Monthly Archives: June 2015

Richard McHugh’s Charlie Anderson’s General Theory of Lying at the Book Group

Richard McHugh, Charlie Anderson’s General Theory of Lying (Viking 2015)

1cagtolBefore the meeting: This book made me realise how little of my reading is just for the fun of it. It’s a comedy of manners set in the world of business consultants, bank executives and corporate CEOs after the financial crisis. The first chapter introduces Charlie Anderson, a brilliant consultant whose life is just as he’d want it: a wife who is the love of his life, three wonderful daughters, a girlfriend with no strings attached, and a belief in cheerful deceit that keeps it all working. We just know things are going to go terribly wrong. And they do.

Charlie runs foul of every one of these women, plus a couple more, to excellent comic effect. The domestic relationships are beautifully evoked: in particular, I feel as if I know each of the three daughters (and am glad I only have sons!). It’s quite an achievement that even though we are made privy to the long and not terribly profound meditations of Charlie and his wife the story zings along. None of the narrative threads lead to anything much: we never find out what happened in a crucial offstage incident; a situation that looks as if it’s going to lead to major catastrophe evaporates without explanation; some actions taken with a great sense of jeopardy have no consequences at all. Maybe the point is that self-deceivers like Charlie get off scot-free, but it felt to me that, apart from a single stinging wordless moment at the end of the chapter before the epilogue, there’s just no pay-off: like a detective story where foreshadowed crimes don’t happen, and confession to real crimes go unpunished.

It’s an enjoyable ride all the same.

The meeting: Richard McHugh  came to our meeting – he’s a friend of one of us. He arrived late, which, as someone said, gave us a chance to get all our slagging-off out of the way so we could be civil to the man himself. In the event, there wasn’t any slagging off as such, and the conversation wasn’t painfully civil. We all had a good time, including Richard. He said the three weeks doing publicity since the book was published had been hard work, and it was a pleasure to sit with a group of men who’d actually read the book, especially given that the general wisdom is that it’s mostly women who read fiction. (We were silent about the man in the room who had only reached the halfway point.) I had a list of questions, which I’ll put in white so as not to foist spoilers on you:

  1. Did Anna know about Charlie’s philandering?
  2. What actually happened at the barbecue?
  3. Why didn’t anything come of Charlie’s confession to the police?

It may be Richard’s first published novel, but he wasn’t naive enough to answer the questions outright. He replied to all of them with ‘What do you think?’, but then spoke interestingly. In particular, it turned out that one of the questions had been explicitly answered in an earlier version of the book. He told us what had  been cut, and I think we all agreed that the novel worked better with those parts removed, but we were still glad to know the answer. Our own surmises had all been less interesting.

While I still feel the lack of pay-off is a frustrating element, my sense of the ending has changed. I had bought into the central character’s smug belief that he had come though the events of the novel unscathed, seeing the faint rumblings of disquiet around the edges as relatively insignificant. Now I think of it as more like the pleasant family gathering at the end of The Sopranos, where we know that men with machine guns are going to come out of the restaurant toilet and kill them all as soon as the show is over. Charlie doesn’t get his come-uppance in the novel, but the writing is on the wall.

Michael Farrell’s Cocky’s Joy

Michael Farrell, Cocky’s Joy (Giramondo 2015)

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‘Michael Farrell is the most adventurous and experimental of contemporary Australian poets,’ says the back cover of Cocky’s Joy. If that’s code for, ‘Only insiders – academics and other experimental poets – should read this book,’ it’s only partly right.

Farrell’s poetry, as well as being ‘experimental’, is also often sexy, silly, erudite,, teasingly cryptic, playful, challenging, passionate, and sometimes all of those things at once. It’s a poetry of ex-Catholic, Gay male, Melburnian postmodernism with a whiff of nostalgia for the bush. Apart from a handful of tediously schematic poems, it bristles with memorable phrases, weird surrealistic images, and intriguing wordplay.

The book’s title is rich with implication. ‘Cocky’s joy’ is Australian bush slang for golden syrup, a kind of refined molasses. In this context it invokes the classical idea of sweetness and light – delight and instruction – promising at least the sweetness, with a particular kind of Australianness. ‘Cocky’ taken alone hints at metaphors for the poet: as a farmer laying down furrows of verse, or a parrot sampling other texts. And the phrase’s punning potential suggests an interest in, ahem, male sexuality. All of those implied promises made by the title are kept. There are surreal, dreamlike excursions into Australiana, and much invocation of other writers (the titles tell part of the story: ‘The Influence of Lorca in the Outback’, ‘Bush Christie’ – as in Agatha). There’s quite a bit of reference to man parts, from the genteel ‘longing in the pants’ to much more explicit language.

There are wonderful moments, like this from ‘An Australian Comedy’:

_________________________You see the old
photographs in your lover’s face, and let go of the school
boy’s hand; you’re growing up again.

or this, uncharacteristically straightforward, from ‘Singing’:

You know one thing about a song from
The radio. You know something else when
It’s coming from your own throat – that’s
The note. A song doesn’t belong on a page
A song isn’t on it like paint.

In ‘Bush Christie’ (the title refers to Banjo Paterson’s ‘A Bush Christening‘ and to Agatha Christie), a clutch of Australian literary and historical figures from the 1800s and early 1900s assemble to hear Bennelong, playing detective, reveal the identity of a murderer. At least that’s the narrative framework. Really it’s pretty much a playground where fun can be had with the characters and with language for its own sake. If you expect straightforward narrative progression from these lines, for example,

Gilmore was preparing a jack’o lantern –
Something she’d picked up in Paraguay
She said. Probably a lie, and she had a
Strong pumpkin-cutting arm … She
Lit a candle and put it in Jack’s head.
Bennelong couldn’t eat her bread. Pat-
erson  [etc]

you’ll end up frustrated. But read them for the wordplay, and they become fun. You can’t be sure the pumpkin isn’t there mainly because it alliterates with ‘Paraguay’, and Mary Gilmore’s probable lie for the sake of the rhyme. Likewise, has ‘bread’ popped up just to rhyme with ‘said’ and ‘head’, or is there a bit of historical trivia there about Bennelong’s reaction to the colonisers’ food?  The poem is full of that kind of thing. It’s a bit like Bob Dylan’s ‘Desolation Row’ with a high level of distractability.

The poem that I most respond to in the book is ‘Bringing the “A”‘, which (I think) refers to the origin of the letter A as a stylised drawing of an ox. In the poem, written language and grazing stock are not so much metaphors for each other as identified as the one thing, itself emblematic of a harsh colonising society:

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‘The “A” roamed everywhere, making itself / Stand for everything’. So much meaning is folded into the poem’s final images: the possibility of settler culture having been somehow integrated into the landscape, but not without deforming it, and not without violence (the rust on rocks suggesting bloodshed).

In her blog, the deletions, Pam Brown quotes from Astrid Lorange’s launch speech for Cocky’s Joy:

As anyone who reads Michael will know, his poetry is … an enormously generous contribution to the diverse and intersecting communities of practice that coalesce around questions, propositions, readerships, textualities, affections, socialities, and so on. Michael’s work, which in its spirit and discipline is a constant and intense gift, is ever-labouring towards a poetry that might continue, despite it all, as a liveable form of loving.

I don’t know what most of that actually means, and I can say the same about quite a lot of the poetry. But I’m very grateful to Giramondo for sending me a review copy, and opening my mind to poetry which I might otherwise have avoided.

Lisa Gorton’s Life of Houses

Lisa Gorton, The Life of Houses (Giramondo 2015)

9781922146809Lisa Gorton is a an award-winning poet. I’m using that journalist’s phrase because I haven’t read enough of her poetry to have any real sense of it. I have read some of her criticism and been intensely grateful for the insights she shares. Her first novel, Cloudland, was for young readers. The Life of Houses is her first novel for a general readership.

The action of the novel unfolds over about a week. Anna manages a Melbourne art gallery. While her husband is visiting his family in England, she sends their teenaged daughter Kit to stay with her estranged parents in a tiny seaside town a couple of hours’ train journey away. Anna has to prepare for an exhibition opening during school holidays, but her real reason for packing Kit off is so she can spend time with a lover, who is pressing her to leave her husband.

While Anna wrestles with her ambivalence about her love life, Kit encounters the miasma of unresolved emotion in her mother’s childhood home – her grandparents’ not-really-unspoken resentment of their daughter who left them with barely a backward glance, and the small-mindedness of small-town life beyond the family.

Not a lot happens. A teenage boy has died, probably by suicide, probably because he was gay, and Scott, an artist who was Anna’s childhood friend, falls under suspicion because he had spent time with the boy. There’s something needy and a bit creepy about Scott, but I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say we never learn anything about his sexuality, and that the suspicion is purely a symptom of small town thinking. He befriends Kit, and is the only person who has an inkling of what she is experiencing.

There’s another death, but external events are much less important in this novel than internal processes. Kit begins to think of her mother differently, and her sense of herself has grown. Anna’s attitude to her family softens, and her ambivalence about the lover deepens. Scott almost decides to leave the town. Everyone has a take on the building that is the family home: its history, its ghosts, who will inherit it, its emotional meanings and (in passing, but ominously) its market value. Absolutely nothing is neatly resolved.

Lisa Gorton and the editorial team at Giramondo aren’t afraid of hard-working adjectives or busy punctuation. For example:

The whole scene lay open before her: heat shimmering off scrub out where the road was, mile after mile of flat, low, secretive country. She found a sort of elation in it: a loneliness answering her mood. Sharp, scattering sounds drew her eyes to where the bird was lifting wing-beat by wing-beat up from the surface of the lake, its legs trailing in the water. She watched holding her breath; it seemed so unlikely the bird would rise.

That’s two colons and a semicolon in four sentences. More than once, a single sentence matches that. Here’s one from when Kit is listening in on a conversation between her aunt and Scott soon after she arrives in the town:

Their way of ignoring so much made Kit notice more: the creaking sound of some loose join in the decking; and that lasting roar: it was the wind, not the sea, she could hear.

The frequent use of sentence structures that call for this kind of punctuation has the effect of blocking the flow of the narrative. What is happening is almost always less important than the process of observing it. And often it feels as if things are there because they have been observed, even though they add nothing to the narrative or our understanding of character. Anyone reading to find out what happens next may be disappointed. The pleasures of this book lie elsewhere.

I received my review copy of the book from Giramondo.

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The Life of Houses is the tenth book I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’ve now finished the challenge – but I don’t expect I’ll stop reading relevant books.

Lisa Gorton recently gave a fascinating interview about The Life of Houses to Fiona Gruber on the ABC’s Books and Arts.