Julian Davies, Call me (#BookReview)

Book coverI wasn’t sure what I was in for when I started reading Call me, the latest offering from that tricksy duo, novelist Julian Davies and illustrator Phil Day. But, it soon became clear that what was before me was a coming-of-age story. What, I wondered, was Davies doing writing such a novel? Then I remembered that this was the author who gave us, most recently, Crow mellow (my review), so I decided to relax and go with the flow. Sensible me, because this is a sophisticated take on the genre, geared to an adult audience.

The story starts in the first person voice of a young woman called Caddie, who is in bed with a young man called Pip. They are both in their last year of school, and the story spans the last couple of months of that year, through their eyes. However, the tricksiness starts here, because Caddie’s voice is first person, while Pip’s is third person subjective. Why? An author doesn’t make these decisions lightly, so I usually want to know why. It’s particularly interesting here because this is a male author choosing to write his female character in first person, and the male in third person. I’ll come back to this because right now you are probably wanting to know more about the actual story than these technicalities!

“This is Australia” (Pip’s friend, Stu)

So, the story. Caddie and Pip have been in a relationship for around a year at the start of the novel, but it’s geographically challenged because Caddie lives in the city (in Canberra, in fact) while Pip lives in the country, an hour or so’s drive away. Davies knows whereof he speaks because he too lives about an hour’s drive from Canberra. Caddie’s parents see themselves, according to Pip, as “high middle class”. They both run businesses, her father’s being an investment business called Capital Capital, and her mother’s an art gallery called Sense and Sensibility (because, as she apparently told Pip, “she was lapping up Jane Austen while her friends were still  playing with their dolls”). They keep “upgrading” their homes, and they fight a lot. Pip’s parents, on the other hand, describe themselves as “feral middle class”. Sydney escapees, they live in the not-quite-finished house they built themselves; they take a loving but laissez-faire approach to parenting; and they get on well. All this introduces the city-versus-country theme that recurs in Davies’ works, including Crow Mellow and his Meanjin piece about building his own home (my review). It’s pretty clear where Davies’ preference lies!

The majority of the novel takes place over 15 days, and chronicles, in lovely nuanced detail, the tensions that develop in Pip and Caddie’s relationship due to Pip’s decision to leave school only weeks before the end. Their thoughts and feelings are told alternately in chronologically named chapters, like “Day One” and “Day Eight (Still Later)”. Although Caddie is critical of her parents, in the way that teenagers often are, she’s following the traditional path of working hard at school and planning to go to university. She is totally into mobile phones and social media. Pip is a more independent thinker. He’s not interested in social media, and only has a phone because Caddie gave it to him. And yet, in a neat paradox, Caddie records her thoughts in a diary, while Pip records his into his phone! This is pure Davies, by which I mean nothing is simple or straightforward.

So, we have the city-versus-country theme, plus a subtle questioning of modern technology, including our reliance on it and its potential for misuse. A third theme relates to education. Pip’s decision to leave school stems from his refusal to live by external expectations that don’t feel authentic to him. He hates the “petty rules” and, as Caddie explains it, “the kind of society we live in that the education system feeds”. He has no alternative plans but feels incapable of “passively endorsing” a system he doesn’t believe in.

“What kind of person am I?” (Caddie)

Accompanying these more sociological themes are personal, psychic ones. Both Caddie and Pip are deeply concerned with their identity, specifically with what it is to be “a person”. Caddie, living in her “sheltered” house and uncomfortably aware of the material benefits provided by her parents, wonders not only “what kind of person” she is, but, more broadly, “what does it mean to be a person.” This question of personhood is frequently burdensome to her. Pip, however, has a different take, recognising that “he is only one person”. One of the challenges they face is negotiating their own and each other’s personhoods. Late in the novel, when their relationship is floundering, Pip wonders “did the new, distant Caddie undermine and diminish his sense of her as the person he thought he knew?” Meanwhile, Caddie “wonders who Pip is that he can hold this view.”

Call me, then, is essentially a book of ideas that questions, in a lightly satirical way, aspects of modern Australian society, but it’s not boringly didactic, partly because the ideas are explored though some engaging characters. These include two we met in Crow Mellow, making this book a sort of “companion piece”. The characters are the wise Phil Day, a teacher who, cheekily, happens to share a name with the book’s illustrator, and the ridiculously named cynic, Dick Scrogum (aka Scrotes). Scrogum’s opinionated banter and Day’s quiet conversations encourage Pip to dig a little deeper into the reasons for his decision.

These characters, however, are only part of why the book doesn’t become mired in earnestness. Another reason is that, surprisingly, as the book progresses, it becomes apparent that there’s more to it than just Caddie and Pip’s relationship; there is in fact quite a plot developing. Who are the mysterious callers on Pip’s phone and what do they want? Should we be worried about them? And what about the gun that Pip has? It is pretty much de rigueur that once a gun is mentioned in a narrative it’s going to be used, but will it? Is this book not what it looks, but, really, some sort of crime-mystery-thriller? You’ll need to read it to find out.

And now, I’ll return to that question I posed at the beginning about voice. Both first person and third person subjective voices offer easy engagement with characters but can only offer limited perspectives. Telling the story through two such voices widens the perspective, by letting us see Caddie and Pip through each other’s eyes as well as their own. In other words, we get a little touch of omniscience alongside close engagement. But, why is one voice first person and the other third? I’m not sure really, but maybe it’s something to do with the fact that Pip is the main protagonist, and that Caddie, as the “I”, represents both herself and the reader (who is, perhaps, likely to be more like her – female, sincere, somewhat conservative, but also open-minded and keen to explore). By being more directly in her head, we are encouraged to question, as she does, certain assumptions and values. I suspect too that there may be something autobiographical about this novel. Is Pip like Davies’ younger self? And does putting Pip at one step remove provide him with a little space to interrogate the boy he was? Certainly Caddie seems to question who Pip is more than vice versa. I’m probably wrong about this, but at least I’ve given it a shot!

As I say all too often, there is so much to say about this book. I haven’t even touched on the gorgeous landscape descriptions of a region I love. Nor on the clever segues, nor Phil Day’s whimsical illustrations, nor the humour, nor, indeed, what a beautiful book is it to look at, hold and read. However, I’ve written enough for now.

Call me, then, is not only an engrossing story about the psychic growing-up of its protagonists, but one that also offers provocative commentary on both humanity in general and modern society in particular. Them’s big boots, but Davies pulls it off, resulting in a book that’s both intelligent and fun to read.

Julian Davies
Call me
Illustrated by Phil Day
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd Publishers, 2018
ISBN: 9780994516541

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd Publishers)

Phil Day, A chink in a daisy-chain (#BookReview)

Phil Day, a chink in a daisy chainYou’ve “met” Phil Day, author of A chink in a daisy-chain, here before. He illustrated co-publisher Julian Davies’ Crow mellow (my review) and Hartman Wallis’ Who said what, exactly, which I reviewed very recently. This time, though, Day is author as well as illustrator.

It’s a fun, mind-bending book – with the fun starting on the cover page in which the illustration, as befits a story inspired by Alice I suppose, is upside down. On the back cover is a simple statement: “If there is a perfect book, Alice is it”. This is the question – oops, statement, really – to which Day returns regularly throughout his short book. But, before I talk more about that, I’ll share publisher Julian Davies’ description of the book in his covering letter:

The book is a creative essay, cum personal reflection, on the relationship between Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, personal identity and argumentative opinion. It is the first in a three-book series Phil plans to write on the embattled nature of individual intellectual and creative autonomy.

So, now, are you any the wiser? Perhaps not? And I’m not sure that I can enlighten you, but I’ll try.

The essay could also – perhaps – be described as a memoir, except that I would be hard-pressed to say hand-on-heart which of what Day tells us really happened, if any of it did? Or perhaps all of it did, just not quite the way Day tells it!

The essay starts with Day and his wife sitting on the minimal furniture left in the lounge-room of the Shillams (look at that name upside down and see what you get!) who are moving to Grafton (as you do!) They had been invited for farewell dinner and drinks and, over a mocktail called Clancy of the Overflow and Gin-and-Tonics served in teacups from the piano-doubling-as-a-bar, Day makes his pronouncement concerning Alice. “Can’t see why, Mr S said” – and we’re off, following Day’s weird and wonderful mind just as Alice followed weird and wonderful creatures down the rabbit-hole.

What makes Alice so good, poses Day’s foil, Mr S? Well, besides the fact that Day didn’t say it was “good” but that it was “perfect”, he doesn’t want to get into discussions of “the meaning of good”. And then Mr S asks him to “look at the man”, but, quite rightly, Day isn’t interested in the man either:

I didn’t want to look at the man. I don’t care about the man. I wasn’t drawn to the man, it was the book itself that made me say–If there is a perfect book, Alice is it.

You are probably following this ok right now – the ideas and the language – and it does make sense. It continues to make sense as Day embarks on a critique of teaching, of

the state government syllabus–a deformed thing that devalued the one-off self-directed realisations that a student might naturally become conscious of through their own curiosity. But because the state government syllabus was created by teachers it had no chance of being anything more than an approved state government syllabus, and because of the approved state government syllabus, I instructed my students not to be curious …

And of course curiosity is why Alice is so special. Not that Day says this specifically, but we know this is what he means.

From here, though, the connections and word associations become increasingly bizarre or absurd, just like in Alice. They are not the sorts of associations that make sense in the telling. You have to read it yourself. You have to follow Hobbes the cat, and the peppered oysters, the trees and the warrens, not to mention red-painted bedrooms and nursery rhymes, to find your own meaning … Beyond that my lips are sealed.

I wonder what Phil Day will come up with next in his personal odyssey into curiosity and creativity. Whatever it is, it will be original, probably absurd, definitely cheeky, and very likely a cri-de-coeur for the freedom to think unbound by rules and approved state government syllabi.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers also enjoyed the book.

Phil Day (author and illustrator)
A chink in a daisy-chain
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd, 2017
ISBN: 9780994516527

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd)

Hartmann Wallis, Who said what, exactly (#BookReview)

Hartmann Wallis, Who said what exactlyNever mind Hartmann Wallis’ question Who said what, exactly, I want to know who Hartmann Wallis is, exactly! You would think the author bio at the front of the book might tell you, now wouldn’t you? But, no. Well, not exactly. There is an author bio, and it does tell you stuff – truthful stuff such as the titles of two previous books he had written – but at the end of it I was none the wiser. I was starting to think that it was all part of a big joke …

And, in a way it is, but more on that anon. First, I can tell you that I did suss out who Hartmann Wallis is – it’s Robin Wallace-Crabbe who has also written under another pseudonym, Robert Wallace. You can read all about him – them – in Wikipedia which describes him “as a curator of exhibitions, literary reviewer, cartoonist, illustrator, book designer, publisher and a commenter on art”. That “cv” goes someway towards explaining Who said what, exactly. 

Now, when Finlay Lloyd sent me this book, a year ago – I’m so embarrassed – publisher Julian Davies wrote “not sure if this strange little book will engage you, but here it is for you to take a look”. Well, it did engage me – from the beginning. However, I am (almost) lost for words on how to write about it, but will give it my best shot.

Davies opens his letter by describing the book as containing “playful, punchy, iconoclastic poetry”. It is that, but I would also add “clever” and “erudite”, although those words could put people off giving it a go. That would be a shame, because you don’t have to understand all the allusions, all the references, to enjoy or even understand the poems. They are best read as playfully as they have been presented – and if you do that, you get the gist, and sometimes get deeper meanings too!

The poems start on the book’s cover, with one called “Left side of the temple of sorrow”. It opens:

‘Think about it God is dead and has left
The intellectual property rights relating to
Just about everything to a bunch of American
Corporations. Way to go He reckoned they said.

The poem then turns to “real” property, and has digs at religious organisations and banks. The opening poem in the book itself mocks – well – poetry (or readers of poetry, or both):

They don’t make poems like they used to anymore,
I’m thinking about poems with stories, the sort of thing
To excite teenagers, to make men languishing in jail
Feel better about their potential …
(from “At the end of the rainbow there’s a pot of gold”)

It then goes on to suggest the sort of “heroic” story that would appeal to “People out here in ‘don’t-give-us-any-more-poetry-land'”, a story, perhaps, about a man who steals from an old man who has fallen over in the street. Are you getting the drift now?

The poems tackle all sorts of subjects, from the dullness of suburbia to the pretensions of art (in its widest meaning); from the smugness of modern life, its sense of entitlement, its concern for doing things the approved way, to the ills (and cruelties) of our world. Take this, for example:

Kids barricaded among, haha, educational toys
With buttons to press, lead free etc., and books
Encoded, decoded to colour in; why not to burn?
(from “Of birds and these”)

And this, on reading

… an anthology
Of 1971 and earlier poetry;
Couldn’t believe the classical references,
The ‘I’m going to grant you
A look into my mind’.
In the anthology no reference to war raging in Vietnam.
(from “Anthology”)

There is joy in wordplay; there are strange segues; there’s dialogue, characters, and narratives; there are allusions to history, religion, art; there’s pathos, even. These poems keep you on your toes, but they also make you laugh (or grimace).

The poems are supported by illustrations by Phil Day, whom you’ve met before in this blog in my review of Crow mellow. The drawings are black and white, sometimes child-like, sometimes not, sometimes representational, sometimes not, sometimes complete, but mostly more unfinished-looking. In other words, they are a bit wild, and thus support the poetry beautifully, whether or not the link between text and image is clear.

Is this “good” poetry? I’m not sure I’m qualified to tell – and anyhow it’s not really even the point – but I did enjoy the poems. I liked their irreverence, and the heart (and intellect) behind it all.

Hartmann Wallis
(with drawings by Phil Day)
Who said what, exactly
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd, 2016
??pp. [no pagination provided and I’m not going to count them!]
ISBN: 9780994516510

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd)

Julian Davies, Crow mellow (Review)

Julian Davies, Crow mellow Book cover

Courtesy: Finlay Lloyd

Julian Davies, author of Crow mellow and publisher at Finlay Lloyd, has written six novels, some of them short-listed for significant literary awards, but, embarrassingly, I only became properly aware of him through his inclusion in the two Canberra centenary volumes that I reviewed in 2013, The invisible thread and Meanjin’s The Canberra Issue. It’s the Meanjin piece that immediately came to mind when Crow mellow landed unexpectedly in my letterbox last year, probably because I was fascinated by Davies’ description of building himself a place in the mountains south of Canberra near Braidwood. (In fact, I mentioned him in a Monday Musings post about the region). He wrote about people’s fear of the bush, about country versus city living, and about the challenges and paradoxes involved in trying to live a self-sufficient life. It’s not something I can imagine doing myself, but I love reading about people who have the passion to do so. Anyhow, this and the short excerpt from his novel The boy in The invisible thread were my introduction to Davies.

I was therefore intrigued when the odd-looking Crow mellow appeared. It is an unusual shape (longer and narrower than most paperback novels), has a dramatic orange and black cover, has no pagination, and is full of black and white drawings, so full in fact that it was a challenge for me to find space to pencil in my marginalia. I managed however! There are no blurbs on the back cover, just these two sentences:

This book is a novel. It has drawings on every page.

I love this sort of cheekiness, so was looking forward to reading the novel produced by the mind behind it. The cheekiness begins with the title, which might ring a bell with some of you? It is a play, as Davies writes in his Introduction, on Aldous Huxley’s first novel Crome yellow (1921). Indeed, if you read the plot summary in the Wikipedia article on Huxley’s novel, you will have a decent summary of Crow mellow – just ignore the names – because, as the Press Release explains, Davies’ novel is “a contemporary social satire closely based on” Crome yellow.

Now, unlike Lisa (ANZLitLovers) who decided to re-read Crome yellow before reading Davies’ “riff”, I decided to read Davies’ book cold. While I cannot speak for how I might have reacted had I read Huxley first, I am happy to report that the novel holds its own as an independent read. Harking back to the tradition of the 19th century “English country house novel” (Wikipedia), it does have a whiff of the “old world” about it, despite its references to modern technology and financial crises. In fact, it’s a rather odd beast. Its set up – a group of artists staying in a country house/bush retreat with their patrons and admirers – suggests historical fiction, but it is firmly set in contemporary times. This past-present tension adds to the fun of it. The tension is compounded by other factors, one being Phil Day’s drawings which provide whimsical and sometimes very pointed satirical commentary on the text, and another being the fact that the novel’s main character, a poet/novelist who observes more than he acts, is named Phil Day! Games must surely be being played with us!

As you would expect from a “country house novel”, whether or not you’ve read one, the novel takes place over several days, and mostly comprises conversation, over meals, and in different parts of the house and gardens as the inhabitants while away their days. Davies writes in his Introduction that he was attracted to Huxley’s novel for two reasons – the idea of having a go himself at “a playful novel of ideas” and the fact that these ideas, in Huxley’s novel, have to do with “the value, purpose and pretensions of art”. He recognised the challenges in taking this on – novels of ideas are often criticised for being didactic, and “art about art risks disappearing up its own fundament” – but these challenges are of course what appealed to him.

Fortunately, I rather like novels of ideas. Ideas – plus character and language – intrigue me more than plots, so this novel with its flawed characters discussing the “important” things in life – art, love and money – was right up my alley. And of course, art-with-a-capital-A is the idea that interested me most. In an interview last year with journalist Sally Pryor, Davies described how, long ago, he’d become frustrated with the pretensions of the art world and, also, with how “venal” publishing had become, which is why he, with three others initially, had established Finlay Lloyd. He questioned publishing’s definition of “success”, saying:

We have a notion that you have to be a bestseller to be successful, but maybe it’s more interesting to do something a little bit weird and different and have a smaller audience who appreciates it.

Finlay Lloyd has succeeded with Crow mellow, achieving that difficult double of producing something different that is also accessible and fun to read.

And now, I believe I’ve done something different too. I’ve written a long so-called review without many specific references to the book itself. Do I need to I wonder, given the book, by its creator’s admission, closely follows Crome yellow’s story? Well, yes, perhaps I should say something. As I was reading, I made many marks in the book, noting ideas that interested me. Here, in Chapter 3, is cynic Scogum (also called, with appropriate Aussie adolescent humour, Scrotum) speaking to Phil Day about novels:

How many million novels would you say have been written in the last century and a half? Before that people seem to have got along well enough without the blasted things, but now every man and his word processor is blathering away putting words on paper, recounting some lame aspect of their own personal lives, celebrating their petty creativity, as though any other human being on earth could really give a damn. And what possible insight could you have to contribute that Tolstoy or Dickens or Proust or Joyce and so on hasn’t put on paper already? Seventy years ago Scott Fitzgerald had already despaired that the novel was obsolete. What original thought could you have, my dear Phil, what formal invention?

Of course, Scogum is not intended to be the last word on the matter. His is just one of the many views put forward about art in the novel. In another scene, Melissa, on the hunt for a love affair, expresses concern that artist Paul’s drawing is too “literal … where were the ideas in this picture, where the irony?” She asks him about his fine, but literal, charcoal marks:

… but don’t you intend to do something with them? I mean, pull them apart and put them in some sort of context that makes an ironic comment on art as a commodity?

And so the discussions go on throughout the book, sometimes pompous, sometimes sincere, but never reaching resolution because in our post-postmodern world, there is no resolution. And that, too, is part of the underlying, albeit tongue-in-cheek, tension in the book.

Meanwhile, Phil hankers for Anna, the daughter of his wealthy host, while she flirts with artist Paul, and Melissa searches for a love affair elsewhere. The set piece of the story is the annual masked ball to which the neighbourhood and wealthy friends are invited and for which the drawings are particularly exquisite. It’s flirty, and fun, but a little creepy too, in a Nero-fiddled kind of way!

Life, Oscar Wilde said, imitates art, more than vice versa. For Davies and Day, I suspect, life and art are so deeply entwined we couldn’t possibly say – but then that’s probably just what we would say in our highly-conceptualised world. Crow mellow is yet another good read coming out of a small publishing house. Do pick it up if it comes to a bookshop (or library) near you, and let me know what you think.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has reviewed the book (including a good description of the art), and author Dorothy Johnston’s review was published just last weekend.

Julian Davies
Crow mellow
Illustrated by Phil Day
Braidwood: Finlay Lloyd Publishers, 2014
No numbered pages (but 384pp, says the Press Release)
ISBN: 9780987592941

(Review copy courtesy Finlay Lloyd Publishers)