Why We Broke Up

18 Sep

This is why we broke up: you weren’t suited to the person I’d become. You made my stomach ache. My feelings for you came in flashes like lightening and I didn’t like the times between strikes.

Those are some of my own to add to Handler’s fine collection of descriptive musings on why two nearly typical American high school students, Min and Ed, broke up.  Break ups; the mother of all disappointments and the father of all pain and when it happens to you why (?!) is the adverb that takes over your life. Written as a letter of explanation, condemnation and sorrow to Ed, this story comes in segments, each segment is dictated by an object in some way significant to the story of their relationship. Each of these objects is pulled from a box and considered by Min (who has put them there) before she continues with her lovelorn objective of returning the entire sad array to Ed’s doorstep.

Somehow the stereotypical topic of a basketballer never being able to truly comprehend the love of an aspiring director set amongst the backdrop of pseudo hipster friends drinking coffee and shit-head basketball groupies, comes off as remarkable whilst still nostalgically tugging on the high school heart strings we all have loosely tucked somewhere.
A gallery of images accompany the miscellaneous contents of the box; the soft edged pastel quirks of Maira Kalman’s paintbrush (author and illustrator of Principles of Uncertainty and The Pursuit of Happiness) come over like you’re holding a very extensive catalogue for an artists show in your hands (watercolour on canvas…you know I want to be a director, but you could never truly see the movies in my head and that, Ed, is why we broke up $2700).

Handler’s most likely known to you as his synonym Lemony Snicket, the author of A Series of Unfortunate Events, perhaps one of the funnier, darker and more eloquent children’s series yet written. So yes, this too is a book for young adults, or it will be classified as such because it deals with teen love and we all condescend to know that isn’t ‘real’ love except of course it is, when you’re going through it.  Don’t discard this title because it’s put in the ‘teen’ section – any teen who truly comprehends the scope of the confessions in this book is a special character indeed. And anyway, what do teens grow in to? Adults. This is a book for us all.

Note: If you wish to contribute to the collection of break up stories, check out this website http://whywebrokeupproject.tumblr.com/ where, if you’re lucky (unlucky?), Handler might just comment on your heartache.

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BACK SOON

18 Sep

Hi.

Sometimes things happen in life that take you away from a blog, sometimes those things are called babies. I’m sure that sometimes they’re not babies and are called something else, like ‘life’ or ‘work’ but in this case it’s definitely babies. Mainly one baby, our new born daughter Winter Rose. So please excuse my absence perhaps in the meantime you can enjoy a review I wrote for Metro that went unpublished due to some or other fickle concern (like how old a book is at the time the review would go to print, literary magazines can be more ageist than tabloids) and please be assured of my return.

‘The harbinger of sexual fantasy after sexual fantasy; a virtual porn shop of illegitimate incestual masturbatory scenes…’

20 May

Walnut Orchard

So many problems can be found in Dirt. I do not mean porous soil or ill earthworms I mean the bat shit crazy new novel by David Vann has some serious problems and quite a few of them have to do with the use of dirt as a metaphor in the first place. In fact if dirt wasn’t the title and if it wasn’t the point that Vann was always trying to make, if the word ‘dirt’ wasn’t used an awkward number of times so that you begin to take count every time you see it on the page, then maybe this disturbing family biopic would leave you with more than an aching disquiet and a handful of dust.

Set in California, in stark contrast to Vann’s usual penchant for the colder climates of Northern America, Dirt is the warped story of a once prosperous immigrant family. Their fortune was made in the soil, born from labouring in walnut fields, acres of trees and years of picking, drying, tending.
The dead grandfather, the original immigrant and patriarch, is alluded to as the font of all the remaining families ailments. He had two daughters one of which is the single mother of our protagonist, Galen, a man stalled in his young twenties still living with his mother on their faltering land in near abject poverty. Poor because none of them have bothered to make a living for themselves, slowly siphoning off what’s left of the family trust fund that the senile grandmother controls instead.
The other daughter has a daughter herself, Galen’s cousin Jennifer, the harbinger of sexual fantasy after sexual fantasy; a virtual porn shop of illegitimate incestual masturbatory scenes get played out in Galen’s mind and then with more frequency, in reality too.

What begins as a tightly wound psychological thriller from inside the mind of either a misunderstood transcendent being or a psychopath (fine line) quickly devolves into a nasty loop of self-obsession and repetition. Vann has made the scope of his book so small, the perspective so monochromatic, that we’re only ever privy to Galen and whilst there is a little brilliance in being able to craft a narrative from inside an unhealthy mind – illustrating how it justifies itself, how it denies all other perspectives – we miss out on the kind of compassionate empathy Vann achieved with Caribou Island where he showcased the hearts, good and evil, of a small collection of people. When you’re limited to one voice the potential for arch and movement can become limited too. Admittedly some of the greatest books are written from a single perspective, Lolita for one example. But Humbert Humbert was an observant deviant whereas Galen is a narcissist so we miss out on the valuable context of contributing perspectives.
What we get instead is this earnest young man, a disciple of modern hippy dogma, of Carlos Castaneda and Kahil Gibran, splitting from the inside out, slowly yet surely coming apart in incredibly unsettling ways and dragging his family down with him whilst blaming them for his own downfall.
The last third of the book is a painful devolution into inevitable madness that repeats itself, burying itself under layers of dirt based metaphors; perhaps searching for a deeper meaning but sadly failing to root it out.

David Vann has made a career out of deftly channeling broken people. Dirt certainly has some of that insight, that frightening calm exposition on madness, greed and suffering, but unfortunately Vann’s trademark claustrophobia goes limp when set in a warmer climate. All that dry dirt: I didn’t really care whether this Californian family shriveled up and withered or whether it survived.

——-

Quick Caveat: I reviewed Dirt by David Vann on 95Bfm with Charlotte Ryan a couple of weeks ago and at the time, having just finished it, I was more clearly able to describe some of the interesting subject matter that underscored the book, its dark fucked-up-ness, in a semi-positive light. However on closer inspection, when called to write a print review, some of those initial sensations took a back seat to the overall failings of the work as a novel. I don’t want anyone to feel as though I was duplicitous in either review; they both reflect actual revelations about the book.

When all the Good Books Dry Up

30 Apr

Dried Up Creek from Daily Painters by Qiang Huang

I’m not sure if this happens to other people, I’m presuming it does because that makes this post more relateable, but even if this version of let-down doesn’t happen to you I can pretty much guarantee there’s something in your life that lets you down, holds you up, that just don’t flow like it used to. For me, ever so horribly, it’s books. There are these ghastly times when every book I pick up in some way disappoints me & I’m not proud of this, but I panic. I start to wonder if the good books I used to read were a mirage, the product of a generous & fleeting state of mind on my behalf or worse, that they were flukes and that no new book I read will ever be as great. These fits come in waves. There are periods of great wondrous quality and then dread stretches of nothing.

I’ve come to read the signs of an impending drought, at first there might be a title that sits okay, you know not a wower, not a stay-up-all-night-forfeiting-sleep but just an okay-I’ll-keep-going-but-I’m-not-exactly-sure-why. Then at a certain point during that book I will realise that I’ve spent hours of my life trying to make something into a thing it was never going to be: I was waiting for a mediocre book to transcend itself and become brilliant. The lunacy of my conduct in these situations still surprises me – I’ve mentioned it before so I won’t labour the point except to point out that I clearly haven’t learnt my lesson because a middling book remains a middling book even if there are flashes of redemption – a great book is great from the get go. Period.

At around this time I will stop reading the book.
Then I will start again.
Then I will stop.
Then I will consider starting it again. I do this pathetic little dance of economics; it’s an equation based on low emotions – me weighing up the lack of satisfaction I’m sure to receive if I continue on with the book versus the amount of time I’ve already invested in the book. Usually my need for gratification will win out over my concerns about wasted resources & I will, once and for all, give up.

In the past month I have given up on Neil Jordon’s Mistaken (though I’m only at phase one with that, I’m still planning on going back) & I have firmly and completely given up on The Red House by Mark Haddon. I tried, lord did I try, to make myself be the thing that could change and therefor change all else but in the end I had to concede, it’s not me, it’s him. The book is confusing & muddled. I had no idea who was talking, I thought a cast of 6 was a cast of 15 or more because I had no idea who was who. Sometimes Haddon switchs from one character not just to another character but to another medium so one paragraph you’re reading about the inner thoughts of a divorcee and the next your reading a transcript of the TV show Lost. No shit, that actually happens & just like you’re thinking too: “Night-time. Sayid is lying on the ground. The blur of semi-consciousness. Someone approaches wearing military fatigues…” That’s a direct quote from the book. Who wants to read transcripts of television programs they’ve already seen? It feels lazy and strange, for such a brilliant author, for an author who so wondrously travels to the inner minds of his characters, to use such tawdry tricks. Don’t tell me, for god sakes, show me.

So then I get gun shy. I don’t pick up a book in case my hands are infectious, in case it’s me damaging all these supposedly great books & I resort to reviewing picture books and cookbooks and anything I can get my hands on, books that don’t involve an investment of time and the possibility of dejection. But then I remember that Pema Chodron quote from her wonderful book The Places That Scare You which goes something like: ‘there is no cure for hot and cold’.

Hot and cold. Up and down and what goes down does sometimes come back up.

I read David Vann’s latest novel Dirt and although I have my quarells with it I was able to finish its sexy fucked up dirt inspired hippie-dissing strangeness in a couple of days – like a marathon runner who’s injured her ankle I thought ‘maybe I will run again.’

And then I picked up Emily Perkins new novel The Forrests, read the first page and was restored. Dorothy as a character and Perkins as an author proved that there are books made up of insight and charm that conduct themselves with a bit of magic and which don’t give in to themselves or stop the forward momentum of an interesting plot by choking like lake weed on descriptions of everything, that aren’t heavy on failed technical gambits or pointless repetitions of concepts.  The energy The Forrests gave me, the way it reminded me what a good book reads like, somehow stuck to me like a charm and I’m on to a second book that stuns me The Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart – a little like reading a more straight forward Annie Dillard.

The tide has surged, I’m all swept up again.
I know this won’t last forever especially because I’ve made it my work to talk about books that stun me, that move me, that do the best job of showcasing what writing and story telling can really do and as such I’m doomed to hunt out the wheat which clearly means lots of time spent pawing through the chaff. And yes, in a way having those dry patches does make me more grateful for the spates of brilliance I sometimes encounter but I do wish that there was a way of knowing, maybe by hovering your hand over the cover, whether or not a book was good or a waste of time. Though then maybe I’d be out of a job?

May I Humbly Suggest

7 Apr

Here’s some unsolicited advice…actually it’s worse; here’s some unsolicited, untested advice: keep a reading diary. That’s a thought I’ve always had and never acted on – I have many of those – but I think this might be one of my best. I’ve suffered at the hands of my ineptitude in initiating a reading diary, I’ve forgotten valuable pieces of information like why I liked Shantaram so much,  if I ever finished The Silence and The Fury or exactly how much of Best American Science Writing 2010 I skimmed (as in, is what I’m telling this person true or just the amalgam of threads I took as finished and then cavalierly passed on as fact).
More infuriating to have no record of however are the stories I know I’ve read but have forgotten the authors and titles of. Occasionally this forgetting causes me to become a tired version of the ‘book store questioner’ – the well meaning & apologetic customer who comes in all shifty,  who can’t meet your eye, who begins every sentence with ‘now you’re going to hate me but…’ most often followed up by ‘it had a red cover with some of the title in italics’ or ‘it was about horses and a woman who’d lost her daughter.’

I can sympathise; my reading habits are erratic and varied, my memory for thorough detail terrible and there are very few people I can turn to to ask for help when I get stuck. Surprisingly this hasn’t resulted in beginning a reading diary; just a blog complaining about my lack of one. The Tigers Wife has been the most recent cause of woe. In fact I haven’t finished it yet because of my frustration. The first half of the book is beautiful, eerily captivating, provincial – full of a sense of place that place being the Balkans and that sense being of death and dying. Like all treatments of death it’s actually a lot to do with life and the living of it. The author, Tea Obreht, intertwines that cultures predilection for folk law with her narrative and in doing so creates something…not quite magic realism. It feels more earthly than that, these places, these wars that keep breaking the land and shedding the blood in that region, are intimately mixed with the people who fight them and those people are ancient and so their stories are both ethereal and hard caked with dirt. Obreht gives you the feeling that a gun and a curse might have equal value as a defense measure. Maybe I can’t define this, maybe you just have to read her book but say you do and say you’re like me and you get to the part where she begins to tell the title story, the bit about the tigers wife well then you might have a problem.

A problem that flaws you, you stop reading and you chew your lower lip and you skim ahead to test your theory and then you reach this conclusion: you’ve read this before, in another book. You’ve read nearly the exact rendering of this folktale before – not word for word, but nearly, and actually more feeling for feeling. And not as a child, or in a book of fables, but in a literary book. I have read this story, written with the same nuances, in a book that I cannot for the life of me remember. I thought for a while it was in a collection of short stories by Jim Harrison, as unlikely as that sounds. But it’s not. The closest I can get is that I probably read the story of the Tigers Wife at around the same time as I read the Harrison collection. What frustrates me is that nearness to knowledge; it’s not enough to know you know something but not what that something is. That’s the weakest form of knowing; knowing that you don’t actually know. This lingering sense that I had read this story before has made me turn against the book itself, complicit as it is in my own deception.

Do you know where I read the story of the Tigers Wife in such similarly elegant prose?

It’s a common folktale I’m certain but not all folktales are told alike, the twinning of these two retellings is what startles me.

Anyway – I do not wish this suffering on anyone else, so I humbly suggest you keep a reading diary.

Since first drafting this post I’ve begun a list – it’s amazing what you discover you’ve read when you sit down and try to write it out. It’s fascinating what jumps out at you, what lives inside your skin, similar to how actors feel about characters they’ve played. And fascinating also what lies limp on your bookshelf, some titles made my hand ache having to write them (so tiresome) yet another notch on the bed post so they had to be counted. I found that it’s not so much the volume that surprises but the specificity and in some instances smallness of what comes back to you when you think back on the books you’ve read. As you bring them back into the light of memory how much of their content do you actually recall? Some just leave traces, like memories from childhood, a sensation of a place or a smell. Others grab you by the throat and throw you roughly back into their world. Still others taunt you with your own forgetting, all those facts about climate change or geography, history, the world wars…

Because books can be like relationships, we only care about the current one, it can be worthwhile going backwards, glancing at a list and taking a walk down memory lane to remind ourselves of all the richness that lives somewhere inside us, put there by all the countless hours we’ve spent imbibing authorial talent. Now if I could only excavate the title of that f***ing folktale…Auster? No.

Sigh.

That Time I Met David Sedaris

7 Mar

Meeting Your Idol and Wishing You’d Been Funnier

David Shrigley

David Shrigley

I wanted to meet David Sedaris so badly that I used to visulise it happening every time I opened my copy of Naked. I’d imagine scenarios in which Hugh, David and I were sitting in their house in France eating pastries and drinking black coffee whilst a slight rain drizzled outside and I’d say something great, just wonderfully funny, and I would make David Sedaris laugh. And it’s a genuine laugh, it’s something I then visualise retelling on my death bed to my children: the story of that laugh.
Perhaps if I felt this way about an actor you might criticize me for being a delinquent, but because I love a gay man for his mind, for his humour, well that’s just a decent thing to get hooked up on, don’t you think?
When my sister’s marriage was in trouble and she found herself hold up in our parent’s house with a bad case of pneumonia, the only thing I could think to do was take a copy of Naked around and read it aloud to her. We put her recovery solely down to David.
When my mother apparently ‘walked’ into the wheel barrow (honestly it looked more like she’d charged it) and obliterated her shin resulting in the kind of wound I still get prickles down my back thinking about, she sought oxygen treatment. A tight bag is secured to the leg and pumped full of Oxygen then left to sit for a half hour. I offered to drive her and took in my bag a copy of When You Are Engulfed In Flames. Her leg is now healed.
One day towards the end of last year I got a text message from my sister, it was of a lone  image she’d captured out of a newspaper arts section, in it a blurry yet still recognisable David Sedaris stood next to the announcement of his first ever New Zealand tour. We were giddy, we were uncontainable in our disbelief and excitement. We booked tickets for the second night of the show which, obviously not a coincidence, fell on my birthday. And we waited. We waited for 4 months. Judging by our seats on the night we must have been amongst the first 15 people to call the ticket agent and breathlessly ask for ‘two please.’
And then something even more wonderful happened. I wrangled an invite to attend a lunch put on by David Sedaris’ publishing house Hachette. One minute I am fantasizing about my wit winning him over in the French provinces the next I am face to face with my literary hero, a comedic force never too shy to allude to rape or use the word cunt where it’s properly called for (I’m not actually sure I have any examples of this I’m just certain he would where he could).
Turns out David Sedaris is tiny. So much smaller than I imagined that when he walks through the room and straight to me offering his hand I stare a minute too long trying to figure out if this person is the one from my fantasy, when did he shrink?
But then I remember: he is always sitting down in my dreams.

He say’s ‘Hello, and what do you do?’ but he says it in a way completely unlike others who’ve asked me this to transparently gauge my worth, he asks me this to find out where I fit in the puzzle of the room and perhaps because I don’t look like I fit in at all. He’s nothing if not astute. I fumble and mix up the order of my words saying that ‘I write a little’ first which puts too much emphasis on it and makes me feel like I just told Bachelard I know a shit load about the philosophy of space.

He smiles politely but doesn’t respond, just stares at me. The pause stretches into infinity and I begin to lose my footing in reality. As is my usual response to feeling this kind of uncertainty, I air it: “You did just ask me what I do, right?” I say, worried that I just looked David Sedaris in the eye and told him ‘Oh I write a little, do a bit of freelance journalism’ when all he’s done is shake my hand. He does not choose to comfort me on this, so I will never know if I was asked to describe myself or if I simply and strangely chose to.
He skims over my question and says ‘I like your glasses, did they cost you $800?’ Now that I know he’s been looking at my frames the entire time I feel a little more assured, he doesn’t care what I do, he just needs an in to get closer to my Tom Ford’s. I murmur something about them being half that price and he tells me he was at a dinner party where every guest wore glasses and every single pair cost the owner $800. He tells me, as others pool around us awkwardly watching how I deal (or do not deal) with this hijacking, that he needed glasses and he’d decided his wouldn’t cost him $800. I asked to see his glasses. He didn’t have them on him. And that was it. That was the sole extent of my interaction with David Sedaris, I dare say I did not win any hearts; I failed to make him laugh (my death bed imminently more depressing). Like a hurricane had passed me by in the shape of a very sweet, nicely put together gentleman, I collected myself and hid just out of view for the rest of lunch.
Coming face to face with someone you adore is always heart-wrenching; it’s written that you will never make a good impression because the wrong parts of your brain are in control. I make far better impressions on people I care nothing for. Later that day I went, as planned, with my sister to hear David do a reading at the Auckland Town Hall. He was wearing a yellow lei that someone had given him. He looked a little bigger on the podium though he never grew an inch with ego. I like to think he enjoyed our audience, that we laughed at more of his work than most and with more eagerness, more understanding. At the end he opened the floor to questions and whilst another woman asked if he had any anecdotes or diary entries about New Zealand I wracked my brains for something brilliant to ask. David pulled out his diary, the same one I’d seen earlier that day when he pulled it out at lunch to note a colloquialism someone had generously shared, and I stopped trying to think of something brilliant to say; I knew then that had I had it in me it would already be in that notebook, and I knew it wasn’t.
He said that there was a woman at the signing the night before who had a bach (Noun; a small, often very modest holiday home) up north and he’d asked her if it had ever been broken into, she’d said yes, but just the once. He asked if anything was stolen and she admitted that yes, they’d taken the washing machine. The audience produced a few muffled laughs whilst David’s eyes sparkled, he could barely contain himself ‘the washing machine?’ he repeated, isn’t that an awfully big appliance to steal, he mused. He then concluded it was how he’d think of us, that somehow this criminal act was quintessentially New Zealand; he just couldn’t see it happening elsewhere.
I’d spent so long reading David Sedaris’ work, his essays in the New Yorker and memoir collections that it was inexcusable of me to miss such an important point; he wasn’t looking for someone to laugh with, he was looking for someone out of whom to make laughter. I do not mean that unkindly, merely that he is an observer. The people who get his attention are those with the best stories or most outlandish offerings and most of my best stories are his own, retold.
Although I am having a hard time letting go of my old French farmhouse fantasy of mutual amusement I am now happy to have his work stay on the page where it can impersonally comfort me time and again. David himself made the point in a New Yorker essay that he’d stopped making an effort to make friends when he met Hugh, I reread this to comfort myself; it was a lost cause, I whisper to myself, he only wanted your frames, not your friendship. I’ll just have to work on some other death bed fantasy.

Bad Parenting

2 Mar

From what I can tell Kevin Wilson is probably a great father. I say this not because I know the man but because I would argue that at least one large chunk of good parenting relies on a persons ability to care about the life of their child as distinct from their own.

Wilson is a creative writing teacher and author, his wife is a poet, they live in rural Tennessee and their union begat a son named Griff who had the not so unusual proclivity for late night and early morning screaming during the ages of 2 to 4.
Maybe it was the late nights, early mornings or lack of sleep but whatever the combination of obligation and exhaustion and love Wilson got to thinking, he got to thinking about what it means to be a parent and what it means to be a child. That exact moment, when ever that thought occurred, is when the authors narrative and the author diverge because, as I’ve alluded to, even the posing of this question – in its introspective nature aimed towards betterment in the task of parenting – precludes Wilson from being anything like the fictional father in what would become the novel The Family Fang. The book he wrote in part to explore possible answers to his questions around parenting.
Although I wouldn’t argue that this novel is perfect (would I ever be foolish enough to argue that any new novels were? Probably, but not now), I do wish to argue that it manages to answer perfectly its foundational question.

Wilson wasn’t just interested in the nature of the roles between parent and child but in how a parent could so easily cross any of these innumerable and poorly drawn lines to destroy a child. In a rather holistic act, part writer part shaman, Wilson conjures a family so decidedly dysfunctional his sweet Griff would always remain unmarred by comparison. The Family Fang reads, in parts, a little like a Jackie Collins novel, the children of the family turn out to be a famous LA actress and a by commission journalist/minor author both of whom have easy to read lives, they’re the white bread of the story. It’s the parents of this family that are the warped vortex, the strange loop. The Fangs are performance artists, Caleb believes children kill art, Camille appears to have given up painting to marry herself to Caleb’s vision, the conjecture about children and artistic death included. What proceeds (part flash back part current time) is the depiction of an emotionally disastrous childhood for the two children who are forsaken on the alter of fanatical artistic integrity.  At one point the children, both between 8 and 14 years old, are taken on holiday, a performance is planned for the journey, they are not told what it will be. They board a plane and have to pretend to be traveling alone, their parents having adopted aliases and are seated together, on the flight to their destination Caleb stands, hijacks the onboard microphone and gushily proposes to Camille, who says yes. On the return journey the same act is played out except this time Camille says no and the entire plane is subjected to an awkwardness that seeps into the rayon covered seats, gets in their clothes and follows them home. The Fangs disrupt situations in order to manipulate people into emotionally responding in order to use that to make an abstract point that has no direct bearing or use for the people involved. They believe that art, in all situations, and only art as they define it, is more important than anything else; more truthful and trustworthy, more worthy than even their children. This book that tackles the hard to grasp wank of performance art, that intangible nothingness that is somehow more irritating than the offhanded response of ‘my 6 year old could have painted that’ you’re sometimes tempted to utter when staring down a modernist painting. The Family Fang walks straight into the minefield of conceptual theory based artistic practice and strips it bare to reveal the human cost of using other people in the process of defining your own self-important view of the world. In many ways Wilson uses performance art as a crazy abstraction to house his commentary about parenting; parents aren’t ever this bad or this funny, I mean parents aren’t usually performance artists. But at the same time he’s cutting a knife into the fat of selfish parenting he’s also making a pretty accurate analysis of art as contrived spectacle. There’s a line in the book when Camille is trying to explain to her children why she pushed them under the bus, why they made art out of themselves instead of parents, and she says ‘I remember how much I loved the aftermath, the confusion on everyone’s faces but ours. We were the only ones in the whole world who knew what was happening.’ I get that, it’s so human, to want to be god. But it’s another thing to act on that by contriving yourself as a godhead and calling it art.

Wilson amusingly explores how egotistical art can be, how a performance that utilizes unknowing, unwilling participants is essentially bad parenting of the larger kind. To share art without manipulation or coercion, to allow people their right to private interpretation, to not judge harshly those who do not understand but to teach them, that’s not just a parent’s job but the job of any kind citizen. And in this, and a few other fine points, Wilson makes a good case and a very readable novel. I wish Griff the best of luck.