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“I didn’t believe her when she told me stories of the wood, what a strange place it is – but she’s gone there, and she’s gone for good. Four days ago she went away. She won’t come back. And I’m a dead man, as good as. I’ve seen what’s happened to her”

“She’s been gone for a year and a half, Jim. She was gone a year when you turned up again.” Richard felt awkward. “You were gone for a year yourself…”

As the much harassed cat in Pépé Le Pew cartoons used to exclaim “Le Sigh”. Folks, some days are tougher than others. I never expected to still be doing this on the cusp of December, with Christmas only a short few weeks away. When I resigned from my job back in Ireland, just before we took off for our new life here in Australia, I fully expected to have found myself new employment by now.

But here we are and I still have not heard anything about my status. Tis wearying.

That’s probably why I was in such a bad mood while reading this book.

Richard Bradley came home one rainswept evening to witness a woman leave his family’s home, carrying what looked like a bow and running off into nearby Ryhope Wood. This is only the first of a number of strange events that effect the Bradley, all appearing to centre around Richard’s precocious son Alex. After a school stage production of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the family’s car nearly runs over the presumed dead James Keeton, wearing nothing but a bathrobe. Mysteriously Keeton has been missing for over a year. He disappeared shortly after his daughter Tallis, a close friend of Alex’s, also vanished. Yet Keeton shows no signs of having aged. Even his bathrobe is almost brand new, not the tattered rag it should have been after a year of sleeping rough.  What’s more he claims he has only been gone for several days.

The wildeyed Keeton whispers to young Alex cryptic babble about his missing daughter, insisting that she is still alive, but elsewhere, in another world. During one of Alex’s visits to the hospital Keeton is seized by a vision of his daughter, now old and dying in this other world and dies, with the boy left in a near catatonic state by the experience. Soon Richard is forced to commit his son to the same son Keeton was recovering in. Then he too vanishes.

Unable to comprehend what has happened Richard retreats into himself, having accepted as the years pass that Alex is dead, refusing to dwell upon the uncanny circumstances of his disappearance. Then a team of explorers studying the nearby wood attempt to recruit Richard. They claim that Alex is still alive and living within the wood itself, but refuse to divulge any more than that. Also the woman he saw leaving his house in 1959 is among them, but she has no memory of this event.

What follows is a journey into the collective unconscious of Britain, the wood itself housing a number of archetypes from British mythology, including a shapeshifting ur-Jack The Giant Killer, a trickster god similar to the sylvan Puck and Robin Hood. When the team reveals they are following the notes of a researcher of the wood named ‘Huxley’, who was a contemporary of Carl Jung’s, this information being relayed to Richard by a Frenchman named Lacan, I have to admit I let out a groan. It turns out the explorers are not so much interesting in the Bradleys out of sympathy for their plight, but because the mind of Alex has begun to manifest new elements, or ‘mythagos’, within the wood. In effect, they see the child as a corruptive influence on the dreamworld Huxley studied.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has a lot of writing about trees. Of course, he saw his books as an elegy to an England lost, with both its mythology and countryside overrun by the modern world. Holdstock seems to be attempting a similar project and while I applaud its sincerity, I found it too derivative. Revealing that Jason and the Argonauts are actually a bad bunch of boyos is I guess meant to be shocking, but the idea that childhood heroes are actually too good to be true is hardly original. What’s worse it undercuts the pretense of Jungian themes.

Overall I found this book dull and pretentious.

It was always portraits with me. Portraits of other people. For forty years my work was images of strangers. Then it changed. She brought about the change. I don’t know how it happened. It’s a story, not an explanation.

Oh sweet relief. Today I finished my #NaNoWriMo entry. It’s already been submitted and I can breathe a sigh of relief – before the more arduous task of rewriting begins. After all, and I cleave to this point, I have not written a novel, only 50K words. An important distinction to make.

Still the process has given me a newfound respect for writers and the dedication that they show to their craft. Writing is a process of discipline and routine, ensuring the consistency of the initial idea, but still allowing the story room to breathe, to perhaps become something unexpected. These are all things I will have to learn if I want to be a writer, but I hope I have made a first step in that direction.

Today’s book is about artistic ambitions, the struggle between the life of the artist and the final work of art. The story’s nameless narrator is a well-known portraitist based in Canberra. In the autumn of his career he meets an academic on exchange at the university he haunts. Jessica Keal, a still young woman with a past that is the reverse of his own. He agrees to paint a likeness of her for a commissioned study of Australian academics and the two fall into a routine of artist and subject, casually revealing more and more of their former lives.

Jessica is a fourth generation Australian, who left her farming background in the Araluen Valley outside of Canberra for the life of a university academic in London. Returning to Australia she discovers a host of recriminations waiting for her, personified by the mother she left behind. The artist, in turn, left London for Australia when he was fifteen, cutting himself off from the frustrated failures of his own father, who hoped his son would become an author so that he could vicariously enjoy his success. Instead the artist chose to paint portraits of strangers, to capture the lives of people he does not know, so as to avoid questioning his own history.

The artist explains that sitting for a portrait is actually a process of give and take. Throughout the process he begins to reflect more on his own past, just as Jessica opens up to him about her fears and concerns elicited by her return to the family home in Canberra. The artist does not stop with one painting of his subject, he produces dozens, crowding out the spaces of his studio, capturing her in different poses and attitudes. In studying her he learns more about how a life can be understood as a sequence of experiences.

Reading this I was reminded of Lucien Freud’s painting of Kate Moss. What did they talk about I wonder? Alex Miller has the narrator initially tempt the vanity of Jessica in order to convince her to sit for him, but it becomes clear that his need for her to take part outstrips the flattery of her ego. His obsession with her transcends the causal force of sexual desire. It becomes the key to understanding his own life’s failures and inadequacies. In particular his refusal to paint members of his own family points to his shame at leaving his father behind, as well as his absent relationship with his wife and son, now both long gone.

It is interesting that the narrator’s father wished for the artist to become a writer, as his process of painting Jessica produces a series of portraits that fit into a loose narrative of her own life. The most startling moment for the two of them is when he paints her absence in a setting she has posed for a statement on the childhood long gone that is preserved in Araluen.

Miller’s descriptions of the farm belonging to the Keal family and their relationship with this natural environment is wonderfully detailed, with unchanging oak trees and swimming holes transporting Jessica back to her childhood self simply by coming into proximity with them. However, while this novel is concerned with the process of painting, it focuses more on the internal monologue of the artist faced by a blank canvas, the blurring of the painter’s own self with that of the subject, sourcing experiences from both in order to bring the painting to life.

Studied, intimate and very inspiring.

 

 

What I definitely learned just now is that everything hinges on the words you use. Doesn’t matter what you do in life, you just have to wrap the thing in the right kind of words.

Do you remember the first time you saw a ‘Parental Advisory’, sticker on a CD? What an unusual gesture that was. I especially loved how that black and white symbol got slapped onto rap albums back in the nineties, ensuring premium sales in white middle-class teenager demographics. Here’s this badge that supposedly alerts parents to the insidious content of the album’s lyrics and it’s become a marketing goldmine for records that might not otherwise have been sold.

Funny thing that. To my mind this is all part and parcel of our instant-access voyeuristic culture. Scripted ‘reality television’, phone-in lines for talent shows, programming targeting women with low self-esteem about their body types – this is entertainment now. Not stories with meaning and innovative plots, just ordinary people jumping through hoops to find some temporary catharsis courtesy of the cathode-ray tube.

Television brings no relief for Vernon Little’s problems. His only friend in the small Texan town of Martirio just went on a shooting spree in their school, before killing himself. With the perpetrator dead and no trial to capture the media cycle, it falls to reporter Eulalio Ledesma to create a story, stoking the flames of suspicion in Vernon’s direction. When a witness to corroborate his story that he was not an accomplice to the crimes fails to come forward, Vernon finds himself transformed into Public Enemy number one.

Before he has even set foot in a court-room, trial by media has already judged him a psychopath. Ledesma, who likes to be called Lally, initially befriends Vernon, then seduces his mother and establishes himself as a new father figure for the fourteen year old boy, all in the name of controlling the story. By the time Vernon realizes he is being manipulated by the huckster it is already too late. The town of Martirio was cheated of its chance for revenge against his friend Jesus, and so he has become an accessory to murder. When another shooting tragedy in California hits the news, Lally engineers even more crimes committed by Vernon to scandalize.

Realizing he has no hope of a fair trial, Vernon attempts to run to Mexico, but with no money and televisions blaring his photo in every bus depot it seems he’ll never be able to stop running. Plus he has a secret that even Lally has failed to pry out of him. There is another gun, hidden nearby the school. It has Vernon’s prints all over it.

If Chuck Palahniuk were to reimagine A Confederacy of Dunces, it might come out something like this scorching debut from DBC Pierre. The doomed narrator Vernon sees injustice everywhere, but completely inarticulate, unable to defend himself, let alone condemn the hucksters of this world like Eulalio Ledesma. This Texan small town runs on spite, gossip and innuendo. A loner like Vernon never really had a chance. He encounters incompetent law enforcers, pedophile rings, opportunists and liars, all wanting to profit from his misfortune.

Vernon perceives the world through the moral code of television movies. He cannot understand how he can be found guilty, as at all times he has tried to live by his own set of principles. His friendship with Jesus the shooter only manages to incriminate him. His own mother is easily manipulated into identifying him as a murderer on camera by the sly Lally. Vernon has no one he can trust, no one who won’t betray him to make a quick dollar. It is only when he learns to become more like Lally, like the pimps and liars that have corrupted the world, that he earns a chance to fight back.

This book is written from the confused and hormonally intense perspective of Vernon himself, with a fixation on describing sex organs and bowel movements. As a foul-mouthed Humbert Humbert for the twenty-first century, this teenage narrator presents his own personal spin on contemporary Americana. Crimes are punished in response the degree of sensationalism they attract. Dieting is the height of discourse and innocence is just an invitation to being exploited.

Welcome to the dark heart of contemporary satire. It’s really not that funny a joke.

Lately I have had a foretaste of what it means to be a parent. If you want to know what it feels like to parent a child, you should get a dog. If you’re curious about the experience of living with an adolescent, who uses your home as a place to occasionally doss and eat the entirety of your food – get a cat.

We have been housesitting in a very beautiful part of the world, just along the New South Wales coast for the last week. As mentioned previously, said house-sit involves caring for two cats, one of whom has been ill for the past few days, so we were asked to keep her indoors.

Now cats who are used to roaming free outside don’t like being kept indoors and they have no problem letting you know how annoyed they are with you. The plaintive cries and yowling of the cat sitting by the front door in my mind became anthropomorphized as ‘let meeee ouuuuuttt!’ Not only does the cat insist on complaining about this unfair (“soooo unfair!!!) detention within the house, it makes concerted attempts at escape; hisses at me when in a bad mood (read always); and decides it is important to wake me up at 4am to discuss the toilet arrangements.

So yeah, I’m feeling just as frazzled as a concerned parent. My nerves are frayed and I am one more cat incident away from a panic attack.

The Unwritten is initially a comic about the creative process involved in writing a book. It is also about fathers and sons, the inescapable shadow that a more successful father leaves behind. Tom Taylor’s father not only wrote an incredibly successful fantasy series of books about a boy wizard – he named the main character after his son. Tom Taylor has never managed to make a career for himself outside of his father’s creations. What’s more some fanatical fans of the novels have a near religious obsession with the character ‘Tommy Taylor’, and to them he is more real than the boy who inspired him.

Tom makes a small income from making appearances at fan conventions dedicated to his father’s books, where he continually is asked about the mysterious disappearance of Wilson Taylor, or the rumours that he vanished without having settled his estate. Tom has had no access to the revenue generated by the Tommy Taylor media empire.

At one another of these interminable conventions, things take a turn for the worst. Firstly a lunatic who styles himself after Tommy Taylor’s arch nemesis, the vampire Count Ambrosio appears. Then a reporter announces that a Eastern European couple have claimed that Tom is actually their son and that Wilson adopted him as a child. This revelation leads to the cultish Tommy Taylor fans turning on their ‘false messiah’, and Tom is forced to go into hiding.

Then Tom discovers that this turn of events are connected to Wilson’s disappearance. Hints that his father was involved in a quasi-masonic conspiracy begin to emerge, one that stretches down through the years and has dictated the careers of many writers. The question of Tom’s own parentage continues to raise his head. Maybe he isn’t the son of Wilson Taylor, or the Eastern European couple – what if the fans are right and he is actually Tommy Taylor. If a fictional character can become real, what else has crossed over into this world from the world of books.

When I bought this book from the excellent Kings Comics in Sydney, the teller’s eyes lit up. He assured me that while the initial issues, what with all the comparisons to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter (as well as some overt digs at the obsessive fandom attached to the boy wizard) might seem predictable – and in many senses this is yet another typical Vertigo comic, which specializes in post-modern, literary graphic novels – by the last issue in the collection it makes a quantum leap in quality. Without giving anything away, let me just say the digression into the lives of Rudyard Kipling and Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens is wonderfully constructed.

I also found the book reminiscent of Jonathan Carroll’s Land of Laughs, a favourite of mine from way back. The estranged relationship between Tom and his father underpins the central theme of what writers owe to their creations once they are let loose into the world.

Carey and Gross have fashioned an instant classic. A must-read.

I begun and begun again; and though I had nothing to say, and that nothing might have been express’d in half a dozen lines, I made half a dozen different beginnings, and could no way please myself.

In short, I was in no mood to write.

So this is the story. For the last three weeks I have taken on an additional challenge for the month of November. No, not to grow a moustache. That ship has sailed and made a few round trips already.  I joined NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month.

Write 50,000 words in a month. That’s the challenge. Anything you want. Then once it is all over, you can take a gander at your ‘masterpiece’, and see if there’s anything worth salvaging.

This afternoon I finally hit 40,000 words. I am cutting it close, as the deadline is this Tuesday. But books don’t read themselves, so a delicate balancing act has occupied me for the last few weeks. (I am also nursing one sick cat. That takes up a lot more time than any invertebrate ‘novel’).

Approach a student of English letters and say the words ‘Tristram Shandy’. Observe how the shibboleth brings a look of despair and panic to their eyes. Personally I rather like Sterne’s ground-breaking novel, but then I came to it from the opposite direction, as a related text to La Peau de Chagrin by Balzac. The French literary scene were quite taken with Sterne’s device of writing a novel that never properly starts.

By its completion, with several volumes concerning the ancestry of Tristram, our hero’s story has yet to begin. It’s as much a novel about the difficulties in writing a novel as anything else. There are also a few visual quirks thrown in, such as the page that is entirely black (a device supernatural authors became fond of in the 19th/early 20th centuries).

I would also recommend Michael Winterbottom’s film ‘adaptation’, A Cock and Bull Story which concerns a film production of Shandy that itself can’t quite get off the ground.

A Sentimental Journey is equally digressive, a travelogue that is entered into on the whim of the narrator, Yorick, which is more concerned with his thoughts on travelling than the journey itself. Crossing France from Calais he relates the various encounters he has with people of interest, although the peculiarities of the French language and the differences in social conventions prevent Yorick from developing any real relationships. He somehow manages to be oblivious to the fact that England is at war with France during the first half of his journey!

His one constant is a hired manservant named La Fleur who is lacking in qualifications, but has an innate understanding of what is required to protect monsieur’s honour. Yorick is continually caught in his own complicated thought processes, at one point naming the various devils that prevent from entering any course of action – Avarice, Caution, Cowardice, Discretion, Hypocrisy, Meanness and Pride. These personal forces at all times in conflict with one another, leaving Yorick a more comical procrastinator than the eponymous hero of the play from which Sterne gave him his name.

To Sterne’s credit not only is Hamlet referenced in the text, the play is mocked mercilessly, or rather the regard with which it is held by the English. To illustrate Yorick’s confounded thought processes Sterne writes mostly in a stream of consciousness style. The frustrated flirting of the hero – for it would not do to approach a woman in France as one would in England – occasions much of the suspended plot.

Perhaps this is a stumbling block for readers of Sterne. Nothing much happens, but what does occur is poured over and agonized by the characters in a mockery of authorial insight.

This is a witty, inventive and above all, fun book.

 

Somebody enquires: Are you still a Marxist? Never before has the devastation caused by the pusuit of profit, as defined by capitalism, been more extensive than it is today. Almost everybody knows this. How then is it possible not to heed Marx who prophesied and analyzed the devastation? The answer might be that people, many people, have lost all their political bearings. Mapless, they do not know where they are heading.

A few months before Stephanie and I were married we travelled to Foggy London Town to choose a wedding dress for the big day. While there, we looked up an old friend for lunch. I remember at one point we were discussing our reasons for wanting to move to Australia. We had lived together in Sydney already for a year and so thought it only fair to do the same in Dublin. In addition, we felt it was important for my family to get to know the woman I had chosen to marry. Given the distances between our respective families, the normal routine would not be possible. As it was my parents only met Stephanie’s on the day of the wedding itself.

The course of international romance never runs smoothly.

At any rate, we were chatting away about our future prospects when I mentioned that one of the reasons we were leaving Ireland was because in Australia we could actually see ourselves having a future. My home was swept up in economic turmoil, wasteful political in-fighting and a general apathy on the part of the public in what was happening to the country, despite the growing mountain of debt. Our friend was greatly surprised at this. Aren’t the Irish rebels, she said, coming from a culture defined by its fight for independence and resistance against the British occupation? Weren’t we taught as children to admire men like Daniel O’Connell, Charles Parnell and Michael Collins?

Well yes and no, came the reply. We talk a good game, but when it comes to politics the Irish turn a blind eye to the decisions that have the biggest impact on public life. There would be a lot of complaining, certainly, but little in the way of grass-roots political action. Those protesters that did persist in Ireland, such as the anti-Shell protests in Corrib, tended to be dismissed as crusty hippies.

So here I am watching the news from home, hearing about how the IMF have begun to assess the economic mismanagement of my country, the refusal of our leaders to accept any responsibility and the rising calls for a change of government. Too late, too late, the writing was on the wall years ago.

This collection of essays by John Berger focuses on the global political inarticulacy of responses to the illegal invasion of Iraq by Western nations and their allies; the disastrous aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and what it revealed about the poverty ordinary Americans suffered; the encroachment of Israeli forces on Palestinian settlements; and the hypocrisy of Tony Blair’s reaction to the tragic London bombings.

Statesmen pitch the rhetoric while ordinary people across the world separated from us by geography, class and war suffer. What is worse, we all know their stories. There is this sense of impotence or apathy that pervades the coverage of these events, as if nothing is to be done and so we simply change the channel.

Berger’s intermingles poetry and politics, to highlight just how isolated from common feeling the political process has become. The show of sincerity has replaced the need for any statesman to tell the truth. Propaganda has replaced the need for argument. The Twentieth Century has been a time of great opportunity, as well as loss: Our century was one of unprecedented massacres, yet the future it imagined (and sometimes fought for) proposed fraternity. Very few earlier centuries made such a proposal.

Discussions of Paulo Passolini, Emily Dickinson, Francis Bacon and Lars Von Trier are used by Berger to regain that sense of emotion and creativity abandoned by modern politics. Government has become the plaything of corporate interests and as such, has lost any claim on ideals of how we should live.

To take in what is happening, an inter-disciplinary vision is necessary in order to connect the ‘fields’, which are institutionally kept separate. And any such vision is bound to be (in the original sense of the word) political.

This is a powerful collection of essays, strongly recommended.

 

 

I can feel the panic welling up inside me once more, a swelling wave of hysteria and dark despair. If there was only one person I could turn to, one person to confirm that I haven’t gone crazy, that world has…But there’s not. I have nothing, no one to hold on to, not one anchor to reality except for what lies inside my head.

What lies inside my head. All these memories. So many of them, with such detail. How can they all be lies?

About ten years ago I began rabbiting on to whomever would listen about something I called ‘modern fantasy’. In a nutshell, I was on the look-out for stories set in the present day that belonged to the fantasy genre, but featured neither magical swords, or elves. A modern update of the type of fiction Hope Mirlees and Lord Dunsany wrote before the Tolkien cottage-industry swept across the genre.

Jonathan Carroll is one such writer, as is John Crowley, who’s Little, Big to my mind ranks up there with classics such as Lud-in-the-Mist. The next name I mention when discussing this topic is Charles de Lint. Nowadays I imagine his work would be pitched to take advantage of the current ‘urban fantasy/dark romance’, sub-genres. Yet his writing manages to be both highly metaphorical, while also rooted in character building. His novels tend to feature large casts of twenty-somethings faced with dreamlike realities that they have to muddle their way through, in between paying rent and dealing with lousy relationships.

Trader seems at first to be have an atypically narrow cast of characters, as it begins with two men, Max Trader and Johnny Devlin, switching bodies. Max is a luthier, a craftsman who finds it easier to judge the quality of a piece of wood than the people he meets outside his workshop. Johnny is a user, who accepts no responsibility for his life and takes a selfish pleasure in manipulating people, such as his ex Tanya, into doing favours he has no interest in returning. Only now Johnny finds himself in Max’s body and it seems all his financial woes are over. He owns an apartment, a successful business and people even stop him in the street having read an interview with ‘Max’, in specialist magazines. His body’s original owner is having a much harder time of it. Max wakes to the sound of two women screaming at him to repay money he has stolen. That same day, still confused at being trapped in this new body, he is evicted and with no money is force to live rough on the streets.

Then he meets the man wearing his body, who casually dismisses him with the threat of calling the cops. After all who would believe this story?

Young Nia does. She lives in Max’s building and befriended him before the body swap happened. She can see that this new Max speaks, moves and acts completely differently. It almost seems as if someone else is inside Max, controlling him and then she begins to suspect that he is not the only one to have been changed.

The stage is set for a conflict between the two men that will cross from this world into another dimension, where their very souls are threatened by spirits and old gods.

As I said initially this seems to be a simple story a good man and a bad man trapped in each other’s lives. A magic realist The Prince and the Pauper perhaps. But de Lint brings a lot more to the table. When Max becomes homeless it is easy for people to assume when he talks about his life being stolen from him, he simply means the livelihood he squandered that led to his living rough in city parks. He meet a fortune teller names Bones, who off-handedly reveals he has invented his whole precognition gig – but that doesn’t mean it is not true. When he talks to Max about living in a second skin, he assumes the Indian means being down and out, having to reinvent yourself. Once again though, why can it not be both.

An assortment of bohemian artists and performers are introduced, the ideal people to give any credence to body swapping and ream worlds malarkey. Sometimes their interludes feel distracting though. I felt we never learned enough about Devlin, although he’s a louse seems to sum it up.

An entertaining fable, with sense of whimsy.

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