Big (though not Best) Books of 2011: Murakami's 1Q84 and Eco's The Prague Cemetery

on Tuesday, November 29, 2011
Ok, let me knock over two of the biggest books of the year with the shortest reviews you are likely to read of them.

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
There's a certain sense of achievement one is supposed to feel upon finishing a thousand page book. I remember feeling it when I closed Infinite Jest, despite the frustratingly abrupt ending. Others have told me of a similar feeling with War and Peace. To us readers, the thousand page book is our everest. Why then did I feel nothing with Haruki Murakami's much-lauded new brick, 1Q84? I was so excited for it to come out, and was instantly enthralled by its pacy, off-kilter beginning. It had me hoping that the book would turn out to be the 12-inch megamix of my favourite Murakami novel, A Wild Sheep Chase. But as the dual storyline progressed - Aomame, the righteous assassin, executing wife-beating scum and Tengo, the hack wannabe novelist, roped into rewriting the mysterious novella (or perhaps revelation) of the 17-year-old daughter of a cult leader - I slowly began to feel a disconnect that I still cannot explain. There is something vaguely China Mieville-ish about the whole thing; the multi-layered contemplation of duality, the peculiar sci-fi tropes, even the echo of a Shakespearean romance. And yet I found it all lacking in substance. Murakami didn't really seem to be saying anything. Eight hundred pages in and I was praying for it to end. Indeed, if I didn't have my annoying book-finishing OCD, I'd have put it down. Reading 1Q84 is like eating forty litres of sorbet. But at least my wish sort of came true. 1Q84 was a wild sheep chase. Just not in the way I'd hoped!

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco is a literary force of nature. Nary a year goes by without something from him, be it a philosophical treatise or a complex work of literary theory. His novels are much fewer and far between, and so the arrival of each one is heralded as a major event amongst book nerds. When I first heard about The Prague Cemetery, fireworks exploded in my heart. A novel by one of the greatest historical fiction writers, revolving around an alleged event in my second homeland, about one of the darkest periods in the history of the Jewish people. It's like Eco was writing the thing just for me. The moment it arrived at my doorstep I plunged in head first, sans floaties, and was overcome by a sensation I'd never before associated with Eco; mirth. The first chapter of The Prague Cemetery is damn funny. Yes, so full of piss and vinegar is the narrator Simonini that I had to stop reading periodically just to catch my breath. No religious group comes out unscathed in those first few pages - Jews, Muslims, Freemasons, Jesuits, you name it. And for the next four-hundred pages he just doesn't let up. Simonini is a master forger, and as such is well-placed to be an important player in the raging conspiracy-mongering of late-Nineteenth century Europe. From minor frauds to the Dreyfus Affair and ultimately the greatest forgery of them all, The Protocols of The Elders of Zion, Eco posits Simonini as the scoundrel behind them all (though, in a poor plot decision, he gives Simonini a Hyde-like alter ego to operationalise the unrelenting vitriol). As always with Eco the writing is flawless and the research impeccable (pretty much everyone in the book bar Simonini and one or two others actually existed), but there is something unsettling about the whole undertaking which only becomes apparent as the novel progresses. What I first took to be hilarious soon became grating and then, borderline offensive. Although I realise it was done for a certain end, and it might have been redeemed in the final couple of chapters, there was an air of ambiguity about the anti-semitism which, if read by the uninformed reader, might add fuel to the conspiracies Eco is lampooning. Ultimately it is a dangerous gamble that might only have partially paid off.

The Bookworm, Exposed: My First Published Story

on Wednesday, November 23, 2011
After one hundred and seventy-odd posts about other people's writing, I figure I might be forgiven for taking a brief moment to yap on about some writing of my own. Next week sees the release of the seventh volume of The Sleepers Almanac which, for those who don't know, is an always-exciting compendium of short stories by new and established writers, put out annually by Australia's finest independent publisher, Sleepers. The publication of the first six volumes were, to me, worthy of celebration, but I'm shouting this one from the rooftops because it contains my first piece of published fiction (as opposed to the reams of newspaper columns, reviews and academic articles), a story called "The Prisoner of Babel". I'm told the story is funny, though I thought it horrifying when writing it. I guess, as I told the editor, one cannot judge one's own children (actually I told her that I was willing to accept that my child is a little shit, even if I can't see it). Either way, hopefully, you'll like it because right about now I feel like I'm standing in front of the class naked!

The Sleepers Almanac is being launched at Bella Union Bar in Trades Hall (corner Lygon Street and Victoria Street, Carlton in Melbourne) at 6.30pm on Thursday December 1. Jessica Au will be hosting the show and I shall be doing a brief reading from my story, as will four of the other authors, Rosanna Stevens, Julie Koh, Eric Dando and Pierz Newton-John. If you're in Melbourne and can drag yourself away from the computer screen for an hour, please come down and help celebrate great Australian writing (hey, it'll be worth it just to find out if Pierz is related to Olivia and Eric is related to Evan). If you are unable to make it to the launch, make sure you pick up a copy of the Almanac at your favourite independent bookstore when you next stop in. There will also be a Sleepers Almanac iPhone App, but more on that as it comes to hand.

Costa Kicks Booker's Butt

on Thursday, November 17, 2011
Just when you thought it was safe to click your way back to B4BW without having to hear me rant about literary prizes, along come the Costas. But wait... You're never going to believe it. I actually like the shortlist! In the year that the Booker Prize committee criminally failed to recognise a number of awesome books, Team Costa have picked up the slack. Actually, I'm really only talking about one book: Pure by Andrew Miller. One of the great Booker bridesmaids, poor Andy probably thought he had it in the bag when he wrote his best novel since Ingenious Pain. But no, instead they go and give a nod to the other Andrew Miller (aka A. D. Miller) for his lacklustre Russian 'thriller', Snowdrops. Perhaps they just made a clerical error on the day they announced the long list and then felt compelled to keep up the ruse by pushing it all the way to the shortlist. Apparently egg is much harder to spot on people's faces from such lofty heights.

Anyway, I'm gunning for the real Andrew Miller to take out the Costa for best novel. He'll have stiff competition though. The other shortlisted titles are John Burnside's A Summer of Drowning, Louisa Young's My Dear I Wanted To Tell You and the great, giant-killing midget of a novel, Julian Barnes's The Sense Of An Ending. It's interesting to note that only one of the four was considered by the Booker committee and it was the one that went on to win the bloody thing. Another Booker longlisted novel has made it to the shortlist for the Costa Prize for a First Novel. Patrick McGuinness's The Last Hundred Days is facing off with the much-hyped City of Bohane by Kevin Barry as well as Christie Watson's Tiny Sunbirds Far Away and Kerry Young's Pao.

Both Costa fiction lists are interesting, considered and, ironically, more literary than the Booker shortlist. I've always been a fan of the Costa Prize (and its previous incarnation, The Whitbread Awards) and this year really rams it home. By picking up the other prizes' slack, the Costas might yet become the premiere British literary award. Which, I guess, would make the Booker the ultimate bridesmaid.

Premium Drafts: On Publishing Discarded Or Otherwise Unfinished Works

on Wednesday, November 16, 2011
Legend has it that my favourite book of all time never got past the drafting stage. Truth is, there's no way to know how close to completion Franz Kafka's The Trial actually was but I suspect that it was much further down the track than Max Brod would have had us believe. Same goes for David Foster Wallace's The Pale King, irrespective of the hoo-ha that accompanied its release earlier this year. The only thing that monolith lacked was a good edit. Either way, at least both of those books can be read as entire works which is more than can be said for 2009's publishing sensation (read: fraud), The Original of Laura by Vladimir Nabokov; a few cue cards, beautifully presented but ultimately inconsequential. Nabokov would have choked on a butterfly had he known his jumbled thoughts would see the light of day.

The publication of unfinished works is hardly new, but for some reason we seem to currently be drowning in a sea of offcuts. Even as I write, Arthur Conan Doyle's The Narrative of John Smith, written before the appearance of Sherlock Holmes, is hitting bookstore shelves worldwide. So what's with this deluge of (for the most part) dross? Perhaps it is a crass money-grabbing exercise by publishers who are reluctant to invest in new talent at a time when the book market is in such an extreme state of flux. Maybe demand is dictating supply; readers are simply desperate for words from the grave by authors they know and love. Or maybe it is a toast to a disappearing process; we read abandoned drafts because, thanks to the scourge of technology (and yes I appreciate the irony of bitching about it on a blog), 'drafts' as such are likely to become a thing of the past. Most likely it's a combination of all these. And more.

Having read a fair number of these 'newly discovered' drafts I can safely say that very few do anything to further the names of their authors. There is, however, one wonderful exception and, not surprisingly, it comes from one of the most exciting small publishing houses in business today. Without fanfare, Other Press has just put out Two Friends by Alberto Moravia. Regular readers would know how much I love Italy's post-war litgod. Yep, I'd read pretty much anything with his name on it. Thankfully, Two Friends is more than the preliminary scribblings of a great mind. Indeed, what makes it particularly enticing is that it was written (and abandoned) between my two favourite Moravia novels, The Conformist (1951) and Contempt (1954) and not only shows the development of his political thinking but does so three times over. You see, Two Friends isn't just one draft. It is three. Each with significant differences - in perspective, outcome and emphasis. The central question, however, is the same: to what extent will an individual compromise their personal morality to the greater cause? Sergio desperately wants to convince his rich friend Maurizio to join the Communist Party. Maurizio isn't the slightest bit interested but seizes the opportunity to play with Sergio's heart and test his conviction by offering an indecent proposal. He will join the party if, and only if, Sergio can convince his beautiful, loyal girlfriend to sleep with his him.

All three versions have their strengths, but it is the second that really shines. Taken on its own, it would have made a creditable addition to the Moravia canon. It is therefore intriguing to think that Moravia went on to discard many of its strongest aspects in draft three before ultimately giving up altogether. Reading this book in its entirety provides a prescient warning for budding authors: keep your drafts because sometimes it takes failed progress to appreciate what you already have. I hope other publishers now learn from Other Press's example and only publish unfinished works for which there are multiple drafts. Cobbling together a "final product" does the writer a disservice. There is, after all, a reason the thing was abandoned. However, exposing the entire process gives the reader a remarkable insight into the literary mind. Plus it doesn't hurt to be reminded that our heroes don't just click their fingers and have a masterpiece appear.

Best Books of 2011: The Submission by Amy Waldman

on Monday, November 14, 2011
I'm going to try and pepper the rest of my 2011 posts with reviews of the best books of the year. They won't be in any particular order and, of course, on December 31 I'll post my full annual Top 10. So here goes with one that I'm sure we will be seeing on almost every Best of '11 list:

The Submission by Amy Waldman

The terrorist attacks of September 11 2001 have proven a spectacular stumbling block for America’s literary giants. Don Delillo failed dismally with his novel, Falling Man. John Updike similarly penned a stinker called Terrorist. Indeed, it took an Irish expat, Colum McCann to write the first great novel about that terrible day; Let The Great World Spin came out in 2009 and has yet to be surpassed as a work of true compassion, subtlety and insight. And it didn't even mention the attacks.

Now it seems a debut novelist has written the first great post-September 11 American novel, one which captures the pulse of a nation crippled by fear and grief on the one hand and buoyed by hope and defiance on the other. The Submission rests on a simple premise: the city of New York holds a blind competition to design the permanent memorial at Ground Zero. The selection committee, made up of government lackies, socialites and a single representative of the victims’ families, reviews the submissions without knowing the names of the entrants. Following considerable argument, they defer to the preference of the victim’s representative, Claire Burwell, and choose a beautiful garden surrounded by walls with the names of the fallen, only to discover its creator is one Mohammad Khan. Hardly the apple pie name they had hoped for.

What follows is a mad scramble to backtrack, justify and second-guess in which Waldman subjects all sides to wide-ranging excoriation. There are the obvious targets: the press who feast on the controversy and lace their stories with half-truths and sensationalist provocations; the flag-waving zealots baying for blood, who start a wave of racist attacks on Muslim women, pulling off their burqas at every opportunity; the flip-flop politicos who chase the vote at the expense of even the most basic decency; and, of course, the Muslim extremists seeking to co-opt Khan for their cause.

To her credit, Waldman is not satisfied simply taking easy pot shots. Even the more sympathetic characters have agendas and are prone to infuriating thoughts and actions. Burwell is divisive and self-righteous. Khan himself is arrogant and unwilling to do anything to quell the controversy. Only Asma Aswan, a woman whose husband wasn’t listed among the victims because he was an illegal immigrant sweeping the Trade Centre’s floors, comes across as truly innocent but hers is ultimately the saddest fate.

For the first three quarters, The Submission is an almost perfect novel, examining the dangers of knee-jerk reactions and questioning what it means to be a victim, what it means to be Muslim and, ultimately, what it means to be American in the wake of the this century's defining moment. Unfortunately, Waldman veers wildly off the rails towards the end, with a fairly predictable crescendo and one of the most unnecessary epilogues I have ever read. Students visit Khan twenty years later to discuss the controversy, and we learn the fates of all the characters. It is a clumsy, desperate end in which perhaps lies a crucial, if unintended, lesson of this otherwise outstanding book; some tragedies are just so immense that there can never be satisfactory closure.