Published on December 30th, 2007 | by Hans Fruck0
2007 in Books
This time last year I had all sorts of reading ambitions. I’ve never been able to shake off the notion that I should be reading a book per week. It should be possible – FFS, at one point this year I was without work for eight weeks! That’s plenty of time to wade through the Himalayas of books stacked all over Fruck HQ. But those of you who know me won’t be surprised to learn I fell short of 52 books for the year. About 37 short, fuck it.
Still, that’s not as useless as it sounds. Fact is, I probably read more than ever these days – it’s just that most of it is onscreen not on the page, and nonfiction not fiction. Even so, among the few novels I read this year, some left an impression.
Of the fifteen books I read this year, there was one jawdropper. That was The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy is a genius, one of the literary lions of his generation. And in The Road, a story of heroic human endurance in an ash-choked post-apocalyptic world, he’s near the top of his game. Anyway, I’ve already reviewed The Road, so I won’t bang on about it now.
I’m always a little guilty about the fact that I don’t read much Australian fiction. Not sure why I don’t; it’s not intentional. So when I saw a write-up in the Age on the novels shortlisted for the Miles Franklin this year, I read it with interest, keen to see if any piqued my interest. Sure enough, there was an excerpt from a novel called Dreams of Sleeping, by Western Australian author Gail Jones. From memory, the piece excerpted in the paper was the first two paragraphs of the book:
It felt like space walking.It felt like a suspension of the rarest kind, and she saw herself as a floaty astronaut, strung in airless dark, supernatural, abstract, buoyed on who-knows-what force to dangle heroically meaningless. There would be a silver visor reflecting everything, and she would be a shape, just a shape, in what seemed to her always a sorrowful enterprise. Anything in slow motion, she decided, was intrinsically sorrowful. Even as a child she knew this. Even as a child she saw on television how sadly astronauts moved, smitten by world historical symbolism and the gaze of too many invisible cameras. Their arms were heavy prongs and their heads ridiculous. Their outsized suits were cartoonish and strange. Their engineered umbilicus was truly poignant. Yet they moved – she knew it – incomparably. She was seven when she began to see them in daydreams. They belonged to moments of dismay and quiet estrangement. Alone in their silent worlds. Completely alone.
Now that’s writing. The real thing. Maybe it’s too porcelain-pretty, too introspective, too lacking in blood, piss, and puke to suit the tastes of some – and that’s OK. But even those who don’t dig it must admit that the writer who put those words into that order in service of those ideas is a wordsmith.
I mean, let’s break down that second sentence. It’s not just ‘suspension’ she’s describing, but suspension ‘of the rarest kind’. It’s not just an astronaut, but a ‘floaty’ astronaut, and the astronaut is not just a meaningless dangler, but a ‘heroically’ meaningless dangler. This is a mighty fine line that Gail Jones treads here. Amateurish writing always appends an adverb or an adjective where it’s not needed. If your verb, adjective, or noun is right, you don’t need to buttress it with tinsel – or so the thinking goes.
Plus, more culpably, writers who always insist that such-and-such is not only meaningless but heroically meaningless, not only sorrowful but intrinsically sorrowful are often chronic masturbators. With all these fine distinctions, the writer is saying ‘I see nuances and – microscope and tweezers in hand – make distinctions that others don’t even perceive. That is because I am super-smart and worthy of your worship. Now blow me.’ And that’s all dandy: writers so attuned to the world, and with the wordcraft to match, are one of the pleasures of reading – so long as the distinctions they’re drawing are meaningful, and not just the writer pretending to perceive and describe distinctions and nuances that don’t actually exist.
Let me demonstrate how this works. Say I’m reviewing a CD I don’t like. Let’s say it’s an album of Michael Bolton singing Christmas carols. (Coincidentally, I did have this album to review, but was too afraid to play it.) Instead of just saying ‘This CD is an abomination. Michael Bolton, and everyone involved in foisting this fraud on the listening public, should be euthanised’, I could say ‘This CD is a HEROIC abomination. Michael Bolton, and everyone involved in foisting this INTOXICATING fraud on the listening public, should be RUTHLESSLY, BUT REGRETFULLY, euthanised’.
There. Do you see? By deploying a couple of adjectives and adverbs I’ve gone from saying ‘This is shite, and Bolton must die’ to saying ‘This is shite, but in an interesting and unexpected way. We must kill him, but with all sorts of conflicting feelings’. Immediately, we’ve singled out our review as more discerning and profound than the usual. We don’t see shit; we see a certain kind of shit. We don’t simply see someone who should be put out of his misery, but rather someone about whom our feelings are so nuanced we focus on how he should be killed.
Thus, I have gone from the ho-hummery of slagging Michael Bolton to signalling a deeper, smarter, more ambivalent response to Michael Bolton. Except this deeper, smarter response is a fraud, an impression (deliberately) created by promiscuously throwing around some adverbs and adjectives. There is no extra layer of meaning freighted in my review, no extra layer of anything except wanking. I’m pretending there’s a complexity and nuance to my response that just doesn’t exist. I am a cock.
Sorry, I’ve digressed. What I’m saying is that in Gail Jones’ case those adverbs and adjectives are load-bearing. They’re not there to jazz-up bland nouns or confer fake profundity. They’re there because Jones is honing her descriptions and distinctions to a fineness sharp enough to flense you with. The push-pull of intense isolation and connection, signified by the umbilicus, which we come to realise at the book’s end is a word weighted with meaning, gets to the heart of the novel. And the astronaut is heroic on at least a couple of different levels. First, those who risk the dangers of space must be brave. And, I suspect, more to the point, the astronaut is most heroic on a metaphoric level, where dangling in the void represents confronting existential doubts. Point being, the terms are motivated by their descriptive power, and not by Jones ‘putting on the Ritz’.
And while I’m crapping on interminably about these opening paragraphs of a book you’ll never read, let me add that her observation about there being something ‘intrinsically sorrowful’ about slow motion struck me as right. It was one of those rare moments when you read something and it chimes with something inside you. I’ve never thought that there was something sad about slow motion, yet as soon as I read that I thought ‘You know, she’s absolutely right. There IS something sad about slow motion.’ On a completely intuitive level I recognise the truth of that. But because it’s intuitive I can’t verbalise it – I know, because I tried to explain it the other night to Lady Fruck in the pub, and it’s fair to say she listened politely then resolved to up my medication.
Whatever. This is a terrific opening to a book. From her the deployment of adverbs and adjectives and the freshness of her point about slo-mo to the grace and poise of her syntax, it’s the work of a humblingly good stringer-together of words. (Read those two paragraphs out loud. Listen to their unobtrusive grace as they roll of your tongue. In addition to everything else, Jones plainly has a fine ear for the rhythms and sounds of her words.)
It’s predictable, probably, that Jones can’t live up to the standards she sets on that first page. To be sure, there are flashes of brilliance, such as when her protagonist, Alice, thinks of a photograph: ‘In its fidelity to moments, to split-second slices, it carries the gravity of testimony and the lightness of chance’. Or the following passage in which Alice muses on a photo of her and her sister when they’re children:
The photograph of a child laughing, pushing her sister on a swing in a scene of shared play, will carry for both, into adulthood, the bright trace of their pasts. They may not remember the moment but it will represent them decisively, and they will see themselves thus. There was such a moment, such a scooping of space, even if now it lies encrypted in all that has happened since, in all the boisterous life that rushed afterwards to capture and engulf them.
But while Dreams of Speaking is never less than readable, it’s often less than entrancing. Jones’ descriptive flair wanes when the object isn’t something in her protagonist’s consciousness, like memory, with which she can play, drawing out filaments of association or reflection or post-fact analysis. When Alice is describing the external world, her words are precise but flat.
I didn’t intend this piece to become such a meandering piece of meandering, so in deference to anyone who might still be reading, I’ll wind it up soon. But before I hit ‘publish’, there’s one other novel I want to mention. It’s Apathy, by Paul Neilan. I hadn’t heard of Neilan, which is not surprising because it’s his first novel. (Up till now, only his parents and a few friends had heard of him.) But I was immediately taken by the title and cover of his novel. On the cover is one of those geometric-man representations, the kind you find on toilet doors, except this geometric man has a gun and is pointing it at his own head.
As soon as I saw that, I knew I had to buy the book.
Apathy is about Shane, a smartarse, a cynic, a shiftless drunk, and a habitual stealer of saltshakers. Shane falls into a job alphabetizing forms at an insurance company, where he spends his work hours nursing hangovers and sleeping in the handicapped toilet. Among other things, Shane ends up riding a girl’s bike to work every day, having rent-subsidised sex with his landlady, and becoming a suspect in the murder of a deaf dental hygienist. He also scores a ‘girlfriend’ of sorts – she thinks she’s his girfriend, he doesn’t. The girlfriend, a corporate barracuda called Gwen, is a vigorous cowgirl, and nearly rides Shane to death. (In fact, his account of their fornications reads like a cross between GBH, porn, and ju-jitsu.)
It’s all absurd and silly, but it had me cackling like a hyena – the kind of helpless, compressed-head laughing that I normally reserve for MXC (a Japanese gameshow that features lots of people falling into ‘septic sludge’). Apathy struck a chord because it was not only funny, but also familiar. Right from the start, Shane’s exploits reminded me of the Baron’s many misadventures, most of which are memorialised on this very site. And as I read about Shane’s corporate experiences – which he recounts with equal parts loathing, despair, and blackhearted laughter – it reminded me of my own cube-farm incarcerations and spittle-flecked ranting. Even his vocabulary reminded me of some of the things we’ve written for this site.
So though I don’t share Paul Neilan’s writing talent, we do seem to despair and laugh over the same things. I suspect that doesn’t reflect well on either of us, but it makes for an entertaining read, that’s for sure.