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In which Netty goes for a wander along the Songlines … and why you should, too. Like, right now.

September 13, 2014

songlines-coverSometimes someone on the outside looking in can tell a story better than those enmeshed in the very thick of it. Which may explain, in part, why the late English writer Bruce Chatwin is responsible for a book widely acknowledged as one of the finest on the uneasy truce between modern and ancient Australian indigenous culture – his 1987 fiction/non-fiction hybrid The Songlines.

More on that particular format later.

The widely travelled Chatwin visited central Australia, travelling between Alice Springs and Katherine, in the mid-1980s, specifically to explore an interest in our indigenous culture that had first been piqued in his boyhood and subsequently write about it. The Songlines recounts his time spent there, the people he met – both the indigenous and non-indigenous – and how he weaved what he learned into an over-arching theory, which he had been formulating for many years previously, about the nomadic nature of mankind.

His main guide to the red centre is thirtysomething Arkady Volchok, a first-generation Australian of Russian-Ukrainian immigrant parentage, who draws on a vast knowledge of, and empathy with, the local indigenous peoples to interpret tribal law within the context of the contentious Land Rights Act. He acts as a mediator between those who want to preserve the land and those who want to exploit it. A South Australian who has fallen in love with life in the desert, Arkady, an oft-victim of casual racism himself, bemoans the fact that “islanders” were the first to discover Australia – rather than land-bound Europeans such as Russians, Slavs, Hungarians or even Germans. “They never understood it,” he asserts. “They’re afraid of space. We could have been proud of it. Loved it for what it was. I don’t think we’d have sold it off so easily.”

Chatwin’s particular area of interest – which he readily relates to his time living in and travelling through Africa – is the indigenous concept of the “songlines”. That is, back in the Dreamtime, the ancestors had created themselves, in the image of a specific totemic species (Wallaby, Kangaroo, Snake, etc), and then scattered a trail of songs along their travels – in effect, singing the country into existence and forging an invaluable map of survival across its rough and inhospitable terrain, a “document” to be handed down, word of mouth, to future generations.

The writer neatly surmises the relationship between the indigenous and the land: “Aboriginals … could not imagine territory as a block of land hemmed in by frontiers: but rather as an interlocking network of ‘lines’ or ‘ways through’ … the definition of a man’s ‘own country’ was ‘the place in which I do not have to ask’ … Yet to feel ‘at home’ in that country depended on being able to leave it … “ It is fascinating stuff; it is the origins and the history of Australia’s first people, and it is a story I suspect very few of us immigrant Australians – that is, the vast majority of us who do not have indigenous ancestry – knows. Which is not just saddening, it’s an indictment, particularly on our political and educational sectors. End of soapboxing from me!

Chatwin relishes his time in the outback, and amongst the people, and finds parallels to the course of his own life in his learnings: “Man was born in the desert, in Africa. By returning to the desert he rediscovers himself,” he muses at one point. He digs out some notebooks he had started compiling in Africa: “What I learned there – together with what I now knew about the Songlines – seemed to confirm … that Natural Selection has designed us … for a career of seasonal journeys on foot (italics his) through a blistering land of thorn-scrub or desert”. A chunk of excerpts from the notebooks follows, and are periodically interspersed through the remaining 100 pages.

Just as interesting as Chatwin’s encounters with the indigenous are the Caucasians whom he meets – and their reasons and motivations for having relocated to the heart of the country, with all its assorted trials and tribulations, or being frequent visitors to the area. Arkady is a real gem – the heart and soul of the book – as is his (eventual) fiancée and female counterpart Marian; then there’s Cullen storeowner and caravan-dweller Rolf Niehart and his partner Wendy; comi-tragic old-timer Jim Hanlon; bookseller Enid Lacey and arts patron Eileen Houston; and the pastoral Fathers of the outback missionaries. Their stories overlap and intertwine and add to the book’s rich fabric of central Australian life in the latter part of the 20th century, of a sometimes tainted co-existence with its original tenants.

Now to my two quibbles: one minor, one not so. I felt the extracts from “the notebooks”, whilst interesting and providing both context and back story to Chatwin’s life and quests, were over-abundant, especially as they continued to pepper the latter pages of the book. I wanted more of the story itself – and here’s the rub. It turns out – and I am sort of glad I didn’t learn this until after I’d finished the book – that it is exactly that, in part: fiction.

To all intents and purpose The Songlines is presented as a non-fiction, so it was disappointing, and then some, to discover some of these characters may not have existed, might have been amalgamations, that some of the events portrayed may not have actually occurred. After heavily investing in the book, it was kind of like finding out there’s no Santa Claus. Although I suppose the fact it is housed in the fiction section might have been a bit of a giveaway …

As I said, it’s a quibble, of sorts. Because at the end of the day The Songlines is not only one of the books from which I’ve learned the most, but one of those I’ve most enjoyed reading. Chatwin was a renowned story-teller, and as a travel writer he is right up there with the likes of Paul Theroux, one of his peers and pals.

This is essential reading on so many levels, but with an added, especial resonance for Australians. If you haven’t yet made its acquaintance, get thee to a bookshop – stat. Or one of those newfangled Kindle-type whatsiemadoodles. Whatever floats your boat. Just read it, right? Right.

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In which Netty delves into Lydia Davis’s politics of the personal – and finds it much more enticing than that dross they dish up in Canberra …

August 17, 2014

Another month, another volume of short stories written by an American woman …

Regular readers may recall that just last month I was particularly scathing of Mary Gaitskill’s Stories. Not long after I blogged I got a message from Andy opining that I was “harsh” and wondering if I’d reconsidered after reading his glowing appraisal. It took all of a nanosecond for me to realise that no, there was no reconsidering to be done. I stand by my verdict on Gaitskill, harsh or otherwise.

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Lydia Davis seems to really like cats. I won’t hold this against her …

Lydia Davis, on the other hand …

While Gaitskill was my choice – mistaken identity or not – Andy has been pushing for Davis for a couple of years now. So it’s a pity that she did not live up to his expectations. Me, I went in thinking just about anything had to be better than ol’ Mary, so maybe that reflected in my extremely favourable reaction to Davis. Maybe. Or maybe she’s just the bomb.

What neither Andy nor me realised going in was Davis was once married to Paul Auster, a firm ANRC favourite. I am not sure how long the union lasted – they wed in 1974, but Auster was married to another novelist, Suri Hustvedt, by 1981, so presumably not long. Like her ex, Davis is also a proficient translator of French literature (most notably Proust and Flaubert); and their writing careers follow a similar timeframe and trajectory. I kept wondering as I read these stories, particularly the earlier ones, if the “ex” to whom Davis’s narrators referred was actually Auster. Possibly this somewhat interfered with my perceptions – Auster is certainly a formidable literary figure, but then so is Davis. Also, Auster doesn’t have a Man Booker International Prize (which Davis won in 2013). Not that this is a game of bookish tit-for-tat or anything like that!

I’ll keep the Gaitskill references to a minimum, because she and Davis, stylistically, are very different writers; the former is only my immediate touchstone because she is my most recently read. Although Davis was first published in the mid-1970s and has around a dozen collections to her name – some of which overlap – The Collected Stories (published in 2009) starts, somewhat confusingly, with the 1986 selection Break It Down and takes in 1997’s Almost No Memory, 2001’s Samuel Johnson Is Indignant and wraps up with 2007’s Varieties Of Disturbance (there have been a couple of post-2009 collections, the most recent of which was published just a couple of months ago).

As Andy noted, Collected Stories is more than 700 pages long, comprising 199 stories (I counted them!) You could argue that “stories” is a misnomer in a lot of cases – some of these stories are very short, a page, a half-page, even a sentence. I liked that a lot – I admire economy in writers, and sometimes a story can absolutely be finished in a sentence. To wit: the title story of Samuel Johnson Is Indignant.

Samuel Johnson Is Indignant:

that Scotland has so few trees.

See? It’s perfect. It’s so simple, yet so perfect in its succinctness – and so funny. Davis is really funny a lot of the time, although it’s rarely obvious humour. It’s more the dry-and-wry variety. And that suits me just fine.

Another thing about Davis is she is an absolute master of what I call politics of the personal. She can cut to the core of any male-female relationship, from both sides of the equation, and distil its very essence in just a few words, sentences, pages. And that was, far and away, what impressed me most about her writing. It is chock-a-block full of fundamental truths of male-female dynamics that we rarely, if ever, admit to anyone else, including our partners – let alone ourselves. Trust me – you will laugh and cringe at the same time as you recognise yourself, your partners, your friends in these pages, in these tales.

From the opening story (called, uh “Story”), about a woman obsessing about the intricacies of her, possibly nascent, relationship, it is writ large, front and centre. The level of unnecessary miscommunication between the pair over the course of a few hours at night provides the comedy, but the underlying uncertainty and fear of mind games provides the uncomfortable recognition factor here: “The fact that he does not tell me the truth all the time makes me not sure of his truth at certain times, and then I work to figure out for myself if what he is telling me is the truth or not, and sometimes I can figure out if it’s not the truth and sometimes I don’t know and never know, and sometimes just because he says it to me over and over again I am convinced it is the truth because I don’t believe he would repeat a lie so often”.

Who among us hasn’t stayed up half the night twisting themselves in and out of knots as they grapple with the perceptions and misconceptions of and within a relationship? Davis gets this, and she nails it just about every time she steps into this territory. This is the sort of revelatory writing in which few authors really, rarely suceed. Davis does it effortlessly, time and again, with her incise and incendiary prose.

In his Gaitskill blog, Andy noted he had already ordered her other books on the strength of Stories. I will be doing the same with Davis. I can’t recommend her strongly enough, but I recognise that she won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. And certainly, not all of these stories work. But, oh boy, when they do … and much more often that not, they do – and in spades.

My literary find of the year, so far. What a smart, savvy, switched-on female voice – stunning stuff. Highly recommended. Oh, I said that already, didn’t I?

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The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis – Once again, Andy admits to some bemusement

August 2, 2014

Jonathan Franzen: “Davis is a magician of self-consciousness.”

Dave Eggers: “I push her books on everyone I know.”

Philip Hensher: “A real revelation of the remaining possibilities of fiction.”

Ali Smith: “There is no other writer quite like her.”

Rick Moody: “The best prose stylist in America.”

These quotes taken from the e-version of Davis’s coillected stories I’ve downloaded to my iPad. I’m sure the quotes in Netty’s hard-copy version are identical. I’m sure if I hit Mr Google I’d find a load more praise for Davis’s stories, and style, her brevity and her wit.

davisUp front, I wasn’t as bemused by the praise lavished on Davis as I was on Sylvia Plath’s iconic status among, well, pretty much anybody who reads anything other than car manuals. Plath left me cold, confused, utterly perplexed. Davis doesn’t have quite Plath’s legendary place in the literary pantheon, not just yet, anyway (she hasn’t topped herself, obviously). And I probably appreciated, and certainly understood, Davis’s writing a lot more than Plath’s. But why these stories would garner the praise I’ve summarised above leaves me bewildered.

Netty disagrees, just quietly. While I thought Mary Gaitskill’s stories were completely awesome, and while I got, I think, exactly what she was trying to do with them, Netty found them tedious and self-indulgent. Netty much prefers Davis’s stories -although exactly why is something you’ll have to wait for her to explain.

One of the problems here maybe that I’ve read  700-plus pages of Davis’s stories in four or five weeks. It’s the first I’ve read of her work. Perhaps if I’d read her first stories in the mid-’80s, and read her following collections as they were released, my appreciation would be greater. As it is I’ve read so much “stuff”, “stuff” in which I could not detect anything that remotely resembled a pattern, or a purpose, that I find myself swimming in an ocean of rather well-written fiction, probably fiction, some of which may actually be reportage, or perhaps fiction masquerading as fiction, some of it perhaps poetry, or perhaps prose poetry, if you actually believe such a thing exists. Some of it is obviously flash fiction, or whatever label you want to use. A lot of it is funny, and clever, and it’s rarely boring (although some of it is -obviously this particular story sticks in my mind because it’s at the collection’s end, but Cape Cod Diary or whatever it’s called is pretty meh). That she can make the recreation of a doomed explorer’s diary fascinating, or an examination of a class of schoolchildren’s letters to a sick classmate entrancing, is one thing. But you – or at least I – read these (much longer) pieces, and then the one-line or one-paragraph or one-page pieces that are scattered between the longer pieces and they are, for the most part, enjoyable but insubstantial, they do not take you as a reader – or at least not me as a reader, anyway – anywhere.

Perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps that’s what I’m missing. I mean, given those who praise her, obviously I’m missing something.

These stories made me smile, and think, occasionally. But they did not live for me in the way Gaitskill’s did. Or Carver’s. Or Flannery O’Connor’s. Clearly I am missing something. But I’m not sure I care.

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In which Netty tunes into DeLillo’s White Noise … and likes what she hears. Like, a lot.

July 30, 2014

noise-picI’m a big fan of white noise. I use white noise apps and machines on a daily basis: anywhere and everywhere I need to block out the incessant din of other people and the oft-annoying frequencies they generate, knowingly or otherwise. It’s not for everyone, but the distorted, all-encompassing buzz is both a source of comfort and salvation for this urban dweller (for anyone interested I recommend Simply Noise, and no – this is not an advertisement!).

Don DeLillo’s eighth novel, White Noise was published in 1985, well predating such devices. It wasn’t even his original title – electronics giant Panasonic vetoed DeLillo’s proposed use of its name as the book’s moniker. It’s widely considered DeLillo’s breakthrough novel – the book that, after a decade and a half, took him from a cultish underground following into the literary mainstream and won the first of many important awards to boot.

This being the fifth DeLillo novel I have read – and with three more to come in this mini-challenge – I feel like I’ve settled into his groove now. I go in knowing what to expect from this author – dense and difficult themes explored in clear and concise language, told in first or third person by complicated and complex male narrators/characters, and with no obvious indicators of where the plot is heading or how it is going to be resolved. No one could ever accuse DeLillo of being an easy read, but the rewards are manifest and many for doing so.

And I can safely say White Noise is my favourite thus far in my journey through DeLillo’s back catalogue, although I freely acknowledge I’m only just under a third of the way there. And – oddly for a DeLillo – the first third of the book was a surprisingly easy read, with the pages just flying by (I note he redeemed himself in the latter stages of the book).

As White Noise opens, Professor Jack (J.A.K.) Gladney, North America’s pre-eminent Hitler scholar, is teaching his (somewhat controversial, I would have thought!) subject of choice and happily raising his blended brood of four with his fourth wife (his fifth marriage overall), Babette, in a small American Midwestern college town.

The smart and snappy first section, Waves and Radiation, introduces this eminently likeable, idiosyncratic, modern-day Brady Bunch. Heinrich and Steffie (Jack’s kids) and Denise and Wilder (Babette’s) have settled into reasonable domestic harmony; Jack and Babette also have other children who don’t live with them (Jack’s daughter Bee makes a brief, hardly noticeable appearance in the first section). It is heavily dialogue-driven, sizzling with a satirical sass that quickly pulls in the reader and almost lulls him/her into a false sense of security.

Life is hectic, but good. Scratch the surface and look again. Jack suffers from insomnia, while Babette fights a constant battle against middle-age bulge; both are terrified at the thought of their respective deaths and each other’s, with poignant nocturnal conversations and musings that stretch into the wee hours. Denise, a wary, watchful tween, obsessively monitors her mother’s health and ingestions (with good reason, as it turns out), while her whip-smart, brooding stepbrother Heinrich turns his gaze outwards from the domestic arena.

It is Heinrich, decked out in camouflage, armed with binoculars and perched on a second-story ledge at the family home, who first notices the “airbourne toxic event” that heralds the novel’s second section. It forces the township to evacuate their homes, during which Jack is inadvertently exposed to the noxious cloud of gas while filling the family car’s petrol tank. Tests carried out at the emergency centre lead Jack to believe the exposure will hasten his death, adding another layer to his deep-set paranoia, while it turns out that Babette has drastically and irrevocably taken matters into her own hands when it comes to facing down her fears, as revealed in the third and final section, Dylarama.

While the Gladney clan are front and centre throughout the novel, mention must be made of Jack’s academic colleagues, particularly recent lecturer recruit Murray Jay Siskind, with whom Jack shares friendship and deep philosophical conversations. Siskind is a frequent and often funny presence throughout these pages, popping up in some unlikely situations and circumstances – and a pivotal discussion between the pair late in the book becomes a call-to-arms spur for Jack that threatens to bring about a seemingly unavoidable culmination of events to that point. Nope, no spoilers from me!

This is a canny and astute meditation on modern life and death in late twentieth-century America, from where it had come and where it was going. During one heated family conversation, after the airborne toxic event (there is a US band, still going today, who took the phrase as its name), an exasperated Heinrich warns: “The real issue is the kind of radiation that surrounds us every day … forget spills, fallouts, leakages. It’s the things right around you in your own house that’ll get you sooner or later.” While Jack and Babette are going to extreme measures to outrun their fear of their eventual demise, Murray muses on the real reason behind Jack’s professional focus on Hitler: “(He is) larger than death. You thought he would protect you … the overwhelming horror would leave no room for your own death … ‘Submerge me … absorb my fear’.” Another of Jack’s colleagues, scientist Winnie Richards, crucially reminds him: “It’s a mistake to lose one’s sense of death, even one’s fear of death. Isn’t death the boundary we need?” DeLillo was closing in on the big five-oh! when the novel was first published, so it’s easy to see from where these preoccupations might have been coming.

Overall White Noise is a brilliant read – pretty much flawless in plot, characterisation and especially dialogue. At only one point towards the end did the potential “wrapping up” of the plot seem a little too obvious to me (something of which one could rarely accuse DeLillo!), but that is a minor quibble. This is a book that stays with you and makes you go on wondering long after you finished the final page.

So. I would have to say if you’re only going to read one DeLillo, make it this one. Of course, I may well a different view in another one, two, three books’ time. Stay tuned!

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Bad Behavior – Andy gets down and dirty with Mary Gaitskill

July 20, 2014

“Hate” may be too strong a word for Netty’s reaction to these stories. “Contempt” probably isn’t. She certainly didn’t like them, did she? I didn’t like them so much I’ve already ordered in Gaitskill’s other two collections of stories (she is not widely available in Australia). I don’t think I’d heard of the writer before Netty mentioned her late last year. I’m quite glad she got the name wrong.

This is the first image that comes up when you google "bad behavior"

This is the first image that comes up when you google “bad behavior”

On one level Netty’s criticisms have some grounds – the stories are autobiographical and self-indulgent, the woman in most if not all of them is essentially a version of Gaitskill, and some of  what she experiences and does is duplicated in a story here and a story there. I suppose I can understand why someone might find these things irritating. I didn’t. I loved it.

Maybe I’m reading something into these stories that isn’t there, or maybe Netty missed it, or maybe Netty didn’t miss it, maybe it’s there and she detected it and it annoyed here even more. But there’s an irony at work in most of these stories, a self-deprecatory distance that compensates for the stories’ self-indulgence. Yes, Mary says, I’m writing about myself. But god, was I a prat or what? If these stories are, for the most part, autobiographical, I don’t think Gaitskill necessarily has that much time for herself as she recounts the situations in which she has found herself in the past. That might be too strong. There is authorial empathy, but also disdain.

The snatch of WH Auden (Auden’s snatch! Ooh err vicar!) that opens Bad Behavior is a tad beguiling. September 1, 1939 was the day Germany invaded Poland and is generally regarded as the day World War II began. Mingling words like “conventions” and “furniture” and “home” with words like “conspire” and “fort” suggests, to me at least, conflict on the home front – the battle of the sexes, perhaps? – while “lost in a haunted wood” perfectly conjures New York’s “blackboard jungle” (sans teachers, natch). “Children afraid of the night/Who have never been happy or good” arguably describes every character in this collection.

"I mean, like, I totes get irony, I mean, like, obvs."

“I mean, like, I totes get irony, I mean, like, obvs.”

Not all of the stories impressed equally; among my favourites would be A Romantic Weekend, which is a truly hilarious account of complete breakdown in communication between a woman who thinks she is a masochist but probably just feels a bit sorry for herself and a man who thinks he’s a sadist and probably is, but is also a total dick. They get to a point late in the story where they begin to understand each other, and then, by story’s end, are pretty much back exactly where they started. The two most explicit sex-work stories, Something Nice and Trying to Be, were also favourites (prostituion may be mentioned in a couple of other stories, but in these two it’s central). Something Nice is written from a male perspective, as is the first story, Daisy’s Valentine, which is good but not as impressive. This shift of perspective adds another level to the collection, and the final scene of Something Nice is fabulous. Secretary is also memorable, as is Heaven, the final story, and I disagree with Netty about that story’s final scene – it’s actually wonderful and heartbreaking, given what’s come before.

In among the occasionally sado-masochistic sex, and the more often run-of-the-mill sex, the booze and the drugs, the wannabe writers, the prostitution, the most horrible workplaces, the mostly horrible parties, the mostly horrible apartments, the mostly horrible people, there’s another dominant theme in at least a couple of stories: the alienated best friend. Clearly during her first years in New York Gaitskill’s friendships were occasionally fraught. Perhaps the friendships referenced in Bad Behavior boil down to just the one, or maybe Mary was a tad contrary and alienated a bunch of people. Either way, it’s almost as obvious a motif in the collection as sex work.

I will acknowledge there are a couple of factors that might cloud my judgment of these stories. The first is that they are all very New York, a city I’ve never visited, a city I must. must visit sometime soon. I don’t know why I’m so goddamned obsessed with it but I am. And obviously I’ll be disappointed as all fuck when I finally get there, because it can’t possibly live up to my expectations, but get there I must. These stories are set in a New York I suspect no longer exists – written in the 70s, I believe, published in the 80s. Doesn’t matter. I want.

The other factor is that the stories I write myself, and very occasionally manage to get published, are autobiographical and self-indulgent and quite often rather filthy and at least (I hope) slightly ironic and self-deprecating. So I guess, you know, Gaitskill might’ve struck a chord of some sort, on that level. Although mine are all waaaaay shorter, and not remotely as good.

In closing, I would like to inform the woman on the front cover of my edition, and also Netty’s: That is not how you plank. If you want an exercise that hits your abs, kindly refer to a workout manual. Thank you.

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In which Netty comes to the conclusion that Bad Behavior should have dispensed with the “behaviour” bit …

July 16, 2014

gaitskill-cover
It wasn’t till afterwards that I realised I’d done it again. As in, mixed up authors. Chose one author when I actually meant to choose another. It happened once before in the Reading Challenge, in, I think, the second year – Andy and I read Raymond Carver when I thought we were reading Raymond Chandler. Doyen of the American short story versus hard-boiled mystery writer. Ah, yep …

Of course, that turned out to be a masterstroke – I still think, seven years down the track, that of all the authors we’ve read during that time, close to 100 now!, that Carver is my favourite by a country mile. And I say that in full knowledge that we’ve read some absolute corkers in that time. We’ve also read some absolute clunkers, thankfully far fewer in number.

So, yeah, Mary Gaitskill was my choice; I was enthusing to Andy that finally we’d be reading a female member of the ‘90s American literary brat pack (“I think she even went out with David Foster Wallace,” I exclaimed). Memo to self: do your research first: it was actually Mary Karr who dated Wallace and hung out with Franzen, Eugenides, Moody, et al. She writes literary memoirs, I guess kind of like Elizabeth Wurtzel – same era, too. Now, Wurtzel (who also, incidentally, dated Wallace once – or maybe just had a fling with him) is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m a big, big fan. Maybe I could be a big fan of Karr’s too. Maybe we can find out in another instalment of the Reading Challenge, coming to you in the not-too-distant future.

Harking back to the corkers versus clunkers debate, I’m afraid to say for me, Gaitskill is more the latter than the former. I didn’t really enjoy Bad Behavior, her (critically acclaimed – she even gets a shout-out from Alice Munro on the sleeve) 1988 collection of short stories. In fact, I kept getting nasty flashbacks to another collection of short stories I read just last year, Frederick Barthelme’s Moon Deluxe (you can read what I had to say about that here). The two have much in common – unmemorable characters in stories that don’t really go anywhere and have unsatisfactory endings.

For all the ill-will I felt towards Moon Deluxe, I will say this for it – at least those stories had variety of both characters and plot. Bad Behavior was Gaitskill’s first published work, written in her early twenties, but not making it into print until she was in her mid-thirties (hardly prolific, she has since published two novels and two collection of short stories (or, as she styles it, just “stories”) in the ensuing two and a half decades). And you can tell – it’s very much the first, largely autobiographical work of a writer, telling and retelling the same stories about the same character: namely herself. And that gets real old, real fast. ‘Cos at the end of the day, there’s not much very interesting about a young woman, with tendencies towards depression and masochism (and sheer, tedious whininess), moving to New York City and wanting to make it as a writer, working to make ends meet – often as a prostitute (but hey, no judgement) – while fighting off apathy, procrastination and writer’s block.

Ho hum.

Granted, not all of the stories rehash this character and scenario, but most of them do (reaching a nadir with “Connection”) in one way or another. Gaitskill has been quite open about the fact that she worked as a call girl and a stripper while trying to establish herself as a writer; possibly that is one of the least interesting things about her. Often her stories mine sado-masochism (included in this collection is “Secretary”, which was later made into the not-very-good 2002 movie of the same name, significantly tweaked and starring the awesome Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Spader, which should have made it very good indeedy) – and I’m sorry, but in Gaitskill’s hands, this is not very interesting. The Marquis de Sade, she is not (although, to her credit, she is not Fifty Shades of Grey awful either). Witness “A Romantic Weekend”, which is – both plot and character-wise – just dreadful.

It’s not that Gaitskill can’t write. She can. And she knows how to structure a story. (Then again, so can the aforementioned Barthelme.) But geez, this collection is just a drag. I got to the final story “Heaven” and thought my luck finally might have changed – it traces a family of two adults and four children across two states and three decades, and is actually interesting and holds your attention. But then it peters out as unsatisfactorily as its precursors, with a ridiculously naff ending.

Seriously, this book is the literary equivalent of having (rather dull) sex without reaching a climax. You walk away at the end wondering why you bothered and knowing you could do a much better job yourself.

PS: Make sure you read Andy’s views on Bad Behavior, coming to this blog very soon. He has a very, very different take on it to yours truly!

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A Severed Head – Andy and Aunty Iris have a naughty night in

July 14, 2014

A Severed Head, published in 1961, is one of Iris Murdoch’s most popular novels – understandably. It’s about sex, it’s very funny, it’s clever, it’s about sex, it’s satirical and farcical and very funny, it’s brilliantly constructed… did I mention it’s about sex?

a-severed-headMartin Lynch-Gibbon (snorkle), 41, is married to the slightly older Antonia, and having an apparently carefree affair with the much younger Georgie. Antonia is in therapy with the slightly older (than her) American, Palmer Anderson, a very good friend of Martin’s. Martin finds the whole therapy thing slightly frivolous, but accepts his wife seems to find some benefit in it. Martin heads home from a pre-Christmas romp with Georgie, expecting to spend a perfectly average evening with Antonia, only to be told – by Antonia – that she is in love with Palmer, has been having an affair with Palmer for some time, and wants a divorce.

I won’t give much more away that that. There are a couple of other characters in the mix – Martin’s brother Alexander, a sculptor, whose studio features a likeness of Antonia as well as an unfinished head – and Palmer’s half-sister Honor. Between them, these six characters – Martin, Georgie, Antonia, Palmer, Honor and Alexander – weave a wondrous, ridiculous erotic pastiche. While these six do not partake of same-sex activities among themselves they do talk about it a bit, and Martin’s two lesbian secretaries are probably in the only stable relationship in the entire book.

A Severed Head is widely regarded as a “harbinger” of the sexual revolution of the 60s. I’m not convinced by this. Most of the novel’s characters are middle-aged, for a start, while the supposed revolution of the 60s was driven by “the youth”. They’re mostly also terribly middle-class, and terribly fond of the trappings of a middle-class existence; these are exactly the things the 60s – supposedly – rejected.

One aspect, and a hilarious one, that perhaps does presage the sexual revolution is the insistence, on Antonia and Palmer’s part, that Martin be, not only not angry with them, but happy that they have found happiness, and continue to be a part of their lives. And they, of course, will be happy for him, whenever he finds happiness … Wherever he finds it. This fuggly cuddly nonsense does strike me as terribly 60s, and it is terribly, hysterically well done. Antonia and Palmer are at their obnoxious best in these scenes.

The “severed head” of the novel’s title is referenced a couple of times in the book – Alexander has a couple of heads in his studio, and towards the novel’s end Honor – a professor of anthropology – discusses the severed heads of “savage” tribes around the world. Perhaps I’m a bit obsessed, but the only severed head I could think of as I read this book was the severed head of the cuckolded husband – Martin, who, psychically at least, has had his dick cut off.

This leads me to one of the few aspects of the novel that bothered me. Martin is described early on, by Honor, as a violent man. Martin doesn’t seem too unhappy about this. While there are far too many violent men around in 2014 I’m not sure there are that many educated, middle-class, middle-aged run-of-the-mill chaps out there who’d be happy to hear a woman tell them they are violent. Before Honor says this to Martin he has already threatened to break his wife’s neck. After she says it he violently assaults three people – two of them women. There is no suggestion the last three events deserve the attention of the police, and as Martin threatens to break Antonia’s neck he jokes he’d probably only get a few years in jail for it if he did. The women take Martin’s violence in their stride, although both are obviously unimpressed. I think Murdoch is probably very subtly critiquing this behaviour; it’s kind of tragic that, at the beginning of the decade that supposedly liberated us all (ha, ha ha…) she felt the need to be so subtle.

This is a weakness, for me. The other is that, towards the end, the bed-jumping becomes too ridiculous. And that’s me, talking in 2014, about a novel that was published in 1961. It works as comedy, but it doesn’t work as literature, and Murdoch was writing a comic, literary novel. She succeeds on one level, and fails – though only just – on another, The Bell is definitely a superior novel, as possibly is Under the Net, and certainly The Black Prince,

A Severed Head is hugely enjoyable, and you should totally read it, but – despite what they say – it’s not Murdoch’s best novel.

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