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Thursday, 25 June 2015

Coming Through Slaughter - Michael Ondaatje (1976)



Buddy Bolden is standing second from the left.





Charles Joseph Bolden (Buddy Bolden) is credited as being a principal originator of jazz, a new form of music that emerged in the dying years of the nineteenth century and in the early years of the twentieth. Bolden and his band played ragtime, added some blues and gospel elements and most importantly improvisation, which lies at the heart of jazz. This kind of historical knowledge about the origins of jazz, in particular narrowing it down to one man, is like finding the source of a great river that begins as a trickle before winding down the slopes of great mountains, through crazy rapids and into massive cataracts of water before spilling into a sea of infinite possibilities. Jazz truly is something wild and, even now, untamed; drawn deep from the inner creative soul of humankind. Ondaatje’s portrayal of Buddy Bolden and his milieu is like the above grainy black and white photo come to life and examined from multiple viewpoints.

Coming Through Slaughter is structured like jazz, with a narrative arc that is fragmented into vignettes that continually lead back to the main narrative motif. That motif is the life of of Buddy Bolden and his sudden disappearance. Bolden abandons both his life in New Orleans and his band apparently due to the onset of schizophrenia that eventually led to his incarceration in an old civil war asylum near the town of Slaughter in 1907, where he finally died aged 54 in 1931. Not a great deal is known about the life of Bolden accept a few fairly concrete facts coupled with a great deal of myth and conjecture. There aren’t even any recordings of Bolden and his band in existence, although there are rumors of recordings on cylinders that weren’t made for general consumption and ended up in the hands of collectors, although none have ever surfaced. Much of what occurs in the novel is therefore either exaggerated or fictionalized, however this benefits Ondaatje and allows Bolden and New Orleans to really come alive.

What Ondaatje offers is historical conjecture filtered through experiments with narrative form, such as switching without warning from a third person omniscient point of view to the first person point of view Bolden himself. Text from interviews (probably not real) and descriptions of films are some of the other forms used. To Ondaatje’s credit this narrative blend works well to give a fascinating take on Bolden and the birth of jazz. Central to the novel is the only surviving photograph of Bolden, along with his band, taken by E.J. Bellocq, the photographer known for his images of prostitutes (he’s portrayed here as a hydrocephalic). There’s an inferred connection between Bolden and Bellocq that seems to suggest that artistic brilliance is the domain of those who suffer, a tragic subtext that gives the novel emotional frisson.

Despite the brevity of Coming Through Slaughter and its unorthodox structure, it’s an absorbing read. The novel is regarded as one of the best jazz novels (is that a genre?) and jazz aficionados should certainly give it a read. I can’t help but feel that Bolden is too good to be true, a wild blower of the cornet, pioneer of the kind of inspirational improvisation that would establish jazz as one the great musical genres and sufferer of a mental illness that would be both his undoing and perhaps also his source of inspiration. If Bolden didn’t really exist then someone would have to make him up, and in a way that’s exactly what Ondaatje does in Coming Through Slaughter.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

The First Bad Man - Miranda July (2015)





Miranda July is a renaissance woman who’s career has encompassed film, music, performance art, directing, acting and writing. I first encountered Miranda July via her film Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), which turned out to be a brilliant encapsulation of what July is all about. Her style is self consciously arty and kooky and explores psychological themes such as neurotic behavior and social awkwardness whilst also flirting with existentialism. July manages to successfully skirt the fine line between pretension and authentic emotional connection and when she is on the money this approach works extremely well, but when she isn’t there can be a strong whiff of mawkishness. Although July’s work is somewhat of an acquired taste, The First Bad Man mostly hits the mark nicely.

The First Bad Man’s
principle protagonist is Cheryl Glickman, a typical July character; Cheryl is plain, awkward, neurotic and has a decidedly kooky outlook on life. Initially both the character of Cheryl and July’s writing grates with neurotic self-consciousness, but fortunately before long Cheryl becomes endearing and at the same time the novel begins to venture down some untrodden narrative pathways. The First Bad Man contains the only portrayal of a female misogynist that I’m aware of, although I’m sure there’s more out there in the wild world of literature. Cheryl’s unwanted house-guest, a young woman called Clee, is the instigator of one of the most unusual and ultimately affecting relationships I’ve ever encountered in a novel. Clee is young, beautiful and buxom, but has unbearable foot odor, questionable personal habits and behaves in an unreasonably aggressive manner toward Cheryl. However as the novel progresses Clee transforms Cheryl’s life in unexpectedly positive ways.

The First Bad Man evoked a wide range of emotional responses; at times I was frustrated at Cheryl’s inability to engage with life in a functional manner, yet I was also appalled at the treatment meted out by Clee. I ended up being entirely caught up in Cheryl’s life and found myself desperately hoping that everything would work out for her. Having seen her films I couldn’t help but picture July as Cheryl throughout the narrative, but fortunately this worked for me. July clearly has a knack of exploring the more extreme elements of human psychology whilst also making the character sympathetic. Without this the novel could have very easily been an exercise in neurotic irritation, but instead it becomes an ultimately heartwarming story. Also I’m sucker for a novel with a reference to David Bowie; in this case his song ‘Kooks’ is used as a mental tool for stopping obsessive behavior.

As with July’s films, The First Bad Man is not for everyone, in fact many readers may not be able to stomach her unique take on human psychology and her idiosyncratic writing style. Personally by the end of the novel I wasn’t ready to let go of Cheryl Glickman; I’d become as attached to her as she was to Kubelko Bondy, and that’s really saying something. Who’s Kubelko Bondy? You’ll have to read the novel to find out, and besides, Cheryl would love you to join her in her lover’s story, you won’t be sorry....







Miranda July, looking suitably kooky

Sunday, 31 May 2015

The Secret History - Donna Tartt (1992)








The Secret History is one of those novels that I’d been meaning to read for a long time, but had somehow never got around to it (I blame myself naturally). Curiously during the last twenty three years I’ve had a strange kind of shadow relationship with the novel; periodically I’d see a reference to it, or spot it in amongst a friend’s collection of books. Once I found a copy in the back yard of a house I was looking to rent, soggy from the rain that had passed overhead that day (it was unreadable of course). I’d overhear people talking about it in a cafe or I’d see a random picture of Tartt, a mysterious literary figure with her own striking sartorial style. In my mind an aura of mysterious allure surrounded both the book and the author and I knew that I would actually read it one day. Finally, having now read the novel, I’m happy to say that it did not disappoint.

In hindsight I realize that in being inexorably drawn to The Secret History I had something in common with narrator Richard Papen, who couldn’t resist the singular pull of the charismatic and exclusive coterie of Greek classics students taught by the enigmatic professor Julian Morrow. The alluring yet morally ambiguous world of the coldly intellectual Henry Winter, the debonair Francis Abernathy, the aloof twins Charles and Camilla Macaulay and the larger than life Bunny Corcoran was hard to resist. Tartt handles this ensemble of twenty-something students deftly and despite their arrogant elitism and murdering ways you really hope they literally get away with murder. This is undoubtedly authorial manipulation at its highest level.

As I was reading The Secret History I kept on marveling at just how a novel that reveals who is murdered and by whom right at the beginning can be so compelling. Of course there is the enticement of wanting to know why and how these characters were driven to murder, but ultimately it is novel’s tightly wound narrative tension and Tartt's coolly elegant prose that creates such a compelling novel. Tartt’s style is self consciously literary, yet she doesn’t overdo it, even though she regularly spreads baubles of linguistic beauty throughout the narrative. Tartt’s writing is so disciplined that she is able to make even the most mundane aspects of the narrative totally absorbing.

The characters are psychologically fascinating and the knowledge that there are mysteriously nefarious events going on in the background that will eventually be revealed creates exquisite tension. The novel is set in Vermont in the north east of America, providing an appropriately somber yet lush atmosphere of ornate campus buildings and autumnal forests for the plot’s tragic trajectory to play out in. Also impressive is Tartt’s ability to depict a realistic male narrator. Richard Papen’s psychological foibles are entirely convincing; his relationships with women, his insecurities and how he approaches life are all relatable to the reader, something that also applies to all of the characters, despite their individual eccentricities.

Reading The Secret History is like being seduced by someone who is extremely erudite, intelligent, mysterious and beautiful. It’s extremely addictive and wholly satisfying. I could barely put this book down, I read it on the train, late at night at home and on a camping trip; thinking about it obsessively as I climbed the peaks of the Stirling Ranges in the Australian autumn. It took ten years after the publication of The Secret History for Tartt’s next novel to emerge (The Little Friend - 2002) and then another eleven years for the Pulitzer prize winner The Goldfinch (2013). Fortunately I’m yet to read either of these novels. All that’s left to say at this point is that I’m grateful I’m not having to wait another ten years to read another Donna Tartt novel.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Solar Lottery - Philip K. Dick (1955)








The debut novel of any significant author is always a fascinating prospect, particularly after most of their later works have already been read. Solar Lottery reveals that Philip K. Dick arrived nearly fully formed, with many of his typical obsessive thematic threads featuring strongly.  Although Solar Lottery is certainly flawed and is not up there amongst his finest works, it still stands out due to Dick’s unique vision and writing style. When you read a Philip K. Dick novel you know that you are in for a weird time and Solar Lottery does not disappoint.

Solar Lottery is set hundreds of years in the future and humanity has colonized much of the solar system. This future solar civilization is ruled by a person selected at random by a computer generated lottery to hold the title of Quizmaster. Although governed by the Quizmaster, society is dominated by powerful corporations and most humans survive by pledging allegiance to both corporations and individuals. Ted Benteley, a typical Dick everyman, is dismissed from a corporation he hates, allowing him to attempt to work for the current Quizmaster - Reese Verrick. He succeeds only to learn that Verrick has been usurped by Leon Cartwright. Cartwright is also the leader of a society that follows the theories of John Preston, who’s life’s work focused on finding the legendary outer planet known as Flame Disc. Dick’s typically paranoid and cynical version of future humanity also involves sanctioned assassination attempts on the new Quizmaster and the unfortunate Benteley becomes embroiled in Verrick’s attempt to assassinate Cartwright. The novel’s convoluted plot is a bit creaky in places, but Dick ultimately manages to pull off what seems like two short stories melded into one narrative.


Solar Lottery features many of the tropes that would feature heavily in Philip K. Dick novels to come. Flying cars feature briefly, (but they don’t give unsolicited advice...), there’s controlling corporations, altered consciousness, telepaths, an android and ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. Typically for a Philip K. Dick novel there is a lot going on for what’s only a short novel and at times the narrative pace is frantic. At this early stage Dick’s writing style features abrupt segues and some pretty unnatural dialogue, however inadvertently these stylistic flaws create a hyper-real tone to the narrative that’s in keeping with Dick’s obsession with replicated or altered reality. The novel does have a pulpy tone, but Dick’s ideas are, as usual, intriguing and weird; exploring deeper themes than the average action oriented pulp novel from that era. I wonder how readers would have reacted to this novel back in 1955?

Although future novels would be superior both stylistically and thematically, Solar Lottery is well worth reading for any Dick-head. Dick would go on to craft an extraordinary body of work that would prove to be both prescient and highly influential. Dick was a unique voice and it’s such a pity that his lifestyle choices (including over a decade of abuse of legally sourced amphetamines) led to an early demise in 1982. In keeping with Dick’s vision, perhaps one day we’ll have a replicant Philip K. Dick AI churning out new novels for our amazement. Now that’s something I’d like to see.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The Narrow Road to the Deep North - Richard Flanagan (2013)








Richard Flanagan, deserving winner of the 2014 Man Booker prize, was inspired by his father’s experiences as a WWII POW on the Thailand - Burma death railway to write The Narrow Road to the Deep North. It took Flanagan twelve years and a multitude of drafts to complete. Flanagan’s father passed away on the very day it was finished, as if finally released from the burden of history. The Narrow Road to the Deep North deserves to become a modern classic both for its unflinching depiction of humanity at war and for the quality of Flanagan’s prose.


The Narrow Road to the Deep North is divided into sections featuring short chapters that move through various time periods before and after the war, most featuring the novel’s principal protagonist, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans. In contrast the middle section is dominated by a depiction of the horror of the death railway across two days; it is both unrelentingly bleak and emotionally draining. Flanagan’s writing is subtle but powerful, creating a profound sense of being right there with the POWs in the steaming disease ridden jungle suffering from the cruelty of both the guards and the work itself. This is by far the most visceral depiction of the horrors of war I have ever read. The reality of the death railway is both surreal and medieval in its varied cruelties and appropriately at one point Dorrigo alludes to the circles of hell from Dante’s Inferno (1317) when referring to the ulcer ward.

Flanagan’s decision to utilize a linear narrative for most of the death railway section allows it to stand in stark contrast to the rest of the novel. To be faced with chapter after chapter of the horrors of ‘the line’ and ‘the speedo’ makes for an extremely challenging read. This is leavened somewhat by a multitude of superbly written scenes throughout the novel; from a young Dorrigo marking a football in the playground, to his fellow POW survivors drunkenly smashing into a Hobart fish and chip shop to free the fish ‘imprisoned’ in the fish tank to honor their fallen comrade Darky Gardiner. Generally Flanagan’s depiction of character psychology is mostly inspired, but at times he overdoes it, extending paragraphs detailing a character’s mental and emotional states to almost unbearable lengths. This tendency to be slightly long-winded is perhaps the novel’s only flaw, although it is easily overlooked when considering the overall brilliance of the novel.

Early in the novel Dorrigo Evans, surgeon and former commanding officer, now in his seventies, leaves a scene of infidelity, forgetting his book of Japanese death poems. Significantly the Japanese commanders at the POW camp discuss their love of Japanese literature, most notably Matsuo Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North (1689), an account of his epically dangerous journey by foot into the interior of Japan. Basho writes that “every day is a journey, and the journey itself home.” Although ostensibly Flanagan’s novel is about war and its affect on those involved, the reference to Basho reveals deeper meanings; perhaps obviously as a metaphor for the POWs dangerous journey through the jungle building the railway, but more philosophically as an analogy for each individual’s journey through life. The novel traces many lives, including, in one of the novel’s masterstrokes, the Japanese officers in the decades after the war. It also serves as a reminder that literature, as an expression of humanity, both illuminates and obfuscates the ‘truth’ and that the ‘truth’ is more often than not subjective at best.


Although The Narrow Road to the Deep North was selected to read for the Subiaco Library book club in January, the meeting coincidentally fell in the week leading up to ANZAC day. I have mixed feelings about ANZAC day; it is undoubtedly important to remember those who went to war, but there is also the tendency for nationalism and subtle glorification to creep into our remembrances. Fortunately Flanagan’s novel does not view the past in black and white terms, rather it reminds us that humanity is flawed and war is an extreme expression of our folly. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is so thematically rich and profoundly humane it should become mandatory reading not just in Australia, but throughout the world.


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.