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.

 

Monday in Piss Street

a short story

I live in a shit-hole. Lying here ain’t good. My bed stinks. I fart loudly and crawl through the thug of it and go to the kitchen. I can hear me mum snoring from here. It’s a small place. Yeah, course it is. Cockroaches nyere-nyere me as they scatter away. They feel safe, I reckon. At home. I open the fridge. There’s lots of space in our fridge. Green muck too. Fuck! The milk’s off. I drink from the sink tap. Tastes like Draino. What day is it? Shit! I’ve got to go to the dole office. There’s this fat fag creep there who looks at me like I’m a Macca’s burger with fries on the side, like that chick in that ad on TV. Hope I get the swami girl. She’s got Milo skin and eyes like mud cake. I shower, feel like a dump, take one. The Dettol soap is a nail clipping but it still strips every bit if moisture out of my skin. Me mum believes in squeaky clean. That and smack. Yeah, I know.

I can hear Scotty scratchin’ at the back door. I let him in and find a rusty can of four-bean mix in the cupboard, behind the tea bags she steals from the motel down on Cowper Road. A job she’s got, three days a week. It used to be two days but she gave the manager a blowjob and got three. That’s what I reckon. I open the can with a bread knife and Scotty and I share it. I go into me mum’s room and scratch around in her side drawer and – bingo! – find a twenty-dollar bill. Fuckin’ awesome. She’s dead to the world. I cover her up properly after starin’ a bit.

On the floor I find a belt to use as a lead for Scotty. We go to the shitty local con store; mum keeps telling me I need to think about the future. I’ve got to get some dog food. The chink sits behind mesh wire the thickness of pencils. I slide two cans of Chow, a Snickers bar, and a half litre of milk at him. He doesn’t look at me. I was 5 cents short on a packet of bbq chips once and he wouldn’t let me have them. I broke his nose, the slanty-eyed prick! Now there’s this fuckin’ pencil mesh everywhere. He gives me $1.50 change and I feel like punching him again. He knows it too. Fuckin’ reffos. Robbing us blind! Scotty craps on the footpath. I don’t have a placky bag with me, never do, so I shove it into the gutter and get dogshit on my stubs. Bloody hell! I find a patch of grass inside a car tyre, push it aside, and try to wipe me toes clean with it; fuckin’ jeez, I must look like a spazo dancing or somethin’. Scotty barks. Shut up ya dick! I see a couple of white haired geros up ahead. They stop talking and cross the street. “What are ya lookin’ at, ya coupla cunts! You’ll be dead before me. I’m just walkin’ me dog! Sa free country!” They scurry on a bit, as fast as their skinny little bandy legs can carry them. Ha! Makes me want to vommi. The pricks!

Charlie finishes serving a chick with her skirt up her crack. “Morning, Bo. What can I do for you”. He looks at me. I look at him. He knows what I’m goin’ to say. “Me mum’s still sleepin’ it off and there’s no food in the joint. I gotta go to the dole office. Can I have a burger?” “What about your mum?” he says. “Yeah,” I say. “Can ya make it two?” He looks at me like his shit don’t stink but he bailed me out once so mum says I can’t give him no lip. I gotta swallow it. Feels like nails. He goes to make the burgers. I stand and wait. I look out through the big window onto the street and see that pansy from the pub on the corner; the pub where they do prissy shows watched by chicks in merks and blokes with haircuts. I looked through the window one night at a couple of guys in frocks telling jokes about god and the prime minister. The crowd was lapin’ it up. Some sort of code, I reckon, like commi shit or somethin’.  The sissy-boy’s with his dicky little benji-dog. He bends down and picks the stupid mut up as good ol’ Scotty yaps fit to split and goes for his ankles. Rip him to sheds, Scotty! Little Scotty won’t leave him alone and his fluffy mut yaps in his arms. I’d laugh if I had the energy. Charlie gives me the burgers and I say “Thanks” like me mum said I had to. Scotty keeps barkin’ and jumpin and the sissy-boy…”Hey!” The cunt’s tryin to kick my dog. “Hey! Shit face! What the fuck do ya think ya doin’?” I run right up to him and stand right up to the prick with my chest in his face. He looks like he’s goin’ to shit himself. “You tryin to kick my dog? Hey!? Hey!? Ya fuckin’ cunt! Kick my dog and I’ll smash ya fuckin’ face in!” The fag tries to speak, “Well I’m not going to push a dog away with my hands, am I?” “What’s that supposed to mean,” I scream at him. “You tryin to be some kind of smart arse? Hey!? Hey!? Are ya!? Hey!?” and the cunt turns and walks away. “I’m askin’ ya a question, dum-fuck. What’s a poofta like you tryin’ to kick me dog? Hey!? Fuckin’ nancy-boy, take-it-up-the-arse, shit-pusher! Go on, answer me fuck-face. Poofta!” I yell and it feels real good. He’s shakin’ and can hardly walk straight. And then he stops and turns his lilly-white pansy-boy-face, white as froth, and says to me somethin’ like if I wanna insult im or somethin’ I’ll have to find somethin’ diff’rent than what’s true. What?! “What did you say!?” I scream. I don’t know what he’s tryin’ to say. “What the fuck!” I yell spit on his nose. “Ha!” I scream but the feel-good stuff’s oozin’ away and I hate it, but he’s still shakin’ huggin’ his stupid dog. I can taste his fear and it tastes good, salty-sweet. I’m runnin’ out of words. He walks away. “Ya fuckin’ cunt!!” I scream. My face is burnin’ and the heat in my body and lumps in my throat choke me, and I so fuckin’ hate it – “I fuckin’ hate it!” I scream at the sky; when smartarse pricks throw words at ya that don’t make sense. “Aaah!!” And I hear a few doors open and close. “What the fuck are you lookin’ at” I bellow at whoever can hear. But, I scared him shitless didn’t I? Yeah, the prick. Scotty is pullin’ on my belt, with his tail down and pullin’ away from me. “Come here! Ya my fuckin’ dog! Mine! Come here, ya prick.” And I can’t yell anymore and I walk away draggin’ Scotty like a pyjama bag I saw a kid with once on TV.

I sit under the concrete steps that go up to the freeway and try to stop the drummin’ in my ears. I eat my burger. It helps. Scotty looks at me like he doesn’t know nothin’. I give him a piece of bun. He eats it. I still feel hot but it’s goin’ away. I walk up the stairs to the freeway, and along the footpath to the park and let Scotty off the lead. He doesn’t know what to do. “Run, ya prick,” I say. I walk over to a tree and lean against it listenin’ to that drummin’ again. It’s getting fainter I think. A poxy bloke in a suit comes up to me and says, “Hey, pretty boy! Want to make a bit of money?” “Fuck off,” I say but it sounds weak. It comes out like I’ve got a cold, or somethin’. “What do you say to twenty bucks for a blowjob?” he says with just a slit on his shiny face, like we’ve done this before. “Fuck off,” I say again. More like a whisper this time. But I think about the money and how I can get the bus to the dole office, and maybe, some food for tonight. I gotta think of the future, like me mum says. “Fifty,” I say. “No blow, just a hand.” “OK, twenty though,” he says. “Fifty or nothin’” I say and make it like I don’t care.

His little dick is hot is my hand but it doesn’t take long, thank kryst, and no way did I let the faggot touch me. No way. He messed his expensive shirt which made me smile which gave him the wrong idea. I wiped my hands on the grass and took off with my bus money. Needle-dick loser. I took Scotty home. Me mum was still dead to the world. I put her burger in the fridge. I took the bus to the dole office.

I sat on the bus next to a chick with really big knockers, a green t-shirt and cut-off jeans. I said, “G’day.” She looked up from her phone. Nothin’. What is it with chicks who won’t even say g’day. Stuck-up bitch. I gotta get myself a phone. Yeah. The fat creep isn’t on duty today. Yeah, but the swami girl is. I wait and let some nuf-nufs go before me so I can get swami-girl. I sit at her desk. She’s really pretty and has a purple scarf-thing over her black hair.

“Hi, Bo. How you been going?”

“OK.”

“Just, OK?”

“Yeah.” I hand her my form.

“You’ve been to see all this people; all these jobs?”

“Yeah, course.”

“If I rang some of these people, they’d remember you?”

“S’pose not.” I ain’t stupid.  “They see heaps of fuckers.”

“How’s your mum?”

“OK.”

“Still working her two days a week?”

“She’s not working. Hasn’t worked in months”

“I thought she was at the motel two days a week.”

“Nah, when it came to pay day the prick wouldn’t pay her. Sack’d her.” Can’t tell swami-girl the truth, mum said.

“I see.” She goes down the list of interviews I’ve done, well, done some of ‘em. She looks at me like she likes me. I like her too. She’s wearin’ lots of flowing clothes so I can’t get the jist of her body, but I bet it’s alright. I start imaginin’ her black swami bush between her legs and I get a hard-on. I wanna touch her. I look at her hands and she’s wearin’ a few rings. She’s not supposed to wear stuff like that at work. Ya can get smashed fingers from some prick who’d cut your hand off as soon as look at ya. They’d fetch a bit, I reckon. She looks at me. I look at her. The kind of too-long look you see sometimes in movies. I reckon she likes me for a fact. “Nice rings,” I say. She looks at her rings and takes them off. Fuck! Why she do that for? “I was just lookin’.” “Sure,” she says but you can see she’s scared a bit. Stupid bitch! She looks at me again and there’s somethin’ she wants to say.

“It’s fuckin’ OK, alright?” I say.

“Is it Bo?”

“Ye-ah!?” What’s she getting’ at?

“You’ve got to think about the future, Bo.”

“Yeah well I am! Me mum says that shit all the time. I wanna get a phone.” I think about that loser in the park. I gotta get a phone. She’s lookin’ at me. Now, I don’t know if she likes me or not. This is what I don’t get. Chicks look at ya and ya know what they want, and then they look at ya again and it’s different. Or they look at ya and ya know what they want, so you do it, and then they scream at ya, call you names, and piss you right off.

But she signs my form and I say, “Thanks.”

“Say Hi to your mum,” she says. “Next!” she yells.

I go into the city to make me feel normal. When you’re in the city ya can be anyone walkin’ around. I look at them and they look at me and see what I see, just pricks walkin’ around being normal. I breath normal. I break the fifty at Maccas but know I have to get some food for tonight. I like this feeing, this doing stuff for me mum. I walk past a posh supermarket and think, I can go in here, and so I walk in. I look at security and he looks at me. Shit! There’s so much light, so much stuff. I look at all the packets on the shelves and don’t know half of them. There’s a whole room full vegetables. It’s like a farm or somethin’. Don’t know half of them either. What are ya supposed to do with ‘em? I look for the can section and pick up two cans of spaghetti. Me mum loves spaghetti on toast. I see all the bread on a huge table. What is all this shit? Bread’s bread. I take one that looks like real bread, a square one, and the skinny guy at the check-out looks at me as if I’ve forgotten somethin. “What are ya lookin’ at?” I say. He looks away and then back at me and says, “Nothing at all, mate. Nothing at all.” And it’s like I hear the words he’s sayin’ but it’s not what he’s sayin’ and I can feel my ears burnin’ and that thumpin’ again. “How ya goin’?” It’s the security guy with a weak little smile on his puss. And more words but it’s not what he’s sayin’. What the fuck is he sayin’? And I want to scream so fuckin’ loud and punch his fuckin’ prissy face, cut his cock off, and shove it up his arse, but there’s so much fuckin’ light in here. I can feel it like sunshine and I say “Fine, thanks,” and it comes out like it isn’t me and I suddenly don’t know where I am. This skinny guy is handin’ me some money. “Here’s your change.” I look at it. I take it. “Don’t forget your stuff.” What? I take the bag and head for the street. I can feel security followin’ me. What did I do? What did I say? The world’s a mess and I have to side-step a man with a broom. “Fuck off!” I yell at him.

I get home and walk inside. Nothin’ but stink. And mess. No sound. I put the grocery bag on the table. It takes me five goes to find the toaster. I want to do this for me mum. I plug it in. I’m gonna make me mum some spaghetti on toast.  I can’t find a pot so I use a fryin’ pan. It’s got stuff stuck to it but there’s no washing stuff so, fuck it. I ring-pull the spaghetti and tip the sloppy stuff in the pan. I turn on the gas. I put two slices of bread in the toaster and push the level. Bang! There’s a flash, sparks, and I nearly shit myself. Fuck! Is that supposed to happen? I push the lever again. Nothin’. Again. Nothin’. Again. Nothin’. My jaw aches. Again. Nothin’! I yank the toaster from its socket and throw it into the lounge room. It hits the floor and a shower of crumbs flies up like a bomb’s gone off. I have to keep doin’ somethin’ or I’ll explode. A cup of tea. I’ll make me mum a cup of tea. Yeah. I search through the cupboards. Nothing but shit and stuff. Stuff and shit. Where’s the fuckin’ tea bags? I smell smoke or somethin’ and I turn to see the spaghetti burning in the pan. I grab it and throw the whole fuckin’ lot in the sink with all the other shit. I stand there with my mouth shut tight, tryin’ to steady my breathing. The thump-thump-thumping is deafening. I want to scream but me mum’s still asleep.

And then I remember. And the thought is like sunshine, like a birthday present. It could be happiness, even. The thumping stops and I suddenly want to laugh. The burger! I’ve got a burger in the fridge. Me mum’s burger. It’s there. Just there in the fridge. Me mum was right. I thought about the future, I’ve got this burger and now everything’s OK. This new feeling is strange, but kryst, it feels good. I’ll take her a nice burger. I get it out, un-wrap it, and find a clean plate, well sort of. I put the burger on the plate and take it into me mum. She’s still asleep. I get a little closer and I reach down to wake her like I always do. There’s vomit on her check and I can smell a different stink. What is that? I touch her shoulder and it’s like touching the toaster. Is this dead? I stand there. Me mum’s dead. I hear myself saying it. Me mum’s dead. I don’t know what to do. It’s like she’s been turned off, or something. What am I supposed to do? Dunno. I eat her burger.

Serendipity

Serendipity pic

– a short story by Michael K Freundt

Pollution saved my life. Air pollution gives us glorious sunsets but it was the watery kind that prolonged my life: as I breathed the water in – and that is what I knew I had to do – it was not easy, and it tasted vile so I spat it out again – Mah! – and immediately clambered out of the sewer-like river thinking of guns and poison. What a hideous mess! I should have chosen the pristine waters of a rural river, like Virginia Woolf, rather than the urban drain I had decided on. That primary stupid decision finally convinced me that perhaps I had not given the whole thing quite enough thought: I had reacted illogically to what had happened back at home. Now, however, my primary decision was about my ruined clothes – Look at me! Mah! – and how I was going to get to whatever destination I would soon have to choose. The fact still remained that if I was not going to kill myself I would have to face the fact that I had just killed my wife, but maybe, just maybe, it could be possible that the authorities will conclude that it was an accident; but probably not. I am not a very good liar. However, it is truly curious that the brain, in circumstances like this, prioritises decisions so effectively that once I was standing, dripping, and during the hours that followed, I was in no doubt what it was I should do next. If you have never witnessed a death, or attempted to cause your own, you may understand – but whether you believe me or not is of no concern to me, but as I stood on the dark river bank, in the overgrown grass strewn with more urban rubbish and vainly attempting to brush myself down, to regain a little of my lost dignity that complete saturation destroys, I was suddenly aware of what I must do: go home. It became incredibly important to me to get into clean, dry clothes, despite what such a decision may bring. 

What interested me as I finished writing the above paragraph was the tone. It was a line early in Dan Simmons’ The Fifth Element; you know, I’ve scanned those pages and still can’t find what sparked the thought train that led to the above; but it was the voice, the tone that got me writing. I love it when reading can do that, even if the book didn’t grab me – I didn’t finish it – sometimes a line, an image can get the juices flowing. My narrator, not yet named, sounds like a self-opinionated, stylish homosexual, arch, wilful, and from the Inner-Eastern suburbs of Sydney. Note the use of the word ‘vile’ in the first paragraph: very queer. I like the tone, but I need to be careful: he is straight – self-awareness and a rich vocabulary are not the sole domain of the homosexual – but giving him ‘gay’ and knowing characteristics creates a unique individualism. Let’s see how it goes.

I must have looked a sight as I walked up the few tiled steps to the verandah of my inner-suburban terraced house and the look on the police officer’s face confirmed it. My wife’s body had obviously been found. The night was cool and calm so very little evaporation had occurred and my feet still squelched in my shoes: they were my favourite pair and now completely ruined. Mah! The exertion of walking all the way from the river to my house had obviously kept me relatively warm but the longer I stood still, forced to do so while the police officer talked to someone on his phone, his superior I assumed – I had told the young man who I was – I could feel the cold creep over me like a sinister blanket. 

In a very short while a tall attractive uniformed woman came out of my well-lit house to confront me. I told her who I was. 

It’s important that he finds her attractive: it could be useful later. You see, I’m not sure where this is going but I hope you’re as interested as I am.

“I’m afraid sir,” she said in the usual formal dry tone, “that I have to inform you that your wife has been found … deceased.”

“Yes, I know,” I said. Did she first think of saying ‘murdered’?

Despite her experience in such matters she hesitated, but then said, “And how do you know that, sir?”

“Because I … found her.”

“And was it you who called triple zero?”

“Yes, it was.”

If my unusual appearance had not impinged on her before it did so now, probably brought about by the fact that I had started to shiver violently.

“And why sir do you seem to be completely saturated?”

Now that my primary decision to go home had been fulfilled a new primary decision had automatically taken its place: it was absolutely clear to me what I had to say.

“Because I tried to kill myself.”

“And why did you try to do that, sir?”

It may give you some insight into my personality when I tell you that my immediate feeling now was of annoyance that every one of her questions had begun with a conjunction.

“I thought you would think I did it.” I did do it but not the way you think.

I thought I should amend that line to “I did do it but not the way you may think”. The use of the second person – referring to the reader – in prose fiction, by the way, is rare now. It used to be common – the opening to Elliot Perelman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity – great title – is an unusual modern example that springs to mind – I must read that again one day; but I like using the second person. It adds a personal touch, a writer-reader sense of confidentiality. It’s the word ‘may’ that I am concerned about. I cannot be certain what a reader might think but it is this note of uncertainty I do not like. I am very aware of words like ‘maybe’ or ‘perhaps’ or ‘could’ because they always weaken a phrase – except in dialogue, of course, where such words can be character-building – but ‘may’ sounds like one of them. No! I will leave it out.

I expected another, and obvious, conjunction-led question but my shivering had become so intense that she said, “I think you had better come inside and get out of those wet clothes.”

I was not allowed upstairs into our bedroom, now a crime scene or something – I wondered what they would find and what they would think it means –  and so a young underling was sent to get me a complete change of clothes. His choice was completely unsatisfactory – why would anyone match royal blue with that brown? 

That last phrase gives great insight into his character, don’t you think? I spent quite some time agonising over what colours to choose. Fashion today, to always embrace the new, has accepted anything with anything. I’m old enough to remember when paisley was in, and then when it was definitely out. Now I’ve seen paisley matched with floral. Mah! My narrator would only have block colours, I’m sure; maybe a stripe or check for summer; never floral, and never paisley. Brown and blue can at times go well together but his hatred of the match with that particular brown and that particular blue reinforces his opinionated sense of fashion. He so knows his own mind.

The young officer appeased his appalling fashion sense by bringing me a towel, but then my assessment of him plummeted again when he did not leave while I changed. I decided to ignore him. I undressed completely, towelled myself dry, resisted the urge to look up at him to see what he was looking at, and redressed as quickly as I could and refused to look in the living room mirror as I already knew I looked a fright.

Is the use of the word ‘fright’ too arch; too queer, do you think?

“Please take a seat, sir,” he said politely and when he did not leave the room I supposed he had been ordered not to leave me alone. I have always found it difficult not to talk to people when I find myself in close proximity to them but he was just standing there looking at nothing in particular so the urge to talk was weakened. I tried to attract his attention to the pile of wet clothes on the floor making it clear, I thought, that I expected him to do something about them: they were dampening the rug, but he paid no heed. I got up – he became alarmed a little at that – and removed them to a wooden chair. I resumed my seat on the couch and he relaxed. I remained as silent as he did.

It would be correct to use the word ‘him’ here: “… I remained as silent as him” – ‘he’ for the subject, ‘him’ for the object – but it sounds wrong, or, at least, clumsy; so, ‘as he did’ it is; to stop any reader with a fluffy grammar fixation getting annoyed. “Oh, thanks, Darling!” My partner, Tommy, just bought me a cup of coffee. He’s forgotten he’s brought me one already, poor man. It’s getting worse.

Eventually the pretty female officer entered without an iPad but with a note book and pen. How old fashioned! I needed to stay calm, but not too calm. She looked good in a uniform.

“Can I have your full name please? she said.

“Patrick Osman,” I said.

I chose a ‘foreign’ name and you will soon see why: a particular beef of mine.


“Turkish?”

“Australian”

“I beg your pardon.”

“It’s Australian,” I said more pointedly.

“Sounds foreign.”

“It is.”

She looked at me quizzically like I was a cheeky schoolboy with a bad record.

“All white Australians come from somewhere else,” I said. “Even you.”

“I was born here.”

“So was I.”

“And your point is?” she said as neutrally as she could, which was not very.

“An authentic Australian surname would be something like Yunupingu, Gulpilil, Noonuccal,” I said, pedant that I am.

“I see,” she said with exasperation but also, eventually, understanding: annoyed understanding. She took a breath with intent as if to challenge me further with, I expected, European names for indigenous people, but she obviously thought better of it. ‘Smartarse!’ she probably thought instead. 

“Mr. Osman, tell me what happened tonight.”

“My wife has – had – symptoms of early-stage dementia, one of which was a faulty sense of balance. She had just showered, then fell, and hit her head on the corner of the glass coffee table and died instantly.”

The attractive police officer was obviously flummoxed by the brief and precise description. She stared at me without writing anything down.

You see, I know where this is going now. Creative moments like this often cause younger, brasher writers to cry, “Oh, the writing process went so well; it wrote itself, actually.” No, it didn’t, darling, you did! Just like I am; but sometimes creative momentum can take over and you have to know when to let it, or reign it in. So, do you know where this is going? I hope not. Not yet.

“Could you please elaborate?” she asked.

“You’ve been in the bedroom. The sofa in the bay window, the coffee table, the wet feet, the wet floor, the body, the blood; doesn’t it look like that’s what happened?”

“Or made to look like that’s what happened.”

I chuckled. I could not help it. “I see. You think I picked up that large, extremely heavy and cluttered coffee table, hit her with it and then made it look like she fell on it?”

“Mr. Osman, your flippant tone isn’t helping you.”

“Do I need helping?”

“Without credibility, yes.”

I was disciplined enough to understand what she meant and so remained silent. It was then that she started to write something down. I waited.

“You said before that you were afraid that we might think you had done it.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I am on the public record, a television interview two weeks ago, as a supporter of euthanasia.”

“What was the name of the program, date, and time?” I told her. She wrote that down. Eventually she added, “So how would you describe what happened tonight?”

Serendipitous.” 

“I beg your pardon.”

I resisted a comment reflecting her possible ignorance of the word and forced myself to assume she was surprised by my supposed flippancy. “She died unexpectedly, accidentally, quickly, as opposed to gradually, sinking into confusion, a withering brain, organ dysfunction, pain, senility, a coma, then death. She loathed that scenario. Who wouldn’t?”

“Did your wife share your views on euthanasia?”

“Of course.”

“Did she also take part in that television interview?”

“No.” She wrote that down too.

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to take you into custody based on what you have told me.”

I’m resisting here to get bogged down in police procedural matters. My knowledge of the medical aspects of this story I have acquired from personal experience. However, when it comes to research for the sake of pedantic accuracy I find it unnecessary as it is safe to assume most readers are familiar with television police dramas from a wide spectrum of sub-genres, and possible procedures; and readers are willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of the story – up to a point, of course. Absolute reality is not necessary if procedural information decided on by the writer for the purposes of the story falls within the realm of possibility; besides, what is important here is the dialogue between these two characters and the development of plot and intrigue. I am talking here about what is more important: I don’t need to study aerodynamics to jump a puddle.

“You’re arresting me?”

“No, but you’re the only witness.”

“Are you going to charge me?”

“We’d like you to assist us with our enquiries.”

Oh, look! Tommy is sitting in my reading chair reading McEwan’s Amsterdam. He will not remember a thing he has read, of course. He’s read it before, when he was well. Maybe it is muscle memory at play. He used to read for hours every day. I don’t even think reading is possible for him anymore. If I had time I would watch to see if he turns the page. His balance is getting worse, too. And that is not all. However, the idea of making it look like he is doing something normal, requiring working brain function, is proof that something is still operational in that brain of his. Meanwhile I am worrying about continuing this interrogation here or back at the station. The stakes would be higher at the police station. OK. And there needs to be a developing expert who has been rabbiting around the scene, collecting information while Patrick has been questioned by the cute officer.

As I was led out of my house a dozen or so people, all clad in white plastic looking like workers in a nuclear power plant, passed me and invaded my house like ants. And yes, the police officer, the same one who saw me naked, did place his hand on my head, pushing it lower, protecting it from damage, as he directed me into the back seat of the police car. The ride to the station was uneventful: no one spoke. I was later led politely into an interview room and offered a cup of coffee. I asked for tea, English Breakfast, and the young man stared at me for a moment, either in ignorance or distain, but then went away to get it, maybe not English Breakfast, but he went away. I sat and waited. There wasn’t a vast mirror on the wall; you know, a two-way mirror for investigators to sit behind and watch proceedings, making clever but snide remarks, but there was a CCTV camera in the corner of the ceiling. At least some modernisation is occurring in our police force. And, lo and behold, a little red light went on as I was watching it. A few moments later she arrived.

She turned on the recording device on the table between us, stated the date and time, my name, and her name, “Detective Constable Lena Marinos.” She asked me the same questions she asked me at my house and I gave the same answers, minus some of my attitude: I thought it only fitting. I was curious what line of questioning she would take but she did not continue. Instead another person entered the room.   

He was a large man in a cheap suit. He had pages in his hand. Paper. This station is so behind the times. 

“Joined now by Chief Inspector Mullen,” said Detective Constable Lena Marinos for the sake of the recording but who did not see fit to introduce him to me.

“Mr. Osman,” said the new arrival referring to his bits of paper, “you said your wife had just showered and had walked into the bedroom drying herself presumably.” He spoke like a rugby player, all mumble, few consonants,

I won’t bore you with writing his dialogue phonetically; you get the idea.

“but the floor and her feet were dry.”

“Shouldn’t a lawyer be sitting quietly next to me?” I asked in the politest tone I could muster.

“We haven’t charged you with anything,” said Marinos. “You’re just …”

“Yes, I know,” I interrupted, “just helping you with your enquiries. It probably evaporated.”

“What?” said Mullen.

“The water,” I said helpfully. “It probably evaporated.”

“What work did your wife do?” he asked, ignoring my comment.

“We run a business together: an employment service specialising in relief staff for the medical industry.”

“Did she understand medical …” he waved his hands as he sought for the word, I expected him to say ‘stuff’, “… procedures?”

“She was a trained nurse with many years’ first-hand experience,” I said.

“Was she up with, ya know, trauma cases?”

“Most of her career was in the emergency department.”

“So she knew about trauma injuries.”

“That’s what usually happens in an emergency department; yes.”

“Did you see her fall?”

“No. I was about to sit but looking for a space on the cluttered coffee table to put my gin and tonic; she was walking from the en-suite drying herself.”

“She was naked?”

“She was drying herself with a towel, so, yes and no.”

“And talking at the same time.”

“Yes. She could do that.” I instantly regretted that line. Marinos looked at her hands.

“What was she saying?” Mullen asked.

I did not hesitate. I thought little about what I should say, but I was aware that an instant reply was necessary, otherwise they may think I was working something out; weighing my options for a better answer. “Her condition was constantly on her mind, what to do about it, be in control of it, avoiding the medical and legal outcomes. I don’t remember exactly what she said but she always spoke about that, ever since she was diagnosed.”

I want you to believe him. Do you?

“I think I was thinking about all the coffee table clutter: where did it come from, what could be tossed. I don’t remember exactly.”

“Are you aware that aiding and abetting a suicide is a criminal offence?”

I chucked incredulously, “Yes.” I could sense a goal he was steering the questions towards. A goal he so desperately wanted.

“Do you remember when you realised something was wrong?”

“I hadn’t sat yet, or had I?” I thought about it. What did I remember? Oh, yes. “No, I hadn’t sat down yet. I heard a sound. A surprised sound. Like an ‘oops’ but it was soft, sharp but soft. Not alarming until I looked up.” I sighed deeply, closed my eyes, and flopped my head back.

“What did you see?”

I was trying to recollect the sequence of events, their order, their connections. Did I remember the sequence or did my brain fill in the gaps with invented logic? “It was just before she hit the floor.”

“The floor or the coffee table?”

I could feel their logic. “The floor. She was in the air, facing up.” I could see her as if caught in a photograph, suspended in the air. “Her backside hit the floor first, and then her head was thrown back sharply, whipped against the corner of the coffee table. The sound was like a bottle breaking on concrete.”

I worried about the words ‘arse’ or ‘backside’. He’s a man who would say ‘arse’, never ‘bum’; but given the circumstances, would he choose ‘backside’ as more polite when referring to his now dead wife? Backside, I think. Oh, dear! Here comes Tommy with another cup of coffee. Oh, now he’s staring at the used, empty cup on my desk. If only I could know what he is thinking at times like this. Now he has turned back to the kitchen with the fresh cup, confused no doubt. Poor man. Mah! Poor me!

“How did she come to rest?” asked Marinos. “On her front or on her back?”

“On her back,” I said. Yes, I can see her lying on her back.

“Where was the towel?” asked Mullen

“I don’t know.”

“Was she wearing it?” Marinos asked.

“Yes. No! I put it over her after I called triple O.”

“Mr. Osman,” said Mullen in a winning tone, “your wife was found lying on her stomach with her towel wrapped around her and tucked in above her breasts, like women do.” 

“But the wound was to the back of her head,” I said aware of the flutter in my voice.

“Yes. So, you moved her?”

“I remember closing her eyes.” Did I?

“Mr. Osman, I put it to you that you colluded with your wife to end her life. She knew exactly where a blow would have an instantaneous effect. She talked to you about this. You planned how it should look. The shower, the water on the floor, the cluttered coffee table, everything. An accident. She needed you to aim her head at the exact spot. That’s why you remember her eyes. You were holding her head aiming at the correct spot and with great force you jabbed her head onto the corner of the coffee table and achieved your shared goal. Putting her out of her misery. A noble deed, Mr. Osman, but an illegal one.”

“So you believe me,” I said quietly. “You said there was no water, so you believe me about the water. Hah? You believe me! You just ……” I could not help myself. “Chief Inspector Mullen!” I wanted to say ‘Mullet’! I shouted vehemently. “Do you understand how ludicrous that sounds? That is the most ridiculous story I have ever heard and that any courtroom has ever heard, or may still hear, no doubt. Why didn’t she just put a bullet in her head? Why didn’t she just jump off the roof? Why didn’t she take a handful of pills and slit her wrists in a hot bath like any sensible person? Why go to all this ridiculous trouble?”

“Because she loved you Mr. Osman,” said Marinos sweetly. “And you loved her. She wanted you to be her last image. There you were face to face. A kiss perhaps? Your face was the last thing she saw: you, then nothing. Her face was the last thing you saw: her, then she was gone. Over. Finished. Saved.” 

I stared at her feeling moisture in my eyes and then said to stop it, “You’ve been watching too much Swedish crime drama.”

I never did get my cup of tea.

There was a trial. A short trial. The police’s story sounded just as ludicrous in the courtroom as it did in the station. I was acquitted. There was such a lot of truth and fiction thrown around in that courtroom; so mixed up, no-one was ever sure which was which. One thing I do know though; I’m not such a bad liar after all.

Oh, Tommy! What – are – we – going – to – do – with – you?

-oOo-

Falconer by John Cheever

John-Cheever-pic
American short story writer and novelist (1912 – 1982), the ‘Chekov of the suburbs.’

John  Cheever was not a very nice man; or, to be kinder, a very complicated man. His wife. Mary,  hardly spoke to him – she had good season, he disliked homosexuals but was one himself – one lover, a student, lived with the family for a while; but he also had a short affair with Hope Lange, and he was an alcoholic until 1973; his daughter describing him as a father said, “he was a nightmare”. He was a snob and feared shame; and while terrified of his sexuality he wrote “if I could express myself erotically I would come alive.” He and his wife certainly hurt each other but they didn’t see that as a reason to break up a family. He craved the safety of domestic life but it made him ‘blissfully unhappy’.

In Colm Tóibín’s essay collection New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and Their Families (2012) his chapter on Cheever is entitled, New Ways to Make Your Family’s Life  a Misery. That chapter was well-thumbed while writing this post.

He loved fame. If you are a famous musician, you can play something; if you’re a movie star, you can give them an autograph; but if you’re a writer, as Cheever’s son Federico put it, “Well, you get to say pompous things. You get to talk about aesthetics and things like that. That’s the goodies you get.”

“I would like to live in a world,” Cheever wrote, “where there are no homosexuals but I suppose Paradise is thronged with them.”

Before he died he wrote to his son “What I wanted to tell you is that your father has had his cock sucked by quite a few disreputable characters. I thought I’d tell you that, because sooner or later somebody’s going to tell you and I’d just as soon it came from me.” “I don’t mind Daddy, if you don’t mind.” In 1991 the New Yorker and Knopf paid 1.2 million dollars for the rights to publish the journals. Mary Cheever did not read them.

Cheever’s most famous story is The Swimmer (1964): a man ‘swims’ home via all the swimming pools from where he had been lounging beside one, to his. He is well regarded by his neighbours along the way but as he ‘swims’ closer to home the mood gets darker and the context more surreal. Is this really happening? When he gets there his house is empty. It was made into a film in 1968 starring Burt Lancaster. It was unsuccessful, but since has garnered a cult status. It was also the acting debut of comedienne Joan Rivers and the compositional debut of composer Marvin Hamlisch.

*

Many years ago my partner (now husband) and I had a boat: an old wooden cruiser. We took two friends motoring on Broken Bay one weekend and had a meal at Cottage Point Inn. We moored the boat rather grandly right in front of the restaurant; had a wonderful long lunch; too many bottles of wine; and returned to the boat only to find that it wouldn’t start. One of our guests, Julian, a vet, pulled up the floor hatch, climbed into the engine cavity and with a small implement borrowed from a neighbouring boat (far more grand, far more impressive) and a teaspoon from our cutlery drawer, got the engine going. What impressed me most, and has stayed with me all this time, was the feeling of Julian’s self-confidence, ease, and complete understanding of what he was doing. That same feeling returned while reading this book.

Falconer got Cheever on the cover of Newsweek with the title, A Great American Novel in 1977. It was on the New York Times best-seller list for three weeks. Cheever won the Pulitzer Prize in 1979 for his next published work, his collected Stories.

Falconer, on the surface is a crime/punishment/redemption story: Ezekiel Farragut, an academic and drug addict kills his brother, although he admits hitting him with a fire iron, he says his brother was drunk and he fell and hit his head on the hearth; he has a “profound”  love affair with a fellow inmate and then escapes, posing as a corpse, and understands he’s a better man.

The third-person narrator self-references once …

but at the time at which I’m writing, leg irons were still used …

This is rare, as if the narrator is a character, Cheever we suspect, but it need not be. If a third-person narrator self-references too much, he becomes a first-person narrator.

His wife, Marcia, visits him in prison

Farragut stepped into this no man’s land and came on hard, as if he had been catapulted into the visit by mere circumstance. ‘Hello darling’ he exclaimed as he had exclaimed ‘Hello darling’ at trains, boats, airports, the foot of the highway, journey’s end; but in the past he would have worked out a timetable, aimed at the soonest possible sexual consummation.

and as they talk,

Out the window he could see some underwear and fatigues hung out to dry. They moved in the breeze as if this movement – like the movements of ants, bees, and geese – had some polar ordination.

The narrator relates Farragut’s anecdotes about his relationship with his wife: their back story …

… he thought that perhaps a bag of fox grapes may do the trick. He was scrupulous about the sexual magic of tools.

He means ‘tools’ in the sense of ‘gifts’, but uses the word ‘tools’; it darkly colours the image with cynicism and says more about Cheever than about Farragut.

Contradictions are scattered through the text like peppercorns in a stew; light and shade, good and bad, right and wrong, innocence and guilt, ‘superficial and fortuitous’, masculine and feminine …

He had been called a bitch by a woman he deeply loved and he had always kept this possibility in mind. 

Most of the text is a stream of consciousness, a re-emerging writing style, as noted in the Booker Prize 2018 winner, Milkman by Anna Burns;  but I’ll leave the last word to Tóibín.

“If you ignore the upbeat, cheesy ending, Falconer is the best Russian novel in the English language.”                                                                                                                         Colm Tóibín.

You can read Joan Didion’s review of Falconer in the New York Times, March 6, 1977, here.

You can buy the Kindle edition 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. 

Lanny by Max Porter

Max Porter Pic
British writer, Max Porter.

When you open a book to page one you usually do so with a blank mind,  but an expectant one; waiting for the writer to paint you a picture which becomes – the quicker the better you hope – understanding: place, time, people, action. But right from the start of Max Porter’s Lanny this assumption is useless.

Don’t be put off, if by the end of page 9 you haven’t got a clue what’s going on. Let the snatches of village gossip and easy chatty phrases wash over you like breezes, like waves: exactly like they do on the page – yes exactly like waves, not in straight lines.

Watch and listen to Max Porter talk about the making and the essence of his book, Lanny.

In the first sentence you are introduced to Dead Papa Toothwort; at this moment, and for a few pages to come, a mystery. The more you read the more theories of his identity test themselves until you think that Dead Papa Toothwort is a presence, something like an invisible, all-knowing spirit that flits, swoops, and hovers in and over a village, through its stories, myths, and pliable imaginations, past and present. The strange beginning and pages of wavy lines are necessary: once you accept the existence of Dead Papa Toothwort, and you must, Porter prepares you to accept a whole lot more (no spoilers here).

But the village is real, as real as a novelistic village can be; a dormitory nameless village on the outskirts of London – and we finally meet characters in that village, and we are on safer ground. Understanding, place, time, characters, action emerge like a happy vista through a rising fog. Lanny’s Mum, Lanny’s Dad and Pete. They tell you their stories in the first person, and all of their stories revolve around Lanny. A boy. An exceptional boy. Everyone loves Lanny. He scares people sometimes, especially his parents. He sings when he walks. He collects stuff like a bower bird. He soothes anger with a well-chosen question or a song.  And then Lanny disappears.

This book is not a conventional book. Porter has created something different, and what that something is I’m not sure, yet. What it has in common with a conventional book is that it is satisfying, a strange, but satisfying read. There are some conversations and dialogue but not in the familiar form – punctuation is minimal, but no quotation marks – yet it’s always clear what you’re reading, who is speaking, what is being said. You get to know these people very quickly. It’s a small book, I read it in two consecutive afternoons.

In the middle of the book when the town, the police, the media, turn on these three people the tension, the fear, and the unease is told through multiple voices; it isn’t important who says them; you can guess who says them.

Lanny is the centre of the story, but Lanny isn’t given his own voice. You learn to love Lanny via those around him. Porter gives you recognisable emotions, flawed parents, uncaring neighbours, who themselves sometimes are given a voice; familiar novelistic traits that are compensation for, it seems, for the unconventional beginning and format.

I have only one criticism: I would’ve liked to have witnessed more of Lanny’s exceptionalism; his soothing of anger with a song, for example, than just been told about it.

As Porter says, it is not a book that has much to do with today. There are no mobile phones, computers, or text-speak. It is a book about sound and our imagination and how we need to let a writer tickle that imagination into forms and acceptances that are a little out of our comfort zone.

I urge you to give him that chance.

Max Porter’s first novel, Grief is The Thing with Feathers (2015), won many awards and nominations and has been sold in twenty nine territories. A theatrical version was staged in Dublin in March 2018.

You can watch an interview with Porter about Lanny, it’s themes and genesis, here.

The Tree of Man by Patrick White

 

Patrick White pic
Australian writer, Patrick Victor Martindale White, 1912 – 1990. Offered but declined a knighthood in 1970. Won the 1973 Nobel Prize for Literature.

I have had a checkered reading of Patrick White: I started The Tree of Man (published in 1955) when I was too young to appreciate it, so stopped; I started The Twyborn Affair (1979) but, not long in, threw the thing against the wall – I don’t remember why; and in 2011 I read A Fringe of Leaves (1976) several times – for academic purposes – and loved it! It was his first novel after the Nobel Prize and the pressure must have been immense.

The title comes from A. E. Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad (31):

There, like the wind through woods in riot, 
      Through him the gale of life blew high; 
The tree of man was never quiet: 
      Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I. 

In 1957 Patrick White wrote in a letter, “I felt the life was, on the surface, so dreary, ugly, monotonous, there must be a poetry hidden in it to give it a purpose, and so I set out to discover that secret core, and The Tree of Man emerged.”

“I wanted to suggest in this book every possible aspect of life, through the lives of an ordinary man and woman. But at the same time, I wanted to discover the extraordinary behind the ordinary, the mystery and the poetry which alone could make bearable the lives of such people, and incidentally my own life since my return” … to Australia in 1948. 

He uses the word ‘poetry’ in both these quotes. If you see this word on the cover, or more usually on the back-cover, of any book it usually means ‘literary’, ‘difficult’ and such a book won’t be found in an airport bookshop. It is, apart from anything else, informative.

The Tree of Man is about life. Stan Parker, a young ordinary man, (Life had not yet operated on his face) marries Amy, a young orphan (…had not yet felt affection for any human being) and takes her to live with him in a rough hut he has built on a plot of rough inherited land in the bush. What happens to them is the plot. What they feel, and usually don’t understand, and the discovery of meanings, insights, and poetry is the narrative and far more important; the description is the place and what it does to them, and the dialogue is how we get to know, and feel for, all the characters. These are the elements of a novel: narrative, description, and dialogue. And in the first two is where the poetry is.

Early in the book, after a devastating flood Amy Parker takes in a stranded boy, assumed an orphan. During the boy’s first night with the Parkers, she finds the lad late at night sitting by the fireplace looking at the dying fire through a piece of red glass:

‘What are you doing here?’ the child asked. 

‘Why,’ she said, ‘I live here. This is my house.’ 

But her skin was cold. She was uncertain of her furniture.

That last line of two short sentences is an example of literariness. The link between her last spoken line, This is my house and the next line of prose, But her skin was cold is not linear. There is a knowledge gap. And there is another, bigger, gap between that line and the next, seemingly strange one, She was uncertain of her furniture. What has to happen here is for the reader to fill in those gaps. This reader filled in that the child was warm but she wasn’t, so at a disadvantage; the child had control here, and she, not much more than a child herself, was intimidated by him. The second larger gap I filled in with an even stronger feeling of inadequacy: she knew nothing about anything, not even her furniture, which suddenly seemed irrelevant to her, as if she had no say in it; again like a child.

The child was looking at her hand. It was lying with some lost purpose along his arm. She still had to learn the words that she might speak.

This is what literary fiction does: the thought processes are not linear so requiring the reader to use their intuition, experience, and self-trust. What the writer meant by all of this is irrelevant – they’ve either moved on to their next book, or are dead – it’s in the realm of the reader, always, and what the reader thinks is correct.

This is an Everyman story of how people behave based on their own wishes and desires and to each other, the poetic majesty of living, loving, and making a life for themselves out of the scrubby wilderness but without any of the words necessary to express such feelings and mysteries. They talk to each other as uneducated country people do while the narrator reveals everything else.

Like all readers, we make a pact with writers to accept their omnipotence and let them lead us blindly along the tracks, twists, and turns of the narrative, no matter how ordinary the action is. The ‘novel’ is in the narrative. If you pick up a Patrick White novel and open it this is what you have to do. This is where the pleasure is.

Along the way, in the narrative, not in the dialogue, there can be incredible wisdom.

But he respected and accepted her mysteries as she could never respect and accept his.

This is profound. In one short sentence White encapsulates the essence of male-female relations that lie at the heart of countless novels, films, musicals, and, indeed, relations between the sexes for centuries, as in the song, Marry the Man Today, from the 1950’s musical Guys and Dolls, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser.

Marry the man today
Rather than sigh in sorrow
Marry the man today
And change his ways tomorrow.

As a literary work about the essence of mankind such pronouncements are the result of his intention: to discover the ‘poetry’ of human existence. His sentence instantly paints that archetypical relationship in which the husband unquestionably, but usually because he just wants peace between them, follows the tenants of his married life as stipulated by his wife, but she is forever ‘nagging’ him to change his ways. During this scene where White uncovers such universal truths the pair are talking about selling a calf: he thinks they have too many, she thinks the heifer, she calls her Nancy, will fret; she worries about their daughter who has cried over the extraction of a splinter under her fingernail, he thinks she’s doing fine if that’s all she has to worry about. Character based dialogue, simple and personal, but the wisdom and truth is in the literary narrative with language that the uneducated characters of their own story would never use.

His simplicity had not yet received that final clarity and strength which can acknowledge the immensity of belief. So instead of praying he went into a café and ordered a plate of food.

What people mean when they say ‘I believe…’ is often ‘I believe in the believing’. Believing comes with ritual, mannerisms, uniforms, social contact, expectations, and the resulting satisfaction. People pray without a sense of who they are praying to. They believe in the action of praying. It’s comforting. It’s doing something. Something that many people would approve of, and is therefore satisfying; like ordering a plate of food, which, realistically, is far more comforting because it actually arrives.

The narrative follows the couple, their two children, Ray,  who doesn’t turn out well, and Thelma, who marries a solicitor and has the opportunity to wear furs and crocodile skin shoes and so she has the excuse to look down on her parents. Stan and Amy Parker have two grandchildren and it’s possible they might like to make things right with the children and the children’s children; but it’s too late: it’s not their call any more. They missed it, and it’s inferred that the next generation, as parents, will do no better.

White explores the dichotomy of parental love and how we have no control over it: you love them as kids but maybe not as adults. They grow-up and grow-away. Even the people with we live with for decades we learn to take for granted. So when the grandson  comes in wet from a storm …

And Stan 

The old woman began to remember her husband whom she had forgotten. She forgot him now for whole days.

White started out to find the poetry in life, instead he found the truth.

 

 

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.

No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani

Translated by Omid Tofighian

Omid Tofighian pic

Omid Tofighian is Lecturer in Rhetoric and Composition in the School of Literature, Art, and Media and Honorary Research Associate in the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry at the University of Sydney.

Although Tofighian is the translator, he acknowledges over a dozen people involved in getting Boochani’s original text smuggled from Manus via WhatsApp and Facebook into his hands.

One aspect I was always conscious of was that Behrouz was writing in Farsi, not Kurdish. He was writing in the language of his oppressors, even though he is a fervent advocate of Kurdish culture, language and politics. And the book was being translated into the language of his torturers.

I saw this translation opportunity as a chance to contribute to history by documenting and somehow supporting the persecution of forgotten people; translation for me, like writing for Behrouz, is a duty to history and a strategy for positioning the issue of indefinite detention of refugees deep within Australia’s collective memory.

Janet Galbraith lic

The book is dedicated to Janet Galbraith who coordinates and facilitates the writing group Writing Through Fences, an organisation that collaborates with incarcerated refugees (or previously detained refugees) and amplifies and supports their writing and art.

 

____________________________________

Behrouz Boochani pic
Kurdish-Australian writer and asylum seeker, Behrouz Boochani. Winner of the Non-Fiction Prize and the Victorian Prize for Literature at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, 2019. 

“In 2013, Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani was illegally detained on Manus Island.

He has been there ever since.”

Australian law would object strongly to the word ‘illegally’, international law may not.

On a truck bumping through the dense Javanese jungle on a dark and bumpy track heading to the beach, even asylum seekers aren’t immune to the hazards of public transport,

A loud, obnoxious and completely inconsiderate Kurdish guy forces everyone to breathe his cigarette smoke throughout the trip. He is accompanied by a gaunt wife, adult son, and another son, a little bastard. This kid has his mother’s physical features and his father’s character. He is so loud he torments the whole truck, treating everything as a joke, and annoying everyone with his impatient and disruptive manner. He even gets on the nerves of the smuggler, who yells at him.

Finally after much shouting, rudeness, and disrespect as the over-wrought passengers jostle for space, the rotting boat heads out to sea

like a heavily pregnant mare cantering carefully across a dark prairie of water,

where there isn’t enough room for everyone to sit or lie but those who can, sleep.

Even the normal physical boundaries between families has fallen apart. Men lie in the arms of another’s wife, children lie on the chests and bellies of strangers…the young Sri Lankan family, whose bond is maybe the strongest of all on board, has fallen apart. The husband is in the arms of the man next to him, the wife has her head on the bicep of another man, and their child has ended up across the thighs of a different woman.

Those who aren’t sleeping are vomiting as the waves get bigger and pound the leaking boat … then the bilge pump fails …

This whole mess / In the darkness of midnight / Looks like death / Smells like death / Embodies death / The cries / The screams / The swearing / The knocking about / The sounds of the small children / The heart-wrenching and painful sounds of the little children / These sounds transform the chaotic boat into hell.

Why don’t the people, who just hours earlier were in danger of death from the waves but now on the deck of the Australian ship listening to those same waves lick and lap harmlessly against the hull; why don’t they yell and laugh with happiness at their salvation? They sit quietly and still. Even Boochani doesn’t know why. To the Australians they must seem like, like, cargo, soundless cargo, salvaged from the sea.

Boochani has known death and fear; as a young man he wanted to fight for the liberation of his homeland, but he chose the pen over the gun. Was he a coward? Afraid of death? Then on the ocean he faced both fear and death. Saw fear in the faces of others and felt it in his guts, tasted it on his tongue; the ocean provided him with the most intimate relationship with fear and death. Now he is judged and locked up by people who know neither of these two things. Maybe he should’ve been a soldier, at least he would be shot at by people who, like him, knew about fear and death. It would be an equal fight. Just, even.

Boochani tried twice to get to Australia. He encountered fear and death on both attempts. As he scrambled onto another ill-prepared boat for his second attempt he had to admit that such an action wouldn’t be possible but for courage and foolishness. Returning to Iran, unthinkable! He was aware of his fellow travellers not really knowing any of these four demons: fear, foolishness, courage, and death. They soon would.

I’m stopping! I write this post as I read – as I usually do when reviewing a book, but it’s hard to know what not to cut and paste to show you, let you see what it sounds like because everything is worthy of quoting; every line is full of something, something worth passing on. I want to show you all of it. So, do it; just read it.

Writing allows us to “come to understand another’s point of view in the most profound way possible.” (Erica Wagner, writer, critic, and a Man-Booker Prize judge, twice)

I will continue to read this book, not out of a need for entertainment, but for enlightenment, understanding. I’ve only ever seen asylum seekers on the news, voiceless bodies behind wire. The Australian Government has not wanted us to hear what they have to say: journalists are banned on Manus and Nauru. This is the first time I have the opportunity to hear what the Australian Government does not want me to hear. That is why I will read it to the end; as I hope you will too.

You can buy the eBook ($14.99) from Pan-Macmillan here.

You can buy the Kindle version ($US11.99) here.

Arnold Zable, an Australian writer is also part of this story. You can read his SMH article and watch a short trailer for the video Chauka, please tell me the time, here

Watch Behrouz’s videoed acceptance speech, here. He was not allowed to attend the Award’s Presentation.

Unfettered and Alive: a memoir by Anne Summers

anne summers pic
Anne Summers: journalist, feminist, and writer. “If we constantly rewrite history to fit how we see things now, we forget how things used to be and, equally important to future scholars, how we used to see them.”

Anne Summers and her publishers have produced a handsome book, and it begins, unusually, with a letter to her thirty-year-old self: Dear Anne, and so, consequently, it’s written in the second person; and it sets the beginning as at that time, when she was thirty, and summarises what went before which was told in her first autobiographical work, Ducks on the Pond 1945-1976 (1999).  So this, a re-cap, is a neat and imaginative way to catch you up, especially if you haven’t read the earlier work; which is, by the way, now only available on Amazon US at $115.64 for the second-hand hardcover, which is cheaper than the $191.89 for a second hand paperback! However, if you can’t find a copy anywhere else, here’s the link.

For someone who, from an early age, felt profoundly at odds with what the Adelaide world of her Catholic childhood promised her: an identity based on a man and the success, or otherwise, of their children and a future slowly fading into cranky old age and invisibility, she has stubbornly and courageously shunned all of that and forged her own path that has turned out to be something like an open-ended roller-coaster. It’s a crackling tale: ecstatic highs and scary lows; and all along the way the reader gets an insight into the characters she engaged with and the history we all lived through, all in a chatty and self-effacing tone that has you barracking for her as she strides around yet another corner into the unknown, including South Africa, the badlands of western Pakistan – without a hijab, and later as Chair of Greenpeace International which took her, well, everywhere.

anne summers 1980
Anne Summers at the National Press Club during the 1980 CHOGM meeting in Australia directing a question at British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. photo: Allan & Unwin

The personal is also covered. Her uneasy relationship with her parents, especially her father; the painful rediscovery of her paternal grandfather; there’s treachery and betrayal from colleagues and friends; a health scare; and finally meeting the love of her life, and that started in the photo-copy room! He’d been around all along!

The political years of this chronicle cover Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Howard, and Rudd/Gillard/Rudd: a turbulent, often frustrating – for us, I mean – but never a boring time in Australian politics. Of special note is her calling out the appalling misogyny Prime Minister Gillard received at the hands of the shock jocks, political opponents, and a particular, but faded, cartoonist. Her insights and insider status make fascinating reading as seen from her media perspective (her attitude to Keating changed; her attitude to Howard didn’t); and then in the middle of all that her successful empire building (and spectacular fall!) at the top of the media tree in New York “…if I can make it there, I’ll make it …..” you know how it goes! Well, she did and then, almost immediately, she didn’t!

But when down, or idle – something she hates – an opportunity passes her window or, more usually, she creates one, and so grabs it with both hands and she’s off again!

Running through all of this, is her strong advocacy for the rights of women; their professional fulfilment, all their wishes, needs, and ideas taken seriously, and the universal understanding that they make mistakes but deserve to, and be allowed to, try again. What a rich, informative, and fulfilling read this is.

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2011 Australia Day postage stamp featuring Dr Anne Summers AO.

I’ve known Anne for a few decades usually meeting with mutual friends over a sumptuous meal and a bottle of good red wine or three but I wasn’t prepared for the breadth and depth of her worldly participation nor her personal honesty.

I find scheduling reading time a sign of a good book; but you’ll also need to schedule a breather now and then. Don’t read this in bed. You’ll never get to sleep.

You can find the book here, and the kindle version here. For Indonesian readers you can find the book here.

Be very careful when Googling Anne; you’ll undoubtedly get the English Ann Summers (Ann, no ‘e’) who is a designer and marketer of raunchy women’s underwear.