“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Monday, May 31, 2010

DC Punk: The Evens - All These Governors

I'm off to Canberra tomorrow as part of the Department of Innovation's Book Industry Study Group. Given that, I thought that posting 'All These Governors' by The Evens (ex-Fugazi) was most appropriate.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Irma Gold Reviews Known Unknowns for Overland

The first review of my book has been posted on the Overland Blog, which you can read here. It's a generally very nice review, which says many nice things about my work.

There are, however, two hysterically funny factual howlers that I just have to note (I know, I know it's passé to respond to a review). Gold very kindly states that ‘“Apex”, which deals with a young boy’s trauma over the death of a friend, is an absolute gem.’; this is very sweet of her to say, but no-one dies in ‘Apex’, so maybe it wasn’t quite as good a story as she thought it was.

The best bit, though, is this: ‘“Sickness unto Death” is a potent story and the only one not set in contemporary times. It takes place during the Black Death outbreak and Stinson gives the narrator an uneducated voice of the time. While I would suggest some of the phrasing and language used is not historically accurate, ultimately it didn’t matter.’ I ultimately agree: in ‘Sickness unto Death’ I refer to many things – automobiles, gasoline, rifles, electricity – that would seem anachronistic if the story were set during the 14th-Century outbreak of the Black Plague. These references might, indeed, lead some readers to conclude that the story is not set in the 14th Century at all . . . 

Friday, May 28, 2010

John Safran vs. Me

Last night I was interviewed about my book, Known Unknowns, by John Safran and Father Bob for their Triple J program Sunday Night Safran. Unsurprisingly (given the name of the program), it will air this Sunday at 9 p.m. They were both really nice, although I did get into a minor argument with Father Bob, and Safran suggested that I will forever be branded a 'pervert' as a result of my book--but you'll just have to listen to find out why.

For those who lack radios, you can stream the show on Sunday here.

(N.B. for my fellow ugly Americans: John Safran is not related to Johnathan Safran Foer.)

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Roberto Bolaño's El Tercer Reich

After his death in 2003, a new and 'complete' novel by Roberto Bolaño was discovered among his papers. Entitled, El Tercer Reich (or The Third Reich), the novel was apparently written between 1988-89 and has already been published in Spanish. It's scheduled for publication in English translation in 2011. Being an obsessive Bolaño fan, I've been trying to read the novel in its original language to brush up on my Spanish. Below is my (admittedly tenuous) attempt at translating the opening paragraph:

'The murmur of the sea enters through the window mixed with the laughter of the last of the night owls, a clash that might be the waiters clearing the tables on the terrace, the occasional sound of a car slowly circling Maritime Avenue, and the unidentifiable, muffled buzzing coming from the other guests in the hotel. Ingeborge sleeps, her face like an angel never disturbed by dreams; on the bedside table there is a glass of milk that has not been drunk and now ought to be warm, and, along with a pillow half-covered by the sheets, is a Florian Linden detective novel that she had briefly read a few pages of before she fell asleep. For me, everything is the opposite: the heat and my weariness have interrupted my sleep. Typically, I sleep well for seven or eight hours daily and only very rarely do I feel tired. In the mornings I awake fresh like lettuce and with an energy that does not decline after eight or ten hours of activity. As far as I can recall, it was always this way; it is part of my nature. No one taught me, I am simply like this and don’t wish to suggest that I might be better or worse than others. On Saturdays or Sundays, Ingeborg herself, for example, doesn’t get up until midday and during the week only a second cup of coffee—and a cigarette—will succeed in rousing her and prodding her toward work. Tonight, though, the heat and my weariness have interrupted my sleep. Also, my desire to write, to record my account of the day, has stopped me from getting into bed and turning out the light.'

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Book Review: Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives

Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives
By Brad Watson
W. W. Norton & Co.

Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives is a short story collection by U.S. writer Brad Watson. Although his stories display the polished, refined prose often associated with the style favoured by U.S. Creative Writing programs (Watson teaches creative writing at the University of Wyoming), his stories – thankfully – are nothing like the formulaic minimalism often produced by such institutions.
Consider the first story in the collection, entitled ‘Vacuum’: a woman, recently separated from her husband, puts down her vacuum cleaner and announces to her three boys that ‘ONE OF THESE DAYS I AM GOING TO WALK OUT OF THIS HOUSE AND NEVER COME BACK.’ The boys, suitably frightened, begin dreaming up ways to ensure their mother will stay. Most minimalist stories would stop here, but, for Watson, this is only the beginning. We quickly encounter an eccentric, retired Doctor with an alcoholic wife, the return of the boys’ father and a BB gun shootout. Here, the seemingly minimalist framework is referenced only to be contravened by a far more interesting – and open – narrative structure.
All of Watson stories work this way – just when you think you have them figured out, they veer off in unexpected directions. The story ‘Terrible Argument’, which is about a passionate and violent marriage, unexpectedly receives its dénouement through the perspective of their family dog (N.B. In today’s broadcast I incorrectly defined dénouement as the climax of a story. As one fastidious caller pointed out, a dénouement is, of course, actually the moment just after a story’s climax, as is the case here). In ‘Are you Mister Lonelee?’ we spend half the story sympathising with a character whose wife recently died, before we find out that she is alive and has simply left him.
Watson’s writing, of course, is not sui generis; many of his stories are set in the southern U.S. and recall many of the 20th Century’s great southern authors (Carson McCullers, William Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor are all obviously influences, here), but for all the polish and precision of his prose, they succeed precisely because they don’t resolve into perfect little gems like so much ‘academic’ (or would it be better to call it ‘institutionalised’?) creative writing. Watson’s stories open onto larger issues, and wilfully refuse facile narrative closure. ‘Fallen Nellie’ opens with the description of a murdered woman’s body; while we learn the sad history of her life, one minor detail is excluded: how she was murdered and who is responsible.
This collection, however, is not for the faint of heart. Watson’s is an uncompromisingly bleak vision, and the characters in his stories are, almost without exception, completely miserable (even worse, most of his narrators have come to realise that they have no-one but themselves to blame for their misery). Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives is filled with traumatic events (often described in detail), but these events are related without any trace of sentimentality. They are simultaneously painful and absolutely engrossing.
Simply put, this is the best collection of short stories that I’ve read all year, and anyone with even a passing interest in the form should seek it out. This phenomenal collection masterfully weaves together a stark beauty, a macabre sense of humour and the delicate evocation of human suffering. Watson’s stories aren’t likely to end happily, but they do run through the full gamut of human emotions, which is what great art is supposed to do, after all.

 This review initially aired on Triple R's Breakfasters.

Monday, May 24, 2010

DC Punk: Fugazi - Waiting Room

Fugazi is, without a doubt, the seminal DC postpunk band. Formed by ex-members of Minor Threat and the Rites of Spring, not only was Fugazi the most influential DC act from the late 80s through to the early oughties, but also their own label, Dischord, released virtually every other major DC act over that same span. Anyway, here's a clip from 1988 featuring them playing their classic anthem, 'Waiting Room.' Hey guys, put some shirts on!

My blog seems to cut off some youtube clips at the edge (due, no doubt, to my feeble html skills), so you can also jump to the original here.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Digital Publishing Has Arrived

I wrote a very, very brief overview article about digital publishing for the Melbourne University Staff Newsletter last week. My hope is that, with the arrival of the iPad and the launch of Kobo, we can stop talking about the future of digital publishing in Australia and start talking about what's actually happening in the present. Anyway, if you want to have a look at it, go here.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Promo Clip for Known Unknowns

In case anyone has ever wondered why I am not an actor, the below clip should offer a sufficient explanation. So, if you're looking for a good reason to laugh at me, today is your day. Oh, yes, I do say something about the book, too.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Book Review: Antwerp

By Roberto Bolaño

Although Roberto Bolaño only died in 2004, it appears that virtually all of his work will soon be available in English translation; at least four more books are slated for an English-language release over the next twelve months or so (and a recently discovered ‘complete’ novel from 1989, entitled El Tercer Reich (The Third Reich), has already been published in Spanish, with an English version tentatively scheduled for 2011). The enormous interest in Bolaño’s work derives from the acclaim for his final novel, 2666, a massive 898-page masterpiece, which I reviewed earlier this year.
Now, however, his first novel, Antwerp – which was written in 1980, but remained unpublished until 2002 – has finally been released in English. On the face of it, this book couldn’t be more different from Bolaño’s later work. Prior to writing Antwerp, Bolaño mostly wrote poetry, a fact that shows in the book’s composition. Unlike the sprawling narratives of 2666 or The Savage Detectives, Antwerp is a slim novella of only 76 pages, which is composed of a series of discrete aphorisms, written in impressionistic, fragmented language. But despite these differences of form, the book does occupy itself with many of the themes and situations that recur in his later fiction: Antwerp is a book about a murder, which offers portraits of a variety of shadowy figures who may or may not be linked to the crime.
Even more than Bolaño’s mature novels, Antwerp is an explicitly avant-garde work; although it is still a sort of experimental detective novel, the larger narrative of the book is intentionally disjointed and concealed. Some details, however, are clear: the book is set in Barcelona, and revolves around a murder at the Estrella del Mar campground, which is situated near some tennis courts and a horse-riding school (where a young South American writer named Roberto Bolaño is living). It appears that, on the night of the murder, many of the people at the campground were watching a movie projected onto a bed-sheet stretched between two trees. The police investigate several people in relation to the murder, including a small hunchbacked man, an English writer, and an unnamed woman. There is also some discussion of a shadowy figure named Colan Yar, who many people in the novel seem to be running from.
But this description makes Antwerp sound more straightforward than it is. Indeed, I was able to piece together the above details only after reading the book twice; this is a novel written to be read not just once, but again and again. Antwerp is definitely not a book for readers who want straightforward plotting or clear narrative resolution. Moreover, it’s not a good place to start for anyone who hasn’t read Bolaño before (for those readers, I would suggest either beginning with 2666 or his collection of short stories entitled Last Evenings on Earth).
For those readers who enjoy experimental fiction, however, Antwerp is a fascinating read, which recalls a great number of other writers and works, including Alain Robbe-Grillet, William S. Burrough’s The Naked Lunch and The Ticket that Exploded, J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, Julio Cortazar’s short fiction, and Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, among others. In the very fact that it recalls so many other books, though, Antwerp does ultimately feel like an apprentice work; it’s excellent, but isn’t the equal of the exceptional books that Bolaño would go on to write.
That being said, I’m already convinced that Bolaño is one of most important writers of the last several decades (I’ve begun resurrecting my half-remembered Spanish in the attempt to read his work in the original language), and even the publication of his minor work is a legitimate literary event. In this sense, the next few years promise to be an exciting time for readers of literary fiction as Bolaño’s obras completas are made available to English speakers.

 This review initially aired on Triple R's Breakfasters.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Bad Brains - Banned In DC

I love Bad Brains (they get a brief mention in my book, which is my excuse for posting this here), and this, of course, is their classic DC anti-anthem. This track also basically created the template for every hardcore song written afterwards. If you want to see what their live shows were like--and check out some embarrassing dancing--you can see a clip of them from 1982 here.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Book Review: The Norseman's Song

The Norseman’s Song
By Joel Deane

The Norseman’s Song is a novel that seems packed with literary homage and allusion – to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, and even to Catullus’s poem 85, (known as ‘Odi et amor’). But for all of this intertextual reference, The Norseman’s Song is ultimately a page-turning thriller, albeit one with an unusual, inventive structure.
Deane cleverly weaves together multiple narratives from multiple narrators. The bulk of the story is about a Taxi driver named Farrell (and, fittingly, he is quite feral), who picks up an elderly and seemingly delusional man named Bob. Not only is Bob in possession of a box that contains a human face, but also he is searching for a shadowy figure called the Norwegian – a man alleged to have slaughtered his own wife and daughter on a whaling ship. Bob slowly reveals how he first came into contact with the Norwegian just after WWI (and exposes much of his own dark past in the process). This contemporary narrative is interspersed with excerpts from the Norwegian’s journal, which has apparently been bound in human skin, and recounts his own mad and bloody history. In this sense, the story is a record of multiple voyages: the Norwegian’s life aboard whaling ships, Bob’s story of his first search for the Norwegian, and Farrell’s contemporary taxi journey through Victoria.
The book also abounds with gothic imagery and gruesome violence, but, thankfully, Deane imbues even the grimmest moments with a bleak, absurdist sense of humour. The novel is at its best in its second half when it revels in its own gothic excess, pushing the genre into a kind of kitsch: Bob relates a string of increasingly ridiculous anecdotes, the best of which involves the story of two farmers who believe their sheep are being bayoneted by communists living on the edges of their property.
These moments don’t necessarily signify anything larger, but they aren’t meant to; while the reader needs to completely suspend any sense of disbelief in order for the novel to work, Deane is clearly in on the joke, parodying the schlocky language characteristic of noir and gothic fiction, such as when Farrell notes that, ‘I feel small. Exposed. Like a cartoon character just before the piano drops on his head.’
At other points, Deane’s overblown language ultimately does feel like overkill, however. The Norwegian’s journal entries are clearly intentionally bombastic (e.g. ‘it was plain for all to see through the permutations of his expression, from expectant to inchoate to corybantic, that his second wife had been as unfaithful as his first’), but, even though they are a sort of ironic pastiche, their grandiloquent prose can occasionally become tedious.
But this doesn’t really matter: The Norseman’s Song ultimately isn’t a novel that’s attempting to offer some contemplative, literary experience. It presents bracing action recounted through a clever narrative structure. Sure, if you step back and think about it, some aspects of the plot don’t quite tally, but neither, for that matter, do most Phillip K. Dick novels. Moreover, one suspects that Deane has wilfully avoided such narrative closure, much as Poe did in his strange and fragmentary The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym – a key influence. Ultimately, The Norseman’s Song is a keen, clever piece of entertainment, and if you’re looking for a cleverly told yarn, it will certainly fit the bill; without a doubt, this will be one of the sharpest, most intriguing Australian thrillers released this year.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Read a Story from My Book!

The good people at Affirm Press have put a sample chapter of my forthcoming book of short stories, Known Unknowns, up on their website. In this case, 'sample chapter' just means a short story, which is called 'The Russians Are Leaving.'

To read it, go here, and then click the teeny-tiny download link at the bottom-right of the screen.

The page also includes a little bit of background on the book, a photo of the cover, two very generous blurbs from Tony Birch and Nick Jose, and a foppish photo of yours truly (see also the very same photo on the right side of this page).

It also contains a link back to this blog, enabling you to alternate between these two pages in an infinite loop...

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Book Review: Child of the Twilight

Child of the Twilight
By Carmel Bird
Harper Collins

Carmel Bird’s wonderfully beguiling new novel Child of the Twilight is full of delightful surprises. But I was ultimately surprised that I enjoyed this novel at all, since, theoretically, virtually everything about Child of the Twilight seems to work against its success: it is a book largely about Australians travelling through Mediterranean Europe, and, worse still, most of these characters are wealthy people who seem blissfully unaware of their own privilege. These are precisely the tropes that Andrew McCann attacked in his excoriating Overland essay, ‘How to Fuck a Tuscan Garden’ (2004), which decried the middlebrow pretensions of novels about bourgeois Australians searching for their identities while touring the continent (usually with a romantic subplot thrown in for good measure). But while I suspect McCann is generally right about these kinds of books, Child of the Twilight succeeds through sheer force of style alone.
Bird’s prose is luminous, full of mesmerising idiosyncrasies; she evades cliché at all moments, opting for unusual metaphors and unlikely (but brilliant) similes. In one instance, a character falls on the floor injured, resulting in ‘a finger of blood slithering across the tiles until it burst and branched into its little fractal folly of webbed rivulets, and slid in gleaming patterns of trees and corals and underwater weeds.’ Here not only is the commonplace made strange, but also the abject image of human blood becomes something full of an intricate, almost delicate beauty. Bird’s prose constantly turns on a dime, taking us to unlikely places.
While Bird’s prose is inventive, it also makes for addictive reading. Indeed, the prose is so forceful that it causes the reader not to notice the strangely fragmented and oblique nature of the story, which is not so much a chronological narrative as a series of detours, anecdotes and evasions. Although the book has a consistent narrator, many parts are told through other voices, such as that of Father Cosimo, a priest whose stories are charged with a fanciful, spurious logic that is absolutely absorbing. Hidden under these digressions lies the basic outline of the plot: Child of the Twilight is ultimately about a statue in Italy called the Bambinello, which was stolen in 1994, and how the theft of this statue comes to indirectly affect the lives of the many characters in the book.
And, for all of its style, Child of the Twilight takes on a series of very interesting issues, including the nature of belief (both religious and otherwise) and the ways in which reproductive technologies have forever changed our notions of identity, ancestry and inheritance. Moreover, the novel also investigates some other interesting and arcane theological concepts, including the manner of speaking in tongues called both ‘green language’ and ‘the language of the birds’, as well as the conception of Furta Sacra, a doctrine by which religious relics are said to have their own agency and can choose to move from one location to another (which is also, of course, a convenient way of disguising theft). The names of many of the characters (such as Avila and Pieta) resonate with these religious interests.
But for all of these wonderful qualities, there are one or two places where Child of the Twilight isn’t completely successful. The story possesses a metafictional premise; a young novelist named Sydney Kent narrates the book, and her intrusions sometime feel more contrived than inventive. Moreover, her reflections on the changes wrought by the internet, particularly Facebook and Google, sound like an older person trying to write from the perspective of a younger person, rather than being the thoughts of a legitimate digital native. I also suspect that these references will not age well, but, in fairness to Bird, very few literary novelists have successfully integrated depictions of the internet into their work. And these occasional missteps are few and far between. Overall, Child of the Twilight is an enchanting novel, and its beautifully wrought – if strange – narrative voice makes for compelling reading.

This review initially aired on Triple R’s Breakfasters.