Friday, May 11, 2012

All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.

Even dead trees carry life. The Hastings Caves State Reserve, Southern Tasmania. April 2012.

Three quite different books finished this week, an eclectic mix very much more accident than design on my behalf.

The first is the latest from one of my favourite contemporary writers, This Is Life by Dan Rhodes. A complicated and convoluted novel that interweaves the story of a young art student, a (seemingly) abandoned baby, a women so beautiful that all of her ex-boyfriends (and their mothers) tend to kill themselves or stalk her, the upstanding proprietor of Paris’ last genuine cinéma érotique (who has a particular fondness for sophisticated ‘girl-on-girl’ films and a lesbian daughter), a pair of Japanese tourists and their hapless translator, the world’s most acerbic art critic and perhaps the novel's finest creation, the mysterious performance artist Le Machine whose global smash-hit production Life has returned to his home town of Paris.

Rhodes's novels have always tended on the blackly comic sides of life, so it’s interesting to see that This Is Life is anything but a tragedy. This is actually an uplifting book about love and if you have the read the eviscerating short story collection Don't Tell Me the Truth about Love, yes I am pretty sure that this book is by the same Dan Rhodes.

This isn’t the perfect novel by any stretch. If I were the editor, I would have pruned a good hundred pages here and not damaged book. I’m primarily thinking of the sections that amount to little more than a dig at (now-former) President Sarkozy, Carla Bruni and Lady Gaga, and the asides that are in jokes and allusions to earlier books. However, it remains a really good book.

The macabre atmosphere of Rhodes’ earlier books has not been abandoned, and the wide cast of colourful, idiosyncratic characters benefits from an author that has chosen to be generous and forgiving to them (much more so than earlier works).

I very much enjoyed the evisceration of much of the modern art world. The proliferation of wanky conceptual ideas – “recontextualising found objects", "appropriating the now", "subverting the zeitgeist” – at the expense of “doing something really good and beautiful” annoys and frustrates me as much as it does the author, and for alone this is a worthwhile read.

Ultimately, this is an uplifting tale with plenty of positive messages and an (inevitably) happy ending. Highly recommended.

Second up is a classic, The Big Sleep, a hardboiled crime noir from 1939 by Raymond Chandler. I suspect that more people are familiar with one of the film adaptions than they are the novel, but would recommend people give this one a look. The story is a complex one, packed with a cast of characters constantly double-crossing each one another as the central character ¬– private eye Phillip Marlowe – with a host of dark secrets exposed throughout the narrative.

I won’t spoil it if you don’t already know it, but I do have to reflect on the irony of the central (opening) plot device of the book, that of the damage that can be wrought by the existence of a single nude photograph of a wealthy (but dim) young heiress. Ultimately, this leads to the death of multiple people and thousands of dollars exchange hands to keep the photo from coming to light. These days, ‘leaked’ dirty videos seem the standard course to reality TV ‘stardom’. Highly recommended.

Last up is On Bullshit an essay by philosopher Harry Frankfurt published in book form. The premise of the essay is an attempt to define a theory of bullshit, defining the concept and analysing its applications. Ultimately, bullshit can be true or false but bullshitters seem to primarily aim to impress and persuade an audience, and in general are unconcerned with the truth or falsehood of their statements. I agree with the author that although the bullshitter is faking things, this does not necessarily mean he is wrong about them.

This is an interesting read to anyone that has to work in a climate of bullshit (that would be most of us), and will probably resonate with most readers. Recommended for those interested.


smudgeon said...

i really liked Anthropology, been meaning to get more from Dan Rhodes for a while now. this one sounds right up my alley, particularly given my own frustrations at art school - concept is far more important than skill, talent, or execution, apparently.

thanks for the review!

Kris said...

You need to get into all of them. This one is a good counterpoint to Don't Tell Me the Truth About Love, which is about the blackest collection of short stories about 'love' that I have ever read.

I should also add that Gold is in my top five books written in the last decade. I don't know what it is about it, but I just loved it.