I’ve been procrastinating for days on this one, but 34 minutes into Revolutionary Road felt like just the right time to go & begin something else…

Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading more of Christos Tsiolkas’ work (Dead Europe, & his essay on tolerance in the PEN “3 Writers Project” collection), & I read The Slap a few months back (all part of an effort to read more Australian writers). The Slap seems to have gathered a readership that I don’t remember having seen for  a while (or maybe I just haven’t been paying attention) – every second person on the train seems to be reading it, & it comes up in general conversation to a degree that’s relatively unusual for a novel. Which is great – no complaints from me there.

And I enjoyed reading it. I felt I was connecting in some way with Australian literature, making an attempt to understand a bit more about the literature of my own country, & engaging with the current thoughts & opinions of Australian writers, albeit in a passive sense. Sure, there were elements about the novel that annoyed me; it often felt too one-dimensional, the characters a little too cliched, the politics being worn a little too openly on the novelistic sleeve, so to speak. In many respects, it felt like a novel by numbers, straining to make a point above all else.

So on the heels of The Slap, I read Dead Europe, which felt like more of the same – overtly preoccupied with making a point rather than telling a story. But I finished the novel wondering what the point actually was, & upon reflection, kinda feel the same way about The Slap.

What was the point? As I get older, I feel like I’m moving further away from any left wing attitudes that I once may have held (or, more correctly, had patience for), & am coming closer & closer the to fence on many issues. Politics, economics, social issues are always far more complicated than those on the polar sides of left & right believe & argue, & I’m finding myself to be losing patience with those who repeat the simplistic arguments that their politics dictate.

The Australia of Dead Europe is the racist, intolerant, prejudiced society that apparently no-one can see – certainly not white-Australia. Yet the Europe that Tsiolkas describes is no better – civil wars, the holocaust, cities plagued by drugs, prostitution & crime etc. I finished the novel thinking “…and?”; what am I meant to feel? What great insight about Australia has Tsiolkas shown me? Or maybe I missed something, I don’t know.

In trying to pin down my thoughts about his novels, I’ve come to this conclusion – they feel intellectually lazy. There are grand claims about Australian life, culture & society, yet there’s no follow through. There’s no subtlety nor complication, no grappling with both sides of an issue. Australia is just a racist, intolerant society.

And maybe I’m being a little too defensive here. I’m certainly not about to join One Nation, but I certainly don’t agree with the view of Australia as completely intolerant, unwelcoming of all immigrants, & decidedly narrow minded. Sure, there are elements of the population that are like that, as there are in all countries. But a small element of the population does not condemn the entire country. When Tsiolkas describes the refugee detention centres as “concentration camps”, I can’t help but feel it’s going a little too far – whilst far from perfect, we’re not exactly condemning millions of people to their death. Whilst only one example, it’s these kind of comments in his work that make me cringe, that just come across as intellectually lazy, as bait to provoke an argument rather than an argument in itself (not sure if that really makes sense…)

And what’s my point after all this? For novels which are *about* contemporary Australia, I finish them with a feeling that I’ve learnt little more than I perhaps already knew, that I’ve just read the same old cliched arguments & stereotypes, when what I’m really looking for is something a little more complex, complicated…

Hmm….almost 4 months since the last post – not good. Promises, promises.

But anyway. Season 3 of The Wire completed tonight, which I guess has prompted some thought, & ultimately this post. As much as I’m enjoying the show, each season leaves me with a feeling of futility & existential angst. Justice, when it arrives, feels hollow. I don’t walk away feeling that good has triumphed over evil (nor am I meant to), & I’m finding more & more that I’m siding with the wrong people, if only for their awareness of acceptance of their place in the world, & their  (potential) inability to change it – “the game” is all there is etc.

Stringer’s death came as no surprise, with the tension between himself & Avon building throughout the season. And whilst on paper he was one of the more ruthless characters in the show, & one of the most passive & accepting of  violence as a means to solve  problem, I didn’t feel any sense of justice or satisfaction in his murder. Why? I’m not entirely sure, but it has something to do with his approach to it all. Stringer took no obvious pleasure in his role, or the punishment/violence that he directed – it was merely business, where every action has a predictable & expected consequence. On the other side of the equation is Avon, who enjoys the game for what it is, who needs the game for his own sense of identity, & who at times relishes in his role in it. Even Omar, who is a Robin Hood figure of sorts, seems to take pleasure in the violence, & in his continual place in it. Stringer, however, was looking to go beyond the life of dealing drugs & violent criminal activity – not necessarily to a life of higher moral standing as such, but one which displayed some sense of intellectual development & ambition.

All of this is to say that the strength of The Wire is that there is rarely an emotional pay-off; no happy endings (so far), no good triumphing over evil, just the continual frustrations of a bureacratic machine, of political corruption, & wasted lives.

Looking forward to seeing what season 4 brings.

A short post – am finding it difficult to put any thoughts to paper thesedays, but recently re-read Wallace’s “The Suffering Channel” & have a few notes to record.

One line that struck me the most in this story is the reference to the executive intern having only ten weeks to live; ten weeks to September 11. Off the top of my head, it’s one of the only direct references to contemporary events in Wallace’s fiction that I can think of. Outside of one or two other references to the trade centre, this story isn’t concerned with 9/11, & couldn’t be regarded as “a response to 9/11” etc.

And not that I’ve read many of the novels that are coming to make up the 9/11 genre (have read Falling Man, but that’s about it I think), but I’ve been thinking about what the appropriate literary response actually is, & if one is necessary (which more & more I don’t think it is). I think – here we go – that 9/11, at least for fiction writers – served as a (potentially too easy, too obvious) means of allowing them to write about wider cultural/social/individual concerns, tying these concerns around a catastrophic event that we can’t resist analysing.

Which is why I think Wallace handled it perfectly – one or two references, not central to the story, yet in a way…more striking & unsettling that any direct description of the event, any attempt at explanation & hypothesising.

As I read it, The Suffering Channel is about (or at least one of the themes) an obsession with celebrity for the sake of celebrity, regardless of the foundations – in this case, an artist whose work is literally made of shit. And maybe not celebrity as such, but a culture which celebrates & deifies the banal over the exceptional. And the reference to 9/11 doesn’t come across as condescending, as Wallace saying “but little did they know, they were about to die…”, but rather as a genuine concern about how we live, & the cultural choices we make (am also thinking of the Kenyon speech, in which the idea of choice is key). And how important these choices are – they are the backbone of a “meaningul” life, of a rich inner existence, if that doesn’t sound too corny. And that yes, at any moment, our lives may end.

(As I read more and more about Wallace, & reread his work, & think about him more, my thoughts keep revolving around these ideas – maybe the subject of a longer, more precise & thought out post).

And lastly – why 9/11 doesn’t need to be explicitly explained & deconstructed (have our lives changed all that much since the event? has the role of fiction/the novel changed? I don’t think so) is that the material was there before the event took place – almost a continuation of the existing arc or trajectory…

Picked up in a second-hand bookstore in Houston about 5 years ago, I finally got around to reading the copy of White Teeth that has been sitting on my bookshelves ever since.

It’s one of those books that’s been slightly outside my interest for a while, due only to the feeling that it already felt too familiar by association. I’d read alot “about” it (essays, commentary), & had read bit & pieces from Smith in the form of essays & reviews; I feared the first reading would feel like covering all-too-familiar ground. Like arriving late for a party, just as everyone is leaving, all looking a little harried & exhausted.

Anyway. A week of snatched reading on the train later, I’ve finished,  & can only say that I was pleasantly surprised. The novel was ambitious in its scope (more on that in a second), intelligent, & amusing.

In brief, it’s a novel about identity, & the longing for a clear, defining light when it comes to race, class & religion in modern England (or the west for that matter). But the dream of purity is precisely that – a dream. The novel moves back & forth between a number of characters, but central to all of theme is the idea of belonging, & defining oneself in a country in which a void exists – identity is a process, constantly in flux, redefined from one day to the next.

Two of the central characters are Magid & Millat, twin brothers born to Samad & Alsani Iqbal. As a youth, Magid was sent to Bangladesh for a religious education, in the hope that he would grow up to be pure, uncorrupted by the racial & cultural melting pot of London. Millat, who remained, becomes the bad son; disobedient, easily led, & a general delinquent overall. In these two characters, Smith is setting up one part of the argument – culture & environment as central to personality & identity.

And then there is Irie – the only daughter of Archie Jones (the common Englishman) & Clara Bowden, a Jamaican woman escaping a fundamentalist Christian background. Irie is the awkward teenager, not entirely swayed by any particular argument or ideology of her own – she’s the “solution” in some respects (if the question being asked by Smith is how to create an identity that works in an age of multiculturalism, competing ideologies & religious inspired violence), the middle way, aware of the danger in subscribing to a fundamentalist perspective from either side.

And bringing it all together, the Chalfen family – the whiter-than-white, middle-class, smugly-intellectual family from North London. Perfect kids, loving parents, happy familly, though more than a little false. The deliberately stereotypical family with little to no self-awareness of themselves as caricatures.

But back to Millat. Growing increasingly disaffected & wayward, he comes under the sway of a fundamentalist group called KEVIN, disavowing his past life & instead adopting a fundamentalist view of the world, whilst at the same time romanticising his place within it, seeing himself as a De Niro-esque loner.

Returning to London after many years in Bangladesh is his brother Magid, now an educated, polite & considered gentleman, the embodiment of rationalism, come to meet his newly made, like-minded friend, Marcus Chalfen. Chalfen is a genetic scientist, his work revolving around a genetically modified mouse which he hopes holds the eventual cure for cancer & other diseases.

But I’m wandering, & not really getting to the point of this post (which I’m still trying to figure out). James Wood used this novel as an example of “hysterical realism” (see his review) – a growing genre of the novel which attempts to explain everything about the world we live in, in all its infinite complexity. An in trying to explain everything, something is missing.

By the end of the novel, my biggest complaint was that the characters had come to be representative of ideological arguments, rather than people. They fit too neatly into a stereotypical compartmentalised components of thought, when they began as individuals.

I’m still thinking the novel over in my mind, so these are only thoughts thus far. I appreciate the ambition of the novel – I’m just not sure if this is the right direction….(confused thoughts)…if the novel can be seen as an attempt to solve a technical problem (how to render the world around us, or the author’s perception of it), how successful can it be? How to write a novel which examines religion, terrorism, multiculturalism, inter-generational conflict etc which somehow manages to synthesise all of these into a coherent, sustained argument?

Not sure. More reading required.

Ok, so I’m finally getting around to this. And it’s only the 10th blog I’ve started with the words “ok, so I’m finally getting around to this”…

For the past 12 years, I’ve been a compulsive reader – never outdoors without a book on me at all times. I’ve no idea of the number of books that I’ve read, except to say that my book collection spans a number of shelves, boxes in garages (my own & relatives) & more – & they’re the ones I’ve kept.

I spent a number of years studying literature at university, throughout which time my life consisted of reading for a few hours a day, working in a bookstore 6 days a week, writing essays, discussing books – all in all, feeling like I was engaged in the world of literature. I had no money, I had a sizeable credit card debt, but I had time to read.

Fast forward a few years, & I’m now working 50+ hours a week in a job I love, but which doesn’t leave alot of time for reading & thinking about literature. I read between train stations & squeeze in half an hour at night if I’m lucky, & find the odd review or essay online.

And I understand – this is the real world. There are bills to pay, responsibilities etc, so I’m not complaining. But I’m looking for a way to try & find a balance between work & literature. I don’t want to sacrifice one for the other, & want to remain engaged in each.

So hopefully this is where this blog will come in. A way of putting my thoughts to paper, keeping track of what I’ve been reading, links to articles of interest etc. A means of making myself write on a more regular basis – scribbled thoughts, half-baked ideas, rambling views & arguments, comments. I don’t expect alot of it to make sense or be all that critical – I’ll settle for mildly intelligent at this stage (it still remains to be seen if I can keep this up long term).

So all this is by way of introduction. I enjoy nothing more than browsing bookstores & planning future purchases (I seem to enjoy the planning more than the purchasing). Whilst the list seems insurmountable, the mental list of unread books makes me happy, makes me look forward to the next day, the next book – the book as a postponed suicide, to borrow from Cioran (somewhat morbid but I’ve always liked it).

There is no purpose to this blog (as yet), other than my own enjoyment, & as a means of creating time to reflect upon what I’m reading, to force a few thoughts into reality…

More to come.