Happy Halloween, Australia

Halloween-picQ: I moved house a few months ago, and I’ve been enjoying my new neighbourhood. That is, until last week when I found a note in my letterbox asking me to put a couple of orange stickers (supplied with the note) on my gate so I can join in Halloween celebrations. I don’t even have kids! And isn’t Halloween an American thing? I don’t want to upset the locals and be the only one not participating. What should I do?

Spooked, VIC     

____________________________________________________________________    

A: Is there anything more un-Australian than our adoption of a not-even-American festival that’s been plucked from the depths of pre-medieval history to become a sugar-hyped free-for-all? Probably not. Yet, since none of us have any real clue what it is to be Australian (and without any re-worked traditions of our own), what else can we do but tag along? (It could be argued that has become our tradition.) But don’t worry because it’s hardly the same thing at all.

Cotton wool strung between ragged gum trees, badly carved fly-buzzed pumpkins perched on picket fence posts, unlit lanterns thrashing in a hot wind, sweaty little monsters swathed in metres of bed sheets — no, it doesn’t resemble anything close to Halloween. Here (thanks to a little thing called geography, and a not-so-little thing known as daylight savings) it’s celebrated under a scorching sun. No spookiness, no ghosts or goblins, no haunting shadows cast by flickering orange-tinged candlelight, no screams of delight or even fear. It’s nothing more than tiny gangs of over-excited and already over-fed children shepherded by over-indulgent parents, who trudge from orange-stickered house to orange-stickered house hoping to snag a few freebies. And where’s the harm in that?

Many years ago, my mother — a schoolteacher who, by the end of every day was utterly fed up with children of all ages and sizes (including her own) — opened the door to a trio of brave trick-or-treaters. After they’d made their demands, she yelled, ‘This is not America!’ and promptly slammed the door shut. I don’t know who was more shocked, and I was still too young to realise the erroneousness of her statement. Australia may not yet be America, but by God we’re trying our hardest.

So take heart and suck it up. Put those little orange stickers on your front gate – hell, paint the whole thing orange; grab a few pumpkins and relieve your frustrations with the biggest knife you have; buy kilos of chocolate (the cheap kind) so by the time the little darlings get home it’s melted to brown goo; pull a sheet off your bed and wrap yourself in it — not toga-like, of course; this isn’t a Roman orgy. And when you open your door to their sing-song voices and their cherubic smiles, smile back and thank all that is Australian that we haven’t (yet) adopted more outlandish traditions.

If there’s any consolation to be found, it’s this: you may never fully embrace or even enjoy Halloween, but you can be sure your role as the Grinch in upcoming neighbourhood Christmas festivities is already firmly established.

Jane Abbott   

 

Want to read more whinges? Visit Big Bad Words

The Hemingway

I glimpsed her before she noticed me. Proud affect but generous smile, turquoise wrap, blonde shoulder-cut: not too long (not too young). I could hear her admission in my head, spoken with a wink: There are certain things one must accept with age. From the blurred corner of my eye I could make out the bright red of her lips, the dark contour of well-made eyes. She paused at the table over my left shoulder, thanking the waiter like an old friend, the kind of woman who owned a dog, a small dog, a city dog as they call them here.

I felt her eyes on me as I turned back to my journal, felt the burn of her curious stare: A young woman, alone, on a Saturday afternoon? Hers was a life of faded curiosities, memories of gilded grandeur and headline parties, now a sepia echo in her mind, kept alive, artificially, in photos, individually framed, of course, that frosted every surface of her Manhattan apartment. She must live nearby, I decided. She had the bearing of a regular, but not too regular. Just the right amount, just enough to keep them guessing.

Light cut down through the glassed courtyard, cold but bright. There’d been snow the day before, but not today. Today was a day you could believe spring was coming. A strange day for a young woman to be alone, here. I guessed she hadn’t come for the exhibits, had probably stepped through the red-velvet rooms countless times. No, she was here for the place, the atmosphere; her favourite drink, perhaps: The Riesling, thank you darling, it is lunchtime after all.

I’d ordered the devilled eggs, an entrée, of course. The only thing on the menu without bread attached to it. Protein was all one needed these days, apparently, especially if one were slightly militant about those things. And I was. I hadn’t eaten all day, but still the entrée was only an adornment for my drink, to make sure not too many eyebrows were raised. I knew that when my drink came she would stare harder: Who is this sassy girl, on her own, here on a Saturday afternoon?

I decided to ignore her, ignore my sense of her, and attend to the journal. I had promised myself I would write, every day, but of course I hadn’t. How do you put these things into words? All these moments, all these instants of awe. The illuminated Dante. That had been the one, my breath-taken moment. Hadn’t it? What about the scribbled entry from Thoreau, in its pre-Walden, anecdotal rawness? Or the barely legible Beethoven, a piano trio, I think. My hands tingled at the memory, a moment already glistening like a fantasy in my mind, as if it happened years ago, to someone else.

Hemingway-picMy food came, four lonely half-eggs on a plate. And then the main course, the one I couldn’t resist: The Hemingway. The menu had mis-referenced, of course, it had been Ford who’d championed the three-martini lunch, an American rite of passage. Hemingway, though, was more romantic. I loved martinis, I loved Hemingway (who cares about Ford, really?), and I loved doing ridiculous things on Saturday afternoons, on my own. So here they were, three one-ounce perfections, a twist, an onion, and an olive.

I was sipping my second when she made her move. “Excuse me, do you mind if I sit?” Her voice hoarse, a smoker from decades past. I smiled, nodded, gestured, gritting my internal teeth, actually, no, I’m writing in my journal, can’t you see? But who was I kidding? I had time for her. “I couldn’t pass up the chance to meet a woman who can take on gin before three pm.” I looked up, actually tilted my face, now, seeing her eyes for the first time. Deep brown, chocolaty almost, ironic, incisive, and sparkling, yes I know, a cliché, but I had never, before now, seen someone’s eyes truly sparkle.

I was thrown. “Say, where’s your husband, darling?” She didn’t even shift her gaze from mine, didn’t look at the ridiculously large diamond on my finger. Her voice, underneath the deep husk, was smooth, direct. A singer’s voice. I smiled again (yes, I smile a lot; it’s disarming and I like the upper hand). “He’s in Midtown,” I hear myself saying. “Waiting for me, actually. I’m late.” She snorted a conspiratorial laugh. I hadn’t meant to say it, she knew that. It was the twist talking. “You stood up your husband for a drink? My, my, I thought we’d have a lot in common…”

She asked about my accent, asked about my husband, asked about my life, my tastes, my desires. And I told her everything. Me. Usually the grand deflector, the one who holds the brief on everyone else, cards firmly to my breast. The afternoon seemed unreal, suddenly, like a dream, like a story, a narrative beyond my control, and I thought to myself, who is this woman, this woman who has disarmed me?

Out on the street I wrapped my scarf tight beneath my chin, felt the trailing end float behind me as I turned my head to cross the street. I ran through the cold, bright, ringing streets, ran west to my husband in Midtown, heels tapping clear on the grimed pavement. People stopped to watch me pass, cheeks flushed, and I was filled with a wondrous, ethereal awe of the world. Call me, she’d said, and she made me write her number down. A landline, I smiled, she was too proud for anything less. I thought of her smile, that direct, no bullshit smile, and the sparkling eyes and I thought,

I will.

Elise Janes   

Name Tag Etiquette

Confused name tagQ: I recently attended an industry function where we were all made to wear name tags. Mine had a faulty clip and kept falling off. When I took it back to the registration desk they said they had no spares but still insisted I had to have one and wrote my name on a sticky label instead. Now my silk shirt has a horrible rectangular stain; even dry-cleaning hasn’t been able to remove it. What’s the best way to get out of wearing one next time?

Branded, VIC


A: Name tags are pesky things. As if walking into a room filled with three hundred people you don’t know isn’t daunting enough, you’re immediately presented with a far more practical dilemma: how to affix your tag one-handedly because your nervousness has prompted you to seize a too-early drink from a passing waiter.

Now, instead of entering with rehearsed confidence, you’re forced to shuffle in with bowed head, fondling your left breast while you press an already bespattered, wrinkled and too-sticky label to uncooperative material. Clips are worse because unless you have a neck like a giraffe (and a nearby table on which to set down your glass) it’s impossible to align the tag, and everyone has to spend the next four hours with heads tilted to an uncomfortable twenty-degrees just to decipher your name. Pins prick tender flesh, bringing tears, (as well as a sharp reminder of why you opted not to get that nipple ring) and tags dangling from lanyards are no good either; threatening to choke, they twist and tangle and are forever grazing bowls of congealed taramasalata.

No, there’s no easy way to deal with a name tag. But they are useful, not least because they provide no excuse for the very forgetful. ‘I’m sorry, I can’t remember your name,’ is never heard at a tagged function.

Name tags are the ultimate icebreaker. As graceless as your attempt was to fix the tag (and, later, the label) to your silk shirt, you can be sure everyone else in the room has just wrestled with the same problem, and many a wet-chested, taramasalata-smeared conversation has opened with some kind of tag disparagement.

But for subversives, there are plenty of ways to show disapproval and mess with a name tag. Be creative. Let loose. Imagination over convention, I say. Alternatively, you could pocket the damned thing and encourage the fading art of good old-fashioned introductions. You might be surprised how quickly it trends.

Jane Abbott   

‘Boy21’ by Matthew Quick — Review

Boy21 imageI have a complex relationship with the books I read. They’re never consumed in an anechoic chamber, devoid of light and sound; where time and the world stop and it’s just me and the words the page. The reading of a book happens within the moments of a day, hard-fought to find, where I open up both the book and myself so we can come together. I’m looking for meaning. I’m looking for insight. I’m looking for connection. With the characters and story, with the writer, and also with myself. Why aim for objectivity? I just don’t get it.

BOY21 – Matthew Quick

YA?

Yes.

Young adult?

You better believe it.

Why?

I knew you’d ask that. The cover got me first. Then I read the blurb on the back and actually laughed out loud. In a book store. With people around me. So I bought the book.

Why not read Silver Linings Playbook first? I mean, that’s a serious book.

You know that for a fact do you?

Well, I haven’t read it yet, but it was made into a movie that won Oscars.

You’ve read it?

No. But I have seen the movie.

Says it all really.

So why bother? I mean, YA. Sheesh.

Yeah, so it’s not a perfect book. I did have some issues around Finley McManus – the protagonist – his backstory and how it informs his life at the time of the story.

So —

Hold on. Despite my questions, it never held me up. I never had to put the book down and give serious thought to the choices the author made in character and story development. I was able to suspend belief for the two days it took me to read this book. And you know what?

What?

I’m all the better for of it. It’s a thoughtful story of two unlikely friends both coping in their own ways with deep trauma. Finley manages by being a master of compartmentalisation and a man of few words. Everything in his life is squared off into neat little boxes which he can keep the lid on: the death of his mother; his grandfather whose legs are missing; and, his girlfriend who’s only his girlfriend when it’s not basketball season. And then there’s BOY21, Russell Allen. A high school All-American basketball star who’s moved to Bellmont following the murder of his parents. Though when Russ arrives in Bellmont, he’s not Russ, but BOY21, an alien sent from outer space to conduct research into how earthlings experience emotions.

It was basketball and aliens that got you, wasn’t it?

Completely. I empathised deeply with how Finley and Russ/BOY21 buried their heads in the sand so as not to deal with the harsh hand life had dealt them. And through the story, how, together, their struggles intertwine as their fortunes vary.

I bet, being YA, the writer had to pull a lot of punches?

It’s not as visceral as what I’m used to. In the absence of the deep, penetrating gaze literary fiction promises, there was space for me to appreciate the type of reader who comes to this book. One that might be looking to it as a refuge or a guiding light.

So a happy ending that ties everything nicely together?

Yes and no. An ending that satisfied and left me smiling. Even a sniffle of two as I choked up. But open enough to hint at both the hope and uncertainty of the future. Sometimes power is at its greatest when it’s restrained and wielded with consideration and compassion.

But YA, bro?

Get over yourself. Your cynicism says more about you than me.

 Ken Ward   

BOY21 by Matthew Quick is published by Little, Brown Books (2012)

The (Super)Hero’s Journey

(Or, what we can learn from the rise of the caped avenger)

superhero picThe hero, it seems, will never die. From the ancient empire-creating adventures of Odysseus to the poetic quests of Sir Gawain, masterpieces that have truly stood the test of time have been tantalisingly heroic. Why? People like them.

Fast-forward a millennium or two and the narrative world is overrun with neon spandex and flying shields. Almost forty superhero blockbusters have been released since 2000. One has even made it into the top ten most popular movies of all time (according to the IMDb). Guardians of the Galaxy is already at 8.5 (at time of print) placing it on the same rung as Taxi Driver, American Beauty, even Citizen Kane. And this is a movie that features Bradley Cooper (two-time Oscar nominee) as a talking raccoon.

A talking raccoon.

Let’s not get into a debate about what is literary and what is not, and the fact that movies are a visual medium so of course everything with flash-bangs is going to be popular. And before you roll your eyes and go on about the difference between quality cinema and blockbuster material, and how you yourself have never even seen Spider-Man (the first or the second or the third, or the remake or the sequel of the remake), consider what the facts are telling us: people like them.

So a superhero movie has never been listed on the AFI’s Top 100, or taught in any serious cinema course, or even won an Oscar for anything besides technical production (except for Heath Ledger, but come on, he was astounding) but that doesn’t mean we, serious people who read Booker-prize-winning novels, can’t learn us a lesson or two about What People Want From Their Stories…

  1. A hero. Simple. A guy or girl who is strong or tough or can do awesome shit, and will pretty much save the entire known universe. Probably in New York City.
  1. A vulnerable lead. One with flaws and a past and tough, personal choices to make (italics necessary). Self-doubt is the key. A tragic orphaned upbringing? Great! If they have to sacrifice their greatest love/best friend/mentor/home planet or even a limb in the course of true justice, even better!
  1. Crazy, made-up shit (as long as it’s justified (or sometimes even if it’s not)). People love it. They love stupidly-named planets and weird teleport gateways, and bizarre fighting implements. They love flying submarine-ships, rocket-powered suits, web-swingers, or guys who can just plain fly (of course he can fly, he’s from Krypton!). They love alternate universes, mythological gods, magic crystals and glowing blue cubes of whatever-the-hell-that-is. The weirder, the better. Our audience may be getting more sophisticated, but they’ll never be too sophisticated for crazy, made-up shit.
  1. A good villain. Gone are the days when the bad guy is just a two-dimensional bad guy bad guy (or girl). No, no, no. There must be a reason. They must be vengeful, or misunderstood, or mistreated, or horribly disillusioned, or just plain unfortunate. Or played by Tom Hiddleston. That helps.
  1. A kick-ass supporting cast, not just a sidekick anymore. The funny-guy is mandatory. It’s even better if they can all crack a joke at some point. A range of genders, ethnic backgrounds, fighting abilities, and/or species is appreciated. The quasi-mentor who the audience gets attached to and then dies is always a winner (hey, you can always bring him back in the TV series).
  1. A dark ending. Is the hero dead? Did the bad guy win? Is our world destroyed? Is all hope really lost? Think The Empire Strikes Back, then add some more budget.
  1. Intertextuality and framed narratives (now we’re getting there, lit nerds). What’s better than one superhero? More superheroes! Get them together and let them push each other’s buttons. Develop a bromance or two. Run out of ideas? Write it again, only different! Create entire histories that no-one cared about before. Let worlds collide. There’s nothing a character-loving audience likes better than you exploring their what-ifs for them.
  1. A never-ending chain-link of narrative hooks. Damn you, black screen chapter-break, I want to know what happens next! How could they possibly resolve this terrible situation when there’s only ten minutes left?! No, that can’t be the end! What if that is the end? Surely there will be another sequel! Who was that guy we saw at the end of the credits? Who the heck was that? Tell us!
  1. Themes, themes, give us righteous themes! Good vs evil. Power vs sacrifice. Pride vs humility. The big guy vs the underdog. Forgive yourself! Let go of the past! Work as a team! Please, just teach us something about the nature of humanity.

A closing thought. James Joyce (arguably the best novelist who ever lived) based his masterpiece Ulysses on the heroic epic that started them all: The Odyssey. If he were alive today he might be tempted to write an indecipherable, genre-mash-up, satirical epic based on the formative years of Rocket Raccoon. Well, you never know.

And if it’s good enough for him? Well, then it’s good enough for you.

Elise Janes  

 

Wish I Was There — Imagined Postcard from the Edge

Postcard

Heavy cloud coverage today.

I spit at it, staining the barred window, watching the white foam dribble and streak down the glass.

A few days ago there was the most beautiful of azure skies.

I punched the pale yellow cell wall until my knuckles bled and bone showed through torn skin.

Pain is relative.

I scream, shredding my vocal cords, and marvel at how dull the sound sounds.

The walls eat it up and soon paint cracks and peels.

Fissures in the firmament.

Air steels in, a slivering draft.

There’s whispers of disease.

The contagion is spreading.

But not in here.

Out there.

In here I’m contained, kept safe by my enforced quarantine.

Their disease is not my disease. Out there, they share and spread and plaster themselves all over each other in one huge globule mess.

In here I’m contained, kept solitary because of my proclivity for harming others.

Now I only harm the walls, in turn harming myself.

No-one sees me and no-one cares.

I listen with an ear pressed to a crack in the wall at mumblings, distant snatches of conversation.

‘Vomiting.’

‘Blistering.’

‘Haemorrhaging.’

The ailments of a world closed to me.

The rapture of a slow and painful death.

But death is too much to wish for.

I wish for wind, for rain, for heat.

I wish for external elements to impact upon me and test the bonds of my being.

If I stand after the onslaught, so be it.

I am attached to no outcome in relation to my survival.

I only desire to feel something.

Oh, to be free and to be infected.

To wallow in the throes of such wonderful toxicity.

I wait and I wait, with an ear pressed to the crack in the wall.

What a thing it is to be incarcerated and safe from it all.

Ken Ward  

‘Barracuda’ by Christos Tsiolkas — Review

BarracudaBarracuda is the latest novel by Christos Tsiolkas, author of The Slap and Loaded.

Danny Kelly, known as Barracuda, wins a swimming scholarship to an elite private school, where he overcomes bullying through his drive to become ‘the strongest, the fastest, the best’. He sacrifices everything to his Olympic goals, but he doesn’t make it as a swimmer, and commits a violent crime out of anger and humiliation. As an adult, he has to overcome the shame of his past and create a life in which he can respect himself.

Barracuda simultaneously tells the story of the young, ambitious Danny, and the same character after he has ‘failed’. Tsiolkas tells a well-paced and engrossing story, populated with compelling characters — above all its flawed protagonist. The book offers reflections on a number of issues without descending into wankery or preaching.

The novel considers class issues in Australia through the clash between working-class Danny and his privileged schoolmates who make fun of his hairdresser mother. Several characters challenge the myth of an egalitarian Australia, but it is ultimately Danny’s experience at school — wearing the uniform he can’t afford to outgrow, intimidated by his classmates’ designer houses — that the book makes its most persuasive argument.

Danny’s character is also a vehicle to explore the idea of ambition. When Danny doesn’t make it as an Olympian, he realises there is only a ‘hole’ where he used to be. Gradually, he attempts to re-create himself as a decent person, who supports his family, earns his living and atones for his past. The book forces readers to consider whether our society pushes us to be great at the expense of being good.

Barracuda also offers a gorgeous meditation on the body — Danny’s fit, young body flying through the water, then losing control of itself as he faces failure and shame. It compares the sculpted bodies of Danny’s privileged schoolmates to the ‘slovenly’, ‘pear-shaped’ bodies of his family. Gradually, Danny comes to an understanding that class itself is expressed through the body.

Tsiolkas offers an insightful reflection on contemporary Australia, in an engaging novel which is possibly his best so far.

Four stars

Penny Jones   

Richard Flanagan wins the Man Booker Prize 2014

Deep Road to Narrow NorthThe Man Booker Prize for Fiction is considered by many to be the Holy Grail of literary prizes, awarded to an original work written in English and published in the UK. It results in huge acclaim for authors as well as their publishers, with longlisters, shortlisters and the eventual winning novel driving sales and propping the book trade.

While it’s not gone without its share of controversy, perhaps the most notable change to the Man Booker in recent times was its decision to open the competition to any English-writing author of any country (although the restriction of UK publication still remains). Thus the doors were nudged ajar, and this year’s shortlist included Americans Karen Joy Fowler: We are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and Joshua Ferris: To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. Two-time winner of the Man Booker, Australian Peter Carey, publicly decried the decision, claiming the competition’s ‘cultural flavour’ would be lost.

However he, and everyone else who worried about the encroachment of US writers (who already have access to their own Holy Grail awards, including the Pulitzer and the National Book Award), needn’t have bothered. Did anyone really suppose that these first-chance ‘interlopers’ — despite producing truly wonderful work — would snatch the trophy? The Atlantic may have been bridged, but it’s a long drive between coastlines.

No. This year’s winner, announced last night, is Richard Flanagan (an Australian from down-under-DownUnder) for his astounding and deeply personal novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North (published in Australia by Random House Books), which centres on prisoners and their captors in a Japanese POW camp along the Thai-Burma railway. The novel — Flanagan’s sixth — was described by judges as ‘a harrowing account of the cost of war to all who are caught up in it’. Flanagan’s father, a survivor of the Burma railway, died the day Flanagan finished writing the book.

It’s a remarkable win for Flanagan, though not undeserved. He’s the third Australian to have won the award in its 46-year history. Previous Australian laureates are Thomas Keneally and, of course, Peter Carey. Twice. And it does perhaps underscore what all writers know — that even with the backing of prizes like the Man Booker, there are few ‘overnight’ successes, and perseverance does pay. Eventually.

Naturally, it’s already been announced that a new edition of The Narrow Road to the Deep North will be out tomorrow. It’s a great coup, not just for Flanagan and his publishers, but also for bookshops, who are racing to stock their shelves. And it’s a great win for Australian literature — we really do write some great stuff, don’t we?

But for Richard Flanagan — a seemingly unassuming man with a ready smile (who looks an awful lot like fellow Aussie, Clive James) — it’s the great nod all writers look for. Well done, Richard, and congratulations.

The Cringe

Prepare for Unauthorised Entries

partyWriting a story is a bit like throwing a party. If you’re a plotter, odds are you’re also a planner, the date chosen well in advance with plenty of notice given to intended guests. Your menu will be detailed and practical, catering for vegans and meat lovers alike; music will be playlisted and honed to an exact number of themed songs, timed to finish at the appointed hour. Invitations are always mailed (e- or snail-), RSVPs ticked off a corresponding list; mathematical precision will allow for just the right amount of alcohol and mixers, having ordered all necessary glassware from a catering company. Neighbours will be apprised and the function will proceed in an orderly fashion. Naturally, the police will never be called.

At the other extreme is the pantser. They’ll throw out a casual invitation to pretty much everyone they meet, the start time will be vague, and the menu an unplanned and artless display of potato chips and questionable dips. Depending on that day’s mood, music will range from soulful eighties ballads to heavy rock. They’ll buy too much alcohol or, worse, not enough. The few plates and glasses they manage to scrape together won’t suffice and trusted guests will be dispatched on arrival to fetch ice and other essentials. The pantser will forget they even have neighbours and the police will be summoned. Several times.

But whether it’s planned with military precision or left to chance, one thing neither plotter nor pantser ever allows for is the unwanted guest — that unexpected character. Some are harmless; a visiting relative, too insipid to be left alone, is brought by a friend too dear to admonish; a work colleague tags along on the vague assurance that the host ‘won’t mind at all’; both are fillers and assume cursory roles.

And then there’s the other type, a plotter’s worst nightmare: sauntering into the room (and onto page two) with fuck-you confidence, they settle without apology and demand everyone’s attention. It’s easier for pantsers. Having had no real command of the situation in the first place — and still a little vague about who was invited — most will welcome the intrusion, flinging the door wide.

Just as there are social constraints placed on a host — do you insist firmly that the guest leave, or endure their presence with stoic grace? — so writers face the same dilemma: stick to your hard-worked plan and hit the delete key, ridding the scene of this unwanted person, or offer them a drink (watch as they snatch the whole bottle) before introducing them to others? Most likely they’ll have come armed with an intriguing life story and a slew of bawdy jokes, and they’ll quickly divide the audience, charming or horrifying everyone they meet. And there’s every chance they’ll slip your darling a mickey, or stab them in the coat closet, but that alone might be the just reason they’ve appeared.

Just like your party, if you want your story to be memorable, don’t kick out the most interesting characters before you’ve made an effort to get to know them.

Jane Abbott