Author Interview, Justine Ettler

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Image from Amazon.com

Justine Ettler (1965- ) is the author of The River Ophelia (1995) which is being re-released, as an e-book and print-on-demand, and of Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure (1996). She has been absent as an author for a while and it’s great to see her back. I took the opportunity to send her some questions, I’m sure you’ll love her answers.

Q. What reading did you/do you enjoy and what ended up being influential?

A. These days I like reading English classic novels—Austen, the Brontes, George Eliot, and Mrs Gaskell, occasionally some Hardy.

Back then, Kathy Acker was an important influence in terms of TRO, it was from Acker that I got the ideas of naming the protagonist after myself and of borrowing and parodying other characters from other books. I liked her work, there was a lot of power and inventiveness in it but I wanted to write a book with more narrative that would be more compelling. I actually met Acker when she came to Australia in the nineties it was so amazing when she said, without my prompting, that she loved The River Ophelia, she really understood what I was trying to do. That I’d taken aspects of her work but inserted them into a more narrative framework.

I also read and was influenced by Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behaviour, Catherine Texier’s early material, Ellis I’ve talked about elsewhere but American Psycho is a book I’ve loved/hated. I was also reading a lot of Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, Baudrillard, Freud and of course, Bataille, and de Sade. Some of these books made me angry, others were inspiring.

Q. When you wrote The River Ophelia and Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure – and in passing did you write them in the reverse order? Was it your publisher who made the choice to publish The River Ophelia first? – you were doing post-grad work in American Lit (is that right?). What was the subject of your thesis?

A. Yes. I wrote Marilyn while doing my BA at UTS, it was my first novel, and it was my publisher’s idea to publish in the reverse order. I guess they were thinking about the way debut writers get more media attention and they thought they could do more with TRO but I actually think publishing them in the order they were written would have been better for me in the long term.

I wrote TRO while I was researching my PhD. There just seemed to be an overspill from all that reading, material not suitable to a conventional dissertation comprised of a series of essays. The thesis was initially on the American writers I’ve listed above, with the addition of Jay McInnerney, and it was partly a defence of American Psycho which then was ignored by scholars and much maligned for its misogyny. I had read Liz Young’s work in Shopping in Space and found it quite brilliant and inspiring. Now of course Ellis, partly as a result of Harron’s clever film adaptation, has been redeemed and has outshone many of the other writers of that time and the final draft of the PhD has been an attempt to reinstate what the feminists were saying because in all the subsequent scholarly defences the misogyny in the novel, and it is there, has been lost. I felt there needed to be some kind of balance.

Q. I haven’t read American Psycho (or seen it – I avoid violent movies) but if I understand you correctly, you believe Ellis’ writing about violence towards women was pornographic in intent not condemnatory (I’ve been reading your 2014 essay ‘Sex Sells, Dude’. I’ll put a link to it in my post (here)). Am I right in my (limited) understanding?

A. In terms of the pornography in AP, it’s more the misogyny in the pornography and the way the pornography is fused with some of the absolutely all-time nastiest stuff I’ve ever read so that for the reader the experience of one becomes inseparable from the experience of the other. My thesis was an attempt to place the mass media feminist critique and the scholarly defences side by side and say both were true and that neither worked without the other.

Q. The publicity material for the re-release talks about domestic violence, is that a reframing of your objectives for The River Ophelia? I saw Justine – your protagonist – as seeking out ill-treatment. That doesn’t justify Sade of course, but I thought you were writing about a frame of mind, a self loathing, in women arising, in this case, from her father’s psychological mistreatment of her, which leads to her seeking more ‘punishment’.

A. It’s not a re-framing per se, so much as an attempt to nudge the clever reader in the right direction, in terms of my authorial intentions with the text. That the novel deep down is about domestic violence is a clue, a pretty hefty one I should say, to help the reader join the dots and solve the riddle hidden in the text.

It’s interesting what you say about self-loathing and women who seek punishment as a result of childhood trauma. I guess part of the reason Justine behaves the ways she does is because of her childhood trauma that involves not being protected by her father and as a result she grows up unable to protect herself. Justine does have low self-esteem and does feel self-hatred but Justine is also an unreliable narrator. Much of what she describes is part of the way she lies to herself about Sade’s abuse and therefore can’t be taken literally. Sade’s abuse causes a traumatised response in her and she is compelled to stay out of misplaced loyalty and love, because of a kind of trauma bond. But I don’t see her as a masochist, seeking out punishment.

Q. I’ll have put up a review of ‘Marilyn’ by the time you get this probably. I see her as similar to Justine but less intense; more confused and maybe even ‘ditzy’ but without the self-harm aspect that characterizes Justine. I think in an on-line interview in the 1990s you said you saw yourself in Marilyn (rather than Justine). Authors of course reveal themselves in their writing but I’m not asking are these works autobiography. My interest is always ‘are the works authentic?’, do they reflect/draw on the author’s lived experience. (For old authors I also work backwards and ask what does the writing say about the author’s lived experience).

A. Usually a writer’s first novel is their most autobiographical and then I think writers start the process of looking elsewhere for their material. Of course there is part of the author in all their characters. I’ve been a university student and I have had bad relationships. The problem is that a lot of people read TRO as autobiographical because I’d named the protagonist Justine. This was a literary technique as I’ve said. But, and I think this happens to women writers more than men, because my character was very messed up, people started to see me as messed up and that effected the way people saw my writing: it seems to me that women writers can get branded incompetent as writers if they write very messed up characters. I have also experienced sexual harassment so while TRO is authentic, it draws from life like any other novel, it is also completely made up, and what isn’t made up is borrowed and reinvented in true postmodernist parodic style. What I didn’t make up, hadn’t lived myself and didn’t borrow from other texts, I drew from my friends. I have had girlfriends who had been raped, been experimenting with their sexuality and who have been the girlfriends of sex addicts. The real meaning of TRO, like that of AP, is deeply buried in the novel: the novel is designed as a postmodern labyrinth, a riddle the reader has to solve.

Q. My final question(s) is, Where have you been? It’s been a long time, your loyal readers would love to know there’s another novel in the pipeline. Perhaps even the third novel that was promised way back in 1996. And how does the re-release feel? Many authors say they have trouble re-engaging with a work once they have let it go.

A. That’s right, there was a third novel back in 1996, you’ve got a good memory! But I ran into problems with that one to do with defamation. My postmodernism had developed and I was experimenting with using real life celebrities as cut ups for my characters, mixing them in with Shakespeare and inserting the results into a satire about the Murdochs, and, well that one’s still on the cutting room floor, I’m afraid. I’m still working on it, and I think I’ve solved the problem but I’m so busy at the moment writing novel no. 5, and with Bohemia Beach coming out next year and just about to go into editing… But I’ll get there.

That being said, I deliberately pulled Marilyn and TRO from my publisher in 1997 because I hated being bullied and conflated with my character, I loathed my notoriety and felt the people I was dealing with didn’t really have me or my books best interests at heart. So taking back the rights for both books quieted things down for a while.

I’m excited about the ebook edition of TRO, and I really hope that, with the new, careful framing, that this edition will find its true readership and, who knows, perhaps spark controversy and debate for a whole new generation of readers? Maybe readers who want something a bit more psychologically and technically complex say than 50 Shades…. Not that there’s anything wrong with 50 Shades, I mean, it’s just that narrative and psychological complexity really interests me and, I hope, will interest my readers.

 

Thank you Justine! I can’t wait for Bohemia Beach, though I hope we also get to see that post-modern take on the Murdochs, themselves pretty post-modern with the truth.

 

Melanie at Grab the Lapels who always does great interviews has beaten me to the punch by half a day (here), and a video of the book launch (here).

Justine Ettler, The River Ophelia, Picador, Sydney, 1995 (review)

Justine Ettler, Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure, Picador, Sydney, 1996 (review)

Kathy Acker, In memoriam to identity, Pandora, London, 1990 (review)

Miss Herbert, Christina Stead

 

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Miss Herbert (The Suburban Wife) (1976) was the twelfth of Christina Stead’s 13 novels – if you count her first, The Salzburg Tales as a novel, which I do, or 14,15,16,17 depending how you count The Puzzleheaded Girl: Four Novellas (1965), but anyway it was the second-last published; and the second set mostly in Britain. Cotter’s England was the first (not the ‘only’ as it says in Wikipedia, today at least) and For Love Alone, probably the most biographical of her works, ends up there as well. In fact, Miss Herbert in a way continues on from For Love Alone in that it uses the everyday details of Stead’s struggles to support herself in London before and after WWII, on the fringes of the publishing industry.

Christina Stead (1902-1983) was born in Sydney, moved to London, where she met her life-long partner Bill Blake in 1928. They lived for a while in Paris, spent the war years in the USA, sailed back to Europe in 1946, initially to Belgium. In 1948 Stead was in England working on Cotters’ England and some time after, but certainly by 1952, began work on Miss Herbert, which remained unpublished – I don’t know why – until 1976.

Miss Herbert is an odd book, or at least a book about an odd woman as she makes her way through her adult life. In some ways it is as though Stead set out to write an English Lettie Fox  (1946). Lettie Fox is a young American woman who knows what she wants – sex and marriage – and sets out to get it. ‘Miss Herbert’ wants to get married, to become a suburban wife, but has no real self-awareness and falls into sex almost by accident. The writing does not have the virtuoso quality of Lettie Fox or even of Cotters’ England but that is not to say it is not well written, but rather that it reflects very well the unreflective and maybe even stolid mental processes of its protagonist.

I should say the ‘Miss Herbert’ of the title begins life as Miss Eleanor Brent. Herbert is the name of an old county family from whom her mother is descended. Eleanor feels herself to be a Herbert and later in the novel when she is in need of a name this is the one she adopts. The novel starts with a reunion of school friends, old girls of Miss Appleyard’s academy. Some of the girls have gone on to university or commenced careers but Eleanor, living on a small allowance from her father

… was different. A nobly built beauty, playingfields champion, excellent student, loved at home, admired at school and by men, she had been happy and confident always. Her future was planned too; she was “an engaged girl.” But with all this, she was unsettled; she was only quite happy with women friends.

Her fiance, Robert, a doctor, is in a hospital ‘up north’ making his way through residency and so on. Eleanor takes a world cruise, becomes engaged to one or two other men while she’s away, and on her return lives with a young colonial businessman for a month in his London flat.

But she felt too active and intelligent for the idle mistress life and began taking correspondence lessons in writing with a Mr Beresford Banes who ran a Fleet Street literary agency.

She resumes her engagement with Robert and telling him that she is on a walking tour, gets menial work in a country hotel where she makes out with all the men, before returning to London, to a student hostel, getting by on odd writing jobs. And all the time talking about sex and free love with her girl friends, having men back to her room, holding herself out as inexperienced. Later, I had to re-read these early pages because when Eleanor, at age 30 or so, does finally fall into the suburban marriage she had dreamed of, she blanks out any recall of these encounters or holds them out to herself as innocent.

Eleanor is fascinated by the relationships of her friends, particularly those in de facto marriages or with long-term sexual partners, questioning them without regard to their embarrassment, maybe reflecting on her own status, as it was around this time, after many years living together that Stead and Blake were finally able to marry. Eventually she breaks with Robert for the last time and becomes engaged to Heinz, a Swiss who is an organiser for her mother’s church or religious society (I never did work out exactly what it was). She admits to him that she has had one or two lovers and he wants to know what they did, she must do for him what she had done for them. When he admits to lovers of his own “she ran wild with men, resentful and jealous: a fury burned in her; for a moment she wanted to go to the devil, roister, never marry – her heart burned. She would never marry the wretch.” But she does.

And settles down, has children, a girl and a boy, works hard in the house her in laws had bought, lodgers in the upper floors for a little extra income. Over time Henry – he insists on Henry rather than the foreign ‘Heinz’, dreams of a distant knighthood – works more and more away from home until at last he tricks her into going to live on her brother’s farm and claims to have been deserted. She never thinks of herself as not married, even when Henry begins to suggest divorce, but looks again to writing and to supporting herself and her children as a reader for publishers.

Life drifts on. She moves back to London. Men are still interested in her but she seems to have got out of the habit. Late in the piece she thinks she has fallen in love with her daughter’s boyfriend:

In the night, awake, she rose and fell, like a floating swimmer, on easygoing great waves of voluptuous joy, while thinking, Not for me, no,no, it’s all nonsense; it’s all past, not for me, no longer; how can it come now when it never came? It’s an illusion.

But it passes, she’s fifty after all, “Soon I will have my pension and then I am going to write the story of my life; then I will really get down to it; and it will open some eyes.”

 

Christina Stead, Miss Herbert (The Suburban Wife), Random House, New York, 1976. Virago Modern Classics No. 97 (pictured above), 1979

see also:
Lisa at ANZLL’s Christina Stead page (here) for a full overview of Stead and her work, including links to reviews by Lisa, me and others.
Chris Williams, Christina Stead: A Life of Letters,1989 (Biography – here)


The British did it hard in the decade after World War II, with shortages of many basics and ongoing rationing. Sue at Whispering Gums a week or so ago discussed Australians sending food parcels ‘back home’ (here), and I noticed this in Williams while looking up background material for this review:

Christina’s family back in Australia helped her in those ration-stricken times in England. Her cousin Gwen and her sister Kate sent parcels of tinned meat, woollens, dripping and other essentials to her and her friend, Anne Dooley [the model for Nellie in Cotters’ England]. Christina wrote to Gwen in June 1949 that “… for those who need it most, the hard constant workers, the food is grievously, wickedly insufficient. Meat, that strength-builder, is in terrible shortage.”

 

The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver

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The Poisonwood Bible (1998) which must be well known, my copy has ‘International Best Seller’ on the cover and elsewhere I see ‘Oprah Book Club’, has been sitting on my bedside cupboard for months, years even, but who gave it to me I do not remember. However, seeing it there every morning (every morning that I’m home, which is about half) at least prompted me to pick up the audio version when I saw it in the library.

The story is of a Southern Baptist preacher, Nathan Price, who takes his wife and four daughters to Kilanga, a village deep in the Congo jungle in 1959. No, that’s not quite right, the story is of the daughters, how they survive their father, how they survive the Congo, how the Congo becomes a part of them. Each section is introduced by Orleanna, the mother, back in Georgia in the present day, and then we hear, not in any order, the voices of the daughters – Rachel (15 in 1959), Leah (14), Adah (14) and Ruth May (5).

The girls all have slightly different voices, which made the book very easy to follow. Rachel is a Mrs Malaprop and Adah expresses her intelligence by thinking her sentences both forwards and backwards (it gets tedious after a while). Leah’s is the voice we hear most often. The author succeeds in making Ruth May sound young:

Mama needs her some Quick Energy. After Father went away with Leah in the plane, she went and got in her bed and won’t get up…

I told Rachel and Adah we needed some 7Up for Mama. Rachel does the radio advertisements from back home and that is one: ‘Bushed? Beat? Need ionizing? 7Up is the greatest discovery yet for getting new energy quick. In two to six minutes you’ll feel like a new you.’

We learn quite early from Orleanna that one of her daughters will die, so this is one source of tension during the first half of the book. The other source is family dynamics as the dysfunctional Nathan attempts to bring christianity to the ‘natives’ without any understanding of them at all, while Leah, Adah, Ruth May and to some extent Orleanna, become increasingly involved in community life. Rachel amusingly remains a southern belle, even in their early hand to mouth existence in Kilanga with all the dresses brought from Georgia turning to rags.

Barbara Kingsolver (1955- ) is a good woman, anti-war, pro-environment, an advocate of living close to nature (Wiki), and she has produced here a portrait of a man completely out of his depth, surviving only by the kindness of the locals, of which all the Prices are blithely unaware, and the desperate attempts of his wife and daughters to support him while living within the constraints of traditional village life.

Over the three or so years of producing this blog I have become increasingly interested in how literature reflects – and no doubt influences – black white relations. How books by white liberals, of which this is one, so often put modern white liberal protagonists into historical situations to yes, accept blame, but also to suggest how things might have been done better; and how the books of Indigenous Lit. and, in the US, African-American Lit., increasingly paint a completely different picture.

The Belgian Congo was a colony ruthlessly exploited by US and European businesses with the support of the Belgian government. In it’s early years as a colony, at the end of the C19th the Congo, 75 times larger than Belgium, was the personal fiefdom of Belgium’s King Leopold II: “along with the uncounted thousands who died of disease and famine, many Congolese were killed by Leopold’s agents for failing to meet production quotas for ivory and rubber, the territory’s principal sources of wealth before its diamonds, copper and zinc were discovered. Mr. Hochschild estimates the total death toll during the Leopold period [1885-1908] at 10 million.”*

By 1959 this was supposedly coming to an end, with the Belgians agreeing to withdraw, and in 1960 Patrice Lumumba became the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the new Republic of the Congo. However within a few months the US, which has always preferred right wing dictatorships to protect its commercial interests, engineered a coup. Lumumba was deposed by the head of the army, Joseph Mobutu, imprisoned, beaten and shot. The CIA’s instigation of the coup was confirmed by US Congressional hearings in 1975 (the Church Committee) – which Kingsolver refers to. Mobutu’s increasingly despotic rule lasted until 1997.

The second half of the book, which I didn’t find as interesting as the first, deals with the girls as they become adults and live separate lives, in the US, in the Congo/Zaire and towards the end, in neighbouring Angola, itself fighting to stay independent with the support of Cuba in the face of US/South African sponsored rebels. We also follow Anatole Ngemba who, when the Prices arrive, is the village school teacher, and later a political activist in the anti-Mobutu movement.

A lot of the book, most of it even, concerns the day to day problems of subsistence living in a small and remote village, in which the Prices must take part, having only a small stipend as missionaries and that gone with the flight of most whites at Independence; and of the confusion arising from Nathan’s inability to master even the rudiments of the local language. Kingsolver spent a few months in the Congo as a child but is otherwise constructing her story from research. The scenes sound authentic but we have no way of knowing how close they are to reality.

Where she succeeds is in telling a story which is both interesting in itself and which acts seamlessly as a vehicle for her political purpose – to excoriate her government for the ongoing harm it has caused the people of the Congo.

 

Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible, Faber & Faber, London, 1998. Audio version Brilliance Audio, 1998, read by Dean Robertson

see also:

*Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Houghton Mifflin, 1998, cited in NY Times, 21 Sept. 2002 (here)

CIA report: CIA’s Covert Operations in the Congo, 1960–1968 (here)

Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure, Justine Ettler

Justine Ettler’s 1995 best seller The River Ophelia is in the process of being re-released and I’ve been asked if I would like to conduct an author interview. Of course I would! In my researches I came across an open on-line interview with Ettler from about 20 years ago in which one Kate W was a participant. Did you get anything out of it Kate?

I was offered a choice of formats – not including an open chat session, thank goodness, which looks like a mess. My preference would be to sit down over a glass of wine, but us not being in the same cities, that’s out of the question, and anyway would I remember to write down her answers. I get tongue-tied on the phone with strangers, so that leaves written questions. As part of the process, I thought I would re-read Ettler’s Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure which was published the year after The River Ophelia but which Ettler says she wrote first. And so, this review.

Marilyn’s a blonde very-Marilyn-with-a-touch of Meryl Sydney girl who has a crush on an older Wall Street type – Twentiethcentury Solomon Fox jr – she’s seen on daytime tv. Trying to contact him in New York through directory assistance she’s put through instead to Lisa who works in a downtown bookstall while waiting for an off-off-Broadway break.

Virginia, a girl she meets at New Year’s Eve party, persuades Marilyn that they’ll fly to New York together the next day, leaving behind her boyfriend hairy snail Lawrence, and her lovers Miller and Durrell.

[She] stares off into the hazy middle distance reluctant to hear her life so far reduced to what sounds like a reading list for an adult education course in modern literature and female sexuality …

Years ago I went through an Anaïs Nin phase so these are familiar names, though I assumed the Lawrence went with Durrell when Ettler may have intended D.H.

Virginia stands her up at the departure lounge – gets a super secret job offer she just can’t refuse – and Marilyn sets off on the 31 hour flight on her own, or on her own except for an I-don’t care-if-I’m-a-lousy-hack-air-hostess-because-I-know-I’m-Bette-Davis-where-it-counts who keeps sneaking looks in Marilyn’s new diary, as do we, and forgetting to feed her, but helps her interpret her dreams and slips her some drugs and so the time passes until Marilyn finds herself on the kerb climbing into a taxi, and giving an address to a black driver with lots of gold jewellery who asks, as does everyone she meets, often even before she speaks, are you Ostralian?

It seems Crocodile Dundee (1986) has “finally put Ostralia on the map”, though Ettler’s a bit pissed off by Americans? Australians? who read it as “a harmless fairytale”.

“Meanwhile Twentiethcentury Solomon Fox coaxes his body towards his first bowel movement of the day” which is his principal preoccupation, even more than making money from movements in the market, or Garbo, his girlfriend with God-are-they-silicon? tits; while Marilyn who has concussion from when the taxi dropped into an enormous pothole, tries to make sense of being dropped off at Liz’s flat in a run-down apartment building, coming to on a creaky slashed badly sprung vinyl sofa-bed under a dirty blanket to which she reverts in coming days to recuperate.

This is one of those books you read for the writing and for the atmosphere, but if you really don’t want to know how Marilyn ends up, then skip down to the last para.

We spin off into days of partying, random encounters, Marilyn spiralling ever closer to Twentiethcentury. Virginia reappears, disappears forever, and suddenly …

 …it’s the end of Twentiethcentury Fox and the end of the world and the end of her allergy and the end of TV and the end of herbality.

Back in Liz’s apartment everything’s a crazy bustling confusion of Liz and her sisters and her flatmates and all of their I’m-so-pissed-off-about-being-evicted boxes and suitcases and Marilyn’s strangely reassured when she finds Liz in the middle of it all hand-blow-drying real potato French fries and then when Liz asks about Twentiethcentury with a knowing look beneath her dyed natural hair Marilyn shrugs and says:
‘Oh well,’
And they both sigh and sip on their Coronas and gulp down shots of tequila.
And then Liz says:
‘Let’s get this show on the road kid.’

 And just like that, Marilyn is back in Sydney.

Marilyn is not intense in the way that The River Ophelia is. It has a lighter, trippier quality and there is an occasional suspension of causality which reminds me of some of the more ‘way out’ of Golden Age SF writers – PK Dick, Sladek or Sheckley. I’ve put this into a question for her (Ettler) and I’m sure she’ll answer ‘nope, nope, nope’ and cite someone I’ve never heard of, but hey, the reader is king. Right?

 

Justine Ettler, Marilyn’s Almost Terminal New York Adventure, Picador, Sydney, 1996

see also: my review of The River Ophelia (here). Author interview (here)

 

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

 

The Sorrow of War, Bao Ninh

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The Sorrow of War (1990) is the fictional memoir of a young North Vietnamese man during and after the – from his point of view – American War. The author, Bào Ninh was actually born in 1952, but his protagonist Kien is 17 in 1965, so four years older, when the war starts and he goes straight from school to the North Vietnam Army. In the novel Kien is a famous novelist, 40 years old, writing The Destiny of Love, a story of the war which keeps getting mixed up with his own recollections of the war years, 1965-75, and the years since.

According to Wikipedia, in 1990 Bào Ninh published a roneoed version (who remembers Gestetners?) of this novel with the title The Destiny of Love after completing a creative writing course. “Soon afterwards Phan Thanh Hao translated it into English and took the manuscript to the British publishers Secker & Warburg. Geoffrey Mulligan, an editor there, commissioned Frank Palmos, an Australian journalist who had reported on the Vietnam War and written about it in his book Ridding the Devils (1990), to write an English version based on the raw translation.” This probably explains why The Sorrow of War sounds as though it were written in English by someone familiar with the war from the US point of view, as we are, rather than just translated.

I’m three years younger than Kien. I went up to university from my country high school in 1969 and was straight away involved in politics. Conscription had been introduced by the Liberal government to build up the army to help the Americans stop the supposed spread of Communism through South-East Asia. In 1971 I would have to register for ‘the ballot’, the lottery that chose 20 year olds to enlist, or face two years jail. As it happens I had no intention of killing the old men of the Liberal party’s enemies, or in helping them relive the glory days of World War II (in which of course very few of them had actually fought).

The first term of 1970 was spent in planning for the Moratorium on May 8. On the day, I marched down Swanston Street at the head of the Melb Uni contingent, bearing the pole for one end of our banner, to join up with the thousands already gathered in the Treasury Gardens. Then we marched out of the gardens and down Bourke Street to the GPO, 100,000 people shoulder to shoulder across the street. From where we were, outside Myers you could see marchers back up the hill all the way to Spring Street.

After the Moratorium was the Socialist Scholar’s conference in Sydney, then a fiery July 4 demo, the second Moratorium in September, which I attended in Brisbane having by then started truck driving, and an afternoon in the cells under the old Magistrates Court for ‘publishing a document’ to incite a breach of the National Service Act – ie. handing out pamphlets. By the end of 1971 I had been served a warrant regarding my failure to register and so moved to Queensland to live, to be out of the way. In December 1972 Labor was elected and the National Service laws were repealed. It was all over, for me anyway. For Kien it was never over.

These ‘war years’ of mine are only a fraction of the ten years Kien loses in the NVA, and then he must spend ten years more, reclaiming and losing again his first and only love Phuong, compulsively writing out the horrors he cannot forget, living with the spirits of the dead and, when this story starts, beginning the post-war years by collecting and bagging the bodies of the MIA’s in the Jungle of Screaming Souls, the battleground where he of all the 27th Battalion, was the only survivor.

Briefly, the novel is framed as a novel being written and then discarded, with the scattered pages recovered, out of order, and given to an editor. A standard writing school trope and hopefully now out of fashion again. But the result is a discontinuous narrative, with Kien fighting; Kien and Phuong graduating from high school, Kien too ‘honourable’ to follow up Phuong’s advances; rapes and battles and massacres; Phuong following Kien to the front; Kien and Phuong trying to live together, and failing, after Kien’s ten year absence.

If Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front remains the preeminent anti-war novel by a soldier on the losing side of WWI, then The Sorrow of War reminds us that winning is no great shakes either for the soldiers doing the actual fighting. But the real clue to reading this book is the ‘battle’ over the titles. It is clear Western readers at least are most interested in the war, but that the author is in fact more concerned with Kien’s failure to love and protect Phuong. The Sorrow of War is a love story that breaks your heart over and over and over again.

This is a stunning book. The only Vietnam War book I have read, or will read probably. I’m only sorry I was unable to get hold of a paper copy to give you some examples of Ninh’s writing

 

Bao Ninh, The Sorrow of War, originally self-published as The Destiny of Love in Vietnamese in 1990. English version, Frank Palmos, Secker & Warburg, London, 1993. Audio version, Trantor, 2015, read by James Langton (no mention in the audio credits of Palmos or any translator)


Lisa at ANZLitLovers discussed The Sorrow of War a couple of years ago (here) and specifically the problem of English language counterfeit copies. This discussion takes a very interesting turn when Frank Palmos, now an Indonesia and Vietnam specialist at UWA (LinkedIn) joins in, at the time and again today (26/08/2017).

Great Australian Girls, Susan Geason

 

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Before you tar and feather me, ‘Girls’ is Geason’s word, not mine, although  she attempts amelioration with ‘and the remarkable women they became’. And how Ned Kelly, or a female Ned Kelly – do they look like woman’s eyes to you too? – got on the cover I am not sure.

This 1999 book is a collection of biographical sketches of Australian women who shared “qualities like courage and determination, the strength to face adversity and obstacles and still fight on.” The idea of course, although Geason does not say so in her short Introduction, is to provide positive role models for girls when our histories, and the daily press, are so full of role models for boys.

As you might expect, the older stories are of more interest to me, some of the later stories might have been articles in the Women’s Weekly.

Mary Reibey (1777-1855) This is the most extensive account I’ve read of Reibey, who vies with Elizabeth Macarthur for the title of Australia’s first businesswoman. Mary was born in Lancashire into a middle class family. Her parents died early on and she was taken in by her grandmother and educated at Blackburn Free Grammar School. When she was 13 her grandmother died and rather than enter an ‘orphanage’ (a parish poor house probably) Mary ran away, stole and attempted to sell a horse, and although for a short while successfully posing as a boy, was eventually transported to New South Wales as a female convict on the Royal Admiral in 1792. Geason says as “part of the Second Fleet” but I think she is wrong about this, and in fact I think she relies too often on her general knowledge instead of looking things up, as for instance when she says “after a fast run across the Pacific … sailed through Sydney Heads”. In fact sailing ships came from England from the other direction, via Cape Town and the Southern Ocean.

On arrival in Sydney Town, Mary wasn’t selected from a line-up of new arrivals as a ‘wife’, but two years later, at age 17 she married Thomas Reibey, a ship’s officer with the East India Company. Reibey became a prominent businessman, firstly as a farmer on the Hawkesbury, then as the owner of small ships servicing his fellows on the Hawkesbury and subsequently the coastal and Pacific Islands trades. Thomas was often away and Mary was active in running the business, as she continued to do after his death in 1811, growing in prosperity and respectability for the next 40 years.

Geason mentions Mary Reibey’s diary, though not in her extensive list of sources, but here it is at the Mitchell (NSW State Library).

Louisa Atkinson (1834-1872) was born on her parent’s property, Oldbury, in the Southern Highlands of NSW. Her mother, an educated woman, daughter of a barrister, took over the property when her husband died two months after Louisa’s birth. There followed eight years of  moves and disruption, not to mention a disastrous re-marriage to an alcoholic, before Charlotte finally had James Atkinson’s will executed in her favour. The lesson Louisa learned from this was the one preached by many of my other Independent Women: “a woman without money and friends was at the mercy of men. Marriage was not the answer… A woman had to gain the skills and knowledge to earn her own living.” Charlotte before her had been an author – of the first children’s book published in the colony – and an amateur botanist. Louisa took up botany at an early age and at 19 started producing nature notes and drawings for the Sydney Illustrated News, and subsequently as ‘A Voice from the Country’ in the Sydney Morning Herald. With her friend Emma Selkirk she made long excursions into the Blue Mountains searching out new plant species –

On horseback, with their long skirts hiked up like trousers, the two would pick their way up and down steep ravines, through dense forest and undergrowth… One of their favourite haunts was the fern gully at the Kurrajong waterfalls, where they discovered several new ferns.

Sounds like the women in Christina Stead’s story ‘On the Road’ in The Salzburg Tales.

Louisa’s major work was an illustrated Australian natural history. In 1870 she sent the ms to famous botanist Ferdinand von Mueller but it was lost in the upheavals of the Franco-Prussian War. She also wrote a number of novels though Geason mentions only the first, Gertrude the Emigrant (1857).

Finally, aged 35, she married, but died a couple of years later in childbirth.

Mary MacKillop (1842-1909). I’ve been meaning to look into the life of Mary McKillop for a while and by this account she was a lively and determined woman. Leaving aside the nonsense of “Australia’s first saint”, she famously established an independent order of nuns, the Josephites, against the bitter opposition of Australian Catholic bishops.

In 1865 the three older MacKillop girls set off to Penola [north of Mt Gambier, SA] to start their school. Mary was 24, Annie was 17, and Lexie only 15. They started out teaching classes in their cottage and the local church.

In January 1866, by donning a simple black gown, Mary became a nun, the school became the Institute  of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart, and a new religious order was born. When she died, aged 67, Mary ‘left behind 750 nuns teaching over 12,000 children in Josephite schools in Australia and New Zealand.’

Next up are Vida Goldstein (1869-1949) whom I discussed here, and will treat at length ‘one day’ soon; and Ethel (Henry Handel) Richardson (1870-1946) here and ditto.

May Gibbs (1877-1969) was born in England and came to Australia when she was four. Her father attempted to farm poor country north of Adelaide before giving in and moving to Western Australia where he farmed first at Harvey, south of Perth, then at Butler’s swamp which is now the (inner) suburb, Claremont. (I once had a boss, a milkman, who remembered when cows were run on the South Perth foreshore). May had virtually no formal schooling, but at 20 she became a student at the new Art Gallery and then at 23 she enrolled first at the prestigious London art school, the Cope and Nichol, then after a brief interlude back in Perth, at first Chelsea Polytechnic then at Mr Henry Blackburn’s School for Black and White Artists.

Back in Perth again Gibbs found some work as an illustrator (eventually losing out to Ida Rentoul) but it was not until she moved to Sydney with her friend Rene Heames that she found consistent success. Bib and Bub, the gumnut babies grew out of her work illustrating the NSW Primary Reader and School Magazine, before popping up in Ethel Turner’s The Magic Button, then Gibb’s own books, Gum-Nut Babies and Gum-Blossom Babies appeared ‘just in time for Christmas 1916. Tales of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie came out in 1918 and the rest is history*.

There follow Marjorie Lawrence (1907-1979) who went from farm girl to international opera star to crippled by polio; Nancy Bird (1915-2009) pioneer commercial aviator; Linda McLean (1917- ) who wrote a memoir of her hardships during the Depression, Pumpkin Pie and Faded Sandshoes; Dawn Fraser (1937- ) the great Australian swimmer whose working class background rubbed too many ‘amateur’ swimming officials up the wrong way; Pat O’Shane (1941- ) a Yalanji-Kunjandji woman, ‘Aboriginal activist and magistrate’; Irene Moss/Kwong Chee Wai Lin (1948- ) characterised as ‘a fighter for justice’, the Race Discrimination Commissioner wife of the Chairman of Australia’s most rapacious bank (Alan Moss, Macquarrie Bank); Lorrie Graham (1954- ) photojournalist; Beverley Buckingham (1965- ) one of the best jockeys in Tasmania until the fall in 1998 which rendered her an ‘incomplete quadriplegic’; Heather Tetu (1967- ) trapeze artist graduate of the Flying Fruit Fly Circus and an early organizer of circus exchanges with China, left unable to perform  after a fall in 1992; Sonya Hartnett (1968- ) writer, whom I reviewed recently (here); Fiona Coote (1970- ) heart transplant recipient; Louise Sauvage (1973- ) multi gold medal winning wheelchair racer; Rebecca Smart (1976- ) actor, Buster in The Shiralee (1987), and Const. Donna Janevski in The Water Rats since this book came out; Tamara Anna Cislowska (1977- ) child prodigy pianist; Monique Truong (1985- ) girl.

Monique is definitely my favourite of the ‘others’. When she was 11, her parents’ Canley Vale (Sydney, western suburbs) house was broken into by a gang of schoolboys armed with pistols. Unhappy with what was there to steal they took Monique with them, eventually holing up in a Parramatta hotel –

[The leader] grabbed one of the single beds for himself, while Monique and the other boy shared the second one, a pillow between them.

In the morning Monique slipped a note under the door and was soon rescued, physically unharmed. However, as might be expected, she needed counselling and her family moved to Queensland, where they feel safer.

 

Susan Geason, Great Australian Girls, ABC Books, Sydney, 1999

*Lisa, ANZLitLovers attended the session ‘The Real May Gibbs’ at the recent Bendigo Writers’ Festival