The Booker Prize 2016: F&*$ The Favourites

on Wednesday, September 14, 2016
Well shiver me timbers and blow me down (and something about a bottle of rum... I could do with one of those). Ian McGuire's Cormac-McCarthy-On-The-High-Seas whaling epic has been scuttled in the harbour. Yep, the Booker Prize shortlist is out and my early pick - not to mention the bookies' favourite - didn't make the cut. Neither did JM Coetzee with his return-to-form The Childhood of Jesus or AL Kennedy with her much-lauded Serious Sweet.

If you haven't seen it yet, the six books vying for Booker glory this year are:

Paul Beatty (US) - The Sellout (Oneworld)
Deborah Levy (UK) - Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton)
Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) - His Bloody Project (Contraband)
Ottessa Moshfegh (US) – Eileen (Jonathan Cape)
David Szalay (Canada-UK) - All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape)
Madeleine Thien (Canada) - Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books)

I'm in two minds about it all. Might 2017 be the year that Booker broke free of its establishment chains and embraced the exciting underdogs? Or was my first impression when reading the long list right - it is a year that will fade into obscurity? For that matter where's the subcontinent? Where's Africa? Where the bloody hell is Australia?

Of course, I've only read one of the shortlisted books: The Sellout. Beatty has been basking in critical sunshine since its release, already having picked up a fair swag of rave reviews and a trusty old 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. I was only lukewarm on it - the idea of an African American guy trying to reintroduce segregation in his local neighbourhood is pretty funny, and the bits about his batshit crazy father are laugh-out-loud hilarious. However, the novel outstays its welcome, drawing the joke out that little bit too far to pack a knockout punch. Indeed, it was a Dishonourable Mention in my 2015 Most Overrated Books.

I've just started Graeme Macrae Burnet's novel and so far it's pretty cool. Notably, it continues the recent Booker trend of picking outsiders from genre fiction to sit alongside the more nose-in-the-air, port-swilling literary types. Deborah Levy is a bit of a Booker favourite, with her novel Swimming Home getting much love when it was shortlisted back in 2012. Reviews for Hot Milk have been generally positive (though not the slobbering adulation of the other) and I'm wondering whether Levy might be in line for one of those consolation Bookers a la Ian McEwan who won for Amsterdam when they regretted not having given it to him for his masterpiece, Enduring Love. That's not to say Hot Milk may not be deserving in its own right. I just haven't read it yet. Of the others, Szalay and Thien are unknown quantities and, tempting as it is to make wild and loose predictive pontifications (that's why you come here, right?), I might hold off until I've had the chance to give them a proper go.

That leaves Ottessa Moshfegh, the one contender that really interests me. Team Booker mistakenly bill it as her first novel but she did publish a decent length novella (of the kind for which both McEwan and Barnes won Bookers) called McGlue a couple of years back. The book was gritty, unrelenting and bleak yet still possessed of a strangely humorous undercurrent. If it's any indication of what to expect from Eileen, I suspect we have us a pretty strong dark horse.

It remains to be seen whether this really will be the blah-Booker or something completely refreshing. I'm still smarting that Coetzee and McGuire didn't make it but I suppose I now have reason to read three books I'd hoped to avoid. I can only be pleasantly surprised. I'll report back soon with my usual form guide. Until then... did someone say Nobel?

The Miles Franklin Award 2016: AS Patrić's Black Rock White City

on Friday, August 26, 2016
Huzzah! The curse is lifted.

For years I have damned nominees in all manner of literary prizes to the inglorious abyss. Booker. Nobel. Pulitzer. Boroondara Local Library. In all those and more my "prediction" has turned out to be the kiss of death.

But all that ended tonight. I am no longer the kiss of death. I am not even a good bet. I am a fucking oracle. (Or a fluke, but I prefer words with three syllables.) Yes, AS Patrić just won the Miles Franklin, Australia's most prestigious literary award, for my B4BW Book of 2015, Black Rock White City. Just as I predicted. Before it was even published, no less (I read it in manuscript form when it was still called Life On Crumbs). #humblebrag #notevenslightlyhumble

Now I need not fawn again over how bloody great the novel is. If you want sup on some superlative soup then just check out my original review or my Book of the Year citation. I do, however, want to say that is a massive win for quality Australian literature. Great Australian novels are still being written. And noticed.

So congratulations to Alec and his publisher Transit Lounge for the most deserving Miles Franklin of recent times. Rare is the writer who combines such commitment to the craft of writing, generosity of spirit and goodness of heart with the knack for telling a ripper story. Thanks for giving us Black Rock White City. And, on a personal note, thanks for giving me the faith to once again make wildly loose predictions with a newfound sense of purpose and certainty. I may not always be right, but I will never again be in doubt.

The Booker Prize 2016: The Blah Booker... (The Longlist)

on Saturday, July 30, 2016
Trust the first whiff of LitPrize Silly Season to lure me out from my cyber-cave. Yep, my hyperventilating over the senselessly subjective jockeying for literary immortality (yeah, who could possibly forget such classics as Paul Scott's Staying On or anything by Verner Von Heidenstam?) ought now be considered one of life's certainties along with death, taxes and the crushing disappointment of adulthood. It has, of course, been a cold winter so my arthritic bones have taken a little longer to click into gear than they have in the past (apparently, hitting 40 does that to you), but here I am!



And here is the 2016 Man Booker Prize Longlist.

Paul Beatty (US) - The Sellout (Oneworld)
J.M. Coetzee (South African-Australian) - The Schooldays of Jesus (Harvill Secker)
A.L. Kennedy (UK) - Serious Sweet (Jonathan Cape)
Deborah Levy (UK) - Hot Milk (Hamish Hamilton)
Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK) - His Bloody Project (Contraband)
Ian McGuire (UK) - The North Water (Scribner UK)
David Means (US) - Hystopia (Faber & Faber)
Wyl Menmuir (UK) - The Many (Salt)
Ottessa Moshfegh (US) - Eileen (Jonathan Cape)
Virginia Reeves (US) - Work Like Any Other (Scribner UK)
Elizabeth Strout (US) - My Name Is Lucy Barton (Viking)
David Szalay (Canada-UK) - All That Man Is (Jonathan Cape)
Madeleine Thien (Canada) - Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta Books)

Meh.

Many of us had hoped that, once the fear of the American invasion subsided, the competition would be the great apocalyptic battleground of the English Language NovelTM. Or at least the Gladiator Arena. Turns out it's become little more than a kitchen table thumb wrestle. I usually try to talk it up but even the starry-eyed optimist in me can't get overly excited about this year's crop. First up, the absences. I thought Julian Barnes's latest was quite beautiful and worthy of a longlisting, if not something more. Jonathan Safran Foer and Michael Chabon must be smarting - I'd put a buck or two on them considering themselves the rightly winners of the first trans-Pacific Booker. Don Delillo probably couldn't care less which, I suppose is a good thing, because that seemed to be his attitude to the second half of his latest novel, Zero K. And then there's Ian McEwan. In steady decline, he might have been hoping that the forthcoming Nutshell would scoop him from the literary doldrums. His omission from Team Booker's love-in does not bode well.

As for the books that did get a nod, I've read only two. Ian McGuire's The North Water was a mostly riveting collision of Conrad, Melville and McCarthy set on a high seas whaler. It's got one of the best McCarthyesque villains of recent times and, for the most part, it rockets along with admirable vigour. Oddly, though, it peters out and leaves the reader - pardon the pun - cold in its lack of resolve. Paul Beatty's book has been the darling of the American literary world for the better part of a year. It's brash, funny and irreverent. Given the recent spilling over of racial tension in that country, it is also very timely. Anyone who imagines a batshit crazy African American guy's attempt to reintroduce segregation into his neighbourhood and then so deftly does so with tongue-firmly in cheek is deserving of attention. There are parts of The Sellout that are jaw-droppingly great. Anything with the unnamed narrator's father had me on the floor laughing. And some of the satirical barbs were inspired genius. But, much like McGuire's book, I was left a little disappointed by the work as a whole. Maybe it was the hype. Or maybe it's just not quite as good as people say.

As for the rest of the field, I'm very keen to see J.M. Coetzee get another nod. The sequel to his uneven but quite interesting The Childhood of Jesus, The Schooldays of Jesus looks to be more Kafkaesque in its execution which can only be a good thing. The first half of Childhood was brilliant in its ability to unsettle and disorient the reader before devolving into ploddy straight narrative. If Schooldays maintains the weird without following its predecessor into the narrative quagmire I suspect we're in for quite a treat. I have high hopes for Deborah Levy, too. She is consistently excellent and has been on the Booker radar before. Ditto A.L. Kennedy who very rarely fails to impress. Of the lesser known names, Ottessa Moshfegh stands out in particular. Though the judges seem to think Eileen is her debut, I was greatly impressed by her actual first novel McGlue with its muscular, rowdy and unflinching energy. I'm also quite the fan of any small press book that bucks the typical literary trends so Graeme MacRae Burnett's crime thriller has piqued my interest. As for the others, hmmmm... I'll give as many of them a go as I can but I somehow think that this ain't going to be remembered as Booker's finest years.

So, back into my cave for now. I'll catch you in a couple of weeks for the announcement of the Miles Franklin Award. It's a great field and, of course, I'm backing AS Patrić, but almost any of the contenders are worthy of the award. At least it's a great year for Australian Literary Prizes. At least we've got that!

The Morning After: Some Thoughts on Elie Wiesel's Lesser-Known Works

on Sunday, July 3, 2016
A stark reminder this morning that we are hurtling towards a post-survivor world: Elie Wiesel has died. Like most Jews of my generation, Wiesel's work was my first true engagement with the Holocaust, especially given that my own grandparents couldn't talk about it. I remember reading Night, arguably his masterpiece (I say arguably only because there are three or so other contenders), and being struck not only by the horrors Weisel depicted, the philosophical depth with which he did so or the beautiful simplicity of his language but also by the fact that he was not much older than me when he experienced them. For a twelve or thirteen year old kid it was a revelation; the moment humanity was unmasked and its ugliest face revealed.

Much will be written about Wiesel in the coming days. Eulogies will abound highlighting his Nobel Prize, his ongoing political and social justice activism, his wisdom and his generosity. I look at the famous picture of him in the Buchenwald concentration camp bunk, a sickly, emaciated teen and wonder whether he could have imagined at that moment the intellectual and moral giant he would become on a world scale. Beyond that, there is little I can add.

I did want to spare a thought, though, for his other books, the ones that weren't Night, Dawn or Day (aka The Night Trilogy). For years I've dipped in and out of his work, feeling the need to hear his voice even when it wasn't at its most eloquent or powerful. Wiesel was by no means a perfect writer. I'm not sure he was even a great writer which is not in any way intended to take away from the fact that he was very much an exemplary human being. It is easy to forget that his Nobel was for Peace not Literature. And so there were a fair few misfires: The Sonderberg Case and The Judges stand out as poorly executed, rather far-fetched attempts to revisit familiar themes while The Hostage suffered as a second rate Death And The Maiden (though kind of inverted). Then there was A Mad Desire To Dance... sigh. Read them only for the sake of completeness. I'll personally come and pin your Wiesel Wizard badge to your chest. If, however, you want to read some quite extraordinary works, grab yourself a copy of his play The Trial of God or the not-too-dissimilarly-themed novel The Gates of the Forest. Also quite brilliant were Wiesel's interpretive works, particularly his takes on classic Hassidic tales (Souls On Fire) and biblical stories (Messengers of God). Should you want something slight but rather lovely, I'd also recommend his short meditation on his heart surgery, Open Heart

I doubt we will know another force of goodness and morality like Elie Wiesel for a very long time. His death is a great loss to humanity, to justice and, yes, to literature. There will be, I'm sure, many ways to remember and honour him. For me, though, the best will always be to read him. He might now have fallen silent but his voice will live on.

2016 Midyear Report: The Life of Brian Redux

on Monday, June 27, 2016
Rumours of my cyberdeath have been greatly exaggerated.



That said, I do feel like the old guy from Monty Python's Life of Brian, slumped over John Cleese's shoulder, protesting my glowing health. "I feel happy! I feel happy! Think I might go for a walk." In my case, of course, replace walk with read but the sentiment stands. Yes, while I have hardly been posting here on B4BW, I'm glad to say that I still have been reading, albeit at a greatly reduced pace from previous years. Thus far, I'm sitting on the miserly total of 44 books. Shameful, I know.

Still, there's been a lot to celebrate in my beloved book hole even if I haven't been shouting it from the rooftops. First up, if I may gloat a little, my favourite book of last year, A. S. Patric's Black Rock White City has been shortlisted for Australia's biggest literary prize, The Miles Franklin Award. I'm glad to see the rest of Australia falling over themselves to heap praise on this truly astonishing novel. Aussie lit is clearly in a good place right now - the whole Miles Franklin field is top notch. On the subject of prizes, I was gratified to see a couple of my favourite novels-in-translation from last year shortlisted for the new-look Man Booker International Prize (now given for individual books rather than bodies of work and awarded to authors and their translators). Persoanlly, I'd have loved to see Robert Seethaler win for his exquisite novel in miniature, A Whole Life, or failing that, Jose Eduardo Agualusa's The General Theory of Oblivion. Alas, it went to Han Kang's widely celebrated The Vegetarian about which, you may recall, I was kind of nonplussed but, well, I'm in the minority. So big cheers to her and translator Deborah Smith.

In more personal book news, I got to meet one of my literary heroes - Jesse Ball. I know it's said you should never try to meet the artists you most admire and, for the most part in the past this has turned out to be true (cough cough Gene Simmons cough cough) but this was one time I was pretty stoked to have proved the adage wrong. Ball was just as friendly, charming and complex as I could have hoped. I also had the great privilege of helping organise the second ever Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival which, much to our great relief, turned out to be a huge success. Highlights included our international guests Nir Baram, Jami Attenberg and Elana Sztockman as well as local legends, both Jewish and not, Gail Jones, Joan London, Arnold Zable, Leah Kaminsky, Alan and Elizabeth Finkel, Peter Singer, Mirielle Juchau, Ramona Kowal and many, many more. I moderated a session on the future of the Holocaust novel which almost devolved to fisticuffs and participated in a wonderful poetry panel where I had the opportunity to spruik the little known but totally sublime Jiri Langer (best known as Franz Kafka's Hebrew teacher).

Now, onto the books of the year so far. Once again it looks like the first book I read will be the best. Garth Greenwell's taut, harrowing novel What Belongs To You has refused to dislodge itself from my chest since I wistfully reached its final sentence. Speaking of harrowing, Hanya Yanagihara has a clear successor for punch-in-the-guts novel of the year with Jung Yun's Shelter. The story of an already-damaged Korean American family further destroyed by an act of horrific violence absolutely tore me to shreds. One of the most insightful, painful works of the immigrant experience and the death of the American dream that I've ever read. Ian McIntryre's Melville meets McCarthy meets Conrad novel of whaling on the high seas, The North Water, is another work of beauty and brutality in equal measure that demands your reading attention. Meanwhile, John Wray blew my mind with the most madcap mashup of physics, comedy and complex morality in The Lost Time Accidents. I'm one of the few who didn't love his last book Lowboy but I think I finally get him. A shout out also must go to one of the few books that made me venture outside my Fiction Only rule, Arnold Zable's The Fighter. A biography of sorts in novel form, it tells of one of my city's greatest humans, former boxing champion, social worker and all round magnificent bloke Henry Nissen. And while the book might be about Henry and his brother Leon, to me it was an exquisite devotional hymn to their mother and all women like her who came from foreign lands following the horrors of the Holocaust and tried to build families while battling the most unforgiving of inner-demons.

2016 hasn't been without its disappointments either. After a truly inspired start, Don Delillo's latest, Zero K, plodded off into the narrative wilderness never to return. Ditto Ismail Kadare with A Girl In Exile. I don't know, it seems the all-time greats are sailing off into the literary sunset, still able to come up with an interesting premise but no longer able to steer the ship for the whole course. Perhaps the modern world is too much for their classical sensibilities. I was also a bit let down by two of the more experimental, wacky novels that have been garnering a fair amount of buzz: Alvaro Enrigue's Sudden Death and Manuel Gonzales's The Regional Office is Under Attack. Both were good reads but I was hoping for much, much more.

There's still a heap to look forward to over the coming months: Javier Marias's follow up to The Infatuations, intriguingly titled Thus Bad Begins, Emma Cline's novel of the Manson women, The Girls, Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer, Moonglow by Michael Chabon, Nutshell by Ian McEwan plus newies by David Eggers, Zadie Smith, Colson Whitehead, Donald Ray Pollack and, hoping against hope, Cormac McCarthy. Expect all those end of year lists to be peppered with exciting (and hopefully new) reads.

I'll try to get back on the regular blogging track soon. But until then I repeat: "I'M NOT DEAD YET!"

An Embarrassment of Schnitzels: Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival 2016

on Monday, May 16, 2016
Not sure how two years passed me by but I'm thrilled to say that once again I'm part of the Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival this coming week. What started as a bit of a pipe dream around the now-Director's kitchen table exploded into a veritable feast of literary goodness back in 2014. We didn't know what to expect but the massive crowds and rave reviews spoke for themselves - our mix of international and local authors, Jewish and non-Jewish, writing on topics of what I came to realise might have had a Jewish flavour but were of universal interest and relevance, seemed to strike a very loud chord.

It was always intended that the festival would be a once-every-two-years affair but we didn't take the off-year lying down. Two wonderful events - a night with David Mendelssohn in conversation with James Ley and Theatrics (a series of dramatic adaptation of great Jewish short stories) - helped satiate the appetite for literary nourishment that we'd worked up for ourselves. And, of course, we kicked off this year with the fabulous Simon Sebag Montefiore (in conjunction with our friends at the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation). Now comes Melbourne Jewish Writers Festival 2016, with its programme packed with even more awesomeness. There are so many session highlights that it'd be an injustice to select only a few but you can check out the entire program and buy your tickets at the MJWF website. I can, however, tell you that we have Israeli rising star Nir Baram, New York favourite Jami Attenberg, intellectual force of nature Elana Sztockman, translator-extraordinaire Ann Goldstein (she of Elena Ferrante and Primo Levi fame) as well as local stars Arnold Zable, Gail Jones, Joan London, Mireille Juchau, Peter Singer, Alan Finkel and many, many more.



I'm excited to be doing two sessions. The first is called "The H Word" and will be looking at the future of Holocaust writing in a post-survivor world. I'll be moderating a rather formidable panel that includes Nir Baram, Mireille Juchau and Kate Forsyth. Eeeep.

For the second, I will stepping outside my comfort zone in a session called "The Necessary Jewish Poet", where five writers/entertainers/luminaries (and me) have been asked to select and speak about a poet who means something to them. Other than myself, the session features Robert Richter QC, Alex Skovron, Andrea Goldsmith and Evelyn Krape. I have chosen the very obscure Czech poet and mystic Georg Mordechai Langer who, among many claims to (now forgotten) fame, was Kafka's Hebrew teacher. Why I chose him, though... well, you'll have to wait and see (or hear).

I'll also be on The Books and Arts Show on ABC Radio National with Michael Cathcart tomorrow morning (Tuesday, May 17) so that's another tick off the bucket list! If you miss it, you'll be able to catch the podcast here.

The festival kicks off this Saturday night, May 21st, with a Gala Opening Night featuring Nir Baram, Jami Attenberg, Lally Katz, Alan Gold, Gary Abrahams, Grace Halphen, Nadine Davidoff, Lior and more. Be sure to head to the website and buy your tickets ASAP to both the Gala and whatever sessions you wish to attend because they are selling faster than bad semi-erotic S&M fiction!

A Voice in The Dark: Text of Launch Speech for In The Shadows of Memory

on Sunday, April 17, 2016
After a month hidden away at a writers' retreat, I resurfaced today to launch a fantastic book at the Jewish Museum of Australia. Okay, so it isn't a novel but it is on a topic that is very close to my heart. About two hundred people rocked up to watch it all go down and I've had a fair few requests to post my little spiel online somewhere. I figure this is as good a place as any. Sorry it's quite a bit longer than my usual yackathons but here goes!

In The Shadows of Memory: The Holocaust and the Third Generation (edited by Esther Jilovsky, Jordana Silverstein and David Slucki)
Sunday April 27 2016
Jewish Museum of Australia

What does it mean to carry the torch of memory?

How do we continue to bear witness when those who were there have all gone?

How do we heal so that inherited trauma and post memory do not come to define who we are while, at the same time, honour the suffering of those we loved, those we lost and those we never got the opportunity to know?

For the past few years I have been grappling with these questions as I seek to learn and write about the stories my grandparents could not bring themselves to tell. It is, I’m sure, a common challenge for those of us in the third generation. How do we make sense of our family history – with the benefit of time and distance - whether we heard it first hand, read it in a memoir, learnt it in whispered snippets or, as was my experience, read about it in a newspaper article years after they had died, when it was too late to ask questions?

As members of the third generation we are in an historically unique position. But for a few exceptions, we are the last ones that will know survivors. We are the bridge, we are the candle. It is both an honour and, I dare say, a burden. Our relationship with the Holocaust raises new, often difficult questions. Why then, have we shied away from discussing them?

When I first heard about In The Shadows of Memory, I realized, somewhat surprisingly, that the conversation had not yet been had in any meaningful way. There were, of course, cultural touchstones – works like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, Nicole Krauss’s The History of Love or, more recently The Replacement Life by Boris Fischman. But we had not yet shifted the lens of intellectual scrutiny from the first and second generations to our own. In The Shadows of Memory is, to my mind, the watershed moment for talking about and coming to understand the multiverse that is the Third Generation.

The breadth of what lies between the covers of this book is extraordinary. That the editors – Esther, Jordana and David – chose not fix it to any discipline but, rather, opened it to the many ways the third generation might seek to understand not only the Holocaust but their very identities makes this much more than you might expect. As they rightly note, it is much harder to characterize the third generation as some kind of homogenous group than those who preceded them. They incorporate “a whole array of religious, ethnic, political, national, sexual and gender identities”. And so we read pieces from all of these perspectives, whether it be a young Australian human rights lawyer reverse engineering her family history, a study of post memory and its effects on masculinity, a Romani scholar and musician interrogating the silences of her people’s Holocaust experience through song or the fieldwork of a young Jewish German anthropologist seeking to reconcile her national and religious identities.

In The Shadow of Memory also does not shy away from asking the difficult questions. What right do we have to tell the stories that our survivor grandparents did not want to be told? How do we share the trauma with other survivor groups who suffered – the Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, political prisoners, the disabled – to give their experiences legitimacy and meaning in more than just a tokenistic way? Can we find it within ourselves to sympathise with the other third generations – the grandchildren of perpetrators and those who were displaced in the creation of the State of Israel? And, of course, what active duties fall upon us to give meaning to the phrase Never Again?

What really sets this book apart, though, what makes it essential reading, is its deep humanity. Never before have I read an academic collection that eschews the rigid conventions of its form and allows us instead to view the writers at their most personal, their most vulnerable and their most fierce. These are not merely intellectual studies but vehicles for searing self-examination. That such a variety of great minds have dug deep into their personal histories and then turned their intellectual skills to examining what they found is not only fascinating but, also, intensely moving.

In The Shadows of Memory is, however, only the beginning of the conversation. It raises just as many questions as it might answer and, I have little doubt, will be the book to which countless writers, thinkers and casual readers will be turning long into the future. On a personal note, it really got me thinking about the role of the creative artist in perpetuating memory. Heeding Adorno’s famous clarion call, Jonathan Safran Foer is said to have stumbled, unsure of whether it was proper to imagine the Holocaust in fiction. I too struggle with this question – what is there left to say when there are so many iconic memoirs and novels by those who experienced it first hand? Who owns memory? How do we properly confront the taboos of Holocaust representation in respectful but fearless ways? I don’t pretend to know the answers, but in continuing on my quest I know that this book will remain an invaluable resource for thought and self-reflection.

As someone who devoured this book with a profound sense of appreciation and admiration, I would like to congratulate Esther Jilovsky, Jordana Silverstein and David Slucki as well as all of the contributing authors and, to officially launch this wonderful, essential book - In The Shadows of Memory: The Holocaust and the Third Generation.

That One Post In Which I Totally Lost My Shit and Fanboyed All Over The Place

on Wednesday, March 2, 2016
I tend not to live by mottos but if there's one to which I do subscribe it's this: Never meet your heroes because, more often than not, you will be crushingly disappointed. It's something that has, in my experience, been proven right time and time again. Back when I was schlepping around the world screaming into a rubber chicken (strapped to a microphone, I swear), I had the fantastically good fortune to meet and play with many people I had worshipped from afar. I wish I hadn't. The vast majority of them were arseholes. So it was with great trepidation that I went to see Jesse Ball, two time winner of Bait For Bookworms Book of the Year, speak tonight at The School of Life in my hometown of Melbourne.

Regular readers of this blog are well familiar with my almost religious fanaticism when it comes to Ball. Since his first novel, Samedi The Deafness, I have been entirely entranced by his ability to create believable otherworlds that mimic our own but cause us to reconsider reality as we experience it. Naturally, I was overjoyed to discover recently that he would be Australia and, as something of a bonus, was going to be speaking five minutes from where I live. I bought a ticket. In a Ballian (is that even a term?) world I would have bought several, so I could attend on multiple competing planes.

As it turned out, one proved sufficient to experience an entertaining and intellectually challenging discussion on social conformity. Myke Bartlett did a great job of teasing out some complex ideas without ever letting it disappear into an ether of pretentiousness. The discussion flew by, I got to ask a wanky question in garbled form and then came the moment of truth. I went up to introduce myself, knowing the bubble might well burst and... Jesse was absolutely lovely. Yes, I found myself chatting to a long time hero without being disillusioned in the slightest. What an absolute honour and delight it was. Jesse made his way to the signing desk where I unloaded my tote bag of books. All ten of them. I didn't want to push my luck. I said I'd pick only three. He laughed and signed them all. Then we chatted about Kobo Abe. Bliss.

Ok, so I realise I've just been totally fanboying here but I couldn't let it go by without mention. Perhaps, I'd have been better off simply posting this:



Lucid dreams, y'all.

Microviews Vol. 58: More Words From The Weird

on Monday, February 29, 2016
How To Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball
Here's something I thought I'd never say: Jesse Ball has written a relatively conventional story. Yes, five novels (plus apocrypha) into a truly extraordinary career and he has deigned to leave the singular world of his own making and grace us on earth with his presence for the sixth. That isn't to say that How To Set A Fire and Why is a 'normal' book by any stretch of the imagination, only that it unfolds in a world that the reader will recognise. All the more so if you're a fan of counter cultural film classics like Heathers, Gummo, SFW or pretty much anything made by Todd Solondz. Once again Ball gives us a young female protagonist, though Lucia is about as different from The Curfew's Molly as you could possibly get. She is, in many ways, your typical fucked-up teen. Father: gone. Mother: vegetating in a home, staring into the distance, her mind obliterated by early onset Alzheimers. School: A bust - she was kicked out of the last one and hates the new place. To top it off, she lives with her aunt, a loving but seemingly desiccated crone. Oh, and she is obsessed with fire. It's something with which I could instantly relate. What kid doesn't go through that stage? But Lucia takes it to a new level. Her father's Zippo is a thing to worship, to fight over, to connect her with the world. A few weeks into the school year and she learns of an underground arson club. It may or may not be legit but it's something she wants to join. From there the trajectory is set. She rattles it all off in short, sharp chapters that guarantee a good pace for the plethora of typical teen shenanigans built into the narrative: family drama, friends and frenemies, sexual exploration and exploitation, the desperate need for acceptance into something. Unfortunately, Lucia's circular obsessions border on painful at times and while I get the need to fill out her world, I couldn't help but feel she was overplayed. It seems to me that How To Set A Fire And Why is ultimately about "belonging". Jesse Ball uses this damaged teen to explore much bigger themes of fitting in and finding your place in the world. There is a noticeable irony, perhaps intentional, that this should be the book that sees him dabble with literary convention. He too is having a go at "fitting in". The novel builds toward the inevitable great arson moment, the point at which Lucia will set the fire that will destroy the world she despises, allowing her to leave her past behind and start anew. We all know it can't go well. Ball, however, leaves the ending open. There is every chance that this book is a declarative statement about his own endeavours: he simply doesn't belong in our formulaic, trope-laden literary world. He is, after all, the king of "the other", the prophet of the imaginative apocalypse. Hopefully, he will now return to those creative dreamscapes to which we acolytes have built our shrines. It would be a shame to have to set them on fire.
3.5 Out of 5 Kindling Sticks

The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray
Pity the poor brainiacs slaving away in their labs when a certain patent clerk happened upon his theory of relativity. All the more so if any one of them similarly formulated the theory but was beaten to the punch on having it published. So begins John Wray's intellectual supernova of a novel, The Lost Time Accidents. Told as a confession of sorts - a 'reckoning' - by the great grandson of Ottokar Gottfriedens Toula, professional pickler and amateur physicist, this weighty brick (in both the literal and metaphorical senses) will bend your mind in so many different ways that you'll be lucky to come out of it without your head pounding. From the cafes of Vienna to the crowded streets of New York City, Wray takes in the best and worst the 20th century threw at us and makes a rich stew of complex ideas and hilarious set pieces with a whole bunch of pointed satirical barbs. There's so much to be said about this book but I'll try limit myself to a few very notable points. First up, the obvious: The Lost Time Accidents is a pretty unsubtle satire on the Church of Scientology. Here, the narrator's father, Orson Card Tolliver, is a D-Grade sci-fi writer whose unremarkable output becomes the basis for a batshit crazy cult, The Church of Synchronicity. Next up, some historical appropriation: the narrator is taken in by his twin aunts, eccentric New York socialites who become battier as the days go by until they are locked up in their apartment surrounded by the junk they've hoarded. Collyer brothers anyone? Then there's the references to any number of classic pulp sci-fi novels (hell, the dad's name is a play on Orson Scott Card). Not to mention the quite brilliant interweaving of an Holocaust subplot that is as morally challenging as it is harrowing. Uncle Waldemar, after whom our narrator is named, was a Nazi war criminal known as the Timekeeper of Czas, who tested his various theories about time on Jews and other prisoners in the camp. Needless to say, he killed a good many of them. His legacy would be problem enough for any grand-nephew, but it's all the more troubling because it's quite apparent that he is able to move through time and hide away in the present. Or perhaps young Waldy is Great Uncle Waldemar reincarnated. To some degree, The Lost Time Accidents can be read as a companion piece to another extraordinary novel, Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Just replace comic books with theoretical physics. Like Chabon, the depth and breadth of Wray's book is nothing short of astounding. In telling the story of four generations of a broken family, and positing it all on a non-linear plane, he is able to challenge many of our assumptions about ourselves and the weight of history as it presses upon our shoulders. It is also damn funny and you will often smirk when he sticks it to some some very recognisable targets. I suspect it's the kind of book that rewards multiple reading and, if it weren't so long, I'd probably give it a go. Or maybe, in a parallel universe, I already have. Thankfully, in another, I will have the pleasure of reading it for the first time.
4.5 Out Of 5 Black Holes

The Children's Home by Charles Lambert
Some books simply defy categorisation. Sure, there are thematic or conceptual touchstones, but the particular mix is so beguiling, so confounding that you just have to give yourself over to its singularity. The Children's Home is one of those books. A few pages in and I was wondering, "What the fuck is this?" Strange kids turn up at the secluded, fortified mansion of Morgan, a disfigured hermit. No reason is given for their appearance. No explanation is given as to who Morgan is or what he is doing in the house. The children are tended to by Engel, a warm but mysterious housekeeper, who takes each one in without question. Soon enough the house overflows with kids, like some forgotten Victorian orphanage. Then there's the stuff about the intricate, anatomically-correct wax figures. Yikes. As I tumbled down the cliff of incomprehension I grasped out frantically for twigs of familiarity. Is it a classic gothic? A horror story, perhaps? Might it be something Hitchcock would had written before palming it off to M. Night Shyamalan? But I sensed an eerie tinge of Children of the Corn in there too, not to mention JG Ballard's unsettling novella, Running Wild. Gaston Leroux gets a look in too, with Morgan's obvious likeness to the Phantom of the Opera (the novel, not the musical). To be fair, Lambert does lace the tale with allusions to what's going on. The hermit is an ostracised member of the ruling family. There is some kind of terrible war being waged outside the walls of the house, rendering it the last oasis of serenity and, perhaps, salvation. The kids... ah... nope. Nothing. About halfway through, when government agents arrived to investigate the children's presence, I decided to just give up on my pathetic attempts to pigeonhole the book and commit myself to its world. With the agents banging on the door, the kids disappear. A sympathetic doctor, who visits Morgan and tends to his and the children's needs, tricks the agents into leaving but they soon return and a tense showdown ensues at the end of which one little girl is taken away. To save her, Morgan must venture outside the gates, into the ravaged land, and face down his sister. Lambert remains aloof on what it all might mean, except for one passage that suggests an anchor in time - World War 2 - and the tragic fate of many children in the Holocaust. That said, almost every other identifying factor points to some near-future dystopia so it's hard to ever feel you've quite got the grasp of what's happening. The Children's Home is a dark yet wholly enthralling novel. I doubt I'll read anything quite like it again this year but that's ok; I can only cope with the ghosts of so many children if I wish to remain sane.
4.5 Out of 5 Spectral Diapers

Microviews Vol. 57: A Word From The Weird

on Sunday, February 28, 2016
This Census-Taker by China Miéville
A strange boy comes running down a hill into the nearby village to report that his father has just killed his mother. So begins China Miéville's unsettling but almost hypnotic new novella, This Census-Taker. A search party is mobilised and an investigation of sorts is carried out. The mother is indeed missing but there is nothing to suggest foul play. It's hard to tell whether this is Miéville's Curious Incident Of The Dog In the Nighttime; has the boy misinterpreted his mother's desertion or did something more sinister actually happen? It is quickly apparent that the villagers don't want to upset the boy's father. He is the maker of keys, talismans that promise the fulfilment of their deepest desires. But he may also be a killer. If only they could penetrate the great chasm in the mountains where the boy says he throws the bodies. The whole thing comes to nought and the investigations abates until, one day, a census taker appears and takes the boy on as an apprentice. At which point it gets weird. Some readers (and critics) have been panning the book for its obtuseness and seeming lack of direction. I really don't get their gripe. Sure, it unfolds like the incantations of a fever dream, but This Census-Taker is Miéville at his genre-defying best.
4 Out Of 5 Shifting Realities

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue
In what I can only interpret as a sly dig at David Foster Wallace and his massive masterpiece Infinite Jest, Álvaro Enrigue opens his something-resembling-a-novel with the assertion that no great books have been written about tennis. The instant tethering of the two writers is fitting - Sudden Death is the kind of formality-averse, scattered intellectual mindfuck you'd expect from the late, great master of meta fiction. In as much as there is a story, it revolves around a 16th century tennis match between a poet and artist (you don't discover their identities until very late in the book), the result of which will determine the fate of Europe. The narrative is nominal - we get the occasional description of a point as it is played. Bets are placed, balls are thwacked into... well... balls. You get the drift. The rest of the book is an historical exposition of European conquest, especially as it stretched to and destroyed Enrigue's homeland, Mexico, interspersed with factoids, tidbits and correspondence about tennis. Central to it all is Enrigue's hilarious concoction of a set of tennis balls made from the locks shorn from Ann Boleyn's head before her execution. It is all delivered with po-faced seriousness, making it quite the romp to read. A completely original, confounding and exhilarating experience.
4 Out of 5 Djokovics

When The Professor Got Stuck In The Snow by Dan Rhodes
Dan Rhodes sure has a thing for sacred cows. Particularly, he likes to slaughter them, mince them and serve them up as hamburgers of hilarity to his quite sizeable cult following. I've long had a thing for his brand of Grade A prissy patty and am always eager to see quite how far he is willing to push his luck. If we're to believe the hype, his latest novel is the one that finally crossed the line. No publisher was willing to touch it with a ten foot pole for fear of the ensuing lawsuits. And this from people who were happy to publish books about shitting as performance art. Alas, this time he picked on too precious a subject - the cult of Richard Dawkins. In what probably seemed like a funny idea at the time, Rhodes's latest book dumps an insufferably prattish Dawkins - brimming with pomposity, arrogance, stupidity and self-righteousness - in a country town full of devout Christians when a massive snow storm cuts off the road to Upper Bottom (get it? Ha ha. Snore.) where he is scheduled to give a speech. A few chortle-worthy gags gets things off to a good start (the continuous confusion of Dawkins and Stephen Hawking is a particular delight) but any mirthful warmth soon freezes over as the tale drags on in repetitive and not overly exciting fashion. A battle of nitwits ensues; the professor and the local vicar have it out over the dinner table, giving Rhodes a chance to lambaste both sides of the science/religion debate for their respective idiocies. It's all a mild distraction and might have made for a good short story but at novel length it very much overstays its welcome. There is a small chance this went unpublished for the reasons Rhodes would have us believe but I suspect there is a much more prosaic reason: it just isn't very good. Certainly not of the usual brilliance of this literary jester.
2.5 Out Of 5 Neanderthals