Friday, June 03, 2011

After all, one knows one's weak points so well, that it's rather bewildering to have the critics overlook them and invent others.

Fare thee well, St John's Church. St Johns Park, New Town. June 2011.

Last day today!

One of the positives of my shifting career path will be less need to tear down Liverpool Street in the early morning trying to make the connecting bus through to New Town. The 7:48 am to Glenorchy is a far more pleasant journey, as the 8:02 generally involves a bus packed to the rafters with reeking and deafening teenage boys on their way to school. In fact, anyone who queries the likelihood of man’s evolutionary link with our ape cousins really needs to catch the 8:02 Glenorchy Express and wise up!

After last week’s dismal effort, I’ve lifted my game this week and steamed through a few books.

The first, The Drowned World is a 1962 sci-fi novel by J. G. Ballard that differs a little bit from most post-apocalyptic fiction. The central character, rather than being disturbed by the end of the old world, embraces the changed existence that is coming.

It’s an interesting little book. Ballard has done well to create a detailed and believable scenario that explains the apocalypse that spurs the story: changed astronomical conditions has caused solar radiation that has melted the polar ice-caps and rapidly increased worldwide temperatures, leaving the countries on the Equator uninhabitable and the cities of northern Europe and America (and presumably south too) submerged in tropical lagoons.

Yet this is but detail. Ballard really sets out to explore the impact of this environmental shift on the collective unconscious desires of the central characters. The Drowned World is a place where natural catastrophe has altered the real world into a kind of dream landscape, which causing the central characters to regress mentally.

It contains a complex psychosocial construct that I will admit to not being entirely convinced by, but a narrative device more than convincing enough to kick the story along. In the same way as psychoanalysis reconstructs a traumatic situation in order to release repressed material, Ballard’s rapidly changing world has plunged a few of the survivors into a psychological regression back to a long biological imperative rooted in the Triassic past.

It’s a well constructed tale that keeps you going. I do like the very different approach that liberation (in terms of the central character) lays not in the fight for maintaining the concept of ‘normality’, but in embracing the concepts of regression and devolution to prior ways of living.

Thought provoking and well written. Very much worth a look.

As for the second book, well… I like Mark Kurlansky’s work, I really do. This one failed to resonate though. In What? Are These the 20 Most Important Questions in Human History or is This a Game of 20 Questions? every single sentence is a question.

Yes, every single one.

As much as I like Kurlansky and as much as I like questions, it just didn’t work for me. Let me put it this way, do you like being asked random questions for hours on end? Do you like no narrative thread in the books you read? Do you like endless and disjointed references to significant people and concepts throughout history with very little points of connection? How many pages of straight questions do you think that you can read without going insane?

If you think your sanity would hold, this might be the book for you!

Number three was a little more lively, with Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution a brief re-envisioning of a long-retired and elderly Sherlock Holmes towards the end of his days. The title references both the last of the Conan-Doyle Holmes stories (The Final Problem) and the unspoken happenings underneath the present story (the Nazi extermination of Europe’s Jews).

It’s World War II, we’re in Sussex with a mute boy, a German-speaking African Grey parrot, an Indian-born Vicar (and his family) and a murder. This is the stage for our tale. Tautly written and with more left undone than done, Chabon's novel seems to have divided both Holmes aficionados and literary critics. I dunno, I liked it.

My theory is that the book’s critics have mistaken its loose ends for slightness. Chabon’s talent is of the kind that some abhor. He’s smart you see, smart enough to disguise his skill. His art is not showy, but it is there. He presents have a preposterous plot (as with all Holmes), a cast of characters that we really only see in shades and shadows, and a (appropriately-hazy) denouement narrated by a German-speaking African parrot.

And he pulls it off.

Not all loose ends are tied and we get no real answers, but the conclusion is both moving and memorable. No wonder so many critics hate him. Highly recommended.

Next we have The Postman Always Rings Twice, James M. Cain was quite notorious upon its initial publication in 1934, and must be regarded as one of the more important crime novels of the twentieth century. It’s a suspenseful race through a story filled with a raw mix of sexuality and violence that must have been shocking at the time.

The tale of a ne’r do well drifter, a young, beautiful broad and her much older husband "the Greek". Of course, a passionate affair develops, with more than a hint of sadomasochism underwriting their attachment. Thus, a scheme is hatched for them to be together. I expect that you don’t have to have seen the film(s) to see where this is going…

Even better than Double Indemnity, this taut thriller is a rollercoaster ride from go to whoa. Double thumbs up.

I’ll confess that I have long held reservations about Helen Garner that have nothing to do with her work as a novelist. I think that her commentary on the Ormand College affair [see The First Stone] both unconvincing and entirely wrongheaded. However, I will not be detoured into an extended exploration of the generational culture wars within the Australian feminist movement! To the book!

Like I said, I don’t like Garner, but I have been feeling guilty about not reading enough Australian fiction, and I also thought that I needed to read some more female authors, as I have decided give her a go. Thus, I get to The Children's Bach, her third book published in 1984 to some critical acclaim.

Set in inner-suburban Melbourne in the early/mid-1980s, the novel revolves around a bohemian couple, Athena and Dexter with their two sons, one of whom is severely autistic. Into their life intrudes Elizabeth, an independent feminist of some renown from Dexter's past. With Elizabeth come her teenage sister, Vicki, and her casual lover – and staple of the local rock music scene – Philip, and his prepubescent daughter, Poppy. Through this plot device, Garner can explore the collision of different worlds of ideas and values and test the foundations of human relationships.

It does a good job recording the many effects of this collision of values, and the traumatic consequences of clashing social mores and beliefs (particularly to those unable or unwilling to yield to change). The novel is also a striking portrait of a specific time and place in Australian life, which despite being not so long ago seems very far away.

Yet again another quite depressing read, but a worthwhile one. I can happily recommend this to anyone.

Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock is a time-travel story that I am sure seems blasphemous and heretical to many. This immediately grants it some kind of interest! The take if a troubled and listless (lapsed) Jewish man travels from the year 1970 in a time machine to 28 AD, where he hopes to meet the historical Jesus of Nazareth.

To complicate matters, this existentialist tale jumbles fragmented memories and flashbacks with the parallel story of a troubled past (future?) that tries to explain the willingness to risk everything to meet Jesus. A mass of neurosis with a fixation on Jung, a messiah complex, homosexual tendencies and a chronic inability to form human attachments gives us the basis of a [ahem] interesting tale.

I shan’t spoil it, but it is a rip roaring tale. Recommended if you are up to challenge convention when it comes to religions.


smudgeon said...

Six in one week? Madness. How do you find the time?

I've been meaning to grab me some Ballard in recent months, but at the present rate I read it might be worth just waiting.

Good luck with the new endeavour - back to the community/NGO sector?

Anonymous said...

I never had to catch a train but I used to drive 70 miles a day to and from my job as a school teacher and in the winter, the Interstate 70 was a thrill ride to drive.

You do have a lot of books read under your belt. It takes me a while to read one and sometimes, like now, I put off reading it because I like it so much I don't want it to be over.

Steffe said...

That last books sounds like fun reading! I have a Moorcock novel that I need to finish, it's King of the City, I started reading it just a few years ago...

Kris said...

Smudgeon, there were a bunch of quite short ones. Plus, I can read while walking, so maximise all time on foot between meetings, buses etc...

Abe, I know that feeling all too well.

Steffe, they were all (bar one) quite good that week. I've slowed down a bit this week.