Tag Archives: Siri Hustvedt

Joshua Ferris’s To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

Joshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (2014)

0141047380If this hadn’t been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize I wouldn’t have lasted more than 30 pages. The narrator is a dentist who has a gift for clever sounding banality. He goes on about US baseball teams, his dental hygienist’s Catholicism (he’s an atheist himself, of Protestant background), Jews (one of whom has described him as philosemitic), the internet and of course himself – his sorry history with women and, obliquely, his miserable childhood. When on page 96 he uses the phrase ‘the chronic affliction of my self-obsession’, I felt strongly that it was the readers who were afflicted. 

Take this, from page 120:

While standing in line to buy cigarettes …, I notices a headline on the cover of a celebrity magazine. ‘Daughn and Taylor Back Together?’ it read on big print, and my mind returned to it later in the day while I worked on a patient. I didn’t know that Daughn and Taylor had gotten together, to mention nothing of them breaking up, and now, possibly getting back together again. More troubling still, I didn’t know who Daughn and Taylor were. Daughn and Taylor … I thought to myself. Daughn and Taylor … who are Daughn and Taylor? It was clear that I should know them, given the significant real estate their debatable reconciliation had commanded on the cover of one of the more reputable celebrity magazines. But I didn’t know them, and not knowing them, I realised I was once again out of touch. I would be in touch for a while, and then a headline like ‘Daughn and Taylor Back Together Again?’ would come along to let me know that I was out of touch again.

And he ruminates for another page and a half until he finally asks his office manager/ex-wife who Daughn and Taylor are.

Some readers might be riveted. The plot, to that point, is very slight. Someone has set up a web site in his name advertising his practice, and there is an odd quote that could be from the Bible in his website bio.

I told myself that if the Man Booker judges liked the book enough to prefer it to Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World, then something interesting must be lurking over the page. I read on.

The second half of the book is much more interesting than the first. It turns into a kind of Da Vinci Code or Foucault’s Pendulum, only written in decent prose and without exhausting historical research. It explores similar territory to  Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, with added fantasy. It even becomes fun. As a non US-er, I’m glad to have known a Red Sox fan and witnessed her joy when they won a 2004 baseball competition – it turns out that the narrator’s regular rants about the Red  Sox have an excellent pay-off (as the many rants like the one about Daughn and Co don’t – they just don’t).

So my recommendation, in short: speed read the first five chapters (as literary judges, being busy people, may well have done) and you might end up loving this book.

Best of 2014 in 3 lists

List 1. Movies (with links to the movies’ IMDb pages):

The Art Student and I gave each of the 50+ movies we saw in 2014 a score out of 5. There was a respectable number of 4s and 4.5s. Here are the seven with a combined score of 9.5 or more, in no particular order:

17_dDisruption (Kelly Nyks & Jared P. Scott): we broke our tacit rule about not including movies we saw on the small screen for this one. It’s a brilliant presentation of the situation we face, made in preparation for the Climate Mobilisation in August, but still powerful and useful.

17_bhBoyhood (Richard Linklater). This does miraculous things with filming in real time. The actors actually age as the characters do. Towards the end, someone says, ‘I thought there’d be more,’ and we feel her pain.

17_L Locke (Steven Knight). Another film that does wonders with real time. One man drives in a car through the night, and is spellbinding. The spell is greatly helped by the beauty of Tom Hardy’s voice.

14_CCCharlie’s Country, Rolf De Heer’s brilliant collaboration with David Gulpilil is just superb. That it to some extent reflects Gulpilil’s own story gives it a depth of feeling.

12y12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen). Nothing much needs to be said, except that this is a wonderful movie.

17_c4We saw Citizen Four (Laura Poitras) as part of the DOC NYC film festival. It’s a stunning documentary that plays out like a thriller, complete with grim comic relief, about Edward Snowden’s revelations of government surveillance.

tgsNick Broomfield’s Tales of the Grim Sleeper, which we also saw as part of DOC NYC, makes a mockery of most fiction movies about serial killers, and peels back the cover from race relations in the US.

Our worst movie
This prize has to go to the only film we walked out of: Woody Allen’s shouty, silly, predictable and unfunny Magic by Moonlight. (To be quite honest, the Art Student predicted the reveal; I just didn’t care.)

List 2. Books

The Art Student’s best five (with comments taken from my notes of a chat about them):

144477963XSiri Hustvedt, The Blazing World: The Art Student particularly loved how convincingly this novel describes the artworks created by its protagonist. [We heard Siri Hustvedt read from The Blazing World to about 30 people in Brooklyn last month. She read beautifully and answered questions generously. Memorably, she told us had found Kierkegaard to be great fun since she first read him as a teenager.]

1400066026Alan Furst, The Spies of Warsaw: a novel of espionage in eastern Europe in the 1930s. Strong on atmosphere and suspense, it manages to tell its story without contriving a catastrophe.

Helen Garner, This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial (Text 2014)Helen Garner, This House of Grief: Everyone who likes this book seems to give different reasons. The Art Student liked its tight, almost domestic focus on its characters.

1594486344James McBride, The Good Lord Bird: a novel about John Brown, the anti-slavery activist, from an African-American point of view.

0316322407Malala Yousafzai, I am Malala: a fabulous, fabulous book that combines a History 101 of the Peshawar Valley with an account of two extraordinary people, Malala and her father.

I’m not going to list a best five books, but here are six that delighted, challenged and enlightened me, or did that thing of putting into words things I dimly felt or perceived. The images link to my blog entries.

Alexis Wright, The Swan Book (Giramondo 2013)

Alexis Wright, The Swan Book (Giramondo 2013)

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David Malouf, Earth Hour (UQP 2014)

Jennifer Maiden, Drones and Phantoms (Giramondo 2014)

Jennifer Maiden, Drones and Phantoms (Giramondo 2014)

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Alice Oswald, Memorial: An excavation of the Iliad (Faber & Faber 2011)

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Russell McGregor, Indifferent Inclusion: Aboriginal people and the Australian nation (Aboriginal Studies Press 2011)

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Amira Hass, Drinking the Sea at Gaza (1996, English translation @Metropolitan Books 1999; Owl Books 2000)

A note on gender and diversity: The Art Student announced proudly that she had read more books by women than by men (as she usually does). I read 25 by women and 32 by men. Up against recent Viva statistics on literary journals on reviews by women or about women writers, I’m doing pretty well. I’ve read 6 books in translation, from Chinese, Japanese, Bengali and Hebrew.

List 3. Best ‘Me Fail I Fly!’–related headline:

5ip

Onward to 2015!

The Book Group and Siri Hustvedt’s Blazing World

Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World (Sceptre 2014)

144477963XBefore the meeting: I’d missed a number of book group meetings – travelling, and then other evening commitments had got in the way. Alice Munro, The Red Badge of Courage, some Hemingway, The Dinner by Herman Koch – all were discussed without me. I thought I was going to miss out on the Siri Hustvedt dinner as well until Friday, when I realised the evening was wide open. I dashed into Gleebooks on Saturday morning and bought a copy, not actually intending to read the whole thing – I had a lot on my plate and the group’s emails that been less than enticing: ‘I am only up to page 32 and struggling with it!’ ‘I think page 32 is a mammoth effort.’ I planned to read to page 40 or so so, enough to have some hope of following the talk when we met.

It was not to be.

The book is presented as a collection of documents – journal entries, art reviews, interviews, transcripts of statements, scholarly essays – by and about a New York artist Harriet Burden, edited by a scholar named I V Hess, whose ponderous introduction accounts for the first 12 pages and no doubt led to the book’s lack of appeal in some quarters. But Harry, as she is known to her friends, transcends the ponderousness. Having been the wife of a successful art dealer, she embarks after his death on a new artistic trajectory. Her work and she herself have been largely ignored or discounted by the art scene, and she comes up with a project to present new works as the creations of a series of three male artists. She’s tackling gender issues with passion born of a lifetime’s struggle, and at the same time exploring questions about the role of the creator’s reputation in how a work of art is seen, and deeper philosophical and psychological issues of identity, creativity, intersubjectivity, perception. I was hooked.

Other pressing demands on my time fell by the wayside and I read the book in three days. I rationalised that it was relevant to the online writing course I’m doing: this was a chance to see if in spite of its fragmentary appearance the book had something like the classic three-act structure. And behold, it does have the nine plot points we have been learning to identify, pretty much where they are suppose to fall. As a result, at any point in the novel you can feel it moving in a clear direction: the scholarly citations, the dissertations on hoaxes (mainly gender based ones such as James Tiptree Jr, but Ern Malley is mentioned in passing), the intellectual arguments, the meta moments such as the reference to ‘an obscure novelist and essayist, Siri Hustvedt’, the detailed descriptions of artworks, the ruminations on art history, the quotes from Whitman, Milton and Emily Dickinson, are all borne on a current leading inexorably towards what we know from near the start is a conclusion with more than one dead body. Novels, of course, don’t have to be tied to the classic three-act structure as tightly as we’re told films do, but I was gobsmacked to see how closely this novel, apparently so all over the place, sticks to the shape. It’s hard to talk about without spoilers, but here – perhaps of interest only to me – are the 9 points (there are 380 pages in the novel):

  1. set-up: We meet all the characters, or at least learn their names; Harry is widowed and in upheaval; she dreams up the Maskings project
  2. inciting incident (10%): page 39–40, she chooses her first ‘mask’
  3. change of plans: page 41–58, three new, widely divergent perspectives are introduced
  4. significant setback (25%): page 117, Harry’s first ‘mask’ having told her he was damaged by the project, she tells her friend Rachel: ‘There’s something in me, Rachel, something I don’t understand. … It’s something horrible inside me.’
  5. midpoint – sometimes called the point of no return (50%): page 213, ‘We have made the pact’
  6. darkest hour (75%): page 301, ‘He said, You look dead, Harry. She said, I feel dead.’
  7. glimmer of hope: page 314 ‘And then I said the right thing for once.’
  8. climax (90%+): Depending on how you read it, the climax is either page 322–324, a description of an artwork (he said, tactfully avoiding any spoliation), or page 351–361, which I don’t know how to characterise without giving too much away
  9. resolution: the very last page, the description of another artwork.

As I drove to the meeting I was prepared to be alone in having been completely absorbed, completely satisfied by the book.

The meeting: There were six of us, of whom two had read the whole book and one other was intending to finish it. A key thing that made the difference seemed to be that the three finishers had an interest in some kind in the art world: thanks to the Art Student, I’ve picked up a smattering over the last few years so I knew of many of the women artists named in the text, and found something almost uncannily familiar some of Harry’s observations about being an older woman in a scene that privileges youth and masculinity; another finisher has recently been an art student at TAFE; and the third has some wonderful art on his walls and is generally interested in it. Without some kind of prior interest, the device of multiple narrators and the general sense of contrivance seem to have stopped people from engaging.

There’s not much more to be said about the discussion of the book: conversation ranged instead over Pesach (last night was the second night), walking out of the theatre, a risqué witticism that Governor Marie Bashir once made to one of our number, the excellent seafood pie we ate, the inequity of raising the pension age, the difference between our current way of taking in most information through seeing and earlier ways when it was mainly through hearing. The book, wonderful though it is, was a bit of a fizzer, but the dinner was a great success.

PS added later: I forgot to mention that one of us had started reading the book on his Kindle and found it very frustrating. When he shifted to a hard copy it became a much more manageable and pleasant experience. The difficulty seemed to have something to do with the way footnotes are treated in the ebook. They work better on the page.