Category Archives: Books

Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312

Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312 (Orbit 2012)

I picked this fabulous book up from our local street library, and it was a perfect fit for my personal tradition of reading a big SF novel over the end-of-year break.

According to Wikipedia, Kim Stanley Robinson is best known for his Mars trilogy. I read the Red Mars (1992) and Green Mars (1993) decades ago. Though I loved them, was totally absorbed in their world, and felt that I was learning a lot about the practicalities of space travel, the realistic possibilities for terraforming Mars, and the opportunities for new political beginnings provided by leaving the Earth, I somehow didn’t get around to Blue Mars (1996). Now I don’t know if I ever will, because 2312 takes up the story some centuries later.

This novel begins on the surface of Mercury, where the domed city of Terminator moves on rails, staying always in darkness, because the direct heat from the sun would devastate the city and kill any living thing. There are ‘walkers’, who stay outside the city and by walking briskly remain just ahead of the dawn, though they will often turn back to watch the first flames of the sun spread across the eastern horizon, and (most of them, most of the time) tear themselves away from the spectacle before destroying their retinas or worse – much worse.

And so it goes. Mars is long-established. Earth, the sad planet, still recognised as humanity’s home, is as strife-torn and irrational as ever. Venus and some of Saturn’s moons have been settled, and any number of asteroids have been hollowed out to make space ships, known as terraria. Every settlement and every asteroid has its own distinctive qualities and challenges, and the passage of time has meant humans have begun to diverge: there are smalls, and rounds, and talls. Most spacers live for more than a century, and most have had some form of gender modification surgery – because it has been discovered that gender fluidity (not the term they use) increases the human lifespan significantly.

At every moment it feels as if Kim Stanley Robinson has lived in the world of the novel. It’s an amazing feat of imagination. We see how the light falls on the surface of Mercury, we feel the heat on Io, we struggle with the effect of Earth’s gravity after living so lightly on Mercury. We look about with wonder at the stars as we float, marooned in space.

There’s a lot of hard SF. Between the mostly short chapters of story there are numbered sections labelled ‘Extract’, which comprise fragments from texts explaining the science or history behind events: instructions on how to terraform an asteroid, the science of longevity, ‘human enhancement’, and so on.

There’s a romance, about which I’ll say only that it’s unexpected but (to me at lest) completely convincing. There’s a mystery, involving quantum computers (‘qubes’), organised crime and political skulduggery. There are loose threads, whose effect isn’t so much to make us want a sequel as to reassure us that this world will continue after the book ends. There are music, and microscopic alien life forms, and huge explosions.

This future world has cultural tendrils reaching back to our time and beyond. Andy Goldsworthy and Marina Abramović have become lower-case names for art forms. Emily Dickinson is quoted at a climactic moment; Beethoven animates more than one key scene; Philip Glass recurs. There are lovely snippets, like this:

After a while she said, ‘Mozart’s pet starling once revised a phrase he wrote. The bird sang it after he played it on the piano, but changed all the sharps to flats. Mozart described it happening in the margin of the score. “That was beautiful!” he wrote. When the bird died, he sang at its funeral, and read a poem to it. And his next composition, which the publisher called A Musical Joke, had a starling style.’

(Page 158)

There are moments that remind us that Kim Stanley Robinson is an environmental activist:

Obviously most in the bar felt they were only helpless observers of a giant drama going on above their heads, a drama that was eventually going to suck them down into its maelstrom, no matter what they said or wanted. Better therefore to drink and talk and sing and dance until they were stupid with exhaustion and ready for a stagger through the early-morning streets

(Page 387)

There’s an account of life on Earth, as seen by the Mercurial protagonist, Swan Er Hong, on a visit:

The dead hand of the past, so huge, so heavy. The air seemed a syrup she had to struggle through. Out in the terraria one lived free, like an animal – one could be an animal, make one’s own life one way or another. Live as naked as you wanted. On the God-damned Earth the accumulated traditions and laws and habits made something that was worse than any body bra; it was one’s mind that was held in place, tied in straitjackets, obliged to be like all the others in their ridiculous boxed habits. Here they were, on the only planetary surface on which you could walk freely, naked to the wind and the sun, and when they had a choice, they sat in boxes and stared at littler boxes, just as if they had no choice – as if they were in a space station – as if the bad old days of the caged centuries had never gone away. They didn’t even look up at the stars at night. Walking among them, she saw that it was so. Indeed if they had been people who were interested in the stars they would not have still been here. There overhead stood Orion at his angle, ‘the most beautiful object any of us will ever know in the world, spread out on the sky like a true god, in whom it would only be necessary to believe a little.’ But no one looked.

(Page 387)

As far as I know, there is no sequel to 2312. But New York 2140 (2017) and Red Moon (2018) look as if they belong on the same universe. Perhaps the former gives the history behind 2312‘s images of Manhattan as a city of canals as a result of sea-level rises. Maybe it can be my big SF book next December.

Vaughan and Harris Ex Machina

Brian K Vaughan and Tony Harris (creators), Tom Feister (inks), JD Mettler (colors) and Jared K Fletcher (letters), Ex Machina, Book One (Vertigo 2013) – originally published in 11 single magazines in 2004 and 2005

Having decided – several times – not to read any more superhero comics, here I am again. But this one is written by Brian K Vaughan, who was to go on to write the wonderful comic series Y: The Last Man, Paper Girls, and Saga (currently on hiatus).

What if the world’s first real superhero had been jetting around New York City on 11 September 2001, and had managed to intercept the second plane, saving thousands of lives? What if he realised that superhero vigilantism was of limited effectiveness and decided that he could probably do more good by running for Mayor of New York City? And what if he won the election as an independent candidate?

Ex Machina begins when civil engineer Mitchell Hundred, having decided to end his brief career as superhero The Great Machine, has indeed been elected New York’s mayor, bound by promises not to discuss publicly the origins of his superpowers (biggest of which is the ability to communicate with machines) an not to use those powers to do things best left to the police.

It goes without saying that things don’t go smoothly. Hundred inherits the New York mayoral burden of being blamed for everything. (Seth Meyers made hay with this tradition in his first Closer Look after Eric Adams became Mayor earlier this month.) He also has to deal with the burning issues of the early 2010s: terrorism, of course, but also same sex marriage, racism and the ongoing culture wars. And it wouldn’t be a superhero comic, even a retired one, without an overall arc involving mysterious possibly-alien graffiti and hideous serial killings … to be continued.

I don’t know that I’d recommend the book to serious lovers of fine literature, but I enjoyed it, and look forward to the subsequent five volumes. If nothing else, I enjoy Brian K Vaughan’s regular info-gems. For just one example, when his chief of staff points out that by officiating at a same-sex marriage he has alienated a huge segment of the population, he answers: ‘When Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, he turned to one of his aides and said, “I believe we’ve just lost the south forever.”‘ This isn’t the Marvel universe.

Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed

Margaret Atwood, Hag-Seed: The Tempest Retold (Hogarth Shakespeare 2016)

2016 was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, which led to a flurry of novels retelling his plays. Apart from the seven titles in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, of which Hag-Seed is one, there were at least Ian McEwan’s Nutshell (a take in Hamlet read by my Book Group on a date I couldn’t attend) and Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Gravel Heart (which includes a deft retelling of Measure for Measure, and which I read recently).

Hag-Seed relocates the story of The Tempest to contemporary Canada. Felix Phillips is sacked as Artistic Director of a Shakespeare festival in the small town of Makeshiweg. He goes into solitary exile with the ghost of his young daughter, hoping, Prospero-like, to take revenge on the men who usurped his position. His hope comes to fruition through a production of The Tempest that he directs as part of a literacy program in a men’s prison. He plays the deposed and vengeful Prospero himself.

I’m a sucker for stories that revolve around theatrical productions of classic texts. Theres’s the Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows (2003–2006), and Kenneth Branagh’s In the Bleak Midwinter (1995). Two of my favourite films seen this last year were Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car (2021), which features Uncle Vanya, and Emmanuel Courcol’s Un triomphe (2020), which features En attendant Godot, each of them illuminating its respective play as well as gaining heft from it. If the theatrical production happens in a prison or similar institution, my suckerness intensifies: Un triomphe is in that catergory; I still remember the joy of seeing Peter Brook’s movie of Marat/Sade in the late 1960s, and the different joy of a high-school production of Louis Nowra’s Cosí directed by and starring the late Jesse Cox. In real life, my first copy-editing task at The Currency Press was to mark up two short plays, The Chocolate Frog and The Old Familiar Juice, written by prisoner Jim McNeil and staged by the Resurgents Debating Society in Parramatta gaol, a group not completely unlike Margaret Atwood’s Fletcher Correctional Players.

This may be the first novel I’ve read that both retells a classic and has the Let’s-Put-on-a-Show story-line. Mansfield Park is as close as I’ve got. (I haven’t read Thomas Keneally’s Playmaker – maybe I should.)

So it was inevitable that I’d love this book.

The story of Felix’s revenge is cheerfully improbable fun, involving hi-tech jiggery-pokery, hallucinogen-spiked grapes and a convenient confession, but the real interest of the book is in the production of The Tempest. For someone with my superficial knowledge this is a joyous introduction to the complexities of the play and its potential for interpretation.

For just one example, none of the the prisoners in Felix’s ‘class’ is going to risk playing Ariel. Caliban, fine – everyone signs up for him. But everyone knows they’ll never survive being seen as a fairy on TV by the whole prison population (the prison won’t allow the play to have a live audience). Felix does a brilliant job unpacking the nature of the role, to the extent that more than half the group now want to play Ariel as a possible alien, super-powered force of nature – it works at the level of story, but it also offers fascinating insights into the play.

The role of Miranda doesn’t allow for such persuasion. There’s nothing for it but to cast a real woman – and the presence of a young woman who is a dancer and a champion in martial arts is the source of some good clean anti-sexist fun.

In a couple of chapters towards the end, the members of the class present their ideas of what happens to their characters after the play ends. At this stage it occurred to me that this book would be an excellent teaching aid for a high school class studying The Tempest. The prisoners are doing just the kind of exercise that such a class might be assigned. And you know what? That thought didn’t dim my enjoyment one bit.

End of year lists 2021

The Emerging Artist and I have put our heads together for our traditional end-of-year list-making.

Best Movies:

We got to the pictures surprisingly often this year, and we watched a lot of movies at home. We saw roughly 50. We managed, painfully, to whittle the list down to four that we agreed on. Three of the four we saw at the Sydney Film Festival. They are, in no particular order:

We each chose one more to make five each. I’ll leave you to guess who added which:

And then we picked four documentaries, all from the Sydney Film Festival except the absolutely brilliant Summer of Soul:


Theatre:

We subscribed to Belvoir Street and Griffin, but Covid–19 meant we didn’t actually see much. We agreed, however, that our top theatre experience lay elsewhere, in commercial musical theatre:


Books:

The Emerging Artist read 35 books in hard copy and roughly 10 on her device. She read 25 books by women and 20 by men. She has given me a list of her five best books in non-fiction and fiction categories (art books were important but not for listing). Here they are then:

Fiction

Ayad Akhtar, Homeland Elegies (Headline 2020)

This is my outstanding book of the year: funny, serious, filled with ideas. It’s a biting commentary on where the USA is now, written while Trump was still president, but it’s still relevant. It’s a novel that reads uncannily like a memoir. (Link to Jonathan’s blog post)

Susan Abulhawa, Against the Loveless World (Bloomsbury 2020)

Completely engrossing story of the Palestinian diaspora in the Middle East and life in an Israeli prison.

Elizabeth Strout, Oh William! (Random House 2021)

What can you say about Elizabeth Strout? She’s such a delight to read. Beautifully written, this follows on from Lucy Barton.

Jonathan Franzen, Crossroads (HarperCollins 2021)

I’m not always a Franzen fan, but I loved the way this captures a period in one family’s life that echoes across US cultural life in the 70s

Richard Russo, Nobody’s Fool (Allen & Unwin 2017)

I’ve become a fan if Richard Russo. Nobody’s Fool needs to be read in conjunction with Everybody’s Fool. Like Elizabeth Strout and Jonathan Franzen, this examines small town life, where people do bad things but are recognisably human – no big villains.

Non-Fiction

Mark McKenna, Return to Uluru (Black Inc 2021)

A beautifully written, meandering history of a particular moment. (Link to Jonathan’s blog post)

Grace Karskens, People of the River (Allen & Unwin 2020))

This should be read in conjunction with Grace Karsken’s The Colony. Both are large volumes of brilliantly-written history. The river of the title is the Hawkesbury–Nepean / Dyarubbin, and the book covers the geology, flora and fauna, and human history, both before and since settlement.

Jonathan Bardo, A History of Ireland in 250 Episodes (Gill Books 2009)

It’s hard to find a general history of Ireland in bookshops and libraries in Sydney. This is a great introduction, originally created as 250 five-minute radio programs broadcast over a year in Ireland. Ireland’s history is much bloodier than I knew from when it was first inhabited, and the English are not the only source of the violence.

Bart Van Es, The Cut Out Girl (Penguin 2018)

Prompted by an interview with the author in a Conversations podcast, I borrowed this from the library. It’s a memoir about family secrets and silences that tracks the missing links in a Jewish woman’s childhood hiding from the Nazi regime.

As for me, I read 77 books (counting journals but not every children’s book). I can’t pick bests. Most successful scratching of a longstanding itch was Wordsworth’s The Prelude. Most fun was Bernadine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman. Most mind-altering was Andy Jackson’s Human Looking. Most reader-friendly Nobel laureate was Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Gravel Heart. Most likely to produce lasting behavioural change was Joe Keohane’s The Power of Strangers. Most magical revisit was Ursula K LeGuin’s Catwings. The one that made me wish I was writing my own memoirs was Brendan Ryan’s Walk Like a Cow. The one that made me think my memoir would get it all wrong was Evelyn Araluen’s Dropbear.


Happy New Year, everyone. Please add your own treasured movies, plays or books from 2021 in the comments.

#aww2021 Challenge Completed

This is my round-up post for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021, my eighth year of participation, and the final year of the challenge’s existence.

The challenge was established in 2012 to raise awareness of Australian women’s writing. I signed up for 2014, and I’ve recorded a total of 165 books read since then as part of the challenge. This year, I read 15 books by Australian women writers, well over my goal of ten. Here they are, with links to my blog posts:

6 books for children and young people

4 books of poetry

3 essays

1 historical novel

1 collection of essays edited by a woman

1 art book

The list doesn’t include journals or anthologies.

On a related topic, I’ve done a quick gender check on books I read this year. Counting comics, but not journals, anthologies or most picture books, I read:

  • 27 by women
  • 34 by men

I read 1 book in translation (from Homeric Greek), and 2 in their original French. I read two books by First Nations writers, and 10 by People of the Global Majority (a term I’m using at the recommendation of friends who prefer it to ‘People of Colour’). These stats make me realise that apart from anything else the journals I read are a great source of diverse voices.

I’ll do a separate post where the Emerging Artist and I pick our favourite books and movies of the year.

Ruby Reads 29: Gift

It’s the time of year when Ruby comes into possession of many new books, first for her birthday, and then for Christmas. This is one I gave her, and which she took time to enjoy in the midst of things. (I love it.)


Ursula Dubosarsky and Tohby Riddle, The March of the Ants (Book Trail 2021)

Full disclosure: Ursula Dubosarsky and Tohby Riddle are friends of mine.

They’re also both geniuses, who have collaborated on a number of books for children. This gorgeous picture book is the latest. The text was read by Ursula at her launch as Australian Children’s Laureate in February 2020. Neither she nor Tohby could have known that its message about the importance of story had a prophetic relevance for the two years that lay ahead.

A group of ants set out on an excursion. Every one of them carries something important for the enterprise. When one little ant shows up with just a book, there is much mockery. But the little ant persists. Later when all the others are tired from their exertions and the food and drink have run out, the little ant reads to the others, and they are revived by the story.

Tohby’s images are masterly, full of odd details without being at all crowded.

Here’s a video of a laurel-crowned Ursula reading the book, from the Australian Children’s Laureate Foundation webpage


The March of the Ants is the 15th and final book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

Lemire Endings: Gideon Falls 6 and Ascender4

Among my welcome gifts of comics this Christmas are the final instalments of two series that have been going for a couple of years. Though they share a principal author, they evoked vastly different responses in me: I was just relieved that one of them was over at last, and the final pages of the other had me welling up.


Jeff Lemire (writer), Andrea Sorrentino (artist) and Dave Stewart (colorist), Gideon Falls, Volume 6: The End (Image Comics 2021, originally published as issue 27 of the comic)

This has been a brilliant piece of complex story telling, matched by superbly challenging art work. There’s a kind of zombie apocalypse with hideous grins, happening in at least three time periods but all in the same place. There’s endless confusion about which people and institutions are on the side of good, and which in thrall to evil. There’s a weird blend of scientism and the occult, and an abundance of surgical masks that belies the story’s pre-Covid-19 beginnings (and don’t make any obvious sense without the Covid–19 reference).

Horror is a genre whose appeal is lost on me. That, and the sense on page after page that I had to work hard just to figure out what was going on, means I was pretty cool about the series, and this final instalment didn’t warm me up. The occasional page is upside down, for a start, and to my eye at least the characters never take on clear individual qualities. Interestingly, among the included extras is the script of the original comic: reading it would be an ideal way of sorting out who everyone was, and what was happening on the pages where the images were indecipherable to me. I was tempted, but in the end I decided I’d rather live with being too stupid to follow the story than expend any more effort on it.


Jeff Lemire & Dustin Nguyen (storytellers), Steve Wands (lettering and design), Will Dennis (editor), and Tyler Jennes (assistant editor), Ascender Volume Four: Star Seed (Image Comics 2021, from issues 15–18 of the comic)

This volume brings an end to six years of space opera – the six-part Descender. and the the four-part Ascender. This also has been a brilliantly complex story-telling, whose visual complexity sometimes tipped over into incomprehensibility. Here too several distinct stories have occupied the same space in a vertigo-inducing manner.

But at the heart of this saga are two small children under threat, one of whom is a robot, so the reader has an emotional grounding. We know who to barrrack for when they flex their great powers (the robot), and who to fear for when the forces of empire and magic and machinery are out to destroy them (the flesh and blood girl).

Dustin Nguyen’s watercolour paintings, which I didn’t care for at all at first, turn out to serve the story beautifully. The scenes of violence are just as chaotic as anyone could wish. The bad guys, rather than being softened by the pastel colours, take on a kind of deliquescent vileness. And the children stay softly vulnerable throughout.

Among tying off of narrative threads, there’s a twist in the final moments that got to me. It takes real genius to set up a narrative tension that the reader is barely aware of, to let it simmer for years (years in the telling, and decades in the story itself), to lay careful last-minute groundwork for a resolution that the reader (this one anyway) sees as pure decoration, and then spring the resolution in just a single frame. I hope that’s abstract enough to leave the story unspoiled should you choose to read it.

Given my own widely divergent responses to these two series, I hesitate to recommend either of them without qualification. But if I was running a comic shop and you walked in off the street asking for recommendations, Jeff Lemire’s name would spring to my lips.

Bernadine Evaristo’s Mr Loverman

Bernadine Evaristo, Mr Loverman (Penguin 2013)

Bernadine Evaristo won the 2019 Booker Prize for her novel Girl, Woman, Other. Mr Loverman doesn’t have such a weighty status, but it’s wonderful. The narrator, Barrington Jedidiah Walker is seventy-four (same age as me, which may be why the book was insistently recommended to me), living unhappily married in London. It’s 2010 and he has been in love with his friend Morris since they were children, and having an active, clandestine sexual relationship with him.

He’s a great character, and the story of his coming out – a term he dislikes – is told with enormous charm and energy, in language inflected with the rhythms of his native Antigua and filled with sparkling wordplay.

While our sympathies are firmly with Barry, the book doesn’t let us forget how badly his deception has affected his wife and daughters. The ending is almost Shakespearean in the way it ties off everything in neat bows. Speaking of Shakespeare, the largely self-educated Barry loves to quote the Bard, to terrific effect and in my case a serendipitous similarity to the last novel I read, also by an English of African heritage.


No reflection on the books, but my blog posts for the next couple of weeks will be short and – hopefully – to the point. I don’t imagine an explanation is needed but it’s summer-time, my extended family are in Christmas–New Year mode, the Emerging Artist and I will soon be crossing state borders to spend a couple of weeks away, and on top of all that I’ve got a very painful hamstring (don’t ask!) and a non-Covid coronavirus infection.

Lech Blaine’s Top Blokes

Lech Blaine, Top Blokes: The larrikin myth, class and power (Quarterly Essay 83, 2021)
– plus correspondence in Quarterly Essay 84

About the time this Quarterly Essay was published (13 September 2021), two other books appeared on Scott Morrison: The Accidental Prime Minister (15 September 2021), a biography by Annika Smethurst; and The Game (1 November 2021) by Sean Kelly. Given that Quarterly Essay 79, The End of Certainty (September 2020) by Katharine Murphy, was in part a portrait of Morrison, no one could say Scott Morrison has avoided scrutiny. Judith Brett has a brief, elegant piece in the November issue of Australian Book Review discussing all four publications. It features on the ABR podcast, at this link.

The main thrust of this essay, as I read it, is that whereas in earlier times the ALP and unions were powerful voices to defend and promote the rights of working class people, they no longer serve that function, and working class voices in Australia – the voices of people involved in direct production and basic service work – have been marginalised. Instead, members of the political class take on cultural signifiers of working-class culture: there’s symbolic representation rather than participation. Memorably, the essay describes Matt Canavan’s selfies in soot-covered face and yellow jacket as the class equivalent of blackface. The argument is important, and urgent in its implications for the resistance to climate change action among mine workers: people who have the most at stake in the short term are unlikely to be persuaded by high moral argument, or even arguments about intergenerational justice, from people whose livelihoods and lifestyles aren’t obviously at immediate risk.

That argument is graphically presented in a history of the politics since Howard, interspersed with commentary from Blaine’s unreconstructed working-class friends and family on both sides of politics.

The issue is muddied by the whole larrikin thing. It’s one thing to describes Scott Morrison’s construction of an artificial persona that would appeal to a certain part of the electorate: ditching his love of Rugby Union and becoming a League fan, having his photo taken with a meat pie and a beer, etc. It’s quite another to say that this is larrikinism: on the contrary, the ‘daggy dad’, ‘ordinary bloke’ persona smacks of suburban conformity rather than nose-thumbing disruptiveness, which I would have thought was a defining feature of larrikinism.

I went back through the essay looking for Blaine’s definition of the term. I found this:

In the beginning, larrikins sinned on the streets of Australian cities. They lusted not after power but for moral condemnation from coppers. The capitalist class was trolled for sport. That didn’t mean the larrikin was impervious to the seduction of money and media spectacle. Life revolved around get-rich-quick schemes and dreams of widespread notoriety. ‘The term “larrikin” was used as a handy way for journalists and the authorities to label any apparently lowborn young person … who engaged in uncouth behaviour,’ wrote Melissa Ballanta in Larrikins: A History. ‘At all times larrikinism had a profound connection to unskilled labour.’

(page 13)

That seems clear enough, but once the essay moves away from definitions, the word seems to be applied to any person, usually a man, who is solidly working class, and possibly raised in poverty. The essay discusses a wide range of individuals as exemplifying aspects of the larrikin, real and fake, including: Melissa Lucashenko’s father, an itinerant Russian migrant who was ‘extremely violent’; John Willey, who grew up in an orphanage, fought in World War II, was a solid unionist and helped build the Railways Rugby League Club in Ipswich; Anthony Albanese, at least in his early life, who was raised in public housing by a single mother a disability pension; Bruce, a FIFO electrician on a gas mine; movie-star and tax evader Paul Hogan; First Nations senator Lidia Thorpe; poet Omar Sakr; artist Abdul Abdullah; Indigenous All Stars captain Joel Thompson. The term becomes wide enough to embrace anyone who is anti-authoritarian: Grace Tame, Behrouz Boochani and Adam Goodes. That is to say, the word becomes close to mea,

The muddled larrikinism discussion aside, the essay offers important insights into the One-Nation-voting working people who feel themselves, with justice, to be ignored and silenced by the mainstream media and politicians.


Six of the eight correspondents in Quarterly Essay 84 – Jess Hill’s The Reckoning – are women.

Rachel Nolan, a former Queensland MP, notes that Lech Blaine identifies strongly with his family’s Ipswich connections, and she gives a brief, fascinating political history of the town.

Bri Lee amplifies the essay’s description of the way people with university degrees condescend to those who don’t, the way some people on the left believe in ‘the stupidity and wholesale inferiority of the right’.

Economist Alison Pennington does a sterling job of outlining the origins of larrikinism in the success of enormous struggles by working people, and having done some of the work that was missing from the essay, she gives credit where it’s due, calling it ‘one of the most engaging analyses I’ve read of Australian contemporary class relations’.

Literary critic Shannon Burns offers some fascinating reflections on ‘authenticity’, and somehow includes a description of Bogan Bingo, an entertainment in which white-collar workers have fun pretending to be ‘bogans’. She draws attention to an element of larrikinism that is missing from Blaine’s account: ‘He knows how to have fun and invites you along for the ride. A larrikin is playful when she is serious and serious when she is playful.’

Of the men, historian David Hunt challenges the essay’s identification of solid unionists with larrikins – historically the two groups have loathed each other.

Lech Blaine’s response to the correspondence is brilliantly un-defensive – a textbook example of how to respond to disagreement and criticism. He writes:

Flicking someone flippantly between historical scenes was meant to convey the mess of Australian national identity, and the way we frequently use the same descriptions and categories for people who are spiritually and politically opposed. I definitely should have provided a more succinct definition of what it means to be a larrikin, then and now, especially in a positive sense

(Quarterly Essay 84, page 106)

Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Gravel Heart

Abdulrazak Gurnah, Gravel Heart (Bloomsbury 2017)

Abdulrazak Gurnah won the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature, ‘for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.’ He was born in Tanzania in 1948 and has lived in the United Kingdom most of his life. Gravel Heart is his ninth novel, and the only one available in my local library. It’s not singled out in any of the biographical outlines I’ve read, but it’s a wonderful novel. Here’s how it starts:

My father did not want me. I came to that knowledge when I was quite young, even before I understood what I was being deprived of and a long time before I could guess the reason for it. In some ways not understanding was a mercy. If this knowledge had come to me when I was older, I might have known how to live with it better but that would probably have been by pretending, and hating.

Not to be too spoilerish: when I read the last page of the novel, I immediately flipped back to those sentences. It’s hard to imagine an introduction to the story that follows that is more misleading, and yet at the same time true to the story.

The narrator, born in Zanzibar, travels to England when he finishes school, with the support of a wealthy uncle, leaving his father who is eking out a miserable existence on the margins of their town, and his mother who is having a liaison with a powerful man in the government. After decades, in which he leads a fairly aimless life in the UK, he goes back home for a visit. His mother has died and he spends a substantial amount of time with his father.

I approached the book tentatively – these Nobel Laureates can be tough reads. But I’m happy to recommend the book as a completely absorbing read. I felt the young man’s painful yearning for home and his mother, and his difficulty in communicating in letters across the widening cultural gulf was so intimately real to me that I had to keep reminding myself of the vast difference between his life experience and mine. (I was sent off to a prestigious boarding school a thousand miles from home at age 14 and had no idea what to write in my mandatory weekly letter home.) Mostly in England he associates with other non-White people, though some of his amorous liaisons might be white. There’s only one moment of explicit, vile racism, and though the reader sees it coming the young man is caught completely, devastatingly off guard.

The real thrill of the book for me is in the final chapters where the naturalistic mode of storytelling is stretched to its limit as the father tells his son the story of his life over two long nights. But you decide to accept the manifestly artificial set-up because the story is so powerful, and fleshes out the tantalising hints that have been there from that first paragraph. Then, stretching verisimilitude just a bit further, the son realises that his father’s story is a variation on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. (The book’s title is a phrase from that play, though I still don’t know what it means.) I can’t say how or why, but I found that moment deeply moving: something in my understanding of the world, of colonisation and racism, moved deep inside my head.