Compulsory reads can be a chore but just as often they lead to wonderful discoveries. I’m so glad I’ve been pushed to read American writer Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010), a set text for the first-year fiction unit I’m tutoring this semester. It’s a brilliant novel about youth and middle age, success and failure. It’s spread across a canvas of American characters between the 1970s and 2020s, all of them with some connection (or two degrees of separation) to music publicist Bennie. In the first chapter, focused on Sasha, her friend Rob who drowned in college is mentioned in passing. I thought nothing of it at that point, but chapters later we read his story, this character who is just a sentence in the first chapter. In ways like this the novel gives a sense of the poignancy of all the remembered (and forgotten) people and events in any one’s life. It’s a novel which expands our appreciation of life, going beyond initial viewpoint characters and their present to reveal the past and future and inner lives of other characters. The title might have put me off reading it, but it turns out to be so appropriate – a character reflects midway through that time is a goon who comes along and beats you up. The narrative voice reminds me of Jonathan Franzen; its also the same milieu. The approach itself – linked, self-contained stories – must be emerging as a genre in its own right; off the top of my head, two other works I love have used it – Tim Winton’s The Turning (2005) and Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination (2011) – and my friend Laurie Steed has a manuscript which will join this club when it’s published. (I remember some earlier examples – Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles and Thomas M. Disch’s 334, John Updike’s work – but I’m wondering if it’s becoming more common, and also feel there’s an increased element of design and effect of the whole in these recent examples.)
Good on Charlotte Wood for breaking precedent and keeping her Stella Prize money. Could buy her enough time to write another. Writers make so little money that unless they’re JK Rowling they should feel no pressure to give it away.
I like poetry collections with a strong thematic unity which hold together as a book. My friend Tracy Ryan’s latest collection Hoard (Whitmore Press, 2015) is a beautiful example, as she examines the Irish boglands and the hoards hiding within from different angles, different times, different voices.
The collection begins with “The changeling addresses Ireland,” a long poem which gives a sense of the patchwork of styles and voices which compose the book as a whole. Thematically, the poem is on a larger scale than the rest of the collection, situating bogs and hoards in the context of the poet as an Australian of Irish descent returning to a place of origin. A century ago, the relationship of Australians to Britain and Ireland was a pressing concern; even if this is no longer the case for most Australians, time has only complicated the dimmed ties:
diverged from your
which even so tries
to persist in me
The perspective in the poems which follow shifts from that of “Hoard hider” to “Hoard finder” to the ‘experience’ of the hoard itself in “Orphaned hoard” – “wrenched out of context / finds itself split and separated”. All these people, all these objects connected across time and consciousness by this landscape. The narrator makes a welcome return, too, providing some sense of the quest through the boglands which are generating these poems in a couple of poems like “Bog conversation”:
I sip from a hot mug big as a chalice
and where we stop is arbitrary
because with bogs we are barely
ever more than scratching the surface
Searching for a comparison point in my limited knowledge of poetry, it’s one of my favourite poems, Auden’s “The Quest”, which comes to mind. The twenty parts of that poem offer a similarly shifting, multi-perspective view of the subject, adding up to a composite narrative that is different – and in certain ways superior – to the more consistent narratives fiction tends to demand. In this multiplicity of ways of looking at the bog and the hoard, the subject begins to turn into a lens for looking at the whole world anew, reimagining things like memory, the passage of time, legacy, belief, identity. It’s this sustained attention to one subject which allows Tracy to drag from it and hide in it so many treasures.
One album will put baby Thomas to sleep: Tiny Ruins’ Brightly Painted One. Itunes says I played the album’s best song, “She’ll Be Coming Around,” seventy times in 2015, but it wasn’t counting all the times it played in the car at 4am in the pre-dawn dark as I looped around the deserted restaurant strip. It’s a soothing indie-folk album, beauty inflected with a wistfulness, never completely sad like so much music I listen to.
It was the year of the Orbweavers too, a quintessentially Melbourne duo (also indie-folk, I suppose), who don’t sing about predictable themes, but instead draw on stories from their city’s history. Their most recent album, Loom, is superb, but my favourite of theirs is probably “On My Way Home,” a catchy and poignant song.
- She’ll Be Coming Around – Tiny Ruins (NZ, 2014)
- On My Way Home – Orbweavers (Aust, 2009)
- Small Plane – Bill Callahan (US, 2013)
- Gypsy Candle – Giant Sand (US, 2015)
- My Least Favourite Life – Lera Lynn (US, 2015) –
the best thing about True Detective season 2.
- Got You Well – Gabrielle Papillion (Canada, 2015)
- Vacancy – Aisha Badru (US, 2015) – can you imagine if Sarah Blasko and Lisa Mitchell were the same person?
- Confession – Lotte Kestner (US, 2013)
There’s a beautiful weariness to this song. “Sometimes the moment gets it right / I like the things you say when you drink”
- Black Notebook – Ane Brun (Norway, 2015)
- If I Could Tell You – Nev Cottee (Britain, 2015)
Our firstborn, Thomas, came into the world in July, and, predictably, I have not been to the cinema since then. If I did go, I would probably fall asleep halfway through. But I’ve still seen some fine film and television this year. We signed up for Netflix to watch series 3 of House of Cards (good but not in my favourites list) and stayed with it for its convenience (the equivalent of a dozen paused DVDs at any time) and interesting range. It started with a well-chosen Australian selection, which I used as an education in some classics I’d missed; alas it hasn’t added many Australian titles since. I’ve reviewed a number of my favourite films, but none of the television series, so I’ll offer some comments on them.
- Fargo, season 2 (US/Canada, 2015; SBS) – each episode is a near-perfect short feature film. The crime trappings are just a mode of investigating existence. It’s intelligent, funny, absurd, sometimes brutal. And if you haven’t seen season 1, it stands on its own. But watch season 1.
- Black Mirror (Brit, 2011-2013; Netflix) – these short films are extrapolations of our current culture, a couple of years into the future, and offer the most extraordinary critique of our lives today. It’s science fiction at its best.
- Toast of London, season 1 (Brit, 2013; SBS) – I cannot convey how bizarre this show is as it follows Steven Toast, the world’s second finest high-winds actor, around his improbable career on stage and film. To give one taste: his arch-enemy exacts revenge on Toast by pretending to be a plastic surgeon and turning a friend of a friend into a Bruce Forsyth look-alike, just to annoy Toast. And you know what he finds funny? He’s not even very annoyed. This will be a cult hit for decades to come but season 2 is not as good.
- The Americans, season 2 (US, 2014; DVD) – this is a small masterpiece of the drama and thriller genres, as deep undercover Soviet agents live out their suburban lives in the US of the early 1980s.
- Utopia, season 2 (Australia, 2015; ABC) – this satire is so perceptive about how offices function and the groupthink / buzz-words / box ticking which drives too much decision-making in the public service and politics.
1. The Illumination / Kevin Brockmeier (USA, 2011)
Andrew Hagan’s novel The Illuminations received a lot of attention this year; I haven’t read it even though my Kindle believes I should, but I did read Kevin Brockmeier’s very similarly titled novel from a few years ago. It’s set tomorrow when everyone’s pain suddenly becomes illuminated, and follows a number of interweaving stories. It shows the potential for speculative fiction to explore the meaning of life and it’s a beautifully strange story. My review
2. Crow’s Breath / John Kinsella (Australia, 2015)
John Kinsella’s short, intense stories are haunted and haunting. My review
3. The Privileges / Jonathan Dee (USA, 2010)
My favourite Jonathan Franzen novel of the year was by Jonathan Dee; it manages to be smart and funny and affecting all at once in chronicling the American rich.
4. Purity / Jonathan Franzen (USA, 2015)
Jonathan Franzen’s actual new novel was not far behind – I called it an “engrossing and ambitious novel about idealism and marriage.” My review
5. The Book of Strange New Things / Michael Faber (Britain, 2014)
Perhaps this book has to make the top five because I’m still so unsure of what to make of it. A strange novel of religion, marriage and aliens. My review
I read as much non-fiction (mainly life writing) as fiction this year, and I’ll be posting my favourites on my other blog, A Biographer in Perth. What was your favourite work of fiction this year?
I first sent a submission to Westerly last century. It was 1999, and it was a poem about leaving home to move to Perth for uni. It came back rejected with a single word circled – I’d used “obstinately” instead of “ostensibly”. I felt a little mortified. There’s no room for getting a word wrong in poetry. (It wasn’t the only reason for its rejection, I’m sure.) Since then, I’ve racked up a couple more rejections – I think two short stories, one of which nearly made it. And now sixteen years later in a third genre – that of the biographical essay – I have finally appeared in the pages of Westerly. It’s the story of Katharine Susannah Prichard’s childhood, and it’s adapted from chapter two of my PhD. I’ve written about it over on my biographer blog.
Source: Westerly 60:2 – Westerly
My biography of the early years of Katharine Susannah Prichard is a couple of years from completion, but a modified version of chapter two has just been published in Westerly 60.2. My essay is called “‘The memory of a storm’: The Wild Oats of Han and the childhood of Katharine Susannah Prichard, 1887 to 1895.”
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