Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges’ Great Fables Crossover

Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges (writers),
Mark Buckingham, Tony Akins, Ross Braun, Andrew Pepoy, José Marzán, Jr and Dan Green (artists),
Lee Loughridge and Daniel Vozzo (colorists)
and Todd Klein (letterer),
Fables 13: The Great Fables Crossover (Vertigo 2010)

fables13.jpgThe crossover of this title refers, not to any plot developments in the continuing tale of the Fables (see my earlier posts on Books 1, 3–4, 5, 6–10, and 11–12), but to the fact that its contents were first published in three separate comics franchises – Nos 83–85 of Fables, Nos 33–35 of the spin-off Jack of Fables, and the first and so far only 3 issues of The Literals.

There’s a fairly bumpy start for those of us who haven’t seen Jack since he long ago stormed out to start his own franchise. It seems that he has been heading an army, toying with the affections of a formidable trio of sisters (no, not the Fates but the Page sisters, glamorous librarians with special powers), and generally amassing an entourage of odd non-human and possibly immortal characters. Perhaps readers of Jack of Fables will feel at home; latecomers like me can work it out as we go.

The Mister Dark story arc is put on ice for a story involving the Literals – personifications of aspects of the story-producing process. The most powerful Literal is Pathetic Fallacy, but he rarely uses his power because, well, he’s pathetic. There’s the Reviser, the enemy of imagination. There are the Genres. There’s Writer’s Block, a drooling idiot in a straitjacket. And so on.

Much meta fun is to be had, and this crossover sequence may have been intended to introduce a separate Literals franchise. But it turns out to be a bit of a squib. Rather than character development there’s silliness (the Writer turns Bigby Wolf into a cute little girl) and violence (the cute little girl has a couple of pages of graphic mayhem – and I remind you that the technical meaning of mayhem is the ripping off of parts of an opponent’s body). Though the Genres argue among themselves about how to fight the Fables, it’s the more violent ones – Blockbuster, War, Western and Science Fiction – rather than romance or Comedy, who dominate the action. The comic ends up being a grim reminder of just how militarised the US and its imagination have become.

Of course there are good things: the weird Boy Blue cult that developed in Volume 11 takes an interesting turn; a strange little blue bull, possibly familiar from the Jack of Fables franchise, does a deft parody of a Snoopy Peanuts strip; Jack Frost, son of Jack and the Snow Queen, has a lovely coming-of-age story; the meta elements are interesting – to what extent, for example, do characters take on a life of their own so that their creator can’t change them?

I guess it’s good to know that Jack of Fables exists, but I haven’t been seized with an irresistible urge to read it. I’m looking forward to getting back to the Mister Dark story in Volume 14.

Bill Willingham’s Fables 11 & 12

Bill Willingham (writer),
Mark Buckingham, Niko Henrichon, Steve Leialoha and Andrew Pepoy (artists),
Lee Loughridge (colorist)
and Todd Klein (letterer),
Fables 11: War and Pieces (Vertigo 2008)

Bill Willingham (writer),
Mark Buckingham, Michael Allred, Andrew Pepoy, David Hahn and Peter Gross (artists),
Lee Loughridge and Laura Allred (colorists),
and Todd Klein (letterer),
Fables 12: The Dark Ages  (Vertigo 2009)

fables 11.jpgI’ve blogged about earlier volumes of Fables here, herehere and here. Volume 11 was originally published in single magazine form (that is, as monthly comics) as Fables 70–75. The epic battle that has been brewing between the forces of good and evil – the exiled Fables versus the Adversary’s hordes – in earlier volumes explodes into action here.

The teaser line at the end of the first section says, ‘Next: More gratuitous mayhem.’ And it’s not kidding. There’s a lot of gore, lots of explosions, plenty of dismemberment. Not my cup of tea, especially on Anzac Day, when the Australian government and media cloak the hideous waste of young men’s lives at Gallipoli in borrowed rhetoric about freedom.

I’m glad I read it all the same. It’s intricately plotted with a gratifying twist or two at the end. Bill Willingham is consistently witty – I love his dedication, to ‘the wonderfully restless shade of Edgar Rice Burroughs’. The longer story arcs move along significantly. And it’s a light read, perfect at bedtime and for a walk with the dog when the other book I’m reading at the moment requires solid concentration.

Mercifully, the war comes to an end with this volume, and we can move on.

fables12.JPGVolume 12 (comprising magazines 76–82), The Dark Ages, introduces a new slew of artists. In contrast to the ominous title and the James Jean’s dark pietà on the cover, an optimistic note is struck in the new, bright, clean look of the first chapter’s art, by Michael Allred with color by Laura Allred. It looks as if the main problem now will be how to integrate the recalcitrant but now virtually powerless old Adversary into the community.

But no! As with real wars, the war with the Homelands casts a long shadow. In chapter two Lee Loughridge’s moody color work is back and the Fable community has to deal with terrible grief, first with the loss of one much-loved hero, and then with the slow, agonised death of another.

Worse, as with real wars, new dangers, even more deadly, rise from the ashes of the old. The end of World War One gave rise to Hitler. George W Bush’s declared victory in Iraq unleashed civil war and the horrors of ISIS. Here, the looting of the conquered and devastated Homelands sets loose a dread figure known only as Mister Dark, and all of Fable land is in deep trouble again.

By the end of Volume 12, the whole political geography of this world has changed. The Fables have fled their refuge in Manhattan, and there are hints that Mister Dark is corrupting their relationships from afar, and sowing the seeds of a weird cult (or maybe the weird cult is a separate postwar ailment). Perhaps the ending of the war wasn’t so merciful after all.

There are ten books to go, and I’ve just borrowed the lot from a fellow enthusiast.

Overland 225

Jacinda Woodhead (editor), Overland 225 (Summer 2016)

overland225.jpegI’m late at getting to this issue of Overland – sorry! One advantage of lateness, though, is that just about everything from this issue has been uploaded to the Overland web site, so I can give lots of links.

There’s always a prize or two in Overland. Nº 225 has the Fair Australia Prize, supported by the National Union of Workers, and the Story Wine Prize, whose winners get to appear on the labels of wines produced by The Story Wines, a small Melbourne company.

The Fair Australia Prize includes prizes for poetry, fiction, a cartoon and an essay. Of the winners, Stephen Wright’s essay On setting yourself on fire, stands out: it begins with the horrifying phenomenon of self-immolating Tibetan monks and expends into a rumination on the demands of activism. (Incidentally, he talks about dozens of monks, but I believe it’s more like hundreds – see Martin Kovan’s article in a 2013 Overland.)

Only the first place winner of the wine prize, ‘Sweeping‘ by Cameron Weston, appears in the hard copy journal. It’s a masterly piece of compression. The runners-up are online.

Elsewhere, as always with Overland, the articles provide useful counterpoint to the mainstream narrative, with an occasional oddity. The one I found most interesting was ‘The antis‘ by Liam Byrne, about the campaign against conscription in the First World War. Byrne starts with the assertion that this is a forgotten piece of Australian history, which surprised me, but if he’s right – in spite of writing as if the campaign happened almost entirely in Victoria thing, he has done a good job of jogging the collective memory:

At its root, the conscription campaign was about the future of a country being decided by the mass of people who lived in it. It was about them deciding who would go to war; either those who chose to, or those the government selected. This act of mass democracy unleashed social energies in an act of political creation. It was a time when the working-class citizens of the country, so often denied a political voice, made themselves heard.

There are essays on Donald Trump (accompanied by an image of Trump as the Joker) and Pauline Hanson (by Vashti Kenway, a nice reminder when read alongside David Marr’s Quarterly Essay that parliamentary politics is not the only game in town), on class, women (one on Joan Didion’s influence, one on ‘feminine’ robots) and Indigenous Australia (‘Cultural appropriation is not empathy. It is stealing someone else’s story, someone else’s voice’ – Jeanine Leanne) . An article on Julia Gillard’s speeches sets out to discuss their poetics, but pays attention mostly to the manner of their delivery and their reception by the press and social media. Another on the state of the working class  gives university lecturers, hardly the group most people would think of as typical workers, as a key example of increasing precariousness. Alison Croggon’s regular column distinguishes interestingly between invisibility (sometimes desirable) and erasure (definitely not desirable).

There are two fine short fictions apart from the prize winners – Liam by Tony Birch and  Agistment by Alex Philp.

The big poetry feature is a collaborative work, On the occasion of Gig Ryan’s sixtieth birthday. Seventeen Australian poets contributed two stanzas each to a Sapphic ode for the event. The result is as impressively impenetrable as much of Ryan’s work.

There are some fabulous illustrations. Sam Wallman, who did the cover art, has a double spread that beautifully fills the promise of its caption, ‘Hand made signs at the anti-Trump rally in New York City on the first Saturday after the election November 2016’. Brent Stegeman gives us Donald Trump as the Joker and Pauline Hanson as a literally flaming redhead.

Paul Beatty’s Sellout

Paul Beatty, The Sellout (©2015, Oneworld 2016)

sellout.jpegThis won the 2016 Man Booker Prize, and people from Sarah Silverman to a Penthouse reviewer, four pages of them at the start of the OneWorld edition, have heaped praise on it, so it was a welcome gift at Christmas.

In the prologue the narrator, an African-American man, appears in a US court charged with undoing the gains of the Civil rights movement by reintroducing slavery.

It’s an intriguingly provocative set-up, but alas I didn’t manage to read more than about about a third of the book.

It’s a story of a boy whose psychologist father home-schooled him, beat him savagely, and replicated famous child-experiments with him as the suffering subject, who grows up to become oddly contrarian, fiercely anti-racist but perhaps even more fiercely anti the pieties of Black culture, with a farm in the middle of ghettoised Los Angeles as a key locale. To me it felt contrived and arbitrary, but not sufficiently weird or tumultuous to compel. Of course my failure to persevere may have to do with my mood of the moment, or parochial irritation at the frequent opaque Los Angeles references. So  don’t let me put you off.

Here’s a bit from just before I laid it aside. The African-American character speaking is a mediocre academic who has made and lost fame and fortune as a Black voice in the media, largely by stealing other people’s ideas.

‘One night, not long ago,’ Foy said, ‘I tried to read this book, Huckleberry Finn, to my grandchildren, but I couldn’t get past page six because the book is fraught with the “n-word”. And although they are the deepest-thinking, combat-ready eight- and ten-year-olds I know, I knew my babies weren’t ready to comprehend Huckleberry Finn on its own merits. That’s why I took the liberty to rewrite Mark Twain’s masterpiece. Where the repugnant “n-word” occurs, I replaced it with “warrior ” and the word “slave” with “dark-skinned volunteer”.’
—–‘That’s right!’ shouted the crowd.
—–‘I also improved Jim’s diction, rejiggered the plotline a bit, and retitled the book The Pejorative Free Adventures and Intellectual and Spiritual Journeys of African-American Jim and His Young Protégé, White Brother Huckleberry Finn, as They Go in Search of the Lost Black Family Unit.’
[…]
—–Foy touched his fingertips together in front of his chest, the universal sign that the smartest person in the room is about to say something. He spoke loudly and quickly, his speech picking up in speed and intensity with every word. ‘I propose that we move to demand the inclusion of my politically respectful edition of Huckleberry Finn into every middle-school reading curriculum,’ he said. ‘Because it is a crime that generations of black folk come of age never having experienced this’ – Foy snuck a peek at the original book’s back cover – ‘this hilariously picturesque American classic.’

That isn’t terrible. Quite apart from the frequent use of the ‘n-word’ by the narrator of this book, I get what’s being mocked, and agree that it needs mocking. When I worked in children’s literature there were authorities who wanted to restrict access to Margaret Mahy’s superb The Man Whose Mother Was a Pirate so as not to trigger children who had been attacked by real pirates. But, like many of the narrator’s satiric riffs, this mockery is too easy. Which is pretty  much how I found the narrative as a whole: I think it wants to be a rollicking, take-no-prisoners ride knocking down sacred cows in all directions, but it just doesn’t rollick and instead of sacred cows it burns straw men.

Your mileage may vary.

David Marr’s White Queen

David Marr, The White Queen: One Nation and the politics of race (Quarterly Essay 64, 2017)

Pretty much ever since Pauline Hanson appeared on the political scene, there have been protests that the mainstream media pays too much attention to her. These tweets from March are recent examples:

tweet.jpg

I sympathise with the sentiments, but the ‘no-platform’ cry is surely wrong-headed. True,  it’s painful to see precious media minutes taken up with, for example, crackpot comments on the Great Barrier Reef, but it’s the electoral system that has given Pauline Hanson a platform, and for the media to ignore her now would be derelict. Just recently, though, it’s hard not to feel we’re getting too much of a not-so-good thing: the ABC’s 4 Corners aired ‘Please Explain‘on 3 April; Richard Cooke’s ‘Alt-Wrong‘ is in the current issue of The Monthly; the summer issue of Overland gave us ‘No Pasarán!’ by Vashti Kenway (who as a teenager in 1996 threw eggs ‘with wild joy’ at Hansonites); and now here’s David Marr’s Quarterly Essay.

9781925435498.jpgThe essay obliquely acknowledges this dilemma. Marr writes, ‘Most Australians reject everything that Hanson stands for,’ but nevertheless ‘politics has been orbiting around One Nation since the day she returned to Canberra’.

The essay gives a history of Ms Hanson’s political career since her stint on the Ipswich city council in the mid 1990s. It chronicles her turbulent relationship with the mainstream political right, including John Howard’s refusal to condemn her infamous ‘swamped by Asians’ maiden speech and his later opportunistic adoption of her policies (the section outlining Howard and Hanson’s trajectories is titled ‘Made for Each Other’). It reminds us of her brief sojourn in gaol and her release on a technicality (what she meant to do was illegal, but she hadn’t actually managed to do it). It takes us through her series of Svengalian advisers. It traces her progress, if that’s the word, from having ‘a folksy distaste for the blacks of Ipswich’ to being ‘an ideologue of race’ with ‘a conspiratorial mindset’.

Anyone who follows Australian politics will already know most of this, but it’s good to have it laid out plainly and without weaselly ‘balance’. There’s also joy to be had in the section ‘A Note on the Language’, which – as Raymond Williams’s Keywords did on a broader scale 40 years ago – examines the loaded meanings of words that have become prominent in the language of reactionary politics. Marr’s analysis isn’t as penetrating as Williams’s or that of the Keywords Project that continues his work, but it includes a number of gems, such as the entry on Free speech, which begins;

Free speech
Not about everything. Mainly Race. But it’s not free speech for pinging racists for being racists. That’s censorship or, indeed, persecution.

Pinging racism, as it happens, is at the heart of the essay. Where Marr’s previous QEs – on Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott, George Pell, Bill Shorten – have been mainly character studies, this one is less interested in personality than in politics. It aims, as Marr says in a note on his sources, to put ‘a floor of fact under speculation about Hanson and her political appeal’. The fifteen-page section ‘Pauline’s People’ leans on the latest Australian Electoral Study numbers, drawing into the discussion ‘several professional pollsters who have conducted focus groups among resurgent One Nation voters’. One Nation voters in 2016:

  • were almost entirely Australian-born (98 percent, with the Nationals coming closest at 91 percent)
  • mostly described themselves as working class (66 percent, with the nationals again coming second at 46 percent, and Labor at 45 percent)
  • compared to the general public, included half the proportion of university-educated people and twice that of people with trade qualifications
  • thought things were ‘a little’ or ‘a lot’ worse for them than a year ago (68 percent, with Labor running second at 38 percent)
  • believed politicians ‘usually look after themselves’ (a huge 85%, with the Greens a poor second at 51 percent)
  • considered immigration ‘extremely important’ when deciding how to vote (82 percent), thought immigration should be cut ‘a lot’ (83 percent), believed migrants increase crime (79 percent) and take our jobs (67 percent)
  • the kicker, ‘agree’ or ‘strongly agree’ with turnbacks of boats containing desperate people seeking asylum (a whopping 90 percent).

And 88 percent of them want the death penalty to be reintroduced.

‘Hanson’s people,’ writes Marr, ‘are not implacable conservatives.’ From marriage equality to euthanasia, they’re open to the small-l liberal agendas. They are generally in work and middling prosperous, though they’re ‘oddly gloomy abut their prospects’. They are overwhelmingly pissed off with government, against immigration and all for law and order. Of these, the hottest topic is immigration.

And as for racism:

Hanson’s people know she is talking race. They talk about it themselves in focus groups. Her candour on race is fundamental to their respect for her. They fear being branded racists if they complain about burqas and mosques and schools forbidding Christmas. She is not afraid. … ‘We’re not racist,’ they say. ‘We support Asians. We like them. We think they’ve done a lot here.’ But they don’t like Muslims. They don’t talk bombs and terrorist attacks in focus groups, though perhaps the threat of violence is somewhere in their minds. They talk a bit about lost jobs and a lot about people not fitting in. Not even trying to fit in. …

I’ve come to think it’s not much use asking if Australia is a racist country. It’s too broadbrush. The better question is: what role does race play in the politics of the country. This is not the politics of class or the politics of money, but the politics of difference.  … The politics of race reassures white Australians unsure of their place in the heap that they’re on the only heap that matters.

Yet, as he says elsewhere, ‘neither Coalition nor Labor leader will bluntly call Hanson on race … the tactical impulse of the major parties is to flinch from naming her for what she is.’ As one of the most significant politicians of our times might say: Sad!


Added later: I forgot to say that one of the best things in this Quarterly Essay is the correspondence about the previous issue, Stan Grant’s Australian Dream. There are robust contributions from Aboriginal people – Alice Springs activist Jacinta Nampijinpa Price, Monthly contributor Amy McQuire, and the venerable Marcia Langton. George Megalogenis has intelligent things to say about Grant’s comparison of some Aboriginal experience with that of migrants. Kim Mahood brings her particular whitefella insights to bear. And Stan Grant uses his right of reply with robustness, civility and nuance.

David Musgrave’s Anatomy of Voice

David Musgrave, Anatomy of Voice (Gloria SMH Press 2016)

1478186754915.jpgThis book of poetry invites readers to immerse themselves in its complex playfulness. As well as the poems, beautifully laid out on the page, there are gorgeous images culled from sixteenth and seventeenth century emblem books (with notes giving the French, German and Latin verses they originally accompanied), an occasional burst of morse code (and inside front and back covers filled with tiny dots and dashes), footnotes that serve not so much to clarify as to enact the poetry’s theme, an ingenious use of showthrough (something you just can’t do in an e-book), and more. And it’s a book that grieves for a lost friend. In some ways I’m a privileged reader because I knew the man who is grieved for, though not as well as David Musgrave, so I read the book very personally.

It consists of six main parts, four ‘partitions’ of poetry, an afterword, and eleven pages of notes.

Given that so much contemporary poetry is compressed and elliptical, it’s often a good idea to start with the notes. Here, the afterword should definitely be read first: in it David Musgrave explains that the book is a personal tribute to Bill Maidment (1924–2005), who taught in the English Department at Sydney University from the 1950s to the 1980s, and was a significant mentor of Musgrave as scholar and poet.* The afterword explains the book’s genesis:

The decision to start writing about Bill’s voice arose from a number of auditory hallucinations I experienced some months after his death. From there the interrogation of that experience led inevitably to the anatomisation of the idea of what a voice is, as well as, of course, a desire to memorialise the man who had given me so much.

The First Partition is a sequence of 24 poems, each of three four-line stanzas. This is the ‘anatomisation’. It begins with an auditory hallucination:

Somewhere–––––a voice
near my mind——-not in it
but part of it——apart
and tethered by memory

and continues as a sustained, fascinating, quotable, and at times moving meditation on voice – as container of meaning, as non-human sound, as remembered part of someone who has died, and much more.

The second Partition, consisting of ten short poems accompanied by images culled from emblem books, is gorgeous to look at and hold. The poems, apart from the first, don’t easily yield their paraphrasable meanings, if such meanings exist – the verses that accompanied emblems were traditionally enigmatic. But I spent a lot of time with them, reading, in the notes, the verses that originally accompanied the emblems, and trying to figure out what is going on. Some typical lines:

Maenads, dandies, their unedited fiends
danced and tended faded anathemas.
The deadened ides of dire mendacity.

The lines do relate to the accompanying image of dancing monkeys. They are almost anagrams of each other, and are full of echoes and rhymes. Maybe their tantalising almost-coherence mimics a hallucinated voice.

But moving on: the third Partition is a kind of biography of Bill Maidment in fourteen poems, for which a prose biography in the afterword provides a useful map. In what at first reads as a humorous gimmick, there are footnotes in which Maidment, and sometimes his widow, comment on the poems (a note explains that these footnotes are quotes from articles or letters). Some of the notes expand on the narrative, others comment on the poem, as the afterword tells us the living Maidment often did on Musgrave’s poetry. It’s a very beautiful sequence, and the cumulative effect of the footnotes is to enact the central motif of the book – they are the voice of a loved one speaking to the living from beyond the grave. Still clever-dicky and comical, but also hitting a deep chord of sorrow. And that’s true of a lot of this section: I laughed out loud at times, and at others found myself brooding on all the people I have loved who have died, trying to remember their voices.

The fourth Partition consists of a single short poem addressed to the departed. I love how these lines evoke the meaning of the hallucinated voice:

————————–that which calls

across heavens, from room to room,
joining us through air, through love

and dividing us from silence
this gift of next-to-nothing

that we carry in our mind’s heart

In a brilliant review in the most recent Southerly, Michael Sharkey spells out the book’s ‘bravura display of easy erudition’, and its relationship to Richard Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy among other works. He describes it as ground-breaking in scope, and says he knows nothing like it in Australian poetry. I can add my less learned praise to his, and say that it’s been a while since a book of poetry has grabbed me and held me so deeply and, for all its grief, so joyfully.


* A personal note: I was lucky enough to be lectured by Bill Maidment in the early 1970s, and was enough under his spell that someone once called me a Maidmentian: I think he was referring to my inability to think one coherent thought at a time. Sometimes, when I’m trying to articulate a difficult thought, I hear myself adopting one of Bill’s mannerisms, muttering the sound that Musgrave describes as the phoneme ‘ze’.

Couplets refusing to be enraged

Young man, who tore down Lord Street on your bike
and called my love a deaf old ugly dyke
because her body occupied a space
you wanted to traverse at lycra pace
(though you’d admit it was a narrow path
designed for walkers), you whose noisy wrath
resounded once you’d left her in your wake
until the lights at King Street made you brake,
you know, I’ve nothing much to say to you
except perhaps, Yah sucks bum piss, dog poo
and pubic hair. Our guava tree meanwhile
drops fruit as if it’s going out of style.
The tree won’t read this rhyme, nor I suppose
will you. Your droppings are a lot more on the nose.*


* Though I love the smell of guavas, other people say that to them it’s like a cross between vomit and excrement.

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Sympathizer

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer (Grove Press 2015)

sympathizer.jpgIn the early pages of The Sympathizer the narrator is working for a Vietnamese general in the last days of the US–Vietnam war. A CIA man gives him a book:

I took care to peruse the book’s cover, crowded with blurbs so breathless they might have been lifted from the transcript of a teenage girls’ fan club, except that the excited giggling came from a pair of secretaries of defense, a senator who had visited our country for two weeks to find facts, and a renowned television anchor who modelled his enunciation on Moses, as played by Charlton Heston.

This little bit of mockery of US publishing practices is given an ironic bite by the blurb overkill of the book in which it appears: front and back covers are so crowded with flattery that an extra false front has been added to take the overflow, then inside the book there are six pages of praise before the title page, and then 15 pages up the back of commentary from the author in the form of an essay and an interview.

Count me among the hardy souls who decided to read the novel anyhow.

The sympathiser of the title, who is the protagonist–narrator, is a Vietnamese double agent, a US-trained member of the South Vietnamese secret police and a spy for the Vietcong. He takes part in some key post-war events: the last-minute escape from Saigon by members of the South Vietnamese armed forces; the making of a brilliant film that, for all the pretensions of its director, portrays the Vietnamese people as subhuman (and in an author’s note, in case we missed it, is identified as a fictionalised analogue to Apocalypse Now); a re-education camp under the Communist regime; covert assassinations by rightwing refugees in the US; a pathetic attempt to invade Vietnam years after the war is over; and eventually the humiliation of being classified as boat people. While he remains in two minds (a notion that the narrative plays with in a number of ways), his closest friends are an anti-communist zealot and a staunch upholder of the Communist regime.

It’s a historical novel, with an instructional agenda which it fills well. It also spins a gripping, episodic yarn, and offers a sharply satirical perspective on the Vietnam War and US politics in general. For example, a Republican Congressman speaks at a Vietnamese refugee wedding feast, in rhetoric that uncannily foreshadows the vision of the current President (page 119):

… your soldiers fought well and bravely, and would have prevailed if only Congress had remained as steadfast in their support of you as the president promised. This was a promise shared by many, many Americans. But not all. You know who I mean. The Democrats. The media. The antiwar movement. The hippies. The college students. The radicals. America was weakened by its own internal divisions, by the defeatists and communists and traitors infesting our universities, our newsrooms, and our Congress.

There are some neat epigrams:

After all, nothing was more American than wielding a gun and committing oneself to die for freedom and independence, unless it was wielding that gun to take away someone else’s freedom and independence. (page 218)

or:

Americans on the average do not trust intellectuals, but they are cowed by power and stunned by celebrity. (page 254)

That kind of wit is hard to pull off without sounding just a bit smug and/or glib, and Viet Thanh Nguyen doesn’t always succeed.

On the whole I found the book a bit of a slog, not without its rewards, but also with some longueurs.

Six months of movie-going

I just found a list of the movies I saw in the first half of 1970, the year I turned 23, my English Honours year at Sydney University. I had just left the Marist Brothers and I was awfully lonely without the fraternal community of the previous seven years, but there were movies to fill the void: the ones in the picture theatres and the ones screened cheap by the Sydney University Film Group (of whom John Flaus and Michael Thornhill were leading lights). No film courses were offered at the university in those days, but it’s hard to imagine a course that would have been this eclectic or offered such startling double bills. I wonder if such an extended binge is a common experience.

Here’s the incredibly rich list.

I saw the first four films at home in North Queensland, with my older brother (the first three) and my parents. After that I was in Sydney and briefly in Canberra.

January:
whisperers25 The Lineup (Don Siegel 1958)
27 Summer Fires (also known as Mademoiselle) (Tony Richardson 1966, starring Jeanne Moreau)
28 The Whisperers (Bryan Forbes 1967, with Dame Edith Evans)
30 The Subject Was Roses (Ulu Grosbard 1968: the poster said, ‘Patricia Neal is back,’ but I didn’t know she’d been away, or who she was)

February:
culdesac13 Hamlet (Tony Richardson 1969)
14 If … (Tony Richardson 1968)
18 Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger 1969)
20 The Searchers (John Ford 1956; John Wayne, ‘As sure as night follows day…’)
23 The Killers (Don Siegel 1964)
23 Chimes at Midnight (Orson Welles 1965)
24 Cul-de-Sac (Roman Polanski 1966; Donald Pleasance bowled me over)

March;
mabuseStrike (Sergei M. Eisenstein 1925)
9 Targets (Peter Bogdanovich 1968)
12 Alice’s Restaurant (Arthur Penn 1969; Arlo Guthrie)
12 The Chase (Arthur Penn 1966)
13 Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler 1969; the 1968bDemocratic Convention – ‘Haskell, it’s real!’)
20 Dr Mabuse (Fritz Lang 1922)
21 Touch of Evil (Orson Welles 1958; Marlene Dietrich; ‘He was some kind of a man’)
28 Zabriskie Point (Michelangelo Antonioni 1970; amazing street art in San Francisco, and also kaboom!)
28 Easy Rider (Dennis Hopper 1969)

April:
coeurs3 Nanook of the North (Robert J. Flaherty 1922)
3 Les coeurs verts (Edouard Luntx 1966; the scene where the juvenile delinquents break into a swimming pool and suddenly there’s a wonderful naked underwater ballet; Gus Van Sant must have seen it)
6 Summer with Monika (Ingmar Bergman 1953)
Sawdust and Tinsel (Ingmar Bergman 1953)
13 Mickey One (Arthur Penn 1965)
13 Through a Glass Darkly (Ingmar Bergman 1961)
16 Repulsion (Roman Polanski 1965)
17 Twelfth Night (John Sichel 1969; one of the very few films in this list that I don’t remember at all)
18 Richard III (Laurence Olivier 1955)
20 Winter Light (Ingmar Bergman 1962)
20 Guns in the Afternoon (Sam Peckinpah 1962)
23 Barrier (Jerzy Skolimowski 1966)
24 White Nights (Luchino Visconti 1957)
26 Planet of the Apes (Franklin J Schaffner 1968)
26 Modesty Blaise (Joseph Losey 1966)
27 The Enforcer (Raoul Walsh 1951)
27 Vivre sa vie (Jean Luc Godard 1962)

May: 
burmeseMinistry of Fear (Fritz Lang 1944)
1 Where the Sidewalk Ends (Otto Preminger 1950)
5 The Blue Gardenia (Fritz Lang 1953)
9 The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah 1969)
12 The Burmese Harp (Kon Ichikawa 1956; maybe my first east Asian film, and I was gobsmacked)
12 Tirez sur le pianiste (Francois Truffaut 1960)
23 Frankenstein (Don Whale 1931)
30 MASH (Robert Altman 1969)

June:
pointblank12 Crime and Punishment (Josef Von Sternberg 1935; could Peter Lorre really be who Dostoevsky had in mind?)
15 Bedazzled (Stanley Donen 1967)
20 Ramrod (André De Toth 1947; a Joel McCrae western)
21 Point Blank (John Boorman 1967; Lee Marvin!)
21 The Fearless Vampire Killers (Roman Polanski 1967; I laughed myself silly at the Aquarius Festival in Canberra)
26 The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short (André Delvaux 1965)
26 Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock 1946)
27 The Power and the Glory (Marc Daniels 1961)
27 L’Etranger (Luchino Visconti 1967)
29 The Damned (Joseph Losey 1961; ‘Black leather, black leather, rock rock rock’; Oliver Reed)
29 Persona (Ingmar Bergman 1966)

July:
gospel2 Rysopsis (Jerzy Skolimowski 1964; is this the one where the old people in the bar make their glasses resonate?)
2 My Way Home (Miklós Janscó 1965)
3 Bullitt (Peter Yates 1968)
3 Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn 1967)
3 October (Sergei Eisenstein 1928; Ah, by this time I wasn’t so lonely any more; I saw it with my girlfriend and her Russian mother, who didn’t like its politics)
Alfie (Lewis Gilbert 1966)
6 The Tall T (Budd Boetticher 1957)
6 Shame (Ingmar Bergman 1968)
8 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (George Roy Hill 1969)
10 The Thirty-Nine Steps (Alfred Hitchcock 1935)
10 Memories of Underdevelopment (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea 1968; an independent Cuban film)
12 Juliet of the Spirits (Federico Fellini 1965; my first Fellini, I had no idea what to make of it)
13 Petulia (Richard Lester 1968)
13 Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais 1961)
20 The Gospel According to Matthew (Pier Paolo Pasolini 1964; my first Pasolini, I was blown away)
25 The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh 1939; screened to a small audience, Flaus stopped the projector and rescreened Marlene Dietrich’s first appearance three times)
27 Contempt (Jean Luc Godard 1963; starring Fritz Lang and Brigitte Bardot)
– The Wild Angels (Roger Corman 1966)
– Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh 1970)

Hisham Matar’s Return

Hisham Matar, The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between (Viking 2016)

returnWikipedia describes Hisham Matar as a Libyan novelist. Actually, it’s more complex than that: he’s a British citizen, born in the USA, who spent six childhood years in Libya before being exiled with his immediate family to Egypt. But despite these complexities he is Libyan, deeply invested in the history, culture and fortune of that country. This wonderful book is built around his return there during the brief window of peace and hope after the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in 2011. Matar’s father, Jaballa Matar, an influential political dissident, was kidnapped in 1990, never to be seen again by his family. Hisham, 19 years old and studying in London at the time of the kidnap, spent the next two decades trying to find out what happened to his father, and working for the release of his uncle and cousins who had been arrested at the same time.

As the story of the author’s visit to his Libyan family unfolds, the book travels back in time to his childhood relationship with his father, his life as a literary person in London, his many encounters with men who had been in the infamous Abu Salim prison at the same time as his father, the testimony of his uncle who spent 21 years in Abu Salim, the story of a heroic younger cousin who died in the resistance, a truly bizarre series of encounters with one of Gaddafi’s sons who makes and breaks endless promises to help, and a witness account of the massacre in which his father probably died. It’s a far cry from painless, but it’s a dramatic and engrossing lesson on the recent history of Libya.

It’s also a passionate account of what it means to have your beloved father snatched away by an oppressive regime and to spend decades imagining the worst and having only partial success in finding out what happened. It’s that emotional charge that animates the narrative. There are passages that readers from less expressive cultures might find a little florid, but for me they were among the strongest things in the book. This passage, for example, rings completely true to me, and makes me regret that I never managed to acknowledge anything of this debt to my father when he was alive:

The country that separates fathers and sons has disoriented many travellers. It is very easy to get lost here. Telemachus, Edgar, Hamlet and countless other sons, their private dramas ticking away in the silent hours, have sailed so far out into the uncertain distance between past and present that they seem adrift. They are men, like all men, who have come into the world through another man, a sponsor, opening the gate and, if they are lucky, doing so gently, perhaps with a reassuring smile and an encouraging nudge on the shoulder. And the fathers must have known, having once themselves been sons, that the ghostly presence of their hand will remain throughout the years, to the end of time, and that no matter what burdens are laid on that shoulder or the number of kisses a lover plants there, perhaps knowingly driven by the secret wish to erase the claim of another, the shoulder will remain forever faithful, remembering that good man’s hand that had ushered them into the world. To be a man is to be part of this chain of gratitude and remembering, of blame and forgetting. of surrender and rebellion, until a son’s gaze is made so wounded and keen that, on looking back, he sees nothing but shadows.

A version of the opening of the book was published in the New Yorker in April 2013. It’s available online here.