Tag Archives: Miles Franklin Award

The Book Group and Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions

Josephine Wilson, Extinctions (UWA Publishing 2016)

Before the meeting: Extinctions won the 2017 Miles Franklin Award, and has been widely well received. I hated it.

I realised how much I was hating it when on page 16 the main character, grumpy and defensive seventyish white man Frederick Lothian, describes a piece of knitting as ‘abandoned in medias res‘: my inner pedant came out all guns blazing. That’s syntactically incorrect, it shouted: in medias res doesn’t mean ‘in the middle of things’, as Frederick (who has been studying Latin) and presumably the author think, but ‘into the middle of things’ – you can’t abandon something into something. I was being unfair: it’s a genuinely trivial matter and anyhow English usage has long since left the Latin behind. If I’d been enjoying the book, even moderately, I wouldn’t have noticed.

Out of respect for the Book Group, the Miles Franklin judges (though we shouldn’t forget The Hand That Signed the Paper), and otherwise trustworthy bloggers (see here for Whispering Gums, here for ANZ LitLovers, and here for The Resident Judge of Port Phillip), I persisted.

There are a lovely couple of sentences on page 164:

Some young lads were tossing a Frisbee, diving after it and landing heavily in the sand. They came up laughing and dusting off their legs, A thin, stringy boy with a head of dark hair and a little nub of fluff under his lip leapt sideways and missed. He met the ground not as you would meet an adversary – hardened and eager to hurt – but like a member of the family who had been gone just a little too long: a quick embrace, an easier release.

And in the final movement there’s a scene of genuine power in which a father slaps his tiny son.

I mention those moments for two reasons: first to prove that I did read on, and second to demonstrate that I wasn’t committed to hating the book. But committed or not, I did hate it. I really I don’t want to spend time spelling out why, though a number of my friends have put up with rants and readings-aloud. enough to say that it seemed to me at one stage that you could pick a passage at random and I’d hate something in the content or the expression. If you want to know more about the book, I recommend any of the blogs I’ve linked to above. They’re not written by defensive and grumpy old white men and may be more dependable than mine.

At the meeting: I arrived intending to keep my mouth shut because there’s nothing worse than having someone spraying vitriol at a book you’ve just read and loved, and I was trying to be open to the possibility that the book is actually OK, but just sparked/triggered something in me. (Another chap from the book had told me a couple of weeks before the meeting that he too had hated the book – it had made him unaccountably angry. Being morally superior to me, he reread it. I was looking forward to what he had to say at the meeting.)

We did spend an unusual amount of time discussing the food (which was excellent – everyone had bought something), the recent election result, and the rights and wrongs of a Sydney multi-millionaire sporting celebrity who broke a contractual undertaking not to speak ill of LGBTQI people and lost his job because of it. But we also had a spirited, amiable and enlightening conversation about the book.

I didn’t succeed in keeping my mouth shut for long, and my friend who had been made unaccountably angry didn’t say much more than that the book didn’t make him angry the second time. A couple of people had enjoyed it a lot (though one who had really loved it couldn’t be there, alas). No one hated it as much as I did, and I did get called a grumpy old man in a tone that suggested I identified defensively with Frederick (a charge I don’t absolutely deny).

The architects and modernist design aficionados among us enjoyed the presence of those elements, including the illustrations scattered throughout. No one could tell me what these photos added, except that they pleasantly broke up the pages of text. Clearly, though, the book had stuck a chord in some, as a number of members spoke in a heartfelt way of how adoption, old-people’s homes, work-family balance had figured in their lives. Oddly, I felt that the plot tensions were satisfactorily resolved in the final stages, whereas some people who liked the book were left dissatisfied. I was the only one who read out a passage – the one quoted above – though one chap read out a number of phrases that he considered beautifully turned (I didn’t, but there’s no point arguing about such things).

Extinctions is the twenty-fourth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My copy was a library book.

The Book Group and Gerald Murnane’s Collected Short Fiction

Gerald Murnane, Collected Short Fiction (Giramondo 2018)

murnane.jpg

Before the meeting:
Gerald Murnane has been described as ‘Australia’s most distinguished unread writer’. His most recent novel, Border Districts, is shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Prize. He is the author of seven other novels, two books of essays and a memoir as well as the 20 short fictions in this book, which have previously been gathered in three collections: Velvet Waters (1990), Emerald Blue (1995) and A History of Books (2012).

My introduction to Murnane was ‘The Breathing Author’, an essay published in Heat 3 (New Series) in 2002, in which he portrays himself in such a negative way (‘I cannot recall having gone voluntarily into any art gallery or museum or building said to be of historic interest’) that I felt absolutely no desire to read more.

So when the Designated Book Chooser chose Murnane’s  Collected Short Fiction for our August meeting, I was less than thrilled.

And now I’m grateful to the Book Group for once again taking me places I wouldn’t otherwise have gone. The book may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I was enthralled – I loved it.

It’s hard to say why I loved it. These fictions (every time you see that word here, I have first typed ‘stories’, and then deleted it and replaced it with ‘fictions’) have no named characters (unless you count the uncle of the main character in the third last story who is given the name Nunkie), they generally have very little action, and it’s sometimes hard to see how they even hold together. They feature an obsessive repetition of words and phrases and constantly draw attention to themselves as something being written. If the word ‘introspection’ didn’t exist it would have to be invented to describe them.

What do they have? Well, the narrator of one of the stories, ‘In Far Fields’, who is described in the story itself as its implied author (that is, I think, he is implied to be Gerald Murnane), describes to a hypothetical student his own approach to creating fictions. He begins by writing a sentence, which is ‘a report of a detail of an image in [his] mind’, an image that ‘was connected by strong feeling to other images in [his] mind’. He then proceeds to write a sentence that is a report of a detail of another image that was connected by feelings to the first image. And then a third image, and so on. This chain of images forms the basis of the story. It becomes complicated after that, but it’s worth quoting a little from near the end of his talk to the hypothetical student:

Before she left my office, I would tell her, as a last piece of advice, that she need not have learned the meaning of every image reported in a piece of fiction before she had finished writing the final draft. Nearly every piece of my fiction, I would tell her, included a report of an image whose connections I did not discover until long after the piece had been finished. Sometimes these connections had not appeared until I was writing a later piece of fiction, and then I would understand that the image in the earlier piece of fiction was connected with an image in the later piece.

I think it’s this sense that the (implied) author is always exploring something that involves deep and not yet understood emotion, not knowing where the writing is taking him, that kept me pretty much spellbound on almost every page of this book. The prose is generally dry, methodical, self-referential, but the analogy that come to my mind is of an archaeological dig in a temple of Aphrodite: meticulous brushing, digging, scraping around objects that speak for themselves of great unruly passion.

One effect of this approach is that no distinction is made in the text between memory and fantasy. Most of the fictions feel autobiographical, but that isn’t the point: the reader is invited/expected to respond to the images and the fiction that connects them without knowing or caring if they come from Murnane’s actual life. Many of the images that the fictions ‘report’ are scenes from rural Victoria, and I expect that readers from that part of the world would feel an extra connection with the writing. Another whole swathe of images relate to the Catholic childhoods and adolescences of the unnamed main characters, and it’s probably these that led me to a deeper emotional engagement.  ‘Pink Lining’ is an example. It begins:

The image that caused me to begin writing this story is an image of a single cloud in a sky filled with heaps or layers of clouds. The single cloud and all the other clouds in the sky are coloured grey, but the single cloud is surrounded by an aureole or nimbus of pink.

It turns out that this image is on a holy card preserved from the narrator’s childhood. Adult, non-believing cynicism having been raised and brushed aside, the image leads to memories of the narrator’s favourite aunt, a pious woman, bedridden since the age of twelve, who taught him a lot about Catholic teachings. The story of the narrator’s relationship to that aunt emerges, and the fiction wanders through other parts of his life, with every now and then a tight focus on the colour of a wall, a pink holy water font, a sky ‘filled with heaps or layers of grey clouds’. Here’s perhaps the most dramatic paragraph (which reports on one of the key images of the piece):

At certain times during the years following his twenty-fifth year, the man who was first mentioned in the second paragraph of this story believed that he had never looked at or touched the naked body of any woman before his twenty-fifth year. At other times during the years just mentioned, the man believed that he had looked at the naked body above the waist of a certain woman during his fifth year. Whenever the man believed what is mentioned in the previous sentence, he believed that he had seen, after he had opened the door mentioned in the previous paragraph, the naked body above the waist of his favourite aunt as she leaned over a dish of white enamel filled with water and on that body two breasts, each with a nipple surrounded by a zone of pink. Whenever the man believed what is mentioned in the sentence before the sentence mentioned in the previous sentence, he believed that he had seen, after he had opened the door just mentioned, the naked body above the waist just mentioned and the dish filled with water just mentioned and on the body the nipples of a girl whose breasts had not yet begun to grow,

The affectless, asperger-ish quality of this is typical of Murnane’s prose. The prim but eloquent silence about what happened when the man was 25, and then the pedantically framed account of what he had seen when he was five (leaving the reader to imagine the emotional content of the experience) have a feel I recognise from my own Catholic childhood: some things simply aren’t meant to be spoken of, especially if sex or the naked human body is involved. (My mother’s response to The Female Eunuch comes to mind: ‘You don’t look over people’s shoulders when they’re brushing their teeth, so why do it with that?’) The result, though, is that moments like this or the final words of this story, which quote a line from a song ‘previously mentioned’, pack a huge punch.

Now that I have actually read this book, I am left wanting more: maybe I should start with Murnane’s first novel, Tamarisk Row. I am immensely grateful, not only to this month’s Designated Book Chooser, but also to Giramondo for my complimentary copy.

The meeting:
There were six of us. One of the absentees said on the phone, in a voice affected by a heavy cold, that he thought Murnane used a lot of words to say almost nothing. But those of us who ate the spinach pie and ice creams found a lot to talk about. In fact, we probably stayed with the book more than any other night except maybe Anna Karenina. I wouldn’t say everyone was wild about the book, and only three of us had read all 20 stories (plus one was part way through Border Districts), but we had all engaged with the writing, with Gerald Murnane’s mind (or to be more precise his way of writing about his mind).

One chap came back from a toilet break saying, ‘I’ll give him a hundred percent for slowing time down. I love dance and music that does that, and he’s done it  in writing.’ I think he meant that Murnane’s fiction moves from emotionally charged image to emotionally charged image is something that we all do, but what we do in fractions of a second, he slows down and dissects meticulously.

Someone quoted from a review that said that with Murnane’s writing, what matters is what you find yourself thinking about as you read it. That struck a chord: some of us had found ourselves reflecting on our intensely religious upbringings; others on our connection to the land where we live; others still on the complexities of early adolescent attitudes to sex.

Someone said that even when Murnane is annoying – and at least one person said he’d felt like throwing the book across the room more than once – he’s interesting. Someone said he’s cruel, leading the reader in one direction and then springing a nasty surprise. Others disagreed, reading him as not really caring how the reader responds, but following the logic of his own process. In fact, we generally felt there was a ruthless honesty in his self-exploration.

When someone gave a 30 second version of one of the stories, it produced belly laughs, which for me at least was a revelation, as I hadn’t found the story funny when I read it in its own tempo.

That is to say, I’d recommend these short fictions as an excellent choice for a book group.

Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing

Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing (Vintage 2013)

wyld.jpg

My copy of All the Birds, Singing announces on the cover that it won the Miles Franklin Award in 2014. As I read the first chapter, which is set in a generic British countryside, I wondered about that prize, given the insistence in past years that the Miles Franklin winner had to be set in Australia. The first paragraph of the second chapter put my questioning to rest:

We are a week from the end of the job in Boodarie. I’m in the shower at the side of the tractor shed watching the thumb-sized redback that’s always sat at the top of the shower head. She hasn’t moved at all except to raise a leg when I turn on the tap, like the water’s too cold for her.

Then, as if Boodarie and the redback aren’t enough to signal that we are now in rural Australia, the next paragraph lays it on thick:

The day has been a long and hot one – the tip of March, and under the crust of the galvo roof the air in the shearing shed has been thick like soup, flies bloating about in it. […] The first stars are bright needles, and in the old Moreton Bay fig that hangs over the tractor shed and drops nuts on the roof while I sleep, a currawong and a white galah are having it out; I can hear the blood-thick bleat of them. A flying fox goes overhead and just like that the smell of the place changes and night has settled in the air.

The novel continues in alternate chapters. On an unnamed British island, the protagonist has a small sheep farm, and someone or something is killing her sheep. In Australia, some years earlier, she is a lone woman shearer, with a dark secret in her past. On the island, she has to deal with a series of men who refuse to take her story of a sheepkiller seriously. In Australia, the telling moves back in time through a series of unfortunate incidents, mostly involving physical and sexual abuse by men.

It’s a good read, but I have to tell you that if, like me, you prefer a book that sets up a mystery to arrive at a solution to that mystery, you will want, like me, to throw this one across the room when you reach the final pages.

All the Birds, Singing is the fifth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Jasper Jones at the Book Group

Craig Silvey, Jasper Jones (Allen & Unwin 2009)

The fourth paragraph of Jasper Jones begins:

This is the hottest summer I can remember and the thick heat seems to seep in and keep in my sleepout.

‘Keep in’? That’s awkward, I thought, and it chimes oddly with ‘seep in’ and ‘sleepout’. The paragraph continues:

It’s like the earth’s core in here. The only relief comes from the cooler air that creeps in between the slim slats of my single window. It’s near impossible to sleep …

Seep in, keep in, sleepout, creeps in and sleep, all in five lines: this is definitely odd, but – along with the heat, the relief and those slats, which are slim for no reason other than alliteration – it’s clearly deliberate.

Over the next pages, while the story had my attention from the word go – thirteen year old Charlie Bucktin, the narrator, is woken in the night by the town’s bad boy Jasper Jones and led to a secret place in the bush where he’s faced with a terrible spectacle and an equally terrible dilemma – I had a weather eye out to see if anything would come of this stylistic oddity. Nothing did, in the sense that if you didn’t notice it you weren’t missing a vital clue to the book’s meaning. But Charlie is in love with language, and bursts of assonance and alliteration for their own sake amount to something of a stylistic signature. I did a quick scan before returning the book to the library, and noted, from many examples, ‘a bundle of lonely bones tied to a stone’ (page 123), ‘Pored over it, taking little portions’ (page 128), and this, in one of Charlie’s reflective moments:

Sorry means you feel the pulse of other people’s pain, as well as your own, and saying it means you take a share of it. And so it binds us together, makes us as trodden and sodden as one another. Sorry is a lot of things. It’s a hole refilled. A debt repaid. Sorry is the wake of misdeed. It’s the crippling ripple of consequence. Sorry is sadness, just as knowing is sadness. Sorry is sometimes self-pity. But sorry, really, is not about you. It’s theirs to take or leave.

Like the frequent references to Charlie’s reading – To Kill a Mockingbird, Batman, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (which he hasn’t read, but Eiza, the love interest, has, and seen the film), Huckleberry Finn, The Wizard of Oz – this fascination with words is important in establishing Charlie’s character and the tone of the book. It’s been described as an Australian To Kill a Mocking Bird, but I doubt if Harper Lee’s book was anything like as intertextual as this. The description is OK as a sales pitch but I’m surprised that reviewers have echoed it.

Anyhow, it’s a terrific, fast moving, undemanding read: a coming-of-age romance cum mystery cum homage to Mark Twain cum historical drama (the Vietnam War is on, and the Beaumont children are mentioned towards the end) cum tale of pre-adolescent friendship (with a substantial nod towards the movie Stand By Me). There’s a beautiful description of a cricket match in which Charlie’s best friend, a very short Vietnamese boy (‘Jeffrey Lu on debut’) makes a splash, in a way that reminded me of Ruth Starke’s brilliant book for younger readers, Nips XI.

One thing I don’t understand is what makes the book ‘mainstream’ rather than ‘young adult’. There’s some pretty intense swearing, I guess, but sex is treated with great tact; even when sexual abuse is described explicitly in a letter that’s crucial to the plot, we don’t get to read the letter. The story is told from a thirteen-year-old’s point of view, and there’s no hint that he’s in any way an unreliable narrator: we don’t know any more than he does and we’re not invited to make judgments that differ from his – we learn about the world with him. In fact, Charlie’s angry mother is treated with less adult-sympathy than similar mothers in many a YA title. I’ve heard that the classification was a policy decision on the part of the publishers – that they were invited to submit the book for the Children’s Book Council Awards, but declined. The mainstream classification seems to have paid off in adult readership and award nominations – always assuming that a Miles Franklin shortlisting is more prestigious than one from the Children’s Book Council, and that being on the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist alongside David Malouf’s Ransom and Coetzee’s Summertime is more dignified than being named in the same breath as Justine Larbalestier’s Liar (not a view I share: I’m looking forward to Justine’s book as keenly as I am to David’s, and who in their right mind would want to compete for a prize against Malouf and Coetzee?). I hope this taxonomical decision hasn’t discouraged the young people who are the book’s natural readership. [Since writing that I’ve seen an online  trailer that is clearly aimed at teenagers, so it looks as if the pubisher is having two bob each way, and a good thing too.]

I wrote that much a number of weeks ago. The Book Group met last night.

With one exception, we were lukewarm. No one actively hated the book, but different people saw different things as gaping flaws. One man said he found Charlie’s decision at the very start to help conceal a crime highly implausible, and intolerably hackneyed – from then on he read with very little pleasure. Another was irritated by the banter between Charlie and Geoffrey (though one man said he thought that was the best thing in the book). Others found the narrative voice, and the characters’, wildly inconsistent – perhaps especially in beautifully written passages such as the aria on ‘sorry’ I quoted from above. I think we were unanimous in finding the characters’ emotional responses to crises (a grisly death, the acrimonious departure of a parent, the discovery of a grandparent) lamentably one-dimensional. I’m sorry to say that as we talked the book’s charms diminished. I proposed a reading that transcended these concerns for consistency, verisimilitude and psychological realism. Perhaps we ought to see the book as akin to the startlingly discontinuous novelitas of César Aira that I’ve just been reading about in the current Heat. But that didn’t wash. Its one defender said it reminded him vividly of things he had felt when he was an adolescent, and he wasn’t howled down.

Sorry, Craig.

The Book Group and Peter Temple’s Truth

Peter Temple, Truth (Text Publishing 2009)

The Book Group decided we wanted a page turner for this meeting, and a couple of people were keen on Peter Temple’s Truth, the second of his detective novels. So Truth it was. Attempts to get it from the library made it pretty clear that other people were keen on it as well, and at least one of us, it turned out, had to go to the airport to buy a copy.

Here’s the first sentence:

On the Westgate Bridge, behind them a flat in Altona, a dead woman, a girl really, dirty hair, dyed red, pale roots, she was stabbed too many times to count, stomach, chest, back, face.

It takes a bit of work to figure out the internal relationships in this congeries of phrases. You may go down dead ends in which the flat in Altona is on the Westgate Bridge, or the girl was stabbed too many times to stomach, but once you’ve done the work the meaning is unambiguous:

[They were] on the Westgate Bridge. Behind them [in] a flat in Altona [was] a dead woman, a girl really, [her] dirty hair dyed red [with] pale roots[.] She was stabbed too many times to count, [in the] stomach, [the] chest, [the] back, [the] face.

In effect, then, the sentence gives fair warning that this won’t be a lazy read – there will be many sentences requiring at least a little backtracking if their meaning is to be extracted. But the difficulty is not arbitrary, representing as it does a particular laconic spoken English, the kind spoken by almost all the male characters and one or two of the females. The sentence also gives fair warning, amplified by the reference a couple of paragraphs later to the 1970 collapse of the Westgate bridge, that non-Melburnians and people who don’t know their Melbourne may have extra work to do in the comprehension stakes.

Having said that, Peter Temple’s Villani belongs to that distinguished international fraternity of ageing homicide detectives committed to bringing criminals to justice, at odds with their superiors, and in trouble with what’s left of their families: Rebus, Montalbano, Zen, Wallander, and now Villani, with his own distinctive line in introspective self-blame and self-criticism beneath a hardboiled surface, his own reluctant corruption. I enjoyed the book, much as I enjoy very good TV detective shows – I’d place it at the level of Silent Witness or NYPD Blue rather than up there with The Wire. On the whole, though, I think I prefer my television on the screen rather than in novel form, even when it’s as well written as this unarguably is.

My main difficulty was related to elliptical language. Not that it was difficult, because the difficulty, such as it was, was fun. But the speech patterns of most of the male characters tended to be indistinguishable from each other, so the characters themselves tended to blur. This didn’t matter very much until the perpetrators of the various crimes were revealed and the effect (for me at least) wasn’t much more specific than: ‘One of the characters did this crime, another did that one, and their reasons had to do with revenge or corruption or something of the sort.’ I’m happy to report that there was plenty to hold my interest on the way to that unsatisfactory destination: Villani’s relationships with his wife, his daughters, his father and brothers are as complex as anyone could wish – and if it wasn’t for the demands of the policier genre they might have been fleshed out to become fully three-dimensional; the language is full of delights as well as provocations; there are plenty of richly detailed observations of street life and the life of the mind (‘These thoughts had begun to come to Villani in the small moments of his life – at the traffic lights, in the haunted space before sleep, in the wet womb of the shower’ is a nice instance).

Just as I finished reading the book the long list for the Miles Franklin Award was announced. I’ll be surprised if Truth wins the award, but I haven’t read any of the other contenders.

I wrote the preceding paragraphs before the group met last night. There were only four of us. I don’t think it was lack of enthusiasm for the book that brought the numbers down – one man had a lecture, another’s plane from Brisbane was late, and so on. We had a pleasant discussion, mainly swapping Bits We’d Liked – one guy had jotted down clever bits of dialogue, and often as not someone else would be able to say what the next line was. We agreed there were longueurs. We agreed that it was a fine bit of genre writing (more confined by the requirements of genre than Shane Maloney’s novels, one guy thought). We reflected that none of us saw Melbourne as quite as grim as the book, though one guy told us of a Sydney experience involving four big policemen running onto the street in front of his car and pointing guns at the driver of the car next to him. We resonated with the awkwardness of the male characters in attempting to give and receive whatever it is one gives and receives in moments of great pain (though as I write that, I realise that I appreciated those moments cerebrally rather than responding to them emotionally).

And we talked about Djan Djan, Reinventing Knowledge, Mawson’s huts, the excellent food, how a career as an assistant director in the movies affects one’s reading habits, regulations for backyard ponds, etc etc etc.