Jennifer Maiden, Play with Knives: Three: George and Clare and the Grey Hat Hacker (Quemar Press 2016)
This is the third novel in the Play with Knives series, and like the earlier volumes it’s not a straightforward thriller as the title might seem to imply.
As well as the earlier novels, it is preceded by more than a decade of poetry featuring its two main characters. You probably don’t need to have read any of the previous novels or poems to enjoy it – a teasing curiosity about the back-story would be part of the enjoyment, and anyway parts of the history referred to in the text exist only in those references. But just for the record, here’s a chronology (I’ve listed the 25 poems in order of publication at the bottom of this post).
1990: George Jeffreys and Clare Collins first appear as the leads in Jennifer Maiden’s novel Play with Knives. He’s a probation officer and she’s his client, a young woman who murdered her three younger siblings when she was nine years old. There’s a serial killer on the loose in Western Sydney, George gets involved with Clare in an ethically dubious way, and they begin an apparently endless conversation.
1991: A sequel, Complicity, is written but only excerpts are published in literary magazines. George and Clare’s relationship as lovers and conversers firms up, and there is more violence. (Quemar Press published it as an ebook in 2016.)
2005: After a fourteen-year absence the characters reappear / are resurrected in Friendly Fire (Giramondo). Maiden says in an introduction that soon after 11 September 2001, she thought, ‘What are George and Clare thinking?’ The question begins to be answered in a prose narrative set in Lower Manhattan on 9 September 2001, and then in six ‘George Jeffreys’ poems, each beginning:
George Jeffreys woke up in [xxx].
George Bush Junior was on the TV, obsessed
as usual with Baghdad.
The first four of these poems pretty much sticks to the question of what George is thinking – about post–911 events up to and including the invasion of Iraq. Then, in the fifth and sixth poems, he moves beyond just thinking, to chat with George W Bush (in the White House, in #5) and Saddam Hussein (in Baghdad, in #6).
2010–2016: Another 14 ‘George Jeffreys’ poems appear in Jennifer Maiden’s next five books. There are also four poems named for Clare: ‘Clare and Paris / Manus / Thessaloniki / Nauru’. Both characters make an appearance in ‘The Year of the Ox’ in Liquid Nitrogen (2012) – George watching Obama on TV, Clare in contact with the ghosts of her murdered siblings, both watching Gillard on TV. George w Bush fades from the scene, and so eventually does the TV set.
While George and Clare continue to provide a medium for reflections on world events, they also assert themselves as characters, turning up at hotspots all over the world working for an NGO called Prisoners of Conscience. They are great talkers, to each other of course, but also with political figures ranging from the Master of the Crossroads in Louisiana and a brace of ancient Chinese philosophers to a CIA operative and, in a poem published the day after his electoral victory, Donald Trump.
The poems are embedded in a compelling body of work, only one of a number of conduits for reflections on the constellation of themes in each book – war and violence, ‘ethical security’, government surveillance, Maiden’s version of ‘the problem of evil’, culling of feral animals, and more. Other pairs of characters appear in similar series, including Hillary Clinton and Eleanor Roosevelt in 14 poems, Tony Abbott and Queen Victoria in six. But only George and Clare’s poems develop progressively into more rounded fictions*. There are Hitchcockian shoot-outs in spectacular settings, dramatic rescues of abused women, a spot of arson on Manus Island. People and animals rescued by Clare become part of their domestic life back in Mount Druitt.
2016: It seems a logical progression, almost a response to pressure from the characters themselves, when the novel series comes back to life. Quemar Press reissues Play with Knives, publishes Complicity for the first time, and then Play with Knives Three: George and Clare and the Grey Hat Hacker, all as ebooks in PDF format.
End of chronology.
This third novel in the Play with Knives series differs from the previous two by being mostly in verse. It differs from the poems of the previous decades by having room to focus on the characters’ intimacies (which it does in explicit detail) and space for their conversations to veer off down innumerable byways.
After a brief prose prologue from George (all the prose sections are George speaking in the first person), the first chapter begins in the well-established way, ‘George Jeffreys woke up’: he’s in Thirroul, just south of Sydney, house-sitting with Clare, in a house filled with Gary Shead prints of D H Lawrence and Frieda. (Thirroul is where Lawrence wrote Kangaroo. A number of the prints are lovingly described in the text: you can see images of them on this Pinterest site). As well as Lawrence on the walls, they share the house with a pet rat named Johnny Depp, canaries (Lily and Snape) and a blue tongue lizard (Hello Kitty).
It’s the night of a scheduled execution in Indonesia strikingly similar to the real-world killing by firing squad in April 2015
when of Myuran Sukumaran, Andrew Chan and six others are to be killed by firing squad in Indonesia. Clare and George have (of course) been involved with one of the prisoners and their emotional preparation for and then response to the executions is the central action of the first two chapters, which constitute more than half the book. Seeking distraction and human contact, they have quite a lot of explicitly negotiated and described, not entirely conventional sex, they swap stories about D H Lawrence and Norman Mailer, come close to using Assange as a term for a sexual practice, criticise Freud and de Sade, discuss Trump’s policies, quote A E Housman, Nye Bevan, A J P Taylor, and a lot more. There’s a recurring sentence:
The clock by the bed went round, but it wasn’t time.
This is all so absorbing that one hardly notices that some time in the night, they learn by phone that George’s grandson Idris is heading their way from England, where his hacking activities have put him in danger. The next night, still exhausted by events in Indonesia, well past the halfway point of the book, George and Clare go to bed:
They slept there for an hour, then George woke to a noise.
It was like a cat tapping to get out, except that he saw it was
actually his grandson, tapping to get in. He thought: If he
calls me ‘Dude’, I’ll kill him. He unlocked the door quickly,
admonished, ‘Don’t wake Clare.’ Idris hugged him, no different
to his exuberance as a child. George had always been his
favourite male relative. George locked the door. Idris still
hadn’t let his arm go, exclaiming, ‘Dude, how are you? You
look great.’ George hugged him back: ‘I’m fine. You seem in
quite good shape, yourself, boy.’
That’s the start of what in a conventional genre novel would be the central action (and the echo from the poems in ‘George woke’ suggests that we are indeed at a new beginning). But, once everyone has said hello and Idris has said he’s being followed by some ‘weird dudes’, everyone goes back to sleep. When Clare wakes in the morning she muses on one of the Shead paintings, remembers a Civil War song, looks at the sleeping George …
Sure, there’s a story to be told, but life is full of moments. Idris’s partner Sophie (whose life Clare saved in Paris years earlier) arrives with baby Florence, and there is a wonderful sequence of extended family domesticity.
In chapters 3 to 4, George picks up the narration in prose, and in what is only slightly less leisurely (there’s still time for a lit-crit discussion of Peter Pan, some wine-snob chat and a brief reflection on infant circumcision), the tension mounts to a climactic shoot-out on the Bulli Pass. That too, as much as the sex and the images on the wall, is the subject of Clare-and-George conversation. Clare asks:
‘How did you shoot that Frenchman?’
‘Apart from using withdrawal symptoms to concentrate? I remembered what you said about empathising. I knew where to aim for in his arm, and I didn’t feel as if my own arm existed. Fortunately, by the time his mate killed him, most of the empathy was over.’ Although I instantly remembered, very accurately, the screaming.
In [redacted to avoid spoiler], her eyes were lightning on rockpools. I thought of my finger in the sea anemone: that temporary sudden small ridge appearing from nowhere after the opening, testing itself against an invader, making the whole map change. She asked, ‘But how did you shoot him?’
I answered, ‘I am descended from the Hanging Judge, you know. It was easy. I just forgot everything I ever knew.’
Some novels are blatantly written with the Hollywood machine in mind. This is not one of them: it ignores the genre rules about structure, and its pleasures are in the detail of relationships – in sex, in play between adults and small children, in the joys of conversation, in the grief and rage of seeing state machinery destroy lives, in engagement on many levels with art, literature and politics. There is a twist at the end, in the last two short chapters, chapter 5 in prose and chapter 6 in verse, which makes the whole hacker plot seem a little like an elaborate misdirection. The clock by the bed still goes round, but in these final chapters we have a different understanding of what that means.
I won’t spoil things by telling you if Idris escapes safely to Moscow.
Jennifer Maiden poems featuring George Jeffreys and Clare Collins 2005–2016
In Friendly Fire (Giramondo 2005):
George Jeffreys 1: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Kabul
George Jeffreys 2: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Kandahar
George Jeffreys 3: George Jeffreys Woke Up in London
George Jeffreys 4: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Berlin
George Jeffreys 5: George Jeffreys Woke Up in the White House
George Jeffreys 6: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Baghdad
In Pirate Rain (Giramondo 2010):
George Jeffreys 7: George Jeffreys Woke Up in New Orleans
George Jeffreys 8: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Rio
George Jeffreys 9: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Beirut
Clare and Paris
George Jeffreys 10: George Jeffreys Woke Up in a Pirates’ Ship
In Liquid Nitrogen (Giramondo 2012):
The Year of the Ox
George Jeffreys 11: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Langley
George Jeffreys 12: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Oslo
George Jeffreys 13: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Beijing
George Jeffreys 14: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Sharm el Sheikh
In Drones and Phantoms (Giramondo 2014)
George Jeffreys 15: The Fourth Terrace
George Jeffreys 16: George Jeffreys Woke Up in South Iceland
Clare and Manus
In The Fox Petition (Giramondo 2015)
George Jeffreys 17: George and the Holy Holiday
George Jeffreys 18: George Jeffreys Woke Up on Kos
Clare and Thessaloniki
In The Metronome (Quemar 2016, Giramondo 2017)
Clare and Nauru
George Jeffreys 19: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Thredbo
George Jeffreys 20: George Jeffreys Woke Up in Washington
There are more to come, in Appalachian Fall, due out from Quemar in October.
George and Clare and the Grey Hat Hacker is the ninth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I obtained it, as you can, as a free download from Quemar Press.