Matt Nable, Still (Hachette 2021)
Before the meeting: The Chooser for this book was strangely apologetic: a page-turner that he’d really enjoyed, he said, but he could easily find a second option … No one objected to a page-turner, especially as the 1960s Darwin setting made it a logical follow-up to Return to Uluru. The chat on WhatsApp brushed his apologetic tone aside.
Then came the book’s opening sentences, and my heart sank:
The long tufts of spinifex curled over on a gust of warm wind. Whispered voices broke with a gravelled edge and the sounds of violence disturbed a brown snake resting in a tight coil on the corner of a steep embankment.
This isn’t meant to be read word by word. Every adjective except ‘brown’ is unnecessary (‘tight’, ‘steep’), feeble (‘warm’) or off kilter (‘long’, ‘gravelled’). Where are an embankment’s corners, and what does it mean to be on one of them? Why are the two parts of the second sentence linked by ‘and’ rather than being separate sentences? But none of that matters if you read it fast and just take in ‘spinifex … wind … whispers … gravel … violence … snake’.
Sadly what follows needs to be read in the same careless, abstracted way: don’t linger over any sentence; don’t think too hard about any plot developments; don’t concern yourself with probability; just go with the flow. It’s Midsomer Murders in print, transposed to 1963 during the NT build-up, minus any self-mockery, mystery or nuance.
Maybe this is peculiar to me as a copy editor, but consistently, several times a page, I was yanked out of the narrative by a malaprop, a run-on, an Americanism, a non-sequitur, a physical impossibility, a roaring cliché, or glaringly unnecessary words … I wonder who made the decision that this book was good to go.
To test my feeling that the badness was pervasive, I asked the Emerging Artist to pick a number between 1 and 375, and another between 1 and 30. This would give me a page and a line. The first time, she picked page 34 line 2, which falls in the middle of this sentence:
Ned could smell Riley’s aftershave, the same one he always wore, it was sweet and, though pleasant initially, Riley wore too much of it and it invariably became overpowering and distracting.
Apart from the run-on, the hanging modifier, and the odd use of ‘distracting’, why not just, ‘Ned could smell Riley’s overpowering aftershave’ or, ‘Riley’s aftershave was as overpowering as ever’? Or maybe just delete the sentence, because like many references to smell in this book it feels as if it’s there because the author was told to include appeals to all the senses.
The EA’s second pick, page 105, line 5, turned out to be the final line of the one episode that I enjoyed, where the white policeman hero Ned Potter tries to catch a barramundi with his bare hands, as he has been taught by an Aboriginal man, and fails. The first words are what Ned imagines the victorious fish saying as it swims away:
Fuck you, Ned. He resolved to try again, to win, to catch a barramundi by hand.
On first reading, the second of these sentences felt like dead wordage. Why not let the fish have the last word? Or if we must have Ned making a resolution, why not end the sentence with ‘win’? The last phrase is only necessary if you don’t trust the reader to have read the previous three pages. It turns out – spoiler alert – that this sentence is there to foreshadow emphatically that Ned will indeed try again before the book ends, and there are no prizes for guessing whether he succeeds.
The book’s cover features high praise from Jane Harper – which is enough to make me decide not to read any of her novels.
I came to the meeting hoping others would be less unforgiving and find joy in the novel, which they’d be able to communicate – and dreading it as well, as it would confirm that I’m a joyless pedant.
Just before the meeting: We decided to meet in person. In the online deliberations leading up to the decision, we all disclosed our wide range of vaccination statuses. Possibly on no interest to anyone but copy-editors, here’s the range: double vaxed, double vaxxed, double vacc’d and double vaccinated.
After the meeting: I enjoyed this meeting hugely.
Most people enjoyed the book, as I’d hoped and feared. I guess I’m a joyless pedant, and a literature snob. No one was unkind enough to say either of those things in so many words, though the word ‘pedant’ was used. At least one person couldn’t believe that I was unmoved and unconvinced by the plight of the main female character. Even those who sympathised with the gist of my rant (and yes, I did have a rant, but only after a number of people had spoken positively about the book) had trouble seeing that I wasn’t swept along by the sheer pace of the narrative.
Our resident retired assistant film director said the book works very well as a fleshed-out treatment for a movie, and I’d say the majority of us concurred. Various people referred to the convincing dialogue, the back and forth of the narrative, the occasional sex scene, the violence, the narrative drive, the attention to place, and indeed the predominantly visual, scene-based nature of the writing. The cliche elements are acceptable because it is after all a genre piece. Someone thought I was being snooty about it because it’s an unpretentious page-turner, but I deny the charge. Dervla McTiernan’s The Ruín is a page turner, but it’s literate, and just look at Peter Corris or Peter Temple.
One man felt that the book was in many ways similar to Return to Uluru, and even superior in its treatment of racism. That’s a view so far from my own that I can’t begin to understand it.
I tried my party trick of asking someone to pick two numbers. The line that turned up was the last paragraph in this exchange between Ned and Ron Thompson of the coroner’s office, which takes place in the morgue:
Ned walked toward Thompson, settled beside him and looked over the bodies again.
‘That’s Lionel Frazier.’ Ned pointed to the body.
‘The white fella?’
Thompson looked over the body of the larger man. ‘He’s a Kanaka.’
‘The big one here.’ Thompson nodded at the larger corpse.
A punctilious copy editor would query the ambiguous phrase ‘looked over’ even if it only occurred once, and the awkward repetition of ‘larger’ might attract the blue pencil, but the narrative moves along, and there’s nothing outstandingly terrible in this writing. My party trick failed to make my point.
A degree of consensus was reached on the notion that the author had a story to tell, which he imagined in cinematic terms rather than in words; the book is a stepping stone to the complete work, which will be a film or TV series whose script will have passed through several more drafts and then be interpreted by a director and actors. Someone has heard that a TV series is already in the works. There was also a degree of consensus that I got i my own way as a reader of this book. (I disagreed, but not strongly.)
Did I mention that we met in person? We shook hands and even rubbed shoulders. We ate and drank together: I even shared a can. Excellent gossip was exchanged about the rich, famous and powerful, and toward the end of the evening we contemplated the terrifying inanity of the Prime Minister’s plan to take a PowerPoint presentation to Glasgow. We learned from Google that Opus Dei is an institution of the Catholic Church. We learned that Alex Buzo’s Norm and Ahmed is due for another short season in Parramatta and that Girl from the North Country is worth seeing.
Your analysis of the first paragraph had me thinking that my 70,000 word manuscript could possibly be cut in half. It also made me that hope you never read it (or that you read it asap).
That made me laugh out loud, Kathy. I guarantee, on the strength of what I’ve seen and heard of your writing, that your anxiety is baseless
Kind, but I’m now going to eviscerate the page I was working on, with your analytical voice in my head. Overwritten, full of adjectives, plodding …
Oh dear. But just imagine what it’s like to have my voice in my head all the time. It’s like that cartoon from The Potts. Uncle Dick overhears Dad complaining about what a bore he is, and interrupts: ‘It’s Ok for you, you can get up and walk away. I’m stuck with myself all the time.’
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I hear you, Jonathan,,,
I just can’t stand that kind of writing, I have no patience with it at all, and it’s a wonder I haven’t bitten my tongue in half when trying tactfully to keep my opinions to myself.
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I should probably learn to bite my tongue, but ranting is such fun!
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I read this book and had same feelings as you, but compounded by my knowledge of Darwin, my town. The inaccuracies are many and varied, the biggest being that television was not broadcast in Darwin until 1971. Also the main character livied in a suburb that didn’t exist until the 1980s.
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Thanks for commenting. It’s always good to hear from someone who can reinforce my opinions