Monthly Archives: March 2015

MOST mattress

The Marrickville Mattress Poet put in an appearance as part of the Marrickville Open Studio Trail on the weekend. This homage to Magritte was part of the Fairy Alley exhibition.


Favel Parrett’s When the Night Comes

Favel Parrett, When the Night Comes (Hachette Australia 2014)

wncFavel Parrett’s first novel, Past the Shallows, published in 2011, was a hard act to follow. In When the Night Comes, her second, she moves to a bigger world, out past Tasmanian waters to Antarctica and Scandinavia, and into a delicate, tender relationship between an adult man and a girl just entering her teens.

I’m tempted to say that it’s actually two novels.

First there’s the one described in the author’s endnote. This is a celebration of the Norwegian ship, Nella Dan, a real ship whose history is sketched in the note, along with affectionate quotes from a number of people who sailed in ‘the little red ship’. If such a celebration had been written by, say, Neal Stephenson, it might have included bravura passages dramatising the ship’s inner workings – the heat and noise of the engine room, the pinging wheelhouse, the compartmentalisation of the hull. But this is not that kind of celebration. Here the engine is background noise that helps the sailors sleep; we spend time in the ship’s kitchen, but no ink is spilled on describing the stoves; if the size of the crew may be mentioned I don’t remember it. In fact, apart from its bright red paint and its size – sometimes surprisingly small, sometimes surprisingly big – we don’t have much sense of the ship as a physical thing at all. What we do have is the way all the characters respond to it, to her, as a dependable almost-maternal, almost-comradely, presence. Almost those things, because Nella Dan never really emerges as a character in her own right.

The other novel is the one I read, and was moved by. In it, the Nella Dan is an interesting setting for part of human story. This story moves between two points of view. The first is that of Isla, 12 or 13 years old, who has recently moved to Hobart with her mother and her younger brother (never known as anything other than ‘my brother’) after their parents’ marriage break-up. A Danish sailor named Bo becomes a regular part of the family. As Isla is completely uninterested in the world of adult relationships, we pretty much have to deduce that Bo and Isla get to spend time together because Bo and Isla’s mother are having a fling, a romance, a domestic relationship of some sort.  Bo’s is the other point of view, and we travel with him on the Nella Dan into Antarctic waters.

Dramatic things do happen: each of the main characters has to deal with the violent accidental death of a close friend, for example, and the Nella Dan runs into the perils of the Southern Ocean. But the strength of the book lies in it depiction of the delicate connection between these two people that allows Isla to imagine herself in a much bigger world, and Bo to find sweet companionship. It feels easy, but when you consider we live in a climate where closeness between an adult male and a child not his own is often looked on with deep suspicion, I can only say I’m deeply impressed – and grateful – for what the book offers.

Sadly, my copy was on loan and has been reclaimed by its owner, so I can’t quote anything. Trust me. Favel Parrett writes lucid, supple prose. The book is full of pleasures.

aww-badge-2015This is the third book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2015.

Joe Sacco’s Bumf & Snyder and Murphy’s Wake

Joe Sacco, Bumf Vol. 1 (Fantagraphics 2014)
Scott Snyder & Sean Murphy, The Wake (Vertigo 2014)

1606997483I can think of three possible meanings for the title of this comic. In my youth, ‘bumf’ was short for ‘bumfluff’, the fine hair that grows on the faces of teenage boys. That meaning is irrelevant. More recently, ‘bumf’ has signified the kind of material that people put stickers on their letter-boxes in a futile attempt to stave it off. Given that Joe Sacco’s reputation rests on meticulous journalism, and this book is scurrilous, quasi-libellous satire, perhaps the title suggests that this book is filling in time until he gets back to his real work. If so it’s ironic, because this is as serious a piece of commentary as you’re ever likely to come across.

The third possible meaning is indicated by the book’s subtitle, ‘I Buggered the Kaiser’. But perhaps, given that Sacco writes US English, that meaning would require the form ‘buttf’. (For reasons I don’t understand, anal rape of adult males is fair game for US humorists and satirists, unlike just about any other class of sexual nastiness.)

Anyhow, in Bumf Sacco casts aside his responsible-journalist persona and emerges as a satirist in the tradition of early Robert Crumb and pre-Maus Art Spiegelman. The front cover has an inset caricature of Richard Nixon, archetypal abuser of presidential authority, saying, ‘My name is Barack Obama … and I approve this message.’ Obama’s name is never mentioned again, but the main storyline – or one of them, the other one is the World War I epic referred to in the subtitle – features a resurrected Nixon who presides over the post-Abu Graibh, post-Snowden world of US surveillance, drones, rendition and torture machinery, and wonders, among other things, why there’s a beautiful Black woman in his bed.

There’s full frontal nudity on most pages, and quite a bit of it is en masse. And though the naked people tend to be plump and hedonistically involved, there’s something desperately pathetic about them – like the souls in Gustav Doré’s Inferno1sacco

You’ll notice that in the foreground of this grimly cheerful image there are scenes of sexualised torture. There’s a lot more of that. 

To extend the Dante comparison, Sacco puts himself in the frame – not as a privileged visitor like Dante, but as a graphic novelist who is complicit in the propaganda and violation of human rights that Nixon/Obama sanctions.

If you’ve seen Citizenfour, Laura Poitras’s chilling documentary about Edward Snowden, you won’t find it easy to dismiss the extremity of Bumf as pure fantasy. The Nº 1 in the title suggests that there is more to come.

1401245234One of my regular birthday joys is that I can expect comics as birthday presents from my sons. This year, I was given Bumf and The Wake.The latter came in a plastic wrapper, with stickers proclaiming it to be the winner of the 2014 Eisner Award for the Best Limited Series. That makes it an excellent birthday present even before the plastic has been broken.

Sadly, I can’t say I enjoyed it. It’s as dystopian as Bumf, and plays with our fears about climate change in powerful ways, involving giant tidal waves and huge monsters rising from the depths of the ocean. The plot, which involves a rewriting of human evolution, is bold, inventive, and well resolved. The images are powerful and dynamic. But I’m just not part of the target audience. Where Bumf is animated by rage at abuse of power, The Wake plays on despair and that form of human self-loathing that infects parts of the environmental movement. Completely understandable, but something that needs to be resisted rather than indulged.

Art theft in Enmore

A little over a month ago, I noticed a suspicious looking object on the pedestrian island just out the front of our house. It looked like a discarded shoe, but not quite. On closer inspection it revealed itself to be a Will Coles sculpture.

IMG_1187In case you can’t quite read it, the text on the sole of this cement shoe is ‘forgotten’, making it an elegant addition to the scattering of cement objects in our suburbs reminding us of our fragility, and the fragility of our environment.

But ‘forgotten’ wasn’t meant to last. To tell the truth I’d forgotten all about it until a car collected the barriers on the island on the weekend. Only then did I notice that all that remained of the sculpture was a stark shoeprint:

shoeprintThe shoe was gone before the barrier was knocked down.The barrier will be replaced in a week or so. The sculpture is now a prized – and prised – possession of a private art collector.

Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

Joshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (2014)

0141047380If this hadn’t been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize I wouldn’t have lasted more than 30 pages. The narrator is a dentist who has a gift for clever sounding banality. He goes on about US baseball teams, his dental hygienist’s Catholicism (he’s an atheist himself, of Protestant background), Jews (one of whom has described him as philosemitic), the internet and of course himself – his sorry history with women and, obliquely, his miserable childhood. When on page 96 he uses the phrase ‘the chronic affliction of my self-obsession’, I felt strongly that it was the readers who were afflicted. 

Take this, from page 120:

While standing in line to buy cigarettes …, I notices a headline on the cover of a celebrity magazine. ‘Daughn and Taylor Back Together?’ it read on big print, and my mind returned to it later in the day while I worked on a patient. I didn’t know that Daughn and Taylor had gotten together, to mention nothing of them breaking up, and now, possibly getting back together again. More troubling still, I didn’t know who Daughn and Taylor were. Daughn and Taylor … I thought to myself. Daughn and Taylor … who are Daughn and Taylor? It was clear that I should know them, given the significant real estate their debatable reconciliation had commanded on the cover of one of the more reputable celebrity magazines. But I didn’t know them, and not knowing them, I realised I was once again out of touch. I would be in touch for a while, and then a headline like ‘Daughn and Taylor Back Together Again?’ would come along to let me know that I was out of touch again.

And he ruminates for another page and a half until he finally asks his office manager/ex-wife who Daughn and Taylor are.

Some readers might be riveted. The plot, to that point, is very slight. Someone has set up a web site in his name advertising his practice, and there is an odd quote that could be from the Bible in his website bio.

I told myself that if the Man Booker judges liked the book enough to prefer it to Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, then something interesting must be lurking over the page. I read on.

The second half of the book is much more interesting than the first. It turns into a kind of Da Vinci Code or Foucault’s Pendulum, only written in decent prose and without exhausting historical research. It explores similar territory to  Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, with added fantasy. It even becomes fun. As a non US-er, I’m glad to have known a Red Sox fan and witnessed her joy when they won a 2004 baseball competition – it turns out that the narrator’s regular rants about the Red  Sox have an excellent pay-off (as the many rants like the one about Daughn and Co don’t – they just don’t).

So my recommendation, in short: speed read the first five chapters (as literary judges, being busy people, may well have done) and you might end up loving this book.