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


Author Interview – Abigail Ulman

This interview originally appeared on Writer’s Edit


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.


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.


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.


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 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


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, 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.”’



by Vladimir Nabokov

Penguin Books, 1995


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


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


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