I have just finished Lauren Groff’s new novel Arcadia, which follows the life of Bit, the child of hippies, who grows up in a commune, the titular Arcadia. This is a beautiful, sad book, with a strong emotional charge. It moves through four time frames: beginning with Bit’s early childhood, then his teenage years, adulthood as a young father, and then as the father of a teenager. But really this novel has two halves: in Arcadia, and after Arcadia.

Bit has a powerful sense of belonging, to his family, to the community of Arcadia, the myths and stories the community tells itself. He is a believer, and he loves the idea of the community that he belongs to, and is powerfully protective of everything about it. But there is an anxiety in his attachment: his narrative, his descriptions of his world, seem shot through with an apprehension of their loss, a  terror that none of this can hold, that it will all fall apart, that the love and closeness he believes in and longs for could at any moment disappear. Bit’s narrative, espeically in the first half, when he and his parents are part of Arcadia, conveys a sense of balancing on a knife-edge, a perilous awareness of the nearness of loss.

One of the beauties of Groff’s novel is the way Bit’s perspective allows her to convey both the passionate belief in the community’s shared ideology, and the friction between adults as they try to strike their own individual balance between the community’s ideals and their human failings. There is something of the striving animals in Animal Farm about the people of Arcadia, especially Hannah and Abe, Bit’s parents, fighting poverty with lots of idealism and effort, but not enough knowledge.

The novel also provides a fascinating counter-narrative to our cliched imaginings of what communes were for, and about. The community Groff represents is radically austere, living largely off the grid, vegan, with ideals of shared property. There is plenty of sex and plenty of dope, but apart from that the community runs with the strictness of a medieval monastery: everyone must contribute, everyone must work, all goods must be held in common. In the novel’s second section, there is a heart-stopping sequence where the community’s day of celebration is over-run by party people, free loaders, drug-addled maniacs, and creepy people, who descend like a plague of eating, dope-smoking, raping locusts, and lay waste to the community. The original founders of Arcadia believed in ideals of hard work and communal living, but the people who’ve come in afterwards – and there are vast numbers of them – seem to be looking for a drug-fuelled free-for-all where there are no controls and no rules. It is terrifying and heart-breaking.

This is a novel built around a series of losses: of community, of loved ones. The novel builds toward an extended sequence depicting a death; reading it, it felt very raw, the kind of plot element that gets critics asking if the author has recently experienced a loss. In fact, the whole novel seems to be constructed around a terrible sense of the nearness of death, the closeness of mortality. The community falls to ruins, and many of the beloved children are lost. Bit, although he survives, is a lost soul, endlesly gazing back at a beautful lost past which he could feel dissolving beneath him even as he lived it.

The novel begins in the late 1960s and ends in 2018, with a world rapidly coming apart from the effects of climate change. A SARS-like epidemic rages in the background of the fourth section of the novel. The world of plenty which seems so alien to the young Bit, living in vegan simplicity on his farm, is disappearing by 2018, a time which is plagued by mass extinctions and losses great and small: Tuvalu, lettuce, bees. The pace of destruction is accelerating. Although this is background detail – the focus here, as always, is very strongly on the characters and their relationships – there is a terrible sense of bleakness through this section of the book which linked back strongly for me to the last book I read, which was Colson Whitehead’s Zone One.

That, too, has a prevailing sense of despair, of end times, of our culture being at the end of things. There’s a fin du monde spirit to both these books, as they look out at a world which is dominated by images of collapse, of destruction, of despair. And although both of them try to bring a kind of upbeat spirit to their endings, the underlying sense of desolation is more powerful than the closing actions and attitudes of the narrators in both novels. Both novelists, in their different ways, seem to be describing the engines of history – with humanity’s hands on the controls of those engines –  tearing things apart. Whitehead creates a terrifying vision of an enormous mass of the unstoppable hungry dead, vast and appalling, as they sweep through Manhattan. Groff creates a different kind of vision of destruction, as the idealistic dream of community is torn apart by a mixture of internal and external forces. In both cases, the action is too large for the individual narrators to affect, or stop. There is nothing they can do. They can only watch and respond according to their nature; Lauren Groff’s Bit responds with grief, but a kind of patient fortitude; Whitehead’s Mark Spitx, a character stunned into numbness by trauma, sparks into rat-like survival mode. While both end up determined to survive and carry on, the over-riding sense is one of powerlessness.

Tonally, and in turns of subject matter, these novels have little in common; but there is an underlying sensibility to both which felt similar to me. But perhaps that’s the sensibility of the reader, rather than the authors.

Advertisements

I have been watching and enjoying Smash, the TV drama about putting on a Broadway show.

It’s part of a venerable tradition, of course. Backstage musicals are a staple of the musical genre as a whole, especially on screen, where you can overcome the weirdness of people bursting into song by using the fact that they’re in a show as a framing narrative. (This show also uses dream sequences, karaoke nights, and parties to explain the singing.) If you’re into musicals, as I am, you don’t mind that people suddenly burst into song to express complex emotions. If you don’t like it, you won’t like this show. And you’ve probably already stopped reading this post.

One of the things that’s sort of charming about Smash is the way that everyone in it behaves  like they’re in a musical (and not a dark, modern musical either – a chirpy, first-half-of-the-20th-century  kind of musical). There are wisecracks and one-liners, and characters speak  the subtext at one another (briskly, pithily, dewily) so we can all move onto the next sequence without wasting time. The characters are bright and simple and all on the surface, and are not too far from stock characters: the director is English and a love-rat; the producer has just been left by her husband, also a producer, for a younger woman; the ingenue is from Idaho (or is it Ohio?). The writers are not afraid of cliched situations either; I’m just dying for the moment when Ivy breaks her leg hours before opening night and the director turns to Karen and says ‘You’re going out a rookie, but you gotta come back a star.’

The singing is spine-tinglingly good, and the songs themselves – a mix of new songs from the show supplemented with some karaoke favourites – are fun (I particularly like “Let me be your star”). All the musical numbers are well-staged, but it’s one of the oddities of the show that everything looks fresher and more interesting in the rehearsal room than in the (imaginary) fully-staged versions. Many of the cast are charming, especially Jack Davenport as director Derek, Katharine McPhee as ingenue Karen, and Christian Borle as composer Tom.

So the show is a lot of fun. But it’s not a show that brings much complexity to anything that’s going on: particularly the interpersonal relations between characters, which are soapie and predictable, and also the representation of the creative process. To me this is a missed opportunity, because what goes on in creating and then staging a show, that collaborative process, is fascinating.

Smash is a fairly conventional TV drama in which people happen to sing. I guess I want to see a show that says something more about the creative process. Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sunday in the Park With George does this. A musical loosely based on the life of Georges Seurat, it’s a show that explores the competing demands of art and life.  I know, I know – interesting for artists, not so interesting to the rest of the world. But if you’re dealing with actors and writers and musicians coming together, making a show, putting it on and then parting again, you’re dealing with a strange, enclosed, emotionally intense world. There are so many relationships that are interesting in this situation: firstly, there’s the relationship of the composer and the lyricist (if they’re two people, as they are in Smash); their relationship with the director who must bring the show to life, the producer who must find ways to pay for the show, and then the cast. If you’ve ever been in a show, you know what a strange and intense emotional environment it is:  you’re placed into situations where you have to be open, to explore emotions, to expose yourself in a variety of ways in front of complete strangers, and not mind. It’s emotionally risky, and it asks you to inhabit an emotional world which isn’t real, but which you have to make real, at least as long as the show lasts. It’s really no wonder so many actors fall for each other while they’re rehearsing a show or shooting a film. Pretend to feel something intensely enough for long enough, and you may well start feeling it.

All of which is to say, there’s a lot of complexity and intensity and strangeness and ambiguity in the world of show-making, but  we don’t get much of that in Smash. Yes, we get casting couch, and lyricist getting off with leading man. We get the producer selling her Degas to raise funds. And we get ingenue struggling to win over bitchy diva and her supporters, until the supporters are won over by ingenue’s good heart.  But there is no sense of struggle or complication in the relationship between the lyricist and the composer, for example, who are gay man/fag hag besties. The composer doesn’t much like the director, because the composer is nice and the director is mean. But we rarely get a sense that there might be any conflict between the director’s vision and the original creators’ vision. Everyone is smoothly in accord on the stuff that really matters – if only those writers would just get their pages written!

There is another Sondheim show, the troubled but wonderful Merrily We Roll Along, which has at its heart a show-writing team, and the complexity of that relationship generates some of that show’s best songs. Sondheim is great on murky emotions and ambiguity, but also the joy that comes from creating.  I think I’m bummed at Smash for not being Merrily We Roll Along.

It isn’t fair to criticise a show for not doing something it never set out to do in the first place, and I know that’s what I’m doing here. The thing about Smash is, it makes me wonder whether you can, in fact, represent the creative process  in a convincing way in a drama. A show like Mad Men, which is excellent on ambiguity and murky emotions, and also on the complex tensions of the workplace, is at its least convincing when it tries to show Don Draper having his creative inspirations. (After Season 1 they haven’t really gone there much.)

I’m not convinced that it can’t be done.  But I don’t feel like I’ve seen it yet.

 

 

 

 

 

And now, a little bit of trumpet-blowing.

My novel The Voyagers has just won the FAW Christina Stead Award for the best novel of 2011.

Those of you who would like to have a look at it can find the e-book on Amazon here:

It is also available with covers here, and here.

The judges comments can be found here.  My congratulations to all the other award winners and the commended and highly commended books.

This year, I’m starting to separate the books I’m reading into two categories: the ones that can keep me awake, and the ones that can’t.

There’s nothing wrong with the books that don’t keep me awake. It isn’t because they’re boring, and it isn’t because they’re badly written. (If they’re boring or badly written, I just stop reading them. I don’t feel compelled to finish every book I start.) I suspect it may be, often, because they’re too well written.

I got thinking about this partly because my partner has been reading his way through George R.R. Martin. The back cover of one of them  called them insomnia inducing, or something similar.

While there is not a book on earth that can induce insomnia in me – I am a world class sleeper – I recently read (along with half the world) The Hunger Games, and found that it riveted my attention and kept me crisply alert well past my usual snooze point. To be honest, I’m not even quite sure why. I’ve read books that are more engaging, more exciting, and more more-ish, in that unputdownable way. But there was something about it, and I can only assume it was the combination of its prose, its narrative, and the quality of its imagination that kept me present, engaged, and reading. There is a ruthless efficiency to this novel: it was well thought through, well imagined, well paced. This is going to sound like a weird comparison, but I was reminded a little bit of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, because both of them are about young women with a skill set far removed from my own, struggling to survive in an inimical environment. They’re both quite grounded in real, physical, outdoorsy detail – of course, in The Hunger Games much of the detail is imagined – in a way that makes both books feel truthful. The Hunger Games is experiential, rather than literary: this is what it might really feel like to be trapped inside a contest where you have to fight to the death, and these are some of the useful skills that will help you succeed. I don’t read a lot of thrillers featuring men with guns called Jack, but I suspect they offer similar pleasures.

An aside: There have been a lot of people trying to connect The Hunger Games with the Twilight series, but only a cursory glance would show you that the two series have very little in common. At its heart, Twilight is a swooning romance, while The Hunger Games is action and adventure. The romance aspects of it are decidedly secondary. (Not perfunctory exactly, but secondary. Perhaps they come to the fore in later books – I’ve only read the first of the series.)

In contrast to The Hunger Games, I’m now reading Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, “a zombie novel with brains”, as it says on the cover. (Despite being about zombies, it is really a literary novel.) Whitehead’s novel has smart, sly, witty prose, subtle and allusive. Although ostensibly set across three days, the narrative moves backwards and forwards in time in a non-linear pattern of flashbacks, reflections and observations. It’s a story about a time after time, about the end of civilisation, the end of meaning, the end of relationships, and all the structuring principles that used to hold us all together. It’s about grief and loss. It also has a satirical streak, poking fun at the medical profession as they invent new categories of mental illness that pathologize everyday existence, or treat even the worst catastrophes as something that can be solved by marketing. His zombies come in two kinds: the ravening walking dead-style skels, and stragglers. These are the dead who don’t know they’re dead. They’re not hungry, and they don’t move. They’re simply transfixed, caught in a moment – looking at a photocopier, making a cup of coffee – from which they never emerge. The novel finds great poignancy in these glimpses into the mysterious lives of others, frozen moments like photographs (nature morte), seen from a point where they’re already gone and lost, destined to remain mysterious, their complexity and human truth lost to chaos forever. I suppose this is one of the great tropes of the post-apocalyptic narrative – that our lives, which seem so important and complex as we’re living them, can be destroyed in an instant, all meaning emptied out, leaving behind only a trail of meaningless belongings, empty rooms, abandoned cars, the shells of bodies shorn of names and flesh and mind, leaving behind only a destructive hunger.

(Another aside: I suppose it’s not so surprising, in this time of global warming, that so many artists of all kinds are interested in a vision of humanity where we’re all turned into hungry, hyper-destructive, mindless creatures who’ll eat up the entire world until there’s nothing left.)

So it’s an intriguing, thoughtful, and slyly funny book. But unfortunately, slippery and allusive prose just leads me down the paths to dreamland. Every night when I pick the book back up I have to back up a few pages just to make sense of where I was up to, because I can always tell my mind was drifting long before I put the book down. And in a book that makes demands on you as a reader, and expects you to be making connections and paying attention, you’d have to agree that that’s not an ideal way to be reading.

I’m actually enjoying Zone One quite a lot. I just feel like I’m not really doing it justice as a reader. Whereas I feel like I got as much out of The Hunger Games as there was to get, and we should both be very satisfied with that.

So I’m looking forward to the day when I can give every book the attention it deserves. One day.

 

 

I just came across Damien Walter’s Guardian blog post, announcing his search for the best new weird fiction. I’m rather taken by this idea of weird fiction, which implies something fresh and strange and unfettered by genre conventions, whether they’re literary or generic conventions. SF, fantasy and horror books qualify as weird, but weird can also be broader than that. Weird proposes a fiction that’s slightly askew, that makes its own rules, that looks at the world – our world, or other worlds – with a fresh, unique eye. Real life is often weird.

Walter invites us to nominate weird books they’ve discovered through non-traditional channels – self-publishing, or small independent publishers. I have nothing to suggest, given that most of the things I read are filtered through the old cultural channels – via reviews, blogs, word of mouth, books with buzz. I still read books with covers. (Although a Kindle did arrive in my household this week, which I’m hoping will eventually transform my bookshelf situation.)

And he raises a very interesting and real question: with all this activity happening online, and publishers going through a fast, brutal process of adjustment, how do you find the stuff you’re looking for? All of those old processes of sorting, where manuscripts had gone through agents and publishers and newspapers before they came to your attention, is disappearing, but what replaces it?

I started reading the comments string for Walter’s piece, and found this comment:

What is it about people recommending their own work that makes me all the less likely to click on over to it?

As readers we must have some sort of inbuilt narcissism detector perhaps, which also begins flashing when people self-publish. I don’t know what the answer is, because other more subtle forms of self-trumpeteering (Twitter, when used well, Facebook etc.) seem to do the trick.

Truth of it is, if you have a look at Duotrope listings, there is so much weird, wired, and wider out there (thousands of fiction titles, mostly, alas, only read by the people submitting, or about to submit to them), surely it’s not about recommendations of where to look, but more about just diving in there and FINDING SOME GOOD SHIT.

THE GOOD SHIT, is probably even harder to define than that word “weird”, I would guess.

I salute your quest Damien and will follow it with interest.

And I couldn’t help agreeing with the commenter, because I too find myself reacting negatively to all the people nominating their own work. I know it has something to do with status anxiety, and my not-so-buried belief that if your work is any good, a real publisher will publish it. But that isn’t necessarily true now, and will probably become even less true in the future, as people move away from the traditional publisher model entirely.

But then you come back to the problem of how you find the good shit. Will there be new gate-keepers? New vectors of opinion to replace the old ones? Or will it just be down to good old word of mouth?

And am I the only one who sometimes finds it just massively depressing, not exhilarating, that there are SO MANY BOOKS IN THE WORLD?

I’m currently reading Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, her account of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe and their mutual development as artists. While I have some reservations about the prose, which I find a bit formal and ornate for my taste, I’m finding it fascinating for its description of the artistic milieu they lived in, in New York in the late 60s and early 70s.

One of the things that’s very striking for me is the level of poverty they lived in. I know that the starving artist is such a familiar trope it’s a cliche, but it’s also a cliche that no longer feels true, largely I think because of the easy availability of credit. (Disclaimer: I know not everybody has credit or can get credit. There are many people in Australia who do live in extreme poverty, and they are less visible than they used to be.) But Smith and Mapplethorpe lived a life of quite staggering scarcity – they had hardly any clothes, no furniture, no stuff. The money they scraped together from their part-time jobs went on art supplies or food – they rarely had enough for both when they were starting out. They lived in cheap hotels, and later in sub-let studios, but owned hardly anything. When they needed furniture, they found it in the street. It was a quite different economy from the one that we inhabit now, in which clothes and TVs and furniture can be dizzyingly expensive but also extremely cheap, and of course, most of us now have credit cards that let us acquire stuff. Eventually the credit cards have to be fed, like heroin habits, but the ready availability of credit has, for a lot of people, created a cushion against that kind of poverty. We live a very stuff-stuffed life now. Perhaps I’m wrong, and have been employed too long, but I wonder if there are many artists today who live in that kind of hand-to-mouth poverty?

The other thing that’s striking is their sense of inhabiting an artistic, bohemian culture. When I first moved to Sydney in 1993 I was looking for that kind of culture. (I’m not sure that I really found it, but it seemed exciting at the time.) But I do feel that  there has been a shift that’s taken place over my adult life, which has coincided with that long period of prosperity from the late 90s right through until the GFC in 2008, where it began to seem expected that everyone should be doing well and making money – and spending it too. Even artists, from authors reading stories of million dollar advances and painters reading about Damien Hirst’s million-dollar diamond-studded skull, couldn’t help absorbing this message that art was something you could make money at. Whatever you did, there needed to be a business model attached. Getting rich, even as an artist, was something you could aspire to.

Smith and Mapplethorpe, coming of age in the counter-culture, arrived in an artistic milieu where none of that was true. The counter-culture believed in experimentation for its own sake, artistic, emotional and sexual, with no requirement that the work should be saleable or even good. Being brave and exciting and new was enough to  aim for. Ironically, they lived on the fringes of Warhol’s Factory crowd, who exemplified the idea that being fabulous was a form of art, while at the same time Warhol himself was making art that would help create the modern art market, with its superstar artists and big money.

Patti Smith longs to be an artist, struggles to find her medium, but idolises the poets. Poetry, you’d have to say, was on its very last legs as a sexy and glamorous occupation then, but the glamour of it was still very real to Patti Smith. Today, poetry is one of those art forms that commentators regularly report the death of. Poetry publishing is shrinking, lists are closing down. Maybe the internet will save it, who knows?

I was going to write that it’s one of those art forms for which the audience is disappearing, but I feel a bit like the audience for art itself, in all forms, is disappearing. By art, I mean everything from literature to poetry to painting and sculpture, to the performing arts: opera, dance, classical music, theatre. One of the sad things about the long boom here in Australia, where money flowed so generously into people;s pockets and was translated into stuff, was that there was no corresponding pouring of money into artists pockets, either through funding bodies or through a lift in the money being spent on things like books and theatre and art. There was more money to be spent than ever, but the audience for serious art in any form seemed to recede. Why? I don’t know. The reasons are surely complex, but probably involve

– the slow receding of that counter-cultural energy, which favoured all forms of questioning, including artistic questioning, towards a more conservative frame of mind which was comfortable with and approving of the status quo

– the presence of money in our pockets, which encouraged different kinds of activity in the young (why live in a squat writing poems when you could buy a round the world plane ticket and travel?)

–  the rise of the internet, a technological form which is still evolving but has sucked up a lot of the energy we once had for other art forms

– the rise of global media/entertainment corporations. For publishing houses, being bought up by giant media conglomerates drove a change in their traditional culture, from being modestly successful to a need for a solid ROI, which forced a change in the kinds of projects they supported and the lists they ran. The need to make lots of money drives a shift in emphasis from art to entertainment, driving a blockbuster culture. And blockbusters, as we’ve seen, have a tendency to take up all the space and all the attention.

The effect of all of that – a shift from scarcity and the questioning that comes with it, to abundance, the free flow of money, and a comfort with money, plus an increasing commercialisation of almost every sphere of life, has led us to a place where the culture is far more resistant than it ever was before to the kind of bohemian life that nurtured Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, where the pursuit of artistic questioning and the artistic life, even if it meant living for a long time in poverty, was not frowned upon, and where you could find a large and thriving community of people who lived the same way, and who supported you and your aspirations. (Yes, OK, they did live in New York city, but the kind of life they lived in New York in the 60s and 70s would be completely impossibly for a young artist now.)

The other thing that’s interesting about the memoir is the way the two of them gradually diverge. Patti Smith remains stubbornly bohemian at heart, an outsider, while Mapplethorpe finds an entree to high society and the world of the rich, and enters it gladly, with a social fluidity and upward mobility that Smith doesn’t share and doesn’t want.

I’m not nostalgic about poverty. Poverty isn’t fun. It doesn’t necessarily free you creatively either – in fact, the worries poverty causes can be the very thing that stops you doing the work you want to. I think what I feel is a nostalgia for the clarity of that moment, when you’re young, when it does seem that art is the most exciting thing in the world, and the most important, and that nothing could be better than living for art.

I’ve just finished reading this book, which was named one of the best SF/Fantasy books of 2011 by various people, groups and websites who know about these things and have read more widely in the genre than I have. (And which has also just been nominated for a Nebula award.)

This is a classic coming of age story, told in a series of diary entries – itself a classic device. But the book itself is fresh and distinctive, largely because of the oddness and beauty of the voice, which perfectly captures the thinking of a 15 year old who is clever, bookish, an outsider (shouldn’t this sound familiar?) sorting through a messy family situation, new school, and the confusion of dealing for the first time with unexpected sexual situations, while also reporting on the books she’s reading – largely SF. The name-checking is so frequent I wondered whether Walton actually has a teenage diary stashed away somewhere, which she used as reference material for all the books Mori, her heroine, devours.

The other thing she does with this remarkable book is make fairies believable.

I’ve joked with friends that once the publishing world is sick of vampires, werewolves and zombies, there’s going to be nowhere else to go but fairies. There is already a vast fairy industry pumping out product aimed at little girls like my two children, but how do you make them work for grown-ups? Jo Walton has succeeded. These fairies are informed by some of the slipperiness and strangeness of traditional English fairies, but they are less glamorous and tricksy. These fairies are a strange emanation of another world, which is partly the world of nature and partly a world that is Other, where the dead walk and magic is real.

Mori’s narration is so matter-of-fact and ordinary that the fairies seem more realistic for being grounded in the real world. They make sense, and the dailiness of the diary entry format, with its juxtaposition of boarding school life detail and routines, new discoveries (books and people), and the magical other world of fairies, magic and witches, and the slowly accumulating details about what happened to Mori’s twin sister before the narrative begins, makes them seem even realer and more believable.

One of the itneresting things about the way this narrative is constructed is the way that it sets its action after what most books would have as the main story. When the action begins there has been a magical confrontation with their mother, who is a witch, which ends tragically (don’t worry, that isn’t a major spoiler). If this was a more traditional fantasy novel for children, that would be the main action of this narrative, but instead, this is a different kind of novel – a YA novel, I guess – which is about how the heroine begins to construct an adult identity for herself out of her catastrophic past and some of the new discoveries she makes over the course of the book.

There is just one moment, though, which I found interestingly unsettling. Until more than halfway through the book, I had never questioned the reality of the fairies and the magic, even though Mori herself, and the people around her, are aware that Mori’s mother is not just a witch, she is mad. But this world that mori inhabits never seems delusional until a moment when her aunts are proposing that she have her ears pierced. Mori reacts violently, convinced that if she has her ears pierced, all her magic will leak out of her and she will be unable to see fairies or connect with the magical world again. Something about this particular moment, with its fear of penetration and the loss of bodily integrity, seemed crazy to me, in a way that nothing else in the narrative had, and I found myself wondering whether all her beliefs about her mother, her sister, magic and fairies, were part of a delusional system that was all in her own head. (Later, independent corroboration is delivered: they are real after all. Phew.)

Finally, if you’re looking for weird but interesting conjunctions, try reading it back to back with Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal, another narrative about impoverished childhood in regional British (the north of England instead of Wales), mad mothers, and the power of fiction to console, to inspire, to offer escape and guidance into the world of adulthood.