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He gestured to the fireplace, over which hung a large framed photograph of the billionaire Da Vinci Code author, signed personally to Jean-Noël. “Look at that chin – it is the chin of a genius.” He ran his finger down the cleft of his own and mourned its inadequacy. “Mind you, I thought Digital Fortress was a piece of shit.”

Way back in 2008, when folks asked me why I intended to move to Australia, I would mention an assortment of reasons, such as the good food, sturdy economy, availability of jobs – but also another factor which caused some consternation. Namely Australian television. I am not talking about Neighbours, or Home and Away, but panel shows such as Spicks and Specks, a very funny programme that’s half music trivia quiz, half mad-cap variety hour (half hour!).

It was the good humoured content that surprised me. I grew up with Irish sarcasm and cutting British wit. Satire is the currency of my home’s entertainment, with a fair dollop of black comedy and schadenfreude. Australia seemed to me to have embraced an entirely different comedic ethos, fair dinkum banter and harmless absurdism.

Which was how I first discovered Shaun Micallef. His delivery of lines, whether it be as a comedic player, or host of the show Talking About Your Generation, seems initially quite poised, until you realize he’s speaking utter nonsense. When I discovered he had written a novel, I had to investigate what genteel gonzoism he had served up this time.

So what is the book about? Well our omniscient narrator is attempting to tell us the story of Alexander Pruitt, murdered in 2005, only to be reborn in Cromwellite Britain in 1657. Which, through a series of plot contrivances involving time travel and the etymology of the word ‘twig’, it turns out is the period most suitable to him.

Of course as history itself is warped by the events described, our trusty narrator might not even get to finish the book we are reading, or sell the rights to Hollywood, with the maniacal Tom Cruise playing him in an eventual movie. So we have two races to the finish line here, Alexander Pruitt desperately seeking out the meaning of his existence, while torn between two periods in history (as well as a brief cameo in a third); and our narrator hoping to sell out as quickly as possible before his intellectual property is unwritten.

Throw in some Masonic conspiracies, a nice hefty dig or two at Dan Brown’s expense, badgers and Blade Runner, and we have ourselves a novel. Oh and just to top it off the secret identity of Jack the Ripper is also revealed.

If this book were to suffer the indignity of a high concept, I would describe it as P. G. Wodehouse meets Philip K. Dick. It is fitting that the head of Philip K. Dick has reappeared as an A.I. oracle. Perhaps someone should ask it what it thinks of Micallef’s novel. It is manic, absurdist fare, that doesn’t take itself seriously for even an iota of a second. Conspiracies are revealed to be vapid plots without rhyme, or reason. History itself is a mutable, simultaneous projection without purpose. And Tom Cruise is a very scary individual.

The narrator’s Hollywood adventure feels like a random digression, but by that point you have become used to the editorial spats asterisked at the bottom of pages, as well as parenthetical asides to the reader, assuring them that it will all make sense in the end. I laughed out loud when Cruise himself begins to interrogate the narrator as to his peculiar ‘omniscience’, over the proceedings of the plot. It’s a brilliant moment.

If I go any further I fear this review will collapse into a puddle of sycophantic loquaciousness. Needless to say, I quite liked it.

‘I’ve been thinking about our beautiful country! Who gave it to us? I’ve been thinking about how God the Almighty gave us this beautiful sprawling land as a reward for how wonderful we are. We’re big, we’re energetic, we’re generous, which is reflected in all our myths, which are so very populated with large high-energy folks who give away all they have! If we have a National Virtue, it is that we are generous, if we have a National Defect, it is that we are too generous! Is it our fault that these little jerks have such a small crappy land? I think not! God Almighty gave them that small crappy land for reasons of His own. It is not my place to start cross-examining God Almighty, asking why He gave them such a small crappy land, my place is to simply enjoy and protect the big bountiful land God Almighty gave us!’

I think Steve Aylett inoculated me. Like Burroughs, once you read him your brain changes by increments. This is why I always liked Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes. Actually Daniel Dennett gave it much better expression, describing memes as a host of larvae in your brain that grow and develop into new viral ideas. This astonishingly disgusting image nails the idea behind ‘infectious culture’.

Welcome to my long-winded digression! Aylett infected me and now I am ready for George Saunders’ own invocation of manically surreal humour.

My edition is actually features the title novella, as well as a collection of short stories gathered under the banner In Persuasion.

The initial story describes the rabid assent of the eponymous Phil, a tyrant in waiting whose hatred of the bookish and weak-limbed ‘Inner Hornerites’, leads him to form a border militia of ‘Outer Hornerites’, who enforce an ever shrinking border surrounding their neighbours, demanding more punitive taxes each day. While the number of patriots called to his cause do not outnumber the Inner Hornerites, they are strong and tall, having been raised in the wide open spaces of Outer Horner.

They are also not strictly speaking human. While never fully described the peoples of Inner and Outer Horner are mentioned to have vents, or exhaust shuts, or in the case of the senile President, several moustaches. Phil himself is given to loud, stentorious speeches about patriotism and values and the threat posed by the limp wristed Inner Hornerites, especially when his brain slides down a large rack affixed to his body. What manner of beast is this?

George Saunders is dealing with overt political satire here, but in a refreshingly pretension free, absurdist manner. The story feels like a depressed Terry Gilliam run amok on the Monty Python opening credits. There is anger expressed, but couched in deceptively manic and lurid imagery.

This is a style that Saunders continues to employ in the following short stories in this edition. my flamboyant grandson features an elderly grandfather just trying to give his grandson an entertaining evening on Broadway, but frustrated by run a gauntlet of invasive holographic advertising. I remember Steven Spielberg’s Philip K. Dick adaptation Minority Report featured a similar scene of Tom Cruise finding himself assaulted by images of products and brands. The difference being Spielberg’s depiction seemed almost excited at the prospect of such augmented reality tech. Saunders portrays it as an affliction.

jon also tackles the increasingly dominate role advertising culture plays in our lives, once again depicting a future society ruled by images of comfort and excess. Here two lovers question whether their lives as commercial role models as any future for them as a family, as a part of a system that has no interest in the young life they are hoping to create. brad carrigan, american goes even further again, where television shows feature live action participants, at the mercy of reality altering ‘programmers’.

Throughout the collection there can be found a weary absurdism, a low mocking tone that fails to disguise a growing sense of despair at the future waiting for us.

I recommend a crash course in Burroughs, or Aylett first, however. Make sure you take your memetic shots.

“What does it mean schmuck?” “Somone who does something that you don’t agree with is a schmuck.” “Teach me another.” “Putz.” “What does that mean?” “It’s like schmuck.” “Teach me another.” “Schmendrick.” “What does that mean?” “It’s also like schmuck.” “Do you know any words that are not like schmuck?” He pondered for a moment. “Shalom”, he said, “which is actually three words, but that’s Hebrew, not Yiddish. Everything I can think of is basically schmuck. The Eskimos have four hundred words for snow, and the Jews have four hundred for schmuck.” I wondered, What is an Eskimo?

Five years ago I went to see Liev Schreiber’s excellent film adaptation of Safran Foer’s novel.  If you have yet to see this movie, I would strongly recommend you get the dvd. It manages to be many things at once – comic, witty, stunningly shot and finally heart-breakingly sad. Everything Is Illuminated also introduced me to Eugene Hütz lead singer of gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello. Hütz was hired by director Schreiber to consult on music for the film. Indeed his irrepressible song ‘Start Wearing Purple’, is featured on the soundtrack. However, so impressed was Schreiber by Hütz that he hired the singer to play the role of Alexander Perchov. Alex is one of many interpreters, or story tellers, challenged with unravelling the mystery presented to us by Safran-Foer in the novel.

‘My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my many friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name.’ Immediately Safran-Foer throws us into the company of yet another unreliable narrator, one for whom English is not even a first language. Hired by a young man named Jonathan Safran-Foer to act as translator on his trip to the Ukraine, Alex regales us with his impressions of the curious American Jew. Why would anyone leave America to travel all the way out to Odessa, when everyone wants to travel in the opposite direction? Why would someone actually pay to do so? This strikes Alex as the act of a very stupid person.

The book acts as an investigation of Safran-Foer’s own family history, tracing the origins of a small community known as Trachimbrod and its fate during the events of World War II, as well as Alex’s growing awareness of how his family’s past is tied to the strange American’s. The two narrators of this tale are joined by Alex’s grandfather and his ‘Seeing Eye bitch’ Sammy Davies, Junior, Junior. Safran-Foer is of course deadly afraid of dogs, but their gruff driver insists upon her presence in the car as he is convinced he is blind. They travel out of Odessa across the Ukrainian countryside, but are unable to discover any clue as to the location of Trachimbrod. Everyone they speak seems either not to know, or strenuously insists that no such place ever existed. The three men and a dog continue until they find the one person willing to ‘illuminate’, what happened to the community of Jews that once lived at Trachimbrod, a secret that changes the lives of the three men forever.

Safran-Foer skips through time and memory lightly, hinting at the eventual reveal of the book, while also distracting us from the grim fate of Trachimbrod with the comic narration of Alex. There is much to laugh at in this book and even the family history of the Safran-Foers proves to be an absurdist account that is half cabbalist fugue, half preordained tragedy. When the truth finally is revealed, it is gruesome, tragic and powerfully captured. The jumps through history suddenly coalesce into a grand narrative that is part condemnation of the horrors of the Holocaust, part meditation on the role played by memory in Jewish culture.

The film made me cry and sure enough the book did also. This is self-aware writing that embraces post-modern tropes, but also manages to retain a heartfelt emotional core.

Strongly recommended.

While she’s in the toilet

I check out her books,

On the shelf

thick books

fresh-smelling paper

academic stuff.

A muddle of novels

by the bed

French and South American

no thrillers, no crap.

Detective novels have a fairly set format. This is why they can be dismissed in such an offhand manner by critics on occasion. They are the definition of formulaic, and no amount of true life mysteries, vampires, sf future noir settings or even Hippo detectives can change that. The stories all begin to look the same from a certain remove. So Dorothy Porter’s solution is to write her detective tale entirely in verse!

Jill is an ex-cop who has moved into private investigation. Living out in the Blue Mountains she just barely manages to pay her bills, but she likes the quiet life. Eventually Jill’s finances force her to take on a missing person case. Nineteen year old Mickey Norris is a poetry-loving student, just another shy girl with ambitions of finding a patron and fame. Her parents are worried, but Jill reckons it will be a simple case. She travels to the college Mickey attends and questions her friends about her lifestyle. They all give the same report. Mickey was a quiet, retiring nondescript sort, who had recently discovered poetry.

Then Jill meets Mickey’s tutor Diana, who proves to be something of a distraction from the case. Married to an ambitious legal eagle Nick, she seems way out of the world weary private eye’s league, but surprisingly the two begin a torrid affair. Jill enters Diana’s more refined world of academic scandals and hobnobbing at book launches, feeling out of place and even slightly vulgar. Is this nothing more than a silly fling for Diana? Jill’s feelings continue to grow until she loses all perspective on the case. Then the police find Mickey’s body.

Detectives deal in simple, hard facts. Detective stories must contend with the dry, logical structure of deduction and the prose employed in these tales reflect that. Porter’s story opts for slippery free verse, embracing an Otherness in keeping with its lesbian protagonist to set it apart from plodding flatfoots and shamuses.

Porter also is having quite a lot of fun at the expense of ligging poets and pretentious artists. By adopting the standard plot of a detective novel, with the hero descending into a criminal world to avenge the death of an innocent, the literary scene is transformed into hellish trap for the young and beautiful, exploited by the corrupt and venal.

It is a funny little joke and Porter’s erotic content adds a frisson of excitement to the proceedings. Overall though I found the book a bit too cool, too detached. This is an assembled satire that lacks the necessary earthy punch of the best kind of mockery. Still worth a gander though.

For one thing, as any writer will tell you, people do tell a writer things that they don’t tell others. I don’t know why, unless it is that having read one or two of his books they feel on peculiarly intimate terms with him; or it may be that they dramatize themselves and, seeing themselves as it were as characters in a novel, are ready to be as open with him as they imagine the characters of his invention are.

Most people have had the good fortune to have at least one teacher during their time at school able to inspire and guide them. Mine was a geography teacher. He was a strong influence on my growing wanderlust, interest in movies (Easy Rider for one) and the books I read. One afternoon in class he mentioned W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, although he was quick to add, ‘it’s not that kind of book’. I chased down a copy and found it to be a book about failed ambition and our need to find a purpose in life. It was inspiring to read when I was a teenager and caused me to question many certainties I had.

Of Human Bondage was a semi-autobiographical work, but Maugham goes even further in The Razor’s Edge, inserting himself into the text as a character. The opening chapter has the author speak directly to us, insisting that the story he wishes to tell is based on actual events. He refuses to introduce fiction into the proceedings besides changing the names of his ‘characters’, to protect their reputation. Instead he only relates events in their lives as he witnessed them, or as they were told to him by those directly involved. The three principals are Elliott Templeton, a kind-hearted insufferable snob whom Maugham befriends in Paris; Templeton’s niece Isabel, who confides in the author; and the strangely aloof Larry Darrell.

For all intents and purposes this is Larry’s story. A childhood sweetheart of Isabel’s he returned from the First World War strangely apathetic, not wishing to find work, or enter business as his peers have done. Growing up a member of the American upper class, his decision to devote his life instead to study is bewildering to those who know him. Elliott is personally offended that Larry has rejected the kind of life he lives for, networking at parties and ensuring that one is always a friend to the right people. Isabel, while hopelessly in love with Larry, is troubled that he would prefer to lead a penniless life than settle down with her and enter business.

Eventually she breaks off her engagement to him and he vanishes from their lives. Maugham manages to reconstruct what happened next to Larry and tells his story to us in chronological order, although for the majority of his acquaintance with the intense young American his actions remain a mystery. Having abandoned America just as it takes its first strides to becoming a superpower, Larry travels the world, looking for enlightenment at the bottom of a mine, in a monk’s cell and under the guidance of a yogi. The events of the book take place during the roaring twenties, with the 1929 Stock Market Crash a rude awakening for Isabel’s dreams of a life of ease. When next she meets Larry she finds they are both very different people now, a discovery that is hard for her to accept.

Maugham writes with sincerity and conviction, as well as an obsessive degree of detail. Larry’s quest for happiness and a purpose in life with meaning is eked out in such a way that we are not overburdened with long philosophical rants. By balancing the story between Isabel, Elliott and Larry, he gives equal perspective to three very different accounts of what is important in life.

He also writes in a self-conscious manner, almost apologizing at both the beginning and end of the book for the way in which he has written his tale. He tartly criticizes Henry James for failing to capture the English voice, hence the pretence of being a witness to actual events. This book continues to enthrall readers, with its audacious insertion of philosophy into an entertaining narrative. Most surprisingly Bill Murray was obsessed with making a film of it early in his career.

I can see why.

Something, something has got to happen soon, Milena thought. I need something new to do. I’m tired of the plays, I’m tired of the Child Gardens, I’m tired of being me. I’m tired of sitting bolt upright on the edge of my bed all night, alone. I need someone. I need a woman, and there isn’t going to be one. They’ve all been cured. The viruses cure them. Bad Grammar. I love you is Bad Grammer?

Some years ago I bought Geoff Ryman’s book Was, a unique take on BaumsThe Wizard of Oz , in a sale. I never got a chance to read it and eventually sold my copy, along with most of my possessions, the first time I moved to Australia. Now I feel like running to the largest book store I can find in Sydney and hunting it down. I have not been this excited by a writer since I first discovered Samuel R. Delany.

In a brisk introduction titled Advances in Medicine (A Culture of Viruses), Ryman establishes his vision of this future London and the principal character a Czech orphan named Milena Shibush. Cancer was cured via a contagious benevolent virus that rewrote DNA to allow the human body to photosynthesize sugar internally, preventing the triggering of tumour cells metastasizing due to genetic damage. The viruses continued to mutate, becoming intelligent and coding information into each new host, until a hive-mind developed called the Consensus, which directed and guided humanity. Culture and history became transferrable diseases, with newborn infants suddenly becoming infested with the collected works of Shakespeare, annals of past events and languages. Utterly transformed, the skin tone of the human race is now a universal russet purple. Also, the curing of cancer had an unexpected after-effect – no one lives beyond thirty-five.

Got all that? Good. Milena is not like the other children. Her parents are deceased. The virus payload never took as an infant, so she was forced to actually read as she was unable to keep up with the other children. At the age of ten children undergo a process called being ‘Read’, where all their experiences are distilled by Consensus in order to determine what their future professions should be. Milena has never been Read. When she finally received a payload of viruses that took it caused her to become so ill she was deemed unsuitable for the process. After she recovered, it seemed to her as if Consensus had forgotten to harvest her. She was placed as an actress in London. She is different, estranged from the other adolescents and children, more impulsive, imaginative, distrusting of the viruses and due to ‘Bad Grammar’ is attracted only to women.

Milena’s loneliness and lack of interest in the robotic performances of Shakespeare she has to take part in as part of her ‘career’ – every actor recites their lines and paces the stage exactly as Consensus tells them the original performers did, in a perfect recreation of the Elizabethan era – leave her feeling increasingly isolated, until one day she meets the love of her life. One day she hears a voice sing with a richness and understanding superior to any recording. The singer in question is a genetically engineered polar-woman named Rolfa, descended from humans who chose not to join Consensus, but become intelligent polar-bears instead. Unlike the socialist Utopia of the purple-skinned humans, the ‘G.E.’ polar bears mine for ore in the Antarctic and sell it for profit. They are the last capitalists. Rolfa, like Milena, is a freak who enjoys opera and poetry instead of business. Where the ‘squidgy’ girl is paranoid and reserved, the woman who looks like a bear is raucous and inspiring. Their love is not permitted by either Consensus or Rolfa’s Family, forcing them to make a tragic choice. Milena dedicates her short life to orchestrating her lover’s opera based on Dante’s The Divine Comedy.

I have not even scratched the surface of this amazing book. Ryman’s characters are fascinating creations – the dangerously deluded Thrawn McCartney, Cilla an actress colleague of Milena’s so good she cannot actually tell whether she is self-conscious or acting – contained within an elliptical and time-jumping plot. The intelligent viruses resemble Richard Dawkin’s theory of memes, which he wrote about in The Selfish Gene ten years before The Child Garden was published. This is an exhilarating mixture of science and culture, a novel set in the future that revolves around Dante’s epic poem.

Outstanding.

Books always tell me to find “solitude,” but I’ve Googled their authors, and they all have spouses and kids and grandkids, as well as fraternity and sorority memberships. The universally patronizing message of the authors is “Okay, I got lucky and found someone to be with, but if I’d hung in there just a wee bit longer, I’d have achieved the blissful solitude you find me writing about in this book.”

Ever since Liz Dunn was a child she knew she was the loneliest girl in the world. Having grown into a 42 year old office worker, she has found herself stuck in the role of a spinster, harangued by her disappointed mother and pitied by her older and more successful siblings. Liz has taken to writing a record of her life after seeing a meteor shower while standing in the carpark of a video store. We learn about her childhood discovery of a dead body, a fateful encounter in Rome when she was on a school trip aged sixteen and the arrival of a handsome and  bewitching young man named Jeremy seven years ago – her twenty year old son.

Liz gave her baby up for adoption when he was born. The first she hears of him is when she is a late night phone call from hospital admissions saying she is listed as his emergency contact. Jeremy is recovering from a drug overdose and Liz agrees to take him in. In a single evening she has become a mother to a child she never thought she would see again. Jeremy is a charismatic, funny young man, who has his own little eccentricities. Including convincing Liz to crawl along a freeway in the middle of the afternoon. Having been bounced around adoption services his whole life, she discovers her son is a capable and independent young man, with a wicked sense of humour. They both get along incredibly well and Liz for the first time in her life no longer feels lonely. She refuses to reveal who Jeremy’s father is though and through her journal we learn more about the circumstances of her son’s conception during the school trip to Rome. Unfortunately having spent her life alone obsessed with death, Liz’s happiness is tragically cut short.

All the lonely people/ Where do they all come from?

Coupland writes stories about real people who endure lives of fantastical extremes. All Families Are Psychotic begins as a story about a mother and son who have contracted HIV, yet evolves into a gentle comedy about dysfunction, with a miraculous third act. This book continues Coupland’s themes of feuding families, mortality, owing to his own childhood as an army brat whose parents came strong religious backgrounds. His writing contains a lot of dry wit and low-key eccentrics lost in life’s twists and turns. This is tragedy on novacane, a numbed, weary response to the pain of loss, that gives way to a bleary kind of hope.

Each of Coupland’s novels are self-contained meditations on life and death, a formula he has perfected since his trope defining debut Generation X (despite his objections to being seen as a kind of spokesperson for shiftless slackers and baby boomer offspring).

Oh and the title? It’s Liz’s email address.

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