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Monday, 13 April 2015

Chronic City - Jonathan Lethem (2010)

After I finished reading Chronic City I searched for some information about Jonathan Lethem and discovered that during his childhood he read Philip K. Dick’s entire oeuvre. This came as no surprise because Chronic City seems designed to make people who are already suspicious about the nature of reality even more nervous. The novel is set in what seems to be contemporary New York, however there is a gigantic escaped tiger roaming the streets, a permanent fog enshrouding the business district and newspapers that run war free editions. There is a lot going on in Chronic City, yet curiously also not that much at all. I’m still trying to decide whether the novel is a parody of western culture, a tribute to Philip K. Dick or a serious meditation about the nature of reality, or perhaps all three.

The aptly named Chase Insteadman is the narrator and principle protagonist. Insteadman is a former child star who drifts from day to day, surviving on royalty residuals and voice acting work, whilst his girlfriend is trapped on a space station because the Chinese have placed mines in a lower orbit. Enter Perkus Tooth, an eccentric former music critic who constantly smokes strong weed whilst ruminating over hidden meanings in the numerous popular (and not so popular) cultural artefacts that litter his rent controlled apartment. Chronic City is dialogue heavy and meanders along, dropping conceptual plot hints in-between joint hits that act to both confuse and illuminate; so much so that a significant amount of the first half of the book is taken up with very stoned character interactions, principally between an unruly and paranoid Tooth and the naive fresh faced Insteadman. The narrative waters are further muddied by cynical ghost-writer Oona Laszlo and beardo Richard Abneg, who also happens to work for the mayor of New York. As the novel progresses there is a nagging feeling that something significant is going on in the background, particularly when the principal characters become obsessed with Chaldrons (sic), that exist both in the ‘real’ world of the narrative and in an online simulated realm called Yet Another World.

Lethem plays around obsessively with the notion of layered realities throughout the novel, he just can’t leave it alone. There are references to people who are real, such as Lou Reed and David Byrne, but many more who are fictional, or at least variations on known entities. A band called Chthonic Youth (Sonic Youth, no doubt) is name-checked at one point and I’m sure that the “congenital sidekick” singer/actor Russ Grinspoon that Insteadman and Tooth meet at the mayor’s celebratory dinner is an alternate Art Garfunkel (one who likes to smoke big joints, of course...). Significantly Insteadman buys a book, once owned by Tooth, called Obstinate Dust by Ralph Warden Meeker, which is then thrown into a bottomless conceptual art hole on the outskirts of New York; a literary jape that would not be out of place in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996).

Chronic City is a clever and enjoyable novel, but is diminished by its unwieldy bulk and tendency to be too long-winded. Insteadman, Abneg and in particular Tooth are engaging characters and there is a lot of fun to be had amongst their labyrinthian stoned conversations, if you appreciate that sort of thing; but anyone who is familiar with science fiction tropes as utilized by the likes of, you guessed it, Philip K. Dick will find little to surprise them here. The novel teases and intrigues but unfortunately the plot reveals at the end are rendered mostly ineffectual because they are merely further variations on an all too familiar theme. Despite these flaws I intend to further explore Letham’s work, as long as I don’t fall into one of those conceptual art holes along the way whilst reading Obstinate Dust, whoops...I mean Infinite Jest.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Reading, Writing and the Value of Libraries

The promise of books to come...

A few days ago I noticed that I’d made my hundredth post with my review of Greg Egan’s Axiomatic. When I started this blog way back in September of 2011 my motivation was to get myself into the habit of writing to help me pursue my aim of writing fiction. So far the experiment has worked beautifully and not only has my discipline improved but also so has my writing. During that time I’ve read and reviewed 74 books and written who knows how many words. I’d have to say that the best book I’ve read during this time is David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest - it’s a crazy masterpiece. If I can produce anything half as good then I’ll be well pleased.

Lately I've been buying books perhaps a bit too regularly (from brick and mortar book stores, not those unspeakable online 'shops'), so they've been piling up and it has reminded me just how pleasing and comforting it is to have them around. It is not just for their ascetic appeal either; it's also the promise of what they hold. For as long as I can remember books have been present in my life. It's no accident that I work in a library. Every day I'm surrounded by books at work and at home. Where did this appreciation for books and the written word come from? Two places I believe. When I was growing up there was the influence of my older brothers, who always seemed to be reading and therefore gave me the impression that books were important and were a noble pursuit. The second and most important reason is because of the existence of libraries.

I grew up in a large country town in Western Australia's south west and because of the library situated in the town centre my parents were able to bring home seemingly limitless amounts of books. They weren't readers themselves, but were smart enough to recognize the importance of reading for a young person. They were not wealthy, so if it wasn't for the library I would not have had as much access to books. Studies have indicated that access to books in the home leads to greater rates of literacy for children, even if the books are not read all that often. Libraries allow parents and children access to books regardless of their economic circumstances. This is just one of a multitude of important services that libraries provide (don’t get me started!).

Here in Western Australia the conservative state government has been cutting funds to the library system, so much so that there is a strong possibility that important services offered by country libraries may be seriously affected. At the time of writing it is unclear what the outcome will be. About eight years ago the same state government announced that it was cutting funding to metropolitan libraries. The backlash from the public was so significant that before we even received pamphlets and car bumper stickers at my library to help counter this measure the government back flipped and the cuts were cancelled. Libraries in other countries have not been so fortunate. In the U.K during the post sub-prime economic slowdown many libraries were closed. Some were reopened by volunteers and squatters who could not tolerate the loss of such an important public resource.

Personally I regard the closure of libraries to be a sign of civilization in decline. Access to knowledge, regardless of economic circumstance, is fundamental. Having a highly literate society should be the aim of every government. As I sit and contemplate just what I will read next I feel grateful that I grew up in a society that valued literacy and that the adventure and value of literature and knowledge was instilled within me at an early age. Where-ever you may be in the world take a moment to think about the health of your library system. The value of libraries is immeasurable and it is paramount that this is not forgotten. Don’t let them fall by the wayside in this age of economic rationalism; they are simply too important to disappear.

Friday, 13 March 2015

The Snow Kimono - Mark Henshaw (2014)

Until the publication of The Snow Kimono Mark Henshaw was one of those writers who had produced a brilliant debut novel and then had disappeared, well, almost. In 1988 Out of the Line of Fire received rave reviews, sold well and was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award. Apart from co-writing two crime novels under a pseudonym in 1997 and 2007 Henshaw all but disappeared off the literary map. Now freshly retired from his job as curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, Henshaw has written a novel that continues Out of the Line of Fire’s experiments with meta-fiction and examines the very nature of storytelling itself.

The Snow Kimono begins in Paris with protagonist Auguste Jovert, a retired police inspector whose past is catching up with him via a letter from a lost Algerian daughter. Enter Tadashi Omura, a Japanese neighbor who befriends Jovert and shares stories from his past about his problematic friendship with narcissistic writer Katsuo Ikeda. The narrative consists of stories within stories, exploring themes such as the nature of perception, ‘truth’ and identity. At one point I wondered whether I was in fact reading a transcript from one of Ikeda’s novels and in hindsight I’m still not exactly sure. Metafictional clues are offered when Jovert pores over maps of Algiers, trying to make sense of the complex street-scape of cul-de-sacs, dead ends and blind alleys. There’s also a section in which Omura’s father’s obsession with Japanese jigsaw puzzles is featured, which is essentially both an analogy for The Snow Kimono itself and a means to explore the themes of perception and subjectivity. 

The Snow Kimono is complex but beautifully written, with a spare and poetic style that is very Japanese, despite Henshaw being Australian born. The sections set in Japan are particularly resonant, with descriptions of nature that acts as a metaphor for a character’s state of being. There is often a profound sense of foreboding, that all is not as it seems; which is compounded by events and outcomes that are often only hinted at. Henshaw’s obtuse way with narrative does have its drawbacks however; although initially absorbing, the novel’s fragmented narrative resulted in a degree of alienation from the characters and a nagging frustration from trying to put all the pieces together. Whilst Henshaw adroitly resolves many of the mysteries at the heart of the novel, he also casts doubt on aspects of the narrative that were thought to be already understood. The result is that The Snow Kimono is a novel I admired rather than enjoyed; although I’m beginning to suspect that I’ve read too many self aware fragmented novels and I’m in need of the simple joys of a linear plot.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Axiomatic - Greg Egan (1995)

Greg Egan is a highly regarded writer of science fiction and somewhat of a mystery man. Despite publishing his first work in 1983 he has remained totally anonymous; never attending science fiction conventions or writer’s festivals and nor are there any verified pictures of him on the web. As a fellow Perth denizen I could have passed him on the street for all I know and perhaps I have. Axiomatic is a collection of short stories published between 1989 and 1992. Egan deals with hard science fiction and if these stories are anything to go by he shares something with cyberpunk, with most stories set in the near future and featuring themes that explore the nature of consciousness, biotechnology, technology and its psychological impact and less typically, temporal anomalies.

Axiomatic features some brilliant ideas that are extremely well executed. The first story, The Infinite Assassin, is pure cyberpunk; featuring an agent tracking  down people who take drugs that allows them to move between parallel worlds. It’s a dynamic way to begin a collection of stories and effectively draws the reader in immediately. Many of the stories give the impression that Egan came up with a great idea and then considered what would happen if that idea was allowed to occur in a certain situation. What would happen if the beginnings of ‘the big crunch’ were detected via a time reversed blue shifted galaxy?; well you’d harness it to examine the future and humanity could see exactly what was coming. This is explored in The Hundred Light Year Galaxy, but as always things are not quite what they seem. What would happen if there were axiomatic implants that could convincingly change your perception? Egan explores this possibility brilliantly in both The Walk and in the tense title story.

Perhaps the most fascinating and intellectually stimulating stories are the two involving the Ndoli device, a ‘jewel’ embedded in the human brain that allows conscious immortality when an individual ‘switches’; in other words have their brain scooped out and replaced with a mock brain that is merely an unthinking vessel for a device that will endure for a billion years. Learning to Be Me explores how a sensitive individual copes with the ramifications of doing such a thing. Egan takes this further in Closer, in which the protagonist’s obsession with knowing the unknowable subjective experience of others inspires extreme experiments with shared consciousness.

This is a superb collection of science fiction stories. A few are the kind that you only fully understand a week later whilst having a shower or laying on the couch listening to Fripp and Eno. As a fellow Perthite it was great to read stories with a recognizable Perth environment; whilst there are no specific Perth settings Egan conveys the feel of the place in many of these stories beautifully. I’m a late-comer to Egan, so it is probably a moot point to recommend him thoroughly, but maybe I’m not the only late one.

Monday, 16 February 2015

The Children Act - Ian McEwan (2014)

So I’ve finally read my first Ian McEwan novel. Where have I been all these years? McEwan has only been nominated for the Man Booker Prize six times, winning it once for Amsterdam in 1998, amongst a whole plethora of other awards. McEwan was also named as one of the fifty greatest writers since 1945 by The Times. All these nominations and accolades are all very well, but it doesn’t mean much to me actually. My interest has to be piqued in sometimes curious ways for me to approach a writer with enthusiasm. In this case the book cub I run at the library has forced my hand and The Children Act ended up sharing the train journey to and from work with me. Actually it was good company; Ian McEwan is an excellent writer.

The Children Act features a brilliant opening scene in which high court judge Fiona Maye sits surround by her court papers, nursing a drink and being outraged by her aging husband who is appealing for the right to have an affair. The remainder of the novel more than lives up to this initial scene, with McEwan perfectly encapsulating the dilemma of a dysfunctional personal life interfering with professional responsibilities, in this case the complex case of a seventeen year old Jehovah Witness needing a life saving blood transfusion. The Children Act is compelling reading due to McEwan’s deft handling of character psychology and the collision between religion and secularism. Fiona Maye is a finely drawn character and the reader is totally drawn into her world across the duration of this short novel. McEwan gets everything just right with almost cold precision; his writing style is brilliantly tight and sparse. Nothing is wasted, although some readers may find the legal aspects of the narrative a bit dry, however the legal details serve to highlight the contrast between Maye’s hermetic legal world and the psychological challenge of making a sound judgement.

Although I finished reading The Children Act three weeks ago the power of the emotive penultimate scenes are still with me. McEwan’s descriptive skills are such that I can still picture the interior of Maye’s apartment and his depiction of London in winter. Such staying power is always the hallmark of a quality novel. The Children Act has made me an instant McEwan fan. It’s almost made up for the pain of the infamous Finkler Question.....

Thursday, 29 January 2015

In Patagonia - Bruce Chatwin (1977)

I read In Patagonia because it features in 501 Must Read Books (2007) as an example of great travel writing. I found a copy sitting on top of a pile of donated books to the library; it was not accepted into the collection due to its poor condition and in fact it degraded badly as I handled it, the brittle cover breaking off and pages falling out whilst I was trying to read it on a crowded work-bound train. I was primed to enjoy In Patagonia, but unfortunately it was not to be and often I found the people on the train and the view racing by more entertaining.

In Patagonia is not your typical travel writing; its structure is fragmented and a significant portion of the text concentrates on past events in Patagonia, rather than Chatwin’s own ‘adventures’. For example Chatwin traces the movements of Butch Cassidy and his gang, who fled to Patagonia in the early 1900‘s to avoid the authorities. The book is filled with the lives and histories of significant people who spent time in the region and ordinary immigrants who hoped to to make their riches with the wool trade. Chatwin’s writing is elegant but quite formal and I felt like there was something missing as the book progressed, perhaps a sense of adventure or danger, instead there are more potted histories and land owners complaining about the government. Chatwin does succeed in giving a strong impression of Patagonia’s landscape, which seems mysterious and breathtaking; a land of half mythical prehistoric creatures and mountainous terrain.

I mostly enjoyed the first half, however In Patagonia’s limited charm began to wear thin and the mini history lessons and formal style became almost intolerable. It’s not often I consider giving up on a book, but I came very close with what is meant to be a classic of travel writing. In amongst the historical anecdotes the closest Chatwin came to adventure was walking a mostly disused trail through a mountainous region. He ends up thinking he is lost as darkness approaches, only to hear cars nearby. Relieved he promptly camps for the night and is safe and sound the next morning - exciting stuff! If travel writing is meant to make you long to wander the world’s lost byways, then In Patagonia fails miserably. Far better is Ryszard Kapuscinski’s brilliant The Shadow of the Sun (1998), detailing his travels through Africa. Kapuscinski’s writing conveys tension and verve that Chatwin doesn’t come close to emulating. This particular copy of In Patagonia days are numbered and it will end up in the recycling bin; a nice metaphor perhaps?

Monday, 19 January 2015

Something Quite Peculiar - Steve Kilbey (2014)

Steve Kilbey hams it up at his book launch in Fremantle with yours truly, finger-food not pictured.

I’ve read a few music autobiographies over the years; Keith Richards’ Life (2010), and Bob Dylan’s Chronicles (2004) come to mind, but the gold standard in this genre has to be Julian Cope’s Head On (1994), in which Cope’s rather eccentric and intense personality created a wildly hilarious ride into the outer realms of rock stardom. Appropriately The Church’s Steve Kilbey is name-checked in Cope’s book, appearing back stage during The Teardrop Explodes Australian tour to offer Cope a solitary magic mushroom, causing the initially skeptical Cope to “levitate above the audience”. This anecdotal link between Cope and Kilbey is significant because both share a predilection toward exploring the frontiers of psychedelic music, and now Kilbey has joined Cope in the ranks of rock stars who have given voice to their own stories.

Just what is the allure of reading about rock musicians lives? Is it because they appear so god-like in the fan’s mind? They can be so readily placed onto pedestals by the impact of their music, powerful multimedia and apocryphal myths that circulate endlessly. Rock star autobiographies offer a glimpse at the human aspect behind the god-like archetype; it’s like being able to find out what was going through Apollo’s (the god of music and the arts, appropriately) mind during his pursuit of Daphne. An interesting idea perhaps, but also a nice segue to Something Quite Peculiar, in which we learn that at a young age Kilbey became obsessed with Greek mythology. Kilbey fortunately begins Something Quite Peculiar with his childhood, even though Greg Dulli bluntly advised Kilbey not to “...write about your fucking childhood, no one want to read that!” Just as well such sage advice was ignored because it is both refreshing and relatable to read about an Australian childhood. It’s also fascinating to learn what influences were brought to bear on the young Kilbey. There’s his music loving father, but also the rough and tumble world of Australian rules football umpiring (who’d have guessed!), school bullies, tragic teenage love and, of course, music.

All through Something Quite Peculiar music is the strand that holds everything together. The young Kilbey loved The Beatles and The Rolling Stones of course, but also intriguingly Chicago, Leon Russell and Jo Cocker. Then later came 70‘s greats such as T.Rex, Bowie and Brian Eno. Essentially a book about Kilbey is also a book about The Church. As a teenager in the 1980’s The Church played exactly the kind of music I wanted to hear. The band seemed so fully formed and perfect that it never even occurred to me to wonder about how it all happened. Fittingly the sequence of events that led to The Church’s formation reads like serendipity in action. When Kilbey’s Canberra band, Baby Grande, has to share a double-booked rehearsal space Kilbey meets brilliant guitarist Peter Koppes. When playing as a three piece Marty Wilson Piper comes back stage after a gig and Kilbey asks him to join the band before even establishing if he plays an instrument! Kilbey’s intuition was correct and Wilson-Piper became the perfect second guitarist for The Church. After ridding themselves of bullying drummer Nick Ward they let a smart-ass teenager with no drum kit calling himself President Camembert try out for the band. Any band that wants to come close to greatness needs an amazing drummer and the one and only Richard Ploog definitely had that special spark (plus the best surname for a drummer ever.)

For Church/Kilbey fans Something Quite Peculiar makes for addictive reading. There’s a plethora of great anecdotes and observations, tales of band ructions and the frustration of dealing with the unforgiving music industry (Capitol Records were “...fuck-knuckles to a man” apparently). Kilbey writes like a songwriter, with an emphasis on pacing and structure. There’s even the literary equivalent of a middle eight, with a prose poem detailing his experiences touring with The Church in Europe right in the middle of the book. The second half speeds up (life speeds up, don’t you know...) to match the weird intense energy of being in a band that’s making it, being on the road endlessly and dealing with intensely obsessed fans. The chapter about the making of Starfish in L.A. is a cracker, with Kilbey’s wit and humour coming to the fore. Kilbey perfectly conveys how you can be fulfilling your dream whilst at the same time having to deal with the terrible bullshit that comes with it.

The Church’s initial history is a slow burn to significant international success, then followed by the inevitable comedown. Post Starfish makes for sobering reading, with members leaving (Koppes came back though) and Kilbey succumbing to heroin addiction; but typically there was also some great music made during this period as well. Something Quite Peculiar ends with Kilbey finally kicking the habit a decade later and then there is a ten year jump to The Church playing the Sydney Opera House in 2011. Some have been disappointed with the jump in time, but as all good artists know what you leave out is just as important as what you leave in (there are, however, some unanswered questions*) and does the reader really need to know everything anyway? In any case all you need to know is that Kilbey and The Church kept on going all through those years, making great music, playing fantastic live shows and proving to have more endurance than pretty much every Australian band that emerged in the 1980’s.

Something Quite Peculiar is essential reading both for Church fans who can’t get songs like Violet Town out of their heads (that’s me) and also for the more casual fan who might only be familiar with the Starfish era. As far as rock star autobiographies go it’s engaging, well written and funny as hell. If this book came out in the 1980’s then people would be calling Kilbey a ‘survivor’, something I’m sure he’d dislike. What you can say is that Kilbey, and The Church, are an example of great artistic tenacity to keep doing what you love irrespective of trends and opinion, and that is something to be admired.

Do the surviving members of INXS still want to beat up Kilbey?
Did Ploog get into catering post Church and is he still a situationist?
Does Tom Verlaine still get around in just socks?
What happened to the chewing gum?