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Melbourne life was fine, if a little prosaic. It’s a big city but a small town, and having grown up here I couldn’t go to a bar or get a cup of coffee without running into someone I knew. It was a giant playground of everyone I’d ever met in my life, for better or worse. To find anonymity it was necessary to put a few oceans between us.
One summer I set out for Paris with my best mate, on a mission to put my lazy grasp of French to the test. It was also an opportunity to indulge my teenage fascination with all things French.
I had one goal though. To visit Shakespeare and Company, a legendary bookshop where the staff walked in off the street to accept an offer of bed and board in return for work. I was going to try and get myself a job there, or inveigle my way in with the penseurs who would meet in an upstairs room and debate philosophy and literature. I did go to Shakespeare and Company. I even found the room, with a group of people from around the world excitedly arguing in French about, well something or other (have I mentioned my French isn’t great?). I stood there for a moment, backed out and left.
I realized that my dreams of being an arty Parisian intellectual type were just that – dreams. I preferred the easy banter of my mates, the calming isolation in reading Dostoyevsky, or Camus, and knowing I did not have to justify my choice. Beneath all that there was a growing resentment for pretentiousness and the realization that life goes on outside the pages of a book.
Patrick O’Neil’s book is about how he drew inspiration for his adventures across the globe from the literary fiction of Franz Kafka, Hunter S. Thompson and Jack Kerouac. Desperately concerned at the prospect of living a conventional life, he flees the suburbs of Melbourne on three seperate occasions during his twenties, leaving family, studies, work and relationships to wait for his return.
As the first third of the book is dedicated to Kafka, O’Neil heads off to Europe, landing in London after an exhausting trans-continental flight on a cheap airline. There he is put up by a friend in a ritzy apartment. Deciding that this degree of comfort is yet another ‘gilded cage’, he books a ticket on a ferry for Amsterdam. Arriving finally in the wee hours of the morning O’Neil realizes he is alone in a strange city, surrounded by drug addicts and prostitutes and should anything happen to him no one will even know to look for him there. He is catapulted into a night of paranoia and fear, much like something conjured up by the frenzied imagination of Kafka himself.
His subsequent adventures follow the same pattern. Disenchantment at home sends him free-wheeling across the globe chasing literary dragons. A new foreign land, the confusion that results from the language barrier and the skewed perception that follows ingesting psychedelics. He meets some fascinating characters off on their own mad adventures. O’Neil himself is marched back and forth across foreign borders, threatened by gun-toting criminals, arrested by corrupt South American cops on drugs charges and almost dies in a car-wreck. He faces the threat of death on several occasions, but seemingly the experience of living with a compulsive New York neurotic is the most spirit-crushing.
However, the experience of reading this memoir makes for a far more frustrating journey. O’Neil cheerfully describes himself as mad on one or two occasions, but a complete lack of common sense – coupled with a near-total degree of self-absorption – makes for a dreary narrative. It is like reading Walden and discovering the author was hanging out on a mate’s private estate.
The other issue is that the characters encountered by O’Neil seem a lot more interesting, such as a Belgian psytrance documentarian, or a Manhatannite drag queen. Instead we have to contend with the narrator’s own half-baked ponderings. A de rigeur appearance of Carlos Castaneda during a peyote session was the personal low-point for me. He was a fraud who used the women attracted by his shamanic nonsense about Toltecs and disguised pure bunkum as wisdom.
The book’s muses – Kafka, Thompson and Kerouac – are imitated in an overly literal manner. Reading the book felt like sitting next to a teenager on a long-distance bus ride who’s read the CliffsNotes summaries.
Tired, dated and frustrating. First-world tourist pornography.
It was not a bang, it was a rumble, not overloud, but it thudded into all corners of the morning like a great door slammed in the deepest hollows of the sea. Beside me a heavy wire stay unexpectedly quivered like a cello string for a moment, then stopped.
Now, standing up unsteadily from the sea, was the famous Mushroom.
‘Where were you when it happened?’ Isn’t that the refrain after any major event, or historical signpost erected in hindsight? ‘What were you thinking when you heard the news?’ Historical accounts give a narrative to the events that overtake us throughout our lives, establishing a meaning, or telos as the philosophy lecturers say, out of the reports and findings that are pored over. The twentieth century still defines us, that is to say our understanding of the past one hundred years define us, our ideas of nationality, culture, who we are as peoples. The danger lies in being too selective in what we remember and what we ignore.
Robert Fox’s book is a collection of different writings on the twentieth century. It features easily digestible extracts from personal journals, biographies, reports and, as the twenty-first century approaches, web-blogs. There are even selections from the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, folk songs from Woody Guthrie and gonzo ramblings from Hunter S. Thompson. The book begins with the age of discovery and ends with the century’s extended epilogue that followed the events of September 11 2001. A ‘clash of civilizations’, along religious lines on a scale not seen since the Second World War.
This book also describes the evolution of how we account for our history, the changes in the language employed to describe momentous events. Marie and Pierre Curie’s discovery of radium is an adventure that equals the race to the Antarctic between Scott and Amundsen. Britain’s Edwardian Age is seen as the last gasp of the Empire, with the fallout from the tragic expedition to the South Pole a presentiment of the dark days ahead. We refer to the First World War, placing it in sequence. To the peoples of Europe it was known as the Great War, which spread from the mainland to Africa and felled the Russian Tsarist regime. Fox presents John Reed’s ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’, once more, reporting the spontaneous cry ‘Revolutionary discipline! Property of the People..’ during the attempted sack of the Winter Palace. We have an account from the son of a Turkish soldier, whose father was left to die by his fellow troops somewhere on the side of a road. Then there is the Easter Rising in Dublin, seizing the opportunity to try and fight a beleaguered British occupation.
The cracks that followed a ‘peace that brings more victims tomorrow’ (a quote from a Serbian General from an article published in 1993) inevitably pulls Europe towards a second conflagration. The Spanish Civil War becoming a testing ground for German Blitzkrieg; the new form of journalism that evolves on the hoof courtesy of writers such as George Orwell soon coming to define the style of war reporting; the burning of the Reichstag; the grim doom levelled on European Jews by an insensible madman; and the centrifugal force of the conflict sucking in armies from America, Japan and Australia. Finally the testing of the atomic bomb at the Bikini Atoll, a death-warrant for the whole of humanity prematurely signed with the swirl of a mushroom cloud.
Fox darts and weaves between enemy lines to give a broader appreciation to the conflicts he covers. The story of a British POW escapee’s encounter with a sympathetic German lepidopterist in Occupied Italy was a favourite of mine, as well as the suspicion Robert Graves receives for carrying a copy of Nietzsche’s poems, portrayed in the press as ‘the sinister figure behind the Kaiser’. Then there’s Evelyn Waugh’s contribution to travel writing: ‘I do not think I shall ever forget the sight of Etna at sunset; the mountain almost invisible in a blur of pastel grey, glowing on the tops and then repeating its shape, as though reflected, in a wisp of grey smoke, with the whole horizon behind radiant with pink light, fading gently into a grey pastel sky. Nothing I have even seen in art or nature was quite so revolting.’
Fox’s selections are both intimate and revealing. I wonder if we even now realize how soon history will leave us behind.
The trouble with the news is simple: People, especially ones on the ends of the power spectrum, like it when you’re afraid. The people who have the power want you scared. They want you walking around paralysed by the notion that you could die at any moment. There’s always something to be afraid of. It used to be terrorists. Now it’s zombies.
Feed by Mira Grant, is the first book in the proposed Newsflesh trilogy. A pet peeve of mine is debut authors releasing a title bearing the impending legacy on the dust jacket, ‘Book One of…’. But fortunately, on this occasion, Grant has created a world that I would happily return to. Feed is a self-contained political thriller that just so happens to feature zombies. It does not end on a cliffhanger, avoids clichés and is written with an unusual degree of passion when compared to most novels featuring the rancid undead, especially those predicting a sequel.
In 2014 a hybrid disease known as Kellis-Amberlee, mutated from a combination of vaccines, one intended for curing cancer, the other the common cold, has spread across the globe. The result is that no one needs die from lung cancer or even suffer a case of the sniffles anymore. However, there is an unfortunate side effect – Kellis-Amberlee has also caused the dead to rise.
Feed begins in a world transformed, but unlike in the movies the zombie apocalypse never arrived. Humanity has survived and society remains intact. It’s just that people just spend a lot more time indoors, blood tests are required to enter public buildings and the internet has replaced traditional news media as the primary information source due to the reliability of live-blogging in reporting zombie outbreaks.
Which brings us to George (Georgette) and Shaun Mason. They are the new breed of blogger, traveling into zombie hot zones and filming what they see for the entertainment of their readers. There is even a shorthand to describe the different kinds of guerrilla journalists that have evolved in this zombified world. Take, for example the Irwins who are prone to risk taking; then there’s the Stewarts who are always ready with a pithy op-ed piece; the Newsies who report the facts, and the Fictionals who produce zombie fanfic, poetry and prose. It’s a very knowing take on contemporary media transplanted to Grant’s fictional world.
George and Shaun are two of the more popular bloggers and are thrilled to discover they have been invited to cover the campaign of Senator Peter Ryman in the lead up to the 2040 Presidential Election. While Feed opens with the Mason siblings fleeing a pack of zombies in the wilds of Santa Cruz, the story soon veers away from the standard run-and-hide horror novel plot. Instead, Grant has Ryman’s campaign taking the Masons on the traditional town hall stump speech trail. The Senator answers questions on policy and George blogs her impressions of the man who would be president, until an assasination plot rudely interrupts the proceedings. This is Hunter S Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 reimagined by zombie film director George Romero.
Feed is passionate and incisive writing. Grant is clever and thought-provoking, piggybacking on horror fiction tropes to speak to the audience about how we may be manipulated by the ‘news’, how fear motivates our decisions and how democracy is reduced to a special interest land-grab. At its core though, Feed is a story about a brother and sister who love each other very much. I eagerly await ‘Book Two….’ Deadline.