Posts Tagged ‘1990s’

I’ve just read two of Peter Temple’s Jack Irish novels in one week (the result of some hasty decisions in my first go at borrowing e-books from my local library) so forgive the smell of whisky and all of the horse talk.

I jumped on the Jack Irish wagon a couple of months ago, taking Bad Debts on holiday with me, and it turned out to be perfectly suited to holiday reading. Not because the book’s light and fluffy, but because being on holiday meant I had long stretches of potential reading time that would be uninterrupted by trivial things such as a full-time job and eating. Once I had my hands on two more of these bad boys, trying to fit these novels in around a daily 7.5-hour commitment seemed like the closest thing to torture that the bookish middle classes might ever know. I began to regard going to work as an day-long impediment to my progress. They are read-while-you-brush-your-teeth kind of books (I’ve only just cleaned the toothpaste off my iPad). I almost got hit by a tram while reading them – it’s that kind of thing.

I liked these books much more than I liked Truth and The Broken Shore, and I liked those books a lot. This like has a lot to do with the bar-setting Jack Irish, probably the best thriller protagonist I have ever come across. Jack (or so I like to call him) is the son of a Fitzroy footballer; an ex-criminal lawyer with a honed palate, an interest in the horses and a logic-defying attachment to his Studebaker Lark. These days, Jack is a suburban solicitor, having lost the taste for criminal law after an ex-client shot and killed his wife. Yet a strong sense of story and justice remain entwined in him, such that he finds it difficult not to follow slightly unravelled threads.

Bad Debts opens with Jack traipsing around after a non-compliant debtor. It’s only his sometimes-job cleaning up various non-legal bits and pieces, so it’s irritating to say the least when the subject pulls a gun on him – or to be more specific, at his wedding tackle. Complain as you will about laconic Australian men in fiction, but Jack’s thoughts on this turn of events are wonderful and typical: ‘I looked at the pistol with concern. It had a distinctly Albanian cast to it. These things go off for motives of their own.’ How much more satisfying can you get than that, I ask you. He’s the proverbial cucumber under pressure, making little jokes and understating the situation by a factor of about seventy. Yet underneath this he’s arranging his way out of the mess, and the resolution surprises you as much as the hapless joe who ends up locked up in his own house (the logistics of this are beyond me, but I am confident that he would be able to pull it off).

To surmount the distinct disadvantage to likeability that being a lawyer usually proves, Jack Irish needs to be a superlatively sympathetic customer, and it’s almost ridiculous how good a character he is. Jack knows a lot of obscure shit. At one stage, he describes a woman’s face thus: ‘her mouth a perfect Ctesiphon curve of disgust.’ Believe me, I googled this and I still have no idea what he meant; yet I have no doubt he meant something very germane and specific. Okay, I’m basically in love with a fictional character. What of it? Temple is a genius at character; even the people who pop up for one or two pages are vividly drawn. These portraits comprise scalp-pricklingly good physical sketches (‘Harry’s wife was in her forties, sexy in a bush-hospital nurse way’) and a way with dialogue that seems to come from a lifelong interest in how people speak.

Key to the greatness of these books is Temple’s ability to convey a lot of information very efficiently, without exposition assuming the all-too-familiar form of drudgery. I would be hard pressed to find a sentence in any of these books that does not simultaneously deliver character and plot. This is a blessing, because all of Temple’s books that I have read are concerned with the tricky dealings of systemic corruption and rotted states. His almost-fixation on the malign impenetrability of corporate webs made up of shell companies with names like Hexiod Holdings and MassiBild warrants the exponential build-up of personages and circumstances that characterises these books, and he handles them well: it’s dizzying but graspable. That these three books deal with issues – bribery, sexual misdemeanour, police corruption – that still glare at us from broadsheets today makes them as resonant now as they would have been when they were published ten to fifteen years ago.

Those who have read these or seen the ABC’s adaptations of the first two books would know how much Melbourne features in them. Jack’s wide networks take him all over the joint, and his intimate connections with places and people give me pure and great joy as a local. I am astounded how often the ‘X city is a character in the novel’ point is still trotted out in book reviews, but it’s hard not to think along those lines here, as we’re not exactly talking postcard snapshots of Flinders Street Station. There’s this, as an example: ‘The Law Department at Melbourne University looks the way universities should. It has courtyards and cloisters and ivy. I loitered downstairs, near where a girl had set fire to herself during the Vietnam War. Nobody paid any attention to me.’ History, power, how it brings to bear on the individual (or doesn’t): that’s how Jack Irish thinks.

Bad Debts is the strongest of the bunch for me, because it gave me the first-time surprise and delight of discovering the complexity and drama in this man’s life. The book’s horseracing side-story (it seems crass to call it a subplot because it’s so integral to one’s understanding of Jack’s character) involving ex-jockey Harry Strang and his right-hand man Cam astounded and absorbed me, even though I have zero interest in the subject. (The racing strand continues, and is welcome, in the other two books, but it’s freshest in the first.) The pacing is perfect. The scale of the drama grows at a breathtaking rate. Jack makes tables and dazzles us with his cabinet-maker’s vocabulary. He drains bottle after bottle of wine that sounds vintage to this millennial reader’s ear. Just glorious.

In Black Tide, again Jack starts out at the small time, trying to collect favours from a small-time crim, but soon enough he finds he’s just at the start of a pretty big factual climb. This, the second of the books, is also pacy and enthralling but I missed Linda Hillier, Jack’s sparring/de facto investigative partner from Bad Debts. And in White Dog, where the scion of an old Melbourne family requests Jack defend her against a seemingly watertight murder charge, the power of the formula is once more slightly diluted – though it could be because I read the two books back to back and have for the moment surfeited upon a proliferation of names and political conspiracies. Still, they’re all damned good reads, and I’ll be saving the third one for my next holiday.

Laura Miller’s New Yorker piece on George R. R. Martin and his fans (who are legion) was great, and left me dying to read Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. I like fantasy, I like complexity, I like HBO tv shows: done deal, right? I borrowed the first two books, A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings from my friend James, who has read them several times since childhood (Game of Thrones was written fifteen years ago).

By way of brief description, the books describe the power struggles of various high-born families in the Seven Kingdoms, and take their plot and setting cues from something approximating English medieval history (I think Martin has said that the plot is loosely based on the War of the Roses). They are huge books – both volumes run to over 700 pages – giving other sprawling fantasy worlds reason to reconsider their level of commitment.

Game of Thrones is a much easier sell than Clash of Kings: it is laden with surprises and ends with a fist-pumper of a scene. Clash of Kings suffers from the lugubriousness of an already expansive universe that Martin only continues to complicate, edge outwards and fill in, introducing more and more characters, locations and intrigues. Of course, that’s no problem in itself, but I found the second volume a bit tedious in places, and while I occasionally skipped over pages of description in the first book, I skimmed whole sections of Clash of Kings without regret. So while it was no great difficulty to continue on to the second book after the first, I’m in no hurry to go on to the third any time soon. (Dana Jennings’ NYT review of the fifth book in the famously long-incomplete series has swayed me slightly.)

Obviously, a lot happens in the 1500+ pages I read. (If anyone is giving out prizes for understatement of the year, I’ll take one.) But a few general areas of note. (Note that because there are so many significant plot changes, there’ll inevitably be SPOILERS. And note that I’m in no way trying to convert non-fantasy readers to these books. If the words ‘meat and mead’ anger you, you shouldn’t read this at all – click here now.)

I Sex and women

When an early description of a family’s bloodline contains the words ‘for centuries they had wed brother to sister’, you know you’re in for a hard-to-defend-to-your-friends kind of read. And no bloody joke. In Game of Thrones alone, you get twincest and a very closely written scene between an adult man and a thirteen-year-old girl. It’s enough to make you realise how grateful you are for age-of-consent laws.

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Now we’re really digging into the archives. I actually read The Shadow of the Sun over a year ago, in preparation for my holiday to north-east Africa.

If you’re anything like me, you’ll have a great deal of anxiety about reading into any subject you know very little about. Having only read a sprinkling of African literature – Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Buchi Emecheta, Ben Okri – I confess I was overwhelmed by my unfamiliarity with that continent’s history and writers. For this reason, my travelling companions and I bought up big, books-wise, before we left – the first Popular Penguins series was a goldmine, furnishing Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, Redmond Hanlon’s Congo Journey and Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Shadow of the Sun.

Kapuscinski was a well-respected Polish journalist who travelled to Africa whenever he could over a period of forty years, speaking to local people and recording their stories. He’s written nine books that are available in English, and plenty of others besides. Given that I was so keen to disembarrass myself of my ignorance, Africa-wise, it’s somewhat poetic that the author I selected to assist me through my bewilderness, was recently accused of fabricating some of his stories. That controversy certainly stirs up some questions of truth and fiction, and whether the latter can ever be employed in the service of the former. Read Neal Ascherson on Kapuscinski’s literary reportage here.

So, Kapuscinski. To begin, he states that

this is … not a book about Africa, but rather about some people from there – about encounters with them, and time spent together. The continent is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos. Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say “Africa.” In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist.

… which is wonderful, because a land mass housing over a billion people and 53 different countries defies any kind of easy understanding. As promised, Kapuscinski writes about people – the people he meets, the dictators he sees from afar, the desert drivers, the United Nations High Commissioner for refugee affairs. However, despite his protesting, his stories about one person, one family or one village are almost always points that expand to gradually encompass a much bigger panorama: the failure of transport in Ghana, or the structure of an Ashanti tribe.

Of course, it is always easy to start with the self. An image that sticks in my mind to this day: Kapuscinski lying abed with malaria, trembling with repugnance and cold and exhaustion, with the local villagers calmly pressing a wooden chest on top of him. ‘The only thing that really helps is if someone covers you. But not simply throws a blanket or quilt over you … You dream of being pulverized. You desperately long for a steamroller to pass over you.’

He is also equally attentive to broad-scale events that affect the fortunes of a nation. ‘The Anatomy of a Coup d’État’ is a collection of notes Kapuscinski kept while in Lagos in 1966. Ahmadu Bello, the leader of Northern Nigeria, is felled by a bullet in the middle of the night; rebel troops attack the palace of the prime minister of Western Nigeria; in the other three cities, a small army continues to take over the de facto power, until on Saturday ‘Lagos awakes, knowing nothing about anything.’

Though it is certainly made up of various and varied tales, reading The Shadow of the Sun is not really a project of simply absorbing multiple stories. To read Kapuscinski is to be invested in a dream that a Westerner can begin to understand the inhabitants, history and politics of a vast land she knows nothing about. This dream is made possible because of Kapuscinski’s lucid and unpretentious writing, his vivid imagery and his empathy. And the dream is kept alive by the number of books he wrote – next on my list is The Emperor, which is about the downfall of Ethiopia’s Haile Selassie I.

I can’t believe I’m admitting to having read this book. It has an emoticon in the title. Consider its inclusion on this blog a radical sign of my regard for you and this reading documentation project.

So, my family were fairly early internet adopters. I’m not talking crazy-early, but I seem to remember making the transition from playing Asteroids on my dad’s work laptop (amber and black screen, baby) in primary school to keenly exploiting ICQ, IRC and WBS in the first year or so of high school. I loved it. My sister and I used to play word games on IRC all the time. (This is so embarrassing.) Since access rates were much cheaper in non-peak times, I used to get up at 4 am to get on the internet. I had to muffle the dial tone because it was so loud. I’d listen to the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream very quietly every morning and chat to my best online friend, David, who worked at a tile store in the Western suburbs. Ah, youth!

Probably because of this obsessive internet use, my sister and I were given two books called Chat and Connect, both by Nan McCarthy. We loved these books: the series is essentially a epistolary internet romance. Beverly, an editor (spookily prescient) who is tetchy, sharp and married, and Maximilian – a flirtatious copywriter – meet through an INTERNET FORUM ABOUT WRITING. Behold the power of ‘e-mail’ to connect strangers:

> Private Mail
> Date: Friday, July 14, 1995 1:48 a.m.
> From: Maximilian@miller&
> Subj: Hello
> To:

Beverly, (is that your real name?)

I’ve seen your messages in the Writer’s Forum and you seem to know a lot about computers. I’m thinking of upgrading my old ’386 PC and I’m wondering if you can give me any advice on whether I should buy a PC or a Macintosh.

Also, I noticed in your member profile that you’re an editor. Where do you work? I’m a copywriter…maybe we could get together sometime.

Maximilian (that’s my real name)

> Private Mail
> Date: Monday, July 17, 1995 7:32 a.m.
> From:
> Subj: Thanks, but No Thanks
> To: Maximilian@miller&


I really don’t like to give advice on whether a person should buy a Mac or a PC, especially because I know nothing about the way you work and what you want to accomplish with your computer. If you’re just going to be doing word processing, it probably doesn’t matter whether you use a Mac or a PC.

I’m sorry I don’t have time to chat but I’m under a lot of deadlines at the moment.

p.s. Just in case you didn’t notice, my member profile says I’m married.

I trust you get the drift. The rest of Chat is full of inquisitive gems like this: ‘What does “BTW” mean? And why did you put asterisks around one of your words?’ You can check out the rest of the first chapter of Chat here. If you want to. I bet you do. If you don’t, spoiler alert: Maximilian, that wily copywriter, eventually wears down the wary Beverly’s defences with his charm. Then, Beverly and Maximilian meet at a MacWorld conference and have a little fling. Saucy! Eventually, they fall in love. Wow! The internet is awesome!

But, as I said, my sister and I only had the first two books. We couldn’t find the third book in the series, Crash, in any local bookshops. McCarthy wrote the books just as Amazon was starting up, and, being high school kids, we didn’t have the resources to track down the third book overseas. The other week, however, my sister stormed into my room and said: ‘Guess what I bought today?’ I’m a stolid type, so I waited patiently for her to tell me. With a flourish, she brought the book out from behind her back: she’d sourced it from one of Amazon’s second-hand partners. I think it cost her $12, despite the huge orange ‘$2.99′ sticker pasted to the front.

She read it first. It took her about thirty minutes, and after that she dropped it into my hands with a look on her face that said it had not lived up to expectations. Having always been dubious about revisiting the subject of our childhood enthusiasm, I approached it with a kind of enthusiastic disdain, which was resoundingly rewarded.

It’s a page-turner, that’s for sure. Connect ended with Max and Beverly organising a weekend tryst, and in Crash, they have just, um, ‘connected’. They’re now irreversibly in love, and the book is full of the puppyish revelations I’m sure plagued the early days of the internet – or, for that matter, any kind of early romantic relationship. Highlights for me included a twelve-page ‘transcript’ of a forum on copyright hosted by Bev: informative! Lowlights included Max’s description of a sexual act between the two on a pier: gross! And the ending, which is kind of stupidly literal (hint: think about the title).

Thus ends this wander through memory lane. It was pretty enjoyable, I have to say, but extremely trashy. I may have to go dig out Villette or something, to compensate.

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.

A review of The God of Small Things in the style of the same novel:

When historical circumstances of intricate inevitability converge upon Small Places like Ayemenem, Bad Things Happen.

Circumstances include things like:
a) Caste Systems
b) Family Pride
c) Marxist Politics
d) Oppressed Female Sex-shoo-a-lee-tee.
This novel is an abruptly poetic account of Some Bad Things That Happened. The Things made lots of noises and occurred amongst creatively named shades of green. The abruptness comes from questionable. Sentence structure. That is a little overdone. But the poetry emerges too, irreverently, impressionistically, villanelle-ly. Contrary to Expectations, though, this book does not simply give up its secrets in a hyperelegant manner.
Instead it is an eventually comprehensive compilation of Brittle Historical Chips, the gradual introduction of which may initially have you searching for An Arrative Thread. Be consoled that everything comes together, tessellated, like the release of a long-held breath.
One thing is for sure in Roy’s vision: when History has you in its sights, it never lets go. Also, History can be just another name or excuse for Not Doing the Right and Hard Thing. There is talk of Putting One’s Hand into History’s Waiting Glove, etc. It took me a little while and a little context (Roy’s fierce activism) not to read this novel as simply fatalistic, a dirge sung over bodies lacking the wherewithal to defy inevitable decline. But that would be a Nincomplete Reading of this book. Consider Roy’s opinion of Choices as historically paramount even in Unwinnable Battles.
I didn’t mind it. But quite slow at the start.

It’s been so unforgivably long since I read this that I’m going to try and read it again next year, or at least some of the stories, or at least skim through and re-awaken some kind of memory or feeling. It’s not you, Lorrie, it’s me and my utter lack of accountability. Sorry! I do remember it was good, though. I love American short story collections.