October 29, 2010

Never Let Me Go (#121b)

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

What I said a few days ago:

I went with Never Let Me Go because I've had it recommended to me by a bunch of people over the years, because Ishiguro is supposedly one of the best writers around at the moment and it fills a hole in my reading, because of all his books this one has a bit of a sci-fi bent to it which is attractive to me, and because the movie's coming out soon and I want to read the book first. (side note --- sheesh, what the hell kind of a sentence is that? I must have been tired. Still, that's no excuse. Sorry.)

What I say now:

Sigh. I can't go into too much detail about the plot, for fear of giving things away. A group of kids grow up together in a large country house that's converted into a kind of school. We follow three friends - Kathy (the narrator), Ruth and Tommy - during their school lives and then afterwards, as they learn the fate that awaits them. And if that sounds a bit portentous, that's because it is, baby. Weirdly, Michael Bay's fucking terrible (even by his standards) movie The Island has more than a bit in common with Ishiguro's novel. No prizes for guessing which is better.

The real triumph of Never Let Me Go is Kathy's narration of her own story. Her language is simple and direct, and Ishiguro manages to find beauty in her words, without ever making her seem too over-the-top literary in her style (not easy in first-person writing). The other wonderfully realistic thing he does is have Kathy track backwards and forwards in time in a totally haphazard manner, often relating an anecdote only to say "Oh, well, that'll only make sense to you if I tell you about this other thing that happened two years earlier." She doesn't tell her story in order, instead letting one event lead her to the next. As the story goes on, the way Kathy (and her friends) connect things in their minds becomes very important. Some of the connections the characters make between events turn out to be totally incorrect, but their (sometimes quite naive) assumptions tell you an enormous amount about them.

The story is built on Kathy's patchwork of reminiscences, but the further it goes, the more you realise that there are large holes, things she's skipping over or talking around. For a while this was actually kind of frustrating but, if you stick it out to the end, everything is revealed, and the reason for Kathy's obfuscations becomes clear. Because of the way it's structured, I only fell in love with this book in the last thirty or forty pages, but they were so emotionally satisfying that they made the previous frustrations worth it. I'd say Ishiguro intended those frustrations, so that the resolution would feel so complete.

Anyway, as I say, it's a book where to tell much more about it would be to ruin it completely. All I'll tell you is: it's great. Go read it.

Cheers, JC

about to read: The Corner by David Simon and Ed Burns
books to go: 120

October 24, 2010

Burmese Days (#121)

Burmese Days by George Orwell

What I said then:

[Part of] another inherited boxset. If I don't like the first one I read there could be trouble.

What I say now:

Jeeeeeeesus, George Orwell was one pessimistic motherfucker. Okay, having read 1984 and Animal Farm (which are the two that I figure nearly everybody's read), I guess I already knew that. But man, the ending of Burmese Days is such a downer that it's almost ridiculous. It's the kind of ending that a mopey sixteen year-old boy would come up with ... on a bad day. Everybody either dies, is forced to live out their lives in misery, or is revealed to be completely shallow and unthinking. Or some combination of those three. It's not a surprise to find out that this was his first novel: it's denouement is too naive, too un-nuanced for it to be anything else.

Anyway, until the last twenty pages, Burmese Days was fascinating. It's set in Burma (duh!), then part of England's Indian colony, in the late twenties, and it's a brilliantly realised portrayal of the moment in time when Britain's Empire had reached its zenith and was finally fraying at the edges, about to collapse. In a remote jungle station, eight whites comfortably dominate a village of a thousand local Burmese and a handful of itinerant Indians - a distinction which is completely lost on most of the English, who dismissively reject anybody outside their circle as a 'damned nigger.' They all drink way too much, do way too little, and are generally idling their days away in a miasma of sweat and gin and sharp-eyed local mistresses and boring evenings at 'the club' (the Englishman's Club, complete with tennis court and butler, becomes the focal point of the book's obsession with race and privilege). 

Orwell can write beautifully, and his evocation of time and place is brilliant. I love books that educate me about moments in history of which I wasn't aware, and on this score Burmese Days is a triumph. As a kid I was a massive Roald Dahl fan (okay, okay, as an adult I'm still a massive Roald Dahl fan) and parts of his memoir Going Solo occur in a similar 'outpost of Empire' in East Africa. Orwell's much more frank depiction of a tiny society of Englishmen and women existing in a place of (as they believe) utter savagery, makes me re-evaluate Dahl's light-hearted romp of a book, and wonder at all the things he left unsaid. 

In Burmese Days, three things happen to change the cosy lassitude of the white inhabitants: the niece of the only married couple on the station comes to stay, sparking every single Englishman to compete for her affections; the government decrees that every 'Englishman's Club' in the country should, in an effort to appease the restless populace, admit one native member; and a bitter feud erupts between a good-hearted Indian doctor and a conniving Burman magistrate. While it's a bit convenient that all these things come up at the same time, there's probably never been a novel where nothing 'convenient' happens, so I'm happy to forgive this. The English characters are all weak, or vain, or mean, but they're also the people who had to run to the other side of the world to make a life, so that makes perfect sense.

There is a moral conscience in the shape of Flory, the protagonist, who is just as uncomfortable in the company of his racist clubmates as he ever was back at home in England - he has a hideous birthmark across half his face, which marks him as an outsider in whatever company he keeps. Flory thinks differently about the natives, and about England's place in Burma, than anybody else, and one can't help but assume that his (infinitely more compasionate) opinions are those of Orwell himself. But the book goes out of its way to show the horrible price Flory pays for deliberately standing out from the crowd, lending it a curious air. Flory is heroic but constantly depressed, while the other English characters end the novel believing themselves content but living lives that are completely vapid and meaningless. The unbearably depressing ending almost suggests that: "Life sucks. You can either acknowledge it sucks, and be miserable, or ignore that it sucks and be a buffoon. Your call." I really enjoyed most of Burmese Days, but the ending spoilt it a bit for me, which was a shame.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
books to go: still 121

--- So I got to buy a book! I went with Never Let Me Go because I've had it recommended to me by a bunch of people over the years, because Ishiguro is supposedly one of the best writers around at the moment and it fills a hole in my reading, because of all his books this one has a bit of a sci-fi bent to it which is attractive to me, and because the movie's coming out soon and I want to read the book first. Fair enough?

October 20, 2010

'The Piggery' --- short story

So we just had another '20 Melbourne Writers' workshop. This month the image that we had to use as the starting point was a bonfire in a paddock at dusk, with a black dog running around it. Here's what I came up with:

The Piggery 

“I didn’t even really wanna fucking go. Stu made me. He said ‘Brad, you’ll totally regret it if you don’t.’ Said ‘There aren’t many times in life when tomorrow doesn’t matter one fucking bit.’ When that didn’t work he came round my house and honked the horn on his ute for about five minutes.

“I could tell he was set for a crazy night soon as I stepped out the door. He just had that look in his eyes, y’know? I had to ride in the backseat ‘cause he had a slab next to him in the front. He’d broken it in, as well.

“Mel’d been talking about a bonfire party for weeks, since before our exams even. Everyone from Year 12 was invited, and we all took our textbooks out to her farm, and we made a big-arse pile and lit them on fire. It was pretty cool. The flames got pretty high. Aaron Marshall chucked his graphics calculator on as well, and the plastic stank so bad when it melted. Mel’s dogs were out there running around, but that smell sent them back to their kennels.

“For a while the party wasn’t too bad. Everyone was just wandering around, asking everyone else about their plans and stuff. I’m going to Uni in Melbourne, if I get the marks. I should be alright, I’m not too worried.

“Stu’s fucked. He didn’t study at all. I’m surprised he even bothered to sit the exams. During swotvac he was such a fucking pain in the arse, coming round to my place at all hours. He treated it like a fucking holiday. Dad nearly called the cops on him once when he was sneaking through the garden to my window. Ironic, hey?

“At the moment he’s got some bullshit plan for next year about breeding greyhounds. Before that he was talking about growing dope somewhere up in the Ranges. Next week he’ll be wanting to buy a pub—with what money, who the fuck knows—and the week after he’ll be talking about a plumbing apprenticeship. My prediction? The dole. Course he fucking will. What else is he gonna do?

“Tell you what, I started getting pretty fucking depressed. Nearly everyone I talked to was staying in town. ‘I’m gonna work at Safeway.’ ‘I’m gonna work with my mum at the hairdresser.’ ‘I’m helping my folks on the farm.’

“I’ve wanted to leave this town since forever. I couldn’t believe I was the only one.

“Well, not the only one. I got talking to Lauren Hardingham, and she was doing the same as me. Going to Uni, heading down to Melbourne. I’d never talked to her much, I don’t think we’d ever even had any classes together. It’s a big school, y’know? And, well, she hasn’t got a face that you notice, really. Glasses, and acne, and … well fuck, I’m hardly one to talk.

“But yeah, she wasn’t drinking much either, and we moved away from the fire to where it was a bit quieter. We … we talked about books, mostly. She’s read more Stephen King than I have, I couldn’t believe it. We got arguing about whether the film of The Shining is better than the book. She knows Kubrick as well. Awesome.

“Then I told her about how, for my seventeenth birthday, my folks had sent away to the city and got a really nice copy of Lord of the Rings for me. It’s got one of those ribbons that you use to mark your place, and heaps of illustrations and stuff. A few weeks after that, Stu was over at my place and he said he just wanted to have a look. Course, when I gave it to him he somehow ended up ripping off the back cover. Cunt.

“The party started going downhill. Course it did. The Wiggins don’t have pigs anymore, and someone had dragged the old troughs out and filled them with ice, and that was where everyone put their drinks. I made the joke with Lauren that the pigs were back.

“While we were sitting on the fence talking, I was keeping tabs on Stu. At first he was the life of the party, racing round like a trapped dog. Then, when the sun went down, he spent about five minutes looking at the fire like it was a hot chick’s tits or something. Staring at it. I’d never seen him stay still that long.

“Then he noticed me watching him, and he winked at me, and gave me a thumbs-up. Dunno what about, maybe he thought me and Lauren were gonna … you know. She noticed, Lauren did, and she got a bit quiet after that. Looked at her shoes for a while.

“Anyway, you know Mel Wiggins, yeah? She’s fucking hot, right? I mean, I know she’s too young for you and stuff, but you can admit it. Well, Stu started zeroing in on her. At first I just thought he’d embarrass himself, and she’d tell him to fuck off, and that’d be that. But she was drunk. Really fucking drunk. And she didn’t tell him to fuck off.

“They spent the next, I dunno, two hours talking to each other. There was always larger groups of people forming and disbanding around them, but Stu stuck to Mel like glue. The only time he left her side was to go get her another drink. One thing I did notice was that he stopped drinking himself. Just nursed one VB for the rest of the night, while he was plowing Stolis into Mel. She got wobbly on her legs after a while. Took her longer than I thought it would, to be honest.

“Stu was laughing at all her jokes, but even from twenty metres away, I could tell he didn’t really think they were funny. I know Stu pretty well, and yeah, he was only pretending to laugh along with her. The only light in his eyes came from the fire, y’know?

“About two in the morning Mel suddenly slapped her hand on her mouth and staggered off to puke. She didn’t get far, she could hardly fucking walk by that stage. She ended up on the edge of the circle of light, puking into the grass. And into her hair, I suppose. And all her friends, they looked all concerned for about two seconds, then Stu said ‘I’ll look after her,’ and everybody went right on partying.

“Stu hunched over her, patting her on the shoulder and stuff, and he pulled her hair back over her neck so she wouldn’t chuck on it worse than she already had. That looked pretty funny, Stu holding her hair back like a girl would.

“The party was getting rough by that stage. One or two fights had broken out, and couples were starting to move past me and Lauren to go and fuck in peace and quiet in a dark paddock somewhere. Lauren and me were just starting to talk about splitting the cost of a taxi back to town.

“Then Lauren nodded at Stu and Mel and said ‘I hope he puts her to bed.’ Stu was picking Mel up, and he carried her away from the fire. None of her friends noticed. Nobody noticed but Lauren and me. Mel was moving her head and her legs a little bit, but she had her eyes closed. When he picked her up, she didn’t fight it. Fuck, she might not have even noticed.

“The Wiggins’ piggery is old. It’s not brick, it’s made out of these old grey stones, and it looks like it’s about to fall apart. The doorway into it was pitch fucking black. Stu didn’t carry Mel back to the house. He took her into the piggery.”

Brad, his head tucked as far as he could manage into his high shoulders, bit his lip and rubbed at an old biro mark on the desk. He didn’t want to describe what happened next.

The detective leaned back in his chair and waited to see if Brad would keep talking. The silence stretched out. “And then what happened?” the detective asked.

Brad glanced at the uniformed cop who sat in the corner of the bare room running the tape machine. The detective, with his suit and his tie, obviously wanted the truth, but Brad could feel the disapproval leaking off the uniform cop like old B.O. Don’t ever dob in a mate, the cop was saying with his eyes, and with the set of his jaw, and with the way he stabbed at the buttons on the tape deck in front of him.

“Lauren said ‘What the fuck’s he gonna do to her?’ and I said I didn’t know.”

“You didn’t know?”

“Yeah, I knew. I just didn’t want to believe it. Lauren and me talked a bit. I was trying to say it couldn’t be what it looked like. She said ‘Just because he’s your friend, there’s no excuse for this.’ ” Brad shifted uncomfortably in his seat and looked at his hands. “She was right. Eventually, she got fed up with me and left me on the fence and started walking to the piggery.”

“And you went with her?”

“Eventually. It took me a while to … to … fuck, to get up the guts, I suppose. When I caught up to her, Stu was just coming out.” Brad shook his head, tears beginning to form in the corners of his eyes. “I’ll never forget the fucking smile on his face. The triumphant, stupid fucking smile. He thought he was top shit. For fucking a girl who couldn’t move. What a fucking hero.”

“And nobody else was in the piggery at the time?”


“You’re certain?”

“Yeah. Lauren and me went in. It was so fucking dark, we couldn’t see anything. We ended up pulling out our phones and using them as torches. Mel was there. Passed out. With her jeans around her ankles.”

“And that’s when you called the police?”


The detective sighed and closed the manila folder in front of him. “There aren’t many people who’d have done that. Thanks, Brad. Your story and Miss Hardingham’s, they corroborate each other. At this stage it seems like Miss Wiggins doesn’t remember anything of her ordeal, but that might change. If it doesn’t, then your testimony will be absolutely crucial.”

Brad didn’t answer. He just stared at the table. Somebody had carved PIGS into the top of it.

The detective lowered his voice. “I know that wasn’t easy, what you just did. I know Stu is a friend of yours. But it was the right thing to do.”

“It doesn’t really feel like it,” Brad muttered.

The detective nodded slowly. “I can understand that,” he said. “Now, your parents are waiting outside to take you home. I’ll go get them.”

When the door closed behind the detective, the uniform cop stopped the tape with a thunk, turned in his seat, and glared at Brad. “That kid’s family’s got a lot of friends,” he said quietly. “You should be thankful you’re about to leave town.”

Brad stared at the engraved PIGS. “I am,” he mumbled. “I fucking am.”

Story notes:
  • Man, did I hate growing up in Wangaratta or what?
  • Man, am I snarky about people who drink excessively or what?
  • The biggest stylistic point of interest in the story is the switch that occurs about three-quarters of the way through, where what was (seemingly) a first-person story broadens out into the third-person, and the fact that Brad's talking to the cops is revealed. It might be too self-consciously 'clever', and I suspect that it will always drag the reader out of the story. If you've gotta stop and think and go "hang on, wait, what?", then it's not worth doing. For all that, I still kinda like the idea of structuring the story that way, I probably just need to do it better.
  • I enjoyed writing in Brad's voice immensely. It flowed really naturally and came out really easily ... and the word 'fuck' spewed out like lollies from a pinata! Did people think the swearing was excessive? That's pretty much how I spoke at eighteen (hell, that's pretty much how I speak now), but it might be over-the-top when you're reading it on the page. Or computer screen, as the case may be.
  • Yes, Stu is named for a specific person. He was my arch-nemesis. Fuck him.

Oh, a quick point of interest for any heroically dedicated readers who have made it this far. When I finish Burmese Days I'll have done my ten, and I'm allowed to buy a book. Exciting times! If you've got recommendations, now's the time to share them.

Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Burmese Days by George Orwell
books to go: 121

October 16, 2010

A Fraction of the Whole (#122)

A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz

What I said then:

One of those books that was huge when it first appeared, but seems to have sunk without trace since. That doesn’t bode well.

What I say now:

This book's greatest strength is its hilarious tone. Told in two alternating first-person voices, the narrators are a father/son pair of cynical, sarcastic, misanthropic bastards. And they're fucking funny. Even more than that, Toltz's style of humour is something I haven't come across before. I actually think it might be a specifically Australian thing: he combines snideness (snidity?) with bluntness in a way that feels distinctly Aussie to me. Sample quote: "Let's not mince words: the interior of the Sydney casino looks as if Vegas had an illegitimate child with Liberace's underpants, and that child fell down a staircase and hit its head on the edge of a spade." There were any number of laugh-out-loud moments scattered throughout the book, wholly original turns of phrase that had people edging away from me on the tram as I cackled away.

Unfortunately, the book's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. While a hell of a lot happens to the unfortunate Martin and Jasper Dean, they narrate the lot with such ironic detachment that it's impossible to be moved by any of it. They're too clever for their own good ... or, for the good of the book, at least.

The book is 700 pages long and jam-packed with incident: young loves lost and won, comas, bushfires, wives blown up with grenades, renegade uncles becoming latter-day-Ned-Kelly-esque folk-hero criminals, a friend marrying a thinly-veiled James Packer imitation, and I've barely scratched the surface. But no matter what happens, it has no emotional hold on me as a reader because it has no emotional hold on the characters themselves. They're too busy analysing events, and commenting on them, and thinking up a wonderfully bizarre metaphor to describe them, to ever let themselves be touched by them. And if the characters don't appear to care, why the hell should I?

Ultimately, I felt like this book was all icing, no cake. Which was a shame, because it had some of the most kick-arse icing I've ever come across. Oh well ...

(side note --- why do we use 'jam-packed' to describe something that's packed tight? I mean, I guess jam is packed pretty tight, but so are a lot of things. Why not Honey-packed? Vegemite-packed? Nutella-packed? Girlfriend-wanting-to-take-seven-pairs-of-shoes-on-a-weekend-trip-packed? Or, this being the 21st Century and all, how about vacuum-packed? Why the fuck is jam the universal measure of close-packing? Anybody?)

Cheers, JC

about to read: Burmese Days by George Orwell
books to go: 121

October 6, 2010

I'm Like Jesus

So a pretty amazing thing has happened.

At work, we have a huge number of very loyal customers, who come in all the time and buy fuck-loads of books. It's great, because we get to know them and we can chat to them about what we're reading and what they're reading. It's like a closed loop of nerdy-jabbering-about-books, until eventually every staff member knows everything there is to know about every book that ever existed (in theory --- in practice, we're still working on it).

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago, one of our best customers was moaning about how many books she owns that she's never read. Take her moaning with a pinch of salt, because after all, she was in a friggin' bookstore at the the time. I wasn't there, but one of my esteemed colleagues took the opportunity to tell our moaning customer about this little project of mine: only buy one book for every ten you read, and eventually you'll be able to look at your library and say 'I have defeated you, mwahahahaha' ... and if, after that, you put on a glove made of metal and stroke a malicious-looking cat while plotting world domination, surely nobody could begrudge you.

Once she'd heard about it (the read-ten/buy-one part, not the metal-glove/kill-everybody part), the customer loved the idea. And she's decided to do exactly the same thing herself.

Yep, I have a follower. An acolyte. A disciple.

I'm just like Jesus.

Don't tell my boss, though, because I don't think he'd be too happy to know that our customers are following my example and buying less books. If this catches on, I could single-handedly put us out of business! I guess if I get fired, I'll have more time to read ...

Cheers, JC

currently reading: A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz
books to go: 122