The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (2017) is just the 56 year old Arundhati Roy’s second novel. Her first was the phenomenally successful The God of Small Things (1997) which I read years and years ago and of which I remember very little, and that probably wrongly – a train ride, a woman marries an untouchable, an uncle molests a child – but nevertheless I bought this one as soon as it came out last year and have been determined to read it ever since.

With only odd hours for reading, mostly standing out in the weather waiting for my truck to load or unload (tankers don’t require much physical intervention) I initially found that I was not remembering much more of the second than I did of the first, but around the 200pp mark it began to come together and I think now that I might have a handle on it, though a proper analysis would require multiple readings and reams of notes.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is an intimate novel inside a great sprawling novel, a novel of India, not the India of our casual acquaintance, of tourism, and brief stories in the business and foreign news pages, but the unseen India of the poor, the homeless, of gradations of skin colour, of untouchables, muslims, trans-sexuals; a novel with not 1.2 billion characters but nearly, all the oppressed of India and Kashmir ground down by a monolithic and indifferent upper class and their violently out of control military and para-military forces.

The ‘outside’ novel contains the story of Anjum, a woman born with a man’s parts, a hijra, who leaves her muslim family to live in a refuge for other hijras and then in mid-life leaves the refuge to construct another, which grows into the Jannat Guest House, little cabins built of scraps over graves in a disused cemetery. During this journey she acquires one daughter, Zainab who prefers to be brought up by another hirja, Saeeda, and then later a second, Miss Jebeen the Second, and a kaleidoscope of friends and acquaintances from all the minority language groups in the sub-continent living on the streets and in the slums of Delhi.

The ‘inside’ novel is a love story, the story of S. Tilottama (Tilo) a young woman from Kerala in the south who is loved by three men whom she meets when they take part in a play as students. Arundhati Roy’s wikipedia entry says that she

“was born in Shillong, Meghalaya, India [in 1961], to Mary Roy, a Malayali Syrian Christian women’s rights activist from Kerala and Rajib Roy, a Bengali Hindu tea plantation manager from Calcutta. When she was two, her parents divorced and she returned to Kerala with her mother and brother. For a time, the family lived with Roy’s maternal grandfather in Ooty, Tamil Nadu. When she was five, the family moved back to Kerala, where her mother started a school.

“Roy attended school at Corpus Christi, Kottayam, followed by the Lawrence School, Lovedale, in Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu. She then studied architecture at the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi.

This is also more or less Tilo’s back story. The three men are Biplab Dasgupta who becomes a senior public servant in the Intelligence Bureau, and who sometimes gets to tell his own story; Nagaraj Hariharan, a journalist and for a long time, Tilo’s husband; and Musa (Commander Gulrez) a freedom fighter in Kashmir and always Tilo’s lover.

The story is told in fragments, some from the present, some from the past. Quite early on we see Commander Gulrez’ mutilated body displayed as a trophy by Major Amrik Singh, of the Indian occupation forces in Kashmir, but we also see reports of the murder suicide of Amrik Singh and his wife in America. We meet Miss Jebeen the Second before we meet Miss Jebeen; and we don’t meet the real mother of Miss Jebeen the Second until right at the end when she writes posthumously of her life as Maoist insurgent fighting to protect the tribes in the Bastar forest whose land was/is wanted by mining companies.

At one time Tilo must have an abortion and wakes in a government hospital to find a sick child in bed with her –

There was more than one patient in every bed. There were patients on the floor. most of the visitors and family members who were crowded around them looked just as ill. Harried doctors and nurses picked their way through the chaos. It was like a wartime ward. Except that in Delhi there was no war other than the usual one – the war of the rich against the poor.

The power of this novel is in its depictions of poverty in Delhi; of the petty and not so petty tyrannies suffered by the many minorities; of the consequences of the rise of Hindu nationalism for members of the 21 other nations who weren’t Hindu; Of the consequences of capitalism for people without capital, without recourse to justice – do you remember the Union Carbide disaster?; of the many individual acts of resistance, typefied by Dr Azad Bharatiya and his ten year fast; of the horrific violence in Kashmir; of the many, many individuals whom we get to meet and love as they pass through the Jannat Guest House; but above all the power of this novel is in the language, in all the Hindu, Urdu, Punjabi, Kashmiri, Malayalam (and English) that washes over us.

Tilo ends up one of Anjum’s many friends, a Ustaniji, a teacher of children, in the Jannat Guest House in the abandoned cemetry. More than that I will not tell you, cannot without spoiling this marvellous story of love and war which unfolds unpredictably in all directions at once.

Jis Kashmir ko Khoon se sencha! Woh Kashmir hamara hai!

The Kashmir we have irrigated with our blood! That Kashmir is ours!

 

Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Hamish Hamilton (Penguin), 2017. 445pp

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Carpentaria, Alexis Wright

Carpentaria

Alexis Wright (1950- ) is a Waanyi woman of the “southern highlands of the Gulf of Carpentaria”. For non-Australians the Gulf of Carpentaria is the big body of water in the north of Australia – between the Northern Territory and Cape York Peninsula – and the Gulf country is the land to its immediate south: largely unpopulated, flat, tropical, seasonal rivers, mud flats and mangroves.

The Miles Franklin Award-winning Carpentaria (2006) made Wright’s reputation as a writer, but it is often mentioned that this is her second novel and I had to do some searching to find her first: Plains of Promise (UQP, 1997). She has also written some notable works of non-fiction, most recently her genre-busting (and large!) study of Tracker Tilmouth, Tracker (Giramondo, 2017).

Now I have to make an admission. I first listened to Carpentaria some years ago and intensely disliked it. Maybe I conflated Alexis Wright with Alex Miller but anyway I thought this was a white guy book, patronising and worst of all, magic realism. Since then I have read real magic realism from South America, not the fashionable, western wannabe stuff; sub-Saharan African spiritual realism; and above all, have made some inroads into the considerable body of Australian Indigenous Lit. with which we are now blessed, but particularly Kim Scott’s Benang (1999). So second time round I had a context for understanding what I was reading and of course found it marvellous.

The novel is set in the coastal township of Desperance, Qld which may be based on aspects of Burketown or Karumba. I wondered how personally Indigenous people in these towns took Wright’s depictions of them and their disputes, but Wright herself grew up in Cloncurry, 400 km south, not that there are any towns in between, so I guess her depictions are generic rather than particular.

We follow the lives of town elder Normal Phantom, his wife Angel Day and their son Will. Not linearly but swirling backwards and forwards in oral story telling fashion – much enhanced by the choice of Noongar actor Isaac Drandich to do the reading – to pick up aspects of the story that might have earlier been glossed over, as we slowly build up to the confrontation between Indigenous forces supporting Will Phantom and the local Big Miner, and the subsequent fall-out.

Indigenous Lit. has an element of looking at white middle class life from ‘underneath’ – Marie Munkara’s sardonic depictions of Darwin bureaucrats for  example – which gives a new aspect to our view of ourselves in general and to the myths of the Australian bushman in particular. Not just the casual, and not so casual, violence, but the self-interested decision making. Terra Nullius has an entirely new meaning when seen from the point of view of the people of whom the Land was supposedly Empty.

But Indigenous Lit. also has elements which are entirely its own. Country which lives. Fauna seemingly sentient and effective. Carpentaria begins:

The ancestral serpent, a creature larger than storm clouds, came down from the stars, laden with its own creative enormity. It moved graciously – if you had been watching with the eyes of a bird hovering in the sky far above the ground. looking down at the serpent’s wet body, glistening from the ancient sunlight, long before man was a creature who could contemplate the next moment in time. It came down those billions of tears ago, to crawl on its heavy belly, all around the wet clay soils in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Norm Phantom and Angel Day, not able to live in the township proper, build themselves a ‘castle’ in the pricklebush, outside the town limits, from scraps salvaged at the tip; raise a family of three boys, Will is the third, three girls and one more boy, Kevin, intelligent, lively, inquisitive, damaged in a mine accident and murdered by young white men playing out KKK fantasies. Norm is at odds with a rival faction led by old Joseph Midnight, from different country and so they end up westside mob, Norm’s lot, and eastside mob, on opposite sides of the town.

We find Norm older, Angel Day gone off with the preacher Mozzie Fishman who leads a convoy of followers in battered cars, his two older boys in secure employment with the mine, Will unemployed with a reputation for rebellion – a reputation whose slow unfolding is the core of the novel – estranged from his father, and as we discover eventually, partnered with Hope, old Midnight’s granddaughter and with a son, Bala. The daughters, abandoned by their men, home again, caring for Kevin.

An old man appears from the sea, walking in over the mud flats, amnesiac, given the name Elias Smith, is befriended by Norm and spends long days with him, out on the Gulf, fishing. When trouble comes he takes Hope and Bala in his dinghy, disappears into the mist. Reappears dead, sitting up in his boat with bags of ocean fish, floating in an inland lagoon. Discovered by Will and Fishman.

White men occupy the peripheries of the story, the policeman, Truthfull, growing fat, sleeping with Norm’s daughter, the only way to get him out of the house; Stan Bruiser, former snake oil salesman made good, now cattleman and town mayor: “If you can’t use it, eat it, or fuck it, it’s no use to you… everyone in town knew how he bragged about how he had chased every Aboriginal woman in town at various times until he ran them into the ground and raped them.” That this is sayable, writeable, over and over, not just by Wright, but by writers black and white, from Rosa Praed onwards is an indictment of the redneck North, of Queensland, of Australia. Of all of us.

But the real villain is Gurfurrit, the mining company, fiercely, murderously protective of its rights. And the most telling part of the story is the light that comes into the men’s eyes when they realise that they have taken on the mining company and won. One win after two centuries of defeats.

The most important part of this book is the writing, which is outstanding, but it also a confronting, unmissable story of love and eco-terrorism and life in the far north.

 

Alexis Wright, Carpentaria, Giramondo, Sydney, 2006. Audiobook: Bolinda, 2006, read by Isaac Drandich. 520pp/19.16 hours

see also:
Sue at Whispering Gum’s review of Carpentaria (here)
my review of Alexis Wright, The Swan Book (here)
Lisa at ANZLL’s Indigenous Reading list (here)

After, Nikki Gemmell

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Nikki Gemmell is an important Australian author. A true statement but I feel the tugging of “, I think”. I’m not sure that the literary world in general agrees with me, though her wikipedia entry, maybe written by a fan, says:

In France she has been described as a “female Jack Kerouac”. In 2007, the French literary magazine Lire included her in a list of what it called the fifty most important writers in the world – those it believed would have a significant influence on the literature of the 21st century.

Here, in Oz, her uncompromising inner views of women attempting to make a path for themselves in a hostile world and the staccato poetry of her language are no match for say the boyish charms of her contemporary, the people’s favourite Tim Winton.

Gemmell’s early novels are, in order, Shiver (1997), Cleave – originally published as Alice Springs (1998), Love Song (2002) and The Bride Stripped Bare (2003). I get the impression that she is gradually stripping away all extraneous action, increasingly focusing her attention inwards on women finding their way in a sexual world, and experimenting as she goes with the language to express that. [That is a para from my earlier review of Love Song (here) – not quoting, just reusing].

Her subsequent novels have been The Book of Rapture (2009), With My Body (2011), I Take You (2013) and there have been a number of works of non-fiction. Which brings us to After (2017) a memoir written in the aftermath of her mother’s suicide.


In the fraught world of euthanasia, I say this: if the perpetrator’s family cannot, by law, be involved in the wishes of the person wanting to die, then you’re condemning that person to a horrendously bleak and lonely death.


We begin in the morgue, in an ante-room, Nikki and her brother Paul, the older brother Andrew  choosing to be absent, remaining absent throughout, about to ‘identify’ their mother’s body – a redundant ritual now you’d say, though Gemmell doesn’t – the police with them supportive but also closely watchful, alert for signs, for evidence, that a crime may have been committed, that the obvious suicide, by an overdose of pills in the comfort of her lounge room, may have been ‘assisted’.

This is close up and personal, Nikki’s grief is visceral, its depth and immediacy expressed in broken sentences. But. Gemmell is a writer, a producer of literary output. So this is written from the heart, yes, but then rewritten and rewritten, packaged by a major publisher and presented to us to consume. Polished in its unpolishedness you might say. A writer must always say ‘look at how well I suffer’, her greatness being in making us forget that we are not looking at suffering but at a, at her, depiction of suffering.

The sense of abandonment. Here. In this place. The obscenity of that. The shell of our mother, the skin on her face already sinking into the hollows of her skull. Giving her that distinct, distancing, mask of death. It is not Elayn but an eviscerating absence more skull than life. It is our mother. It is not.

Gemmell’s mother found marriage too constricting, had left Bob her worker husband of twenty years forty years earlier, taken Nikki aged then 10, “the court ordered the boys to stay with their father”, left Wollongong for life in the big smoke, changed her name from the prosaic Elaine, “set about turning herself into who she really wanted to be”.

It is not clear that who she really wanted to be was a mother, and Nikki and Elayn bang heads for eight years until Nikki manages to leave home.

When I was young Elayn would fling, ‘No one likes you.’ When I craved prettiness, ‘You’re so ugly.’ When I didn’t measure up in terms of a daughter, ‘Why can’t you be like …  She wanted them but had me, her swotty clod of a thing. That could write.

Elayn hated Bob all the rest of her life and resented that Nikki didn’t. Elayn had been a model, there are photos of her throughout the book, and Nikki isn’t, though elocution lessons did get her into the national broadcaster. Elayn works and buys an old three bedroom flat in Sydney’s eastern, beachside suburbs and reinvents herself as a glamorous theatre goer. Years later Nikki is shocked to find that the flat is a tip inside, all her mother’s declining strength having been expended on external appearances.

Nikki marries, lives in London, has four children, exchanges brief visits with her mother, finally comes home, purchases a house in a neighbouring suburb and spends the final five years still banging heads but making she thinks, some progress. The last of those years is spent by Elayn in crippling pain after a botched operation, and you could hardly blame her for considering euthanasia. But without discussion or warning? In the week of her oldest and loved grandson’s Year 12 exams!

Gemmell is a weekly columnist in the Australian. She must have written something, her bewilderment at her mother’s choice. A chapter is devoted to readers’ responses. I skim it. Dr Philip Nitshke of Exit International tweets:

Nikki, it was empowerment! – your mother joined, #euthanasia PP Handbook, asked Exit forum Qs and imported.

So, Elayn’s death had been planned and kept secret for months. Gemma meets and becomes friends with a doctor who has suffered chronic pain and who with the full support of her children is planning to end her life in Switzerland where it is legal. Becomes more understanding of the problems of chronic pain and her own lack of awareness of her mother’s opioid drug addiction.

Writing this book is therapy, “Six months since the writing was begun, the maelstrom of bewilderment that was this book. Now, finally, stilled.” It’s an interesting work, but not her best. The edgy young woman of the earlier works is now a suburban mum and a Murdoch hack finding some peace in restoring her children’s valued porcelain pieces, smashed in a storm at around the time of her mother’s death, in line with the Japanese philosophy Kintsugi, to embrace the repair of an object as an aspect of its history, using lacquer mixed with powdered gold, which has acted as a metaphor throughout the work.

I checked the AWW Challenge site (here) and found only eight reviews for works by Gemmell – mine of Love Song not there so I’ll have to upset the statistics again (!) and include a back entry – which rather proves my case that she doesn’t receive much attention.

 

Nikki Gemmell, After, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2017

see also: My review of Love Song here

 

Australian Book Review

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January/February 2018

The Australian Book Review has entered its fortieth year. I’ve been a subscriber for the last ten of those – since I was getting to the end of my M.Litt and was looking for a way to stay plugged in to Australian writing – but this will be my last year. Lisa at ANZLitLovers has been telling me for ages that she feels that ABR has drifted away from Aust.Lit and out into the wider world, which is much better covered by other publications, and now at last I agree with her.

For most of those ten years and no doubt for the thirty prior the ABR has done its job. A wide range of new Australian books have been reviewed by leading writers and experts in their field – and I think here in particular of regular contributor Neil Blewett, a senior minister in the Hawke and Keating governments – there are annual poetry, short story and essay competitions, visual arts editions and so on. And of course there is a website, which I don’t usually look at.

Once upon a time I would go straight to Letters to the Editor where there would nearly always be at least one author complaining bitterly about their review and the reviewer, always given right of reply, biting back. This has been less the case over the past two or three years and in this issue there are no letters at all as far as I can see.

As for new releases, over the years I have been introduced to some marvellous novels that I would otherwise have missed but again, less so in the past couple of years, partly of course because I follow lit.bloggers who post two, three four times a week and keep us all pretty well up to date.

Let us look more closely at the Jan-Feb 2018 issue pictured above. It begins with half a dozen pages of bits and pieces, ads and self-promotion, rather like an old newspaper beginning with the classifieds. The first review, the ‘Review of the Month’ is of Alexis Wright’s Tracker – her 650pp collage/biog. of Tracker Tilmouth – by Michael Winkler. It’s a cracker and ends –

Wright’s brace of ineffable, awkward, uncanny novels (Carpentaria, The Swan Book) will be unravelled and enjoyed by readers when other contemporary fiction is forgotten. Tracker, a book performed by a folk ensemble rather than a solo virtuoso, adds to her enduring non-fiction oeuvre that captures the unique ground-level realpolitik of Aboriginal Australia.

Then we have reviews of The Cold War: A World History by a Norwegian professor at Harvard; The Pivot of Power on Australian prime ministers 1949-2016; Chris Masters on Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan (not my cup of tea!); A New Literary History of China (reviewed by Nicholas Jose); David Malouf and the Poetic; and the next highlight, although it’s not Australian, Brenda Niall on Claire Tomalin’s memoir, A Life of My Own. Our own Michelle Scott Tucker and Nathan Hobby have distinguished careers in front of them if they follow Tomalin’s path: “Tomalin was forty when she wrote her first book, a life of Mary Wollstonecraft, in which she had an almost unexplored field.” Though her subsequent biographies on “Shelley, Austen, Pepys, Hardy and Dickens” might prove a tough act to follow!

After that were reviews of (tv journalist) Mike Willesee’s memoir; something about a French restaurant in America; Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown’s diary; yet another David Attenborough; a novel about a character out of Henry James (reviewed by Brenda Niall); something, something a character out of King Lear. I’m barely even reading the headings at this point; The Best Australian Stories 2017 edited by Maxine Beneba Clarke; All My Goodbyes from Argentina; a few pages of fill – Australian publishers pick their favourite book of 2017.

By now we’re at the middle, I can see the staples, and a review of (Victorian Governor) La Trobe which makes me hopeful; but we go right back to Hilary Spurling on Anthony Powell (who?); the “Right’s stealth plan for America”; Richard Nixon: The Life !!!!; a book on philosopher Derek Parfit, edited by Peter Singer; a biography of Czeslaw Milosz; a few pages of poetry; it just goes on and on, occasional Australian novels, the story of a cricket photographer; a few pages on The Arts. The ABR is a magazine entirely without direction.

I sometimes muse while I work – truck driving is a great job for musing – about an Australian lit.mag of my own. Our own really, as the AWW Gen 1 page demonstrated, with 14 articles by nine contributors in little more than a week. Of course this is at least partly a solution looking for a problem. There isn’t a lot wrong with our current model of writing what interests us and following and interacting with bloggers with similar interests. And all though we sometimes deny it, we also tend to write and therefore read, in order to interest others, to keep our readerships happy.

I get great joy from my participation in this corner of the blogosphere, but it, so far anyway, has shortfalls in two areas:

Reading top flight Australian authors on other top flight Australian authors – which the ABR at least sometimes fills; and

Discussion of Australian literary theory – which the ABR ignores.

I could probably deal with the latter by subscribing to one or more journals, google suggests the Australian Literary Studies Journal (here). For the former there is apparently the Australian, but the Murdoch press is so virulently anti-worker that I refuse to have anything to do with it. My own local paper the West Australian which I sometimes still buy on Saturdays, reviews only page turners.

Of course, I don’t have time to collate a magazine and anyway it wouldn’t make sense unless it somehow achieved a readership way beyond the few thousand who follow Whispering Gums and ANZLitLovers, envy-inducing as that is. I don’t know what ABR’s readership is, it doesn’t appear in Gary Morgan’s annual readership survey, but 30,000 maybe? That was the readership of Truck & Bus Magazine in its heyday. Soap World, whatever that is, has a readership of 40,000 and Readers Digest (Australia) 436,000, so if I ever retire that’s what I’ll aim for.

 


Update: Miles Franklin page

Review by Emma, Book Around the Corner of My Brilliant Career  here


Update: Australian Women Writers Gen 1 page

Reviews by Lisa, ANZLitLovers of:
Ellen Clacy, A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia in 1852-53 here
Bronwen Hickman, Mary Gaunt: Independent Colonial Woman here

Sue, Whispering Gums posted three consecutive ‘Monday Musings’ on early Australian women writers:
Literary Culture in Colonial Australia, 22 Jan 2018 here
Reading Aloud in Colonial Australia, 29 Jan 2018 here
Women Academics on Colonial Women Writers, 5 Feb 2018 here

The Last Love Story, Rodney Hall

The Last Love Story

Rodney Hall (1935- ) is only a couple of years younger than my mum, which is to say pretty old, and he has two Miles Franklins to his name – for Just Relations in 1982 and The Grisly Wife in 1994 – and has three times been ‘nominated’ for the Booker, and yet I can’t say I have ever been aware of him. Luckily Lisa (ANZLitLovers) is not so ignorant and in googling him I came across her 2012 post ‘Meet an Aussie Author: Rodney Hall’ (here).

The Last Love Story (2004) continues a trend, in my reading, of Australian literary fiction that is slightly offset from reality, the best of them Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things, but there’s all of Jane Rawson, Ellen van Neerven, and more recently Claire Coleman and Robert Edeson, who all give reality a dystopian twist to describe a near future which says a lot about our fairly unhappy present.


I’ve had an SF couple of weeks, relistening while I work to Haruki Murakami’s wonderful 1Q84 (46 hours 16 min.s!) and then to The Natural Way of Things whose polite, middle class narration by Ailsa Piper detracts from the vibrancy of the story IMO. Kate W has just reviewed Krissy Kneen’s An Uncertain Grace (here) which I must read, and meanwhile I have started on The Dispossessed (1974), Ursula Le Guin’s masterpiece of anarchist SF in preparation for a tribute following her recent death.


The subtitle of this novel is A fairytale of the day after tomorrow and Hall, not always successfully, has attempted a fairytale type of story telling, reminiscent perhaps of Angela Carter. The first chapter begins:

First, there is a river. Without the river there would be no story. Like many other rivers this one has a ford for people to cross. And, wherever you find a ford, a small industry of communications tends to spring up – a cable ferry, an inn on one side, then a rival inn on the other…

And so, a city is born, “not often heard of outside its own boundaries and known simply as The City.” But with all the workers and factories north of the river, and all the offices and better off people south of the river. When the workers rise up The City breaks up:

And because there were three times more people in City North than rich people in City South, the stalemate of numbers against superior equipment soon set hard. Both divisions of the army focused their resistance along the river bank and took turns at strategically blowing up every bridge linking them except Friendship Bridge.

That’s how swiftly the Great Day happened. And that’s how swiftly the disaster got out of hand.

As the divisions solidify and rival authoritarian administrations take control, Catholics in the South, Christian Fundalmentalists in the North, one man, a working man, Paul, the man of this love story, is stranded, unable to return to his home in City North, takes a little flat and continues to find work on building sites.

The woman of the story, Judith, is an only child, treated as ‘slow’ by a domineering mother, still home at 22 in the comfortable suburbs of City South. Until she meets Paul, is picked out by Paul, at a dance, just waiting to be asked. Then there are Judith’s mother, Mrs Stott and the sadistic head of the City North border guards, The Lieutenant.

Judith is wooed by Paul, runs off with him, is betrayed, abandoned and imprisoned, then released just as he, filled with remorse, comes back to her and is imprisoned in turn and she must come back for him.

In this middle section Hall loses his already tenuous grip on his folk-tale style and descends into mawkishness:

Here on the railway line, as Paul wept with remorse, wept at the cruelty of his own will … Judith, Judith! He had taken her, that precious woman, as if she were a sexual repository, a vassal. He had taken her carelessly, so carelessly he learned nothing of her needs, nothing even of his own heart.

Kerryn Goldsworthy in the Age writes, “Writing non-comic, non-realist fiction for adults is a fiendishly difficult task; among other things, it requires plain language, and it’s here that Hall’s skills as a poet tend to get in his own way.” Though she has a more positive view of his overall success than I do.

Judith, home again and closely watched, slips out but Mrs Stott sees her:

… she set off in pursuit as fast as her elegant shoes would allow. But she was too far behind. She had simply no idea whether Judith’s mission was a repetition of the previous day, nor whether that long absence had been a mission at all, or a mere whim on the child’s part, or maybe the need to conceal some ongoing trouble. She was getting puffed. Her hat slipped over one ear. Her smartness exposed her ridiculously. Then, at the very moment of abandoning the pursuit, she caught a glimpse of Judith, in the distance, disappearing into the mainline railway station.

First Paul and Judith, and then Paul, and then Judith, and then Mrs Stott, cross the river on the decrepit train which connects the two cities, and each time one or both or all of them are held prisoner in the City North border lock-up at the mercy of the Lieutenant. Until at last it is Judith’s clearsightedness and courage that sets them free.

Hall’s metaphor is not as obvious as Charlotte Woods’ but this is definitely a fairytale for our border/internment-obsessed times.

 

Rodney Hall, The Last Love Story, Picador, Sydney, 2004

Kerryn Goldsworthy’s review in the Age  (26 June 2004) here

 

Bad to Worse, Robert Edeson

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Bad to Worse (2017) is a second novel and suffers from second novel syndrome. Which is to say that all the things which were exciting and new in the first novel are repeated in the second where they are self-evidently not new and nor are they very exciting.

Further, Bad to Worse suffers also from we’re on a roll here let’s go for a series syndrome. So we have the same mix of good guys, though in different proportions, as in The Weaver Fish (here), facing off against a new line-up of villians. As we will again in book 3 no doubt, as Worse believes firmly in permanent threat eradication, ie. killing. And just enough threads are left open at the end.

Worse, the principal good guy, is an independent, Perth-based, secret agent type, deadly in armed and unarmed combat and a supremely competent computer hacker; he has foils in philosopher detective Victor Spoiling of the WA Police, and in his friend philosopher psychiatrist Sigrid Blitt. In fact all the good guys are philosopher scientist poet mathematicians though their philosophy science poetry logic is mostly (ironically) bogus.

Worse’s love interest from The Weaver Fish, Millie Misgivington, almost makes it to Perth in time to be included in the action, but doesn’t. And the other members of the supporting cast – Walter Reckles who survives a mid-air collision, as he said he could, over the Arizona desert, and Millie’s brother Nicholas, and his team leader Paulo on Greater Ferendes play relatively minor parts; while Anna Camenes and Edvard Tøssentern, though frequently mentioned, like Millie stay out of the way in Cambridge.

The Chinese, who in The Weaver Fish were illegally clear-felling and mining the northern coastal plain of Greater Ferende, have been discarded by the author as a source of ongoing conflict/outrage after promising much and delivering little; and neither the Asiatic Condor nor the Weaver Fish is given even a walk on part, though a giant, upright, cave-dwelling crab plays a minor role in terrifying Nicholas and Paulo.

The story this time is that the enormously wealthy and dishonest Mortiss family from Chicago have an ongoing vendetta against the Worse family in Dante, Arizona arising from a shoot-out between Sheriff Thomas Worse and members of the Mortiss family in 1877. When our Worse hears that Walter Reckless has crashed and survived after a collision with a drone from the mysterious Area Pi facility outside Dante he writes and introduces himself to Sheriff Thomas Worse the sixth, and begins investigating, soon finding links to the Mortiss family.

Of course there is stuff going on in the Ferendes that also has links to the Mortiss family, and the family has a fleet of dodgy cruise liners that leads to Worse and Brigit taking an unfortunate trip where they meet Hilario, an apparently telepathic steward, who is clearly destined to play an on-going role (perhaps as chaperone for Millie, if she ever makes it to Perth).

My favourite line: “There was another loud obstructed inspiration from Haberdash” [ie. the villian was having trouble breathing] illustrates perfectly how Ederson uses scientific/medical language to both obscure and enhance meaning. And then amid all the science there is an ultimate ocker moment, billy tea in the bush:

Worse grabbed the lidless billy’s wire handle, using green forest leaves for insulation. He stood back from the fire, and began to swing the billy like a pendulum. Suddenly, from a forward under-swing, it went full circle at high speed, revolving round and round at arm’s length, the boiling tea retained by nothing but centrifugal force. He stopped the exercise by running forward as it slowed.

Eventually, it all comes together in Arizona and the bad guys, and one very bad gal, lose.

Too often the plot is advanced by the characters writing letters to each other, which I find infuriating; there is a conceit about the author of the Worse chronicles being unknown, which you should ignore; and some unnecessary appendices which if you are going to read at all read during the course of the novel because you certainly won’t be bothered when you’ve finished.

I’ve been hard on Bad to Worse because I expected more. The writing in The Weaver Fish sparkled, there was a good balance between experimental writing, action and character development. Some of the ‘experimental’ elements remain in Bad to Worse – particularly long and sometimes amusing footnotes – but the writing is mostly bog standard SF. Long on action, short on character. What was Literature in the first novel is now just Genre.

But. Read it anyway. Teacher son enjoyed though he wished had read The Weaver Fish first. It’s still fun despite all my carping, if a bit on the bloody side, and book 3 is bound to be better. We might even get a bit of cosy, Cambridge, hand-holding romance.

 

Robert Edeson, Bad to Worse, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, 2017

see also my review of Robert Edeson, The Weaver Fish (here)

The Weaver Fish, Robert Edeson

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The weaver fish, transparent except for its eyes, surrounds its victims in great shoals, “fish bodies tightly woven crisscross, like warp and weft, but layered, as a solid tapestry might be made” surrounding, consuming, dissolving the flesh of its victims down to the bones. There have been few confirmed sightings. In 1916 “a fisherman named Josef Ta’Salmoud, from the village of Madregalo on Greater Ferende” capsized his canoe into a shoal so thick that he was able to escape by running across it, but arrived on the beach to find all the flesh of his feet gone.

Walter Reckles, who has written a book describing how to escape from a catastrophically exploded areoplane by attaching yourself to a wing and gliding to earth, designs a new type of aerodynamic surface, giving rise to tornado-proof roofs and hats.

The rarely sighted Asiatic Condor, native to the Ferendes, has a wingspan of up to six feet and uniform iridescent black plumage. Little is known of its habitat but it is thought to nest at sea.

Norwegian-British logician, linguist and dream theorist Edvard Tøssentern goes missing while flying a Reckles designed balloon out into the South China Sea from his camp on Greater Ferende. Tøssentern’s partner Anna Camenes comes to join the search and is taken to see illegal, Chinese Army-controlled logging at the far end of the island. There they observe condors which have been disturbed attack two Chinese soldiers.

A man is brought in from the jungle, grossly swollen through septicemia, and Camenes who is amongst other things a doctor, commences the procedures which save his life. It seems he has been the victim of a condor attack. When recovered he proposes a revolutionary theory about the life-cycle of the condor which the camp, established to research the Ferendic language, reformulates itself to investigate.

And so through brief, illuminating excursions into linguistics, engineering, physics, medicine and biology and their surprising interactions, we proceed. The members of the camp disperse, to Cambridge, and one, Nicholas, to Perth where he has a consulting job with an international bank.

This excursion to Cambridge, Tøssentern and Camenes’ home base, provides a literary connection to a long tradition of English academic science based fiction, making it easy to read The Weaver Fish as a postmodern take on the SF of say, John Wyndham*.

The author, obviously a polymath, makes no concessions to our ignorance, but if you read closely, the language is not as opaque as it first seems. One professor approaches another after a public lecture:

“One of my students is modelling semantic shift in rumour diffusion within multi-lingual, theocratically oppressed populations enjoying indefinite migratory flux, identity fraud, endemic mendacity, inculturated insularity, constrictive paternalism, pre-Enlightenment censoriousness, congenital absence of humour, sporadic headless mutism, and conductive hearing impairment; it occurred to me Thortelmann’s ideas might be useful. Would you be happy to meet up with her and offer some advice?”

In Perth, where Nicholas is now missing, we meet for the first time Worse, “a weedy little nerd”, who has summarily dealt with one intruder and is about to thoroughly bamboozle another two. After which he meets an attractive young woman, and the search for Nicholas begins.

After serious fun and games in Fremantle and Margaret River (iconic locations in Western Australia) it all comes to a head in Madregalo, now a city, and capital of the Ferendes kingdom. The Weaver Fish is a play on words, on science, on literature, and is at once both thoroughly post-modern and totally enjoyable.

Late this year (2017) Edeson’s next was released, Bad to Worse, obviously a follow-up. I gave it to teacher son who promises to have it read before he goes home while I got stuck into The Weaver Fish, which I had given to his mother three years earlier. I definitely won’t be waiting three years to read Bad to Worse. If you’re wondering, in his turn teacher son gave me a hardback edition of My Career Goes Bung, with a so-so dustjacket, published by Georgian House, Melbourne, 1946.

 

Robert Edeson, The Weaver Fish, Fremantle Press, Fremantle, 2014

see also:
Lisa at ANZLL’s review (here)


* Footnotes play an important part in this novel, giving it in places the appearance of an academic treatise, and generally covering topics far more esoteric than a brief intro to the work of John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris (1903-1969) who as John Wyndham wrote such SF classics as The Day of the Triffids (1951), The Kraken Wakes (1953), The Chrysalids (1955) and Chocky (1968). “These tales eloquently sanction a post-trauma middle-class UK style of response to the theme of Disaster, whether caused by the forces of Nature, alien Invasions, Evolution or Man’s own nuclear warfare. Wyndham did not invent the UK novel of secretly-longed-for-disaster, or what Brian W Aldiss has called the Cosy Catastrophe, for this had reached mature form as early as 1885, with the publication of Richard Jefferies‘s retrospective After London, or Wild England“. Science Fiction Encyclopedia