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Monday, 16 May 2016

Changes








Last week a plot based on an idea I had years ago suddenly came to life fully formed in my mind, triggered by a few simple words written on a random Facebook post, of all things. Later that night I decided that it was time to get really serious about fiction writing and so I’m going to reduce my reviews on Excelsior from two books a month to one. This will give me more time to write fiction and will also have the added benefit of encouraging me to read some of the larger books I’ve had laying around for years, such as The Recognitions by William Gaddis (1955) and Roberto Bolano’s 2666 (2004). I will not have the pressure of having to read quickly enough to generate the bi-monthly reviews. 

As good as the regular writing of reviews has been for developing discipline and technique, it’s time to move on to bigger and hopefully better things. I’ve been writing some short stories, but this idea may develop into a novel and the time to start is now, otherwise I’ll still be tapping away whilst groaning under the weight of old age. Meanwhile I’m reading Liu Cixin’s The Dark Forest (2008), the sequel to his excellent novel The Three Body Problem (2008). Expect the review shortly, hopefully in June.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

The Natural Way of Things - Charlotte Wood (2015)








Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things and Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem have only one thing in common: they have both won major awards. Cixin won the 2015 Hugo Award and it has just been announced that Wood has won the relatively new Australian award for female writers, the Stella Prize. From that common point both diverge, with Cixin’s novel standing as a brilliantly fresh take on an old science fiction theme, with quality writing and relatable characters; Wood’s novel is thematically heavy-handed, stylistically flawed and unrelentingly bleak. My dislike of this novel could mean that I’m a lone dissenter, after all the novel has garnered many positive reviews and literally just as I finished reading it the result of Stella Prize was announced; but if so I’m not afraid to be a lone voice in the wilderness because any judgement of a novel’s worth is a mixture of objectivity and subjectivity and I can’t deny the fact that I did not enjoy this novel at all.

The Natural Way of Things explores the particularly important and relevant issue of the misogyny that is an inherent feature of our patriarchal society and its sometimes close relationship with the nastier side of capitalism. The novel opens with two young women, Yolanda and Verla, who are struggling to awake fully from a drugged stupor and make sense of alien surroundings. They soon find that they are being held captive along with a group of other young women in an abandoned outback farm. Their immediate captors are two men, Boncer and Teddy, and a women, Nancy, who seem to be in the employ of a nefarious corporate entity.The novel’s plot is not presented as a challenging mystery the reader can enjoyably try to solve, rather it is an allegory for the manner in which women can be treated by the patriarchy. Just why the women are being held captive is soon solved once they begin conferring between themselves during the rare times they are not being hounded by a stick wielding Boncer. The novel’s oppressive tone and it’s serious themes are not unusual in literature and can often be a successful technique to get the reader thinking, however in this case the novel’s effectiveness is hampered by Wood’s gratingly self-conscious writing style. I just could not warm to Wood’s writing and this seriously effected my interest in the plight of the women and what would eventually happen to them.

The Natural Way of Things
is a challenge to read, not because it is a brilliant and complex example of contemporary literary fiction, but because it is completely bereft of subtlety and humour. This compromises what would otherwise be the novel’s strong points, such as the friendship between Yolanda and Verla and the psychological challenges the women face as they attempt to stay alive when things don’t go as planned for the captors. Another problem is that the two male characters are basically caricatures. Boncer is like a walking talking definition of misogyny and no one is surprised that despite his confident way with a stick and propensity to bark orders he is essentially insecure. Teddy is a cliched surfer dude who practices yoga when he’s not being Boncer’s sidekick or smoking dope while complaining about the bouts of nagging his ex girlfriend put him through. The female characters do develop over the course of the novel, however the allegorical necessity for many of them to still be hapless victims by the end the novel proved to be a serious weakness. When the ending finally arrived I threw the book down onto the vacant seat next to me on the train, hoping that I would forget to take it with me when I disembarked.

I feel almost guilty for disliking The Natural Way of Things so thoroughly, after all Charlotte Wood spent a great deal of time and effort writing it, and believe me, it is a difficult thing to actually write a novel, let alone a good one. There is no doubt that the novel explores worthy themes and I am under no illusions regarding the nature of the patriarchal society we live in, however rather than causing me to think about these issues seriously I just couldn’t get past the novel’s flaws. This was a book club read, so I’m wondering how my fellow members will react to the novel during next week’s meetings. I have a feeling that it could go the way of that other infamous prize winner, The Finkler Question, when 33 of the 35 book club attendees thoroughly disliked the novel. For a long time now I wondered whether I’d ever read another novel as completely dreadful as The Finkler Question. Finally I believe that I have and that means that The Natural Way of Things suffers the ignominy of joining The Finkler Question on this blog as being only the second book to be rated as truly and utterly reprehensible.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

The Three Body Problem - Cixin Liu (2008): Translated by Ken Liu (2014)








Cixen Lie has been described as China’s Arthur C. Clarke, which is mighty praise indeed. The Three Body Problem won the 2015 Hugo Award in a year beset by controversy caused by a rogue group called ‘The Sad Puppies’ who claimed that the award was unfairly favouring work that represented minority groups, rather than solely on merit. Ursula Le Guin referred to them as “..insecure white guys”, which pretty much sums that issue up. Pay the ‘Sad Puppies’ no mind because The Three Body Problem is quite brilliant and a worthy winner. Cixin takes a well worn science fiction trope and manages to make it all shiny and new, something that is a difficult undertaking in a genre in which pretty much any and every idea has been given a good thrashing.

Science fiction was severely restricted in China for most of the 1980’s, which makes sense considering just how subversive the genre can be in the hands of the right author. The novel’s very existence indicates that things have obviously significantly changed in China, but even more significant is that the novel begins in 1967 during China’s Cultural Revolution, using that era’s shocking events as an unlikely first step in a plot that continues to unfold in unexpected ways. I began the novel knowing nothing of its contents, which meant that I had the rare pleasure of trying to work out what was going on and then finding out that I was wrong. With this in mind I will reveal very little about the novel’s plot. What I will say however is that The Three Body Problem is a beautifully paced novel; keeping the reader intrigued in the slower sections and then enticing with hints and reveals as the novel progresses. Cixen’s style is economically precise, not wasting a word or scene as it flows ever onward. Ken Liu, a science fiction author in his own right, is a skilled translator, even providing footnotes to explain certain important cultural points.

Although plot building and scientific concepts are certainly Cixin’s strong points, the novel’s principle protagonists, Ye Wenjie and Wang Miao, are complex enough to make them both interesting and relatable characters. Ye Wenjie’s extreme experiences during China’s Cultural Revolution the 1960s are shocking and the resultant damage to her teenage psyche is central to the novel. Wang Miao, a nano materials scientist living during our time period, is drawn into an investigation of strange and unexplained happenings within the science community. Reluctantly Wang becomes involved in the bizarre world of a virtual online game that challenges participants to solve the difficult ‘three body problem’. Wang’s experiences in the three body game, his dealings with a secret society of scientists called 'The Frontiers of Science' and the mysteries surrounding both result in a sinister undertone that only becomes more prevalent as the plot develops. The science concepts presented during the course of the novel are realistic, but Cixin plays with them in a way that inspires both awe and fascination, particularly during the novel’s endgame. The result is a seriously addictive novel that I found difficult to put down, which is a rarity for me these days.

A film adaptation of The Three Body Problem will soon be released in China and if they get it right it will be an exceptional film. Hopefully it will become available in the West. Half way through reading the novel I discovered that it is only the first part of a trilogy called Remembrance of Earth’s Past. The second book, which has just been published in English, is called The Dark Forest (2015). The third, Death’s End (2016), is fortunately due out later this year. Initially I was disappointed that the story would be spread out over three novels simply because narrative greed was getting the better of me, however after reading the novel’s send half I was pleased that there would be more to follow. I feel sorry for those ‘Sad Puppies’ (actually, I don’t really) because if science fiction of this quality is emerging from China then Western dominance of the genre and its most coveted awards may well be on the wane.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

The Secret Chord - Geraldine Brooks (2015)



Saul and David: Rembrandt - 1650




Geraldine Brooks is a former Australian journalist who turned her hand at writing historical fiction with great success, winning the coveted Pulitzer Prize for her novel March in 2005. Brooks was inspired to write the story of King David by her son, who took up the harp and subsequently played Leonard Cohen’s beautiful song Hallelujah at his Bar Mitzvah. Set in 1000 BCE Israel, The Secret Chord fictionalizes the Old Testament life of King David, of whom Brooks refers to as the first historical character in literature whose whole life’s story has been recorded for prosperity. Although there is very little evidence, aside from the Old Testament scriptures, for King David’s existence, Brooks portrays him in a very realistic light, exploring both the negative and positive aspects of his life and reign as king of the Jewish people.

Brook’s portrayal of early Iron Age ancient Israel is brought to life by evocative descriptions of the landscape and the people. Brooks actually went to Jerusalem and herded sheep for a day to get a sense of the landscape David would have experienced three thousand years ago. Brooks tells the story of King David through the eyes of David’s prophet Natan (Nathan), whom is directed by David to write his biography (Nathan’s Book of David, mentioned in Chronicles but never found). This device allows Brooks to shift back and forth in time to tell the story of David’s beginnings, his rise to be king and his troublesome final years. David was a skilled warrior and tactician who reunited the Jewish tribes, but he was also a ruthless leader and a sensualist; a trait that would ultimately lead to tragedy for his family. David’s rise to power is compelling, however during the latter third of the novel, with David ensconced on the throne, Natan’s narration begins to lose some of its luster. After David’s initial encounter with supposed seductress Bathsheba and the successful plot to kill of her husband, the brave and respected Uriah, Natan withdraws from David’s side. Thereafter the narrative feels slightly removed from the very dramatic events that follow, resulting in a flattening of tone with little suspense or emotional engagement to propel the narrative forward.

Despite a nagging sense that The Secret Chord is just a replay on the Bible story with little relevance to the secular world, an argument can be made that Brooks has written a Feminist take on King David’s story. A significant portion of the narrative gives voice to many of David’s wives, giving some insight into the lives of the women who both suffered and served during his reign. Most significant is Bathsheba’s take on her infamous tryst with David; that she did not in fact set out to be a seductress, but was actually attempting to find some privacy from prying male eyes in her own household when the troubled King David spied her across the darkened rooftops. From her perspective she was raped and placed into a cruel and untenable position by King David; subsequently suffering the ignominy of victim blaming, an issue that certainly has strong modern relevance.

Perhaps due to my secular upbringing I was fairly ignorant of Kind David’s story, therefore I found The Secret Chord to be a fascinating read. The novel has also compelled me to find out more about Biblical history from that period. I’d love to talk to a Jewish person who has read The Secret Chord to better judge what kind of an impact Brooks’ portrayal of King David has had for those who are closer to the source of his story. Would David’s overt bisexuality be a problem, or Brooks’ Feminist perspectives, or the rampant violence that led to David’s ascension to the throne? One thing this novel did remind me of is that history has indeed been mostly written by the victors, by the patriarchy and also by those who spilled the most blood. It also reminded me, somewhat sadly, that nothing much has changed in three thousand years in terms of damaging belief systems and the worst of human nature.

Monday, 14 March 2016

The Female Eunuch - Germaine Greer (1970)





Germaine Greer has been synonymous with both feminism and controversy since she burst onto the cultural scene in 1970 with the publication of The Female Eunuch, a book that has not been out of print since. I must admit that I have had a rather dubious opinion of Greer in the past that was based on some of her more flippant comments (well, they seemed flippant to me, but look who’s talking...); in particular her comments about the first female Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, criticizing the size of her bottom and her choice in clothes. When I saw an American first edition of The Female Eunuch in hardback from 1971 at the Bill Campbell book shop in Fremantle (a few years ago now) I thought that it was about time I gave Greer the benefit of the doubt.

The Female Eunuch is organised into five sections: Body, Soul, Love, Hate and Revolution. After the introduction, in which Greer refers to the first wave of feminism; the suffragettes and how they relate to the then second wave of feminism, Greer gets straight into what it physically means to be a woman. Genetically the female form is expressed by the XX chromosomes and the male by an XY combination. Greer points out that the Y chromosome’s only function is to block the second X, a fact I already knew but in this context the thought sprung to mind that men are merely half a woman! I’m sure that Greer did not intend such a reaction (or did she?), but it was effective non-the-less. Throughout this section’s chapters: Gender, Bones, Curves, Hair, Sex and The Wicked Womb, Greer discusses just what it is to be a woman and how both female and male perceptions skew cultural attitudes towards the female form. In The Wicked Womb chapter Greer infamously notes that “If you think that you are emancipated, you might consider the idea of tasting your menstrual blood-if it makes you sick, you’ve got a long way to go baby.” As flippant as this may seem Greer’s point is that due to cultural repression women themselves had (have?, unlikely now...) precious little idea of the functions of their own female form. Whether this was true or not is open to conjecture, however perhaps just how much things have changed was hinted at when I was reading through the reader reviews for this book on Goodreads and one particular female reviewer took severe umbrage to the notion that “she had a long way to go” because she hadn’t tasted her own menstrual blood. Curiously most of the favourable reviews on this website were written by men, perhaps reflecting just how loaded the notion of Feminism is these days for women. Here in Australia much has been made about whether federal female politicians identify themselves as Feminist or not, with some in the ruling Liberal Party choosing not to, such as foreign minister Julie Bishop.

Far from being a spiteful diatribe against men, The Female Eunuch is a well written and mostly astute examination of just how patriarchal society over the course of history has psychologically molded women (and men, for that matter) into powerless role playing actors that serve only to further entrench the status-quo. Across the Soul and Love sections Greer examines how women are psychologically molded by childhood, their adult relationships and the weight of gender expectation. Such role playing continues in their work life, often resulting in dysfunction and bitterness. Although Greer’s arguments are persuasive, she does slip into some spurious speculative anthropology at times. In the Hate section Greer strongly suggests that women just don’t realize how much men hate them and that, significantly, men feel disgusted after sex. Greer cites a discussion with one man “...who...assumed that all men felt disgusted by sex afterwards.” She goes on to say that “It is too easy to decide that this is a unique case of a special kind of fastidiousness. It has grown out of the felt loss of human dignity which is the product of boredom and restriction.”  It seems that in 1970 Greer found it all too easy to generalize based on one man’s inhibitions and disgust. Surely there were studies that Greer could have drawn from, such as Alfred Kinsey’s from the 1950’s.

Flaws aside The Female Eunuch is, even now, powerful reading. I’m not surprised the book made such an impact at the time of publication. Greer’s writing is bold and assured, although now slightly dated by an occasional anachronistic turn of phrase. The final two sections, Hate and Revolution, pack the most punch. Greer examines the misery that women are put through by the dominant patriarchal capitalist society, but also, equally significantly, what women put themselves through. The chapters, Abuse, Misery and Resentment reveal, even after nearly five decades, all too familiar tribulations for women facing the demands of married life, work and the pressures of life under the yoke of capitalism. In Revolution Greer advises that the answer does not lie in equality if that means becoming like men, because, she observes, men are not free themselves. This is a key point and one that both men and women should be taking very seriously.  Greer advises women against marriage (good advice I say...) to free themselves of the burden of the nuclear family that merely serves to reinforce gender role-playing. Women should be, instead, self determined, rather than passively hoping for change via the establishment; they should attempt to create and experiment with new ways of relating to men and raising children.

Significantly Greer warns women against the manipulations of capitalism, something that is wholly prescient considering the levels of marketing modern women are exposed to and the damaging effect it has on their well-being. I was particularly taken by the concluding pages of the Revolution section in which she notes: “We have but one life to live, and the first object is to find a way of salvaging that life from the disabilities already inflicted on it in the service of our civilization.” Although The Female Eunuch was published some forty six years ago and Western civilization has altered enormously, much of what Greer has to say is still important. Just what Feminism means to the average modern woman seems to be, as ever, in flux, so no doubt The Female Eunuch will get plenty of attention when its fiftieth anniversary comes around in 2020.

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Moominmamma’s Maid - Tove Jansson (Original comic strips 1956; 2015)








I first became aware of Tove Jansson and her Moomins about seven years ago when a new colleague at the library revealed her Moomin tattoo. It was very striking and enticingly unfamiliar. She filled me in on both the Moomins and Tove Jansson, enthusing greatly about their weird charms, but unfortunately and somewhat typically it has taken me this long to actually read one of the Moomin books. I’m a notorious late starter, but really I had little chance of being exposed to such strange children’s literature growing up in the West Australian countryside in the 1970’s, particularly to an author from Finland, which seems exotic to me even now.

The Moomins are fabulous creatures that look like sophisticated hippos, with big rounded snouts and bellies and of course they are all totally kooky. During the course of Moominmamma’s Maid they reveal to their new neighbor, a certain Mrs Fillyjonk, that they are “...very fond of make-believe...” and that they have a tree growing inside their house because they simply can’t bear to fell it. The Moomins love to throw wild parties in which everything is happening all at once, including fireworks; they have a jungle for a back yard and also wash their dishes in the sea. Into this playful chaos comes the newly hired maid Misabel, accompanied by her unhappy dog - Pimple, whom harbours a shameful secret. Misabel is scared of everything and is also terribly neurotic. A great deal of humour is generated by the clash between Misabel’s fear of life and the Moomins happy-go-lucky nature. Of course there lies the message for both children and adults alike - be yourself, face your fears and have some fun while you are at it.








It is somewhat of a cliche for children’s books to carry an underlying serious message, however Jansson’s idiosyncratic artwork and odd way of telling a story carries the message home in a uniquely natural style. The artwork is beautiful and the general tone is one of gentle eccentricity. The Moomins world is fun-filled and appealing, but also has psychological and allegorical depth. This is a hard trick to pull off and I’m sure that it would have won me over as a child; I recall that I was always suspicious of any books or TV shows that had a message, I would roll my childish eyes and display my immature version of cynicism (I started early and grew out of it by my mid twenties). I’m sure that cynicism does not even feature in the Moomins vocabulary, nor Jansson’s for that matter. 

Moominmamma’s Maid is taken from Moomin comic book series that were originally published in the Evening News in the mid 1950s. No doubt the coulourful adventures of the Moonins would have been just the thing for a weary post war Britain. For myself it provided some Nordic whimsical relief from Franco satire and a weird counterpoint to Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970), a book I only just finished yesterday.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Submission - Michel Houellebecq (2015)








French writer Michel Houellebecq is a true enfant terrible, offending with each novel and his frequent inflammatory comments. Although his work has been praised widely it has also attracted its share of negative criticism, with accusations of sexism, racism and just about every other kind of ism you can think of (including jism? - undoubtedly....) In 2002 he stirred up trouble by referring to Islam as “the dumbest religion” and was subsequently tried and then acquitted of inciting racial hatred, with Houellebecq successfully arguing that he was critiquing the religion and not Muslims themselves. Aside from all the controversy Houellebecq is a clever and accomplished writer; the other book of his I’ve read, Atomized (1998), was an excellent, if bleak, existential satire on the fragmentation of the family unit. Submission finds Houellebecq tackling the question of Islam once more, but unexpectedly the novel is a spot on critique of Western culture, rather than Islam.

Submission is set in the year 2022, in which a moderate French Muslim political party becomes the logical middle path between opposing parties and takes power. Looking on is dissolute middle aged academic Francois, an expert on French writer Charles Marie Georges Huysmans, famous for his 1844 novel A Rebours (Against Nature), which defined the then burgeoning decadent literary movement (Huysmans importance here is significant, unfortunately requiring a long essay in itself, something I’m far to dissolute to even bother about...). It is very clear from the outset that Francois personifies the soulless secular Western world weakened by rampant capitalism and superficiality that Houellebecq is satirizing. Francois describes himself as being “...as political as a bath towel” and although he ironically states that election night TV is his second favourite show, it doesn’t stop him from changing the channel to watch a reality TV show about obesity. Francois’ life oozes both pathos and bathos as he contemplates middle-age turning into an old age plagued by illness, regret and loneliness.

Submission, although it explores important themes, is not particularly realistic;  rather Houellebecq uses its deceptively simple, almost cartoonish premise, as a means to both satirize superficial Western culture and perhaps more pertinently, to reveal a deeper historical truth. When Francois leaves Paris as the elections are being decided he travels to Rocamadour, a medieval town in the south of France, to see the statue of the Black Virgin, one of France’s most important Christian artifacts. Francois reflects that French kings and medieval warriors knelt to pray before the Black Virgin before defending Christian France, and consequently Europe itself, against the invading Muslim forces from Spain. Before he visits the Black Virgin Francois takes some time to look out over the valleys and hills around the town, reflecting that this region was where Cro-Magnon humans displaced Neanderthals into Spain, where they would eventually become extinct. The simple truth Houellebecq hints at here is that ultimately existence is a struggle for survival and consequently peoples, nations and cultures can easily and perhaps inevitably be usurped and swept away by those that are more united and adaptable. France is no longer united behind Christianity and is instead a culture in the thrall of the gaudy pleasures and pain of capitalism and, by extension, secularism.

Submission certainly has its flaws; it’s uneven, with sections that are ultimately boring, in particular those dealing with French politics. The novel is written in Houellebecq’s typically flat style that engenders a palpable sense of bleakness within the reader. The novel also features his usual explicit sex scenes, in this case used as a means to illustrate Francois general middle-aged ennui. Submission is also perhaps too simplistic, with no significant female characters and a French society that totally capitulates to a radical change of circumstances. Despite this Submission succeeds because it defies readers’ preconceptions and instead stands as an intriguing and mostly entertaining thought experiment that explores the uncomfortable notion that France is ripe for the picking, and potentially the rest of the Western world.