When High Praise Isn't Enough: The Curfew by Jesse Ball

on Thursday, June 30, 2011
Forget all the names you've seen in The New Yorker's Twenty Under Forty list. They were mere flights of hipster sycophancy. Tea who? Gary what? The most exciting, original and flat out incredible young writer at work today is Jesse Ball. Three novels and two collections of poetry (plus a volume of collected prose and poetry) into his career and he has yet to set a foot wrong. Admittedly, I'm not all that au fait with the poetic form, but by all accounts his poems are better than his novels and, if that is true, well step aside T. S. Elliot or Ezra Pound. I can speak only of his prose, but both the absurdist noir Samedi The Deafness, and the existential adventure The Way Through Doors rank among my favourite books of the modern era. It really comes down to one thing. Ball is the most unique voice to appear in ages. He has the unhinged imagination of the great surrealists (Alfred Jarry in particular springs to mind), the compelling narrative gusto of the master storytellers and a lyrical beauty that is just unfair in someone so young.

His latest novel, The Curfew, has just been released to minor fanfare but if there is any justice in this world it ought to propel him to literary stardom. Once again, Ball has created a familiar yet unsettling world and filled it with interesting, challenging characters. This one was always going to speak to me. William writes epitaphs, using a new pencil for each entry in his notebook. He used to be a violinist. But that was before the government banned music. And started causing its more pesky citizens to 'disappear'. William's wife Lousia vanishes one day, leaving him to care for their young, mute daughter Molly. It is a task he goes about in wistful earnest; the interactions between the two are heartbreaking yet still somehow affirming. The first part of the novel deals with William juggling his job with the realities of raising a daughter while coming to terms with his own grief. All is going swimmingly until he bumps into an old acquaintance who intimates that he knows what happened to Louisa. It is a moment of Dashiell Hammett gumshoe homage - "Meet me at place X at time Y" - a sly, humorous nod to his previous work that propels the story in an urgent, new direction. William leaves Molly in the care of his elderly neighbours, and breaks the citywide curfew in the hope of finally finding out what became of his wife. Although the book is perfectly charming up to this point, it isn't until Part Two, when Molly enters the neighbour's apartment, that Ball really comes into his own. Mr. Gibbons is a puppeteer of old, with a fully-functioning puppet theatre set up in his lounge room. While his wife potters about the place, Mr. Gibbons draws Molly into the reconstruction of each of his puppets, having her dictate in pencil (he doesn't understand sign language) who each of them might represent in her life. Part Three is brief and painful, recounting William's search for Lousia, and the shocking events of that night. Part Four is pure Ball - experimental yet mesmerising - a puppet show in prose form, acting out the story of William and Louisa's courtship, marriage and awful fate. It is a slice of meta-fiction that very quickly devolves into Kafkaesque horror. I don't want to spoil anything here but suffice it to say, Ball follows each suckerpunch with a kick to the nuts. He is uninterested in making the reader feel good or even comfortable. And that, dear bookworm, is a very good thing.

The Curfew is an important book, short (200-odd pages) but with considerable moral weight. It is both a beautiful meditation on parenthood, and a damning indictment on the ease with which a functioning state might slump into totalitarianism. With the help of a few decrepit marionettes, Ball has fashioned a thoroughly believable modern nightmare, dripping with beauty and specked with moments of true magic that only serve to increase its terrible effect. Indeed, it is the author who is the ultimate puppeteer and he jerks us around with ease. Like the two novels that came before it, The Curfew is an exercise in imaginative experimentation. And once again it works a treat, making Jesse Ball the only author not to ever have disappointed me. Like the great chroniclers that have come before him, Ball should be required reading for anyone and everyone trying to make sense of our times. He is playful, puzzling and packs serious intellectual heat. High praise? I dare say I still fail to do him justice.

Exhuming a Messiah: Pure by Andrew Miller

on Saturday, June 25, 2011
When Andrew Miller first appeared on the scene with his dazzling debut Ingenious Pain, I thought I'd found the new messiah. Immediately appointing myself high priest and chief proselytiser, I began shouting his name from every rooftop, stockpiling copies of the book to give out to my friends on their birthdays and clearing large spaces on my shelves to house what was destined to be his glorious ouevre. But then I made a a terrible mistake. I put down money - serious money - on him to win the Booker, which pretty much set the wheels of disappointment in motion for the next decade. There was no prize. There wasn't even a nomination. Sure, it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Premio Grinzane Cavour and, a few years later, the Dublin IMPAC but it was overlooked for the big one in favour of Arundhati Roy! And that was only the beginning.

Second-album slump hit Miller hard. His follow-up, Casanova In Love, was so damn awful that even had the Booker Consolation Committee wanted to give him a nod they just couldn't. I blamed myself and forgave him, then anxiously awaited number three. Oxygen, which did get shortlisted, was an alright novel, but lacked any of the imaginative flair of the debut. It was followed by an impostor (the other Andrew Miller wrote a rather quirky family memoir, The Earl of Petticoat Lane) and another slice of mediocrity - The Optimists. Then there was, One Morning Like A Bird. Yawn. Yet, for some strange reason (well, because Ingenious Pain remains one of my favourite novels of all time), Miller never lost his spot on my D.E.A.R. authors list. No matter what he puts out, I will drop everything and read it.

So now, almost fifteen years and four crap books from the initial revelation comes Pure, Miller's peculiar tale of digging up and relocating thousands of bodies from Paris's Les Innocents cemetery to make way for urban expansion. Obviously, the delicious irony is not lost on me; Miller's career might well be resurrected by a book about exhuming the dead. All the signs were good. Part of what made Ingenious Pain so great was the incredibly atmospheric evocation of pre-Revolution Russia and, in Pure, it seems Miller is intent on turning that same attention to pre-Revolutionary France. The guy has a serious knack for using history to great effect, both in how he portrays it and what contemporary parallels he can draw from it. Clearly the publishers thought they were onto a good thing. In this age of battling the e-book, Pure is a welcome relief, a stunning, embossed cloth hardcover that is as beautiful to touch as it is to gaze upon. But it's what lies between the covers that counts, and on that front I'm thrilled to say that Miller is back.

It is 1785 and Jean Baptiste Baratte, a young engineer from Normandy, is charged with the destruction of the cemetery and church at Les Halles. Holed up at a nearby guest house, he assembles a team of Belgian miners to dig up and cart away the bodies that are overflowing from the mass graves and stinking out the city. It is a stomach-churning task, taken on with scientific objectivity and pragmatic gusto. Hints of disease, infection, superstition and resentment creep in from all sides, made all the more ominous thanks to Miller's subtle, perfectly-pitched prose. In less deft hands, this novel would sink into a moribund abyss. Yet Miller maintains a lightness throughout, peppering the story with a varied and often hilariously grotesque cast of characters. There's Barratte's sidekick Lacouer, driven mad by the enormity of the undertaking; Colbert and Armand, the church's organist and priest, ministers both to an evaporated congregation; the Monnard family, with whom the engineer lives and whose daughter he briefly loves before she tries to kill him. And of course there's a few dastardly doctors and government types, ones you know will one day end up on the guillotine (if only because one of them is actually named Guillotin). Even Damiens, the executioner made famous in Foucault's Discipline and Punish, gets a look in.

Beyond the exhumation itself and the personal growth of Baratte, nothing much happens in Pure. It doesn't build to a narrative crescendo, though I suspect the final destruction of the church was meant to have a more cataclysmic feel about it. Unlike James Dyer in Ingenious Pain, Baratte is not the sort of character to whom one might feel any great attachment. And yet there is something about him and the book as a whole that completely captivated me. I read it in one sitting, late into the night. I still can't put my finger on what was lacking - I've never before had such a satisfying yet hollow reading experience - but niggling doubts aside, Pure is one of the best books I've read this year. All is forgiven, Mr. Miller. Welcome back old friend!

A Joycean Flippancy!

on Friday, June 17, 2011
Yesterday was June 16 - Bloomsday - a 24 hour window for James Joyce fanatics to work themselves into varying states of apoplectic frenzy in commemoration of good ol' Leo Bloom's stroll around Dublin. Personally, I couldn't give a crap about Joyce or the day, but something rather peculiar did happen to me that I couldn't let go without comment. I was crossing the road, having just left The Avenue Bookstore, when a Mini Minor whizzed past me. Its driver looked familiar, a face from a bygone era. One that I had only encountered previously in black and white. At first I thought it was Nietzsche, but the head was too narrow, the glasses too small. No, it was most definitely James Joyce. The date didn't even strike me at the time. I made a random, joking Facebook status update about it and a couple of people reminded me it was Bloomsday. How weird. I was almost run over by the great man himself on the day set aside by officionados of the impenetrable to commemorate his greatest work. Yes, yes... I realise how ridiculous I sound. I know it couldn't have actually been him. But seriously folks, what are the chances?

Notes From Your Local Bookstore's Funeral

Aussie politicians say the darndest things. For thirty-five odd years I have merrily chuckled along, sometimes with them (thank you Paul Keating and Jeff Kennett), sometimes at them (take a bow Tony Abbott). So how's this for a gag? "In five years, other than a few specialist booksellers in capital cities, we will not see a bookstore, they will cease to exist." So declared Nick Sherry, Federal Minister for Small Business (which, last time I checked, included bookstores), in a speech he gave at some event of little importance (read: free lunch) a couple of days ago. Granted he was sucking up to his audience - online retailers - and he has probably never walked into a bookstore other than Borders or Club X (hey, he spends time in Canberra, it's de rigueur), but surely he must have been taking the piss!

Okay, so the book world is in a state of flux. And yes, lots of people - myself included - are buying books online. I might even agree that there is a grim future for the book-barn type of store, as evidenced by the recent collapse of a certain book-as-commodity giant. But the suggestion that the small and medium sized indie stores might go under, especially within five years, is just absurd. I have garbled on before about the future of "real" books (as opposed to e-books), and I imagine the same goes for the shops that sell them. The digital/online threat only applies to certain sectors of the industry, generally those that can just as easily be peddled in supermarkets as bookstores. But even that doesn't mean we can expect Tapas bars (or whatever the next fungal fad might be) in the places of our beloved book haunts. Many real bookstores already have the ability to sell e-books and, in the next five years, I expect more will sign on. Evolution is inevitable, but it sure ain't going to lead to extinction. Quite the opposite, in fact.

As for the great Amazon conundrum (especially when the Aussie dollar is totally killing it), Sherry's prediction assumes that buying books is an either/or proposition when it simply is not. I buy online and I buy in store. I imagine there are many more book lovers just like me. No online experience can possibly match the pure comfort and joy of browsing in a bookstore, or chatting with knowledgeable staff about what you or they have been reading. Serious readers develop meaningful, nerdtastic relationships with booksellers. Amazon often 'suggests' books I might like to read, but they don't know me and, no matter how complex their predictive algorithms, they don't really have a way of understanding what I might feel like buying on a particular day. A good book store is more than a commercial enterprise; it is a gathering place, a hub, a home away from home for the literary minded. That's the thing Nick Sherry fails to understand. In five years' time I expect to still be standing in any one of my favourite local indie stores. What I can't guarantee is that I'll remember the name Nick Sherry.

Bonkers in The Balkans: I Hate Martin Amis Et Al by Peter Barry

on Thursday, June 16, 2011
You've got to have pretty big cojones to call your first book "I Hate Martin Amis Et Al", especially if you are an unknown Aussie writer. So kudos to Peter Barry on that. You sir, have come up with the best title for a book in years. But you have, in borrowing the once great author's name, also set yourself a very big challenge. Will it be Money or, God forbid, Yellow Dog? Natural aversion to Australian writing aside, I'm glad to say it is very much the former. Milan Zorec is one extremely fucked up guy. A failed novelist, he joins Mladic's army during the 1995 Balkan War (yes, timely, I know), not out of any ideological Serbian inclinations but to experience something original, something publishers cannot say they've seen before. While hiding in his sniper's nest, he indulges in fantasies of revenge against publishers and literary agents who have passed him over, reliving one particular incident that crushed his spirit with an odd mix of nostalgia and malice. With its rumination on the state of modern literature, some fairly successful lampooning of the brighter literary lights, and a terrifying glimpse into a conflict that is only beginning to get the attention it deserves from the book world, I Hate Martin Amis Et Al is an excellent, twisted novel.

A Final Consolation?: The Girl In The Polka Dot Dress by Beryl Bainbridge

on Tuesday, June 7, 2011
So will bridesmaid Beryl belatedly bag a bona fide Booker? It's as hard a question to answer as it is to ask five times quickly. Two years after her death, Beryl Bainbridge's final novel, The Girl In The Polka Dot Dress, has finally seen the light of day. It's as if, in a scene reminiscent of Monty Python, the great Dame has popped her head out of the grave to remind us all that she is "not dead yet!" and demanded to be back in contention. The weight of goodwill alone should put her in good stead. I mean, everyone loves Beryl. Not enough to ever give her a Booker, but certainly enough to invent a special one just for her. Now it appears the Best of Beryl might have been a tad premature. Stop the press! A carcass might actually take home the big one, either on merit or, like Ian McEwan's Amsterdam, as a consolation prize. Could it possibly be true?

The short answer, I'm afraid to say, is no. Indeed, not only does Bainbridge stand little chance of winning, but I'd be surprised if she were even invited to be in the wedding party. The Girl In The Polka Dot Dress supposedly draws on the author's personal experience of a road trip she took across America in the late 60's and reframes it to imagine the mysterious girl (Bainbridge calls her Rose) who was implicated in the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. It is episodic, picaresque and takes on all the classic tropes of the buddy novel. Rose even gets a gruff American sidekick, the brooding, questionably-motived Harold. It also has an element of Conrad's Heart of Darkness, the idea of a stranger in a strange land - this time a prissy girl in overwhelming middle America - searching for a mysterious guru, Dr. Wheeler. Alas, none of it really works to lift this beyond the barely functional. I never came to care about Rose, nor whether she would find the elusive doctor. Harold was an irritating stick in the mud. Every stop on the journey came across as a contrived set piece to expose a slice - sometimes seedy, often irrelevant - of America. Even the brief encounters with Sirhan Sirhan, which I'm sure were meant to fill the reader with dread, failed to stir me.

The Girl In The Polka Dot Dress will go down as a minor work in the Bainbridge canon, if it is remembered at all. Consolation prizes aside, I'd be shocked to it see on any list come October especially given the calibre of Commonwealth fiction coming out this year. But let's face it. Beryl doesn't need another consolation prize. It would be beneath her, so to speak. The time has now come to let this sleeping Dame lie!

Battle of The Sexist: Nitwit Naipual Does It Again!

on Friday, June 3, 2011
I tend not to begrudge writers their Nobel Prizes, but holy crap... V.S. Naipaul... I'm speechless. Before he won the thing he was shameless in his fishing attempts. Not that anyone cares about author's biographies on the inside flap of books, but Naipaul had the wankiest line of all time in his. It read (and I paraphrase here), "V.S. Naipaul has won every major literary award in the world except the Nobel Prize." Wow. Staggering. I guess he was confident that when - there was no "if" for Naipaul - he did win it, all his works would have to be reprinted, at which time he could remove the line and replace it with something to the effect of "In 2001, V.S. Naipaul was the greatest writer ever to win the Nobel Prize, an award that was invented over a century before and only given out as practice for when they could finally build up the courage to bestow it upon such an extraordinary human being."

By all accounts Naipaul is a shit. Just ask his old buddy Paul Theroux. Heck, Naipaul even makes Saramago look like a saint. So about three minutes after apparently swallowing a fraction of his pride (and broadcasting it on The New Yorker website), the schmuck has gone and done it again. In an interview with the Royal Geographic Society, he deigned to say that no female writer is his literary equal. Not even Jane Austen. The reason? A woman's "sentimentality, the narrow view of the world... Inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too." There are so many things wrong with that statement I don't even know where to start.

Suffice to say, as good a writer as Naipaul might be, his embarrassingly limited appreciation for anyone other than himself is laughable. Or maybe we've just misunderstood him. Perhaps it was a rare admission of his own fallibility. Then again there's something to his statement. I can't think of many women writers who are his equal. His superior, sure, but not his equal. Oh wait... Wait... Alert the press. I just thought of someone I'd put on par with him. Yes, it's fellow Nobel laureate Elfriede Jelinek. Ooooh... That must hurt.