In Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things (2014), a minister named Peter is sent to a distant planet, Oasis, as a missionary to humanoid aliens – the Oasans. The drama on the planet is muted – a proportion of the Oasans have become committed “Jesus Lovers” and require only pastoring and preaching; Peter’s job is not the stuff of nineteenth-century missionary adventure books in which the bearer of God’s word must endure cannibals. Life for the humans on Oasis is a little boring but not particularly dangerous or terrible. Yet Peter can communicate with his wife, Bea, through a kind of email system and from her he learns of the growing tide of disasters besetting his home planet. As the Earth fall apart, he feels disconnected from it and from his wife. Continue reading
It’s incredible that two of the greatest Australian films – Walkabout and Wake in Fright – were both released in 1971. What a year it must have been, for those who were alive and cinema-goers. Both films are ambitious explorations of Australian identity directed by non-Australians. I watched Walkabout for the first time this week after watching Wake in Fright last month. Walkabout is truly astonishing, a film that is visually captivating, engrossing as a narrative, complex, and still so fresh over forty years later. Continue reading
Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, published at the beginning of this month, is an engrossing and ambitious novel about idealism and marriage. In its long chapters from different viewpoint characters, it throws many balls into the air – fatherless Pip, real name Purity, a young woman in California with a crippling university debt and a needy, hermit-like mother; Andreas Wolf, a fictional, supposedly-purer Julian Assange, driven by lust and a dark secret from 1989 in East Berlin; and Tom Aberant, the founder of an online newspaper championing independent journalism, who still hasn’t got over his ex-wife. (It’s a curious choice that Franzen doesn’t give Pip’s mother, Penelope, a viewpoint chapter, and probably a weakness of the novel.) The different threads increasingly intertwine until the novel finally resolves with an unexpectedly cosy ending. Franzen has so many strengths. Complex characters with behaviours and thoughts that illuminate people we know and perhaps ourselves. Compelling drama as his characters are torn between conflicting desires and pushed to the edge. A seriousness of theme and purpose combined with moments of hilarity. All of these are on display in this novel, and yet inevitably, I have to compare it to his novels The Corrections (2001) and Freedom (2009), both all-time favourites of mine, and my initial impression is that it is less profound than these – at least partly because of that cosy ending.
In the midst of the many disturbing social, environmental and economic policies of the incumbent federal coalition government, its treatment of writers has not been prominent in the national consciousness. But Mr Brandis, the arts minister, has taken away millions from the Australia Council for the Arts to administer himself. This includes all the funding for writers, and writers of Australia have now been living in uncertainty for a considerable time while the new arrangement has not been announced. Kate Forsyth has written a “A small and very polite rant about the importance of writers to the world” directed at Mr Brandis. It concludes with some innovative additional ways forward for funding writers better, including letting writers write on the dole, and exempting writing income from tax. Two ideas well-worth considering.
I’ve finally watched the great Australian film, Wake In Fright (1970). It’s the story of a school-teacher’s descent into a hell of drinking, gambling, and violence when he gets stuck at an outback town called the Yabba on his way back to Sydney. The brutality of the characters’ dissipation is matched by the beauty of the film-making, each scene, each shot so well-composed to capture the landscape, the drama, the horror. Watching it in stops and starts over a week as I fed my newborn son, I was acutely aware of its achievements at a micro-level.
It’s such an ambitious film. It successfully attempts to depict the dark side of the Australian psyche. Aboriginals hover at the edge of several shots, never speaking. The orgy of gambling stops only for a surreal moment’s silence to remember the fallen Anzacs. The only crime is to refuse a beer with a bloke.
It’s unthinkable that this film was out of circulation for years, considered lost until the discovery of a print in a discard bin and its splendid restoration for its 2009 re-release.