Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Holiday Reads, Part 3: "On Beauty"

Headline: a great talent, a little burdened by the easy cliché

I’ve been struggling to write something on “On Beauty” for a while. I think Zadie Smith is a terribly talented writer, but my response to this novel is a little ambivalent.

Let’s start with the good. Smith’s prose is exceptional. Her ear for speech and dialogue is fabulous, and her ability to inhabit the skin of a character regardless of age or gender compelling.

The story gets off to an interesting start. The Belseys are a mixed race family: Howard is a British academic living in the US who has trouble with faculty politics and thus getting tenure; Kiki is a black American woman, political rather than intellectual, and a hospital administrator. The marriage thus embodies some neat tensions of class, politics, practice/theory, and culture: boundaries the children of the marriage need to negotiate.

It is a tribute to her sympathy for her characters that despite all the stupid, hurtful and wilfully self-obsessed things Howard Belsey does, I found it impossible to entirely dislike him. Indeed, I felt a certain sympathy for him, which Smith seems to feel herself. This is pulled off not through any especially redeeming features on Howard’s part, but because (as with all the characters) when we see the world through his eyes, it is drawn so compellingly in Smith’s lush observational prose.

Also, Howard finishes the novel humbled if not repentant. Ultimately, despite all the damage done to himself and others, Howard’s acts seem adolescent rather than mercenary. He profits little by them and does not really aim to; he stumbles into things out of a failure to appreciate consequences which a man should really have outgrown by his fifties.

However, by writing in the mode of affectionate academic satire, there are ideas the Smith excuses herself from pushing further. Howard’s refusal to engage with emotion or aesthetics (he claims to hate Mozart and has founded an academic career on the idea of Rembrandt as a merely competent tradesman) comes off as wilful affectation. Rather than portray him as one “clinging to his rhetoric of disenchantment as if it were a religion” (to quote an excellent Slate article), Smith leaves Howard apparently without strong beliefs - making many of his actions seem like parts of a childish game.

More to the point, Smith creates a bevvy of interesting characters some of whom dissapointingly lapse into jargon or ultimately conform to stereotype before simply evaporating by the end of the novel. The final moments of confrontation and resolution also seem rather, well, stage-managed.

Smith has the potential to be a writer of much wider scope, and I’d hate to see her lose her warmth and humour to write “serious social novels”; but somehow when her novels come to rest on comedy and satire for their resolution it feels a little like cheating.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Holiday reads part 2:
Brett Easton Ellis, “Lunar Park”

Headline: Beth said it best

I was keen to check out Lunar Park after it made Beth’s top 5 for 2005 and was drawing praise from other friends as well.

I devoured it over two days, and Beth’s assessment of it being by turns “hilarious, clever, spooky, then sad” is spot on.

It’s actually the first Ellis I’ve read, and the (supposedly) autobiographical introduction is an enormously witty “imitation of himself”, a stylised and at least partially true account of his rise to prominence and the “American Psycho” controversy. I’ve never had the stomach to read “American Psycho”, but trust the reviews that the film captured much of the humour and ambiguity while omitting the baroque violence.

If “American Psycho” was fundamentally a parody of the emptiness of money-obsessed big city America, then “Lunar Park” is an excoriation of the emptiness of suburbia - and a pretty compelling post-modern horror novel. The “emptiness of suburbia”, you say, isn’t that a bit trite; a little twee and “Desperate Housewives“?

It’d be a fair criticism, if this weren’t a novel first and foremost about materialistic, status-obsessed parenting and how a generation of parents driven by personal freedom are as capable of screwing up their kids as their hidebound 1950s parents. The depiction of lethargic children on a cocktail of behavioural drugs at a “rehearsal party” supervised by a paediatrician is as funny as it is awful.

(The parent/teacher night gag about appropriate ways to draw a “normal” platypus is also a small gem.)

That and it’s a novel about being haunted by the memory of your father and a seriously nasty novel you once wrote, as well as … well, the forces of supernatural evil (maybe).

It is also wildly clever. The author-turning-himself-into-character shtick has seldom been done so well, deftly manipulating the conventions of both “I-never-knew-my-father” autobiographical fiction and the straightforward small-town horror genre. (His heavily ironic disclaimer about having done no research into the “true” events of the novel is also an overdue call for a return to imaginative, as opposed to footnote-driven, fiction.)

Despite the trappings of autobiography, one is left with the distinct impression you know little more about Ellis, other than the fact he’s a damn clever writer.
Holiday reads part 1:
Sebastian Faulks, “Human Traces”

Headline: wildly over-hyped historical novel of mad-doctors, schizophrenia and evolution

Right, I’ve not read “Birdsong” or “Charlotte Gray” - which many rave about - but while “Human Traces” would comfortably fill a long weekend at the beach, it’s a trifle frustrating.

The historical detail on the origins of psychiatry as a field of study, and early theories on “mad-doctoring” is engaging. The provocative thesis of one of the central characters, the improbably named Dr Thomas Midwinter, that our capacity for language is also the origin of madness but that at one stage of (pre-literate) human development the ability to “hear voices” was vital to human existence is certainly engaging.

Indeed, the historical detail and evocation of place is usually pretty good.

It’s just a shame the characters are all so flat and either unsympathetic or laughably idealised. The women, to an indistinguishable one, have a near psychic ability to intuit what the menfolk are thinking and feeling and are - frankly - concerned with little else. In a depiction of what is meant to be life in all its vicissitudes, it must be said that success comes rather easily. Unless married off by unfeeling parents, characters seem to fall in love by a second meeting at the latest, and are unproblematically engaged soon after.

There is the tragedy of the first world war, and the campaign on the western front and in the Italian mountains. Pity that much the same territory was covered so much better in Hemmingway’s “Farewell to Arms”.

Most of the splash about “Human Traces”, other than suggestions the subject-matter was inspired by Faulk's mother's experience of mental illness, was made by the Oxford don Professor Tim Crow who was a little concerned (rather endearingly) about whether “it matters if the facts are right in a novel” - basically an accusation that Faulks had lifted a theory of his and anachronistically given it to a character who, on the basis of knowledge then available, could never have conceived it. Faulks apparently found the idea distressing. I have trouble appreciating the problem.

Faulks rather sententiously disclaims the practice of concluding a novel with a list of references “as though all art aspired to the condition of a student essay.” I find, however, some of the rather thinly veiled and clunking exposition of scientific thought rather much in a novel; though lamentably this category contains many of the novel’s most interesting passages.

Indeed, the most interesting idea in the novel, that all humans once “heard voices” and had a direct psychic (or psychiatric) experience of the divine is attributed in the acknowledgements (really a bibliographic essay) to Julian Jaynes.

I have no trouble with fiction presenting interesting ideas, but find the contemporary insistence on historical accuracy stifling and entirely unnecessary. I rather liked Bet Easton Ellis’ apologetic disclaimer of having done know research into the “true” events of “Lunar Park” and am rather looking forward to a novel that does not occasionally feel like a textbook with all the footnotes missing.

Thursday, December 15, 2005


So, I am staying at my parents' house in the countryside outside of Canberra.

My mother is having a bookclub lunch today, and I will escape to the ANU law faculty library while Dad helps out.

However, we've had an unexpected visitor.

Mum woke up this morning to find a black-faced sheep, all cotton-wool fur and spindly black legs, standing on the terrace looking in the bedroom window.

Just the one lost sheep, parachuted in, as it were, from nowhere.

Very Wallace and Gromit.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Flashback to jet-lag in the making: in-flight movie reviews

The 40 year old virgin: not just American Pie for grown-ups; foul-mouthed, but rather sweet and with few gross-out jokes.

Who woulda thought condoms and chest-waxing could be so funny?

Cinderella Man: y'know the screenplay Barton Fink writes, about a wrestler who is emotionally and physically (but mostly physically) in tights? Who faces down an evil opponent? To rise heroically from his tenement origins? Yup, this is Barton's film.

... And man, does boxing ever make me feel ill. How is bludgeoning someone unconscious a sport in a civilised world?

Batman Begins: a novel take on a modern myth, dominated by the quest for psychological realism (and big toys!), betrayed by an ending one wishes disbelief could suspend.

Yes, I'll still go see the sequel.

Sky High: high-school - it's where geeks turn out to be cool, your girl-friend turns out to be your worst enemy, your worst enemy turns out to be your best friend, and your best friend turns out to be your girlfriend. Oh, and it's where you go to learn how to use your heriditary super-powers.

NB: Cheerleaders are evil.

Something's Gotta Give: old wrinkly people with heads full of character date young, featureless people with heads full of air - before realising they love each other. I think.

I dunno, I only watched the last 20 minutes.

Monday, December 12, 2005

On being a Phud

It's a bit like being 19 again, staying with your parents on an extended basis as a 30-year old. Having to borrow the car, explaining when you'll be away overnight and who you'll be with (just so no one worries), calling to confirm if you'll be home for dinner, and ... well, not having anything approaching an office space. Not bad, or difficult, just odd.

Anyway, a further 19-ish experience was a weekend in Sydney, getting lifts both ways with grown ups. A salient reminder that I am a grown-up myself was an evening in Leichardt with friends from uni: all law graduates. All but one had done time in corporate law firms.

One had jumped from the Tax Office to corporate law, one had started there and stayed there, one had gone from corporate law to a public broadcaster, and one was in State government. Then there were the two PhD students, me and an English PhD student now based in Melbourne (the amazing Beth).

So Beth and I managed the Phud conversation: "I can't believe that some weeks I can write a thousand words a day, and others I'm beating my skull in to finish a paragraph ... some books I tear through, others take a week to crawl through taking notes". Okay, not the exact words we used, but the gist.

The Phud conversation is valuable: while all work-talk is potentially boring to others, we're an isolated group who need the peer support to keep going. As people, we read to know that we are not alone. As humanities Phud students, neither blessed by nor shackled to a lab group or office, we have the work conversation to escape our little boxes and gain some perspective on what is "normal".

In at least one survey, half of those discontinuing graduate study rated isolation as an important factor for leaving their studies (especially, it seems women).

I guess this is one thing I get out of being in Cambridge in particular: if you want to be isolated in Cambridge, it's easy. Stick to your room and your lab or library and don't socialise. A good number do this. However, if you want a social network of other graduate students - it's there on your doorstep. My college in particular is known for being small and friendly.

Frankly, I think being surrounded by people who know psychologically and emotionally what being a Phud is like is amazingly helpful. It's not that other friends are insensitive, but the invisible support of peers - especially across subjects or disciplines - is a major part of maintaining the morale to keep going.

That, and fear. Fear is really useful too.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Wrenching this thing back on course

I've been away from regular blogging for a while, I realise. Partly that's been the fact of coming back to Australia for the holiday season and getting over my usual vicious jet-lag.

But, regardless of jet-lag, Couritng Disaster has been adrift for a bit. I've been very busy of late with the PhD and my first ever semester's teaching and have felt a bit - well, busy to be blogging.

Strange, though, that I could always find time for it when working at a much more time-constrained desk job and even - more or less - through the chaos of my masters year.

First, I think blogging was simply a novelty, and my writing was mostly humourous pieces, reviews and the odd legal issue. Then it was a document of what could well have been my one and only year in Cambridge.

Now, with my life beyond blogging gathering steam, it seems important to re-focus on what I expect to do with this blog.

I think I really want it to be, rather more self-consciously, the blog of a PhD student. This is in itself a weird experience, and one worth recording.

So expect stories of teaching undergrads (including the odd mildly humilatiing piece of on-the-job learning), failed efforts to do PhD reading on long haul flights, and the trials and tribulations of trying to get a few publications out there.

Dammit. I have a book review to finish over Christmas as well.