New York, Noo Yawk for Killings


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…

Going to America

Feels strange that I’m flying to the US tomorrow as I sit here glued to live feeds from Hurricane Sandy. I’m due to arrive in Dallas on Wednesday afternoon, then fly straight to Atlanta. But it probably depends how far inland/south the storm comes. I’m a bit worried as I’m due at a conference at the University of West Georgia, in Carrollton, by Thursday evening. I’m also going to in NYC on Saturday, but with the volume of flights they’ve had to cancel, I wouldn’t be surprised if that one gets delayed.

I’ve never been to New York, and I hope when I get there it’s still intact… I’m feeling for all the people on the east coast, particularly those who may be separated from loved ones. Must be pretty damn scary.

The conference I’m going to is called Systems of Control/Modes of Resistance, and I’m giving a paper called: ‘”All can be and will be commodified”: bottom-up resistance and corporate incorporation in Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document‘. Eat the Document is set in two eras—the 1970s and the 1990s—and there is a comparison between the way the characters in each era protest or resist corporate power. I argue that while the actions of the ‘radical’ protesters in the 1970s may have failed, the small, peaceful movements of the 1990s characters often only confirm, or conform to, the systems of power in a market-based society. I think the novel is pretty pessimistic, overall, about our ability to resist a culture that readily incorporates, pre-empts and commodifies resistance, but there is one character who remains hopeful, so she provides a contrast. It’s a great read, by the way, I highly encourage you to pick it up (my 2008 review is not very well written, but gives you more an idea of the story). I’m finally going to read Spiotta’s Stone Arabia, too, on the plane over (see James Bradley’s review of that one here).

And that gives you a bit of an idea of what I’m writing about in my thesis, too, something I’ve rarely talked about on LiteraryMinded. I guess because until now (where I have a complete draft of my novel and a very rough draft of my exegesis) I was very much still in a process of ‘working out’. There is also the case that in the academic world, you have to present original ideas to the examiners, so you can’t go spilling them out willy-nilly. When I’m finished, though, I do hope to write some more accessible-style essays for non-academic publications, on the subjects I’ve been looking at. And I’ll write more about the whole process of doing a DCA, here on the blog, when I’m finished in March.

I’m looking forward to the conference, not just listening to the papers (which all sound fascinating), but the Southern accents! And I look forward to eating some grits and drinking sloe gin. I’m sure I’ll have internet here and there, so I’ll send you a missive. I’m back in Aus on the 13th of November.

Exquisite restraint for maximum expression: an interview with Colm Tóibín (part two)

Colm Toibin (Aus, US)

Part one of this interview can be found here.

Tóibín has, to date, written or edited 21 books. I asked him which had been the most difficult to write, and which had been the most joyful. He said: ‘There’s a long story in the collection Mothers and Sons which I think is the best thing I’ve done, it’s called “A Long Winter”. And there’s a second story in that called “A Song”. “A Song” is probably only about six pages. And “A Long Winter” is probably 80 to 90 pages.’ The last time Tóibín was in Australia was when he wrote ‘A Song’. He would have a commitment, an interview like this one, ‘then I would go back upstairs, I would write another paragraph… it was on my mind so much and it came as though someone had opened a sluice gate and some water got out, and it kept coming out. And it was effortless, it was unbidden… I didn’t need it or want it, and I had an absolute compulsion to do it. And there it is.’ And ‘A Long Winter’ was possibly the hardest for Tóibín, as he ‘had to go back up into that landscape – the high Pyrenees in Spain, and really study it, trying to get all the details right. It was a very hard story. It also required an awful lot of work to make sure that it wasn’t tedious. Because it has all the ingredients of tedium.’

So does each story come in a different way? I asked. ‘Very much’ Tóibín nodded, ‘also in terms of how quickly it gets done or how lazy you get about it, how much you delay and don’t do it. All those sort of things.’ And Tóibín’s work has a lot of range, in terms of the setting. The story ‘The Night’ is set in Argentina. The novel The South is set in Spain. And then there’s The Master. But Tóibín said he thinks that’s now his territory, in those works. ‘There are a few recent stories that are set in New York, but they’re very much about outsiders in New York, Irish people in New York, people who don’t belong. I think that’s it now, I don’t think I’ll get any more places.’

In many interviews Tóibín does get asked about being an Irish writer, or a gay writer. I asked him how much he feels those aspects are integral to his work. ‘Well they’re fundamental, but then the page is not a mirror. So you don’t think about them.’ Tóibín said, in some ways, ie. if you’re a man or a woman, it has an effect on the way the world deals with you, but it isn’t as though it’s what you think of as you wake up in the morning. ‘It mightn’t effect how you deal with the page,’ he said, ‘if you’re writing a sentence.’ In a way it’s the writer’s job, according to Tóibín, ‘to get involved in areas of self-suppression and self-annihilation… whereby the page matters and you are the least burden on the page. But nonetheless, of course those things are important.’ I mention, for example, how Kafka’s context was important to the production of his work, it can’t be left out (writing in German in Prague, Jewishness) but knowing the context isn’t imperative to the reading of his work – it resonates through the internal states of his characters and the situations they navigate.

Of course, the writer has a life outside of literature – and literary influence. Art and music have both played a part in Tóibín’s creative life. He was an art critic for Esquire for three years, with a monthly column. You can find Tóibín speaking on Cezanne’s Route Tournante in the Guardian series ‘writers on artists’, here. Regarding art, ‘that business of looking very closely’, Tóibín said: ‘my eye has changed a lot in the last 20 years, so that I’m now terribly interested in a certain sort of minimalism. I’ve become fascinated by it. And there are a few painters especially – a Scottish painter called Callum Innes. There’s also Russian constructivist drawings, or even paintings, especially Mondrian. I mean, just the business of the line. And what the line can do.’

In terms of music, Tóibín was so pleased, when he got to Melbourne, to find the room had a CD player in it. ‘I’m coming from New York, New York to Auckland, so I had some CDs… I’ve been listening to Bach in the room, on my own CD. The radio is fine, even your iPod is fine, but it’s not the same as just putting on a CD.’ Tóibín listens to a lot of Bach, but no longer to any orchestral. ‘I can’t listen to Beethoven symphonies or Schubert symphonies but I listen to Beethoven chamber music and Schubert as well.’ He also listens to Irish ballads. But when writing – absolute silence is necessary.

Has writing changed for Tóibín at all, say, in the past ten years – with the internet, and the cult of the author? It sounds as though Tóibín steers clear of computers. He writes his books longhand, in an A4 size. And he thinks he was just getting started around the same time as the ‘cult of the author’. His first novel was published in 1990, ‘and I remember Ian McEwan said that when he published his first two books there was nowhere where authors were interviewed. And prose writers didn’t do readings. So you simply published your book and it was up to your publisher to market your book. But then somehow or other publishers got it into their head that a way of marketing a book was by the author.’ I wondered aloud at the authors who are naturally private or introverted, and how this part of the job (which is really quite contradictory to being in a room alone, writing) might affect them. As, I suppose, they have the right to just be their work. Tóibín agreed, to an extent. ‘You should havethe absolute right to become grumpy-boots, silent, difficult, combative.’ But it’s ‘become so normal’ to ‘do what your publisher used to do for you, which is sell your book.’

Tóibín really had the opposite problem, when he began: ‘when I published first, the book was published by such a small publisher in such a small way that everyone else was doing it except me. I watched what it’s like, if you’re on the other side of that, where your book and you are not at festivals, but everyone else is, and you’re certainly realising… no-one’s reading my book’. Tóibín never really recovered from that initial feeling of ‘oh wow, that’s a bandwagon actually I should get on’. If you’re not on it, he said, ‘you’re actually losing an awful lot, in that you’re not being read.’ Overall, Tóibín says, ‘I’m not sure it does any harm’. It’s part and parcel in the professional literary world, now. Tóibín also had the privilege, early on, of witnessing Irish writers who were ‘really superb readers of their own work’. Notably, Patrick McCabe and Anne Enright. ‘Therefore if you were on a platform with them, you were watching things they were doing with their voice and the audience – almost as actors, as performers. … you became much more skilled than you would have by being in that very good company’.

I felt very privileged to be in ColmTóibín’s informative and very pleasant company for an afternoon. Brooklyn is published in Australia by Picador.

Guest review: Matthia Dempsey on Patti Smith’s Just Kids

Bloomsbury/Allen & Unwin
February 2010
9780747548409 (Aus, US/Kindle)
Reviewed by Matthia Dempsey

Emerging from their teens, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe first encounter each other in 1960s New York, a recognition as much as a meeting. Smith has fled the aftermath of an unplanned pregnancy and adoption, and the factory future that faces her in New Jersey. Mapplethorpe has broken from a Catholic upbringing – the restraints of it, and of his family, never quite loosed.

In the New York of 1967 they fall together easily, inhabiting a love and friendship that recognises and provokes the creative expression of each (Mapplethorpe wants her to sing, Smith urges him to take his own photographs; ‘one cannot imagine the mutual happiness we felt when we sat and drew together’). A banister up a staircase, a rope through dark water, a guiding blue star: their friendship sees them through odd jobs, early sketches, illness, hunger, fame, and the sad fates that wait for many around them.

Though this is a memoir that takes us through the iconic days of the late sixties and the corridors of the Chelsea Hotel – telling of encounters with Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix , the Andy Warhol set, William Burroughs and Bob Dylan, among others – it is alive in ways that belie the cliché of that setting. Smith’s magic is to perform a kind of time travel for us, scraping away any nostalgic varnish. Hendrix stops to talk in a stairwell and becomes just a shy musician, Joplin is passed over for ‘one of the prettier hangers-on’ and we are heartbroken with her. We are grateful for the immediacy of these encounters, but even more for how close they come to being incidental – instead of starring, these other famous figures shift and fit around the true story (so that, watching Jim Morrison, we stay with Patti as she guiltily thinks ‘I could do that’).

A poet and musician, Smith knows something about telling moments and well-wrought phrases. Thinking of this book a few weeks after finishing it, I picture some thing of pure clarity – the element left when impurities have been burned away, or the lucid thankfulness that comes after a fever has passed. Smith selects her remembered moments carefully, trusting that we will trace the patterns.

This memoir will send you to your record collection, to the bookstore, to the cinema, the gallery, the internet: Rimbaud, Blake and Joan of Arc are early heroes, Picasso transformative; Smith goes to see the Velvet Underground and we want to hear Lou Reed, she writes a Rolling Stone piece about Lotte Lenya and you want to find out more and listen to Dylan’s ‘Bringing it All Back Home’ again; who is this Vali Myers? I must watch Midnight Cowboy… the notes pile up, the dog-eared pages outnumber the unblemished.

If the vitality of the book stems from Smith’s faithfulness to the central relationship with Mapplethorpe – a story arc for the meetings and memories – it also flows from the central assumption, so breathtakingly, beautifully pervasive, that life is lived for artistic expression.

‘Did art get us?’ wonders Mapplethorpe, as he nears death. ‘Perhaps it did, but no one could regret that,’ writes Smith.

At sixty-three, she is still producing music and words. The creative impulse that urged her and Mapplethorpe to forgo meals to buy art supplies is the live wire running through their story. It threads through incidents both beautiful and ugly, like the strings the pair would decorate with beads and broken fishing lures to wear and sell. It is the simple heart of their sometimes complicated relationship and it runs through Smith’s life still.

As a result, her stories have not tipped from the real to the rehashed, made empty with wearied retelling. We are there with these kids as they take photos, draw pictures, write poems. This is a portrait of youth and somehow of the way creation can keep us young – playful and awed. Writes Mapplethorpe: ‘I stand naked when I draw. God holds my hand and we sing together.’

Just Kids is a beautiful song in the pages of a beautiful book, a tale pared back to the thread that ties two souls together and a talisman for anyone drawn to create, or drawn to those who are.

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

Collected Stories – Richard Yates

9780099518549 (Aus, US)

When a man is fired from his job in the story ‘A Glutton for Punishment’, he realises he has enjoyed the failures in his life. The character in this – like many of the other characters in Richard Yates’ Collected Stories – runs over a conversation in his head, with his wife, before the actual conversation takes place. Reading this book is having a conversation with failure – your own projected shortcomings (gone over in your head), the misfires of your past, and the failures of everybody around you (including those who fail to perceive said failures).

Yates is often called a ‘depressing’ writer, but most of these stories are as equally humorous as they are sad. ‘The Best of Everything’ is about a couple on the day before they wed. Revealed to the reader are their niggling doubts – all the things we know will become stalwart issues in their marriage, itches turning to reddened sores – such as the way the man says ‘terlet’ for toilet; the way he needs his mates; and the way he doesn’t notice her new negligee. It’s humorous because anyone who has been in any kind of romantic relationship will recognise the compromises, and will smile at their depiction. It’s sad for much the same reason – because these unfortunate perceptions ring true.

Another joy of these stories is Yates’ charming, unencumbered (very American) prose. Unlike something like The Catcher in the Rye, the language doesn’t feel dated, here, but drags you back a few decades while simultaneously making you realise how much is the same (in intimate human relationships). Even Yates’ later stories (none are actually dated here, which is a tad annoying) have this element of ‘politeness’ – a façade of ‘getting along’ when there is oh so much bubbling beneath the surface. Many of the characters do seem resolved to their fates, despite moments of piercing aloneness, such as the characters in the tuberculosis ward in ‘No Pain Whatsoever’; or Ken, in ‘A Really Good Jazz Piano’ – who accepts the fact he is perpetually over-eager and physically awkward.

There are a couple of stories set in the TB ward. Yates himself spent time in one after the war. Other settings include domestic spaces, offices and in military training facilities and war zones (though combat is not explored). The stories are set mainly in the state of New York – the city and its affluent suburbs; London; and LA. The LA story ‘Saying Goodbye to Sally’ is another one of my favourites, and all because of this:

‘By the time Jack had taken to drinking heavily and not writing much – not even doing much of the anonymous, badly paid hackwork that had provided his income for years, though he still managed to do enough of that to meet alimony payments – and he had begun to see himself, not without a certain literary satisfaction, as a tragic figure.

‘His two small daughters frequently came in from the country to spend weekends with him, always wearing fresh, bright clothes that were quick to wilt and get dirty in the damp and grime of his terrible home, and one day the younger girl announced in tears that she wouldn’t take showers there anymore because of the cockroaches in the shower stall. At last, after he’d swatted and flushed away every cockroach in sight, and after a lot of coaxing, she said she guessed it would be okay if she kept her eyes shut – and the thought of her standing blind in there behind the mildewed plastic curtain, hurrying, trying not to shift her feet near the treacherously swarming drain as she soaped and rinsed herself, made him weak with remorse.’

Some of the stories are from the point of view of children, such as ‘Doctor Jack-O-Lantern’, where a disadvantaged, lonely new kid, Vinny, both seeks and pushes away the care his teacher bestows on him. Her caring is so alien and difficult for him it causes him to act out. It’s incredibly moving (as most of them are) and so skillfully rendered – you’re right there in the microcosm of this classroom with its smells, strange intimacies and dangers.

In fact, one of Yates’ biggest strengths is the way he gets you in so close to the characters – so close you can hear their thoughts and plans and see their hearts ticking – yet simultaneously at a distance so that you may see how they are perceived in the greater scheme of things. Yates suggests both compassion and pity through this kind of writing – and not just for the characters on the page, but for the person sitting next to you, and even for your own stupid, small (and often joyous) existence.

I love this book. I have talked about it to everyone as I’ve been reading it. I found all my friends in it. I found myself, uncomfortably, romantically, sadly, truthfully, in it.

Sally says to Jack in ‘Saying Goodbye to Sally’: ‘Why don’t you just come over here so we can sort of fall all over each other.’

It’s a book to sort of fall all over… again and again.

You might like to revisit the ‘Read and Seen’ review of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, by myself and Mr Celluloid Tongue.

Guest review: Sam Cooney on Mark Mordue's Dastgah


dastgah_austDastgah, Mark Mordue
Allen & Unwin (2001, Australia).
Also published overseas.
Review by Sam Cooney.

Dastgah is an account of Australian writer, journalist and editor Mark Mordue’s first trip overseas: a one-year journey through the regions of India, Nepal, the United Kingdom, Turkey and Iran, and the cities of Paris and New York. The blurb calls it ‘a refined diary’ and ‘an existential journal for the modern traveller’; both are accurate. Effort has gone into lifting the standard of the writing from the scribblings of a travel journal into a coherent narrative, but the fragmentary style and nature of a diary lingers. This ultimately proves to be both Dastgah‘s greatest feature, and a contributor to its partial downfall.

As narrator, Mordue is repeatedly stretched to the limits of his emotions, whether it be joy, despair or sheer wonder, and we are dragged along for every bit of the ride. There are action sequences, moments of humour and plenty of tears. Add to this the various passages of considered introspection, flashing anger, dream-writing, chapters simply consisting of titbits of overheard conversation, and punches of poetry. Dastgah is thus multifaceted: a shattered mirror through which we see slivers of Mordue’s nature (and our own), but slivers only. And it’s just not enough to satisfy.

Dastgah was published in 2001 by Allen & Unwin, and is Mordue’s first published book. It spent four weeks in the Sydney Morning Herald Non-Fiction Bestseller list and was shortlisted for the City of Brisbane/Qantas Asia-Pacific Travel Writing Prize in 2002.

dastgah_usParts of Dastgah are simply outstanding, especially when Mordue’s voice quietens and the story takes over. Such sections (following the creative writing mantra: ‘show, don’t tell’) are magnetic: the chapter about Nepal is colourful and affecting; the New York experience is exciting; and the caring welcome of the people of Iran and Turkey is enviable – not many in the Western world would open their homes, wallets and hearts as these people do.

However, the travel journal feel of Dastgah prevents the reader from truly connecting with the book. Those remarkably written sections are interspersed with bits that just don’t quite succeed: the poem ‘Never Enough’ sounds like bad rock ‘n’ roll lyrics; the four or five pages about the recent history of Turkey reads like a textbook; and the omnipresent, never-fully-realised nature of Mordue’s girlfriend is distracting. There is also a scene in Turkey where Mordue treads very close to Western snobbery, when he feels ‘pity [for] both the women and men here: what they are; what they can never be’. Granted, this could simply be a harmless musing, as Mordue embodies the exact opposite ideals. Only a few pages on, he clarifies his mental state: ‘But maybe all I curse is being a tourist’. This is one of many questions Dastgah asks: does having the means to travel to other cultures also give you the right?

Mordue did intentionally fashion Dastgah in a fragmentary style to share with the reader the electrifying bedlam and emotion that accompanies international backpacking. The title refers to a term in Persian classical music: ‘dastgah’ is complex, labyrinthine, fluid. But overall, too much happens too quickly. The subtitle of this genre-straddling debut is diary of a headtrip, and is an apt description for the jarring experience, for author and reader alike. Perhaps we can look forward to his next work, a novel being completed as a M.A. in Writing, where Mordue’s exceptional talent for introspection and description might be more coherently realised.samcooney

Sam Cooney is a writer, dedicated to fiction. Born and bred in Melbourne, he has also published literature and arts reviews, as well as a range of articles. Sam is proud to be a small part of the Australian reading and writing community.