Thursday, August 24, 2006


Well, I had very good intentions for this week, which is being cut slightly short by my departure for Melbourne at 12:50 today (around 9 hours away). I did get my comments on Absurdistan up, but I have so many other books I've been wanting to write about. I've held on to Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys two weeks into the library's "extended loan period" (their way of talking about overdue books) in the thought I'd have something to say, and now they've gone and billed me for it.

Then there was Orhan Pamuk's Snow which had various impacts on me - at one stage I wanted to throw it away, it was so slow and strange and about something that had no interest for me at all (religion). But then I started to pick up on suggestions of a Brechtian theatre of the absurd (not that I know a whole lot about that), and noticed this deeply comic storyline opening up. None of my book club members noticed it, but I think most had given up by that point. But what are you supposed to do but laugh, when you notice that the main character, Ka, is ostensibly organising this big meeting of terrorists of various shades so that he can send their message to the "West", to this so-called big time newspaper editor who is really just a random fellow Ka had bought a coat off. And then you remember that Ka had been looking for a way to get the father of his girlfriend out of the hotel, so he and the girlfriend can have sex. Sure enough, Dad is off to the meeting, and its all on (or off, really). And then there are all the fun and games he has with the secret police operatives - such as when a fellow comes into a cafe looking for another. The cafe owner points to a bloke in a corner and suggests that since he's an undercover cop tailing the fellow being looked for, he might be the right person to ask.

And before that, well there was the fantastic Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, about a hugely dysfunctional group of "soldiers" led by this often naked, pale white, fat fellow called the Judge, down through the desert at the top of Mexico not long after the mid 19th century cessation of war. At first, the soldiers are maybe doing the right thing - at least they're working for the government of the area, clearing it of Indians, scalping them as proof. But their allegiances change, they develop a taste for the work and start doing it with no master. All narrated in MacCormac's flat prose, where the great majority of conjunctions are formed by the word "and", so that there's little sense of motivation, causation, or valorisation, just one thing after the other, good followed by bad, with an unsparing account of the bad things they encounter. The worst I remember was the tree full of the bodies of dead babies.

And Beckett! He's been stalking me for years, a name I knew I'd have to read but never got around to. Not, that is, until his poem Malecoda. This was a poem that made very little sense when first I read it: indeed I read it several times but meaning was elusive. Have a go:
thrice he came
the undertaker's man
impassable behind his scrutal bowler
to measure
is he not paid to measure
this incorruptible in the vestibule
this malebranca knee deep in the lilies
Malacoda knee-deep in the lilies
Malacoda for all the expert awe
that felts his perineum mutes his signal
sighing up through the heavy air
must it be it must be it must be
find the weeds engage them in the garden
hear she may see she need not

to coffin
with assistant ungulata
find the weeds engage their attention
hear she must see she need not

to cover
to be sure cover cover all over
your targe allow me hold your sulphur
divine dogday glass set fair

stay Scarmilion stay stay
lay this Huysum on the box
mind the imago it is he
hear she must see she must
all aboard all souls
half-mast aye aye

Knowing that Malecoda came out of the Inferno helped a little, as it helps to decode some of the more obscure words, and of course that particular Canto ends with a fart. And so, the poem resolves into one in three movements, the three occasions on which the undertaker came in response to the death of Beckett's father - the first "to measure" at which time, the devil's assistant also "signals". This is such an affront to Beckett's sense of the solemnity of the occasion, and one he knows will be deeply disturbing to his mother that he loses track of his language, in his concern to protect her - she may hear, but there's no need for her to see. I had a two hour class analysing just this poem, at the end of which I felt a real connection with Beckett; his feelings about the consoling effect of religion, the traditional forms of a funeral and of art (i.e. that they were not enough) made me think about my own father's funeral, and how we had to do something unconventional for him, as a Church-based thing simply would not have worked. So, we took him down to a bend in the river he loved, and had the fellow running the Salvation Army kid's adventure centre conduct a service, and then we had a party.

Once started on Beckett, I then read Molloy which, with its references to big policemen, bicycles, the Irish country-side, mal-functioning legs and the like provided strong reminders of The Third Policemen, upon which I will be seriously engaged during my ten days in Melbourne. I did have other plans, as I had thought that Melbourne, with its emphasis on the cultural life, would have a fantastic Writers' Festival but, upon seeing the programme, I was horribly disappointed - none of the authors I had hoped might come, hardly an author I recognise at all. While it could be a lot of fun to sit in on a lot of sessions featuring unheard of authors, it is not something I am willing to do when each session costs $20 or more. So, I will take my laptop and sit in the State Library of Victoria of a morning, and try to put my thoughts and notes into some sort of coherent order. I have established that they have one of the very few copies of Eimar O'Duffy's works to have surved until now in Australasia (there are officially none in New Zealand), and the thought of reading The Spacious Adventures of the Man in the Street is a pleasurable one. I have also established quite a list of interesting cafes and restaurants to check out, and have an obligation to write a review of Edward St Aubyn's Mother's Milk so should not lack for things to do.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart

I had wondered how I was even going to begin to talk about this book, with its very strange hero and plot that doesn't go very far and its made up country. Then I read a piece in the New York Times and I had my "in". The article is about the break up of the former Soviet Union, which resulted in countries like Georgia and Azerbaijan striking out on their own. One little problem has arisen - within these new countries, there are little enclaves which have refused to go with the times, want to still be part of Russia. So, what they have done is to declare themselves as independent of Georgia or whatever, and make some claim to be a country in their own right, but heavily dependent upon Russia. Places like Abhkazia and Transnistria. Places on the Caspian sea, where Russians have traditionally taken their holidays. All is not sweetness and light for these places - they have tended to find themselves engaged in civil war and tenuous ceasefires. They also tend to be somewhat lawless, playgrounds for fugitives, marketeers and terrorists.

Absurdistan could easily be one such place. It had been Russian, but now Ukrainians, Jews, Moslems, Christians, Americans, Iranians and Armenians feature strongly, as do its native populations of Sevos and Svani. These two had been the one race ("they're all identical half-witted ignoramuses ... the Cretins of the Cuacasus" according to one fellow) but were divided a couple of centuries ago over some sort of religious conflict. Now, the country is segregated into four divisions - the International Terrace, with its multi-national business enterprises; the Svani Terrace where the major business seems to be a used-remote-control market; then on the beachfront, the Sevo Terrace where the ruling class lived. The fourth group of people are the liqorice allsorts who live in the back of beyond.

Now, the big attraction of Absurdistan is its oil - the Russians drew heavily on it when they were in charge, and now the Americans (in the shape of the Halliburton company) want what is left. The actual people of Absurdistan want to survive - one plan they have is to manufacture a war, in order to attract international attention to their plight, bring in aid, bring in US military investment. Unfortunately, their manufactured war gets just a little too real for comfort.

It all sounds a bit serious, and I don't doubt that Shteyngart had a serious intent in writing this novel: he at one point suggests there may not be very much different between Absurdistan and Iraq, and also comments that Absurdistan is as much a time, a post 9/11 time, as a place.. At the same time, however, he provides a lot of fun for readers of the novel. For a start, there is our unlikely hero, one Misha Vainberg. He is the 1238th richest man in Russia, an enormous physical bulk with a damaged khui (there are many references to his damaged manhood, the result of a botched circumscision forced on him when 18) who trundles through the novel in his vintage Puma tracksuit. He likes to think of himself in terms of Dostoyevsky's Prince Myshkin ("a holy fool ... surrounded by schemers" - if only he knew!] and Goncharov's Oblomov [on the strength of this book, I tracked down a copy of that for my own reading pleasure]. He calls himself a secular Jew. He went to school in America, not the kind of school which produces top-flight minds, but instead churns out the kind of State Department drones who find themselves in places like Absurdistan with no understanding of the place or its language. In fact, many of Accidental College graduates have gone on to be asparagus farmers.

Misha's dream is to return to the USA, to his memory of the place and to his beloved Rouenna, but he has a problem: his father, "just another Russian gangster ... an antisocial personality with limited impulse control" according to his Mossad file, killed a man in Oklahoma (Roger Daltrey ["Who?" "Exactly" - sorry, couldn't resist]) and none of his family is allowed back. So, Misha finds himself in Absurdistan as all hell is about to break lose, in some mad scheme to become a fake Belgian citizen. Instead, he gets caught up with the daughter of the main local political family, and the family itself: at one point he finds himself a Minister in its government. There's a scene, when he and Nana first have sex, which I still don't know if it is completely genius or something that might win the bad sex writing contest - its one of those "it is so bad it might be good" sort of passages.

Oh, and there is a running gag: Misha is stuck in Russia and then Absurdistan. Meanwhile, his beloved Rouenna is back in the Bronx, where she is taking a writing class with "Jerry Shteynfarb", author of "The Russian Arriveste's Hand Job or something of the sort". [Gary Shteyhart's first novel is the Russian Debutante's Handbook.] Misha's biggest fear is that "Jerry" will take his woman off him: sure enough, he does, with the promise that he'll make Rouenna into a writing star. Now, we see her various emails through the course of the book, and if "Gary" is teaching her anything, it sure as hell isn't how to write.

I think it is pretty obvious from the title that the intent here was to point at the absurdity inherent in modern life: Shteyngart doesn't really spare anyone. And yet, I think we have to see this book as proclaiming a stubborn belief in love, even when that which we love exasperates us.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story

I've never actually read Sterne's novel: it is another of those much talked about but never read novels, like Ulysses. Unlike most people who might talk about the novel, I did make a start and got well through it, but I was reading it in the context of a single semester course, where there were about a dozen possible novels to read and the time to do this one justice was simply not available. In light of this movie, I will definitely be making a solid effort to read The Life and Opinions of Trstram Shandy, Gentleman. In fact, I have just bid on a copy on trademe, so I won't even have the excuse of not being able to find it.

I do know a little about the novel: that is only peripherally about its titular character and not really about his opinons at all, as the time line of the novel ceases shortly after his birth. More importantly, I know that Sterne had a lot of fun with form, creating one of the earliest metafictions, in which various things bleed into and subvert the narrative. The orthodoxies of the realist novel are thrown out the window.
It is said within the movie to be a post modern classic before there was any modernism to be post about. As Stephen Fry, doing a cameo as one "Patrick Curator" tells us, the novel is not at all filmable. Winterbottom doesn't even try, not really. Sure, he gets off to a good start: we have Steve Coogan as Tristram parading about, telling us just why this is a "cock and bull" story, giving an account of his birth. Some of the fun and games of the novel start early: Tristram tells us that since he looks like his father, he may as well play him in the birth scenes. He then meets himself, aged about 8, after the kid has had an unfortunate incident with a window. Of this actor, Tristram tells us
That is a child actor, pretending to be me. I'll be able to play myself later. I think I could probably get away with being eighteen, nineteen. Until then, I'll be played by a series of child actors. This was the best of a bad bunch.
Progression of the storyline is frequently
interrupted by Tristram telling us he's getting ahead of himself and going back to an early part of the story. Things we do see here are how the father is more concerned with things like his name (he wanted to inflict Trismegistus on him) and the kind of knowledge the kid should have than Tristram himself.

One comment I've read is that in the novel, we get to know the narrator very well: the same is true of the movie. Being a movie, of course, you don't have narrators so much as actors - about 20 - 30 minutes into the movie, we're in Tristram's mother's bedroom, have been within the possible confines of a movie about Tristram all along. This frame is now broken, however: the camera shows us the sound man packing up after a successful shot. From this point on, the focus shifts out of the movie into the making of the movie, and most particularly onto Steve Coogan. Insofar as we see any more of the Trstram Shandy movie, it is from this external perspective - we don't see it as product so much as a production. And it truly would have been an awful film! The decision has been made to make a battle scene the major focus of the movie - the bits of it we get to see are obviously lame, poorly enacted, under-staffed ("look - tens of people") and badly costumed "I think I saw a Roman Centurion"). Of course, we get to see the crew discuss all of these problems.

It soon becomes clear that Steve Coogan, at least in his character of the actor playing Tristram, has not read the novel, and can't read the novel: there's one scene towards the end where he promises to, but is soon asleep. There's no index! How can you have a book this big without an index? Instead, his own story leaks in, so that we're wondering if the story is about Tristram, Coogan or, indeed, Rob Brydon (who is playing his Uncle Toby, who had a major role in the novel) - the movie opens with the two of them in the dressing room arguing about who is more important to the movie. Toby, of course, has a hundred page love scene with the Widow Wadman - this creates a problem for Rob Brydon, as Coogan has managed to sign Gillian Anderson on to play the good widow at the last minute, as a way of getting round the battle scene: Brydon has the hots for Anderson, so doesn't think he can play someone engaging in an affair with her character.

There is lots of other similar fun and games - including Coogan playing himself in his family role with his wife and kid, but having Kelly McDonald play his wife, Jennie; having Coogan develop the hots for another Jennie (the one person on set who seems to have any sort of serious knowledge about the book or, indeed, film; lots of fun with Coogan in his former role of Andy Partridge (is Coogan really just the pompous idiot that Partridge was?); and a real reporter who has come over from the USA to interview Coogan but gets put into the film as a reporter who has come over from the USA to interview Coogan. One mind-frizzling scene involves a plastic womb being made for Coogan, in which he is to hang upside down. It is never, as far as we know, actually used in the film. Instead, Coogan then has a dream in which he is trapped in it, but in miniature, not much bigger than a real womb, hanging upside down and yelling for help in the garden, while Toby and the Widow Wadman do their scene.

All of this is fine, in the sense that I think most people can accept and follow these sorts of games these days, but the end of the movie still has me puzzled. There is no spoiler involved in saying the movie ends with us seeing the crew watching the closing credits of the Tristram Shandy movie: I just wonder what movie they were in fact watching, as we've just seen them not make it. Cute. I think Steren would have approved.

Over on IMDB land, it has received a mixed bag of commentary: according to one denizen, anyone who suggests that enjoyment of the movie might be enhanced by some knowledge of the book is a "pretentious moron who obviously thinks too highly of themselves - even though with no IQ are entitled to enjoy a moving picture." In parlance which is common round these parts, "Yeah right". Actually, reading the IMDB comments is as much fun as the movie itself was.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Three to See The King by Magnus Mills

I do not have a great deal to say about this odd little book, in which Mills quits any attempt at a realist novel. Not only does our central character have no name, but the setting has no recognisable features. While there are the odd moments of humour, I would have thought that such an overtly allegorical work would actually be taking us someplace special. Essentially, he uses this very pared down novel to explore the consequences of community.

So, the narrator lives in a tin house in a great sandy plain. All he does is sweep the sand away from the walls of his house (we learn later that it was poorly sited) and listen to the effect of the wind on his house. He is happy: existing in a house of tin is an end unto itself. There is no sign of any sort of commercial activity, yet there is a constant supply of coffee and cakes. He has three known neighbours - all in identical tin houses, but the others are more radical than our narrator. One is constantly tinkering with his house - putting up such things as wind chimes, a balloon (so that his house can be identified - who is to identify his house is not specified), a flagpole and a weathervane. His other two neighbours have become fast friends, and have instituted a custom of taking presents whenever they visit.

But then Mary Petrie turns up: he had somehow met her earlier in his life, and she has continued to remember his dream of not only living in a tin house, but one in a canyon (even though he has no recollection of this dream - it seems that he may have embarked upon it, but given up on it somewhere along the line). How she finds him, we'll never know. Why she thinks he'll take her in, we'll never know, but she turns up with a wash stand and fine china: nice symbols of a domesticised community. Within a few days, our narrator works out that she wants him in her bed, and so they become a couple - although we're often forced to cringe at their relationship, in the way that he seems to misread so many of her signals and yet be so sure he's right. Of course, she does stay, so he can't have been completely wrong. Shortly after her arrival, he's thinking to himself

It was quite remarkable really. One day I'd been living alone in a house of tin, minding my own business. Then suddenly this woman, this Mary Petrie, had moved in, and everything had changed. Now I was subject to rules, such as where I could sit and when I could sweep, and there were matters I could not discuss, or at least not go on about too much. As I waited for her return, it also struck me how quickly I had adapted to my new situation.

And there we have the nub of the novel: the ways in which we have to adapt, to accomodate others when in society. At the same time, however, there is an exploration of how far a fellow can be pushed in the interests of that society.

This theme starts to develop when our narrator goes to visit a neighbour, Simon: his house is in pieces in the ground. It transpires that there is a sixth, charismatic, figure (Michael Hawkins) who is even further out on the plain, miles away, far too far for the narrator to contemplate visiting. Simon has been, however, and is captivated, with Michael and his grand project to house an entire community in tin houses in a canyon. Word has got out, and there is a growing stream of pilgrim-like figures seen in the distance, heading towards this promised land. So, knowing that's where Simon wants to go, the other two neighbours have done him the kindness of dismantling Simon's house so they can move him there.

This gives Mills a chance to explore notions of friendship, the tensions that can arise within them and the moderating influence of a sensible woman: the narrator has his nose out of joint because of Simon's departure and refuses to pitch in and help him shift house (literally). He is clearly at risk of losing his friends, but Mary finds a compronise that lets him save face but also maintain contact with them.

Of course, eventually the narrator's curiosity gets the better of him (and Mary reminds him of his dream to live in a canyon) and he has to go visit. Michael has the canyon building project well in hand, the general attitude towards him is one of reverence, but there are mutterings around the edges - a feeling is starting to creep in among those who are working enormously long hours that maybe they're being exploited (of course, in a Mills novel, to be a worker is to be exploited), that maybe there won't be the benefits they thought they'd achieve. Rather than tease this out, Mills pulls the plug on the novel, by having Michael come up with a change to the plan that is so repugnant to all who have followed their dream to come live in a tin house, that there is open revolt.