Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Beginning of Modernism - The Rather Silly Version

1. Surrealism, New Realism, and Fruitsaladism



Modernism began in the evening hours of October 3, 1908, in a medium-sized garret in Paris, France. The owner had previously bought a small, closet-sized garret, but due to a recent demand for artistic garrets, he had upgraded to to a medium-sized garret in order to live his life of artistic penury and starvation in a little more comfort.
The people present in this garret were Utge Mitke, a painter from Poland; Mahra Uhle, a preminist* from Germany; Oswald de L'Empriere, a novelist who lived by the Seine (although he had not yet actually written a word); and T.S. Eliot, depressed, from America.
Up until that point, artists had been living in the past. But eventually, the past must pass into the present, and that is what it did that morning, with an audible thud.
All of the artists were standing around, wondering what to do now that the present had finally arrived. Mitke was listlessly painting a still-life of apples and oranges, Uhle was expounding to the room her radical preminist theories, L'Empriere was thinking about the novel he hadn't written, and Eliot was depressed.

Suddenly, L'Empriere strode across the room, took an apple out of the still life that Mitke was painting, and bit into it. The rest of the room was astonished, but, as Eliot later explained, it was as if the Real World had finally caught up with the artistic world.
Announcing this as the first act of surrealism, L'Empriere flung the apple onto the floor and left the garret.
The next day, L'Empriere and Mitke invented the second great artistic movement of modernism: Fruitsaladism. L'Empriere took all of the fruit out of a still life painted by Mitke, and diced them up into a delicious fruit salad, which he then fed to the crowd of onlookers. They continued in this way for one month, until the Parisian Chefs Union ran them out of town. To this day in France, putting things made out of oil and turpentine in your mouth have been a strictly culinary act.

L'Empriere and Mitke went on to perform many other great artistic acts: instead of painting an apple, Mitke and L'Empriere would allow the apple to paint them (they called this 'New Realism'**). In a final, great artistic act, L'Empriere allowed himself to be eaten by the apple. He never survived his death, and so, to this day, we don't know what to call this artistic movement.
Many people considered this great concluding performance a comment on the war. Unfortunately, it was 1938 at the time, so people weren't quite sure what war he was referring to.

* A preminist is a proto-feminist.
**This may or may not have been the inspiration for F.D. Roosevelt's political plan, which he was originally to call 'The New Dealism'

2. Eliot and Smudger

Modernism had soon become a worldwide artistic movement, with many adherents and practitioners. One highlight of this movement was the publication of T. S. Eliot's poem 'The Wasteland'. Another highlight was the publication of T. B. Smudger's poem 'The Scrapheap'. Eliot's work is too long to be quoted in part, and Smudger's masterpiece is too short to be quoted in full without leaving a lot of extra space, but part of it goes:

God, my life is crap.
Wei la la la la
Jug jug
Those are the pearls that were his eyes! *

As you can see, Smudger was a master of the metreless quatrain, as well as the quatrainless metre.

*The rest of the poem is a lot of artfully-placed blank space.

3. The Second Ever Performance Of ...

Another modernist of distinction was Elge Gonthe, a native Bulgarian who had returned to live and work in his native homeland for the first time. He was a classically-trained pianist, and one evening, he strode into a music hall where, for no reason at all, a large audience of random people had gathered. He then sat down at a piano and proceeded to play nothing for five minutes.
When somebody asked him what he was doing, Gonthe replied that this was the Second Ever Performance of John Cage's 4'23'' (a piano piece consisting of four minutes and twenty three seconds of silence).
"But that piece has not been written yet!" persisted Gonthe's zealous inquirer. "And, if it is 4'23'', then isn't this the first performance?"
Gonthe replied simply that he was not bound by conventional chronological structures.
The audience, moved by Gonthe's artistic and rhetorical brilliance, rose as one and gave him an ovation. During the following months, Gonthe presented the Second Ever Performance Of Cage's most famous musical composition to audiences all over Europe. It was a true tour de force of the avant garde.
Thirty years later, John Cage shut himself up in a studio with his cat and two strawberry meringues and spent the next week writing 4'23''. The meringues escaped unscathed, but the effort took so much out of Cage and the cat that they could not afterwards pass by a meringue shop without shivering.

4. Larry, husband of ...

One of the most interesting stories to come out of the modernist movement concerns a simple American mechanic by the name of Larry. (He didn't have a last name. Sometimes, he wasn't even sure that he had a first name. He did have a middle name, but no-one knew what that was.)
He didn't know anything about art, but one day, he was visiting the Guggenheim gallery with his fiancee, Carrie. They happened to pass by Piccaso's famous painting, Woman Crying:


In what was to prove to be a fateful act, Larry mistook the painting for his fiancee and left the gallery with his arms wrapped around it, speaking comforting words.
One month later, Larry and the painting were married in a small and simple wedding ceremony. All of the family were present, and they were all very moved by it.
Larry and the painting went on to have three children, which they named 'Pastelle', 'Charcoal'*, and 'Landscape'. It was only after thirty years of happily married life that Larry and the painting discovered their tragic mistake. Larry immediately rushed back to the Guggenheim, but he could not find his wife anywhere. However, he did see a saucy minx of a painting by Jackson Pollock, and he immediately threw it to the floor and ravished it before being removed by gallery staff.
So, although the story ended tragically, it is well to recall that Larry and an item of abstract art had lived in harmony for three decades.

*Larry had wanted to call them Chantelle and Parkle, but his wife had disagreed.

(Cross-posted here.)

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Things Inside Books

When I first became truly interested in reading as a pleasurable pursuit, rather than as a way to avoid beatings from my schoolteachers, I had to rely mainly on the books of others for my consumption, for, being a child, I was earning very little money, and despite my newfound passion, what little money I came across or stole from my mother’s purse went immediately towards video games or little white paper bags filled with jellies, purchased at the corner shop. So most of the time it was visits to the library (even back then I hated the fucking things, and still do, and will continue to do so forever), or I would scratch through my parent’s bookshelf in the front lounge.

It was a fine bookshelf, the one in the front lounge. Cast iron and redwood, around three meters long, three shelves high (the bottom shelf easily dismissed, packed as it was with my mother’s gardening and cooking portfolios), with, at a guess, a hundred and two score and a bit books in it. I worked my way from left to right. There was a lot of shit, of course, but a decent proportion of good stuff: Conan Doyle, Evelyn Waugh, Morris Lurie, Lennie Lower (which reminds me: I have to track down some of his books and see if they were as piss-funny as I remember them being), Spike Milligan (his war biographies), Roald Dahl, Dorothy Parker, Rider Haggard. I read them all and when the supply was exhausted I kept going back, but this time, it was to discover all the stuff inside the books.

My parents, it turned out, were inveterate placers-of-things-in-books. Newspaper clippings, postcards, pamphlets, patches, vegetables, letters, envelopes, bookmarks (of course), photographs, you name it. At the time I thought it was odd to keep things inside books (I still think this, and don’t do it myself), and one day I went through every single book in the house, leafed through every single page, and removed every single thing. I put them all in a manila folder and presented the folder to my mother, who immediately instructed me to return the items to their rightful places before dad got home. Not wanting to go back and put every single thing back where I found it, I just through the objects into random volumes. Thus many thin books swelled visibly and could not be reshelved before severe modification.

The point I’m trying to make is that I enjoyed finding things in books back then, as I enjoy it now. I always flick through likely-looking books at secondhand stores, to see what people have put in them. I found an old twenty dollar note a few years ago in a book at a store in Brisbane. Being penniless I naturally kept it and furthermore never again returned to that bookstore, because if the guy’s pricing his product (quite outrageously, if I recall) without even examining it, then fuck him and I hope he goes broke. Apart from the money, a photocopy of somebody’s birth certificate and a black-and-white picture of a vagina I don’t believe I’ve ever found anything really good, but a lot of the stuff is pretty interesting, especially those newspaper clippings that don’t seem to have isolated any particular article. You know the ones – you find an upside-down ‘L’ newspaper clipping, yellow with age, but it seems to be entirely random, and hasn’t followed the margins of any particular story. It’s like somebody just wanted to be fancy with a pair of scissors. I don’t know. Anyway, I’m a little drunk, but I was wondering: what goodies have youse found inside books?

Fin Du Cycle



Alright already! Enough out of me!

Peas De Resistance

I know that absolutely nobody is annoyed by this, but honestly, this is properly my last one.

Esprit De Corks

Coupe De Grass

Au Grating

Fin De Sickle

Tour De Forts

Protestantism



Alternative titles:
Getting antsy.
Ants in your pants.
Angry Antserson
Anty-Americans.

Cyclopaedia

Fin Du Siecle

Dictionary

Postmodernism

Okay, definitely the last one. From me.

Objectivism

...also known as Randianism.

Stopping now.

Monotheism

Gnocchisticism

Altruism

Modernism

Rationalism

Dialectics

Reductionism

Dualism

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Stuff Like This Always Happens To Me

Just as I was beginning to hunt down and enjoy his work, namely The Invincible and The Cyberiad, Stanislaw Lem has up and died at the frankly decent age of 84. Having read only two of his books, I am already of the mind that he is (well, was) one of the finest science fiction authors the world will ever see. Certainly such populist luminaries as Philip K. Dick and, I don't know, Harlan Ellison, while fine speculative authors in their own right, have a difficult time maintaining their excellence when compared directly with The Mighty Lem, but I mostly admire Lem for being probably the first antihumanist sci-fi author.

Science fiction by definition mostly concerns itself with the accomplishments of humankind, be they unique achievements with no real purpose, or spectacular victories in the face of extrasolar adversity. Lem's genius is that he was one of the few writers ever to realise that, in the scheme of an infinite cosmos, human ingenuity and human preconception are matters of enormous irrelevance. Lem’s human space adventurers don’t simply struggle for a few weeks or months or years to understand an alien artifact, or mysterious BDO, or communicate with a species from another corner of the universe, before finally there’s a breakthrough and some great realization is realized – Lem’s adventurers forever labour in darkness because the aliens they encounter are just so fucking alien, so completely beyond even a fraction of our understanding. The scientists of Lem’s stories are as petty and self-absorbed as the scientists of today, his politicians are just as useless, his civilians just as stupid. His imagination (not just his capacity for manufacturing novelty, or taking modern technology and upgrading/miniaturizing/implanting it) far surpasses that of most any other writer of speculative fiction, and his prose is of the highest order. At least, it seems to be, as I am reading English translations of Polish/German books. His humour is cynical and warm (yes, it is possible), and though his pages can be dense and a little tough to chew at times, the mental protein acquired from them is enough to nourish the spirit indefinitely, with equal nourishment acquired at every rereading.

Anyway, I’m not about to write a dissertation on the themes I have been able to detect in only two of Lem’s works, likely poorly-translated ones at that. His stuff is extremely difficult to find secondhand and the new editions are ridiculously expensive. And now what’s going to happen is, just as I had found a new author from whom I could glean genuine enjoyment, the public is going to start murmuring. Death always means that your name is going to appear somewhere, and suddenly whole armies of fuckwits who never read a sci-fi book outside of Hitchhiker’s Guide or whatever piece-of-shit William Gibson deposit is winning awards this year are going to hear about Lem, are going to demand Lem, and all his books will be released in fresh translations for the mass consumption of the great unwashed. The thrill I get from chasing down his books will be gone, and my status as an elite connoisseur of fine speculative literature – stuff you just wouldn’t get – will suffer severe damage.

Some good Lem quotes here.

From the Metafilter post (my first notification of the event).

UPDATE: It isn't all bad news though - apparently Robert Jordan is dying. Prick that he is, he insists on living longer than the predicted four years, because he has more books to write. His revolting Wheel Of Time series - wholly and solely responsible for the widespread depreciation in quality and snobbish denigration of fantasy writing - is already 9743 pages in length, which, spread over twelve books (including the recently-released "prequel", New Spring), is eight books and thirteen forests longer than it needs or deserves to be. But he wants to live another thirty years. At an average rate of one book every three years, that's ten more books, and probably 10,000 more pages. No matter when he dies, Robert Jordan will have killed more rainforest than McDonald's. What. An. Asshole.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Great Books That Have Never Been Written

Bridget Moans Diary

The History of Tom S. Boners, a Foundling

Oliver's Pissed (From the Charles Dickens section in the Alcoholic's Anonymous library)

The Chronicles of Tania. Vol 1: The Whining Bitch in the Wardrobe

The Q'uran - a Pop-up Book and Colour-in Book for Children

The Choose Your Own Adventure Version of The Bible

Not-so Great Expectations (From the Charles Dickens section in the Socialist-realism library)

Cross-posted here.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Insults - Poetical and Otherwise

One of the greatest insults of all time is Byron's seventeen stanza introduction to his verse novel Don Juan. He does a piss take of all the Romantic poets. He called them the 'Lake poets', mocking their fondness for writing about natural scenes:

... all the Lakers, in and out of place,
A nest of tuneful persons, to my eye,
Like "four and twenty Blackbirds in a pie".

He lays into philosopher-poet Samuel Taylor-Coleridge:

... Coleridge, too, has lately taken wing,
But like a hawk encumbered with his hood,
Explaining Metaphysics to the --
I wish he would explain his Explanation.

William Wordsworth is next:

'Tis poetry - at least by his assertion,
And may appear so when the dog-star rages --
And he who understands it would be able
To add a story to the Tower of Babel.

Byron goes on to make a complicated reference to Mount Parnassus: in classical mythology, it was the 'seat of the Muses'. He mixes it up with the scenery preferred by the Lake poets:

You're shabby fellows -- true -- but poets still,
And duly seated on the Immortal Hill.

He's not above mocking their appearance, either:

Your bays may hide the baldness of your brows ...

This was true, at least for Wordsworth.
There's also a lot of topical commentary in there, too. I like particularly his line about 'The intellectual eunuch Castlereagh', a 'Cold-blooded, smooth-faced placid miscreant' but I'm not sure what this is referring to. It's great stuff, nonetheless.

But I think we can all agree with Byron when he says:

I say -- the future is a serious matter,
And so -- for God's sake -- hock and soda water!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

You're All Invited!



You're all invited! Of course, it helps if you're living in and around Melbourne ...

Lists

Over at the Random House Modern Library website, there are two lists of one hundred books. Random House calls them the "100 Best Novels". I understand the lists are quite old but I'm going to write about them anyway because there's an awesome picture I want to post.

The first list contains 100 novels selected by "the board"; the second list is 100 novels selected by "readers". "Readers", in this case, seems to be a particularly generous term. Obviously Random House doesn't want to alienate their target market - i.e. semi-literates - but a quick glance at the Top 5 suggests to me that something has gone terribly wrong in Literary Land. It's like American McGee's Alice accidentally got out and infected the whole library.

Fucking awesome.

First up on the list is Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand's inescapable quasi-philosophical novel. I haven't read it and don't want to, even if the Wikipedia entry does make it sound relatively palatable. I just can't quite get my head around the fact that out of over 200,000 people, the majority of them consider Atlas Shrugged the greatest novel of all time. Of course, the sinister "board" naturally voted Joyce's Ulysses - a book, I do not fear confidently stating, that nobody, least of all any sort of editor, has ever read to completion - Number 1, so probably we can ignore both lists altogether.

But what did the readers vote for Number 2? Surprise surprise, another Rand book: The Fountainhead. I haven't read this one either and Wikipedia gives the impression of it being fairly annoying. I get most of my information about books I haven't read from Wikipedia - try it!

Bored already with this post, Number 3, as voted by 217,520 readers (probably from New York, but certainly from America), is L. Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth. Holy shit. Battlefield Earth, according to 217,520 people, is the third greatest novel ever in the history of the world.

The Reader's Top 10, incidentally, features a further two books by Rand, and a further two books by Hubbard. 1984 slips in at Number 6 but I reckon that was a problem with the ballot machines. Orwell would have murdered himself before he was seen in such company.

Oddly enough, the list gets a little better the deeper you go. Robert Heinlen comes in at 15 and 16 (and 62), The Worm Ouroboros at 32, Lovecraft at 45. Still, Nevil Shute appears three times, for some reason, and Stephen King appears twice, and then some other shit happens. The "board" says that The Magnificent Ambersons by somebody called Booth Tarkington is the 100th best novel of all time. I've never heard of this book and my guess is the only reason it's in there is because the "board" had only read 101 novels between them, and near the end, it was a toss-up between The Magnificent Ambersons and the adapted screenplay for Anus Magillicutty.

Conclusion: Everybody but me is a god-damned moron.

Fomented by this Metafilter post.

Bonus feature: More Metafilter goodness - Smoking the bath. Probably one of the best things ever. When the wife isn't about, I pour a good bath, and throw myself in there with a beer, some smokes, and whatever I'm reading at the time. It's fantastic. I also smoke in the shower, which is doubly awesome and not as hard as people like to think it is. Drinking beer in the shower isn't something I've ever tried but maybe I'll give it a whirl tonight. I'll let you know how I go, since you're probably keen to find out.

Lust In Translation

You've heard of English being translated into other languages, and other languages being translated into English, but how about English into English? I found one example of this in a Sydney bookstore. It was a modern translation of Shakespeare's plays. It took ordinary Shakespearean phrases, like:
Methought I had been pierced with Cupid's bow

And translated them:
I fell in love.

The Ovid translation I'm reading at the moment isn't quite as bad, but it's getting there. In Erotic Poems, translated by Peter Green, insipid words are weakly arranged in limp, rhymeless verse by a simpering, pedantic Profesor of Latin. The force and fire of Ovid's original words are almost completely extinguished. Phrases are translated faithfully; the only things missing are sound, rhyme, metre, interest, joy, and meaning:
Like a fabulous Eastern queen, en route to her bridal
chamber,
Or a top-line city call girl ...

Why not the phrase 'Like a fucking classy hooker'? This is a poem about rooting, you can't afford to hold back.
Good puns are badly translated and become bad ones:
... poor virgin Europa whisked off overseas clutching
That so-called bull by the - horn.
Anybody from outside university could have told him that 'horn' actually is a well-known phallic symbol; there's no need for that hyphen.
You wonder why he bothers with the verse part at all. My translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses is in prose and, while it isn't brilliant, it's far better than this. This is not free verse (if it was, the lines would vary a great deal more); and it's not metrical. It kind of hovers in between, like an amorphomous entity of words that are arbitrarily grouped together. It's as if Green put them together in between bouts of brandy and scrabble with his fellow professors.
He resorts far too often to italics to provide a kind of 'fake' stress to words. Good poets - or good writers of any sort - would never do this. These are just from the first four pages:
Take that!
Though he was drawn
Caesar - this conquest's
Listen, Venus:
What have I got
Immortalise you
Just to look at my darling, while he

Not one imaginative phrase amongst that lot. It's almost as if Green wasn't hired to translate Ovid, but to kill the English language. He should go back to reading his lexicons.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Sawed-Off Stupidity

It’s an old joke that the shortest science fiction/horror story in the world goes like this:

“The last man alive in the entire world sat all alone in his house. Suddenly, the doorbell rang.”

I thought I would play around with similar ideas, as it’s quite an entertaining premise. Readers are encouraged to do the same. Best submission wins prizes!

“In sole possession of all the money in the world, yet on the brink of starvation, Terry Thermidor recognised his quandary: hold on to the dough and thus retain his unique standing, or order out for a pizza?”

“Sober all his life, Terry Thermidor swallowed the last of the flagon of scotch, as he had done every day prior to this one.”

“Born without arms or a lower jaw, Terry Thermidor reached up and scratched his chin.”

“Possessing all knowable knowledge, with both an encyclopaedic and photographic memory, and able to calculate pi to its final decimal, Terry Thermidor wondered where this would get him.”

“At the top of the tallest structure in the universe, Terry Thermidor looked down. ‘Hmm,’ he said, and stepped up onto a box that was there.”

“A staunch Scientologist, Terry Thermidor was not afraid to laugh at himself.”


Anonymous submits:
"The last fertile man on Earth, Terry Thermidor could not remember where he left his little blue pills."

Ella submits:
"
Every time she babysat her nineteen noisy grandkids, she felt better about her decision to never have children."

Darby M. Dixon III submits:
"Terry Thermidor couldn't stop checking his Technorati score the day he invented blogging."

Plod!

Terry Pratchett is still capable of knocking out better books than most of his peers, but he has been coasting for the past few years. It's not that he's been writing bad books as such, but when you look at his ever-expanding list of titles, the really good stuff is starting to feel like ancient history. I suspect he is devoting more attention to the Young Adult Discworld series, which I don't particularly like, but then I'm hardly in the target demographic. Who can blame him: at least the YA books receive awards and critical recognition; the regular series only rakes in yet more cash, and he's probably got enough of that by now.

The latest Discworld book, Thud!, at first seems like another solid, unspectacular series entry: funny, morally serious, briskly plotted. And it pretty much is a solid, unspectacular series entry, but there is something about it (several things about it) that got on my nerves.

The first problem is: it's a Watch novel. Perhaps I am in a minority amongst the Pratchett fan-base, but I am sick to death of Watch novels. Commander Sam Vimes, who along with Granny Weatherwax is/was Pratchett's most interesting protagonist, is now little more than a mouthpiece for Pratchett's increasingly grumpy moralising. The rest of the Watch are trapped in a kind of Groundhog Day-esque routine, and since there's so damn many of them now the routine sometimes threatens to overtake the entire novel. I'd be happy if Pratchett would give the Watch, and perhaps Ankh-Morpork itself, a break.

The other main problem with Thud! is the story. It is typical of Pratchett's present malaise that the tale spun in Thud! is largely non-fantastic. The incidental fantasy trappings remain in place, and there is a vague plot thread involving a malfeasant supernatural entity, but mostly Thud! reads more like an airport thriller in fancy dress thanks to Pratchett's insistence on pontificating about the real world. Now, Discworld has always been partly a satire and critique of our own world, but the tendency of recent books towards a kind of "realism" - of theme and style - has been worrying. Recent Discworld novels tend to be structured around one or more Big Themes, and these are not handled lightly. Thud!'s big theme is sectarian conflict, and you don't have to look too hard to spot the real world parallels. It's all rather obvious and bland, and, as more than one reviewer has noted, pointing out that hatred and bigotry are stupid is hardly a bold insight. There's rather too much editorialising going on in Thud!, bogging the story down. If the cliche is true, and satire fails when the satirist takes him or herself too seriously, then Thud! is a poor satire indeed.

The Watch novels used to be fantasy novels dressed up as crime thrillers or whodunits; with Thud! the reverse is true, and sadly Pratchett is no crime novelist. One of Pratchett's strengths has always been his underlying realism - people really get hurt or killed in his books; there are always consequences to actions; emotions are ever present - but by allowing this element to take over he has reduced the effectiveness of his writing. If I want gritty, introspective police procedurals, I can get them by the bucketload at any bookstore. Discworld was, and perhaps still is, an amazing place to read (and presumably write) about because within it anything was possible. Like few other popular writers Pratchetts can combine fantasy and humour and satire and emotional realism - think Lords and Ladies, think Reaper Man. In comparison, Thud! feels limited, lacking exuberance and daring.

Doubtless Pratchett will have another book out before Christmas, so we will see if Thud! is merely an aberration, or the beginning of a genuine slump. Not that it will matter to most Discworld fans, who will lap it up, whatever the quality. I may or may not be among them.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

My Saturday

So, I finally took my great big pile of culled books (I guess about 50 volumes, including all the Barthelme that Tim once wanted, as well as the Vandermeer book that I said I would send to somebody but they never emailed me their address) to Book Affair in Carlton yesterday. I wanted to be economical about the whole affair, since I don’t have a car and don’t ever intend to own one, so I decided that I would forfeit the thirty dollar taxi ride from Malvern to Carlton, and use public transport to get there. We are right by the train station, after all, and Book Affair is only a brisk stroll from the Melbourne University tram superstop.

 

My shoulders today will attest to the fact that this course of action was, largely, a mistake. While a pile of 50 books isn’t really all that heavy, I guess maybe 20 kilos at a stretch (there were a great many hardcovers and folio books in the stack as well, so it was probably a little more), and since I am from Queensland and therefore more genetically predisposed towards muscle-dependant labours than weakling Victorians, the real difficulty with bipedal transportation of books is not that the books are heavy, but rather that their unique shape makes them supremely awkward to carry.

 

I had two baggage modules with me yesterday. The first was a tasteful black canvas duffel bag with leather trim and solid base, a very sturdy and capacious piece of luggage I don’t mind telling you now. The second was one of those revolting piss-stinking red white and blue-striped laundry bags that you buy at The Reject Shop for like two bucks. Affording one of these latter bags only a cursory glance, and you could be forgiven for thinking it less than structurally sound. Happily, they are tough little sons of bitches, and so I spent the morning carefully rationing out my piles of books into these two receptacles, trying to keep the weight and mass even across both units. Nevertheless, the duffel bag filled before the stripy bag did, so the stripy bag ended up holding the greater portion.

 

I set off from my place of residence at around 10:30am. The first thing I had to do was descend three flights of stairs. This was accomplished without injury, and so I commenced my laborious constitutional towards the station, only a few blocks away. The problem with the stripy bag is that it is very tall, and so unless the arm is bent, the bottom scrapes along the ground, and so it wasn’t enough for me to simply hold the handles in a deathgrip – I also had to give my biceps a workout. Anyway, I made it to the station, staggering like a man born with each leg shorter than the other, and made my way onto a train packed to the gills with Commonwealth Games revelers (I assumed). Upon arrival at Melbourne Central I disembarked, and was distraught to discover that, despite my cumbersome burden, I was still capable of walking faster than every other meandering cunt that was there, yet had no choice but to shuffle along behind them as they strolled nine abreast and filtered themselves onto the escalators.

 

At the top of the second escalator, within spitting distance of Borders, I considered abandoning my project and just going inside to look at one of those dodgy half-porno foreign photography magazines. Sadly, despite a profound weakness of both body and spirit, I did not do this, and instead stepped, or rather hobbled, out into the late morning sunshine of Swanston Street. There I determined to refresh myself with a cigarette, which I commenced to roll, and was immediately accosted by a man who asked for one of them, mentioning that he would not be paid until Monday. As we rolled our respective smokes we got to talking, as you do, and it turned out that he was a rather pleasant character indeed, a fan of speculative fiction and computer games (he was profoundly impressed when I mentioned that my favourite computer games of all time were System Shock 1 & 2) and, as it turns out, a writer, which is another thing that I claim to be, sometimes. To validate this claim, the man, named Julian and around 40 years of age, at a guess, presented me with the first few pages of an assignment that he was working on. I do not remember the precise details of the assignment, a sci-fi story, but it was reasonable enough for something thrust upon me by an absolute stranger in the middle of the street. Anyway, we chatted for a while longer and I gave him a couple more cigarettes, and we exchanged email addresses (I have no problem with giving my Hotmail address to a total stranger, but I draw the line at Gmail addresses). I boarded the next tram.

 

The tram trundled along Swanston Street towards Melbourne Uni. In my six years in Melbourne, every other tram I have been on, heading in that direction, has terminated at the superstop, instead of going around the corner along Elgin Street (and therefore putting me that much closer to the bookshop), and so naturally I assumed this one would as well. I took up my bags and deracinated myself, as it were, from the rich loam of the tram’s floor, and hopped onto the platform, still struggling with those ridiculous fucking bags. Naturally I was first surprised and then infuriated to see the tram merrily trundle its way around the corner, rather than going back in the direction we had just come from. Ah well, I said to myself, and chuckled at the curious ironies of life. I hefted up the bags, and headed those last couple of blocks along Swanston, towards Elgin, at the corner of which I stopped to compose myself. My shoulders were beginning to hurt, and the circulation to my fingers had been all but terminated, thanks to the biting handles of that stripy fucking bag. I shook my hands in order to restore life and, while I would not presume to bore you with recollections of the last phase of my journey along Elgin Street, let me tell you now that it was supremely unpleasant.

 

I made it to Book Affair, happily, and threw my bags up onto the counter. “Guess what’s in these?” I bellowed, and the man was kindly enough to humour my pathetic attempt at ingratiating myself towards him, in order that I might get a better price. For purposes of etiquette, I told him that while he was reviewing my submissions, I would take a look about the store. I vaguely recalled there being a Stanislaw Lem book lurking somewhere in the Sci Fi/Fantasy section. So I trotted off, failed to locate the Lem (or, indeed, anything else of interest, which was something of a surprise as usually I can find something good at this particular store). A few minutes later he actually put an announcement over the PA: “To the gentleman who brought the books in, we’re ready for you.” I returned to the counter and stroked the spectacularly fat cat that was there while the man told me that I could get $150 credit or $75 cash.

 

Had the purpose of my book cull been any other than to simply reduce the number of books in my collection to make our move to Brisbane fractionally more convenient, I would have taken the credit. Sadly, this was not the case, so like the pathetic junky that I am, I requested the money. There were a few books left, ones that he knew he would never be able to sell, so I took them back. We concluded our transaction and I went away. I had planned to meet a friend at a nearby pub, but it would still be several hours before he arrived. I left the books on a park bench up the road, and went back down Swanston Street to another secondhand bookstore that was there. I don’t know the exact name of it, but if the signage was any indicator, the store was simply called BOOKS. I went into BOOKS and picked up Hyperion and The Fall Of Hyperion by Dan Simmons, as well as John Crowley’s Little, Big for the missus (I had intended to resecure for her my old copy of The House Of Leaves from Book Affair, but somebody else had already bought it). I then walked to Alice’s Bookshop in Rathdowne Village, near enough to two clicks away, and I’m sorry, I know the guy’s written two relatively enjoyable books about the book trade (I gave them to my mum, however, after he made some disparaging comments about the television show Black Books, and also because I had determined that he was, to put it mildly, a bit of a wanker), but the place fucking stinks and the beardy guy behind the counter was an unfriendly cunt. Plus the stock is obscenely overpriced. Plus there was nothing there that I wanted. It would be a great bookstore if it a) got rid of its staff and b) marked everything down by 50% and c) got some proper books in, but as it stands, Alice’s is probably the dullest, most unpleasant bookstore in Melbourne, if not Victoria.

 

So I went back to Lygon Street, mooched around Borders reading Batman comics for an hour or so, and then went to meet my friend and we proceeded to get shellacked, which drew my attention away from my bodily injuries, at least until just now. As it is, I am typing this essay using my eyelids, for my torsal region is paralysed with pain.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

How You Doin'?

Thursday, March 16, 2006

2006 Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony – An Intersecting Lines Eyewitness Report

The crowd sits in the stadium in darkness and in silence. The song of bongo drums, played repetitively and unskilfully, begins to swell, and we hear the dim report of five cent pieces being tossed into a wadded-up towel. Then, fireworks!

Suddenly, the orchestra pounces on us! The lights go up slightly, and we see something moving about above our heads. The classically-trained musicians playfully poke and prod us with their instrumental meanderings, and we see a new D1 Class Articulated Vehicle descending from the heavens in a shower of twenties and fifties.

The tram touches down softly and begins to trundle about the stadium for a while, incessantly dinging its annoying bell at pedestrians, who leap out of the way, screaming in terror. Only a few are struck. The tram eventually shudders to a halt, and seventy-three Yarra Trams ticket inspectors emerge, resplendent in their cheap blue uniforms.

They quickly surround a young Japanese woman, the tram’s only actual passenger. She has a little more English than the inspectors themselves, and protests her innocence over and over: “The machine wasn’t working! The machine wasn’t working! The machine wasn’t working!” Heedless to her cries, inspectors mercilessly rain blows down on her with their truncheons, and then write her a ticket. The orchestra makes a farting noise.

The crowd applauds. Raucous laughter is heard throughout the stadium, as every Melburnian identifies personally with the scene that has just transpired before them. Ray Martin’s head nods gravely, affording this initial gambit his seal of approval. Fireworks!

But what’s this? A boy on a skateboard, suspended by invisible wires, skateboarding in the sky! He spits on everything he sees and knocks over an old lady, similarly suspended, shattering her hip. He laughs and transforms into a pigeon, which settles on the ground and begins to peck at a McDonald’s french fry. A taxi, driven by a mad Arab, careens around the corner, splattering the boy-pigeon against the tarmac. Fireworks!

Fat men in dark suits and Akubra hats enter the arena. Will they dance for us? Perhaps sing some opera? Ray Martin’s head will not tell! One man steps forward from the group of fat men in dark suits and Akubra hats. He kneels down on the ground. What will happen?

The other men all take pistols from inside their jackets, and fire into the man. With each gunshot, cymbals clash! Again! Again! Again! Aha, it is a traditional Melbourne gangland execution! The other men drag the slaughtered stoolie out of the arena, leaving a trail of shining love hearts, like those ones that people sometimes put in an envelope as a pleasant surprise.

A barefooted Michael Leunig, dressed as a priest, now descends – sigh – from the heavens, clutching a duck. He lifts his hand, as though he is about to begin preaching to us. The stadium moans. The fat men in dark suits and Akubra hats enter the arena again. The cymbals clash once more! Bang! Bang! Bang! Leunig slumps over, twitching. The crowd bellows its approval. Ray Martin smiles, his teeth casting light on the entire arena, while his solid-state hairpiece absorbs it. Equilibrium is achieved.

Fireworks!

Then, some other stuff happens! Nobody really pays it any attention. More things float around above us, while ballerinas and tapdancers scurry to and fro below. The orchestra plays the Qantas theme song. A giant papier-mache John Howard appears, but it falls over and catches alight on one of the seven million constantly exploding fireworks, before the giant papier-mache George W. Bush can approach it from behind and anally violate it.

The house goes silent and dark once more. A single shaft of light illuminates the unmistakable figure of Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, dressed in a glittering dress. Accompanied by an entourage of “rapping grannies”, she launches into a heartbreaking rendition of ‘My Humps’, Melbourne’s favourite song for 2005-2006. Some fireworks, and a bunch of flags appear! Cameras cut to the Queen, who has been replaced by a mannequin. Some university students begin a slow circuit of the stadium, protesting something. Nobody pays any attention! Soon the arena is cleared. Even the fireworks stop.

A booming voice, possibly God, or Ray Martin, comes over the PA system.

“What’s brown and runny?” the voice asks the crowd. The crowd does not respond. A fine question! Mud? Poop? What is brown and runny?

Cathy Freeman!” the voice announces. Cathy Freeman appears, the torch held aloft. Somebody remarks that she’s even more inescapable than Eddie McGuire. Cathy Freeman does something with the torch, and something else catches on fire. Fireworks go off!

All eyes turn to the Yarra River, that great intestinal expanse of mud and pollution. A spotlight is switched on, and we watch as it is trained on a solitary bobbing turd, with a party sparkler stuck in it, as it makes its lonely fecal way down the river, out of sight, and forever into our collective spirit.

Hooray Melbourne!

Crossposted here.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

In The Halls of Higer [sic] Ed ...

Maybe it was a vain attempt to relive my university days, or maybe it was a vain attempt to relive my university days. Either way, I recently found myself with the student publications Catalyst, from RMIT and Farrago, from Melbourne University.
As everyone knows, university student publications are well known for their astounding creative capacity to use the word 'fuck' in many and varied contexts; for their amazing ability to offend groups in Australia that you'd never heard of, much less suspected had existed; and for their unerring instinct for missing deadlines.

How did Farrago and Catalyst live up to the standards of previous publications? I decided to score them on a number of criteria.

Miseditings
If there's one thing that student publications are known for, it's their ability to mispell words, misplace apostrophes, and generally miscommunicate.



Neither publication failed to disappoint. Page 61 of Farrago has a column on the 'blogsphere' (members of the actual blogosphere would be surprised at this) which gives a faulty blog address for popular blog http://bitchphd.blogspot.com (they give the address as bitchphd.com), and mispell 'Pseudonymous kid', the name which the bitchphd blogger gives her child (their spelling is Psydenoymous Kid).
In page 50, the author of an article dealing with the Cronulla riots tries to use a swear word, but simply makes a fool of herself: 'bullocks'!
There is an even more blatant example of misediting on page 6, where an article on logging protests ends thusly:

The Central Highlands, particularly the Marysville area, is one of the last havens of the Leadbeaters possum: just 2,000 remain.elesent augiamcor ing elessis augait do dipisim in ut irillam acidunt ad min essed magna feugait laorem zzrit.

[sic]!

It's as if their printing press had been possessed by the spirit of Julius Caesar: either that, or they just put that in there to help with formatting, and forgot to take it out.

There are also numerous miseditings in Catalyst, including blatant misuse of the enter key on page 3, three times again on page 6, and a similar misuse of the 'justify' function on page 7. (I've noticed this happen time and time again in student publications: when you combine thin columns with text which has been spaced far apart, the results can be devastating.)
Misuse of the enter key again occurs on page 28 (the recipes page) where it's not entirely clear, on first reading, how many tablespoons of cheddar cheese we're supposed to use in the casserole recipe. (We'll get back to the recipes later, by the way.)
Catalyst scores double points for the hilarious mispelling in a title on page 19:

CITY HIGER ED.
ACTIVITIES CHAIR

Farrago:
7 points (added points for the pile up of errors in the blogging article, and their little 'latin' moment on page 6)

Catalyst:
7 points (added points for the pile up of errors on page 6, and the blatant mispelling in the title on page 19).


Academicisms
No student publication would be the same without the use of jargon which would be indistinguishable outside university.

Several academicisms appear in Farrago, including the rather attractive term 'Vice-Chancellorial', and (on page 13) the almost meaningless sentence, "Sedition used to be a relatively latent concept in Australian law."
Double points for the use of the term 'Bourgeoius construct of romantic love' on page 8. All I can say is, when it comes to architecture, I prefer bourgeoius constructs to socialist constructs anyday; but when it comes to the use of outdated communist jargon, I'm yours, baby!
Catalyst is disappointingly lucid. The term 'bourgeoius construct' doesn't appear once! However, the term 'bicylism' - appearing on page 15 - is verging on the academic.

Farrago:
4 points (added points for the term 'bourgeoius construct)

Catalyst:
1 point. They must improve on this performance in future editions.


Propaganda
One of the main purposes of student publications is to publish whatever propaganda is submitted to them by the fanatics on campus. This propaganda can range from Young Liberal articles on the Howard Government to Communist Party of Australia articles advocating revolution.

Several examples in Farrago are worthy of note:

Page 18:
"2005 was an eventful year. We saw the biggest student demonstrations in about a decade against Howard's attacks on student unions. We saw millions of workers and students on the streets against the Liberals attempts to degrade workplace rights. Opposition to the war on Iraq remained steady, about 66% of people think we should never have gone to the war in the first place, and that troops should immediately be withdrawn.
So in 2006 we will have to work pretty hard to top the inspirational successes of 2005."

Some success. The troops remain in Iraq, and Howard's industrial relations and VSU legislation have both been passed through the senate.

Page 20:

"Heya Women! Jan and Khandis here , your 2006 Wome*ns Department Officers... The Wom*ns Department exists to celebrate women's diversity, to challenge sexist, racist, classist, heterosexist, ableist assumptions and stereotypes about women, and to have some feministy fun."

I wasn't sure at first whether this 'Wom*ns Department' missive should be classed under mispellings and miseditings or under propaganda. Either way, it's terrible writing.

Page 50.

"The Cronulla riots were racist in the extreme - they were for more oppression of the already oppressed - whilst the Lebanese riots were an outcry against oppression."

Translation: 'All violence is inexcusable except for the violence that I excuse.'

Catalyst has some fine examples as well, including VSU and You, on page 6; About your Student Union, on page 8; and RMIT Queer Department, on page 17. These articles combined only scored two points, because two of them were written by the same guy, and used many of the same phrases.
A fine example of double-speak occurs in the 'VSU and You' article, where the author writes:

Dr Nelson, you are wrong. VSU is about choice. It is not about freedom.'

Freedom is not about choice? Has this guy been studying under Stalin?

On page 18:

Planetshakers City Church states that their objective is to make music and deliver training to "empower a generation ...

It's not everyday you see Christian propaganda in a student magazine. Double points for originality.

Farrago:
3 points.

Catalyst:
5 points.


Slacronyms
In Farrago, mention is made of the WAC - the 'Women's Action Committee' - which may or may not prove that all feminists are WACkos.
Catalyst gives us the even more entertaining Student Union Committee, or the SUC. It comes complete with a SUC president, a SUC representative and even a SUC Womyn's Officer.
Does she really SUC? I guess you'll just have to go along to meetings to find out ...

Farrago:
1 point.

Catalyst:
1 point.


Closing Comments:
5 points have been deducted from Farrago's final score for several readable articles, and an amusing format (parodying an official 'administrative' document).
Catalyst receive a bonus point for the recipes on page 28 ( 'Cheesy Beans on toast'? Reminds me of my own student days.) However, 7 points have been deducted from their total for amusing editorials, a well-written article about the Melbourne fashion festival, and for the hilarious 'pointers' on page 27 for students moving in to a sharehouse for the first time:

- Misconception: You can live off beer and/or two minute noodles.
- Fact: Heard of scurvy? It's a disease that you get from not eating enough food that is rich in vitamins and I've heard it can be pretty nasty. If you notice yourself/housemates loking kind of yellow, maybe it's time for some vegies.

Final Verdict
Farrago:
10 points

Catalyst:
7 points


Both show dangerous moments of lucidity, however, I'm sure with a few missed deadlines, more propaganda, the addition of badly designed pages (courtesy of a resident fine arts student) and bad student poetry, these publications have the potential to be as horrible as the best of them.

(Cross posted here.)

Experimental Writing

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

So Help Me God: A Review of "The Kite Runner"

One hand on the Bible and one hand on my heart, I swear this solemn vow.

If I ever write a novel in which a first-person narrator has life experiences similar to my own, including marrying someone with a name similar to my spouse, I WILL NOT make that first-person narrator an enormously gifted writer. Particularly if my own writing is not that great.

Khaled Hosseini's "The Kite Runner" commits this cardinal sin over and over. The narrator's father tells him to "go and read one of those books of yours." (Even as a child, he is such a reader!) His mentor gives him a leather notebook for his stories and urges him to use his godgiven gift (and whispers "Bravo"). His wife-to-be is discovered reading one of his stories: she looks up and says "you never told me you could write like this". Hushed awe from the crowd, please.

It's just so crap. I've never rolled my eyes so often in a novel - Hosseini has a compelling story about Afghanistan to relate, but he tells it mind-numbingly badly. While telling us how brilliant he is. I have to discuss this book in a social book club next month - and it was enthusiastically recommended by a friend of mine. In other words, I'm going to have to play nice. Thank god for the ranting spaces of the internet.

E. Annie Proulx Can't Stop The Emotion

E. Annie Proulx has a cry in The Guardian over Blokedick Mountain not winning the Oscar for Best Picture.

I read an interview with this minger a while ago and she gave the impression of being the most obnoxious, irritating, intellectually bankrupt and self-absorbed woman in the world, without also being Germaine Greer. In her post-Oscars whinge, Proulx defeats her own logic by first complaining that they didn't win the statue, and then by saying "If you are looking for smart judging based on merit, skip the Academy Awards". So the Academy judges wouldn't know a good picture if it hit them in the face, but you're nevertheless irked that they didn't award yours? Nice going, Lady McBrainington.

Of course, Crash is probably the worst movie ever made (I say this with total confidence, having not even seen it), and certainly not deserving of the accolade it received, but still, shut up, E. Annie Proulx.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Recent Reads Reviewed

I'm tired! Very tired! But not of using exclaimation marks! Let's talk about some books I've read recently!

The Land of Laughs, Jonathan Carroll

In a brief yet much-discussed post, I suggested that this book was "a crock". I forgot to add: "of shit". Allow me to elaborate. The story concerns one Thomas Abbey, the cynical, dilettantish son of an old Hollywood star, and his "spirited" girlfriend (she's always drunk), who are drawn together by a shared love of reclusive children's author Marshall France. For various uninteresting reasons they head off to his home town of Galen, Missouri, to research and write his biography. But what's this? The town is actually a product of France's imagination - he dreamed the fucker, from the pitbulls to the bullshit. And France's oddball daughter is using Abbey and Saxony (his pissed tart) to bring her old man back - back from the grave!

Carroll handles the set-up nicely, but when Tom and Sax get to Galen it all melts into a big greasy puddle of cliche. The fiction-merging-with-reality schtick has been done so many times that yet another go at it seems, at best, superfluous. Granted Land of Laughs was published in 1980, so predates the many subsequent variations on the theme, but even so Carroll's handling of it is disappointing. You never really get the sense that France's surreal-sounding books are coming to life. There is no dread, creeping or otherwise. Instead, dogs start talking and people start speaking in a conveniently expository manner, and before you know it you've hit the end and that's about that.

One interesting thing about Land of Laughs is that Carroll pauses to name check Borges's "The Garden of Forking Paths" even as he is delivering a half-arsed variation of its central theme. Readers are advised that ten minutes spent with the Borges is worth four hours with Carroll, if not more.

The Walkaway, Scott Phillips

By far the best book I've read in ages, The Walkaway is a prequel/sequel to Phillips's The Ice Harvest, which I haven't read but have subsequently bought. If I tell you The Walkaway is a noirish crime thriller you'll get certain ideas, and you're probably right to have them because it does embrace the genre in setting, story, and (most importantly) sleaze. But Phillips paints a big canvas (I love cross-media metaphors: I was originally going to say that "Phillips crochets a big quilt" but I decided to go all traditional). There are two intertwined stories, set thirty years apart, populated by a large, well-drawn bunch of characters, and Phillips keeps everything loose, circling a point that is perhaps not entirely satisfactory when reached, but in this novel it's not A and Z that are important, it's B through Y. (I can't believe I not only wrote, but am actually going to publish that sentence.)

In short, it's dark, witty noir, and better than anything you could write. Unless you're Scott Phillips. Of course.

Double Indemnity, James M. Cain


The Walkaway got me started on a bit of a (wait for it) crime spree, in particular Orion's excellent Crime Masterworks series. Double Indemnity is probably more famous in Billy Wilder's 1944 film incarnation, but the novel remains good fun, if by "good fun" you mean murder most foul, which you probably do, you fucking sicko. The story is seminal noir: gullible insurance agent falls for attractive woman (or femme fatale, to employ the terminology) and offs her husband, only to be double crossed, triple crossed, and so forth. We're inured to this stuff now, but Cain's plotting is so tight, and the crime and its aftermath so well described that this brief thriller was a perfectly satisfying evening read.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Capsule Review: Veniss Underground by Jeff Vandermeer

Our regular reader may recall that I spoke of picking up Jeff Vandermeer’s Veniss Underground for cheaps the other day. It seemed like the sort of thing I’d dig and I’d been hearing plenty about it. Somebody even compared it (favourably, along with City Of Saints And Madmen) to The Gormenghast Trilogy, one of my favourite fantastical works.

It’s probably (no, definitely) bad form to do this, especially considering that I’m [GRATUITOUS CROSSLINKAGE CENSORED] myself, but the trick with me is that I’m just having a bit of fun, whereas Vandermeer seems to take himself very seriously indeed. The other trick with me is that I’m a cunt and things I say don’t matter.

The consensus from the Wall household (two humans and two felines) is that Veniss Undergound fucking sucks. I started the thing on a brief train trip from Malvern to Melbourne Central Station on Sunday, and had given up by the time we groaned into Richmond. The book begins (on page five, no less):

“Let me tell you why I wished to buy a meerkat at Quin’s Shanghai Circus.”

A decent enough opener, no doubt entirely compatible with the dictates of some creative writing teacher (strong contender for the most useless job on earth) in whatever suburb of Seattle it is that most closely resembles Footscray. But a chapter and a bit later we still haven’t learned why the protagonist wished to buy a meerkat. Or maybe we did, and my eyes had glazed over by that particular paragraph. We get several rambling passages about holo-art, and several more rambling, though ostensibly evocative, passages about the Canal District of the city of Ambergris. There’s some guy named Shadrach, who gives the protagonist directions. Apparently there are people called “geosurfers”. The narratory (!) timelines jump all over the place. I begin yawning and don’t stop until my head has folded back on itself.

It’s entirely possible that the book gets better. It might even get great. But in just over a chapter, or barely a dozen pages, Vandermeer has lost me. He’s created this steampunk-gothic city in the future that is less interesting than a drunken stroll along Collins Street at midnight, looking for somewhere discrete enough to throw up but public enough to hail a taxi. I got off the train at Melbourne Central, went up the mechano-stairs, walked right into Borders, and, with Veniss Underground in my pocket, effectively virgin, picked up a copy of Philip K. Dick’s A Maze Of Death, which I am enjoying somewhat. I met my wife so we could head off to a friend’s gig together, and I handed the Vandermeer to her, thinking she might like it.

She started it this afternoon on the train ride to work. Just now, walking through the door, she threw it on top of a pile of books that I still haven’t gotten around to taking to the op shop. “An annoying wanker,” she declared (I paraphrase). “I powerwalked home just to get it out of my bag.” Now, my wife can stomach crap writing a lot easier than I can. She loves Clive Barker and wants to keep that big Susan Faludi book that I keep telling her to get rid of. She can read pretty much anything, even if she doesn’t really like it. For her not to tolerate Veniss Underground casts a very dim light on it indeed.

I read my fair share of rubbish too. I just finished In Death Ground by David Weber and some other guy, and it’s just six-hundred pages of spaceship battles. A child could have written it. Hell, I could have written it. But it was fucking great and I kept reading it until it stopped. I won’t pick it up ever again and I won’t ever recommend it to anybody and, six months from now, I will deny ever having heard of it. But it’s a pulp science fiction story that doesn’t pretend to be anything else, and the authors go with the flow. Vandermeer writes like he is wading through flashbacks of every Twilight Zone episode he ever saw, and every Nine Inch Nails song he ever heard, and every game of Shadowrun that he ever played, and every essay on Blade Runner set design that he ever read, trying to assemble it into something coherent. But his scattered imagination outstrips his ability, and in the end, Veniss Underground is just a great big confused mess of fucking boring. I have City Of Saints And Madmen sitting here too. I shan’t be opening it. It’s yours for a kiss.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Things I Have Learned After Reading H. Rider Haggard

In an effort to make myself into a man, I have been prescribing myself a stern diet of literary classics, subjecting myself to such masterworks as 'Versus: Ogden Nash' and 'King Solomon's Mines', by H. Rider Haggard. Oh, you may scoff and turn your nose up at the mention of Haggard, but he's very good. I've learned a lot from him.

THINGS I HAVE LEARNED AFTER READING H. RIDER HAGGARD

When First Being Told The Tale of a Long-lost Mine Created by King Solomon, It Is Desirable To Exclaim For Dramatic Effect

"What was it you heard about my brother's journey at Bamangwato?" said Sir Henry, as I paused to fill my pipe before answering Captain Good.
"I heard this," I answered, "and I have never mentioned it to a soul till to-day. I heard that he was starting for Solomon's Mines."
"Solomon's Mines!" ejaculated both my hearers at once ...

Meteorological Phenomenon Have a Way of Occuring at Convenient Moments For The Plot

As soon as they were gone, Good went to the little box in which his medicines were, unlocked it, and took out a note-book in the front of which was an almanack. "Now, look here, you fellows, isn't to-morrow the fourth of June?"
We had kept a careful note of the days, so we were able to answer that it was.
"Very good; then here we have it - '4 June, total eclipse of the sun commences at 11.15 Greenwich time, visible in these Islands - Africa, &c.' There's a sign for you. Tell them that you will darken the sun tomorrow."
The idea was a splendid one ...

King Solomon Was a Pretty Awesome Road Builder

As for the road itself, I never saw such an engineering work, though Sir Henry said that the great road over the St. Gothard in Switzerland was very like it. No difficulty had been too great for the Old World engineer who designed it. At one place we came to a great ravine three hundred feet broad and at least a hundred deep. This vast gulf was actually filled in, apparently with huge blocks of dressed stone, over which the road went ...

It Is Not Advisable to Follow Withered Old Crones Into Dark Caves

On she led us, straight to the top of the vast and silent cave, where we found another doorway, not arched as the first was, but square at the top, something like the doorways of Egyptian temples.
"Are ye prepared to enter the Place of Death?" asked Gagool, evidently with a view to making us feel uncomfortable.
"Lead on, Macduff," said Good, solemnly ...


The Assassination Methods of Elephants

With a scream of pain the brute seized the poor Zulu, hurled him to the earth, and placing his huge foot on to his body about the middle, twined his trunk round his upper part and tore him in two ...

When Encountering a Mysterious Race of People Who Speak in A Dialect Related to Modern Zulu, One Should Foment Revolution If One Does Not Like Their Leader

... "Well, I feel uncommonly inclined to be sick."
"If I had anhy doubts about helping Umbopa to rebel against that infernal blackguard," put in Good, "they are gone now. It was as much as I could do to sit still while that slaughter was going on. I tried to keep my eyes shut, but they would open just at the wrong time. I wonder where Infadoos is. Umbopa, my friend, you ought to be grateful to us; your skin came near to having an air-hole made in it."

Englishmen Are Never Immoral

"It is strange," he answered, "and had ye not been Englishmen I would not have believed it; but English 'gentlemen' tell no lies. If we live through the matter, be sure I will repay ye!"

Englishmen Hardly Ever Remove Their Monocles

He was so very neat and so very clean shaved, and he always wore an eye-glass in his right eye. It seemed to grow there, for it had no string, and he never took it out except to wipe it. At first I thought he used to sleep in it ...

Englishmen Are Not Concerned By Wealth

... I can assure you that if you had passed some twenty-eight hours with next to nothing to eat and drink in that place, you would not have cared to cumber yourself with diamonds whilst plunging down into the unknown bowels of the earth, in the wild hope of escape from an agonising death.

But They Don't Turn Their Noses Up At It Either

... If it had not, from the habits of a lifetime, become a sort of second nature with me never to leave anything worth havin behind, if there was the slightest chance of my being able to carry it away, I am sure I should not have bothered to fill my pockets.

Englishmen Do Not Swear, They:

Curse
Damn
Ejaculate (!)
Use invective
Use salty language
Good responded nobly to the tax upon his inventive faculties. Never before had I the faintest conception of the breadth and depth and height of a naval officer's objurgatory powers.

In other news relating to the African continent: South Africans are stoners!

The Age Reviews: More Bullshit

If the concepts of quality writing, useful insight, good literary judgement and cultural awareness could be somehow be placed in a vacuum and then painfully turned inside out, the resultant mess would look a lot like The Age’s book review pages. They served us up some more this weekend, and I was there to send it right back to the fucking kitchen with instructions for the waiter to relay my quivering disgust.


The Incredible Adam Spark by Alan Bissett


Something has gone terribly wrong with this review. The tagline tells us that “You can’t put a barcode on a character like Adam Spark.” But you can apparently put a price tag on this 240 page book. A $53.40 price tag, to be exact. We are also told from the outset that the book is about a spastic, and from what I can tell, consists of nothing but the spastic looking at things and describing them to himself. A little investigation also turns up the suggestion that the language is “very Irvine Welsh”. In other words, indecipherable blasphemy. In other other words: shite.


Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs by Jeremy Mercer


I have it on very good authority that the entirety of Paris smells like feces. Despite this, I am still intrigued and tantalized by notions of one day visiting the infamous Shakespeare & Company bookstore, mainly because I have been hearing about it for the last twenty-eight years of my life. It sounds to be quite the hive of literary activity, with many famous writers staying there (it seems that they have rooms above the store proper), and also something to do with Ulysses. And I love a good book about a bookstore. But I won’t be reading this one, namely because it focuses too much on the people, and not enough on the structure. And the people, as it so happens, are “artists”. And if there’s anyone I hate, it’s an artist. And if there’s anything worse than an artist on his own, it’s an artist cohabiting with other artists, sharing their art, talking about their art. And a bunch of artists living together in the most famous bookstore in the world, with another artist (in this case, Mercer) moving amongst those artists, and writing about them, the shop, and himself, is a perfect recipe for a great big wank.


Consider The Lobster by David Foster Wallace


Fucking David Foster Wallace. Look at that picture of him wearing a bandana. What a cunt. The reviewer actually has the tenacity to compare Wallace to, respectively, James Joyce, Laurence Sterne, and Thomas Pynchon. I have no opinion of Laurence Sterne as I have not read him, but if there’s anything Joyce and Pynchon have in common, it’s that they write big, and they write hard, and people pretend to have read them when they haven’t. People go around with notions of Pynchon and Joyce in their heads, but no understanding of them. Wallace certainly writes big (take a look at Infinite Jest if you don’t believe me), but the difference between Wallace and the rest of them is that people can read Wallace, if they are so inclined. Put the effort in, and eventually you’ll finish the book. Only problem is, you get to the end of a book like Infinite Jest, and you come away with nothing. It’s a thousand pages of empty words and tedious footnotes and disinteresting, sometimes even despicable characters, and you’ll never meet anybody who claims to be reading a Wallace book for the second time around in order to complete or at least augment their understanding of it. That’s because Wallace is read – and read only once – for cachet, or he is not read at all.


The reviewer of Lobster gives the game away halfway through: “If [Wallace] thinks of any new fact - and he thinks of 10,000 - that might illuminate or fructively impede the progress of his argument, he throws it in. He throws it into the footnotes. There they are, at the bottom of the page, going on forever, to what purpose we do not know.”


But he doesn’t mean this in a disparaging way. He is, in fact, delighted by all this uselessness. That’s because he has an impression of Wallace as a grand master, and can’t not approve of anything the man does, even when he admits to frequent and protracted bursts of irritation. He concludes by telling us that this, a book of essays, is “thrilling”. Methinks his synapses are all askew, for essays are not designed to thrill – they are designed to enlighten. I am a big fan of essays and essayists – Hazlitt, Orwell, and Nicholson Baker being amongst my favourites – and many essays I can read again and again without any distillation of delight. But I have never once experienced the sensation of being “thrilled” by an essay. If this were to happen, I should immediately recognise the essay as either one of two things: a piece of journalism, or the lyrics to a fucking rock and roll song.


Dream Boogie: The Triumph Of Sam Cooke by Peter Guralnick


A $75 biography of a man that most of us have never heard of. Not because we have no appreciation for African-American soul/gospel music and civil rights activism, and not because those things were not important to America during a certain phase of its downward spiral, but simply because it is totally fucking irrelevant to me as an Australian reader.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

NEGADON!

The Japanese prove once again that if there’s one thing that will never, ever go out of fashion, it’s giant fuck-ass robots slugging it out with equally enormous space devil-monsters in the middle of Tokyo.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Nostalgia

Tip-off number two ...

In another world, I wrote:

I used to think we lived in a democracy, but we don't. We live in a bureacracy; and it's all about making resolutions about making regulations for setting plans for writing reports.

That was in an article I wrote just after attending a Newcastle City Council public meeting. They had the idea of making a 'City Cultural Precinct' in the middle of Newcastle as a way of attracting artists to the city. It was and is a crazy idea. They could never agree on the borders of this precinct, they didn't have a clear idea about which artists would be working in this precinct (and which artists wouldn't), and they had no clue what date the precinct would be ready by.
The council was always planning to move organisations into different buildings; restructure the Library; and rebuild the art gallery, but it never seemed to happen. The motto of Newcastle City Council always seemed to be: "never put off for next year what you can put off for a decade."
In the meantime, organisations closed down; buildings grew derelict; businesses shut up; and people sat in the Newcastle Community Arts Centre on Parry Street and held interminable meetings in which they discussed future meetings they were going to have.

But there was another Newcastle. Over the three-years plus that I lived there, I can remember helping Liz to set up her store on Hunter Street, sitting in at the first meeting for a new zine committee at the Octapod building on King Street, seeing a Steve Martin play at the Repertoire theatre in Lambton, arguing with dreadlocked socialists selling Green party propaganda at the zine fair in the Honeysuckle markets, drinking too much with Fiona at the Sydney Junction Hotel on Beaumont Street, chatting to Sue Leask (and her Linda Jaivin-style hair) at the Pepperina bookshop on Bolton Street just two weeks before she shut up shop for good, and reading (or rather shouting) poetry at Dean Winter's Cabaret, opposite the now-closed Pepperina bookshop.

Good times? Sure, there were those. And then there was the time I first walked into Graphic Action. They were just next to The Rock Shop at the time, on Hunter Street; and I had just moved to the area. You know how occasionally you get weird author fetishes and for months on end, you comb the bookstores looking obsessively for books by that author, and often only that author? Well, at the time, I had a Michael Moorcock fetish. I wasn't expecting to find anything in particular, but I went in nevertheless. I had a vague idea that they might have stocked Elric of Melnibone comics, so after flicking through some of the collection at the back of the store, I asked the fast-talking guy at the counter if he had any Michael Moorcock books. He went to the collection and showed me several copies of Michael Moorcock's Multiverse.

That fast talking guy was James; he was a member of a local church, and a local theatre group; his father had been a state politician or a federal politician or something like that, and he was part of a local rap band. He was great company: smart, knew what you liked, funny, full of ideas, and usually ready to talk. But the business was his, and he knew business alright; he started working at another local comic store, and then started up in Graphic Action.
There were other guys working at GA as well; Liam, always good to talk to, and easygoing Callan, who was in a band called The Pints.
Later, GA moved to the opposite side of Hunter Street, near the Salvation Army employment offices. This second location for the store differed from the first principally in that you could actually move between the shelves and not get jammed between other customers.

Truth be told, I wasn't the biggest customer of GA. I've never been very interested in comics. But key finds there include the aforementioned Multiverse comics; Joss Whedon's Fray comics; and almost all the Howard the Duck books (which still remain tantalisingly almost-but-not-quite complete).

Ah, Graphic Action. If Newcastle had more places like you then ... it would be a city with two comic bookstores.

Crossposted here.