peteg's blog - noise - books

Paul Murray: Skippy Dies

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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.

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.

Greg Egan: Artifacts (collected shorts).

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Kindle. A (possibly bootlegged) collection of shorts, some of which look like Egan working things out in public. Thematically he's fixated on equating consciousness with computation (Dust which became Permutation City — Paul Durham makes me think of Le Roux; Wang's Carpets) and corporate totalitarianism (Beyond the Whistle Test sounds like Facebook; Yeyuka on medical technology monopolies). There's an extended riff on Tim Buckley's big tunes in Worthless, with a namecheck of This Mortal Coil's eternal cover. Reification Highway tries to make sense of solid logic: a fuel, a mystical space of nonstandard substances? Is "Chalmer" a dig at the type theorists? Tap and others has it that infrared is the local wireless tech. Others riff on deals with the devil, vampires, made up physics, the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, whatever.

It's more hard-boiled noir than cyberpunk.

Graham Greene: The Heart of the Matter.

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Kindle. At a loose end for something to read, I picked this one up on the strength of Greene and it being on some list of 100 great English-language novels of the twentieth century. As always it's cinematic, just waiting to be shot. Somewhere on the coast of Africa, policeman Scobie is a similar character to George Smiley: a certain kind of wise Englishman who's hoping to go to a quiet grave having found his situation and making peace with an unsatisfied wife. The booze certainly helps. There are shades of A Quiet American: some intrigue, probity, corruption, cluelessness. But really, like The Power and the Glory, it centres on how Catholic theology ties ones hands: Greene has it that one must save one's own soul even at the potential cost of others'. Perhaps this was Greene-the-convert himself working it out in public.

Orwell nailed it in his review for The New Yorker: "Scobie is incredible because the two halves of him do not fit together. If he were capable of getting into the kind of mess that is described, he would have got into it years earlier." (etc)

Jasper Fforde: Early Riser.

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Kindle. A pointer from Charles Yu. Drug-assisted hibernation, dreams and their manipulation, corporate corruption, zombies! — all in a snowy landscape that felt very familiar: wintry wastes like something Adam Johnson wrote or maybe just Game of Thrones, mixing in Total Recall and Ishiguro's spare parts, with Atwood-esque breeding units and random psychologising, building worlds via information dumps ala John Brunner. I often felt cheated by the narrator, wondering just how much was a dream and how much a cliché. There is lots of wordplay (the names of the Pool breeding stock), endless reversals (skinny shaming, a new ice age, a declining human population) and far too many secondary characters: soon enough I lost track of who knew what and who killed whom as it didn’t seem to matter. The ethical conundrums are dubious. I don't understand why anyone would feel obliged to preserve the English aristocracy. It's supposed to be fun, like a Douglas Adams, but it doesn't quite get there.

Fans and critics alike at Goodreads.

Andrew McGahan: The White Earth.

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On dead tree from the Maroubra branch of the Randwick City Library after I had no luck extracting it from the depths of the Waverley Library. McGahan's Franklin Miles winner from 1995, and the last of his adult novels for me to read.

It's 1992 on the Darling Downs and the dynastic pastoralists on the savanna (prairie?) are sweating Keating's response to the recent High Court decision (Mabo) that Australia was not, in fact, unoccupied back in 1788. One great-uncle ('great' being a relational distinction without a difference) tries to promote respect for Lockean property rights by evaluating his nine-year-old great-nephew's inheritance-worthiness after said nephew's incompetent farmer father is killed by fire. Somewhat like the current regime, he hotly rejects all aspersions that he is racist, and yet the mob he rallies to his property climaxes in cartoonish Klan action. There are inheritances based directly on Great Expectations, variants on Murray Bail's connection-with-land ruminations of Eucalyptus, a politician not so far from those in Last Drinks, and even a bunyip and a Voss-like explorer and hallucinatory sequence. Afterwards it all goes up in flames and how with a massive confluence of fire, drought-breaking rain, the Senate's vote on Keating's Mabo legislation, generational death (the old man has a heart attack! the mother dies while fetching the proof of inheritance!) and the rest. The symbolism is heavy: the childless daughter adopts the rootless boy. In brief, it is every inch the Great Australian Novel, or may have been if McGahan had held his nerve with the magic realism.

The two-track structure is as well-executed as it is well-worn. The cliffhangers get a bit irritating when the payoffs are such small potatoes: his characters play entirely to type, contrary to Patrick White's vituperative observations. The minor characters drink epically but that's not the focus here. Again McGahan is repetitive in the small: he says it, he says he said it, he reads it to us, and only then does the hand wringing begin.

James Ley.

Evan Ratliff: The Mastermind.

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Kindle. This is heroic reportage about a deeply weird individual: Paul Le Roux, Zimbabwean, South African, sometime Australian, computer geek turned gangster. He's the man who did what Ross Ulbricht set out to do: liquidating (in meatspace! for real!) the people he thought wronged him. Strangely it seems likely that the latter will get a far heavier sentence than the former. This writeup also reminded me of Andrew O'Hagan's on Craig Wright, but there's far less doubt that Le Roux is the real deal.

Briefly, Le Roux hit on a likely-legal get-rich-quick scheme: he opened an online pharmacy (RX Limited) targeting the U.S.A., with doctors there signing the prescriptions and similarly local pharmacies filling them. His edge was in shipping only uncontrolled substances, which should have left him beyond the reach of the Feds. A morally bankrupt operation, sure, but on Ratliff's telling not illegal; I kept thinking the health professionals should have taken more care in their roles.

The strange part is that Le Roux took the massive proceeds ($US300M+) of this quasi-legit business to finance criminal operations in a reverse Michael Corleone; he was the man who would be king with boys from Brazil. (I feel like we saw many of the same movies.) Even more strangely, it appears he didn't execute any particular thing well beyond his original RX Limited cashcow. The incompetency of the Fed in the legal proceedings against the online pharmacies is breathtaking, and it is perplexing that they have used Le Roux to round up his underlings.

Alan Feuer brought it to my attention; he publicised Le Roux's testimony about a year ago. Ratliff told most of the juiciest bits in a series of articles for Atavist back in 2016.

John Balaban: Remembering Heaven's Face: A Story of Rescue in Wartime Việt Nam.

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Second time around. I bought a dead-tree copy (a paperback) several months ago with the expectation that there'll eventually be a third.

Andrew McGahan: Wonders of a Godless World.

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Another dead tree from the Georges River Library at Hurstville. This is McGahan's final (adult/literary) novel from 2009; for the next decade he wrote young adult fiction. I might unkindly suggest that he should have started sooner. Here we get some strange happenings in a madhouse/hospital on an island, once again recounted in first person, this time by an orphan. She's mentally underdeveloped but in fine tune with the planet. A devilish though physically inert man arrives and turns her world upside down. Together they embark on some dubious adventures and other unnamed characters cop it in the neck. Much hand wringing ensues before a very tidy ending. Then again, the orphan might be an unreliable narrator! The structure, metaphor and reasoning are cliched and tedious. Most reviews out there suggest there was more structure, metaphor and reasoning that I didn't get, but are very short on specifics.

Andrew McGahan: Underground.

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Finding myself in Hurstville on Tuesday, I extracted a dead tree edition of this book the Georges River Library branch there. Again with the fraternal twins! — and similar dualisms.

Briefly, this is quick-read cinematic juvenalia: McGahan spills a lot of words in railing against the Howard era in 2006. (The end was nigh, but I guess few knew that at the time.) The plot pivots on the nuking of Canberra (!) and such fresh and deep insights as no one missing it. Somehow the resulting apocalyptic/fascistic conditions lead to a grand tour of the eastern states, from cyclonic far north Queensland to ghettoized Brunswick in Melbourne, but not really fortified Sydney. There's a Citizenship Verification Test which is (probably) far too close to the real ones. The prose is at best workmanlike once again. The structure is similar to Last Drinks: first-person revelatory, twisty, but with more action and less effect. It's all in that bias confirmation mode: you're expected to nod along or stop reading, but really Howard's dog-whistling Islamophobia of that time is a grim topic that doesn't pay anyone to revisit, as Peter Dutton is discovering now.

James Ley was unimpressed, as was David Pullar.

Patrick White: The Solid Mandala.

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Kindle. A portrait of a pair of twins who exhibit White's dualisms: numbers versus literature, empathy and haughty withdrawal, the white and the blue collar. Brute strength against fine motor control. Semi-rural Sarsaparilla (Castle Hill) against the city (Centennial Park). There's far more here on the inner life than Smee managed to even gesture at. One point of commonality was Arthur's incapacity to externalise his thoughts for a variety of reasons (inability to formulate them convincingly, unwillingless to persuade or influence, laziness, the ability to see the whole but not its parts, the inadequacy of the medium, so on). Told in technically seamless and virtuosic flashback. White is down on Goethe, like others. The most enjoyable parts to me where the very brief punchlines where White cashes in his extensive descriptions. Some are quite brutal.

Quarterly Essay #72, Sebastian Smee: Net Loss: The Inner Life in the Digital Age.

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On the not-yet-dead iPhone via Overdrive, loaned from the Randwick City Library after quite a wait. Not at all what I thought it would be: Smee seems ignorant of such not-so-recent critiques as Jarett Kobek's i hate the internet and Amartya Sen's capabilities model that aims to move past the blockages induced by overly rigid notions of identity. When will social media be deemed as dangerous to society as Class A drugs? The hand wringing concern comes in commodified form, oh the irony. He avoids following any thought too far. I guess I had hopes for a meditation on what is worth concentrating our shredded attention on these days; this diffuse essay isn't it.

I only briefly scanned the responses to Laura Tingle's previous Quarterly Essay. Both were busts, I feel.

Andrew McGahan: Last Drinks.

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Kindle. McGahan's third novel, and the third of his I've read. Apparently having exhausted his semi-autobiographical resources in his first two, he decided to give the all-Australian crime genre a go. Fellow Brisvegan John Birmingham wrote a boostery blurb (see also his own take), and a Ned Kelly was conferred.

Briefly this is a variation on the classic noirs. Taking, for instance, Sweet Smell of Success as a starting point, McGahan transplants the action from NYC to the epically corrupt pre-Inquiry Old Queensland of Joh and the epically cafe-d and bar-d Brisbane of now-ish, apparently amoral in a taking-the-fifth sort of way. He retains the focus on the social columnist as narrator and possible patsy. There's a femme fatale (not entirely a success, certainly not as much as Cynthia), the old mates, some graphic violence, and an excess of booze. So perhaps it's more Once Upon A Time In America with that love triangle, the unexpected marriage and the two-track, the good times going sour as they always do in stories like these. Similarly those guys only wanted to party all night. Or maybe there's too much Remains of the Day obliviousness; it's not funny, and too predictable.

So far McGahan has been structurally sound but very repetitious in the small, and across paragraphs, as if he is getting paid by the word. His excuse for the confessionals is that all players are Catholic. Marvin spilling the beans to George was particularly implausible. The South-East Queensland's electricity grid as a metaphor for politics was heavy-handed. Does going cold turkey in a motel room (at The Last Chance Motel of course) and an 11km mountain bushwalk owe anything to Trainspotting? Despite being essentially derivative, the core of this book is addiction and quite often McGahan nailed it.

Queensland is a rich seam and someone's got to have mined it more deeply than this. Joh's Wikipedia page is a ripping read. Chris Masters at the height of his powers (and thanks ABC for letting us download your archive). The cupidity! and so dumb. Bob Williams read this book so you don't have to.

Andrew McGahan: 1988.

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Kindle. McGahan passed recently, and that prompted me to take another look at what he wrote after Praise. Where else to start but with this followup, its prequel.

Here a not-yet-smoking, pre-Cynthia Gordon takes a road trip in a Kingswood from Brisvegas to Darwin with Wayne, an effeminate and somewhat useless artist who mostly rubs him the wrong way, for a job at the Cape Don meteorology station. Yep, it's isolated. Yep, the blokes are unprepared and inept. There is epic drinking, epic circlework and epic boredom. Some Aboriginal dreaming. The more responsible characters are sketched. One is a frustrated desert-country Steve Irwin, parked by the NT conservancy management in this swampland largely because the previous guy was more alpha. Another is an elder who metes out some rough justice. Most if not all tropes of Australian manhood are trotted out and found wanting, and find Gordon wanting too. His ability to disappoint everyone, including himself, is his not-so-secret superpower. The shame he feels for his body overshadows it all. I think McGahan wedged in all the horror genre moves he thought he could get away with. The outro is a bust.

The prose is workmanlike and I enjoyed it more than I remember enjoying Praise. The Russian movie How I Ended This Summer has a similar setting with similar fishing and surprisingly far less epic drinking. Goodreads: I imagine the ratings fall along gender lines.

Mohammed Hanif: Red Birds.

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Kindle. I remember really liking A Case of Exploding Mangoes but not his second effort Our Lady of Alice Bhatti. This one is a bit of an interpolant of those two: we're parked in a (re)fugee camp in close proximity to an abandoned (?) military airbase and I didn't get the gist of it at all. There is so much circling around whatever it was that the characters do not do the obvious thing of going to The Hangar until the 80% mark.

Structurally it's all first person with the narration rotating amongst a dog (with the obvious and sometimes cutting conceit of describing things by smell, e.g. "objectivity smells of stale piss"), a teenage tearaway Milo Minderbinder-esque entrepreneur, his mother, a downed American pilot, Lady Flowerbody (a spy? a do gooder? a temptress, a token, a cliche), a doctor-of-sorts. What are we to make of Hanif's recycling of the myth that Neil Armstrong converted to Islam while on the moon? Are the red birds drawn straight out of the M. Night Shyamalan playbook? There is no resolution.

Reviews are legion. Jonathon McAloon observes that things are too damn ambiguous. Hanif is apparently at UNSW next week.

... and much later, Parul Sehgal. Also Karan Mahajan.

Amor Towles: A Gentleman in Moscow.

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Kindle. A recommendation from Kate. An elegant eulogy for a time when Russian Counts were awesomely cultured and internally-exiled to house arrest in grand hotels. That is to say, it is a fairy story for adults and completely out of time in this age of Trump. We also get some potted history about the revolution, the passing of Stalin and so forth; it's a bit of a social complement to Red Plenty, sort of. The observations are fantastic. The set pieces go off like clockwork. There's a beaut romance between the Count and an actress. I was gripped throughout, though it flagged a bit at times. The ending was a tad unclear: Towles is American and may take it for granted that emigrating to the USA from the East in 1954 was a no brainer, but Spufford might disagree: the Soviets were beginning to demonstrate their (brief) engineering superiority with nuclear power, Sputnik and Gauguin (etc). In this book noone (ever) believes too much in the communist project.

Craig Taylor's review left me cold at the time, but it seems more positive on a reread. Goodreads generally loved it.