Player Piano, Kurt Vonnegut

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Player Piano (1952) was the first of Kurt Vonnegut’s 14 novels. His most famous, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) which includes an account of the fire bombing of Dresden, which Vonnegut himself experienced as a POW, was, like Catch 22, an anti-war WWII novel taken up by the anti-Vietnam War movement. This one, however, ahead of its times, is anti-automation.

Vonnegut (1922-2007) was an important American author, writing Science Fiction mostly, though I think he is often claimed as a ‘cross-over’ into ordinary fiction Certainly he was no where near as prolific as some ‘pulp’ SF writers, but he was able to support himself and his young family after the War, writing short fiction for magazines.

I am reviewing Player Piano because I recently listened to it, and because its theme of man being replaced by machines is topical today – more topical today than when it was written probably. I had hoped I would find a paper copy on my shelves of old paperback SF, or failing that in one of my local libraries, but no luck. However, I did find that I owned a biography, or rather as I found when I began to read it, a ‘critical appreciation’, Peter J Reed’s Kurt Vonnegut Jr (1972).

The player piano of the title is coin operated and plays jazz tunes in a bar. It is incidental to the story but the fact that it plays itself – the keys are depressed by a rotating piano roll (wiki) – acts as a metaphor for workerless factories.

The novel is set not so much in a near future (future to 1952 that is) as in an alternative ‘present’. The society and technology are clearly of the 1950s. The difference is that after a major war in which tactical nuclear weapons were used, industry has been reorganized for the sake of efficiency on, although Vonnegut is at pains to ignore it, soviet central planning lines. Engineers are in charge and workers are progressively being replaced by machines. Consequently society is divided into well-off technocrats and a vast underclass who if they do not join the army, or invent little businesses for themselves, are given make-work in Reclamation and Re-construction (‘Reeks and Wrecks’).

All engineers and managers must have a PhD and school leavers are ruthlessly graded by machines into the few going on to College and the rest, though it helps to have a father in a position to ease your way through school and into plum positions. This is the 1950s, so it goes almost without saying that women PhD’s are in secretarial positions for that brief time until they become homemakers.

The story is located in (the fictitious) Illium, NY which Vonnegut used in a number of his novels (Wiki). Illium is probably based on Schenectady, NY, home of the General Electric plant where Vonnegut was at the time a PR writer, and which in turn was a model for the Illium Works. As Schenectady is divided by the Mohawk River so Illium is by the Iriquois, with the Illium Works and senior employees on one side and the underclass – mostly former workers – on the other, and one highly symbolic bridge separating rather than joining them.

Like much SF of this period Player Piano is bursting with ideas, but the characterisations and the writing are rather flat. The central character is Dr Paul Proteus, Illium Works Manager, whose father was “the nation’s first National Industrial, Commercial, Communications, Foodstuffs and Resources Director, a position approached in importance only by the presidency of the United States”. He is seemingly happily married to Anita, his former secretary, and in line at a young age for promotion to area manager, Pittsburgh. However, he is dissatisfied with his role in forcing out of their jobs men who were good at, and enjoyed, their work.

He starts going to a bar on the wrong side of the river where he meets out of work anthropologist James Lasher who is now a chaplain with Reeks and Wrecks. And he becomes interested in and eventually buys an old farm – no electricity, no plumbing – that has a preservation order on it and a grumpy old caretaker who turns out to be the last in line of the original owners.

His old friend and workmate Ed Finnerty, a hippyish heavy drinking bachelor, comes to stay just as Anita is planning a dinner with Paul’s boss (and friend of his late father). The dinner is a disaster. Finnerty disappears and is soon rumoured to be prominent in the Ghost Shirt Society of unemployed rebels (the idea of ‘Luddites‘ is all through this book though the word is never used). Dr Lawson Sheppard, Paul’s 2IC, is constantly attempting to undermine him and, as Paul spends more and more time at the bar and on his farm, Sheppard begins to visit Anita, until at a weekend retreat for senior managers from around the US, Sheppard is offered Pittsburgh, and has it off with Anita in the bushes, while Paul is shunted sideways on a special assignment to infiltrate the Ghost Shirts.

Paul soon finds himself on the national organizing committee, with Lasher and Finnerty, of an uprising to take back the factories. The uprising is initially successful in Illium and a couple of other cities, but Vonnegut is not a proponent of revolutions and has the uprisings descend into indiscriminate destruction and drunkenness, with the leadership group surrendering to the Army.

There is a subplot involving a ‘Shah’ being shown around America by Dr Halyard of the State Department, which acts as a device for describing this ‘future’ society where the minimum accommodation is an apartment with prefabricated steel walls and automatic washing machines and vacuum cleaners; and an amusing sub subplot where Dr Halyard incurs someone’s displeasure and loses his PhD and therefore his status because he can’t prove he completed the phys ed unit in his bachelors degree.

Reed takes four or five pages to get this far then another 27 pages analyzing Vonnegut’s style and issues that Player Piano raises. From:

The central conflict in the novel is between the machine and the human, between those forces which have brought about and espouse automation and those which affirm the dignity of man, the warmth and fallibility of his animal being.

Reed finally gets to:

Player Piano, for all its warnings and weariness and nostalgia, remains a funny book. but the mixture of pain and humour results in the kind of comedy which arises when people try to make light of frightening situations, so that here, too, the novel sustains its peculiar tension.

It is ironic that this book was written at a time when the industrial heart of America would go on for another half century employing millions of workers producing steel, automobiles, whitegoods, machinery of all types. Only now in this new century (already one sixth over) are automation and robotics taking over in a big way. Here in backwater WA, iron ore trains, 200 tonne dump trucks and loaders already operate without drivers  – which is why ongoing record iron ore exports are having no upward effect on wages; and the two biggest manufacturers, Mercedes and Volvo have driverless highway trucks well underway as well. However, Vonnegut’s idea of make-work and subsidised housing for all the displaced workers, the least that he thought a US government would provide, is these days not even considered. The Market will provide.

 

Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano, first pub. 1952. Audio version: Brilliance Audio, 2008, read by Christian Rummel

Peter J Reed, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, Writers for the 70’s, Warner Books, New York, 1972

 

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Parrot & Olivier in America, Peter Carey

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There are some writers I really, really dislike, and I don’t mean just Colleen McCullough whose ambition (and sales) far exceeded her talent, but writers of real ability who let me down. First of these is Clive James, a man of prodigious intellect who chose to be a clown, and if you’ve seen his old shows about Japanese ‘reality’ television, a not even very funny clown and probably a racist to boot. Next, and more relevantly is Peter Carey, a very good writer, maybe even the best Australian writer of his generation, who wanted to be a World writer and got lost. There are others, Geraldine Brooks first among them, but let’s leave it at that.*

There was a time when I was a Peter Carey fan, The Tax Inspector is a novel I still like, and not-then-ex-Mrs Legend spent a great deal of our housekeeping budget to buy me Oscar and Lucinda in hardback as soon as it came out, but Peter discovered Magic Realism, thought after the international success of O & L that he was the new Gabriel Garcia Marquez, moved to Manhattan to mix it with the big boys, and Booker prizes notwithstanding started to write shit pretentious nonsense.

The Carey novels which are re-hashes of old stories – Jack Maggs, Ned Kelly, and in Parrot & Olivier, Alexis de Tocqueville – are not even good (ie. accurate) history, or illustrative of current situations, just stuff he’s made up and stuck on the bare bones of someone else’s story. I think Carey struggles to come up with plots, he certainly has difficulty fleshing out his characters, in developing protagonists the reader can identify with, and his women… they are very nearly non-existent. One reviewer wrote that each sentence is perfectly crafted, which is probably true, they just don’t make up a cohesive whole.

De Tocqueville (1805-1859) survived various iterations of French Revolution, Restoration and Napoleonism and in 1835 after touring the United States ostensibly to report on penal reform for the French government, came up with Democracy in America, a seminal study of American society and the evolution of democracy. Carey uses de Tocqueville as the basis for his Olivier character – Olivier de Garmont – the spoiled child of an aristocratic family, his grandfather beheaded in the Terror, his parents remote and preoccupied.

I had no doubt that something cruel and catastrophic had happened before I was even born, yet the comte and comtesse, my parents, would not tell me what it was. As a result my organ of curiosity was made irritable and I grew into the most restless and unhealthy creature imaginable – slight, pale, always climbing, prying into every drain and attic of the château de Barfleur.

Parrot is about 20 years older than Olivier, working class English, his father a journeyman printer who is hanged when Parrot is 12 for his part in forging French banknotes after which Parrot ends up in New South Wales, in a token nod to Carey’s origins, from whence he is ‘rescued’ by Tilbot, a one-armed, French Baron of no fortune, who seemingly lives on his connections to the surviving aristocracy.

The story is told in alternating sections by the two men, who describe over the course of the novel, both their times together and episodes from their childhoods. They are brought together by Tilbot who is a friend of Olivier’s mother. Olivier who has studied to be a lawyer is to be sent to America to report on prison systems. Parrot is to be his secretary and Tilbot’s informant.

We learn that Parrot is living in Paris with Mathilde, a painter, and that he has left behind in New South Wales a wife and son. Parrot persuades Tilbot to allow Mathilde and her mother to accompany him on the ship to New York. Carey enjoys himself describing the familiar streets of his new home town as muddy tracks, infested with pigs, the outer suburbs just paddocks dissected by lanes. Many of the characters too are larger than life, ‘Dickensian’ in many reviews, colourfully drawn but with little insight into their characters.

On board ship there had been much talk about the healthy breezes on Manhattan. They must have meant the wind blowing from the arses of New York pigs. Beekman Street stank like a shit heap, worse than the faubourg Saint-Antoine. We headed south, past Theatre Alley, into a smudgy charcoal sort of maze in which the high-haunched New York pigs mingled with New York clerks …

Mathilde and her painting are the focus of Parrot’s life in America, but Carey tends to describe scenes and events rather than people, and we learn little about her, though a lot about her painting. Olivier moves around New England, staying at the country homes of his various backers, marriage material for ambitious daughters eyeing a French title, until eventually he selects a bland, blonde girl and makes his awkward advances.

The strength of the novel is the tension between varying accounts of the same events by the two protagonists. The weakness of the novel, apart from its rambling plot, is that when the two are apart as they are for most of the second half, that tension is lost. Parrot & Olivier in America is not without its good points, but all the good writing in the world cannot make up for a disappointingly weak story.

 

Peter Carey, Parrot & Olivier in America, Hamish Hamilton, Australia, 2009. Audio version, Blackstone Audio, 2010, read by Humphrey Bower (17 1/2 hours)

The Guardian has a review by Ursula La Guin, so if you want a sensible, informed and literate opinion here’s the link.


*Kate W has suggested I make a list. I’m thinking about ‘Ten Writers I Really Dislike’, but I’d better offer at least partial justifications so it might take me a couple of weeks.

The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne

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The Scarlet Letter (1850) has long been a favourite of mine, one I had been thinking of reviewing, along with Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth as early, and rare, examples of stories about single mothers. So I was happy to find it in my (new) local library as an audio book. We all know the story. Hester Prynne, a young married woman in Boston in the earliest days of the settlement of New England by English Puritans, commits adultery and is sentenced to wear a scarlet letter ‘A’ for adulteress on the front of her dress for the rest of her life.

The Scarlett Letter is actually historical fiction, that is it was written 200 years after the events being portrayed took place. In a very long and largely irrelevant prologue, Hawthorne describes his own position in the Customs House in Salem, Mass., which was apparently his home town, though he had spent a long time away. In all the material for Americans who must have to study this book at school, there is a suggestion that Hawthorne’s ancestors were involved in the Salem witch trials in the 1690s. The premise of the prologue is that Hawthorne discovers some old papers in the attic of the Customs House which tell Hester Prynne’s story.

Hawthorne begins his ”introductory” with “It is a little remarkable, that – though disinclined to talk overmuch of myself and my affairs at the fireside, and to my personal friends – an autobiographical impulse should twice in my life have taken possession of me, in addressing the public” and then goes on to talk about himself for 40 pages. He should have been a blogger! But don’t get me wrong, I love old fashioned first chapters. My favourite is from Tom Brown’s School Days (1857) which begins (after a long preface): “The Browns have become illustrious by the pen of Thackeray and the pencil of Doyle, within the memory of the young gentlemen who are not matriculating at the universities… For centuries in their quiet, dogged, homespun way, they have been subduing the earth in most English countries, and leaving their mark in American forests and Australian uplands.” And so it goes on. It is indicative of the sort of books that I read and gave my children that I advised them that it was always ok to skip the first chapter when starting a difficult novel.

The Puritans, in Boston at least, were members of the Church of England who believed that the English Church, which had separated from the Catholic Church in the 1530s, remained too Catholic in its ceremonies. Up until the beginning of the English Civil War in 1642, 21,000 English Puritans emigrated to colonies on the east coast of North America. Brought up ‘low’ C of E as I was, I am sympathetic to the Puritans who were attempting to establish a rules-based society in reaction to the excesses of the Crown – Elizabeth, James I and Charles I. The problem of course is that any set of rules attracts people who enjoy enforcing them.

Boston, founded in 1630, would by 1642 still have been a quite rudimentary settlement, hemmed in between the dark forest and Massachusetts Bay. Salem, which plays no part in this story after the prologue, is 20 odd miles northwards along the coast, and was settled a few years earlier. A later passage illustrates the impression I have of Hester’s gloomy surroundings:

The road … straggled onwards into the mystery of the primeval forest. This hemmed it in so narrowly, and stood so black and dense on either side, and disclosed such imperfect images of the sky above, that, to Hester’s mind, it imaged not amiss the wilderness in which she had so long been wandering.

The novel proper begins with Hester Prynne being released from jail, holding Pearl, her 3 month old baby daughter. She is led to the town square, refuses once again to divulge who is the father, and is displayed – “pilloried” – for three hours on a platform which has been built for that purpose, although she is not held in the stocks.

Hawthorne seems fascinated by witches and they constitute a minor theme throughout the book. A crowd has gathered to witness Hester’s humiliation, as for an execution:

But in that early severity of the Puritan character, an inference of this kind could not so indubitably be drawn. It might be that a sluggish bond-servant, or an undutiful child … was to be corrected at the whipping post. It might be that an Antinomian, a Quaker, or other heterodox religionist, was to be scourged out of the town, or an idle and vagrant Indian… It might be, too, that a witch, like old Mistress Hibbins, the bitter tempered widow of the magistrate, was to die upon the gallows.

Misstress Hibbins subsequently invites Hester, on more than one occasion, to join her and her fellows in the forest.

The “SCARLET LETTER, so fantastically embroidered and illuminated on her bosom” can only have been intended as a defiance of the sentence imposed on her by the colony elders, and also the always bright clothes worn by Pearl, as she grows up, in contrast to the sober clothing of the Puritans. Yet, over the decade or so encompassed by this novel, Hester earns grudging acceptance from her fellows for her quiet, helpful and industrious ways.

The scarlet letter must also have been a very rare punishment, as towards the end, Hester is still been being pointed out by out-of-towners at a local fair.

The novel is an interesting precursor for the (Australian) Independent Woman paradigm. Hester is already married, but the whereabouts of her husband are a mystery. In fact, it is her getting pregnant in his absence that leads to her conviction for adultery. She lives a quiet and virtuous life, in a cottage on the edge of the settlement, supporting herself by her skill at needlework. We discover early on who the husband is, but he holds himself apart, and the lover, Pearl’s father, is not disclosed until near the end. Disappointingly, Hawthorne says very little about Hester’s problems in bringing up a child unaided, other than to say that Pearl is wilful and undisciplined.

The other thing I would say is that I found the writing very formal. More “old fashioned” than Austen and Walter Scott who were a generation older, or Hawthorne’s near contemporaries Dickens and Mark Twain, as I remember them. I am listening to Anna Karenina at the moment and find the flow of C19th writing infinitely soothing, though I suspect that the Tolstoy is a modern translation.

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter, first published 1850. My edition (not the cover pictured) ‘Best Seller Classics’ from Award Books, USA, undated but maybe 50 years old. “This book is a reprint of the first edition … published in Boston by Ticknor, Reed & Fields in 1850”. Audio version: Dreamscape Media, 2014, read by Robert Bethune.

Big Brother, Lionel Shriver

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Well known – to other people – US author Lionel Shriver only came up on my radar during the Shriver Kerfuffle last year, when she insisted on her right to tell stories from any point of view that she chose. It is not a ‘right’ that I contest, but nor is it one which I endorse. I believe firstly that privileged writers should leave space for less privileged peoples to tell their own stories; and secondly, that as a reader/reviewer I should point out (if I can’t avoid them) stories which are ‘inauthentic’.

With Big Brother (2013) this raises an interesting question. The narrator of this novel is a woman, not a Mexican, nor even a man wearing a sombrero, but a plump Iowan housewife and accidental businesswoman. Still, Shriver in this role doesn’t feel right. My (hastily formed!) impression of her is that she is an angular, east coast intellectual. We soon learn that Pandora, the narrator is from LA – where her father had been the star of a TV sit-com, Joint Custody, about separated parents fighting over their three children – and had moved back to her grandparents’ (and parents’) home state after College, so that is a partial explanation for her not coming across as believably  ‘mid-western’. But as well, throughout the novel I maintained the impression that Pandora was describing feelings rather than feeling them.

In these times you might think that the Big Brother of the title pertains to government oversight, but in fact it is meant literally. When Pandora meets her brother at the airport after they have been some years apart, she discovers he has morphed into a barely ambulant 386 lb mound of blubber. The brother, Edison, is a NY-based jazz pianist who has fallen on hard times and has come to New Holland, outside Cedar Rapids, IA, for an extended stay with Pandora, her husband Fletcher, and her teenage step-children Tanner, 17 and Cody, 13.

There’s plenty to keep you occupied over the 370pp of this novel – Pandora and Edison’s firm conviction that their father’s TV family was more real to him than his actual family, and the way they in turn seemed to match themselves to their fictional counterparts; the success of Pandora’s business manufacturing individualised dolls (for adults), which has ‘gone viral’; the relative failure of Fletcher’s business as an arty furniture maker;  Fletcher’s obsessive bike-riding, food faddishness; the children’s attempts to mark out their own space and so on. And Shriver is a fine writer, you can feel the care with which she places each individual word.

The one aspect of our father’s show that I still admired was its representation of the way siblings live in a separate world from their parents, who for kids function as mere walk-ons. Joint Custody captures the intense, hothouse collusion between siblings, while [the parents] are played for fools. Often ashamed of tugging the children’s loyalties in opposite directions, the parents fail to grasp their kid’s salvation: the children’s uppermost loyalty is to each other.

In the beginning there are the usual marital tensions which arise from one spouse having a sibling to stay (says he who would often be jealous of the times not-then-ex-Mrs Legend stayed up late talking to her sister during her infrequent visits to Melbourne), let alone a sibling who smokes, raids the fridge, is unable to contribute to the budget, leaves his stuff lying around, and breaks the furniture. For two months!

But then Shriver takes it to another level, Pandora tells Fletcher that she is taking an apartment nearby with her brother to supervise his return to his teenage weight of 163 lb. Fletcher tells Pandora that in that case she is not permitted in his house. Not much negotiation going on here, nor any thought of how the apparent abandonment/effective ban on contact may affect the children.  And Pandora still regards herself not only as married, which technically at least she is, but as able to resume normal relations with Fletcher after, as it turns out, a year of almost zero contact.

Here Pandora breaks the news to Tanner, as he waits for his sister after school:

“That’s what I wanted to talk about,” I dived in. “And maybe it’s good Cody’s not here yet. I’ll need you to look out for your sister for a while. You know, the way you used to. I’ll still be a resource of course – “

“So you’re leaving Dad,” he said – matter of fact, with a trace of satisfaction. “Guess he brought it on himself. Least he’ll be the healthiest misery guts in town.”

“I’m not leaving anyone.” Hastily I detailed my grand plan – adding judiciously that I wasn’t at all sure it would work.

He heard me out. “So you’re leaving Dad.”

Rolling my eyes in exasperation, I spotted Cody across the street. She looked stricken. I never showed up in the car like this. Obviously, someone had died.

I waved, and she lumbered up with a pack as big as she was to their Meeting Tree. “What’s cookin’?” she asked warily.

“[the doll business] isn’t enough for her,” said Tanner, “Pando’s starting a fat farm.”

The next half of the novel concerns Edison’s progress towards his target weight on a diet of four protein shakes a day; the effect on Pandora of following the same diet; lots of sibling bonding; and at least some concern for Cody who is in the invidious position of pretending to both her parents that she is on their side.

There is a short, third part, a fashionable, bullshit post-modern ending which makes the reading of all the preceding pages a complete waste of time, which I don’t suppose you can avoid, but which you would do well to skip over.

 

Lionel Shriver, Big Brother, Harper Collins, London, 2013. Audio version read by Alice Rosengard, Blackstone Audio, 2013

Kate W’s review in booksaremyfavouriteandbest here (she likes it!)

The Last Runaway, Tracy Chevalier

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Tracy Chevalier (1962- ) is best known for her second novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring (1999) set in C17th Holland. I listened to it some time ago and enjoyed it, but I haven’t seen the 2003 movie. The Last Runaway (2013) is her seventh (of eight) and is set in C19th America.

The plot is basically: Honor Bright, a Quaker woman in England is jilted by her fiancée and so decides to accompany her sister to America where the sister is to marry a former fellow townsman and Quaker who has established a business in a newly settled part of Ohio. Honor falls in with Belle, a milliner and an alcoholic, who is part of the Underground Railroad, sheltering and assisting the passage of runaway slaves from the South making their way to Canada. The biggest threat to the runaways is recapture by bounty hunters, of whom Belle’s brother Donovan is the most prominent.

After working for a while in the shop of her prospective brother in law, Honor marries into the Haymaker family, Quaker farmers in a nearby parish. The Quakers are anti-slavery but the Haymakers are frightened to assist runaways because they can be heavily fined under Federal law. Honor defies them and we go on from there.

I am interested that the date is around 1850 and Ohio is only partially cleared for farming, less so maybe than Victoria and NSW at the same time. I was thinking that settlement would have begun a couple of centuries earlier but in fact first settlement was at Marietta in the familiar year of 1788, with, according to Wikipedia, battles against the ‘Indians’ – who are not mentioned at all in this novel – throughout the 1790s.

Honor only slowly realises the scale of Belle’s involvement in the movement of runaways. After Belle shoots a snake in the back yard …

Honor thought about the man hiding there, almost three days now cramped in the heat and dark, and hearing the gunshot. She wondered how Belle came to be hiding him. When her ears had stopped ringing she said, ‘Thee mentioned that Kentucky is a slave state. Did thy family own slaves?’ It was the most direct question she had dared to ask.

Belle regarded her with yellowed eyes, leaning against the porch railing and still holding the shotgun, her dress hanging off her. It occurred to Honor that the milliner must have an underlying illness to make her so thin and discoloured. ‘Our family was too poor to own slaves. That’s why Donovan does what he does. Poor white people hate Negroes more’n anyone.’

Chevalier tries very hard to be colour-blind in a book about racial prejudice and has Honor chase after and attempt to befriend an older Black woman, Mrs Reed.

‘May I ask thee a question?’ Honor ventured.

Mrs Reed frowned. ‘What … ma’am.’ Honor did not wear a wedding band, as Friends did not need such a reminder of their commitment; yet somehow Mrs Reed knew she was married.

Please call me Honor. We do not use “ma’am” – or “miss”.

‘All right. Honor. What you want to know?’

‘What does thee think of colonisation?’

Mrs Reed let her mouth hang open for a moment. ‘What does I think of colonisation? She repeated.

Honor said nothing. Already she regretted asking the question.

Mrs Reed snorted. ‘You an abolitionist? Lots of Quakers is.’ She glanced around the empty shop and seemed to reach a decision. ‘Abolitionists got lots o’ theories, but I’m living with realities. Why would I want to go to Africa? I was born in Virginia. So was my parents and my grandparents and their parents. I’m American. I don’t hold with sending us all off to a place most of us never seen. If white folks jes’ want to get rid of us, pack us off on ships so they don’t have to deal with us, well, I’m here. This is my home, and I ain’t goin’ nowhere.’

I listen to lots of audio books but the reason I chose to discuss this one is because I am interested in novels about racism in the US and the light it throws on racism here; and more precisely, because of the difficulty I have with stories about honourable White people, doing the ‘right thing’. I have looked at this before in my posts on Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees and The Invention of Wings and Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. For another point of view,  Lisa at ANZLL has just reviewed another book on the Underground Railroad, The Mapmaker’s Children by Sarah McCoy (here).

I’m a big fan of the approach taken by Thea Astley: make it clear that modern Australian society is built on the atrocities that White settlers committed against Aboriginals, in historical times until right up to today – just look at Palm Island. Until we acknowledge those atrocities, and all the underlying injustices and unfairnesses that we use or used to make life difficult for Indigenous Australians, there can be no way forward, to genuine racial harmony.

So my problem with stories about honourable White people is that they allow White people today, and not just the White people who say, ‘don’t blame me I didn’t shoot and poison anyone’; they allow White people today to say, ‘well some of us were ok, we weren’t all bad’, and to slide out of acknowledging the great harm we have caused and perpetuate, and benefit from.

Coming home from Kalgoorlie with this review in my head I was listening to the Archie Roach album, Tracker. Lamenting the loss of Country in My History, Archie sings “And so I will only forgive when there is contrition.” I worry that stories like this deflect us from that moment.

The Last Runaway is not literary fiction, but it is a well-written story with an interesting underlying factual base, as is often the case with historical fiction (and, as a bonus for MST at Adventures in Biography, Honor is a quilter and there is a great deal of technical discussion about the differences between English and American quilts). Just don’t treat it as though it is the whole story, or even more than peripheral to the main story.

 

Tracy Chevalier, The Last Runaway, Harper Collins, London, 2013. Audio version by AudioGO, UK, 2013 (8 hrs 45 min). Read by Laurel Lefkow

Orpheus Lost, Janette Turner Hospital

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Orpheus Lost (2007) is a powerful novel of our dystopian now. A now of surveillance, rendition, secrecy, of punishment without trial, without justification even, at the whim of people employed by, set loose by the state, to terrify us all into submission, into the acceptance of regimes throughout the ‘free world’ at odds with everything we once believed about freedom, equality, democracy.

Janette Turner Hospital (1942- ) is an Australian author resident for most of her working life in north America. I haven’t read, or remembered reading, enough of her work to judge whether her writing is mostly Australian or American. This work is set in Boston, which I think is her current home, but has an Australian component.

The title of course references the legend* but in JTH’s version, the musician is lost and his bride must attempt first to find and then to recover him.

Sometimes, in dreams, when the beginning began again, Mishka would warn her: “Don’t follow me, Leela.” He would lift the violin to his chin and begin to play. He would turn his back and walk away from her, walk down into the subway tunnels, deeper and deeper, the bow rising above his left shoulder and falling again, the notes drifting back, plaintive and irresistible. “Leave me alone,” he would say. “Don’t follow me.”

Leela is a grad student, a brilliant mathematician escaped from the mediocrity of life in rural South Carolina, studying the mathematics of music. She hears a violin deep in the subway and follows the notes to their source, Mishka Bartok, himself an escapee, from an eccentric musical family living in a wooden castle on the Daintree River in north Queensland.

Leela’s friend and only scholastic rival at school had been Cobb, son of a maths teacher mother and a drunken, violent Viet Nam War vet father. The mother hangs herself and is found by Cobb.  Leela too is motherless,  her mother dying giving birth to her sister, her father a preacher and unable to control her as she runs wild in the town, Cobb hiding in the bushes to better observe her sexual adventures.

Mishka has grown up living with his mother, his father unknown, and her parents, Jewish refugees from Hungary, and a reclusive violin playing great uncle who lives behind a closed door on the upper floor of the secluded ‘castle’, but despite a difficult time at school, eventually makes his way to study music composition in Boston.

After that first meeting Mishka and Leela live together but Mishka begins to be more and more absent for long periods, and then one day Leela is seized, bundled into a black car and taken to an interrogation room. Slowly we become aware that Cobb, having been in the Army is now a private contractor for the CIA and that he has been using his position to keep Leela and Mishka under surveillance, particularly of course, their bedroom.

Slowly, over 360pp, the tension builds. Mishka is determined to identify and locate his father; Boston is subject to repeated incidences of terrorism; Leela follows Mishka and finds that he is hanging out with Islamists; Leela’s and Cobb’s fathers are both dying and, separately, though more or less simultaneously, they make their way back to their home town, Promised Land, SC. Mishka disappears.

[Mishka] confessed that he was in possession of hidden knowledge and he was keeping that knowledge hidden from the gods, though he understood it would be plucked from him.

Sometimes he said: “My name is Orpheus,” and then he realized that the snarling shapes in the room were Cerberus and his fierce brood of pups.

He tried to explain that he had not descended into the dark world of Cerberus to steal secrets. Love had brought him. He wanted to know if he could love his father and if his father could love him. He had come to call love to himself with his oud. If he could play his oud, if he would be permitted to play for Cerberus …

His answers were always wrong and brought punishment.

More than this I cannot reveal, except that this is a terrible story told in the most wonderful prose. Please, read this book and be very, very afraid.

 

Janette Turner Hospital, Orpheus Lost, Harper Collins, 2007. Audio version Bolinda Audio (10 ¼ hours), read by Edwina Wren


* Orpheus was such a fine musician that he could charm the gods. When Eurydice is set upon by a satyr, falls into a nest of vipers and dies on their wedding day Orpheus must go down into the underworld where Hades and Persephone agree “to allow Eurydice to return with him to earth on one condition: he should walk in front of her and not look back until they both had reached the upper world. He set off with Eurydice following, and, in his anxiety, as soon as he reached the upper world, he turned to look at her, forgetting that both needed to be in the upper world, and she vanished for the second time, but now forever.” (wiki)

Letty Fox: Her Luck, Christina Stead

ANZLitLovers Christina Stead Week Nov 14-20 2016

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The copy of Letty Fox I have is not that pictured above but one from Imprint (A&R) in 1991 with an Introduction by Susan Sheridan which begins:

Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946) is the first of a trio of satirical novels which Christina Stead wrote about the sexual and political lives of New Yorkers as she had observed them while living there before and during the Second World War.

Without further ado, here is the first paragraph (a review will take much longer, sorry).

“One hot night last spring, after waiting fruitlessly for a call from my then lover, with whom I had quarreled the same afternoon, and finding one of my black moods on me, I flung out of my lonely room on the ninth floor (unlucky number) in a hotel in lower Fifth Avenue and rushed into the streets of the Village, feeling bad. My first thought was, at any cost, to get company for the evening. In general, things were bad with me; I was in low water financially and had nothing but married men as companions. My debts were nearly six hundred dollars, not counting my taxes in arrears. I had already visited the tax inspector twice and promised to pay in installments when I had money in the bank. I had told him that I was earning my own living, with no resources, separated from my family, and that though my weekly pay was good, that is sixty-five dollars, I needed that and more to live. All this was true. I now had by good fortune, about seventy dollars in the bank, but this was only because a certain man had given me a handsome present (the only handsome present I ever got, in fact); and this money I badly needed for clothes, for moving, and for petty cash. During the war, I had got used to taking a taxi to work. Being out always late at night, I was sluggish in the morning; and being a great worker at the office, I was behindhand for my evening dates. Beyond such petty expenses, I needed at least two hundred and fifty dollars for a new coat. My fur coat, got from my mother, and my dinner dress, got from my grandmother, were things of the past and things with a past, mere rags and too well known to all my friends. There was no end to what I needed. My twenty-fourth birthday was just gone, and I had spent two hours this same evening ruminating upon all my love affairs which had sunk ingloriously into the past, along with my shrunken and worn outfits. Most of these affairs had been promising enough. Why had they failed? (Or I failed?) Partly, because my men, at least during the war years, had been flighty, spoiled officers in the armed services, in and out of town, looking for a good-timer by the night, the week or the month; and if not these young officers, then my escorts were floaters of another sort, middle-aged, married civilians, journalists, economic advisers, representatives of foreign governments or my own bosses, office managers, chiefs, owners. But my failure was, too, because I had no appartment to which to take them. How easy for them to find it inconvenient to visit me at my hotel, or for me to visit them at theirs when they were dubious or cool. It seemed to me that night that a room of my own was what I principally lacked.

Christina Stead, Letty Fox: Her Luck, First pub. Harcourt Brace, New York, 1946. My edition: Imprint, Sydney, 1991. Introduction by Susan Sheridan, Women’s Studies, Flinders University, 1990