New York, Noo Yawk for Killings

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I wrote a piece for Killings (the blog of literary magazine Kill Your Darlings) on my eventful trip to New York City. It begins:

Like Loco, Pola and Schatze I was drawn to New York City to find a millionaire playboy. Wait, that’s not right. But in my nine days in NYC I did sometimes feel that I was acting a part in a movie. The island of Manhattan itself feels elevated somehow, surreal. In my photographs taken from the Brooklyn Bridge the city has a certain cardboard cut-out effect. I ran into the cultural ghosts of Ninja Turtles in Chinatown, Dana Barrett on Central Park West, King Kong on top of the Empire State Building, and Joe Buck next to a neon sign.

But the city is not elevated, isolated, a movie set. While I was there, very real events were occurring, and had occurred. People were affected by these, not just in New York, but around the world. So the city to me was both a hyperreal version of itself (and a trip often glosses over like a dream afterwards, too) and a place where, of course, people breathe and bleed.

I hope you’ll enjoy the rest by clicking here.

New York, New York

It’s election day in America and I’m about to go spend the day at MoMA. People seem a little anxious; here on the east coast they’ve just been through Sandy and New York City is only just beginning to get back to normal. Last night it was very loud on the Lower East Side when I woke up in the middle of the night, but it was kind of soothing since my first couple of nights were so quiet. Even though I’ve never been here before I knew it was unnatural.

I’ve had an amazing few days in New York. I might write about Georgia and the conference later, but ‘I’m in a New York state of mind’ right now. On Sunday I went along with the woman I’m staying with (who is awesome) to help clean up an artist’s studio in Brooklyn that had been flooded. It was devastating. She works with wood so there was a lot of warping, and mould. The water was brown and stinky so we had to wash and dry out everything. She’d been working on it for a couple of days and by the end of Sunday the studio was beginning to look like a studio again, with the help of many people. Her equipment was ruined, though. So sad. She wasn’t the only one in the building, either. Or, of course, in the suburb.

Anyway, I was glad I was able to do something, since I arrived just after the superstorm. I started my tourism proper yesterday by:

1. eating a cream cheese bagel where Harry met Sally
2. walking from LES to Times Square and buying MAC lipsticks (thanks to my friend Kate Middleton, who has made me determined to be a ‘lipstick-wearing person’)
3. ate at a Seinfeld-style diner and overheard many post-Sandy catch-up conversations
4. did an aerial yoga class
5. caught the subway, a bus and a yellow cab
6. saw Argo at the gorgeous Village East Cinema
7. went to The Strand bookstore (amazing)
8. celeb-spotted Jeff Daniels in dark glasses

Being in New York is not really like the abstract, piecemeal idea I had of New York. Yes, I relate almost everything to something in the cultural memory bank, but I never had a grasp on the grandeur of the place; actually being among those tall buildings. Also, the city belies stereotypes (so far) just as Paris did for me, in that the people seem very friendly: saying hello, smiling, talking, having a joke. I would say that the stereotype about New Yorkers always being in a rush, however, would be true. I don’t understand why there aren’t more traffic accidents! But it’s like a game you have to learn. As soon as you understand the logic of when to cross the road and how to react to a bike zooming past you, you can just fit right in.

Gerard and I were discussing the city the other night on the phone (he was here for a few weeks in 2010) and we agreed that there’s something surreal about it. When you’re in Manhattan it feels as though you’re apart from the world, almost like the island were floating a little above. Gerard said it’s a bit like one giant movie set, and I’d agree. The feeling doesn’t seem to be simply related to seeing the streets in films, but then maybe it is. Who knows how that accumulation of pop culture might affect your reactions? The film Metropolis was one of the first to enter my head when I arrived coming over the Williamsburg bridge. Then I’ve had flashes of Woody Allen (of course), the Nolan Batman films, Ghostbusters (especially with all the military vehicles in the street due to the relief efforts), King Kong and more. 

So on my list still is art deco (including the Empire State Building), seeing this David Hyde Pierce-directed play featuring Sigourney Weaver (and as my sister suggested, I should combing this activity with a trip to Dana Barrett’s apartment building in Ghostbusters), lots of art, and maybe some comedy…

Cate Kennedy’s The World Beneath

Scribe
September 2009
9781921372964 (Aus, Grove US)

There’s no doubt Cate Kennedy is one of Australia’s most perceptive writers. Her short stories, which can be found in various journals and the collection Dark Roots, are rich in character and often contemplate moments of connection, all the misfires and failed connections, and their consequences.

In The World Beneath, Rich wants to reconnect with his 15-year-old daughter, Sophie. He hasn’t seen her since she was a toddler when he ran off, achingly restless, from her mother, Sandy. Sandy and Rich had been, in their own small way, trying to change the world, to save the environment, to do something and capture something worthwhile. Years later they are still clinging to this time, a few days in their lives when they were part of something bigger – the Franklin blockade in Tasmania.

Rich is still restless and moving about, lamenting the past loss of a photograph he took on the river, due to an embarrassing stumble. Sophie has become the focus of Sandy’s life – but through an idealistic lens. Sandy doesn’t believe in a suffocating and intrusive version of motherhood (she is avoiding being like her own mother). Sandy is, in the crudest of terms, a kind of ageing hippy, and in her daughter’s eyes – rather weak, annoying and useless.

Sophie is the most interesting character for me: deeply defiant, strict, harsh on herself and others, focused, insightful and resourceful. Her severe physical regimen of very little food and lots of exercise until she is exhausted and burning shows a determination to have some control over an erratic and uncontrollable world – in the home and outside it. She’s one of the first characters I’ve read (outside of YA fiction) who is a compellingly (and perhaps frighteningly) realistic representation of some women of a younger generation.

It’s difficult not to take on Sophie’s annoyance at Sandy and Rich, and to see their pathetic failures (as she might put them) through her eyes. Sandy is completely blind to her daughter’s problems, wrapped up in a tarot card haze – but you never doubt her love for her. It’s just that, frankly, she’s a little too self-absorbed and living in the past to try too hard to understand her daughter. Her willingness to let Sophie be could be a disguise for her fear for all the things she doesn’t understand about her and the younger generation. For example, when Sandy finds out about Sophie’s blog My Crap Life:

‘There was Sophie’s face on the screen, indisputably hers, glowering out from under a curtain of black fringe, so it must have been true. Fourteen years old, and this other life going on like a secret parallel universe, served up here now in a fait accompli, something for Sandy to accidentally stumble across when it was all too late.’

As Rich wants to reconnect with his daughter, he plans a six-day walk in the Tasmanian wilderness for the two of them. There are then the parallel stories of Sandy at a retreat (looking for answers, or simply distracting herself, through all sorts of ridiculous New Age rituals) and Rich and Sophie trekking. The themes of connection are strong: father desperate from a particular kind of admiration from estranged daughter; Sandy struggling to connect with her present and to a deeper extent, with her daughter; what it now means to ‘connect’ with the wilderness – to capture it, to trample over it, to just ‘be’ in it? And disconnection, too – between generations, with the aid of technology (such as Sophie’s continual iPod/mobile phone use), and between human beings and the environment.

While I was completely absorbed by the characters and the masterful, perceptive descriptions in this book, I had some trouble with the pace, and the beginning. It is Kennedy’s first novel, and it must be a difficult thing when such a well-known short story writer either decides or is subtly pressured into the novel form, as it is this culture’s norm. (I should note, Kennedy has also written poetry, and a travel memoir Sing and Don’t Cry.) On the whole, she is successful, but the beginning features too much of Sandy – the internalisations are humorous, but I also felt I was told too much in the first chapter about what kind of person she was, and I was annoyed at her. I was also confused about where I was being placed, in terms of the story to come.

It takes a little while for anything to happen and there seems to be many unnecessary flashbacks to Sandy doing the same thing (at the retreat) through the novel. Tension builds, mostly from an injury Rich has sustained and kept secret, but the tension doesn’t really build to a high point (or the climactic scenes continue at a yoga-breath pace). The chapters are like a series of very small realisations and revelations about one another – and the desire for more or stronger revelations from one another. But each chapter is worth it for the richness of perception in Kennedy’s writing – you just never know when she’s going to throw another gem at you:

‘God, the way a smell could bloom like a blown ember in your brain, fresh and sharp as turning over a log to expose all the dark life that swarmed beneath it. Sight and sound had nothing on smell. You unzipped your old sleeping bag, opened an old book, lit a mosquito coil, and it was like stepping on a mine. It made you realise everything was stored, nothing was forgotten, just waiting for the saturation of memory to overspill and flick some switch.’

There is one reason I really appreciate this novel and would recommend it, particularly to my parents’ generation, in the same way I might recommend The Slap. Why? This is a novel so deeply reflective of the effect of the failures of one generation on another. And particularly a generation who hoped for so much but settled quickly for less, who mostly turned from taking action to buying things – buying things that remind them of the time, and that fill up the holes created by rapid change and time speeding by. Who is this adult in front of me? Oh, it’s my daughter. Why is she so surly? It’s the technology, it’s society, it’s the media. It has nothing to do with me. Not that Sophie escapes any blame for her actions – she is a completely autonomous character, and many other readers (perhaps older) will feel differently, more confused and upset about her than I do. The failures aren’t just heaped upon Sophie, but are present in Sandy and Rich and their memories, their attempts and their distractions.

This, from Sophie’s chapter when Rich and her visit a museum in Tasmania and view the footage of the last Thylacine:

‘Terrible, wrecked world, she thought. All of it sinking and melting and going under, the patches of green turning brown. Nothing good left, everything torn up and eaten and destroyed, everything dumped in the next generation’s lap.’