The Meanjin Tournament of Books

I’m the round one judge in Meanjin‘s Tournament of Books (short stories) this year, which is so exciting. I’ve always wanted to be asked. My judge’s notes have just gone up, on Katherine Susannah Prichard’s ‘Happiness’ vs Tom Cho’s ‘Today on Dr Phil’. Check it out here, and continue to follow along with the ToB, it’s lots of fun and hopefully you’ll discover some authors and stories along the way.

Guest review: Sam Cooney on Clinton Caward’s Love Machine

Love Machine
Clinton Caward
Hamish Hamilton (Penguin)
February 2010, Australia

Reviewed by Sam Cooney.

I first encountered Clinton Caward’s writing last year in the lit journal Cutwater; his two short stories punched me in the gut with their corrosive and compelling strength, and the accompanying author interview struck some chords. (Indeed, I said so in a review.) And I found him again in Meanjin, in a differently styled but equally striking story. So I jumped at the opportunity to read and review his début novel, Love Machine.

Love Machine is a character-driven tale of life in Sydney’s suburb of vice, Kings Cross. It is narrated by Spencer, an underground sex shop employee, who is a strangely captivating protagonist. He seems to exist in some sort of transitory limbo from which he watches and evaluates his surroundings and the goings-on of his own small circles of existence. Like a classical impassive observer he endeavours to maintain his distance from the reader as well as from most of the characters; we are never told directly of his age, his motives (or lack of) behind the life he leads, or much about his background. Yet although he remains quite remote from most of the personalities strewn throughout the novel, he gradually reveals himself to readers by his thoughts and actions, until we feel a genuine affinity with him.

From flushed-pink cover to cover the book is crowded with characters – colourful and confidently rendered persons who flit in and out of the narrative. Take the half-dozen employees of the sex shop; they are a lesson in diversity. There’s Sam, a young and jumpy Nigerian student; gay male Sandra, a Bangladeshi gym-addict; Mr Ling, Chinese wanking booth cleaner and gambling addict; and the boss, angrily righteous Rocco. More gaudy characters pop up everywhere: at the strip-club haunts, in the suburbs, and even in a quick visit to Melbourne.

The sex sex sex that buttresses the book is equally vivid. Anyone who has visited a shop such as that where Spencer works will recognise it immediately. Caward writes skilfully, blending the grotesque and baroque nature of these supermarkets of sex, recreating on page that knife-edgedness, that off-kilter day-glo atmosphere that is common to these porn palaces the world over. And we hear plenty about the toys and blow-up dolls and disturbingly unusual DVDs, although it is the ‘wanking booths’ that are most fascinating, with their ‘protein stink of stale semen’. The spectrum of individuals that frequent these curtained-off cavities, the men who ‘brought in their bodies and tried to empty themselves of isolation in the booths’ – these ephemeral figures flick past the corner of the eye, intent on something that we can never quite see ourselves. Intriguing.

Sex scenes are similarly written, without panache or grandeur. Often they are simply physical: ‘Using the hand soap, she milked me like a barnyard animal in front of the mirror, looking very satisfied when I ejaculated onto the tiles.’ But there is feeling, and even tenderness; Spencer is far from indifferent, but he is calculating. Caward has fashioned a very remarkable character.

Love Machine’s blurb describes it as ‘a love story set in a sex shop’ and this is correct, but not in the way the publishers intend. They are referring to the attachment between Spencer and Livia, a sex worker who visits the shop one day, and with whom Spencer assembles a relationship of sorts. But Spencer and Livia’s intertwining pales in comparison to the love story between Spencer and Kings Cross. He harbours an affection that is slowly infecting, for Kings Cross is a partner that brings out both his best and his worst. But how could you not be attracted, even if it is like a moth to flame:

‘… nights were always soaked in gasoline and set on fire. The streets revved up with the overblown sound of motorcycles. Fleets of bursting buses ferried in the bucks’-night marauders in plastic Viking helmets to throw beer cans and abuse at whoever was on the footpath…The machine also pumped heat, through the sewers and passageways under the road, attracting the cold and the lonely.’

Love Machine is tawdry, but only realistically so. It gives voice to that ‘underground’ population – prostitutes, perverts, drug dealers and addicts. The only thing that isn’t flashy is the prose; plain descriptive passages allow speedy reading without offering titanic revelations. Caward has grabbed the oft-remote sordidness and fleshed it out, and it is seductive in its six-inch stilettos and smoky cavern eyes.

The novel is different from his smaller stories, and ultimately I found it not quite as satisfying, though I am sucker for the short form. Love Machine’s setting and characters do make it a worthy read. You’ll discover a newer, glitzier, meaner Kings Cross, and the little sex shop circus and its troupe of faces and bodies will stick in your mind like cheap lube.

Sam Cooney is a writer living in Melbourne. Having recently completed an undergraduate degree, he spends his days reading, writing and editing. You can find him in various hidey-holes about the internet.

Big fat round-up post + May haiku comp winners

sisyphus_by_von_stuckHey gang. Are you cool?

Be cool.

Only got about a quarter of the response to this month’s haiku comp – doh! The them was ‘the richness of the internet’. Thinking I might have to do it only every two months, or perhaps the topic was hard? Nonetheless, there were a few good’uns. The winner is Chris Grist, via Twitter (he’s @chris_974), with

Shrimp on a treadmill
Running to Benny Hill Theme
I heart Internet

Chris wins two books of his choice from the list I will promptly email him. Runner-up, who chose to write a little ode to the addictive richness of the internet, was commenter carolynian, with

firewalled on work terminal
i make love to facebook
via mobile phone

She wins one book of her choice from the list. I’ll be in touch guys, congrats!

The piccie is Sisyphus, a von Stuck interpretation. The internet has borrowable art, yay.

* I haven’t had a chance yet to link to all the Sydney Writers Fest stuff my attention has been drawn to, so here goes:
Tara Moss’ ‘Postmortem on a Festival’ (her festival blog was witty and informative, great work)
Christine Bongers’ ‘Postcard from Sydney Writers Festival’
Richard Flanagan’s fantastic closing address
Jabberwocky‘s ‘Letter from Sydney (Writers Festival)’ (which acts as a great round-up on its own)
Croakey‘s ‘Some Moments, irritating and sublime, from the Sydney Writers Festival’
The SWF website now has a bunch of videos, audio and other highlights up

* And here are some other folks’ round-ups, reviews and experiences of the Emerging Writers’ Festival:
3000 Books was all over the EWF and gives us her thoughts
Liz Argall brings us ‘5am Melbourne – After the Emerging Writers’ Festival’
Lisette Ogg gives Speakeasy her view of the festival
Paul Callaghan also has all-nice things to say
Graham Clements also attended, and gives us some very detailed commentary

* For constant round-uppy stuff, check out the Australian Literature twine.

* Have been slowly finding out who will be attending Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali in October, where I’ll be moderating a panel. The latest news is Wole Soyinka. Check out his impressive wiki entry. This festival attracts some seriously prestigious talent, yet within a very intimate, humbling atmosphere. I can’t wait to see what I’ll learn this year.

* OMG. You know I’m a big fan of Philipp Meyer (and also my Dad, Phillip Meyer), but anyhoo, I was bummed to miss his event at Readings due to EWF duties. But YAY, there’s a podcast. Enjoy. Then buy American Rust from them.

* So, the ASA got 268 applications for their mentorship program this year. I was not one of the 20 recipients, but good on them!

* Publisher Black Inc. has a really great blog, the Inc. Blot. Good mix of the professional, industry insights etc., book info and personalised posts.

* Zoetrope’s virtual studio was mentioned by Steven Amsterdam at EWF as being a great online creative writing workshopping-space; and Rijn Collins mentioned RedBubble.

* First Melbourne Writers Festival authors announced.

* New issue of The Short Review is up, featuring reviews of Nam Le’s The Boat, Josephine Rowe’s East of Here, Close to Water and Ali Smith’s The First Person and Other Stories (I want). There’s also a great interview with Josephine.

* ‘On June 3, 1964, T S Eliot sent a car to London’s Savoy Hotel to bring Mr and Mrs Groucho Marx to dinner.’ From Eric Hanson’s A Book of Ages. I believe the Aus/NZ rights to this book are available…

* This new biography of Arthur Miller sounds rather interesting. I’m a fan of his work, and some of you know I’m a huge Marilyn Monroe fan. Their marriage fascinates me. The Misfits has got to be one of the saddest movies around, and I love it. Miller wrote the role for Marilyn, and she gets to generally be raw and vulnerable in it, almost uncomfortably so. But their complex marriage deteriorated on set, which makes it even sadder. I always loved reading about Marilyn’s friendship with Monty Clift during the filming – ‘misfits’ in their own right, staying up late drinking whisky together. Has anyone read, or seen the play After the Fall? I wonder how I’d feel about it.

* Have I mentioned Meanjin‘s blog, Spike yet? I’m seriously enjoying it. A real range of topics by super-intelligent, funny and broad-minded contributors. Their new issue is out now too.

* A directory of book trade people on Twitter, mainly US/UK.

* This week I went to one of the Independent Type Thursday night events, at the State Library of Vic, and let me tell you – $5! An absolute bargain. It was called Word Juggling: Poetry & Performance. I was expecting the usual line-up of (wonderful) performance poets, and suddenly I was bopping away to hip-hop from Tjimba and the Yung Warriors (so rad, check them out), and hearing a D&M with Josephine Rowe and Myron Lysenko – poets of completely different generations discussing the changes in the Melbourne scene. It was MCd by Steve Grimwade. SRSLY, get along to one of these bargain evenings. You can buy wine too, and the library actually serves really decent stuff.

Peace, EWF & 'Helloooo, my name is Number One…'

dove-of-peaceFirst of all, happy ANZAC Day. It’s great to take some time to think about the young soldiers who have been sacrificed for our country, and the sadness of war – conflict, power, greed. I know that books and films have been beneficial to my knowledge and understanding of war, and of nationalism, patriotism (the genuine, the forced and the mythical) etc. These favourites are all films, but stories nonetheless: Gallipoli, Schindler’s List (I’m yet to read Keneally’s Schindler’s Ark), Good Morning Vietnam, Full Metal Jacket, and more. What texts have shaped your perception of war?

* The Emerging Writers’ Festival programme has been launched! Check it out here. If you’re in Melbourne or feel like travelling to Melbourne in May, do come along. As I was on the Programme Advisory Committee I was very happy to see that they used quite a few of the authors I suggested, and the programme is really strong overall – something for everyone.

Where will you see me?

15 Minutes of Fame:
On the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (May 25-28) from 5:30pm at the City Library in Flinders Lane, yours truly will be interviewing hot new writers (from novelists, to playwrights, poets, picture book writers etc.) about their publications, and how they got there, for 15 minutes at a time. I must also mention the exciting fact that there is wine tasting, and it is FREE. I will also try to wear a different outfit every day, though the tights might be a staple as I’ll be rushing from work on my bike each evening. Writers, wine, readings, mingling, what more could you ask for?

The Revolution Will be Downloaded:
Yeah baby. Come and hear me talk about the love of my life – this blog! On Saturday May 30 at 3pm I’ll be blabbering alongside Rachel Hills (uber-cool writer/blogger), and James Stuart (poet/new media dude). The panel will be hosted by Karen Andrews.

And in the spirit of the festival I’ll continue to feature the ‘Literary Space’ of participating writers up until it’s on. If you’re also appearing at the festival, feel free to spruik in the comments below!

number_one* You may remember recently that I talked about being on a list of Australian blogs on writing? Well after quite a few comments and prompts, Jonathan Crossfield of Copywrite actually rejigged the list. And I was surprised and honoured to come out at number one! Now, there are two things to note – these are blogs which are at least in part ‘about writing’, not ‘literary blogs’ in general, so omitted are blogs like Matilda, which is legendary. Also, it is based on statistics, not Crossfield’s opinion – you’ll see he has used things like the blog’s Technorati rating etc. These kind of stats show that a lot of folks link to me, and I get a goodly amount of visitors. So all in all, I’m just stoked. It makes me even more pumped to talk about cultural blogging on the aforementioned panel at EWF. Cheers for reading and linking! (Pictured: the original ‘Number One’).

* The May/June Bookseller+Publisher is on its way to subscribers. Just came in the office this week. I’ll tell you a bit more about it next weekend (forgot to bring a copy home – doh!).

* Overland and Meanjin are offering a subscription deal, explained in this inspired and lol-worthy video. Spend your KRudd money on some culture.

* The Short Review April is now up.

* Some of my favourite writers are recommending books for us over at Poets & Writers. Check out Joe Meno, Sarah Manguso, and the rest. By the way – like Sarah Manguso? Watch this space…

* And here’s a really interesting article from Publisher’s Weekly (thanks Tim), directed at publishers. What can they do better? The author makes some good (but not necessarily easily-applicable) points.

* Haiku comp winners will be announced tomorrow. You’ve got until midnight to enter!