Archive for November, 2009

I requested Madeleine St John’s The Essence of the Thing for review on Textual Fantasies because I was fascinated by what critics say about St John. I’d never heard of her, but when Text re-issued her novels, it became possible to read a slew of printed praise for her writing, including, from Michelle de Kretser: ‘It is to be hoped that St John, who is woefully undervalued [in Australia], will at last be recognised as the best novelist we never had’. Big call. So, of course, it was necessary to read Madeleine St John immediately.

And, of course, I’m glad I did. It’s a break-up story, albeit one which is tart and charming. Nicola — lovely, clever, loyal — comes home from a cigarette run to the home she shares with Jonathan to this:

Jonathan shrugged very slightly and then got impatiently to his feet. He leaned an arm against the mantelpiece; if there had been a fire he would certainly have poked it. As it was, he looked unseeingly at the objects at his elbow and moved a china poodle dog. Then he looked up at her again. ‘There’s no nice way to say this,’ he said. ‘But I’ve decided – that is, I’ve come to the conclusion – that we should part.’

Anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of similar words will appreciate the swirling confusion that follows such a scene. Nicola’s first reaction to this giant unilateral shift is disbelief: ‘this is just a sort of joke which I haven’t yet understood’; this quickly turns to shock and anger. Later, she manages to pull herself together into a kind of utterly practical and even hopeful embracer of change: it’s not a book with a lot of wallowing. And it’s as far from psychiatry-era emotional-damage-lit as you can get. Rather, The Essence of the Thing illustrates the wretchedness of a regular end to a regular relationship with endlessly empathetic focus on the kaleidoscope twist such an event usually represents.

St John is talented at sketching character with very few words. It’s not a dense book, and it has very short chapters, which tootles the whole thing along very quickly. In that way, it’s rather televisual. I particularly like her dialogue, which is pithy but veridical:

‘What’s your dad doing?’
‘Watching telly.’
‘Take him a caramel then.’

There are lots of characters in this book, mostly couples: the newly-split couple’s respective parents and different sets of Nicola and Jonathan’s shared friends. But they’re all lively in separate skins, all able to be told apart. St John very lovingly pokes fun at the many foibles a person encounters in life’s cast of friends and family, and occasionally enjoys a joke at the expense of her adopted national character (she moved to England in the 1960s): ‘I must, she thought, just concentrate on what comes next, and try to live through this as decently as I can. She was not British for nothing.’ I also loved the little kid, Guy, who is very good-natured and is constantly exclaiming in the time-honoured British way: ‘Cor!’ (as opposed to: ‘Oh my god, that is so random’). And Nicola herself is wonderful, with her smiles as easy as her tears, her passim French words and her desire just to get on with things after Jonathan leaves.

The Essence of the Thing is a tender exploration of the middle-class break-up: the turmoil and resilience that can still be suffered by the person whose basic physical and financial needs are all taken care of: the emotional niceties of awkward asset dissolution, the solitude and pendulum swings of someone undertaking to demolish a long-term relationship, what to do with the marmalade your ex-partner’s mother has gifted you with, what to do with the collection of china dogs. What is interesting about The Essence of the Thing is how ordinary all the characters and situations are. People are, of course, drawn to stories that can tell them things they might never find out if they relied purely on their own experience: other countries, other lives and other loves. But readers also love to feel the fizz of recognition between themselves and a story, and in that, this book excels.

Today, it was announced that Tony and Maureen Wheeler have made a large endowment to the Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas, which is now called the Wheeler Centre in honour of that fact. So, they didn’t take up my ‘RAD BOOKTOWN’ name idea, then. Pity. I did get tingles from being in the same room as Melbourne’s publishing power couple, though. (Apparently they met each other on a park bench in London and got married within the year. So don’t give that dude in the park the brush-off, y’all.)

Anyway, after the concise and rousing speeches, this:

Witness that fitness, people. (Lady in the red jacket is like: Back off of my food, ladies.) The standard for literary event catering has definitely been set (cabana and Coon cheddar coming in a close second). And I couldn’t behave myself. I think it was pretty obvious that Maddie and I were there as representatives of community radio and, what do you call it, ‘blogs’. We did the ol’ shuffle-over to the food table but didn’t want to be the first people to take anything. We whispered endlessly to each other: ‘I think maybe Jason Steger is going to take a blini. Why isn’t Sophie Cunningham hungry? I’m pretty sure Lynne Kosky will need some fuel after that rousing speech,’ etc. Luckily someone in a suit broke the code and we happily indulged in the very fine foodstuffs until:

…there was very little left. Nobody puts cubes of fish rich in intramuscular fat on miniature pancakes with micro-cress, ikura and cream cheese without expecting me to take at least five of said food item. Behind are crunchy noodle haystacks with peeled cherry tomato halves, people. Somebody peeled cherry tomatoes so that I wouldn’t have to suffer the tannins of tomato skin (nor the nutrients — zing!) Good job, whoever catered the launch.

More seriously, or at least more literarily, the Gala Night is going to be kind of ridiculous. If you like anyone who writes things (Chloe Hooper? Paul Kelly? Cate Kennedy? Christos Tsiolkas? Alex Miller? John Marsden? John Safran? and I’m going to stop there, because the rhetorical value of my question marks will diminish if I just list everyone who’s going to be there. But you get the idea) then you will widdle in your pants for this event. Just saying. The rest of the program’s not much chop though. Some guy called Peter Singer is doing a talk on the lawn, and some woman called Ramona Koval is hosting a monthly event. Huh.

When Maddie and I interviewed John Hunter of Hunter Publishers a month or so back, he brought along a stack of books for us, an expansive gesture that Maddie, better tenacious of her good breeding than I am (sorry, Mum and Dad) took the lead in declining to fully exploit. But neither of us could resist taking one book each from the proffered pile, and there was a dog fight over Sarah Manguso’s The Two Kinds of Decay. I won — spurred by Older Sister Entitlement Syndrome — and Maddie took away the tantalising, not-really-second-place Oink Oink Oink by Eric Yoshiaki Dando.

I’m not usually a scrapper, and I don’t think Maddie is either. But John was describing how he’d discovered Manguso’s writing — she’s a poet and short fiction writer, an Iowa alum — and came to buy the Australian rights to The Two Kinds of Decay, a memoir about her experience with a disease called chronic idiopathic demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (CIDP). Both us girls (well, I’m extrapolating from how I felt) were intrigued and touched by the story and its short-sections format, and I got stuck into it pretty much straight away.

Like most human dramas seem to do, Manguso’s sickness crept up on her without any warning. One morning in 1995, when she was washing her face, she couldn’t catch her breath and her hands started tingling. It was a strange affliction that became more severe over the next couple of days, though with the average person’s blithe lack of presentiment for catastrophe, her worry was mostly directed at the collateral effects:

I was concerned I’d caught a strange illness, but I was more concerned that I looked drunk. I was staggering around, even to and from breakfast, and I felt people looking at me and thinking it might be time for an intervention.

Only a day later, she fell down in her university’s courtyard. Her mother took her to the hospital and in twelve hours she was hooked up to a machine and warned that she would be intubated through a hole in her neck if she deteriorated any further.

What followed was four years of medical treatment so intense that ‘intrusive’ doesn’t quite cover it. In CIDP, the immune system secretes antibodies into the blood, and these antibodies destroy the patient’s neurons. To avoid the effects of this self-destructive cycle, Manguso had to undergo apheresis, ‘from the Greek aphairein, to take away’. Her blood was fed into a machine that spun the blood into its separate components, removed the poisoned parts — in Manguso’s case, the plasma — and guided back into the body once mixed with saline and artificial plasma.

The matter-of-fact way in which Manguso describes the effects and the equipment of her illness is simple, though not inhumane or stark. She reports the taste and the cold of the plasma infusions, inescapable because they are inside her; and it’s difficult not to put one’s hand to one’s neck and close the book and be of one’s own body for a moment. Weakness is one of the accompanying detriments of CIDP, with the limbs becoming too impuissant for common tasks. This leads to impossibilities where once there was effortlessness: the section entitled ‘Blood and Shit’ tells of the cheerful nurse who ‘really knew how to wipe an ass’, and Manguso’s gratefulness for the competency with which her favourite staff would accomplish these intimate duties. Less able to be imparted without horror are the tales of professional inadequacy. In ‘The Sikh’:

He tried again and again to jam the tube into my vein. Every now and then he had to stop and apply pressure, as I was bleeding. At one point I thought I felt a jet of blood spurt into my chest cavity, and that’s when I lost my composure.

Months later, after his hair had gone from steel gray to white, my father told me it had looked like a horror movie.

While her writer’s nous enables her to figure her observations as salient themes or lessons, Manguso’s poet sense also conveys understanding in impressionistic flashes. At ‘The End’, she learns to ‘pay attention’; and that ‘to pay attention is to love everything’: a conclusion as comprehensive and inscrutable as monks’ replies to koans.

Not elegiac, but clear and aware, Manguso’s memoir is a bright prism for insight into the matrix of sickness and strength. Written seven years after her recovery, The Two Kinds of Decay uses a structure of fragments to translate life’s linear chaos into something multifaceted and utterly graspable. In a cruel bracket of life where the words ‘prednisone’ and ‘bolus’ and ‘fear’ become daily companions, and doctors and nurses number among the most common cast members, humanity might be a person’s most precious and most tenuous asset. Manguso’s powers of pellucid distillation guarantee the preservation of that humanity in the telling of a story with the power to all but devour it.


Next on the list for me is certainly some of Manguso’s poetry. Also, she is working on a novel: ‘it’s called The Guardians, and it’s about surveillance and paranoia’.

So, now that I’ve finished reading Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, can someone tell me whose copy I have got? Really. Most likely candidates: Sam, Ron, Raf and Tenny. This isn’t a joke.

With the ferrule of his walking stick Denis began to scratch the boar’s long bristly back. The animal moved a little so as to bring himself within easier range of the instrument that evoked in him such delicious sensations; then he stood stock still, softly grunting his contentment. The mud of years flaked off his sides in a powdery scurf.

‘What a pleasure it is,’ said Denis, ‘to do somebody a kindness. I believe I enjoy scratching this pig quite as much as he enjoys being scratched. If only one could always be kind with so little expense of trouble…’

from Crome Yellow, Aldous Huxley

How I felt about Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, somewhat in the style of said book:

This is a book I didn’t read for a long time, because sometimes it gives me extremely heavy boots thinking about books that lots of other people have read and I haven’t read yet, and on top of that, it’s a book about a so, so sad thing in recent Western history that is very confusing and distressing. Anyway, I finally got around to reading it, and I really liked it, and it definitely wasn’t shiitake like I was scared it would be. Actually, you need a big place inside you to store this book. That’s how much I liked it.

This is a book about a boy called Oskar Schell, who is extremely clever and endearing — that is, if you like smart kids who have no friends — and whose family has suffered a lot, including when Oskar’s father died when the planes crashed into the World Trade Center. One day, Oskar finds a key in an envelope that has BLACK written on it, and this makes him EXTREMELY DEPRESSED VERY EXCITED INCREDIBLY DETERMINED, since he thinks it has something to do with his dad. So he tries to find out which of the 162 million locks in New York City the key opens, and along the way he meets people like Mr. Black, who was born on January 1, 1901, and has a bibliographical index with cards and a one-word biography (“Henry Kissinger: war!” “Tom Cruise: money!”) for tens of thousands of people.

Another thing that Jonathan Safran Foer does with this book is talk about the impulse of documentation that comes from love, and how it helps people process things and also, how much people love words and pictures. It’s also about doing things even though they hurt us. Oskar has a scrapbook titled Stuff That Happened to Me and it looks like this:

(These pictures aren’t from the book; I got them from here, here, here.)

Oskar’s grandfather can’t speak and he has to also write a lot, and he has plenty of notebooks that have just one word or phrase on them, like this:


And sometimes Jonathan Safran Foer uses other ways of showing how heavy people’s boots can get by doing things with words and how they sit on the page that are different to what other people usually do in books. Like sometimes he does this thing with kerning that I can’t figure out how to do with html. And sometimes he does things like lots of space to you can tell or what’s going on. (Okay, it turns out I can’t make bigger than a regular word space in html either. Who knew?) Sometimes I wished the author wouldn’t do all these things, but other times I really didn’t mind. There’s a really good couple of pages about testing pens. That made me feel okay for some reason.

One thing that was weird was that Oskar gets a letter from Stephen Hawking, which I’m pretty sure would never happen. What about how busy he gets? What about the fact that he probably wouldn’t really have time to read all the letters a little kid sends him? What about the time that even if he read all the letters sent to him by the kid, he wouldn’t have time to send a letter back? I just googled “getting a letter from Stephen Hawking” and there were no results, so I don’t think anyone has ever received a response from a fan letter to Stephen Hawking, and I guess if anyone ever googles that again, they’ll just get my blog. José!

I guess the final thing I want to say about this book is that the father in it, and the son actually too, are two of my favourite characters in a book I’ve read all year. And this book is a really beautiful way of saying: ‘I love you and I want you to be safe’ to fathers and sons and mothers and daughters like Oskar and his dad and mother and grandmother.

November 10, 2009

Hi everyone. It’s going to be a bit quiet here for the next couple of weeks. There are just some things a girl has to do. Like work, and eat pastries. Sadly, in this case, it’s more of the former. But, god as my witness, I will manfully try to up the ante on the latter.