Quicksand – Review

This review originally appeared on the Newtown Review of Books.

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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.

*

Quicksand

by Steve Toltz

Hamish Hamilton, 2015

Author Interview – Abigail Ulman

This interview originally appeared on Writer’s Edit

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Abigail Ulman is a debut author whose stellar first collection of short stories, Hot Little Hands, was published in Australia by Penguin (Hamish Hamilton). The publications rights have also sold in the UK, the US, and Germany. Ulman has lived all over the world, including in Israel, Egypt and France, and she was a Wallace Stegner Fellow for Fiction at Stanford University.

Hot Little Hands is a collection of diverse, utterly absorbing stories that examine the lives of females on the edge: of discovery, of responsibility, and of adulthood.

Donna Lu spoke to Abigail Ulman about getting published, short stories, her writing routine, and her advice for emerging writers.

The first story in the collection, Chagall’s Wife, was also the first to be published. How did the book come about?

I published that story [Chagall’s Wife] in Meanjin, and a number of Australian publishing houses contacted me, asking whether I had more work [written]. I was living in the States at the time, and the next time I came back to Australia I met up with them. I had four stories written then. About a year later, I had six stories. I have an agent, although it isn’t necessary for Australian writers to have one, and at that point I said to him that I wanted to get a book out. I sold it to Penguin, who was my first choice.

How did you go about securing an agent?

He was another person who contacted me because he had seen my work. Although I’m quite shy about doing it—nothing ever feels finished—submitting to literary magazines and competitions is really a good way [of getting started].

How long have you known that you wanted to be a writer? Did you have any inkling as a child?

Years ago I saw my grade two teacher, and she said, ‘Are you still writing?’ I guess I was always writing from a really young age, but I also wanted to do different things. I thought I’d maybe go into acting or filmmaking; I’ve always had an idea that I was going to do something creative, but I wasn’t 100% sure that it was going to be writing.

How did you come to be a writer? Did you study writing at university?

I did a Bachelor of Creative Arts—creative writing, film and theatre, and then I worked for a while in retail jobs before moving overseas for a few years. All that time, I was thinking ‘I want to be a writer!’ but I had no idea how I was going to do it. It’s such an anxious time of life, fun because you have a dream, but you have no idea how to get from A to B.

Eventually I came back to Australia and did a Postgraduate Diploma in Creative Writing, and then I applied for a writing fellowship overseas [the Stanford Wallace Stegner Fellowship], which I got into and moved over there. I think it was a combination of studying it and having life experiences, and then persevering.

In an interview Ian McEwan once said that he thinks many emerging American writers spend too much time in universities and not enough in pubs and bars, experiencing life. How did you find the university experience in America?

The thing with Stanford was having amazing professors, but also having good reader friends. I really loved my workshop experience; it was really important to me, and the people who I was in the workshop with still read my work.

To take a workshop or writing class, or have a writing group where you can get people to read your work and make it better is really important; they’re the people who won’t let you give up when you really want to, which happens all the time.

But I did meet people in the States—not in that workshop but in other settings—who had gone from high school to undergrad to an MFA, and it was so streamlined, and they had only been in academic environments. [In those situations] I think your second book ends up being a novel set in an academic setting that is a loosely veiled portrayal of the setting you’re in. I subscribe to the idea that you should have a balance of studies—if possible—and life experience, which scares a lot of people, particularly in the States, where everyone is driven and ambitious.

You’ve lived all sorts of places—San Francisco, New York, Cairo, Jerusalem, Paris. Do you find that your travels have affected your writing in any way?

A lot of the characters are moving from one place to the other, for some in more privileged circumstances than others. I think, being a writer, you have one foot in and one foot out of every circumstance that you’re in, you’re a little bit of an observer, and travelling is a very great and natural way to be in that situation—you’re in a new culture and seeing things from an outsider’s eyes, and can ask a lot of questions that you might not be able to ask when you’re in your home environment.

What are your reading habits? Do you have a preferred medium?

I like reading everything— a lot of poetry, non-fiction, novels. I do really love short stories, and how it’s such an intense form. To have to tell a whole story with that sort of economy is a challenge as a writer, and very satisfying as a reader. I also have an Internet-addled attention span, so I think they’re a perfect medium for this age.

In one of the stories, Claire [a film studies PhD student] considers getting a Junot Diaz quote tattooed on her arm. Has his work influenced your own?

He is a huge inspiration for me. His first book Drowned, a collection of short stories, is brilliant. His work is very voice-driven and colloquial—he swears a lot—and he throws you into a community, a culture, or an environment in his work, and expects you to keep up. That was inspiring, that you can write characters’ voices as how they might actually speak in real life, and that it’s as valid as writing that’s more flowery or more traditionally ‘literary’.

It’s also important to me to have ambiguity in a work. That Claire character: some people really love her and some people are very critical of her, and I’m okay with either reading. But it can be uncomfortable sometimes for a reader when the writer isn’t being didactic or telling them what to think.

In Same Old Same As, with the character who says she got sexually abused: when I’ve been interviewed about that, some people refer to her as ‘the girl who made up that story’ and others call her ‘the girl who got sexually abused’. That openness in a story is something that I strive for, and it is something I think Junot Diaz does too.

Are there any other short story writers that you particularly love?

There are so many. Some of my professors from Stanford are among my favourites. Tobias Wolf—he’s got a collection called The Night In Question. Elizabeth Tallent, who isn’t as well known in Australia, has a book called Honey. And Colm Tóibín is more famous for his novels, but I love his short stories. His collection, The Empty Family, is fantastic.

It must have been amazing to be mentored by these sorts of writers.

It was incredible. The level that they read at and give advice from was amazing. It’s also that they’d been editing and teaching for so long and were still supportive of and excited about a younger generation of writers; I don’t think all older writers are that way. Especially Colm Tóibín, who is so excited when he finds young writers that he likes. He does what he can for them in the industry, encourages older writers to pay attention to them—it can make such a difference in a young writer’s life.

What’s your writing routine? Discipline is particularly difficult for many emerging writers

I usually write first thing when I get up, before I email anyone or do anything like that. I’m a bit of a night owl, so I write again at the end of the day and that’s when I’m most creative and productive, after everyone else has fallen asleep. 11[pm] to 2-ish is a really productive time of day.

The discipline thingeven when I had sold the book, I had enormous trouble getting myself to sit at the desk and to structure my time. It’s incredibly hard and it’s an ongoing battle for writers. Deadlines—either with a class, a friend, or using a short story competition—are really helpful.

I think, especially for younger writers, who have jobs or studies, setting a goal at the beginning of the week for a certain number of words, hours or pages is helpful. I think it’s also about being nice to yourself—most writers have really unrealistic goals. I used to think I’d be able to write eight hours in a row on a day off, and then I’d waste a lot of time on the Internet and be really hard on myself about it. When it comes to discipline, starting small and being kind to yourself is key.

What’s next for you? Can we expect more short stories, or is there something else in the works?

I have a few short stories in the works, but I’m also trying to tackle a novel, which is a whole new challenge. I’m not sure what my next book will be—my plan is for it to be a novel, but because I’m also working on some short stories it’s a bit of a horse race—we’ll see what ends up leading the pack.

Hot Little Hands – Review

This review originally appeared on Lip Mag.

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Watching Lena Dunham’s Girls for the first time was an edifying experience. A large part of the show’s appeal for me—and perhaps for countless other teenagers and women in their early twenties—was its flawed and often hapless characters, who are relatable precisely because of their faults. Here was Hannah Horvath: podgy, solipsistic beyond help, ambitious but ill-disciplined, the antithesis to Carrie Bradshaw. Here, so rarely seen on screen, was realistic sex (and bad sex) and uncertain relationships, imperfection and insecurity. Here were girls (perhaps not quite mature enough to call themselves ‘women’ yet), who—like so many of us—were ‘almost getting it kind of together’.

If I thought Girls was original, reading Abigail Ulman’s debut collection of short stories, Hot Little Hands, was something of a revelation. Her protagonists are all female, aged thirteen to thirty, and captured at liminal periods in their lives. There is something strikingly familiar about Ulman’s stories, which pulse with vitality and veracity; her characters’ narratives are in part our own. In the three stories that feature Claire Oglind, a cinema studies PhD candidate, we recognise her struggle with the responsibility of incipient adulthood; in ‘Head To Toe’, about two best friends who have racked up notable experience in the hallucinogenic and sexual spheres, we remember our teenage desire for experimentation; and in ‘Plus One’, in 22-year-old blogger Amelia, we understand the lack of motivation causing her struggle to deliver on a significant book deal. 

Ulman’s fiction exhibits such astute perception of mannerism and behaviour that one might easily mistake some of the stories narrated in first-person for personal essays. What is particularly brilliant is her mastery of dialogue, which has all the nuance, irreverence and illogic of reality. Non-sequiturs vivify passages like implicit stage directions. Used most dazzlingly in ‘Head To Toe’, a few subtle lines are enough to reveal a previous sexual tryst between teenagers Zach and Elise, which sets Elise up for some ribbing from her best friend, Jenni:

‘You can chuck your stuff upstairs in my room,’ [Zach] said.

‘Cool,’ said Jenni. ‘Lead the way, Lise.’

‘Shut up,’ said Elise.

‘That was at my mum’s house,’ Zach said.

Many of the stories in Hot Little Hands end with no clear resolution, which for the most part adds to their verisimilitude. Life is messy; ambivalence and uncertainty abound. Neatly tied endings would seem too contrived for Ulman’s characters. For most of them, full-fledged maturity and composure seem just beyond grasp. Claire, the PhD student, describes herself as someone who has technically come of age without emotionally having done so. In the processes of self-discovery, in trying to get it ‘kind of together’, questionable decisions are inevitably made: Amelia, the wunderkind blogger, decides to avoid writing her contracted book by intentionally getting pregnant; in ‘Same Old Same As’, another story, the protagonist Ramona appears to use the trauma of her sexual abuse as a tool for canvassing popularity among school friends.

Several of Ulman’s stories have features of the Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age tale, in which experience is gained and innocence is lost. The haunting ‘Warm-Ups’ most closely observes this form, in which Kira, a 13-year-old Russian gymnast, prepares to travel to San Diego with her teammates and coach. Kira’s grandmother, who has never been to America, laments the girl’s departure, explaining that upon her return Kira will ‘be a woman of the world.’ Claire’s journey is thematically similar: she has left her family and friends behind in London to pursue her PhD at Stanford University. Then there’s Sascha, who spends a day with her high school science teacher in ‘Chagall’s Wife’, who describes that her sexual awakening at age 12 was like ‘being admitted into a new world’.

Ulman’s characters, who are still at stages of their lives when the pressure of others’ perceptions is acutely felt, often act with reckless abandon and studied insouciance that belies their underlying vulnerability. Take Claire: she is newly pregnant when we first meet her, and unintentionally so: it’s ‘for a limited time only’, she declares flippantly to a total stranger; later, she jokingly offers the baby to two ‘grown-up’ friends. Her nonchalance serves as a coping mechanism for a fragility that we are only occasionally privy to. These glimpses are rendered brilliantly, and with muted pathos. For example: ‘“I used to look at your tattoos and think I would still be looking at them when I was old,”’ she tells an ex; or, ‘‘If I was Nicolas Cage I’d be elbowing someone in the jaw right now, but I’m me, so I cry tears onto my feet and watch them sink into my shoes.’

In Lena Dunham’s own debut book, Not That Kind Of Girl, which last year graced the New York Times Best Seller list and the Instagram accounts of veteran non-readers, she decries that ‘there are still so many forces conspiring to tell women that…we lack the gravitas necessary for our stories to matter.’ The significance of Hot Little Hands, which is so enthrallingly and candidly about women, stands counter to such prejudice. It is a debut that demands to be read and discussed. Here is a collection loud with the stories of a generation of young women; Ulman exquisitely gives them their deserved voices.

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Hot LIttle Hands

by Abigail Ulman

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.

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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
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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.

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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

Lolita – Review

As a preface, of sorts, to this essay, I want to begin by admitting that I made the rather demoralising choice of reading Christopher Hitchens’s 2005 The Atlantic piece entitled ‘Hurricane Lolita’ after having already written my own. No prizes for guessing whose pales in comparison (although I would advise desisting from his until after you’ve read the novel). In the introduction to Hitchens’s 2011 book of essays, Arguably (in which his Nabokov piece is included), he writes: ‘It took me decades to dare the attempt, but finally I did write about Vladimir Nabokov…’ I have dared, perhaps rather prematurely, to write about Lolita, and the ersatz result is an essay that cannot possibly do the novel justice, and which I will, in all likelihood, later come to detest. But, alas, one must try to hone their craft, however crude the prototype. In an optimistic mood I might tell myself, quoting from Macbeth, which I seem to do a lot in this essay: ‘My strange and self-abuse / Is the initiate fear that wants hard use.’

In a recent interview with CBC’s fantastic Eleanor Wachtel, Martin Amis expressed his belief that Lolita ‘may be the richest comedy in the language’: he cites the book’s complexity of humour, the fact that it engages with the ‘laughter of disgust, self-disgust.’ That the tale of the sexual abuse of a twelve-year-old girl could be humorous may beggar belief, but Amis’s assertion isn’t far off the mark. The brilliance of Nabokov’s most celebrated novel is indisputable, and it lies in the fact that taboo and troubling subject matter is rendered so beautifully by playful and lyrical prose. Nabokov once declared to his university students that ‘it is no use reading a book at all if you do not read it with your back.’ The shiver of delight he refers to, which he believed to be ‘quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and science,’ is precisely what one experiences again and again in reading Lolita.

The book is framed as a memoir: it has been written, we are told in the prologue, by self-styled Humbert Humbert during the period of his incarceration. It details the particulars of his ‘humiliating, sordid, taciturn love life’, which may not have eventuated in his affaire du coeur with poor little Dolores ‘Lolita’ Haze had he not had a teenage relationship another ‘girl-child’ in ‘a princedom by the sea.’ Humbert, a Frenchman who moved to the US in 1939 because he felt his ‘life needed a shake-up’, grew up in his father’s hotel on the French Riviera, where at age thirteen (1923) he fell in love with Annabel Leigh, a half-English half-Dutch girl a few months his junior. Humbert’s memories of the attachment echo that of Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Annabel Lee’:

I was a child and she was a child,

In this kingdom by the sea,

But we loved with a love that was more than love—

I and my Annabel Lee—

With a love that the wingèd seraphs of Heaven

Coveted her and me.

Humbert’s darling Annabel and he ‘were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other.’ Their trysts – as teenage ones often are – were limited by parental suspicion to surreptitious romps in public places, and unfortunately for Humbert, the consummation of their pubescent passion was prematurely interrupted by two bearded men yelling ‘exclamations of ribald encouragement.’ A few months later, Annabel died of typhus. The probable effect on Humbert was an arrest of his sexual development, preventing him – as he ages – from finding his female coevals attractive. Of that formative relationship he writes:

We loved each other with a premature love, marked by a fierceness that so often destroys adult lives. I was a strong lad and survived; but the poison was in the wound, and the wound remained ever open, and soon I found myself maturing amid a civilization which allows a man of twenty-five to court a girl of sixteen but not a girl of twelve.

In the early stages of the novel, when adult Humbert fantasizes about certain pubescent girls but has not yet acted on his desires, his unhappy adolescent relationship almost – not quite wholly, but almost – justifies his adult state of sexual deviancy. Humbert designates certain girls as ‘nymphets’: they are, he explains rather didactically, roughly aged between nine and fourteen, ‘the little deadly demon among the wholesome children’, which ‘you have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy’ to discern from the innocent rest. The attraction is relatively harmless and hysterical (Humbert recalls sitting ‘on a hard park bench pretending to be immersed in a trembling book’ while ‘nymphets played freely’ around him; his attempt at procuring a young French prostitute results in ‘a monstrously plump, sallow, repulsively plain girl of at least fifteen’ whom he refuses but is forced to pay the relatives of anyway) until, of course, he meets Lolita in 1947. At twelve, she is ‘changeful, bad-tempered, cheerful, awkward, graceful with the tart grace of her coltish subteens’, the daughter of widowed Charlotte Haze, Humbert’s proprietress. The decisive moment, the fateful first sight of her is described in a passage of stunning prose:

I was still walking behind Mrs. Haze through the dining room when, beyond it, there came a sudden burst of greenery – “the piazza,” sang out my leader, and then, without the least warning, a blue sea-wave swelled under my heart and, from a mat in a pool of sun, half-naked, kneeling, turning about on her knees, there was my Riviera love peering at me over dark glasses. It was the same child – the same frail, honey-hued shoulders, the same silky supple bare back, the same chestnut head of hair. A polka-dotted black kerchief tied around her chest hid from my aging ape eyes, but not from the gaze of young memory, the juvenile breasts I had fondled one immortal day…The twenty-five years I had lived since then, tapered to a palpitating point, and vanished.

Humbert’s fascination with nymphets, and with Lolita in particular, while aberrant, is at this point pitiable rather than reprehensible, because we understand that it results as ‘a fatal consequence of that “princedom by the sea”’. Meeting Lo in the piazza, he conflates the two girls: ‘Annabel Haze, alias Dolores Lee, alias Loleeta’.

The balance tilts towards monstrosity when Humbert succumbs to temptation, realizing his obsessions in an escalating series of reprehensible acts. When phocine ‘Big Haze’ isn’t around, he kisses Lo on the eyes, or grooms her while she sits on his lap on a sofa. That the girl clutches an ‘Eden-red apple’ before the sofa incident isn’t lost on the reader. Then there’s the fact that Humbert marries the adoring Charlotte Haze, whom he finds much too thick-thighed and ‘plain-faced’, in order to be close to her daughter. He fantasizes about ‘administering a powerful sleeping potion to both mother and daughter so as to fondle the latter through the night with perfect impunity.’

Initially, at least, Lolita is not entirely blameless: she, like her mother, nurses a girlish crush on Humbert, who describes himself as an ‘exceptionally handsome man’. In a memorised diary entry from 1947, he recounts:

I have all the characteristics which, according to writers on the sex interests of children, start the responses stirring in a little girl: clean-cut jaw, muscular hand, deep sonorous voice, broad shoulder. Moreover, I am said to resemble some crooner or actor chap on whom Lo has a crush.

After Humbert picks the girl up from summer camp, the following exchange occurs:

“Why do you think I have ceased caring for you, Lo?”

“Well, you haven’t kissed me yet, have you?”‘

Dolores, impetuous and flirtatious, then proceeds to ‘positively flow’ into Humbert’s arms.  Humbert, overwhelmed by the passion of a twenty-five-year long desire on the brink of coming into fruition, is unable to resist. ‘Remember she is only a child, remember she is only—’ To quote Macbeth: things bad begun make themselves strong by ill.

Humbert, in his sexual rapacity, willfully overlooks the inevitable damage of his abuse and control. Lolita’s vulnerability and emotional trauma become subjugated by his sexual appetites. He pries her with money and attempts to manipulate her thinking by quoting sections from apparently reputable books:

I am not a criminal sexual psychopath taking indecent liberties with a child…I quote…: Among Sicilians sexual relations between a father and daughter are accepted as a matter of course, and the girl who participates in such relationship is not looked upon with disapproval by the society of which she is part.

Addressing the reader he similarly draws upon literature, history and religion (well-read Humbert is a scholar of French and English literature) as if other instances can justify his own behavior, which he in the end knows to be monstrous: ‘Dante fell madly in love with his Beatrice when she was nine, a sparkling girleen’; ‘when Petrarch fell madly in love with his Laureen, she was a fair-haired nymphet of twelve running in the wind’; ‘Virginia was not quite fourteen when Harry Edgar possessed her.’

Humbert believes that nymphets lack the ‘purity and vulnerability’ of ordinary children, for whom he proclaims to have ‘the utmost respect’, yet Lolita’s obvious immaturity serves as no deterrent to his appetites. In her interests, poor Lolita is like any other non-nymphet child: ‘Sweet hot jazz, square dancing, gooey fudge sundaes, musicals, movie magazines and so forth – these were the obvious items in her list of beloved things.’ Despite the fact that mentally, he finds ‘her to be a disgustingly conventional little girl’, despite the fact that he listens to ‘her sobs in the night – every night, every night – the moment [he feigns] sleep’, Humbert fears any potential obstacle to having his way with her.

Humbert’s attraction to Lolita, which he describes as ‘pederosis’ (paedophilia), technically constitutes hebephilia, the attraction to pubescent individuals (aged approximately eleven to fourteen), distinguishable from paedophilia, which primarily involves an attraction to prepubescent children. That Humbert is not perceived as insurmountably evil owes to this distinction; the variable legal grounds pertaining to sexual relations with girls of pubescent age shed a slightly less morally dubious light on Humbert and Lolita’s relationship. The legal age of consent – which must consider the consenting party’s maturity, both sexual and emotional, as well as their vulnerability to exploitation – varies from country to country. Had Humbert and Lo travelled to Spain, where the age of consent was 13 until last year, their relationship – technical incest aside – would have been legal, as it would have eventually been in Italy, Germany, Portugal and other countries where the age is 14.

Whether legality necessarily equates with morality is altogether another question. In Lolita’s case it is not so much that her age and immaturity undermine the validity of consent as the fact that she becomes an unwilling participant altogether. As an afterword to Lolita, written a year after its 1955 publication in France, Nabokov details the original ‘shiver of inspiration’ for the novel: a newspaper article about an ape who produced the ‘first drawing ever charcoaled by an animal’ – a sketch of the bars of its cage. Lolita is similarly imprisoned by Humbert, resentful, and so cannot requite the love and passion Humbert so uncontrollably experiences.

In a Guardian article compiling various writers’ advice for others, Geoff Dyer made the following suggestion: ‘Don’t be one of those writers who sentence themselves to a lifetime of sucking up to Nabokov.’ It seems like a pragmatic, timesaving measure considering Nabokov’s trilingualism (he was fluent in Russian, French and English – but also to a lesser degree German and Italian; Lolita is peppered with Humbert’s French and humorous parodies of those poor Americans’ attempts at it), his nonpareil talent and his inimitable, blissful writing style; one might as well quit while they’re ahead. But awe and admiration are reflexive responses to his writing, so perhaps one just can’t help themself. Writing for the newyorker.com, Jay Caspian Kang recounts that Lolita became a treasure trove of inspiration for him in college, a ‘personal literary liquor store – whenever I got stuck in a scene, or whenever my prose felt flat or typical, I’d open Lolita to a random page and steal something.’ Its effect seems to be universal. In The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favourite Books (2007), the novel was voted as the best fiction work of the 20th Century by 125 of ‘modernity’s greatest writers’, which included Joyce Carol Oates, Jonathan Franzen, Peter Carey and Norman Mailer. Perhaps literature since Lolita has benefited all the more for sucking up a little to Nabokov. I suspect that – as uncontrollably as Humbert lusts for his Lo – from Nabokov’s magnus opus I will end up borrowing many gems ‘“– you know, as the Bard said, with that cold in his head, to borrow and to borrow and to borrow.”’

*

Lolita

by Vladimir Nabokov

Penguin Books, 1995

 

Christopher Hitchens’s The Atlantic essay can be found here.