Archive for the ‘February’ Category

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The Well – After close to 30 years, Andy finally gets around to reading Elizabeth Jolley…

March 5, 2014

… and is pleasantly surprised, and impressed, if also slightly creeped out, and maybe even a bit confused.

I’m pretty sure Elizabeth Jolley was on my literary radar in the mid to late 80s, if not at high school then certainly at uni. But for whatever reason I never got around to reading her, apart from (possibly) the occasional short story here and there. I’m not even convinced I’ve ever read a short story of hers. I am, as I said a couple of times last year, an outrageous literary sexist.

thewellThe Well is one of Jolley’s best known works, although to my knowledge she doesn’t really have a stand-out work and there are others – Palomino, Foxybaby – that Netty and I could have read. But The Well it was, on my suggestion, and I won’t be surprised if those other couple of novels, and maybe a few others things, have been downloaded to my iPad Mini in the next 12 months. Because, yes. She passed the test. She is worth revisiting. Although, admittedly, that is partly influenced by the fact that most if not all of her books are around 200 pages long. As opposed to someone like Orhan Pamuk, whose Red Book was great, but whose books are all insanely huge.

So anyway. The Well.

If this novel (and, if I remember rightly, some others of Jolley’s) lodged in my brain long before I read it, it’s because of a reputation for its kind of weird, kind of creepy, kind of not-quite-there lesbianism. Neither of the main characters is explicitly attracted to other women – in fact Katherine, the young “servant”, is obsessed with John Travolta (insert gay joke here), while her employer, Hester, is moved to tears at one stage by the innocent reminder that she never married, was never desired, has never been in love. Although she was, maybe, at one point, in love or at least obsessed with her nanny – who was in love with – and pregnant to – her dad …Anyway. There is a rather poignant point in the novel where Hester is reminded of the fact that no man has ever desired her (or at least that’s how she sees things), and this causes her some anguish, and it’s really nicely done. It’s a few lines. It’s nothing huge. But it reverberates. It sticks. It works well.

But also, Hester has this seriously weird shit going on with Katherine. And Katherine, at the beginning of the book, is 15. And Hester is what – in her 60s, maybe? I assume. That was Jolley’s age when she got this novel published. Not that those things necessarily have any correlation whatsoever.

There is a creepy, possibly homophobic, undercurrent to this novel. Hester dotes on Katherine and Katherine sometimes seems to take advantage of that, although at other times seems to be ignorant of it. Hester is deeply jealous of Katherine’s friendship with another girl from the orphanage, Joanne, who seems to know a bit more about the world than Katherine (and maybe even Hester) does. Another creepy element – Hester insists on reading all communication between Katherine and Joanne, and Katherine is OK with that. My family moved from Melbourne to country Victoria when I was 10 and I maintained, for a few years, mail contact with one friend (just the one. It was Glenroy. Fucksake, you think there were that many people worth maintaining contact with in Glenroy in 1979?). My mother was a bit of a religious nutjob back then but even she did not insist on reading my letters to my friends. Seriously. That is messed up. But Katherine has no objection.

Weird.

The novel revolves around an accident in which a thief (bizarrely, erroneously referred to as a “mysterious creature” on the back of my secondhand 1987 edition as well as Netty’s brandspanking new edition) is caught in the bullbar of Hester’s four-wheel drive, and then dispatched by Hester down the titular well. This is where things get weirder, and creepier, because as Hester lies in bed with a migraine and Katherine manically rants about her conversations with a man (yes, a man, not a mysterious creature) in the well who is alive, not dead, and who is sometimes charming and sometimes psychotic and sometimes generous (a $100 note? In Western Australia? In the ’80s? Didn’t Aussie greenbacks only come in when the Aussie currency went plastic in the early 90s?). And you start to think Hang on, how much of what Katherine is saying is true, but that sort of pushes you a bit further and you have to start to think Hang on, how much of what Hester is saying is true? Because while the novel is written in the third person it is written entirely, in the third person, from Hester’s point of view. We’ve all heard about the unreliable narrator. But unreliable third-person narrative? Not something that’s really ever occurred to me before, although a quick google search reveals “unreliable third-person narration” is in fact a thing. So there you go.

Anyway, Jolley, with her queasy, odd story, her slightly left-of-centre approach to grammar and punctuation – not breaking rules in the way other writers did before her, simply nudging and stretching- makes her a little unique. And while the novel isn’t remotely political the farm ownership sub-plot is interesting because after Glenroy I ended up in rural Victoria and, in the mid-’80s, family farms were becoming a thing of the past, being bought up by the rich neighbours to form bigger, more efficient, more profitable businesses. That’s an inadvertent element to a novel that is mostly concerned with much stranger things.

And it’s good, Not great, maybe. But really good.

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Waiting for Godot – Andy revels in a bit of existential slapstick

March 8, 2012

Years ago, in the late 90s, when the Melbourne International Arts Festival still programmed stuff people wanted to see, I went to a production of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, performed by Dublin’s Gate Theatre. They did Waiting for Godot as well but either it sold out and I could only get a (pretty shit, if I remember) seat for Endgame, or I was perverse and decided to see the less famous play. Anyway, I saw Endgame, and I thought it was hilarious and deceptively profound and oddly moving, and I told a work colleague the following day that I’d seen it and thought it was funny and she was gobsmacked because apparently I was supposed to make no sense of it whatsoever and be awed by Beckett’s awesome awesomeness. I wasn’t supposed to be amused.

Which is odd, because Waiting for Godot and Endgame would have to be the funniest pieces of theatrical writing I’ve ever read.

I read Endgame after reading Waiting for Godot for the Challenge and it was as funny as I remember it being. I’ve also read Krapp’s Last Tape, which is much shorter and less amusing and rather poignant. This post, though, is about Godot. So I suppose I’d better get a move on, hey.

Waiting for Godot is hilarious. It is also deceptively profound and oddly moving. It’s kind of existential slapstick, I reckon. Although I wonder whether you could make a solid argument for all slapstick being existential. But then you could probably make a solid argument for everything being existential. Anyway. Back to Godot. There are dick jokes, there are fart jokes, there are people falling over and failing to get up, there are sight gags aplenty, there are trousers falling down and playing funny buggers with each other’s hats. In all of this there is a fascinating meditation on life, and its apparent meaninglessness, its monotony, its repetition. “Next Day,” says the note atop Act Two. “Same Time. Same Place.” Did the writers of Groundhog Day have Waiting for Godot in mind, or was it at least an inspiration? Who would know. But Act Two of Godot plays out in roughly similar fashion to Act One. There are variations, but do the variations mean anything? Does anything mean anything? My birthday, incidentally, is Groundhog Day. Feb 2. Meaningless, of course. Just sayin’.

As Act Two opens the tree sitting centre stage, leafless in Act One, boasts a few leaves. This would suggest hope, rebirth, new beginnings. But really, does the play suggest any of that? In Act Two Pozzo is blind and the rope attached to Lucky is much shorter and he has no memory of meeting Estragon and Vladimir the day before. Why? Who knows? Did Beckett know? Maybe. The boy towards the end of each act who informs our protagonists that they wait in vain is the boy he says he isn’t. Why?

Beckett occasionally breaks through the fourth wall, which is magic. There are some comments directed to “the auditorium”, and in one of my favourite exchanges Vladimir dashes off stage looking for the dunnies – “End of the corridor, on the left,” Estragon tells him. “Keep my seat,” Vladimir says on the run. Clever-clever postmodernism shits me most of the times but how could you not read (or preferably see) this stuff and not be bowled over by how spectacularly funny, and spectacularly brilliant, it is?

Allegedly there are Freudian and Jungian elements to the play. Perhaps. I can’t say I noticed and I can’t say I care. Allegedly there are religious, specifically Christian, elements to the play. I’ll accept that, although the idea that “Godot” is “God” is ludicrous. But certainly the tree, and references to Christ’s crucifixion and the differing accounts of the thieves he was crucified with – these must be acknowledged. But I have to wonder if their inclusion is more about mockery than serious exploration.  This may sound contradictory but it seems to me there is something deeply rational about absurdist writing.  Or perhaps secular, which is less contradictor7. Either way, as far as I can see and perhaps that’s not very far, there’s not a lot of room for the spiritual in the writings of Beckett – or, for that matter, Pinter, whose plays differ from Beckett’s, but certainly have plenty of absurdity about them. And in Waiting for Godot I suspect Beckett is taking the piss out of , not seriously exploring, ideas of spirituality and religion.

As I said, I have once seen Beckett performed but this is the first of his work I’ve read. I’ve tried his fiction once or twice but it’s always seemed too weird and dense for me – although my literary fellow traveller Angela Meyer’s take on Malone Dies makes me wonder if I need to rethink that.

Beckett wrote a lot of his material, including Godot, in French. He’s clearly influenced by continental existentialism, which was much darker and more nihilistic than its English-language counterparts. But he was also Irish and the Irish are great storytellers and they love, by god do they love taking the piss. And his ability to meld these elements is  one aspect of his genius. To be sure, to be sure.

Five years into Andy and Netty’s Reading Challenge (I always wanted it to be Netty and Andy’s Reading Challenge, which would be NARC, and ho ho ho how funny would that be; but it now occurs to me that the kids – you know, the kids – the kids might read ANRC as “anarchy”. Get it? No?  Okay look probably not) it surprises me a little that it’s taken this long to read some Beckett.

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In which Netty falls for DeLillo’s Man. No pun intended.

March 13, 2011



I imagine that everyone remembers where they were on September 11, 2001. Without doubt it’s a touchstone for our generation, much the same as previous generations who remember where they were for the declaration of V-day, the advent of television, the assassination of JFK, man landing on the moon, the death of Elvis Presley, the murder of John Lennon, the Challenger space shuttle crash, the collapse of the Berlin wall, the beginning of the (first) Iraq war, the death of Princess Diana …

Here’s my 9-11 tale (well, part of it, anyways). 10.40pm Tuesday night, September 11, 2001. AEST. I’m a journo, right? And it’s a pretty slow news night, really, as you’d expect for a Tuesday night in early September. Biggest story in town is Matthew Lloyd – the Bombers are on their way to the Grand Final, but Lloyd, their spearhead, is up at the tribunal; I can’t remember the charge, but the gist of the yarn is, is he going to be wiped out for the Big One? I worked in sport back in those days – we’d finished edition, we’re watching Talking Footy on Seven; they’re talking about Lloyd, and he’s our poster for the next day; we’re wrapped up for the night and looks like we’ll get a (slightly) early cut; one of our guys goes round the corner to the news desk to ask about our cabs home. He fair-dinkum sprints back to our section. “Turn over the channel,” he says – but Channel 7 is already going straight to a report out of the United States; a plane has crashed into one of the twin towers in New York City …

Well, you know the rest … And as for me, I got home around 6.30am, just before the fourth updated edition for the night hit the streets …

Don DeLillo has been on my – and Andy’s – radar for a while now. And yeah, maybe we should have tackled Underworld, but you know what? It’s a mother-fucker of a book (1000-ish pages), and yeah, we both like to read, but we’ve also got lives – you know, we’ve got to work, and sleep, and other stuff … So, instead, we chose Falling Man. I mean, yeah, it’s only a couple of hundred pages and it’s one of DeLillo’s more recent books – you’ve gotta start somewhere …

Falling Man was published in 2007 – six years after the towers came down. If you’re that way inclined, there’s a fair raft of fiction around that deals with that particular September morning in 2001. I’ve read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which I would recommend in a heartbeat, and Nick McDonnell’s The Third Brother, which I probably wouldn’t. It’s the 10-year anniversary of that event this year, but it’s still – to me, anyway – like a wound that never really heals; you pick off the scab, and it starts to bleed all over again. And I’m saying this as someone who lives on the other side of the world; who didn’t know anyone involved in those attacks; who has no reason whatsoever to have any emotional attachment to those events; and yet … it’s still pretty raw to me, so I can only imagine what it must be like to people who lived through it.

Falling Man opens with Keith Neudecker, covered in soot, grime and blood, injured, but not seriously, carrying a briefcase, making his way through the city centre. A lawyer, he has escaped the destruction and collapse of the twin towers, and winds up on the doorstep of his ex-wife Lianne. The couple’s seven-year-old son Justin, whom they have sheltered from the news of the attacks, is nonetheless partially aware of what has happened  – he and two of his young friends isolate themselves from their parents to scour the skies with a pair of binoculars, looking for a man they know as Bill Lawton (whom they have misheard from Obama Bin Laden), fearing he will bring more destruction to their lives. Keith tracks down the owner of the briefcase he carried out of the towers; it belongs to a fellow survivor, Florence, and their connection results in a brief affair, even as Keith tries to rebuild his life with Lianne. She juggles the self-imposed demands of a group of Alzheimer’s sufferers with the ailing health of her mother Nina, and is increasingly annoyed by a neighbour in her apartment block who plays loud and – to her mind – “inappropriate” Arabic music.

Interspersed with the main narrative are several chapters relating the story of Hammad, an Arab who has undergone religious-based training in Germany and is now in the United States, undertaking flight instruction and quietly preparing for his destiny – which is to be part of the crew that pilots two commercial planes into the twin towers. That DeLillo gives these characters the names of the real-life terrorists makes these passages especially disquieting.

Several years pass after that fateful day, and Keith and Lianne have established some sort of quiet, desperate rapport on which to rebuild their marriage. Keith has abandoned law in favour of a career as a professional poker player and is often away from home, memorably crossing paths in Las Vegas with Terry Cheng, a member of his old group of poker pals, most of whom perished in the towers. Lianne’s beloved mother Nina has since died; her mother’s long-time lover Martin – who may or may not have been involved in some sort of terrorist activity himself in his youth – returns to Europe, and her Alzheimer’s group has splintered. A man whose post-9-11 performance art appals locals – and, in one elongated passage, Lianne – also passes away, from natural causes.

The book ends with Hammad aboard the plane that flies into the tower, which segues into Keith’s experience in, and subsequent escape from, the tower. There are not words that can do justice to this final chapter, a mere 10 pages long, which contains some of the most sparse, perfectly constructed and elegant prose I have ever read, and which also packs one helluva emotional punch without ever resorting to histrionics – much like the rest of this slim volume. God, this man can write. And presumably DeLillo – a New York born and bred native – has ties to this event above and beyond what someone such as myself can comprehend.  Which just makes this novel all the more astounding.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the NYC attacks. I hope I never again see anything like it in my lifetime, but then again the natural disasters that have abounded in its wake are horrific enough. When you think about it, it’s a pretty fucked-up world all around. So thank god (figuratively speaking, that is) that there are writers such as Don DeLillo around to try and make sense of it all. So, if you haven’t already done so, read Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud, and read Falling Man, and then read more DeLillo. We all owe it to ourselves. Andy and I don’t have a rating system per se on this blog, but I’m putting this one out there – right here, right now.

Five stars.

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Falling Man – Andy can’t quite believe it’s nearly 10 years since the towers came down

March 8, 2011

Don DeLillo’s one of those writers I know I should’ve read years ago. He’s pretty much what this Challenge is about. Of course the fact that THE DeLillo book we probably should read is Underworld, which is like fifty thousand million pages long, isn’t the sort of encouragement you need to delve into someone’s oeuvre. That said, next time I see a secondhand copy of Underworld for under ten bucks I may just pick it up.

Falling Man is, I think, the first 9/11 novel I’ve read (apparently, disturbingly, it’s almost a sort of genre). The falling man of the title is a reference to a famous and still distressing photograph (I’ve just googled it, looked at a dozen or so crops of it. There’s not just the one photo, either, there are at least three photos of people falling from the towers – presumably different people. Nearly ten years on they are still upsetting). The falling man of the title is also a reference to a man who, in the novel, in the days after the towers come down, makes a performance piece of that famous photo – harnesses himself up in busy public areas and recreates the pose of the falling man. Netty’s done the research and can find no suggestion that such performances actually occured post-9/11; she and I are not surprised. In the book his efforts earn him scorn, anger, outrage, disgust; in New York 10 years ago he’d have been lynched, for sure.

One of the crits in my edition berates those who find DeLillo a “cold”, “detached”, “cerebral” writer. It seems strange to me to criticise people for thinking that about his writing because he is, very definitely, a cold, detached, cerebral writer. That he can be those things and still move his readers is indicative of his talent. Given his concerns in Falling Man it would be difficult for him not to be cold and detached. While the book is, to some extent, concerned with the socio-political elements of the attack to a large extent DeLillo is more interested in exploring the impact of this earth-shattering event on the lives of the Little People. The attacks force an estranged family back together; that family, over a period of days in the novel’s first two parts and then years in its concluding chapters, once again disintegrates, its demise the result of the attacks that originally brought it back together. I’m not sure that a writer could be anything but cold and detached to depict a family’s dissolution, especially under these circumstances. DeLillo’s depiction of Lianne and Keith and Justin is clinical and yet also emotionally involving; we care about these people, we care about what is happening around them. And his depiction of the dissociation that occurs is itself cold and detached – “restrained” might be a better word. Justin, Lianne and Keith’s son, is a focus of their attention in the days after the attacks; in later pages he is more often than not referred to as “the kid”. Keith becomes more interested in his gambling, Lianne in her literary translations and her Alzheimer’s therapy group. Justin, their son, fades disturbingly into the background.

The gambling motif is interesting. On a basic level I guess it’s a reference to Keith’s luck in surviving – he was in one of the towers when the planes hit, he survived, his friend didn’t. But since finishing Falling Man I’ve read Between a Rock and a Hard Place, the book by Aron Ralston on which the movie 127 Hours is based. Ralston makes reference to a gambling term I wasn’t familiar with, “deep play”. Deep play refers to wagers  where the value of what you may lose vastly outweighs what you may win. Ralston’s talking about hiking, skiing, mountain climbing, specifically doing those things solo – where what you may win is an adrenalin rush and a sense of achievement; a foot wrong may cost you your life. I’m not sure that deep play is a concept that can be applied to Falling Man, although Keith has clearly chosen to abandon his family for the sake of the occasional win at the poker table, and the men who fly the planes into the towers (who feature in only three chapters) have clearly chosen to abandon life for the sake of an eternal reward they will never receive.

Martin is an intriguing minor character in the book. Lianne’s mum’s boyfriend (estranged, like so many others, by the end of the book) is an art dealer with a shady background. Possibly involved in the Baader-Meinhof gangs in Germany, possibly the Red Brigades in Italy, Martin despises the West – most especially the US – and has scant sympathy for the nation in the wake of 9/11. When I re-read Falling Man – and I will, probably in the not-too-distant future – I will pay more attention to Martin. I will pay more attention to a lot of things. Falling Man is a deceptively straightforward read. There are clouds of the cover; there’s a lot going on under those clouds.

Perhaps, on re-reading, I will pick up on some socio-political commentary that I missed first time round. Or maybe not. That doesn’t seem to be DeLillo’s primary focus. Still, it is galling to think that fewer than 3000 people died in the towers – a horrific total to be sure, but dwarfed by the number of people slaughtered by the American military or those funded by the United States in the 10 years since the attacks (and that’s not even taking into account the millions murdered under similar circumstances in the decades before). The image of the novel’s final two sentences in magnificent, haunting, beautiful, heartbreaking. A significant proportion of the world’s population don’t have time to appreciate magnificent, haunting, beautiful, heartbreaking literature. They’re too busy trying to dodge the bullets sold to their governments by the US of A.

OK. I’m off my high horse now. Need wine.

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Ham on Rye – Andy goes back to the world according to Chinaski

February 24, 2011

SPOILERS! Henry Chinaski is a virgin at the end of Ham on Rye. This may be the most surprising end to a novel I’ve ever read.

But before we get to Bukowski, some housekeeping. Why are you hearing from me when it’s Netty’s turn…? Actually screw that. Follow this asterisk.* That’s where the housekeeping is.

Anyway, back to Bukowski and Ham on Rye.

So yes, Bukowski’s alter ego, Henry Chinaski, is still a virgin at the end of this autobiographical coming-of-age novel. Which is bizarre given that he’s talking about “it” by Chapter 13 (there are 58 chapters). Sex infuses these pages. Bukowski’s take on it is repulsive and compulsive and also very funny, often all three at the same time. It’s offensively explicit, often scatological, and there’s a casual, almost unconscious contempt for women that is particularly confronting. Chinaski is a filthy, filthy bastard. And Bukowski, too. But despite his obsessions, Chinaski doesn’t actually get laid. I’m assuming Chinaski’s experience closely mirrors Bukowski’s (this may be a mistake) and I’m surprised; given his wholehearted embrace of alcohol abuse from a very early age, I’d have expected women (the word is, after all, the title of another of his novels) to have featured far more – ah – explicitly in his mid to late teens. Especially since there’s one kid in the book who claims to have got laid at age 4. But no. Book finishes, no cha-cha for Chinaski. Bukowski handles this really well though; he depicts Chinaski’s empty bravura with what seems genuine self-deprecation. The poor guy spends quite a lot of his time thinking about getting it on. And he can’t.

Not that he spends all his time thinking about getting it on – in fact he also spends quite a bit of time thinking about why he maybe shouldn’t get it on, not in the committed, long-term way. Bukowski was a cult figure before the publication of Ham on Rye but I think this touches on why he was – and still is – a cult figure. Desperate as he is to lose his virginity he sees marriage (in which, in his day, many people still lost their virginity) and a career and middle-class existence generally as an abhorrent trap, one he has no intention of allowing himself to fall into. He spends a lot of time as a younger child contemplating his parents’ lives, and the negative influence he perceives them to have on each other and on him; in later life he sees some of these patterns repeated on a social level and he’s determined to avoid them.

Apologies. I realise I am conflating Chinaski and Bukowski. It just seems like the obvious thing to do.

Alcohol enters the picture quite a bit later than sex. It plays only a minor role to begin with but by the novel’s close – at which stage Chinaski is in his early 20s – it has already come close to destroying his life. Chinaski gets shitfaced and fights with everybody – friends, mostly – wrecks his room, is rendered virtually unemployable (not that he’s real interested in work) – and through it all he loves the grog, which is significantly responsible for his plight. I like to hope there are elements of self-deprecation here, too, but I’m not so sure. In fact I wonder about a lot of the self-aggrandisement that I’m tempted to assume is offered here with a touch of irony; Raymond Carver’s poem about a drunken night at Bukowski’s place is apparently pretty much word for word a Bukowski rant. It’s very similar in many ways to a lot of what Chinaski says about himself in Ham on Rye.

But then maybe Bukowski’s drunken rant was meant to be ironic, too.

If there are four foundations to the building of Chinaski – sex (or the lack of it), the rejection of the mainstream and alcohol being the first three – then writing, obviously, is the fourth. The chapters where he talks about his discovery of literature, of reading long after his father has yelled at him to turn his light out, his exploration of the local library; and then his own story-telling, fantastical to begin with but pretty soon offensive enough to make his father kick him out of home – these are some of the book’s best moments. It also allows Chinaski an occasional chink of humility – he’s prepared to admit that a friend of his is a better writer than he is, although this may partially explain why he later beats the shit out of him.

There are so many other elements of this story that are handled brilliantly – the childhood illness that caused lifelong disfigurement; Chinaski’s experiences at school and the misanthropy that shaped and was shaped by those experiences; his teachers and lecturers and employers and landladies; and a final, wonderfully poignant scene. I’d love to bang on about all of them but unfortunately I have a plane to catch…

Salman Rushdie famously told us to read everything Raymond Carver wrote. Bukowski wrote far too much to seriously contemplate saying the same about him, and apparently a swathe of what he wrote is rubbish. But the two novels of his I’ve read are sensational, and I’ll be seeking out more. If anybody has a volume of poetry to recommend, let me know…

*Housekeeping: Yes, you’re hearing from me two months in a row. That’s because Netty has decided to do what I did not have the courage to do and read one of Joyce Carol Oates’s Big Books. It’s just that she only decided to do that a fortnight ago (her version of this story may differ to mine). So I agreed to bring my Bukowski selection selection forward to February – 0r backward to February. I can never work that shit out. That means you’ll be hearing from Netty about Oates in March and from Netty about Bukowski in April.

Second lot of housekeeping: We were going to read Gibson’s Neuromancer in March. However, our other scifi selection for the year, Never Let Me Go, is out as a rather OK-looking movie in the next month. Ish. So, on the off chance that we wanted to read the book before we saw the fillum, we’ve decided to swap it with Neuromancer. Make sense? You know it does.

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