peteg's blog

Our Kind of Traitor

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At the Odeon 5 with Mum, 2pm session, $25.50 for the pair of us. We were the only two in a mid-sized theatre. It contains a fair bit of language and violence, which I doubt was in the source material (a book with the same name) by le Carré. Mum had read it. The cast is solid, and I somewhat guiltily enjoyed Stellan Skarsgård play a troubled foulmouthed Russian family mafioso; I had hoped he'd go bad at some point and make the movie as a whole come good, but it was not to be. Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris play an indulgent married couple who've lost their spark, somewhat reminding me of Babel in their cluelessness. The plot is tired and flimsy.

Afterwards we had a coffee at the nearby CoCos, on the corner of Byng and William.

Jarett Kobek: BTW and an excerpt of American Decadence (?).

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Again, no electronic edition, so USD$7.52 went to the Book Depository for some dead tree. A guiltier pleasure than the other works of his I've read. Well written, as always, and the characterization is first rate: his lothario father back in İzmir, Turkey after too many Boston winters, endlessly dispensing hard won cynicism, surnamed "Black Hell" after his own father; the Bangladeshi sisters running wild, damaged by too much religion, rootless in L.A.; his ex, boomeranged to Detroit, not quite soulmate; a couple of social-nexus lady-friends. The other men tend more toward caricature. NYC comes in for the has-been treatment, L.A. is an afterlife. It's a page turner. Again with the literary asides! And quite fun they are too. The short afterwork is a non sequitur.

Publisher's page. Trailer. I don't like the reviews that Google digs up.

David Ireland: The World Repair Video Game.

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$45 of dead tree from Island Mag for copy number 209 of 350. Geordie Williamson lays it all out in his afterword. I found it repetitive but not ritualistic; an optimistic start quickly shaded into onerous ploughing with much difficulty in focussing on the page. The philosophizing is not spectacularly insightful, the political commentary is social Darwinist essentialism, and whether Ireland is endorsing or critiquing any particular attitude is too ambiguous; his use of calculated serial murder is substantially less powerful than Nabokov's breaking of taboos in Lolita. This resulted in more irritation than shock or outrage in my case. Still, as expected the prose is crisp.

Malcolm Knox is wrong to think those killed here are characters in Ireland's earlier books: those guys always worked, and suffered for it in that human-dignity enhancing way that Ireland champions here. (I think Ireland is saying that it is the willingness to work, to try to do it right, to endure the meaningless, and not the content of the work itself that is moral. I don't really know as I don't buy it: most work is exploitation, as he acknowledges here, and I don't see the concomitant suffering as necessary or essentially worthwhile, or even character building as its boosters proclaim.) This leads me to think that whoever reads this will read whatever they want into it. Perhaps it is a satire.

Nicolas Rothwell spends more time putting the publication in context than talking about its contents. He is right that this is a rumination on the "self-created world [...] where love, kindness and a sense of shared experience wither."

I guess that's the last of Ireland's for me.

Star Trek Beyond

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At the Odeon 5 in Orange, 8:15pm 3D session, opening night, $20.50. Apparently I saw Iron Man 3 there a bit more than three years ago. Time flies.

As A. O. Scott observes, this is more of the same, somewhat squashed into action blockbuster format, and that might be OK. The interior scenes are quite quite dark in 3D. The first part is quite slow, and thematically the whole thing is entirely contained in the canon of classic Trek: for instance, Idris Elba's character is essentially Benedict Cumberbatch's from the previous one, who was, of course, standing on the toes of Ricardo Montalbán. The MacGuffin is nowhere as interesting as the Genesis device. There are many simply ludicrous moments. I'll stop right there. I spent most of the movie trying to fit what I was seeing to its source material (Simon Pegg gets a writing credit), and came to realise that this was the Trek that the Wachowskis would have made.

Sam Machkovech.

John Steinbeck: Of Mice and Men.

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Kindle. Teddy Wayne has the protagonist of Kapitoil read Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath in his [finance] boss's living room, with the wife observing the distance between that and there. This book apparently "[makes] a similar economic argument and [has] equal emotional power in a more efficient length." I got into it because I wasn't yet ready to face David Ireland's latest.

Well, it seems we're all dogs in the end, though it might make a difference as to which part of the gun you're in contact with. Steinbeck has this tick of making his characters dumbly repeat phrases in conversation, when their wit deserts them; irritating but effective, I'd say. His style is mostly spare but a tad too tendentious to unequivocally endorse. The narrative goes as one might expect, but stops off in many disconcerting locations.

Francis Spufford: Golden Hill.

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Kindle. I was pleasantly surprised to find that he'd released a novel about a month ago, apparently his first. It's a period piece: the setting is pre-revolutionary New-York, and this being a modern book, it also has a trailer on YouTube, set in current-day New York, with no mention of the quietened 99%. Richard Smith, amiable leading man, tries to keep his nose clean while waiting for his £1000 to clear, but falls afoul of gossip and ignorance of pre-existing machinations. Spufford uses this trouble to steer him around the town and set pieces of the time in extensively-researched sparkling prose. The overarching mystery is hinted at frequently, but it wasn't the only thing that kept me hooked right up to the end. Tabitha is similarly an interesting creation, somewhat hysterical but far from helpless.

I'm not big on historical fiction, at least of this less-than-didactic kind (compare with Red Plenty), but Spufford knows throughout what we're here for, and he is a master of not over-stuffing the turkey.

Steven Poole (who charges Neal Stephenson with overstuffing his turkeys). An interview at the Guardian. Lucille Turner is right, his writing is genius! Sophie Elmhirst. The lack of reviews from across the Atlantic makes me think it has yet to make it's U.S. debut.

Hoping (nay, expecting!) to extend the run of good reads, upon finishing this I rushed off to buy his Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin from Amazon.

2017-06-28: Dwight Garner.

Jarett Kobek: ATTA and The Whitman of Tikrit.

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This book has no electronic edition! The horror. Some dead tree cost me $US12.78 from Book Depository, and I bought it on the strength of Kobek's recent spray against the internet's more social zones in combination with the bleak outlook of what was up next on the Kindle. It turned up in less than a week. I certainly cannot fault their efficiency.

This is billed as a fictional biography of Mohamed Atta, and runs on twin tracks straight for 9/11. Kobek's imagining of his internal life is similar to what David Malouf did for King Priam in Ransom (and other characters in other works). There is no shortage of raw material, I'm sure, and Kobek is sufficiently across his subject that his spare prose is never overstuffed with irrelevant detail; in other words, he avoids the inexcusable self-indulgence of old hands Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh. Atta's is something of an Odyssean journey, featuring dreamt Sirens and a bin Laden who is blind in the right eye. There is also a dash of Arabian every-readies Harun al-Rashid and Scheherazade, the latter in the form of Palestian temptation Amal, who tells him a story in classic cliff-hanger style. Is it through weakness or impregnable fortitude that Atta does not return to her family's house to find out what happens next?

Kobek focuses on Atta's education as an architect and mines his TUHH Masters thesis on the Citadel of Aleppo, painted as a natural Islamic urban environment inherently superior to the sterilities and missteps of the West. The Tarnak Farms present as a paradise where no man gets between Muslim and Allah (p126), and yet there is hierarchy; is this Atta's inability to see past his own nose? His initial skepticism of bin Laden yields to his visceral revulsion of Modern Brutalism (p131):

He speaks. The plot is outlandish. It involves a journey to America, into the toothy maw. He assures us it will work [...]

And then he names the target. And I am his. High rises of high rises, the mid century assault. Minoru Yamasaki's children, the twin abominations.

Somewhat ironically the backlash that Atta and co unleashed eventually led to the mauling of the old souk in Aleppo.

Atta has a persistent hum in his head, which sometimes becomes a voice that is not quite Allah's. (The reader may worry that this is Kobek's mechanism for taking Atta beyond human comprehension and moral culpability.) He feels nothing at the climax of his Hajj, on the Plain of Arafat amongst his Muslim brothers. He attempts to understand the West through its cultural output: Times Square, Disneyland, horror movies. (I think that once you've seen Army of Darkness you've seen them all.) This is Kobek's vantage point for criticism, and a good one it is. Still, why does Atta's disgust with the West shade into violence? He is radicalized at the mosque in Hamburg, but most who are do not go to the lengths that he did. To be horrified by the suffering in Palestine is not to think that further death and destruction will help in any way. (Was empathy an invention of the Englightenment that failed to influence scholars of Islam?) Kobek also does not discuss the status of democracy in Islamic thought, nor explore Atta's leadership role; he is mostly exasperated with the Saudi musclemen and his fellow conspirators, and suspicious of bin Laden's hubristic propaganda about a new Caliphate.

[p61, After analyzing Walt Disney's film of Kipling's The Jungle Book...]

A story repeats itself. A man, or his parents, or his parents' parents, come to America. Hard work, toil in obscurity amongst unknown wretches. Great open land. The one who works hardest reaps eventual reward, rises to prominence, achieves great things, makes himself a name.

This also is my story, thinks Atta. I am Sayyid Qutb! I too am an immigrant success.

The second, far shorter piece The Whitman of Tikrit imagines Saddam Hussein's final day before his capture by American troops. The conceit is that Rumsfeld slipped him a book of Whitman's poetry back in the 1980s. Hussein is far more fiery and scatalogical than Atta, further showcasing Kobek's technique and fine grasp of personality.

Unfortunately the other texts in the semiotext(e) series are very different to this one (mostly critical theory/Marxist tracts).

Kobek's is a rich source text, in addition to being a satisfying read all by itself. Richard Byrne observes his acute analysis of Americana. Jonathan Raban lays out further historical context at the New Yorker. John Cotter takes the time to diss Martin Amis's go at the same subject (The Last Days of Mohammad Atta) while praising this book.

I just ordered Kobek's BTW from 2013; again, it has no ebook edition.