Tag Archive for Non-Fiction

Restlessness

Motel_PhotographI’m trying to buy an apartment this year. I’m not terribly good at it.

I can find places I quite like in locations I’d enjoy living, but the response I get when consulting with expert is basically the equivalent of a warning siren and the robot from Lost in Space flailing its arms in a panic.

When I find places that are really quite solid investments, well made and reasonably priced, I look at their location and the streets that surround them and realise, should I live in this place alone, my future will involve unacceptable levels of boredom and self-loathing.

There have been suggestions, in Australian media of late, that we’re far too hard on suburbia. Perhaps this is true. I grew up in the suburbs. I live in Brisbane, which is mostly a sprawling suburban expanse that goes on forever and ever, amen.

I’m not good at that. I like the idea that there are people around, people I can go engage with. I like the idea that I can leave my house and there will be things to do within walking distance, regardless of the hour.

This limits my options, in Brisbane. It limits my options quite a bit.

I started this process expecting to be renting, trying to find a place to move before Christmas.  When I realised I could afford a mortgage, the plans changed but I stayed packed, ready to move at a moment’s notice.

All the advice I’ve been given about buying a house suggests taking your time is the best option. Find the place that’s right, rather than the place that’ll do.

It’s been two years since I last had a place, since I gave up my flat and moved into a friend’s spare room. It’s been two good years, but I’m anxious to move on. To have a space that’s mine again, to unpack all the books.

To think, I’d like to read the opening scene of Less Than Zero again, just to see how Ellis uses the language in that bit, and know that I can find the book on a shelf instead of realising its sitting in a random box and it’ll be impossible to find it.

I’ve had the opening line stuck in my head for days now. People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles. It isn’t in a hurry to go away.

My irritation at being nowhere is infecting other parts of my life. You can’t build without a foundation, and right now I’m on shifting sands. Work bugs me. Writing bugs me. I’m sick of being around other people.

And so Thursday comes, and I go look at apartments. Saturday comes, and I do it all again. Slowly, inevitably, my standards get lower, ’cause eventually the need to be somewhere will outweigh good sense.

 

Winter

All my friends keep moving to Melbourne and I do not. I find this kinda tiring, ’cause I’m not the kind of guy who makes new friends easily. I make new acquaintances. I’m good at new acquaintances. Making friends is harder. I don’t like to impose on people, especially now we’re in our thirties. I need clear signs that acquaintances would like to take things further. I assume, for the most part, that people have their shit down and don’t want me to show up and mess with it. I don’t bother ’cause I don’t want to be a bother. Besides, making new friends is all kinds of awkward.

There are friends who skip Melbourne and just go overseas. I cant even imagine how to migrate like that. It’s not in my DNA to relocate that far. There are days when moving to Melbourne seems all kinds of daunting. I keep saying I’m going to do it, and keep failing to go. At first there is study. Then there is unemployment. Then there is employment and I like my job too much. “When they’re done with me,” I tell people. “When they’re done, I’ll head South and join you.”

Secretly I hope that my friends will come back. I know it isn’t happening, that Brisbane has no appeal left for those who have departed, but I miss them and there are all these nights when all I want is the chance to hang out for a while.

Some days I think that when it comes to Brisbane I’m never actually getting out. And some days, you know, I think that’s just fine. Some days I actually like this city and all the people who remain. Some days I think I can accept living here for the rest of my natural life. I don’t often say that, ’cause that’s not what Brisbane people say. Our rhetoric, when it comes to art, is all about departure. Even now, when we know better, all our stories revolve around getting the hell out.

I’m thinking about this in the local supermarket, just standing there in the cereal aisle pondering between two types of porridge. It shouldn’t be a hard choice, ’cause porridge isn’t fancy, but I’m trying to choose between vanilla flavoured or something that has the brown sugar pre-added. I already kinda hate myself because it’s become something I actually debate, like adding brown sugar to porridge takes an exorbitant amount of effort and time.

It’s eight-fifteen in he evening. The store’s kinda empty. That’s what I get for shopping on State of Origin night.  I pick the vanilla porridge and start heading towards the self check-out counters. I’m humming a Tori Amos song underneath my breath.

It takes me the length of the aisle to remember the name of the song. I makes me think about my first girlfriend, who I haven’t seen in over a decade. We met on the Gold Coast and dated on the Gold Coast and, last I heard, she still lived down there. I find this knowledge both sad and incomprehensible. I hope it’s somehow wrong. We used to catch the trains to Brisbane to see writers, bands, and night-clubs. We hit the book stores that carried honest-to-god non-fiction and novels that weren’t classics or massive best-sellers. And maybe not all of this happened the way I remember it, ’cause memory is unreliable after fifteen years, but I’m guessing that part of it’s accurate. The spirit, at least, if not the letter. I’m guessing we talked about moving here, one day, ’cause that’s what artists on the Gold Coast did.

I reach the self check-out. I scan my box of porridge and pay. I walk the three blocks home and watch people spill out of the local gym. Everyone is wearing jumpers ’cause it’s winter and it’s cold out. I’ve started whistling the Tori Amos song, loud enough that people can hear me. The gym crowd is mostly women who wear shirts in strong, primary colours.

Some of them give me a wide berth. Some of them do not.

When I turn down my street and walk under a tree, one of the local bats launches itself into the night sky. It occurs to me that it’s getting real cold and I should have brought my scarf. It’s the first time I’ve ever thought that on my home turf and, somehow, this convinces me that everything will work itself out..

Things on My Shelf: The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler

It’s been suggested that there’s an undercurrent of gloom running through my posts of late, which is one of those inevitable things that happens ’round these parts every Summer. I’m pre-programmed for deep seriousness December through February, largely ’cause it’s too damn hot and I spent the better part of a decade being broke during those months on account of doing session work for Universities. Also, they’re my drinking months. I brood when I drink.

Still, in deference to the fact that not everyone is as fond of embracing their inner gloomcookie as I am, I figured I’d spent a blog post talking about awesome things. Specifically, this awesome thing, which ranks among the coolest books in my collection:

image

I picked this up at a Melbourne bookstore back in 2008, although I’ll be damned if I can remember which bookstore it was. A friend of mine took me there, and it was back in the days when I’d never really been to Melbourne, so I didn’t have any real spatial sense of the city (truthfully, I still don’t, but comparatively I’m doing better than I was back then).

Buying it was something of a no-brainer for me: I was reading a lot of Raymond Chandler at the time, finally getting around to the books that weren’t The Big Sleep, and I’ve always been fond of reading about other writer’s processes. I figured Chandler’s notebooks would be one of those two-great-tastes-that-taste-great-together kind of things.

Instead, it was this real holy-hell-this-is-awesome kind of experience. There’s a lot of cultural mythology that builds up around writers, particularly hard-boiled writers, but when you go through Chandler’s notebooks there’s a whole bunch of evidence that he’s a guy who has his shit together. Notebooks isn’t big – it clocks in at 113 pages, and 25 of those pages are devoted to the unpublished Gothic romance referenced on the cover – but it’s an odd mixture of private notes, planning ahead, and notes for stories.

Through it all, Chandler is smart. There are pages where he makes notes of the work he wants to get done, planning out the next year or so of writing time and where he wants to get. There are musings on the act of writing, and the detective story. There are lists of titles that he’d like to use, or slang he’s lifted from somewhere to throw into his novels. There are lists of lines he’d like to use in his fiction – dialogue, similes, metaphors, snatches of description – the kind of great sentences that make reading Chandler a pleasure, that are planned in advance and marked off when they’re used.

There is one of the best piss-takes of Ernest Hemingway you’ll ever see, which is funny as hell. And illustrations by Edward Gorey, which isn’t advertised on the cover of the book, but proved to be a pleasant surprise when I hit the Romance at the end.

And when you look close, you can see the bones of Chandlers books in his notebooks, which isn’t always a given. And that’s utterly fascinating.

It’s also kind of heart-breaking, ’cause there will be these little throw-away things, like a note in his list of potential titles that reads Islands in the Sky (an anthology of fantastic stories), and I kinda weep that Chandler never actually wrote a book of fantasy (similarly, I’m always excited when I see that Chandler wrote a story titled The King in Yellow, despite the fact that its only a vague reference Robert W. Chambers collection).

I like to believe that Chandler would have been a kick-ass fantasist. Intriguingly, after reading his notebooks, I like to think the man would have had a phenomenal blog if the technology had been around. But then, I often wonder what dead artists would have been like if they’d existed at the same time as modern technology. It’s all too easy to imagine them being grumpy and hating it, simply ‘case we’re culturally pre-programmed to assume that everyone in the olden-times lived better and did better and didn’t suffer from the evil’s of the internet.

And it’s possible that train of thought will lead us somewhere gloomy. I’ll stop now.

I fricken’ adore this book. It breaks open my skull and messes with my brains, which is all I ever really want a book to do. It also makes me wish I was a different kind of writer, ’cause me and notebooks don’t really have the same relationship Chandler had with his.

C’est la vie.

With that, I’m off to write things, as is required. Hope your day is a good one, and your shelf is abundant with interesting books.

Seven Notes on A Lover’s Discourse While Halfway Through the Book

One

Habitual marking of quotes is one of those weird habits you pick up when you hang around universities for too long. I still do it, despite being out of the game for the better part of six years now, which means I frequently end up with shelves full of dog-eared books, notebooks filled with hastily scribbled details, and the occasional stray post-it with a quote scrawled across it with the bibliographic details on the back.

Since I don’t really teach classes or write essays anymore, the vast majority of the quotes I mark tend to be because I truly adore the phrasing. There’s a great deal of beauty in theory and criticism, if you look for it. Exquisitely phrased ideas that sucker-punch you the same way a perfectly formed poetic line does, or well-turned phrase in a piece of prose.

I’ve been reading Roland Barthes A Lover’s Discourse for the last two weeks. It started as a bit of story research, but it reminded me exactly how much I love Barthes’ writing. He’s far better known for being the man behind Death of the Author, but I’ve probably marked more pages in A Lover’s Discourse than any other book I own (which is impressive, since I’ve never actually finished it – my tolerance for non-fiction is surprisingly low regardless of its quality).

Two

Selected quotes I’ve pulled from the book, either because they’re something I want to remember, or cause there’s the beginning of a story in there.

The heart is the organ of desire (the heart swells, weakens, etc., like the sexual organs), as it is held, enchanted, within the domain of the Image-repertoire. What will the world, what will the other do with my desire? That is the anxiety in which are gathered all the hearts movements, all the hearts ‘problems’. (pg 52)

 

Jealousy is an equation involving three permutable (indeterminable) terms: one is always jealous of two persons at once: I am jealous of the one I love and the one who loves the one I love. The odiosamato (as the Italians call the ‘rival’) is also loved by me: he interests me, intrigues me, appeals to me. (pg 66)

 

The resistance of the wood varies depending on the place where we drive in the nail: wood is not isotropic. Nor am I; I have my ‘exquisite points.’ The map of these points is known to me alone, and it is according to them that I make my way, avoiding or seeking this or that, depending on externally enigmatic council; I should like a map of moral acupuncture to be distributed preventatively to my new acquaintances (who, moreover, could also utilize it to make me suffer more). (Pg 95)

Three

Despite it’s name, A Lover’s Discourse isn’t really about love. Desire, certainly, but not love. In this respect, it’s a book I find remarkably comforting. It isn’t trying to explain anything. It’s holding forth no mystery. It’s simply trying to unravel the semiotics of desire, the verbal and the non-verbal meanings that are imbued in every exchange.

Four

My favourite quote from the book thus far is this one:

Yet to hide passion totally (or even to hide, more simply, its excess) is inconceivable: not because the human subject is too weak, but because passion is in essence made to be seen: the hiding must be seen: I want you to know that I am hiding something from you, that is the active paradox I must resolve: at one and the same time it must be known and not known: I want you to know that I don’t want to show my feelings: that is the message I address to the other. Larvatus prodeo: I advance pointing to my mask: I set a mask upon my passion, but with a discreet (and wily) finger I designate this mask. Every passion, ultimately, has its spectator… (pg 42-43)

But then, I would love it, wouldn’t I? It jibs so nicely with my favourite themes – masks, love that isn’t really love, the secret suspicion that there is no such thing as authenticity anymore.

Five

This one seemed appropriate, given the season:

The amorous gift is sought out, selected, and purchased in the greatest excitement – the kind of excitement that seems to be of the order of orgasm. Strenuously I calculate whether this object will give pleasure, whether it will disappoint, or whether, on the contrary, seeming too ‘important,’ it will in and of itself betray the delirium — or the snare in which I am caught. The amorous gift is a solemn one: swept away by the devouring metonymy which governs the life of the imagination. I transfer myself inside it altogether… it is for this reason I am mad with excitement, that I rush from shop to shop, stubbornly tracking down the “right” fetish, the brilliant successful fetish which will perfectly suit your desire. (pg 75)

Although, honestly, I think you can sweep the amorous out of it, and it still holds fairly true. I find myself gnawing at this quote time and again, ’cause I find gift-buying enormously traumatic regardless of who I’m buying the gift for. For a guy who makes part of his living with word, I’m capable of being tremendously non-verbal. I’m very good at saying nothing, of locking things down.

I have this annoying tendency to hope gifts will bridge the gap between my head and the outside world. Gifts given and received inevitably become loaded signifiers, ciphers to be unpacked and explored. The prospect of giving gifts becomes nightmarish, because every gift to friend, family, whatever, has a portion of the self transferred inside it.

Giving gifts to people I don’t know well enough to actually invest in the present is a special kind of hell I try to avoid.

Six

It constantly surprises me that I didn’t really stumble over Barthes’ book on desire while I was at uni. Many of the other things he wrote, certainly (eight years of writing-based theory will do that), but I didn’t know A Lover’s Discourse existed until I picked up Anouchka Grose Forrester’s novel Ringing for You. Forrester’s book was phenomenal – a smart mix of late-nineties chick lit and an attempt to write a novel that treated semiotics as a playground. Since I’m pulling quotes from Barthes, I figured I’d do the same with the book that inspired me to seek A Lover’s Discourse out

At night, when I couldn’t sleep, I would read A Lover’s Discourse (the nearest thing to self-help I’ll allow myself). It was dreadful. It talks about the phone a lot, but technology has changed since Roland Barthes’s day. He couldn’t have a clue how things might go, so it’s hardly his fault, but his problems weren’t my problems and I hated him for it. It’s so horrible when you try to find a point of empathy in the world and the only one you can think of fails you. He rabbits on about not being able to go to the toilet or the shape in case the desperately awaited phone call comes and he misses it. I have an ansaphone for that. And 1471. And he goes on about not being able to talk on the phone in case the object of his crush tries to ring and finds him engaged. I have a ‘call waiting’ service on my line. (pg 33-34)

‘Course, Ringing for You was released in 1999. Facebook and Twitter weren’t even a thing back then. People still actually called each other on the phone, rather than the myriad ways we have of bugging one another these days. I find myself wondering if someone’s written an updated version of A Lover’s Discourse that takes into account the myriad ways we have of connecting with each other these days.

Seven

According to wikipedia, A Lover’s Discourse was adapted into a Cantonese movie in 2010. I find myself oddly intrigued by this, especially since it seems bizarre that they’d adapt a book of half-written semiotic theory into a narrative.

5 Books

If you were to ask me for book recomendations right now – and yes, I know you aren’t, but lets just say you were – you’d probably get a list that runs something like this:

The Thin Man, Dashiel Hammett: Screw The Maltese Falcon – if you’re only going to read one hardboiled detective story by Hammett then you really should start with this one. I picked it up on the back of watching Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist when it was mentioned that the title characters in the film were based on the relationship between Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles in the film version of this book, and it’s not hard to see why they were taken with the couple. Nick and Nora Charles are fricken’ awesome – their banter, their affection for one another, their goddamn chemistry as a literary couple – and it’s refreshing to see a hardboiled investigator who is actually happy much of the time.

The Jane Austen Book Club, Karen Joy Fowler: I keep talking to people who haven’t read this, even if they’re fans of Fowler’s other work. Apparently there’s some combination of the cover art and the movie that was made that warns people off, thinking it’ll be a very different book than it actually is. And I keep telling people “no, no, you’re wrong. It’s fricken’ awesome!” and occasionally they’ll listen to me and actually read the book and get in contact and say “yes, actually, you’re right, it is kind of awesome.” From the communal narrator to the unabashed love of books (both Austen and SF) that permeates the narrative, it’s just good.

Blush: Faces of Shame, Elspeth Probyn: There are very few books in the world that make me miss working in universities, but this is one of them. Essentially a long essay examining the role shame and embarrassment plays in contemporary culture, complete with a series of eloquent and personal arguments for the many ways they can be recontextualizes as positive things. Utterly fascinating.

The Conversations: Walter Murch and The Art of Editing Film, Michael Ondaatje:Just what it says on the tin – this is essentially the transcripts of several conversations Ondaatje (who wrote The English Patient, among other things) had with Murch (who edited a bunch of films, Apocalypse Now among them). I have this working theory that there is nothing better than getting two smart, passionate people together and letting them talk about the stuff that interests them, regardless of whether it how interesting it seems on the surface. Despite its title, this ranges across a variety of editorial approaches (including poetry and fiction) that makes it one of those books all writers should read. I keep coming back to it, again and again.

The Chains That You Refuse, Elizabeth Bear: One of the first books I picked up ’cause I saw it mentioned on livejournal, which then lead me to a series of novels that were similarly cool. But this, Bear’s short story collection, remains my favorite thing that she’s done – it’s wide-ranging in terms of genres, voices and approaches, setting seeds for the seemingly disparate approaches  she’s touched upon in longer works since, and there are several stories that are worth the price of entry on their own (including Two Dreams on Trains, And the Deep Blue Sea, One Eyed Jack and the Suicide King, This Tragic Glass).