Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Shallows and miseries

A post-mortem of Australian republicanism

When Queen Elizabeth paid her sixteenth official visit to Australia in October, some sage at Reuters predicted that the royal tour would “reignite debate about whether the nation should become a republic.” Seasoned students of Australian republicanism knew this would prove to be poppycock: and so it did. As things turned out, the Queen’s visit sparked much discussion of her aqua hat, and her wattle brooch. When our Prime Minister bowed to her instead of curtseying, there was some talk of whether that constituted the diplomatic equivalent of a headbutt. But the only discussions of republicanism I heard concerned how little everybody was talking about republicanism.

Australians are used to hearing predictions about a resurgence of the republican spirit. But the dog of Australian republicanism keeps failing to bark. I wonder if we need to examine the possibility that it is dead. If it isn’t, it’s certainly in a very bad way. A recent poll said that only 34% of Australians now favour a republic. Polls should always be treated with caution, but few Australians would doubt the veracity of that one. All you need to do, in order to confirm it, is stick your head out the window and listen to the sound of silence. Nobody talks about the republic any more. And this is an age when people are ready to talk and tweet and blog about pretty much anything ... [read more]

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

There's just one Hitch

Christopher Hitchens's Arguably

Originally published in The Australian Literary Review, September 2011

Last year, just before he was diagnosed with advanced oesophageal cancer, Christopher Hitchens published the unexpectedly moving memoir Hitch-22. “I soon enough realized when young,” he revealed in that book, “that I did not have the true ‘stuff’ for [writing] fiction and poetry. And I was very fortunate indeed to have, as contemporaries, several practitioners of those arts who made it obvious to me, without unduly rubbing in the point, that I would be wasting my time if I tried.”

As a journalist, Christopher Hitchens has done everything with his time except waste it. He has made himself the key writer of the post 9/11 age. No novelist or poet has registered the texture of the last decade as pungently as Hitchens has in the essay form. His sheer blazing willingness to speak his mind, always and forcefully, has made him a lode-star of candour in a time of double-talk and euphemism. No matter how depressing political developments have got, one has always been able to look forward to what Hitchens will have to say about them. Just a few weeks ago, the Tea Party movement’s lobotomization of American politics was almost made worthwhile when it prompted Hitchens to coin the phrase “all politics is yokel.” We have recently been forced to imagine what the intellectual world would be like without Hitchens. It is a dire prospect.

But right now he is still with us, and in the finest form of his career. This panoramic and deeply nourishing collection of essays is the thickest, and the best, that he has ever put together. Mainly it consists of articles written since the publication of his previous volume of essays, which came out in 2004, although a few pieces have been corralled in from earlier dates. The shorter essays offer fiery confirmation, as if any were needed, that Hitchens is still the liveliest polemical writer around. But the weightier pieces (long and considered book reviews, extended dispatches from the world’s hell-holes and hot-spots) remind us that his politics, as spectacular and controversial as they sometimes are, have deep and elaborate roots. It’s conventional to say that Hitchens has moved, in the decade since 9/11, from the left to the right. Even a cursory reading of this book will prove that view to be simplistic.

Indeed if we step back, and take an overview of his whole career, it seems doubtful that 9/11 changed Hitchens's mind or his politics in any serious way. Certainly his forthright analysis of the attacks precipitated his formal break from the Anglo-American left. But the ideas Hitchens brandished after 9/11 were just sharper versions of ideas he already had. Well before 2001, he was writing with an uncompromising moral frankness that made him a poor fit for any brand of political orthodoxy. Yes, he had been a self-declared Trotskyist in his youth; but in his mature writings he has never toed any particular party line.

Consider the trio of book-length polemics he wrote during the five or six years preceding 2001. The targets of those merciless books were Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton, and Henry Kissinger. At first glance this looks like a mixed bag of victims. But there was nothing mixed about Hitchens’s approach to them. He merely set out to judge these people according to a fixed standard of ethical decency. The Hitchens of those books was no different from the man who so bitterly annoys his enemies today: he was a moralist, and an admirably consistent one. Hitchens is the kind of writer who quite deliberately uses old-fashioned words like evil, and wicked, and shameful, and sinister. He reclaims these words from the field of religion; he deploys them in a robustly humanist way that maximises their meaning and weight. When Hitchens is standing up for a violated or threatened principle, his prose attains a level of rhetorical white heat that no one else writing today can match.

What places him beyond left and right is his readiness to apply his moral anger across the board. Orthodox leftists, and indeed orthodox conservatives, exercise their senses of outrage more selectively. But Hitchens has no time for “sniggering relativism.” In 1989, when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa against Salman Rushdie, Hitchens unequivocally took the side of the condemned novelist. He treated the death-dealing Holy Man with no more respect than he would later extend to Henry Kissinger. If more flexible progressives, such as John le Carré, preferred to direct our attention to the nuances and grey areas of Rushdie’s death sentence, we should be slow to conclude that this made them more enlightened than Hitchens. In retrospect, Hitchens’s involvement in the Rushdie affair can be seen as his earliest brush with an emerging school of pseudo-leftism, whose adherents think it's their job to retreat into sophistry and queasy whataboutism when confronted by the topic of Islamic extremism.

In the immediate wake of 9/11 Hitchens published a series of unforgettable essays, the best of which were reprinted in his 2004 collection Love, Poverty, and War. These short pieces, I am convinced, will go down as classics of American journalism. Like Mencken at the Scopes monkey trial, or Mailer at the conventions of 1968, Hitchens caught the turbulence of the moment in vividly atmospheric prose. More importantly, he condemned the perpetrators of the atrocity in language that was consonant with the nature of the offence. While Noam Chomsky and others construed the attacks as a more or less straightforward response to American foreign policy, Hitchens, seasoned by the Rushdie affair, called the hijackers “nihilists … at war with culture as a whole.” One of his earliest ripostes to the Chomskyite position has stuck in my mind ever since. Noting that September 11 happened to mark the anniversary of the 1973 military coup in Chile – a CIA-backed enormity that gave democratic Chileans every right to resent the American government – Hitchens wrote: “I don’t know any Chilean participant in this great historical struggle who would not rather have died – you’ll have to excuse the expression – than commit an outrage against humanity that was even remotely comparable to the atrocities in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.”

What a telling way to underline the sheer singularity of the 9/11 act. All of Hitchens’s virtues as a writer were on display in that sentence. For starters, it let you know exactly where he stood. (It helped, greatly, that he knew exactly where he stood.) To speak of the attacks as an “outrage against humanity” was to use elementary moral language that few writers were ready to use at the time, and that some writers are embarrassed to use still. Then you have the phrase “who would not rather have died” – a chillingly compact way of evoking the universal, or apparently universal, norms of humanity that the jihadists had so monstrously violated. And Hitchens can use such phrases with authority, because they are backed by his long experience as an on-the-ground campaigner and journalist: he knows Chilean dissidents personally, and the date of Allende’s death is fixed in his head. Finally, you have Hitchens's uncanny power as an off-the-cuff rhetorician: he can seize the clinching example exactly when it’s needed, and throw it down like an unanswerable trump card.   

It was “as if Charles Manson had been made God for a day,” Hitchens wrote, just a day after the attacks. Of course one already knew, in one’s gut, that the hijackers were no more exalted than Manson. The evidence of that was ample, perhaps too ample: the plummeting office workers, the slashed throats of the hostesses. But Hitchens’s voice cut through the smog; he found words that were equal to the awful evidence in front of your eyes. “By their deeds,” he wrote, “shall we know them.” When he called the hijackers “theocratic fascists,” the phrase caught on. So did his characterisation of bin Ladenism as a “cult of death.” He was in the vanguard of the commentariat, saying things no other writers had yet found the guts to say.

It has been suggested that Hitchens overstates the magnitude of the jihadist threat to the West. Hitchens, the argument runs, fancies himself as a modern-day Orwell; but while Orwell had Hitler and Stalin to write about, Hitchens has been forced to inflate the importance of a bunch of fringe villains who pose no existential threat to Western civilization. One pauses to wonder if the kind of people who say this would have been quite so ready to endorse Orwell’s lonely campaign against Stalinism if they’d been around in the 1930s. One could also note that Islamic terrorism certainly does pose an existential threat to all the groups of people it expressly wants to kill  to say nothing of all the people it has killed already – and might be well worth combating on those grounds alone. But let’s leave those objections aside, and acknowledge that this line of argument is perhaps not wholly rancid. Reading one or two of Hitchens’s more gung-ho essays in isolation, you could just about bring yourself to believe that he does have a bit of a bee in his bonnet about Islamic extremism.  

But this new collection, in which Hitchens’s more aggressive stuff is amply buttressed and elaborated by his more analytical pieces, leaves that complaint looking pretty thin. Hitchens devotes many more pages here to the extremists' already-consummated crimes against eastern cultures than he does to their potential threat to the West. He travels to Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran – whose Islamic regime he abhors not because it is an official enemy of the United States, but because it is an enemy of the Iranian people. He traces the “wretched … counter-evolution” of Pakistan: a place where “women can be sentenced to be raped … if even a rumour of their immodesty brings shame on their menfolk” and where “moral courage consists of the willingness to butcher your own daughter.”

Nor is Hitchens worried solely about extremists of the Islamic stripe. He travels to Uganda, where the Christian death squads of Joseph Kony employ child soldiers as young as nine. He goes to Venezuela, where the increasingly erratic Hugo Chávez is getting “very close to the climactic moment when he will announce that he is a poached egg.” In North Korea he sees people drinking from the sewer, and notes that the average North Korean is now, because of malnutrition, six inches shorter than the average South Korean.

In his book reviews, which occupy a good half of this volume, Hitchens frequently has call to revisit the totalitarian horrors of the past. Reviewing the war-time Diaries of the German Jew Victor Klemperer, he plucks out an “appallingly eloquent” illustration of Nazi cruelty: Klemperer, having been progressively stripped of all his other rights and dignities, is eventually denied the right to own a pet, and must send away his beloved cat to be put down. Elsewhere, Hitchens analyses Hitler’s increasingly psychopathic conduct near the war’s end, by which time he had become a “howling nihilist … [who] didn’t care if nobody outlived him.” Again the word “nihilist”: the essays in this book merge into a compelling argument that all the various forms of zealotry, beyond a certain point of madness, begin to resemble one another, no matter what ideology they nominally embody. North Korea, Hitchens writes, is these days less a communist state than “a phenomenon of the extreme and pathological right.” Pathological is no doubt the key word there. Indeed, Hitchens proceeds to call Kim Jong-il’s regime a “death cult.” Making the same point in the other direction, he detects an early whiff of totalitarianism in the Ten Commandments: the injunction against coveting one’s neighbour’s property is, he says, “the first but not the last introduction in the Bible of the totalitarian concept of ‘thought crime.’”

All this adds up to an analysis of totalitarianism that has geographical width and historical depth. And for Hitchens, the West’s current distance from these horrors is less secure than we might hope: “everyone has a self-interest in the strivings and sufferings of others because the borders between societies are necessarily porous and contingent and are, when one factors in considerations such as the velocity of modern travel, easy access to weaponry, and the spread of disease, becoming ever more so … A failed state may not trouble Americans’ sleep, but a rogue one can, and the transition from failed to rogue can be alarmingly abrupt.”

That first sentence, it should be said, is written with an uncharacteristic lack of fizz: it tries to pack too much of the Hitchens world-view into too small a space. His prose is at its vigorous best when Hitchens has been riled by some particular case or incident. His essay on the affair of the Danish cartoons is a standout. Its language is impassioned – he calls the international campaign of violence against Danish embassies a “Kristallnacht against Denmark” – but his passion is marshalled in defence of an imperilled liberty: namely, the freedom to speak openly about religion. “If we have to accept this sickly babble about ‘respect’,” he says, “we must at least demand that it is fully reciprocal.” 

That demand provides an important reminder about the nature of Hitchens’s atheism. Militant as it sometimes sounds, his campaign against faith-based excess is essentially a defensive project, mounted during a decade when the powerful religions were making various unapologetic attempts to wind back the achievements of secularism – a decade during which George Bush, for example, endorsed the teaching of intelligent design “theory” in America’s science classrooms. In 2007 Hitchens published God is Not Great, in which he wrote that he would happily leave religion alone if only religion would leave him alone. But as he pointed out, religion keeps declining to do that. Praising Jefferson’s wall of separation between church and state, Hitchens stresses that even the faithful have an interest in keeping religion out of the political sphere, since “a religiously neutral state is the chief guarantee of religious pluralism.”

When Hitchens puts the boot into the Ten Commandments, he doesn’t just do it for fun – although he undoubtedly has fun doing it. His object is serious, and affirmative: he wants to demonstrate that a rational humanist, far from having no values at all, can in fact propose a far more moral set of universal commandments than the ten that Moses took delivery of. Before sketching out his new commandments, though, Hitchens does a deliciously thorough job of dismantling the old ones. “They show every symptom,” he says, “of having been man-made and improvised under pressure. They are addressed to a nomadic tribe whose main economy is primitive agriculture and whose wealth is sometimes counted in people as well as animals.”

He is just as sceptical when reading texts he nominally likes. In a section called “Eclectic Affinities” he runs the literary gamut, from Flaubert to J. K. Rowling. Eclectic they certainly are, but his literary affinities are rarely unqualified. Even on the subject of Harry Potter, his eye for the telling argument remains sharp: he praises Rowling for getting kids to read, but complains that she “keeps forgetting that things are either magical or they are not: Hermione’s family surely can’t be any safer from the Dark Lord by moving to Australia, and Hagrid’s corporeal bulk cannot make any difference to his ability, or otherwise, to mount a broomstick.” He is also constantly on the lookout for the general moral lesson. Discussing Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, first published in 1941, he calls West “one of those people, necessary in every epoch, who understand that there are things worth fighting for, and dying for, and killing for.”  

You can see, right there, why the sandal-wearing wing of the contemporary left resents Hitchens so extravagantly. Such people are comfortable enough telling you what they are against: Bush, Blair, the “so-called” war on terror. But they’re considerably less audible about what aspects of civilized society, if any, they might theoretically be prepared to fight for, let alone kill for. Hitchens, on the other hand, is grown-up enough to acknowledge that history contains many unpalatable lessons and warnings, and he has the moral honesty to try to get to grips with them. He’s ready to say that there is such a thing as civilization, whose proponents must be ready to use violence to defend their way of life against the people for whom violence is a way of life.   

Hitchens writes so prolifically, and with such brio, that it would be miraculous if this book didn’t exhibit the odd rough edge. There’s a certain amount of overlap and repetition. There is the occasional sentence that gets away from him. Some of his purely literary essays lack the crackle of his more committed work: when his prose isn’t driven by some pressing moral purpose, it has a tendency not to take fire. A pun-riddled inquiry into the cultural significance of the blowjob proves that whimsy is not his best mode. 

If he has a serious vice, it’s the flip side of one of his main virtues. He doesn’t like to lose an argument. His streetfighting instincts are part of the reason he's such an entertaining writer, but occasionally they get the better of him. Even when he’s landing good clean scoring punches, he’ll sometimes bite off a chunk of his opponent’s ear for good measure. In his mature work he has largely curbed this tendency, but there is one essay here in which he conspicuously loses his cool. Reviewing Koba the Dread, by his close friend Martin Amis, Hitchens gets personal in a big way.

Not that you can totally blame him. Amis got personal first, by writing a book in which Hitchens himself plays a prominent and not entirely heroic role. Koba the Dread is a semi-autobiographical meditation about Stalinism, and about the slowness of the international left to absorb and acknowledge the full range of its horrors. Amis uses Hitchens as a kind of representative figure, and makes much of his failure to renounce Trotsky and Lenin.

Hitchens, in his review, accuses Amis of “hubris”, “self-righteousness” and “superficiality.” These are big calls, and Hitchens backs them up with some solid arguments. He demonstrates his superior knowledge of the terrain; he lists key books Amis hasn’t read. If he’d rested his case there, it would have been sound enough. But he goes on to “set down a judgment I would once have thought unutterable”: he accuses Amis of a “want of wit” that “compromises his seriousness.”

Since Hitchens considers this charge so grave, it is worth examining the grounds on which he makes it. One of his main beefs has to do with an episode in Amis’s book in which Hitchens, appearing at a debate in a London hall, cracked a joke about earlier evenings he'd spent there with “many ‘an old comrade’”. The audience laughs, and Amis wonders why. How can people laugh about a creed responsible for the deaths of twenty million people? After all, nobody would have laughed if Hitchens had said “many ‘an old blackshirt.’” But Hitchens, in his review, lambasts Amis for having missed something crucial about the nature of the crowd's laughter: “the laughter in that hall was … the resigned laughter that ‘sees’ a poor jest, and recognises the fellow sufferer.” 

The second proof of Amis’s “want of wit,” says Hitchens, comes in certain personal anecdotes Amis tells in his book – anecdotes “that are too obviously designed to place himself in a good light.” These anecdotes concern a series of Stalin-related conversations that Amis, during the 1970s, had with Hitchens and the poet James Fenton, who was also a Trotskyist at the time. Again Hitchens suggests that Amis has missed something important about the tone or nature of these conversations: the questions that Amis asked him at the time were, says Hitchens, “plainly wife-beating questions, and the answers … clearly intended to pacify the aggressor by offering a mocking agreement.”

Flip open a copy of Koba the Dread, though, and check how damaging these charges really are. To take the second point first, Amis explicitly says that his arguments with Fenton and Hitchens were only “semi-serious”: “These exchanges took place in a spirit of humorous appraisal, mutual appraisal.” Furthermore, the comebacks he quotes from Hitchens are decidedly funny. You don’t need Hitchens’s review to tell you they were mocking or ironic. Amis, in his book, doesn’t pretend they were anything else. Nor do these exchanges show Amis in an especially “good light.” Few people reading them would disagree with the verdict, offered pre-emptively by Amis himself, that “my contributions were often callous as well as callow.”

Nor does Hitchens’s point about the laughter in the hall seem all that telling. The subtitle of Amis’s book is “Laughter and the Twenty Million,” and one of his central lines of inquiry is the question of why, despite that horrendous death toll, “you could always joke about the USSR” in a way you couldn’t joke about Nazi Germany. In the context of that argument, Hitchens’s quibble about the nature of the laughter in the hall seems a touch irrelevant. It was still laughter, and it still revolved around the word “comrade.” Amis, by the way, admits that he laughed too. He doesn’t exempt himself from the investigation. 

When his blood is up, then, Hitchens becomes capable of advancing poor arguments along with good ones. Still, his readiness to get personally involved is one of his best qualities as a man and writer, and one wouldn't want to be without it. For Hitchens, the life and the work are thoroughly intertwined. His famous essay on waterboarding is republished in this book: the one in which he researched that procedure by volunteering to undergo it himself. “Believe Me,” runs the title of his essay, “It’s Torture.” In Vietnam he visits a hospital for victims of Agent Orange, and emerges with almost unbearably vivid descriptions of the malformed children inside. “One should not run out of vocabulary to the point where one calls a child a monster,” he writes, “but the temptation is there.” It’s a rare writer who can strike a note like that and also, at the other end of the register, make you laugh out loud. Ripping into waiters who top up your wine while you’re trying to talk, Hitchens is brilliant. His famously close-to-the-wind piece on “Why Women Aren’t Funny” is here too. “Please do not pretend not to know what I am talking about,” he says in that essay: a phrase that would have made an apt title for this whole book, if an unfeasibly long one.

Writing in praise of Karl Marx’s journalism, Hitchens compiles a list of the great writer-reporters – Zola, Dickens, Twain, Orwell – and wishes that the word “journalist” might be made to “lose its association with the trivial and the evanescent.” Hitchens has helped that to happen, and we can now safely say that his own name belongs right up there with Twain's and Orwell's. “Ours is a useful trade,” Twain wrote in 1888:

With all its lightness and frivolity it has one serious purpose, one aim, one specialty, and it is constant to it – the deriding of shams, the exposure of pretentious falsities, the laughing of stupid superstitions out of existence … Whoso is by instinct engaged in this sort of warfare is the natural enemy of royalties, nobilities, privileges and all kindred swindles, and the natural friend of human rights and human liberties. 

Railing against the death cults, Hitchens has stood up unapologetically for life and liberty. If he hasn’t laughed superstition out of existence yet, that isn’t for lack of trying. It would be a sad day for literature if his campaign were to end prematurely. But even if it does, we know already that his laughter and his derision will endure.

(Originally published in the Australian Literary Review, September 2011)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Culturally appropriate

The Carnita Matthews case

On the 7th of June last year, a little after six in the evening, a Muslim woman named Carnita Matthews, dressed in a full burqa with facial niqab, was driving through the western suburbs of Sydney when a highway patrolman pulled her over for a random breath test. The fifteen-minute encounter that followed, which was recorded by a camera on the cop-car’s dashboard, would prove to be one of the most resonant traffic stops in Australian history. Portions of the video have played repeatedly on the nightly news. Two court cases have ensued. Scrums of pious men have jostled camera crews on city streets. And now, as a direct consequence of the whole affair, the New South Wales government is about to introduce laws empowering police to order the temporary removal of facial coverings for purposes of identification. This legislation has been somewhat lazily compared to the burqa ban in France, although it has far more limited aims than the French measure. Still, the maximum penalties for non-compliance will be a lot tougher: a year’s jail or a $5500 fine, as against the 150 Euro wrist-slap applicable in France.

The Matthews traffic stop, which can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube, began routinely enough ... [read more] 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Three-way cherub

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, June 25-26, 2011

Rob Lowe has always had the ideal American face. It looks plastic, but it’s real. It’s the face of a cherub: a cherub who filmed himself having two separate three-ways (in one of which he wasn’t the only dude) and got away with it, back in the days when things like that were still considered mildly embarrassing. It’s the face Michael Jackson’s surgeons always seemed to be chiselling their way towards.

Placed on the cover of an autobiography, Lowe’s face threatens the kind of skin-deep entertainment you get from a Lowe movie. He became a star during the blandest decade in the history of American film, and his performances in those home-made pornos were by no means the most wooden of his career: he was the kind of actor who, in order to portray a tortured saxophone player, simply messed up his hair and walked everywhere with a sax around his neck.

So it’s a bit of a surprise to hear people talking as if Lowe’s autobiography has substance. It’s even more of a surprise to discover they’re not wrong. The blurb writer who hails the book as “a major publishing event” undoubtedly goes a bit far. But Lowe has solid instincts as a memoirist: he knows what sort of things you’ll want to hear, and he’s much more perceptive and thoughtful than you expect someone who looks that good to be.   

He recounts his early childhood in a series of rapid fades: a shrewd way of fast-forwarding to the showbiz stuff without missing any essentials. His parents separated when he was four – a trauma he evokes with some effect. His teen years in Malibu are packed with cameos from past and future stars. He plays baseball in Martin Sheen’s backyard with Charlie and Emilio; makes home movies with the Penn brothers; dates a girl whose father turns out to be Cary Grant.

We’ll have to take Lowe’s word for it that he was unpopular at school, especially with the ladies. But at fifteen he got cast in a half-successful sitcom. This failed to impress girls who actually knew him, but girls who didn’t were suddenly interested. Mobbed and palpated at a publicity appearance, the young Lowe gets an insight into the hollowness of fame. “If you really knew me,” he thinks, “you wouldn’t like me nearly as much.”

The book’s centrepiece is an admirably detailed account of Lowe’s work on The Outsiders, his first feature. It wasn’t a bad film to debut in: Coppola was directing, and Lowe’s co-stars included Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Diane Lane. (Dillon won the hotly fought contest for Lane’s affections.)

Come to think of it, Lowe’s account of the film’s making is a lot more interesting than the film itself. He has an excellent memory for detail. His big breakdown scene required him to cry on cue for take after take. He did so. Then the ineffable Francis strolled onto set and announced it was time for the close-ups: Lowe had blown out his ducts on wide shots.

After the cast scatters to make other films, Lowe pays a telling visit to Cruise on the set of Risky Business. The old fraternal spirit has waned. “Tom has a new perspective on his acting style, telling me, ‘I want to spend time hanging with you but Joel [his character] doesn’t.” Is Lowe taking a wry jab at the great man here? It seems distinctly possible – unless you’re ready to accept that Tom really needed the Method to help him dance around in his Y-fronts and go toe-to-toe with the guy who played Booger in Revenge of the Nerds.

If the whole book had the intensity of the pages about The Outsiders, it would be one of the most interesting actors’ autobiographies of recent times. But Lowe covers nothing else in quite the same detail. Writing about his videotaped ménages, he’s decidedly stingier with behind-the-scenes anecdotes. He does, though, explain how he managed not to notice that one of the female participants was underage. The bar he met her in, you see, had a doorman who was hyper-vigilant about checking IDs.

The book gets sketchier as it goes, and there are some strange omissions from its later pages. Lowe never finds room to mention the illness and death of his on-screen brother Swayze. And although he makes frequent mention of his “deep interest” in politics, he never gets around to discussing that interest in any substantial way. Why, for instance, does he prefer Democrats to Republicans?

By the time he gets to The West Wing, his big comeback, he seems to be in a distinct hurry. We only get about fifteen pages on it. By the standards of the average showbiz autobiography, that’s quite a bit. But by the standards of Lowe’s earlier chapters, it feels like short weight.   

There is mention, in the book’s acknowledgements, of a “tight deadline." This explains a lot. But why was it a matter of such urgency to get Lowe’s book out? Couldn’t the publishers have waited till it was ready, or readier? As it stands, it’s not as disposable as most showbiz memoirs, but it leaves you wondering about the even less disposable book it might have been.

(Originally published in The Weekend Australian, June 25-26, 2011) 

Monday, May 23, 2011


On David Foster Wallace's The Pale King

When David Foster Wallace took his own life in 2008, at the age of only forty-six, his death felt like a calamity for literature. At his best, Wallace gave you a thrill you could get from no other living writer: his prose was fluent, hip, startling, inventive, prodigious. When he got on a roll, he could almost make you forget to breathe. Writers as talented as that come along once in a generation – if we’re lucky. Literature, in this day and age, couldn’t afford to lose him.

But as the shock wore off, one began to recall that Wallace had had his faults. Hadn’t his fiction been as exasperating as it was exciting? Why was it that the most ludicrously gifted writer of our age had failed to produce a single novel that a normal person would want to keep reading to the end? Hadn’t his sense of structure been deficient, perhaps even non-existent? Wasn’t there something sterile and childishly irresponsible about his fuck-the-reader aesthetic? Why did he settle for being a writer’s writer? Did he lack the skills to be a reader’s writer, or just the inclination? In the end, didn’t his career represent a squandering of talent on a Joycean scale?

The Pale King, Wallace’s posthumously published final novel, fails to make these questions go away ... [read more]  

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Kid Growing Old

Originally published in the Australian Literary Review, May 2011

“This year I almost died.”

That arresting sentence comes from Clive James’s poem “Fashion Statement,” published in January this year, but written towards the end of 2010. James isn’t writing in someone else’s voice here. He is speaking for himself. He really did almost die last year.

What happened? There are clues in several of the recent poems. “Vertical Envelopment,” published in December 2010, revealed that James had been hospitalised twice during the preceding months: first with a serious bout of emphysema (“The way I smoked, thank Christ it wasn’t cancer”); and later, in New York, after being “felled” by a blood clot. The same poem makes a glancing but ominous reference to the poet’s “CLL / Leukaemia that might hold off for years.” Slow-moving as this form of the disease may be, it still sounds like something one would firmly prefer not to have. On the plus side, subsequent poems suggest that the battered Kid from Kogarah is in far better shape now than he was last year – although still weak, still on “meds.”

It’s interesting that James should have chosen poetry as the place to write about these crises. Although he has always viewed himself as a poet first and foremost, his critics, even his most sympathetic ones, haven’t always agreed with him on that. For a long time, it seemed as though he would never, as a poet, shake his reputation as a writer of “mere” light verse – the kind of verse that wasn’t about to cope with blood clots and burst catheter bags. But when the time came for James to write about these things – when the moment arrived to smash the emergency glass – poetry was the instrument he reached for.      

This won’t surprise anyone who’s been keeping tabs on his recent work. Over the past fifteen years or so, his poetry has entered an enthralling late phase. The poems have become candid and richly autobiographical; they have acquired emotional heft. They are circling back to themes that have preoccupied him his entire life. And they are addressing them in a sincere, stripped-back, definitive-sounding tone – the tone of a man who wants to get important things said.

His last book of poetry, Angels Over Elsinore, was published in 2008. Since then, new poems have kept appearing, at a prodigious rate, in an array of international magazines. For the moment – until the appearance of his next slim volume – these poems can be read for free on James’s exemplary website. Had we lost him last year, we wouldn’t just have lost the author of a marvellous (and marvellously varied) body of work. We’d have lost a man whose body of work is still growing, in interesting and unexpected ways.

To understand the turn his recent poetry has taken, we’d better look at one of his not-so-recent poems first. “Go Back to the Opal Sunset”, written in the late 1980s, is a representative enough sample of the earlier James. It begins: 

Go back to the opal sunset, where the wine
Costs peanuts, and the avocado mousse
Is thick and strong as cream from a jade cow.

The opal sunset is Australia, land of the poet’s birth. The poem chalks up a list of Australia’s richest-hued charms, and contrasts them with the stark demerits of England, the poet’s adopted home (“Now London’s notion of a petty crime / Is simple murder or straightforward rape”).

The poem has all the classic Jamesian qualities. There is humour:

                             … Make your escape
To where the prawns assume a size and shape
Less like a newborn baby’s little toe.

And there is appreciation of the female form, with special reference to the rear end:

Bottoms bisected by a piece of string
Will wobble through the heat-haze like a dream.

But all these juicy attractions imply an obvious question. If Australia is so fantastic, what exactly is keeping the poet away? It must be some pretty potent force – some force even more magnetic than the lure of buttock and prawn. The final stanza acknowledges the question, and attempts a response:

What keeps you here? Is it too late to tell?
It might be something you can’t now define,
Your nature altered as if by the moon.
Yet out there at this moment, through the swell,
The hydrofoil draws its triumphant line.
Such powers of decision should be mine …

Considering the lavish specificity of the preceding stanzas, the poet’s two-line attempt to answer his own question sounds conspicuously vague. He doesn’t even seem to be trying. You can almost hear his relief when he can go back to evoking exterior things: the swell, the hydrofoil’s “triumphant line.” 

One shouldn’t complain too loudly about a poet who can conjure the jade cow and the baby’s little toe. Nor should we expect a comic poem to culminate in a torrent of searing self-analysis. But still: that unsatisfactory last stanza casts a forked-tongue effect over the poem’s whole argument. You begin to wonder about the sincerity of those earlier stanzas. Do they really mean what they say? If they do, why can’t the poet be equally forthright about what’s keeping him in England? Is it really something he “can’t” define? Or is it something he won’t?  

You could ask similar questions about a lot of James’s earlier work. For a long time, he had a marked tendency to shy away from personal revelation in his poetry, and to compensate for this coyness with flamboyancy of technique. This resulted in some richly entertaining verse, but critics who considered James an essentially “light” poet had, in those days, a point. Back then, you didn’t get the whole of Clive James in his poetry.

These days you do. “Castle in the Air,” published in 2010, returns to the theme of “Opal Sunset”. But it opens up all the curtains on it; it lets in the light from every angle. The poem begins:

We never built our grand house on the edge
Of the Pacific, close to where we first
Drew breath, but high up in the cliffs, a ledge
Glassed in, with balconies where we would be
Enthralled to watch it hit the rocks and burst –
The ocean that still flows through you and me
Like blood …

He sounds like a different man. But the difference is that we’re no longer watching him perform; we’re listening to him think. James himself has defined a poem – brilliantly – as something that can’t be quoted from except out of context. “Opal Sunset” didn’t rise to that status: its poetic effects were local, and readily detachable. But the poetry of “Castle in the Air” is much harder to prise loose. The lines run on with an airy openness that matches the cliff-top view; until the fifth line, you can’t quote one line without also quoting part of the next. The language is willing to follow the thought, no matter how complicated the thought gets. Indeed you get the sense, as you do from all serious poetry, that the poet is using language to articulate things he doesn’t quite know yet. He’s using poetry as a tool to get at the truth.   

The first word of the poem, “we,” is part of that truth. There was no suggestion, in “Opal Sunset,” that the poet was a married man. But in fact he has been married since 1968 to the Australian-born academic Prue Shaw, with whom he has two daughters. Shaw appears here and there in his memoirs under the name of Françoise, and their daughters make a couple of cameo appearances too. But all three are rendered in sketch form only, and this is quite deliberate. James has always classified his family as “civilians.” He has long defended their right not to be written about, even by him. 

Laudable as this principle was and is, it imposed a grave handicap on an artist whose greatest theme has always been – why deny it? – himself. Writing about his childhood and youth, James was on safe ground: those parts of his life belonged mainly to him. But the memoirs, for my money, stopped reading like classics after the third volume, in the last chapter of which the protagonist got married. Volumes four and five have a decidedly skimpier feel: you can sense the largeness, and the importance, of the private territory that the author is denying you access to.

A little over ten years ago, James began to relax this stricture in his poetry. Perhaps he felt that the poem, by the turn of the century, had become a safely under-the-radar form. Maybe his retirement from TV at around the same time was also a factor. In any event, his decision to start writing about the central relationship of his life has had a tremendously liberating effect on his verse. His wife stars in some of his most substantial and moving later poems: “Flashback on Fast Forward”, “Book Review,” “Signing Ceremony.” And permitting himself to open up on the autobiographical level seems to have led to a general relaxation of James’s technique. Almost every poem he writes now, whether his loved ones appear in it or not, has the same unfettered feel: the tone is transparent and unselfconscious; the lines open out and run on to accommodate the flow of introspection. In hindsight, some of his old poetry now reads as if he wrote it with one hand tied behind his back. Finding the voice in which to speak about his marriage seems to have been a decisive leap in James’s evolution from an essentially comic poet into a serious one.

This is not to say that he has stopped writing funny poems. “The Australian Suicide Bomber’s Heavenly Reward,” published in 2005, ranks among his most savagely amusing pieces of verse. But that poem, as its title implies, isn’t autobiographical. Like all his most successful comic poems (“A Gesture towards James Joyce,” “One Man to Another”) it uses humour to sharpen a philosophical position: it is cultural criticism in verse form. James’s funniness as a critic has always been an extension of his fundamental seriousness. But in his autobiographical work, humour may have served more as a weapon of self-defence than of attack. He wouldn’t be the first Australian male to use wit as a means of parrying the awkward personal question.

The awkward personal question is precisely what his most interesting recent poems set out to answer. The language in which they do so tends to be boiled down, reduced to essentials: the jokes and extravagant metaphors have been skimmed off the top. To return to “Castle in the Air”:

          … We’ve talked about that view
So often we can watch the seagulls fly
Below us by the thousand. There’s the clue
Perhaps, to what we might do for the best:
Merely imagine it. The place to die
Is where you find your feet and come to rest.

In his prose, James wouldn’t use a cliché like “find your feet” without qualifying it somehow. (“We found our feet in gyrating winklepickers” – he’d say something like that, only better.) And he would, if speaking of a bunch of flying seagulls, use a more evocative phrase than “by the thousand”. But James’s late poetry, like a lot of late poetry, doesn’t seek to be dazzling from line to line. It is building, stealthily, to richer effects:  

                       … Small prospect of return
Once you’re accustomed to the change of air,
The calm of being here instead of there –
The slow but steady way that it grows dark.

Again the last line contains a well-worn phrase. Lulled by the preceding lines, you’re almost ready to take the cliché “slow but steady” at face value, as if the closing-in of the English evening were a welcome thing. But the poem’s heavy preponderance of wrap-around lines makes its few end-stopped lines stick out like sore thumbs. They demand a second look. And that long English evening, looked at a second time, seems suddenly more sinister. The topic of death has already been raised by the preceding stanza, but only in a theoretical way: England is the place where the poet will, at some indefinite point in the future, die. But maybe the darkness is already closing in.      

James’s recent poetry is full of effects like this: the stark phrase that jolts you with a sudden uppercut of meaning. The surface of his poems no longer glitters like the harbour at noon. But now you can see the dark shapes in the depths.

There are troubling undertows, too. Superficially, and starting with its title, “Castle in the Air” seems to want to endorse the poet’s decision to settle in England. But the poem keeps getting pulled in other directions. It never quite settles down, because its author hasn’t quite settled down yet either.

In the second-last stanza, he gets up early for his morning walk. Having “done” his “meds” (this is a post-hospital poem), he sets out on “the creaking mile that keeps my legs alive.” He thinks about his English home. Much as he still loves it,

                         … I feel the waves arrive
Like earthquakes as I walk, and not until
I’m gone for good will I forget the thrill –
Nor will the urge to start again grow less.

The penultimate line seems to have wrapped the poem’s general argument up. Australia is in the blood, the bone, and always will be; but England is home. But again the poem’s drift is compromised by that niggling final line – a line that embodies the poem’s restless tendency to keep rebelling against its own conclusions.

That line propels us into one last stanza, which is all restlessness:

As always in my dreams I spread my chart
In the great room of the grand house on the cliffs
And plot my course. Once more I will depart
Alone, to none beholden, full of fight
To quell the decapods and hippogryphs,
Take maidens here and there as is my right,
And voyage even to eternal night
As the hero does, made strong by his cold heart.

We are denied the resolving chord, but that is part of the poem’s honesty. Apparently the poet doesn’t feel a sense of resolution yet. In his memoirs, he has often proclaimed himself a restless man. But you can’t always tell, reading the memoirs, exactly how fair dinkum he is being. He’s the one who decided to call them “unreliable”, after all.

But there is no doubting the reliability of the late poems. They have attained a transparency through which you can watch the unsettled mind thinking things through. In his dreams at least, the poet still wants to answer to nobody. He still wants the right to take maidens.

Even the most casual of James-watchers will know that he’s always had an eye for the maidens: an eye at the very least. But how does that work out for a married man? His memoirs have never pursued that question to the hilt, and you could argue, plausibly, that the answer is none of our business.    

But a serious poet – a poet who wants to gamble on the prospect of moving you – must be ready to tell you things that aren’t your business. In 1997 James published a poem that seemed to concede this point once and for all. Entitled “Son of a Soldier”, the poem was built on a set of facts well known to readers of the memoirs. When James was five, his father was killed while returning from military service in the Pacific. James was left alone with his devastated mother, who never remarried. 

The memoirs had made it clear that this was the central trauma of James’s youth. But “Son of a Soldier” revealed that the trauma was ongoing. “I was fifty-five years old / Before I began to cry authentically,” the poet says. Kneeling at the grave of his father, he tells the dead man: “Had you come home, I would not be what I am.”

A stanza later, he turns from his father’s grave to address his wife. “Let me explain,” he begins:

“ … The love that he did not return to make
To the first woman I knew and could not help,
Became in me a thirst I could never slake
For one more face transfigured by delight,

Yet needing nothing else. It was a doomed quest
Right from the start, and now it is at an end.
I am too old, too raddled, too ashamed.
Can I stay in your house? I need a friend.”
“So did I,” she said truly. “But be my guest …”

I would guess that James had to think very hard before publishing these intensely personal lines. Perhaps he suspected, even then, that “Son of a Soldier” would prove a watershed poem. It certainly looks like one in retrospect. Until then, he had been the kind of poet who left things like this out. Here, suddenly, was a poem that left nothing out. All the ugliest bits of psychic shrapnel lying around his workshop were packed into it. The echoes of Dante in the husband-wife dialogue wrap a bit of insulation around the jagged content, but not much.

It’s conceivable that James had to get “Son of a Soldier” out of his system before he could write the steady stream of gentler personal poems that have followed. The poem describes an emotional undamming, an opening of the floodgates; and its composition seemed to initiate an artistic undamming too. Once you’ve been as frank as that in print, you’ll probably never need to be so frank again. You can simply relax, and speak freely all the time.

Which is what James’s poetry has done ever since. These days he wields the ladies’ man theme – or the ex-ladies’ man theme – to more poignant effect. The protagonist of “Beachmaster” (2009) is an old man on an Australian beach:

Scanning the face of a crestfallen wave
He sees his life collapsing to a close,
A foaming comber racing to its grave.

Has anyone ever thought to call the face of a wave “crestfallen” before? If not, why not? Like Calvino’s Mr Palomar, James’s man on the beach derives a general lesson from watching the sea. As the older waves expire, new ones keep rising like “green” young men,

                 … queuing to take their turn
To die so that the sea might live again.
That much it took him all his life to learn.

The next stanza reveals that the ageing protagonist isn’t alone. “The latest Miss Australia” is on the beach too, “propped on her elbow in the burning sand.”

She strokes her thigh as one by one they fall,

Those high walls in the water. Look at her,
But shade your sad glance carefully, old man –
For she will never see you as you were,
A long way out, before the end began. 

“Old man.” That phrase conjures the spectre of Yeats – Yeats wearing a dab of zinc cream – but otherwise the poem doesn’t sound especially Yeatsian. James’s attack on the theme of ageing is linguistically gentler; there is even a touch of Frost in the way he shepherds you to that suckerpunch final line.

Not all of James’s recent poems are as forlorn as “Beachmaster”. It would be wrong to imply that the great humourist has morphed into a sad-sack. In “Status Quo Vadis” (2006) the poet chases lost time more vigorously, and has obvious technical fun trying to catch it. Polysyllabic rhymes are flung out like fistfuls of lollies; rapidly sketched scenes and eras collapse back into one another like a photograph album flipped through at speed. Some of the old formal dazzle is back, combining with the melancholy theme to wonderful effect. There is also a (slightly) heartening epigram about the upside of transience: “It’s not a wonder if it never ceases.” Who else could phrase the matter as neatly as that?

“Overview” (2008) achieves a similar effect by tracking the perpetual motion of the poet’s granddaughter, who won’t sit still for photos: “My wife gets pictures only of where she was.”

                        … Everything happens now.
None of it hangs together except in thought.

But the poem manages to catch the granddaughter in flight, so the act of writing is at least partly redemptive: it defeats time. Writing about Philip Larkin, James observed that the quality of the work can overcome the sadness of the subject matter, and transmute despair into beauty. Now we can say the same thing about him.  

We can say it in italics about “The Falcon Growing Old” (2010), which might be the finest poem James has ever written. Published late last year, the poem already feels like a classic, a walk-up start for the anthologies. It is compact, streamlined, uncannily masterful. The opening stanza, which lays the basis for an extended analogy between ageing falcon and ageing writer, is close to perfect:

The falcon wears its erudition lightly
As it angles down towards its master’s glove.
Student of thermals written by the desert,
It scarcely moves a muscle as it rides
A silent avalanche back to the wrist
Where it will stand in wait like a hooded hostage.

I think we can lay to rest, around now, the argument about whether James is a great poet. A great poet is a poet who can write a stanza like that. “Scarcely moves a muscle” would be a cliché in almost any other context. In the context of evoking a bird in flight it is wholly unexpected, and a masterstroke. It crystallises the suggestion that flying, for the veteran bird, has become an effortless process: a matter of angling down, nonchalantly. Then, via that stunning phrase for the texture of the flown-through air (“a silent avalanche”), the falcon lands to pose for that terminal simile: “like a hooded hostage.” This is a startling enough image by itself, before it occurs to you what hooded hostages stand in wait for.  

In the next stanza the falcon’s fate is confirmed: the bird “will have its neck wrung”, and “one of its progeny will take its place.” But then the focus switches to the “ageing writer”: similarly “bound for the darkness”, but for the moment able to scorn doom, and gravity, by writing phrases that feel to him like acts of flight: 

Catching the shifting air the way a falcon
Spreads on a secret wave, the outpaced earth
Left looking powerless.

The comparison is magnificently sustained until the poem’s final lines, where the writer is still to be found riding the air, 

Correcting for the wobble in the lisp
Of sliding nothingness, the whispering road
That leads you to a dead-heat with your shadow
At the orange-blossom trellis in the oasis.

We know now that James, last year, came perilously close to merging with his own shadow. But that near-miss only sharpened a turn in his poetry that was already occurring. Mortality, and vanished time, had been much on his mind anyway; he was already working a rich, late-hit seam of meditative verse, and was already speaking with the intense clarity of a man writing against the clock. Turning seventy, and then nearly dying, have only made him attack the same seam more urgently. Slow down, you want to tell him. Recuperate. Rest on your laurels for a while. Then again, if there are more poems like “The Falcon Growing Old” around the corner, you don’t really want him to slow down just yet.  

(Originally published in the Australian Literary Review, May 2011)

Monday, May 2, 2011

Lighten up, Tina

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, May 21-22, 2011

Tina Fey has been called the funniest woman in America. Until I read Bossypants, her disappointingly negligible new book, I’d probably have agreed. Fey’s 30 Rock is the sharpest sitcom on TV. It’s full of quotable, literary lines. Bossypants, alas, is not. It’s too rambling and loosely written to make you laugh; you suspect that Fey composed it with less care than she lavishes on the scripts of her show. And that seems significant. In an age when the best American TV writing strives for permanence, books like this one increasingly seem to have the status that American TV shows used to have. They're becoming so disposable that nobody really expects them to be anything else.

But let’s begin with Fey’s strengths. There may be no better practitioner of the one-liner in America today. Here she is on how it felt to grow up in the 1970s: “It was always ‘Day 27’ of something in Beirut”. And here’s what she said when she was impersonating Sarah Palin, and was called on to address the topic of gay marriage: “I believe marriage is meant to be a sacred institution between two unwilling teenagers.” (At the time, we should recall, Palin’s pregnant daughter had just celebrated a lightning engagement to her luckless inseminator.)

That’s how Fey sounds at her best: compact, venomous, bang on target. But you can’t construct a 270-page book entirely out of one-liners. Over the long haul, Fey turns out, inevitably, to be a less scintillating performer. Mostly her book is a mildly jocular memoir, sprinkled with some purely comic chapters that never really take fire. She declines to tell the “whole story” behind her famous scar, saying only what she’s already said in interviews: at the age of five, she was slashed across the face by a stranger. There’s some interesting stuff about the nuts and bolts of TV writing. There’s an excellent chapter about a calamitous luxury cruise.

All this is readable, occasionally moving, and better than average for a book of this kind. But that’s exactly the problem: this book reads like a somewhat better-than-average celebrity memoir, when Fey seemed more than qualified to give us a proper book, written by a real writer.

30 Rock is refreshing because it offers a wide-angled perspective on America’s cultural insanity. One had hoped that Fey's book would be like that too: cool, sceptical, above the American fray. Instead Fey embraces many of the trivial celebrity-culture priorities that her show so trenchantly lampoons. She has no quarrel, for example, with the Oprahesque assumption that the self, especially the outer surface of it, is an endlessly discussable topic. She tries to be ironical about getting manicures and posing for glamour shots, but she doesn’t find these things quite absurd enough to stop doing them. She seeks credit, and perhaps even deserves it, for having “thus far refused to get any Botox or plastic surgery.” But a culture in which that qualifies as a brave and radical act, roughly on a par with refusing treatment for an arrow through the neck, should get a far more comprehensive satirical bollocking than Fey gives it here. 30 Rock would give it one. But in Bossypants, Fey fatally personalises the big social questions. Defending her private “choices”, she sounds far too touchy to be funny.

Back in the 1970s, Woody Allen published three volumes of comic pieces that were ultimately collected as his Complete Prose. To measure Fey’s book against Allen’s is to realise how drastically the American mind has shrivelled over the intervening years. Allen’s range of reference was unapologetically wide. Dostoevsky, Kafka, Plato, Van Gogh, Yeats, Stravinsky, Gertrude Stein – many an Allen joke depended on your having at least a rough idea who such people were. When Fey drops an obscure name, it generally turns out to be some actor from a justly forgotten TV show. Larry Wilcox? Jon from CHiPs. Robert Wuhl? The guy from Arli$$. It’s moderately funny, once or twice, when a woman as smart as Fey conjures the name of some long-forgotten TV hack, or drops some gangsta catchphrase. But when she confines herself to the same tiny spectrum of American junk culture for the course of a whole book, you struggle for air. 

When Fey does risk a lone literary allusion – her cruise-ship chapter is entitled “My Honeymoon, or A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again Either” – she adds a clanging footnote that epitomises the book’s weaknesses: “If you get this reference to David Foster Wallace’s 1997 collection of essays, consider yourself a member of the cultural elite. Why do you hate your country and flag so much?!” Fey’s deft touch deserts her here, as it does in so many parts of the book. She lets anger propel her beyond irony and into mere sarcasm. But we should probably cut her some slack on this one. America’s fools and philistines want her down there in the trenches of the culture wars, with them. The temptation to take the odd brutal crack at them must be awfully hard to resist.  

Fey got a six million dollar advance for this book. That is a fair whack. No doubt she felt obliged to deliver the kind of book that would earn the money back. But it isn’t much fun watching an intelligent writer pretend to be less smart than she really is. Writing for TV, Fey has never seemed to be in any doubt about what her audience wants. It wants her to write as sharply and dangerously as she possibly can. She doesn’t seem to think readers of this book will want the same thing. Reading Bossypants, you get a feeling you never get while watching 30 Rock: the feeling that you’re being written down to.  

(Originally published in The Weekend Australian, May 21-22, 2011) 

Saturday, April 23, 2011

What if Di didn't die?

On Monica Ali's Untold Story

Imagine Diana didn’t die in Paris. Imagine the Mercedes made it through the Alma tunnel unscathed, and drove on into a parallel world: one in which the Princess, wobbling on the brink of madness, has decided to end things by faking her own disappearance. A few weeks later, then, she vanishes during an ocean swim, and is presumed drowned. While the world mourns, a trusted adviser smuggles her into Brazil, where she undergoes rigorous facial reconstruction. She then settles in America, where she has lived in blissful obscurity ever since.  

This is the premise of Monica Ali’s third novel, the absorbing Untold Story. The plot sounds like the basis for a potboiler, but Ali has written a thoughtful book about a serious theme: the insanity of celebrity culture. Exercising the novelist’s right to imagine, she has tried to get inside the head of the biggest celebrity of our age. It’s a bold move, and it will offend people who have made a quasi-religious idol of the late Princess. But the artistry of Ali’s execution justifies her risky choice of material.

In 2007, as the tenth anniversary of her disappearance approaches, Ali’s fictional Princess is living in a small American town called Kensington, like the Palace. She works in a “Canine Sanctuary”, and goes by the name Lydia Snaresbrook. (Crossword buffs will notice that her new forename contains the word “Di”, hiding inside a homophone for “liar”.) She has a boyfriend who chops wood, and a ring of girlfriends with whom she can engage in endless chick-chat. She yearned for a banal suburban life; now she’s got one ... [read more]   

Thursday, March 31, 2011

500 Words on My Favourite Book

First published in The Weekend Australian, circa 2011

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 …” 

Amis was a master of arranging familiar words into startlingly fresh patterns. Evelyn Waugh, who preceded Amis as king of the comic novel, wrote about absurdly heightened characters and situations in elegantly deadpan prose. Lucky Jim does the reverse. Its events are quotidian; most of its laughs are generated by Amis’s unflaggingly audacious way with words. When Dixon wakes up with the gravest hangover in literature since Cassio’s, his symptoms are evoked in a paragraph-long extravaganza of richly metaphorical prose, culminating in one of the funniest sentences ever written: “His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum.” 

Notice how Amis’s word ordering maximises the comic effect. Latrine is funny, and the small creature of the night is funnier still. But it’s mausoleum, thrown in almost casually at the end, that makes the sentence crack like a whip. In a few respects Lucky Jim shows its age. When Dixon derides olive oil as “peasants’ butter-substitute”, we laugh in a way Amis didn’t bargain for. He really backed the wrong horse there. As for Dixon’s sexual politics: “the feminine manoeuvre of using an innocent bystander as whipping-boy was one he’d learned to recognise and dislike.” What on earth was Amis getting at there? Speaking as an enlightened modern male, I wish to state that I have absolutely no idea what he was on about.  

These days I try not to revisit Lucky Jim too often. The novelist in me (he’s still in there, the stubborn bastard, even though his work remains so obscure that he makes Baron Corvo look like Justin Bieber) has grown wary of Amis's contagious cadences. His high-wire prose can be dangerously seductive. I could do that, you begin to think … 

But not even Amis himself could sustain the magic forever. Lucky Jim was his first novel, and he never wrote another one to match it. Moreover, biographical evidence suggests that he become a decreasingly pleasant person as he aged. But we wouldn’t know or care about his private conduct if he hadn’t made himself famous, as a young man, by writing the funniest novel of the 20th century. 

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

O dear

On O, by Anonymous

The author of this book was never going to stay anonymous for long. Once his publishers had put it about that he was a well-connected Washington insider, it was only a matter of time before the American press unmasked him. He has now been identified, pretty conclusively, as one Mark Salter, former speechwriter to John McCain. But by the time his cover was blown, Salter’s brief spell of anonymity had done its job. Buzz had been generated. The book was mainstream news.

Back in the Clinton era, the same gimmick worked for Primary Colors. But in that case, there was a substantial novel at the centre of the fuss. In this case, there isn’t. O is an inept and boring book. Its title is an abbreviated version of the sound I made every time I had to read some more of it.

The novel is set in the near future, during the campaign season of 2011 and ’12. America’s first black President, the annoyingly named O, is running for re-election. His Republican opponent is Tom Morrison, retired four-star general, all-round model of rectitude: a Roger Ramjet type who lacks Ramjet’s second dimension.

“Sometimes,” says the book’s back cover, “only fiction can tell the truth.” Yes, but only when it’s any good. Bad fiction always tells less than the truth. A skilled novelist could furnish insights into Obama’s character that a journalist couldn’t. But Anonymous isn’t a skilled novelist. His portrait of Obama isn’t fictionalised at all; he doesn’t inhabit him as a character. O is just the external Obama we’re already familiar with, minus the last four letters of his name. He drops one or two f-bombs, and smokes the odd durry out on the Oval Office patio. Otherwise he doesn’t behave more controversially than the Obama you see on TV ... [read more]

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Cleverest show ever?

Originally published in the Australian Literary Review, March 2011

TV’s digital revolution was supposed to be a good thing. But if you switch on your set, you could be forgiven for thinking that television’s great leap forward has delivered nothing much more than a wider vista of dreck, some of which looks fractionally crisper than it used to. The revolution seems to be stuck in that phase where the best of times co-exist with the worst. One knows, in theory, that television is going through a kind of golden age, especially in America. But you wouldn’t know it from watching TV. Trying to catch the best shows as they go to air is like participating in an easter-egg hunt organised by a sadist.

But who bothers any more, when you can wait a year and buy the whole box of chocolates on DVD? The best of the new shows – especially the comedies – belong permanently on your shelf anyway, like books. They are dense and eminently rewatchable; they contain more jokes than you can possibly absorb the first time round. They’re written with an exuberance that makes a lot of today’s respectable literature look moribund by comparison. They make you wonder, in fact, if it’s time we overhauled our prejudices about what respectable literature is. The best comic writing being done in America today isn’t being done in magazines, or in novels. It’s being done for the once-reviled medium of television.  

I’ve already argued, in these pages, that Tina Fey’s 30 Rock is the best of the current comedies (and Tina still hasn’t thanked me for that, by the way). But before 30 Rock came on the scene, an even cleverer show named Arrested Development blazed all too briefly across America’s plasma firmament. Quite possibly the funniest sitcom ever made, Arrested Development aired on America’s Fox network from 2003 to 2006, but never caught on with a broad audience. Fans still mourn the show’s axing. But watching the show on DVD, you don’t feel that mourning is quite the right attitude to take. The real marvel isn’t that the show was axed, but that something so dementedly brilliant was ever produced in the first place. In a less adventurous age, it wouldn’t have been. Arrested Development pushed adventurousness to suicidal lengths. But for that reason, it might stand as the best emblem yet of what the new TV can do. Above all, the new TV has wit – a quality that the old TV was rarely capable of, and that literature is fast forgetting even to attempt.

Arrested Development got its start when the veteran entertainer Ron Howard, wearing his producer’s cap, commissioned the writer Mitchell Hurwitz to create a sitcom about a dysfunctional family. It doesn’t sound – does it? – like an especially promising idea. And neither Howard nor Hurwitz, prior to 2003, had established much of a track record for freewheeling brilliance. Howard, as a movie director, had always stuck pretty zealously to the middle of the road. And Hurwitz, as a writer and producer, had done time on such old-school sitcoms as The Golden Girls.

But by 2003, for reasons I’ll get into later, American TV was a place where smart and imaginative people were finally being encouraged to let rip. And Hurwitz turned out to have been sitting on some remarkable powers of invention. Partly inspired by the Enron fiasco, he concocted a family of shady property developers called the Bluths. The disgraced Bluth patriarch, George Senior, spends most of the first series in jail, awaiting trial for various acts of corporate malfeasance. His only honest child, the recently widowed Michael, reluctantly agrees to keep the Bluth Company running; he moves into one of the Company’s shoddy model homes, and drives around in the stair-car that once serviced the family’s private jet. The remaining Bluth children are grotesque, self-obsessed freeloaders. Michael’s older brother is a hack magician; his younger one is an effete mother’s boy. Their sister Lindsay (played by the Australian actress Portia de Rossi) is a socialite with expensive tastes and a theoretical interest in liberal causes. (When she climbs up an endangered tree to help a crusty environmentalist stage a sit-in, Michael yells after her: “I’ll see you when you realise what that bucket’s for.”)

Arrested Development is Dallas retooled as a farce; it’s Eight is Enough time-shifted to an era when jailhouse rape and cousin-on-cousin incest are permissible sitcom themes. It bears no resemblance to those sitcoms of yore in which actors hit their marks in front of a studio audience and doggedly tried to stretch a two-minute idea over the eternity of half an hour. Instead it packs the ideas tight into every cranny, like thirty feet of intestine. It simply has no time to obey sitcom convention. Scenes are short and brisk; the actors move and talk freely, eavesdropped on by handheld cameras, unimpeded by the yucks of a live audience or laugh track. 

The result is a show that looks as dynamic as a feature film, while retaining a thoroughly unmovielike respect for the primacy of script. This best-of-both-worlds arrangement is a defining feature of American TV’s new wave. Cinema, one sometimes feels, will always be perversely nostalgic about its origins as a silent medium: it will always favour the image over the word. Stuff made for the small screen can’t afford to do that. It must stand or fall on the quality of its verbal architecture. Arrested Development’s is first-rate. “What are you doing tomorrow?” Michael’s ghoulish mother asks him. “Having my day ruined by whatever you’re about to ask me to do,” he replies. And here is Michael being revolted by the prospect of his mother’s going on a date: “The man is old enough to be her contemporary.”

One could go on quoting: each episode is laced with lines as good as that. But as sharp as the dialogue is, a lot of the show’s flavour comes from things that aren’t quotable, such as the performances of the strikingly talented cast. Watching Arrested Development, you can see, for once, what the word “synergy” really means. The show got better as it went, partly because the brilliance of the actors’ characterisations kept feeding back into the scripts, lashing the writers towards ever more bizarre heights of invention. Characters evolved. Plots snowballed. Jokes played increasingly clever variations on well-established themes. Everything kept building on everything else.

Suddenly American TV is ready, at its best, to do the things that only TV can do. At last writers are being allowed to play with the huge goody-bag of advantages that a long-running series has over a ninety-minute film. In the past, each episode of an American sitcom tended to be self-contained, like a miniature movie. The “situation” would reset itself every week, so that transient viewers could dip in and out without suffering any mental inconvenience. Sitcom writers had no elbow-room in which to do any real writing, even if they were capable of it. Like all genre writers, they had to spend most of their time ticking boxes – delivering catchphrases, imparting homilies, ensuring that the group hug would be punctually arrived at. 

But Arrested Development’s writers were free to write in a more personal way. Under no obligation to meet your expectations, they had a chance to make you really laugh – a transaction that almost always requires that your expectations be violated. Inevitably, they struck the odd bum note over the show’s course. But they also had an almost Hendrix-like flair for improvisation. Their writing fully exploited TV’s suppleness as a medium – its ability to react to the day-to-day influences around it. If they couldn’t get the rights to a song, they made that part of the story. When the show started to tank in the ratings, they found a way of using that, too. 

They were also ready to embrace bad taste in a way that most literary writers wouldn’t dare. The way the show extracted laughs from the Iraq war – which also started in 2003 – looks bold even from this distance. Early in season one, Michael begins to worry that his father has done treasonous deals with Saddam Hussein during the sanctions era. His suspicions are tweaked when he sees a press photo of a Saddam mini-palace, which looks uncannily like a Bluth model home. (“Is it my imagination, or does that rape room have the same floor plan as our kitchen?”) A few episodes later, we see a damning archival photo of George Senior shaking hands, Rumsfeld-style, with Saddam. (“I thought he was the guy who played the Soup Nazi,” George protests. “I told him I liked his work.”) Finally, owing to circumstances far too bizarre to summarise, Michael winds up in Iraq. He drops in on one of his father’s sanctions-busting palaces, and finds a trio of Saddam Hussein lookalikes living inside. They’re watching Saddam’s trial on TV, wondering if the verdict will rob them of their livelihoods. The lookalikes are scrupulously polite; one of them apologises for a small lapse in manners by saying: “I am behaving like an Uday lookalike.”

From Happy Days to that in the space of twenty years is a sensational leap. If Thomas Pynchon could write stuff like that, he would be as funny as his admirers think he is. American TV has snuck up on us. Watching it has become a rewarding thing for a literate adult to do. How on earth did that happen?

* * *

When the British sitcom was at its best – and it hasn’t been at its best for a while – there was no doubt that it was a form in which lasting work could be done. Shows like Fawlty Towers and Yes, Minister survive, and are beginning to look timeless, while many a brooding play from the same period has slipped quietly through our cultural sieve.

But it isn’t surprising that the British, historically, have tended to deliver a better class of TV. The typical British sitcom is produced at the rate of six half-hour episodes a year. Under those leisurely conditions, a whole run of shows can be written by a lone person, although the best British shows have generally been written by a team of two. When John Cleese and Connie Booth wrote Fawlty Towers, they had time and space in which to get things right. Only twelve episodes of Fawlty Towers were ever made: two series of six episodes each, with a four-year hiatus between seasons. That is a pretty writer-friendly arrangement. When you throw in the consideration that Cleese and Booth were comic geniuses, it isn’t entirely miraculous that they wound up delivering a near-perfect show.  

The American industry isn’t so genteel. It pumps shows out at a brutal rate. When an American network green-lights a sitcom, it will generally order around twenty-two episodes of the thing per year, year in and year out. Seinfeld – the outstanding network sitcom of the nineties – ran for nine years, and 180 episodes. I once saw an Australian interviewer ask Jerry Seinfeld if the show’s longevity struck him as unusual. Seinfeld seemed to find the question naïve. Americans, he explained, don’t close a store if customers want to keep buying their product. They do what it takes to keep the store open.

In other words, they apply the spirit of American can-doery – the spirit of Ford, the spirit of Ray Kroc – to the creation of scripts. They put on more staff; they turn writing into an exercise in mass-production. The show’s creator becomes the show-runner, the script Michelangelo; he or she remains the show’s principal author, but the scale of the project means that the drafting of some episodes must be left to other hands. So you get, at least in theory, a form of writing that bears the stamp of a single creative personality, but that gets churned out at a far higher volume than any one person could manage alone.

This has long been the American way of doing things, and most of the time it has produced predictably abominable results. After all, the aesthetic standards of the average American show-runner are closer to Michael Moore’s than Michelangelo’s. But over the last fifteen years or so, the American model has begun to yield some startlingly good shows. Suddenly the Americans have become capable of writing things that are almost as good as Fawlty Towers – and writing them on an industrial scale.

Seinfeld itself was one of the first sitcoms that worked the trick. It helped that show’s creators – Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David – would sooner have walked away from TV than let Seinfeld resemble a conventional American sitcom. They hired a team of auxiliary writers who felt the same way; and the drafts of those other writers always came back through the Seinfeld-David office for a telling final sprinkle of fairy dust. When one of the show’s best writers, Peter Mehlman, was drafting an episode in which George’s schlong retracted after a cold swim, David gave him one vital “note”. Hammer the word “shrinkage”. That was the Seinfeld touch. The show had an almost finicky respect for words. (David has since gone on to make the largely improvised Curb Your Enthusiasm, but there can be no doubt that during his Seinfeld tenure he was a stickler for the precisely phrased gag.)

If literature is language bent into memorable form, I don’t see why Seinfeld shouldn’t be considered a literary event. It was full of dialogue that snagged in the mind. “I didn’t know it was possible to come out of a coma,” says Kramer. “I didn’t know it was possible not to know that,” Jerry replies. The rest of us, when confronted with an asinine remark, know that the right comeback is there somewhere. The comic writer whittles language down until the perfect wording stands revealed. Seinfeld’s stand-up act was built on fine craftsmanship of that kind. True, he was mainly interested in tiny ideas. But like a long line of Jewish comedians before him, he had a knack for nailing down a given absurdity in its ideal verbal form. Has anyone ever bettered his definition of the Olympic luge? “It’s on the bobsled run, but it’s not even a sled. It’s just Bob.” And why do skydivers bother to wear helmets? “I mean, can you kinda make it? You jump out of that plane and that chute doesn’t open, the helmet is now wearing you for protection.”

If we’re slow to appreciate the literary skill behind such lines, it isn’t just because we’re snobs about popular culture. We’re getting to be snobs about literature, too. Like the humourless stewards of the Nobel Prize, we’re a bit too inclined to think that the role of literature is to struggle grimly with Big Ideas. We’ve forgotten that the dexterous or amusing sentence also has its place. There are esteemed, surly novelists at work today who couldn’t begin to emulate Seinfeld’s way with words, even if it occurred to them to try.

But in a way, the word “shrinkage” ends the argument. It entered popular speech immediately, and has stayed there. A writer who gets a word into the language is on to something, and that’s that. Shakespeare did it all the time. Joseph Heller did it. And Seinfeld’s writers did it too. Regifting. Degifting. Double-dipping. Seinfeld gave names to things that didn’t have names before; it changed the way people spoke. How many other writers of the nineties can claim to have done that?

If TV keeps getting better – if its witty, streamlined shows end up outcompeting the bloated, star-heavy turkeys of the movie studios, and rendering them extinct – the mid-nineties will probably be looked back on as a seminal time. You had shows like Seinfeld and The Simpsons lifting the standards of America’s networks from the inside. And outside the network walls, you had the rise of the cable channels. The most influential of these, HBO, had been founded in the 1970s. To start with, it had brought in subscribers by offering live sport and ad-free feature films. But when everyone got a VCR, HBO had to diversify. It started making its own content – first telemovies, and then, during the nineties and the noughts, a celebrated run of series: The Larry Sanders Show, The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Curb Your Enthusiasm. These shows, unlike network fare, were under no obligation to please jumpy advertisers. All that mattered was that they pleased subscribers – who tended, of course, to be adults.

So HBO’s shows were grown up, and not just because the people in them said “fuck” a lot. They were written by intelligent people who didn’t feel economically compelled to dumb things down. And these shows found an audience. By network standards, that audience wasn’t vast; but it was big enough to keep the shows in production. The market for top-notch TV will always be relatively small. But in America, a relatively small market can still be large enough, and cashed-up enough, to be worth going after. We chastise America, quite fairly, for lumbering the world with the bulk of its pop-cultural junk. But America is also the place where very good TV is most likely to be produced on a very large scale. 

So by 2002, when Ron Howard approached Mitch Hurwitz to create the show that would become Arrested Development, a lot of soil had already been turned. Cable TV had taught the networks that quality could be a selling point. And Seinfeld and Larry Sanders had already started to push the sitcom envelope – a process that Arrested Development took up with a little too much verve for its own good, so that it blew a hole in the envelope and toppled out into history.

On the web, fans still enthuse about the mooted Arrested Development movie. You can understand their hunger for more; but the film, if it ever gets made, is bound to be a disappointment. It will be all over in two hours, for one thing. And there will be inevitable concessions to the cinematic “arc.” Movies impose limits. TV used to as well. But increasingly those limits are being transcended. The real Arrested Development has already been made. It was something that could only have been done on TV, at a time when TV was unprecedentedly ready to gamble on quirky things. For the moment, TV writing is where it’s at.

But good writers are not in infinite supply, and a golden age in one department of literature will almost always coincide with lean times in others. The novel, especially the comic novel, is not in the rudest of health at the moment. Norman Mailer could be funnier by accident than any current American novelist seems capable of being on purpose. Perhaps the excellence of today’s TV has something to do with this. Writers like Seinfeld and Hurwitz, if they’d been raised in a literary age, might well have turned out to be pretty handy comic novelists. But they were raised in the age of TV instead. Their idols were people like Bill Cosby and Phil Silvers, not Joseph Heller and Evelyn Waugh. And now that Seinfeld and Hurwitz have made television better, and more writer-friendly, there will be more potential novelists who’ll turn their talents to TV writing, and the spiral will continue.

Who would want to be a novelist now, anyway? The publishing industry seems to lack faith in its own future. We are constantly hearing that the book culture may not survive the assault of the internet. Well, TV was threatened by the internet, too. And one of the ways it responded was by investing, aggressively, in quality. TV’s renaissance started when moneymen like Ron Howard waved large cheques at talented writers. Publishers wave cheques at people too, but the people they wave them at don’t tend to be writers at all. They tend to be desiccated ex-politicians, round-the-world yachtspeople, pallid purveyors of online leaks. Quite often – I wonder why? – the musings of these figures land straight on the remainder tables. But even when they don’t, they only provide the industry with a short-term sugar rush, when what it really needs is the low-GI sustenance of decently written stuff that will persuade punters that reading more books in the future won’t be a waste of their time and money. It’s possible that the publishing industry no longer even wants to save itself. But if it does, investing in real writers might be a good way to start.