Normal People by Sally Rooney

Sally Rooney pic
Irish writer Sally Rooney

Two introspective young people, Connell and Marianne,  find a mutual attraction, sexual and psychological, at school but their socio-economic differences, other people’s perceived opinions, and their own view of themselves, keep them apart. As they mature and they cross paths, along with new partners, they still feel the attraction: one that they don’t fully understand.

The dialogue is simple, sparse, inarticulate like the speakers – belying their intelligence. The narrator carries all the nuances, the real meaning, and the narrative.

It’s this role of the narrator that struck me as unusual. In genre fiction the narrator’s role is very narrow: an isolated voice, in the 3rd person, past tense, with god-like abilities – seeing into everyone’s mind, their desires, regrets,  and intentions, the past, present, and future, genderless, as if one minute sitting on the shoulders of characters gaining intimate knowledge of what they are thinking, planning, the next sitting on a drone just above the action seeing what is unfolding from all angles and from all points of view.

In literary fiction the role of the narrator is more varied; not only using the usual 3rd person voice, sometimes the 1st and even the 2nd, mixing past and present tense; or multiple voices, different narrators, some reliable, some not.

Rooney uses a narrator, yes with god-like abilities, but also as interpreter, explaining what the characters are thinking but do not know how to express. They are proto-adults, unaware of what is happening to them, and also unaware of why they do things, highly-strung and sensitive, feeling at odds with their surroundings and peers.

He tells her that she is beautiful. She has never heard that before though she has privately suspected it of herself, but it feels different to hear it from another person. She touches his hand to her breast where it hurts, and he kisses her. Her face is wet, she’s been crying. He kisses her neck. Are you okay? he says: It’s alright to be upset, you know. She lies with her face against his chest. She feels like a soft piece of cloth that is wrung out and dripping.

     You would never hit a girl, would you? she says. 

    God, no. Of course not. Why would you ask that?

    I don’t know.

    Do you think I’m the kind of person who would go around hitting girls. he says.

She presses her face very hard against his chest. My dad used to hit my mum, she says. For a few seconds, which seems like an unbelievably long time, Connell says nothing.

Connell and Marianne are sensitive to each other although Connell hurts her deeply, unaware of what he is doing; and she accepts the rebuke as indicative of how she sees herself: unworthy, unlovable, and possibly mentally disturbed. This ugly duckling turns into a beautiful duck but with all the feelings of ugliness she grew up with just under the surface. Her mother and brother were, and are, her greatest enemies, whom she gives into as her way of surviving them; just like she does to the various men in her life. Connell rescues her on several occasions only letting her drift away again, usually because of their educational opportunities. Academically they are both exceptional. As readers, onlookers to this on-going train crash of a relationship, we hope they will one day survive it and stay together. This is where the dramatic momentum comes from fostered by the time line: each chapter is several months into the future, although one chapter is five minutes into the future and the tension this creates is remarkable.

The joy of reading this book is the insight into her characters Rooney gives us. We’re watching them along with the narrator wishing them well, cursing their decisions, cheering with their triumphs. We desperately want them to be happy.

I loved this book.

“I found Henry James almost unreadable five or six years ago, and now I love him! Who knows what I might get into next?” Yes, we’d all like to know that.

Sally Rooney, at 29, has had two novels published, Conversations with Friends (2017) and  Normal People (2018), which was long-listed for the Booker 2018 and won the 2019 British Book Awards and will soon be on our televisions this year with a Hulu, BBC production penned by Rooney and directed by Lenny Abrahamson.
Here you can watch an interview with Sally Rooney from the London Review Bookshop in May 2019.
Here is the trailer for the up-coming TV series.
You can buy the book is various formats here.

 

Truth in Fiction

Robert Gulliver Cover pic

In his unpublished novel, Gulliver’s Travels, the writer Michael K Freundt* tackles this notion of truth in fiction. His protagonist, a young writer, Robert Gulliver, takes over his mother’s work after she dies suddenly. Edith McGowan was a novelist, an agoraphobic, and not a very good wife and mother who only lived for the books she wrote, published, and sold on-line: a series of novels about a free-lance psychologist called Veronica.

Up until her death Robert had been helping her with her research and increasingly writing scenes and even full chapters; so much so that when she died it didn’t take much for him to take over her work completely. However, his intelligence and precociousness stimulated his marketing prowess and turned him into a social media star and eventually into the mainstream when a paper-book publisher picked him up. The books were moderately successful but then he craftily manoeuvred himself into a literary festival where his good-looks, charm, and audacity wowed the audience. It was at this festival, the inaugural Tathra Literary Weekend, that the following interview, in front of a live audience, took place with Emmy Mueller, an arts administrator and partner of the Festival’s director, Michelle Day.

Emmy finally gets around to Robert’s mother’s death.

‘I read in a newspaper report, Robert, you emailed it to me I think, that she died suddenly at her keyboard. She fell forward and her head typed hundreds of thousands of pages of the letter ‘t’ before you found her and lifted her off!’ 

‘Well, not quite like that.’ 

‘But hundreds and thousands of pages of the letter ’t’? That’s amazing!’

‘Actually, it was only 4378 pages. 

‘But, I’m sure I read hundreds and thousands …’

‘No, it was 4378 pages. The exaggerated figure was, to be real, from a tabloid report.’

‘You sent me fake news then.’

‘You could say that.’

‘But with the letter ’t’.’

Robert adopts a well-rehearsed naughty boy expression, smirks, and says, ‘Actually, no.’

‘Another bit of fake news?’ 

‘No. I changed it to the letter ’t’.’

‘Sorry?’ Emmy Mueller had been annoyed at Robert’s email; taking it as a bit of author interference in her moderating role but the thousands of pages, still being created before Robert lifted his mother’s head off the keyboard, appealed to her sense of the theatrical, but she wasn’t prepared for this little admission.

‘I changed it to the letter ’t’,’ repeats Robert with a little uncomfortable burr in his brain, as if his little plan isn’t going to work.

‘So, if the letter isn’t true, what about the pages?’

‘Oh, there were thousands of pages.’

‘Over four thousand pages?’

‘Yes. 4378.’ 

‘But not with the letter ’t’.’

‘No.’ 

‘You changed it.’

‘Yes.’ 

‘You altered the facts. You lied to the police.’

‘No, I’m pretty sure I didn’t lie to the police. They could see the pages and what was written on them.’

‘So when did you lie?’

‘When I was interviewed a few days later.’

‘Why did you lie to the Press?’

‘So it would be believed.’

‘Robert, you’re going to have to explain that to us.’ 

‘The facts are not believable.’ 

‘You mean, the truth is not believable?’ 

‘ … Yes.’

‘What is the truth?’ 

‘The number of pages is the truth…’

‘But the letter that took up thousands of pages is not?’

‘No. That’s right. The letter is not.’

Suddenly a frustrated voice comes from the audience: ‘What was the bloody letter?’

After the laughter dies down he says, ‘The letter ‘y’ – next to the letter ’t’; so it could’ve quite easily have been the letter ’t’.’

‘But it wasn’t.’

‘No. It was the letter ‘y’.’

‘What is so unbelievable about the letter y?’

‘Well, think about it. If you read the truth: the e-novelist, Edith McGowan died, suddenly, inexplicably at her computer. She was discovered face down on her keyboard where her head had typed 4378 pages, and counting, of a single letter y, why why why why why why why…. Would you have believed it? I think your reaction would’ve been, ‘Oh, come on!’ Doesn’t it sound … a bit manufactured? Why did I die? Why why why! It has a false ring about it. You see? Like it was made up to be so ‘neat’ so ‘ironic’, so … not-real.’ 

‘So you changed it.’

‘Yes. I changed it to make it believable. I only changed one letter. In my report to the police, everything is true. But I needed to change that letter for the public. I needed to fictionalise it in order for the whole story to be taken as truth. Which it is. 99.9999% is true. And that’s what I love about fiction: it has the undeniable capacity of creating the believable, revealing the believable, and re-making the truth.’ 

‘The old, Truth is stranger than fiction, cliche?’

‘No. Fiction can also be more believable. And that’s what writers do: we take something made up and make your brain believe it. So much so that you laugh, cry, feel annoyed, or angry at what you really know is a made up story. Humans can do this, and we’re the only animal on the planet that can, and we do this because we have imagination. You can believe in it and not believe in it at the same time – the suspension of disbelief trick – you know you’re sitting in your living room in your reading chair by the window but your imagination is not with your body but with the story. Multi-tasking at its best.’

It’s not that truth is stranger than fiction, it’s that truth, in a novel, can be weaker than fiction; and this is possible because from a very young age we are lied to by our parents and by the society in which we live: told stories, usually for educational, sociological, and disciplinary reasons, good reasons it could be argued, but lies none-the-less. The Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Boogie Man, god, growing pains, the trustworthy priest, the helpful policeman, the benevolent government, the winning lottery, the best price, the fool-proof diet … I’m sure you could add a few more. We are so used to this duality that sometimes they get confused and people can become to rely on the lie because it’s all that they know and it’s comforting to believe in something, even if it’s not true.

Our imagination, the sole thing that makes us human, has it’s own dark side.


* Michael K Freundt is an Australian writer. His first novel How to be a Good Veronica    https://books.apple.com/au/book/how-to-be-a-good-veronica/id1179204673 and it’s sequel Veronica Tries to be Good Again https://books.apple.com/au/book/veronica-tries-to-be-good-again/id1229567719 are available through iBooks via the links. Also in iBooks is a short story collection My Brother, My Love & Other Stories https://books.apple.com/au/book/my-brother-my-love/id1171638404                                    He lives in Bali with his husband. 

Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler pic
American writer, Anne Tyler.

Read Anne Tyler.

Have you read any Tyler yet?

You should read Anne Tyler.

These, and other inferences, came from a fellow book worm and one whose opinions as a reader I trust. So, finally, I read Anne Tyler.

Saint Maybe (1991) is typical of her work: family relationships. There seems two kinds of families in the American novel: the apple pie variety and the gun variety. Tyler’s are the former but, of course, coping with a threat, a dilemma.

Ian Bedloe, the son in an apple pie family in Baltimore did something he believes was very bad and caused two deaths. Only he knows what he did, what he said; the only other person, his older brother, who was there when he said it, and to whom he said it, is dead. He is desperate to be allowed to atone for his ‘sin’ and is drawn into a local Christian denomination called The Church of the Second Chance. After what he’s done, he so wants to be good. And forgiven.

What interested me in Saint Maybe is the subject of religion. I was brought up in a religious family but the Christianity taught by my Christian denomination (Lutheranism) always seemed to be more like an insurance policy than a belief system. My mother read the bible like a novel. I have come to understand that religion is a very important element in human existence: each group, tribe, and civilisation since the year dot has had a belief system; mainly to answer the big questions (How did we get here? What are we doing here? What’s that big ball of fire in the sky? and There’s got to be something better, doesn’t there?) so we can get on with the everyday necessities: digging for yams, inventing machines, filling in a tax return. What I object to, and what I see as a blight on humanity, is the administration, and interpretation, of these belief systems: the temple, the synagogue, the mosque, the church.

I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints …”. So begins the last line of the Apostle’s Creed I learnt as a child, yet all three, the holy spirit, church, and saints are inventions of the (all male) administrators of Christianity over millennia.

The Church of the Second Chance is exactly one of these ‘administrations’; it teachers not so much what Jesus Christ said but what its leader, Reverend Emmett, says and Ian, so looking for a path to redemption and his second chance for what he has done, joins Emmett and his small flock, waiting, as the Reverend Emmett says, for a sign that he has been forgiven.

The Bedloes aren’t religious but Ian’s commitment to The Church of the Second Chance slowly pulls them in; ritual and routine can do that to people’s lives. The family conforms to the Church more out of respect for Ian than for a commitment to its beliefs.

Stream-of-consciousness is a novelistic technique (thank you James Joyce) that recently has had a revival: Anna Burn’s The Milkman won the 2018 Booker Prize and Lucy Ellman’s Ducks, Newburyport was shortlisted for the 2019 Booker. It usually is associated with internal thoughts,  the ordinary, the minutiae of people’s lives. Here, Tyler uses the more common third-person narrator to tell the very plain story of Ian Bedloe.

Above her work-desk is the following quote.

As a queen sits down, knowing that a chair will be there,

Or a general raises his hand and is given the field glasses,

Step off assuredly into the blank of your mind.

Something will come to you.

…from Walking to Sleep by Richard Wilbur.

“I see those words as about getting an idea and making a  book,” says Tyler. “I don’t get anxious. It will come to you, let it come in.”

She works in long hand, rewrites in long hand, and only when she is satisfied will she then type it onto a computer; print it out and work on another draft in long hand. And so it goes. Her style, if she has one – she says she has no style at all – is “unmistakably hers: transparent and alert to all the nuances of the seemingly ordinary,” wrote Charles McGrath in a 2018 profile in The New York Times.

It’s true that the appearance of truth in fiction is achieved through detail which is why her writing is so believable: her work is full of detail, to the brim with detail: the weather, the light on window glass, a tone of voice, a look, the type of cut and grain of wood, what people know and don’t know; but she also deliberately omits detail, for the reader to work out. This also, ironically, adds veracity to the work; creates an investment for the reader in the story and its meaning. She is a joy to read.

Saint Maybe was filmed for television in 1998 starring Blythe Danner and Tom McCarthy, directed by Michael Pressman from a teleplay by Robert W. Lenski.

You can buy the book in various formats here.

 

That Other Eveline

  • a short story

That Other Eveline pic

I went into that place to pass some time but I really know that I went into that place to see if a man will look at me in that kind of way. You know the way I mean. I know I’m pretty and people keep saying it so I know but when I look in the mirror I see someone completely different. That doesn’t bother me because I’ve heard my own voice out of a recording machine and I didn’t sound like me either but people say that’s you Eveline so I know it’s me at the same time that I don’t know, but I do, that it’s my voice, my reflection. That’s how I’ve learnt to distrust what I see and hear. It isn’t rocket science. Anyway in I go and I’m aware that my hips are doing this kind of sway-y sexy thing that I don’t remember telling them to do but they are doing it alright and so I add a smile and a shoulder thing to boot. Then as I’m easing my arse onto a bar-stool like I’m turning over a plump apple cheek in a pan of frothy butter I think where did I learn to do this, but I’m not doing it for somebody! No. It’s just me walking and sitting. Yeah, right. I’m doing it for everybody, you stupid dipstick. Yet I’m just sitting here minding my own business but I’m aware that there are a lot of eyes on me, heads full of eyes, but I’m not doing anything, I’m not saying anything, I’m not given anyone the look. I say this to myself and at the same time I know it’s the truth; I also know it’s a lie but nobody knows that because nobody’s a mindreader; but then again it’s that other Eveline I have to mind. That voice of hers so soft and butter-wouldn’t-melt that I usually slip and thoughts and words like all-sorts fall out. 

I usually order a G&T because that’s what I like to drink but tonight I order a margarita. I like them too but they’re too expensive for me but at the same time as I’m saying to myself let’s have a margarita that other voice is also saying to myself you just hope some nice man will pay for it come the adding up time. 

And speaking of nice, it isn’t long before I can feel a dislocation in the air all around and I’m aware there’s a man sitting next to me. I don’t look up in case they see something that isn’t there but I can feel him folding his arms on the bar and resting his head with his eyes to the side looking at me like a boy does when he wants something he’s not allowed, something from his mum. He says something and so I have to look and I have to smile, it’s what I’ve been taught, and I know then, as clear as I know I’m sitting on it; I know what’s going to happen this night. He has a nice face, what I can see of it. He looks like a nice man. 

Now there’s a phrase, a nice man. I truly believe that they exist but something happens to nice men when they think that your look says something you don’t want it to say, when you know damn well they’re right but there’s that no-mindreader evidence again and so I sit there and sip my drink with my arms held in tight so my tits bulge like water wings. I’m just sitting having a drink. 

He asks me about my work and I tell him I’m a lab assistant in a research station, which is true. He says I don’t look like a lab assistant and I say of course I don’t, I’m not wearing my lab coat. Nice doesn’t necessarily mean smart.

You can tell by the look in their eyes, they’re looking at your face as if that’s the cause of it all, but it’s not really it’s what’s under my clothes and between my legs that they’re thinking about. What are they thinking about exactly? Are they picturing it in their mind’s eye? Funny isn’t it: it’s not what they see but what they can’t see that sends the blood racing into the dead-end making them touch their crotch or are they egging it on? So it’s all up to what they think is there. Then I suppose one vagina is very much like another, yeah, but it’s always the baubles and the arrangement of the icing on top that marks the difference between a cake and a tart. 

Like him his room is nice. Comfortable. Warm light, lots of books with a neatly made bed through an innocent-looking doorway. He offers me a drink. I agree to a G&T this time. Perhaps it will settle that feeling in the pit of my stomach, like a flapping fish gasping for air, like a hunger, like an ache. Of course, he puts on some soft music. I want to laugh, he’s seen too many set-up videos and I think how did I get here like a helicopter dropping rations to starving refugees. I was somewhere else and now I’m here. The other one tells me to relax, enjoy it. It’s nice. Nice.

We don’t make it to the neatly made bed. I wonder sometimes which voice is really me. It’s confusing. I sometimes hear myself saying stuff that I’d swear was coming from someone else. I didn’t say anything when he said he was only thinking of me. He refused a condom and so turned me over. What could I say to a nice man’s consideration? At least the pain stopped that fish flapping in my guts.

I don’t know how I got to the hospital and thought of the helicopter again but that’s when I met Rhonda. She told me she was a police officer. I said she didn’t look like a police officer. She said she was off duty and held my hand and tried to get me to remember what happened. I didn’t want to tell her because well because I wasn’t sure which voice to use or more accurately which voice would come out. She asked a lot of questions but I wasn’t very helpful. I didn’t know his name the other one said I couldn’t remember I never asked. I didn’t know where he took me although I did remember the time, two minutes to two. She asked if I meant 1:58 and I said yes, but her question made the other one laugh and I lost Rhonda for a moment. She didn’t ask any more questions. While they were stitching me up I remembered that it wasn’t the time it was the room number 222. Did I remember it because it was the time as well? I don’t know. Eveline thought it didn’t matter but I thought it might be helpful.

When Rhonda showed me into the interview room there was another woman there. She was called Valerie and was very adamant that I didn’t call her Val. I admire that. I decided to tell my mum never to call me Veeny it was Eveline or nothing. The other one snorted with disbelief but more like contempt. She was right of course.

Rhonda and Valerie talked a lot as if I wasn’t there which I found comforting and annoying at the same time. It was then that the other one got the better of me or really, I let my guard down a bit. I said that I really wanted some company that night and that…

Rhonda cut me off, almost shouted. She said Eveline! Eveline! and I thought for a moment that she knew which one of me was speaking. Eveline! Stop! I could see that Valerie agreed with her. Rhonda leaned forward and took my hand as if she was going to tell me something that would change my life. It did.

She said in a voice like a new mum that I wasn’t to think like that. I wasn’t to talk like that. I said quietly as if I really had spilt the milk that I thought I was supposed to tell the truth. Rhonda leaned back and she and Valerie shared a look that said shouted is she ready to be told? We have no choice came back the look. Rhonda shifted in her chair and a loud noise filled the room like drilling teeth.

She said look Eveline and I knew this was going to be good. She said that women had to be very careful about which truth in which context. Valerie shook her head the tiniest bit and interrupted as if she felt a translation was needed and told me that what was true was only true to those who believed it to be true. I asked if what she said meant that there was more than one truth. Yes, she said. Many said Rhonda. I could understand this since really there were two fish flopping in my guts but since I never really trust what I hear or see I knew I had to adopt just one truth. I had come to my senses and push the other one back a bit and so I told them that I was just sitting at the bar minding my own business and I met a man who seemed nice and I went to his room because he seemed good. It seemed like a date. But then he had anally raped me when I insisted he wear a condom and he refused. Wasn’t that considerate? interrupted the other one. Don’t say that said Valerie and I knew I had to be stronger.

The fish flopped but only a little bit. I had never been in a courtroom before. It was nothing like on TV. It looked like a church meeting room. The man was there looking like a little boy and the other one felt sorry for him but I was stronger today and I pushed her pushed her right down and refused to listen. The man didn’t speak but a tall thin woman spoke for him. She described my clothes and made them seem like nothing, holding in nothing and they were exactly the clothes that I wore but she described them as the clothes the other Eveline was wearing. Everything she said was true but it was the other Eveline’s truth. I knew that. Rhonda knew that. Valerie knew that and the tall thin woman must have known that too but she was stronger. She made me realise I too had to be stronger. I had to choose the one truth that was the only truth that would help me.

When I spoke, I did exactly what Valerie and Rhonda had told me to say. How to say it. What to think about when I said it. How to look when I said it. I chose. I told the truth.

The tall thin woman and the man talked together for a long time and the judge got a bit angry. The man then spoke and I knew that he had not seen me. He had not talked to me. He had not raped me. He had raped Eveline but not me; and I knew that he was really a nice man but he had seen the wrong one and I felt a little sorry for him but I know now that this is wrong of me to think this.

There are still two flopping fish in my stomach but one is much bigger than the other and I know now that this is right. My name is Eveline and I know what it true.

Neither Here nor There by Bill Bryson

or   How to write a ‘Hugely Funny’ Travel Book.

Bill Bryson
Anglo-American non-fiction writer, Bill Bryson: born 1951.

Step one: Choose a common phrase like, There and Back to See How Far it is, Head you Off at the Pass, It’s a Long Way to ……, you get the idea, and make it your title.

Step two: Collect anecdotes of your coming of age (COA).

Step thee: rack your brain for your pubescent sexual fantasies (PSF).

Step four: make a list of your own foibles (SD = self-deprecation).

Step five: have handy anecdotes from other trips to the same places  (SP).

Step six: if you’re an American living in Britain, collect phrase and stories that put down the Yanks or the Brits. (OPD = own put downs).

Step seven: collect puts downs of a nerd that gets put down a lot by your targeted audience, like the Irish, the Mormons, the Kiwis, etc. (NPD = nerd put downs)

Step eight: you’ll also need some RPD’s – racial put downs.

So, let’s begin.

Chapter One. Of course, you start with a journey. However, if the journey is a little boring you can always rely on a PSF:

I fanaticised about “…finding myself seated next to a panting young beauty being sent by her father against her wishes to the Lausanne Institute for Nymphomaniacal Disorders, who would turn to me somewhere over the mid-Atlantic and say, ‘Forgive me, but would it be alright if I sat on your face for a while?”

and you can then tack on an NPD which has OPD overtones:

“In the event my seatmate turned out to be an acned string-bean with Buddy Holly glasses and a line-up of ball-point pens clipped into a protective plastic case in his shirt pocket.”

But if you find yourself on an inspirational roll you can continue this novel scenario:

“I spied a coin under the seat in front of me, and with protracted difficulty leaned forward and snagged it. When I sat up, I saw my seatmate was at last looking at me with that ominous glow.

‘Have you found Jesus?’ he said suddenly.

‘Uh, no, it’s a quarter,’ I answered and quickly settled down and pretended for the next six hours to be asleep, ignoring his whispered entreaties to let Christ build a bunkhouse in my heart.”

It’s important to understand that such ‘stories’ don’t necessarily need to come from the trip you are now writing about, nor do they necessarily need to have happened at all. Let’s call it comedic license.

And of course, when in Germany, it’s likely that funny incidents are few and far between but there’s always a good PSF to come to your aid:

“I had only signed up for German [as a boy] because it was taught by a walking wet dream named Miss Webster, who had the most magnificent breasts and buttocks that adhered to her skirt like melons in shrink-wrap.”

Or, as in his few pages on Cologne, he begins with an RPD about the woman running the statin café who ignored him because he ignored her:

“This is the worst characteristic of the Germans. Well, actually a predilection for starting land wars in Europe is their worst characteristic, but this is up there with it.”

He then segues into an SP about a previous visit to Cologne when he stayed in a cheap hotel and read soft-porn magazines that other guests had left behind. He then contemplates the massive cathedral and comments on its size with a little OPD:

“You can understand why it took 700 years to build – and that was with German workers. In Britain they would still be digging the foundations.”

Without any nicer things to say about Cologne Bryson indulges in a reminiscence about flying on a 747, and regaling the reader with the lack of American know-how of audio electronics – a bit of ODP – and praising the Japanese “for filling my life with convenient items like a wristwatch that can store telephone numbers, calculate my overdraft and time my morning egg” – a sort of reverse RDP. He then cuts short his Cologne stay when he spies a non-stop porno cinema in the train station, which one would’ve thought would’ve given Mr Bryson an extra beat of his heart but it instead caused him to high-tail it out of Cologne and head for, ironically, Amsterdam.

His stay in Hamburg is similar: he complains about the ugliness of the prostitutes, the smallness and expense of his carpet-less hotel room, the sex-shops – “nothing compared to those in Amsterdam” – although he does praise their ingenuity when it comes to manufacturing and promoting sex dolls. He indulges in a little RDP, ODP, SP and then tops it off with a lengthy analysis of why beautiful and stylish German women don’t shave their armpits; like “a Brillo pad hanging there. I know some people think it’s earthy, but so are turnips …”

Oh, and he also hates dogs.

It seems that Mr Bryson understands well his potential readership: the kind of travellers that other travellers try to avoid.

However, after reading the dense prose of our human stains in the stories by Tsiolkas, a house-brick sized Moorhouse about mores, political and sexual, in Canberra in the 1950’s, and the ethereal beginnings of literary modernism in Joyce, I thought I needed something light.

Neither Here nor There (1992) is entertaining-ish, undemanding, diverting, and completely forgettable, but don’t let it inform you about Europe.

Access to all 46 formats and editions you can find here.

My Brother’s Name is Jessica by John Boyne

John Boyne pic
Irish writer, John Boyne.

Earlier this year John  Boyne found himself in the middle of a media storm about his new book, My Brother’s Name is Jessica. The transgender community, especially on twitter, went for him fiercely: the title itself was considered offensive.

Mya Nunnaly, a poet, wrote an open letter to Boyne which includes,

You {John} write that “however, a friend of mine, born a boy, came out as transgender in his early 20s and over the last few years has been both struggling with and embracing his new identity.” HER new identity, John. HER early 20s.

As I understand it, the moment a boy (say) reveals that he believes he is a girl it is incumbent of everyone to treat her with respect and use her name and the appropriate pronoun. In fact I should’ve written ‘the moment a boy (say) reveals that she believes she is a girl…’

It may have caused less offence had the title been, My Sister’s Name was Jason.

The other issue was the use of the word cis. The word originally was, and is, used in molecular science but has been adopted by the transgender community as the opposite of trans. I am a cis man because I live as the gender of my birth. Most people are of cis-gender. Transgender are people who don’t live as the gender of their birth. Boyne inflamed the debate even further by publicly writing in the Irish Times on April 13, 2019, a piece entitled, Why I support trans rights but reject the word ‘cis. However, a word, when given an opposite, is strengthened. If our language only had the word ‘tall’ and its opposite was simply ‘not tall’ anyone who was ‘not tall’ would, I believe, feel left out, thought about in the negative, disrespected; but having their own word, ‘short’ gives both words equal standing, equal weight, and therefore gives equal respect.

I often feel that if the word ‘black’ in American society was able to be used as the equal opposite of the word ‘white’, which is the correct use, and not as ‘less than’ the word ‘white’ race relations in the US would be a lot healthier.

I see the word ‘cis’ as just another adjective to describe me. If I was in a group discussion about international politics with people of different nationalities it would be appropriate to begin my opinion with, ‘Well, as an Australian caucasian man I think ……’; similarly, if I was in a group discussion about diet with people who were either vegans, pescatarians, or omnivores it would be appropriate to begin my opinion with ‘Well, as a meat-eater I think …; and if I was in a group discussion about gender with a group that included trans people it would be appropriate to begin my opinion with ‘Well, as a cis man I think…’ It is just another adjective to use appropriately when necessary.

However, the focus is not on Jason/Jessica but on her younger brother, Sam, who represents Boyne’s chosen audience:  young cis readers. This is his sixth book for young readers, the most successful being The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006). Sam tells it as he sees it: Boyne has chosen Sam as the first-person narrator. The language is clear and simple and a lot of what goes on around him he doesn’t fully understand. This background is heightened by his parent’s work: his mother is a cabinet minister, Secretary of State, eye-ing off the Prime Ministership, with his father as her Chief of Staff. The stakes are high and the media are always lurking in the bushes. 

The title is clear and  basically foretells the story. It is actually a quote from the text; a text narrated by a cis boy who like other cis people don’t understand trans people and sometimes get it wrong, particularly with language. As one trans journo put it in Boyne’s defence … he’s on our side; he’s waving our flag, he just got it upside down.  

“In writing My Brother’s Name is Jessica my hope is that children and young adults—particularly ones who are perhaps not already familiar with transgender issues—will come to this book and start to understand that anyone struggling with these issues needs support and compassion, not judgment. I have tried to write the best novel that I can. I might have succeeded or I might have failed, but I stand by it. I welcome debate and am interested in people’s views on this subject. I do not believe that the trans community bears any relationship to, or any responsibility for the abuse I have received online. I stand 100% behind all trans people, I respect them as brave pioneers, I applaud their determination to live authentic lives despite the abuse they also receive, and I will always do so.”                                                                                                                    John Boyne

 

Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

Trent Dalton pic
Australian journalist turned novelist, Trent Dalton

This is a rollicking good read. Entertaining, insightful, rich in characters, with a heavy dose of autobiography, and only marred a little by the ending; more about that later.

Eli Bell is 12 years old and the younger son of dysfunctional but estranged parents, Frances and Robert, and they all bump along day to day on the outer hazardous rings of petty criminality in Brisbane in the 1980s. Rugby, television, drugs, poverty, junk food, cigarettes, XXXX beer, and a surprising amount of love for each other get them through every day. Well, almost. Eli’s ‘family’ is extended to include his mum’s boyfriend, Lyle, the first man he ever loved – it takes him time to feel that for his dad; Slim Halliday, his babysitter, mentor, and possible murderer, but certainly notorious escapee from Boggo Road Goal; and his older brother, August, who has decided not to talk since he and Eli were possible victims of attempted filicide. He communicates only with Eli who has learnt to decipher his brother’s air writing. They are inseparable.

The story is told in the first person and Eli’s colourful language, obvious intelligence, unwavering loyalty, and passion for words make him an unforgettable character. There’s a love story, or love fantasy, woven into the second half that is centred on a Courier-Mail crime reporter, Caitlyn Spies, eight years his senior. Eli hankers after, not only her lips and other parts of her body, but also a job like hers: he aches to be a crime-busting journalist. But does he make it? No spoilers here.

There is a lot of back-story to get through before the narrative really starts, so the opening is a bit slow but once Dalton gets in his stride you are grateful for the time taken; he also weaves in a flavour of surrealism that doesn’t quite work, for this reader, but it’s easy to go along with it and to allow yourself to be ‘taken for the ride.’

And what a ride!

It has all the flavour and action of a television crime story right down to the satisfying climax and the just-desserts handed out to the bad-guys.  But there is a climactic tag, a chase sequence that is contrived, too long, and unnecessary. It’s like this sequence has been lifted from another genre and medium; it sits uncomfortably, and ‘tacked-on’, at the end of such a well-written story. But this is a minor criticism.

Yes, it would be perfect for a television, and an adaptation is in the pipeline, produced by Joel Edgerton, but, surprisingly, it is the theatre that has snaffled the goods first. The stage version is scheduled for the 2020 season of the Queensland Theatre Company for the Brisbane Festival in September of that year. Sam Strong, QTC’s artistic director will direct the adaptation written by Tim McGarry.

You can watch a promotional video here, where Dalton gives away a few secrets of inspiration for this, his debut novel with the books that helped him write it.

You can buy the ebook, and other formats, here.

The Novel Game.

The Novel Game - Aussie Rules pic
Australian Rules Football

After I finished my 4th novel, well, the 3rd draft of it, who knows what needs to be done to it and at what time it needs to be done, I sent it off to my ‘agent’. He’s not really my agent as we don’t have a writer/agent relationship, he doesn’t have a relationship with me but with a book of mine, my 3rd novel, Johnny William & the Cameraman. However, what’s a writer to do after finishing number 4 but send it on to someone and an agent who has a relationship with number 3 is as good as any. He said he was looking forward to reading it. He said he liked it. With number 4 out of my hair, I felt like my pet budgie had flown away, a little lost. I scanned two abandoned pieces of prose, both over 20,000 words, one set in a declining rural town that seeks its survival only to have that thwarted by the media; and a story of a group of people who witness a tragedy on Sydney Harbour. Neither re-tickled my novelistic fancy.

But then, I found an old note on my Notepad App called The Owls of Kensingtown. The idea was to chart the reactions and romances of a small group of queer-minded people after the sentencing of Oscar Wilde in 1895. I changed the name to Arcadia Lane, but the title is still up for grabs. Actually Up for Grabs isn’t such a bad title itself. The Owls are metaphorical (“Who is that?  Who? Look at them, Who is that one? Who? The one in the hat. Who are you? Who? Who? Who? ….” a chorus like a parliament of Owls. Oh, and A Parliament of Owls isn’t a bad title, either).
As I read through my very brief sketch a scene occurred to me, a scene that has become the opening of this new work, a scene that also sets up a need, which in turn will become the narrative. I have no idea, yet, where the story is going; I only have a direction, not an outcome.
Because of the first scene one of my characters, I’ve called him Henry, leaves his employment. I have no idea where he’s going, but a quick look at Google maps of rural England leads me to a village of Cockley Cley in the east – very obscure, very small – so Cockley Cley becomes his destination, where his peasant parents live.
Along the way he helps a farmer fix a broken down dray and gets a lift from him (This scene isn’t written yet, just mentioned, but as I write this I’m beginning to understand that it needs to be fleshed out. Later). They spend the night at a hogsman’s barn. I don’t know if there was such an occupation as hogsman, but a quick ask of Ms Google tells me that it’s a family name, so an occupation it could’ve been; anyway, I like the sound of it, so hogsman it is.
I don’t believe that a potential reader will stop and Google ‘hogsman’ and then complain that it’s an occupation that doesn’t exist, and has never existed. The sound of it alone fits the times (late 1800s)  and it’s also self-explanatory. It is within the realm of possibility and so I believe a reader will accept it.
With the intention of Henry continuing his journey in the morning, I open the next scene early in the morning
with him pissing behind the barn. As he is returning a small girl comes running around the corner and almost knocks him over. I did not plan this. It was as if I was watching this scene, like an audience, and then the little girl appeared. She is strange, precocious, and manic. She is followed by the hogsman, a character I had not intended to draw. The relationship between the hogsman and the girl is ambiguous, and even a little sinister. The hogsman attempts to get the child back into the house with the help of Henry but the child bites Henry on the arm and screams, “He’s a prince!”. This also wasn’t planned. But, serendipitously, (and serendipity plays a very great role in novel-making) a reason for her outburst occurs to me. Henry, a gentleman’s valet, has left his employment because he was having a sexual affair with his gentleman employer, a very satisfying and loving relationship, but the morning paper’s reporting of Oscar Wilde’s sentence of two years hard labor scares the young man and he leaves, leaving the gentleman bereft and without anyone to cook his breakfast. Henry is therefore dressed and groomed very well, courtesy of his employer/lover and his appearance, especially to the little manic girl, seems that of a wealthy man, maybe even a prince!
I continue to ‘watch’ the scene and write down what I ‘see’. The hogsman invites Henry into his house to tend to the wound, shoving the girl into a room where the voices of other young girls can be heard. As the hogsman tends to Henry’s wound the young man looks around the house and notices its two fires, one in the sitting room, one in the kitchen, its heavy wooden and polished furniture, and its decorations, rugs, and paintings. This is not the house of a lowly pig farmer, unless my unnamed hogsman has a very lucrative side business.
The hogsman tangentially suggests a deal: he is willing to pay the young gentleman a tidy sum for his silence about the presence of the little girl/girls in his house. He knows his guest doesn’t look like he needs it, but a deal is a deal and an exchange of money between men who can afford it is as good a deal as most. Henry remains silent, a little character trait I just happened to give him earlier when he saw the wisdom of remaining silent when the truth, which is his usual trope, might do more harm than good (serendipity again). Henry takes the £5 silently, money he, now unemployed, sorely needs.
Understand that this scene may not make it into the final cut.
What has occurred to me since beginning this novel, if that’s what it is, is the similarities between writing prose and playing football. Writers take courses and listen to experts and go on writers’ retreats – players listen to coaches and go on training camps; writers read other writers – players watch other games; writers hone their skills, trying out ideas, different voices – players go to training, honing their skills; writers are disciplined – players are disciplined; writers know and understand grammar – players know and understand the rules of the game; but when it comes to doing the work, writing the thing, playing the game, there is no time to think about rules, advice, examples, and should I write this, should I tackle that; you just write it, play it, and hope to kryst that all the rules, advice, examples, and shoulds have oozed into your intuition, become your default mechanism, and what comes out is eventually a readable novel, a win. 
 
I’m not yet convinced about the veracity of this work but I keep ‘seeing’ scenes, and as long as the scenes keep coming I’ll keep writing. Wish me luck. 

What I have Learnt about Writing a Novel by Writing a Novel.

  1. To write novels you have to read novels, a LOT of novels.
  2. The best way to write a novel is to start.
  3. Don’t be waylaid by family, friends, and lunch invitations. You’re the writer. Write.
  4. Know how the language works. If you hate grammar take up knitting. 
  5. Genre is something that agents, publishers, booksellers, and readers think about; write what interests you. Let them work it out.
  6. Don’t try to be too clever with your narrator.
  7. Spew the whole story onto the screen, or page. This is the first draft: 90,000 words +
  8. Be disciplined. Give yourself a daily goal, i.e., 2000 words. If necessary write anything. Any writing (except the shopping list) counts.
  9. You don’t necessarily need to write what you know. How many witches, snakes, and house-elves did J.K. Rowling interview before she wrote Harry Potter?
  10. You don’t need to know the ending when you start; in fact, it’s best if you don’t.
  11. The three elements of a novel are narration, description, and dialogue.
  12. Narration is what your narrator says.
  13. Description doesn’t need to be exhaustive. A few apt words can paint hundreds more. Let the reader fill in the gaps.
  14. Dialogue is the best way to create believable and distinguishable characters.
  15. Verisimilitude (creating truth) is the writer’s goal; you do that with detail.
  16. Don’t think about your muse. They take the focus off you.
  17. A cure for writer’s block: put two clear but different characters in an adversarial situation and make them talk to each other. You will be amazed what happens.
  18. Somewhere towards the end of the 1st draft you need to know what it is about. What is the point of it? What does it all mean. This will lead you to the ending.
  19. Not every idea you have while writing this novel is right for this novel; it may be better for the next novel.
  20. After you’ve finished the 1st draft put it away for a few weeks and write some other stuff.
  21. The best person to tell you the real truth about the 1st draft is (almost always) the person who shares your bed. This is true and a whole lot cheaper.
  22. The second draft is cleaning up and consolidating the timeline, characters, relationships, lose ends, and getting rid of your (the writer’s) voice. 
  23. You should lose about 10% of the 1st draft. You can add or cut, but it’s mainly cut. Be brutal. If you don’t know about “Murder Your Darlings!” Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch said it first, find out.
  24. The 3rd draft should be printed out. Read it on paper. You’ll be surprised what ‘other’ stuff you see and that may need to go too.
  25. Once it’s ‘out there’ it’s no longer yours. It belongs to the reader and it means what the reader thinks it means. You’re irrelevant.
  26. Start the next one.

On Writing. A memoir of the craft by Stephen King

Stephan King pic
American writer Stephan King. “Nothing can live up to the memory of a good scare.”

Outside the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria in the centre of old Florence is the statue of David by Michelangelo. Actually it’s a statue of David by someone else. It’s a copy. The original is in the Galleria dell’Accademia not far away. Michelangelo’s David is truely remarkable but what is more revealing are the accompanying statues of slaves; unfinished statues. The figures seem to be emerging out of the stone; or to put it another way, they were always in the stone; Michelangelo just had to remove the marble from around them to reveal them in all their glory. Music is like that. The Clarinet Concerto always existed; Mozart just wrote it down so now it’s called Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. Stories are like that too.

I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves … Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible.

or, in other words; stories have always existed, writers just have to write them down as accurately as they can.

If you hear a writer say “…Oh, it just wrote itself, really,” this is what they are talking about without really understanding anything about it.

Plotting is way down on King’s list of what’s important. For him it’s narration – to move the story along; description – to create a sensory reality; and dialogue – to bring characters to life.

I’ve never plotted any more than I ‘d try to convince you that I’ve never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible …. plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren’t compatible … It’s clumsy, mechanical, anticreative. Plot is, I think, the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored. 

I’ve heard, and read, many times that Stephan King is a writer’s writer. It’s a good line, although I’m not sure what it means. I took it to mean that I should read him. I’ve been planning to but as his work is not my preferred type (hate the word ‘genre’) other books kept preempting my plan. And then this one came along: a Christmas gift from my sister.

King calls it a memoir, and it certainly is. His chapter on his early struggles – menial jobs – many rejections, a family to support – is particularly honest and heart-warming. Yet, his chapter on being an alcoholic is electric. Talk about ‘being honest.’ It’s an insider’s view, the view of an alcoholic looking out with all the denials, justifications, and excuses that are virtually the ‘brand’ of all alcoholics but while he’s being one, seem particularly applicable to him and him alone.

But the life story doesn’t take long and soon he’s into the advice: the reason for reading it. I was heartened to read that his first piece of wisdom is, if you want to write, you must read. Phew! Good. I do that. His next piece of advice was to wage war on adverbs, especially attributive adverbs in dialogue: he said dismissively, she blithely said. His argument against adverbs like these was particularly convincing. I got up and opened my computer to the writing I had done that day and erased all my attributive adverbs, well, most of them. I had to make a few other adjustments to follow his advice: it should be perfectly clear how a line of dialogue should be said from the words themselves and, of course, the accumulated tension, tone, and information. Don’t be scared of oft repeating, he said, she said.

All I ask is that you do as well as you can, and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.

And vocabulary? “As the whore said to the bashful sailor, ‘It ain’t how much you’ve got it’s how you use it.” And if you have to run to the thesaurus to find the right word, it’s probably not the right word. He quotes Earnest Hemingway to seal the point.

“He came to the river. The river was there.”

He’s equally honest and up-front about narrative, description, dialogue and a myriad of other implements from his literary toolbox. I am very happy to now know that I share his belief in dialogue as one of the best ways to built character. There are some writers who avoid dialogue. What a missed opportunity!

However, I was, at times, at a disadvantage reading this book because he often makes his point by referring, in detail, to his own work and decisions he had to make, and why. I have never read anything by King so I found these passages redundant. Not his fault, but mine.

For a new writer like me (I can’t use the adjective ‘young’ any more), who’s grappling with the second draft of a major work that at the moment is a broad, messy, and a wooly thing, reading King’s On Writing now is the most serendipitous and useful coincidence.

All writers, especially new ones, and most readers would get a lot out of his insights into the writing process, the hazards and joys of writing for a living, and the more profound elements of imagination, fiction making, and self-fulfilment.  Highly recommended.

-oOo-

I have a gripe with Mr King. He’s down on adverbs, but he’s also down on pronouns. And so he should be; he uses them so clumsily (Yes, I now its an adverb but its necessary here.)

Move too fast and you risk leaving the reader behind. either by confusing or wearing him/her out.

The phrase ‘him or her’ is bad enough, but ‘him/her’? Unforgivable! He uses ‘he and she’ and even ‘he/she’ – but thank god, not ‘s/he’!

This is one of the English language’s greatest failings: there is no gender-neutral singular pronoun. For centuries it has been common practice to use the masculine ‘he, him, and his’ to refer to both genders. Today, this is not acceptable. But, there is a solution. What’s wrong with using the gender-neutral plural pronoun? Nothing. This has been around for a few hundred years, from the 16th century in fact* (It’s also been a solution for Jane Austin, Bernard Shaw, and Barak Obama). Yes, it’s breaking a fundamental rule of subject-pronoun agreement which maybe a small problem for some but it fixes a much bigger problem. Hence King could’ve and should’ve written,

Move too fast and you risk leaving the reader behind. either by confusing or wearing them out.

Much simpler, easier, cleaner, and no confusion, despite the broken rule.

He neuer forsaketh any creature vnlesse they before haue forsaken them selues.

– J Fisher Wayes to Perfect Religion (before 1535)

You can find the Kindle edition, as well as other formats, here.