peteg's blog - noise - books

Tim Winton: Dirt Music.

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Kindle. I read this a long time ago and remember the outlines of the story: wayward, wilful woman falls out of love/arrangement with an affluent fishing scion and falls in with a rough, soulful yet manly artist. Winton set himself a tough challenge in constructing not only the female lead but also female friendship. It's similar to Morton's recent memoir in its description of harsh landscapes, communities, men and dynasties. I felt it was masterfully constructed up to around halfway, up to when Winton needs to get the third leg of his love triangle north of Broome: Jim is too closed a book for us to understand why or how he might be redeemed by finding Fox. It's cinematic, won the Miles Franklin in 2002, and there's a movie in the works (but there pretty much always is).

Reviews are legion.

Rick Morton: One Hundred Years of Dirt.

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Kindle. Got the pointer from the Guardian staff book list for 2018. Briefly this is a memoir by a still-young bloke from far western Queensland who became a journo in the big smoke (in fact all of the east-coast big smokes). He gives some insight into why Queenslanders vote in what looks like beggar-thy-neighbour fashion, incidentally fueling the argument for epistocracy. (I'm not in favour of an epistocracy.) There is a lot of poverty (of means, experience, hope, goodwill and much else), addiction, domestic violence, feudal families, so forth. It reminded me strongly of Nicholas Cowdery's Getting Justice Wrong in saying many powerfully obvious things — often backed by recent, timely and relevant data and economic narratives — that will somehow go unheard by those with power.

Widely reviewed.

Ned Beauman: Glow.

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Kindle. I couldn't make it past the first page of The Teleportation Incident, and this one is shorter.

The Beauman ingredients:

  • Some sort of McGuffin to hunt
  • At least one character with a kooky malady, probably genetic and hence essential
  • Corporate surveillance, marketing, public relations
  • Inventive, descriptive, evocative similes
  • A massive vocabulary with shallow insights, like a TED talk
  • Deus ex, as much as need be and keep going

— and yeah, it's getting a bit tedious by now.

In this instance we have a very willing Burmese girl and a similarly willing London boy enjoying the vestiges of the druggy dance scene that produced drug memoirs that Beauman himself observes he is palely imitating. The plot is incomprehensible and not worth recounting; the author concurs by babbling at every fracture. Glow is the drug equivalent of civet coffee, and I'm so sorry to spoil the whole book for you. Japanese girls are apparently magnificent objects; it's the casual racism of low expectations easily met, like an ABC show. Information comes from anywhere and everywhere. It's a string of scenes. There's some naff commentary on commentary (at Lotophage, the amateur neuroexperientialist's forum) — of course people don't talk about enjoying activity x as typically the pleasures of x speak for themselves. Analysis is a means of reliving it, or bragging, or some other thing. Come on editors, run a ruler over this stuff.

Edward Docx at the time.

Ned Beauman: Boxer, Beetle.

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Kindle. I figured I'd see if Beauman's earliest work (from 2010) was an improvement on his most recent. It is mercifully short. Once again we're on a McGuffin hunt, skulking in an England of Nazi sympathisers and memorabilia hunters and unsympathetic Jews. Poland serves as a place of ethnic hatred and entomological discovery: after exposure to the right kind of thinking, a slightless species with swastikas on their extended wings morph into hardy flesh eaters, or a crass metaphor for those who took eugenics seriously. Much of the (British) Fascist exposition is bald unchallenged assertion (sounding a lot like what was trotted out for BREXIT), presumably because Beauman cannot empathise with, imagine or even look into the faces of these people. Conversely he seems at ease with American quantities of violence. There's little insight here, and the cut-up narrative suggests the author thought the story too weak to chug along by itself. Once again I felt he doesn't deliver on the promises made early in the book, or live up to his gift.

Scarlett Thomas seems to have forgotten about the people at the Fascist conference dinnertable. Goodreads suggests his next two are superior.

Marcy Dermansky: Very Nice.

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Kindle. I enjoyed the previous two things I read from Dermansky — The Red Car and Bad Marie — but with this the well has run dry. I think she's trying to capture a moment in time (the northern summer of about 8 months after the pivotal 2016 US election IIRC) by portraying a rich, disintegrating Jewish family with a fabulous house in Connecticut, a pair of fabulously gorgeous passably-white-but-actually-black twin sisters, a fabulously irresistible but negligible Pakistani author and perhaps most sympathetically his fabulous apricot-coloured standard poodle. (Hang on, I thought Muslims weren't big on dogs...) We're sometimes taken to Brooklyn but mostly remain in the house, unless we're visiting the crazy Republican family across the way.

The focus is on contemporary sexual politics. Ladies, young or old but all willful and desirous, need to make the first move these days. Blokes are passive, excessively risk-averse unless they're holdover alpha males of the Gordon Gecko variety. Lesbianism is apparently the safer bet on the NYC dating scene, especially if you want to make it big in featureless finance. A Chekhovian device is introduced very late and used to unsatisfactorily terminate a very slight plot.

We're told all this in rotating first-person. Are the voices distinct? Sometimes! Khloe (the not-Kardashian) provides no deep ruminations on finance and what that really means; she's just in it for the money and not the bros. Her twin sister Kristi is a similarly underdrawn literatti. The 54 yo mother deals with bereavement by poaching the dog. The father is Wall St. Daughter Rachel, the fulcrum, is a confused 19 yo who has far more than most. Everyone is an abyss of want. A repetitive, iteratively-deepened narrative? Mostly! — maybe this is how Philip Roth rolled.

I felt that to get even this much out of this book required more of me than it had to offer.

Ned Beauman: Madness is Better than Defeat.

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Kindle. Entirely too much is trying to go on here. It's impossible to summarise and also probably impossible to successfully execute. A classic McGuffin hunt by Americans in the Central American jungle running from the 1930s to the late 1950s through NYC, Hollywood and some Mayan ruins. The title comes from an unmade Orson Welles film (Hearts in Darkness) which doubles as the movie in this book. It is a sprawling mess. There are endless segues. It is difficult to follow. Most annoying is the periodic retconning, or maybe it's the actively misleading assertions ("met the gods"), or perhaps the iteratively-deepened narrative. There's some Hunter S. Thompson, some Will Self quantity theory, some magic realism, and many voices that sound about the same. Beauman wears his learning heavily.

Is this a story of when America was great? The greatest generation tropes made me wonder if Beauman was playing a commercial angle. Our principle narrator morphs from a journalist into an OSS/CIA Quiet American without even a montage, and as we all know, even Rocky had a montage. Beauman wants to be taken as seriously as Ken Kesey with his account of a brutal, lobotomising Texan mental health clinic and slight readings of Leibniz's patently inadequate monadology. There are shades of the old Australian utopias (hint: don't try this in Australia) but none are as utopian. There's a nod to Lenin's sealed train. I heard the faintest of echoes of a far more impressively erudite effort from a long time ago.

I wondered if Beauman was commenting on surveillance capitalism by proposing a drug that opens the doors to the panopticon; the concept is used too erratically to be sure. Sometimes it put me in mind of a quote from Becker's The Denial of Death, that we've been suffering from the overproduction of truth for quite a while now, and at others that this must be the essence of Atlassian's appeal to the command-and-control classes. Similarly the imperial ambitions of the camp's company scrip made me think of Facebook's recent corporatist movies with their borderless Libra currency. How long until they try to make their staff subsist entirely on bits made out of people?

Widely reviewed. Helene Stapinski sold it to me. Cal Revely-Calder. Something of a self-review by Beauman. Joe Blessing asks why.

John Brunner: The Whole Man.

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Kindle. More Brunner due to a lack of imagination or bravery on my part. Telepathy, mentalism of a pedestrian kind, written in a world that already had Foundation and Stephen Hawking. The hard-scrabble upbringing (in an unreconstituted Chicago?) in an otherwise utopian world is married to some inevitable psychoanalytic BS. Maybe he hadn't yet found himself a reliable dealer. It passed the time, I guess.

John Brunner: The Traveller in Black.

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Goodreads suggested this collection of Brunner shorts wasn't totally dire, and perhaps it isn't if you like moralising fantasy. Reading further down that page I see that this is a work firmly in genre.

John Brunner: The Squares of the City.

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Kindle. Looking for something light and breezy, and because it got mentioned alongside Brunner's fat books, though goodreads suggests none of his stuff is rated in absolute terms.

Brunner takes us to the fictional Spanish-speaking country of Aguazul in Latin America in 1965: perhaps an island, perhaps Central, I imagined South. The perfectly modern 20th century city we arrive in was built in the time-honoured fashion: by underfunding the rest of the country. As the slums encroach the powers that be hire our narrator, a(n Australian!) foreign traffic expert, to give them the right answer. In many ways it's a Graham Greene novel: the country is Catholic, the landholders rich, citizenship has been extended to the foreign help, the peasantry excessive and restive, the newspapers partisan. There's a beautiful woman or two, an uprising and a fascination with chess. It's a sort of psychohistory of a totalitarian technocratic government, but more a demented extended metaphor. By midway it was too hard to track so many bit players, making for a choppy read.

Later reflection made me wonder if Brunner was giving the nod to famed early cyberneticist Stafford Beer, but no, Beer made it to Chile only in the early 1970s. Similarly Georges Perec's Life: A User's Manual, also a structural riff on chess, came thirteen years later. I conclude that once again Brunner was ahead of the curve.

It's widely reviewed out there on the free web.

J. G. Farrell: The Singapore Grip.

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Kindle. I was in the mood for some historical fiction, which I sort-of got, albeit set in the circa 1940s and not the genesis story I was hoping for. This is Singapore as a mongrel English colony whose exploiters are being challenged by the Japanese war machine, spreading southwards from Shanghai; Raffles is just a place here.

Briefly Farrell wears his researches very heavily. He tries to exhibit meaningful misunderstandings amongst a diverse cast of characters, none of whom are drawn deeply despite the tendentious scenarios. The anchor is Walter, a crassly constructed capitalist, imperialist boar complete with bristles down his spine and a trophy wife. There's a love triangle centred on the hapless scion nephew of his deceased business mentor/partner which involves ridiculous nudity and wilful aggression from Walter's soulless daughter and a Eurasian she is somehow acquainted with. Guess who comes out on top. The Quiet American Ehrendorf is annoyingly characterless and ineffectual. The bit I enjoyed most was a sketch of the pre-war Great World Amusement Park. Looks like it became a shopping centre, surprise.

Apart from the characters, the most annoying part is the climax where our small band of stereotypes somehow traverse Singapore and reunite as it falls to the Japanese army. It's like the city contains just five people and a few million something elses who just get in the way, but only so much. It's cinematic, tediously repetitious and feels like the author ran out of gas around halfway.

The writing is unforgivingly prolix, mostly good but nothing too exciting; even the the bombing of Singapore is mundane. There's a touch of Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day though the author can't bring himself to endorse pretty much any part of the European presence in South East Asia. Perhaps he was groping for the panorama of Pasternak's classic Doctor Zhivago. And of course your time is far better spent with David Malouf's The Great World, who perhaps misleads by suppressing the unkind descriptions Farrell applies to the Australian forces present at the time.

Reviews make it sound like this is the weakest of Farrell's "Empire" novels, which I now won't be seeking out. Goodreads has a range of views. Paul Fussell at the time.

Trent Dalton: Boy Swallows Universe.

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Kindle. Cinematic, mongrelised magic realism. Another junk novel. Funny. Very deus ex. We're in the western and later northern suburbs of Brisbane: Darra next door to Oxley, Moorooka, thereabouts. Things start in the early 1980s for two pre-adolescent brothers and proceed for about a decade, the ambient level of corruption remaining constant. There are Viets and Poles: both deal heroin but only the Viets have good food. The endless stories leave us yet wondering why Queenslanders vote the way they do.

Dalton tries valiantly in that Australian/Ned Kelly way to distinguish crims with hearts of gold from truly evil bastards, having it both ways with the heroin dealers and bikies but not the vivisectors who are literally beyond the pale. The obvious referents are:

I'll stop here. It's done well enough that you won't care.

Apparently Joel Edgerton is going to make a TV movie of it.

Amelia Lester's flat review didn't sell it to me back in May, but Helen Davidson's brief notice did. John Collee found something profound here. Local reviews are legion, as are pointers to even more source material.

Robert Harris: Fatherland.

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Kindle. Some days all you want to read is an airport novel and can't remember why you picked this one. (Scavenging the various memory holes shows that David S suggested Harris's The Ghost, but the movie version of that put me off.) I have some vague memories of learning something from the Frederick Forsyth books I read back when I was a kid, which is unfortunately not the case here.

Briefly: Circa 1992 Harris served up this alternate history of circa 1942 to 1964 in which the Nazis, having won World War II, establish a co-prosperity sphere bearing a strong resemblance to the actual EU. This rich conceit is squandered with the central McGuffin (spoiler) being that the Holocaust still happened but was successfully turned into #fakenews. I had hoped for tales of something supernatural dug from the cold dead ground under the streets of dreary Zurich instead of this replaying of old PK Dick moves. Perhaps Harris was reflecting on the denialism of the day, which has since gone toxically viral.

There is much Speer architecture. There are loads of SS officers. The lead is investigating a murder, later murders, and of course gets into bed with a freedom-loving American journalist/girl. Even-handedness is attempted by yammering on about Joseph P. Kennedy's antisemitism. The smoking is similarly endless. The "German look" and sundry totalitarian imaginings are drawn straight from 1984. The writing is workman-like, not too patronising, and does what it needs to do.

Rutger Hauer starred in the 1994 movie. Apparently the adaptation was loose.

Loads of opinions at Goodreads. It seems Harris has form for cloning earlier plotlines: the summary of Archangel reads just like The Boys from Brazil with Stalin subbed for Hitler.

Nam Le: On David Malouf (Writers on Writers series).

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Kindle. From Black Books Inc for 10 AUD.

Yeah, Australian identity politics. It's unenlightening stuff: somehow Australia has gotten less comfortable with being a nation of migrants even while the USA has made hyphenated nationalities almost mandatory. Le speaks less about Malouf's life's work than his own contradictory feelings about it all. Unfortunately this spills over into overly strong and unsound factual assertions in a vocabulary unleashed.

This being the first substantial thing from Nam Le in more than a decade, excerpts are legion: at Granta, The Monthly, The Paris Review, etc. etc. Hats off to his agent. Reviews are thinner on the ground so far. James Ley was unimpressed.

Jack London: The Call of the Wild.

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Kindle. A jag from The Night Of. Amazingly in the public domain. It's a brisk, well-written and archaic story about working dogs and man's barbarity in the Pacific Far Northwest (Canada's Yukon, maybe Alaska) during a gold-rush. The form is Biblical. I got the chills reading about the climate. Apparently it's been made into many movies. I imagine Thoreau reads similarly.

Paul Murray: Skippy Dies

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Kindle. More Irish lad lit, and as far as I know the last of Murray's books for me to read. He takes us to a prestigious private Catholic boarding school in Dublin, attended by the titular character who dies in the nearby doughnut palace in chapter 1. The end! But 600 pages follow.

The school is infested with the sorts of characters you'd find in a John Hughes movie from the 1980s. The adults stake out roles familiar from David Williamson's The Club: the hypocritical traditionalist, the old fogey, the neo-corporatist, the ineffectual critic, the druggies, and this being set where it is, the dodgy priests, the absent parents. Dismal old-boy teacher Howard, who gets the deepest treatment, never shoulders the tragedy he was created for. The loads of 2003-ish pop culture refs and criticism hew to mainstream views; this is not Jarret Kobek or Michael W. Clune, and all these dualities/oppositions don't add up to Hegelian synthesis. Dodgy teenage scientist Ruprecht is used to gesture at outre science (string theory and so forth) with little heat and less light. Pachelbel's Canon is something aliens should understand. Vacuous teen beauty queen Lorelei, investment banker sex object Miss McIntyre, American Halley and Skippy's ill mother prove that Murray can't inflate a female character to save his life.

There are too many characters, too many one-note characters, it's too often too cliched and way too long. Momentary transient transcendence shows that he can write, and he is at his best when he's showing and not explaining. But ultimately there's not a lot there to be shown.

Widely reviewed at the time. Dan Kois. Goodreads. And so forth. Congratulations to the publicist.

Paul Murray: An Evening of Long Goodbyes.

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Kindle. Continuing a run of mediocre (laddish) Irish writing, and having forgotten how irritating Paul Murray's hand wringing repetition can be. This one indulges in some cribbed-from-her-autobiography Gene Tierney fandom on a lightweight side track; there is nothing to recommend this version of her sad story. Sure, everyone agrees that Laura was awesome, but Whirlpool? The plot made little sense to me as the characters crowded in and somehow got along despite their origins in very distinct social strata (with very different drinking habits). Does anyone even remember the Celtic Tiger? So much pointless misdirection, so often, and such a self-deceived narrator makes for fake fiction.

Stephen Amidon. Goodreads suggests Murray did better with his next one.

Kevin Barry: Dark Lies the Island.

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Kindle. I was in the mood for more shorts. Well, these have little new to say. There are a few that click but too many seem derivative (of Irvine Welsh, of Snatch and lesser works like Tresspass Against Us, of the Irish storytelling tradition). Titular Dark Lies the Island muses over teenage self-harm, isolation, and the story about Lennon's island that Barry later spun into Beatlebone. Berlin Arkonaplatz — My Lesbian Summer is very tired.

Rachel Nolan at the time. Some critical opinions at Goodreads, e.g. Lorenzo Berardi points to the highlights that I'm too lazy to.

Samrat Upadhyay: Mad Country.

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Kindle. Shorts from Nepal via a review by Robin Black. A bust: it too often slid into Bonfire of the Vanities or traded in cliches or got repetitious or found other ways to lose me.

Jarett Kobek: Only Americans Burn In Hell.

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Kindle. This is Kobek attempting to take a giant dump on Trumpistan following the epic commercial failure of his previous novel. (The last thing I read from him was the masterful Soft and Cuddly.) I learnt that he is a Guns'N'Roses fan, and that I may not presume that a character named Rose Byrne is white, although it's OK to think she's female. At some point he claims that his country is involved in a large covert and continuing war in Africa; unlike John Pilger he didn't go out and get the footage. That America has receded into infantility via comic books is news to nobody, as is the idea that U.S. ideology is fundamentally incompatible with Christianity. I struggled to parse his seemingly sincere but muddied endorsements of the latter. He's become a fan of lawyers and cleverness and is on similarly shaky ground with science. I liked his trick of changing the past by merely fiddling with the details of the present; that's innovative magic, like Charles Yu's grammatical moves.

His interview with Alan Moore sounds like he writes: using repetition as a rhetorical device in a lit crit seminar somewhere in NYC. They agreed that the (US? Anglo?) culture has stalled since 1995.

Robert Caro: Working.

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Kindle. Caro has a huge reputation for his biographies of LBJ and Robert Moses (apparently the master sculptor of modern NYC), his thorough research and the length of the books. This short one was supposed to give us some insight into how he does it all but amounted to a bare assembly of articles I'd already read, such as this one in the New Yorker. There's so much repetition that I felt I'd heard all these stories before, making me think that he must not have that many stories. They are often quite good though, at least on a first encounter. He shields his researcher-wife Ina quite well, and his son almost completely. I think I'd prefer to read critical responses to his work than the work itself; say this one by Robert Moses.

Jennifer Szalai. Harold Evans.