launching Rebekah Clarkson’s novel ‘Barking Dogs’

In early February 2017, I launched Rebekah Clarkson’s novel Barking Dogs (Affirm Press). This is a reasonably close approxmiation (I’m pretty sure) of what I said:

In these dire — but hopefully hopeful — days we suddenly find ourselves living through, I doubt I’m the only person who is filtering virtually every event, action and thought through the reality, and the reality show, that is Donald Trump, President of the United States of America, President of Australia (like it or not), and leader of the free world. In the last couple of weeks readers have been running in droves to certain sorts of fiction: to George Orwell’s 1984, to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, to Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, and more. Maybe these readers are seeking ways to understand the inexplicable. Or maybe they are retreating into fantasy worlds to, as Billy Joel might say, ‘forget about life for a while’. Maybe they’re not reading these books at all: maybe there’s comfort enough in just buying them and setting them on prominent display. Maybe it’s a combination of all of the above.

Whatever the reasons, Orwell, Atwood et al. are selling by the truckload. What has that got to do with Rebekah Clarkson’s Barking Dogs, a terrific new novel in stories about deceptively everyday moments and featuring an ensemble of characters — families, couples, singles, youth, kids — living ordinary lives in Mount Barker? A good deal, I suggest, because the best fiction not only entertains us, important thought that is, but also challenges us to understand ourselves, including our own — and our community’s own — foibles and failings. Barking Dogs sits firmly in that tradition: this is a book to turn to in 2017, just as much as, say, a dystopian vision of the near future that was published in 1949. We need today’s voices as well as yesterday’s voices, however infuential. And Barking Dogs is a book that focuses on big questions — including death and loss, ageing, gender politics and more — but that also finds meaning in backyard blitzes and in building off the plan.

The unifying glue for these stories is the town of Mount Barker, just up the freeway from Adelaide: ‘Mount Barker is a very different town from when Edna and Brian’s chidlren were young and they’d come through here as a family, in the truck. It was like a little country town back then, even with the milk factory and the tannery, though they’re long closed. These days Edna thinks of it as a maddening jigsaw puzzle of shops and schools and houses. Every new shop seems to want to sell her a pizza. An all the silly estates with their big, God-awful houses and man-made lakes and ostentatious entrance gates.’

It’s the fine detail in Barking Dogs that resonates, often delivered in a sentence or a phrase: ‘you could reach over the fence and open your neighbour’s toilet window’; or, ‘Forty-one years ago his grandfather had said, disappointment undisguised, that Malcolm was “not really a man’s man”’; or, ‘I watch my three items slide along the conveyer belt. Milk, white bread, miniature muffins’.

In the pages of Barking Dogs, Mount Barker the place comes to life like a living organism: its spirit, its contradictions, its growth. But the real force of Barking Dogs is the rich cast of human characters, and the small and big challenges they confront or avoid. There is an elderly widow called Edna, who is irritated by her daughter and the strange and superficial modernised world she chooses to lives in. When Edna gets a rare chance to look after her small grandkids, things don’t go quite to plan: the issue is minor, but the effect is devastating. Then there’s a 12-year-old girl called Janis who is in possession of a terrible letter written to her friend, Maddie B (‘not Maggie G’) by a boy. The portrait of Janis — not least, the fierceness of her emotions — is startlingly authentic. But also, ‘She is named after Janis Joplin, which is totally embarrassing’. And then there’s Graham, a small business owner — his new shop, Winners, sells trophies and medals. Graham sits, pained and distracted, through a meeting with his son and the school headmaster: ‘He’d just seen the school’s pamphlet on redemptive justice; this was going to take a while’. Graham, it seems, is out of sync with the world around him: how to make his business work, how to engage with others, how to parent, how to be a partner to Jenny, how to network, how to keep track of his Bluetooth. But he’s trying, in his own way, at least some of the time.

I could go on introducing characters, but better that you get to know these people yourself. Personally, I found the experience of reading Barking Dogs like looking at my reflection in the mirror, except with every pore and every flaw magnified. I nodded a lot while reading: a lot. I gasped: the shifts and revelations, the emphatic but open resolutions, are genuinely surprising. I laughed, very often because I experienced a discomforting jolt of recognition. And, not infrequently, I winced at the decisions some characters made, the views they held, the priorities they clung to, as if they were drowning without really even noticing that they were wet.

That’s a fine skill, the ability to make readers wince while also making them want to keep reading. Barking Dogs succeeds because Rebekah Clarkson brings such generosity of spirit, such compassion, such emotional depth, such candour to her storytelling. She’s not dumping on these people, she’s not using them for sport — even when they’re petty or self-absorbed or nasty or pathetic or apathetic. She’s not setting them up to fail or to look stupid for the benefit of her plot. And yet her gaze is unblinking.

In the end, Barking Dogs is a portrait of community: of a particular community, Mount Barker, and of the idea and ideal of community. In this novel of stories, endings always seem provisional. Although this is Rebekah Clarkson’s first book of fiction, the years of slog and persistence in honing her short story craft — of harnessing her particular way of sharing her particular vision — are on full display. Today we are celebrating excellence, but I invite you to take a moment to recognise how much much slog, how much sacrifice, has gone into the making of this object. Congratulations to Affirm Press, too, for choosing to publish Barking Dogs, for seeing the value in stories about the local, the suburban, the small. I also want to recognise Kate Goldsworthy, who edited Barking Dogs.

One of the books I’ve turned to this in the early days of the Trump presidency is English writer and illustrator Raymond Briggs’s graphic novel, When the Wind Blows. I first read it in the 1980s, which is the last time I was terrified about nuclear weapons. It follows the story of an elderly suburban couple, Jim and Hilda Bloggs, living in a cottage before and after a nuclear attack on the UK by the Soviet Union. Even as radiation sickness takes hold of them, they try to maintain their routines … and their innocence. The local and the global come together in the sharpest possible relief. In a different but complementary way, Barking Dogs, captures something very pertinent about Australia’s approach to the global, not least by addressing the insularity of our version of ‘local’. Barking Dog’s small themes are also big themes, and the thoughts and sitautions that fill the character’s heads — from the struggle to conceive a child to the struggle to face death, and everything in between — are stacked with unforced meaning.

February 2017, Adelaide

Stella Prize 2016

Some brief, provisional and (I’m sure) clumsy thoughts on the 2016 Stella Prize longlist …

I like that the chair of the Stella Prize judging panel, Brenda Walker, has chosen to publish some broad-ranging comments about the Stella longlist. It’s particularly interesing (for me, anyway) that she has chosen to emphasise that ‘Many of the works on the longlist are set in the countryside, adding to a tradition in Austrralian literature that offers both idyllic and unsettling accounts of rural life’. A tempting first response to this is, ‘Ahrrrrrr, not more gum trees’ – and I do feel that way to some extent. But ‘Ahrrrrrr’ by itself isn’t much of a response. For one thing, these books might simply, so far as the judges are collectively concerned, best embody the judging criteria. Fair enough, given the limits and compromises that afflict all judging panels. Still, Walker’s comments invite further discussion. Do Australian writers – in this case, Australian women writers – write stories about the rural better than the urban? And are Australian women fiction writers writing better books – or, to follow the Stella Prize’s criteria, more ‘excellent, original and engaging’ books – than non-fiction writers? I say ‘no’ and ‘no’ to these two questions, but there are no correct answers: it’s a matter of opinion for individual readers (or judges). And answers will differ over time, and certainly from year to year. (As a side question, what does ‘engaging’ actually mean?)

In the meantime, it’s not like all these rural-themed or rural-set books are all exactly the same. Carrie Tiffany’s Mateship With Birds, set on the fringe of a town and featuring cows as well as people, is one of my favourite Australian novels of the last decade (it won the inaugural Stella Prize, and it was a surprise to me – just personally – that it didn’t also win the Miles Franklin Literary Award). From this year’s longlist, Peggy Frew’s Hope Farm, a book I reviewed and enjoyed, is set mostly on a farm, but Frew’s focus on hippy lifestyle and culture gives it a distinctive, almost other-wordly feel.

The debate about the relative merits, and the hierarchy, of rural and urban stories in Australian writing is very well-worn. It’s a debate, for example, that has dogged the Miles Franklin Literary Award for years. But part of that discussion about the Miles Franklin involves the historical privileging of male novelists (and, so often, men-centric stories) as well as non-urban stories. But it is intriguing – and, again, it’s a conversation that I think Walker invites – to se the the rural-urban discussion popping up re the Stella too.

‘Just Read’ readathon: lit mags, post 1

In June and July I’m participating in the Just Read readathon, helping to raise funds for the excellent Indigenous Literacy Foundation. For the readathon, I am only reading literary magazines. I finished my first one last night, issue 7 of The Canary Press. One of the things I like about lit mags is the mix of voices and styles and perspectives bouncing off each other — and the mix of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, photography, art, etc. Although The Canary Press stick mainly to fiction (in this issue, there is a script and lots of triffic art work), they still achieve that mix: its spread of writers is international, and they happily publish the living and the dead (in the issue, the dead are Elizabeth Jolley, one of Australia’s best writers of any era, and Moacyr Scliar, who was a Brazilian writer and physician – I’d never heard of him before, which is another thing I like about lit mags, at least when the writing turns out to be good). I’m not going to review this issue here, but I will say that the whole thing unsettled me, which is what I like most about lit mags. My favourite piece — on a first read, anyway — was Lally Katz’s disturbing (to me) script, ‘The Apocalypse Bear – Part 1’.

My next lit mag for the readathon is … I’m not sure yet ….

On the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award

The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award is a very different sort of writing prize – and why not. As the Award’s website explains, ‘The nomination process for the Award is unique as nominations are made by libraries in capital and major cities throughout the world. Participating libraries can nominate up to three novels each year for the Award. Over 400 library systems in 177 countries worldwide were invited to nominate books for the 2014 award.’

Awkwardly, the full list of nominated books becomes the ‘longlist’. In 2015, the longlist is 142 books long. That’s such a long longlist that it tends to devalue the term: ‘congratulations to author A for being longlisted for the IMPAC prize’, sounds more than a little hollow.

To an extent, though, the problem is a matter of perception. Many, many more than 142 novels are published in English in a given year, so to be recognised by librarians — discerning book people on the frontline  — is something worth celebrating.

In the meantime, credit to the Award’s administrators for listing all the nominated books. All writing prizes should publish the full list of entered works, not only longlists, shortlists and winners. Not only does the IMPAC publish the full list, it breaks its disclosure down even further by listing the libraries that have nominated books and what those books are. The State Library of South Australia, in my hometown of Adelaide, nominated Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North but also two non-Australians, Kate Atkinson and Philipp Meyer. The other participating Australian libraries — the State Library of Queensland, the National Library of Australia, the State Library of Victoria and the State Library of New South Wales — stuck with Australian nominations: Richard Flanagan (again), Hannah Kent, Melissa Lucashenko, Christos Tsiolkas, Alex Miller, Tim Winton, Chris Womersley and Alexis Wright. It took libraries from other parts of the world to nominate Graeme Simsion and J.M. Coetzee. Again, credit to the Award’s administrators for publicly sharing this information: it’s quite intriguing to see what books librarians in, say, Croatia or Colombo or South Korea favour.

Looking beyond Australia, some libraries have stuck with their own. For example, the Jamaica Library Service’s sole nominee is Jamaican writer A-dZiko Simba Gegele. Other libraries have a mix of local and international nominees. Some have gone wholly international: Barcelona’s Biblioteca Vila de Grácia, Biblioteques de Barcelona, for example, has nominated J.M. Coetzee, Ma Jian and Thomas Pynchon. According the website, 2015 nominations include ’49 novels in translation with works by 37 Americans, 19 British, 9 Canadian, 9 Australian [I count 10, including Coetzee] and 7 Italian authors’. Plus a whole lot of others in smaller numbers . I can’t see it listed anywhere on the website, but my count is 84 men (actually 85, as one book is co-authored) and 58 women.

There’s a great deal more detail to discover about the Award and the many writers nominated — and there are more gaps to consider in what is nevertheless a genuinely international award. For now, one final curiosity: librarians choose the longlist but not the shortlist or the winner. Whatever the reasons for this, the particular and peculiar perspectives (peculiar in a good way) that libraries bring to this exercise becomes diluted.

http://www.impacdublinaward.ie/

Bob Dylan, Adelaide Entertainment Centre, 31 August 2014

Not a review, just a homage from a grateful and breathless fan:

It’s true that His Royal Highness did not play ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ (although he did play ‘All Along the Watchtower’). What he did do was roar and whisper and coax and breathe, one nasalled phrase at a time, through some of the highlights of his most recent albums — with just enough classics to stop a riot.

The aged Dylan voice is a thing of damaged, compromised wonder: it’s still him, unmistakably, and yet it’s a sort of mosaic: coloured shards of broken beauty glued together to make something new. His unwillingness — whether on stage or in the studio — to be a living, breathing Bob Dylan tribute show is a gift, despite the whinging I heard on the tram on the way home: ‘He started with crap and ended with crap. He didn’t play any of the classics’. Actually, he ended with a reinvented ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’.

He never strapped on a guitar. He either hovered around a microphone stand — occasionally participating in something that I took to be dancing, occasionally seeking out a harmonica — or he sat at the piano. He seemed much more at home behind the piano.

As the final song ended, his band members took a couple of steps back, isolating him out front.

He didn’t speak a word to us for the whole show, except when he said something like, ‘Thanks, here’s an interval’. When we cheered him at the end of the concert — and I’ve got no idea how many people cheered the show, as opposed to how many people cheered the man, the legend, the legacy — he stood with the band for a decent(ish) moment, looked out at us, and then wandered off.

Miles Franklin Literary Award: a personal shortlist & longlist

When I was a boy I loved trying to choose sporting teams. I once won a bet with my dad that I could pick the Aussie test team for the first Ashes test against England, 1978-79. I won a day off school to watch the first day of the test, which was a shame, as it turned out, because England ripped through Australia’s batting. (Dad was a minister of religion back then so he knew a bit about playing the odds.)

In the spirit of my exploits as an underage cricket selector – that is, mainly just for the sport of it – I’m posting my personal longlist and shortlist for the 2014 Miles Franklin Literary Award. This annotated list is not a prediction of the actual shortlist: to construct such a list would involve guestimating the Miles Franklin judges’ tastes and motivations. Instead, these are the novels published in 2013 that I’d like to see on the longlist and shortlist.

There are, I think, legitimate questions worth raising about the existence of longlists. Is it ‘the best’, with all longlisters an equal chance of making the shortlist and being the winner? Or is it an opportunity for judges to give a nod to diversity, to honour newcomers and oldtimers who they think deserve some recognition … or who they don’t want to be seen to ignore?

As well as being a straightforward list of the best, longlists can serve a marketing/PR function. They can be an incentive to publishers to bother to enter. They can be a nod to diversity. They can be a bit of fun, a chance for judges to be fluid or creative or inclusive or affirming, ahead of the serious task of picking winners. Maybe longlists are a bit of all of that.

I’m not having a specific dig at the Miles Franklin regarding their longlist – and indeed I was unambiguously excited and proud when my novel, Figurehead, was longlisted in 2010 (as anyone who has had to read my CV will tell you). But in general terms, I find the concept of a longlist perplexing, especially for awards that don’t have hundreds and hundreds of entries.

Having almost talked myself out of bothering with this exercise, here it is anyway:  my personal Miles Franklin Literary Award longlist, in alphabetical order, followed by my shortlist:

Marion May Campbell. konkretion. UWA Press

I reviewed konkretion in Australian Book Review: https://www.australianbookreview.com.au/component/k2/98-april-2013-no-350/1403-questions-and-questing. I raved about it at the time and nothing has changed my view that it is a fine, fine novel. I was disappointed that konkretion wasn’t longlisted for the Stella Prize — that’s not a whinge, just a personal view.

J.M. Coetzee. The Childhood of Jesus. Text

My favourite Coetzee book remains The Life and Times of Michael K, but I enjoyed The Childhood of Jesus as much as my next favourites, Disgrace and the volumes of fictional memoirs. But does it fulfill the requirements of the Miles Franklin Literary Award, that the winning novel should represent ‘Australian life in any of its phases’? The question of refugees is a hugely live one for Australia (or it is, at least, on my twitter stream). But much more significantly, I detected many hints of the city of Adelaide, and its inhabitants, in Coetzee’s novel. I could be imagining the whole thing. I could be projecting my own sensibilities onto Coetzee. But I personally deem The Childhood of Jesus ‘eligible’. That’s my position and I’m sticking to it.

Tracey Farr. The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt. Fremantle Press

Terrific debut novel about an unusual musician and woman. Emotionally rich and subtle.

Richard Flanagan. The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Random House

Anointed as the favourite, and with good reason … but I’m not convinced it will win. For me, there’s a couple of forced moments in the way that the story links events and people over time. But I’m nitpicking: it’s wonderful.

Nicholas Rothwell. Belomor. Text

Such an strange, shimmering, beautiful, dense  book — is it even a novel?

Graeme Simsion. The Rosie Project. Text

Why not? Not the winner, and a couple of clunky moments, but huge fun.

Christos Tsiolkas. Barracuda. Allen & Unwin

It’s thrilling to watch the way Tsiolkas is interpreting modern Australia.

Alexis Wright. The Swan Book. Giramondo

Breathtaking. Magnificent. Ambitious. Jane Gleeson has written an excellent long piece here:  http://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/going-viral/.

And here’s my shortlist:

Marion May Campbell. konkretion

Richard Flanagan. The Narrow Road to the Deep North

J.M. Coetzee. The Childhood of Jesus

Alexis Wright. The Swan Book

On General Peter Cosgrove’s 2009 Boyer Lectures

Australia’s new Governor-General, General Peter Cosgrove, delivered the 2009 Boyer Lectures. I reviewed the book version of the lectures in the March 2010 of Australian Book Review – mostly negatively, although I hope my admiration and respect for General Cosgrove is nonetheless apparent.

(I’d probably now offer a slightly less effusive assessment of Stanner’s book – but that’s another story.)

Thanks to Australian Book Review for permission to reproduce my 2010 review:

BOYER LECTURES: A VERY AUSTRALIAN CONVERSATION

Peter Cosgrove

ABC Books

$24.99 pb, 112 pp, 9780733328077

Each year, the board of the Australian Broadcasting Commission invites a prominent Australian to present the Boyer Lectures. The chosen expert offers his or her (mostly his) ‘ideas on major social, scientific or cultural issues’ to a radio audience and, a little later, to readers.

Unsurprisingly, a review of the Boyers’ fifty-year history reveals undulations in quality and significance. While the concept has produced plenty of thought-provoking and prescient moments, often the interest is of a transient or an introductory nature. Certainly, few lecturers have matched the resonant and seminal contribution of W.E.H. Stanner’s After the Dreaming (1968), one of the finest pieces of writing produced about indigenous relations in Australia. Sometimes the choice of lecturer has been perplexing. In 2008, Rupert Murdoch’s A Golden Age of Freedom mixed rapacious optimism about technology, globalisation and the future of the news media with a tetchy plea for Australia to shrug off its complacency. It would be hard to think of a person who needs the resources of a public broadcaster to disseminate his vision of the world less than Murdoch does.

The 2009 Boyer Lectures, delivered by former head of the Armed Forces General Peter Cosgrove, are perplexing for different reasons. On the face of it, Cosgrove is a fine choice, even if these days he sometimes comes across as a proxy governor-general or as some kind of Grandfather to the Nation. His experience, leadership qualities and record of achievement – notably as commander of INTERFET during East Timor’s transition to independence – are matched by an overtly egalitarian spirit, a genial, even gentle public persona and silky-smooth communication skills. More broadly, Cosgrove seems an apt choice because in Australia we have become expert at averting our collective gaze from recent wars that have been, and are being, fought in our name. While we should be grateful that the military does not dominate politics in the way it does in many other countries, we all benefit when an ex-soldier chooses to speak out about war, peace and Australia’s place in a violent world.

But A Very Australian Conversation is a frustrating book, in turn flimsy and listless. Cosgrove declares himself to be an ‘Everyman’ and sets about the task of detailing what an everyday Aussie bloke is worried about. As Cosgrove said in his recent Australia Day address, ‘I have had a wealth of opinions on things large and small which are significant to me about our Australian way of life. In accepting to do the Boyer lectures I had to crystallise many of those opinions … a sort of “put up or shut up” opportunity!’

In this explanation lies the book’s central problem: Cosgrove has attempted to cover so many issues and ideas that his finished product seems more like an annotated list. Apart from national security – ‘my knitting’, as Cosgrove cutely calls it – he writes about ‘Australia’s regional relationships, leadership the Australian way, on sociological changes I have observed over my lifetime, and on those great political issues which I think resonate with the Common Man (like me!)’. As such, he discusses the Australia–United States alliance, ‘wars of choice’, how to be a good international citizen, the importance of ‘the national interest’, the Vietnam and Afghanistan Wars, Australia’s relations with Indonesia, the Pacific, China and New Zealand, leadership in the context of business, politics and the media, the Cold War and Australia, Muslim relations in Australia, the internationalization of Australia, and so on.

By stretching himself so thin – the published Boyers amount to six brief chapters – Cosgrove’s commentary is unavoidably superficial. This inadvertently causes his conversational, matey tone to come across not so much as rough-hewed eloquence but more as something of a hedge, as if the reasonableness of his tone is its own evidence (something even more pronounced in the broadcast version). There are moments of bluntness and even flashes of anger, as when Cosgrove condemns the leaders of the Vietnam War protest movement for their treatment of soldiers (elsewhere he acknowledges the dubious rationale of the war itself). But he leaps from topic to topic with such haste that he forgoes the need to properly argue his case. He opposes a Bill of Rights because politicians make ‘lousy judges’ and judges make ‘lousy politicians’. He equates the science of climate change with interpreting military intelligence: ‘fact-based but leading from there with a series of assumptions to a future scenario upon which in all prudence we should base actions now and in the future.’ It’s an intriguing comparison, but his commentary is vague, and his subsequent pitch for nuclear power as a commonsense solution is an awkward sell.

At other times, diplomatic niceties intrude. When Cosgrove was head of INTERFET in East Timor, his stringent commitment to being evenhanded and respectful towards all parties clearly formed a compelling part of his ability to help keep the peace. But as a public figure, his continuing veneer of officialdom seems out of place. He worries about Fiji’s ‘coup culture’, but feels obliged to remind us that it is ‘a nation of fine and friendly people’. He describes Papua New Guinea as ‘needy and fragile in the robustness and reach of its instruments of government’, but only after noting that it is ‘proudly sovereign and wonderfully rich in culture and history and natural beauty’. When speaking about China, he seems reluctant to say ‘Tibet’: ‘Although some may point to its suzerainty over time of some of its peripheral territories, it has never been a wider regional hegemon.’

It is not that A Very Australian Conversation lacks an overriding theme or agenda. In professing a dedication to the maintenance of mainstream values, rights and responsibilities, Cosgrove lauds Australia’s enduring democracy and reminds us of the importance of political stability. He quotes Donald Horne’s claim that ‘Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share in its luck’, in order to disagree: ‘I would rather turn that around and say that the period spawned a wealth of intellectuals with impressive minds like that of Horne, ready to challenge our self-assuredness at the same time as they so ably demonstrated it!’ While Cosgrove’s bottom line is that democracy should be protected and maintained, his glass-near-full perspective seems to discount the vital role of rigorous – sometimes even rancorous or wrong-headed – dissent as a legitimate, vital and penetrating part of mainstream Australia’s enduring stability and evolution.

It is difficult to believe that A Very Australian Conversation represents the ABC’s preferred template for future Boyer Lectures, unless the priority is on the public figure, irrespective of what that person chooses to talk about. Ironically, though, it is hard to know whether to question the ABC board’s judgment in choosing Cosgrove or to suggest they ask him back for another go in 2010. On the evidence of these lectures, Cosgrove has much to contribute to Australia’s national debate.

He could, for example, reflect on the future of the Australia–Indonesia relationship, using his experience in East Timor as the basis for a more wide-ranging discussion. Or he could interrogate the vexing, elusive concept of the Australian ‘national interest’, its importance and possible misuse, especially in wartime and using Vietnam or Afghanistan as examples. Or he could examine what makes a great leader, focusing on the differences between military and civilian leadership, including an expanded discussion on his belief that a lack or failure of integrity ‘is the most egregious, the most fatal’ deficiency an Australian leader can possess. But in touching on all of these topics, and so much more, A Very Australian Conversation is a largely forgettable, unpersuasive and limp collection of underdeveloped thoughts.

First published in Australian Book, March 2010, pp. 28-29.

On William Gaddis

I’ve written a couple of pieces about the great US novelist William Gaddis recently. One is a review of his collection The Letters of William Gaddis (edited by Steven Moore, Dalkey Archive Press), which appears in the November issue of Australian Book Review -although note it’s behind the paywall. You can read the first paragraph (or the whole thing if you’re a subscriber of that excellent publication) here.

I also write a homage to William Gaddis that first appeared in the September issue of the SA Writers’ Centre magazine Southern Write. With thanks to the SA Writers’ Centre, it appears in full here:

Author – 2 – Author

Patrick Allington

I’m not generally a fan of so-called difficult novelists. Thomas Pynchon leaves me lukewarm, for instance. I’ve never tackled Proust and probably never will. But I make an exception with William Gaddis, the late, great giant of twentieth century US literature. Gaddis is undeniably hard work but I think he’s worth the fuss, his novels glorious ripostes to the complex and farce-filled world he witnessed, interpreted, railed against, and begrudgingly participated in.

I was in my mid-late-twenties when I discovered Gaddis, a period in my writing journey that I dedicated to ‘honing my craft’ (there’s some positive spin for you) but in truth more closely resembled jogging on the spot. I don’t remember why or how I picked up The Recognitions, Gaddis’s immense 1955 debut novel about art forgery, or what compelled me to keep reading the 950-odd (and 950 odd) pages that followed. Maybe I was trying to impress a girl (more jogging on the spot).

Re-reading the opening paragraphs now, for the umpteenth time, they still scream ‘ENTER AT OWN RISK’. But take a little time to get a feel for the rhythm of Gaddis’s dialogue-driven storytelling and his vision begins to unfold like a sardonic flower.

Many fiction writers influenced me as a child, from Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series to Roald Dahl to the great South Australian writer Colin Thiele (I thought of February Dragon just the other day, while I was redrafting a mangled bushfire scene in my novel-in-progress). A little later in life, as I started to take the idea of writing fiction seriously, I admired Peter Carey (some days, still, I take Illywhacker off the shelf and read a few lines or just grasp it in the hope that its magic will rub off on me), the seriously important George Orwell, the seriously weird Carson McCullers, the self-absorbed Gore Vidal, the visionary Margaret Atwood, and more.

In my reading life, William Gaddis came after all of those other writers. And he tops the lot. To explain why, I suppose I could dissect his writing and examine its elements one by one: its relentlessness, the crackling dialogue, Gaddis’s eye for visceral detail, his devastating wit, his inventiveness, his capacity to combine grace with sledgehammer force. But Gaddis’s genius is something more than all of that. I think of his novels as monuments I can climb all over, like Angkor Wat. Or the Giant Pineapple.

I read Gaddis’s novels in the order that he wrote them. His second book, JR, about an 11-year-old über capitalist, is his finest achievement. But I also particularly love A Frolic of His Own, in which, amongst much else, a man called Oscar sues himself.

Gaddis’s posthumously published Agapē Agape — even the title is forbidding — was the only one of his novels to appear after I started reading him. I can still remember the anticipation of its release, the hope of something truly great, the dread that it would be a dud. It’s a slim book, a distilled artistic howl: ‘that’s what I have to go into before all my work is misunderstood and distorted and, and turned into a cartoon because it is a cartoon, whole stupefied mob out there waiting to be entertained, turning the creative artist into a performer, into a celebrity like Byron, the man in the place of his work’.

On and on it goes, the narrator — like Gaddis himself — desperate to say his piece before the death he knows is coming silences him. I often dislike this sort of book — a self-absorbed character writing about writing — but I loved every medication-drenched word of Agapē Agape. But by then, I was biased. I hope that a little barracking is permissible in reading, just as it is in sport.

Like the narrator in Agapē Agape, Gaddis bemoaned the trend of treating the author as a talking head, as a performer. Upon receiving the National Book Award for JR, he said: ‘I feel like part of the vanishing breed that thinks a writer should be read and not heard, let alone seen.’ He would, I think, have sighed in exasperation at the twenty-first century explosion of writers’ festivals. He would have despised facebook and Twitter.

For years I held Gaddis’s ‘write don’t speak’ philosophy close to my heart, partly because I fervently believed in it and partly because it was a nifty crutch: like many writers, in my natural state I’m more comfortable expressing myself via the written word than through the (ooh yuck) act of speaking in public.

These days, though, I only half-agree with Gaddis. Partly that’s because as a working writer I am genuinely grateful and pleased when somebody asks me to talk about my writing. But it’s also because these days I actually enjoy chatting about books and ideas. Still, the trend of author as celebrity, as talking head, has intensified in the years since Gaddis’s death in 1998. I’m not strongly for or against this trend — it is what it is —but with all the time some of us spend talking about books, I do wonder when we ever find time to read.

Longneck ‘Election Gastro’

My latest ‘Longneck’ column for The Melbourne Review is out now, online and in print. It’s on the election, gastro, Kevin Rudd, Arthur Boyd etc etc. You can read it here. As ever, The Melbourne Review is full of good writing. If you’re not in Melbourne, you can read the whole thing on the webpage.

Longneck: the AFL’s post-physical world

My latest ‘Longneck’ column is up on The Melbourne Review website (and in the hard copy too). It’s on the footy-chat era the AFL is embarking on … and, on reflection, an amused whinge at a game I’m slowly falling out of love with (although that whole process make take the rest of my life to complete). You can read it here.