I’m more inclined to think online/digital media will supplement, rather than supplant, their ink’n’paper cousins. But then, I’m barely old enough to remember a time pre internet; its existence, and its role in literary propagation, is as natural to me as print. From my limited perspective, technophiles and bibliomanes need not come to blows. There is, however, what I would call a shift of emphasis taking place: a shift in format, not phenomenon. Writing remains writing. I don’t think print’s spurs will adorn the wall any time soon, but I’d agree its prestige is diminishing, coinciding with, or caused by, an increasing acceptance of online publication as an equally creditable platform.
For those like myself, too green for even the dubious category ‘emerging writer’, there are now more opportunities to publish their writing than there were for any previous generation. Even disregarding the burgeoning number of online literary journals, a personal blog is but a mouse click away from creation, accessible by the entire world. Sure, the dreck will be copious, and is already—but not, I think, to any greater extent than what putrefies beneath glossy covers at your nearest bookstore. I’m not saying everything’s rosy. It’s perhaps harder than ever to make a living from writing, and for my generation it’s well-nigh impossible. I’m not particularly concerned by this. People can quote Dr Johnson all they like, I’ll still maintain that without a financial imperative, there’s even greater freedom to experiment, play, and create something original. To write like it’s an art, not a job.
It may be possible, even likely, that in the future the equivalent of finding a dead author’s manuscript will be stumbling across a long dormant webpage, or that literary awards will be bestowed upon blogs, and that those select few who still own books (imagine!) will be shunned for the degenerate reprobates they are—all this is possible; but in the meantime, I will be reading (and writing) in both mediums, however or wherever the distribution, because in the end, it’s the language itself that matters most, and as long as there remain the usual rogue’s gallery of cheats, hysterics, aesthetes and general obsessives who devote their lives to shaping sentences in beautiful ways—well then, I’ll be content, and do the same.
There are those who maintain that the principal aesthetic/moral aim of literature is ‘to hold a mirror up to reality’. Tim Richards’ Thought Crimes certainly does this, because a mirror can also invert or distort the object of its reflection. A transformation can take place; objects ‘may be closer than they appear’. Richards’ new collection of short stories is a looking glass presenting a world warped in this way, a reproduction further marred by cracks, clouding, and constellations of spat toothpaste.
Infants appear unannounced on the doorsteps of couples who desire them most. A school advocates the amputation of its students’ limbs. Tourists in a mysterious foreign country are forbidden to leave their train carriages. Charlie Brown appears as a guest on a chat show. At a country high school a boy arrives who may or may not be from the future… Almost without exception, the twenty-one stories of Thought Crimes (published by Black Inc.) feature events of varying absurdity, expressed with an ironic matter-of-factness that seemingly belies the content. Such a style is, of course, not uncommon, and is often referred to as ‘surrealist,’ in a slightly bastardised sense of the term, or as ‘Kafkaesque,’ with even less justification.
The major pitfall of these sorts of stories is a tendency to substitute complexity with novelty, to emphasise originality of concept over originality of expression, structure or atmosphere, to otherwise pursue the unusual premises to their ‘logical conclusion,’ where said pursuit consists of all the same narrative clichés that can be found in ‘regular’ fiction, only in quirkier get-up. The problem, as ever, seems to be the handling of ambiguity; the question of how much strangeness is made explicit, or left brooding in the periphery.
Richards, for the most part, gets the balance right. A couple of the stories (‘Queue Jumping,’ ‘(Favoured by) Babies,’ ‘Astronauts’) suffer from what might be called unambiguous ambiguity, where the mystery, such as it is, seems a little too contrived, and ends on a deliberately atonal note that practically screeches THIS IS AMBIGUOUS; and others (‘The Grease,’ ‘Magnetic,’ ‘The Future Perfect’) are filler episodes, serving only as a breath between the longer stories, or as an outro; but the majority of Thought Crimes’ pieces are creepily-wrought slices-of-life: flayed victims of an avuncular serial killer.
Richards’ strongest writing is when the subject matter is less obviously bizarre, though admittedly in a collection like Thought Crimes, ‘less bizarre’ is strictly relative. ‘Club Selection’ is set in an apparently Japanese resort that caters to Australian tourists/refugees, whose homeland has been torn apart by unspecified violence/wars/terrorist activity. Employees of the resort are encouraged to act as ‘Australian’ as possible, which gives Richards the opportunity to wax satirical about our social mores as observed from a foreign viewpoint:
No one understands what it is to be Australian until they fully grasp the terms of Australian friendliness. For Australians, friendliness is a superstition; a way of defraying the fear of being considered selfish or mean-spirited. To refuse friendliness is much worse than refusing a gift, since refusal is likely to activate the tensions implicit in ‘the friendliness paradox’. The more you try to be sincere, the further you are from true sincerity. If inscrutability is the cliché one attaches to Asians, one ought to approach Australians with an appreciation of their paradoxicality.
The employees’ earnest yet ridiculous cultural imitation shifts, however, from comical to unsettling when it is hinted that they are covering up instances of radiation poisoning caused by the resort’s contaminated water supply. The gradation from innocent absurdity to subtle menace in ‘Club Selection’, is characteristic of some of the best stories in the collection, like the brush with the Kurtz-like missionaries in ‘The Darkest Heart.’ In this answer of sorts to Conrad’s novella, adolescent Ian Hall doesn’t so much go into the jungle as have the jungle come to him, in the form of the Watson family, whose experiences at an African mission have left them incapable of integrating back into ‘civilised’ society. Initially intrigued by these eccentrics staying at his family’s house, Ian becomes aware that their strangeness isn’t altogether wholesome, stemming from obliquely referenced ordeals in Africa, including possible sexual rituals and kidnapping. And while the Watsons only stay for a night, their corrupting influence remains like the lingering kiss Mrs Watson, a nymphomaniac, presses to Ian’s lips, irrevocably initiating him into a world his boyish innocence is unprepared for. Richards’ satire of religious fundamentalism is saved from heavy-handedness by the inferiority of Ian’s understanding of events to our own, allowing the critique to remain implicit and only half-suggested.
Richards’ strength lies in disturbing insinuation and hidden ironies; the less overt the strangeness, the better he is at making the story strange, as also shown by the troubled actions of a German student in ‘Foreign Exchange,’ and in other pieces like ‘Dog’s Life’ and ‘Swimming Across the Rip,’ where a simmering sense of threat is never entirely absent.
Thirteen years have passed since the release of Richards’ Duckness, a collection of short stories and concluding volume of Approximate Life (an ‘autobiographical trilogy’ that also included the collection Letters to Francesca (1996) and novella The Prince (1997).) Thirteen years is an inauspicious enough anniversary, but when considering the twisted pleasure evidenced in Thought Crimes for mischance and foreboding, it seems more than appropriate. So embrace the bad luck, Thought Crimes is a mirror of reality well worth breaking into.
288 pages, $27.95
The unnamed narrator of Jean-Christophe Valtat’s 03 is a seething mind. His thoughts, which comprise the novella’s uninterrupted, paragraphless soliloquy, obsess over such topics typical to any teenager: parents, school, ennui, alienation—the sort of lugubrious subject matter dealt with at length in padlocked diaries hidden beneath pillows or in the bottom of closets. What saves 03 from similar hormone-stricken confessionals is the curious eloquence of its narrator, who pronounces his mordant judgements upon the world with a strange combination of frustration and delight.
His muse is a girl he sees every morning across the road from his bus-stop, who he realises is ‘slightly retarded’. His attraction to her is complex, and he spends much of the book delineating, in lyrical passages, just how he has manufactured his feelings towards his unlikely idol. I use ‘manufactured’ advisedly, as the narrator openly admits that he doesn’t find the girl alluring out of any ‘natural emotion’ (quoting The Smiths’ ‘Nowhere Fast’) or sexual desire, but through a conscious effort on his part to create, in her, a symbol of rebellion against society and progress. This does not stop the narrator from calling what he feels ‘love’, but it is an intellectual love, an ideological love, as well as an original spin on youthful narcissism, since much of the girl’s appeal lies in her perceived similarity to himself.
No matter how much the narrator might rail against his dull suburb, Montperilleux (whose ‘facades grazed the eye like gravel against the knee’, or the parties he’d spend ‘glancing anxiously around the room, a smile plastered to my face like a dirty Band-Aid that had come half unstuck and that must soon be torn off in pain’, or even the world he lives in ‘a bad copy of the original missing illustration and I was sure I was one of the mistakes you had to spot’, such targets are only parentheses, corpses powerless beneath his mortician’s knife. His true enemy, the source and object of all his resentments, cannot be so easily dispatched with an acid aside: the slow but steady passage of time itself.
The narrator sees something horrific in the relentless march of years, since with each one that passes he gets closer to entering the world as an adult, a world he considers indifferent at best, at worst, openly hostile. If the traditional Bildungsroman charts a course from innocence to experience, 03 describes experience retreating, searching for an innocence that can’t be found. Trapped as a Holden Caulfield, the narrator yearns to be a Billy Pilgrim. And so he sees in the girl across the street a refutation of time, an extended childhood, a ‘delay’, a ‘latency or absence, like a clock left behind in an empty room, a page someone forgot to rip out of a calendar, the walking embodiment of jet lag’. His own potential that time destroyed has not yet been quenched in her:
So while she was waiting there, frail to no end, like a signpost when they’ve torn off the sign, I saw all these possibilities in her that had become impossible, and I projected onto her fragility the immense waste of talent I was forced to observe every day in my closest friends and suffered a little bit too readily in myself, a waste that filled me with a vengeful bitterness and pride at having salvaged or developed a talent that would allow me to forget, even at the moment of giving up on them, my own irreparable limitations which, as they tightened within me, grew and grew.
The above sentence is typical of the book: long and qualitative, as if treading water in time’s river, each additional detail trying to ‘delay’ a little longer. Time and disability emerge again and again as Valtat’s primary themes, no more concisely expressed than in one of the narrator’s anecdotes, “a young retarded boy asks his teacher if she wants to know the time, and without waiting for her reply he unzips his fly to reveal a watch he has strapped around his penis”.
03 sees Valtat consistently managing to snatch originality from the jaws of cliché, composing a brief but ruthless enfilade against such received ideas as ‘youth’ and ‘disability’ out of what is, essentially, yet another unrequited love story. The digressive, sometimes downright chaotic, thoughts and opinions he bestows upon his narrator originate from a sensitivity to the world that is, nevertheless, refreshingly lacking in sentiment. 03 has no saccharine sachets to offer; its prose stimulates as only straight black can.
The novella closes after a span of only a couple of minutes, but takes a couple of hours to read, and in that sense, the narrator has indeed won a small battle against the clock. But the victory is pyrrhic at best; the girl across the road is finally collected by her institution’s van, leaving him standing alone at his bus-stop, and deprived of their inspiration, his thoughts cease. As we come upon the final sentence, it is up to us to decide if time doesn’t also stop in the white silence after that last full-stop.
96 pages, $12 US
Dust. It settles on the old things. It drifts through the air in a thin shroud, a grey curtain across the eyes. Slowly, it settles. On the tables, the chairs, the simple finery of antique cutlery, forming furrows beneath forks, spoons and knives. The tables are laid out with cups and saucers fifty years out of fashion. Price-tags peel. Arranged on an oak dresser is a regiment of tin soldiers, eyes forward and redcoats tarnished.
The owner cannot recall their arrival to her store. She cleans them anyway, even if they do look strange to her, she who once knew every item in her possession with ludicrous detail. She cleans those tin soldiers the way she cleans everything else: slowly, with care, without hurry. She continues to a wall of clocks, no two hands the same, each ticking to former masters’ days. She cannot reach those furthest up the wall, but her movements below dislodge the dust in brief cascades that sift down into her hair, her clothes, the lines of her face.
Every so often she blows quickly over a choice object – maybe an engraved steel plate or marble figurine – a quick jet of air, a short whoosh from her mouth like a sneeze, and in response the dust rises lazily like languid bees. She bends over, blows, bends and blows, blows and bends over again. It is the only sound in the store, these short, desperate breaths, as if she might return to life a mansion under the mausolean dust.