Tuesday, October 4, 2016

No Basis in Reality

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, October 8-9, 2016 - i.e., a month before Trump was elected as America's 45th President

In front of me are three books about Donald Trump, along with a book-shaped object purporting to have issued from the mind and pen of Trump himself. Before we talk about these publications, we might as well acknowledge that discussion of the printed word, in the age of Trump, has become a laughably pointless endeavour. Clearly, we have moved well beyond the point at which a book – let alone a newspaper article – can alter the course of world events. The asteroid is bearing down on us now, fringed by its raging orange mane. Either it will miss us narrowly or it will hit us. Talking about it will do us no more good than staring at it in mute horror. Then again, there is no subject we want to talk about more. So we might as well proceed to do that, as long as we all know we’re wasting our breath.

If words still mattered, the words that emerge from Trump’s own mouth would have sunk him long ago. The point is proved by The World According to Trump, a slender but damning selection of his most asinine utterances. The book is billed as a work of humour. Whether you find it funny will depend on how dark you like your comedy. Speaking for myself, I feel it’s a bit early to find Trump funny at this point in history, as well as a bit late. “Heidi Klum,” Trump says. “Sadly, she’s no longer a 10.” No doubt it is hilarious, in theory, that a man who goes around saying such things, proudly and on the record, should consider himself a plausible successor to Jefferson, Lincoln, or even Richard Nixon. But if we want to laugh about that with a whole heart, maybe we’d better wait until he’s been denied access to the White House. Trump is a joke, all right. But it remains entirely possible, at the moment, that the joke will be on us.

It’s hard to know what to do about the man. If he was merely a gaffe-prone duffer – if he was Dan Quayle, or George W. Bush – then publishing a compilation of his most idiotic utterances would embarrass him. But putting together a selection of Trump's most puerile sayings does the man an accidental favour, since it permits the conclusion that he spends a certain amount of the rest of his time saying things that are not puerile. This inference is to be resisted. This is not a book of blunders. This is what Trump talks like all the time. He wants to sound like this. His whole personality consists of sounding like this. Even on the evidence of his own book – especially on the evidence of it – Trump seems to have no core at all; he is a fundamentally unserious human being. When we quote a mere bushel of his verbal outrages, we distract ourselves from the forest of his total fatuity. Also we risk descending into the realm of debate, as if Trump’s radical, colossal unfitness for the office of the presidency still needs to be demonstrated by means of reasoned argument.

If it still does, it never will be. A recent newspaper article tells me that Trump has just been subjected to “weeks of scrutiny over his credentials for higher office.” Do the presidential claims of a figure like Trump really require anything so exalted as our “scrutiny”? Surely a mere glance in his general direction is enough. Except in a fairy tale, one doesn’t scrutinise a toad to check whether it’s a prince.

Toads, however, suddenly appear to be in fashion. One is forced to absorb the information that a lot of people, when they look at Trump, really like what they see. He is watchable – the supreme asset in post-modern politics. He is watchable because he is unpredictable, like a child without the charm, or a high-wire performer without all the boring expertise and training. You never know what he's going to say next. There is a terrible reason for that. He doesn’t know either. Listen to this:

I’ve known Paris Hilton from the time she was twelve. Her parents are friends of mine, and, you know, the first time I saw her, she walked into the room and I said, ‘Who the hell is that?’… Well, at twelve, I wasn’t interested. I’ve never been into that.

Clearly, Trump has no idea where his mouth is taking him here. Two topics are in play that should never, ever, have been brought into public apposition: his own rank libido, and Paris Hilton at the age of twelve. Haphazardly, Trump pushes these live wires towards each other. Will they touch? He doesn’t even seem to care. The point is that he is talking, and you are listening to him.

There would be less call for panic, if Trump confined his slapdash recklessness to the verbal realm. But shambling improvisation appears to be the hallmark of everything he does. The launch of the presidential campaign precedes the having of a policy; the signing of the book deal precedes the hiring of the hack who will dream up the text; the affection for the crying baby at the public rally mutates, with insane speed, into a demand for its ejection from the hall.

With Trump, we finally seem to have left the concept of sincerity behind. “In business,” he flaccidly asserts in his book, “I don’t actively make decisions based on my religious beliefs, but those beliefs are there—big-time.” Does that sound like a man sincerely affirming his religious faith? It doesn’t even sound like a man faking it. But for an alarming proportion of Americans, Trump’s eerie lack of human content is not a concern. At his rallies, some of his fans don’t even stay to hear his stump speech. They soak up a bit of atmosphere, take some selfies, then split. There are other Trump boosters who, more oddly still, know that his policies are ad-libbed fantasies, but don’t care. It doesn’t matter, in their view, whether he will end up building his fabled wall; what matters is that he wants to.

If there is anything of substance at the bottom of the heap, it is supposed to be Trump’s business acumen. He will, we are assured, run America like one of his companies. His bottom line is the bottom line. In The Making of Donald Trump, the journalist David Cay Johnston, who has won a Pulitzer Prize for his financial reporting, shows that all this stuff is a fantasy too. As Johnston tells it, the story of Trump’s adventures in capitalism, far from adding lustre to the prospect of a Trump presidency, makes it even scarier than it already seemed.

Admittedly, not many of us possess the savvy or acumen to have had a tremendously rich father. Trump’s dad was a real-estate mogul so notorious, in his time, that Woody Guthrie wrote a protest song about him, called “Old Man Trump.” Had Guthrie lived to witness the capitalistic offences of Young Man Trump, he might have smashed his guitar in despair. Before building the mighty Trump Tower, Donald was obliged to knock down the lesser erection that stood in its way. To do so he hired a crew of undocumented Polish workers who lived and slept on the site. They worked without hard-hats or goggles, while breathing asbestos dust without the benefit of face masks. But perhaps such items strike Trump as examples of the “endless red tape” that must be slashed in order to restore America’s greatness. 

Reading Johnston on Trump’s business activities, one begins to understand how the man acquired his fluid sense of reality. He inhabits a world in which a given property can be valued at either $1 million or $50 million, depending on the needs of the moment and the ingenuity of his accountants. When he sued a journalist for allegedly under-reporting his wealth, Trump testified that “my net worth fluctuates, and it goes up and down with markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings.” The lawsuit was dismissed. It had, Johnston says, “no basis in reality.”

If one episode typifies the way Trump proposes to do business in Washington, let’s hope it isn’t the story of his involvement in the now-defunct United States Football League. The USFL was founded in the early eighties, with the aim of challenging the dominance of the NFL in a prudent, slow-burn way. It had a tight salary cap; it played its games out of season, in the spring. Enter Trump, in an explosion of bad faith. Lacking the coin to invest in the real-deal NFL, but incapable of seeing himself as a second-tier player, Trump bought the USFL’s New Jersey team, then proceeded to impose his ego, not to say his id, on the whole fragile league. He violated the salary cap; he pooh-poohed the idea that football should be played in the spring. Finally, like a kamikaze Oedipus, he initiated an all-or-nothing lawsuit against the NFL, alleging monopolistic practices. Trump’s side won the case, but the victory was pyrrhic; the jury registered its disgust by awarding a single dollar in damages. “The USFL promptly folded,” Johnston says, “and what could have been a successful long-term enterprise turned to dust.” Or, as Trump phrased it: “It was fun. We had a great lawsuit.”

What has American democracy come to, if a man like that is now viable candidate for the presidency? In the must-read new Quarterly Essay, Don Watson addresses that question with his usual elegance. In several ways Watson is the ideal person to survey Trump’s America. As an outsider, he can do so with a measure of detachment. But he’s a lover of the country too, and a student of its traditions. The very tone of his voice – civilised, sympathetic, informed – is an antidote to the raging philistinism of Trump.

Nor is Watson politically one-eyed. If America has become “a concatenation of sulky tribes,” then the Democrats, in Watson’s view, can’t be absolved from blame for that; their indulgence of identity politics has helped create the mess. Having acknowledged that, he sounds all the more authoritative when he says what is surely true: the Republicans are much, much more culpable. These days they are “more like an apocalyptic cult,” he quotes a former Republican staffer as saying, than a “traditional political party.”

Does this mean that Donald Trump is a fascist? The question must be posed. Watson answers it in a typically careful way. His answer is, yes and no. Yes, some of Trump’s methods and posturing reek of fascism; if he wins the election, he will have done so using a style “resembling Hitler’s or Mussolini’s”. On the other hand, Watson finds it “inconceivable that Trump’s next steps,” after getting into office, “would resemble theirs.” America’s democratic traditions are, Watson believes, too strong for that; and its economy is nothing like as bad as the basket cases of 1930s Europe. Still, Trump “doesn’t need to be an actual fascist for the day after election day to be a worrying prospect.”

As its title suggests, Watson’s essay is more about Trump’s America than about Trump himself. He leaves aside the question of what makes Trump tick. But Trump’s own book, Crippled America, throws a surprising amount of light on that question, considering that he plainly didn’t write it himself. The person who actually did write it receives no formal credit. But Trump's ghost, whoever he or she was, has an uncanny knack for getting Trump’s personality on to paper. If the book makes him sound like a fictional character, a pantomime fatcat dreamed up by Dickens on a bad day, that only confirms one’s sense that Trump really is like that.

If Trump didn’t exist, it would have been impossible to invent him. If you did, people would charge you with being grossly unsubtle, as well as crassly anti-American. He doesn’t just repeatedly refer to himself in the third person (“I was in full Trump mode.”) Nor does he stop at the additionally risible measure of invoking the “Trump brand.” No: more often than not, he throws in a self-puffing adjective or two for good measure, as in “the Trump quality brand,” or “the award-winning 52-story Trump International Hotel and Tower.” Trump’s book is a Freudian’s paradise. His inferiority issues, and his obsession with the tallness of his buildings, are so flagrantly displayed here that they scarcely need decoding. At one point he complains that the disclosure forms he had to sign, when formalising his presidential candidacy, “weren’t designed for people like me.” Apparently he was reduced, in too many places, to ticking boxes that valued his assets at a mere “$50,000,000 or more.” This denied him the opportunity – which he now embraces – to record that one of his buildings is worth, according to him, 1.5 billion.

It is hard to over-state how nakedly needy and assertive Trump’s language is, and how surreally starved of irony or nuance. When he wants to find some way of reminding you he’s rich, he just says it: “I’m rich. I mean, I’m really rich.” (His italics, of course.) Why don’t enough people find this stuff ridiculous? Why, on the contrary, does Trump’s brutally literal, Cat-in-the-Hat style of rhetoric strike some people as deeply compelling? The depressing truth is that Trump occupies the sharp edge of a culture that no longer really cares about words. It still knows what they mean; but it is fast losing its ability to hear when they are absurd or laughable or sinister.

Trump embodies this near-illiteracy, as well as profiting from it. Presumably he can read, in a technical sense. But he has famously declared himself too busy to read actual books. If we didn’t already know this, we could deduce it from his prose. “We have an amazing history. America is the greatest country that has ever existed on the Earth.” Trump does not say this as a prelude to discussing his full vision of American history. This is his full vision of American history. Admittedly, he throws in a few mandatory mentions of “the Founding Fathers.” But if he knows exactly who they were, he doesn’t let on. His notion of what made America amazing, back there in the days of yore, doesn't really reach farther back than the presidency of Ronald Reagan. And it goes without saying, although it shouldn’t, that Trump knows nothing much about all the other nations that have “ever existed on the Earth,” except that America is greater than them. His worldview is just a scaled-up version of his rampant solipsism.

This means we can look forward to a foreign policy that projects the paranoid vindictiveness of Trump’s business style into the diplomatic arena. “Every deal I make will have one objective: America wins.” America will stop getting “beaten in trade agreements.” It will be America versus its enemies, which means everyone else. “Does anybody reading this believe that I’m concerned about making other countries feel good?” Unlikely, champ.

A couple of times Trump has the temerity to quote Mark Twain, as if the plain-speaking Twain can be posthumously enlisted as a friend of the Trump project. This will not do. We can guess what Twain would have said about Trump, because he said it a hundred years ago about Teddy Roosevelt: “Mr. Roosevelt is the Tom Sawyer of the political world of the twentieth century; always showing off; always hunting for a chance to show off; in his frenzied imagination the Great Republic is a vast Barnum circus with him for a clown and the whole world for audience.”

Then again, Mark Twain might simply have given up, if confronted by a target as barn-sized as Trump. There is something about Trump that defeats language, which was in bad enough shape already, even before he came along. Here is a man who really is a bigot and a racist and a misogynist – a man whose response, when he is outwitted by a female journalist, is to announce that she must have been menstruating. But just when we really need them, words like “misogynist” turn out to have lost all power. The culture's fearless detectors of microaggression have worn these words down to meaningless nubs. So now we have no sharp words left to level at Trump, the maestro of the macroaggression. You can see why Trump might look like an attractive proposition, to people who have had a gutful of political correctness. But if your house is infested by mice, buying a pet leopard is perhaps not the wisest response.

I wish that Trump’s demagogic candidacy didn't keep making me think of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, in which Roth imagines how ugly America would have turned, in 1940, if the anti-Semitic Charles Lindbergh had run for President and won. “It starts with the White House,” says Roth’s imagined father, when his family falls victim to the casual bigotry that President Lindbergh legitimises. Trump isn’t an anti-Semite, but in various other ways he has made reality start feeling like a piece of dystopian fiction. “I’ve never before imagined America as fragile, as an experiment that could, within my very lifetime, fail,” George Saunders wrote recently in The New Yorker. “But I imagine it that way now.”

Perhaps the sober Don Watson is right: perhaps the American experiment has already put down solid enough roots to survive a Trump presidency. Then again, a Trump presidency would be a kind of experiment in itself. How it would or will turn out we can’t know. All we can say with confidence is that Trump doesn’t know either. In several alarming respects he recalls the career of Evel Knievel, who was a master of hype and showmanship, but was notoriously bad at completing his jumps without breaking his bones. Only when Knievel was in mid-air did he begin to think about the logistics of landing without dying. Say this much for Evel Knievel, though: he never forced the rest of America get on the bike with him. 

In the whole of his new book, Trump says almost nothing that an intelligent person could possibly agree with. Indeed, he says almost nothing that isn’t appalling, in one way or another. But let's try to end on a note of consensus. The book's title, Crippled America, is hard to quarrel with. America is crippled, all right. It just isn’t crippled in the way Trump thinks it is. Thoroughly self-obsessed, but thoroughly lacking in self-knowledge, he is the last man equipped to see that the direst symptom of America’s decline is his own squinting, ludicrous presence at the centre of the national stage.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Surfin' Salieri

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, October 22-23, 2016

Brian Wilson had genius, while Mike Love only had talent. That is the standard thing to say about the two dominant personalities of the Beach Boys. The tortured but indispensable Wilson wrote the irresistible tunes and created the richly textured arrangements. Love, the all-American Everyman, supplied skills of a more practical, material kind. He had rangy good looks. He sang some but not all of the lead vocals; wrote some but not all of the best lyrics; became the touring band’s gawkily bopping front man after Brian, crippled by stage fright and mental illness, retired from performing to stay home and write songs.

Love, with some justification, thinks this conventional version of the Beach Boys story sells him a bit short. It’s not that he minds Wilson being called a genius; indeed he’s happy to call him one himself. But Love resents the notion that the remaining Boys were “Brian’s puppets,” or “nameless components in Brian’s music machine.” His new memoir is an attempt to set the record straight – to write his way out of Brian’s shadow. The book is called Good Vibrations, but I believe I picked up a few bad vibrations in it too. For an adept of Transcendental Meditation, Love sure knows how to nurse a grudge. 

In some ways you can’t blame him. For decades he was denied proper credit, and therefore proper royalty payments, for his lyrics. When he sued Wilson for restitution, he won. But the settlement he accepted was a mere “fraction of what I could have collected.” Worse still, the court ruling put no dent in Brian’s reputation as the band’s lone auteur. “The myth,” according to Love, “was too strong, the legend too great.” Meanwhile, the legend had acquired a subplot. In the minds of a certain Love-hating faction of fans, poor old Mike had thoroughly established himself as the band’s villain. Not only was he not a genius. He was a bit of a twerp too. “For those who believe that Brian walks on water,” as Love now puts it, “I will always be the Antichrist.”

Well, his timing is certainly diabolical. At the very moment when Love has made this carefully reasoned attempt to overhaul the narrative, Brian Wilson has published a near-simultaneous memoir of his own, called I am Brian Wilson. And while Love’s book is merely pretty decent, Wilson’s turns out to be freakishly, genre-transcendingly good: a rock memoir of genius, if ever there was one. Love, it seems, just can’t catch a break. He may not be the Antichrist, but he does call to mind another thwarted historical figure. He’s a surfin’ Salieri, forever doomed to be outshone by Wilson’s flaky Amadeus.

In addition to being his musical collaborator-slash-nemesis, Mike Love is Brian Wilson's cousin. (Love's mother was the sister of Wilson's father.) The other founding Beach Boys were Brian’s younger brothers, Dennis and Carl, and a family friend named Al Jardine. The band got a recording contract in 1962, after which things happened fast, even by sixties standards. In 1963 the band released three albums, and their single “Surfin’ USA” charted at number two. In 1964, which Wilson calls “the year of everything,” they released four albums and five singles (including “I Get Around,” their first number one) and played more than a hundred shows in Europe, America and Australia (where the Joy Boys invited them to an orgy). In December of that same year, Wilson “freaked out” on a plane, quit playing live, and bunkered down to explore the possibilities of the recording studio. The Pet Sounds album, released in 1966, would prove the summit of the group’s achievement. An attempt at a follow-up record, Smile, flamed out on the launch pad; Brian, who was still just 25, was fast withdrawing into a miasma of depression, paranoia and psychedelic self-medication. In 1967 the band had its last number one single, “Good Vibrations.” From that time on, Love says, “something was missing.” 

It’s hard to disagree with that. Technically the band still exists and tours, although the 75-year-old Love, who enjoys an exclusive grip on the live naming rights, is the last original performer. Dennis Wilson drowned in the early eighties; Carl died of cancer in the late nineties; Brian now records and plays as a solo artist. For non-legal purposes one feels entitled to think of the Beach Boys in the past tense. Viewed in retrospect, their story looks heavily front-loaded. For three or four years, a long time ago, almost everything they touched turned to gold. Then came the long fade: the numberless Greatest Hits records, the ossifying of the live setlist, the general sense of flogging a decreasingly vital horse. Or as Brian puts it with deadpan candour: “There were always reissues and repackaging of old albums, almost every year, and they got thicker and fancier. Usually there was a sun somewhere on the cover. Most of them were the same songs rearranged …”  

Whatever the latest version of the Greatest Hits is called, though, it will always sound gloriously fresh. Nor can it be denied that Love’s verbal contributions are a good part of the reason why. A song like “Fun, Fun, Fun,” gets a lot of its verve from its compact, propulsive lyrics. “Well she got her daddy’s car and she cruised through the hamburger stand now / Seems she forgot all about the library like she told her old man now.” There’s a lot of movement and freedom and Americana crammed into those opening lines. If Wilson is to be called a genius for writing the melody, then surely Love was a kind of genius too, for supplying words that so perfectly matched the tune's jauntiness. 

Love, it emerges, wrote his best lyrics at a cracking pace. He came up with “California Girls” in “less than an hour”; he dictated the whole of “Good Vibrations” during a twenty-minute car ride. But there was solid craft in the way he carpentered the words to the tunes. Revising the original lyric of “Help me Rhonda,” he tweaked the phrase “ruined our plans” to “shattered our plans” for the sake of assonance. “It’s only one word, but you get very few words in any given song or poem, so each one counts.” 

Love calls his collaboration with Wilson “a triumph of both art and commerce.” As a rule, he sounds far more likeable when talking about the art than the commerce. Unfortunately, he talks about the commerce a lot. Defiantly flaunting his status as “the most business-minded member of the Beach Boys,” Love feels no urge to cringe when discussing the tackier aspects of the band’s CV: the corporate sponsorships, the cameos on horrible sitcoms, the hangs with Nancy Reagan and George Bush Senior. “I've always,” he writes at one point, “liked playing in smaller markets.” Markets? Must everything be tainted with the language of economics? But Love doesn’t bother to sanitise such stuff, since he doesn’t consider it unsanitary in the first place. It’s just the way he thinks. “Every performance was like convening a very large focus group,” he says elsewhere. “I knew which songs resonated.”

Love sounds like a cocksure sort of guy: you wouldn’t necessarily want to meet him. But his hyper-confidence makes his book an unusually honest one. Because he thinks he’s always right, he leaves nothing out. Indeed his memoir has a panoramic clarity that Wilson’s lacks: if you don’t know much about the Beach Boys, Love’s is the better book to start with. Wilson throws his story out in a staccato, out-of-sequence way; he seems to assume that the reader will already be pretty well-steeped in Beach Boys lore. Such an approach is unusual in a rock memoir. But it ends up being brilliantly unusual, like Wilson himself.  

Love should count himself lucky not to be a genius, if being one means having to live with the package-deal of misfortunes and afflictions that have been visited on Wilson since birth. For starters he had a domineering and violently abusive father. He also had a predisposition to depression and anxiety. As a child he was whacked with a lead pipe by a neighbourhood ruffian, leaving him 95% deaf in one ear. His habit of singing and talking out of the other side of his face makes him look, by his own admission, like a stroke victim, or the recipient of a dentist’s needle. At the age of 22 he began hearing voices in his head. The extent to which these hallucinations can be blamed on his then-prodigious appetite for LSD remains unclear. He is still plagued by voices today, even while performing. He spent a good chunk of the seventies and eighties being overmedicated by a mysterious guru named Dr Gene Landy, whose interventions converted him into a housebound zombie.

How does all this feel from the inside? The greatest achievement of Wilson’s book is that it gets his unique inner world on to the page intact, by distorting the memoir form in various unexpected and disorienting ways. Instead of starting with the author's childhood, the book plunges straight into a chapter called “Fear,” which describes, in a series of short deadpan sentences, an average day in Wilson's current life. The author gets out of bed; he goes downstairs; he sits in his armchair. “It’s my command center. I can sit there and watch TV … I love watching Eyewitness News. The content is not very good, but the newscasters are pleasant to watch. They have nice personalities. They also give you the weather.” Uneventful as this sounds, it’s an improvement on what Wilson managed to achieve during the nineties, when he used to watch his TV without even bothering to turn it on. “I don’t mean I was watching a show or anything. It was just the set. I liked thinking about all the things that used to be on it, all the shows I had ever seen.”

Piling up on top of each other in slow, affectless drifts, sentences like that give you some idea of what it must feel like, roughly, to be Brian Wilson. It seems a fair bet that Ben Greenman, Wilson’s co-author, deserves a lot of credit for creating this uncanny effect. A lesser ghostwriter would have smoothed away Wilson’s weirder edges, including his thoughts about Eyewitness News, and would have whipped his story into more or less conventional shape. Celebrity ghostwriters have a tendency to iron out their subjects' quirks, as if their job is to make each new celebrity memoir sound like every other celebrity memoir. But Greenman has made a refreshing effort to preserve Wilson’s eccentricities, and let them soak deep into the book’s fabric.

Thus Wilson, as a narrator, has an eerie habit of discussing, as if we should know them, people he has never mentioned before. On page 12 the enigmatic Dr Landy, having so far received just one fleeting mention, suddenly walks out of Wilson’s front door forever, with an oddly perfunctory cry of “I am leaving because I lost my licence … Bye, Brian.” To find out who Landy is, and what he was ever doing there, we have to wait until Wilson’s thoughts loop back to him in another context. 

Wilson’s father, too, circles into the text and then back out of it, ominously. “The things with my dad happened almost from the beginning,” Wilson writes early on, “but I’ll talk about them later.” He doesn’t want to discuss these things prematurely, because “it’s easy to misunderstand them, even for me.” When Wilson is finally ready to tackle the father theme in earnest, something odd happens. The book entirely shakes off the limits of its genre. It dawns on you that you’re reading a moving and highly intelligent piece of writing. Wilson’s prose turns out to be a literary instrument, sensitive enough to register how it feels to hate and fear and love a person at the same time. 

There were times, Wilson says, when his father could “make me regret that I was alive.” But he could be tender as well, and Wilson needs us to know that. He has an artist’s urge to get all the nuances in. He also feels ethical pangs, as all serious memoirists do. Since his father is “not here to explain himself,” Wilson feels bound to do the explaining for him, or to try. Also Wilson finds that the memory of his father’s bullying has faded, for a reason he explains with a typically casual stroke of philosophy. “At the time it wasn’t something I liked at all, but over time you had more memories and less time to think about them.”

Wilson’s book is full of stuff as startlingly good as that. It’s also illuminated, along the way, by sudden lightning-flashes of insight into the world of mental illness. Wilson knows that his condition is, by definition, very difficult to describe to the non-sufferer. Watching him from the outside, when he’s on a stage or being interviewed, you see a man who apparently doesn’t want to be there. His book gets you beyond appearances and makes you understand how things feel from his side – how mental illness is “a struggle every single day, so you have to invent ways of getting through it.”  

The way that Brian made complexity sound simple, Mike Love says, was “one of the secrets to his genius.” Allied with that gift was his knack for transmuting turmoil into beauty, often with the aid of Love’s sunny lyrics. Both Wilson and Love have written books that burrow fearlessly back the other way, and expose the messy, discordant truths that underlay the harmony. Neither man pretends to be perfect, or anywhere near it. But together, for a while, they made songs for which perfect is the only word.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016


Originally published in The Weekend Australian, Nov. 12-13, 2016 

Jimmy Barnes has been trying to get the story of his childhood off his chest since the early nineties. He had abandoned the project twice when a viewing of the movie Snowtown impelled him to push through with it once and for all. “The floodgates opened and I couldn’t hold back the past any longer.” When Snowtown serves as a trigger for the remembrance of things past, it’s a fair sign your childhood was less than ideal. 

This isn’t, then, a memoir of its author’s career as a rock star. When Barnes brings the book to a close, he has only just joined an obscure Adelaide band called Cold Chisel. Nor is there any other sense in which this book resembles the typical celebrity memoir. Most star autobiographers have nothing urgent to say; their books aren’t driven by the impulses that make a real writer write. 

Barnes’s book is, to a startling degree. He doesn’t just have a scarifying story to tell. He has a grippingly effective way of telling it: one that does full justice to the grim facts without overcooking them. The result is a stunning piece of work – relentless, earnest, shockingly vivid. The identity of its author is incidental, and in some ways even distracting. After all, you don’t open a book by Jimmy Barnes expecting a classic of Australian autobiography. But I submit that he has written one, by revisiting the Dickensian squalors of his childhood in a spirit of near-fanatical honesty. 

The book’s early pages don’t prepare you for what’s coming. The author sounds, for a while, like the genial latter-day Barnesy. He cracks some awkward jokes. He offers some thoughts about drinking and oblivion that sound, for the moment, like sketchy generalisations. Only later does it become apparent what Barnes is doing in these opening pages. He is nervously clearing his throat, finding the right tone to talk about the all-too-detailed horror show that only he knows is coming. 

Barnes spent the first five years of his life in Scotland, in a rough suburb of Glasgow called Cowcaddens. His mother was a formidable and sometimes violent woman with a “voice that sounded like an open razor, slashing everything it came close to.” His father was a champion boxer and abject alcoholic, with a habit of drinking away money that might otherwise have fed and clothed his children. Jimmy was one of six: three boys and three girls. Many of his first memories revolve around hunger. He remembers worse things too. One night in Cowcaddens, one of his sisters was dragged away by a stranger and assaulted. Barnes is hazy on the details – he can’t even recall which sister it happened to. But half-remembered horrors will turn out to have been a staple of the Barnes childhood, along with fully remembered ones. 

When Jimmy was five, the family emigrated to South Australia, where their first home was a stifling tin hut in a migrant camp. By day the kids got to play barefoot in the sunshine. By night, however, they were obliged to return to their cramped and terrifying shed. Barnes is now sixty, but he has forgotten no detail of how it feels to be a child living in an atmosphere of violence. “Every punch and threat that Mum and Dad threw around hit each of us as if we’d been thrown against the wall.” 

Nor did things improve much when the family moved to a tiny house in Elizabeth, a new suburb on the fringe of Adelaide. “The flights were getting more intense, more extreme, and we were in more danger.” The children hid in a cupboard while glass and furniture smashed outside. Nobody came to save them. Narrating these scenes, Barnes builds a sense of dread. He gives each bad thing its proper weight. But he makes it plain that worse things will be happening soon. 

One of them happened when Barnes was around nine. “One morning, I woke up and mum wasn’t there.” Unable to cope, his mother had simply fled the house. She stayed away for something like two years, although Barnes has a hard time recalling exactly “how old I was or how long this nightmare went on for.” 

Nominally, the children spent this period in the care of their father. Effectively they raised themselves, in a house that soon became a hovel. It was Lord of the Flies in Australian suburbia. Their father was rarely present and conscious simultaneously. Barnes’s oldest sister stole money from him for food. Barnes recalls getting through the week on sacks of potatoes so heavy that the children couldn’t carry them from the shop; they had to drag them along the ground. 

Barnes has unusually vivid memories of being nine, but one doesn’t envy him for it. His perceptions were sharpened by fear and deprivation. At one point his younger sister adopted some stray cats who used the potato bag as a toilet. Barnes recalls “gagging at the sink” while scrubbing cat shit off the last few potatoes. Eating them sickened him, but he was too hungry not to force them down. 

When the Barnes children were on the brink of becoming wards of the state, their mother, who in the meantime had acquired a saintly new husband, took them back in. For a handful of pages, things look up for the book’s hero. And then, for reasons that Barnes still can’t fathom, his mother moved the family back to Elizabeth – the scene of Barnes’s nightmares. When she stepped back into that “void,” Barnes says, “she dragged us with her.” 

After that, a different kind of bad time started. In his teens, Barnes was routinely involved in near-homicidal episodes of street violence. “These fights were not just about knocking people down, they were about hurting people as much as you could.” 

Some of the violence is unbelievable. Barnes scarcely seems to believe it himself. There is so much of it that it would numb you, if Barnes were a lesser storyteller. But he knows how to make startling things sound startling – probably because he has never stopped being startled by them himself. Also he gives the violence meaning, by showing how its roots lay in fear. He is in a good position to know. He spent a lot of his childhood being violent. He spent all of it being terrified. 

Barnes has a knack for making words echo and embody the barren, hardscrabble atmosphere of his former life. Whether he found the book’s style instinctively, or had to work at it, I don’t know. But as he careers towards the harrowing central chapters, he stops cracking jokes. He starts writing like a man possessed. His scenes get shorter; they come tumbling out of him fast, as if he needs to get each thing out of his head as efficiently as possible. 

One story starts off like this: “I’m not sure when or why this next thing happened but it was horrible.” This sentence will fill you with an almost visceral dread, if you’ve followed Barnes to this point. You know, by now, that he has an unusually high bar for what makes a horrible incident. 

Further on, deeper in, another chapter begins: “Someone was messing with the kids.” Having made that arresting start, Barnes gradually expands on his theme. A friend of the family had an older teenaged son “and he was a fucking deviant. It seems he was messing around with all the kids.” 

Does this mean he messed around with Jimmy too? Barnes doesn’t know, but he suspects that he probably did. He is writing blind, addressing things that he and his siblings have never discussed with one another, much less with anyone else. “I am writing from what I feel; I don’t really know any facts.” 

Barnes writes about these things with deep anger; but he knows how to use his anger as fuel, so that it keeps his book hurtling forward instead of burning holes through it. If he sometimes sounds like a man in therapy, it’s because he is one. The book is an act of purgation. 

Barnes’s honesty is total; it overwhelms and absolves the book’s weaknesses. Early on, he displays a worrying tendency to crack off-the-shelf jokes. “A Glaswegian could start a fight at a funeral, even his own.” Such second-hand gags have a way of stopping a book in its tracks, and for a while you wonder why nobody weeded Barnes’s out. And then he says, after cracking one of them: “I shouldn’t joke but laughing is the only way I have got through most of my life.” Under normal circumstances this would sound like a cliché. But the circumstances are far from normal – by the time he says this, Barnes has already given you some sense of the life he’s had to get through. So the cliché reconstitutes itself as a genuine insight. Suddenly you see that his jovial, fast-talking persona is a kind of nervous tic, a band-aid covering a still-open wound. 

In a similar way, the preface of the book contains some stock phrases about how Barnes’s parents tried their best in tough conditions. These are conventional pieties; and no doubt they are perfectly true, in a sense that doesn’t get us very far. But Barnes, while uttering them, temporarily sounds like a man saying what he ought to say, not what he really thinks. 

Unfortunately he sounds far more convinced, and convincing, when furiously and extensively evoking the damage his parents inflicted while doing their worst. At times he seems to write himself into a kind of trance, as if channeling his abandoned younger self. Here he is leaving home for good, taking a jacket that once belonged to his older brother, who has left too: 

He left it with the rest of the rubbish. The shit he didn’t want to see anymore. I was part of that rubbish, now that I think of it. So were the rest of the family. I don’t blame him. I don’t want to see him or any of this again either. 

What makes this so effective is that it’s not written for effect. Barnes’s only aim is say how he felt at the time. But his hair-raising commitment to the facts, and his shocking lack of sentimentality, forge a memorable style. He could have written the kind of book prized by Oprah, if he’d wanted to milk his story for sympathy. But there are no requests for pity here, no wallowing in victimhood. Above all there is a bracing intolerance of bullshit. On God he says simply: “If he was up there he should’ve looked down on us a little more often; things might have been better. Now it’s too late; I don’t need him.” 

You can’t fake such a tone. You have to earn it. One would like to claim Barnes’s voice as quintessentially Australian, although one would have to concede that its central toughness was imported from Glasgow. Also, before we get too patriotic, we need to grasp the ugly fact that the Australian suburbs, in the process of forging Barnes, very nearly killed him. 

But he survived, and became the front man of Australia’s greatest rock band. Then he had a second career as a solo artist. Those achievements, you might have thought, were more than enough for one man. But now he’s accomplished something new and wholly unexpected, by flinging down, from out of the blue, this rugged, haunting book.

Friday, August 5, 2016

The limits of DBC Pierre

Originally published in The Weekend Australian, August 6-7, 2016

DBC Pierre is one of literature’s wild boys. His nom-de-plume is an acronym for his childhood nickname: Dirty but Clean. He doesn’t shave before posing for his book jackets. His prose is scruffy and profane, and doesn’t always kowtow to the laws of grammar and syntax (“I closed my eyes, put my best foot forward and punched through it.”) His epigraphs come from the likes of Hunter Thompson and Charles Bukowski. When he won the 2003 Booker Prize for his first novel, Vernon God Little, he used the cash to pay off his drug debts. 

Nobody taught Pierre how to write novels; he had to feel his way into the job. Now he has written a book about writing: part memoir, part how-to manual, part political tract. The resulting work is amazingly uneven. The chapters about technique, which constitute about three-quarters of the book, are perceptive and illuminating, and generously crammed with the kind of detailed practical advice that all young writers crave. The chapters in which Pierre vents his political spleen are puerile when not incoherent. What makes us suppose that creative writers are better qualified than, say, candlestick-makers to pronounce on world affairs? Writers like Pierre make you urgently revisit that assumption. 

He is unquestionably useful, though, when discussing his own craft. All writers are haunted, when they start out, by the sense that they are doing something radically wrong – that their stuff is somehow inauthentic. Pierre offers consolation here. Any piece of writing, he says, is trash to begin with. To make it good, you need to write your way through the bad. “It’s far easier to improve crap than to originate brilliance.” Stick at it long enough and you will emerge into “clear, thin air where things finally gel.” 

At his most insightful, Pierre gets beyond the brass tacks of craft and elucidates the deeper mysteries of art. How, for example, do you write dialogue that sounds real? Not, Pierre correctly notes, by reproducing the anarchy of real-life speech patterns. To sound authentic on the page, dialogue must be heightened, tightened: made realer than real. Pierre’s best observations on such matters are compact enough to attain the status of aphorism: “structure is an admission that we want someone to read the work.” 

So much for how Pierre writes. What makes him want to? During his twenties, Pierre discovered that reality was more chaotic than he had been raised to believe. He’d been brought up, he realised, in a “microclimate” of falsehoods. When it struck him that our culture tended to “distort and reinforce its ideas in exactly the same way,” he became a writer. 

Thus, for Pierre, the act of writing is tied up with his self-image as a contrarian. His gift, he believes, is an ability to see through our culture’s “shorthand of convenient ideas” and spot the uncomfortable truths on the far side. “Throughout history one has only had to say the truth to be subversive, and that has never been more true than today.” 

What’s so special about today, though? Here we begin to butt up against Pierre’s limitations as a writer. Bracingly specific about technical matters, he can be maddeningly vague and crude when discussing the world beyond the page. Contemporary reality, he says, is a “headfuck.” Alternatively, or perhaps additionally, it is a “ratfuck.” No doubt his foul mouth is meant to be part of his charm, but it’s also a tic that lets him be lazy and inarticulate at exactly those moments when a bit of specificity is called for. Basically, our whole culture just irks him, in ways he can’t always define. He has a beef with technology. Science has let us down, somehow. “The news is bullshit.” Now more than ever, Pierre feels, we need writers who can tell us complex and nuanced truths. 

That bit is hard to disagree with. The question is whether Pierre himself is up to the job. As a sample of his ability to see things as they are, he offers the “uncomfortable” observation that a terrorist “can also be … poetic.” This isn’t necessarily untrue – terrorists can be surgeons and engineers, so why not poets too? But if the rest of us don't tend to waste much time thinking about what terrorists get up to when they are not being terrorists, that may not be because we find the question uncomfortable. Maybe we just find it irrelevant, or less relevant than the fact that the gentlemen in question want to kill us, which is a pretty uncomfortable consideration in its own right. If Pierre has any thoughts about the downside of terrorism, he doesn’t disclose them in this book. He raises the topic only once more – when likening Britain’s Terrorism Act to a witchcraft statute. 

Pierre has a strange conception of nuance, then. He thinks it means throwing out a glib paradox while dodging the central part of the conversation. He has a pretty limited sense of subversion, too, if the most daring thing he can bring himself to say about terrorism is that some terrorists can also be poets. In truth, Pierre has his own considerable knack for not perceiving or recording inconvenient facts. On the frequent occasions when reality would appear to be more complicated than his politics, he turns out to prefer wishful thinking to accurate seeing. 

Consider his virtuosic two-page attempt to demonstrate that the scientific world-view is no better than the religious one. Does the mystic embrace “ideas for which there may be no material evidence”? Well, so does the engineer, says Pierre. After all, science “routinely reverses its conclusions.” Does the mystic see “signs of his creator” everywhere? Sure, but only in the same way the engineer “notes the hand of science.” Does the mystic avoid certain kinds of food? Yes, but the engineer “might also be forsaken if he eats the wrong food, but in his case it’s food which science has rejected.” 

It’s remarkable how much energy Pierre pours into forcing an analogy he can’t possibly believe to be valid. Can he really be so ignorant as to think that revising a conclusion in light of fresh or better-understood evidence is the same thing as disdaining evidence altogether? Can he really think that not eating food that will make you sick is comparable to a religious taboo? 

Of course he can’t. Pierre simply wants these things to seem true, or true-ish, so he can get back to what he is comfortable doing – riffing about what he has called, elsewhere, the “ongoing fucked-upness of contemporary western culture.” If science is an improvement on prayer, then the modern western project might have something to be said for it – and we can’t have that. So science’s hard edges must be travestied out of existence, using Pierre’s favoured form of pseudo-insight: the bogus equivalency. All things are essentially the same, if you blur their outlines sufficiently. Somehow, while using this technique to airbrush away things he knows to be true, Pierre still manages to see himself as a progressive thinker, although it is hard to see why he should. His erasure of science would go down well at a Trump rally. But at least he has avoided the cardinal sin: that of appearing to judge the Other. 

Globalisation has created problems for all of us, not least for the kind of western writer who, like Pierre, relishes his status as an outsider. Through no fault of his own, Pierre came on the scene as a self-appointed critic of “our culture’s ethos” at almost exactly the moment when it became apparent, to everyone except the wilfully blind, that our culture, relatively speaking, does have a few things going for it. At that moment Pierre had a decision to make. One option was to admit to himself that he was, to some extent, an insider too – that certain hard-won western achievements, including his freedom to say whatever he liked in print, were worth defending. Accepting this would not have made him a lesser critic. It would have made him a better one, ready to complicate his writing to keep pace with a complicated world. 

Instead Pierre seems to have decided, along with many another pseudo-leftist, to cling to his purity at any cost, including that of turning his prose into a wheezing engine of denial and simplification: a machine for pumping out nihilistic equivalences, hobbled judgments, tactical untruths, and howling structural silences. Meanwhile millions of migrants move from basket-case countries to Pierre’s “fucked-up” West in search of a better life. It must come as an odd surprise, when they get here, to learn that some of our most garlanded writers can’t bring themselves to say that the Enlightenment was worth having.