Future Girl, Asphyxia

Australian Women Writers Gen 5-SFF Week 15-22 Jan. 2023

Apparently, I recommended Future Girl to Melanie/Grab the Lapels a couple of years ago. Perhaps I bought it for my then 17 year old granddaughter. It looks familiar, and I never write down what I buy. Melanie loved it and I have no hesitation reposting her review for this week. As you’ll see, Future Girl was published in the US as The Words in my Hands.

It wasn’t strictly my intention but I think that the SFF/dystopian theme has the potential to direct us towards some of the more leading edge writing of this generation (and I wish more than ever that I had included Grunge within the definition as well).


fbd8238d4fecda17e61d97c950bcafc1 Grab The Lapels

Piper is a deaf girl with hearing aids in a private high school with hearing students. Her best friend, Taylor, often serves as a hearing guide of sorts, which resonated with me. I often ask my spouse what another person said, be it the cashier, the neighbor, or our nieces and nephew. However, while my reliance often occurs when I am not wearing my hearing aids because I didn’t feel like it, Piper is relying on very little hearing and years of speech therapy because to her, deafness is a medical issue. Read on …

Gunk Baby, Jamie Marina Lau

Australian Women Writers Gen 5-SFF Week 15-22 Jan. 2023

Welcome to AWW Gen 5-SFF Week! Let the discussion of Australian women’s SF, dystopian and fantasy fiction commence.

And about that ‘Week’. After being on a break, ie. unemployed since Dec. 10, I am now flat out for more or less just this week, so we’d better call it a fortnight (and even then, if all goes well, which it didn’t last time, I will be on the other side of the country looking for a load home) so I can pay some attention at least to your posts and comments.

I didn’t see Gunk Baby come out – at the beginning of 2021 – and I don’t think it was paid much attention, which is odd as Lau’s first novel Pink Mountain on Locust Island (2018) was short-listed for the Stella and it appears Lau’s three-book deal with Brow has been taken over by the multi-national Hachette.

Pink Mountain was a classic debut – a young woman at arts school drawing on her inner suburban adolescence for good/standard grunge autofiction. Gunk Baby is not a sequel, or not the sequel I predicted anyway – “a portrait of the young woman as an art student” – but the story of a short period in the life of 24 year old Leen (Ling) setting up a Chinese ear cleaning/massage business in a suburban shopping centre.

I have squeezed it in under the Gen 5-SFF banner not because it is fantastic or dystopian (except right at the end), but because it has the feel of being set just a few minutes into the future. Of course it doesn’t help that however we might like to think otherwise, we boomers live a few minutes in the past, not fully aware of the present, not as twenty-somethings see it, anyway.

Within the SF tradition, in the 1970s, a number of writers, Sladek, Sheckley, but PK Dick in particular, were able to describe then present-day suburban USA in a way that made it seem slightly unreal, and Lau has that same ability. The ability to make us picture work and living spaces as they might be built tomorrow, sparse and uncluttered, with only the latest gadgets and appliances.

Leen’s father is a “consultant” who has dragged his wife and daughter all round the world. Leen has chosen to settle in the suburb of Par Mars in, let us say, Melbourne. As in Pink Mountain the city is unnamed, but has a Melbourne-ish feel, with occasional references to “Westmeadow” and “Bell St” (an important thoroughfare running east-west across the northern suburbs). Leen’s mother is in Kowloon, and they speak often, in video calls, ‘Face Time’. The father is more distant, wherever he is currently working, but pays Leen’s bills.

Gunk Baby may be a satire on a particular type of consumerism, but it is a consumerism Leen lives with uncomplainingly.

The K.A.G. outlay, for example: so addictive. The genius behind the design of something beautiful is that it can stand alone. We live in an age where we would like things to stand alone, to be one with itself, so that we can, as its consumer, become the one to define it, the one to understand it and its purpose, and curate it alongside other things … we’ve been conditioned to need the product. And a product is rarely ever a product without its brand.

K.A.G. is the principal tenant of the Topic Heights shopping centre where Leen has her ‘Lotus Fusion Studio’. Every few weeks it adds a new product line and forces out a smaller neighbouring store to take over its space. Leen who has been couch surfing ends up sharing a house with Luis who has been made K.A.G. store manager for his total commitment to the job. Everything in the new house is new K.A.G. products being tried out.

I … roll over, pull myself up out of our bed, out of the K.A.G. Elegant Cross-Hatch Sheets in a shade of blue that comforts. The floor is always cold in the mornings. The concrete floor with our Shaggy-Mix Rug in light brown … I look in the big perfect mirror. I’m wearing my K.A.G. Insulating Fleece Pyjamas, white thin stripes and beige everything else. These are not my sexy pyjamas; they’re slightly different. If I’m not in my sexy ones, I’m not in the mood. It’s a silent language… I look at [Luis] in the mirror. I have my K.A.G. Frosted-Glass Toothbrush in my mouth …

Leen’s friends are a wide mixture of East Asians and caucasian, all known to each other, all connected in one way or another through Topic Heights, but she, I guess, compartmentalises. Luis is in one ‘box’; in another are her girlfriend Doms and Doms’ partner Vic, a chemist who has a home lab making artificial urine for faking drug tests; there’s Farah, her receptionist (and budding novelist); and in a fourth are Jean-Paul and Huy. Jean-Paul is gathering followers for ‘acts of resistance’. Leen’s role is to attend meetings where Jean Paul lectures for hours, and to drive Jean Paul and Huy round in her old Saab 9000, leaving while they apparently attack, kidnap, vandalise Topic Heights managers, returning to pick them up, not unaware of what is being done, but also not responsible.

The style of writing is largely emotionless, you have to make your own mind up about the rights and wrongs of what is happening. The end when it comes is inevitable, but still startling. Lau is a fine talent, not mainstream, but well worth following.

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Jamie Marina Lau, Gunk Baby, Hachette, Sydney, 2021. 345pp

see also:
Jamie Marina Lau, Pink Mountain on Locust Island (review)
Robert Sheckley, Can You Feel Anything when I do this? (review)

Near Believing, Alan Wearne

Near Believing: Selected Monologues and Narratives 1967-2021 is a selection of Wearne’s poetry from over his whole career. I bought a copy when I saw it in my local indie bookshop last year, but apparently the official release is a John Hawke “In Conversation With…” at Readings Carlton, 6.30 pm, Wed. 15 February ’23 (here).

I think it would be fair to say that Wearne’s specialty is the verse narrative – novels and long monologues – and that he has developed a particular and recognisable vernacular voice. Here we have selections from each of his novels – Out Here, The Nightmarkets and The Lovemakers – from other collections and, he says, some new stuff, presumably the last section, under the heading ‘Metropolitan Poems and other poems’, plus an Introduction by Michelle Borzi.

Borzi writes: “The groundnote of Wearne’s vernacular is the audibility of his words and phrases as a movement of conversational sounds and gestures. A kernel of that narrative voice first appeared in two breakthrough poems in his first book Public Relations (1972): ‘Saint Bartholomew Remembers Jesus Christ as an Athlete” (written in 1967, when he was eighteen [his first year out of high school]) and ‘Warburton 1910’ (written in 1972). He went on to develop that voice in ‘Out Here’ and it has carried forward into all corners of his subsequent work.”

This too was a feat: running for a month
(as rumour had it).
Sprinting in the temple
was nothing less than perfect. Tables knocked,
whips raised and money lost.
He charged them twice

Saint Bartholomew Remembers Jesus Christ as an Athlete

Borzi, and Martin Duwell, both of whom I have linked to below, quote Wearne as saying his influences are narrative poets from Chaucer to the Victorians, and especially Browning. I assume they mean Robert, and not Elizabeth. Robert Browning’s wikipedia entry says he “was noted for irony, characterization, dark humour, social commentary, historical settings and challenging vocabulary and syntax.” Very Wearne-ish.

Australian vernacular is difficult to get down on paper without descending into parody, and I would like to add, if not as an influence, then at least as a predecessor, CJ Dennis. It is difficult to tell with both Wearne and Dennis whether the slightly forced nature of their expression comes from finding the right phrase in speech that is not naturally theirs, or from the discipline imposed by their respective poetic structures.

Yeh live, yeh love, yeh learn; an’ when yeh come
To square the ledger in some thortful hour,
The everlastin’ answer to the sum
Must allus be, “Where’s the sense in gittin’ sour?”

CJ Dennis: The Mooch o’ Life

Dennis uses shorter words and has a predictable, staccato rhythm. In all his “Songs of a Sentimental Bloke” he is attempting a slum/working class argot for the entertainment of a middle class audience. Wearne is often slangy, but it is middle class, suburban slang. And his words are longer, often fitting only awkwardly into his poetic structures, which vary, I’m sure not haphazardly, but let’s say, unpredictably.

Dennis and Wearne are alike in that (in their long pieces) the protagonist speaks directly to the reader. But Wearne fills out his narrative by having more than one speaker, so that we, in the verse novels, see the story from multiple points of view. There is some argument as to whether Wearne’s protagonists have different voices or just different stories to tell. Wearne’s own voice is so strong and so unique that I probably tend towards the latter view.

Alan grew up in Blackburn, in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, in the 1950s and 60s, all apple orchards at the end of the War, then weatherboard housing estates, shading quickly to brick and tile, becoming prosperous as all the middle manager fathers rose through the ranks. He went to uni at Monash, an island in the southeastern suburban sea, but seems mostly to have lived in the then student/bohemian inner suburbs of Fitzroy, St Kilda, Carlton. And these locations are at the centre of all his poetry.

The poems and excerpts in this collection are undated, so it is difficult to tell whether his themes have changed over time, or if, as seems more likely, he returns over and over to this heartland of his teens and early adulthood.

But on this afternoon, in a new year
at a new school, whose tiresome Latin motto
you’d like to think might be interpreted as
Making Do With What We’ve Got (which isn’t much)

some things you’re hoping to commence will commence.
And if outside, starting at Holland Road …

A Portrait of Three Young High School Teachers

So, in what is presented as a later poem, here we are back again at Blackie South High (in Holland Rd), in the 1960’s – “if only they’d let us wear slacks!” Which brings up another point: that Wearne is just as likely to take the teachers’ point of view. This is evident too in ‘Out Here’, which he says is based on a story told to him by a teacher who had come to Blackburn South from another high school. You get the impression that by the end of his school years he was already being taken seriously as an adult writer.

Let me end with one other longish (25pp) narrative – because that is what I am more comfortable with – ‘Operation Hendrickson’ in which the protagonist Henn is busted for sex with a minor (Henn seems to be 20 and the girl 15). “… And here’s the real equation/their real equation: either she’s sixteen or isn’t./Sure wasn’t./But moral danger? Behind me she held on and/(anyone thought I might look after her?)/just ride and talk.”

Henn has come from a Kildonan (Presbyterian) home to a foster home in Blackburn, and has been in a youth group with the author

Whilst Wearney you needn’t believe because
he’s just making it up for Proper Gander,
his rag: ‘Hey Wearney, write my memoirs
then put them into your Proper Gander!’
In our concert he plays the butler,
who sees it (and I mean it) all.

Over the course of the poem Henn looks back on his mates – just the one speaker, but a different register for each mate – from the perspective of his thirties: the one that went to nearby Burwood Tech, the one that did nasho, what Wearney knows and doesn’t know, circles back to true love, Kim behind him on the bike, the cop

Here though was a plan: she was going to climb
on my machine and we, the Kim ‘n’ Henn Show
would leave it, all of it: dole, debts, cops, folks
and end where we would end. (That’s what I told him,
Wearney, one evening just across the road.)
Then within a month a week,
a jack is telling me: ‘… think you’re something, son?’

‘Wearney’ writes “this warmish winter day in mid-July,/here at the corner of Orchard Grove and Canterbury Road”, two streets down from my Mum’s retirement unit; or “walking north where Punt Road overpasses/Dandenong Road at St Kilda Junction” where I’d eat my lunch when I was on office boy in Prahran, watching the trucks pass underneath; or “Bowater-Scott’s four-to-midnight shift” whose lane off Middleborough Rd I park my truck in when I stay at Mum’s; and so on and so on. Alan Wearne is writing my life, and his life, and the lives of all us boomers who grew up in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs.

I wish I’d made it clearer: Wearne writes men and women equally, though not in ‘Operation Hendrickson’ and the generation before ours, our mothers particularly. Read him. He’s one of a kind, telling the story of his and our time.

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Alan Wearne, Near Believing: Selected Monologues and Narratives 1967-2021, Puncher & Wattman, Newcastle NSW, 2022. 252pp

Cover: detail from Untitled (girl in the mirror), 1985 by Jenny Watson

Other Alan Wearne works reviewed:
Out Here, 1986 (here)
The Nightmarkets, 1986 (here)

See also (reviews much more informed than mine!):
Martin Duwell, Near Believing, Australian Poetry Review, 1 Oct 2022 (here)
Michelle Borzi, Prepare the Cabin for Landing, Southerly (here)

Cut, Susan White

Carla di Pietta is a thirty-something surgeon at a major Melbourne hospital, called here Prince Charles (PCH) which I guess from it’s location is based on Royal Melbourne. Her lover is also her main rival for the next consultant position. PCH is notoriously old school tie, old boys club and Carla struggles to keep her place at the front of the pack, while even junior (male) registrars get to play golf with the senior surgeons.

Cut is a 2022 release which I listened to last week. I enjoyed it, especially all the Melbourne stuff, though I remember absolutely none of the names. You would imagine from all the detail that White is an actual surgeon – and also an actual Italian Australian – but it doesn’t say so, or anything about her at all, on the cover.

Research time: “Susan is a doctor who writes fiction for adults and young adults.” She’s a clinical geneticist and Honorary Clinical Professor in the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Melbourne (just across the road from Royal Melbourne). Her first novel was the YA Take the Shot (2019), this is her second.

Carla lives in her grandparent’s old terrace house in (the northern end of) Rathdowne St, Carlton and walks to work via the zoo and Royal Park, 3 – 4 kms probably (Google Maps concurs). This has nothing to do with the plot, I just enjoy visualising it.

We begin with Carla having adventurous sex with lover boy and confident of her ability to stay ahead in what is basically an all-guy working environment. Except for the experienced and dedicated matron of course who must take orders from inexperienced boy registrars. But then her boss, ‘the Prof’, asks her to fill in for him on a mastectomy with lover boy assisting – did I say lover boy wants to keep their relationship secret? Lover boy doesn’t do his homework and is too intent on getting Carla into the ‘quiet room’ and into her knickers (before the operation) to respond to urgent calls on his pager, and inevitably the operation goes wrong.

The patient doesn’t die, but nearly does, and the patient’s lawyer girlfriend gets worked up at being continually fobbed off with excuses. At an open meeting of all surgeons to discuss what went wrong, lover boy’s excuses are accepted and Carla effectively cops the blame.

It took me a while to notice that chapters are being headed ‘Before’, ‘During’ and ‘After’. The ‘During’ appears to be a work event where Carla gets drunk and then something goes awfully wrong. Each time a ‘During’ comes up we learn a little more.

Meanwhile, Carla comes clean to the mastectomy patient and her partner and becomes friends with them. A very attractive female registrar – ie. a newish doctor who is junior to Carla – begins organizing a women doctor’s support group. Carla is surprised to find that the fearsome matron is also on her side (I know, they aren’t called matrons any more. Why not? And what are they called?). Carla twists lover boy’s arm until he takes her home to meet his parents, well his mother and sister, she knows his father already as he is head of plastic surgery.

True love of course does not run smooth. Another guy enters the picture. A creepy older consultant progresses from stealing kisses from all his women colleagues, to touching breasts, to putting his hands in Carla’s pants while “tucking in” her scrubs. The Prof thinks it would be better for her chances of promotion if a complaint was not pursued. All the usual stuff.

I won’t tell you any more. The events of ‘During’ are both traumatic and believable. The good-looking registrar leads a revolution of sorts. Carla, her Italian family, her friends and lovers, and above all Melbourne – well the leafy inner suburbs of Parkville and Carlton anyway – are all engaging characters. Lots of graphically described surgery. Various believable resolutions are achieved. Not Literature maybe, but well worth the read.

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Susan White, Cut, Affirm Press, Melbourne, 2022. 336 pp. Audiobook from Wave Sound, read by Jacqui Duncan. 10 hours

[The top line of my editor has changed. There are fewer icons and now there’s no button to push to see how many words I’ve written – not many today, I know, but it’s not a wordy sort of book.]

Thirty Years in Australia, Ada Cambridge

Thirty Years in Australia (1903) is Ada Cambridge’s memoir of … well you can tell what it’s of. I have read it for my contribution this month to the AWWC site, which I hope you read! Over there I am concentrating on her life and times and writing. Here, I thought I would write a little extra about her travels.

“Ada Cambridge (1844-1926) was born on 21 November 1844 at St Germans, Norfolk, England, daughter of Henry Cambridge, gentleman farmer, and his wife Thomasina, née Emmerson, a doctor’s daughter. She grew up in Downham, Norfolk, a perceptive and cherished child, learning little from a succession of governesses but reading widely and delighting in the fen country of her birth… On 25 April 1870 at Holy Trinity, Ely, she married George Frederick Cross, a curate committed to colonial service.” (Jill Roe, ADB)

For a month they honeymooned in a rectory just a few miles from their homes, from a sister who would walk over each morning to visit, then it was down to London for a few days, then the train from Paddington to Plymouth where they boarded a sailing ship on her maiden voyage, the Hampshire, at a time when steamships must already have been taking over (years ago I read an account of the last commercial sailing ship from Australia to England, a clipper laden with wheat which arrived after the commencement of WWII).

At other times we lay becalmed, and I had my chance to dress myself and enjoy the evening dance or concert, or whatever was going on. But at the worst of times—even in the tremendous storms, when the ship lay poop-rail under, all but flat on her beam ends (drowning the fowls and pigs on that side), or plunged and wallowed under swamping cross-seas that pounded down through smashed skylights upon us tumbling about helplessly in the dark—even in these crises of known danger and physical misery there was something exhilarating and uplifting—a sense of finely-lived if not heroic life, that may come to the coddled steamer passenger when the machinery breaks down, but which I cannot associate with him and his “floating hotel” under any circumstances short of impending shipwreck.

They arrived in Melbourne on 19 Aug. 1870, after a voyage of 77 days. Melbourne, at the height of its post-goldrush glory, was impressive, with wide paved streets, fine buildings. They were taken to “the Fitzroy Gardens—saw the same fern gully, the same plaster statues, that still adorn it; and to the Botanical Gardens, already furnished with their lakes and swans, and rustic bridges, and all the rest of it. And how beautiful we thought it all!”

Soon however they were in the bush. George’s first position was a curacy in Wangaratta (Cambridge only ever gives the town initial, but the positions are listed online and other towns may be deduced). The Sydney road was so wet and muddy – “Bridges and culverts had been washed away, and the coach-road was reported impassable for ladies” – that they took the train, a “railway which ended at the Murray” (Echuca).

The railway to Echuca was established in 1863. The Sydney line further to the east, was commenced in 1870 and the house they lived in in Wangaratta was a couple of years later demolished to make way for the station.

From Echuca they took a little paddle steamer, intending I think to sail upriver to Wodonga and thence get a coach back to Wangaratta. But the winding of the river is so tortuous (remember Tom Collins?) and the journey so slow that they disembarked “level with W____”, probably near Yarrawonga, and got a lift in a farm cart.

the steamer passed on and vanished round the next bend of the river, which was all bends, leaving us on the bank—in the real Bush for the first time, and delighted with the situation. The man with the cart had guaranteed to get us home before nightfall.

Nothing is ever that simple. They spend a great deal of time bogged and for the first of many times she and George experience the unstinting hospitality of the Australian Bush. “I came in, an utter stranger, out of the dark night and that wet and boggy wilderness, weary and without a dry stitch on me, to such a scene, such a welcome, as I could not forget in a dozen lifetimes.”

And so their Australian life begins. Read on …

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Ada Cambridge, Thirty Years in Australia, Methuen, London, 1903. Serialized in The Empire Review 1901-2. Available from Project Gutenberg.

Conversations with Grandma: Genealogical Journeys in Wangaratta has a great deal more, over nine parts!
Ada Cambridge and the Wangaratta Story, Part 1 (here).
The author, Jenny Coates, does not provide links from one post to the next so I will leave it to you to search on ‘Ada Cambridge’ and find the others for yourself.

Lisa/ANZLL’s review (here)

AWWC: extract from Chapter X, Our Fourth Home (Ballan) (here)

Enclave, Claire G Coleman

Claire G Coleman routinely reposts reviews of her books on Twitter (as does Nathan Hobby of his). She even reposted my recent review of her Lies, Damned Lies (via a Liz Dexter post). I think they’re both brave to read them in the first place!

But, CGC, don’t repost this one, I don’t think it’s your best work.

Not that I think anyone should be deterred from reading it. I loved Terra Nullius (2017) and I loved The Old Lie (2019). Indigenous.Lit and especially the current wave of women’s Indig.Lit, to which Coleman belongs, seems to me to be both innovative and full of life.

Like her first two, Enclave, which was released just last month, is Science Fiction, though falling easily within ‘Dystopian’ which all you regard as safe, not-really SF. But for me, this one did not flow as easily – the descriptions felt forced and there is a concentration on just one character – a privileged young white woman, Christine – where the other two had a wider cast.

She stared, half-blind,at the cold screen of her smartphone. Safetynet told her the news: updating her on the crime Safetynet and Security were protecting her from; informing her of the dangers outside, the bad people and dangerous criminals being kept outside the city Wall; of the terrorists threatening her life, buildings falling, people dying. Safetynet told her she had no emails…

Christine, a university student in the last year of a maths degree, lives at home with her parents and younger (year 12 ish) brother. Her father is on the committee which runs the walled city in which they live. Her mother, notionally a designer, is an alcoholic, one of the women who lunch, all plastic-surgeoned into near identical faces. The city is patrolled by black-uniformed security forces who live in their own walled compound outside the Wall. Servants, non-white of course, come in by train each day to do all the work. Outside the Wall is a wasteland of broken buildings and scrublands.

The news from outside is of wars, desperate populations, burning cities. No one travels.

Surveillance within the city is constant, by fixed cameras, inside and out, and drones.

A new year starts; her brother begins a Business course which will lead him into the ruling elite; Christine enrols to do her Masters. Her father buys her an apartment which she allows her mother to furnish. Her (platonic) best friend Jack has disappeared and she is lost without him; her mother encourages her to drink.

Coleman seems to have the trick of building the story up in one direction for a while, and then surprising us by taking it down another. This is more muted in Enclave but still, having spent the first part establishing Christine’s life of privilege, she then snatches it away.

Christine takes increasing notice of one of the servants, Sienna. They kiss.

Chill and heat chased each other up and down her skin, fought for the territory of her face.
The hand fell away from her neck. The mouth she would die for pulled away from hers and she chased it, almost caught it before it spoke.
‘Christine’, Sienna warned. ‘We can’t get caught.’

But they do, captured on cameras in Christine’s bedroom.

I currently have two other works of women’s SF on the go, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), and Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police (1994). Piercy in a later Introduction discusses women’s SF at some length and I’m going to have to get hold of a written copy (mine is on Audible), before I write a review.

SF is quite often bursting with ideas, and that is true of Enclave, and the whole literary thing suffers at least a little. But Piercy and Ogawa both write smoothly, while developing the characters of their respective ‘heroines’ with some depth – often a strength of women’s SF compared with men’s. Coleman has interesting characters around Christine, but they are not fully developed and I don’t feel that she uses the resulting space to fill out Christine as much as she might have.

I’m also not sure what Coleman was trying to achieve by having a white heroine. Yes, she wanted, as she always does, to highlight racial inequality. But the depictions of Black-white relations are sketchy, and incidental to the main theme which is surveillance and authoritarianism. In my opinion her Indigenous heroines are more effective.

Enclave has two changes of direction, so is a novel in thirds rather than halves. The middle third is an adventure, a struggle to survive, and the last third is – well not a utopia as I’ve seen it described – but Coleman’s current home and my old home, Melbourne, as a model society (and CGC, I love the trains!).

A short review, but what can you do when any description of Christine’s progress must necessarily be full of spoilers. We’ve discussed before that books whose writing I found awkward (Lucashenko!) you found lively and real, so you’ll probably all enjoy this one too. You’ll certainly enjoy the ideas Coleman discusses. Ignore me and give it a try.

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Claire G Coleman, Enclave, Hachette, Sydney, 2022. 307pp.

For a much more thoughtful review than mine try Alexander Te Pohe’s in Kill Your Darlings 14 July 2022 (here).

A Mere Chance, Ada Cambridge

Here I am, doing a second Perth – Mt Isa, unloaded last night. Luckily, I wrote this review for my AWWC gig before I left. Right now I’m negotiating for a load home, which may or may not involve me in running to Townsville over the weekend. Meanwhile I can sit in the (mild – 26C) tropical sun and read and write.

You might see that I had last week’s Australian Legend post on my mind as I wrote this one.


It’s a tragedy that Australia’s early women writers were denied their place in the canon by the rabid misogyny of the turn of the (C20th) century Bulletin, and by its fellow travellers Colin Roderick and Vance Palmer who dominated what we were allowed to know about Australian literature right up to the 1960s. With the consequence that important writers like Catherine Helen Spence, Catherine Martin, Tasma, Rosa Praed and Ada Cambridge were dismissed as romance writers and remained out of print for up to a century.

Read on …

Out Here, Alan Wearne

I know, the top half of the cover photo is warped. Blame my phone. But to the best of my memory, that house, just around the corner from Mum’s retirement village, is the one the Wearne’s lived in when I was at school in Blackburn South (Melbourne) and where I would occasionally deliver the newspaper when I worked at Pentland’s newsagency in Canterbury Rd, putting the rounds together for the paperboys at 5.00 in the morning.

Alan was a couple of years ahead of me, in his little arty clique, but I was good friends with his brother, so knew him to say hello to, saw him occasionally later on as we made our separate ways through uni.

Out Here (1976) is Alan Wearne’s first verse novel. The Nightmarkets followed 10 years later (when Out Here was reissued and I’m guessing, revised) and after that The Lovemakers (2001,4). He has other titles, collections of verse, I think, some of which I own. I recently saw a new title, Near Believing (2022) in the bookshop, and bought it, but it’s just a best-of of old stuff, so I thought why not go back to the source.

Out Here is one story from multiple points of view. Brett Viney, 17, has stabbed himself in the stomach in the school toilets and nine people around him have a say. The first is Lucy Martinson, deputy principal [From memory, our headmaster at Blackie South was Mr Martindale, and his deputy, whose name I don’t remember, was a woman at of around 70]: “I viewed the eddies of the Viney maelstrom.”

Some small crisis; at once
with bandages, the ambulance completed,
I rang adults: Brett’s mother and father, home
and, as they say, ranting.

In the staff room a teacher tells her “Viney seemed attached to/young Tracey Izzard. Tell her?/Before rumours, it would be best,/you know how women …”

Brett’s parents, Marian and Russell, have just broken up. Alan is quite clever, both at giving them different voices, and in showing through their inner monologues, and that’s what each section is, how Brett is only one of, and probably not even their main concern. First Marian: “I held to Russ,/had kids not opinions”

O Brett, son, we were, are crazy for
playthings, and pocket money, but
your father and I, until recently, held,
we tried. Try and care Brett. Care.

So, to my son’s Tracey: she has a long
pale neck, slight ginger hair and
this unnerving abundance, poise.

Then Russell, on the road to stay with his “has-been brother: ex-league-star and slob” [‘league’=NSW, so he’s heading interstate]: “Could say: ‘You did a fool thing,/call him mate, the stock/ ageing man response to/ sonny Brett”; but then goes back to thinking about his girlfriend Cheryl, and good times past with Marian.

Segue to Cheryl: “Calls me Chezz, too often now/ and I join his his school at times/ knowing they want to touch me up,/men, ten, fifteen years older, wishing/and hoping”. She’s told about Brett, but Russell leaving his wife is her big chance, her only thought to grab it with both hands. “You know, I’ve many men/Miss Cheryl Browne’s had many men,/but this is the, what, first starring role.”

We go on to Marian’s father, a millionaire house builder living in an expensive bayside suburb, and then Marian’s ‘commo’ younger sister; all of the voices reflecting not so much on why Brett may have harmed himself but on their own relationships and interrelationships.

Nothing halts, when Brett took out
the blade, lives continued, parents
kept their spar and interchange
boiling: the rest, I, his
sister and brother, you Tracey, stood
not knowing.

Tracey and then Brett follow, and I am still not clear what Brett was upset about – his parents, Tracey, life? Is that deliberate, or is it just me? Tracey suggests that Brett was depressed, “the Viney gloom”, and that she had had to take a week off during term, which may have led to: “I suppose pregnancy rumours/ have flung my name and Brett’s/ around the school.”

She turns to her father:

You know what I like, liked the best
apart from being with Brett, you know?
Dad’s greenhouse, Saturday morning.
Where we’ve talked about Brett
and Mum, her delicate problems ..

Brett speaks from some time in the future, from another suburb: “My childhood terminated hunched up/ in Martinson’s office, bleeding,/ it seems so long ago and/ such a mess.” He remembers his family visiting him in hospital – “no never ‘how could you do this to us etc’/never that, rather a wallow/ that they enjoyed their blame.”

And finally Mr Izzard, Tracey’s father: “I may be asked to, as were, round off/ though don’t expect some he did this,/she said that, happy ever after slice.” Though, perhaps he does: “O Tracey, it’s all right/ everything is going to be, all right.”

My feeling, having read and reread and written this far is that Out Here is not a novel (or novella), so much as a suite of voices telling a story, no not even a story, and certainly not Brett’s story which is largely lost in the voices washing over it, but a feeling for parenting in 1970s suburbia. Which is interesting, as Alan grew up in 1950s and 60s suburbia, matriculating in 1966. And The Nightmarkets which he wrote next, is definitely the story of his, my, generation, the boys made to go to war – or jail – in 1968,69,70.

I read Alan Wearne because he, his subjects are familiar. But I like his poetry too, that slightly awkward mixture of poetic rhythm and vernacular is both unique and reminiscent of CJ Dennis and AB Paterson – but without the galloping ryhmes!

The last lines of Miss Martinson’s, section, the ‘Miss’ is mine, but none of our teachers was ever ‘Lucy’, are perfect:

‘But why Brett (isn’t it?) why?’
Oh his shrug and oh just, just
mucking around with a knife.

.

Alan Wearne, Out Here, first pub. 1976. This edition, Bloodaxe Books, Newcastle NSW, 1986. 50pp

see also my reviews:
Alan Wearne, The Nightmarkets (here)
CJ Dennis, The Sentimental Bloke (here)

A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Jane Rawson

I posted this review of A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists in 2015, my first year as a blogger. I had the sense to link to both Sue/WG’s and Lisa/ANZLL’s reviews, so that made two comments and Jane, then a fellow blogger, made three.

Jane Rawson has written a couple of quirky novellas since, though I think that Formaldehyde (2015) got very little attention. A shame, as it is very funny. Her latest, A History of Dreams has apparently hit the shelves already, though not at Crow Books in Perth where I am still waiting for my order to be filled. A review will follow as soon as I have a copy in my hands.

The reason for this repost is that once again I find myself too busy to write. But Milly has finished moving, and in fact has already sold her old house, accepting an offer the first day it was shown. So that’s the end of that distraction. I’ve caught up with at least some of my bookkeeping; and though I’m still doing one trip a week to make up for the time I took off in March/April I’m hoping that by filling a space with this re-posting I can have my North America read for May, Seven Fallen Feathers, by Tanya Talaga, written up later this week


Among my many uni first years I luckily included a year of Philosophy which, for me at least, provides a way into understanding this wonderful first novel. A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists (2013) sets out as pure near-future dystopian SF and morphs into something much more interesting and original.

Rawson makes clear from the beginning that our heroine, Caddy, is in a state of despair at the loss of her home “down by the dirty river, their neighbours a cluster of gigantic, carefully-lettered oil holding tanks”, her cat and her husband Harry. One day when Caddy has ridden her bike into town, a fire breaks out near the tanks, the power supply and therefore the water pressure fail and “[s]he felt the whole earth shake when the tanks went up. She thought it was a terrorist bomb down at the train station, though there’d been nothing like that since 2014.” Caddy heads back towards the fire, “Harry would need her” but “[t]he trees were on fire along the edge of Footscray Road, and by the time she had reached within a kilometre of home there was nothing but black”.

And so, in a couple of pages we are located in time, the near future, in space, the inner western suburbs of Melbourne, and in atmosphere, a time of failing infrastructure, of rising temperatures, and of a growing and displaced underclass.

Caddy lives in a humpy on the banks of the river near Newmarket – and it is one of the joys of reading a novel set in your own home town that the locations are so easy to visualise – supporting herself through prostitution and small scale bartering. There is only a small central cast, all friends of, or at least with Caddy, Ray who buys and sells stuff including his friends, Jason, a street kid, Peira who runs an inner city bar, Lanh, an internet entrepreneur, and Sergeant Fisk from the UN relief force (ie. Melbourne is a place which needs help). Caddy moves through the underside of the city, buying and selling and being sold, becomes ill, finds that the river has flooded and washed away her humpy, and is assisted by Fisk, to whom she finds she is strangely attracted.

Meanwhile Ray buys some heavily creased maps and finds that he is able to fall through the creases into other places, in space and eventually, in time, initially places on opposite folds of the map but increasingly a no-place which he learns is called Suspended Imaginums, the place our imaginings go when we stop thinking about them. There is a reference at this point to C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and I’m thinking oh no, not more post modern magic bullshit but Rawson is cleverer than that.

Ray takes that wrong turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, within Suspended Imaginums, and finds himself in San Francisco, in 1997, and there bumps into two characters, Sarah and Simon, whose story we have been following in a sidebar so to speak. They have accepted the task of seeing the whole of the USA by dividing it into 25 foot squares and standing in each and every one, which turns out to be the same as a story imagined and partially written by Caddy. And this is where the philosophy cuts in.

Way back in 1971 my course, under the great Max Charlesworth, included Bishop Berkely (1685-1783) who posited that there is no way to confirm that the material world exists and that therefore we may well all be thoughts in the mind of God. I liked this but not being a god-botherer thought (and think) that it is more likely that the thoughts are in my mind, not God’s. A modern version of Berkely’s “immaterialism” is put forward by Nick Bostrom (1973- ) who shows that with computing power expanding exponentially, it is inevitable that at least one society, and maybe that one is ours, will exist as a simulation running on computers.

Hence, in my reading, Rawson implies a universe which depends entirely on Caddy’s imagination, an entirely believable universe but one in which perhaps the postulates, the underpinnings of the simulation, haven’t been fixed as well as they should be and ‘normality’ has begun to fray.

One last thing, don’t be misled by the prize for SF writing. I have read SF incessantly since those long ago uni days and, on the evidence of this book, Rawson is one of those writers like my favourite Williams, Burroughs and Gibson, who write on the edge of what is possible in ‘mainstream’ fiction. Unmade Lists is not Fantasy, is not Space Opera, is definitely not genre fiction. Read it and see.

 

Jane Rawson, A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Transit Lounge, 2013

See also: reviews by Whispering Gums (here) and ANZ Lit Lovers (here).

Barracuda, Christos Tsiolkas

Barracuda (2013) is not a novel about swimming, as seems to be everyone’s first impression, so much as a novel where swimming, being a swimmer, is a way in to discussing Melbourne’s secret shame – class.

However, swimming, getting to world class, takes up a fair amount of space, which is interesting as I have seen nothing to indicate Tsiolkas was a competitive swimmer. Tsiolkas (1965- ) was a student at Blackburn High (in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs) where two of my kids went (I went to Blackburn South High) and if he swam would have been a member of my old club, Nunawading and maybe have been coached by my former teammate and coach, Leigh Nugent.

In fact some of the things Tsiolkas says about swimming – ‘touching the wall’, losing track of the line on the bottom of the pool, thinking (my head did almost nothing but count laps (and complain about oxygen deprivation) when I swam) – make me wonder if he just “imagined himself” into his protagonist, Danny.

Danny is the oldest son of working class parents – Scottish-Australian interstate truck driver father and Greek-Australian mother – living in Reservoir, a northern suburb of working class Anglos and new migrants; streets of small, identical three bedroom brick and tile houses put up by the Housing Commission in the 1950s and 60s.

The guts of the novel is that, based on his swimming, he wins a scholarship to attend one of the big Private boys schools, probably based on Scotch College going by the coloured blazer and the location on the river.

The first piece of advice the Coach ever gave Danny was not about swimming, not about his strokes, not about his breathing, not about how he could improve his dive or his turns. All of that would come later. He would never forget that first piece of advice.

The squad had just finished training and Danny was standing shivering off to one side. The other guys all knew each other; they had been destined to be friends from the time they were embryos in their mothers’ wombs, when their fathers had entered their names on the list to attend Cunts College.

First week of term, February 1994

The advice? “You are not friends, you are competitors.” Don’t take shit from them. Give it back. Hurt them before they hurt you.

At school he is teased and ostracized, but over the years makes his way in to the in-crowd via his victories in swimming and his ‘psycho’ response to being provoked. Scotch is the school rich Presbyterians send their sons to. Fathers are judges, politicians, leaders in business and medicine. Mothers are society ladies, big on committees and entertaining.

Most middle Australians live in a fantasy “classless” society, unaware of the 10% above them pulling all the levers, keeping apart, speaking in mock British accents (and yes, I had one for a while, at Trinity); dismissive of ‘bogans’, tradespeople who work harder and often earn more than they do; and completely blind to the plight of the underclass of generationally welfare dependent.

Danny finds himself in a school for boys training to be bosses, whose parents are the bosses the rest of us work for, where arrogance is a given and self-doubt is rare. Of course Australians cut sporting heroes a lot of slack, and so there is a path for him to achieve acceptance.

The storyline chops about, beginning with Danny, 30ish, ex-swimmer, ex-con it turns out, in Glasgow, his relationship with his lover coming to an end; and making its way through all the episodes in his life that brought him to this point. It works well.

We see Danny, as a swimmer, quickly the best swimmer in his squad, rise through states, nationals, Pan-Pacs; we see him floundering in the social side of school life, with his mates, his mates’ mothers and sisters; a scholarship boy in the upper class suburbs of Toorak and Portsea; But more interesting are the family dynamics, his ongoing friendship with Demet, a Turkish-Australian girl from his old life, his sense of entitlement at home, his father’s resentment, his mother’s conciliating.

This is a big book, over 500 pages, and although Melbourne and class, and I guess competitive swimming are the glue which hold it together, it is the relationships which make it compelling – with Martin, at different times his biggest tormentor and best friend; with Demet; with Luke, his unlikely swottish schoolfriend; with his brother and sister; his parents of course (his father seems to get rather more days at home than the one day a week allowed most long distance drivers); with his mother’s Adelaide-based family, introduced late in the book; with his lovers.

Tsiolkas still writes with his dick too often for my taste, seems compelled to put his protagonists’ sex lives in your face, but it’s not happening all the time here, which is a relief, and for once the protagonist is anti-recreational drugs. As you might expect of me, I find it odd that he has written a coming-of-age for a protagonist who is in no way himself – no, I’m sure there’s bits of him in there – but he knows his Melbourne, someone had to write about class sooner or later, and he does it well, and of course his father is a (mostly convincing) truck driver running Melbourne – Perth, so I think I liked it.

.

Christos Tsiolkas, Barracuda, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2013. 513pp

see also other Tsiolkas posts:
Australian Grunge (here)
Merciless Gods (here)
The Slap (here)
A Letter from America – Melanie’s take on The Slap (here)