Obsession in suburban Perth: Tracy Ryan’s ‘Claustrophobia’

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Tracy Ryan Claustrophobia (Transit Lounge, 2014)

My friend Tracy Ryan’s new novel, Claustrophobia, was published recently by Transit Lounge. Set in Perth, it’s a literary thriller about a woman’s obsession with her husband, Derrick’s ex-lover, Kathleen. The claustrophobia of the title is an apt description of the feel of the novel. We’re constrained within the narrative viewpoint of Pen and her narrow, obsessive world. Her marriage is claustrophobic, too, the jealousies and social isolation fueling her behavior. The clichés in which Pen talks and coats her world hint at a darker side constrained within, and it’s this side of her which is gradually revealed.

Pacing is important to the thriller, and in this novel it’s just right, building up tension slowly and, for the reader, unbearably, knowing something must break. The plot opens with an inciting incident of Pen uncovering an undelivered letter from Derrick to Kathleen, and deciding to open it and read it. From here, this initial decision to keep a secret in her marriage in retaliation snowballs expertly with each chapter.

I’m left at the end unsure of how to judge the characters; this ambiguity is probably part of the novel’s psychological accomplishment. Pen is an unsettling protagonist to live with for 240 pages. The positive spin on her provided by one of the other characters is that she’s intelligent and passionate, but crippled by low self-esteem. Yet as with people in real life, the characters around her don’t know the level of neurosis and obsession percolating behind her façade. Derrick, her husband, truly is too controlling, and can be seen to have helped cause Pen’s madness; yet he is a somewhat more balanced and grounded person than Pen. Kathleen is the most sympathetic of the major characters, an articulate and generous academic who lives life to the full—and yet has her own obsessiveness which emerges late in the novel.

The novel evokes Perth so very well, from suburban life in the hills, to the hallways and cafes of UWA, as well as the bush town of Pemberton. There are too few novels set in Perth, and this one is convincingly grounded in it. It’s possible to loosely associate it with the crime genre, and suggest that with the work of David Whish-Wilson and Felicity Young it begins to map out Perth as an increasingly plausible setting for crime fiction.

On the subject of genre, the characters discuss the novels of Patricia Highsmith and Georges Simenon, perhaps a case of the novel wearing its influences proudly. These are the right reference points for a contemporary novel in the tradition of these two writers, with the fresh setting of Perth.

Underclass Meets Metaworld: Review of ‘A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists’

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A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists / Jane Rawson (Transit Lounge, 2013)

Wrong Turn is set on the streets of a semi-post-apocalyptic Melbourne in 2030. Climate change has displaced many and made life difficult for those eking out an existence under the glare of the sun in a world with little water and many ways to die. The main character is Caddy, a thirty-three year old aspiring writer who does what she can (including casual prostitution) to eat and drink. The early chapters of her wheeling and dealing in errands and squabbles over five dollars as she sits in a hot bar sparring with the bartender reminded me of the feel of Thomas Disch’s 334 and some of Philip K. Dick’s work (besides the mindbending which everyone focuses on, PKD was a chronicler of the little person surviving the future). Rawson has brought to life the underclass of the near future, with its mix of boredom and menace.

To do this as successfully as she has would have been plenty enough to accomplish in a novel, but Rawson attempts much, much more. Without losing its tethering in this ruined Melbourne, the focus begins to turn to the characters Caddy is writing about, two orphaned teenagers attempting to travel through every twenty-five foot square of the USA, a task that will take them ninety years at their current pace. (I love a quixotic project like this; there is a whole other novel worthy of Paul Auster or George Perec here.) Without giving away too many of the twists, the novel shifts into the territory of writer-meets-characters and the Gap, a meta-realm which could have come from a Stephen King novel. For my taste, it’s territory which has already been overexplored, but Rawson’s take on it is quite fresh.

Wrong Turn is a distinctly Australian novel, compelling as a portrait of life as climate change hits and of the petty concerns, dreams, losses and consolations that make up the fabric of existence, as through the eyes of Caddy, a winsome character. The author blogs here; you can read her reflections on the writing life, including her work-in-progress, a non-fiction guide to surviving climate change.

The greatest song forever, for now: from Amy Grant’s “Prodigal” at the end of the tape to my five-star itunes playlist

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In 1991 the greatest song of all time, bar none, was Amy Grant’s “Prodigal”. It’s a beautiful piano ballad, a song about waiting for a loved one to return. It was at the end of my cassette tape of the album Unguarded (1985), which I’d saved up my pocket money for two months to buy, and Dad warned me if I played the same part over and over, it’d wear out. So I had to listen to the whole tape to wear it evenly, all those bouncy aerobic songs of mid-80s pop till I got to that Greatest Song of All Time. I’ll be waiting, counting the days, until I finally see your face. I knew Amy Grant was waiting for me, somewhere, waiting, probably for me to hit puberty and not be ten years old.

These days, my music collection is managed by itunes, and I studiously rate all additions to my library. Being an impartial judge of music, my ratings are objective of course, and a five star song is a five star song forever. But, why then, do I keep skipping tracks by Au Revoir Simone, that band of synthesiser-playing hippy housewives who I had a brief crush on in September 2011? And how come Depeche Mode and the Smashing Pumpkins keep dropping a star these days? Was there something wrong in my objective taste of five star songs? Of the 253 five star songs in my collection, 32 are by the Cure and only 25 are by Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds. Does this finally arbitrate the long running rivalry in my head over who my favourite artist is?

Being a librarian and having some fondness for records (in the non-LP sense), I wish itunes was more sophisticated. I wish it had multiple ratings: a rating for when this song was in season, when it was in tune with me and my life, and my rating now. Then I could re-rate songs with impunity, without losing a record of just what my taste was in years gone by.

I haven’t listened to Amy Grant’s “Prodigal” for quite some time. I don’t have it on itunes, or even on CD. I don’t have a working tape player any more. I have the tape itself, and I don’t think it ever wore out. My dad never warned me that a song could ever wear out in my head, that my favourite song, that a perfect song, might one day stop being so.

*

As I write this, with my five-star song list on random, The Cure come up with a song I have not tired of despite living with for fifteen years, “Bloodflowers”, which carries in it all the ambivalence of loving a song and knowing it’s the best song in the world, and then not knowing that any longer:

Never fade
Never die
You give me flowers of love

Always fade
Always die
I let fall flowers of blood

‘The terrible unbreathable cold': Updike on plane crashes

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Lying in bed half asleep, the radio news from the crash site washing over me, I thought of this passage from Updike’s Rabbit at Rest, a novel soaked in death. Is part of the preoccupation with MH17 the unimaginable horror of dying in the air?

Just as the Lockerbie air disaster is the backdrop to late 1988 in literature, mid-2014 will have MH17, stirring memories in future years of those amateur militia, the fields strewn with luggage, the reporters with their noses covered outside the horror-trains full of bodies in the heat.

As the candy settles in his stomach a sense of doom regrows its claws around his heart: little prongs like those that hold fast a diamond solitaire. There has been a lot of death in the newspapers lately. Before Christmas that Pan Am Flight 103 ripping open like a rotten melon five miles above Scotland and dropping all these bodies and flaming wreckage all over the golf course and the streets of this little town like Glockamorra, what was its real name, Lockerbie. Imagine sitting there in your seat being lulled by the hum of the big Rolls Royce engines and the stewardesses bringing the clinking drinks caddy and the feeling of having caught the plane and nothing to do now but relax and then with a roar and giant ripping noise and shattered screams this whole cosy world dropping away and nothing under you but black space and your chest squeezed by the terrible unbreathable cold, that cold you can scarcely believe is there but that you sometimes actually still feel packed into your suitcases, stored in the unpressurized hold, when you unpack your clothes, the dirty underwear and beach towels with the merciless chill of death from outer space still in them.
– John Updike, Rabbit at Rest 8

Used tea bags for missionaries: notes on a meme

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In Simone Lazaroo’s new novel, Lost River: Four Albums, Ruth remembers unpacking donations during her childhood on an Aboriginal mission, including

…a box of used teabags some charitable parishoner sent every few months, their strings wound carefully around their middles to enable re-use, smelling of mildew. (88)

It’s a striking, slightly comic image, speaking to the meanness of church-people sending their cast-offs to missionaries. Of course, the idea didn’t originate with Lazaroo; it’s a well-known meme among evangelicals, a reasonably common joke to crack when making tea. But where does it come from? Were missionaries actually ever sent used tea bags? It has always struck me as a little unlikely, just a little too mean.

A search across the internet reveals the meme is prevalent, and usually vague – ‘I’ve heard it said that missionaries used to get sent used tea bags’ or ‘my parents told me…’ One missionary memoir writes:

On the mission field, we sometimes joked about the “used tea bags” sent to missionaries. None of us ever experienced that. It was true, however, that I liked my tea weak…
Mabel Tyrrell, A Missionary in the Making (Xulon Press: 2007) 115.

An article on tea bags on the BBC website comments that the meme

…is doubtful, considering this rumour started when the missionaries in question were largely in India and China where tea is produced and was being shipped back to the very people who were allegedly saving their teabags. This would have been a virtuous reason for re-using teabags.

Yet tea bags weren’t commercially available until 1904, so the meme has developed since then. The closest I can find to a first hand source for its truth is in a comment by Andrew Dowsett on fellow Perth blogger Andrew Hamilton’s  blog in 2007:

The stories are true. I know, because it happened to my parents (among others?). When they were missionaries in The Philippines in the 1970s, they couldn’t get decent tea. So they let it be known to friends back home in England that they couldn’t get tea, and that when people sent teabags in food parcels, it was such a treat that they would dry out used teabags and use them a second time…
…but they were perhaps less than impressed when, in response, someone sent them used-and-dried-out teabags, with a note expressing delight that their used teabags could be such a blessing. Which I don’t think they were.

The level of detail lends authenticity – but even here, it’s a second hand report. Yet further down is a comment from someone I personally know, Phil, who says he was sent used tea bags in Afghanistan (this in the last decade). It’s this comment which convinces me that it is a ‘true’ meme, at least  occasionally.

I’m interested in how such a meme has spread. It would be fascinating to trace it back to its earliest appearance in print. Perhaps it actually was a common practice and a search through old church newspapers of the 1920s or so would reveal pleas to send used tea bags to the mission fields. Perhaps it happened occasionally but spread orally because it epitomized a mindset so well. Or perhaps it began as a sermon illustration by one of the famous preachers of the early twentieth century and was picked up from there. (For anyone who has sat through many sermons, sermon illustrations are a fascinating genre of their own, delivered as if truth, but many of them concocted, lacking specifics,spiritual truth the central concern, not historical truth. Whole books of them are still produced today, complete with a space to note the date and congregation the preacher has used each story, lest they repeat themselves.)

Ten years ago, the Fur

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Ten years ago today, The Fur was launched. It is a night special in my memory. A reunion of people who knew me, people who I could never imagine all being in the same room as each other. Friends from high-school days, great-uncles, old friends – people I haven’t seen since; my grandparents, still alive. And the literati – so many writers. All there to have me scribble in a copy of my book.

I was living intensely in those days. It was only a month later that I re-met my future wife, on another enchanted evening. We started talking that evening, and just as Paul Auster writes of Siri Hustvedt somewhere, we haven’t stopped since. She has lived with me through the aftermath of The Fur and into the long season of the Difficult Second Novel. ‘Slow down,’ I think she was trying to tell me in the early years of our marriage, or perhaps, ‘Write carefully,’ and it was advice that would take a long time to sink in. Sometimes, being in a rush is what takes the longest time.

I don’t think I’ve read The Fur properly in book form. It would be an eerie, existential act of time-travel, and probably make me sad. (There’d be moments of embarrassment, too, and hopefully a few moments of pride.) I’m always thinking of time passing, and the way things used to be, and the people and places I’ve lost, and the whole novel is the account of a season – youth – now lost to me. It’s probably nearly time to try.

Pre-humous hell: the days before sentencing

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At eighty-four, he was confident the earthly verdict upon him had already been delivered. If there was a Last Judgment, surely it was the other side of death. Earthly life was secure.

But instead, judgment comes now. He is cast into a kind of pre-humous hell. Others will visit him; news of the living will reach him; but there will be little to hope for.

*

What can he do, sent home on bail, awaiting sentencing? This house he will not return to? This freedom he will not taste again? There’s so many things he could do; the email and the letterbox bursting with both hate and those few hanging on loyally, defenders to be thanked and share commiserations with. Oh, the letters can wait until prison.

But going out to dinner to his favourite restaurant on the Thames is unthinkable. The disdain of the waitstaff, the stares of the other diners. The journalists turning up. The food would stick in his throat; this world has already passed.

There is nowhere he can go, nowhere he can escape. He won’t see Perth again, certainly won’t be cheered into Bassendean with the keys to the town. Because he made himself ubiquitous (remember that sketch from The Goodies where the Rolfs take over the countryside?) his shame is ubiquitous, he wears the mark of Cain wherever he goes.

*

How would this story have panned out with the same beginning, the same middle, but a different end? How many repentant celebrity offenders have we ever known? What would the world do with an offender who saw clearly, who repented, who humbly confessed?

In truth, there could be a little grace, a little forgiveness – with some people – but not a great deal. He has crossed some threshold. The drug cheat, the alcoholic, even the adulterer are redeemable; but not the sex offender.