“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Book Review: Blue Skies

Blue Skies
By Helen Hodgman
Text Publishing

The narrator of Helen Hodgman’s Blue Skies is a young, suburban housewife in Tasmania suffering from unbearable boredom, or as she terms it the ‘numberless days when the clock always said three in the afternoon, no matter what you did to it’. Little relief is provided by her husband, James, one of whose chief attributes, according to the narrator, is that he ‘had been the first man to explain the American electoral system clearly to me’. The only release from this tedium comes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, when she is able to ditch her infant daughter, Angelica, at her mother-in-law’s house and meet up with one of her two ‘friends’, Jonathan and Ben, with whom she is having an affair.
            But if all of this sounds a little bit melodramatic, the fact of the matter is that Blue Skies is very much a dark and twisted comedy; sure, the book does contain murder, suicide, a variety of sexual acts (mostly adulterous), and much more, but these are always delivered through the narrator's dry, affectless tone, which leaves it up to the reader to find the humour. But at the heart of these jokes is very much a pointed satire aimed at a variety of social and political issues.
            Indeed, this book was originally published in 1976, but has just been reprinted this year by Text Publishing under the idea that Hodgman’s novel is something of a lost classic (which it, indeed, legitimately is). But what’s most impressive about Blue Skies is just how contemporary it feels, since its satirical critiques are aimed at environmental issues, the social inequality of women and the unjust treatment of Australia’s indigenous peoples. But Hodgman’s treatment of these issues never resorts to simple sloganeering; the narrator’s neighbour attempts to plant English grass in her backyard, for example, but this simple decision gets redescribed in terms that elevate the action to a kind of colonialism: ‘The native grasses rustled and swayed at the edge of this pampered patch. Occasionally it would stake its aboriginal claim to the usurped homeland by launching a seed to fetilise and reclaim a centimetre.’
            And for all of the brutish acts committed by men (or the more subtle action of other women, such as the narrator’s mother-in-law, who seek to maintain patriarchal practices), the narrator isn’t represented as an angel either (to put it mildly). And while the novel could easily be read through the lens of feminism or postcolonial theory, the humour and absurdity of the novel means that it never feels like an ideological exercise; Blue Skies is satire, but not satire that can be reduced to a simple, straightforward message. Later this year, Text will republish Hodgman’s second novel, Jack and Jill, but it’s already clear in Blue Skies that Hodgman is an important, Australian author who deserves to be rediscovered by a new generation of readers and writers.

R.I.Y.L. Donald Barthelme's Snow White, Kathy Acker (in her more restrained moments), Feminist Literature with a Wicked Sense of Humour

This review initially aired on Triple R's Breakfasters.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Literary Links: In Which Everything Is Awesome Or Not Awesome

The other week, I was complaining about the (in my opinion) absurdity of the arguments advanced by the likes of Nicholas Carr in his book The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember. I had been considering writing a more studied response to this, but – good news! – I don’t have to because the London Review of Books has done it for me. (N.B. I still think the argument that the internet may inhibit creativity, which is advanced at the end of this review, is, in a somewhat complicated way, total crap.)
• As I noted the other week, Sergio De La Pava will soon release his second novel, Personae (which I’m hoping will have awesome references to Ezra Pound and Ingmar Bergman). In the meantime, though, why not read his awesome essay in the also awesome journal, Triple Canopy.
• Sorry, Google, computer says no.
• Here’s a handy scorecard to use when reading any and all articles about the ‘future of publishing’.
• I want these books in Australia. Now. Seriously, dudes. Oh, and here's a slightly creepy dutch video of these books in action. Also, promotional material is here.
• More stuff written by that Roberto Bolano guy.
• Here’s a profile of the publisher at one of my favourite presses in the whole, wide world, The Dalkey Archive. If you aren’t buying their books, then you aren’t reading good books.
• Emerging authors, take heart in your bad reviews!
• Self-publishing on the Kindle is awesome! Self-publishing on the Kindle is not awesome! Self-publishing on the Kindle may or may not be awesome!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Three Paths to the Lake
By Ingeborg Bachmann
Holmes & Meier

Three Paths to the Lakes was the second and final collection of short stories written by the Austrian author Ingeborg Bachmann and it contains five, loosely connected stories about women in the 1960s. Although Bachmann is still largely unknown amongst Anglophone readers, she remains an important figure in Austrian literature of the 20th Century, not only in terms of her writing, but also as a cultural figure: Bachmann rose to prominence as a poet very quickly (before, in fact, she’d even had a full book of poems published), and became perhaps better known in Austria as a prominent bohemian than a writer. Bachmann also garnered some unwanted publicity due to having several affairs with high-profile authors, including Paul Celan and Max Frisch. And Bachmann’s romantic image was further enhanced by her own unfortunate death from accidental self-immolation resulting from an unextinguished cigarette that set her room on fire while she was sleeping.
            But despite the emphasis often placed on her eventful life, Bachmann’s own fame rightfully stems from the simple fact that she was a phenomenal prose stylist, who has had a profound influence on several generations of Austrian writers (indeed, one of the most prestigious prizes for German-language literature is named after her), and Three Paths to the Lake demonstrates her mature style. All of the stories discuss women who feel isolated from the world around them in different ways. The first story, ‘Word for Word’, tells the story of a young interpreter who is engaging in an affair but remains incapable of opening herself to emotional intimacy (a fact underscored by her inability to sleep while in the same bed as her beloved); here, Bachmann uses the notion of interpreting between languages as an extended metaphor for the couple’s inability to communicate. In ‘Problems, Problems’, a young woman named Beatrix, who is just able to live on a small amount of money provided by her family, has difficulty envisioning any kind of future direction for her life. In ‘Eyes to Wonder’, Miranda, who suffers from extreme myopia but is too vain to wear the glasses she needs, becomes so concerned that her boyfriend will leave here that she actively works to drive him into the arms of another woman.
            But lest readers presume that Bachmann’s stories only discuss the lives of the mildly neurotic middle class, the fourth story, ‘The Barking’—which is the standout of the collection—details the life of an old woman who lives in near-destitution despite the fact her son is a prominent and successful psychiatrist; this beautiful story unfolds as the woman slowly develops a relationship with her son’s new wife, Franziska; the story takes several turns, however, as Franziska begins to realise that her mother-in-law is suffering from severe delusions, and a variety of other tumultuous events occur (and although they are suggested indirectly in the text, they are never fully explicated).
            The final story, ‘Three Paths to the Lake’, is about a successful journalist in her fifties who travels home for a brief vacation; despite the seeming simplicity of its premise, however, the story is also very much about World War II and Germany’s subsequent division into two separate states, and we also learn more about the subsequent (and often unhappy) fates of many characters from the previous stories. Bachmann’s Three Paths to the Lake is rightly considered one of the most important works of 20th-Century Austrian literature (no mean feat, given that the country also produced Kafka, Musil, Rilke, Stefan Zweig, Hermann Broch, Thomas Bernhard and Celan among many others, resulting in what is arguably the most interesting literary tradition of any European country in that period), and will, without a doubt, please any reader interested in European literature from the last century.

R.I.Y.L. Austrian Literature, Jenny Erpenbeck's Visitation, the final section of Roberto Bolano's 2666.

This review initially aired on Triple R's Breakfasters.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Book Review: Coda

By René Belletto
University of Nebraska Press

Coda is the newest novella (or at least the newest that’s been translated into English) from acclaimed, French author René Belletto, who has written around twenty books, including novels, poetry and criticism, as well as a few screenplays. From the opening pages, we know that Coda is going to be an unusual book, since it’s epigraph, which reads, ‘From her lovely delicate hands/I take the book and I look’, is actually attributed to the very book we are reading. A reader unsettled by this unusual paratext will perhaps be even more alarmed by the exceptional declaration that opens the novel: ‘It is to me that we owe our immortality, and this is the story that proves it beyond all doubt.’
But at the heart of this 88-page novella is a crime thriller—albeit a strange one—that includes suspicious deaths, kidnapping, femme fatales, nefarious cults and psychotic killers. Setting off this most unusual chain of events, however, is a surprisingly banal circumstance: the protagonist returns home to find his daughter missing and a package of clams in his freezer that he does not remember purchasing. This packet of clams turns out to be his first clue in unravelling a great mystery, and more surprises and twists occur in this novella than would normally happen in a book five times its size.
But this, of course, is the point. Despite its flirtations with the mode of the thriller, Coda is ultimately an avant-garde work that betrays an inheritance to the nouveau roman, a post-World War II movement in France that often combined experimental techniques with the detective novel. Coda, then, is laced with intentional absurdity and surreal moments that are reminiscent of the work of Cesar Aira (although it must be said that Coda is not nearly as strong as Aira’s best work). The protagonist is independently wealthy, for example, for the reason that his father invented a ‘perpetual motion machine’; these machines, however, aren’t truly capable of perpetual motion, although their unusual mechanisms are visually intriguing, leading people to purchase them for decorative purposes.
            The mystery at the heart of Coda is ultimately ‘solved’, but Belletto leaves other big metaphysical questions intentionally open (I mean this in the most literal possible way, but can’t explain it better without ruining the book), and the final gesture of Coda, befitting its title, is one that returns us to the beginning, making the book a sort of fictional ouroboros. Here, Belletto’s plays with the notion of perpetual motion introduced earlier and raises significant questions about the narratives we tend to construct around our lives.
            But for all of its experimentation and madcap absurdity, Coda is, by and large, simply an entertaining book to read (provided, of course, that you aren’t the sort of reader who is put off by experimental, French fiction). For all of its engagement with philosophical concepts (the end of the novel, in particular, seems to recall Blanchot’s writing on death), this is surprisingly light and easy to read novel, which revels in its own pulp-y gestures and strange twists and turns.

Recommended If You Like (R.I.Y.L.): Cesar Aira, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, books by authors associated with the nouveau roman.

This review initially aired on Triple R's Breakfasters program.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Shellac - Dog and Pony Show

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Lost Classics: Stoner

By John Williams
NYRB Classics

This 1965 novel by John Williams (not to be confused with Steven Spielberg’s favourite hack composer)—although never a great commercial success in its own right—has been called a ‘perfect novel’ by The New York Times Book Review, and I couldn’t agree more. Stoner is, without any doubt, one of the best novels I’ve read in the last year, and may well become one of my favourite books, but part of what makes this Williams’s achievement so impressive is that he builds such an exceptional novel out of such unassuming material.
            Stoner (no relation whatsoever to the more contemporary use of the term) is about the life of William Stoner, born to poor uneducated farmers in rural Missouri, and Williams even opens the novel by giving us a thumbnail sketch of his life story: ‘William Stoner entered the University of Missouri as a freshman in the year 1910, at the age of nineteen. Eight years later, during the height of World War I, he received his Doctor of Philosophy degree and accepted an instructorship at the same University, where he taught until his death in 1956. He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses.’
            At this opening suggests, Stoner is not a particularly cheery novel, and its melancholy tone and choice of both an unassuming main character and setting may not seem immediately appealing. But Stoner works because of Williams’ precise and often scathing ability to map the emotion of his characters, whose very beings are often laid bare in a single sentence. One woman, for example, is described by noting that ‘Her voice was thin and high, and it held a note of hopelessness that gave a special value to every word she said.’ About another character, Williams writes that ‘Like many men who consider their success incomplete, he was extraordinarily vain and consumed with a sense of his own importance.’
            This kind of approach to his characters recalls the wonderfully ambiguity of a book like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and, like that novel, Stoner is able to enliven the quotidian until it is charged through with significance. Stoner’s often difficult relationships with his wife, his daughter and other members of his department all turn in unexpected ways that make them compelling. And as a character, Stoner, too, remains incredibly interesting despite his often bureaucratic occupation (indeed, I never would’ve thought that departmental meetings could be rendered as such tense and interesting moments in a novel—and I work as an academic!). While at points, his own inability to see the world around him can be maddening, his own bravery and determination at other points are impressive; Williams, himself, explains the paradox of Stoner: ‘He had, in odd ways, given [passion] to every moment of his life, and perhaps it was given most fully when he was unaware of his giving. It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but a matter of love, its specific substance. To a woman or to a poem, it said simply: Look! I am alive.’
            In a way, I’ve cheated a bit in this review; I haven’t said much about the plot, and I’ve quoted a good deal of Williams own writing, but that’s the case for two reasons: 1) I really, really, really don’t want to give away any details about this wonderful book and 2) Williams’s writing is the main attraction here. But to sum up, Stoner is a book about a man whose life is simultaneously both destroyed and enlivened by books—a point that the final moment of the novel underlines in what may be the book’s best passage. As it stands, Stoner is a monument to what the traditional, realist novel can still achieve; on the strength of this book, alone, Williams deserves to be known as one of the most interesting writers of the second half of the 20th Century. This is a book that would very much appeal to fans of Richard Yates (Stoner is similar in style and tone to Yates’s work), and it is an absolutely, indescribably phenomenal book; buy it now, read it and then read it again.
On a final note, it seems likely that John Williams is due for a bit of a revival; another one of his novels—a western entitled Butcher’s Crossing—will be adapted (by Joe Penhall, adapter of The Road) into a movie slated for release in 2013. Sam Mendes—who fittingly directed the film version of Yates’s Revolutionary Road—is apparently attached as the director. Regardless of the quality of the final movie, one can only hope that it will introduce more readers to this woefully overlooked author.
Recommended If You Like (R.I.Y.L.): Flaubert, Richard Yates and Beautifully Written, Depressing, Realist Novels

This review initially aired on Triple R Radio's Breakfaster's program.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

LIterary Links: Big News from Dead Authors

  • Once again, I'm late with Bolano news. Apparently, Bolano's novel, The Third Reich, will be serialised over four issues of the Paris Review. So, the good news is that there's a new Bolano novel, but the bad news is that you'll have to buy the Paris Review to read it.
  • Oh yeah, that Patrick White guy also has a new novel coming out. Wow, this has been a prolific few weeks for dead authors.
  • Harper Collins has written an open letter to librarians about their proposed 26-week licenses for ebooks. First of all, I think it's nice that Harper has decided to write a letter to librarians, because I think librarians would like letters (they seem like the type). Second, if you have no idea what any of this means, you can read this article that explains the background.
  • OK, so few things annoy me more than the current trend to use neuroscience as the alleged basis to make wild and wholly unsubstantiated claims about anything and everything. Exhibit A is Nicholas Carr's essay 'Is Google Making Us Stupid' (turned into the book The Shallows), which, when interpolated in the larger media, largely seems to offer baby boomers the opportunity not only to argue that younger people are distracted, stupid and lazy, but also that their distractedness, stupidity and laziness can now be scientifically proven. Wonderful. This article--while not attacking this particular form of madness--at least points out how illegitimate many extrapolations from neuroscience are. Which, of course, isn't even to note the possible epistemological limits that may necessarily accompany any scientific study of subjective states of consciousness.
  • Possible epistemological limits that may necessarily accompany any scientific study of subjective states of consciousness? Say what? Have a read of Thomas Nagel's classic essay 'What Is It Like to Be a Bat?' Be aware that there are like 30 million responses and counter-responses to this (as is the wont of analytic philosophers).
  • Last week, Kill Your Darlings posted an article on how authors can use the internet to promote themselves successfully. I'll quickly note that I have a real problem with the way these arguments play out; it's not that they're wrong, exactly, but that they tend to be overly enthusiastic and cite the exceptional cases without paying attention to the very details that generally enabled authors to be successful through self-promotion or self-publishing in the first place (kind of like how the whole 'Myspace made Lily Allen famous' meme from many years ago ignored the fact that she has famous parents and thus access to contacts in the industry, which, you know, kinda helps.). Hopefully, I'll have time to write something about this soon.
  • Jeff Bursey, author of Verbatim (which I'll be reviewing in a few weeks) reviews Thomas Bernhard's My Prizes.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Book Review: This Too Shall Pass

This Too Shall Pass
By S.J. Finn
Sleepers Publishing

S. J. Finn’s debut novel, This Too Shall Pass, opens with a series of events that appear to let the reader know what kind of novel this will be: the narrator and protagonist, Jen, changes her name to Monty and falls in love with a woman named Renny; this, of course, results in her decision to leave her husband, Dave, who is placed in charge of looking after their six-year-old son, Marcus. Most readers might imagine the novelistic trajectory such an opening suggests—specifically, a narrative about escape from conventional, bourgeois expectations of motherhood and sexuality and the difficulties accompanying any decision to live a life outside of these 'norms'. But while these issues appear in the novel at appropriate points, This Too Shall Pass is something far more unusual and complex than most readers might expect, which, in and of itself, is a testament to Finn’s considerable skill as a writer.
            This Too Shall Pass succeeds on the strength of its authorial voice. The entire novel is related by Monty, who has a wry wit and combines high-cultural allusion to Borges, T.S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath with daggy references to lyrics from songs by Ben Lee and Silverchair. Monty also displays a tendency toward lengthy and abstract self-reflection—which makes sense given her profession as a social worker offering therapy and counselling to children at a mental health centre called Marlowe Downs.
More than anything, This Too Shall Pass is a novel about work—which critically examines the difficulties Monty faces as she tries to balance appeasing the complex bureaucracy around her while finding the best outcomes for her patients—and even more specifically about the toll that her commitment to work exacts on those closest to her. Monty’s dedication to Marlowe Downs not only creates significant problems in her new relationship with Renny, but also leaves Monty feeling distant from her son, Marcus. The novel represents this shift on a formal level, as both Renny and Marcus become increasingly peripheral characters in the narrative.
Moreover, for all of Monty’s charm and self-reflection, it’s also clear that she’s often blind to the effect that she has on others’ lives. As frustrating as she finds her ex-husband, Dave, she gives little thought to how her departure has touched him, and often seems to feel as if she is a passenger in her own life, even though many of the troubles she encounters are directly the result of her own decisions. S.J. Finn sets all of this up cleverly in creating an unreliable narrator who is as beguiling as Monty—and it’s to Finn’s credit that she leaves it up to the reader to assess the validity of Monty’s statements. But given Monty’s often-thankless work and the fact that she does care about those in her life, she never becomes unlikeable, but only flawed in an eminently human and understandable way.
            This Too Shall Pass is a wonderful curveball of a novel that tackles big issues in an oblique way and also has the courage to wrestle with a particularly important issue that is too often left out of contemporary Australian literature: the workplace. Despite the fact that most of us spend forty hours or more working each week, too often our novelists omits these issues, focusing instead on personal relationships and matters of the heart. I suspect that some reviewers may be confused by the degree to which the domestic themes of the novel’s early pages are pushed to the side, but these omissions are, in fact, both intentional and incredibly effective, and again display Finn’s considerable talent; at virtually every point she seems in complete control of both the narrative and her narrator’s voice.
            My only slight qualm comes in the very final moment of the novel, in which Monty offers a retrospective summation that feels a little too neat—but, ultimately, this is the only possibility; Monty’s tendency toward abstract self-analysis and work-driven desire for therapeutic resolution are so strong that she can’t help but attempt to sum-up what she’s learned. In this sense, her final comments display both her growth and the limits of her own self-knowledge.
This Too Shall Pass is a clever and deceptively complicated debut novel. As a novelist, Finn shows incredible control over her authorial voice, an excellent willingness to take risks and a restraint in refusing to spell things out too explicitly for the reader—in this book, what’s been left out becomes every bit as important as what’s been put in. Buy it here.

[CORRECTION: Blarg and double-blarg, after calling this book S.J. Finn's debut, it has come to my attention that she has, in fact, published a previous novel called Fine Salt in 2002. This, kiddies, is why you do your research. Sorry!]