Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Joyce Carol Oates' possibly racist The Sacrifice

It's not very often that I'm as baffled by a novel as I was by this new one from the prolific and universally applauded American novelist Joyce Carol Oates.

It's a fictionalised treatment of the notorious Tawana Brawley case in New York in 1987. Brawley was a 15 year old African-American girl who claimed that she'd been kidnapped and frequently raped over a four day period by five or six white men some of whom were police. She was found lying beaten, smeared with feces, and with racist sentiments scribbled in charcoal on her body. The police were suspicious from the start and the culprits were never identified or charged. The case became a national media obsession, exploited as it was by black civil rights activists like Al Sharpton. 

A Grand Jury, however, eventually concluded that Brawley had completely fabricated the incident, in league with her mother, for unclear reasons.

Oates relocates the drama to New Jersey to add a historical and presumably suggestive link to the race riots that took place in inner city Newark twenty years earlier, and that were ended by forceful and overwhelmingly violent police and National Guard action.

Via a tapestry of various characters' voices involved in the case (all with new fictional names - Brawley becomes Sybilla Frye) she attempts to capture the social and cultural dynamics, not just of this particular case, but of race relations in America generally. Her ear for the local argot is fine-tuned. She pins the patois with precision, and the characters are brilliantly drawn. 

Al Sharpton becomes Marus Mudrick. Although a powerful orator and charismatic preacher with a deeply resonant voice, he epitomises hubris and hypocrisy. He's a liar, a defamer, a former thief, and a vain, self-serving opportunist. Oates lays it on thick.

I started to realise that she may well have had a questionable agenda. The reader is initially led to be sympathetic to the family, friends and associates of the local, downtrodden, abused African-American community. But as the cracks in the rape story begin to emerge Oates subverts that sympathy. 

She's turning out to be consistently anti-black. The characters are seemingly all frauds, scammers, thieves, crims, drunks, bashers, druggies, looters, rapists, and moochers. Victims of oppression perhaps, but bad all round.

Given there are no significant white characters in the book, only cops in the background (the fingered young white cop who Frye 'identifies', who subsequently commits suicide, was a totally 'good person'), I became suspicious I was being conned.

This is either a book that indicts the African-American urban sub-culture, in fact rather viciously, or I have totally misread it. It's exquisite writing, it's wonderfully descriptive of a social and economic underbelly, but I'm sure by now I'm being subjected to a creeping racism and it's becoming more and more obvious. There are no redeeming features of the black community in this perverse urban story.

The ending is a monumental cop out. It refuses to allow the plot to unravel the lies and let justice be done, as was the case in the real Brawley story. The logic is not allowed to unfold. 

It just ends with the sad and unlovely story of Sybilla's step-father Anis Shutt, a loser if ever there was one. (Is there supposed to be something horribly suggestive in that name?). He's a drunk and his anger is uncontrollable. His wives and daughters suffer continual beatings. His sole substantial aim in life is to shoot and kill a white cop in revenge for a police killing of his young son years earlier.

Oates is either affirming an unlovely picture of irredeemable, rightly condemned, African-American manhood, or articulating a justification for the deeply entrenched anger and dysfunction that grips the black community generally. I suspect the former.

She makes no effort to explore the political or economic dimensions of the race issue. There is no hint of a political solution. No hint of an Obama presidency, brought forth mainly by the largest turnout of black voters in history. No hint of a Detroit or any of other city being slowly rejuvenated by local black administrations. 

It just may be that Oates' vision is dated, and that this novel is a monumental failure.  

1. Here are two reviews giving contrasting perspectives: one negative from Roxanne Gay, and one positive from Rose Tremain.

2. No, I don't know what the title means either.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird

I was a mere callow youth when I first read this classic nearly fifty years ago, so with the news of a second Harper Lee novel - a prequel or sequel - to be released mid-year I simply had to read it again. 

It truly is magnificent. How some literary sophisticates at the time (1960) denigrated it as a 'children's book' is beyond me. The social and psychological analysis of the South and its cultures during the depression years of the '30's, which is the book's core, is mature and sophisticated. The racist attitudes and prejudices of the barely literate white lower and middle classes are wonderfully realised. Their self-serving Christian nostrums brilliantly skewered. 

What struck me in this reading was the narrative's seamless interweaving of the young and adult Scout's voices. A sweet and sour mix that today we'd describe as modern and 'meta'. Of course there's lots of sentimentality, and the saintly Atticus is tedious and can do no wrong. His constant sermonising is off-putting. But put this down to the child Scout's telling. The darker threads of an older voice are there too.

Do yourself a favour and re-read this novel. 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Miranda July's The First Bad Man

I've had a go a few times on this blog before about novels that come with overwhelmingly positive review grabs  on the front and back covers and introductory pages. They rave about what a 'groundbreaking', 'unforgettable' read it is, etc, etc.

This 'debut' (another cliche) novel from indie filmmaker, artist and short story writer Miranda July is heralded by none other than George Saunders, Dave Eggers, Lena Dunham and A.M.Homes. Their guff is hollow.

Here's the truth: this novel is a dud because it's profoundly boring in the way that edgy, quirky, indie characters are boring when they are just annoying and shallow and only interesting because they're 'unconventional'.  

There's nothing happening in this novel that isn't recycled from just about every good situation comedy you've seen on TV.

It's the story of a single, middle-aged woman, Cheryl, who is a pathological masturbator. She's a grotesque, conniving, completely deluded fantasist. A pathetic, needy, husk of a woman. She's madly obsessed with a 63 year old work colleague, Philip, who takes her into his confidence about his infatuation with a 16 year old girl and their sexual explorations, and who needs Cheryl's 'permission' before he feels free to pork her.

Cheryl fantasises she's Philip, thrusting his rigid rod into the poor teenage girl's every orifice, and she's at it 24/7.

All the characters - new age work colleagues and dopey psychiatrists who are, typically, as crazy as their patients - are wacky, unconventional, and frankly, profoundly annoying. 

The central plot point is Cheryl's love affair with the 20 year old daughter of the ridiculous husband and wife act who run the company Cheryl has diligently worked for for yonks. For some reason she has been asked to look after her for a while. This grotesquely immature lump of a young woman sits all day in front of the TV chomping junk food, sucking sodas, farting, reeking of BO and grunting.

Then she gets pregnant to some never disclosed youth. The baby, Jack, turns out to be the most mature and normal human in this circus, and guess what, Cheryl is stuck with him because the lump disappears.

Am I interested any more?

Philip's 16 year old ditches him of course, so he leans on Cheryl for comfort and the odd root. It's not like her masturbatory fantasies, however. Far from it. Reality intrudes big time, and it doesn't last.

Then it ends. 

Here's my grab for the front cover: 'I wasted two days reading this cliched, meaningless rubbish'.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Adrian McKinty's Gun Street Girl

This is the fourth novel in McKinty's Sean Duffy series, and fans will be delighted. It definitely delivers.

In fact it's probably the best. The central crime that Duffy's team attempts to solve is more dramatic, its tentacles spreading far more widely into the social and political spheres that make up the conflict-ridden reality of Northern Ireland during the Troubles.

And Inspector Duffy himself is rather more fleshed out. His usual intelligence and courage are there, but special attention this time is given to his rather dissolute, louche and hopelessly disorganised personal life. (There's also more sex in this one - never a bad thing!)

But his career in the police force is going nowhere. On so many levels the man is a mess, and he needs to make some big decisions. Dulling his restlessness in ever larger gulps of single malt and sniffs of cocaine at all hours of the day and night, rarely sleeping, at least in anything resembling a bed, and never eating much other than toast and chips is not cutting it. He's even worse than Rebus.

An opportunity presents itself to transfer to Intelligence at MI5, but that dissolves in a particular tragedy at the end. 

McKinty has a nice knack of building fascinating sub-plots into his tales, and this novel is no exception. Duffy's given responsibility for mentoring a newly-minted, young detective constable, Lawson, who turns out to be an interesting and likable character. Duffy's natural leadership style is one of honesty and confrontation, and his complete inability to tolerate 'bullshit' is absolutely refreshing.

All the swagger and vitality of McKinty's prose is here in spades, and it's glorious as usual:

We walked back to Chief Inspector Kennedy.
'Well', he said. 'Can we finally get fucking going?'
'If by going, you mean get going back to that ruinous cesspit of incompetence and inadequacy known as Larne RUC, then yes, you can get going, Kennedy, and if you want I'll come down and give you boys a seminar on how to read a fucking map because clearly you morons didn't twig that this property is a good two hundred yards on our side of the jurisdiction line'.
Kennedy's blimpish purple face began to swell up like Violet Beauregarde's.
'Ive got something to say to you Inspector...' he spluttered.
'Well, go ahead and say, then, you big dozy cunt,' I told him.

And constantly peppered with things like this:

Eventually the clock got its sorry arse round to five o'clock.

Any new instalment of Duffy is a must-read. This one is no exception.  

Saturday, February 7, 2015

James Bradley's Clade

The main character in this new book from noted Australian novelist James Bradley is planet Earth. 

The human characters, none of whom we ever really connect with and most of whom arrive on the scene for a chapter or two then disappear, are inconsequential to the main drama of climate change which is reeking havoc all around.

The story is set in a 21st century future over the course of a few generations and Bradley is relentless in listing every possible disaster that climate scientists have long foretold and that is now happening.

'..last year their worst fears were realised. The rains that usually arrived in July or August failed to appear, leaving the subcontinent to bake in record heat. Crops failed, leading to food shortages and starvation. Then in November torrential rain and massive floods killed more than a million and left another hundred million homeless. And finally, in the aftermath, the economy collapsed, leading to widespread unemployment that is behind the riots in Mumbai and Calcutta in recent weeks...this year will be worse.'

'..mega-blizzards in North America, tornados in China, the first widespread methane ruptures in Siberia.'

In the Australian bush 'most of the birds are gone now...there have been huge die-offs, great waves of birds falling from the skies..'

And, gasp, '..since the crop failures three years ago, coffee has become increasingly expensive and difficult to get.'

A bleak, apocalyptic scenario unfolds and civilisations from East to West unravel. Genetically engineered crops are unleashing deadly viruses killing millions; 'illegal' immigrants fleeing starvation and disease are everywhere and being savagely rounded up. 

As I was reading this novel I became less and less engaged. It veered on disaster porn. Bradley himself was refusing to engage. There was no critique, no distance, no comment.

Until, that is, about 90% of the way though. The final pages introduce an element of hope and optimism, and the author's reflections are beautifully articulated. We get a meditation on transience as if the camera is now panning out, seeing every little drama in a larger, more cosmic, context.

  '..[he] was reminded of the way the land is never still, existing instead in a process of constant change: the movement of the weather, the march of the seasons, the long oscillation of climate systems, their cycles repeated over and over.

Outside, the desert moves by. The first time he came here the sheer emptiness of the landscape frightened him, but as the years have passed he has learned to appreciate the echoes of other ages contained within it, to love the frozen archeology of the broken rock, the lifted plains, the dust. Now when he looks out at the desert he sees what he sees in the sky, the great depth of time, and silence.

Yet what of the future? What will be here eons from now? The ice is almost gone, but while it may take millions of years, there is little doubt that one day it will return, creeping back to cover the land, and the world will change once more, the turmoil and destruction of the past century being little more than a spasm, an interregnum in the great cycles of the planet's existence.' 

This character's name is Noah, grandson of Adam, the originator of the clade (ancestry). The biblical names are significant.

So in the end, on refection overnight, I decided I loved this book after all. I didn't think I would.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Cory Doctorow's Information Doesn't Want to Be Free

'The Internet era has conjured forth mountains of nonsense about the death of copyright. Reformers have claimed that copyright is dead because the Internet makes it impossible to control who copies what; copyright supporters have said that the Internet itself must be contained, to head off that grim fate. 

This is rubbish.'

Author, Internet/technology guru and activist Cory Doctorow has written many articles (mainly on the popular and influential weblog Boing Boing) on copyright, Digital Rights Management (DRM) and privacy issues, but this little gem of a book brings all his insights and reflections together in one comprehensive, superbly written package.

It's an antidote to the sort of nonsense served up as sophisticated critique by whiny spokespeople for entertainment and publishing conglomerates like Andrew Keen (who's latest book I reviewed here). Its prime focus is helping creatives understand and appreciate all the ways in which they can make money in the new digital age - 'how do I get people to pay me?'

But it ranges far more widely than that. It's full of stories and histories, and most enjoyably quotable quotes.

I can't resist including a few here:

'One thing we know about audiences is that they aren't very interested in hearing excuses about why they can't buy the media they want, when they want it, in the format they want to buy it in....they'll pay for it if it's for sale, but if it's not, they'll just get it for free. Locking users out doesn't reduce downloads, it reduces sales.'

'The Internet isn't just a copying machine, it's an audience machine'. 

'In the twenty-first century copying isn't a problem. In the twenty-first century copying is a fact. You can't and won't solve copying.'

If you're at all interested in or fascinated by the many issues, problems and solutions thrown up by the Internet age then you'll cherish this book.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Mayday: How Warring Egos Forced Qantas Off Course

Most Australians have a view about Alan Joyce, the current CEO of Qantas. He's either a fucking little Irish runt who's sapped the life out of a 90 year old iconic Australian-owned airline, or a smart energetic leader unafraid to take on the huge task of dragging a failing company into the 21st century.

During my reading of journalist Matt O'Sullivan's absorbing new book I veered from one extreme to the other, but by the end I was neither. I was sort of stuck in the middle, having developed a lot more respect for airline CEOs trying to operate successfully today in a crazy, endlessly battered industry.

At the young age of 42 Joyce succeeded a much older and more experienced Geoff Dixon who was CEO in the early 2000s. Dixon had it good. The 2001 collapse of Ansett early in his term handed Qantas a 90% share of the Australian domestic market on a platter and enabled it to book strong and steady profits for a decade. Joyce on the other hand had to immediately confront the global financial crisis in 2008 which blew away so much highly profitable corporate travel; had to contend with the freeing up of the Australian market for foreign airlines, particularly low cost Middle East and Asian giants; had to fight off an emerging Virgin Airlines which was majority owned by cashed up and hungry giants like Singapore Airlines, Etihad and Air New Zealand; had to deal with record high oil prices; and had to wrestle with the Qantas Act, a regulatory framework that limited foreign investment to 49%. 

Qantas was being hammered on all fronts. How Qantas management dealt with all this is a business story with many dimensions - strategic, financial, operational and political. Not the least of these is the disastrous industrial relations drama that Joyce engineered in October 2011 when he suddenly grounded the entire Qantas fleet, stranding 100,000 passengers around the world, all because he couldn't negotiate a successful outcome with a range of union leaders representing ground staff, engineers and pilots. It was the 'thermo-nuclear option' and was a kick in the face to loyal customers, many of whom have never flown Qantas since. 

O'Sullivan is a senior business journalist for Fairfax and has reported on Qantas and the airline industry for decades. His book is full of behind-the-scenes detail and drama as he's obviously had access to countess insiders over the years. 

If you're into business books, as I am, you will enjoy this well-written and researched tale immensely.