Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Booker longlist - some early thoughts

'The wizarding world is the society in which wizards and witches live and interact separate from Muggle (non-wizarding) society. The two communities are kept separate through the use of charms, spells, and secrecy. Wizards are forbidden to reveal anything about magic to Muggle society...' (Wikipedia)

I was reminded of J. K. Rowling's two worlds when reading Alan Hollinghurst's new Booker longlisted novel
A Stranger's Child. Only, in Hollinghurst's universe the competing worlds are gay and non-gay.

The gays are the creatives - the poets, the writers, the teachers, the artists, the lovers, the musicians. The non-gays are the plainer, worldly, less interesting domestic, political, academic and business types, usually of inferior sensibility and taste. In the novel the only sex depicted is gay sex. Hetero sex takes place off stage, if any takes place at all. That's left to the reader's imagination.

No-one should have a problem with this necessarily, but as a literary device it's a cliche. And it renders much of the novel simply tedious. There is endless talking between the characters but to little avail. The nature of their close relationships is unexplored. Facts, truth, what actually happened - all remain undisclosed, to the characters themselves and to the reader. This is the 'love that dare not speak its name' after all.

There is much surface glitter, much that is hinted at, much left unsaid. It's a world of secrets and lies, and little enlightenment. But perhaps this is English society, and as an Australian with a plainer tongue, I was profoundly annoyed by it.

I was fully expecting a dramatic ending - a plot development, a detonation, that would bring all the pieces together, that would unify, enrich and give an extra dimension to all the narrative threads that over-populate this story. But none came. It simply fizzled out.

Here is a fairly typical Hollinghurst sentence: 'Dudley turned to her with that unstable mixture of indulgence and polite bewilderment and mocking distaste that she had come to know and dread and furiously resent'. 

Firstly, I find it quite hard to picture what sort of look Dudley could possibly have had on his face that could be so described! Secondly, there's apparently a huge amount of emotion going on between these two characters, a husband and wife, that is simply not evident in the rather domestic situation being described. It's just a familiar tizz. They are getting ready to go down to welcome their dinner guests, and she's a bit stressed.

This is the sort of over-writing that Hollinghurst indulges in, and that I find tiresome. There are four 'ands' in the short sentence above. The style is to build the drama, but that's where all the drama is - in the prose, not in the plot. The standard definition of sentimentality is that it's emotion disproportionate to the facts. Here we're seeing a  heightened dramatic prose style disproportionate to the routine events, situations and facts it purports to describe.

Hollinghurst describes one of his characters' literary style at one point: 'It was one of his better pre-war poems, though with that tendency to sonorous padding that spoiled almost everything he wrote if judged by the sternest standard.' Hollinghurst could be describing himself.

This is the bookies' favourite for this year's Booker prize. I can't see it winning at all. Most people will find it unreadable and quite unremarkable. And quite insubstantial. That is if they get past the first 100 pages, which they won't.

But, as Bob Ellis would say: 'You may disagree'.

Julian Barnes has had plenty of hits and misses, but The Sense of an Ending is simply wonderful.

It won't win the Booker - it's far too short at 150 pages, and has the feel of a novella - but it's a bright, refreshing tonic of a read, with that knowing, cynical, sharp, socially critical edge typical of Barnes at his best.

Speaking of plot: the book suffers profoundly from a major plot fault. The main character is criticised for not twigging to a critical fact, central to the plot. But, absent a visit from the Archangel Gabriel, he can't reasonably be expected to know it. As a result, we get something quite contrived, closer to melodrama than reality.

But you should buy and read this book if only to indulge in the delicious pleasure of reading the letter the main character writes to his ex-girlfriend and her new lover (who happens to have been a good friend). It's savagery at its best! Withering and marvellous.

And then there's the debate in the cafe about 'hand-cut' chips. They are apparently not hand cut at all. They are 'fat', and machine-made! (Oh, to have been there!)

This one could win it. Sebastian Barry's On Canaan's Side is a superb achievement. Unlike the Hollinghurst and Barnes novels it successfully brings all its elements together into an extremely satisfying whole. 

Ironically, these three novels span multi-generational timeframes of youth to old age. We are asked to engage with the main characters and stay with them emotionally during the different phases of their lives. Barry's Lilly Bere, from her earliest days in Dublin, to her final, heartbreaking days in a small village near Chicago, is impossible not to warmly embrace, in fact love. 

Of the thirteen novels on the Booker longlist I've only read three so far, but Barry will certainly make the shortlist and become a favourite to win. No doubt.

It's a joy to read.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Listen up, Mint:

Reading the morning paper and choking on my Danish is a frequent experience for me these days. There's just so much more bullshit going down than in previous decades!

This morning? Yes, it was the story about how the Australian Mint have suggested to the government that the 5 cent coin be abolished. It apparently costs more to make than its worth.

Two big things wrong here: 

1. Since when did every friggin coin in the history of the universe have to be its own profit centre?   

2. You want to save money Mint? ABOLISH THE ABSURD 50 CENT COIN!! Or at least downsize it.

Australian coins have to be the heaviest, most cumbersome bunch of pocket destroyers and purse fillers in the - once again - history of the universe! Especially our humongous 50 cent coin. Ugly, heavy and soooo huge. And it must, proportionately, be way more expensive to manufacture than the tiny and victimised 5 cent coin.

I remember way back when some long forgotten government minister introduced this monstrosity, no doubt on the advice of some dud Mint bureaucrat. The rationale for making it so huge, heavy and pointy (I know that's not the technical word) was that little old half blind pensioners would be more easily able to distinguish it from the other coins, especially the 20 cent one. 'Feel the edge, feel the edge - cool, eh'.

Christ! As if our seniors were such a dumb bunch that they'd prefer to be weighed down and rooted to the spot by this monstrous ballast rather than refining their squint when necessary.

And why, just as a matter of logic, is it BIGGER than the one and two dollar coins?

Listen up Mint: rationalise the whole lot of them. That would be a productive and cost efficient way to spend your time.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Martin Amis' The Pregnant Widow

Rarely does a cover do absolute justice to the essence of a book. Whoever in Random House commissioned this photo deserves a medal! 

This new book from the (former) infant terrible of English literature, Martin Amis, is a stunning exploration of the sexual revolution and its aftermath, what it meant in the late sixties/early seventies, and what it seems to mean now. The 'pregnant widow' metaphor, first used by psychologist Alexander Herzen, refers to the rather long period between the death of one social order and the birth of the new - 'a long night of chaos and desolation'. 

This is a longish novel, at 465 pages, so requires a commitment of time, but it is absolutely worth it. Amis is such a stunning, gifted writer. His prose is magic. In virtually every paragraph a marvellous phrase, drenched in insight or sharp comedy, stands out and delights:

'And it came to Keith now - her essential peculiarity. She went at it, as if the sexual act, in all human history, had never even been suspected of leading to childbirth, as if everyone had immemorially known that it was by other means that you peopled the world. All the ancient colourations of significance and consequence had been bleached from it...' (p.380)

A group of young English friends in 1970 are spending the summer in a mansion in Italy. The setting is highly sensual and erotic, with much sexual activity going on, more off-stage than on. The principal antagonist, Keith, quite obviously in this semi-autobiographical novel the young Amis, is in a comfortable but unchallenging relationship with Lily, but he's sexually attracted to her friend the beautiful, mysterious (and romantically named) Scheherazade (the girl on the right on the cover - Lily is on the left). 

Keith is a student of English literature, just graduated, which allows Amis to contrast this modern setting with older social orders portrayed in classic English novels, particularly those of Jane Austen. Despite Keith's rather irreverent readings of Austen - 'one fuck per book' - Amis succeeds in making the point: the rich, layered social spheres, constraints and mannerisms of the old, against the seeming yet entrapping freedoms of the new.

The final part of the novel re-visits the friends decades later, in contemporary times. The logic of their complicated personal identities and relationships, barely visible then, has been played out, both predictably, surprisingly, and sometimes quite sadly.

I've read most of Amis' novels over the years, including his non-fiction, so I think I can say with confidence that The Pregnant Widow is his best. Amis' superb talents are fully evident, and his serious, critical preoccupations best displayed. 

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Banality of Evil

The new Australian movie Snowtown has received exceptionally good reviews since its release a few weeks ago, despite some decided ambivalence expressed the by film-literate audience in Cannes, half of whom walked out during its official showing.

My advice: if you're at all squeamish, don't see it, though most Australians, who know the context and back-story, will happily sit through it, and be utterly enthralled. This is a seriously good movie. It's the sort of movie, made by and starring novices, that absolutely runs rings around last year's Animal Kingdom, with its coterie of well-known stars, including the absurdly wrongly-cast Jackie Weaver (for the life of me I still can't comprehend how she got nominated for an Academy Award for that very ordinary performance).

Snowtown will become iconic, a classic, like Romper-Stomper and Taxi Driver. Evil on the prowl, in our suburban streets and ordinary towns, just under the surface, lurking under the guise of normality and banality.

Stanley Kubrick springs to mind. His obsession with darkness, disorder and chaos barely constrained by social norms, morality, propriety, discipline. Once unleashed it wreaks destruction. Every Kubrick movie is about this.

And so much of the Australian story, in our art and literature, reflects this primal fear. We flee to the coast, away from the savage, harsh interior of our land. We crave order, which is the principal reason we loathe boat people. They threaten our need for it, for the comfort of the predictable, respectful queue.

Snowtown is a superbly made, riveting, relentless exploration of the evil nesting in our communities, an evil that too frequently unleashes its savagery and horror. Scene after scene is rich with meaning and suggestiveness. The ordinary food; the ordinary television shows; the ordinary houses and backyards, the ordinary kids fooling around in the streets; the ordinary prejudices of seemingly ordinary people. 

The gathering menace, though, is palpable.

You must see this astonishing film.

(PS: David and Margaret gave Snowtown a fairly tepid review: here, getting it embarrassingly wrong, but Jim Schembri got it exactly right: here).

Read In the Garden of Beasts by Eric Larson, one of the best non-fiction books published over the past year. It's a thoroughly researched story of the experiences of the US ambassador to Germany, and his family, during Hitler's reign in the lead up to the second world war in the 1930's.

The ambassador, William Dodd, is a former academic, a lowly and politically inexperienced professor of American history, who reluctantly accepts his commission from his friend, the Democratic President Franklin D Roosevelt. Dodd doesn't do pomp and circumstance very well, the endless parties and hypocrisies of the diplomatic round. He just sees what is happening in Germany, with a surprising prophetic, clarity that escapes most other observers, both in Germany and in the West. And he attracts powerful enemies for doing so.

Do yourself a favor and read this seriously good book. You'll be utterly absorbed.

So here is the lesson for today: ordinary men can be savages, but they can also be heroes.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Another miserable Henning Mankell: The Troubled Man

This is Mankell's latest in his Kurt Wallander series. I thought I'd give him another go, despite the fact that I loathed and detested his recent effort The Man From Beijing:

Mankell's peculiar and thoroughly dated old-left, cold war politics, laughable in that book, surface again in the new one, The Troubled Man, only here we're subjected to an absurd form of anti-Americanism in place of an absurd anti-colonialism. 

The pity is that Mankell's hero, the Swedish detective Wallander, is a wonderfully entertaining creation, someone you can live with, book after book. He's a crusty old coot of 60, extremely human and fallible, but whose instincts are as sound as ever. In this new outing, Wallander's last - he succumbs to Alzheimer's at the end, Henning clearly killing him off - he thankfully transcends the author's ridiculous political obsessions and is the only reason anyone would bother to read this silly novel.

Do yourself a favour and read something else - anything!

Monday, April 11, 2011

An Excellent Easter Read: The Book of Rachael

With Easter coming up, and the Anzac Day holiday on the Tuesday making it a longer break than usual, you need to read an absorbing book that perfectly suits the season and its deeper meanings, even if you're not a person of particularly Christian views. Provided the book you chose is absolutely exceptional.

Let me wholeheartedly recommend The Book of Rachael by Leslie Cannold. Cannold is a well-known, highly regarded Australian ethicist, columnist and humanist who has written a few non-fiction books but never fiction. I've always liked her perspective on things - the sorry state of Australia's abortion laws, for example - but, frankly, I was a bit hesitant about picking up a mature public intellectual's first piece of fiction. It reeks of the publisher letting her have her way just to keep her on its list. And there have been so many examples of non-fiction authors just indulging a whim, having a go, and turning out quite second rate stuff.

But this is certainly not the case here. In fact Cannold has written a seriously good novel - in fact, one of the best I've read for a long time.

It's the story of Jesus' youngest sister, Rachael, who is smart, edgy, courageous and fascinating. The larger story of Jesus (Joshua in the novel), his family relationships, his friendship with the political radical Judas Iscariot (Judah) whom Rachael marries, his love of Mary Magdalene (Maryam), his three year mission and all the gathering forces that propel events towards their final, dramatic resolution - the whole tale we think we know has been re-imagined by Cannold in an utterly enthralling and powerful way. 

This is grounded, realistic stuff. The Jews of Jesus' time come thrillingly alive: their politics, their culture, their food, their medicines, their blindingly ignorant superstitions and prejudices, their cruelties to each other and to their women in particular. And Cannold succeeds in bringing the key events of specifically Christian belief, the crucifixion and the resurrection in particular, into sharp, dramatic focus without resorting to easy cynicism or cloying piety.

Frankly, I didn't expect to be able to say this, but this novel is a major achievement.  It is seriously good, and exceptionally well-written.

A must read.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Book: The Tiger's Wife; Movie: Never Let Me Go

If you haven't heard of The Tiger's Wife then I'm certain you will fairly soon. It seems to be the literary sensation du jour. Everybody is raving about it - critics, booksellers, writers and readers the world over. It's a first novel by a young 25 year old American woman Tea Obreht.

These are the accolades on the front and back covers:

'Tea Obreht is the most thrilling literary discovery in years'. Colum McCann

'A novel of surpassing beauty, exquisitely wrought and magical. Tea Obreht is a towering new talent'. T.C. Boyle

'The Tiger's Wife is a marvel of beauty and imagination. Tea Obreht is a tremendously talented writer.'
Ann Patchett

Here's Tea's short bio: 'Tea Obreht was born in 1985 in the former Yugoslavia. She was the youngest author on The New Yorker's Top 20 Writers Under 40 list. Her short fiction has been selected for The Best American Short Stories 2010, and the Guardian Summer fiction issue.'

Now there's a clue right there as to why this novel is simply not worthy of all the starry-eyed attention it is receiving. Obreht is primarily a short story writer, and it shows. The problem with the novel is a structural one. The half dozen or so self-contained stories, while fascinating and 'magical' in themselves, are only tangentially meshed into a coherent, meaningful whole. Like units in an apartment block, each with its own life, they don't link into the one, transcendent narrative. There's no resonance, or powerful meanings. No vision. No metaphysics. 

I don't want stories. I want a novel.

Oh, Obreht can write alright. No doubt about that. But I'm so sick of reading novels by graduates of creative writing or literature programs. They are, well, so 'writerly'. I couldn't finish The Legacy, a first novel by Australian Kirsten Tranter, for the same reason. After 200 pages I bailed. It was just so annoyingly show-offy and self-indulgent. It badly need a good editor to take an axe to it. (Though it has just made the long-list for this year's Miles Franklin award. So who am I?)

Then this afternoon I went to see the new movie Never Let Me Go, just because British actor Carey Mulligan was in it. I'll see anything with Carey Mulligan in it, because she's just so beautiful - in an intelligent, interesting way. (If you don't know her, get out the DVD of An Education, and you'll see what I mean).

Never Let Me Go is a superb film directed by Mark Momanek, with a screenplay by Alex Garland (The Beach), that absolutely blew me away. Here is meaning, vision, resonance, metaphysics in abundance. It's PROFOUND. I hadn't read the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro so didn't really know what to expect, but it's essentially about young people and their innocence, and how society fences them in, tells lies to them, shatters their illusions, squeezes the life out of them. It has a sci-fi premise, which most dumb reviewers can't get beyond, but that is a scaffold that makes so much sense as an organising principle for the movie's larger meanings.

And it's also a very moving love story. 

Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield are the other two leads, and the wonderful and ageless Charlotte Rampling has a minor part as well.

See this film.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

'O' - A Presidential Novel

When the novel Primary Colors by 'Anonymous' was released in early 1996 a huge debate raged for months about the identity of the author. The book, like its subject, a fictionalised Bill Clinton, was compelling. Nothing was spared. We were titillated by his numerous affairs and infractions, and got loads of juicy, political tidbits involving barely disguised but utterly recognisable players. Most of all we got exquisite glimpses of Bill and Hillary's stressed, earthy and psychologically tangled relationship. It was great stuff, obviously written by a privileged insider.

Eventually, Joe Klein, Newsweek's senior political columnist, fessed up about his authorship - after being outed by an academic who had carefully compared writing styles. It was all great fun, and the huge six-month run the mystery got in the press rocket fuelled the book's sales. It was a great marketing ploy - one of the most successful ever for a non-fiction title.

So now we get 'O' - a Presidential Novel, by Anonymous, which the publisher, Simon and Schuster, has undoubtedly positioned within the same marketing frame, hoping that the same media dynamic would apply. Except that the author's identity has been discovered virtually on publication - Mark Salter, former advisor and speech writer to John McCain. So in a way the book has been still-born, the public enthusiasm rather tepid. Mark who? A Republican?

But please don't be put off. This is a seriously good and enthralling read. It's for political junkies perhaps - there are no 'revelations' about Obama's private life, no corruption, no guns, no marital dramas, no congressional dirty deals, no scenes of high emotional intensity. What we get instead is an insider's account of the imagined but riveting presidential election campaign of 2012.

It's a totally different beast to Primary Colors, which has obviously thrown a lot of reviewers. Dennis Altman, professor of politics at Latrobe found it dull, uninteresting and disappointing. He was anticipating another Joe Klein, dirty laundry expose. Well, it's just not that sort of book. The reviewer for The New York Times was also unimpressed. He dismissed it as "trite, implausible and decidedly unfunny" with passages of "very bad romance-novel prose".

Well, I beg to differ. Sure, some of the prose is a bit clotted, but I found it a riveting examination, in minute detail, of a political campaign, and the people running it, something we don't very often get to see. We're up close with these people, living with them, feeling the nuances of their emotions and feelings as the campaigns unfold. The main character is Obama's campaign manager, under extraordinary pressure. Key players include some savvy, clever journalists, mainly working for newer, online publications, which the campaign managers, on both sides, fairly obviously detest. Arianna Huffington, for example, is mercilessly shredded! 

Despite his Republican background, the author, Salter, is scrupulously fair to both sides. He's no lover of the Tea Party, and especially of Sarah Palin. He loathes these people. His Republican candidate is an thoroughly orthodox, intelligent and likable human being (which begs the question - is such a person likely to emerge in 2012?). He is obviously a fan of Obama, portraying him, his policies, ideas, competence and gravitas extremely sympathetically.

This is a sensitive and insightful rendering of a political drama obviously yet to unfold. But it rings so true.

So who wins the 2012 election? It's a close race, the polls give it 'too close to call', and the book ends the day prior to polling day!

As I said, for the political junkies!