Monday, November 26, 2012

Winning serve

Both Flesh and Not by David Foster Wallace

It’s been four years since the American novelist David Foster Wallace took his own life at the age of 46. The Wallace industry has been busier since his death than it ever was while he lived. In 2009 it gave us This is Water, a padded-out version of a graduation address he delivered in 2005. His undergraduate Philosophy thesis was published in 2010. In 2011 we had his big posthumous novel, the characteristically brilliant but annoying The Pale King. D. T. Max’s biography, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, came out earlier this year. 

Now we have Both Flesh and Not, a compilation of Wallace’s uncollected non-fiction. Mark that word “uncollected.” Wallace published two books of essays during his lifetime: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997) and Consider the Lobster (2005). The bulk of this new book consists of early essays that Wallace chose not to reprint in those volumes. In almost every case it isn’t hard to see why ... [read more]

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Peace off!

The John Lennon Letters

From the outside, The John Lennon Letters looks like a feast for Lennon buffs. The book is 400 pages long and as heavy as a paver. If Lennon really wrote this many letters, this isn’t merely an “international publishing event.” It would also appear to be a major book.  

Unfortunately, the Letters is less full of letters than you might think. Its editor, Hunter Davies, initially dreamed of discovering “large, hidden-away caches” of unknown Lennon correspondence. In the event, he unearthed only a handful of substantial letters. To fill the book up, Davies has, by his own admission, “rather expanded the definition of the word ‘letter’.” He’s expanded it, apparently, to include any piece of paper or cardboard that bears Lennon’s signature: shopping lists, memos to domestic staff, postcards to fans (“Dear Toli, Hi! Bye! Love, John”) ... [read more] 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Real horrorshow

A Clockwork Orange: The Restored Text by Anthony Burgess 

“The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate.” As Anthony Burgess neared the end of his life, that was how he felt about A Clockwork Orange. After all, he’d written more than fifty other books, some of which were clearly more substantial. He also resented the notoriety of the film: he didn’t like being thought of as the mere supplier of Kubrick’s raw material. And he worried that the novel was too preachy: its moral lesson, he admitted, stuck out “like a sore thumb.” 

But almost twenty years after its author’s death, Burgess’s rogue child still has an irrepressible life of its own. Having just turned fifty, it has been re-issued in a sumptuous, radiantly orange anniversary edition. [read more]

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Why me? Why not?

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

On June 8, 2010, Christopher Hitchens awoke in a New York hotel room feeling very ill indeed. “I came to consciousness,” he later wrote, “feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse.” He could scarcely breathe. With difficulty he made it to the telephone and called an ambulance. At the hospital, scans indicated the presence of “some kind of shadow.” Hitchens, a lifelong smoker, had cancer of the oesophagus. Eighteen months after hearing that diagnosis he died, aged 62.

Until that day in New York, Hitchens had been on a roll. He had a fair claim to being the most scintillating off-the-cuff speaker on earth. His political journalism was likewise never boring. After the September 11 attacks on America he turned savagely on his former comrades on the Anglo-American left, calling them “soft on crime and soft on fascism.” Dashing, prolific, superbly articulate, he was both an old-school man of letters and a scruffily willing verbal brawler. On YouTube, his fans coined a name for the way he trounced his hapless opponents: they called it the “Hitch slap.” In 2007, his atheist polemic God is Not Great became a best-seller. His 2010 memoir, Hitch-22, proved he was getting better with each new book ... [read more]

Saturday, July 21, 2012

How did we get it so wrong?

Michael Chamberlain's Heart of Stone

Where were you on the night Lindy Chamberlain was convicted of murdering her baby daughter? I was sitting in the passenger seat of a car, and when the news came over the radio I gave a cheer of approval. I was only twelve, and I like to think I’d have behaved better if I was older. But I doubt I would have. I had the same fever most other people had. I wanted her to be guilty.

The fever lifted, eventually. All that impressive scientific proof of her guilt melted away. It had been bunkum from the start. Without that evidence, the prosecution case was little more than a theory that defied belief. In June this year, the Northern Territory issued a death certificate confirming that Azaria was taken by a dingo. This gave official sanction to something that every Australian in his or her right mind had already come to believe. The Chamberlains didn’t do it ... [read more] 

Saturday, June 30, 2012

After the post-human

Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis

Lionel Asbo, Martin Amis’s funniest and most satisfying novel in years, opens on a typically edgy note. Desmond Pepperdine, aged fifteen, is having an incestuous affair with his grandmother. The offence is mitigated, slightly, by the consideration that she is only thirty-nine. Desmond lives in the bleak London borough of Diston, where people breed early and die young – “a world of italics and exclamation marks.” He is the son of a black father he never knew, and a white mother who died when he was twelve. He lives in a council high-rise with his mother’s brother, a fearsome career thug named Lionel Asbo.

Asbo is the latest in a long line of Amis yobs, and he might be the scariest of the lot. An ASBO, in real British life, is an Anti-Social Behaviour Order. Lionel Asbo (nĂ© Pepperdine) is served his first ASBO at the age of three – a national record. At eighteen he legally changes his surname to Asbo. Why? Because Lionel goes out of his way to do stupid things. He is also capable, when roused, of committing unspeakable acts of violence ... [read more] 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

A rake's progress

On Richard Bradford's Martin Amis: the Biography

Doing the biography of a living writer can’t be easy. Writers like to have control over things – especially over the contents of books. When Martin Amis “co-operated” with his new biographer, Richard Bradford, he didn’t do so unconditionally. He granted Bradford a series of interviews, and gave him the green light to approach certain other approved parties. But he stipulated that some people – including his mother and his ex-wife – would not be involved.

Considering these restrictions, Bradford hasn’t done an entirely bad job. His book is lopsided, but it’s meaty. It contains a better class of information than it would have if he’d tried to proceed without Amis’s approval. It isn’t a first-rate biography by any means, but it has one crucial thing going for it. Martin Amis has lived a life you don’t want to stop reading about.

His personal history seems implausibly heightened, like the plot of one of his novels. His father, Kingsley, was one of the liveliest writers of his generation. His mother was a free spirit who routinely let the kids ride around on the roof-rack of her car ... [read more] 

Monday, April 2, 2012

Less fun than it looks

On the Blue Wiggle's autobiography

Is there a job in the world that isn’t considerably less fun than it looks? Being a Wiggle, you might suppose, would be a breeze. Roll out of bed at around ten, slip on the coloured shirt for a mid-day show, mingle backstage with some celebrity milfs, then spend the remainder of the day reclining in a hot-tub full of cash.

Anthony Field, the Blue Wiggle, has written a book that unveils the less glamorous reality: the bad hotels; the terrible food; the backstage arguments, one of them culminating in the throwing of a toy drum kit; the grim logistics of coping with irritable bowel syndrome on the road. Field isn’t complaining, mind you: he keeps stressing that the joy of the live shows makes it all worthwhile. But he leaves you feeling that he and his fellow Wiggles have thoroughly earned their success.

Field earned his while suffering from a diabolical array of health problems that threatened, at one stage, to curtail his wiggling for good ... [read more] 

Friday, March 30, 2012

But not only to look at

500 words on My Favourite Novel for The Weekend Australian

I must have been about eighteen when I first opened my parents’ copy of Lucky Jim. Physically it didn’t promise much. It was a liver-spotted Penguin from the 50s or early 60s. Much as I wanted to be the kind of guy who read orange Penguins, I was grimly aware that getting through one could be hard work. (To this day I maintain that Lady Chatterley’s Lover, sodomy or no sodomy, is a surprisingly uncompelling book.)

But on the second page of Lucky Jim I got collared by this description of two men crossing a lawn: “To look at, but not only to look at, they resembled some kind of variety act …” But not only to look at. What an exhilarating thing to do to a sentence. Literature had never sounded like that before. Amis was right there in the book with you, twisting his sentences like trick balloons.

One member of the variety act is the book’s hero, Jim Dixon, a junior lecturer at a provincial British university. The other is his boss, Professor Welch, one of the great comic antagonists in fiction. Dixon has five weeks to convince Welch to keep him on the faculty. “Until then he must try to make Welch like him, and one way of doing that was, he supposed, to be present and conscious while Welch talked …” [read more]

Monday, March 26, 2012

The sound of no hands clapping

Richard Flanagan's non-fiction

Nobody would deny that Richard Flanagan is a passionate writer. His new collection of non-fictional prose is full of fire and commitment, all right. But whether Flanagan has the talent to convert passion into literature is the question about his work that won’t go away. Consider a typically cantankerous sentence from the current book. Responding to critics who believe that Australian novelists should “write more about money”, Flanagan says this: “So much offensive idiocy and prescriptive stupidity has not been heard since the days the lecterns of Eastern Europe grew greasy with the nonsense of cultural commissars insisting on how only social realism adequately described socialist reality.”

Look at what passion does to Flanagan’s prose. His language overheats, but it refuses to get especially inventive or evocative. (By what process might one expect “nonsense” to deposit grease on a lectern?) Flanagan’s unfortunate lack of creative resources (wit, irony, pictorial imagination) means that his strong feelings have nowhere to go, except into the making of a crude overstatement that can only alienate an intelligent reader. To suggest that the plight of the contemporary Australian novelist is in any way comparable to the woes of a Soviet-era writer in Eastern Europe is absurd, if not obscene. Indeed, the comparison is so inept that Flanagan destroys his own case: he accidentally reminds you that Australian novelists, when you look at their situation historically, don’t really have much to complain about at all. Thus Flanagan displays his negative gift for rhetoric. When he cranks up his prose to convince you of something, he has an uncanny ability to make you sympathise with the opposite view, even if you didn’t before ... [read more]

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Freak power

On Hunter S. Thompson's selected journalism

I wonder if I am underqualified to write about Hunter S. Thompson. Picture Thompson having an average day at the office. Nude except for a pair of Ray Bans, he breakfasts on iced Wild Turkey, types out an eyewitness account of some Hell’s Angels committing a gang rape, throws down a fistful of mescaline, then steps outside to discharge one of his shotguns at a passing bear, inadvertently wounding his secretary in the leg.

Now picture me: fully clothed at my laptop, in a room void of firearms and dead wildlife, fuelled by a cocktail of Lipton’s Intense and chilled juice. I’m not even that sure what mescaline is.

When Thompson shot himself dead in 2005, his best work was well behind him. This burly new anthology of his writings for Rolling Stone provides a generous reminder of how good his best work was ... [read more]