Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Wonder Stuff

In the spirit of our famous Booker reading project - discontinued this year owing to an utterly shite longlist - Beth and I have decided to start an online reading group. It's going to be pretty low stress, as evidenced by the fact that I had forgotten all about it until Beth reminded me last week. The idea is to take a book, read it, then post about it. How original is that? Bloggers and non-bloggers alike are welcome to join in, whether by posting your own reviews or commenting on ours. The selection for December is Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys. I'm hoping that the library copy I've reserved doesn't look like this:

Creepy.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Deliver us from thinking

If there is one thing all sensible people agree upon it is that things were a lot better back in the good old days. One of the best things about the good old days was that people knew where they stood, especially when it came to thinking. In the good old days, normal people didn't go around thinking that their thoughts were worth anything. They knew that thinking was a task for professionals, people with specially trained minds who would think their hardest before letting everybody else know what they'd been thinking, usually via newspapers or mainstream publishers, media that were - and remain - devoted to disseminating the thoughts of only the very best thinkers. Normal people rejoiced in this, because not only did they not have to think for themselves, they knew that the thoughts they were thinking could be relied upon because the people who originally thought these thoughts were paid to think them, and only people who are paid to do something can really be trusted.

Then, one day, normal people started doing their own thinking and the two-tiered system of thinkers and thinkees began to crumble. At first professional thinkers laughed at these "amateurs"; non-professional thinking was "just a fad", they reassured one another, and besides, people aren't stupid, they know that when it comes to thinking you can only rely on the professionals. But the professional thinkers were wrong, and now non-professional thinking is threatening the status quo - and we professional thinkers don't think much of that at all.

I must confess that until recently I had barely given non-professional thinkers a second thought. Lately, however, I have been thinking about non-professional thinkers a good deal, and what I have been thinking about them is that they have no right to be thinking. I came to this conclusion after spending an entire day thinking about the thoughts of non-professional thinkers. It was not an edifying - or even interesting - experience, and I really, really love thinking.

There are a lot of truly bad thinkers out there, brimming over with muddled, confused, or just plain wrong thoughts. Of the better known non-professional thinkers, many are clearly enthusiastic about thinking but unfortunately they think in a manner that I disapprove of. This is no idle criticism: as a professional thinker I have thought a lot about how I would like people to think, and I think the way these people are thinking is inappropriate and even irresponsible. As mentioned above, there are appropriate outlets for thinking, such as the mainstream media, and it seems to me that all thought conducted through other outlets is by definition inferior. In my entire day of thinking about non-professional thoughts - actually closer to twenty-minutes, because I had squash that afternoon - I didn't come across a single thought that was a zillionth as good as anything in The Polycerebrallic Spree, Nick Hornby's recently published diary of "an exasperated but ever hopeful thinker". Why? Because his thoughts are measured, rather than spewed out, he is professional in approach - knows what to think, when to think it, and who to think it for - and what is more he gets paid for his thoughts. If you're a non-professional thinker you are probably thinking - for it is the kind of thing you think, in my experience - that Hornby gets paid for his thoughts because of his celebrity status rather than the intrinsic value of his thoughts. I'm sorry to say that I think you are wrong, and since I too am a professional thinker my thoughts out-think yours and I win.

Look, I think it's great that people are thinking and I'm glad it makes them happy. But those who pine for the end of professional thinking should be careful what they wish for. Would they really be without the likes of Nick Hornby or myself? If so, how on earth would they know what to think?

Cross-posted at Sarsaparilla.

Monday, November 27, 2006

I Know Where You Live #10

Full many a glorious morning have I seen – flattered mountaintops, heavenly alchemy; you know: the biz. But while there have been some right corkers (March 24th 1987, for instance), few have seemed so satisfying in recent times as the dawn I witnessed rising over the hills at Daylesford a few weeks back. My rather self-conscious sense of satisfaction may have had something to do, however, with the fact that the morning in question was the first on a long overdue holiday. Undoubtedly, the knowledge that I had nothing more taxing to look forward to than the decision over whether to get splendidly, rascally or shamefacedly drunk during the course of the day was clouding the working remnants of my supremely addled critical faculties.

For the slope-browed few who don’t know where I am going with this, and lack either the with or patience to trawl through the cesspool of juvenilia that is Sterne’s archives, this post marks another of our I Know Where You Live episodes – a series long forgotten and probably best left dead, but which I’ve opted to raise zombie-like from its shallow grave to do my bidding once more. The basic idea? In the spirit of neighbourliness, we visit Victoria’s cities, suburbs, hamlets and other assorted shitholes in order to pass judgement (and occasionally water) upon them. It’s just like Get Away, except that A. we talk about places to get away from rather than to, and B. without Catriona Rowntree, it’s just me wearing the bikinis and looking alluringly vacuous.

And so: Daylesford. Located a mere one and a half hour drive (plus quarter hour detour followed by heated recriminations about who missed the turnoff, and consequently a further fifteen minutes spent wondering how to escape from Digger’s Rest without being shanked) from Melbourne, Daylesford is a community built on and existing solely to tap the mystical, mysterious energy of ley-lines. Don’t let the brochures entitled Ye Olde Goldrushe Towne fool you – due to the weird magical powers, or some shit, lying dormant in the hills, Daylesford functions as a Mecca for psychics, clairvoyants, rune-casters, fakirs, gypsies, tarot dealers and sundry meddlers in the Great Unknown (i.e. middle-aged women with limited intelligence and over-wrought imaginations). It is impossible to travel more than ten feet in Daylesford without discovering yet another shrine to the Gods of Twee, usually in the form of a shoppe bearing the name ‘Dragon’s Den’ or ‘Glen of the Happy Gnome’. Venturing inside any of these will generally provide you with the opportunity to buy crystals, have your chakras re-aligned, and vomit on the aging hippy who runs the place when both the incense-choked air and the aura of quaint whimsy become unbearable.

Possibly due to the close proximity of fairies, the waters around Daylesford are advertised as having vague but wondrous mineral properties: like Bath, only without actual miracles. Casting scientific eyeball and curious tongue over the local spring output, I can only report that the presence of pixie dust has turned the water slightly brown, and given it the flavour of iron filings, with a faint aftertaste of poo. To be fair, I’m sure it did me a power of good. That or introduced parasites into my system. Regardless, after a brief taste, I stuck to wine and spirits for the remainder of my stay.

Besides the psychic community, which I gather is largely comprised of refugees from the spiritless wasteland of greater Melbourne with overly romantic notions about ‘getting back to nature’, Daylesford has its fair share of local bogans, hillbillies and slack-jaws. Really the only appreciable difference, though, is that the former will stop in the street and stare at you in order better imagine what your aura looks like; the latter to imagine what you look like naked and squealing like a pig. But don’t fret! Both strains of native have been charged by the tourism office to be on their best behaviour and neither will interfere with the casual holiday maker, lest the influx of tourist dollars cease and they be robbed of the means to purchase meditation tapes or goon.

For a tourist destination, though, Daylesford has surprisingly little to recommend it (unless goon or meditation tapes are your thing). It looks pretty enough, but its hardly spectacular. There’s some nice old buildings, but they tend to be holiday homes for yuppies; there’s a lake, but it largely functions as a repository for duck feces. You can go for walks. And that’s about it. Kids need not worry, though – entertainment has been provided. Daylesford his home to one of the most x-treme skate parks ever: a whopping fifteen feet long and ten wide, it has the gnarliest 1/8th pipe I’ve ever seen, fully sick jumps that are several entire inches high, and a totally rad air of dilapidation that speaks volumes about the cool broken limbs you’ll be able to show off to your friends. Provided you survive the country hospital you’re taken to, where the healing arts are usually practised in the form of poultices and cleansing chants.

What Daylesford does have going for it, though, is quiet. If you’re looking for a peaceful, quiet, not-unattractive holiday spot where your most demanding worry will be deciding whether the yokel who keeps hanging around wants to sell you medicinal marijuana, a home-made scented candle, or some quality time with his sister in a broken down ute, then Daylesford maybe the place for you. Unless you’re allergic to elves and friendly spirits, in which case you’d maybe better off purchasing some ear plugs and sitting in your back yard.

Daylesford: 3.5 bead curtains out of 5.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

"I want something's flesh!"

Children are never too young to be introduced to the delights of Richard E. Grant drinking lighter fluid and shouting "Fork it!", so yesterday my eight-month-old Charlotte and I watched Withnail and I. That is, I watched it while she crawled around on the floor, banging wooden blocks together and singing gibberish. She did stop to watch the bit where the bull chases Marwood and the bit where Withnail is trying to catch fish by drunkenly firing a shotgun into a creek. Fortunately I decided against playing the Withnail and I drinking game. Charlotte can't handle her liquor.

Withnail gets better every time I see it. For the first hour or so, practically every line is brilliant and the delivery even better. The final act drifts into tragicomedy, and is reasonably successful. The first, and probably second and third, times I saw the film I was disappointed by the ending. Now I can see how showing the disolution of the fragile relationship between Withnail and Marwood is the only possible ending, and one presaged quite early. The final scenes are excellent. The shot of Withnail standing in the pissing rain telling Marwood he'll miss him is lovely and sad, Grant's face like that of a frightened, unusually stubbly little boy. Then he quotes Hamlet at a bunch of bored wolves! You don't get that sort of thing in just any film.

It is a pity the original novel has never been published. Robinson wrote it in 1969, the same year the story is set. Apparently the novel ends with Withnail pouring wine into the barrel of a shotgun then firing it as he drinks from it. I'm glad Robinson rewrote the ending for the film, leaving Withnail's fate ambiguous. He probably just went home and drank himself to death - much more cheerful.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Opposition Leader Speaks

Following is a transcript of an address given this afternoon by the Federal Opposition leader, Kim Beazley.

I would like to extend my warmest congratulations to Billy Thorpe, who today announced his retirement from professional swimming. I'm sure that all Austrians will join me in pausing to reflect on Thorpe's achievements, in and out of the pool, but especially in, because we're not going to all this fuss just because he's a nice guy.

In a career spanning a mere decade, Ian Turpie - or "the Turpedo", as he was affectionately known - won five Olympic gold medals and set thirteen world records. During this time, Ian McShane conducted himself with a maturity far beyond his years. If I could say one thing to the children of Norstrilia it would be to remember this moment, for the likes of Ian Courtney Thorpe-Smith are few and far between, and you might like to give shit to your grandkids one day, because you were there when he retired, and they weren't.

Whatever the future holds for Ian McEwan, we can be sure that he will continue to do his country proud. There are suggestions that a career in television awaits. Perhaps Ian will prove to be the next Ricky Martin, Bert Newton-John or Karl Rove. Whatever the case, I wish Ian Ziering all the best, and hope that Buddy Hackett, Gustav Klimt, Irvine Welsh and the rest of the men's swimming team are training hard, because they certainly have some big flippers to fill.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Word of the Day

merdmaid
n.

Mythical creature, similar to a mermaid, only shit.

House of Bleatings

Work was even more boringer than usual on Saturday so I spent some time reading the piece on Martin Amis in the Good Weekend. The interview was weighted towards the biographical - apparently the only person not sick of hearing all those painstakingly premeditated insights into Kingsley, Julian, Fred (West), Joe (Stalin) and the gang is Amis himself - with the journalist responsible even admitting that she'd never really liked Amis' fiction. It was a puff piece, really, although it did offer another example of the way Amis is attempting to reposition himself as a grand old poet-statesman. Formerly quick with a cutting phrase or apt metaphor, he now peddles maudlin sentiment and sub-Bellovian generalisations. For example, on the "elderly pleasure" of gardening: "Now the idea of something growing... that's why people take up gardening when they're old. They want to be around growing things." The guy is 57; imagine how insufferably contemplative he's going to be in ten, twenty, thirty years.

Another point of interest was the "revelation" - previously revealed in almost every profile of Amis published in the last decade - that he doesn't read contemporary fiction, or at least none written by people younger than he is. Amis sees literature as an ever-raging, every-man-for-himself contest, the prize being not glory but the preservation of one's ego: "...if there's a new novel that's been much praised, I'm unlikely to look at it, partly because you don't want to think, 'Jesus - he is good... or she is good'..." But he is also, I think, pretty closed-minded about literature in general. He clearly sees himself as belonging to a narrow mainstream strand of Anglo-American post-war writing - Roth, Bellow, Updike, Rushdie, etc. - and his idea of an "ultramundane" writer is Kafka or the thoroughly Anglicised Naipaul brothers. The Amis "canon" is almost Leavisian in its austerity: Bellow and Nabokov, of course, Austen, Fielding perhaps, Amis pere, and, yeah, that's about it. He's obviously read a good deal more than that, but you would hardly know it to listen to him. As much as I enjoy Amis's criticism and reviews, it's disappointing that he seems ever more inclined to shy away from the new, the different. It reminds me of that famous anecdote about Kingsley Amis throwing his son's novel Other People across the room in disgust. Who knew that being a contemptuous snob was a genetic condition?

The article also got me thinking about Amis' steady decline over the past ten, fifteen years. Amis has been accused of narcissim but I think his problem - and, paradoxically, his strength - is closer to solipsism. His intense focus on his own self has allowed him to create some extraordinarily vivid depictions of pathetic little men: Charles Highway, John Self, etc. The result is a clutch of novels that (I think) are hilarious and grotesque, with a refreshing absence of sentiment. I disagree with The First Tuesday Book Club's Jason Stegar who criticised The Rachel Papers' "absence of heart". On the contrary, it's when "heart" starts creeping into Amis' work - when he starts taking not only himself but his subject seriously - that it begins to falter. He just can't pull it off, and the result is a book like House of Meetings in which the lively phrase-making of old is replaced by rote Amisisms that are usually, and unsuccessfully, roped into saying something - about Russia, about the 20th century, about the human condition. It is utterly tedious stuff, pandering to the kind of reviewer who is quoted in the GW article: "his books lack real emotional bite; we do not care what happens in them." I find this absurd. Do we care what happens in Decline and Fall or in Saki's short stories? Not in the sense intended by the reviewer just quoted, but I think we do care - or at least become engaged - on some level, or else we wouldn't read the books. I would argue that the creation of an empathic connection with a reader is simply another tool that the writer may or may not employ. So my criticism of Amis' recent fiction is not merely that he doesn't succeed in creating such a connection, but that he actually attempts to do so in the first place.

I could go on. For a bog-standard magazine profile, the GW piece certainly yielded plenty to ponder. I find Amis difficult to write about, so I hope these thoughts haven't been too hazy or haphazard.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Fact or Phallusy?

I can't believe the Herald Sun is allowed to publish this kind of filth:














"Standing firm: police were prepared for heavy clashes with thousands of G20 protestors in the city."

Apparently the Victorian Police are viewing A Clockwork Orange as part of their training. That or they decided to lighten the mood a bit by staging Lysistrata.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

End of Story

Amazon: for when you need details.
Book Description
In the ancient city of Lankhmar, two men forge a friendship in battle. The red-haired barbarian Fafhrd left the snowy reaches of Nehwon looking for a new life while the Grey Mouser, an apprentice magician, fled after finding his master dead. These bawdy brothers-in-arms cement a friendship that leads them through the wilds of Nehwon facing thieves, wizards, princesses, and the depths of their desires and fears. Superb writing and brilliant, believable characterizations highlight the first entry in Leiber’s seminal series.

About the Author
Deceased

Pull My Strings

Dear Publishers,

Can you afford not to harness the awesome marketing power of Sterne?

Please send us free books.

Sincerely,

Tim and Jon

P.S. We also like CDs and DVDs. And Playstation. And beer.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Life Story

Author bios tend to be pretty dull recitations of places born and books published. Why not liven things up by allowing the author to write their own bio, like this effort from sf writer Eric Frank Russell:
Born Jan. 1905 at Sandhurst, Surrey. Father was a Royal Engineer, in his youth a friend of late Lt-Col. Cyril McNeil ("Sapper"). Mother suffered father with Quakerlike patience and finally reformed him.

I was educated by Robert Ingersoll, Charles Hoy Fort, and W.E. "Bill" Harney, king of the Australian outback. Have served a long sentence as representative of an engineering firm but escaped eventually and became a full-time writer.

Am 6' 2" tall, with grey-brown hair, green eyes, and look as if I should have been hanged at Nuremberg. My best friend is Professor Frederick B. Shroyer of California, also a writer. My best enemy was the late Aleister Crowley, whom I put in his grave by bone-pointing.

Have been writing fantasy and science fiction for twenty-six years. Also some off-trail articles. Something over a hundred contributions to about twenty magazines, mostly American. Thirteen books published. Another thirteen to come - I hope.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Review: Children of Men

It's dystopia week here at Sterne! Or apparently so, anyhow, since my timely viewing of the Children of Men coincides nicely with Tim's thoughts in the post below on Jericho and The Road, and the following review should best be seen as a continuation of m'learnéd friend's ponderings (i.e. I am about to plagiarise his ideas). We are gloomy bastards, it is true, but is it not possible that a discussion about different interpretations of mankind's future is of immediate import? That we should all be concerned with both the way our society envisions it's demise (or lack there-of) and whether the conjuring of post-apocalyptic near-futures is endemic of the times we live in or an apotropaic attempt to ward such fates off? And that these concerns are more worthy of time and brain cells than debating which of Channel 10's current batch of fading starlets had the nicest frock at that thingy with the horses that happened on Tuesday? The answer is of course No, and I for one thought Steph McIntosh looked fab, but since my knowledge of fashion is roughly equable with my understanding of immunobiology, it might be best to stick to talking about the End Times...

...As envisioned here by Alfonso Cuaron by way of a novel by PD James. Plot wise, Children of Men dips into the commonality of apocalyptic themata and posits a world that has undergone a paradigm-shattering event. Rather than a nuclear holocaust or simliar, however, Armageddon is writ in the form of inexplicable infertility. The final recorded human birth occurs roughly two decades prior to the beginning of the narrative, and both book and film open with the death of the world’s last ‘baby’ in the year 2027 (by all accounts grown into a rather pointless individual) in a bar brawl (a pretty pointless demise). Obviously, Children of Men shares an interest with the other examples of the genre Tim discusses below - exploring society’s reaction to the news of its own mortality, though James puts it infinitely more Britishly: “If there were no future, how would we behave?” However, Children of Men differs vastly from the likes of Jericho, whose characters and plotlines exist either to reify notions of the American Spirit or for mere cheap thrills; though both speculate on a world that has suffered an indelible break with historical continuity, the former is entirely suffused with what the latter lacks, namely a stultifying, crippling sense of ennui. People don’t want to get out of bed in the morning. What’s the point?

Interestingly, Children of Men is not a tale of the aftermath. It’s not about a struggle to survive or to redefine. Mankind still exists, with its social and political structures roughly intact, and could in theory continue to exist quite comfortably for about fifty years more before slowly sliding the way of the dodo or a Britney Spears marriage. But when faced with the fact that the whole of history is redundant, that the sum total of human existence has proved to be you, and the principles used to characterise your actions, justice or morality for example, are now as meaningful, and indeed as otiose, as children’s stories – in short, that nothing really matters anymore – well, why bother with anything? Or care about consequences (incidentally, I came to the conclusion long ago that I was the sum total of human existence, and I’m feelin’ fine about it, but in this as so many other things I must perhaps assume I’m the rule-proving exception)? Children of Men sees six billion odd people faced with the inevitability of a leisurely extinction, and essentially giving up on, well, everything. Government exists only is its most basic forms, where it exists. Work continues only out of habit. The populace is too torpid to bother even with the effort of suicide.It’s the proverbial whimper, sans bang.

There are of course exceptions: when the ability to reproduce mysteriously disappears from the race within the space of a few years, and science is left to shrug its shoulders in embarassment, people tend to shop elsewhere for explanations. James' dystopia displays a marked a rise in religious extremism and a degree of credence being given to previously incredible conspiracy theories. Mankind is nothing without it's little obsessions (though it'll be nothing soon enough, regardless). Some futilely stockpile caches of cultural treasures, against a day a thousand years hence when suspisciously asexual aliens will discover Earth and proclaim Love to have been mankind's greatest achievement (man, did you hate A.I. as much as I did?). A revolutionary, religious extremist, hoarder or exception of any sort Londoner Theodore Faron is not, however. Rather, the protagonist of Children of Men is a one time teenage activist turned bureaucrat turned petty drunk turned fifty-ish. Occasionally railing at humanity's inertia but unable to stir himself from his own apathy, selfish to a fault and wary of anything approaching responsiblity, Theo is an Everyman for a sluggish apocalypse. Offered a substantial boost to his drinking money by a group of radicals, however, he agrees to help look after a woman the group are sheltering for their own ends - a woman who turns out to be pregnant with the first new child in twenty years.

James' book and Cuaron's movie are very different beasts. This is not least because the movie moves along at a clipping pace while the book wallows in the ponderous lethargy of its characters. The central tenet of the plot is the same though, as essentially is the character of Theo. However James is interested largely in exploring the possibilities and concepts inherent in a fictional, if verisimilitudinous, future. Cuaron wants to directly explore how our understanding of a dystopic future is coloured by contemporary experience, how it affects us here and now. His use of camera angles makes this apparent. Much of the movie is spent following the characters from behind in the manner of news or documentary footage; at one stage the fourth wall is tumbled deliberately, horrifyingly, by a spatter of blood on the camera lens. The audience is instructed to enter into a direct discourse with the film, to relate to it as though to a current event.

Thematically, too, the same occurs. The 2027 protrayed with brilliant attention to detail in the movie is an extension of our 2006, but with all the stops removed. Freed from the responsibility of caring for the future, the environment has gone to hell: Great Britain, the whole island, is a slum. It is, nevertheless, slightly better than most of Europe, and is therefore the target destination du jour for fleeing refugees. If humanity has any drives left in Cuaron's vision, though, they are either gross self-pity or anger; both are stirred by the maudlin patriotism of London's tabloid media, an accerbated reflection of our current xenophobia and fear of terrorists. The result is that the dehumanised 'fugees are hunted down, locked in cages and carted off to ghettoes, if they aren't shot on sight. James' Britain 2027 is nowhere near so specific - criminals are sent to prison camps, certainly, but man's inhumanity to man in her future comes only from a generalised tendency towards amorality or to willful negligence in the abscence of something to care for, coupled with occasional violent outbursts against figures representing impending mortality (the elderly, for example). Cuaron's vision sees lack of responsibility breeding a lack of inhibition, an instinct towards rapaciousness - the wille zur macht expressed in its most crude and vile form. If predjudice exists today, when all consequences are removed what's to stop the slightest excuse giving vent to acts of atrocity tomorrow?

The treatment of the 'fugees is handy fuel for religio-political groups such as the Fishes, themselves looking for a pretext to spill a bit of the ol' krovvy. It is the Fishes who are sheltering Kee, the miraculously pregnant Afrian refugee Clive Owen's Theo is first paid to, and then willingly, protects. An extrapolation from other figures in James' novel, Kee is nevertheless a rounded character and an appropriately non-archetypal prospective mother for the new generation of humanity. An unapologetic whore, loud, resolutely dim-witted but nevertheless quite charming, were she Australian, she'd be a bogan; were she British, a chav (case in point: she wants to name the hope of humanity's future 'Froley' if it's a boy, 'Bazooka' if it's a girl). Her characterisation highlights one of the films great triumphs, which is its portrayal of natural human tendencies. The novel has a predisposition, given the univeral ennui of its inhabitants, to imbue any act of basic humanity with mythic sensibilities, a whiff of the holy. In contrast the movie is full of simple human acts: acting the goat, tripping over, banging your head, making a cup of tea, making a joke. This last, particularly - there are several obliquely, awkwardly humourous scenes; ill at ease with the rest of the plot and the mood of melancholy, not necessarily particularly funny, per se, but neccessary nonetheless, both as a device to alleviate often unbearable tension, and because that's what people do. When they're desperate, or bored, or nervous (or all three at once in combination with being British; believe me, I should know), they make jokes, no matter how stupid.

If none of the above jibberings about the Nature of Man come Judgement Day adds bouyancy to your aquatic vessel, rest assured that the movie is well paced, well acted and maintains a palpable air of tension from the first minute. The cinematography is stunning, quite beautiful in its attention to squalour, and utterly immersive in its realism. Too, there are some quite astounding set pieces, one done at speed in a car (which calls to mind a scene of equal inventiveness in Spielburg's own technically great but narratively trite sci-fi/refugee/road flick War of the Worlds), and a climactic scene involving a breathtaking twelve minute continuous take, visceral and harrowing, and presumably a nightmare to stage. A nightmare to watch too, but one you can't, indeed daren't, look away from. That said, Children of Men is not without flaws: arguably it gets a leeetle too hagiographic in its treatment of women; the imagery involving animals is pleasant, but overly cute; and some may find the symbolism of the ending a tad clichéd. Each to his own. These are ultimately minor faults, and I highly doubt you're going to see very many mainstream movies as provocativly and elegantly handled this year. Especially not coming from the director of a Harry Potter movie, fer chrissakes.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Road to Nowhere

Even though they know what's happened the people of Jericho somehow manage not to commit suicide or go mad with grief or get into bed and never get out again. They go on putting one foot in front of the other. They go on, uncannily competently, with their lives.
That's Laura, writing about the tv series Jericho. I watched the first few episodes but my interest tapered off mainly because of the strange phenomenon Laura identifies: despite apparent nuclear holocaust the people of Jericho continue to act as if things like illicit affairs with hospitality workers actually mean sod all, and apart from a minor food riot in the first episode – averted by a stirring speech from the mayor – the citizens of Jericho remain not only lawful but downright convivial. It’s almost enough to make one suspect that there is something other than radioactive fallout in Jericho’s water supply.

As Laura notes, this odd state of affairs turns out not be a clever narrative device, or even a completely unclever narrative device – then they woke up and it was all a dream! – but “the product of a colossal failure to even try to imagine what living on after a nuclear war is actually like for survivors.” Are we seriously expected to believe that with much of the United States potentially reduced to an uninhabitable wasteland the people of Jericho simply soldier on, existential crises, violence and madness staved off through dogged adherence to the melodrama of small-town life?

Of course we are, because Jericho is clearly a by-product of the War on Terror by way of the Cold War, its symbolism obvious at twenty paces. Jericho, a bastion of small-town values, is under threat from unknown forces. Its government and citizenry respond as decent, God-fearing folk ought, by carrying on as best they can while remaining resolute in the face of evil – we’ve heard this speech a hundred times, and now it’s been distilled into a weekly tv show, complete with plot twists and cliffhangers straight out of the Lost/24 game book.

There are two intertwined fantasies at work here. First is that of American exceptionalism. When the bombs begin to fall, the rest of the world may disintegrate or descend into anarchy but there is something inherently orderly and democratic about American society that will prevail no matter what you throw at it. The second fantasy is that of America – or at least Middle America, at which Jericho is so clearly pitched – as the embodiment of the small-town values that in turn reinforce America’s exceptional status. Tied in with this is a perverse victimhood. America can be victimised but the cause is always external to the political/social structure of the country itself. This guiltless victimhood becomes an additional source of strength, not to mention self-righteousness.

Jericho fails to acknowledge that the very fantasies that inform the show’s ideology cease to be viable in a post-apocalyptic world. Even in Australia it is common to refer to September 11, 2001 as the day “when everything changed”. Well, imagine the paradigm shift if eighteen American cities got nuked. Aside from the physical toll, the immediate severance of historical continuity would leave America, and by extension its sustaining myths, forever changed. Even if we accept that Jericho is somehow immune from fallout and other environmental concerns and is able to sustain not only life but some kind of order, it seems unlikely that the mythological or ideological substrate of its society would remain static. Jericho envisions nuclear war as a surmountable obstacle for American society when in all likelihood that society would be either destroyed or changed beyond recognition. Of course this kind of speculation is an example of imagining the unimaginable, but even so I think I can say with some certainty that if/when the bombs start falling, among the things that will be rendered insignificant will be pretty much everything contained in a typical episode of Jericho.

I probably wouldn’t have given Jericho much thought if I hadn’t just read Cormac McCarthy’s new novel, The Road. Set in a United States that has been obliterated by nuclear war and the resulting nuclear winter, the novel follows the efforts of an unnamed man and his young son to reach the coast, where they hope to find other refugees. Along the way they must deal not only with the ever-present threat of death by starvation or exposure, but also avoid falling prey to the gangs of rapists, murderers and cannibals that stalk the land.

As you will be obvious from this brief synopsis, The Road is a bleak piece of writing. Unlike the producers and writers of Jericho, McCarthy has tried to imagine what life following a nuclear war would be like and his vision is chilling. It is as though human rapaciousness has finally created an environment perfectly suited to its perpetuation. This is a world that is almost completely hostile to humans, except those who are willing to debase themselves through cold-blooded murder and cannibalism. The moral dilemma facing the protagonist is as plain as it is wrenching: to continue the probably futile search for some vestige of civilisation, or to put his last bullet through his son’s brain then somehow do for himself. And the cop on Jericho thinks he’s got it tough deciding whether to stay with his wife or continue shagging the town's barmaid.

What drives the man and his son on are the stories they tell themselves. The man comes to realise that there is no point telling stories about the pre-nuke world, not only because the boy never experienced it, but because it is irrelevant. The names of places, of people and things are stripped of meaning: what good does it do to label that blackened mass “Knoxville”, or that lifeless swell “the Pacific”? The mythology/morality the man develops is likewise stripped back, black-and-white for a blackened world. There are good guys and there are bad guys, and the goal of the man and boy is to find other good guys in the hope of transcending the Hobbesian “state of nature” they find themselves in. Note that this has nothing at all to do with patriotism or small-town values or any of the sentimental notions one finds in Jericho. Rather it is pragmatism infused with empathy, a spiritual commonality – “the breath of God…[that passes] from man to man throughout time” – that is sought as a final resort by these people who refuse to turn towards darkness.

The Road is bleak, but it is also touching. The relationship between father and son is extremely well developed, and despite the occasional shocking depictions of (in)human depravity the novel ultimately highlights the better nature of humanity. This in itself is tragic, because the consolation for not becoming inhuman is not much of a consolation at all in a world without any obvious future. The best you can hope for is not to get eaten by cannibals or have some other terrible death befall you. Jericho, on the other hand, sees survival as an adventure, a new chapter of the story of humanity rather than the last page - or the first page of a very different book. Jericho is predicated on the lie of post-apocalyptic historical continuity; its characters need not negotiate with a changed world because, fundamentally if not totally, their world remains the same. The Road refuses to offer this consolation, depicting instead a world renewed, but renewed unto death. McCarthy’s vision is disturbing – one particular scene is unlikely to be forgotten, once read – but perhaps more disturbing is the success of Jericho, a show that is not only riddled with cliches and stock characters, but which dares to put a cosy spin on nuclear holocaust. I know which vision I’d prefer Americans, who currently sit atop the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear warheads, to contemplate.
We're not survivors. We're the walking dead in a horror film. (The Road, p. 47)
Cross-posted at Sarsaparilla.

Friday, November 03, 2006

The Gospel According to Koch

As I sat watching my flock like a good chap the other night, ever vigilant against foxes, footrot and romanitcally inclined New Zealanders willing to pander to stereotypes, the skies burst open in not unimpressive fashion and an angel of the Lord appeared before me. This is not a thing that should happen to a lad of nervous disposition, especially one who has to do his washing by hand.

"Yea!" it boomed, in that pompously archaic manner angels habitually use to look smart, "Yea, and also verily, I bring you tidings of Great Joy! Be not afeared; please attempt to regain control of your sphinctral muscles and also move slightly down wind."

Wondering if there was time to pop back inside for a fresh pair of pants, I asked the six-winged apparition what exactly I could do for it, and if it would involve too much effort.

"Rejoice!" intoned the seraph, unneccessarily loudly, "for a Saviour has come among you!"

"Christ!" I exclaimed.

"Oh, nothing so mundane," the angel casually thundered.

"What...Mohammed? Buddha? Surely not L. Ron - Our Tom is insufferable enough as it is."

"Do not be foolish, pimply mortal," replied the angel, idly cleaning it's fingernails with it's burning sword. "I am come to tell you of one who has come to put the nation to rights, one who will lead you back to the back of security nad stability. I am here to spread the good news of the coming of David Koch."

"What... are we talking about the same guy? That dude with the, you know, the face and the head and stuff?"

The angel arched a delicately plucked eyebrow. "Simpleton! Fugly heretic!" the bright messenger sneered. "Know you not that since Holy Eddie ascended unto the right hand of Packer to rule from on high, a vacuum has existed in Australian popular culture. Without a shining and thoroughly ubiquitous beacon of folksey charm and homespun wisdom preaching the neccessity of banality and the irrelevance of talent, wit and ability, Australian TV has been in danger of having to seek out personalities with flair and charisma, or worse yet, come up with new and potentially disturbing ideas. What would become of the Australian plebs if they were robbed of the prosaic familiarity that's been their meat and three veg for the last several decades and presented with original thought and content? They might start exercising their brains, and we can't have that."

"And so thank God that he has sent us Kochie - with us at dawn to tell us that It's All Not That Bad Provided You Don't Look Too Closely; with us at dusk of the sabbath, to remind us that The 50's Were Pretty Great (and that Maryanne from Gilligan's Island is doing ok and says hi); and to provide us with bromidic banter, rabid patriotism and the occasional excitement of ambulance chases between times. And Lo! Our new saviour has given unto you his holy writings - see here, two books of apocrypa and a sacred gospel to guide you through life."

And I looked, and saw that the angel held out three shining tomes, the first: Smart Couples Start With Nothing And Create Real Wealth ("Seven out of ten couples argue about money...as a couple you can either let money problems destroy your relationship or tackle it head on and harness the power of being a couple. Money can't buy happiness... but it sure can help your relationship"); the second, confusingly thick book: Kochie's Best Jokes ("A seriously good laugh is seriously contagious! Jokes for everyone, from blondes to brunettes"); and the third and greatest of the volumes: Kochie's Guide to Keeping It Real.

"But hang on," I said. "This Koch, is he not just an up-jumped fiancial journalist with an over-used line in inoffensively blokey repartee? I can appreciate his potential usefulness in advising me on my pecuniary well-being, but what right has this bald streak of insipidness, this vanilla flavoured footnote in Australian culture to tell me how to live my life, raise my children, treat my partner, behave towards my fellow man, regard contemporary society, think, vote, be - let alone comment on the nature of reality?"

"Dim-witted fleshling!" the angel cried, "Can you not see that Kochie 'draws on his sense of community, his financial acumen, and feedback from his Sunrise audience in this guide for modern families. He blends anecdotes and comprehensive information in an engaging and easy to understand way. There is advice and guidance for readers at many levels, from big questions about how to build and manage wealth, to how to organise a teenager's birthday party. Kochie's Guide to Keeping It Real is relevant for families of all shapes and sizes'!"

"Well" I said, "feedback from his Sunrise audience? How could I have been so blind, such a naysayer? Pass those holy texts here!"

And I read all night and into the next day. And I learned much. Immediately, I told my partner that it was perfectly normal for a woman in todays society to earn more than me, but we needed to combine our money in a sensible investment like the Telstra float. I stopped donating to Greenpeace, because they are extremists, and the environment is served well enough by my using a cloth bag at the supermarket and taking five minute showers. I make a socially acceptable jokes, but I'm careful to avoid Political Correctness Gone Mad, and therefore know several about the Irish and Mexicans and blonde secretaries, which I will happily tell after ascertaining that none are around. I now wear sensible slacks. I don't give money to homeless people in the street because they'll just buy smack. I salute the flag and sing the national anthem at every opportunity. I think the PM sometimes stuffs up, but he's got the right idea about a lot of things. Come the next federal election I'll be voting Liberal in the house of reps, because we need to keep the economy stable, but I'll donkey vote the senate - too many boxes to tick. I enjoy a drink with the boys, but never to excess. I like to read the occasional Bryce Courtenay. I don't like show-offs. I don't offend. I don't question. I don't resist.

For the first time, I'm acting like an Ordinary Australian. At last, I am Keeping It Real.

Thanks Kochie.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

New! Unimproved!

Those familiar with McCleod's Used Books will struggle to believe it, but its new incarnation opposite Nunawading station - in town to score? why not pop in for a browse! - is even more of a mess than the original. I realise that relocating an entire book shop is a mammoth effort, but honestly it looks like once they got the shelving up somebody just stood at the front door, closed their eyes and began throwing books. The layout is not so much haphazard as it is a fire hazard, the lighting is poor, and the classic McLeod's problem remains: too many crap books. They seem to have culled a fair amount of stuff, but there are still plenty of unsellable space-fillers. For example, why do they need eight copies of Robert Edric's In the Days of the American Museum? For as long as I have been visiting McCleod's those eight copies have been sitting there collecting dust; now they've moved and they've taken the eight copies and the dust with them. Are they hoping to tap into some latent market for unloved literary fiction amongst the "Nunners" intelligentsia?

Of course, I write with a jaded eye. (I stole it from a jade monkey.) Those who haven't been overexposed to McCleod's unique brand of chaos will find plenty of interest amidst the teetering stacks. And at least the new shop doesn't smell like sewerage. Maybe they should say that in their ads.

Blurred

Does anybody else get Damon Albarn confused with this guy? No? Just me then.

UPDATE: Wiki tells me that Dr Alban is a real doctor, a dentist in fact. Dr Dre, however, isn't, nor is Dr Know.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

NaNoWriDec Begins!

We are pleased to announce the commencement of National Novel Writing Decade, or NaNoWriDec for short, or NatNovWritDec for slightly less short. Tim Sterne, founder of NaNoWriDec, explains the concept thus like:
I have always wanted to write a novel, but other things kept getting in the way. You know, things like writing epic poetry and technical manuals for the military. I have tried several novel writing schemes but with little success, although I did make some headway during Write a Novel or We'll Shoot You Week in 2004. Then one night I had a dream. I think it was about my cat or maybe work. Anyway, about a week later I invented NaNoWriDec. It's awesomely outrageous.
While nobody could doubt the awesomeness of NaNoWriDec, one question remains: what in the name of spam hell is it? We'll answer that question, and others, in our friendly F.A.Q. section.

Friendly F.A.Q. Section

Enough faffing around, you chaps - what is NaNoWriDec?
National Novel Writing Decade is a fun, seat-of-somebody-else's-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing on November 1 2006 and have until November 1 2016 to complete their novel.

How long does my novel have to be?
The goal is 50 000 words, which means you'll have to commit to writing at least 13.68 words every day for the next 3653 days. You'd better get your skates on!

Isn't 50 000 words a bit short for a novel?
And aren't you a bit crap to be a novelist? Stop asking silly questions and get writing!

When do I start writing?
Right now! You're wasting valuable time, fool! Instead of writing that question you could have written five words of your novel and taken a break for an hour or so.

Who will read my novel when I'm done?
Your mum might humour you and skim the first few paragraphs, but otherwise probably nobody.

What's the point of it all?
The point is to write a freaking novel! A novel that's not long enough to be a novel and that nobody is going to read! How much more "point" do you need?
This is no time for existential crises - get writing, bitch!

How do you define "novel"?
By looking it up in the dictionary.

I have something on over the next ten years - can't I write a novel another time?
No. It's this decade or never.

Any tips?
NaNoWriDec is all about goals. If you stick to your goals you'll be fine, but if you don't you could find yourself falling behind. You don't want to get two years in and realise you've only written 9985 words instead of 9986. We don't want any nervous breakdowns!

In order to prevent this happening, it is vital that you cut yourself off from the world. Family, friends, work - all this is crap - do you hear me, CRAP! - next to the goal of writing those 13.68 words every day. So let everybody know that you're not to be disturbed until November 2 2016. If they don't like it, write something nasty about them in your book.

Oh, and one other thing - don't die. If you drop off before November 1 2016 your name won't be listed in the official NaNoWriDec Hall of Fame. Instead we will post pictures of dead things to your children.

So sign up today and begin your novel writing adventure! Or, rather, don't. Registration closed yesterday. But never mind, there's always next decade. Or is there????*

*Probably.

Enticement

Earlier this year the American Book Review offered a list of the "best" first lines in literature. A more interesting list would be of the worst first lines from novels that are nevertheless popular. For example:
When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.
Faced with that fusillade of cringe-making whimsy it's a wonder anybody makes it to the second line. Not that it's much of an improvement.