’70s-style dystopia: This Perfect Day by Ira Levin

This Perfect Day is a dystopian sci-fi novel, published in 1970, in the vein of Brave New World and Logan’s Run. People are born into a happy (read: bland) unified society, ruled by UniComp, which is literally a giant computer. Over the generations heterogeneity has been genetically blended out, and every member of ‘The Family’ receives treatments to keep them ‘well’. Of course, there are aberrations. Chip, for example, was born with two different coloured eyes. In his formative years his ‘strange-acting’ grandfather and an artistic friend each have a lasting impact on him. Chip is slowly awakened to a world where one can smoke, learn French, and have orgasms more than once a week!

Aspects have dated, of course, but I never knew what was coming next. The plot is clever and action packed. I don’t know why it isn’t as well known as some of the other dystopias—perhaps because it was never filmed? Some of Ira Levin’s other works have become classic films: The Stepford Wives and Rosemary’s Baby.

It’s fun to read a retro futuristic novel and compare its speculations to the present. The aspect of ubiquitous computing—data everywhere—is prescient, but the fact the members have to scan themselves to get in and out of buildings, onto planes etc. wouldn’t work today. Their bracelets would, in a contemporary story, probably be implants, and the scanning would happen automatically (so, much of the plot would fall apart).

I did find the concept of one’s time as controlled and delegated to ‘useful’ pursuits relative to the present. At least, personally, this conversation between Karl and Chip, about Karl’s art, struck me:

‘I’d better get back to the group I’m with’ [Chip] said. ‘Those are top speed. It’s a shame you weren’t classified as an artist.’

Karl looked at him. ‘I wasn’t, though,’ he said, ‘so I only draw on Sundays and holidays and during the free hour. I never let it interfere with my work or whatever else I’m supposed to be doing.’

Anyone else explain their time like that?

One of my supervisors recommended this book to me, because my almost-finished-novel is set in the near future, and there are some similarities. But I think Brave New World may be closer, and I think (hope) there are some completely original aspects about my work (while I do deliberately play on the reader’s intertextual knowledge at some points). The main point is that in my work people do have choices, many choices, but they have been socialised by the media, dominant ideas etc. to watch over themselves. And they choose to, also, due to the anxiety of having so many choices. They need to feel in control. Contradiction is encapsulated by the mantra of ‘balance’. They are not forcefully drugged or anything, but they are socially pressured to ensure their ‘wellbeing’ and ‘functionality’ are intact. My society is not about uniformity, it is about controlled heterogeneity. It is not about efficiency in general—utopianism—but about efficient and controlled market growth. But my work is being written in the era of neo-liberal capitalist consumerism, not during the cold war, like this one…

If you’re a fan of dystopias, particularly kitschy ones (the sexy aspects are awesome) you’ll tear through this. And like any good sci-fi, it will still stir up political questions. Is it better to be happy or free, especially if ‘freedom’ is dirty and dangerous? What if you got to ‘reprogram’ the society so people lived longer and felt more, could you then be content with it? Isn’t it better than the uncivilised chaos that would otherwise descend?

You probably already know the answers, but Ira Levin definitely takes you to some intruiging, challenging places.

Between worlds: Dominic Smith on Bright and Distant Shores


Allen & Unwin, 9781742374161, 2011
(Aus paperback, ebook + US/Kindle)

Bright and Distant Shores is hugely imaginative historical fiction. It’s set just before the dawn of the 20th century in Chicago and the South Pacific. Owen Graves is sent by Hale Gray, the president of Chicago First Equitable, to collect some ‘special items’ to display on top of the tallest building in the city. Graves is dubious about the morals of the expedition but wants the money so he can finally marry his girlfriend, Adelaide. In Melanesia, a mission houseboy called Argus loses his master, but not his faith. He seeks out his sister and they are soon promised new prospects by the man on a ship from Chicago… This book travelled with me around the globe recently. Back at home I got in touch with its Australian-American author, Dominic Smith.

AM: I was swept up in every element of this vast story – the tensions at sea, Owen and Adelaide’s relationship, Argus caught between worlds, the skyscraper sliding into the ground – and I wondered, was it difficult having so many balls in the air while writing? You draw them all together seamlessly and somehow keep the pace steady throughout.

DS: I’m so glad to hear that you were pulled along! Writing this novel was sometimes akin to running between spinning plates, giving them each another nudge as I darted by. I was conscious from the beginning of the scope of the novel and thought about ways to handle all the moving pieces. Some of my favourite literature includes sprawling narratives and plots with many moving parts. I think of Dickens and George Eliot especially… I feel like one of the things I tried to do was to keep the plates spinning. So that meant even when we are at sea it’s worth taking a dramatic pause in the nautical action to check back in with the Chicago characters. It builds more tension – in both the Chicago and Pacific narratives – and allows the narrative to skip through passages of time. It increases the pace. I also tried to create some friction between the interweaving narratives, so that the ideas and predicaments of one storyline might echo with the storyline that is juxtaposed next to it.

It’s set in a fascinating time-period, when all the islands had already been somewhat ‘infected’ by ships of explorers, collectors, naturalists and missionaries and would never be the same again. What was it about this era that drew you in?

The 1890s was a fascinating period for both Chicago and the Pacific. When I was doing research for the novel I was shocked to discover the widespread fear among collectors of the late-19th century that ‘the bathtub had already been drained.’ There was a feeling that it was easier to get good curios in London or New York than in the Pacific islands. That surprised me. So you saw a huge collecting impetus by many museums and private collectors as the new century dawned. They were trying to get the last of the loot. So by 1900 the Pacific was already awash with European white culture; islanders were more likely to want Winchesters, ammunition, and cigarettes, than beads, glass, and ironwork. This is also a time of missionary zeal, when the Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Catholics are divvying up the Pacific, sometimes along tribal boundaries. Meanwhile, in Chicago, you have a dozen or so business tycoons who make millions from meatpacking and railways and insurance. They pour much of it into building cultural institutions – libraries, symphonies, museums. Marshall Field, of department store fame, donated $1 million to set up a museum in his name. There was a widespread interest in the exotic and ethnographic after the World’s Fair of 1893. So I was fascinated by how the tribal Pacific and commercial America could intersect in ways that were both strange and compelling. The 1890s, for me, is a crazy mash-up of conflicted ideas and visions.

You capture that mash-up very well! Some of the characters are ‘in between’ the two worlds (the West and the Pacific life), none more so really than Argus. He’s also caught, in a way, between loyalty to Malini, his sister, and to Owen; and between his past and his faith. His character is representative of some of the strongest themes running through the novel, but he’s very empathetic, three dimensional. Could you talk a bit about creating him?

I struggled with Argus and with my own misgivings about trying to represent someone with a tribal background. In the end, I gave myself license to explore his psychology. One of the things that made that easier was to make him a character who is caught between two worlds, between the Euro-Christian way of seeing things and the Melanesian tribal way of seeing things. He – like the writer – feels pulled between these opposite poles. So in some ways I gave Argus my own misgivings; he has to chart those waters on the writer’s behalf. Characters who have inner conflict are dramatically interesting, I think. Argus has a kind of visceral connection to faith; it’s in his blood. He’s also ambitious and wants to explore the world he’s read about at the mission.  So those forces of curiosity, doubt, faith, and ambition ground his character. They pull him into the future but not without uncertainty. That is perhaps one source of empathy for him as a character.

You play with issues of class through the character of Adelaide, and through her relationship with Owen. They are both strong characters: determined, charitable, hard-working. Can you tell us a bit about shaping their relationship? Of course the distance between them does also add great tension to the narrative.

In some ways Adelaide (and Malini) are the moral core to the novel. Argus and Owen are filled with ambition, but they’re also capable of a certain kind of ruthlessness. With the relationship between Owen and Adelaide I was interested in exploring class and privilege, in addition to a love story that would seem of the period and compelling for contemporary readers. Adelaide comes from money but throws herself into charity. Owen comes from poverty and on some level thinks charity is a rich person’s enterprise. So when the voyage comes up – the prospect of bringing back natives to Chicago so that Owen can receive a windfall – there is a real divide wedged into the romance. Owen struggles to reconcile the morality of the Pacific trading scheme with the pragmatic need for money. He slightly resents what he imagines Adelaide – with her blue-blooded philanthropic ways – will think of this equation. I think these are the kinds of issues people deal with in relationships every day. How does one person’s actions reflect on the other? Relationships are evolving narratives and we sometimes want our partners/spouses to add coherence to the story we’re trying to tell the world. So in addition to their obvious admiration for each other, they struggle with how to integrate their pasts. Until Adelaide, Owen has never ordered a bottle of wine in a restaurant.

Were classic adventure novels an influence? I’ve been reading Gulliver’s Travels, and thought perhaps your book has a subtle element of social commentary to it as well? Ambition and wonder are present in your novel – as you’ve mentioned – and on some scale are seen as unrewarding and even destructive. I keep thinking about the ambitious insurance firm building sliding down into the earth…

I certainly thought of Treasure Island and Moby Dick when writing this novel, but also more recent novels, like Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage and Barry Unsworth’s Sacred Hunger. These latter novels showed me it was possible to render a seafaring story in an interesting, nuanced way, while still having fun with the tropes that come with sea voyaging and lore. There is social commentary in Bright and Distant Shores, though I think I’m more interested in paradox than a set of thematic statements. Ambition and wonder abounded in the 1890s, but so did naivete and exploitation. The early insurance companies saw their enterprise as somehow noble and they were paternalistic towards their employees. They had this idea of their clerks never needing to leave the skyscraper – they could get haircuts and eat in the cafeteria and take night school all under one roof. The insurance towers eclipsed the church spire as the tallest point in the city and the tower was seen as a kind of totem, but also a beacon of hope for the populace, with its clock tower a suggestion of life ticking away. This is obviously capitalism on a grand scale, with the delusion of benevolence for an under-insured populace. Corporations often think they have enlightened interests when in fact it’s really about selling insurance or widgets.

Not only is Bright and Distant Shores a ‘ripping’ tale, the writing is delightful. I found myself gasping at certain turns of phrase. And yet it never obstructs the story, it is not showy – just beautiful. Some of the descriptions: ‘spandrels of moonlight’, ‘a crapulous German clipper captain’, and the ‘fusty nooks and fetid warrens below deck’. It makes it such a pleasure to read. How much time do you spend with the book on a sentence level? Does that all come in final drafts, or do you craft the language carefully as you go?

Thanks for those nice comments. I do think a lot about language – it’s what draws me to reading fiction in the first place. I used to write skeletal drafts of things with very little attention to language, and then I would go back and polish things. Now I seem to write very slow and deliberate first drafts. It’s a gamble, because you may end up throwing out much of what you write in a first draft. But I seem to like feeling that a sentence does its job, that it’s more than a place holder, before I move on. I really try to work at the sentence level as I go.

You grew up in Australia but live in the US and have published over there. This is your first novel published through and Australian publisher, Allen & Unwin. How does it feel? Can you tell us a bit about your other works?

It has been very gratifying to publish a novel in Australia and I’m thrilled to have had it shortlisted for The Age Book of the Year and the Vance Palmer Prize. That means a lot to me; it’s a kind of sweet homecoming present. Allen & Unwin have been incredibly attentive. I was back in Australia for a month in June with my family and it was such a treat to share places and memories with them. My first novel, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre, was a historical novel that re-imagined the life of Louis Daguerre, the inventor of the daguerreotype who supposedly suffered from mercury poisoning. The second novel, The Beautiful Miscellaneous, was a contemporary story and focused on the average son of a genius. It’s a story about a boy who is 15% above average in everything he does. His father, a renowned physicist, is convinced that the son harbors some greatness and desperately tries to uncover it.

Thank you so much, Dominic.

More details about Dominic Smith’s books can be found on his website.

The epic qualities of outwardly ordinary lives: By Nightfall and Michael Cunningham in Australia

By Nightfall, Michael Cunningham, HarperCollins (Aus pb, Aus ebook, US and Kindle, UK)

Over the past few days I’ve been in the audience of four sessions featuring my favourite American author Michael Cunningham. Cunningham’s latest novel is By Nightfall. I’ve drafted a few posts on it since I read it, but was never able to adequately capture what he does. Now I can mix my words up with his own and hopefully provide some picture of the work, and of Cunningham himself.

How to write about an author who provokes in the reader the very surges and distances he skilfully writes of? Those flips between detachment and passion? In By Nightfall, Cunningham is writing about art, youth, maleness, beauty; and he is simultaneously making art. For me By Nightfall was not The Hours (a book so close to my heart) or Specimen Days, but I appreciated its focus. Where those two novels spanned eras and sets of characters (though still thematically focused), here Cunningham gets intimate with Peter Harris, a middle-aged, middle-class gallery owner in New York. And so explores the complexity of an individual life.

Peter has been married for many years to Rebecca. Their daughter has flown the nest and distanced herself emotionally and physically from her parents. They enjoy martinis in the afternoon and they attend parties for the sake of attending parties. In the opening scenes they are on their way to one of these parties, and the detail around their almost-fight reminds me of the intricate observations in Richard Yates’ writing. Peter is distracted by what appears to be an older man in a car full of youths, Peter is still surprised by things about his wife (and will continue to be throughout the narrative, despite the fact he convinces himself there isn’t really much more to know). Cunningham said that he was writing about a particular kind of curse that exists, with Peter and Rebecca – a ‘good enough’ marriage. In his novels, Cunningham likes the number three – three characters, three eras, etc. ‘I’m all about three,’ he said.

And so the third element in By Nightfall is Rebecca’s younger brother, Mizzy (short for ‘the mistake’). He’s coming to stay and Peter has mixed feelings about it. When Mizzy arrives he is many things, but one of them is a catalyst for Peter to turn inward – to think about youth (nascence is Cunningham’s favourite word in the novel), art, tragedy and beauty. ‘Peter wants his life to explode, to dismantle itself’, said Cunningham. Related to the ‘dismantling’ come thoughts of his daughter, of his wife as a young woman, of his brother who died of AIDS when he was in his early twenties. The semi-eroticised pull he has toward young Mizzy (and he analyses the nature of it intensely throughout the novel) is related to these other people in his life – and is related to where he is in his life and the things that he isn’t. He isn’t, for example, a dramatic or tragic figure – and there is some envy in that.

Peter loves art, he is drawn to it, but his life is not a work of art, and this is something he is becoming aware of. It was also important for Cunningham to make Peter heterosexual. The erotic pull, as mentioned, is complex – associated with nostalgia, envy and other kinds of longing. Death in Venice was an influence, one of Cunningham’s favourite books – ‘the definitive work on human longing’. ‘Most of us are gawping at something,’ Cunningham said in Sydney. And whatever we identify as, ‘we’re incredibly erotically complex.’ One individual’s sexuality isn’t anything like anybody else’s, there’s ‘erotic individuality’, and writers exist ‘to complicate the world’, he said.

Peter is a gallery owner, as mentioned, and is in crisis over his definitions of art and beauty. I saw Cunningham on a panel with Betty Churcher (chaired by Rowena Danziger), entitled ‘The Pursuit of Beauty’. He spoke about his disdain for contemporary art and its incessant irony. He wanted to write about a man who was ready to dismantle his life in pursuit of an annihilating beauty. Art is a fixation of Cunningham’s, and all his novels have arisen from a fixation of his (such as Virginia Woolf, with The Hours). He actually started out training as an artist. ‘The impulse to create, to produce something beautiful and lasting has been with me a very long time.’ But with visual art he found he lacked some capacity and focus (to develop his talent). It was upsetting to him, but then the idea of creating ‘something like life’ with just words and ink and paper ‘held a bottomless fascination’ for him. He still paints, takes photos, just for pleasure. As his writing has become more recognised he’s felt an increasing need to ‘make things that are not for sale’. He’s even learnt silversmithing. He finds something ‘vital’ in creating something just for himself.

Churcher and Cunningham both praised Duchamp, and touched on Warhol. Churcher spoke about the work of art being what takes place between the artwork and the viewer. A hat rack by the wall is a hat rack, a hat rack on the roof can be a work of art – it’s a matter of perception. If you don’t get it, it’s not a work of art for you, said Churcher. (And all this is riffing on Duchamp’s philosophies.) Churcher said Duchamp was the most influential artist of the 20th Century and Cunningham agreed. When he agrees with something wholeheartedly, he does this face, which I call his ‘exquisite’ face. It’s like a pulling-in of all his features, as if to say oh, yes. Exquisite. It’s like the bottom part of a nod, held and exaggerated.

Cunningham explained his disdain for contemporary art a little more. ‘I see a lot of art in New York City. Okay, I get it. I think I get it… and yet I find myself wondering – where’s the transcendence? Where’s the consolation? Where’s the sense of accompaniment?’ And when he said that, it made me realise how successful he is as a novelist, as an artist. Because those intentions are realised in his work. He said that earnestness is ‘out’ and art is wry, ‘snarky’. ‘I keep thinking that we who care about art are not doing too well on our beauty-free diet’.

Both spoke about art as a commodity, acknowledged that it always has been, but spoke about a certain parallel now with the art world and consumer and celebrity culture. That people would buy art because they ‘should’ have it, not because they love it. This, too, has always existed, but they both agreed that it’s now more pervasive. All Cunningham wants is for an artwork to ‘drive an icepick through my heart’, or turn his head 360 degrees. There is a character in By Nightfall – an art collector – who truly does love art for art’s sake. And this was important to Cunningham, to avoid stereotyping, to ensure all the characters were at some level able to be empathised with. A novel is an ‘engine of empathy’, he said. He’s fascinated by the fact that everyone is the hero of his or her own story. As a novelist you try and express the fact that ‘no one is insignificant and everyone makes sense of themselves,’ and also, ‘everyone is visiting the novel from a novel of their own’. In this way, novels are also inherently political (if they achieve this). Because ‘fiction is the best-known way of producing empathy’ – it shows the reader what it’s like to live as someone else, gives an intimate portrait of the ‘beingness’ of another. Doesn’t that then train you to be more considerate of the multitudinous complexities, the histories, of others?

But Cunningham has been politically active in real life. It was a big ‘slap in the face’ for him and his friends in the ’80s to learn that Reagan and Bush Snr didn’t care about the ‘kind of people’ who contracted and were suffering from AIDS. Certain pharmaceutical companies, too, were withholding information and drugs, and Cunningham was part of the Act Now movement. He was part of a group who disrupted the New York stock exchange, and they were arrested. The epidemic and its aftermath (and of course, it has not gone away) makes its way into his novels, because he is a writer that is interested in reflecting the time that we live in. He does not, however, think a novelist, or an artist is obliged to write about the issues of their time. They are only obliged ‘to write the best damn novel [they] absolutely can’.

For Cunningham – and this is one reason I think his novels affect me so – beauty is threaded with a certain element of mortality. He spoke about when he met his partner, 25 years ago, and how that profound love was entwined with a certain ‘horror’. One, because there was ‘no big romantic surprise still to come’, and two – you’re confronted with your combined mortality. A sense of mortality is ‘threaded through’ the love. And this is also what he’s pursuing in great art: ‘you have to be a little bit fearful’.

Cunningham is so skilled, in his work, at drawing the distances between people – the way that bodies and hearts can be aligned in moments, while minds are on different planes. How rare it is to truly know the motivations of another, the dreams of another. By Nightfall is viewed through Peter’s lens, but the reader can see that even Peter doesn’t know or remember what his wife is like, who his daughter is and where, exactly, he went wrong with her. And not just that – but there are moments when he is surprised by the way other people describe and think of him. He is distant from his own self-in-the-world. It is a study in complexity – and in capturing it, the dark and the light and the attempts to grasp the transient, rare moments of passion (which one still might see as meaning something different later on).

On his own art, Cunningham is oft quoted as saying his idea for a novel exists as a ‘cathedral of light and fire’ in a bubble above his head. The finished book is just that – a book, an object. (And there’s a part in The Hours where Clarissa goes into a bookshop and observes just this – that books are inseparable from the world of objects.) However – this is part of what makes art interesting, that gap between intention and achievement is one of the ‘animating concepts’ of art. It’s interesting because of ‘what it says about human limitations’, he said. He also said, ‘if you’re not trying to do more than what you’re capable of doing, then go away’. The effort and the intention create meaning.

By Nightfall is a book of secrets. A moment of secret pleasure in the thought of mortality, gruesomeness. The quick rage Peter feels in a moment at the party (which you feel in the writing, too) and keeps to himself. Feeling that drug users are ‘romantic, goddamn them’. Thoughts on the sexual self. One of my favourite lines in the novel is: ‘What could be more mortifyingly personal, what veers closer to the depths, than whatever it is that makes us come? If we knew, if we could see what’s in the cartoon balloons over other guys’ heads as they jerk off, would we be moved, or repelled?’ Peter wonders, with mixed-emotions, where the visionaries have gone in a practical, commericialised era of art. There are thoughts on the forbidden, on dirt, on anything but normal normal normal. After psychoanalysing himself Peter says: ‘All this is useful information. Now what?’ This all makes more sense after hearing Cunningham talk about the novel. Peter plays out some of the author’s conflicts (over art, beauty), but he is also a product of them. The character himself is someone who has kind of failed in terms of effort, passion, intention. It was essential to Cunningham that Peter be a 2nd-tier dealer, someone with an immediate ‘feeling of doubt’. He likes writing about people who are not at the top of their field, who are not winners. An early (and continual) influence are the modernists, ie. Joyce and Woolf. As a teenage boy it made him delirious, the idea of the ‘epic qualities of outwardly ordinary lives’, the idea that you could ‘bore in like that’ to some ‘subatomic level’ of the everyday.

Peter, in By Nightfall, is struggling between the thought and the act (of art). People are moved by art and then they go on with their lives. How often are they compelled to become art? Do they ever feel they should? Should they? It reminds me of the character of Laura Brown in The Hours. Reading Virginia Woolf is one of the things that makes her decide she must act. That, in fact, she will die if she does not. Peter’s struggle is a more contemporary one. Look at all the choices he potentially has. But Peter’s disposition means (and this shouldn’t give it away but you’ll know what I mean if you’ve read it) Peter chooses art. He chooses the challenge. The struggle. Cunningham also said he wanted to write about the ‘friendless man’, a type of person he meets who is fascinating and mysterious to him. He wanted Peter to be introspective and complicated (he succeeds). As mentioned, Peter is rhetorically engaged, throughout the book. This was partly about his character, but also partly about rhythm. Language is about meaning, Cunningham said, ‘but also about music’. The Hours was a Schubert sonata, A Home at the End of the World was rock ’n’ roll. By Nightfall was Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, Lou Reed. (Side note: he’s met Lou Reed. ‘I fainted, of course’, he laughed.) He teaches creative writing to some lucky mofos in the US. In teaching, his aim is to ‘bring out the voice’. Basically, he suggests things for them to read. When he studied creative writing years ago a teacher told him to mark up a piece with ‘A’ for the best sentences and ‘B’ for the okay ones. Then she make him take out all the As. He learnt that there’s a difference between telling the story and ‘advertising your sensitivity and craftmanship’. This has always stayed with him.

So who does he write for? He writes for Helen. Let me explain. When he was starting out as a writer, he worked in a restaurant in Laguna Beach – the Boom Boom Room, wearing a grass skirt. Helen worked in the restaurant, had been left by her husband, had four ‘criminal’ children, a bunch of debts and also another job. And she was a voracious reader. The reading hour, at the end of everything, was the ‘jewel’ of Helen’s day. She was reading some crime and mystery stories and Cunningham suggested Dostoevsky. Helen read it, she liked it. ‘He’s a lot better than Ken Follett,’ she told him (Cunningham paused for effect here) and then she said: ‘…but not as good as Scott Turow.’ And this idea that Helen would pick up any book, with no sense of pedigree, was thrilling to Cunningham. He decided that maybe it would be more interesting for him ‘to try and write a book for Helen’. Something with depth, with content – but satisfying for her after those incredibly long days. Now he writes with about five specific friends in mind, as ‘gifts’ for them, and that kind of focus aids his process.

In Melbourne he spoke a little more about his process. He walks about 20 minutes to his studio in the mornings, puts on some music to ‘set the molecules in the air going’. Then he sits down to write for at least four hours, six on a good day. He writes daily so as to ‘create and sustain and convince [himself] of a kind of parallel reality’. He is ‘enormously disciplined’, but he leaves his work at the studio and is fully present in the rest of his life: his emails in the afternoon, hanging out with his partner at night. As a young writer it was harder for him to switch off – but he doesn’t want to see the world continually through a lens, of everything being potential ‘material’.

When he submitted The Hours to his editor, they said ‘you know we’re gonna lose all our money on this’. No one had even the remotest idea that it would do as well as it has, would reach so many people. Cunningham’s advice, from this, was: ‘you might as well do what you want to do, because you can’t know.’ The new novel that he’s working on, of which we were treated to an extract at The Big Reading at SWF (Cunningham loved being a part of the reading, with authors he ‘bows down to’, like David Mitchell) is in some ways a ‘companion piece to By Nightfall’ as it looks at a very different body of people who don’t have the money and advantages of the people in BN. He wonders about the search for beauty and transference in those people.

Cunningham has worked on screenplays, too, and he loves film. Writing for film is a wonderful experience as it’s so collaborative, he said. He is not precious about his books being made into films – it’s just an extension of the work, of the process. ‘It’s not the fingernail of a saint’, he said, regarding the book, and you ‘spend your life learning how to write a novel and die trying to make a novel, so… it’s not sacrosanct.’ His favourite book is always his most recent book, and in Melbourne last night it was mentioned that he’s just signed a contract with HBO – not sure if it was for By Nightfall, or something else. I’m looking forward to finding out.

He spoke, too, about endings. And that’s probably a good point to end on. What he tries to do with his novels is end on an ‘expected surprise’, so the reader doesn’t necessarily see it coming, but they can go back through and identify the clues. They don’t see it coming but they think ‘of course it should end like that.’ He often doesn’t know what the ending is going to be. Planning too much feels mechanical, to him. He has to let himself go – pull things up from the magma. ‘That sort of intuitive thing, that permits you to be more insightful than you really are, that allows you to smell things that aren’t really there, only exists if you allow that [non-mechanical exploration] to happen’. How lucky we are, that Michael Cunningham is so successful at pulling those things from the magma, and shaping them into satisfying, complex novels, like By Nightfall.

Thanks so much to the Sydney Writers’ Festival and the Wheeler Centre, Melbourne.

Guest review: Alice Grundy on Mr Peanut by Adam Ross

Vintage, 9780099535379
(Aus, UK, US)

Reviewed by Alice Grundy

The cover of Adam Ross’ first novel, Mr Peanut, is swathed in praise from no lesser lights than Stephen King and Michiko Kakutani. The title page features a reproduction of Escher’s ‘Mobius’ flagging the role of the double in the plot. All the signs point towards a serious literary work. One which is dark and twisted.

And Mr Peanut is indeed a disturbing book, opening as it does with a husband – who happens to share my husband’s name – plotting to kill his wife, who happens to share my name. David is a successful games designer, working secretly away on a first-person novel. He’s become tired of his life and is struggling in his relationship with his obese wife. Barely 20 pages in, David is sitting in an interrogation room, the detectives having concluded he’s killed Alice. Not least of their evidence is David’s novel in which the protagonist, David, hires a hitman to murder his wife, Alice.

To further complicate matters, David’s questioner is Sam Sheppard, a fictionalised version of the 20th century American doctor who was convicted of brutally murdering his wife, but was then acquitted after ten years in prison. In Mr Peanut, Sheppard has turned detective and judges David to be ‘Guilty, guilty as sin’.

The middle section of Mr Peanut takes place in 1950s America. It retells the Sam Sheppard story from the perspectives of Marilyn, the murdered wife, Richard, the cleaner and Sheppard himself. Ross’ imagining of this time vibrates with as much energy as the contemporary sections, with added tension generated by our modern imaginings of what kind of life Marilyn could have expected if she’d been born as a bright middle-class woman fifty years later. His characters are people we know; their internal lives are fully formed. Each of them is at the centre of their own universe.  The exception to this is Alice who always feels a little under-realised. But perhaps this is intentional given this is a book about marriage, its overwhelming intimacies and irrevocable distances. It seems Alice remains something of a shell because David is never quite able to comprehend all of her.

The novel spirals in on itself, winding tight like a slinky as the final third returns us to David’s meta-fictional project; his novel, and Alice’s remarkable transformation shedding tens of kilos and the days which lead up to her death.

While the plot is twisty and the devices self-proclaiming, I prefer to read an exciting project – a suggestion for the future of the novel – as Ross offers here. For the first time in a while, reading this debut novel made me feel as if I’d struck on something new. Last year, with the release of Franzen’s Freedom and the associated media frenzy over dark-rimmed glasses and Oprah’s Book Club, I was feeling flat about the future of fiction. Certainly Franzen is a master of his craft but I wasn’t excited at the prospect of reading him. I didn’t fly through the pages and wish that I could read them again for the first time to feel that shiver of wordy delight. When the world feels as if it’s collapsing, reading needs to feel essential.

At times it does seem as though Ross’ devices are overtaking their characters or that, at other moments, the plot has been over-exposed – perhaps for fear of losing readers in the complexity – and so the images become washed out. But for the most part this is a genuinely scintillating read. It is not only intellectually stimulating but has that special quality, the reason why we still reach out for greatness, of making time seem irrelevant and the world fall away.

Alice Grundy lives in Sydney and works in publishing by day. By night she edits a magazine for new writing, Seizure.

Guest review: Matthia Dempsey on What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us by Laura van den Berg

Scribe Publications, February 2011 (Aus, US, UK)

Reviewed by Matthia Dempsey

Laura van den Berg has particular skill in capturing the strangeness that can come at times—the sense of being a stranger to your own life and the world. For many of the women in her stories this feeling is the result of a specific grief, but it also confronts characters who cannot point to an easily identified cause.

In ‘Up High in the Air’ a woman who finds herself being unfaithful to her husband and ‘taking her life apart piece by piece’ captures this strangeness when she describes her ideas about what to do next as being ‘at once intensely possible and as intangible as fog’. In ‘Still Life With Poppies’ a woman whose husband has left her and disappeared struggles to adjust: ‘Her marriage ending was not a shock. It was the spectacular strangeness of it that had left her staggering. She had been an ordinary person with an uneven marriage and a good job and the occasional adventure, unprepared for this life of peculiar and slippery grief.’

Van den Berg’s protagonists are women who have found themselves in lives they don’t want and in cities or countries they don’t belong, from Scotland to France, the Congo and Madagascar. Some have left a former existence willingly and others have had new cities, countries and responsibilities bequeathed them by circumstances such as death, separation or the will of another. Some know exactly how they ended up where they are, others try painfully to puzzle it out.

Peculiar and slippery grief is everywhere here. In the opening story a would-be actress jokes about channelling personal pain into her performances. ‘Only it turned out that nobody wanted to see real suffering, that no director or casting agent wanted the kind of pain that would, even for an instant, make anyone want to turn away.’ Van den Berg’s sights are fixed firmly on this kind of pain. In ‘Goodbye My Loveds’, a young woman who has taken on the care of her younger brother after the death of their parents wants to tell someone how ‘sometimes it felt like we were the only people out there with losses so raw and gaping’, but senses the woman she is talking to will not want to hear it.

The story brings us close to heartbreak, not because of the young woman’s grief, but because her experience is that universal one of responsibility versus freedom, writ large: ‘It still came on every now and then when I watched Denver toss in his sleep or stare too long at his map of South America—nothing more than a shudder of strange, liquid energy, but sometimes I had to stand outside the apartment until it passed, the air sweeping into me like some kind of cleansing light, pushing out thoughts about voices and solitude and the possibility of living a different kind of life’.

In this, my favourite story, and in others, van den Berg acknowledges not just the way grief can change a person, but ‘the way one life can collapse into another and different people can stir within the same body, like bats thrashing inside a secret hollow’.

Read in one sitting, the narratives in What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us can blend together. Themes overlap and images echo across stories. A character in the opening tale dreams of a time when the world was nothing but water, and in the closing story a woman gives her daughter a postcard with the eponymous description of the world without any water left. Husbands and partners in these narratives are dead, missing, have left or been left.

Mythical creatures recur too, from the aspiring actress who dresses up as Big Foot and scares hikers who have paid for the privilege; to the narrator of ‘The Rain Season’ who watches locals in the Congo draw pictures of the fearful Mokole-mbembe in the dirt; in ‘Up High in the Air’ the narrator’s husband becomes obsessed with the fabled mishegenabeg of Lake Michigan; and in ‘Inverness’ a group of scientists search for the Loch Ness Monster. The search for mythical and not-so-mythical creatures—scientific adventure is a recurring thread too—provides a sense of purpose for many of the secondary characters in these stories, but the women themselves are usually at a painful loss for anything more than survival to give their lives direction.

Early in the book a character says she feels as if there is ‘no room for anything except staying above the tide’ and the phrase seems to apply to each of these women; for tales so packed with myth and exoticism, there is little sense of wonder. It’s not that these women aren’t searching for precisely that, and in some stories there are flashes—the thrill of a watching a meteor shower, delight in watching a tropical fish, bought on impulse—it’s just that through grief or, it sometimes seems, an inability to look in the right places, these moments of wonder are few. Instead, in personal relationships we hear ‘the truth’ about ex-husbands’ irritating qualities, but little about what made them loved in the beginning. In exotic locations we frequently find the mundane. In the end, it makes for bleak reading.

The modern world can be this strange and stark, where endless freedom of choice still runs up against a reality in which people die, people leave, wars break out. Van den Berg captures that disconnect: her women are surviving the big tragedies of their lives while second-guessing the steps along the way, trying to work out where they’ve taken the wrong path, with a sense that if they could just stop a moment they could work out how to get back on track.

This is where the strangeness comes from—the gap between a life where an endless ability to choose gives the illusion of control, and a concurrent life in which the big events are uncontrollable. How to find meaning? Van den Berg gets this messy struggle onto the page. The result is a collection of stories where ‘strangeness is everywhere and everything makes you tired in the end’.

Matthia Dempsey is a writer, reviewer and editor of Bookseller+Publisher Online and the book blog Fancy Goods.

20 classics in 2011 #2: The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books in 2011. Read more about this project here.

‘A great many people give me the impression of never having for a moment felt anything’ – Isabel Archer, The Portrait of a Lady.

Why did I want to read it?

Well, first of all, Henry James is one of the ‘great’ novelists and I have never read anything by him. I was also interested in reading it as Kirsten Tranter’s The Legacy is based on Portrait. Kirsten and I have another panel together at Perth Writers Festival in March.

When was it published?

It was first published (as a serial) in 1881, and a revised edition was published in 1908. My edition is from the Vintage Classics range. All Vintage Classics (with their gorgeous covers) are now only $12.95. Overseas readers, check out Amazon and Kindle editions (+ UK).

What’s it about?

Isabel Archer comes from America to England to stay with her aunt, uncle and cousin. From the outset she is painted as someone with a hunger for knowledge and experience, who would be unwilling to sacrifice her independence for marriage or anything else. She has a preference for solitude, is very self-aware and in many ways ‘modern’ and she has a complex nature which admires both those who are outspoken and vivid, and those who are respectful, ‘decent’ and quiet. Two-hundred pages into the novel, there is a large shift in her situation. It seems as though she will be much freer to pursue her ‘ideas’, but other hands come into play, other influences…

Tell us more about the author.

Like many of his characters, Henry James moved from America to England, and spent the last 40 years of his life there. He was a key figure of 19th Century realism, and apparently his novels were some of the first to go into such depths of consciousness and perception (through the musings of the characters). He wrote many respected novels, but also short stories, reviews, biographies, plays and travel books. He was born to a wealthy, intellectual family on 15 April 1843 and lived to 28 February 1916.

So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?

‘Do you know where you’re drifting?’ Henrietta pursued, holding out her bonnet delicately.

‘No, I haven’t the least idea, and I find it very pleasant not to know. A swift carriage, of a dark night, rattling with four horses over roads that one can’t see – that’s my idea of happiness.’

I found this a very absorbing read. James creates a complete world – from the details of afternoon tea in the opening pages, to the way he dips in and out of settings and the thoughts of the characters. In some chapters you wonder – ‘why am I with this character now and how is it relevant?’ But everything ties back in with, and has an effect on, our protagonist, Isabel.

It is so interesting to read this now, in a feminist sense – we cannot help but cheer Isabel on in her hunger, in her desire to be true to herself. And James allows her decisions to appear complex and murky. Her feelings change – she changes – through the course of the novel, and it is so sad. I read it and thought of all the women reading it over the years – young women at the turn of the century, travellers to Europe, women who’ve come into money, married women in all different eras. Sure, everything in society has changed. We no longer have to pretend that we’re okay for the sake of decency, when we’re unhappy. Or do we? We no longer have to choose between travel and self-development, and the ties of marriage. Or do we? The book still has the ability to make you think about your position.

The other characters in Portrait – Isabel’s cousin, Ralph; Lord Warburton; Madame Merle; Osmond – display a range of multilayered (though self-serving) motivations, and Isabel is caught up in their web. Isabel’s opinionated and outspoken writer friend Henrietta Stackpole may be the only character who gets what she desires, in the end.

I could say a lot more – particularly about desire and gender roles – but I don’t want to spoil it for you. I went in knowing nothing and it takes some time for events to unfold (but how rich the set-up is) and it was better not knowing.

What I will say, is how much I enjoyed the descriptions, not just of the characters, who are so well-sustained, but of the house at Gardencourt, of Florence and Rome, of items of clothing. The novel is detailed but not florid, sentences are lengthy yet elegant. A few times reading on hot days I found myself lost and had to go back a few paragraphs, but on the whole it’s extremely readable.

What’s next?

I have a great deal of preparation to do for Perth Writers Festival, but I think the next books will be Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Have you read Henry James? What are your thoughts? Let’s allow spoilers in the comments…

Cult carny lit: Katherine Dunn's Geek Love

05_Flatbed_2 - OCTOBERVintage, 1989
9780375713347 (2002 edn) (Also Aus, US, UK)

Miss Olympia is an emotional, hunchbacked albino dwarf, and the complex narrator of this wonderful novel. In the present, Oly secretly watches over the remaining members of her carnival-of-freaks family: her daughter, Miranda, and her mother, Crystal Lil. Why her observance and care is secretive is revealed through a long, rich, detailed history of the Binewski family, which makes up the bulk of Geek Love.

The Binewskis were a carnival family – and a deliberately constructed band of freaks. Papa Al Binewski and Mama Crystal Lil experimented with drugs and other methods to create malformed children. Their greatest successes were Arturo, the Aqua Boy (sprouting fin-like limbs); Siamese twins Electra and Iphigenia; and a baby boy, Fortunato, nicknamed Chick, whose power was too awesome to even be revealed to the public. Chick looked like a ‘norm’ and so held a complex position in the family – being simultaneously envied and chastised, abused and berated, particularly by Arturo (or Arty).

Much of the drama in the novel comes from the intense emotional connections, undercurrents, and power-plays within the family – particularly in relation to the potently jealous though rapturously charismatic and manipulative Arty. Arty, through the course of the novel, even ends up with his own cult of followers: emotional ‘freaks’ who choose to remove body parts to become externally what they are on the inside. Oly’s life is devoted to Arty, she loves and slaves for him. She is affected by the hurt he inflicts on others but always returns to his altar. Later in life Oly is still susceptible to the pull of a different tortured and destructive being, but is wiser to the origins of the woman’s sympathy.

Oly was luckily blessed with an engaging show-voice and so escaped the fate of another ‘useless’ Binewski experiment – a child who wasn’t quite freakish enough and who expired when a pillow ‘fell on her head’. Several failed survivors – at fetus or infant stage – were also on display in jars on the Fabulon Carnival showgrounds.

It’s tempting to tell you every wonderful little thing about this book but so much of the joy in reading it is the compelling way it’s structured so that you know a conflict, a resolution, a conflict and a big resolution are due – and then it is constantly and joyfully surprising just how the author makes those conflicts and resolutions unfold. There are moments of laughter, horror and knowing. There is emotional engagement (and struggle), there is sexual tension, there are moments where you have sick in your throat. There is also a complete immersion in the smells, colours and sounds: ‘The sky above Molalla was aching blue but I walked from Arty’s tent to our van in the same air I’d sucked all my life. It was a Binewski blend of lube grease, dust, popcorn, and hot sugar. We made that air and we carried it with us. The Fabulon’s light was the same in Arkansas as in Idaho – the patented electric dance of the Binewskis.’

Little Chick is a heart-breaking, memorable and magical character. But it’s not just the family featured in the novel. Dunn holds together a cast far larger: Fabulon workers like the redheads, the pin-cushion kid, the nurse, the legless McGurk, a reporter who begins as an outsider and is then pulled in, and a terrifying man with no face.

Geek Love was a National Book Award finalist in 1989. From what I’ve been told (by my lovely partner who recommended the book to me) it is not so easy to get these days, but it is somewhat a cult classic – and I can absolutely see why. Besides the absolute richness of the world and story, its cohesiveness and compelling nature, the writing itself is inventive, surprising and delicious:

‘I have certainly mourned for myself. I have wallowed in grief for the lonesome, deliberate seep of my love into the air like the smell of uneaten popcorn greening to rubbery staleness. In the end I would always pull up with a sense of glory, that loving is the strong side. It’s feeble to be an object. What’s the point of being loved in return, I’d ask myself. To warm my spine in the dark? To change the face in my mirror every morning? It was none of Arty’s business that I loved him. It was my secret ace, like a bluebird tattooed under pubic hair or a ruby tucked up my ass.’

Geek Love was Dunn’s third book and after that she was working on a fourth novel, called The Cut Man. That novel has still not been released, though a fantastic excerpt appeared in The Paris Review this year, called ‘Rhonda Discovers Art’.  Try not to want to read more! Though it seems a long time between novels, Dunn has been busy with nonfiction books, magazine writing, radio and more. There’s an extensive interview with her, from 2009, here. When my partner was in New York earlier this year he attended a show which was a tribute to Geek Love and included a spoken word rendition of one of his favourite Dunn poems. You can read about that here (scroll down to mention of Geek Chic). Geek Love itself took many years to write and I think it shows – it’s truly something rich and delicious. If you haven’t checked out Geek Love and like freaky, lovely, meaty things – do.