peteg's blog - noise - books

Benjamín Labatut: When We Cease to Understand the World. (2021)

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Kindle. Inevitable having read The MANIAC despite not being sold by Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim's timely review nor its appearance on the New York Times list of the best of 2021.

This is a collection of shorts that end up being a bit of a sprawling mess. The MANIAC worked better as Labatut went narrower and deeper: all the ventriloquy centred on illuminating von Neumann. Here we're made to think that almost all of modern theoretical physics arose from fever dreams, that Einstein was the last sane man and that's only because he ran out of imagination in confronting the extreme weirdness of quantum mechanics. I think the central theme was that there's a void at the centre of everything (physics, mathematics, morality, so on); Labatut doesn't to know that there is a crack in everything, or more prosaically, that we're stuck in the realm of unsatisfying phenomena. Alexander Grothendieck's life gets embellished; we get merely a sketch of Shinichi Mochizuki. Erwin Schrödinger at a TB clinic in the Swiss mountains, philanderer, predator, opposed by unstable Werner Heisenberg. Fritz Haber: the process, the poison gas. Karl Schwarzschild's solution to Einstein's field equations of general relativity, black holes, wartime. It's too much and not enough.

Labatut writes well and moves us around fluently but to what end I know not. One of these years Francis Spufford will teach someone to write a masterpiece of this genre.

Goodreads. Most reviews recount the tales and gesture at the imponderable.

Xavier Herbert: Disturbing Element. (1963)

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On dead tree bought from Adelaide Booksellers a while back in expectation of getting to it before now. The Australian Dictionary of Biography's entry for Xavier Herbert claims this is an unreliable autobiography which might be a polite way of observing that it is generally inadequate.

The ADB details what Herbert needlessly mystifies: his to-be-wed parents had him in Geraldton W.A. in 1901 and the family soon moved to Fremantle where he studied pharmacy in an archaic master/indentured apprentice manner before moving to Melbourne to acquire medical credentials. This plan was abandoned after a year and the book abruptly ends with him on a boat to Sydney (I took it to be England) after the first World War. The title was what his train-engine-driving Dad called him whenever he was a problem which was often.

Annoyingly he doesn't give us any idea how he came by the source material for or views he expresses in Capricornia: I wanted to know how he got to the Northern Territory and about all those jobs he had. Instead we get too many tales of manliness: fisticuffs and tupping the sheilas, some really tedious med student humour. On his account if you were born in Australia between about 1917 and 1984 there's a good chance he’s your father. We don't hear about how or where he met his wife (ADB: on a boat to England in 1930) and what she thought of his salad days. It is as prolix as you'd expect but too short; I don't think this was the most interesting time in his life.

Summarised at length at The Australian Legend. Apparently Herbert was buried in 1984 at Alice Springs Garden Cemetery on the Stuart Highway, near the trucking hall of fame. This is quite distant from the town cemetery where Namatjira was buried thirty years prior.

Werner Herzog: Every Man for Himself and God Against All: a memoir (2023)

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Kindle. What a title. If you go in cold (I did for the first half) it's a lot of fun. However things are more tedious the more familiar you are with Herzog's schtick (as I was by the second half). His stories of growing up in post-war Germany, in "the remote Bavarian village of Sachrang" near the Austrian border show him self-constructing the globetrotting auteur who remorselessly hunts down his cinematic visions at all costs to everyone. Of course Klaus Kinski comes in for another serve (more than twenty years after My Best Fiend) and we get another retelling of all the fables attached to the making of Fitzcarraldo etc. He skims over his romantic attachments and domestic situations; he's always out there chasing the next thing. Digital filmmaking has allowed him to increase his output exponentially. He shared a particular attitude towards truth in the world with Bruce Chatwin. I wonder why he never worked with Rutger Hauer.

Prompted by Dwight Garner who claims he didn't believe a word of it. Bonus points for the Douglas Adams reference. A lengthy Q&A assembled by Tim Lewis: unacknowledged German humour is a laughing matter. Goodreads was generally impressed. Much later and at great length, David Trotter at the London Review of Books. Similarly Mark O’Connell at the New York Review of Books.

Trent Dalton: Lola in the Mirror. (2023)

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Kindle. Third time around with Dalton after Boy Swallows Universe and the less scintillating All Our Shimmering Skies. More of that winning formula: we're back in Brisbane, things are cinematic, there's a love triangle, some complicated story about parentage, junk, alcoholism, drug distribution but not consumption, more underbaked secondary characters, a dash of magic realism and/or mental unwellness, the river, the city. Novel is the choice to set it in the near future — therefore predicting an epic flood during the coming summer — and the focus on homelessness and domestic violence.

I couldn't help but trainspot Dalton's borrowings again. The Brisvegas underclass is so very Andrew McGahan. Our first-person heroine's relationship with glamorous red-dressed bombshell Lola Inthemirror is pure Last Night in Soho. The scenario is more De Palma's Scarface than Trainspotting — leaving aside Begbie clone Brandon Box but noting the complete lack of humour and general absence of non-romantic pleasure — and even more Kill Bill (femmes lethal with blades at ease with cartoon violence and so on) with a dash of Pulp Fiction (that scene where Bruce Willis sees Ving Rhames on the street amongst others). Jacki Weaver for Lady Flo for sure, and obviously Timothée Chalamet for Charlie. I'm sure others will cite others.

The main (structural, literary) flaws are the repetition, that so much text progresses neither character nor plot, the heavy foreshadowing, the busted pacing and predictable dei ex machina in the last movement. Relinquishing destitution appears to require a big pile of drug money (ronin capital, stage one) and (stage two) a rich talented characterless boyfriend with parents who allow you to park your decrepit van on their property; what a stinky disempowering vector, especially in the wake of the plot-convenient elimination of your purported best friend, a male alkie, who you do not mourn. Hmm. Dalton does effectively get out some of the big (positive) emotions but his oft-repeated airheaded takes on love (come on man, rainbows are ephemeral) and the rest are entirely subsumed by the mantra of Kieren Perkins's mum: It's gonna be all right in the end. And if it's not, it isn't the end.

Jack Callil: misguided, nothing new, no nuance — Dalton boils the ocean in search of a rise. Dangerously lazy with his ideation. A conservative worldview adjacent to Scott Morrison's. Ouch. Or is Callil just taking a dig at someone who works for Murdoch? Callil points to Catriona Menzies-Pike's critique of Dalton's first two. Damn straight, no sex! — the most we get here is some tepid fingers-on-arm in the morning. (I now realise that there are no sexual deviants amongst the Daltonian marginalised.) Dalton's prose is relentless and militantly sentimental. Details deployed to smother the deep chasms of difference. And yet she does not compare him with the similarly commercially-successful Tim Winton. Juliette Hughes sells it at the Smage: Paul Heppell's Tyrannosaurus-headed man makes you think of the Minotaur? Hmm. People at Goodreads are loving it so far, or at least those who scored free review copies.

Dalton's books have all the pleasures of tabloid newspapers, including, in this instance, the pictures.

Benjamín Labatut: The MANIAC. (2023)

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Kindle. It's a good, sometimes fun, well built jaunt through the early days of cybernetics and artificial life that continues with what feels like tacked-on coverage of a recent success. The appeal was that it might reach the heights of Francis Spufford's Red Plenty, which it doesn't. I also hoped for a dash of the crazy inventiveness of Ned Beauman.

For the main meal Labatut ventriloquises various people around John von Neumann as a means of giving some insight into the greatest mathematician of the 20th Century, and, I guess, the madness that hard thinking seems to induce in anyone. He opens promisingly with an account of the unknown-to-me Austrian physicist Paul Ehrenfest committing murder-suicide but soon enough retreats mostly to the well-rehearsed greatest hits: Albert Einstein struggling with a dice-playing God, Oppenheimer, David Hilbert claiming that Cantor had created a paradise and so on. But the opportunity to unpack these things is missed: just why did Einstein struggle with a probabilistic/undetermined universe? Apropos Hilbert, Gianpaolo dug up the following quotes for me:

I stated a general theorem on algebraic forms that is a pure existence statement and by its very nature cannot be transformed into a statement involving constructibility. Purely by use of this existence theorem I avoided the lengthy and unclear argumentation of Weierstrass and the highly complicated calculations of Dedekind, and in addition, I believe, only my proof uncovers the inner reason for the validity of the assertions adumbrated by Gauss and formulated by Weierstrass and Dedekind.

The value of pure existence proofs consists precisely in that the individual construction is eliminated by them and that many different constructions are subsumed under one fundamental idea, so that only what is essential to the proof stands out clearly; brevity and economy of thought are the raison d'être of existence proofs.

In other words, Hilbert relied on some idealised objects (that set theory justifies the existence or at least manipulation of) to obtain general results and felt the increase in quality paid for the ontological complications. (Less generously he declared ontological bankruptcy and thieved some theorems.) Of course many did and do disagree with the formalist position though the vast majority apparently continue to shrug and get on with their knitting. But what did von Neumann think about the foundations of mathematics? What was he aiming for before Kurt Gödel brought absolutist foundations (aka the Hilbert program) to an end? (The sketch at Wikipedia is thin and makes it look like he was completely eclipsed by Gödel and later Gentzen.)

Gianpaolo pointed me to von Neumann's The Mathematician (in Works of the Mind Vol. I no. 1, University of Chicago Press, 1947, pp180-196.) which contains some philosophical musings on these points. He was a fan of the axiomatic method which resolved millennia-long confusions over Euclid's axioms, but knew the lack of rigour did not inhibit the development of calculus/analysis for its first 150 years or so. He reckons it may be mostly just a matter of aesthetics (good taste) informed and freshened by empirical ideas.

The title is the name of von Neumann's computer at the IAS, the model of the JOHNNIACs. I was bothered by some clangers. In the context of artificial life, Labatut has an embittered Nils Aall Barricelli spout off about some of Alan Turing's assertions. He claims "Turing proved mathematically: there is simply no form of knowing what a particular string of code will do unless you run it." — which (under a generous reading) is true of machines but not necessarily of the oracles that are the central concern of this chapter. Also there is nothing so very strange about Turing's oracles: he originally only considered deterministic machines while being aware of the true randomness of quantum mechanical processes, and leaving the possibility that human insight might also add power.

The slight second part makes for a strange counterpoint, being mostly overblown coverage of AlphaGo's match with Lee Sedol in the style of sports journalism. Just the highlights thanks, and not enough to get to grips with anything of substance.

Tom McCarthy at the New York Times. Goodreads. Sam Byers: underpowered, diffuse. Ben Cosman summarises and sets it against Oppenheimer and notes there are three movements not two. Labatut is Chilean and has SBF's hair.

Djuna: Counterweight. (2023)

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Kindle. Prompted by an intriguing review by Hari Kunzru in the New York Times, which is unfortunately superior to the source material. Korean sci-fi. The writing/translation is fine but I can't say I totally got it. Most of the ingredients are cyberpunk staples: the zaibatsu, the AIs, the ultra-competent violence, and of course the space elevator takes the concluding action to something like a space station, all just like Neuromancer. There is some nasty retconning in the final movement. Cinematographic, of course. I have no idea what the point was.

The publisher's summary at Goodreads says it all. Otherwise I didn't find too many reviews.

Aravind Adiga: Last Man in Tower. (2011)

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Kindle. Not great. I'm guessing this was Adiga's followup to The White Tiger — and with Booker won his editor let him off the leash. The result is an overlong take on how real estate is redeveloped in Mumbai. Residents of "Vishram Society" receive an offer that few can refuse and readily warp under money hunger. There are far too many characters: some are barely more than names, others are overdeveloped, and none are interesting. The plot regularly stalls under the weight of excess colour as things escalate in an entirely predictable way. Everyone is hypocritical and self-deluded. Many are Lady Macbeths. This Last Man is no Orwell.

I didn't find many reviews. Goodreads. Every so often there's a sentence that shows what could have been.

Marcy Dermansky: Twins. (2005)

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Kindle. The first of Dermansky's novels and the last one for me to read. Once again chick lit, or more precisely, a story for young women. The two-voice structure is solid and mostly works. The narrative arc goes as it must: the kooky one at thirteen becomes a grounded adult while the goody-two-shoes has no core and can't settle on anything, requiring endless external prompts to remind her what she likes. The men are drawn sympathetically if generically but the best part is the skewering of the lawyer parents; I just couldn't get enough of them. Dermansky's style is nascent and leashed here, which was a relief after the overworked Hurricane Girl. The ending is redemptive cliche.

Goodreads. Humourless. Unoriginal? Polly Shulman at the New York Times.

Catherine Lacey: Biography of X. (2023)

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Kindle. Lacey's latest, and a pandemic project it clearly is. As with Elliot Ackerman I feel the returns from her work are well diminished now — her previous efforts Nobody is ever missing, The Answers, Certain American States, and Pew mark out a clear downward trajectory. It took me quite a few goes to get past the first page.

Again like Ackerman, Lacey has a crack at an alterna-history U.S.A. but with counterfactuals that are substantially less essential to what she wants to tell us. This reality was splintered in 1945 into the Southern, Northern and Western territories and reunified at some later date. The S.T. is obviously a theocratic totalitarian capitalist utopia, and I did not find Lacey's descriptions of living under such a regime very persuasive. The N.T. would be recognisable to real-world NYC residents; the City vacuums up the lost and ambitious with the winners inscribing their names on pop culture while the flyover states are flown over.

Our narrator is a Pulitzer-winning journalist who writes about her wife X in high retributive style. X herself is a culture-vulture composite of late 20th century pop artists, being multi-persona'd like David Bowie, doing trashy pop art like Andy Warhol, writing/producing for Tom Waits, drugs, sex shows, yadda. In that way it's a bit of a biography of those people at those times (1970s to mid-1990s) like John Birmingham's Leviathan. (Writing biographies of cities was perhaps a thing to do around 2000. I now see Birmingham pays his bills with alt-history too.) The central problem is that it is derivative of all it supervenes, and the questions it poses are trite; for instance the final movement asks us whether one can desire the approval of the culture while holding that culture in disdain, to which the answer was already provided by David Bowie a long time ago, and Donald Trump more recently.

At times it feels painfully episodic, as if every loose idea has to be housed, and we have to wait until the final chapter before we get Lacey's signature elliptic thought processes/recounting of experience in tragically brief form.

Widely reviewed. Dwight Garner. A smoodgery. The second half drags. A major and audacious novel. Joumana Khatib interviewed Lacey: she was a woman in love once again in love. Joanna Biggs at length. The reviews are about as tedious as the work itself, and all have long lists of ingredients. It's likely the best bits are the pointers in the endnotes — for instance this interview of David Bowie by Kerry O'Brien in 2004.

Marcy Dermansky: Hurricane Girl. (2022)

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Kindle. Fourth time around with Dermansky (The Red Car, Bad Marie, Very Nice). She snuck this one out while I wasn't watching. Disaster chick lit! — some of it is right there in the title. So girls, don't buy a beach house in North Carolina and expect your brain to remain intact. Some of it is minor fun in a black humour key as things just amble along like they do. The ending is not satisfactory. Brief.

Goodreads. Aamina Ahmad at the New York Times.

Elliot Ackerman: Halcyon. (2023)

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Kindle. Once more unto the alterna-history breach with diminished-returns Ackerman. He wants a do-over from 1998 onwards: Gore is in the White House in present-day 2004 due to Bill Clinton being convicted by the Senate, and trillions are spent on science not war, the peace dividend specifically yielding endless life ("cryoregeneration") — and really, not virtually; none of that unsatisfying vampirism or dust cloud stuff you read about in the news. Somewhat depressingly actual history resumes soon after the events of the book, which I took as a sign that Ackerman doesn't have much faith in these premises, the tale he spins or how much control humans have over the future.

Our narrator is a son-of-immigrants Civil War historian supposedly exploring why the "great compromise" appears to be coming unstuck. For those of us coming late to his class, Ackerman provides a reference to Shelby Foote (citation: C-SPAN Book TV, July 26, 1994):

In the Civil War, there's a great compromise as it's called. It consists of Southerners admitting, freely, that it's probably best that the Union wasn't divided. And the North admits, rather freely, that the South fought bravely for a cause in which it believed. That is a great compromise and we live with that and it works for us.

Against this we get a native-born Mississippian academic with belligerent ancestors and an ex-wife who's a gun divorce lawyer. There's a petition for the removal of a General Robert E. Lee statue at Gettysburg that is initially stymied by the manoeuvrings of a legal-eagle zombie. It's all very (Southern) east coast. I don't think Ackerman got anywhere close to grappling deeply with his high-concept scenario; he opts for a pointless Once Upon a Time in America ending.

Stephen Markley at the New York Times calls zombie Ableson "Abelson" throughout, oops. Ah yes, "rage-ennui": does that come before or after ressentiment? Apparently this is an homage to Philip Roth. Goodreads. Mark Athitakis. Randomly I see Albert Brooks mined a similar vein in 2011.

Martin McKenzie-Murray: The Speechwriter. (2021)

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Kindle. Lame. Mercifully brisk.

Notionally on the strength of his work at The Saturday Paper (which is occasionally quite good). Goodreads: boosters and busters.

Eugene Burdick, Harvey Wheeler: Fail-Safe (1962)

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Kindle. Even recently everyone used to like scaring themselves with great tales of nuclear incidents but the uncertainty and unknown-unknowns these days, alongside the risk/threat of actual use, have taken most of the fun out of it. (Fred Kaplan did a PhD on the command-and-control aspects in the early 1980s, which he updated last decade. Similarly the issue has preyed on Ellsberg's mind for a long time now.) This book is the classic work of fiction that got made into a movie that was overshadowed by Dr. Strangelove. I'll now have to watch it.

Burdick benefited from collaboration and/or learnt a lot about storytelling after 1956. The prose is punchy and brisk, relentlessly leading us to an impossible conclusion. Things proceed mostly sketches of the action interspersed with capsule biographies (the wise General and President, the unhinged RAND theoretician, the hard politician, technologist, the cabinet secretaries, and so on). They were keen to observe that man's technology had already outrun his ability to control it (at scale; similar to the vibes about A.I. today, and yes, all decision takers are men here). Apparently it may all come down to the wisdom of the President of the United States! So we know we're screwed, and indeed these guys were so pessimistic about stepping back from the nuclear brink that they would probably have been surprised that we made it this far if they'd made it this far.

Goodreads. Yep, a bit too much exposition. Orville Prescott at the time: not convincing, not great writing but indeed thrilling.

Don Watson: The Passion of Private White (2022)

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Kindle. 4.99 AUD of DRMed eBook from Amazon. I was susceptible to the pitch — tales of Việt Nam war veterans working with Yolŋu in Arnhem Land — despite stalling on Watson's The Bush after the first third a while ago. Also topical with all the noise about the Voice, so hats off on the timing.

The central thread is a partial biography of Việt Nam war conscript Emeritus Scholar Dr Neville White OAM of La Trobe University. Brought up in Geelong by a father who was a boxing great. Go the Cats. Studies interrupted. PTSD. Some interesting stuff around using genetics to understand how clans are related and being accepted into one of the Yolŋu clans. The other vets get capsule sketches.

Beyond that things get wonky. The Việt Nam experiences are presented as deep background. We're told that Neville and his army mates got sent to Núi Đất early on (1967) and so weren't around for the cathartic destruction of the minefield described Greg Lockhart. They appeared to have no experience of the Vietnamese beyond the military engagements. I wondered throughout if it may've been more therapeutic for the vets to return to Việt Nam (as McNamara and many others did), or to harvest bombs or something, anything, back in South-East Asia.

More fatally, while many Yolŋu are named almost all are entirely characterless, and without some internality we get no clear idea what the substance of the chronic disagreements was; the obdurate opacity of the culture makes it seem childish. (In contrast Watson indulges his proclivity to psychologise in his portrait of White, and to a lesser extent, the other vets.) Fire is a friend and there is much burning of possessions and buildings. We can feel the deep knowledge of the land slipping away as (some of) the homelands fail to thrive but we get little sense of a living, learning culture; does it contain the seeds of its own regeneration? Or is it a received body of highly-specialised, highly-localised knowledge jealously guarded to fend off mining and competing land claims?

The concerns of Russell Marks's book on the Indigenous/Settler law interface are treated cursorily in a couple of paragraphs:

Ricky was in breach of more than Yolŋu law ... [with extenuating excuses] he had pieced a car together and headed for Gapuwiyak. On the way back the car caught fire, and while it was burning, the police happened by. They discovered that the car was not registered, and the driver was disqualified — and not for the first time. Ricky was facing a couple of months in gaol.

Neville arranged for legal aid [from Slater & Gordon], but Ricky told the lawyer that he preferred to take the gaol sentence and 'come out a free man'.

The eventual resolution was a 1570 AUD fine.

So I didn't get what I hoped for. Perhaps Watson was too close to his subject to realise that his own sentiments do not square with the facts as he has presented them. For instance that the reasonable ambitions (for marriage, skills, autonomy, leadership, tools, vehicles, ...) of most of the men were stifled by the leaders of the homelands obviously does not bode well for the long term survival of the culture. (Women and their aspirations are scarcely mentioned, though it is observed that they do reliably provide food.) Would Christopher's house have been in the wrong place wherever it was built? I didn't understand why White (and co) promote a sedentary lifestyle which is so clearly unhealthy and a destroyer of culture, or why he couldn't organise his classificatory-daughter's teaching qualification. That task, at least, struck me as tractable.

Watson doesn't think through the implications of Neville engaging in a long term aid project. These most often require many factors to go entirely right to succeed, such as shared goals and sufficient comprehension of the culture. I'm sure these guys weren't the first to build a workshop (etc.) and see it looted (etc.) and humbugged (etc.) — but all we hear is that the shiny bums from wherever are useless. What is the barrier to effectively sharing development, cultural preservation and empowerment techniques amongst these groups?

As for the storytelling: that these are secondhand tales shows. Dean Ashenden was more successful with his historical/sociological angle.

Widely reviewed of course. Goodreads. Timothy Michael Rowse summarised it. Contrary to Linda Jaivin, I did not get the sense that the vets were saved by Donydji; they repeatedly threatened that this year's visit was to be the last. Tom Griffiths: more summary. Michael Winkler is more nuanced, pairing this book with one by Kim Mahood. Her deep wisdom: "Now I know too much to make sense of anything". Gillian Cowlishaw at length: baffling. Negotiation as a way to pass the time. Clangers. Her take on kinship relations sounds so Asian to me. Watson did not even begin to grapple with Yolŋu culture and values. Neville White in the courts in 2013. And so on. I wonder what the vets of more recent wars are engaged with.

More valuable than all of this is Russell Marks's take on the Voice.

Eugene Burdick: The Ninth Wave (1956)

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Kindle. Burdick's first novel, and clunky it is. The whole conceit is summarised by the aphorism hate plus fear equals power and exemplified by surfing, politics and getting mugged in California. Main character Michael Freesmith (it's right there in the name) is repellent, and at times I wondered if Burdick had embedded his thoughts on manufacturing election wins into the structure of the book itself. It's not that clever though: Mike really is just vacuously repellent.

Perhaps what dates this the most are its claims about the American middle class (merely a myth to many now) and how it might manipulated by shame (an obvious fallacy in the privacy of the polling booth). Putting aside the obsolete technology (trained ladies reading punch cards!) his sketch of data-driven electioneering was a decent foretelling. I tend to feel that the impact individuals (politicians) have on history is diminishing, at least in the U.S.A. where general political gridlock has provoked a retreat to lawfare. The conclusion — effectively an assassination or coup d'état — is therefore fanciful.

Goodreads. Orville Prescott for the New York Times at the time: artless but don't let that stop you from reading it. Oh yes, there's a poker scene and shade is thrown late on the strongly-presented convictions. Also John Nerber reviewed it through a teleological lens: so dated! While Burdick was right to be worried, his later efforts with Lederer (The Ugly American and Sarkhan) are far sharper.

Peter Carey: Oscar and Lucinda. (1988)

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Kindle. This one got Carey the Miles Franklin in 1989 and also a Booker. It's a crooked romance leaning heavily on the novelists of the preceding century: Dickens on unearnt wealth and unsound expectations, I expect Austen on many things, lightly larded with some social criticism of the Thomas Hardy kind.

It takes Carey about half of the book to manoeuvre Oscar from the clutches of his "evangelical" naturalist father in the western country of mid-19th century England through theology school at Oriel, Oxford and onto a boat where he briefly meets Lucinda. It's all colour and digression, directions to a (cinema) director, some occasionally very funny description (but only in the small, it's not a comedy), and some dodgy rehearsed knowledge (glass is a liquid because old windows are not flat) that brings into question the originality — the truthiness! — of all the arcana about the Anglicans and the Plymouth Brethren, the Sydney of the day, even the geography. I did learn about Prince Rupert's drops which the internet tells me are still a thing (to buy in bulk from China).

Obviously Carey was reaching for the great Australian novel: Lucinda is a bit Wuthering Heights-Cathy, a bit My Brilliant Career-Sybylla, and the whole expedition is entirely Voss (but without a Voss, i.e., a bit vacuous). The whole show is underpinned by gambling, with Oscar (frocked and unfrocked) often finding God's will revealed by coin flips and dog and horse races; i.e., what we might recognise now as prosperity theology, though Carey is careful to repeatedly observe that he only keeps of his winnings what he immediately needs. (Carey also owns to his debt to Pascal and the Parable of Talents aka "the Matthew effect".) Lucinda similarly enjoys a flutter but received her wealth in the canonical Australian way: by subdividing land appropriated from the indigenous. She's an innocent undeserving of the class envy (give us some shelter) that dominates the present day as her mum did all that for her. She uses half of her inheritance to buy a glass factory, on something of a whimsy. The ending is unsatisfactory.

Overall it's an infantile arrested love affair, a year of Neighbours afterwhich Lucinda aged out and Oscar left through boredom for the bright lights of Hollywood. The writing is often good and in these ways it was the converse of Alexis Wright's Carpentaria: I prefer her characters and setting but his writing.

Widely reviewed of course. Goodreads: briefly, Carey is not for many people.

Roger Ebert gave three stars to the 1997 movie starring Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett. He draws a parallel with Werner Herzog's obsession with obsessions, and I definitely had Judy Davis more in mind than Blanchette as Lucinda. Janet Maslin also. All the details at Ozmovies (similarly "Herzogian"). There is no need for me to see it now.

Christopher Koch: Highways to a War. (1995)

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Kindle. Australian (actually Tasmanian) AFL-playing war photographer Mike Langford goes missing in Cambodia in 1976 and his boyhood mate, now a lawyer, goes looking for him. The novel has a clever structure — exposition via taped diaries, lightly fictionalised by the lawyer, leading up to present-day events — that avoids omniscient narration, yielding a neat-and-tidy novel where all the classically hard questions are avoided.

My main problem with this book was that it had nothing new to say about the Indochina of the war years, even when it was written. Daniel Ellsberg was out reconnoitring the Mekong Delta in the mid-1960s, and David Halberstam wrote up a day in the field with the ARVN back in 1967. Of course Graham Greene was all over the spook stuff in The Quiet American back in the mid-1950s; see also Burdick and Lederer's The Ugly American, and Neil Sheehan and Tim Page's work. Moreover the multitude of Vietnamese accounts that were translated into English circa 1990 (e.g. Dương Thu Hương's Novel without a Name, Bảo Ninh's The Sorrow of War amongst many others) had far more local colour. And let's quietly ignore the contemporaneous The Moon of Hoa Binh.

This book seemed so inessential, so late to the party, that it took me a while to realise that it's really a homage to colonial Asia, a time (mid-1960s to mid-1970s) and place (cities: Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Sài Gòn, Singapore) where sufficiently brave and ravenous white men could live like kings while the latest version of the Great Game played out around them as some form of entertainment. This becomes inescapably obvious when paradisal, prelapsarian Cambodia was embodied in characterless Ly Keang, a derivative of Greene's Phuong without even the minimal agency that comes from being one corner of a love triangle. Things got a bit excruciating when Koch talks crudely about Cambodia returning to freedom.

Overall Langford is simpler than Koch claims him to be: he's a bleeding-heart humanist as well as a Quiet Australian who enjoys what that time and place had to offer. By the fall of Sài Gòn he seemed to be more like a Johnny-on-the-spot Forrest Gump than the Christ figure glimpsed in longshot at the end.

The text got Koch the Miles Franklin Award in 1996. Wikipedia (and Koch in his introduction) tells me it drew heavily on the life of Neil Davis, but Robin Gerster reckoned Sean Flynn is a better match, i.e., Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now (1979). A common complaint is the assumption of too much historical knowledge. Koch asserts this to be the mate of his later Out of Ireland (1999). I expect his The Year of Living Dangerously (1978) was more valuable.

William Gibson: Neuromancer (1984)

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Kindle. nth time around with Gibson's classic debut. The ending is such a bust! — people in 2023 need to know what happens when one AI hostilely takes over another. I was planning to re-read the two semi-sequels to find out but I'll stop here.

Russell Marks: Black Lives, White Law: Locked Up and Locked Out in Australia. (2022)

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Kindle. A follow up to and expansion of his earlier Crime and Punishment. The topic is vital but the book is lengthy, concussive and insufficiently focussed; it took me an age to get past chapter one and a lot of commitment to crawl through the second half. His use of footnotes annoyed me: I'm used to inline citations and I learnt a long long time ago that if it's worth saying it goes in the main text, and if it's not you let it go. The kids today might consider that a part of killing their darlings.

I'm not a lawyer. What made Nicholas Cowderey's Getting Justice Wrong valuable to me was that he laid out the legal system to us non-specialists, and that he took an issue-based approach, pointing at particular antinomies of the system and using specific illustrative examples. Here (NT defence lawyer) Marks engages in extensive (excessive) cataloguing of court cases. I found this futile as readers of this book are likely to know that generally things are bad, the general shape of the badness, and the general stasis and backsliding. (See, for instance, Ben Abbatangelo at another Black Inc. venue; it's the era of choose-your-own-apocalypse from a vast and increasing menu.) Sometimes he pulls in a sociological, historical, economic or political angle (beyond his workaday legal frame) but not as successfully as Dean Ashenden. Take, for instance, this from Chapter 14 A New Beginning:

[Circa 1933, s]outh of the Murray, William Cooper — now in his seventies — was doing his own agitating. He began a letter-writing campaign, which soon led to the creation of the Australian Aborigines' League. Among its demands, the League wanted Canberra to take over the administration of Aboriginal affairs from the states (which was eventually achieved by referendum in 1967).

I was left wondering why Cooper thought the Feds would provide a better deal than the states, recalling that it was the Depression, the White Australia Policy was in force and the first and second World Wars close by. And just what did the 1967 referendum achieve anyway? I wanted the perspective that Marks brings to his (excellent) essays.

Ashenden observed the limits of the law as a mechanism for (social) justice, and in particular that issues of sovereignty are quite simply beyond the scope of every court in Australia, and moreover that petitioning the body that could adjudicate such issues — apparently the U.K.'s Privy Council — is not possible. (As a non-lawyer I felt Ashenden spelt that out clearly.) Marks seems to think that Western law has more universalism that it does, more scope for providing justice, even as he pummels us with endless counterexamples and decries the inveterate unwillingness of Australian Settler law to accommodate Indigenous law (or some practices). For instance (again from Chapter 14):

[I]n May 2020, a cave in the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara was permanently destroyed by mining giant Rio Tinto, despite multiple representations to the company by Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura heritage managers about its significance: archaeological evidence showed that the cave had been continuously occupied for 46,000 years, making it the oldest known inland site in Australia. Rio Tinto’s actions were entirely lawful under the state’s Aboriginal Heritage Act, which had created an approvals process which favoured the destruction of sacred and significant sites. In the wake of the Juukan Gorge destruction – reported around the world – the Western Australian parliament replaced the Act entirely, though with a new piece of legislation which was opposed by Traditional Owners on the basis that it did not address the central flaws in the existing law.

Here the law is completely irrelevant; a priori decisive were capitalism (the financialisation of just about everything) and a centralised politics, which in his business manifests as privatised prisons and (as he observes) NAAJA (see Chapter 13 The Defenders), and afterwards it was blowback from public (specifically large shareholder) opinion that destroyed corporate reputations and placed the event into the category of never-again-not-until-the-next-time. Marks observes several times that every formal inquiry more-or-less reiterates what was determined and proposed by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987 to 1991), which demonstrates that the critical thing that's missing is not epistemic ... so what is it? As Noel Pearson often observes, it's not just partisan politics: Holt, Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Rudd and at times Abbott all made attempts to bend history towards justice. Moreover Marks did sometimes observe that many issues he canvasses are also prevalent amongst non-Aboriginal people, opening the door a crack to a broader Amartya Sen-esque cross-sectional analysis/activism.

Finally, I've always been mystified how the systems of law could ever be reconciled. Take, for instance, the cultural impedance mismatch in this murder trial from 1976 described in Chapter 5 Bending:

According to Joseph's defence lawyer, Judy had repeatedly taunted and insulted Joseph by mentioning tribal secrets she shouldn't have known about. The open discussion of such secrets in court provided grounds, Wells concluded, to make an order banishing all women from the court, including from the jury. Joseph formally pled 'not guilty' to murder through an interpreter. (Unfortunately, that interpreter was uninitiated, and it emerged that Joseph, who was initiated, was unable to speak to him.)

Doesn't this suggest that almost all (actionable, evidentiary, ...) tribal law is beyond the ken of almost all Settlers? (Ashenden noted that Bill Stanner was initiated and provided with tribal secrets in the hope of influencing the state, but he wasn't a lawyer.) And of course tribal law may not be so big on blaming individuals.

Widely reviewed. Chris Cunneen came in for a caning in the book (I think, see Chapter 9 Debate) but is generous in his review. I did not find any that engaged with Marks's take on carceral feminism (see his Chapter 10 Women: How protection isn't working much better this time around for First Nations women) which is entirely depressing.

Martin Riker: The Guest Lecture (2023)

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Kindle. Yet another bum steer from Dwight Garner. I initially thought Riker was trying to better Spufford by ventriloquising John Maynard Keynes but the vast bulk consists of the first-person hand wringing of a very normatively-normal American female junior economics academic who has all the correct opinions. Vast sections are repetitiously tedious. It completely lacked animal spirits.

Goodreads splits into those operating in the confirmation mode, who saw themselves in Abigail, and those who were expecting something more novel.