Archive for August, 2010

In ‘Up North’, the fourth story in The Dead Fish Museum, a man whose wife is having a string of affairs says, ‘Our marriage was like a constant halving of the distance, without ever arriving at the moment in time where, utterly familiar, I’d vanish’. In the collection’s final story, ‘The Bone Game’, a man comes across a crystal clear stream, but the fish, which the native Americans believe are their ancestors, are ‘thin and weak and mutilated, their flesh ripped and trailing from their bodies like rags’. Charles D’Ambrosio’s second short story collection is full of these inexorable equations: lives diminishing without fully disappearing.

One way of coming to terms with the diminishing returns is to accept that life is a pretty low-stakes deal. Tony, the narrator of ‘Blessing’, describes heavy misfortunes as ‘gyps’. He’s an insurance broker, so he knows all about hedging bets: ‘You expect a normal life, but wager against it.’ Boons aren’t of much consequence either; Tony’s wife, Meagan, an actress for whom parts are proving elusive, says, ‘I love you … At least there’s that’. In ‘The Scheme of Things’, Lance and Kirsten live off small amounts of money – ten bucks a pop – that they procure by posing as charity workers.

Of The Dead Fish Museum’s eight offerings, three are fishing stories and one is a hunting story. In ‘Up North’, a couple make their way from New York to a cabin in the snow for deer season. In ‘The High Divide’, two boys go on a fishing trip. The triangulation of life, death and nature is a classic configuration: a proven catalyst for unearthing family violence (‘Up North’), or a nation’s bloody history (‘The Bone Game’). But D’Ambrosio’s sensitivity to natural beauty makes the gambit worthwhile. Not only is the land tainted (in the title story, the ocean shore is awash with garbage), it is also promising and fecund, housing tulips in ‘a sea of red and yellow … rolling our way like a wave’.

Animals meet their ends quite readily in these stories, but for their human counterparts, life is a waiting room at best. Young Ignatius in ‘The High Divide’ watches his father sitting on the caged-in patio of St. Jude’s Hospital, his eyes like ‘blown fuses’. This sense of attenuated experience is intensified by the recurrence of details across the stories. In a García Márquez–like repetition of circumstances, the collection contains multiple failed actresses, guns, insurance workers and psychiatric hospital inpatients. This déja vu blurs the lines between tales, creating a spectrum of story in which the waiting never ceases – characters are reincarnated, waiting, in another purgatory.

D’Ambrosio’s prose is good, his dialogue great. ‘My life is so simple a one-year-old could live it,’ says the self-immolating ballerina in ‘Screenwriter’. Folksy vocabulary and unusual word choices enable him to nail character and description in a scant sentence. His dialogue and prose work together at their best in ‘Drummond & Son’, a study of the relationship between a typewriter vendor and his son. Drummond is patient, dignified, undemonstrative: ‘Sometimes your illness tells you things, Pete. You know that’. Yet twenty-five year old Pete is referred to as ‘the boy’ in the story’s prose, a protective tell construing his son’s interrupted life.

‘Half-life’ is a scientific term – a measure of the time it takes for a substance to halve in size or potency. It’s synonymous with decay, with deterioration, and thus with the consciousness that there’s only less to come. While the realism of The Dead Fish Museum is constructed with an eye to the compromised quality of its characters’ existence, it’s also anchored in the ‘strange becalmed moments’ of the outgoing tide. D’Ambrosio’s stories are portraits of humanity at the tail end of exponential decay, reminding us of the distinction between even a compromised life and silence.

(Cross-posted from Killings – with my apologies for all the cross-posting while I’m occupied with blogging for MWF.)

Imagine a city where you can tell a person’s social position, what language they speak and their background just by looking at them. Anjum Hasan’s Lunatic in My Head tells us that Shillong, in India’s north east, is such a place:

Firdaus knew that the woman waving to her from the window of the beauty parlour, her friend Sharon, was a quarter British, a quarter Assamese of the tea-planter variety, and half Khasi.

Firdaus is an outsider, a teacher at the Loreto Convent. She has no Khasi blood, unlike the majority of Shillong’s inhabitants – she is a dkhar, an outsider, a ‘permanent guest of the hills-people’. Four years into her PhD, and she still thinks of ‘English literature as a vast grey 19th century amorphousness’. Her supervisor, Dr Thakur, is as scattershot and adamant with his advice as Thor on a bad day, and her thesis topic is sadly undercooked: ‘Something like the values of characters like Elizabeth Bennet … how she manages to get around … prudishness and arrogance and that sort of thing.’

Another local, Aman Moondy, is preparing to sit the Civil Services exam. It’s his second attempt; having been assured by his philosophy teachers that there was no future in that ancient art of knowledge, the exam seems like the only way out of Shillong. What he really loves is music – Aman’s band, The ProtoDreamers, imagine themselves as Pink Floyd and as the trigger for a new creative scene.

This part of India bears the marks of its neighbours – Bhutan, Bangladesh, Burma and Nepal. Chinese restaurants jostle for space among the kwai (betel nut) sellers and aloo-wallahs. But this doesn’t mean that its inhabitants attend harmoniously to life and each other. Instead, Firdaus and Aman are uncertain of their welcome. For dkhar, violence can bloom like a terrible flower: see a street vendor pummelled for fun by Khasi youths.

Eight-year-old Sophie feels alienated, too. Not only from the people in the Ladybird books she has read (‘Jane, will you help Mummy bake a cake?’), but also from her parents. In fact, she thinks that she’s adopted – how else can she become Khasi, like the others?

Anjum Hasan was born in Shillong. She writes it as a loose tangle waiting to be tightened – racially motivated acts span the gamut from merely rebarbative to fatal. Lunatic in My Head is an immersive way of discovering a part of India we know so little about.

(Cross-posted from mwfblog.)

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August 18, 2010

The Paris Review blog does this incredibly entertaining thing where it asks people of substance to record their cultural activities for a week (my pedestrian phrasing, not theirs). It’s called The Culture Diaries, and it’s full of people saying things like ‘Before I left my friend’s house we talked about how scary we both find Hemingway’s short story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.”’ Well, before I left my friend’s house last night, I mentioned how much I would like a puppy. We can’t all be geniuses around here.

Here’s my cultural diary.

Wednesday: Am perturbed that Lil Bow Wow grew up handsome. Read 17 words from The New Yorker.

Thursday: Read Alice Pung’s Unpolished Gem and Growing up Asian in Australia to prepare for Melbourne Writers Festival session. Consider placing bucket underneath my desk to catch my giant Asian tears.

Friday: Listen to Mariah Carey’s ‘Dream Lover’ on repeat for three hours. Practice jokes in front of the mirror to prepare for Magazine at MWF, with Michaela McGuire and Benjamin Law. Look up ‘jokes’ on the internet and am puzzled that it returns 59,800,000 results.

Saturday: Saturday is a no-culture day.

Sunday: Watch Pride & Prejudice 1.5 times.

Monday: Go to my friend’s house for dinner to farewell another friend, who is going to Columbia to do an MFA. Feel so depressed and jealous that I eat entire packet of double coat Tim Tams and a matched weight in black olives.

Tuesday: Watch the video of the Bret Easton Ellis interview at the Wheeler Centre last week and decide whether to listen to the already infamous BEE vs. Ramona Koval interview slash stand-off. End up not deciding anything. See Inception in 3 seconds and am underwhelmed, but enjoy the final frame. Find my favourite thing on the internet for the week: what fonts Richard Posner, judge of the US Court of Appeals, uses and why:

I usually compose in Century Schoolbook. But I cannot for the life of me remember why I chose that! I used to compose in Baskerville, which I like a lot. Garamond is nice, too. And I composed two books (both on intelligence reform) in Verdana, which I also liked; but I no longer remember why I did that, either.

Watch Pride and Prejudice 2.3 times.

In Aida Edemariam’s Guardian profile of Christos Tsiolkas that ran over the weekend, she enumerated the numerous garlands laid at Booker-longlisted The Slap‘s door. Among them is Colm Toíbín’s favourable descriptor: ‘reminiscent of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Don DeLillo’s Underworld‘. As Edemariam notes, this is rather naughty, ‘as it is produced [in the UK] by an imprint he co-runs and [he] has been friends with Tsiolkas for years’.

As much as I’d like to be someone who regularly smashes a few cans with Cormac McCarthy while trading fusillades in a competitive round of ‘Imagine the Worst Apocalyptic Future Possible’, or the possessor of a personal epistolary trove that will be raided after my death for examples of Daniyal Mueenuddin’s handwriting, the truth is that I haven’t really had to deal with having that many people who have written books.

The recent publication of young Melbourne (via Byron Bay and Adelaide) writer Daniel Ducrou’s novel The Byron Journals has propped a stick in those works, however, because I’ve read the book, and I know him.

What to do? Even having disclosed this, I know that when I read something complimentary about an author’s work that has been said/written by someone who knows them, there’s always a small part of my brain that goes, ‘Yeah right, you goddamned BFFs’. Needless to say, I’m therefore on the alert not to produce anything like Nicole Krauss’s over-the-top blurb of David Grossman’s To the End of the Land (not that, to my knowledge, those two writers know each other). Here’s a quote from Krauss’s blurb, ganked from Alison Flood’s Guardian piece about it:

“Very rarely, a few times in a lifetime, you open a book and when you close it again nothing can ever be the same. Walls have been pulled down, barriers broken, a dimension of feeling, of existence itself, has opened in you that was not there before. To the End of the Land is a book of this magnitude,” [Krauss] writes. … “And she doesn’t stop there. To read the book, she says, “is to have yourself taken apart, undone, touched at the place of your own essence; it is to be turned back, as if after a long absence, into a human being”.

I hope to steer clear of anything approaching that level of praise – about anything, actually, not just Dan’s book. But knowing you are unlikely to be moved by anything positive I say (‘goddamned BFFs’), I’m just going to have to forge ahead regardless, because I’ve laid it like I’ll play it.

***

‘I think I was born into the wrong city,’ says Andrew, as he buckles up. ‘Definitely the wrong family.’ He’s on a plane with his mate Benny, and they’re escaping Adelaide for Byron Bay. As comments go, it’s casual, but the sentiment is warranted. Andrew’s got plenty of cash from his dad, whom he caught having sex with one of his young students. As well as being cashed up, he’s recently been beaten up – a legacy from someone who wanted to convey a message about his mother’s work as a criminal defence lawyer.

Anxious but attracted to the sound of music at a house party, he joins in on a drummers’ jam, translating what he knows of classical music to the spontaneity of the gathering. His gaze falls easily on Heidi, a girl with a lazy but confident manner, and a drummer named Tim compliments him on his drum solo. But back at his digs, Richie, who lives next door to Benny in Adelaide, Richie prods Andrew about his mother: ‘it seems to take a special breed of person to do that kind of work.’ Andrew returns fire, and the two are soon brawling; and Andrew is soon without a place to stay.

Andrew takes his necessaries – phone, wallet, pot – and scouts out the house from the party the previous night. Tim lives there; as does Jade, pouting and scantily clad; and Heidi. With his new housemates, Andrew falls into street drumming for money. And with Heidi, he quickly falls into lust, consummated early in the warm Byron water. But Heidi is unpredictable: she explodes when he tells her he’s from Adelaide, too, not Melbourne, which he’d lied about to avoid a topic that clearly caused her pain. And music isn’t the only way of life here; once Tim finds out that Andrew’s mother is a lawyer, he cuts Andrew into the household’s marijuana operation in exchange for her legal assistance.

Byron Bay is a byword for escapism, sunshine and renewal. In The Byron Journals, people take phone calls by frangipani trees; they watch surfers from low dunes made of powdery sand. On his first plunge into the ocean, Andrew feels ‘baptised by the silence and the purity of the water [,] cleansed of his past and his future’. The drugs he takes for the first time in Byron give him new dimensions of feeling, and the excitement of sex binds him to Heidi. But the place is Janus-faced: it also breeds dissolution and stagnation. The Byron Journals isn’t winkingly ironic about this duality, but genuine in its affection and unflinching in depicting the limbo-like existence led by many of Byron’s inhabitants.

Good intentions and mistakes go hand in hand, and Andrew, who wants to be nothing like his parents, gets to grips with both. Andrew is gently ablaze with difficult feeling and eager youth. What we see as an unconsidered rush headlong into a relationship with the troubled Heidi and the drug-drenched activities of his new friends, he sees as preferable to the hell of home. So much, in fact, that he’s willing to go along with a dangerous plan – a plot turn that I didn’t really buy. However, the avalanche of complications teaches Andrew that the hell other people have made for you is often nowhere near as bad as the hell you can make for yourself.

The Byron Journals has been a few years in the making, having been shortlisted for the 2007 Australian/Vogel Literary Prize and the 2008 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for an Unpublished Manuscript, and it shows. The prose is relaxed and effective: beautiful yet matter-of-fact. The dialogue in particular is lifelike: character-apt and unfussy.

The Byron Journals is a love letter to Byron: the surf, the love, the freedom. It’s also a witness to the irrevocable passage of carefree youth, which bestows, sometimes violently, gifts that resist understanding. At the end of the book, Ducrou gives us a fitting coda: an urgent, impressionistic swell of music that seems to come both from within Andrew and from without, accompanied by fragments of his time in Byron – the crazy ones and the perfect ones side by side. All these things being, for the moment, irreconcilable, but nevertheless lingering in the air.

When it comes to genre, I’m usually more True Blood than true crime. But it’s a wrench to resist Jake Adelstein’s story, as told in his book Tokyo Vice: Jewish-American kid applies for a job at a Japanese newspaper (and not just any newspaper; it’s the Yomiuri Shimbun, which has the highest circulation of any newspaper in the world) and despite his Japanese language score being in the bottom ten, he’s called in for an interview and he gets the job, only to end up sitting opposite a member of the biggest organised crime group in Japan, who is relaying a death threat from his boss. Just another day in the life, really.

Adelstein’s first posting is in half-rural, half-suburban Urawa, a ‘place considered so uncool by urban Japanese that it had spawned its own adjective, dasai, meaning “not hip, boring, unfashionable”’. But, as unfashionable as it is, Urawa is where he cuts his teeth as a police reporter. Navigating the complex spatial politics of the Yomiuri’s office (“Who the hell told you could sit down here!”) and getting up to speed with the house style (“I’ll expect you to know it within a week.”) are small tasks compared to learning how to update the office scrapbooks.

Starting out in any profession is a big ask in any case, but being an American who works for a Japanese newspaper has its own challenges. Adelstein’s first kikikomi (interviews related to a crime) are comedic adventures, with potential interviewees mistaking him for a salesman. The cultural differences serve him well, too, sometimes; “dumb gaijins” can get quite handily behind police tape.

Adelstein is a chummy and deft translator of Japanese culture: from the Japanese reverence for language, as exemplified by the concept of kotodama – the spirit of language that resides in every word; to the underbelly of Japanese culture, which makes our Underbelly look like Play School. Eventually, Adelstein scores a post at the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Press Club, where he begins to cover the extraordinary crime syndicates of Japan – the legendary yakuza.

As Adelstein explained in an interview on WNYC, the yakuza are more Wal-Mart than West Side Story. On one end of the spectrum, there are the members who ‘own’ the illegal immigrants peddling counterfeit wares on the street. On the other end, you have the supremos who launder money through their innumerable – and legitimate – loan businesses and hostess bars.

It would be hard not to admire the seemingly unassailable extent of the various yakuza enterprises, except that, unavoidably, regular people get hurt or disappear. Adelstein’s career path takes a turn when he becomes involved in the story of Lucie Blackman, a British girl who went missing while working as a hostess in Tokyo’s infamous Roppongi district. In this quest, Adelstein straddles the line between impartial observer and passionate truth seeker. And it wasn’t to be the only time he came face to face with the ugly side of Tokyo.

(Cross-posted from mwfblog.)