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When and why did a man lose the faculty of change? Was it some point in the dying of the mind and body. A hardening of the nervous system. He practiced keeping his mind agile. Daily he made himself think thought he had not thought before. He forced himself to consider the worst. He practiced considering the opposite. He tried always to imagine at least two other possible ways of doing something. He fed his mind with maxims and precepts – the how-to-do-it manual of the mind.
It is funny how things come full circle. I spent a lot of time in video stores when I was a kid, gazing at the cover art and reading the blurbs of 18s movies that I was forbidden from watching. My knowledge of the Nightmare on Elm Street series was based entirely on the summaries on the back of the video cassette boxes, until I turned twenty-four. One video I remember gazing at was The Coca-Cola Kid. An Australian film starring Eric Roberts, it grabbed the eye courtesy of its title and use of the Coke logo. I was a kid, any hint of sugar sent me into a frenzy. I never saw the film and in fact had long forgotten about it.
Now I discover that this novel, which actually is set along the New South Wales southerly coast, where I am currently staying, was the basis for The Coca-Cola Kid and its author, Frank Moorhouse, wrote the script. The connection to my current home and the memories it recalls to me of my childhood, strike me as a curiously remote form of synchronicity. It is also appropriate, given that this is a book about memory and the changes in one man’s life.
The story itself concerns itself with George McDowell, a local businessman who likes to hold himself to strong principles, in business and in life. He even changes his name in middle age, adding the prefix of ‘T’, to make himself seem more regal. After a trip to America with his father he becomes fascinated with Rotary, its focus on morality married with commerce inspiring him to pursue the founding of a chapter on the South Coast.
Fancying himself a man of science, an individualist and a forward-thinker, McDowell believes in living according to a set number of moral precepts. Having focused so much on his career, bound up with his notions of being a man of good standing within the community, he has sacrificed friendship and the love of his family. His relationship with his wife is coolly formal and his daughter has embraced a bohemian lifestyle, indulging in drugs and sex. McDowell cannot comprehend how his daughter Terri has become so estranged from him, blaming the influence of ‘city life’, which he holds accountable for other problems such as overpopulation and trade unionism.
Then a young man from the Coke Company named Becker arrives in town to investigate McDowell’s operation. He also encounters Terri and is quickly enwrapped in their strained familial relationship. Becker represents a form of future that does not fit within McDowell’s orderly vision of a world ruled by rational men of business like himself. His daughter’s rebellion is similarly a reaction to his pedantic moral philosophy. Having spent his life attempting to realize the future, McDowell finds himself an old man, left behind by modernity.
Moorhouse tells his story in a non-linear fashion, dipping in and out of McDowell’s life. We are privy to his thoughts and experiences throughout, with his inability to realize how little others think of him turning this into a curiously private tragedy. I also got a quiet thrill out of the mentions of Bulli and Wollongong. We visit several periods in McDowell’s career, from the inspirational 1920’s right up until after his death in the 1970’s, with Terri now accompanying a film crew looking to interview Australian men who lived during these periods.
This serves as a commentary by Moorhouse on the make-up of twentieth century Australians, with a particular focus on the influence of American culture and capitalism. It turns out this is one of a number of books by the writer, referred to as ‘discontinuous narratives’, with the various characters reappearing in each of the stories, collectively sharing an overarching thematic narrative.
It is a curious experiment and after I have concluded my little reading experiment, I can see myself tracking down the rest of this series.
‘So here’s the bottom line, Barny. Why do I need you? What sets you apart from the mass of people?’
‘A shrapnel scar on my spine the colour of banana talks to me at night, filling the room with whispers.’
Verbal frowned a moment. ‘Well by god that’s the best answer I ever heard.’
What a cruel joke life is. I saw this slim, docile looking novel on a shelf and I thought to myself, ‘this will be a nice palate cleanser after the wordy roughage of hobbits and elven poetry …only 133 pages? Sure that’s a doddle’.
Now dear reader, I find myself rocking back and forth on the living room chair, scrubbing my eyeballs with my fists, crying out ‘What! What was that! I don’t understand….my brain is melted…’
Needless to say, Only An Alligator is a very strange book. I will attempt to describe the plot, but I fear my facility with language has completely deserted me and booked a holiday somewhere saner. Barny Juno resides in the city known as Accomplice. He wants nothing more than to be happy and befriend all the ‘winged and stepping animals of the earth’. His home is a menagerie of vicious wildlife and rumours surround a suspected colony of eight hundred eels living in his garden. He also has strange friends, including a dinosaur fetishist nicknamed Round One and a scarecrow (or possibly a zombie, the data is confusing on this point) called Edgy who is desperate to join a secret society known as the Patently Damaging Sports Club. Accomplice itself is a metropolis stranded on the banks of some weird etheric realm of demons and ghosts. I think. I am not entirely clear on that point.
One day Barny finds an alligator caught in the walls of what is called a ‘creepchannel’. He rescues the animal and brings it home, naming it Mister Newton. He gives all his animal charges names, although his attempted funeral for a former pet was an unmitigated disaster, as he accidentally dropped his trousers during the eulogy. Anyway, it turns out this alligator was being fattened as a snack for a demon named Sweeney. Infuriated at this brazen theft, he orders his lieutenant Dietrich Hammerwire to find the thief Barny Juno and kill him. Or seriously inconvenience him. Either way, Sweeney wants results. Dietrich has his doubts about the assignment, as he quickly begins to wonder if Barny really is the genius his master believes him to be. As far as he can tell, the man is an unbelievable fool.
The experience of reading this book feels like sitting in a room with a sadistic madman who has shoved Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds, Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica and Alex Cox’s Repo Man into a blender and then, with a wicked grin, flicked the on-switch. I felt like I was stuck back in William Burrough’s Interzone, somehow beached on a nightmarish inverted sephirot. I have no idea what this book is about. Frankly I did not understand half the sentences in this book.
It did make me laugh though. A lot. With a slight manic giggle at the end of each outburst. Sweeney’s rivalry with Barny becomes the principal concern of a mayoral election campaign, much to the bewildered hero’s confusion. Aylett somehow manages the proceedings with a deadpan sense of humour and gargled imagery. I would attempt to identify the plot as a political satire, but that would be missing the larger point I am sure. Get back to me in a few months when I have figured out what that is.
In short, if you are the sort of person who enjoys having their brains leak out of their nose due to the effort of reading, this is the book for you! If you are, on the contrary, a sane and respectable member of society I advise you to run, not walk, as far as possible from Mr Aylett. Maybe join a nunnery for a month or so, just to be safe.
It is too late for me I’m afraid.
‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.
‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us’.
One hundred books! Oh my eyes are tired. To celebrate I chose to re-read for the umpteenth time the first book in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I read The Hobbit and then its larger sequel while I was still in school towards the end of the 1980’s. In many ways the experience defined my taste in reading ever since, so I felt the choice for today was appropriate. What’s more returning to this book I find much that is familiar; but also many elements of Tolkien’s writing that I did not notice before.
As this is a sequel to the popular novel The Hobbit, Tolkien begins by returning to the Shire, where a race known as hobbits once lived centuries ago during a time known as Middle-Earth. Bilbo Baggins the hero of that book is celebrating his 111th birthday and has chosen to travel once more on the open road, leaving his home and possessions to young Frodo Baggins. His old friend, the wizard Gandalf the Grey, arrives in the Shire to see him off. Before Bilbo leaves the wizard asks that he bequeath his magic ring to his heir, won during his adventures in a contest of riddles with the creature Gollum. At first the old hobbit refuses, shaking with anger, but he eventually relents. He leaves the Shire, suddenly feeling as if he has been unburdened.
Years pass before Gandalf returns to Frodo’s home in Bag End, revealing that the magic ring hidden for all this time is in fact The Great Ring, forged by the Dark Lord Sauron to command all the races of Middle-Earth. Frodo decides to flee the home he loves so well, knowing that as long as he stays all his friends are in danger. Gandalf encourages him to leave in secret, for there are spies from the east, the land of Mordor, abroad looking for news of the Ring.
Accompanied by his trusty man-servant Sam, and friends Merry and Pippin, Frodo leaves the Shire just in time. The party of hobbits have several close escapes from mysterious Black Riders hunting them, even at one point seeing one sniffing the ground like an animal. They are also faced with other dangers during their journey, such as the powerful Old Man Willow and the dread Barrow-Wights. Eventually they meet a ranger who is known as Strider, who offers to help them travel to the safe haven of Rivendell. Only after a terrifying chase do they make it to the house of Elrond Half-Elven. There a final council is held to decide what to do with the Great Ring and Frodo realizes he has little choice but to bear it into the kingdom of Mordor itself. Only there at the volcano where it was first forged can it be destroyed.
In my opinion The Fellowship of the Ring is the best of the three published books that make up Tolkien’s epic story The Lord of the Rings. For one it bridges the charming tone of The Hobbit with the increasingly more grandiose quality of its sequel. The Shire is shown to be sheltered from the greater dangers of Middle-Earth and Tolkien’s love of the bucolic lifestyle of hobbits is unfeigned. Years after reading this book I discovered a painting by Pieter Bruegel The Land of Cockaigne, which perfectly captures this contrast.
This almost childlike innocence of Frodo and his friends is threatened by the malign evil of the Black Riders. They appear in each of the three books, yet I never found them as frightening as when they were chasing hobbits down country lanes. Evil is a great concern of Tolkien’s, here identified as the corruptive influence of power. Sauron exists to pervert life and cheat death. The Christian subtext in the novels favours the worthiness of innocent hobbits over mighty warriors.
It is also a book about the passing of things, representing Tolkien’s idyllic vision of his childhood. Repeatedly he describes how magic is leaving the world of Middle-Earth, leaving the world of men behind.
Like a warm blanket, I enjoyed sinking into it for a day.
An overwhelming noise hit him, a bustling, howling sound, tumultuous in its overall effect. Listened to individually, however, the sounds were only whispers. Coarse and parched. Burnt voices.
One thing that I do not understand about Horror fiction is why it is often so overwritten. The House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski was to my mind the best horror novel of that last decade – and yet! It certainly was not written in a simple or direct manner. What the genre needs is a George Orwell-type, capable of describing a sense of dread with uncomplicated language. James Herbert is not that writer. However, the premise of The Survivor initially seemed to be quite a simple one.
A 747 passenger jet crashes just outside the town of Eton. Out of the wreckage a single figure emerges, the co-pilot of the flight. Miraculously he is completely unhurt. In fact his clothing is neither torn, nor even singed. David Keller’s survival is seen as an example of freakish good fortune at first, although soon the public begins to view the man with suspicion. His claims of amnesia provide no insight into how three hundred lives were so tragically lost and his employers at the airline realize he is no good to them as a pilot. They give him an extended period of paid leave in lieu of laying him off for fear of negative publicity. Keller himself wonders if somehow he was responsible for the crash, if his negligence led to the deaths of all the passengers on board. The victims include his air-stewardess girlfriend Cathy, as well as his mentor Captain Rogan. Keller has flashes of Rogan shouting angrily at him on the days leading up to the crash. Might their falling out have led to the disaster?
Meanwhile the townsfolk of Eton are disturbed by a rapid increase in the number of accidental deaths surrounding the site of the crash. The body of a local shopkeeper is found by the river, seemingly having collapsed as a result of a heart attack. A married couple fall to their deaths from their bedroom window. A school boy is discovered dismembered on train tracks. Unbeknownst to the people of Eton a single malevolent force is behind all of these deaths, one that is growing stronger each day. Keller is contacted by a reluctant spiritualist who claims that the souls of the dead are calling on him to aid them, but warns that there is another force at work. A demonic presence that was already on board the flight, that refuses to accept death.
This is a very grim and gruesome little tale. On the one hand the vengeful spirits of the flight passengers stalking the townspeople of Eton provide ample opportunity for Herbert to describe burnt flesh and grasping, skeletal claws. On the other, we have the moral turpitude of almost every single character within the book. Everyone is either an adulterer, corrupt, mad, or in the unfortunate example of the school boy, too fat to live. Then there is the villain of the piece, a composite figure of Aleister Crowley and Oswald Mosley. Did Herbert read over an early draft of the novel and think to himself ‘well, sure, murdering ghosts who resemble burn victims are all well and good, but what this book really needs is undead satanic anti-semites!’
Also apparently Catholic priests have superpowers. Anglican clerics haven’t a hope though.
As a result I found myself struggling to care whether anyone lived, or not. There is an attempt to address some larger themes, such as this passage: Keller had wondered how assassins of this magnitude justified their actions – [..] Their own madness justified it for them. To them, the whole world was guilty.
Yet Herbert makes no effort to counter this idea. An old man, who appears briefly at the beginning and end of the novel, seems to represent the notion that the only purpose in life is to survive for as long as possible.
Anyway, so I’m reading about the ghostly whispering, the apparitions of the dead, an immoral cast of characters, the plane crash survivor guided by some unseen purpose to defeat evil – and it hit me. This book is an awful lot like J.J. Abrams’ Lost! Sure Eton is no desert island, but thematically the two stories are quite alike (both end inconclusively too). Maybe Herbert’s publishers should look into this.
Overall I found this book to be depressing and unsatisfying.
Once upon a time, a middle-aged associate professor called Knight, armoured only by his self-esteem, which was considerable, journeyed into a mountain wilderness to investigate rumours that a dragon was terrorising farmers, small shopkeepers and eco-tourists in the area.
I remember my dad trying to convince me that fantasy and superheroes were things one had to leave behind with childhood. What about the man who invented the telephone, he asked rhetorically. There was a real hero. Your writers of Tarzan and so forth were probably just lowly shoe salesmen who got lucky with selling their daydreams. This was a very dispiriting notion for me as a kid. Now thirty-something’s continue to indulge themselves in childish pursuits and primetime television schedules have been occupied by sf/fantasy extravagances. It seems the daydreamers won, but I suspect we have gone from one extreme to another.
Australian writer Jennifer Rowe’s collection of short ‘adult’, fairy tales straddles the balance between fantasy and reality. Each short tale describes lonely or foolish adults who maybe need a little magic in their lives. In this world stage magicians have actual magical powers that far outstrip sleight of hand trickery and handsome princes struggle with their sexuality.
My pick of the bunch is Curly Locks, a parable about how ignorance is bliss. A young woman, orphaned by a misdirected letter bomb, spends her days working and caring for her mysteriously disabled boyfriend. Then one day an act of kindness witnessed by a powerful mage causes her fortune to improve, although she never really questions it. The Magic Fish features, well, a magic goldfish and unfortunately a very forgetful one at that. Justin and the Troll shows how vitally important it is to listen carefully. Sadly ‘troll bridge’, sounds an awful lot like ‘toll bridge’.
Rowe carries off the conceit of sour adult lives requiring a small electric thrill to put them on the right path quite well. Known as a crime writer, she has written fairy tales for children under pseudonyms, including the popular Deltora Quest series as Emily Rodda. Fairy Tales for Grown Ups strikes a balance between her parallel careers, grim fairy tales with a jaunty sense of whimsy.
For Rowe the story begins after the ‘happily ever after’, when divorce and bitterness have set in. Several of the tales feature divorcees muddling their way through middle age. The stories are even set in the same world and some of the characters introduced to us in the preceding entries in this collection meet in the final short, Angela’s Mandrake. The hero of The Lonely Prince reminded me a little of Herbert, the effete son of the ambitious lord in Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail. A sensitive romantic maneuvered into a marriage that befits his father’s intentions instead of his own need for a partner. Rowe’s take on the situation is an amusing inversion of the traditional fairy tale, once again introducing a sense of farcical modernity into the proceedings. The Fat Wife has the abandoned first wife character trope meet a gentle, yet sexually rapacious genie, who knows just how to appreciate a woman scorned by a world that favours ‘size 8 models’.
As befits the best fairy tales, each of Rowe’s stories is written in a light and breezy, enjoyable yet also pleasantly forgettable. I mean that as a compliment. All the problems and ailments of these characters are rooted in issues of low self-esteem and the broad theme of the book seems to be that we should believe in ourselves a little more. Maybe allow a little bit of magic into our lives every now and then.
This is a pleasant treat to read on a slow Sunday afternoon.
One more page, she decides; just one more. She isn’t ready yet; the tasks that lie ahead (putting on her robe, brushing her hair, going down to the kitchen) are still too thin, too elusive. She will permit herself another minute here, in bed, before entering the day. She will allow herself just a little more time.
Johann Goethe is credited with having inspired the dolorous Romantic movement that followed the publication of his work The Sorrow of Young Werther. The German author would later disown Werther, for inspiring what he felt was a ‘sick’, morbid melancholy, a fascination with the act of suicide itself. “It must be bad, if not everybody was to have a time in his life, when he felt as though Werther had been written exclusively for him.” I wonder if Virginia Woolf were to have lived to see the publication of The Hours might she have expressed similar regrets.
The Hours tells the story of three women fascinated by the story of Mrs Dalloway. It begins with the suicide of Virginia Woolf herself, before returning to the period during which she conceived the novel. This is intentional, as her work, for better or worse, will forever be defined by the manner of her death in the minds of her readers.
We then skip forward to the present day, where a Clarissa Vaughan, much like her namesake, is feverishly planning a celebratory party for her old friend Richard, who has won a prestigious literary award. She is also caring for her friend, who is dying of AIDS and is rapidly losing his grip on reality.
Finally we meet Laura Brown, a pregnant housewife who is obsessed with Virginia Woolf and her novel Mrs Dalloway. She feels trapped by her marriage to her war hero husband, petrified by the responsibility of being a mother to her young son Richard, while all she wants to do is retreat into a book and hide from the world.
The parallels between the lives of these three women and the novel Mrs Dalloway are teased out by author Michael Cunningham. Obviously in the case of Virginia Woolf we see how events in her own life inspire the characters and situations introduced into her writing. Where she is offhand to her servants, Clarissa Dalloway will be caring and considerate. Her feelings of depression inspire the character of Septimus Warren Smith. Laura Brown takes inspiration from Woolf in reflecting about her own life, whereas Clarissa is mocked by Richard with the nickname ‘Mrs Dalloway’.
As well as focusing on the importance of Woolf’s writing, this is also a book about how the challenges faced by homosexuals have changed by the end of the 20th century. In Woolf’s time gay men and women conducted their lives in secret (speaking of which, gamahuche is my favourite euphemism – ever!). Now gay lifestyles are more visible, yet the bigoted view that AIDS is somehow a ‘gay disease’ is expressed openly by homophobes. These are important issues and I am glad that writers like Cunningham are unafraid to deal with them.
So why do I find this such a trite book?
In part it is the aping of Woolf’s style. While I found the language of Mrs Dalloway flowed and sang with a natural rhythm of its own, the imitation attempted by Cunningham feels like purple prose. This is also quite a humourless book, full of doomed characters reflecting on self-slaughter. When Tom Stoppard wrote the script to Shakespeare in Love he wisely avoided hammy portentousness and self-indulgence, throwing in digs at the expense of England’s Greatest Writer ™ (I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once). Cunningham has Virginia and her husband casually discussing “Tom’s mistakes”, presumably a reference to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, which they published under the imprint Hogarth Press.
This attempt at levity comes off as pretentious name-dropping. It gets worse when Clarissa in the present day is amazed at the sight of Meryl Streep entering her trailer on a New York street. Perhaps in an attempt at po-mo humour Stephen Daldry cast the actress as Clarissa in the film version of The Hours. Both she and Laura are overly enamoured with famous actresses in the book, making their profundity strangely trivial.
This tiresome book is Twilight for New York literary salons, little more than turgid and pretentious fanfiction.
I sat there, chest damp, exposed and chilled. The room was entombed in darkness: the hour of night when not so much as a squeaky brake disturbed the silence. But I had seen something in an instant, a single flash. A child lying next to me in the bed. Grinning, eyes narrowed in mischievous glee, chewing its fingers, wondering if it would be caught in a naughty, practical joke. I sighed. Of course – it had been my Friend.
“Are you there?” I whispered. “Are you there?”
For years I had an interest in therapy, the theories of Freud, Lacan and Jung. It’s no accident that one of my favourite writers is Slavoj Zizek, himself a Lacanian. The relationship between an analyst and a patient is an interesting one. Freud talked about the phenomenon of transference, how the analysand will often attempt to circumvent the process of therapy by attempting to become involved with them emotionally.
Today I find aspects of blogging culture, which of course I am a part of, interesting for how its plays with notions of inviting strangers into our personal lives. This blog, the circumstances of my application for residency in Australia and the lengths I am willing to go to while waiting by reviewing a book each day, is itself a function of this new culture. How honest are we to our blog readers though, to the people in our lives, to the care professionals who sit with us to discuss our issues? As a part of society we are so practiced in the art of playing roles that it is difficult to relinquish them, even when our honesty is essential.
Justin Evans’ book rests on the question of a child’s honesty. George Davies is still recovering from the loss of his father, who died mysteriously after a trip to Honduras. With academics for parents, George never really had a chance in the schoolyard. His vocabulary is overly developed, he can speak German and Latin and his conversation is more suited to a discussion of scholarly pursuits than the aggressive banter of the boys of his age. In short, he is desperately lonely and needs a friend. Then one night George spies a face starring at him, suspended in mid-air. Shortly after that he begins to hear voices calling his name and finally the spectre of a boy comes for him to show him visions of the afterlife.
George’s new friend tells him many things and hints to a conspiracy lying behind the death of his father. He alleges that a family friend, Tom Harris, is responsible for convincing Paul Davies to travel to Honduras. This was all part of a plot to steal away George’s mother and kill her husband. Slowly but surely the young boy becomes convinced and sets about trying to prove that his father was murdered.
Justin Evans begins this story with the adult George Davies entering therapy following the birth of his own child, years after the events described during his childhood in the early 80s. He feels a strange sense of revulsion at the thought of being close to his son, one that deeply alarms his wife. George’s therapist encourages him to write about what happened to him following the death of his father. She argues that the things he heard and saw where the hallucinations of a deeply disturbed eleven-year old. However, the exercise of writing allows George to revisit his feelings from that dark period of his life, including the suspicion that maybe he was not a troubled boy in need of medication. Perhaps he was possessed by a demonic doppelganger.
This is a gripping debut from Justin Evans. He gives equal attention to the development of the psychiatric perspective of the events, as well as the mystical interpretation. The question of whether George is indeed mad, possessed, or simply a compulsive liar remains ambiguous. The character of George’s sceptical mother is well-realized, a liberal feminist whose studies into critical theory are curtailed by the glass ceiling in the academic system. Her son’s resentment of her growing affection for another man is cleverly drawn out. I just felt the ending slightly predictable, but overall this is a very interesting novel.