Archive for January, 2011

January 19, 2011

I swear to God I just picked up The Girl who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest and CANNOT REMEMBER ANYTHING THAT HAPPENS IN IT.

January 17, 2011

Things I liked about Freedom:

Excellent dialogue. Often, the big difference between a good book and a great book is the utility and credibility of the dialogue. In a serviceable book, dialogue often reads as mere plot-mover. Franzen’s dialogue does not. For example, this fits-and-starts conversation between Patty Berglund and her good-doer lawyer father Ray after Ray finds out Patty has been raped by the son of the Berglunds’ ‘political friends’ the Posts:

‘Yes, but better to, uh. Life’s not always fair, Pattycakes. Mr. Post said he thought Ethan might be willing to apologize for not being more gentlemanly, but. Well. Would you like that?’
‘I didn’t think so.’
‘Coach Nagel says I should go to the police.’
‘Coach Nagel should stick to her dribbling,’ her dad said.
‘Softball,’ Patty said. ‘It’s softball season now.’

I would say that, aside from being really quite moving, this snippet contains a fair whack of character (habits, interests, concerns – spoken and unspoken), elucidates the relationship between the speakers and absent characters, tells us a bit about the social milieu, and has a great rhythm to it – as well as being an efficient bit of plot assistance.

Casual mastery of activity-specific vocabulary. A lot of my favourite writers do this well, but Franzen does it at a level that straddles the divide between immense comfort/familiarity, and ostentatiousness. Hence, Patty’s skill in basketball grows: ‘Augmenting her reliable perimeter shooting was a growing taste for driving to the basket.’ Nice.

Getting some kind of insight into what it must be like to hang out with Jonathan Franzen. So a lot of great fiction writers have strong powers of imagination, but a lot of great writers also have acute observation and recording skills. Plenty of the scenes and characters in this book are shored up with the kind of detail that can only come from obsessive observation. However. Observing people in a public place is one thing – it’s quite easy to do without bothering anyone, but Freedom deals closely with a family and domestic settings. Where does he get that detail from?

It’s hard not to start imagining what it must be like to be friends with him. Imagine being like ‘Oh, hey Jonathan, come bake some cookies at my house with me and my kids,’ and Franzen is thinking ‘What a great opportunity to observe domestic minutiae’. When he comes over and you are happily mixing dough, You are thinking ‘God I love baking with maple syrup’, and Franzen is surreptitiously taking notes: ‘X is labouring to mold cookie dough into geometrically perfect spheres, taking such pains that the butter liquefies and makes the dough glisten darkly. She makes eleven balls for every one of the child’s. When the cookies come out of the oven X never fails to ask the child’s permission to eat the one “truly outstanding” cookie.’

That is, assuming you know Jonathan Franzen, which I am assuming you don’t. Anyway, just some advice, put yourself on guard in case of friendship with Franzen.

Reading about middle class people and being allowed to laugh at them because they are highly caricatured, even though analogues for most of the behaviour in this book would probably be easily found among my acquaintance. I think that one speaks for itself. The combination of detail and absurdity made me think irresistibly of actor/screenwriter Chris Lilley, whose faux documentaries hold up funhouse mirrors to many faces of Australian society. Hue and outcry! Well, wipe down your vanity.

Deep, wide, sprawling and comprehensive portrait of complex people. I honestly don’t remember the last time I read a large novel featuring characters of such detail and depth. Obviously, I need to read more widely and in more volume, but with Freedom I went spelunking joyfully into the histories and externals and laterals of this family. A lot of people have said that they found these characters unsavoury or unsympathetic, which I find difficult to believe as a person impatient with my own seemingly endless fallibility.

A reminder me that I can love novels. A consequence not to be underestimated.

Things I didn’t like about Freedom:


Structural maliciousness. The best way I can think to put this particular criticism is taken from the book itself. A description of Joey Berglund’s perception of the ‘higher-order bad luck’ that seems to be haunting him goes as follows: ‘The culprit was something deeper, something not political, something structurally malicious, like the bump in a sidewalk that trips you and lands you on your face when you’re out innocently walking.’

I like the term ‘structurally malicious’, actually, its corporate poetry echoing the young Republican’s disregard for personal responsibility. But it is an apt descriptor for the much criticised death that occurs about two-thirds through the book, and what follows. I’ve heard other people describe their reaction to this as ‘Franzen really hates his characters’, but my response was more to decide that Franzen privileges structure and neatness above all else. The death was so out of left field that you could practically hear the machinery grinding against the strain of being taken in such an unnatural direction. And how nuclear and paradigmatic an ending! A friend of mine describes the book’s denouement as ‘cursory’ – I thought of it as the gift-wrapper’s final tamping down of the ribbon bow: here you go, a novel.

But the most confounding part is that to some extent I liked the ending and thought it suited, with its inevitable sadder-wiser ending and cheeringly redemptive flourishes, and it challenged what I thought I wanted from a novel. I like clear moral paths and consequences in young adult books (there’s a proclivity I don’t much want to explore without the aid of a mental health professional), but in literary fiction I like something a bit fuzzier (or something), don’t I? Why did I respond with such relief to such a surpriseless conclusion? I have no good answer yet, partly stemming from the fact that I am not sure how else I would have wanted the book to end.

I know most people are starting to look forward now, but I stumbled across an amusing video at bright stupid confetti the other morning, and I thought it might be quite fun to do a Culture Mulcher-style reflection on 2010′s sonic bounty.

The Boredoms at Melbourne International Arts Festival

The video I mention above was this video of the Boredoms’ famed 77 Boadrum performance. In Brooklyn, on the 7/7/07, 77 drummers gathered together at the Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park to form a giant drum salute. There are a lot of videos of the performance, but none of the videos available on YouTube really capture the bracing effect of several people thrashing out some tattoo in unison. I like this video for the interview they do with an attendee at the beginning: ‘I like drums. I like the number 777.’

The Boredoms came to Melbourne as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival to perform a Boadrum 10. Ten drummers was plenty overwhelming and mesmerising. I could see how it was possible to want to join a cult. Highlights included one member of the Boredoms being transported to the stage on a huge litter, banging at his kit with all abandon. See some photos here.


I started listening to Radiolab at the suggestion of my friends Jessie and Jon. Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich present science documentaries with rich sound design, and are the teachers I always wish I’d had. Favourite recent stories include one about how Tasmanian devils were dying from tumors that were genetically identical (and, gross, described as being crumbly, ‘like feta cheese’) and another about how mining and geese led to life in an acidic lake. You can reach quite far into the archives at the website.

Nicki Minaj’s verse in Kanye West’s ‘Monster’

I’m still conflicted about Nicki Minaj. (Sorry, Anna.) I don’t know how to feel about her Eliza Doolittle accent and her wilful/flat conflation of Japanese and Thai peoples (‘When I was a Geisha he was a Samurai / Somehow I understood him when he spoke Thai’). WE DON’T ALL LOOK THE SAME. But her verse in Kanye West’s song ‘Monster’ blows me away. The first time I listened to it I had to reach for my asthma puffer. See it here, from 3:36 onwards.

Though let’s not talk about how tiresome I find the ‘Monster’ video, with all the dead-girl imagery. Even Minaj’s appearance has her teetering between mounting and decapitating a hooded woman, who turns out to be herself. Sucks to be a lady in the land of hiphop.

The Dirty Projectors at Golden Plains

It was raining, but I did not care. People who like The Dirty Projectors have been described as ‘people who like way too many toppings on their pizza’, and I used to agree until I think some weird chemical reaction occurred in my brain whereby I now love them. Couldn’t find a video of the performance, but here’s ‘Stillness is the Move’. Incredible song, but not the most exciting video, unless you like wolves, and guitarists rotating on a hillside.

Have One on Me, Joanna Newsom

Yes, I’m a fey lover of little birdies. This three-part album hit me in some good places, and the standout for me was the title song, which follows the adventures of Lola Montez, famed dancer and lover of many men. Montez’s story brings her from England to India, Germany, Switzerland, the United States and Australia during the goldrush, where she performed her ‘Spider Dance’, ‘raising her skirts so high that the audience could see she wore no underclothing at all‘. Newsom’s lyrics jump from third person to first, from myth to recount, and the song’s mix of tenderness and supplication furnish an affecting portrait of a maddening and maddened lover. There’s nothing quite like the way Newsom builds up to the ironic title line:

Meanwhile, I will raise my own glass

to how you made me fast and expendable;

and I will drink to your excellent health,

and your cruelty.

Will you have one on me?

Das Racist

I’m not including any specific album or song here, because I’m coming from a slightly impersonal angle with Das Racist. My friends have been pretty into this ‘conscious’/'deconstructionalist’ hiphop group this past year, making them pretty much inescapable for poor old me. But I find them pretty fascinating. So far, all their albums (Das Racist call them ‘mixtapes’) have been available for free, and they’re known for combining often comedic lyrics with music that both emulates and progresses the hiphop genre.

‘Rainbow in the Dark’, from Shut up, Dude contains plenty of pop-culture riffs and upfront subversions of the mainstream rap genre: ‘Das Racist is the new cool g-rap / Peep us at the Grammys, we’d like to thank gchat’. It’s thoughtful, and catchy.

Funny: Victor Vasquez, one of Das Racist’s members, challenged New Yorker cartoonist Farley Katz to a cartoon-off after he blogged about the Das Racist song ‘Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell‘ (a semi-dadaist call-and-response pal-investigators tune about two men who can’t find each other in a combination Pizza Hut/Taco Bell restaurant). The Katz post that sparked the cartoon-off is actually pretty hilarious, but the resulting cartoons don’t leave anyone in doubt of who won the day.