright …’ – I am thinking of Blade Runner and replicants, not such a bad allusion, actually).

This book has a clever twist and while tempting to discuss it, in a review (of sorts) one needs to respect future readers. The chapters of this book are very short, and at times it means you have to push yourself a little beyond reading one or two. Let me say reading through to the end is very much worth it. I heard the author speak at a little Giramondo Press reading at Western Sydney University. He appears to be a very forthright, amused, observant writer, cursing at times like a Tasmanian sailor. It might be that maturity, in Sean Rabin’s case, has brought advantages because this is more than a ‘first novel’ – it is the book of someone with both writing and life experience behind him (he has been a script writer and journalist and has at least one unpublished novel before Wood Green under his belt). The novel has received very good reviews, and one hopes for further successes for Rabin. Wood Green, by the by, has all the features (in terms of its plot and setting) of a good little film. All it needs is a New York/French/Tasmanian director to spend a bit of money to bring it to the big screen. While Lucian Clark probably wouldn’t cooperate, the ‘author’s author’ might. Books about writers and their would-be successes and successors, however ironic, are still spurred on by hope. I should know, I appear to have written two of them myself.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

The Noise of Time

Shostakovich’s life story as a composer behind the Iron Curtain is told here by Julian Barnes in the style of limited-omniscient third person narrative, combined with a narrator who intervenes indirectly but is always present. Writing about power is not new to Barnes – his 1992 novel Porcupine concerned a former dictator in a post-communist society. He has also written before about famous artists, most notably in Flaubert’s Parrot (1984). One might say he brings these two themes together here, with a sympathetic view of a composer whose work and political outlook are compromised by the era in which he lives; yet he strives to compose all the same, and to make use of such tools are irony to deal with the question of State approval under a totalitarian system.

I’ve encouraged my students to read The Noise of Time because we are studying literature and film about (and written during) the Cold War era. Much of this is western in outlook; here an established western writer looks back on an era when propaganda and censorship were part of the daily life of citizens of Europe on either side of the ‘wall’, but where those on the Communist side faced the reality of purges and prison-camps. Standing up for principles, in the manner of Clooney’s depiction of Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck, only tells half of the picture; can we expect the same personal integrity when not only your career and reputation is on the line, but your life and the lives of your relatives and associates as well? One might ask, of course, if it is merely a case of Cold War nostalgia to write about Russia in the 1930s-1960s today. It might be the case, however, that the dilemmas of the artist are timeless and/or that darker times may be with us again soon. Literature isn’t always about the here and now, but about the past and the future.

I finished reading The Noise of Time a few months ago, and so I will rely on a few pink bookmarks to include a few quotations of things that struck me. This following anecdote reminded me of how French Fries were renamed Freedom Fries after 9/11 in the period when France was demonised for not supporting the ‘war on terror’ (or, at least, the invasion of Iraq) under George W. Bush. Thinking of Stalin, the narrator recalls: ‘Who said the age of miracles was past? And all done with words. So, for instance, French bread. Everyone use to know it as such, and had been calling it such for years. Then one day, French bread disappeared from the shops. Instead, there was ‘city bread’ – exactly the same, of course, but now the patriotic product of a soviet city’ (p.84). Barnes (or the narrator) goes on from here to consider how in such conditions, ‘truth's disguise was irony’. Further, ‘in an ideal world, a young man should not be an ironical person. At that age, irony prevents growth, students the imagination’ (p.85). So, our cultural conditions, our immediate history, affect our ways of thinking.

At a time when Shostakovich’s music is banned, and then, by Stalin’s decree, rehabilitated, Barnes has the composer ask the profound questions about the meaning of art and its relationship with time. This quotation below relates to the book’s title, and the central motif (to use a musical term):

‘What could be put up against the noise of time? Only that music which is inside ourselves – the music of our being – which is transformed by some into real music. Which, over the decades, if it is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time, is transformed into the whisper of history. That was what he held to.’ (p.125).

If this sounds rather grand, remember that Barnes also shows Shostakovich as a terrified man who is aware of his own cowardice and yet survives, something of an achievement in itself. In old age, the composer doesn’t see himself as heroic but simply unable to ‘solve his intolerable dilemma by killing himself’, since ‘he was not Shakespearean …' Indeed, 'now that he had lived too long, he was beginning to see his own life as a farce’ (p.164). This sentiment reminds me of Milan Kundera’s early novel, The Joke, in which an ironic scribble across a postcard changes a party-member’s life forever. I’m not sure I have the life experience of Kundera, or the historical empathy of Barnes to be able to fully comprehend how the themes of such works of art reflect the lived experiences of many millions in the Cold War period, but that, surely, is one of the reasons to read fiction.

Speaking personally, I was probably guilty of being ironic when young without the associated misfortune that might justify the need to disguise truth in irony. I first ready Barnes in my late adolescent years – and I believed him then in a way that is hard to comprehend now. I think it is because he spoke earnestly to my cynicism (I am thinking of such novels as A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters and Talking it Over). The fact that Barnes has kept writing about such themes as truth and art well into his mature age is, I think, a compliment to his ‘soul’ as an artist. I’m not going to join the Martin Amis camp, in other words, and see this as all either naïve, or posed-idealism. To paraphrase the end of the novel – music belongs to music (not to musicology or history). And writing belongs to writing, not to critics or to schools of thought. All the rest (one only wishes!) is silence - or the noise of time.  

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises

There must be something crippling in writing about Hemingway. The temptation would be write a review, and then cross everything out, and just have a sentence left (in tribute to the Iceberg theory etcetera). So, in keeping with this spirit, I will try to say very little about the book. Sticking to the facts – I am on my fourth Hemingway book over the last year or two, and in this order: A Moveable Feast, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises. I’ve enjoyed them all immensely. If I had to pick a favourite so far, it would be reading about Robert Jordan’s life in the hills during the Spanish Civil War. There, it seems to me, the writer-expatriate figure of the stories meets his match in the monumental events of the time.
The first half of “Fiesta” takes us into the 1920s expatriate life of writers and their waiters (or waiters and their writers). The narrator, Jake Barnes, is part of the action but not as caught up in the rivalries as his companions – a war injury means that he can only love the beautiful ‘Brett’ (Lady Ashley) in the platonic sense, while Robert Cohn makes his play for her affections (and thus later is made foolish around her lover Mike, and afterwards her matador, the young Romero (as the story moves to Spain and Pampalona in Part Two). Another character, Bill, tells Jake:
‘You’re an expatriate. You’ve lost touch with the soil. You get precious. Fake European standards have ruined you. You drink yourself to death. You become obsessed with sex. You spend all your time talking, not working. You are an expatriate, see? You hang around cafés’ (p.100).
Jake responses, ‘It sounds like a swell life … when do I work?’ – an excellent retort. Jake has something of Robert Jordan’s stoicism and steadiness in the face of the chaos around him; but there isn’t yet a Spanish war to fight. So Jake is content to fish, and work when he must, and observe others, and love Brett truly, seen in his action in coming to her aid in Madrid when she needs him, despite everything.
Here’s a bit about waiters (since I’ve just quoted something about writers). When the Fiesta is over, and Jake is by himself in Bayonne, he thinks about the differences between France and Spain when it comes to the cultural practices of tipping:
‘The waiter seemed a little offended about the flowers of the Pyrenees, so I overtipped him. That made him happy. It felt comfortable to be in a country where it is so simple to make people happy. You can never tell whether a Spanish waiter will thank you. Everything is on such a clear financial basis in France … No one makes things complicated by becoming your friend for any obscure reason. If you want people to like you you have only to spend a little money’ (p.204).
Perhaps an odd quotation to take from the book but it illustrates my point about writers and waiters (and, for that matter, Bill’s point to Jake). Jake is being ironic, of course, since he obviously values such relationships with Spanish people and wishes to move beyond transactions. To get that you need to read between the lines - as they say - he speaks Spanish; tries to have an authentic understanding about bullfighting; is - at times - embarrassed by his friends. Jake also allows certain things to happen which might be in his power to prevent, such as Romero's drinking session with the decadent Americans (and Brett ...). Jake drinks too much, too. He's no saint; he's just not such a bull. 

Indeed, the rest of the action involves bulls and steers – and the trick, it seems to me, is to know whether you are ready for the ring, and whether you want to fight it out, or just sit back and write about it. If what you are going to do is write, perhaps it is best to do so from the point of view of one who has an excuse not to join the fray – a modest war veteran with certain injuries that make him kindly and philosophical, while his friends remain dissatisfied, drunken expatriates that (apparently) have come to typify the Lost Generation. I was hoping to avoid that phrase, but it has come out in the end. I’d rather leave with Brett’s lament to the man she probably does love: ‘Oh, Jake, we could have had such a damned good time together’. If only, and all that this implies. Or, as Hemingway has Jake so simply put it, ‘Isn’t it pretty to think so?’.