A Monster Mash of Genres:
Lloyd Shepherd's The English Monster

Posted on August 22, 2014 by in Verity La Reviews

A Monster Mash of Genres: <br >Lloyd Shepherd's The English Monster

English MonsterReview by Robert Goodman

At first blush The English Monster comes across as yet another historical criminal procedural. These are crime genre novels set in a historical era and usually full of anachronisms. Often the protagonist is the first of his (or her) kind to start to use a more modern forensic approach to solving some dastardly crime. In this case the year is 1811, the crime, known as the Ratcliff Highway Murders, is a real one involving two families brutally slaughtered in London’s East End and the detective is a former sailor turned River Policeman with a shady past. But The English Monster is much more than this and to label it as crime fiction for the genre trappings described above would be to do it a vast disservice.

The broader agenda of the novel is flagged early on. Interwoven with the 19th Century murder mystery is the story of a young sailor called Billy Ablass back in the 1560s. Billy has left his wife in Oxfordshire to go to sea and make his fortune. He ends up befriending a young Fancis Drake on a trading mission to Africa. The Spanish and Portuguese empires are on the wane and a new global force, an English force, is rising. The ‘trading mission’ turns out to be the Royally endorsed start of the slave trade. The ships scour the west coast of Africa, kidnapping tribes-people to be sold as slaves.

The book takes its time connecting the dots. The stories of the growth of the slave trade and the murder investigation circle around each other in a way that is not immediately obvious. But it is in the collision of these two tales that the thematic heart of The English Monster lies – in the inexorable rise of the British empire on the back of slavery and piracy.

And just in case it is not abundantly clear, one of the characters lays it out in reverie towards the end of the novel. He muses about ‘the birth of a great Triangular Trade: goods carried to Africa, exchanged for slaves, which were in turn exchanged for sugar which were in turn exchanged for British goods, and on and on went the great machine’. The London merchants caught up in the Ratcliff Highway Murders were just small cogs in this machine. But the novel makes clear that the birth of Britain’s nation of shopkeepers rested on the success of this Triangle.

Despite aiming for something deeper, on its surface The English Monster remains an enjoyable confection that effectively brings industrial revolution London and its seedy foundations to life. Lloyd Shepherd effectively manages to mix the facts of a real crime and real larger-than-life characters like magistrate John Harriott and a young Sir Francis Drake with speculation, invention, and a vivid supporting cast.

The English Monster is itself a bit of a monster mash of genres. Part murder mystery, part ghost story, part historical fiction, part thriller. And there may well be a monster worthy of Mary Shelley or Robert Louis-Stevenson at the melancholy heart of The English Monster. But by circling all of these elements around the question of who or what that monster really is, this is an experiment that, in the most part, works.

It’s Alive! : The English Monster or The Melancholy Transactions of William Ablass
Lloyd Shepherd
Washington Square Press, 2012

Breathing Significant Life into Proceedings: Robert Harris'
An Officer and a Spy

Posted on May 10, 2014 by in Verity La Reviews

Officer SpyReview by Robert Goodman

The blurb for An Officer and a Spy refers to its subject – the Dreyfus Affair – as ‘the most famous miscarriage of justice in history’. This is a big call and, as a quick straw poll of my colleagues and friends demonstrated, probably an erroneous one. Which is why Robert Harris’s new novel on the subject is so important. The Dreyfus Affair is important for what it can teach us about turn-of-the-century Europe and the forces that shaped both World Wars. But more critical are lessons around the misuse of the judicial process, the dangers that lie in the unchecked power of the military and secret services, and the manipulation of racist and nationalist sentiments which still resonate strongly.

Alfred Dreyfus was a French military officer accused of spying for the Germans in the dying years of the nineteenth century. German military power was building, France was still smarting at its loss of Alsace and Lorraine in 1870, and the people were looking for someone to blame. Enter Alfred Dreyfus, the perfect suspect – he was Jewish so, in the eyes of the majority of the French people, not really French, moneyed, and had family in Germany. Dreyfus was arrested, questioned, put on trial and found guilty of treason. The verdict was based on evidence that was deemed too secret for either Dreyfus or his lawyer to see, handed directly to the judges by the secret service, and never made public. Dreyfus, who consistently protested his innocence, was convicted on that evidence. Ritually humiliated, Dreyfus was summarily packed off to Devil’s Island, the first (and only) prisoner sent there in over 30 years.

Harris’s story is narrated by Colonel Georges Picquart, a key but minor player in the original Dreyfus trial. Rewarded for his service at the trial, Picquart is put in charge of the ‘Statistical Section’ – the French secret service, and the area that had gathered the ‘evidence’ on Dreyfus. Picquart, a military man, does not support spycraft as a tool of war, he sees it as underhand and dishonourable. But it turns out that he is pretty good at it, and he begins his own covert investigation into Dreyfus. In time he identifies a second German spy in the French military. He soon realises that, rather than two, there has only ever been one spy and that Dreyfus was framed by the Statistical Section at the bequest of their political masters. And this is when Picquart’s troubles really begin.

Portrait of Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, photographed by A. Gerschel (Source: www.dreyfus.culture.fr)

Portrait of Lieutenant Colonel Georges Picquart, photographed by A. Gerschel (Source: www.dreyfus.culture.fr)

Despite his commitment to and belief in the army and his ingrained anti-semitism, Picquart cannot deny the evidence. He decides that something needs to be done – that the army, and the country, can only be saved by revealing the rot within. The novel charts Picquart’s attempts to achieve this by revealing the army’s greatest secret – that Dreyfus was innocent, that the dossier used to convict him was ‘sexed up’. But the army has too much riding on the idea of Dreyfus as a traitor and the nationalist sentiment that the conviction supports. No one wants the truth or the embarrassment that it will bring and Picquart finds himself in a Kafkaesque world where he is the one put on trial and the traitor he has identified is not only protected but promoted by the army.

Robert Harris has written a number of historical novels. His authorial eye has wandered over the Bletchley Park code breakers during World War Two in Enigma and the Roman world of Pompeii. In each of these cases, as here, he assumes that many readers will know the basic outline of the story – that the codes will be broken, that the volcano will erupt. And yet, despite the end never being in doubt, he manages to deliver a riveting novel full of revelation and tension. An Officer and a Spy, despite being based on a history of court cases and correspondence, has an number of spy-thriller and courtroom set pieces that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Homeland – piecing together rubbish from the German Embassy to recreate secret documents, bugging a German officer’s club by putting a listening device in their chimney, clandestine meetings with informants.

The Dreyfus Affair was a series of court cases and hearings, and transcripts of these are on the public record. The characters are all historical and the story is underpinned by a significant amount of historical documentation. And in the Author’s Notes, Harris refers to the reams of letters and reports that have only recently released by the French government archive. While he claims to be faithful to this record, Harris manages to breathe a significant amount of life into these proceedings.

The Dreyfus Affair occurred over a century ago but the themes of trials based on restricted information, the power of the security services and the military to protect their own and cover up mistakes, the power of racist ideology to drive political responses, the use of the media to whip up nationalistic sentiment, are very much still with us. If not the most famous miscarriage of justice in history then at least one of them. Harris does not have to work hard with this story for the parallels to be clear and he makes the exploration of them engaging and thought provoking. One would think, given its international prominence and lingering memory, that we would have learnt some lessons from the Dreyfus affair. But all we seemed to have learnt is how to do it all better.

An Officer and a Spy
Robert Harris
Hutchison, 2014
496pp, $32.99

Illuminating the Dangers of Going Too Far: Dave Eggers’ The Circle

Posted on April 12, 2014 by in Verity La Reviews

Reviewed by Robert Goodman

eggers_daveImagine if Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Google and Microsoft were all hoovered up into a single social-media driven, tech-savvy organisation. The Circle is Dave Egger’s vision of this technological and social singularity. Run from a Google-style campus in Silicon Valley where along with work you can swim, exercise, eat organic, listen to lectures from visiting luminaries, have your dog cared for and party with fellow ‘circlers’.

Into the Circle steps middle America escapee Mae Holland. Her best friend from college, Annie, is one of the ‘Inner 40’, the power behind the Circle. Annie has used her clout to swing Mae a job in ‘Customer Experience’, the area where customer inquiries are dealt with, with promises of bigger and better things. The key to Customer Experience is not only solving problems but making sure the caller provides feedback. If the feedback is lower than 95%, seeking feedback on the feedback. Mae, on her first day, achieves a feedback score of 98 and is immediately buoyed by the positive response from the company and her peers.

Mae is both seduced and rigorously socialised into the world of the Circle. Early on in her time she is upbraided for not attending a party of the Portugal support group, her membership of this group made automatic by a trawl of her travel photos. This is a world of constant feedback and response, a world in which everybody knows everything about everybody else, a world in which everything is watched.

Each time Mae she takes another step upward the screens on her desk multiply, the amount of information she is processing increases, her personal views and reviews become more influential and she has less time to try and process what it all really means. As Mae rises through the company she comes to the attention of the ‘Three Wise Men’, the founders of The Circle who between them are a combination of Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Larry Page and Steve Jobs and various other techno-billionaires.

The CircleMae is not a complex character and her journey is predictable and inevitable. She is almost as naïve at the end of the novel as she was at the beginning, avoiding all of the glaring, flashing warning signs to sublimate herself to the company. It is Mae, starry-eyed, who comes up with the idea of making it mandatory for people to have a Circle account in order to be able to vote. And Mae eventually takes on transparency, agreeing to wear a camera 24/7 (she gets to turn it off in the toilet and at night) for global consumption.

There is plenty of commentary here on the evils of group think and loss of privacy. Where these issues are brought to the fore in the action, particularly those incidents involving Mae’s parents, best friend and ex-boyfriend (also fairly one-dimensional characters) they are obvious and heavy handed. And then there is the extended metaphor that Eggers uses to ram the message home involving sharks and seahorses, which is so obvious as to be counterproductive.

The Circle is not a full-on satire, although sometimes it feels like one. For example the buildings at the Circle are named after historical periods (Renaissance or Cultural Revolution) which get increasingly ludicrous. It is more a cautionary tale about the interconnectedness of all things digital, about the dangers of coupling the commercial and the social, and about the slippery slope from good will to totalitarianism. Because, while The Circle is polemically pro-privacy, it also seeks to understand the drivers behind the calls for information transparency. Chip every child and you can prevent kidnapping, put cameras everywhere and you can prevent crime, make politicians wear cameras round their necks and you can prevent corruption. There is egalitarianism and social good in there somewhere but the ultimate outcome is a police state where everyone becomes the police and thought crime is punished.

There are obvious echoes of 1984 all through The Circle. From Mae’s first encounter with The Circle campus with its slogan ‘All that happens must be known’ to the point where she coins her own Orwellian slogans: Secrets are Lies and Privacy is Theft. While Orwell’s technology sprang from a thought experiment, Eggers is arguing that all of the technology that we need to make it real either exists or soon will. That in 2013 we are probably much closer to a 1984-style world than we were when that book was written That the motives might be different but the results are the same.

Okay, yes, there is some irony involved in posting this review of Egger’s book on-line, even more so if it ends up in a Twitter feed. But The Circle, overt and heavy-handed as it is, does make you think twice about your on-line presence, about how much information we are giving away, what people might be using that information for and what happens when we try and reclaim our privacy. Eggers’ does not want to tear down the internet, that horse has already bolted. But, as Orwell did in 1984, he sets up an extreme to illuminate the dangers of going too far, to remind us that any form of social control, even with the best intentions, can become totalitarian.

The Circle
Dave Eggers
Hamish Hamilton/Penguin Books, 2013
512 pp, pricing variable

Bloodbaths and Romance:
Lenny Bartulin's Infamy

Posted on December 7, 2013 by in Verity La Reviews

Bloodbaths and Romance: <br /> Lenny Bartulin's Infamy

InfamyReview by Robert Goodman

The Western is making a comeback. That venerable tradition of horses, six-shooters and life on the frontier is being reimagined in a more visceral form. From America, the home of the Western, has come the likes of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and the HBO series Deadwood – bloody, violent retellings of Western lore which seek to extract a deeper truth about life on the frontier than those of the Spaghetti western era.

Australia is not immune to this renaissance in the genre. With many of the same ingredients – rapacious settlers, a dispossessed indigenous population, outlaws and lawmen – and with the added twist of transportation to the world’s largest open-air prison, Australia has always had a Western-style tradition. The American restylings of the genre have not gone unnoticed here. Movies like The Proposition and The Tracker and the constant reworking of the Ned Kelly story are testament to this.

Lenny Bartulin was previously known for his Raymond Chandler-esque Sydney-noir crime novels A Deadly Business, The Black Russian and De Luxe, but with Infamy he moves away from the crime genre and takes on the new western tradition. Set in Tasmania in 1830, Infamy follows the fortunes of a large cast of inhabitants in and around Hobart as a convict uprising brews in the hinterland. Hobart is the frontier, months away from mother England and separated from mainland control by the treacherous Bass Strait. While it is ‘pretty enough, nestled neatly at the foot of a big grey mountain’, Hobart is revealed to be a town of bars and whorehouses, free settlers living off the back of free convict labour and people on the make. It is ruled over by the canny but weak Lieutenant Governor Arthur, and hamstrung by an untrustworthy and mainly corrupt administration.

Into this milieu comes William Burr, tempted from British Honduras where he has been hunting mahogany pirates by the promise of land, to hunt down the escaped convict Brown George Coyne. Burr is the closest Infamy gets to the ‘white hat’ of the old Western tradition, a moral centre around which the rest of the plot can turn, and an exemplar of the Western style. And no sooner has he stepped off the boat from Sydney than he is chasing kidnappers on his trusty steed:

Though the brumby galloped strongly and gained, they were both stiff and still a little at sea… The thrill was in man and horse now and Burr let her out some more, the brumby’s mane flicking like a flame over his arms, her stride long and pounding.

While this is classic Western stuff, the overall narrative is very much in the New Western mode. There are moments of almost random extreme violence and an anarchy in which characters the reader develops some interest in can suddenly and graphically die. But in line with this tradition there are also moments of poetry – reflections on the wild Tasmanian landscape, which itself is almost a character.

Brown George Coyne, again as expected, is an erudite psychopath. A survivor of the hellish Macquarie Harbour, he styles himself King George, the rightful ruler of Tasmania, and sits on a throne of wrought timber in a hidden valley outside of Hobart. His vision of an uprising leading to a convict Utopia, with some clandestine official backing, drives the plot and the diverse cast of characters.

Burr and Coyne are set up as the white and black poles of the tale, but Bartulin’s narrative spends only a little time with these two, his eye ranging over a broad cross-section of characters. This includes Lieutenant Governor George Arthur, respectable plotter Trentham and his shady offsider, Chief Magistrate McQuillan and his Honduran wife Magdalena, the corrupt and unhinged Magistrate Stephen Vaughan, Government house spy Tilly Holt, through to the motley and slightly inept convict crew gathered around Coyne.

Infamy also explores the history of Aboriginal Tasmania in this period through a number of Indigenous characters.  Driven from their land, hunted for bounty, used and betrayed, the Tasmanian Aboriginal characters in the book strive and fail to understand the new world which has imposed itself on them and are subject to the ruthless and genocidal policies of the British. One of these is a character called Black Betty, taken by Coyne and used by him to connect to the local tribes, constantly plotting his demise but unable to carry her plans through. Juxtaposed to this is the plight of Robert Ringa, an Aboriginal tracker brought from Sydney by the authorities to track runaway convicts. Ringa is unable to track in a landscape that is not his own, shunned by the local tribes as a collaborator and turned to alcohol, he has lost the will to fight.

No one pretends that Westerns are purely historical novels. They use a period of history and its trappings, but are in themselves a genre and follow some well-worn paths. The modern Western does not deviate too far from these roots but has a much greater focus on the hardscrabble, bloody, tooth-and-claw existence of life on the frontier. Infamy, really a Southern rather than a Western, is a great Australian addition to this tradition. It has something to say about life in convict Australia but is also for those who relish a classic frontier adventure tale peppered with well set-up cliffhangers, a fascinating cast of ne’re-do-wells, some Tarantino-esque bloodbaths and a dash of romance.

Lenny Bartuli
Allen & Unwin 2013
344pp $29.99

Back to the (post-apocalyptic) Future 3: Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam

Posted on September 7, 2013 by in Verity La Reviews

Back to the (post-apocalyptic) Future 3: Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam

MaddAddamReviewed by Robert Goodman

Margaret Atwood sits comfortably on the literature shelf. Winner of the Booker Prize and numerous other awards particularly in her native Canada, Atwood has been challenging and amazing readers for years. And then something happened. In 1985 Atwood produced a science fiction novel called The Handmaid’s Tale – an allegory of controlled procreation and women’s rights. This novel won the Arthur C Clark award and was shortlisted for the Nebula Awards. But Atwood remained stubbornly on the literature shelf, her pedigree too refined to find her slumming with the sci-fi.

Eight years later, Atwood returned with something decidedly more science-fiction. Oryx and Crake was a post-apocalyptic tale of bioengineering, environmental catastrophe and bizarre redemption. The book ticked a lot of classic science-fiction sci-fi boxes but, being Atwood, was still not tagged as genre. Readers focused on the allegory and caustic satire, both very much to the fore, and the book was shortlisted for the Booker and the Orange prizes.

In Oryx and Crake, Jimmy the Snowman considers himself the last human on Earth, charged with looking after a new species of post-human (the Crakers) created by his bio-genius friend Crake. Oryx and Crake ended on a cliffhanger.  Jimmy finds evidence of other humans and the novel ends with him going off to confront them. Atwood returned to the world of Oryx and Crake in the Year of the Flood, presenting a different point of view on the events of the previous novel. Year of the Flood, like its predecessor, was told mainly in flashback. It broadened Atwood’s world but was set over the same time period and brought its plot to the same point as the end of Oryx.

In the literary world, Atwood could probably have left it at that. But the sci-fi world demands sequels. And with two sets of characters about to meet and a world to explore, another instalment was probably inevitable. MaddAddam, the final book in the sequence, fills this role. It brings all of the characters together, resolves the cliffhanger and… well, unfortunately that’s it.

Half of MaddAddam’s length is taken up with yet another backstory that traverses the same ground as the previous two novels but from a new point of view. It tells the story of Zeb, son of a preacher in the Church of PetrOleum, and brother of Adam One, leader of God’s Gardeners. Zeb’s journey once again allows Atwood’s environmental angst and satirical bent to shine. At one point, for example, Zeb works for an environmental group called bearlift that delivers human garbage to the cross-bred grizzly/polar bears in Canada’s far north to save them the trouble of raiding human garbage dumps.

The other half of MaddAddam is narrated by Toby, one of the recurring characters from the past two novels. This is supposed to be the plot driver of the novel – the resolution of the threat of the evil painballers that emerged book two. This threat from the previous book hangs over the novel for most of its length, without really creating the tension that Atwood intends. Besides this slow build up, the rest of the narrative is part post-apocalyptic soap opera and part survival manual. The counterpoint to this is Toby’s recount of events to the Crakers in the quasi-religious mode after she takes over Jimmy’s role as preacher in their strange new religion. There are elements to like in these parts of the novel, but the narrative feels stretched thinly over its length.

In Oryx and Crake, Atwood engaged in a fascinating piece of world building. But the satirical elements – such as the Church of PetrOleum, a religion bankrolled by big oil, and the Anooyoo plastic surgery clinic – made that world a little false and one dimensional. Returning to this world would have been worthwhile if it would give this one dimensional world some more depth and there was a strong narrative to carry it. But in Year of the Flood, Atwood started to cannibalise her previous story. Only the introduction of new characters and points of view gave it a freshness that overcame its deficiencies. MaddAddam stretches the friendship too far.  We learn very little new about the characters we know and the minor characters feel caricatured and interchangeable, the satire has worn thin, the flashbacks retell a story we have now heard twice before, the rest of the plot is practically non-existent and its resolution is glacially slow and anticlimactic.

Something we’ve learnt from the cancellation of non-performing TV series is that sometimes it’s best to go out on a cliffhanger. Sometimes it’s better to leave people wondering about a mystery than give them prosaic answers. Maybe her fans will forgive her, or maybe they just use her to get their guilty science-fiction fix. But in this case, Margaret Atwood, possibly considered too big to fail, should have taken note.

Margaret Atwood
390pp, 2013

Riding the Rails of the New Weird: China Mieville’s Railsea

Posted on July 16, 2013 by in Verity La Reviews

Riding the Rails of the New Weird: China Mieville’s Railsea

RailseaReview by Robert Goodman

You might have to track Railsea down in the Young Adult section of the bookshop – do not be fooled. It just means someone is being lazy. The fact that the main character happens to be a teenager has about as much relevance as, say, the fact that a young girl narrates The Lovely Bones. I imagine that teenagers might relate to the adolescent main characters, but this does not mean that adults can’t.

In the last few years China Miéville has turned out some of the most mind-bending and enjoyably challenging pieces written in the English language. From the noir-inspired award-winning bizarreness of The City and the City through the London meets the occult madness of Kraken and the sci-fi-cum-linguistic pyrotechnics of Embassytown, China has staked his claim to be one of the current masters of the new weird, writing books that are not only enjoyable to read but also seriously mess with your mind.

The trick to enjoying a China Miéville book is to just go with the flow. And this is never more the case than with Railsea, which opens with a thrilling chase on a diesel moling train across the twisted tracks of the Railsea in pursuit of a giant mole (or moldywarpe) which is later caught and slaughtered. On the mole train, the main character, Sham ap Soorap, ‘the bloodstained boy’, orphan and doctor’s assistant, watches and learns and yearns for something indefinable. While the train’s Captain Naphi pursues her ‘philosophy’, a Great Southern Moldywarpe the colour of an old tooth called Mocker-Jack.

So far, so steampunk Moby Dick. But from this beginning Railsea opens out to a fully realised world of molers, salvors, pirates and treasure hunters. So complete it comes with drawings of some strange denizens of the Railsea, including the blood rabbit or the ant lion (big enough to eat a human). And while it wears its influences on its sleeve (in the endnotes Miéville acknowledges not only Herman Melville but also authors as diverse as Robert Louis Stevenson, Joan Aiken, Spike Milligan and Ursula le Guin), Miéville has used his fierce imagination to shape these influences into something much more. Like the white arch, made by some salvors out of old washing machines, Miéville has not only salvaged these old stories but fashioned them into something new.

Following the successful mole hunt Sham finds himself some salvage which propels him in a direction he would never have imagined and forces him to grow up. The story follows Sham and, later, Dero and Caldera Shroak, two other youngsters on their own perilous quest. And this is where the classification confusion comes. For at its heart Railsea is a boys (and girls)-own adventure story, a kind of coming-of-age road-movie on rails. In the tradition of the classics there are twists and reverses, battles, feats of daring, close scrapes and death. But there is more to Railsea than this and plenty for readers of all ages to enjoy here including great characters, a sprinkling of philosophy and a grand mystery.

All this is done with the most arcane and beautiful language. I read this book aloud to my son and it was worth the effort. So if you read Railsea for nothing else, then it should be for its use of language and symbols. Throughout, for example, the book uses an ‘&’ instead of the word ‘and’, and it is only halfway through the book that a reason is given. And in the same way China has refashioned stories he has found and reused old words in new contexts, combined words in new ways (‘shatterscape’, ‘upsky’) and has built syllable-rich sentences that sometimes totter on the edge of collapse. For example, here is a description of Sham’s walk down to the harbour of the town of Bollons:

Past windowsills where women & men were watering windowsill plants, & cooking breakfast or what, in fact, must be lunch, & was, whatever it was by a long way the most unbelievably delicious-smelling food Sham had in all his years of life been privileged to sniff. Past the dogs & cats of Bollons, cheerful ownerless animals that trotted around unfussed, eyeing him sympathetically. Past the blocky rectangular churches, where the history of the godsquabble was sung. Down towards the harbour from where, over rows of houses, grocers, a statue of a sardonic-looking local godlet, he could hear the clack & smack and pistonhammer crack of trains.

The whole is also written with a sly sense of fun. Small interval chapters break the fourth wall to discuss the aspects of the Railsea: the art of moling, the use of salvage, Railsea religion. And the changes of point of view are flagged or teased (‘Time for the Shroakes? Not yet.’) and likened to switching trains or tracks. And while sometimes this is a bit twee, it adds a layer to the experience of Railsea.

And overall the experience of Railsea is a delight. It manages in turn to be exciting and poetic, to reference and celebrate the past while being unashamedly futuristic. And yes, if you were going to be strict about genre and audience you might put Railsea in the Young Adult section of the bookshop, or the science-fiction shelves. But for those who just enjoy a good read, it is worth looking past this pigeonholing and taking a ride.

China Miéville
Pan MacMillan, 2012

Getting Caught in the Fundamentalist Machine:
Timothy Mo's Pure

Posted on April 16, 2013 by in Verity La Reviews

Getting Caught in the Fundamentalist Machine: <br />Timothy Mo's Pure

pureReview by Robert Goodman

Timothy Mo had a brilliant early career: three books in a row shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1982, 1986 and 1991 showed a prodigious range. Sour Sweet chronicled the struggles of a Chinese migrant family setting up a restaurant in London in the 1960s, An Insular Possession explored the opium wars in mid-19thC Hong Kong, and A Redundancy of Courage shone a light on the Indonesian occupation of East Timor in 1975 and the Timorese resistance.

And then Mo disappeared. After falling out with his publishers, Mo left the UK and self-published a couple of books in the mid- to late-nineties (Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard from 1995 and Renegade or Halo2 from 2000). After more than a decade, Mo returns with Pure, a novel which explores a number of his previous themes.

Pure is predominantly the story of Snooky, a Thai ladyboy (or katoey) who lives the Bangkok highlife of drugs and parties with a group of fellow transgenders, and writes movie reviews for local newspapers. Snooky is blackmailed by the Thai police into joining a Muslim fundamentalist cell that has been established in a school near his old hometown in Southern Thailand (or Siam as Snooky insists on calling it). The story then follows Snooky’s (now Ahmed’s) interaction with the cause and a growing fundamentalist awakening.

Mo frames Snooky’s gen-Y, streetwise narration with short interludes narrated by the three members of the older generation – Victor, an ageing Oxford don and recruiter for MI6, the Shaykh, charismatic leader of the cell that Snooky has been sent to infiltrate, and Imam Umar, its spiritual leader. In doing this, Mo is able to import all of the baggage of history, from the partition of India and the creation of modern Thailand, through to recent events such as 9/11 and the Bali bombings. These perspectives also allow the reader to reflect on how much the experiences and ideologies of these ageing warriors is driving the current conflict. Through an exploration of their characters and methods, however brief, the novel is also able to explore how, through pressures brought to bear by the conflict between these men, even a character like Snooky could be radicalised

There are moments of quite graphic and confronting violence, but Mo uses his various narrative styles to lighten the story. He effortlessly shifts gears between the various characters and manages to layer what is often an unreliable first-person narrative. Snooky’s narration is littered with diverse pop-culture references, which range from Casablanca to Star Trek and beyond, while the Shaykh’s narratives infused by grandiose plans, malapropisms and misunderstandings of the West.

The plot itself is embedded with sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle satire. One of the more laugh-out-loud sections has reality TV butting up against Jihadism.  Snooky promotes the idea to the Shaykh of using reality TV formats to assist in training at the multinational fundamentalist camp they have retreated to in the Philippines. Arguing on the basis that ‘the format is neutral’, Snooky comes up with such classics as ‘Big Brotherhood House’, ‘Mad versus Mild’ and the ultimate ‘Maguindanao’s Next Top Mujahid’. The balance between satire and horror is often a precarious one – Snooky’s attempt to outdo Bergman and film the historical re-enactment of the massacre of a village of Muslims by US troops starts as broad farce but when the production ends up using real, emaciated Western captives to play the Americans, ends violently.

While interesting as purely a character study, Pure has larger concerns. Mo seeks to understand how ordinary, and not so ordinary, non-practicing Muslims can get caught up in the fundamentalist machine. How the efforts of the West to infiltrate or control fundamentalist groups often serves to further radicalise them. And how outdated thinking and historical forces are driving the current day campaigns of both the fundamentalists and their adversaries.

Pure is in turns sassy, camp, confrontingly violent, erudite and satirical. Its range of styles can be jarring at times and the plot meanders, particularly in the Philippines section. But it is a brave, insightful and often disturbing novel that signposts a welcome return for Timothy Mo.

Timothy Mo
Turnaround Press, 2012
388 pages

Navigating the Mean Streets of post-war Melbourne: Geoffrey McGeachin’s Blackwattle Creek and Peter Twhoig’s The Cartographer

Posted on January 22, 2013 by in Verity La Reviews

Navigating the Mean Streets of post-war Melbourne: Geoffrey McGeachin’s Blackwattle Creek and Peter Twhoig’s The Cartographer

Review by Robert Goodman

The crime genre is often used as an accessible vehicle for exploring the past. Two relatively recent Australian novels use the genre in very different ways to take readers on very distinct and fascinating trips through the mean streets of Melbourne in the late 1950s.

Blackwattle CreekThe more conventional of the two, in genre terms, is Geoffrey McGeachin’s Blackwattle Creek. This is a sequel to McGeachin’s 2011 Ned Kelly Award-winning Diggers’ Rest Hotel and, while separated in time, both explore the way Australia changed in the aftermath of the Second World War. In Diggers Rest Hotel, McGeachin introduced police detective Charlie Berlin, ex-bomber pilot, ex-POW, just returned from the war and sent as a kind of punishment to investigate a series of payroll robberies in Northern Victoria. Blackwattle Creek jumps Berlin forward ten years to 1957, now living in the post-war constructed Melbourne suburbs with a wife and two children, never promoted and just scraping by on his policeman’s salary, and still haunted by his wartime experiences.

While on a break, Berlin is asked by his wife to look into why the husband of a friend of hers, a man who had died of cancer, might have had his leg removed before the burial. As with any good crime novel, this small, rather macabre investigation turns out to have much wider implications. Berlin is quickly embroiled with shadowy figures, threatened by the secret service and, of course, warned off investigating further by his superiors. And in the noir tradition, no amount of threat or danger can sidetrack his investigation.

The investigation itself provides a window into post-war Australia. It explores how people reacted to the ‘communist menace’ and what lengths people might have gone in the age of nuclear terror and mutual assured destruction. Every encounter Berlin has, whether it is with his superiors, the Hungarian émigré hearse driver he meets or his nemesis, all serve to illuminate the era, its fears and prejudices.

There’s not a lot of shading in this novel – there are good guys and there are bad guys and they are generally pretty easy to spot. And while Berlin is a damaged soul, even at his lowest moment he never really wavers from the path of the angels. But the central mystery is engaging, shocking, and scarily plausible. And as with his previous novel, much of the pleasure comes from the period detail, both in the setting but also the attitudes and behaviour of the characters. The cracking plot is just a bonus.

The CartographerIn another part of Melbourne in 1959, the eleven-year-old protagonist of The Cartographer, who is never named, roams the mean streets of Richmond, often on his own or with his canine companion. He is trying to make sense of the world and come to terms with the recent death of his twin brother. The Cartographer by Peter Twohig took the honours for best first crime fiction at the 2012 Ned Kelly Awards. It is incredibly assured, and is anything but a genre crime novel.

The Cartographer is set in that faraway past, before current-affairs fear campaigns and video games, when children roamed the streets much more freely. A freedom that is encouraged and portrayed as a positive, but also a risk. The narrator takes himself off on adventures around his suburb, seeing the world through a lens of comic book heroes and pulp fiction. After witnessing an actual murder on one of his journeys, the eleven-year-old narrator decides that if he becomes a hero called The Cartographer, and carefully maps out his world, he can continue to explore while avoiding further danger. There is a version of the map that he creates printed on the inside cover of the book, which helps orient those who are unfamiliar with the streets of Richmond, but it is nowhere near rich as the one described.

There is more than this crime that the narrator has to process. His twin brother’s death, his parent’s separation, and the shadowy criminal world of his grandfather all factor into this beguiling narrative. There are some genre elements around the investigation of the murder that he witnesses, but these stay very much in the background, emerging occasionally to provide a skeletal plot. This is much more about the narrator’s journeys in which he gets himself into some serious and dangerous scrapes, actually does some heroic things and discovers secrets about his family, his suburb and the people around him.

Not everything works in this novel – it tends to meander much like its protagonist, is sometimes hard to follow, and the resolution of the central mystery doesn’t quite work over the time-frame. But Twohig confidently walks the tightrope of the extremely unreliable young narrator and the real world. Much like Jonathon Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Dangerously Close, when it works The Cartographer is devastatingly effective and poignant.

The Cartographer provides a vivid portrait of Australian life, or more precisely lower-class Melbourne life, in the late 1950s. There is violence, corruption and poverty, but, seen through the eyes of an eleven-year-old, it avoids some of the jaded weariness that sits beneath Blackwattle Creek. The hero of The Cartographer doesn’t have to worry, as Charlie Berlin does, about the fact that he can’t afford to repair the second-hand car as the nice lady on the tram lets him ride for free and even gives him old tickets for his collection. It is a charming, but by no means rose-tinted recollection, and you don’t have to read too far between the lines to see the struggle.

Blackwattle Creek
Geoffry McGeachin
Penguin, 2012
280 pages

The Cartographer
Peter Twhoig
Harper Collins, 2011
400 pages

Preaching to the Converted:
Garry Disher's Play Abandoned

Posted on August 21, 2012 by in Verity La Reviews

Disher portraitReview by Robert Goodman

Garry Disher has written across a range of genres but is best known for his award-winning crime series – the Wyatt books about a roguish thief, and the Peninsula Series, police procedurals set on the Victorian Coast. Play Abandoned is neither of these, but it does pick up many of Disher’s underlying concerns with modern Australia, also dealt with in the Peninsula series.

In Play Abandoned, the families from country South Australia come to the Bon Accord Hotel at the Adelaide seaside for their annual summer holiday. But change is in the air. The rooms are being remodelled, the food has become decidedly ‘nouvelle’ and the hotel is hosting a writers festival over the weekend featuring a famous talkback host who has written this summer’s stocking filler.

Into this milieu comes Marian Parr, grieving the loss of a child and estranged from her husband, but still somehow convinced to holiday his brother’s family. Marian provides the wry, ironic view of the fallibility of her extend family, the other hotel guests and staff. She is the left-winger, the city girl thrown into a group of country folk, both fascinating (especially to the men) and dangerous.

But Disher doesn’t just spend time with Marian. Disher’s authorial eye roves across a range of characters – understanding and exposing them at the same time. Generally, however, the characters come across as caricatures.  There is the philandering husband, the bored love-struck teenager, the famous talkback personality. All of them act and react exactly as the reader expects, leaving no room for surprise. Even Marian, for all the novel focuses on her, never emerges as a real character but rather as a goad for the conservative characters around her and a vehicle for the novelist’s concerns.

Play Abandoned is no crime novel; there is no central mystery to drive the narrative, in fact there is very little plot at all. What story there is moves as languidly as the weather, building up to the eventual literal and figurative storm which cancels the international cricket match that everyone is waiting for and throws the characters into disarray.

If anything Play Abandoned is broad satire. Its scathing treatment of topics such as Australia’s obsession with sporting heroes, the evils of organised religion, our participation in foreign wars, down to the emptiness of ‘retail therapy’ and writers festivals, treads a fine line of exposure and criticism, and all from a decidedly left perspective. But the observations are sharp and, for the most part, the satire works, only occasionally dipping into sarcasm and, later in the book, into farce.

Garry Disher is clearly annoyed about a lot of things, most particularly middle Australia. While he gets a lot of this off his chest in Play Abandoned he does it in a way that is likely to only preach to the converted.  He might be better off staying on the Peninsula, where these concerns form part of a richer subtext and are able to prick more effectively at the conscience of the reader.

Play Abandoned
Garry Disher

Arcadia/Press On, 2011

Exercises in the Experimental: Ryan O’Neill’s The Weight of a Human Heart

Posted on June 26, 2012 by in Verity La Reviews

Review by Robert Goodman

Ryan O’Neill is a lover of words, and he knows how to use them. The Weight of a Human Heart, his new collection of short stories, contains a challenging, stylistically rich group of pieces, many of them previously published and a few award-winning. He is part of what many are seeing as a revival of the short story both in Australia and worldwide, led by award-winning collections such as Nam Le’s The Boat and short story novels such as Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.

The first few stories of the book set out the main thematic concerns of the rest. ‘Collected Short Stories’ is a story of an obsessive writer who plunders her life for short story ideas and in the process estranges her daughter. The second, ‘The Cockroach’, is a heart-wrenching tale of a young Tutsi girl fleeing the 1994 massacre in Rwanda. In ‘English as a Foreign Language’ an English language teacher fails to communicate with his wife. And ‘Four Letter Words’ is an anglo-immigrant Australian family story, sprinkled with liberal doses of both swearing and etymology.

Africa features strongly in this collection and is the setting for two of O’Neill’s most powerful stories: ‘The Cockroach’ and ‘Africa was Children Crying’. The first, as mentioned above, is a retelling of the massacre of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994 through the eyes of a young girl. The second is the story of a foreigner riding out a malaria attack in a tiny rural hotel. This story exhibits one of O’Neill’s key themes: misunderstanding across the cultural divide. Other stories such as ‘The Genocide’ and those set in Uganda (‘The Saved’), China (‘The Chinese Lesson’) and Lithuania (‘Understand, Understood, Understood’) explore this theme.

O’Neill knows how to use words and imagery and he often wields them to devastating effect. Just one of many examples from the collection is this passage from ‘Last Words’:

Opposite his house was a decaying corner shop where years ago he used to get his morning paper. A placard beneath one of the broken windows proclaimed a ten-year-old headline that was as unchanging as a tombstone. The walls of the shop were a palimpsest of graffiti. A decaying building’s last words were always curses, Auld thought.

Many of O’Neill’s characters, in fact almost all of them, love words almost as much as he does – there are the etymologist, short-story writer and language teacher in the stories mentioned above, but there are also journalists, academics, crossword fans and book reviewers. While many of these characters love language, many of the stories turn on their inability to understand other people and the world around them. While this aspect of his characters affords O’Neill the freedom of linguistic experimentation that gives many of these stories their flair, it also results in a sense of sameness to the characters and hence to the stories as a collection.

This is part of the danger in collecting short stories. While individually these stories are inventive and experimental, when brought together they start to appear more like a series of creative writing exercises. Many of the stories retell what is essentially the same story in different styles. The themes, characters and plot lines become repetitive and lose some of their impact, so that towards the end of the collection what should otherwise have been surprising plot twists and character reveals have become predictable progressions to similar ends.

In this respect, the four initial stories discussed above don’t only set the out the thematic concerns of the collection, they form a narrative template for many of the stories that follow. Interestingly, this approach is echoed in the story ‘Collected Short Stories’ in which the mother of the narrator continually reuses the events from her life in different guises in her short stories, as the narrator complains:

In my third year at uni after I had read my mother’s latest story (in which I lost my virginity yet again, and my father died once more), I decided to get a tattoo.

Overall, The Weight of a Human Heart is an impressive collection of stories. The range of styles and use of language is engaging and effective, and if you are at all interested in the future of the short story as a literary form, both in Australia and internationally, then this book should be on your list. As a collection, however, the stories tend to lose their power. Given this, the best way to appreciate these stories is to savour them, slowly and individually.

The Weight of a Human Heart
Ryan O’Neill
Black Inc, 2012
225 pages, $27.95