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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…