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Peter Carey, Amnesia (Review)

May 29, 2015

CareyAmnesiaHamishSomewhere sometime ago I read that serious reviewers should read the book they are reviewing at least twice. I think this is good advice, but I admit that with so many books I want to read I rarely follow it. Peter Carey’s latest novel Amnesia is one that well warrants rereading. It assaults you with ideas and action that aren’t easily assimilated on the first read. However, time marches on, so to write this review I am going (or, to be honest, I’m choosing) to rely on the notes I took, supported by a quick flick through. Please read my review in this light!

Amnesia is a satire, and satires can be pretty tricky to read. They’re slippery. They can be funny, but not necessarily. They tend to be about ideas or issues, so their characters are created to serve that end and may not be fully developed or particularly sympathetic. This can make satires tricky to engage with, particularly if you’re the sort of reader who loves to engage with characters. Amnesia presents the reader with some of these challenges. It’s a romp, a thriller, a drama – but in the end it’s all about activism, cyber security and journalism, about politics and the relationship between Australia and the United States of America. I enjoyed it, though the pace was so cracking at times I found it hard to keep up.

The novel starts with a worm, the Angel Worm, which infects the computer control systems of Australian prisons, releasing their locks. Because Australian prison security was designed by American corporations, the worm also infected nearly 5,000 American prisons. Prisoners of all sorts, including asylum seekers, were freed. The U.S. is not amused. As the story breaks, our protagonist, Australia’s self-described “sole remaining left-wing journalist” Felix Moore, is being tried in court for defamation. He’s “grateful for a story big enough to push me off the front pages”. Unfortunately, in the sort of irony typical of satire, he soon finds himself out of the frying pan and into the fire, because, of course, the parents of one of the Worm’s creators are old university friends, Sando Quinn and his wife Celine.

So here’s the set up. Felix is destitute. His book is to be pulped, and his wife has kicked him out. To his rescue comes another old university friend, Woody Townes, who pays him a lot of money to write a book about worm-creator Gaby. Felix soon learns though that this book is not going to be his book expressing the truth as he discovers it, but a book that says … well, let’s just say that here the adventure, romp, thriller, drama, whatever you want to call it, begins.

What then is being satirised? Let’s start with the four main characters, Felix, Sando, Celine and Woody. They met as students at Monash University and became friends. They were radicals and activists who believed they could change the world. They organised marches and protests, they voted in Whitlam and the Labour Government, and they were affronted and angry by Whitlam’s dismissal in 1975. But, who are they now? One of Carey’s targets is this: what happens when radicals grow up? Woody turns capitalist property developer with hints of something worse; Sando is a politician who tries to keep the faith but discovers the compromises he has (or wants) to make; actor Celine sees herself as Bohemian but becomes seduced by the “finer” things in life and doesn’t want to mix with the working class; and journalist Felix sees himself as the tell-it-all saviour but recognises that in the process he has “become an awful creature”.  It’s not a pretty picture.

Underlying this is a thread exploring Australia’s relationship with the USA. There’s the Battle of Brisbane (a pub brawl between American soldiers and locals during World War 2), discussion of US involvement in Whitlam’s dismissal, and, fictionally, fears of what might happen if the US extradited Gaby. (Julian Assange anyone?) Early in the novel, Felix agrees that Woody has a point regarding the extradition risk:

Everything we knew from life suggested that America would do what it liked and Australia would behave like the client state it always was.

Carey also satirises journalism, particularly the sort that prides itself on exposés in search of the truth. Felix becomes the pawn in a game to produce a story that suits the person who gains control of him – by whatever method they can, by money, say, or by abduction. Woody suggests at one stage that Felix make things up to put Gaby in a positive light, but Felix, who believes there’s “no such thing as objective journalism” argues that this doesn’t equate with making things up! Through the course of the book Felix moves (or, more correctly, is moved through mysterious mechanisms) from a classy high-rise in Melbourne, to a remote primitive shack on the Hawkesbury River, and thence to a motel room in the Blue Mountains. All the while he doggedly listens to tapes of mother, Celine, and daughter, Gaby, talking, talking, talking.

Their story of life in Melbourne, from when Gaby was born, significantly on 11 November 1975, is great reading. Melbourne-born Carey knows the city and captures its life, rhythms, and diversity beautifully. The writing is gorgeously descriptive at times, and often funny, but can also be biting.

I think, too, that there’s an element of Carey sending himself up. I’m not suggesting, despite some obvious similarities between character Felix and creator Carey, that Amnesia is intended in any way to be autobiographical. But, in several of the references to writers and writing, I detect digs at some of the criticisms that have been levelled against him. How about, for example, Felix’s comment at the end that:

For the crime of expressing pleasure that my book would be available to future generations, I was judged not only immoral but vain and preening …

Oh Peter, I thought!

To conclude, though, what is all this satire for? Well, the title says it. There’s a reason Gaby was born on the day of the dismissal, and that she becomes the next generation of activists (or hacktivists) – and the reason is that Carey does not want us to forget. He wants us to “maintain the rage”*, to remain aware and vigilant of what is happening, and of whose fingers are in which pie. It’s not subtle, but then what satire is, and it perhaps tries to pack too much in, but it is both an entertaining and a provocative read. I’d be more than happy to read it again.

Peter Carey
Hamish Hamilton, 2014
ISBN: 9781926428604

* I drafted my review and then trawled the net, and what did I find but an interview with Carey in The Australian that says just this. I didn’t steal it, promise!

Monday musings on Australian literature: Writers’ letters and diaries

May 25, 2015

I am currently reading a book of selected letters, First things first, by Australian poet Kate Llewellyn. I’m loving it, so I thought that as a precursor to my review (which is a way off yet as I’ve only read a third), I’d do a Monday Musings on the published letters and diaries of Australian writers. Hmm, not “the” so much as “some”, I should say. And, I should also say that I haven’t read many.

But, I do enjoy reading letters and diaries. It comes, I think, of being a reader who reads more for character than plot. I have written several posts on Jane Austen’s letters which my local group read in sections over a few years. (My posts are listed under Jane Austen on my Author Index page). They were published after Austen’s death. Reading Lewellyn’s letters, I’m aware that she’s alive, and that many of her recipients still are too. It’s a brave thing, I think, to let these “private” communications be shared. Nettie Palmer prepared the extracts from her journal for publication, and recognised the challenges of publishing something that was initially intended only for herself. She says:

Many of the people mentioned in these pages are no longer alive, and as I could not ask all for consent to use their words or letters, I have not asked any. If my friends should think I have taken liberty with them … well, I should be sorry. They will believe nothing here was set down in malice, much in love and gratitude.

Most of the books I’ve listed, though, were published after the author’s death.

As I researched today’s post, I came across the Australian Government’s website on Australian literature. They mention the published letters of Gwen Harwood, which I will include in my little select list below. They include this description of her letters:

Spirited and witty, warm, reflective, at times enraged, often overcome by laughter, the letters are so varied that this large volume can be read as one might read a novel or an autobiography. It would be a pity just to dip in at random: this is the story of the making of a poet.

I’m not sure all collections of letters or diaries provide the story of the making of the writer involved, but they must give some insight into the person, their personality, interests, likes, loves and frustrations. So, here is a selection of published letters and diaries by Australian writers, ordered alphabetically by the name of the writer.

  • Franklin, Miles: The diaries of Miles Franklin, edited by Paul Brunton (2004). These diaries cover the period 1932 to 1954, and is enlightening about Australia’s literary life at the times. I’ve only dipped into it (oops) while doing other research, and look forward to reading more. Here, to give a taste, is an honest Franklin on Dame Mary Gilmore in 1947: “I called on Mary Gilmore. She is increasingly apocryphal in her assertions. Very against the British — an old snake really, seeing the way she touted for a British title …”
  • Harwood, GwenA Steady Storm of Correspondence: Selected Letters of Gwen Harwood 1943-1995, edited by Gregory Kratzmann (2001). See the quote above!
  • Llewellyn, Kate: First things first: Selected letters of Kate Llewellyn, 1977-2004, edited by Ruth Bacchus and Barbara Hill (2015). This is a lively, personal account of Llewellyn’s life, from what I’ve read so far. And it shows me the resilience you need to be a writer, given the very uncertain financial situation writers often find themselves in.
  • Palmer, Nettie: Nettie Palmer: her private journal ‘Fourteen years’, poems, reviews and literary essays (1988), edited by Vivian Smith. This is, really, an anthology, of various of Nettie Palmer’s writings, but it starts with Fourteen years which comprises extracts from Palmer’s journal from 1925 to 1936 and which was first published in Meanjin in 1948. Palmer prepared it for publication, and Smith writes in the introduction that, in arranging it, “notions of symmetry and design were of more importance to Nettie Palmer than an exact pocket diary account of those days”. So, perhaps, a diary that isn’t quite a diary?
  • Palmer, Vance and NettieLetters of Vance and Nettie Palmer 1915-1963, edited by Vivian Smith (1977). This is a selection of the “copious” letters the Palmers wrote to many people, including aspiring and established writers. The inside cover says that the “selection reveals the breadth of the Palmers’ interests and the generosity of their concern for young writers’ struggles, for the plight of Spain in the 1930s, for the problems of bringing up children, earning a living, and facing two world wars. The span of their letters provides an informed and lively perspective on this century. Through these day-to-day responses runs a constant theme: the need for Australians to assume a responsible national stance in politics, in public affairs and in the Palmers’ own profession, literature. They lament, in an entirely modern voice, the inconsecutive* nature of Australian culture, the derivative admirations of academics and the public, and the philistinism evident in so much of our national life”.
  • Wright, JudithWith love and fury: Selected letters of Judith Wright, edited by Patricia Clarke and Meredith McKinney (2006). This collection includes her 1945-46 correspondence with Jack McKinney, who became her husband, and with Queensland poet, Jack Blight. Co-editor and coincidentally Wright’s daughter, Meredith McKinney, says that the letters with Blight “constitute a running commentary on the Australian literary scene as well as what she was reading and thinking about poetry and writing in general”. Wright was an activist for the environment and indigenous rights, among other social issues, so her letters are sure to be enlightening.

I’ll leave it here, but have you noticed something? With the exception of Vance Palmer, these all belong to women. It’s easy to suggest that letter writing and journal-keeping have traditionally been the realm of women, but there have been men too, like Samuel Pepys, of course. I did look for diaries and letters by men but with little success. I’m hoping they do exist and that some readers here will tell me about them. Regardless, I’d love to know if you, too, enjoy reading writers’ letters and journals.

* I have no idea what this word means and wonder if it’s a typo – I quoted it from the National Library’s Catalogue quoting the book’s inside cover.

Richard Lloyd Parry, People who eat darkness (Review)

May 23, 2015

ParryDarknessCapeCommenting on my review of Helen Garner’s This house of grief, Ian Darling recommended Richard Lloyd Parry’s People who eat darkness: Love, grief and a journey into Japan’s shadows. I’m ashamed that I rarely follow up the great recommendations I receive here, and I admit that it’s odd that when I did this time it was for a genre I rarely read, true crime. But, I was intrigued because it’s about a crime in Japan, and Japan is a country that I love to visit. Fortunately, Ian didn’t lead me astray. It’s a fascinating book.

I’m not a big reader of crime, in fiction or non-fiction form, but I have read a small number of true crime books over the years, starting, long ago, with Truman Capote’s In cold blood. True crime books vary in emphasis, but the ones that attract me are those that throw light on character and society. This is certainly the case with Parry’s People who eat darkness which tells the story of Lucie Blackman, a 21-year-old English woman who went missing in Tokyo in the summer of 2000 and whose remains were found that winter. Parry writes early in the book that “the story was familiar enough – girl missing: body found: man charged – but … it became so complicated and confusing, so fraught with bizarre turns and irrational developments, that conventional reporting of it was almost inevitably unsatisfactory, provoking more unanswered questions than it could ever quell”.

And so Parry attempts to answer these questions. In so doing he covers a lot of ground. He gives us biographies of both Lucie and the man convicted of killing her, Joji Obara; he exposes Japanese discrimination against Koreans; he explains the role of “hostesses” in modern Japanese culture; he explores Japanese policing and the wider justice system; he looks at the media; and he tells the story of the devastating impact of the murder on Lucie’s family. He’s a good writer and tells it well, but I felt we didn’t need as much of Lucie’s biography as he gave. We needed to know a little about her, of course – including why she was in Japan working as a hostess in Roppongi – but, while it was relevant to delve into Obara’s life, I did wonder about the relevance of telling us about, for example, Lucie’s various friends and earlier boyfriends. Did he include all this to balance out the space he was giving to the perpetrator? Why should Obara get more airplay, after all? The victim is often invisible enough. Still, it’s a long book and could have been tightened a little in this area.

However, this is a minor niggle, because Parry has written a compelling story. I must say that I feel uncomfortable using the word “story” for such a devastating event, and even more uncomfortable calling it “compelling”, but I can’t think of any alternative language, so will just have to continue. What makes it compelling is that this is a crime story that departed the usual scripts. Parry analyses the hows and whys of these departures.

“conquest play”

The first “script relates to the murder: it was not, it seems, premeditated but a date-rape (or, “conquest play” as the perpetrator so chillingly called it) that went terribly wrong. Obara had been practising for many years his perverted idea of “conquest play” in which he invited (or lured) women to spend time with him, during which he would sedate them with chloroform or date-rape drugs to enable him to carry out sexual acts. His behaviour had resulted in the death, in 1992, of an Australian woman Carita Ridgeway, but her death had not been recognised as a “murder”. This, together with the failure of the police to follow up a number of complaints about Obara, meant that Lucie was the next unlucky one to not survive Obara’s gruesome idea of “play”. Obara, though, argued to the end that she died of a self-administered overdose.

“not Japanese”

The next “script” is the trial, which did not run the typical Japanese course. Trials in Japan, Parry tells us, “do not resemble fights, battles or sporting events, as the adversarial logic of its laws seems to prescribe, but rather ‘ceremonies’ or ’empty shells’, devoid of even minor disagreements.” However, Obara fought his case vigorously. Parry describes in great detail Japan’s justice system, from policing to the trial and appeals. In Japan, he says, “you are not innocent until proven guilty”. He quotes sociologist David Johnson’s statement that “Prosecutors, like just about everyone in Japan, believe that only the guilty should be charged and that the charged are almost certainly guilty”. Consequently, in Japan, over 90% of those committed to trial are convicted – and a confession is expected. Parry writes:

‘The police are experienced in persuading people to confess,’ a senior detective told me. ‘We make efforts to let the criminal understand the consequences of their actions. We say things like “The sorrow of the victims is truly deep” and “Have you no sense of reflection on what you have done?” But he was not that kind of person. With him those tactics would never work.’ The detective had no difficulty in explaining this quirk in Obara’s character, although he hesitated a little in spelling it out to a foreigner. ‘It is hard for you to understand, perhaps. But it’s because he is . . . not Japanese.’

Obara was of Korean background, you see, and, as Parry details, Japan does not treat its Korean citizens well. Why Obara was the way he was is too complex to discuss here – though Parry makes a good attempt in the book – but from the police point of view, he was “not Japanese” and, once arrested, did not follow the expected path of a charged man.

“the most terrible, terrible event”

Finally, Lucie’s family, rather than presenting “a tight-knit” unit as is so often presented in post-tragedy media reporting, was bitterly divided. Her parents had been divorced many years before her murder, but it was not amicable. Lucie and her two younger siblings, Sophie and Rupert, lived with their mother Jane, while father Tim lived on the Isle of Wight. Lucie was close to her mother, and often kept the peace between her sister and mother. If all this was a sad situation before Lucie died, it was devastating after. The parents could agree on nothing, from how they responded to the media to how they would inter Lucie.

Jane is a more shadowy figure, because she largely kept to herself. Tim though, with Sophie, was active in the search for Lucie, using whatever resources he could garner. Parry clearly got to know him well, and presents to us an intriguing, sometimes contradictory, man, one who said that the death of his daughter was “the most terrible, terrible event of my life” and yet who could say he felt sorry for Obara. Parry writes of this that:

Nothing better caught the complexity of Tim’s own character, his stubborn unorthodoxy, which to me was so likeable and admirable, but which to many people was repellent. Almost on principle, he refused the obvious point of view and the temptations of conventional morality. The high ground was his for the taking, but instead of marching ahead to claim it, he dawdled and skirted around it, finding shades of pathos and ambiguity where others could see only black and white. Onlookers were not merely puzzled by this – they were appalled.

Parry’s portrait of Tim is one of the most interesting aspects of the book, but his picture of a family destroyed is heart-wrenching. Here is Sophie on the day Lucie’s remains were interred:

What was most glaringly obvious was how Lucie’s death had changed the relationships between all of us, and how as a brother and a sister, and a mum and a dad, we were just four strangers sitting round a table.

It’s a desperately sad story, which had longterm ramifications for Lucie’s siblings.

“the drive to pass judgement”

Parry, an English journalist based in Tokyo, spent around ten years researching this book. He attended the very lengthy trial, spoke to family, friends, police and others involved, and read a lot of written material including letters, diaries and emails. He tells the story from a first person point of view, sharing his research process along the way. He is not actively “in” the story like, say, a Helen Garner, but we can discern his hand.

Humans, he writes

are conditioned to look for truth which is singular and focused, hanging for all to see, like a clear, full moon in a cloudless sky. Books about crime are expected to deliver such a photographic image, to serve up a story as dry as a shelled and salted nut. But as a subject, Joji Obara sucked away brightness; all that was visible was smoke or haze, and the twinkling upon it of external light. The shell, in other words, was all that was to be had of the nut; but the surface of the shell turned out to be fascinating in itself.

Near the end, he suggests that the “drive to pass judgement was one of the extraordinary effects of the case”. It is to his credit that he manages to steer an astutely observed but even course through unexpected scripts to capture the complexity of its “actors”, and thus of humanity. There is value in reading a book like this.

Richard Lloyd Parry
People who eat darkness: Love, grief and a journey into Japan’s shadows
London: Jonathan Cape, [2011]
404p. (in print ends.)
ISBN: 9781448155613 (ePub)

Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian flash fiction initiatives

May 18, 2015

It seemed sensible to follow up my review last week of Angela Myer’s collection of flash fiction, Captives, with a selective survey of some Australian initiatives for this sort of fiction.

While flash fiction is not new, the internet does seem to be giving it renewed life. An online search will reveal many sites and blogs – individual and communal – on which writers can post their pieces. Here, though, I will focus on more “organisational” support for the form in Australia.

  • 52-Week Flash Fiction Challenge, on Facebook: Created, as far as I can gather, by Australian children’s author Sheryl Gwyther, this is an open flash fiction challenge, which means anyone from anywhere can post a story. Her definition is 20-500 words, and she has set a topic word for each week of the challenge. By way of example, the first three for this year, which started in March, were “silk”, “basic”, “sermon”.
  • Antipodean SF‘s Speculative Flash Fiction: AntiSF is a site “devoted to the online publication of short-short science/speculative fiction stories”, which they define as having an upper limit of 1000 words. You can read their flash fiction online. Everything they’ve published – flash fiction, reviews, and other short works – can be found at their Pandora archive.
  • Australian Horror Writers Association’s Flash and Short Story Competition: Entries are about to close for this year’s competition, but if you’re quick there’s still a chance. For the AHWA, flash fiction can be up to 1000 words. The winner of their competition will receive paid publication in the Assocation’s magazine, Midnight Echo, and an engraved plaque.
  • Fellowship of Australian Writers (Qld) Flash Fiction Competition: For FAWQ’s competition, flash fiction needs to be under 250 words, and “must have a beginning, middle and an end. It must also have conflict and resolution”. The theme for 2015 is “Harvest”. Hmm … that might get some creative juices going! There are two prizes of $100 and $50.
  • Flashers: An initiative of Seizure, Flashers promotes itself as the “online home of Australian flash fiction”. They publish new pieces, of 50 to 500 words, every week. They describe flash fiction as work that “could be written in an hour and read in a minute”, but they also recognise that it has “peculiar challenges – and authors have to make every word count”. This means to me that it often isn’t written in an hour, that it takes time to hone those words! But, here is the good news – at least it sounds good to me – Seizure actually pays for the pieces it publishes. Just $50, but a start eh? This payment is due to the support of the Australia Council.
  • Spineless Wonders, run by UTS alumni, states that they publish “the only annual anthology of microliterature (including Flash Fiction) in Australia”. Spineless Wonders cover the gamut of what they call “brief” fiction, that is, “short story, novella, sudden fiction and prose poetry”. Since 2011, they have sponsored The joanne burns Micro-Lit Award. For the 2015 award, won by Nick Couldwell, pieces had to be no more than 200 words, and meet the theme “out of place”. The winner and finalists will be published in an anthology titled, yes, Out of place. The prize also included $300.
This brief list represents only a slice of the action out there, but I’ve enjoyed sussing out what I think is a variety of ways in which the form is supported and promoted. I’d love to hear of sites you know and love.

Jane Austen, Emma Vol 3 (continuing thoughts)

May 17, 2015

I’ve now finished my re-read of Emma, and found that the theme of friendship, which I discussed in my Volumes 1 and 2 posts, did continue to play out in the last volume. In those previous posts, I suggested that Austen was presenting friendship as having both personal and social value, and I gave examples of different acts of friendship, some generous, others more questionable if not down-right self-serving.

Now, having finished the novel, I’d like to identify the different sorts of friendships which Austen presents to her readers:

  • neighbourly/kind friendship
  • “general” friendship
  • self-serving friendship
  • “true” friendship

Since I touched on some of these in previous posts, I will just expand a little more here. Neighbourly or kind friendship encompasses giving mostly practical support to others. In Emma this includes, for example, providing transport or food to poorer women in the neighbourhood. Many characters offer this sort of friendship, including, even, the unpopular Mrs Elton.

General friendship, on the other hand, is the sort of hail-fellow-well-met tolerance/acceptance of other people, with little regard to substance. Mr Weston is a perfect example of this. He’s “straight-forward, open-hearted”. He doesn’t discriminate against people on the basis of, say, class, but neither does he discern between sincerity and superficiality. And he’s inclined to gossip rather than hold his counsel. Here’s Emma on Mr Weston at the Crown where he is hosting a dance. He’d invited her to arrive early to pronounce on whether everything is in order, but she finds that he had similarly invited many other “friends”:

Emma perceived that her taste was not the only taste on which Mr. Weston depended, and felt, that to be the favourite and intimate of a man who had so many intimates and confidants, was not the very first distinction in the scale of vanity. She liked his open manners, but a little less of open-heartedness would have made him a higher character.—General benevolence, but not general friendship, made a man what he ought to be.—She could fancy such a man.

Such a man is, of course, Mr Knightley. Emma is, admittedly, a bit of a snob and likes to be recognised for her “place” in Highbury, but nonetheless, Mr Weston is presented to us as someone who “takes things as he finds them, and makes enjoyment of them somehow or other” rather than one who can be relied upon, for example, to make good judgement about character. He’s an appealing character, but not the ideal man.

Self-serving (or self-aggrandising) friendship is epitomised by the execrable Mrs Elton whose protestations of friendship, particularly towards Jane Fairfax, belie her real motivations, which are to look good and to spite Emma. She chooses her friendships on the basis of what they do for her.

And then there’s “true” friendship, the sort of friendship which is not swayed by superficial concerns, which is not scared to speak the truth, and which quietly works for the benefit of others without looking for praise or recognition. This is the sort of friendship offered by Mr Knightley, who tells Emma when he feels she’s behaved rudely or improperly, who consistently judges people correctly, and who is prepared to make sacrifices for the benefit of others.

There are readers who find the relationship between 21-year-old Emma and 38-year-old Mr Knightley a little paternalistic, if not creepy, but I’d argue these were different times with different expectations and mores. Emma is not a push-over and it’s clear that Austen sees their relationship as one built on love and “true” friendship. The last lines of the novel are:

The wedding was very much like other weddings, where the parties have no taste for finery or parade; and Mrs. Elton, from the particulars detailed by her husband, thought it all extremely shabby, and very inferior to her own. “Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business! Selina* would stare when she heard of it.” But, in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.

Before I leave this topic of friendship, I want to mention a somewhat related topic – that of civil falsehoods. Austen introduces the term through Frank Churchill who, on being encouraged by Emma to go hear Jane Fairfax play the pianoforte, expresses an inability to pretend to like it if the instrument’s tone is poor. He says “I am the wretchedest being in the world at a civil falsehood”. The irony, of course, is that he is being false to Emma. Emma, though, blithely unaware, tells him that “I am persuaded that you can be as insincere, as your neighbours, when it is necessary”.

Emma, more than any of Austen’s novels, deals with a whole community. Austen teases out the idea that communities survive on the basis of “civil falsehoods”, that these falsehoods are at times “necessary”. On another occasion, when Mr Weston invites Mrs Elton to the Box Hill picnic, stating that “she is a good-natured woman”, a disappointed

Emma denied none of it aloud, and agreed to none of it in private.

Emma, in other words, does the polite thing and holds her tongue. But Austen knows there are costs, and that there is a place for “civil falsehoods” and a place for honesty. Falsehoods, even civil ones, Austen argues need to be handled with care. By the end of the novel, it’s clear that she, like Emma, would always prefer “openness” to concealment. I wonder if this is why she, known for her sharp tongue, felt Emma would be a heroine that only she would like!


Noticing this friendship theme is just one of the delights I’ve had in this re-reading of Emma. Each time I read it, I notice more – both in terms of Austen’s concerns and her technique.

Illustration, Emma and Mrs Weston

“Jane Fairfax. Good God! You are not serious!” (Illus, by CE Brock)

One feature that interested me this read is the way she shows characters’ real love interests by whom they are watching (out for). It’s subtle and can be missed on early reads but it’s there. For example, while everyone thinks Frank Churchill is interested in Emma, Frank is watching out for Jane Fairfax. When Jane arrives at the Crown with her aunt, Miss Bates, it looks as though it’s Miss Bates whom Frank tends – “Miss Bates must not be forgotten” he says to his father as he rushes out to make sure they don’t get wet. But Miss Bates, in her chatter, lets drop his real interest:

My dear Jane, are you sure you did not wet your feet? It was but a drop or two, but I am so afraid: but Mr. Frank Churchill was so extremely—and there was a mat to step upon. I shall never forget his extreme politeness.

Similarly, when Emma and Harriet discuss a past occasion when they were with Mr Knightley and Mr Elton, Emma remembers where Mr Knightley had been standing, while Harriet only remembers Mr Elton:

“Stop; Mr. Knightley was standing just here, was not he? I have an idea he was standing just here.”

“Ah! I do not know. I cannot recollect. It is very odd, but I cannot recollect. Mr. Elton was sitting here, I remember, much about where I am now.”

Absolutely delicious. By the time this occurs, Harriet is over Mr Elton, and Emma is still unaware of her love for Mr Knightley, all of which adds to our delight in reading this scene.

Another technique which struck me was how often characters mis-read clues, how often they assume the wrong reason for an occurrence. Near the end, Mr Knightley holds Emma’s hand and is “on the point of carrying it to his lips—when, from some fancy or other, he suddenly let it go”. Emma doesn’t read this as love but as a sign of “perfect amity”. And when Frank, on his return to Highbury, visits Emma but doesn’t stay long, she assumes “it implied a dread of her returning power, and a discreet resolution of not trusting himself with her long”. However, the real truth, we realise on subsequent readings if not our first, is that he wants to visit Jane.

I could, in fact write three times this and more, on Emma, but I’d rather not. I’d much prefer it if these little tidbits encouraged you to read it (again!). At 200 years old, and despite its dated snobbery, this is a book that still has much to offer about human nature – and about skilful writing. I’m sure to read it again.

* Selina is Mrs Elton’s sister whom she sees as the arbiter of all things impressive.

Angela Meyer, Captives (Review)

May 13, 2015

Angela Meyer, CaptivesHave you read any flash fiction? Some of the pieces in Pulse would qualify but, besides this, I hadn’t read much until I picked up Angela Meyer’s collection Captives, which I bought for my Kindle last year. I bought it for a few reasons: I enjoyed and reviewed the short story collection she edited, The great unknown; I follow her blog Literary Minded; and of course I like short fiction. So I read Meyer’s book and was – dare I say it – captivated!

Meyer has divided her collection into 7 sections, the first 6 of which are titled using polarities – On/Off, Up/Down, In/Out, With/Without, Here/There, Then/Now – with the last being, simply, Until. The titles are as terse as the little works they contain. And a couple are very little, being just a couple of paragraphs, while the longest are, I’m guessing, around 500 words. This brings me to the matter of definition. How do we define flash fiction? Well, as with all definitions, there’s not complete agreement. Most agree that it can be as short as a sentence, but there’s no such agreement on the upper limit. Some say 300 words, some 500 words, and others 1000 words. The term itself was first used in the early 1990s, but there are other terms, including micro fiction and sudden fiction. I won’t discuss this further. I’m happy to be fluid about the definition, and I like the term flash fiction.

Writing a very short story sounds challenging to me. As Becky Tuch writes in The Review Review “Distilling experience into a few pages or, in some cases a few paragraphs, forces writers to pay close attention to every loaded conversation, every cruel action, every tender gesture, and every last syllable in every single word.” Meyer clearly understands this imperative, and demonstrates a sure grasp of the form. Indeed, several of the works included in Captives have been published elsewhere, which suggests her writing in this form has gained recognition.

Captives contains 37 pieces, and they vary greatly in topic, theme and setting. Some are set in the past, some the future, some in exotic places like Norway or Scotland, and others in Australia. Some are realistic, while others toy with the unexplained. Their protagonists range from a man who has accidentally locked himself in the toilet (“Thirteen tiles”) to a sister with a secret (“We were always close”). Some pieces have been inspired by news stories like those about men who lock up women for years (“Green-eyed snake”) or about the man who walked a tightrope across the Grand Canyon (“Tightrope walker’s daughter”). Other pieces reveal writers she admires, such as George Orwell (“Booklover’s corner”) and Italo Calvino (“One of the strings and their supports remain”). In all, though, the protagonists confront a challenge, a change, a decision, or they create worlds that suit themselves. As you’d probably expect given the form, we don’t always know the outcome. Meyer leaves clues, of course, and sometimes we can be confident we know what will happen, but other times those clues simply tease us with possibilities.

The collection starts with a bang, almost literally. In “The day before the wedding” the bride discovers something new about “her love”. He is out duck-shooting, and

Still her love had the gun trained on her, and she stood, and even when he lowered it and his expression revealed play, a joke, she knew she’d seen his true face.

I don’t think this spoils the story, because the conclusion which follows is one of those teasers I mentioned – unsettling, but for whom? Meyer’s language here is tight and spare, and uncompromising. I loved it, and knew I’d made the right decision to buy this book.

Subtitled “Bad things happen. Or they might. At any moment”, the collection is dark, overall.  But, there are (somewhat) lighter pieces. In “Glitch”, Daniella finds a solution to her problem of hearing the devil, “the hiss of Beelzebub”, in the machines around her, and in “Brand new” the narrator finds comfort in the company of a brain-damaged elderly man. This story reminded me of my reading group’s joke that when we are old and have lost our memories we will just read the same book every month. Much cheaper, and just as much fun – if we choose the right book!

I can’t possibly cover all the pieces, so will look at one section, In/Out, which comprises six pieces. In “Meds” the narrator needs to decide whether he will join his partner and friends in their calm, medicated (or, as he sees it, capitulated) lives, while in “One of the crew” a woman fakes being a writers’ festival official. There’s an interesting paradox here: in the first story our protagonist is invited “in” but doesn’t want to accept, while in the second the woman wants to be “in” so pretends to be so. In two of the other pieces, the in/out dichotomy is more literal. There’s the aforementioned toilet prisoner in “Thirteen tiles”, and there’s “Foreign bodies”, in which Kate, a prisoner in gaol, starts to swallow increasingly bigger objects. The conclusion to this story, though, pushes literalism to the limit. Indeed, in many of the stories, Meyer plays with the tension between literalism or realism and the absurd or fanciful. There’s often a fine line …

I haven’t talked much about the writing, because the stories themselves are so powerful. However, part of the power of the stories comes from the writing, of course. It’s perhaps intrinsic to the form, but the writing is direct, spare. It can also be elliptical at times. Meyer expects her readers to work, but that too is the nature of short fiction. And there is tight pointed use of imagery, as in the opening paragraph of “We’ve always been close”:

My sister and I stretched a tarp over the mud to make a slide into the dam, just like when we were kids. It was full from the recent storm. Magpies called. From the dam, I splashed gritty brown water up onto the slide to give my sister something to slip on. She squealed and laughed and the sound dirtied my chest with guilt. She gripped my shoulders after landing, as she was afraid of the bottom. We’ve always been close.

On the surface a happy scene, but we know from the language that something is not quite right …

Captives is an appropriate title for the collection because, whether they know it or not, most if not all the protagonists are captives in one way or another – some physically, some psychologically or intellectually, some both. Some escape, while others remain trapped (at least to the best of our knowledge). Deborah, a psychologist in “Spark”, is trying to escape:

She had wanted to agitate the structure, to act out, in ways a psychologist should not.

Fortunately for us, though, Meyer is a writer of fiction and it is perfectly acceptable for her “to agitate the structure”. This she has done with confidence and flair. Not every story grabbed me equally, but I think that’s more to do with me and my experience. I wouldn’t be surprised if different readers found different stories worked best for them. So, my recommendation is that if you haven’t read flash fiction, this would be an excellent place to start.

awwchallenge2015Angela Meyer
Design: Sandy Cull
Carlton South: Inkerman and Blunt, 2014
ISBN: 9780987540126

Monday musings on Australian literature: Dymphna Cusack

May 11, 2015

It’s been nearly a year since I devoted a Monday Musings post to a specific author, my last one being Barbara Baynton last June. It seemed like time for another one, and Dymphna Cusack (1902-1981), I decided, could do with a little push. Best known for her collaborative novel, Come in spinner (1951, with Florence James), Cusack was, in fact, a prolific writer. According to Wikipedia, she wrote twelve novels, seven plays, as well as non-fiction and children’s books.

This is not, however, going to be biographical. I did cover some of her history in my review of her memoir as a teacher, A window in the dark. Here, I want to explore her role in the development of Australian literature using commentary from her contemporaries found via Trove.

Deserting the bush tradition

Dymphna Cusack, Jungfrau

Courtesy: Allen & Unwin

I’ve written before about the bush focus in Australian literature. It’s an important part of who we are but, Australia, believe it or not, has long been an urbanised nation. Cusack knew this as did some of those who reviewed her debut novel Jungfrau (my review). The reviewer in the Australian Women’s Weekly comments, in 1936, that 50 years hence Australians would not be shocked to see books dealing with “contemporary city life, and with the young, modern people of our capital cities”, but that right now such novels are “noteworthy”:

We have had fine novels of pioneers and the bush; the world knows Australia as a land of gum trees and sheep, convicts and cattle, sundowners and flies. It is doubtful, however, whether an overseas student of our literature would even suspect that a very large percentage of the country’s population eats, dreams, strives, succeeds or falls in cities larger than most of those in Europe and America.

Dymphna Cusack has realised this; she has deserted what has become almost a tradition in our fiction; she has broken new ground, and therein lies the importance of her book.

The reviewer comments on Cusack’s “convincing” picture of Sydney, and writes that “Surf, streets, trams, newspaper offices, churches, bookshops – these are the scenes against which the characters in “Jungfrau” move. S/he is particularly impressed by Cusack’s handling of modern young women:

The general conception of the “modern” girl is that she is hard, brittle, ready for anything – that, to use a current expression, she “knows all the answers.”

Miss Cusack has laid bare the fallacy of this; the young woman of this era is still vulnerable; despite her mask of self-assurance she is still as open to hurt as the young woman of any previous generation. Perhaps even more so.

Writing novels of ideas

The reviewer in Adelaide’s The Advertiser in 1937 was similarly impressed by Cusack’s achievement, but looked at it from a different angle. S/he reviews three novels by Australian women, starting with a general comment:

“It is not wholly fanciful to suggest that within a decade or so most novels of ideas will be written by women, “a distinguished English literary critic wrote recently. “Modern intelligent men,” he added, “express themselves and their thoughts more easily in autobiographies, biographies, essays, and books of travel than in the form of fiction. And the future of the English novel is already largely in the hands of women.”

I’m chuffed that something which I’ve been deducing from my rather general study of the period was being noticed at the time. Anyhow, our reviewer agrees with this critic commenting that

Australian women seem to be developing an individuality in recent novels that is far more interesting and inspiring than the efforts of their contemporaries among the men.

S/he describes Cusack’s Jungfrau “as a valuable picture of our city life that should do much to dispel persistently recurring illusions abroad concerning Australians’ homes, culture, manners, and way of speech”. S/he praises Cusack for “her irony, insight, and deft handling of human nature, and … [her] beautiful and thoughtful writing.”

Two years later in 1939, a writer in The Australasian reports Cusack as saying that

the job of translating Australia into words is too big a job for one person. It is probably the most exciting job in the world, because we are breaking new ground all the time.

This writer says of Cusack:

as a conversationalist she sparkles, brilliantly and wittily. She confesses to two passions (1) listening to Beethoven, and (2) surfing. And she would spend her spare time in the perfect world in arranging revolutions, for she thinks, most emphatically, that any kind of revolution is A GOOD THING.

That sounds like Cusack, and explains beautifully why she wrote novels of ideas. Read on …

Well-meaning, but …

Cusack, Southern SteelUnfortunately, it seems, in the opinion of contemporary reviewers anyhow, that Cusack’s interest in ideas/revolution/protest started to be detrimental to her fiction.

The Western Mail‘s reviewer, writing in 1953 of Cusack’s novel Southern steel, paid her a rather backhanded compliment:

It’s doubtful whether Miss Cusack’s most ardent admirers, even, would describe the book as a fine piece of writing, but at the same time it could not be denied that the Government [who gave her a grant] spent its money wisely.

The novel is set in the steel town of Newcastle, where Cusack had taught, and deals with “family disunion, feminine rivalries, big business and war-time Australia”. But, according to our reviewer, it is “unnecessarily crude”, “seems outdated”, and puzzlingly introduces so many characters it “becomes rather difficult to keep up with them all”. Nonetheless, s/he describes it as “vigorously written” and says “it gives a forceful, though somewhat imaginative, account of the Australia we lived in during the war”. That “though” is interesting, implying the imagination here has not been used appropriately.

And then there’s “the colour question”. Cusack wrote a novel, titled The sun in exile, about Jamaicans in London. The reviewer in The farmer and settler, in 1955, was not particularly impressed. S/he writes that “in an attempt to present a cross-section of views Miss Cusack puts into their [her characters’] mouths opinions often superficial and outdated” and, further, argues that “in highlighting the conflicts which flare up between immigrants and Londoners she seems to have written with an eye to dramatic effect rather than reality.” It’s “a well-meaning book”, s/he says, but it fails “to get under the surface of people and events”. And then the clincher: why, s/he asks, did Cusack have “to look overseas for her background and theme — Australia has racial problems of its own”. Good question, and in fact, Cusack went on to do just that.

Jean Battersby (at last, a by-line) writes in The Canberra Times in 1964 about Black lightning in which Cusack “applies some stinging social criticism to … the situation of our Aborigines”. Battersby clearly agrees that such criticism is needed:

By any enlightened standards the social status of Australian Aborigines, their living conditions, education and prospects, our dilatory and torpid national conscience and the leisurely progress of our policies are little credit to a modern, wealthy, civilized and Christian community.

However, she feels that Cusack took up the fight “with courage, sympathy and indignation, but without very much subtlety or skill”. Battersby writes that Cusack’s

enthusiasm leads her to over-simplify what is an immensely complex problem. There are more than two dimensions to this problem of race relations, and it is neither realistic nor good strategy to portray the blacks as all white and the whites as all black.

And here comes the crunch – the ongoing challenge faced by all novels of ideas:

Miss Cusack has not been able to avoid the main pitfall of the social novelist …. the temptation to overstate a strong case.

Art, properly exploited, is probably the most powerful ally of the social critic, for it allows objective argument to be translated into direct emotional experience. But its disciples must be observed … its special ways of making points, its dependence on balance and proportion. If they are not, it easily degenerates into pleading and propaganda, which tend to defeat their own ends, discrediting their cause by the methods which they use.

Now I need to read some of these later novels to see what I think. Have any of you read them?

My survey here of contemporary responses is pretty superficial. It’s possible, probable even, that others felt differently about Cusack’s writing. Regardless, though, of whether critics universally admired all of her work, there’s no doubt that Cusack made a significant contribution to the development of Australian literature.


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