Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards Shortlist

And so, as reported by Perry Middlemiss on his Matilda blog, it’s pretty much the usual 2009 suspects that have been shortlisted for the Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction. They are:

  • The pages by Murray Bail (Text)
  • Dog boy by Eva Hornung (Text)
  • The boat by Nam Le (Penguin)
  • The slap by Christos Tsiolkas (Allen & Unwin)
  • Breath by Tim Winton (Penguin)

I have read the last three of these (links are to my reviews here or elsewhere), and will be reading The pages in the next month or so. Nam Le’s The boat won this year’s New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards Book of the Year and UTS Glenda Adams Award. Will it win in Victoria? I rather hope it does – if only because it represents a fresh new and talented voice that would be great to encourage.

Steve Toltz, A fraction of the whole

I reckon the voters for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards inaugural People’s Choice Award got it right when they chose Toltz’s A fraction of the whole as the first winner. Not necessarily because it is the best book of the year, because I’m not sure that it is, but because it is such a life-writ-large book. It is funny – belly-laugh, sometimes, and quiet chuckle, other times – but serious at the same time. Just when you think you have grasped what it is about, it dives off on another tangent and your brain has to start working all over again.

I’m not sure how to describe it. It’s basically a father-son story, told in first person by the son, Jasper. However, Jasper inserts into his story three long sections in his father’s voice: Martin’s life-story (to the age of 22) as he tells it to Jasper in a seventeen hour stint, entries from Martin’s journal describing his relationship with Jasper’s mother, and Martin’s unfinished autobiography. These add some texture to the novel and allow us to know things that Jasper couldn’t know.

Created by Tinette, Wikipedia, under GNU Free Documentation Licence

Created by Tinette for Wikipedia under GNU Free Documentation Licence

The characters are intriguing, with Martin being centre-stage. At my bookgroup’s discussion of the book one of the members wondered whether there could be a bit of yin-yang between Martin and his brother Terry, and she could have a point. Jasper quotes the following from his father’s journal:

No symbolic journey can take place in an apartment. There’s nothing metaphorical about a trip to the kitchen. There’s nothing to ascend! Nothing to descend! No space! No verticality! No cosmicity! … The essential important idea that will shift me from Thinking Man to Doing Man is impossible to apply here. … I am a halfway man …

But, while he tries, Martin never really does move from a Thinking Man, while his brother remains the Doing Man. Jasper seems caught in the middle. Martin’s trouble is that he has “thought himself into a corner”, one where he is so distrustful  of humanity, and so fearful of death, that he can’t trust the ideas that could get him out. As Martin says: “If men are constantly manufacturing meaning in order to deny death, then how can I know I didn’t manufacture that experience myself?”. This corner, this distrust, is to bring tragedy to his life near the end of the novel.

It’s a very funny book, with the comedy being both verbal and situational. It is at different times absurd, ironic or satiric. The satire is aimed at pretty much anything you could imagine – education, politics, media (journalists in particular), philosophy, death and, indeed, humanity. Almost any page you open will provide either a laugh or a description that makes you go “aha” – on many pages you will find both.

So what is it actually about? It is about father-son relationships, and about sons who don’t want to replicate their fathers. It is about Australia (“our demented country”) and Australians – and is not too complimentary about our willingness to put others down, our lack of compassion for those who need our help. It is about the paradoxes that make up our lives and thus humanity and much of the book is expressed in terms of these paradoxes – the good and bad, life and death, pessimism (Martin) versus optimism (Jasper), sanity and insanity, forgiveness and unforgiveness, and so on.

There is so much to write about this book that I think it’s best I end here with, fittingly, a paradoxical statement made by Martin two-thirds through the novel. “Fiction”, he says in his unfinished autobiography, “has a habit of making the real world seem made-up”. Toltz has produced in his novel a world that seems both real and made-up. It is up to us to decide which is which…and act accordingly!

Joan London, The good parents (Spoilers, sort of)

I was looking forward to reading Joan London’s most recent novel, The good parents, because I loved her Gilgamesh, not only for its engrossing story but also for its evocation of place and period and its spare writing. The plot of The good parents is a simple one. Maya, Jacob and Toni’s 18 year-old daughter, disappears just before they arrive in Melbourne to visit her, and the book chronicles the way they go about locating her and bringing her home. It is not, however, a mystery or detective novel but an exploration of “family” and particularly of parents and parenting.

London looks at these subjects through her various characters and their stories: Jacob and his mother Arlene, Toni and her parents Beryl and Nig, Cecile and her adoptive parents, Cy and his mother, and so on. And from these she uses parallels in their stories to tease out similarities and differences. For example, both Toni and Maya run away, Jacob and Cy are both products, essentially, of single mother families. It is, in fact, a cleverly constructed book, with links and refrains criss-crossing the narrative.

The book also seems to be about the life you choose for yourself and about how to find meaning in that life: Jacob has “the fear of dying without ever having been able to give expression to what it meant to live”; Toni is concerned that she and Jacob “opted for the small life”. I’m not sure that London quite marries these two themes together – and perhaps she doesn’t need to. I did find it hard to get a grip on Maya’s story – it’s an age-old story and yet it felt a little forced.  But, Jacob’s and Toni’s stories are well told and she sensitively portrays a wide range of parents and parenting and the accommodations people do and do not make in their lives regarding their families. The book is called The good parents. By the end, I wasn’t quite sure whether we are supposed to read this somewhat ironically (as in “you call that good?”), or straight, implying that parents in general do their best, even if the end result may not be exactly what they might have wanted. I suspect it’s a bit of both, showing London’s capacity to be wry and compassionate together.

It’s a very open book, with no neat conclusion and no apparent authorial judgment. Cy is not brought to book for his behaviour, nor is Maynard for his. Carlos and Chris will survive their respective affairs. And so on. I like books that are generous or forgiving of their characters. This is not to say that I don’t like gritty, hard-hitting books too, but I do like generosity sometimes and this book is generous. She allows us to look at her characters, warts and all, and to draw our own conclusions. I guess, in the end, it is a bit of a “slice of life” novel … but a tightly controlled one for all that.