I was so angry that I decided I’d better write an essay

(Excepts are from a Guardian piece by Jonathan Franzen)

A lot of people think Jonathan Franzen is a pompous git but I suspect he is vilified for speaking his mind and not being afraid to shake up the received wisdoms. I loved ‘The Corrections’ and enjoyed ‘Freedom’. This article is a mea culpa for an earlier essay he wrote critical of those who (in his opinion) mislead people by suggesting we, as a global community, still had time to avert devastating climate change. I thought he had some interesting things to say about writing that I’ve collected here.

Essays are like fiction writing

‘To me it was especially not evident that a think piece should follow the rules of drama. And yet: doesn’t a good argument begin by positing some difficult problem? And doesn’t it then propose an escape from the problem through some bold proposition, and set up obstacles in the form of objections and counterarguments, and finally, through a series of reversals, take us to an unforeseen but satisfying conclusion?’

‘Sometimes, in ordering the elements of a familiar story, you discover that it doesn’t mean what you thought it did. Sometimes, especially with an argument (“This follows from that”), a completely new narrative is called for. The discipline of fashioning a compelling story can crystallise thoughts and feelings you only dimly knew you had in you.’

Essays against the ‘silo’ effect

‘Trump and his alt-right supporters take pleasure in pushing the buttons of the politically correct, but it only works because the buttons are there to be pushed – students and activists claiming the right to not hear things that upset them, and to shout down ideas that offend them.’

‘And here is another way in which the essay differs from superficially similar kinds of subjective speech. The essay’s roots are in literature, and literature at its best – the work of Alice Munro, for example – invites you to ask whether you might be somewhat wrong, maybe even entirely wrong, and to imagine why someone else might hate you.’

Apocalypse now

‘Every one of us is now in the position of the indigenous Americans when the Europeans arrived with guns and smallpox: our world is poised to change vastly, unpredictably, and mostly for the worse. I don’t have any hope that we can stop the change from coming.’

(Equally substitute indigenous Australians for indigenous Americans)

The Keep – Jennifer Egan

I haven’t read Egan’s award-winning ‘A Visit From the Goon Squad’ (2010) but ‘The Keep’ (2006) appears to be a precursor re her interest in metafiction, the use of intertextual devices etc. The ‘hero’ here is Danny, a New York dude who arrives in an unnamed Eastern European town because a childhood friend, Howard, sent him a free airfare and he had to get out of New York for crossing some underworld types. Danny strikes out at night to find the castle that Howard is renovating, intending to turn it into a hotel. There is no light, strange undergrowth and an impenetrable wall. Danny is dragging a portable satellite dish with him because he can’t stand to be out of touch with his NY friends. Funny how this plot device is redundant now, just ten years later, such is the perils of the speed of modern technology for writers.

While the smart-talking Danny could have been irritating, he is actually quite funny, and because he’s self-deprecating we forgive him his cynicism. He does get into the castle and find Howard (who after descending to drug-addiction etc. after a childhood trauma has made a motza out of bond trading) who is a sort of Steve Jobs figure to a horde of back-packer volunteers who are doing the renovation for him. There is also a tough-guy offsider called Mick who Danny recognises as a ‘number two’ figure to the great man, because Danny, too, has played the ‘number two’ role to some ‘number one’ men as well.

Things start to get decidedly stranger from here. There is a weird pool in the castle grounds where Danny sees strange shapes move beneath the water. There is also a keep where an ancient baroness (My family have lived here for generations and you can’t get rid of me – we saw off the Tartars and we’ll see off you etc.) is holed up.

Meanwhile we meet another character, Ray, who is doing time for murder and undertaking a writing course in gaol run by Holly. Ray finds he is good at writing and it provides him with the release from his predicament he craves (his cell-mate gets his release by listening to messages from a ‘radio’ he’s made out of a cardboard box). It probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that Ray is actually writing the story about Danny and the castle. His fellow prisoners in the writing class ask newbie questions like: ‘Did this happen to you Ray?’, ‘You’re Danny aren’t you?’, ‘I don’t believe you could make this seem so real if it didn’t happen to you’ etc. As well as writing, Ray is falling for the teacher, Holly.

As the story progresses we find out that Danny has played a part in the childhood trauma suffered by Howard, and he (Danny) begins to suspect that Howard has brought him to the castle to wreak some form of revenge. Danny experiences a number of mishaps that may or may not be affecting his mind – with a supreme effort he manages to escape to the nearby town. Waiting around he buys an antique map of the castle, and when he can’t get out of the town and goes back to the castle, Howard thinks he’s a hero for finding the map that shows some ‘missing links’, i.e. tunnels that thread beneath the castle. These tunnels play a part in the denouement which neatly connects Danny, Ray, Howard and Mick.

Egan runs a fine line, messing with the readers’ sense of suspended disbelief, but it is so much fun, and Danny turns out to be such an endearing character, that she gets away with it.

Big Issue Fiction Edition

Currently available from your friendly Big Issue vendor – The Fiction Edition 2017. This comes out once a year and is a best seller for The Big Issue and great for the writers involved (including yours truly this year) because it has a wide readership. As well as some ‘big names’ like Matthew Riley, Elliot Perlman and Toni Jordan, other writers are selected through a submission process – there are 14 stories in total. I got stuck into my copy, reading the other writers’ stories on the long commute home from the launch, and was totally absorbed. The short story is a really great way to fill in time this way. What a pity, then, they are not included regularly in magazines and newspaper as they were in the old days (I am always amazed when I read about the writing life of authors in the 50s, 60s and 70s and they seemed to have actually been able to make a living from selling short stories to these outlets). Now you have to submit to the rare anthology by people like the Margaret River Press, to competitions or to literary magazines – all of which have fairly small readerships.

Stories that stood out for me in this issue were Toni Jordan’s beautifully paced and atmospheric ‘Sound is a Pressure Wave’ (gorgeously spooky) and Nina Cullen’s acute and funny story about a mother and daughter trying to overcome misunderstandings while doing a meditation session together, called appropriately ‘Breathe’. I also liked Emily O’Grady’s ‘Blue India’ where your sympathy is first with the father/grandfather who visits his son’s family for Christmas from his care home, but as the story progresses your sympathy is tested. On a similar theme of aged care, Allison Browning writes a beautifully poignant story about one partner of an elderly gay couple having to make the awful decision on behalf of the other. Couples is also the theme of

Nina Cullen and me (r) with BI vendor.

Romy Ash’s story ‘I Bought These Dogs to Show Him How to Love’ where a young city couple encounter a rough-around-the-edges older couple who are selling their service station business to them ‘in the middle of fuck-off nowhere’. The young couple are maybe seeing their future in the bickering older two, but nah, they’re not like that. Understated and done mostly through dialogue, this is great short story craft.

The the Big Issue vendors will keep a few copies of the fiction edition to sell alongside with the usual editions over an ended period of time.

Two hybrid novels

A Lovely Way to Burn – Louise Welsh

From the Wreck – Jane Rawson

‘A Lovely Way to Burn’ is a hybrid novel – part dystopian thriller, part crime novel. Ex-journalist Stevie is working as a presenter on a TV shopping channel in London when an epidemic of illness strikes, peoa lovely wayple call it ‘the sweats’. Like a flu outbreak, no one thinks much of it until people start dying, quickly. Stevie is initially oblivious and waits in a bar for her new boyfriend to turn up, when he doesn’t she goes to his flat and finds him dead. Maybe its natural causes but she succumbs herself to the sweats before she think much about it. When she recovers (one of the few, it transpires, who do) she finds a letter to her from her boyfriend, a successful paediatrician, asking her to deliver a laptop to another doctor at the hospital where he worked, and to trust no one. As she tries to carry out this request, she has to navigate a London slowly shutting down as more and more people die. To make matters worse, it looks like someone is prepared to bash her, or worse, to get their hands on the laptop.

Stevie does all the normal things a crime character has to, interview people, follow up leads, outwit the masked man following her, piece together the puzzle that goes deep into clinical trials and corporate greed, amid a populous getting more and more desperate. I liked the way that the pandemic starts slowly and societal structures work for a while, and some people (including Stevie) try to carry on as normal for as long as possible. The detail is all there: choked hospitals, eerily quiet roads as people are instructed to stay home, outbreaks of vigilantism and random violence. Stevie is tough but aware of her own vulnerabilities, and the brief relationship she has with a computer hacker who helps her is a welcome respite against the horrors all around.

The hybrid nature of ‘A Lovely Way to Burn’ reminded me of another novel I’ve read recently: Jane Rawson’s ‘From the Wreck’. This is an amalgam of Australia historical fiction (it is set in SA in the 1860s) and science fiction. You might think ‘steampunk’ but the novel is a far cry from that. It is really a thoughtful exploration of loneliness and being ‘other’. The novel centres around George, a steward on a ship that is wrecked off the coast of South Australia. While theFrom-the-Wreck_cover survivors are slowly dying of starvation, a strange woman appears among them – she may or may not be Bridget Ledwith, one of the passengers. George and this woman are the only survivors but the woman disappears soon after they are rescued.

George is forever after affected by the strange things that happened to him on the wreck. Meanwhile a sea-dwelling being from another world has seized upon him as their first contact with a human. The creature is desperately alone: ‘They are gone home and I am here and I am a million years too late’. To stay near George, the being fuses with George’s son Henry who develops a precocious interest in arcane (mostly natural history) knowledge. Another character Beatrice Gallwey, hard-drinking and tough, moves next door and we think she may be worthy foil for our extra-terrestrial. The interaction, and self-interest, of these four characters plays out to an ending that was, for me, unresolved. Rawson set herself a massive task to get these strands to work together; I enjoyed the parts: the other-worldliness of the creature, Rawson’s depiction of the rambunctious George who is alternately self-assured and terrified, her lovely portrait of young Henry who is at once enhanced and used by the creature, and the self-contained and cold Bea who pleases herself (below the radar) in a conventional society. Mixing these strands together didn’t quite work for me but it was interesting to go along with the ride wondering where this strange story was heading to next.

My Old Sweetheart and What Lies Between Us

My Old Sweetheart by Susanna Moore & What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera

My old sweetheartThere is a similarity in these novels, although one was written in 1982 and the other is 2016. Moore’s novel is set in lush, tropical Hawaii and is centred on a young, uncertain teenage girl, Lily. Lily’s mother is beautiful but prey to bouts of mania and depression, and Lily’s father, Sheridan, a doctor at the local hospital (and also a wealthy plantation owner) is remote. Of course Lily and her sister and brother always take their dreamy, wilful, imaginative mother’s side against their father. Munaweera’s novel likewise has a heady, exotic setting: this time Sri Lanka. We meet the narrator as a young girl; her mother is also beautiful, but like Lily’s mother she is never confident in her marriage as she comes from a lower social cast than her husband. The father, here, is similarly remote: a university professor this time, and also independently wealthy so that he gets his way, cloistered in his study, while mother and daughter bend to his will.

In both novels we see the parents through the daughter’s eyes – and the lens is coloured. They see their parents as are remote, quixotic, unpredictable, perhaps even dangerous. Not surprisingly the girls look elsewhere for companionship: Lily with a Japanese boy, Tosi, informally adopted by Sheridan but who acts as a servant, and the girl in “What Lies Between Us”, with a yard boy, Samson, as she follows him around in the burgeoning garden and watches as he cleans the pond slick with lilies and fish. Both author’s reveal a love for the beauty of their tropical childhoods, and the descriptions are evocative and ravishing.

What LiesHowever, and not unexpectedly, there is trouble in paradise (in fact the girls are never at ease and this sense heightens the sights, smells, sounds of their lush islands). The danger and thrill surrounding Lily’s mother, Anna, is beautifully suggested in an early scene where the family, sans, father, swims out to an underwater cave. Only Lily dives under the water, following her mother, into the dark entrance and it is Lily who has to remind her that they should return before the tide is too high and they are cut off. In the case of Munaweera’s heroine, tragedy strikes in a drastically-described rainstorm, with a wild and rising river and its suggestive undercurrents. She is quickly packed off to a new life America where a suppressed memory ticks away waiting or its incendiary moment. Lily also faces a tragedy in which she is unwittingly a contributor, and she also becomes an exile, flitting from place to place, island to island, with her young daughter, and the faithful Tosi in tow. (If you are wondering, ‘my old sweetheart’ is the mother’s term of affection for Lily).

There is an languor and sadness about Susanna Moore’s novel; perhaps there is a suggestion of colonial guilt, there is certainly a sense of personal guilt, but this is all played out in a dreamy sort of way that reminded me of those other wonderful tropical novels ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys and Richard Hughes’s ‘High Wind in Jamaica’. There are no neat solutions, just small victories, small moves forward, redolent regret.

Munaweera’s novel fell away for me when the narrative moved to America – while the narrator’s relationship, and having a child, is well-described, I just wasn’t very interested in it. The author shapes the story as a mystery/thriller as we know from the beginning that the narrator has committed some sort of unforgivable crime. I felt this imposed a rigid structure on something that could have flowed more naturally and more organically

My top book read in 2016

a-golden-ageMy criteria for top book is simply the book I loved the most. I guess that is the book that resonated the most, that moved me, that drew me in to an absorbing, interesting world, that had characters I wanted to spend time with. On the whole I don’t read a book unless I think I’m going to enjoy it. The only exception is our book group books which I’m obliged to read. Luckily this year they were all good and interesting in their own way: Ferrante’s ‘My Brilliant Friend’, Lily King’s wonderful ‘Euphoria’ (based on the life of Margaret Mead), Eggers’ spot-on Facebook/Google satire ‘The Circle’ and Imbolo Mbue’s flawed but fun migrant story ‘Behold the Dreamers’.

The first three are all honourable mentions as is Margret Atwood’s acute and wonderful ‘Stone Mattress’ (the book, a collection of stories, is uneven, though, but the title story is brilliant). Commendations also to Lucy Wood’s ‘Weathering’ – an atmospheric, moving and spooky tale set in a rain-drenched fenlands, and Atwood’s other wonderful and strange classic ‘Surfacing’ that somehow I had missed out on reading all these years – first published in 1972, if you can believe it. Joanne Harris’s ‘Gentlemen and Players’ was a satisfying, twisty thriller that I think they are making into a film.

But drum roll, or, more aptly, sit down quietly under a mango tree and sip a cup of Darjeeling – my favourite was ‘A Golden Age’ by Tahmima Anam. This wonderfully moving, sad and understated novel follows the lives of a mother Rehana and daughter Maya and son Sohail, at the time when Bangladesh was fighting for it’s independence from Pakistan. The novel captures you from the opening lines:

Dear Husband, I lost our children today …

How would she begin to tell him?

She got back into the rickshaw with the children … the graveyard was dotted with dusk mourners. They tossed flowers on the wet pelts of grass that grew over their loved ones. In the next row a man in a white cap cried into his hands. Beside him, an old woman clutched a spray of bokul.

Rehana held the round palms of her children.

‘Say goodbye to your father,’ she said, pointing to Iqbal’s grave.

The rest of the novel is Rehana’s explanation to her dead husband about what happened to her and their children. To get her children back from the court who has given custody to her wealthy brother in Lahore, Rehana scrounges money to build a house in her backyard that she rents out so that she can say she is financially independent. She is happy to be a widow cooking and having friends over and bringing up her children – feminist Maya and university radical Sohail. History, of course, steps in.

I’m conscious that this description would probably not draw anyone to read this book but, as with the best novels, it is not the plot: it is the atmosphere, the characters who get under your skin, the sense of the richness in human existence, shadowed by things none of us want to face.

I have Anam’s follow-up novel ‘The Good Muslim’ that follows Maya’s life to read this year.

  • For the stats. Five male writers out of 33 books. Two memoirs, one non-fiction, one classic, eleven fantasy or spec fiction, three crime, the rest general fiction. I will try to up the classics in 2017.