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Category Archives: Fiction

Tony Parsons “My Favourite Wife” (2008)

At one level this is a fairly generic love-triangle story, but in sharp contradiction to this reviewer I found the characters quite well developed and sympathetic. The great triumph of the book, however, is that it provides more understanding of contemporary China and Chinese than a thousand ponderous tomes and learned articles might deliver. Having been very close to a Shanghainese (and knowing quite a few others) I congratulate Tony Parsons on his depth of understanding. He is also remarkably aware of the paradoxes of the new superpower, that, for example, its wealth, while benefiting many, depends on even more people being held in poverty. True though that mass famine has become a thing of the past.

… Bill walked. He was hungry to see what he thought of as the real China, the China that was nothing to do with plasma tele­visions and Dom Pérignon. The real China was somewhere nearby. It had to be. There were blocks of flats as far as he could see in a bewildering jumble of styles, but broken up with patches of manicured green and oversized statues. There were strips of restaurants – he could see Thai, Italian, everything but Chinese – a Carrefour supermarket, and a couple of international schools, including the one that Holly would go to in the morning. Little parks. A nice neighbourhood. Gubei was greener and cleaner than the grimy, crime-ridden patch of London they had left behind. His family could live here. His wife and daughter could be happy here. He felt a quiet satisfaction, mixed with relief.

He glanced at his watch and decided he had time to explore before Becca and Holly stirred. So he walked towards the rising sun and as he left Gubei New Area behind, the streets quickly filled. Women selling bruised fruit stared through him from shaded side streets. Someone bumped into him. Someone else spat at his feet. There were men in filthy, dirt-encrusted two-piece suits working on a building site. On a Sunday. And in the streets there were people. A tide of people. Suddenly there were people everywhere.

He stopped, trying to get his bearings. The roads were wide and traffic flew by, horns mindlessly beeping, ignoring red lights and pedestrians and the rest of the traffic. He saw a chic girl in sunglasses with her hair up behind the wheel of a silver Buick Excelle. There were flocks of VW Santana taxis. A muddy truck piled high with junk and men. And more trucks, lots of them, with their strange cargo of cardboard or orange traffic cones or pigs or yet more cars, so new they still shone with the showroom wax.

As the sun got higher, and Bill continued to walk east, the city got noisier, adding to his sense of dislocation. A woman on a scooter mounted the pavement and just missed him, beeping her horn furiously. Schools of cyclists with giant black visors over their faces swarmed past. Suddenly he was aware of the time difference, the light-headedness that follows a long-haul flight, the sweat of exhaustion. But he kept walking. He wanted to know something about this place.

He walked down alleys where thin men shaved over ancient metal bowls and fat babies were fed, and where ramshackle buildings with red-tile roofs were draped with drying laundry and satellite dishes. Then abruptly the jumbled blocks with their red-tile roofs suddenly gave way to the new shining towers and shopping malls.
Outside Prada men with their skin darkened by sun and grime tried to sell him fake Rolex watches and DVDs of the latest Tom Cruise movie. Young women hid from the sun under umbrellas. Naked Western models advertised skin-lightening products on giant billboards.

And as Bill walked on, he felt something that he had never felt in his life, and it was an awareness of the sheer mass of humanity. All those people in the world, all those lives. It was as if he truly believed in their existence for the first time. Shanghai gave him no choice.

Bill hailed one of the Santana taxis, impatient to see the Bund, but the driver didn’t understand a word he said and dropped him by the river, glad to get rid of him. He got out next to a wharf with a ferry; not a sightseeing ferry but some kind of local public transport.

Bill handed over his smallest note, received some filthy RMB in return, and joined the milling mob waiting to cross to the other side. He tried to work out where the queue began. Then he realised that it didn’t begin anywhere.
And as the ferry filled with people, and then continued to fill even more until Bill was hemmed in on every side, and fighting back the feeling that the ferry was overloaded, he saw that here, at last, was the real China.

The numbers.

It was all about the numbers.

He knew that the numbers were why he would be starting his new job in the morning, why his family’s future would be decided in this city, and why all the money problems of the past would soon be over. They filled the dreams of businessmen from Sydney to San Francisco – the one billion customers, the one billion new capitalists, the one billion marketplace…

See also the author’s site and The Independent.

This is indeed popular rather than literary fiction, but for its insight I give it star_icons25 star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25.

I also wonder whether Parsons’ working class accent still arouses snobbery on the part of some English reviewers? Oxbridge he isn’t.

 

Well, I’m enjoying it…

Hot on the heels of Peter Ackroyd, Shakespeare: The Biography, I am reading Will (Christopher Rush 2007). There’s an excellent review here by Joyce McMillan from The Scottish Review of Books. Rush follows Ackroyd’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s life quite closely but has involved himself in Shakespeare studies for several decades. He certainly knows his man.

Rush doesn’t spare us the smells as well as the sights of Elizabethan/Jacobean London. If you want to know just what was involved in hanging, drawing and quartering, or in bear baiting, you will be more than satisfied. Much of the book is pastiche, a mash-up of lines from the Bard – and I mean that as a compliment as it is most cleverly done. Here is an earthy and believable Will Shakespeare on his deathbed going back over his life as he dictates his will to his rather Falstaffian lawyer – a device that could stretch belief just a bit if you let it.

Joyce McMillan knows a lot more about the Scottish author than I did.

…In terms of the development of Rush’s own work, the origins of this book are not difficult to trace. It’s no secret that following the sudden death of his first wife in 1994, Rush experienced years of despair, depression and writer’s block, released only when he was able to write his own painfully frank 2005 memoir of that experience, To Travel Hopefully: Journal Of A Death Unforeseen. As a lifelong teacher of literature, he found some small, companionable solace even then in the profound knowledge and awareness of death that runs through all Shakespeare’s work; and now, he has gathered all his feeling for Shakespeare’s mighty dialogue with death into this startilng first-person account of the life, set in the framework of the last days – the settling of accounts, the making of bequests, and the final walk into the dark.

At first – as Will talks of his chiildhood and family, his brutal schooling, his father’s humiliating business failure, his early trade as a slaughterman’s boy, and his sudden dizzying fall at 17 into lust and love with Anne Hathaway, followed by a suffocating early marriage and fatherhood – the dialogue format works well, with the gluttonous Francis alternately shovelling down food, and chirpily contributing his own local insights and opinions. Later, the structural moorings begin to slip a bit, as the more familiar Shakespeare of the London years emerges, in great avalanches of narrative and descriptive prose to which Collins has little to say.

But always, Rush’s prose retains the same intense, hallucinatory quality, a strange mixture of brisk, frank modernity and Shakespearean pastiche, alarmingly laced, at every turn, with sudden shifts into Shakespeare’s own words, culled from those ever-present plays…

I am thoroughly enjoying the ride. star_icons25 star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25

 
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Posted by on November 16, 2009 in Best read of 2009, book reviews, Fiction, Shakespeare

 

Listening to Gorecki, reading Nowra

A rather powerful combination…

I’ll have more to say on Louis Nowra’s Ice later.

Ice

 
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Posted by on October 8, 2009 in Best read of 2009, Fiction, music, OzLit, personal, reading

 

Reading Jasper Fforde

A couple of years back my former Sydney University boss Ken Watson recommended Jasper Fforde to me.

fforde

Now at last I have read one of his amazing books, The Well of Lost Plots.

Imagine Little Britain meets the Cambridge Companion to English Literature + literary theory. Hilarious. The Wuthering Heights anger management day is just one gem of many.

 

Meanwhile, there is a bit of fiction to account for…

Yes, I have read quite a few things this past few weeks.

star_icons25 star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 1. The Hours – Michael Cunningham’s 1998 take on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway is just a delight. I love the little bit of trivia in the Wikipedia entry:

On her way to Richard’s apartment, Clarissa Vaughan thinks she sees Meryl Streep. Meryl Streep ended up playing Clarissa Vaughan in Stephen Daldry’s movie adaptation of "The Hours". In the book, Clarissa Vaughan considers it might also have been Vanessa Redgrave that she saw. Curiously, Redgrave plays the part of Clarissa Dalloway in the 1997 film version of Mrs Dalloway.

star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 2. The Chameleon’s Shadow, Minette Walters (2007). The Iraq War is background to this psychological thriller.

This novel is a compelling page turner from the first page.  Acland may be frightening in his unpredictability, but the reader’s sympathy is caught and you want to know what will happen to him.  The story is another classic example of smoke and mirrors from Walters, where she tests perception and reality during the unraveling of fact.  It’s another of those "once started, must finish" psychological thriller novels that demands complete absorption. – It’s a Crime!

star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 3. Past Mortem, Ben Elton (2004). The weirdest – and most unlikely — serial killer ever, and yes it does have a very heavy sex scene or two. At the same time the book is very funny, in a black kind of way, yet does have much to offer on the subject of bullying.

star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 4. Southern Cross (1998) has Patricia Cornwell in lighter vein than in her Kate Scarpetta novels.

The book’s pivotal event, and its most pleasing tilt at Southern pieties, takes place when Smoke brings Weed, the budding artist, to the South’s premier cemetery for the climax of his gang initiation ceremony. Weed, equipped with paint, is to “ruin” the statue of Jefferson Davis that dominates the cemetery. With no idea who Jeff Davis was, Weed is inspired to re-paint Davis as a tribute to Weed’s late, beloved brother, a budding basketball great recently killed by a hit-and-run driver.

By the following morning, the towering statue that greets mourners and early visitors to the cemetery is no longer of Jeff Davis, but that of a lanky black basketball player in the uniform of the University of Richmond Spiders. Meanwhile, Smoke has robbed another ATM and, this time, killed his robbery victim. Chief Hammer and her team are on the wrong trail, since a chance radio intercept has alerted them to what sound like evil designs on the part of the book’s most catastrophically inept character, the perilously named Butner Fluck IV.

star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25star_icons25 star_icons25 Damnation Falls (2007) by Edward Wright.

Randall Wilkes, his big-city journalism career in ruins, has returned after twenty years to Pilgrim’s Rest, the Tennessee hill town where he grew up. He has taken on a lucrative but low-prestige writing job for Sonny McMahan, a former governor and Randall’s boyhood friend, whose own career is under a shadow and who needs a ghost-written autobiography to ease his way back into politics. Faye McMahan, Sonny’s mother, is addled with age, imagining that her dead husband is alive and worrying that her son might be in danger. Amid a violent autumn storm, Randall finds Faye hideously murdered, hanged by the neck from a bridge over the town landmark called Damnation Falls. Within days, another person connected to the McMahan clan is murdered in an even more grisly fashion. And the bones of a third, long-buried murder victim — a young woman — have emerged from the earth. Randall’s ties to the victims force him to acknowledge debts that go back decades. Drawing on his investigative skills and his roots in the region, he sets out to discover who is behind the killings. His search takes him the length of the state – a land once split by civil war, where history lies close to the surface and tales of murder and betrayal weigh heavily on the town of Pilgrim’s Rest. Before all the answers are in, more people will die, an old score will be settled, and the dead will finally tell their stories.

“Complex, layered but never laboured, Damnation Falls weaves between fact and fiction, the past and the present, truth and lies, without ever missing a beat. Nice work.”  — Sydney Morning Herald. That review notes something I missed:

Wright was born in the same Arkansas town of Hot Springs as erstwhile American president Bill Clinton. Comparisons may be odorous (as Mrs Malaprop once said) but Sonny McMahan, the fictional former governor of Tennessee, is a man so charismatic that when he walks into a Nashville restaurant all the diners turn to watch his progress, "lifting their faces as if towards the sun". Further allusions to Clinton’s Arkansas days and the Whitewater property scandal are never spelled out but lurk suggestively in the background as McMahan is revealed to be up to his clean-cut jaw in something not entirely kosher.

 

When Snow Drifts Melt – 20 years on

1989 was quite a year for me, one way and another. In another work of fiction that isn’t really fiction I wrote “When Snow Drifts Melt” in two goes over a six year period. The act of writing in this case was also therapy, and as tomorrow is twenty years – hard to credit! – since the critical event in Part II I thought I would bring it to the fore again.

September 14 1989

– I miss that man so much.

– I know that Luke.

– I don’t know what to do about his birthday. I phoned but there was no answer. He doesn’t want to see me. It makes me so angry.

– Listen, Luke, he told me to tell you he still likes you. Take it from me, when he’s like this you just have to wait.

Luke cries publicly, there in the Unicorn Bar at 10 pm. Not something he would normally do. Later at the Oxford, trying to be wise I say something like breaking up is a bit like a death and you grieve and…

It’s possibly the best thing I have ever written.

 
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Posted by on September 13, 2009 in Fiction, Gay and Lesbian, gay issues, personal, writing

 

Two works of fiction from my August reading

star304 star304star304 star30a1 1. Tom Coffey, Blood Alley (The Toby Press 2008)

Blood Alley seeks to recreate post-war New York. It does so very successfully, the plot ultimately concerned with underworld and high capitalist shenanigans around the creation of the New York UN headquarters. The political incorrectnesses of the time on race and other matters are faithfully recreated, but there is a fairly subtle moral compass for the 21st century at work in the tone too, without losing the authenticity and, um, colour.

I really enjoyed this one.

Chapter One

The dead girl lay beneath me.  The pale yellow streetlamps shed just enough light to let me see her feet and legs clearly.  Black heels and flesh-colored stockings faded into a dark form that curled into a fetal position.  I wanted to look away, but I was here to observe.  I blew on my fingers to warm them and began to take notes.

Finkel turned on his flashlight.

“This is aces,” he said.

She had sustained two bullet wounds, one in her forehead and the other in her midsection.  Purplish bruises circled her neck.  She wore a dark blue dress and a sleek, unbuttoned overcoat that I guessed was cashmere.

An open handbag lay a few feet from her body.  Almost comically, her hat had remained on her head.

It was the middle of November in 1946.  The war had been over for more than a year.  With rationing at an end, people were buying whatever they could afford, although I suspected I was looking at a Manhattan society girl who was never denied anything.

She appeared to be in her twenties.  The hair I could see was red, with permed curls that fell to her shoulders.  Her features were pretty but too thin, as if she ate only half a meal a day.  Her eyes were hazel and had the troubled glaze of a tortured soul who was, at last, at peace.

A smooth line of blood tracked down the alley toward the street.  I wondered if I had stepped in it.

Finkel said he needed stuff from his car.  This was gonna make a swell pitcher.  He gave me his flashlight and told me not to move anything until he came back.  Then he hurried away, threading through stacks of wooden crates stacked ten feet over his head…

See also the author’s blog.

star304star304star304star304 2. Iain Banks, Dead Air (Little, Brown 2002)

As Callum Graham says in the review linked at the title:

…The plot seems to move, not because of, but in spite of global terrorism. Iain Banks looks more at the effects, such as the media’s caginess to deal with the issues of reporting the events on radio, the effects on the public and the general climate of Britain after the events, without getting wrapped up in the hysteria of it. Perhaps this is because, like many of Iain Banks previous characters, Ken is originally from Scotland and sees himself more as an outsider looking in.

By noting these little changes which appear to have happened to England over night Iain Banks captures perfectly a snap shot of every day Britain. He also creates a picture of the British relationship with America. If the planes had been flown into the Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia would we have given it as much media coverage?

However, it is not just the above which makes Dead Air irrevocably the here and now of the 21st century. It is the way that Ken as a broadcaster lives and works. Iain Banks successfully contextualises our time period through the voice of Ken on his radio shows. This is done with mentions of the IRA threat from the 70’s to the 90’s, commenting on the now familiar removal of bins from train stations. Ken’s radio tirades also cover the Israeli/Palestine conflict which although has been going on for centuries is just as relevant now as it has ever been. He even comments on his scepticism of those who are against the EU, or as he calls them ‘Europhobes’, and the infringement of CCTV into personal freedoms; all very current issues today…

Stephen Poole in The Guardian was less impressed:

… Dead Air is narrated by Kenneth Nott, a shock-jock on commercial radio who takes a swollen pride in his contrarian opinions. We first meet him at a drug-fuelled loft party in the East End of London, where everyone, for some reason, starts chucking fruit and furniture off the balcony. Ken’s girlfriend, Jo, does PR for a snotty young British indie band called Addicta; he is also sleeping with a woman called Celia (or "Ceel"), who happens to be married to a dangerous gangster.

You probably wouldn’t like to meet Ken. He is one of those annoying, professionally opinionated people who are never off duty. Large portions of the novel are dedicated to expounding his reactions to the latest topics of media discussion, whether he is on air or just chatting in a pub: gun control ("Guns for nutters only; makes sense"), American imperialism, CCTV cameras, Euroscepticism, the death of Diana ("put on a fucking seatbelt"), all get extended libertarian rants. It is a tribute to Banks’s chatty prose skill that these discussions are largely entertaining, if superficially argued.

After hundreds of pages of colourfully diversionary drinking, shagging and talking, Banks eventually remembers that he needs a plot, and so Ken does something unutterably stupid with a mobile phone..

I didn’t fret about the apparent lack of plot in those pages – even if Poole is exaggerating, I feel. I was caught up in the voice, which is brilliantly created; you don’t have to like Kenneth Nott after all. And he is saved by his self-deprecation.

A quote:

… Maybe, even, some tiny little strand of [religious belief], like, for example, the Wee Frees, who are part of the Presbyterian movement in Scotland, which is itself part of the Protestant franchise, which is part of the Christian faith, which is part of the Abrahamic belief-set, which is one of the monotheistic religions … maybe they and only they – all few thousand of them –  are absolutely bang on the money in what they believe and how they worship, and everybody else has been wrong-diddly-wrong-wrong all these centuries. Or maybe the One True Way has only ever been revealed to a one-man cult within the outer fringes of Guatemalan Highland Sufism, reformed. All I can say is, I’ve tried to prepare myself for being wrong, for waking up after I’ve died and finding out that – uh-oh – my atheism was actually, like, a Really Big Mistake.

… If people want to respect their environment by believing that the fish they eat might have been an ancestor, or learn to lower the toilet seats because their chi is leaking out, I’m happy to accept and even honour the results even if I think the root of their behaviour is basically barmy. I can live with that and with them. I hope they can live with me…