Monday, November 26, 2012

Both Genius and Not

Both Flesh and Not by David Foster Wallace

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, November 24-25, 2012

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 delivered by Wallace in 2005. In 2010 somebody published his undergraduate Philosophy thesis. 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. This book is drastically uneven, but then so was Wallace’s entire oeuvre. That was always the conundrum about him. Why was it that the most gifted prose writer of his generation never produced a wholly satisfactory book?  

Fans of Wallace’s 1996 novel Infinite Jest will contend, hotly, that he produced at least one. I wish I shared their ability to read that book all the way through. It shouldn’t be hard, in theory, to resist the charms of a novel containing sentences like “My chest bumps like a dryer with shoes in it.” But Wallace, it turned out, had a few theories of his own, and some of them had to do with the supposed undesirability of old-fashioned things like narrative drive and closure. His novel therefore got harder to love as it went on – and it went on for over a thousand pages. It was all brilliance and no structure. It didn’t develop; it just got longer.    

Non-fiction was a better forum for Wallace, because it imposed a few useful constraints on his huge but undisciplined talent. When his tireless, frisky intelligence had something solid to apply itself to, the resulting prose could be breathtaking. Riffing on more abstract themes, he had a bad tendency to drift into mannerism and self-indulgence. He could remind you of a stoned guitarist taking a thirty-minute solo. Writing about reality, for magazine editors who at least notionally wanted him to hew to a given word-length, Wallace had a few objective reasons to rein himself in.    

This third book of essays isn’t in the same league as the other two. How could it be, when it has been largely cobbled together from their respective reject piles? Still, it has to be said that around a third of the pieces preserved here rank with Wallace’s very best. Unsurprisingly, a couple of these keepers are about tennis. Wallace played the game at rep level as a youngster, and he wrote about it peerlessly. His description of Roger Federer dressed “in the all-white that Wimbledon enjoys getting away with still requiring” is composed with a typically deft flick of the calligraphic wrist. The prose isn’t showing off; it effortlessly catches the shape of the fleeting thought. It gives you the illusion that you’re being talked to, one on one, by an extraordinarily perceptive and intelligent friend. 

Writing about a match between Pete Sampras and an 18-year-old Mark Philippoussis, Wallace casually flips on his afterburners. How’s this for a resonant word-sketch? “Sampras, poor-postured and chestless, smiling shyly at the ground, his powder-blue shorts swimming down around his knees, looks a little like a kid wearing his father’s clothes.” Meanwhile, at the court’s far end, “the malevolent but cyborgian Philippoussis hasn’t betrayed anything like an actual facial expression yet.” Between points he likes to “dance a little in place – perhaps to remind himself that he can indeed move if he needs to.”

The eerie thing about Wallace is that he was capable of writing prose as perceptive and funny as that for pages at a stretch. He was like a sausage machine that could churn out endless lengths of fillet mignon. But his prodigious gifts were accompanied by a strange strain of immaturity or petulance. Sometimes, apparently just for the hell of it, he seemed bent on writing whole pages that might have been composed by a person with no talent or taste at all.  

Why? Perhaps Wallace drops a hint while discussing Sampras’s habit of losing sets in order to win matches. “You got the impression,” he writes, “that Sampras was sort of adjusting the idle on his game, trying to find the exact level he needed to reach to win.” Wallace was the Sampras or Federer of writing: he could perform brilliantly at will. His problem was deciding when and why he should do so. For tennis players the criterion is straightforward: they need to beat the other guy. But what was Wallace’s purpose or end? What was his game? 

Wallace spent an awful lot of time overthinking that question in college writing workshops, first as a student and later as a professor. Clearly he didn’t write merely to be read and enjoyed, or to create shapely works of art. The whole thing had to be much more complicated than that. If it wasn’t, why did you need to go to a university to think about it? 

Wallace’s answer, as a fiction writer, was to sign up with the experimentalists. Unlike his contemporary and friend Jonathan Franzen, who has argued that fiction’s proper job is to record the texture and peculiarities of the social here-and-now, Wallace was sceptical about the conventions of social realism. He felt that the really fruitful thing to be interested in was language itself:

[T]here can be seen one deep feature shared by all the cutting-edge fiction that resonates with the post-Hiroshima revolution. That is its … loss of innocence about the language that is its breath and bread. 

Imagine thirty straight pages of that and you have “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young”. Originally published when Wallace was twenty-six, the essay is reprinted here in all its gaucheness. You can see why Wallace declined to resurrect the piece in either of his authorised collections. In his mature work, he was way too hip and ironic to risk such earnest cadences. But here he is using phrases like “cutting-edge fiction” with a perfectly straight face. Wallace’s theories about his wider mission as a writer never stopped reeking of the undergraduate workshop. The theme brought out the worst in him: it made him lose touch with his sense of irony at precisely the moment when he needed it most. 

If only Wallace did things the other way round: if only he'd been more sceptical about literary theory, and less sceptical about the usefulness of simple readability. If only he wrote fiction that was as full of light and air as his best essays. Far from rendering his fiction more “fertile” and “forward-looking,” his hyperawareness of technique only served to hobble his great talent. We know now that he came to find fiction-writing almost intolerable towards the end of his life. He talked about giving up and running a dog shelter instead. He had become, as Franzen has phrased it, “bored with his old tricks.”

But it would be wrong to end any discussion of Wallace on a note of complaint. After all, one’s impatience with his worst habits is a function of one's awed affection for what the man could do at his best. Loving his work can be an exhausting business, but it can be exhilarating too. If you don’t know Wallace already, start with the title essay of his first collection, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again". You’ll meet a man who could play his contemporaries off the court whenever he wanted to, and you’ll wonder why he didn’t want to all the time.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Peace Off!

The John Lennon Letters

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, October 21-28, 2012

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 might also be a significant and revealing contribution to cultural history.  

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”).  

So this isn’t a collection of letters in the usual sense. To make up for that, the book is sumptuously designed. It’s beautiful to hold and look at. It even smells good. With a few exceptions, each letter or note is photographically reproduced, and flanked by a typed transcription of its contents. Davies provides generous chunks of background information between exhibits, so that the book almost qualifies as an illustrated biography.

The more revealing letters raise the usual question. How much about the private lives of our favourite artists do we really want to know? In Lennon’s case this question becomes especially pointed. Without doubt the man wrote some of the most sublime songs in pop history. But behind the scenes, the avatar of peace and love often went out of his way to be verbally cruel. Reading his letters, you need to keep Lennon’s virtues as an artist firmly in mind, perhaps by playing his records in the background. If you don’t, there’s a risk you’ll end up not liking him very much at all.   

Lennon had a flair for acrimony. When the Beatles broke up, he and Paul had their famously bitter public feud. The Letters confirm one’s suspicion that the bitterness and aggression lay almost entirely on John’s side: he was the Mike Tyson to Paul’s startled Holyfield.

When Paul released his solo album Ram, John thought he heard some sly digs at himself and Yoko in some of the lyrics. He retaliated with the viciously unsubtle “How Do You Sleep?” (“Those freaks was right when they said you was dead ...”). After Paul voiced some relatively mild objections to that song in the pages of Melody Maker, Lennon replied with an open letter in which he proposed that it was typically dull of the “conservative” McCartney to take the lyrics “so literally.” Apparently they were meant to be funny. People were often misreading Lennon’s tone, but it never seemed to strike him that this might be his fault rather than theirs.

In his private letters to the McCartneys, John was even less inclined to be nice. Linda, writing to Lennon in 1971, upbraided him for quitting the Beatles without telling the press. John replied that others, including Paul, had persuaded him to stay silent. “So get that into your petty little perversion of a mind, Mrs McCartney – the cunts asked me to keep quiet about it.”

Adept at detecting insults, Lennon always had an alarmingly deep well of venom to draw on in reply. In 1971, the Beatles’ genial former producer, George Martin, made the mistake of short-changing John on some songwriting credits during an interview. Naturally, the man who urged the world to “imagine no possessions” was not about to let that slide.  

“When people ask me questions about ‘What did George Martin really do for you?’” Lennon wrote to Martin, “I have only one answer, ‘What does he do now?’ … It’s not a put down, it’s the truth.” For good measure, Lennon took a swipe at the obscure band Martin was currently producing. “By the way, I hope Seatrain is a good substitute for the Beatles.”

Lennon knew how to wound. No doubt this talent was linked to his having been deeply wounded himself, back in his early childhood. Raised by his selfless Aunt Mimi, John always felt that his bohemian mother, Julia, had coldly abandoned him. He grew up thin-skinned but cocksure: a good combination for a rock-and-roller, but bad news for people who encountered him on an off day.

In 1971, a well-meaning fan sent him a pamphlet about Christianity. John shocked the poor guy by not only writing back, but by giving him both barrels. “Why don’t you Jesus Freaks get off people’s backs … Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know. Your peace of mind doesn’t show in your neurotic letter, son … Peace off!”

Naturally it didn’t occur to Lennon that the same critique, minus the word “Jesus”, was uncannily applicable to his own spiritual stances. Lennon was no stranger to proclaiming, very loudly, that he had all the answers to life's ultimate questions. But if his restless leaping from one mystical fad to another ever brought him peace of mind, it didn’t show.

In 1968, he declared that the key to “Absolute Bliss” lay in India, at the ashram of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. When the Maharishi proved to be human, Lennon took his revenge with a song: the White Album’s “Sexy Sadie.” “You made a fool of everyone …” As usual, Lennon’s blame radar pointed strictly outwards: he declined to explore the possibility that submitting himself to teachings of the bearded one had been a foolish act in the first place.  

After that it was primal scream therapy. (“I think this is the last trip,” he wrote to Pete Townshend.) This gave Lennon pseudo-scientific licence to scream at his aging loved ones and then not quite apologise for it. “I seem to remember you being upset by my screaming at Mimi …?” he wrote to a cousin in 1975. “Well she and I are both well over that. I hope you are too.” Take it or leave it, mate.    

On the artistic front, the screaming craze did give us the remarkable, howl-drenched “Mother.” But did meditation or primal yodelling change John’s personality one little bit? By the mid-seventies he’d done a lot of both, and he was still carrying a lot of rage. Estranged from Yoko, he drunkenly and violently disgraced himself in an L.A. nightclub. When the musician Todd Rundgren chipped him for that in an interview, Lennon again proved himself the master of the malevolent public retort. “Turd Runtgreen … I think that the real reason you’re mad at me is cause I didn’t know who you were at the Rainbow.”    

Lennon finally found contentment via the least revolutionary of paths. He became a househusband in New York, with Yoko and their son Sean. At this point the letters mellow. There are cosy domestic memos and notes for the maid. “Milk (3 cartons.) Oranges. Grapenuts (not flakes) …” On the page after that, Lennon fires off a searing complaint against injustice and oppression – to his dry cleaner. “What is your excuse for turning my brand new white shirt yellow?”

In 1980 Lennon delivered the Double Fantasy album. “Starting Over,” “Beautiful Boy,” “Watching the Wheels” – the songs were mellowing too. As an artist, he was far from finished. Three weeks after the album’s release he was shot dead.

Lennon could be a charming and decent man, but his personal virtues rarely come across in his letters. In mere prose, he lacked the talent to access the less cranky aspects of his personality. He needed melody and lyrics to do that. Lennon was only human, but he was also the only human who wrote “Imagine”. That’s the thing to remember about him. Give him a guitar and he had the power to persuade you, for the length of a song, that anything was possible.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Real Horrorshow

A Clockwork Orange: The Restored Text by Anthony Burgess 

Originally published in the Weekend Australian, October 6-7, 2012

“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 Stanley 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. The restored text doesn’t differ radically from the familiar Penguin version, but it has been generously bulked out with essays, interviews, and other birthday goodies, including a new Foreword by Martin Amis. 

Burgess wrote the novel in 1961, when violent gangs, composed of now quaint-seeming ruffians like the mods and rockers, were raising hell in Britain’s streets. The book imagines a British future in which marauding thugs wholly own the night. Our narrator is a fifteen-year-old hooligan named Alex, who spends the first third of the book indulging in abominable acts of mayhem. He orchestrates the gang-rape of a woman in the presence of her husband, then leaves both of them “bloody and torn and making noises.” He drugs and rapes a pair of ten-year-old girls. Finally he beats an old woman to death, at which point the law at last catches up with him. 

All this hasn’t lost the power to appal, and let’s hope it never does. But Burgess has a structural reason for stressing the depth of Alex’s depravity. He wants to compare and contrast it with the morality of the State’s response. After two years in prison – the “barry place” – Alex volunteers to be the guinea pig for a radical government programme: the now-famous aversion therapy, during which he is forced to watch atrocity films with his eyes clipped open, while chemical injections render him sick to the stomach. After two weeks of this, the very thought of inflicting violence makes him nauseous. Pronouncing him cured, the government puts him back on the streets. 

The suggestion is that Alex’s cure is even worse than his misdeeds. Burgess was no lover of violence: during the war his pregnant wife had been brutally attacked by a gang of G.I. deserters, and had suffered a miscarriage. But Burgess was equally alarmed by talk that behavioural conditioning might soon be used to pacify Britain’s ultra-violent young. An old-school Catholic, Burgess believed in original sin. People, he thought, had a built-in tendency to do wicked things. But they also had the God-given gift of free will, which let them choose good over evil. “When a man cannot choose he ceases to be a man,” says Alex’s chaplain, who is speaking for Burgess himself. When Alex is stripped of his free will and forced to be good, he becomes something less than human. He is a machine masquerading as an organism: a clockwork orange, in fact. 

But Burgess's novel has not endured because of its theological arguments. What keeps it alive is its weirdly timeless language. Burgess wanted Alex to narrate the book in a teenager's idiom, but knew the slang of the early sixties would sound improbably dated in a novel set in the future. So he boldly invented a whole new dialect. It happened that Burgess was relearning Russian at the time, so he threw a heavy dose of Russian loan-words into the mix, along with dollops of boisterous rhyming slang and heightened English. Instead of saying “good”, Alex says “horrorshow” – a corruption of the Russian khorosho. Instead of “head” he says “gulliver,” as in: “I … cracked her a fine fair tolchock on the gulliver and that shut her up real horrorshow and lovely”. To write a novel full of sentences like that was a brazen gamble. Either people would chuck the book across the room, or they would surrender to the charm of its sound. 

For fifty years now, more than enough readers have reacted to the book in the second way. Hauled forward by the verve of Alex’s lingo, you pick up most of his meanings as you go. In case you don’t, this new edition has a glossary at the back. Burgess hated the idea of providing one: he wanted his novel about the dangers of brainwashing to brainwash its readers “into learning minimal Russian.” Kooky as that idea sounds, Burgess had the linguistic talent to pull the trick off. Alex’s language is contagious: as the novel takes hold of you, you find yourself thinking in his words. Burgess’s madcap experiment wound up giving us one of modern fiction’s great first-person narrators. Alex’s voice is as distinctive as Huckleberry Finn’s, Holden Caulfield’s, Alexander Portnoy’s. 

Alex’s supercharged style places what Burgess called “a kind of mist” between the reader and the succession of brutal acts that the book recounts. But Burgess never lets us forget that Alex, beneath all his seductive word-music, is a monster. When Kubrick turned the novel into a movie, he tried to find cinematic substitutes for Alex’s prose-mist: he muffled the violence by using outrageous angles and lenses, and by comically speeding up or slowing down the film. But in places his movie went a troubling step further. It stylised the violence itself, thereby sanitising it. Kubrick’s "Singin’ in the Rain" rape scene looks far more choreographed, and far less nasty, than a rape scene really should. Some critics, including Burgess himself, believed that the film, if it really wanted to denounce violence rather than glamourise it, should have been more violent than it was, not less. 

In the book, Alex’s misty language hides more things than his violence. Important plot turns sneak past us in the haze, and Burgess is suspiciously frugal regarding the details of his imagined future. Exactly why do Alex and his droogs use all those Russian words? Somebody mentions the influence of “propaganda,” but that’s all the information we get. And why does the government, having brainwashed Alex, decide to unbrainwash him? The novel’s explanation seems incomplete. The main thing that seems clear is that Burgess, at this point in the novel, has a structural need for Alex to regain his freedom of moral choice. 

This brings us to the question of the book’s ending. A spoiler alert might be redundant here: the book is fifty years old, and anyway there are grounds for believing that Burgess himself managed to spoil its ending in the first place. The novel’s tough-minded defence of free will demands, you would think, a tough-minded conclusion. If social conditioning is worse than letting villains freely choose evil, it would seem only fair that Alex, restored to his natural condition, should freely choose evil. And at the end of the book’s second-last chapter, that is precisely what Alex does. 

But Burgess believed that a novel, to distinguish itself from a mere fable, had to show moral growth in its protagonist. He therefore added a final chapter in which Alex abruptly matures and renounces violence. Burgess’s first American publisher found this coda unconvincing, and lopped it off. So did Kubrick. Burgess later implied that they were foolish for doing so. But Andrew Biswell, in his valuable introduction to this new edition, reveals that Burgess had his own early qualms about this final chapter. On the typescript he labelled it an “optional epilogue.” 

He was right to doubt its value. He wanted his novel to be more than just a fable, but the artificiality of that last chapter proves that a fable is what the book fundamentally is – a brilliantly written fable, but a fable nonetheless. And maybe the novel says scarier things about violence than Burgess really wanted it to. By the time he wanted Alex to grow up and change his ways, it was too late. The character had acquired a vivid life of his own. The novel had slipped out of its author’s control. Words have a way of doing that, even when generated by a master – or, perhaps, especially then.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Why me? Why not?

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, August 25-26, 2012

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, at the age of 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 against 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. 

Then cancer intervened. Robbed of his strength but not his mental fire, increasingly bedbound, Hitchens used his regular column in Vanity Fair to write about his illness and some attendant social themes: the etiquette of terminal disease, the politics of cancer research, the uselessness of “facile maxims”. His final book, Mortality, is a compilation of those magazine pieces, fleshed out with one additional essay and some unpublished notes. Readers who followed the Vanity Fair columns as they came out will find most of the book familiar, except in one crucial respect. Back then, these essays were the work of a man who was still with us. Now they take on the weight of a posthumous text. Put together in one volume, they constitute a moving and deeply civilised work – the last meditations of a man who never stopped trying to think beyond cant and cliché, even in the direst of circumstances. 

That the great atheist declined to embrace faith on his deathbed almost goes without saying. Those who hoped he would – those who prayed for a conversion – underestimated the richness of Hitchens’s humanism. There are believers who think atheists are so ill-equipped to deal with the prospect of their own deaths that a late and hasty seeing of the light is the only response available to them. This book shows that a literate unbeliever has many more things to throw at death than that. Hitchens faced death the way he faced life: with wit, a hard head, a supreme talent for language, and a bracing lack of fear. He reminds you that a writer armed with these resources can leave behind works at least as wise as any holy text. 

On the theme of religion, the dying Hitchens remained as acerbic and rigorous as he always was. In the second of the book's essays he cruises the “websites of the faithful,” and encounters this gem of cyber-punditry: “Who else feels Christopher Hitchens getting terminal throat cancer [sic] was God’s revenge for him using his voice to blaspheme him?” 

Compare the fatuity of that effort with the sprightly irony of Hitchens’s riposte. “Why not a thunderbolt for yours truly, or something similarly awe-inspiring? The vengeful deity has a sadly depleted arsenal if all he can think of is exactly the cancer that my age and former ‘lifestyle’ would suggest that I got.” Moreover, Hitchens assures us, “my so far uncancerous throat … is not at all the only organ with which I have blasphemed.”

Irony was always Hitchens’s chief weapon against the closed or literal mind. You’d have forgiven him if he stopped laughing towards the end, but Mortality is one of his funniest books. It proves that wit was not a detachable component of the Hitchens world-view. It was the purest expression of his intelligence and love of life. When chemotherapy deprives him of his hair, he wonders if “the chest hair that was once the toast of two continents” will go next. His libido is another casualty. “If Penélope Cruz were one of my nurses, I wouldn’t even notice.” 

There is nothing in this book about Hitchens’s controversial support for the Iraq war, or about his vexed past as a Trotskyist. Readers wishing to hear his last word on those matters will have to turn to Hitch-22, or else to Arguably, the whopping volume of essays he published in 2011. Mortality is about the end of a life. As his body declines, Hitchens’s gaze  not unsurprisingly  begins to narrow, and to zero in on the pressing question of his own fate. 

Even so, he scrupulously avoids self-indulgence. “To the dumb question ‘Why me?’” he says, “the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: ‘Why not?’” The message is bleak, but the excellence of Hitchens’s phrasing – the way he catches the sheer indifference of the universe's shrug – counteracts the grimness. This is why we read literature. Reality seems more bearable – more human – when it is described by a writer as good as Hitchens. There are no Oprahesque slogans of hope here. Hitchens provides a deeper sort of uplift – the uplift that comes from watching a beautiful mind face the end with clarity and candour. 

Mind you, there are stretches of the book that are not easy to read. Hitchens doesn’t spare the reader much. He describes the vomiting, the “lacerating” pain, the despair when technicians must make twelve agonising attempts to get a needle into his sunken veins. Radiation treatment leaves him with burns so excruciating that he wonders if he’d have been better off dying. The subject matter is as dark as it gets. But Hitchens’s luminous intelligence is a match for it. To the end, he paid his readers the great compliment of assuming they were as tough-minded and free of illusions as he was. 

Before the book closes Hitchens is already gone, and we are left with a chapter of notes and fragments retrieved from his laptop, some of which offer tantalising flashes of the essays he didn’t live to write. The last of these fragments is a quotation from Alan Lightman’s 1993 novel Einstein’s Dreams. The novel imagines a world in which people do not die: “Sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers … No one ever comes into his own … Such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free.” Who would want that? Not Hitchens, who relished freedom above everything else. 

In his time, Hitchens wrote about most other aspects of life. In the end he wrote about death, which is an aspect of life too. When the niece of Marcel Proust was mourning her uncle’s death, a kind man consoled her by saying that nobody was less dead than Proust. In the literary sense the author of Mortality is still with us, and will be for as long as people remain inclined to read good books. At a time when verbal culture is shrivelling, Hitchens reminded us of the value of a life devoted to literature, rational argument, free thought, free speech. He didn’t need to see the light on his deathbed. He had seen it already.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

How Did We Get it So Wrong?

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, July 21-22, 2012 

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. 

The coroner’s verdict has closed the case in the official sense, but it hasn’t relieved us of the obligation to ask ourselves how we got things so drastically wrong. The Chamberlain affair was Australia’s Dreyfus case, our McCarthy hearings. It was a bacchanal of groupthink and mass credulity. How did it get so out of hand? How can we make sure it never happens again? 

Michael Chamberlain’s new book, Heart of Stone, lets you know how the calamity felt from the receiving end. Tragedy isn’t quite the right word for what the Chamberlains suffered. Their story sounds like a novel that Franz Kafka stopped writing because it was too nightmarish. First their baby girl was eaten by a dingo. Then Lindy was accused of murdering her with a pair of scissors, possibly as a religious rite, and Michael was accused of helping her to dispose of the body. They were both convicted, and Lindy was sentenced to life with hard labour. No wonder we were slow to accept that these people were really the victims of the nightmare, not the perpetrators. The magnitude of the injustice is almost too awful to contemplate. 

Heart of Stone is an uneven book, but it has the merit of telling you exactly what Michael Chamberlain thinks. There is no ghostwriter here to apply polish or spin. What you get is the unvarnished Michael Chamberlain. He is quirky, cranky, and a wee bit tedious on the theme of religion. But his book has a raw authenticity that most books of this kind lack. Chamberlain has a reputation for reining in his emotions. In this book he lets rip. He is an angry man, and he has every right to be. 

Mainly he is angry at the government and people of the Northern Territory. He believes that Territory authorities knew all along that a dingo did it, but blamed the Chamberlains so that tourists wouldn’t be scared away. “The truth,” Chamberlain says, was that “in the heart of their National Park, dingoes [were] allowed to kill children.” These are serious charges, but we must remember that Chamberlain is a fastidious man. He doesn’t say such things lightly. 

Chamberlain is angry at the press, too. He has kept a clippings archive since the early days of the case, and he makes copious use of it in this book. Journalists who made sloppy mistakes thirty years ago are named and quoted. So they should be. The injustice began with a lot of small mistakes, which took alarmingly little time to combine into a wildfire of rancorous error. Once that blaze was raging there was no stopping it. It became hard to think calmly about the facts, and anyway who wanted to? Feelings were enough. 

When the next trial of the century rolls around, we need to remember all that. If we can demonise the Chamberlains, we can demonise anyone. We believed they were guilty because they didn’t behave the way we expected innocent people to behave. Well, we know now that they were innocent. At the very least, the case should leave us with a less narrow understanding of the way innocent people act. 

Michael Chamberlain has some illuminating things to say, so it’s a pity his publishers have released his book in such ragged form. The text is littered with distracting typos. It has been edited either poorly or not at all. There are more than a few sentences that could have used radical surgery. There are references to politicians named Bob Catter and Chris Publick. Some sections don’t even seem to have been run through a spell-checker. Exhoneration? Aboroginal? 

I bet Chamberlain will be mortified that these errors slipped through, because he is a stickler for accuracy. When he mentions a car, he almost invariably specifies its make and model. Describing a brochure about dingoes, he feels obliged to inform you that it was printed in A3 format. Denying the charge that he was an obsessive car-cleaner, he reveals: “The reality was that vacuuming and using a little soap and Armoral [sic], a vinyl sheen product, was about the extent of my interior cleaning.” The man is honest and informative to a fault. He seems incapable of telling you anything less than the truth. Quite often he tells you more of it than is strictly necessary. 

This must be one of the bitterest ironies of the whole case. The Chamberlains as murderers? How did that notion ever get off the ground? They aren’t even capable of telling a lie. At what point, during their thirty years in the spotlight, has either of them said something deceptive or evasive or untrue? Most of us aren’t above rejigging the odd fact to make ourselves look good. The Chamberlains have never done that. Their story has never wavered. They have always tried to describe things exactly as they happened, even when that fetish for precision harmed their cause. 

Rilke defined fame as the sum total of all the misunderstandings that can gather around one name. The Chamberlains had the worst kind of fame. They were famous for something they didn’t do. For years they were obscured under a mountain of misconceptions. Michael’s book clears the last vestiges of all that junk away. He reminds you that there were real people under there all along. Instead of our opprobrium, they deserved our sympathy and respect. Before it happened to the rest of us, the Chamberlain case was something that happened to the Chamberlains – and to Azaria, who was really here too, until she wasn’t.

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 (né 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

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, March 3-4, 2012

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. He published his first novel at 24; became a rakish celebrity; worked his way through a roster of stunning and well-connected girlfriends. In his mid-twenties he inadvertently fathered a daughter whom he didn’t meet till he was in his mid-forties. His cousin, Lucy Partington, vanished during the 1970s; twenty years later it emerged that she had been abducted and murdered by the serial killer Frederick West. 

The story has been told before – most artfully by Amis himself, in the memoir Experience (2000). Bradford hasn’t retold it very elegantly, but he has augmented it with generous chunks of previously unavailable information. While his interviews with Amis himself have yielded nothing startling, some of Amis’s most articulate friends – including Clive James and the late Christopher Hitchens – have disclosed things they never would have if the project had lacked Amis’s blessing. 

Bradford deserves credit for getting their testimony down, but he has no knack for digesting his source material and converting it into a fluent narrative. He tends to bung down the quotes of his interviewees in verbatim slabs, some of which go on for nearly a page. At times the project veers close to oral biography.  

By letting his sources speak at such length, Bradford keeps reminding you how few of them there are, and how tightly clustered together they are on the Amis sympathy axis. Hitchens goes on the record, lavishly, about the disintegration of Amis’s friendship with Julian Barnes. He divulges the contents of a hostile private letter that Barnes wrote to Amis. This is juicy stuff, all right. But it is, palpably, just one side of the story. Whether Barnes was offered the chance to give his side I don’t know. If he wasn’t, he’s got a right to feel angry all over again. 

It isn’t that one longs to hear Amis get bad-mouthed. It’s that Bradford’s information comes from too few angles to give you a properly rounded account of the man. The pages dealing with the break-up of Martin’s first marriage, to the philosopher Antonia Phillips, are especially threadbare. Forget about getting both sides of that story: Bradford is hard-pressed getting just one.   

But those were the rules, and Bradford can’t be blamed for obeying them. What he can be blamed for, quite loudly, is the slapdash way he handles his material. Bradford has written three previous biographies, including one of Amis’s father. But there are times when you’d be willing to bet he’d never read a literary biography before, let alone written one. He has a weird way of dispensing essential information. 

On page 48, for example, Amis makes an unheralded reference to somebody named Rob. Bradford, not very helpfully, appends the word “Henderson” in square brackets. Four pages later we’re told what we should have been told straight away: that Rob Henderson was, for some time, Amis’s best friend. Rob sticks around in the narrative for several years. Then on page 102 Bradford casually, and without elaboration, announces that Rob, these days, is “dead.” He doesn’t feel the need to expand on that until page 363, where he discloses the cause of death: cancer, in 2001.     

Bradford seems temperamentally averse to saying the right things in the right order, or indeed at all. A biography of Amis, you might think, would be the right place for a clear account of the famous dental procedures he underwent during the nineties. But Bradford doesn’t seem all that interested in clearing the matter up. He quotes a newspaper report suggesting that Amis spent $20,000 having his molars replaced, but doesn’t say whether or not this is accurate. A while later he takes another brief pass at the question, and leaves you with the impression that Amis’s oral issues amounted to nothing worse than a pair of infected wisdom teeth. But Amis’s own memoir recounted, in excruciating detail, the surgical removal and replacement of nearly every tooth in his head. 

On the subject of Amis’s novels, Bradford can be illuminating. When he analyses portions of The Information (1995) in the light of Martin’s concurrent marriage breakdown, he is performing useful criticism, even if he does misremember a couple of plot details. (The hack novelist Gwyn Barry scores his first raging success with Amelior, not with Summertown.) 

Bradford forgets, though, that a biographical approach to Amis’s work can only get you so far. Amis is principally a satirist. He is interested – fearlessly – in the outside world. No doubt the novels contain wisps of his personal history, but that is not what they are about. A critic who plunges into the books in pursuit of Martin’s shadow risks seeing less in them than the average reader will, not more.    

Bradford, a couple of times, can be observed doing exactly that. Pursuing his notion that The Information is “a story about Martin Amis,” he cites the biographical fact that the father of one of Martin’s aristocratic girlfriends was fascinated by Martin’s velvet trousers. He then quotes a long scene from the novel in which an ageing aristocrat contemplates the trousers of Richard Tull, the book’s luckless anti-hero, and demands that he remove them. 

But the joke, in the novel, is that the trousers aren’t Richard’s; they’ve been lent to him by the old man’s daughter, and the old man has abruptly recognized them as his own. Instead of quoting the parts of the passage that make this clear, Bradford replaces them with ellipses. This is a bit naughty of him. It makes the passage sound more straightforwardly autobiographical than it really is.   

Bradford does some similar textual pruning when psychoanalysing Kingsley’s Girl, 20 (1971). He feels that one of the protagonist’s children resembles Kingsley’s rebellious older son, Philip, who by this time was well into his twenties. The character, says Bradford, “frequently tells members of the family and visitors to ‘fuck off’, refuses to go to school and urinates regularly on the bathroom floor.” So he does, but it’s a trifle misleading of Bradford not to mention that he is six years old. 
First-rate biographers do the simple things well. Zachary Leader’s Life of Kingsley Amis (2006) was a model of the genre: lucid, panoramic, reader-friendly. Leader, admittedly, had the luxury of writing about a figure who was no longer around to help or hinder him. But he also had the right temperament for the job. If he had any personal quirks, he kept them out of his book. Bradford puts his in. His book is okay as an interim biography. But when the job of definitive biographer is being filled, I have a feeling that Bradford will, as the early Amis might have phrased it, get aimed.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Less Fun than it Looks

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, March 24-25, 2012 

Is there a job in the world that isn’t much less fun than it looks? From a distance, being a Wiggle would appear to be a pretty cushy gig. 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. He pulled himself back from the brink, thanks to an exercise and dietary regime he details in the book’s second half. But it’s the first half, describing how he got to the brink in the first place, that makes for more compelling reading. 

Field played in the Sydney band The Cockroaches as a youngster. An uncomfortable fit as a rock and roller, he eventually quit to finish a degree in early childhood education. This would prove one of the shrewdest career moves made by an entertainer since Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. During his final year at university, Field formed a children’s group with two other teaching students – Murray Cook and Greg Page – and the ex-Cockroach Jeff Fatt. The Wiggles were born. (A fifth Wiggle, Phillip Wilcher, played on their first album but left soon afterwards.) 

The group’s early struggles were not all that different from an emerging rock band’s: there were meetings with boneheaded executives, efforts to crack the American market, gruelling tour schedules. Sometimes they played three 90-minute shows a day. Could Keith Richards manage that? 

Probably not, if he had to spend two hours in the backstage toilet every time he ingested something mildly toxic. Field, during his darkest years, was so unhealthy that he made Keith look like Michael Phelps. His problems, according to his own incomplete list, included “hernias, back ailments, broken bones, food sensitivities, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, potentially fatal infections, circulation issues, and exhaustion.” 

Let's pause now to get a few things straight about the Wiggles’ collective health issues. Field is not the Wiggle who left the group to deal with a mysterious fainting illness. That was the Yellow Wiggle, Greg Page, who quit back in 2006, and was reinstated earlier this year, causing his replacement to be controversially stripped of the yellow shirt. (Field’s book, alas, was completed too early to tackle the Wigglegate imbroglio.) 

Nor is Field to be confused with the Purple Wiggle, Jeff Fatt, who had a pacemaker installed in 2011. No: Field is the one who has suffered from just about everything else. He is excellent at evoking what it’s like to live with chronic pain. Fellow sufferers will find some of his observations scarily accurate. “Pain,” he says, “becomes a habit that’s hard to break.” 

Field broke it when he met a holistic chiropractor named James Stoxen. In the book’s second half Field lays out, complete with photographs, the exercise routines with which Stoxen helped him morph from an overweight, pain-racked pill-popper into the chiselled, tattooed specimen depicted on the book’s front cover. (Sidebar question: now that even the Wiggles are getting tattoos, can we agree that the tattoo has officially lost its bad-boy connotations? Who’s getting one next? Kevin Rudd?) 

The book, it must be said, does get rather bogged down exploring the Stoxen philosophy. Stoxen views the body as a giant spring. He carries around a bedspring in his bag to demonstrate this principle. He believes that the spring is divided into seven “floors” or levels. He abhors shoes, and advocates walking around barefooted whenever possible. For all I know, he may be right about these things. But his intonations do sound, prima facie, like those of many other self-help gurus who have gone before him. 

Still, there is no doubt that his techniques have worked for Field. Nor can you question the genuineness of Field’s desire to spread the word. He knows he sounds like an evangelist, but feels that the good news must be shared. His fervour is contagious. At one point I seriously considered rustling up a set of witch’s hats (where do you buy a witch’s hat?) and giving his programme a try. I know how his young fans feel. Field has enthusiasm, and that can’t be faked. Somehow he never lost it, no matter how debilitating his problems got.

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

On Richard Flanagan's Fanciful Non-Fiction

Originally published in the Australian Literary Review, October 2011

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 does he have the talent to convert passion into literature? This is the question about his work that won’t go away. Let's consider a typically cantankerous sentence from the present volume. Responding to critics who argue 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 obscene, as well as absurd. 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. Flanagan has an anti-talent 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. 

This tendency turns out, in the present volume, to be chronic. Flanagan has a habit that is surely a bad one in a non-fiction writer: he keeps failing to check whether what he is saying is true. Here he is kicking off an essay about war entitled “Lest We Forget”: 

Lest we forget, we reverentially intone every Anzac Day and yet we forget all the time. We forget that out of the 102,000 Australians who have died in wars since Federation, only 40,000 died during World War II. We forget that all those other wars in which the majority died were not because we were threatened, but because we were involved with empires elsewhere threatening others. We forget that all those Australians who died … did not die for our country but for other countries. 

Let's try our best to parse this. Flanagan seems to concede that the 40,000 Australians who died during World War II were fighting a just war. He is not radical enough to contest that point. But what exactly does he think he means, when he makes reference to “all those other wars in which the majority died”? Exactly which wars does he have in mind? As Flanagan surely knows, 61,000 of the 62,000 futile deaths he's talking about occurred during World War I. And how can he possibly believe Australians have “forgotten” that World War I was an imperial conflict, fought a long way from these shores, in which far too many Australians pointlessly died? Has he ever been to an Anzac Day service? Has he noticed that Gallipoli gets more than the odd mention in our national conversation? Remarkably, Flanagan gets through this particular essay without referring to Gallipoli at all. This is a strange omission, and it raises a question that's hard to answer with any confidence. When Flanagan leaves such inconvenient details out of his arguments, is he being deceptive on purpose? Or does he get so worked up, when churning out passages like that one, that he develops the capacity to deceive even himself? 

As every sentient Australian knows, the image of the heartless British general sending diggers to a meaningless death is so familiar that it's become something of a national cliché. So how on earth has Flanagan managed to convince himself that this detail of our history has somehow been "forgotten" by everybody except him? And what purpose does this delusional proposition serve? Well, it turns out that Flanagan has raised the subject of Anzac Day because he wants to make a point about our current involvement in Afghanistan. We shouldn't be there, Flanagan passionately believes. And when Flanagan thinks that he’s morally in the right – and he rarely thinks he’s anywhere else – he seems to feel he has a licence to mangle the facts (and the English language) in just about anyway he pleases. 

“We forget we asked the Americans to be in Vietnam,” he writes, “and we don’t even know exactly why we are in Afghanistan.” The first half of the sentence is so badly phrased that Flanagan inadvertently seems to suggest that we asked the Americans if they would go to Vietnam. The remainder of the sentence makes sense grammatically, but it's still crucially vague: does Flanagan mean we don’t know why we’re still in Afghanistan, or we don’t know why we went there to begin with? 

Flanagan's prose is riddled with little imprecisions like this one. Indeed, being imprecise is fundamental to the way Flanagan operates as a thinker. Alleging that “we don’t even know” why we’re in Afghanistan is a lot easier than engaging with the well-known arguments for our presence there. Those arguments aren’t unassailable, of course: you can make a solid case against them, and plenty of writers have taken on that responsibility. But Flanagan's non-fiction is fundamentally irresponsible, because it keeps pretending that the facts are less thorny than they really are. By pretending that we’re in Afghanistan for no reason worth mentioning, he can vaguely imply, without having to argue the point directly, that we could immediately bring our troops home without exposing Afghan civilians to any nasty consequences. This is almost certainly a fantasy. But Flanagan, whose chief and perhaps sole aim as a writer is to advertise his own compassion, prefers not to bog himself down in awkward realities. 

For all his loathing of politicians as a class, Flanagan writes exactly the way politicians talk. His whole intellectual style is founded on a suppression of complexity. He doesn’t use language to assimilate and deal with the world as a whole. He uses it to isolate the portions of reality that upset him, and to obscure or skate over the parts that it doesn’t suit him to talk about. Reducing his opponents’ positions to a caricature, he conveniently lowers the bar for himself. Rational argument becomes unnecessary. Our presence in Afghanistan can be frictionlessly invalidated by a simple reminder that war is an “evil” thing. 

Such faux naivety is typical of Flanagan’s posturing approach to world affairs. His views on Australia’s involvement in Iraq would fit easily on a protester’s placard, with room left over for a large cartoon rendering of John Howard’s Mr-Sheen-like head. For Flanagan, Howard simply took his “riding orders” from Washington. The whole thing was about Australia’s “servitude to a new imperium.” Many an anti-war protester believed that too, of course. But that doesn't entitle a serious writer to pretend that things were exactly that simple. As with our involvement in Afghanistan, serious arguments can be made against Australia’s participation in the invasion of Iraq. Nobody is stopping Flanagan from making them. But to make them, you need to move beyond the idea that the whole thing was a puppet show, with George Bush pulling John Howard's strings. You need to acknowledge that the other side had arguments too. 

Flanagan doesn’t think much of John Howard’s political opponents either, by the way. Kim Beazley is a “big puffy boy,” a “lost blimp”, leader of a party of “conceited bastards all born to rule.” This is primitive stuff, offered up by the very same writer who piously complains, in another essay, about the “growing coarsening” of our “public rhetoric.” If Flanagan feels that his own frenzied contributions are part of the solution, rather than part of the problem, he is mistaken. He wants to restore "empathy" to our political scene, but raining noisy contempt on every politician in the country except Bob Brown is a strange way to go about doing that
As a novelist, Flanagan has always has always had a liking for the bold imaginative stroke. In The Unknown Terrorist, he delivered the news that Jesus Christ was history’s first suicide bomber. In Wanting, he took two real historical figures – the Tasmanian Governor Sir John Franklin and his adopted Aboriginal daughter Mathinna – and invented a scene in which the former raped the latter, thereby epitomising the theme of white invasion. These are big sweeping metaphors, but big sweeping metaphors can be useful in the field of fiction. Novelists are licensed to be a bit reductive, and draw caricatures, and say things that are not literally accurate, because such techniques can sometimes provide a startling short-cut to the truth. 

Whether Flanagan’s fiction is a bit too reductive is a question for another day. The problem, in the current context, is that Flanagan is far too ready to indulge his penchant for fictional overstatement in the non-fiction arena. Writing about reality is a lot more demanding, in some ways, than writing about an invented world. It subjects a writer to stricter rules of evidence, for one thing. The short-cut becomes a less legitimate technique. But Flanagan’s essays are full of sinister and unsubstantiated phrases like this: “In an ever more unfree age, when avenues for the expression of truth are daily closing off all around …” If Flanagan were any other writer, one would brace oneself for a mention of the Internet at this point. After all, you can hardly say something like that without acknowledging the existence of the Web. But Flanagan can. He just moves on. Apparently he just feels we live in an increasingly unfree age. And apparently just feeling that strikes him as sufficient reason for asserting it as a fact. But in non-fiction, it isn’t enough (or shouldn't be enough) just to say what you feel. You need to say what you think, and explain why you think it. 

No doubt newspaper and magazine editors commission pieces from Flanagan precisely because he is a novelist. Perhaps they expect him to cut through to the secret heart of things, and deliver seer-like insights that are beyond the ken of the average journalist. But on the evidence of this book, Flanagan sees less than the average journalist, not more. I don’t think he writes better than the average journalist, either. His grip on language is far from sure: he says “decimate” when he means “annihilate”, and “alumni” instead of “alumnus”, and “doyen” instead of “doyenne”. He also has a habit of scrambling the natural word order of spoken English for pseudo-literary effect. “Gathering were the dark clouds of the Cold War,” he writes, as if a cliché can be jolted back to life by just shifting the verb from one place to another. And try unravelling this sentence, with its bizarre and pompous inversions of the laws of natural speech: “This is no nationalistic argument, for good writing, good art are ever anti-national; rising beyond them, opposing fundamentally the nonsense of national pretensions with the mess of life.” You can see what he means, eventually. But working out what a writer is trying to say shouldn’t be such hard work. With Flanagan, the task is so laborious that you feel entitled to a share of his royalties. 

“I like books that smell of sweat.” The phrase is Flaubert’s, and Flanagan uses it as one of his epigraphs. Alas, my copy of this book ended up smelling more of my sweat than of Flanagan’s. I don’t doubt that Flanagan was incredibly fired up when he wrote it. Nor would I deny that some of the causes that fire him up are good ones. But anyone can get angry. The really hard part of a writer’s job is to transmute emotion into readable, memorable language. Flanagan’s language is forgettable at the best of times, and at the worst of times it's memorable for the wrong reason: because it turns ugly under pressure. “Our two major parties did not so much play the race card, as back it to the hilt with cracked rhetoric …” Is Flanagan saying that the race card had a hilt, or that the cracked rhetoric did? After a while you stop asking yourself such questions. What's the point, given the clear evidence that Flanagan never bothers to ask them himself? The man cares about a lot of things, but language isn’t one of them.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Freak power

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, December 3-4, 2011

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. The book isn’t quite the collection of Thompson’s “essential writing” that it claims to be: several of his key early articles – including his story on the Hell’s Angels – aren’t represented, because he wrote them before he came to Rolling Stone. But even with those pieces missing, this is a gleaming compilation of greatest hits. 

Thompson’s trademark as a reporter was to put himself at the front and centre of the story. He called it Gonzo journalism. Other American journalists were doing similar things at the time, but nobody else fashioned a narrative persona like his. The approach had its hazards: there was a constant danger that the authorial hijinks would smother the story, and that Thompson would degenerate into a caricature of himself. 

Something like that happened to him in the end. But before it did, he produced a lot of journalism that blew everybody else’s out of the water. His first Rolling Stone article, which appeared in 1970, recounted his failed bid to be elected sheriff of Aspen, Colorado. He ran on a “freak power” ticket, at a time when the youth vote was becoming a serious force in American politics. “I will have to work very hard – and spew out some really heinous ideas during my campaign – to get less than 30 per cent of the vote in a three-way race.” Notice that Thompson the writer retains a healthy ironic perspective on Thompson the character here: he is in no danger of vanishing into the nutcase persona. 

He is similarly in control during the 200 pages of political dispatches that constitute the book’s finest stretch. In 1972 he covered the Democratic primaries, followed by the Presidential race between Nixon and McGovern. Thompson didn’t, thank God, try to be even-handed in his reporting: he thought objective journalism a “contradiction in terms.” He just chronicled his own impressions, in gloriously pungent and enduring prose. “He talked like a farmer with terminal cancer trying to borrow money on next year’s crop,” he wrote about the failed Democratic contender Ed Muskie. “The sense of depression began spreading like a piss-puddle on concrete.” 

And then there was Nixon, who inspired some of Thompson’s most memorable flights of invective. “Why does he drink martinis, instead of Wild Turkey? Why does he wear boxer shorts? Why is his life a grim monument to everything plastic, de-sexed, and nonsensual?” 

Thompson’s writings from the campaign trail were wickedly inventive at the verbal level, but they took no liberties with the facts. In “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” – represented here by a brief extract – Thompson did something different. He wrote about a semi-private reality, distorted by his own prodigious intake of drugs. He called the work a “strange neo-fictional outburst”, and I risk heresy when I say that I find it relatively tiresome. It isn’t Thompson’s fault that it spawned one of the least funny films ever made. But its success encouraged a strain of pure fantasy in his work that yielded diminishing returns. One of the later pieces in this book is a fictional satire involving Thompson, Judge Clarence Thomas, and a pair of prostitutes. I’ve tried reading it twice, and failed both times. When he was making things up, Thompson could be unbearably heavy-handed. His surrealistic verbal riffs worked best when laid down on a solid factual base. 

There is evidence that Thompson was aware of this. One of this book’s charms is that it reprints letters Thompson wrote to Rolling Stone staffers while composing his articles. Expressing reservations about an over-exuberant early piece, he says: “Whenever I belch out my bias that strongly, it takes on an element of craziness … and I want to be careful of this.” The Gonzo approach put him on a tonal tightrope. When extracts from his Hell’s Angels book were reprinted out of context, he pronounced himself “shocked … All it takes is a few cuts on the Humor to make the rest seem like the ravings of a dangerous lunatic.” 

Since context was so vital to Thompson’s effects, one wishes the editors of this collection had provided more of it. By my count the book contains only two footnotes. This verges on the bizarre. A reader shouldn’t be expected to navigate a thirty- or forty-year-old piece of journalism without help. For example: do you remember, or did you ever know in the first place, what “blunder” George McGovern committed concerning Thomas Eagleton? Full marks if you didn’t have to Google it. Do you know whether Muhammad Ali won or lost his rematch with Leon Spinks? Reading Thompson’s interview with Ali, conducted during preparations for that bout, will make you awfully curious about the result. And who is Joey Buttafuoco, to whom Thompson makes three or four passing references? I think I knew once: but his name is as obscure to me now as Kim Kardashian’s will be in ten years’ time. I wasted far too many minutes shuttling between this book and Wikipedia. 

Thompson’s journalism is worth preserving. If it’s to be preserved properly, someone will eventually have to do the paratextual legwork that the current editors have neglected to put in. But apart from that one failing, they have assembled a wonderful book. “I aimed the big Lincoln through the opening, spinning the wheels in low gear and sending up rooster tails of mud on the crowd …” How American Thompson was: not just in his selection of machinery and substances and metaphors, but in the way he wound up letting his celebrity compromise his work. But even towards the end, there was still the occasional story that roused him to rediscover his old rhythms. Here he is after the death of his old enemy Richard Nixon, paying his respects. “The record will show that I kicked him repeatedly long before he went down. I beat him like a mad dog with mange every time I got a chance, and I am proud of it. He was scum.”