Authors, great books and the stories behind them

They say everyone has a book inside them. Whether or not it should be written is debatable – “inside” is, Christopher Hitchens once quipped, “exactly where I think it should in most cases remain”. Regardless, the aphorism underlines an obvious truth: that people and their lives are full of fascinating stories. 

Read my Good Weekend column on Better Reading’s Stories Behind the Story podcast.


Quicksand – Review

This review originally appeared on the Newtown Review of Books.


Early on in Steve Toltz’s new novel, Aldo Benjamin, the hapless antihero, remarks:

I don’t understand why all the film and literature of this country has to have as its main character a silent or laconic type. That’s not like real life. My experience of people is they never shut up!

Aldo’s view seems to reflect his creator’s. In Quicksand, Toltz demonstrates the loquacity and morbid humour that characterised his debut novel, the commercially successful and Booker Prize-shortlisted A Fraction of the Whole.

As with the characters in Toltz’s debut, Quicksand’s Aldo experiences one well-intentioned disaster after the other. With Sisyphean persistence, and sometimes outright stupidity, Aldo struggles through catastrophic business ventures, roughing ups by angry debtors, volatile relationships and run-ins with the police – all of which are documented by Liam Wilder, a failed writer who seeks success by trying to pen a biography about his best friend. As Liam puts it in the title of his first draft, pitiable Aldo is the ‘King of Unforced Errors’.  Aldo’s predilection for misfortune is partnered with a fear of falling into either the ‘horror of the prison, or into the horror of the hospital’ – both environments that, ironically, he becomes well-acquainted with.

At a recent Brisbane Writers Festival event Toltz said that he finds reading Dostoyevsky or books like Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer pleasurable because ‘the writer is on the page’ – the literary equivalent of a film’s auteur. Although his is only a two-book oeuvre (two large books, however: A Fraction of the Whole was over 700 pages and Quicksand a comparatively brief 448) so far, the mark of Toltz’s authorship is already distinctly formed. Frenetic prose with a surfeit of ideas? Witticisms that are both riotous and bleak? Positively Toltzian.

Aldo is the source of much of the book’s humour. He is amusingly garrulous, often talking in non-sequiturs. Comic gems are scattered thick and fast. Take, for example:

Humanity’s common goal is to die with dignity, and dignified in that context is defined as dying in our own beds, but what if you have a waterbed or Spider-Man bedsheets? What’s dignified about that?

To have the pleasure of actually meeting someone whose speech ranges as widely and deeply as Aldo seems improbable, if enthralling.

At times, Quicksand reads like a comic novel in the vein of Howard Jacobson, where certain stories exist for no reason other than to lift the rate of chuckles per chapter. For example, considering that Aldo harbours a hysterical – and at times, frustrating – paranoia about life, the fact that he remains so stubbornly blind to his own lack of business acumen feels unwieldy; failed ventures include a tanning-salon taxi, a device that was designed (but failed) to detect peanuts for those with allergies, and a matchmaking service to ‘hook up all the leftover single women in New York and London with all the one-child-policy single men in Shanghai and Beijing’.

While the novel is narrated from Liam’s perspective (the latter half is told from Aldo’s), the language is richly figurative. But Toltz’s prose, which rolls along at a frenetic pace, does sometimes snag on the odd incongruous expression. There are some shockers: ‘Stella was gliding towards [Aldo] in her bathrobe like a weary traveller on an airport walkway’; ‘I straddle my board in what feels like all seven-tenths of the earth’s surface, longing for terrestrial existence’; and, when discussing Aldo’s dead sister, ‘In the dark, you could almost hear his memories crackle like bacon.’ Using the device of a book-within-a-book jumbles Liam’s narrative voice with Toltz’s authorial oversight. Who does the blame lie with—Liam, the failed writer, from whom we might expect purple prose, or Toltz himself?

While it has its flaws, Quicksand is undoubtedly an impressive piece of work. The novel tackles big themes – love, mortality, the purpose and role of art and artists – and bursts with ideas and humour. It challenges the idea held in some circles that serious fiction can’t also be funny. With Quicksand, Toltz has given the literature of this country a main character worth remembering for his words, and not for his lack of them.



by Steve Toltz

Hamish Hamilton, 2015


The Strays – Review

This review originally appeared on The Newtown Review of BooksSince then, The Strays has gone on to win the 2015 Stella Prize.


It comes as no surprise that Emily Bitto’s haunting debut, The Strays, is on the shortlist for this year’s Stella Prize. Bitto’s well-constructed novel, primarily set in 1930s Melbourne, conveys vividly the lives of bohemians, the ties of family, sibling rivalry, and female friendship.

The novel is narrated, in 1985, by a middle-aged woman named Lily, who reflects on her childhood spent in the household of Evan Trentham, an avant-garde Modernist painter. Evan is the father of Lily’s childhood best friend, Eva. He and his wife, Helena, live with their three daughters in suburban Melbourne, in a large house on impressive land with a well-tended garden. In the midst of the Depression and against what they perceive to be the stiflingly bourgeois art establishment, the Trenthams give their patronage to budding young Modernists. The household soon turns into a commune of artists, heady with parties, affairs, flowing drink, banned books and, of course, irresponsible parenting. The three Trentham girls are often shushed or told to ‘buzz off’ by their mother, Helena, and dismissed as ‘progeny’ to their faces by Evan, their father.

Inextricably linked to perceptions about talent and genius is the common belief that great creatives are badly suited to domestic felicity, that above all else a true artist is selfishly wedded to his or her work. Tolstoy, in an 1863 diary entry, lamented, ‘Family happiness completely absorbs me, and it’s impossible to do anything.’ Jean Rhys, who only came to know her daughter in adulthood, was described by her editor Diana Athill as being ‘no better at motherhood than she was at filling hot-water bottles’, which is to say, totally inept. Manic and volatile, creatives are supposed to make notoriously bad parents.

This perhaps excuses Evan Trentham’s laissez-faire yet warm attitude towards his daughters, but doesn’t let his wife off the hook so easily. Helena Trentham is no Modernist star herself, but an amateur who paints miniatures and expresses no more than a moderate interest in collaborating with her husband on his work. Her real interests are gardening, drinking, and socialising. It is Helena who primarily draws in other artists, knits their social circle tight. Despite her disingenuousness, Helena has a lasting impact upon Lily, who even in middle age identifies the woman as ‘the mother figure that I have fought against my whole life’. With or without excuses, ultimately both the Trentham parents’ choices and inaction render them largely culpable for the dark misfortunes that befall their daughters. The book’s narrative structure – told retrospectively, with the hindsight of a much older woman – calls into question the adage that time heals all wounds.

Bitto’s commune, termed the Melbourne Modern Art Group, is clearly based on the real-life Heide Circle, which was established by John and Sunday Reed in the mid-1930s. Part II of Bitto’s novel is entitled, in homage, ‘The Circle’. The Reeds, like the Trenthams, lived on a property in suburban Melbourne, where over time pre-eminent artists like Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, and Danila Vassilieff would work. In a mid-1940s photograph, Sunday Reed stands by the front door of Heide in a garden that is as lush and wild as Helena Trentham’s. The criticism that the fictional Melbourne Modern Art Group encounters (their art is described as ‘terrible and degenerate’ in one newspaper article) parallels the prevailing anti-Modernist sentiment in Australia during the interwar period.

Despite its specific historical context, The Strays is strikingly imaginative. Bitto examines characters whose lives are usually seen as peripheral to the grand narratives of great artists: the relatives and friends of celebrated individuals; colleagues who never become successful. Her prose is often figurative – effortlessly so, it seems, and never overdone. Many of her sentences are so remarkable they demand rereading, from simple gems like ‘the beams of headlights painted the side of the house’, to the more visceral:

I wonder if Evan and Helena ever thought of themselves as the source from which their own children would run in time, the blood whose welling-up their daughters would try to staunch with the tourniquet of friends, lovers and children.

Much of the novel is told from Lily’s perspective in youth, and astutely describes the minutiae of childhood: burrowing oneself into a mother’s dress, sliding backwards down a staircase banister, the surreptitious pilfering of contraband, the unembarrassed ease of making friends.

One of the goals of the Stella Prize is to celebrate Australian women’s writing. The Strays, a deftly plotted, carefully crafted narrative about art, trauma and female friendship, wouldn’t be badly placed to take home the top gong.


The Strays

by Emily Bitto

Affirm Press, 2014


The Buried Giant – Review

This review originally appeared on Writer’s Edit
Kazuo Ishiguro, one of the most celebrated British writers of the post-war generation, is one of those novelists who inspires a mixture of awe and envy in writerly circles. In 1989 The Remains of the Day won the Booker, a prize for which three of his other novels have also been shortlisted. The book was adapted into a feature film, as was his 2005 dystopian novel, Never Let Me Go. Ishiguro has achieved both popular success and critical acclaim. Rendered in characteristically pared-back prose, his books touch on themes like love, mortality, and the unreliability of memory. Quiet and understated, Ishiguro’s writing often strikes a skilful balance between restraint and emotiveness. His seventh novel, The Buried Giant, is no exception, although stylistically it differs significantly from his previous work.

The novel takes place in the Dark Ages following the Roman withdrawal from England, which marks a bold departure in setting. Variety in geographical location characterises Ishiguro’s oeuvre: his first two novels were set in Japan, The Unconsoled (1995) in an unnamed European city, and When We Were Orphans (2000) in early-20th century Shanghai. The Buried Giant sees Ishiguro return to the English countryside, although in his latest novel it is far from the tranquil idyll that Kathy traverses in Never Let Me Go.

An elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, set out on a journey to find their son, whom they have not seen in many years. They must travel across a land that abounds in ruins, bandits, ogres, dragons and other fantastical creatures. The novel has all the fittings of a quest narrative with recognisable fantasy tropes to boot; yet, it is astoundingly rich, and finely layered with allusion and allegory. We meet an aged Sir Gawain, the nephew of King Arthur, now dressed in ‘rusted chain-mail and mounted on a weary steed’; boatmen ferry passengers and separate couples whose love is deemed impure, evoking Charon’s ferrying souls across the River Styx; and the name Beatrice calls to mind Dante’s ideal woman in the Divine Comedy.

There are several passages in the novel, particularly those involving the loquacious Gawain and his earnest babble, that are wonderfully comical. If Ishiguro draws upon Sir Gawain and the White Knight, so he does too upon Monty Python. While Gawain’s apparent harmlessness belies his true ability, he is certainly no less entertaining than the Holy Grail’s Black Knight.

Ishiguro has admitted that finding a suitable setting for the novel proved difficult, which was partly the reason book took so long to write (although he published Nocturnes, a collection of short stories about love and music, in 2009, The Buried Giant is his first novel in a decade). In a BBC Front Row interview with John Wilson, Ishiguro mentions that he had discussed an early incarnation of the book with an audience in Japan as early as 2001. In writing the novel, Ishiguro’s goal was to examine the collective forgetting that a society must undertake in the wake of profound trauma. He initially entertained setting the novel in post-war Japan or France, or former Yugoslavia, but feared that by tethering the narrative to reality, the book would be perceived as dealing specifically with only one particular historical instance.

In The Remains of the Day, the story is told through the perspective of Stevens the butler, whose recollection of events is unreliable. At its heart, the novel addresses the obfuscation and revisionism that can occur when an individual is confronted with uncomfortable or shameful memories. The role of memory is also central to The Buried Giant, this time on a larger scale. Across England, there is a pervasive mist that causes people to forget things, resulting in a widespread amnesia. Beatrice and Axl can neither remember what their son looks like nor the reason for his departure many years ago. The memory loss is ‘like a sickness come over us all’, Beatrice tells her husband. Occasionally, snippets of memory come back to Axl, and like him we try to piece them together to reconcile his present life with an unfamiliar past. We never quite find out, however, how Axl and Beatrice know with certainty that their son is waiting for them in his own village, or why Axl never fails to remember to address his wife as ‘princess’.

With the shift in focus from individual to collective memory also comes a change in narrative voice. Unlike his previous six novels, The Buried Giant is for the most part narrated in third person. The choice is effective, allowing Ishiguro to examine both societal memory and the function of shared memories of love in a long relationship. Like Kathy and Tommy in Never Let Me Go, who although young are doomed to short lives, as old people Axl and Beatrice must come to terms with the meaning of their love in the face of mortality.

The Buried Giant, rich with allegory and adventure, seems to have all the necessary elements for instant success. Ishiguro’s fantastical, pseudo-historical world is brought to life by vivid—almost cinematic—descriptions of landscape and setting. As his loudest, most fast-paced novel, it will be interesting to see how The Buried Giant translates on-screen: Hollywood heavyweight Scott Rudin has already optioned the film rights.


The Buried Giant

by Kazuo Ishiguro

Faber and Faber, 2015


The First Bad Man – Review

This review originally appeared on The Newtown Review of Books.


Critics of writer, filmmaker and artist Miranda July’s work might swiftly dismiss The First Bad Man, her first novel, as another glib narrative filled with quirky characters who do implausible things. While there is no shortage of eccentricity – this is a world in which psychologists pee in Chinese takeaway containers to avoid convoluted trips to the bathroom and in which sexagenarian board members evangelise about chromotherapists who prescribe the essence of white, whatever that means, as tinea treatment – to scorn the novel as lightweight would be to overlook its exploration of the universal yen for human connection.

The novel’s protagonist is 43-year-old Cheryl Glickman, who, for going on three decades, has been an employee of Open Palm, a Californian self-defence non-profit. She has a mystic connection with a baby she’s named Kubelko Bondy, whose consciousness is ‘hosted’ by other infants, and who is the only person she feels a ‘real and permanent’ bond with. She searches him out in other children and even in pregnant women – not all babies are Kubelko, she informs us – and they mentally converse whenever she finds him.

Cheryl suffers from a psychosomatic throat constriction, lives alone and has a particular ‘system’ of organisation that gives her a ‘smoother living experience’. All of us from time to time put off doing the dishes or the washing: indolence with respect to household chores is by no means uncommon. Which is where Cheryl’s system, energy-saving to the point of absurd hilarity, comes in. To prevent descent into squalor, Cheryl suggests eating directly out of the cooking pan on a hot pad instead of from dinner plates, which just get dirty and pile up. ‘Does the pan need to be washed? Not if you only eat savory things out of it.’ She advocates thinking twice before moving an object from its usual spot; reading a book is best done standing next to the shelf, or better still, not at all. When the system works well, ‘it gets silky to the point where I can’t even feel myself anymore, as if I don’t exist’.

Cheryl’s well-ordered and quiet life is upended when she is pushed into allowing Clee, the 20-year-old daughter of her Open Palm bosses, to move in with her. Clee, who is beautiful if grubby, spends most of her time watching TV, drinking giant bottles of Diet Pepsi, eating frozen meals and bullying Cheryl. Clee’s truculence develops into a Fight Club-esque game of physical confrontations between the two women. Cheryl finds it both painful and therapeutic: after each scuffle, the sensation of the lump in her throat miraculously disappears. These sessions evolve into role-plays of Open Palm self-defence scenarios, which to Cheryl become increasingly erotic. She subsequently experiences out-of-body fantasies in which she inhabits the ‘stiff members’ of numerous men and ravishes Clee.

The First Bad Man’s exploration of desire typifies July’s fascination with sex and what it entails: ‘shame and humiliation and fantasies and longing’, as she said in a 2011 New York Times interview. It is a common theme in her work: in her first feature film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, sexual transgression is perpetrated by two teenage girls who fellate their middle-aged neighbour for practice; ‘Something That Needs Nothing’, a story that appeared in July’s popular 2007 collection No One Belongs Here More Than You, is narrated by a young lesbian who sexually services an older woman and works as a peep-show performer for rent money.

Cheryl’s displacement of her desires into the bodies of other men reflects her own disconnectedness from her sexuality, later resolved by her coming out. Genuine connection proves largely elusive in the novel: July’s characters pursue relationships that too often turn out to be fleeting, unstable and unfulfilling. Adult relations are off-kilter and often sadistic: there is the 65-year-old board member who seeks Cheryl’s permission to consummate a relationship with a teenager via blow-by-blow text message updates (pun intended); or the psychologist who plays a submissive role in ‘an immensely satisfying adult game’ that ultimately leaves her bereft. At one point, Cheryl muses:

What was the lifespan of these improbable loves? An hour. A week. A few months at best. The end was a natural thing, like the seasons, like getting older, fruit turning. That was the saddest part – there was no one to blame and no way to reverse it.

The exception is Cheryl’s bond with Kubelko, the novel’s only stable one, which forms the basis of another maternal connection. The last quarter of the novel focuses sharply on the minutiae of motherhood and seems to have been influenced by July’s own experiences (she submitted the manuscript to her publishers when she was pregnant with her son Hopper, now three). Everything, from the stages of embryonic development to meeting milestones, to breast pumping, is covered. Couched in the prosaic details of Cheryl’s day-to-day role as a single mother is a striking rendering of maternity, an experience both ordinary and indescribably extraordinary. It is here that the novel shines: with the breathlessness and heartbreak relationships can bring, with the promise of growth and the future, and with the tenderness and empowerment of a mother’s love.

An artist in many mediums, July has recently said that what comforts her most about the book is ‘to know that the next thing I’m going to do is completely different’. The First Bad Man, like much of July’s work, feels singular and truly original. Layered beneath character quirks and fighting games and sexual fantasies is an unabashedly honest representation of connection and longing. Here’s hoping for more of the same.


The First Bad Man

by Miranda July

Canongate, 2015


The House in Smyrna – Review

A version of this review originally appeared in Lip Mag.


According to Martin Amis, that sharp satirist and white male English literary giant, there are two things that literature can’t do. The first is sex. Amis agrees with his father, Kingsley (that bigoted white male English literary giant), who believed that sex has the effect of de-universalising the reading experience. Good sex, Amis junior opines, is out of the question. Fiascos are acceptable for their comic value, as are novels in which everything revolves around sex—for example, he cites the brilliant Lolita. The second is dreams. ‘Tell a dream, lose a reader,’ Henry James said. Tatiana Salem Levy’s debut novel, The House in Smyrna, tries to do both, with unexpected results.

Translated from its original Portuguese (Levy is Brazilian), The House in Smyrna is narrated by a suffering female who in alternating sections dialogues with her dead mother; addresses an abusive partner; and narrates her grandfather’s immigration from Turkey to Brazil, her parents’ temporary exile in Portugal, and her own journey to back to these countries. The switching between situations—each kept short, with spare prose—creates a dreamlike effect: the novel reads like a sequence of snippets of letters, memories, and indeed, dreams. The narrator has nightmares about being locked in her grandfather’s house in Smyrna, which in ‘real life’ she sets out to Turkey to find. In others sections, she says:

I tell (make up) this story about my ancestors, this story of immigration and its losses, this story about the key to the house in Smyrna, about my hope of returning to the place that my forebears came from,

implying that the writing process is a vehicle for her to resolve the pain caused by her mother’s death and her partner’s abuse. The narrator—as unreliable ones tend to do—blurs the lines between reality and fiction, and we don’t know whether her trip to Turkey is ‘real’ or written. As a result, the woman’s dreams are contiguous, rather than in conflict with the novel’s reality. Levy tells a dream and the reader reads on.

With respect to sex, Amis may have a point. There is plenty of sex in The House in Smyrna, much of it cringe-worthy. Often, the loftiness of the prose verges on comical in its incongruity: ‘I remained standing while you implored something between my legs, in a language understood only by the two of you, my clitoris and your mouth’; ‘Your penis was hard, upright, and I liked seeing it like that, as if it were looking at me too.’ There are also overcooked similes about vulnerability: ‘It was as if you were touching my organs directly, my blood, my flesh, without any protection.’ These scenes are, as Kingsley put it, de-universalising, because they create a rift between writer and reader by causing one to doubt whether people really think such abstract things when having sex, or as Levy puts more loftily, ‘making love’.

Sex, however, is important to the novel insofar as it relates to central ideas about the body. The narrator’s body is both an object of desire and a vessel through which she fulfils her own longings. On the first date with her partner, she recalls: ‘I listened to every word and felt my body quake: with fear, desire, happiness.’ Eventually, when their relationship sours, sex becomes the means by which the body is degraded, which removes agency and causes the paralysis the narrator professes to suffer from in the book’s opening paragraph: ‘I wouldn’t know what to do with this body that has been unable to move ever since it came into the world.’ The scenes in which the sexual assault is described are raw, confronting and genuinely tragic: disturbing reminders of the horrors of domestic violence. On top of her, her partner ‘delighted in my pain, and asked: Isn’t it good?’

Pain and physical suffering are acutely felt by the narrator, partly as an aftereffect of abuse, partly as a result of her mother’s death, and partly due to the weight of the past that she feels burdening her. Decay of the body is frequently alluded to: the narrator tends to her dying mother, ‘covered with sores, riddled with holes, filled with pus, with its acidic smell, its smell of death’; in another section, her own body is ‘Dilacerated, covered in open wounds, purple and yellow spots, boils.’ Death, she says to her mother, ‘had been lying in wait for us the whole time’. Saying goodbye is a major theme of the book. But beyond death, beyond the moving meditation about losing those who are dear to you, the novel is about what it is to love and to live.


The House in Smyrna

by Tatiana Salem Levy

Scribe, 2015


The Road – Review

Cormac McCarthy’s work is known for its detailed focus on the American South-West, its graphic violence, and its pithy, minimally punctuated prose. New Yorker literary critic James Wood has lauded him as ‘one of the greatest observers of landscape.’ He is widely touted as Faulkner’s successor, and both the subject matter and lexicon of his novels are as fixedly male-centric as Hemingway’s. The Road, for which McCarthy won a Pulitzer in 2007, is as bleak, confronting and gory as you’d expect from an author whose previous novels feature a violent necrophile as a protagonist (Lester Ballard in Child of God, 1973), a gang of scalphunters (The Blood Meridian, 1985) and a psychopathic hitman (No Country for Old Men, 2005).

In a dead, bitingly cold America, a man and his young boy walk along the old roads, interstate routes, heading south. As in The Blood Meridian, in which the protagonist is referred to only as ‘the kid’, the father and son are never named. The novel is set several years after a fiery apocalypse has ravaged the land, killing everything, melting the tar roads and covering the country with a pall of ash. The numbers of survivors have dwindled significantly, and any human encounter is potential danger. The boy – who has no living memory of any time before – was born to a woman who has long since died. Their story alternates between hope and despair, spoils and starvation. Between each fortuitous discovery of more food – in a well-stocked hidden bunker, old apples in a dead orchard, unpilfered tins in long-abandoned and well-looted houses – there are interminable days of weakness and desperation. On they trudge, trying to reach with coast with the aid of a rotting, fragmented map, ‘treading the dead world under like rats on a wheel.’

The old world is all but lost to the man – slowly fading from his memory as the years pass – and totally ‘alien’ to his son. McCarthy renders this slow disappearance exquisitely. At recognisable places, the familiar yet irrevocably transformed landscape recalls memories of the life that used to abound. At night, the man has ‘siren dreams’ about birds and flowering woods, but once awake he lies

there in the dark with the uncanny taste of a peach from some phantom orchard fading in his mouth. He thought if he lived long enough the world at least would all be lost. Like the dying world the newly blind inhabit, all of it slowly fading from memory.

The Road is technically simple yet a challenge to read. It presents without flourish bleak images one isn’t likely to encounter in comfortable civilised society. What is gruesome to us is commonplace to the man: ‘He’d seen it all before. Shapes of dried blood in the stubble grass and gray coils of viscera…’ and ‘a frieze of human heads, all faced alike, dried and caved with their taut grins and shrunken eyes.’ All this gore highlights the terrible yet unavoidable truth about what humans are capable of doing to each other, which has been exemplified by real atrocities dating from time immemorial. Thievery, slavery, murder, rape as a weapon of war, cannibalism.

Unlike other post-apocalyptic books of the suspend-your-disbelief/zombie variety, The Road poses realistic questions about morality and forces one to consider how one would act given such difficult extremes. We discover, for example, that the man’s dead partner, the boy’s mother, died by suicide, preferring that to the alternative:

Sooner or later they will catch and kill us…They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you wont face it. You’d rather wait for it to happen. But I cant. I cant.

The possibility of being caught weighs heavily on the man, who has taught his son how to act if the event so arises, in a moving and devastating passage:

He took the boy’s hand and pushed the revolver into it…If they find you you are going to have to do it. Do you understand? Shh. No crying. Do you hear me? You know how to do it. You put it in your mouth and point it up. Do it quick and hard.

The central issue The Road addresses is the matter of life and death, of what or who makes a life worth living. McCarthy, in infrequent past interviews, has said that the author’s preoccupation should be with death. Death pervades the thoughts and dialogue of his characters. After each setback, what hope drives the man and child to plod on? Death is a tempting option, and one that was irresistible for the mother:

We used to talk about death, she said. We don’t anymore. Why is that?

I dont know.

It’s because it’s here. There’s nothing left to talk about.

I wouldnt leave you.

I dont care. It’s meaningless. You can think of me as a faithless slut if you like. I’ve taken a new lover. He can give me what you cannot.

Death is not a lover.

Oh yes he is.

As a reader, like the father and son, you go on despite yourself, fuelled by the promise of their redemption, yet all the while plagued by the fear it is impossible.


The Road

by Cormac McCarthy

Alfred A. Knopf, 2006


The Cuckoo’s Calling – Review

Novel writing is a fickle business. The success of a debut book depends more often than not on a precise, unknowable mixture of perseverance, publicity and sheer luck. Literary merit may not even feature: there are rubbish books that sell millions of copies – Fifty Shades of Grey being the most obvious recent example – and fantastic ones that don’t even get picked up – take John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, which went on to win the Pulitzer only after his mother found a publisher for it eleven years after his 1969 suicide. The question then, for some commercially successful writers, is whether or not their books would be nearly as successful if it weren’t for established reputation. This, for example, was one of the reasons Stephen King adopted the nom de plume Richard Bachman for several novels he wrote in the late seventies and early eighties. The Cuckoo’s Calling was an experiment of the same sort: within three months of the book’s publication, Robert Galbraith was revealed to be a pseudonym of J.K. Rowling’s. Sales for the book on Amazon surged by more than 507,000% after she was outed.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is the second novel Rowling has written for adults since the end of the Harry Potter series, the first being The Casual Vacancy, which was published in 2012 to positive reviews and astronomical sales. It is the first in a series of crime novels featuring the private investigator Comoran Strike. A sequel, The Silkworm, was published in June this year. Growing up, I adored the Harry Potter series, but I chose to review this book for pragmatic rather than sentimental reasons: a gratis copy was given to me earlier this year, which I wanted to read and discard prior to moving cities. For full disclosure of bias, I will admit that tend to get bored by the formulaic conventions of crime fiction.

The plot unravels thus: Lula Landry, a supermodel, falls from her third storey apartment balcony. The death is hugely publicized; under widespread media scrutiny, the police investigation concludes it a suicide. But Landry’s brother, John Bristow, convinced otherwise, hires Comoran Strike to review the case. Strike, who formerly worked in the Special Investigation Branch of the Royal Military Police and was injured serving in Afghanistan, has an old connection to Bristow: Bristow’s older brother, Charlie, who died as a child, was one of Strike’s close childhood friends.

Paparazzi photos from Landry’s funeral form a visual catalogue of most of the persons of interest to the investigation. There is Ciara Porter, a pale, blonde supermodel with whom Landry was close; Guy Somé, a fashion designer who proclaimed Lula his muse; the inhabitants of the first floor apartment of Landry’s building – film producer Freddy Bestigui and his mercenary wife, Tansy Chillingham, who looks ‘like a rake with two plastic tangerines tied to it’; and Evan Duffield, a drug-addled musician with whom Landry had a tumultuous relationship and whom many suspect, given the very public knowledge that they rowed on the night of her death. Strike systematically works through the catalogue, also talking to several others: the security guard on duty the night of Landry’s death, Landry’s regular chauffeur, and a homeless woman Landry met in a mental health clinic.

In all respects, Strike conforms to the conventional requirements of the archetypal private eye: he is tall and physically imposing, strapped for work, disenchanted by and maladjusted to his mundane civilian life, and socially isolated. The only person he sees himself as being in regular contact with is his secretary, Robin Ellacott. Robin, for who detective work has been a ‘lifelong, secret, childish ambition’, begins working for Strike as a temp job while she searches for permanent employment. She is a recently engaged, young, ‘tall and curvaceous’ strawberry blonde – how many books will it take for her to meet some trouble and dutifully assume the role of damsel in distress? Naturally, Robin’s fiancé disapproves of Strike, and her continuing employment by him predictably strains the relationship, which is reinforced by clumsy symbolism. Following an argument she and her fiancé have, Robin ominously notices ‘a fragment of frozen pea caught in the setting of her engagement ring’, which disturbs the brilliance of the sapphire and diamonds she so recently couldn’t stop herself gawping in awe at.  One feels acutely the irony of overstatement in a book about deduction.

As his investigations continue, Strike begins to think that the suicide isn’t a suicide after all, even in the absence of any tangible evidence to the contrary –quelle surprise! He imagines a killer ‘lost in rage, half dragging, half pushing her, and finally, with the brute strength of a highly motivated maniac, throwing her’ over the third floor balcony.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is a classic whodunit of the cozier English variety: we are presented with an array of potential suspects, wary of their testimonies and accounts, unsure of which to believe, and kept guessing in the dark until the ‘incurably observant’ protagonist perfectly connects the dots, jumping to conclusions that are inevitably correct, to reveal the truth and restore justice to the blighted world.

The popularity of commercial crime fiction seems to exemplify the fact that there are many people in this world who, like Robin, harbour a secret fantasy about being private investigators. The point of these sorts of novels, of course, is that we are given the opportunity to try and identify the perpetrator as the facts are revealed. Determined not to be caught out by unexpected twists, I read with wariness both the direct testimonies and Strike’s presumably accurate impression of the individuals giving them, the unfortunate result of which was that I found myself not particularly caring who committed the crime at all.

Though formulaic, the novel is intricately plotted and reasonably entertaining. In places, the narrative voice is intrusive (that Strike, an ex-army, knows that Robin’s hair is styled in what is called a chignon, for example, beggars belief). Rowling favours certain words that are used repeatedly and a little too inelegantly to elude notice (perfunctory, evinced, stolid, gaudy and desultory, to name a few). The adverb ‘coolly’ is also characteristically Rowling: when Strike responds ‘coolly’ to a dig about his background (he is an illegitimate child of a famous musician), I couldn’t help but recall the icy exchanges between Harry Potter and Malfoy. And as she did throughout the Harry Potter series, Rowling continues to demonstrate her mastery of humorous writing. By far the most enjoyable passage in The Cuckoo’s Calling is a conversation that takes place in a pub between Robin and a very drunk Strike.

Ultimately, though, The Cuckoo’s Calling lacks oomph – even the final confrontation is slightly lacklustre. I am of the same opinion as Kate Mills, fiction editor at Orion Books, who described the book as ‘well-written but quiet’. She belongs to one of several publishing companies who must be kicking themselves now for rejecting the novel, the manuscript of which Rowling reportedly submitted anonymously. As for the question of talent versus luck, it’s a pity that Galbraith’s cover was blown so soon, because, well, now we’ll never know, will we?


The Cuckoo’s Calling

by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

Sphere, 2013


Lionel Asbo – Review

There is a section in Martin Amis’s Lionel Asbo: State of England where the eponymous antihero relates to his nephew, Desmond Pepperdine, his unsuccessful foray into reading a bit of history: ‘After a page or two I keep thinking the book’s taking the piss. Oy. You taking the piss?’ It is a fitting meta-fictional allusion to the comical satire that characterises Amis’s book. Amis does take the piss, with outlandish pizazz, out of the state of wealth inequality in England, the tension between the classes and tabloid media.

The book is set between 2006 and 2012, mostly in Diston, a fictional place on the outskirts of London, which has demographical statistics on par with third-world countries: the average life expectancy, we are informed, is fifty-four for men and fifty-seven for women and the fertility rate is six children per couple or single mother (which falls between Malawi and Yemen, we are told). As one would expect, teenage pregnancy is rife. Desmond (Des, Desi), whose mother died when he was twelve, has since been ‘raised’ by Lionel, who although is his uncle, is only six years his senior. Lionel is the youngest of Grace Pepperdine’s children; Cilla, Des’s mother, was the eldest. Ordinarily shocking facts are revealed with commonplace bluntness: Grace had Cilla when she was twelve, the same age Cilla was when she gave birth to Des; and Grace’s seven children are borne of six different fathers.

In the opening paragraph of the novel, we learn that Des, aged fifteen, and Grace, aged thirty-nine, have recently begun having sexual relations, the morality and legality of which Des seeks to reassure himself about by writing to Daphne, The Sun’s resident agony aunt. Horrified to discover that incest is illegal, young Des’s woes are compounded by the fear that Lionel – criminally violent and pathologically quick to anger – will find out. Fortunately for Des, the affair soon ends and he is spared the fate of another schoolboy Lionel discovers Grace has also been bunking up with: the boy disappears entirely. When questioned by Des, Lionel responds, ‘“I didn’t kill him. I sold him.”’

Lionel’s character is not alluring so much as entertaining it its vulgarity. His first run-in with the law – for smashing car windscreens with paving stones – occurred at the age of three. At age eighteen, he changed his surname by deed poll to ASBO, standing for the Anti-Social Behaviour Order made against him at age three (a national record). Up until 2009, while he still works, his trade involves two ‘psychopathic’ pitbulls and legally dubious ‘selling on’. His motto is to ‘never learn’, which explains his repeated bouts of incarceration, the most absurd series of which occurs between 2006 and 2009:

Lionel Asbo served five prison terms, two months for Receiving Stolen Property, two months for Extortion With Menaces, two months for Receiving Stolen Property, two months for Extortion with Menaces, and two months for Receiving Stolen Property.

To be repeatedly imprisoned for the same offences, as Des remarks, requires giving ‘being stupid a lot of very intelligent thought.’ The effect of such comical obstinacy is to call into question the troubling issue of real repeat offenders, for whom the prison gates seem to be revolving ones.

Lionel’s life changes when he wins £140 million in the lottery, which instantly turns him into a perennial tabloid feature. His wealth unwillingly unmoors him from his past life in the lower class. On his first day in the fictional Pantheon Grand Hotel, the ‘dearest’ place in London, he feels like ‘an astronaut, weightless, without connection, swimming in air’. Lionel – ghastly a man as he is – experiences an almost pitiable inner turmoil about the incongruity of his roots and present wealth. Despite the fact that Lionel now possesses a fortune that plants him squarely in the top one percent, not to mention investments that have ‘prospered almost uncontrollably right from the start’, his tastes and elocution betray him. He still pronounces his ths as ffs (hypothesis is hypoffesis, wrath is roff, and so on), talks and writes with glottal stops (computer is cumpew uh) and reads daily his Morning Lark, a lads’ mag consisting mainly of topless girls and other such reputable features as GILFs (MILFs but grandmothers). He senses acutely that he doesn’t truly belong to the world of the rich, for the inhabitants of which it seems – incredulously – to be ‘halfway normal’ to live until eighty. For comparison, there is the farcically premature and poignant decline of Grace Pepperdine, whose degenerating mental state prompts Lionel to institutionalize her in Scotland. In response to her protests, Lionel exclaims, ‘“Woman – you forty-two. You can’t fight the march of time!”’ Lionel feels what a tabloid reporter (the same agony aunt, Daphne, no less) derides as a ‘violent insecurity’ about his alien status, experiencing for the first time ‘something like an unexamined fear of derision’ by well-rooted members of the upper echelons.

What makes Lionel interesting is the unexpected care he shows for Des. Taking a preteen under one’s wing is no small matter, especially if the carer himself is only eighteen. Lionel has taught Des how to drive, buys him his first mobile phone and in the pre-lottery days treats him to feasts of KFC. At his high school, Squeers Free, where he would otherwise be a prime target, Des is rendered inviolable by the fact of his relation to Lionel: it helps that once a term, Lionel drops off and picks the boy up, accompanied by the pitbulls. Des loves his uncle ‘deeply and more or less unquestioningly’, despite the fact that he feels ‘slightly ill in his presence.’ The unresolved tension that underlies their relationship is, of course, the unknown matter relating to Grace.

The younger Des is bafflingly precocious (at age seven, he already knew he was ‘not religious’) yet a hopeless punctuator (the first confessional letter he pens features such gems as ‘ther’es’ and ‘i’ts’, both of which I am yet to see used by the worst illiterates on the Internet). Despite the odds – being an orphan and living alone during Lionel’s many prison stints – Des does well academically and gets accepted into university. A gentle soul and a self-professed romantic from the age of 15, he falls in love with a young woman named Dawn Sheringham. Their narrative is the novel’s only that is conveyed without irony or mockery.

Many passages in Amis’s novel read like scenes in a farce. There is a family reunion wedding that ends with forty-two imprisonments; a trilogy of pitbull pairs with names starting with J; and repeated issues with an industrial bin that either stays open or closed for weeks on end, prompting Lionel to alternately accuse Des of being the culprit and sitting on its lid, and demand that he sit on it. The novel’s denouement, deftly plotted, is a wonderful collision of the absurdity and humour of Amis’s writing.


Lionel Asbo

by Martin Amis

Jonathan Cape, 2012


Let the Great World Spin – Review

On August 7, 1974, Frenchman Philippe Petit stepped out onto a 200kg wire cable suspended over 400 metres above street level, stretched between the tops of the recently built Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre, a 25kg custom-made balancing pole in his hands. During his tightrope walk that lasted three quarters of an hour, his co-conspirators watched him run, lay down flat on the wire, and kneel and salute, making eight passes in total. Around him rang out the siren song of the New York City Fire Department, the thuk-thuk-thuk of helicopters, the appeals and threats from police on the rooftops of both towers, and the cheers of onlookers.

This historical event forms the nucleus of Colum McCann’s fictional 2009 book, Let the Great World Spin. In the great city that hummed and whirred by the shadow of its Twin Towers, McCann’s novel interlinks the diverse lives of its characters. Each chapter is a slice of life taken through the eyes of a different person; as in life, varying perspectives co-exist in mutual opposition.

In an interview last year with Irish author, Catherine Dunne, McCann discussed his belief in the ‘democracy of storytelling’, his conviction

That stories can cross all sorts of borders and boundaries. I don’t know of a greater privilege than being allowed to tell a story or to listen to a story. They’re the only thing we have that can trump life itself.

McCann’s pluralistic ethos strikingly characterises Let the Great World Spin. The book gives a voice to the traditionally voiceless, those who have been pushed to the fringes of society, be it by race, gender or circumstance. Take, for example, Gloria, an African-American twice-divorced mother of three dead Vietnam veterans; or Adelita, an immigrant, nurse and widowed mother of two whose medical studies were arrested by war in Guatemala. Particularly moving is the account of Tillie Henderson, a 38-year-old grandmother and streetwalker, a poignant example of the vicious cycle of drug abuse, prostitution and poverty. Then there are those sympathetic to their plight: John Corrigan, an ascetic Irish monk, – known to all, including his brother Ciaran, simply as Corrigan – called to serve in the Bronx, who looks out for Tillie and the other prostitutes; and Claire, a grieving well-to-do Park Avenue housewife who meets Gloria through a gathering of veterans’ mothers. The book is a profound testament to the fundamental human desire to share, communicate and connect with others. Gloria, during one of the mothers’ meetings, reflects:

Funny how it was, everyone perched in their own little world with the deep need to talk, each person with their own tale, beginning in some strange middle point, then trying so hard to tell it all, to have it all make sense, logical and final.

The effect of the democratic structure of the book is a wonderfully realistic rendering of the city it is set in. The diversity of background, history, race and outlook present in McCann’s novel is what also characterises New York City, in all its clamorous, frenetic, gritty splendour. Writing a book with as many developed characters as feature in Let the Great World Spin would be an ambitious and impressive feat in itself, even without McCann’s deft interweaving of stories. The lives of its characters converge gradually, puzzle piece by puzzle piece slowly assembled to create an intact rendering of both New York and the novel as a whole. Claire, the Upper East Side housewife, desperately needs someone with whom she can vocalise and share her grief, and so becomes attached to Gloria, who lives in the projects in the Bronx, near the underpass where Tillie and her daughter Jazzlyn prostitute themselves, who use Corrigan’s bare apartment as a tinkling spot, and so on.

The connections, although distinct, are convincing rather than contrived (in the latter category, for example, would fall the comet-shaped birthmark all the focal characters are blemished by in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas). They are fictional manifestations of the real findings of the small-world experiment, which reminds us that despite our highly prized individual autonomy, we are far more interconnected than we realise. The well-known study, authored by Jeffrey Travers and Stanley Milgrim, concluded that the average path of communication between two arbitrary people in the United States was less than six intermediaries, which undoubtedly has contributed to the popularity of the ‘six degrees of separation’ theory. (Randomly selected people in Boston and Nebraska were asked to send a letter to a target recipient in Massachusetts. The average path length was 4.4 intermediaries from Boston and 5.7 from Nebraska.) But the connections created in Let the Great World Spin cannot begin to be approximated by data. McCann depicts them with such insight and humanity that they are unreal, in the sense that they are fictitious, and yet simultaneously hyper-real: fortuitous, uncanny and unexpected in the way that life is. And where better of a place for them to surface than in the density of the Big Apple? Gloria becomes keenly aware of this:

It had never occurred to me before but everything in New York is built upon another thing, nothing is entirely by itself, each thing as strange as the last, and connected.

There are peripheral links in addition to the major narrative nexuses. One chapter is focalised through a 14-year-old amateur photographer who shoots photos of underground graffiti. Similar, although brief, descriptions pre-empt his story in the accounts of Ciaran – John Corrigan’s brother and a new New Yorker – and Claire, the housewife. Blink and you’ll miss it. In one of the book’s few awkward exchanges, one of the Corrigan brothers declares to the other, rather too forthrightly, that every night he dreams about a woman (whose name I will omit for the sake of not ‘spoiling the plot’), in which he is ‘“running [his]… lips down along her spine, like a skiff down a river.”’An hour and a half north of the city, in a cabin in upstate New York, Lara Liveman, a 28-year-old visual artist, lies on her stomach as her husband, Blaine, sprinkles cocaine in the hollow of her back. These are subtle reminders of the relationships we have with others even in the ignorance of their existence.

The centrepiece of the book, to which all its narratives are connected, is the tightrope walk. Petit spent six years planning and preparing for the feat, and in the lead-up staged walks across the northern pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge as well as the towers of the Notre Dame. A photograph of his World Trade Centre walk is included in McCann’s book: Petit an inkblot between the towers, a large commercial jet in the top left corner. Both transfixing and ominous, it is a visual equivalent of the presentiment of disaster in E.B. White’s fantastic 1949 essay, ‘Here is New York’:

A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate millions.

In the final section of the book, set three decades years after the walk, a young female character reflects upon the image:

A man high in the air while a plane disappears, it seems, into the edge of the building. One small scrap of history meeting a larger one. As if the walking man were somehow anticipating what would come later. The intrusion of time and history. The collision point of stories. We wait for the explosion but it never occurs. The plane passes, the tightrope walker gets to the end of the wire. Things don’t fall apart.

Two crimes: one dubbed ‘the artistic crime of the century’, that brought the Twin Towers widespread appeal and attention; and another that would later destroy them. The responses to witnessing Petit’s walk, of both real spectators and McCann’s characters, parallel eyewitness accounts of watching the planes collide with the towers in 2001: there is a common strand of disbelief, of the surreal.

Also shared is the simultaneous dread and anticipation of the fall. In the opening section of Let the Great World Spin, McCann describes the onlookers:

…many of the watchers realized with a shiver that no matter what they said, they really wanted to witness a great fall, see someone arc downward all that distance, to disappear from the sight line, flail, smash to the ground…

Who can forget the tragic images that emerged during 9/11 of people trapped in the floors above the collisions, their heads out of windows, some waving white. And then there was the heart-rending footage of those who jumped, their bodies floating downwards to oblivion. The Falling Man.

September 11 was, as the tightrope walk is in McCann’s novel, ‘the collision point of stories.’ A senseless act of terrorism wreaked destruction of terrible beauty, from which emerged so many interlinked stories of grief, of sacrifice, of courage and of the fortitude of the human spirit.


Let the Great World Spin

by Colum McCann

Bloomsbury, 2009