Posts Tagged ‘canongate’

I was having a chat with some nice people the other day, and one of them said, ‘There is nothing so sad as a moribund blog’. I’m not quoting exactly, but that’s basically the gist of it. As he said this, my heart swelled beyond typical size and I thought bleakly of my poor little blog sitting here, all alone, by itself.

But I have been doing other things, if not blogging, and two of them can be read by you, if you so choose. I interviewed Sydney fashion label Song for the Mute for new fashion magazine Collection. Song for the Mute have just won the 2011 L’Oreal Melbourne Fashion Festival Designer Award, against some stiff competition. Collection is pretty gorgeous – it’s a hardcover magazine printed on lovely stock, and every page is perforated at the spine, so you can tear out any page with impunity.

The other thing keeping me busy of late has, of course, been Kill Your Darlings. For the new issue, available for pre-order this week, I interviewed Geoff Dyer, famed writer of many stripes. Dyer is a wonderfully interesting writer and also a charming raconteur. If you’ve read any of his twelve books (the subjects range from photography to jazz to military history, and he’s also an acclaimed essayist and fiction writer), you’ll know what I mean.

When Stephen Fry tweeted about David Eagleman’s Sum: Forty tales from the afterlives (‘You will not read a more dazzling book this year than David Eagleman’s “Sum”. If you read it and aren’t enchanted I will eat 40 hats’), sales of the book jumped 6000% on Amazon. It wasn’t on Fry’s recommendation that I was reading Sum, though he is the most darling of celebrity men. The book had endured some serial lending among my friends before finding its way into my hands. Sum is eminently suited to this kind of social transmission: it’s short, quirky, digestible and guaranteed to give you at least a couple of good feelings. It also attempts to answer the question forever beloved of philosophers, armchair or otherwise: what is the deal with this ‘life’ caper?

To answer this question, Sum proposes forty alternative afterlives. They’re delicious little second-person morsels, only a couple of pages each. In ‘The Unnatural’, once you die, you get to ‘make any single change you want, and then live life over again’. Of course, the afterlife wouldn’t be a fruitful target for Eagleman’s fictional propositions if it were going to be simple and settled, or laden with resolution. Thus, ‘you’ decide that you will eradicate death altogether from the planet, although you are warned that you’ve made this decision before. The warning goes unheeded and in your new life, your success in overcoming death for humankind means that people lose motivation and take a lot of naps; people begin to set suicide dates; friends begin to hold surprise killing parties for each other. I think you know what the moral of this story is. In each of the afterlife stories, Eagleman suggests which qualities of life itself we find most valuable: he lionises lovers, remembrance and connection. It’s a conceit made effective by the simplicity of the stories’ language and structure. That said, the more pessimistic of us may gnash our teeth at this same simplicity, these short-form, single-note appeals to our better nature.

When you talk about the possibilities of the afterlife, God generally gets a look in; or perhaps I should say ‘Gods’. Eagleman’s gods are made up of the female and unappreciated; the multiple and unmemorialised; the only-accidental creator; and those minutely specialised in bacteria or objects made of chrome. Like their Greek and Roman counterparts, many of Sum‘s gods are just like people, only with more influence or better skill with biological matter, and they often exhibit as much bewilderment about the curiousness of life as their human counterparts. In one story, ‘Spirals’, humans are supercomputers constructed to answer our creators’ queries about the purpose of existence; when we die, the creators switch us back on and weep because they think we know the answer and are too advanced to communicate it to them. Little do they know, however, that we haven’t got a clue either.

Sum‘s anthroposophical reverence reminds me of something my favourite fictional heroine, Philip Pullman’s Lyra, realised in The Golden Compass: we have to build the Republic of Heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere. By creating multiple fictional afterlives that mirror and refract our earthly lives, Eagleman foregrounds the cherished experiences that we can actually grasp, know and enhance. Sum urges us to recognise that, whether there truly is an afterlife or not, it is the substance of the life we do have with which we struggle and can sometimes succeed to create meaning.

I had to use some Year 10 art perspective tricks to get The End of Mr. Y as small as possible, because it’s one of the ugliest books I’ve ever bought. Luckily, it’s a really good book, so you can just ignore what it looks like, and pretend it’s got a big dripping ice cream cone on the front or something.

Reading The End of Mr. Y is like hanging out inside the head of that girl at university who gave you the shits because she seemed so self-possessed, clever and well-read. She always knew what Derrida was on about, was never intimidated by Heidegger, and had read all of Ecrits on her own in a cafe over tea, because despite her wealth of intelligence, tea was all she could afford. (I actually went to university with about eleven versions of this exact person.) All these traits describe the novel’s main character Ariel, a PhD student who is feeling a little bit bewildered as her supervisor, Saul Burlem, has just mysteriously gone missing. Adding to that, her university has closed down because one of the buildings has collapsed. She is on her way home when she finds a copy of ‘The End of Mr. Y’ by Thomas E. Lumas in a secondhand bookshop. This is exciting news for our girl because the subject of Ariel’s PhD is thought experiments, that is, breakthroughs in conceptualising complex ideas based on metaphor or hypothesis (see Schrödinger’s cat), and Lumas is one of her passions. So the idea of finally acquiring the novel, which is extremely rare and, according to legend, cursed, is a bright light in her gelid, lentil-eating life.

Ariel fits the mould of my favourite heroines, who are characterised by a unique effectiveness which in their circumstances seems to be flailing about in the wind. Because or as a result of this, they exist at odds with common social agendas such as wealth and sociability, and of course the acceptability which flows from these agendas evades them as well. Though she’s socially adequate, and intellectually more than adequate, Ariel’s liminality is clearly writ: she has no parents, no money, and few personal attachments other than the occasional kinky sex partner. She loves knowledge and books and ideas more than anything. I guess the reason why I like this kind of heroine so much is that successful resolution for their stories always needs a lot of authorly thought, and Ariel’s story is resolved for me in a very satisfactory and poignant way.

Sorry to be so non-specific, but the book has a slow reveal and I don’t want to ruin anything for you. (Don’t, for example, read this review/essay before you read the book.) It’s safe to say, though, that Thomas has created a thought experiment of her own.

The End of Mr. Y elicited lots of ‘wows’ from me. I loved this novel’s thick ambition and proprietary confidence: there are so many ideas packed into The End of Mr. Y that occasionally I had to shake my head to clear it. Though it approaches unwieldiness (and even silliness) at times, the narrative is always engrossing. Kudos, too, to Thomas for creating a great (the first?) philosophy adventure novel. (Sophie’s World doesn’t count.) I mentioned Derrida and Heidegger earlier, and their work is mentioned so often in the novel that they are basically secondary characters. It’s clear that Thomas is fascinated by their ideas about simulacra, meaning and language, because she puts these ideas to wild and astonishing work: Ariel discovers that ‘The End of Mr. Y’ certainly deserves its mysterious reputation, because it describes a parallel dimension where a person can read another’s thoughts. Many serious hijinks of all-encompassing importance ensue, and they are a credit to the scope of Thomas’ imagination.

In a word: yes.

December 8, 2008


If Tao Lin is the self-referential, disaffected freak-pop on the literary twenty-something’s jukebox, then Erlend Loe is the guy sitting in the corner at the piano, picking out notes that eventually turn into a tune. Naive.Super is a tiny charmer, a ripe fig that falls out of a budget store Christmas cracker onto your toe. Sure, it’s 12 years old, but it remains a fresh antithesis to the meta-literary swagger of the 21st century, an antidote to superanalysis and overcomplexity.

It’s Christmas, and the protagonist (no name at first) is about to lose a croquet game to his brother. Not only does he lose the game, he also loses it generally, and big time. So he decides to take a break. He meets a child called Borre (misspelled because I can’t figure out how to do accents on my computer yet. Norwegian trivia: Borre is the Norwegian equivalent to a name like Hubert or Eugene), with whom he plays animal-numbering games: how many animals have you seen in your life? He rediscovers the ataractic pleasures of childhood toys, he reads books about time. He takes a trip to New York.

Often when I see someone (read: a wanker) being self-indulgent (read: “my music, you know, it’s kind of neo-art-folk”) I say disbelievingly: “Absolutely no irony!” Well, it applies here too, but not in the bad way. The most surprising thing about this book is its simple directness; its lack of irony and violence. Usually when book plots get described like in the paragraph above, anticipation builds up — the feeling that there is something bigger bubbling under the who-what-where details. But in the case of Naive.Super, there’s actually not much more under the surface than what you find out straight away. It’s definitely not the worse off for it; Naive.Super is gently pained and interesting and sweet. The protagonist’s curious sidesteps into feeling alive are treated with lightness and dignity. Though if you’re anything like me, you’ll feel strange not receiving the pistol whip of verbal upheavals and sarcastic depradations from what looks and seems like another disaffected-youth novel.

Another good thing about this book is that it’ll take you three days maximum. Loe’s amiable observations aren’t incisive enough to be life-changing, but it’s a charming public transport companion. In fact, Naive.Super is a pretty good companion, full stop.