Archive for March, 2009

(image from Craft Victoria blog)

Aeisthoaoweithweotetaestewkstyk: my brain when seeing Chicks on Speed last night at Craft Victoria. Their Viva La Craft exhibition was riotous, colourful, interactive and super fun. Look at all those adjectives. I love people who can just make and make and make and make and make.

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It pains me to be hasty in writing about a book I enjoyed so much, but my immune system’s inability to deal with certain allergens yesterday means that I feel like I’m about to collapse. So just a quick one today.

So, it took what seems to be a long time for me to read any Carver. I love tensile writing, and I love minimalist writing even more. So Carver was always going to be a shoo-in for me. I was already familiar with the Gordon Lish controversy, and the lauded minimalist qualities of the prose resulting from Carver’s relationship with Lish, his one-time editor. Literary drama is always fun, and there are lots of arguments to be made on both sides of that fence. But the results of the Lish/Carver collaboration(?) are powerful and timeless, despite whatever might be said about its ethics.

Some of the stories are very short. ‘The Father’, weighing in at two pages, describes something like a pastoral tableau in which a newborn baby is coddled by its family. When trying to work out who the baby looks like, little Carol decides that it is ‘Daddy’. Yet, when the other girls hear this, they express their confusion: ‘But who does Daddy look like?’ Carver allows the father only one appearance at the end of the story, but his lack of expression and paleness in response to these innocent questions speak volumes.

This is really the genius of Carver: to be able to imply desolation without so much as typing a ‘d’. He’s the biggest shower-not-teller I’ve ever read. Carver’s simple sentences seem to play tricks. Straightforward (‘I had a feeling tonight.’); vernacular (‘I’m getting jealous, Rudy says to Joanne.’); and barely touching a 4 on the affect scale, there’s nothing flashy to the discrete parts of language that make up the stories. Neither are there any ‘big bang’ moments; as far as we can tell, these are either in the past or future. Carver places his characters on a cliff which is crumbling from underneath. Woven together, the words, sentences and paragraphs create portraits that would seem mild but for the ellipses and cathexes Carver is able to evoke. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please depicts, over and over again, the inanition of small town American life.

Extra points: Geoffrey Wolff’s review in the New York Times from 1976.

March 11, 2009

Last night my friend J. and I made pea, mint and feta pasta and watched tv for three hours: the absolutely correct restorative for the end of a half-week that’s already featured a long weekend. Unfortunately, I had an awful night of (non-)sleep, because despite my lovely friend’s best efforts (clean sheets), I suffered badly from my allergy to cats. That’s sad! I like cats. And I don’t like wheezing. So I ended up downstairs on the couch, where I changed positions every twenty minutes and finally fell asleep at about 5:30am. Despite my constant vigilance at keeping him away while I was awake (or probably because of it), unbeknownst to me, J.’s cat Bear decided to have a little sleep on my blanket, too, but somehow that was fine.

The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas is my current public tranport companion. It’s exactly what I felt like reading: a Gen-Y The Name of the Rose or Possession, i.e. a big sexy literary chase, so far at least. But it’s got a smart, self-deprecating female heroine who considers boiled potatoes a meal. Good times.

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I ordered the Mini Shots box set (issues #1-10) from Vignette Press a little while back. Mini Shots are cute single short stories you can pop into your pocket or bag and they’re all by emerging Australian authors. I’ve read three so far — they are very good public transport companions. If you’re scared of short stories, these booklets could be a good introduction as the stories are very accessible, though a bit unpolished at times. These little books are a great and inexpensive way to support local authors. Also, the ‘mini’ format is a fantastic way to let the character of a short story shine, unobscured by collection-mates.

Each of the stories is quite different. ‘Coda’ by Simon Groth is about the relationship which develops between Astrid, a fledgling nurse, and Martin Finn, a patient with ‘locked-in syndrome’, which leaves him unable to communicate except for a complicated system of eye movements. Martin’s frustration at being unable to communicate extensively finds a receptive balm in Astrid’s willingness to assist him. Groth does a nice job of splitting the narrative between Astrid and Martin, making them both sympathetic and real.

Emmett Stinson’s ‘Something So Helpless’ takes a look at life and death in Washington. David and Steve find it difficult to confront the issues posed by a mewling kitten left by its mother out the front of their house. Stinson uses this scenario to portray a city, rent by violence and overtaken by consumerism, whose inhabitants maintain a practised (or feigned) nonchalance towards the cruelty of urban life. This story probably worked the least well for me, partly because the characters weren’t immediately differentiable, which is crucial if you’re only going to do 1500 words. I liked it more on a second flick-through, though.

Mini Shot #3 is Sarah Jansen’s ‘Dragon Dust’, an elegantly written fantasy story. Velvet is a busy, lively, loving mother with four children, a husband and a crotchety mother-in-law. Her everyday life in a country town is so beautifully and gently described by Jansen that the foreshadowing of the town’s problems with an old enemy is really able to build up to an affecting end. The title may put off non-fantasy readers, you know, two types of people in the world: likes reading about dragons/doesn’t. I’m unabashedly in the ‘likes’ camp, so take your advice advisedly.

Looking forward to getting to the others; it feels really nice getting one of these out of my bag at the beginning of a train trip and putting it away, finished, by the time I get home.

Quick plug for workshops being run at the City Library for the next few months. Tonight, my friend Maddie Crofts is running writing workshops. They’re non-hierarchical sessions based on creative writing exercises. They will be run alternate Wednesdays with the Street Press group (next week’s guest speaker is Clem Bastow of The Dawn Chorus fame, on blogging). These workshops are FREE.

Melbourne City Library: 253 Flinders Lane Melbourne. Street Press blog, including calendar and bulletins here.

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Some writers compromise their readers: whether it’s by underestimating their intelligence and capacity for empathy, or misjudging their motives for engaging with literature, some writers simply do not deserve the trust readers place in them. Christos Tsiolkas is not one of those writers, and his book The Slap shows how rewarding it can be when a writer is generous to his characters, his vision and his audience.

The Slap begins on the morning of a get-together planned by Aisha and Hector, a married couple. Hector is an alpha male, a public servant with a morning physical routine and a love for women which is unembarrassingly reciprocated by that part of the population. A loving husband, who without prejudice refers to his wife’s exceptional qualities in times of stress, Hector is nevertheless uncompromisingly lascivious; he is conducting an affair with his wife’s high-school age assistant, Connie, and masturbates in the ensuite while thinking about a co-shopper from the supermarket.

At the gathering, a run-of-the-mill suburban barbecue, friends and family of the couple engage in familiar banter, needle each other, monitor their tempers, manage the quotidian unease of relationships. Disruptions are two-a-penny, and to each their own weapons and targets; Hector’s mother still laments Aisha’s Indian background, while Hector’s friend Gary disparages the soapie writing that Aisha’s friend Anouk does for a living. But Hugo, the three-year-old child of indulgent, still-breastfeeding Rosie, finally disrupts the hard-won peace with screams, threatening Hector’s nephew with a cricket bat — no, it is Hector’s cousin Harry, dealing the titular slap to Hugo, who is responsible for the final rupture.

Tsiolkas propels from the springboard of this event with energy and lucid attention. He gives eight of his characters the narrative reins, which allows him to range about the halls of the middle-class Australian psyche. By no means an arch-stylist, Tsiolkas’ work seems to derive motivation more from humanist (turbo-humanist?) preoccupations. Whether it’s the perspective of Anouk, the 43-year-old writer resisting the putative eventuality of nuclear family life; Manolis, Hector’s elderly father; or Richie, Connie’s gay best friend, the multi-narrator approach is a clever and compassionate device that allows Tsiolkas to treat each character as both subject and object. It creates a constant watching/being-watched dynamic enabling thoughtful inquiry into the mechanics of a milieu that thrusts us into orbit with one another, equipped with what little armour we’ve got.

The Slap is Australian literature at its best, a mirror in front of which we can all dance and cry. It reminds us of how every day we are annihilated and enlivened by society’s acute challenges. We have long needed a novel featuring a Melbourne whose discomfited multiculturalism and neoteric identity we can wryly and blissfully recognise, which adds into the mix the difficult circumstances faced by the rest of a hyper-developed world: the proliferation of technology, laws unequal to new crimes, new sexual moralities, the diminishing of communities. Yes, I had some reservations about this book, some of which were not insubstantial. But I was pretty happy to overlook them. The Slap is fierce, intelligent, necessary and a damn good read — what more do you need to know?