Fear, wanting and the politics of neoliberal anxiety
We can’t live plain lives because we are afraid.
We mostly can’t live plainer lives because of all the fear.
We mostly can’t relate to our lives plainly because fear hobbles this ability or repertoire.
When I’m afraid, I replace curiosity with either/or thinking.
When I’m afraid (and don’t know I am afraid) my repertoire is puny.
I could be curious about being afraid but this would involve noticing that fact, then a gear change.
It would mean abstaining (just long enough) from what or how I usually do.
(Fear is very busy. One can end up paralysed with busyness.)
Abstaining might involve making something—that is, swapping expectation for praxis.
How is it that abstaining and making aren’t opposites?
How could a plain life be not-the-opposite of a rich life?
These days, it’s easy to get the impression that people are really very anxious. Who? you ask. Well, people you hear about. People who tell you they are. Friends. Lovers. Acquaintances. Colleagues. The Youth. The term is around and people are applying it to themselves, or having it applied to them, willy-nilly. People are talking about anxiety plenty, getting diagnosed by certified professionals as “anxious.” It’s concerning; it’s distressing. Debilitating, often. It can dismantle a life, they say. It can erode your well-being and capacity for connection. You can become a real pain in the arse. Stuff like that.
Clearly, the term is an umbrella term. There must be lots of species of anxiety. It means different things all the time. We could get far more precise about what we mean by the term, host a little tournament of semantics, but who’s got time for that. Anxiety, in any case, goes to the heart of one’s experience of time. And the term, we can affirm, gets thrown around as a new staple in the parlance of our times.
This essay didn’t set out to be about anxiety. I wanted to contemplate something else, something I’m venturing to call a Plain Life. What I discovered, however, as I began to write, was that it was hard to avoid addressing this other thing. And it seems the two might be connected. Not in opposition—as one might assume—but more in a subtractive way: that’s to say, they have that particular relation of no relation. A Plain Life might be that of which we can become capable (of recognising) when the conditions for anxiety are not operating so fiercely, or when we manage—even for a tiny interval—to abstain from colluding with these conditions.
And so, in order to explore with you this idea of plainness, I find myself having to wrestle with the beastlier notion of anxiety—a thankless undertaking, and a potentially hurtful one. In writing some of things here below, I risk (ever so slightly, not so slightly) making you, the reader—an anxious person? diagnosed, closeted, unsure?—feel blamed and judged. This might happen, and it would be neither my wish nor intention.
On the other hand, my intention is to ask slightly more probing questions about something that appears to be eating our collective faces off, or to be eating collectivity per se. I want to ask not so much about discrete instances of anxiety and whether the term is merited or not, but rather what the conditions might be in which a certain ilk of anxiety becomes more likely; in which it can gather momentum and flourish.
It seems to be flourishing right now.
I could be, however, that I’m listening too earnestly to these declarations and self-diagnoses. Perhaps labelling oneself as “suffering from anxiety” might be more a kind of style—like heroin chic—rather than something to worry about. It might just be one way a person likes to approach being a person. Going at life. Front on. With some edge. Nothing soggy. The anxious do not truck with soggy. That’s the impression I’ve gleaned over time.
Sans sog? Maybe there’s a clue right there. Not so much middle ground.
I suspect it’s both—an epidemic for many and a contemporary stance for some. And probably both at once.
In this essay, I may make some obnoxious arguments. Perhaps you’ll find them obnoxious, perhaps I flatter myself prematurely. I’m going to talk two broad notions in two parts, and link them up. The first involves expectations about life (getting, having, feeling) that we can tend to absorb unfiltered from our milieus. The latter are also now almost inevitably global and neoliberal, and this will become important. Alongside that I’m going to explore a subtheme, namely: desire. Splendid, super-duper, never-the-problem, desire.
The second aspect I’ll explore is fear (see propositions above), and in particular what unfelt fear does to one’s thinking. In my own experience it tends to narrow my imaginative range, and then exaggerate the content of that range in unsettling ways. I think it’s this—hyperbolic, polarised thinking—that constitutes a crucial element in the set of conditions in which anxiety can take root so operatically. Unfelt fear, then, really hinders the possibility of a Plain Life.
In this way, anxiety, and the conditions under which it flourishes, concerns us all, is therefore political. It is something we might consider collectively. Together. Although we may suffer the squalls of so-called mental health alone and in our own particular ways, as Deleuze and Guattari taught us, it is neither personal nor individual. We get sick in ways also specific to contexts and moments. If can be constructive to think about this as shared—to link it up with our times and its mores, with our capacities and limitations.
Your suffering might be particular, but it is also generalised, and I reckon it’s worth having a good shot at working out why that might be and if there is anything—anything at all—that we can do about it. Thinking about it together might be the first step to undermining one pillar that it relies on in order to operate.
Antonia Pont lives in Melbourne and works at Deakin University as Senior Lecturer in Writing and Literature. A long-term practioner, she also runs a yoga school in Melbourne's CBD, where she and others collectively research non-violence, intentionality and the mechanism of change.
Ban en Banlieue—Bhanu Kapil (Nightboat Books, 2015)
Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life—Yiyun Li (Hamish Hamilton, 2017)
“Often I think that writing is a futile effort; so is reading; so is living.”
Stones underfoot; they’re slope-faced, many thousands of them, ancient as the moon. They crunch as she hobbles over them from the water’s edge towards the castle. She should have worn her runners. Up ahead, Kronborg—Elsinore, for today—is as vast and regal as any castle. The scene is so familiar, though how should it be? It’s her first time in Denmark.
The performance begins under the great white banner of the sky outside; scene by scene the actors work their way through the halls and chambers of the castle. At each point in the play, she joins the line of spectators, gathered at the rim of a red rope circling the actors. Every year a new season of the same play. Must be a great gig for an actor, she thinks. One season, a Danish friend told her, Jude Law played the role of Hamlet. It was like the biggest thing to happen in Denmark. No Jude Law this time. Only actors with dark eye make-up smeared, who look, as all the Danes seem to, vaguely familiar to her. White people of a certain variety; the planes of their faces echo hers and her brothers’, invasions a millennia old alive in the angles of their noses, the curls of their chins and licks of ears.
‘Viking’, she learns on Wikipedia, isn’t an ethnic group. It’s just another word for marauding. Echoes of memories arbitrarily, violently implanted. Errant genes. Though ‘Viking Queen’ does have a ring more charming than ‘Pillaging Monarch’.
What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god—the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals! (Hamlet ii.ii)
Oh, Hamlet. Hamlet and the pillaging monarchs. The forms upon which the human, humanity, is based—“quintessence of dust” (ii.ii).
She exits the castle early. Gets on a train back to the flat grey city. Enough Shakespeare for one day. Though she is in Copenhagen for a summer school on world literature—and Hamlet is the work of world literature, the work with multiple sources and endless articulations, adaptations—she hates the play: the wronged prince, the dead crazy girl, in this instance the pompous black-cloaked production values. And these days, all castles look like Trump Tower to her.
I write compulsively. No. That ‘I’ I just used, that is a former I. My current I doesn’t write. She doesn’t even take coherent notes anymore. She doesn’t believe in writer’s block, so it can’t be that. Writing is only training. (“Everything,” writes James Alan McPherson, “is training.”) It’s not about the sentences, sentences are still possible. See? It’s the self that’s supposed to be there to urge them into existence that has taken flight.
When in the past I wrote, there was a point from which ‘I’ could pivot. A time and a place and a self, located at the centre of those dimensions. Fiction, nonfiction, work emails—it doesn’t matter. An axis, something like: a voice composed on a screen, which could always be tracked back to a body, my body. I usually write ‘from life’, whatever that means, so the connection between these two things is, for the imagination of a reader, easily comprehensible. Same parents same schooling same crooked teeth. Same bullshit. Where are you? When did the dimensions of your space and time stop moving you?
We can trace it to three events:
1. Bhanu Kapil’s antimemoir workshop. And her books The Vertical Interrogation of Strangers, read before the workshop, and Ban en Banlieue, read afterwards.
2. Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life. Then James Alan McPherson’s Crabcakes. In one destabilising breath.
3. Uprooting my life again. Suitcase living; what’s-your-wifi-login? living; using-a-sheet-as-a-towel living. The purpose of the uproot was to learn everything and to be in love with someone good—two most precarious states. The ‘learning’—being directed, bearing witness, reading hard, and undoing myself to find new threads—put the concreteness, the muscularity of my ‘self’ under direct attack. And the ‘loving’, that took care of the rest.
Can’t write memoir now. How bout antimemoir?
“Point of view offers two possibilities: partial and complete. What remains silent is the third and anonymous possibility—blindness, the end of writing.” (On Longing, Susan Stewart)
The upturn of losing the plot: the proliferation of a million futures opening up and collapsing like a row of spring blossoms. Longing made as soon as it is lost.
Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life is an extraordinary collection of literary-autobiographical essays. Li wrote these meditations on time, language, and living through her ‘context’ (which is, for her, within books), between and after two bouts of suicidal depression. Li distrusts the lyric ‘I’ more than any writer I have encountered, and not for dull reasons like the presumed universality of the author. She writes:
A word I hate to use in English is I. It is a melodramatic word. In Chinese, a language less grammatically strict, one can construct a sentence with an implied subject pronoun and skip the embarrassing I, or else replace it with we. Living is not an original business.
The collection abounds with astringencies like this, particularly where the author requires herself to think about and through the autobiographical mode:
Why write autobiographically? There must be a belief in some kind of freedom.
The moment that I enters my narrative my confidence crumbles.
To capture a moment—of life, of history—is less a reason to write than to return to confront the melodrama, to understand how illusions beget illusions, memories eulogize memories.
To be exposed means that a stranger could learn something about me through reading my words and against my wish.
All people lie, in their writing as much as in their lives.
Ellena Savage is a writer and reader. Her essays, poems, lectures and stories have been published and performed widely. Most reccently: Chart Collective, The Lifted Brow, Literary Hub, Cordite and Scum.
When it comes to talking about climate change, I’ve been having a strange experience where I’m struggling to understand the relationship between words and reality. Something has snapped, and although I reach around for language to help me understand things about existing in this moment in time, there’s only a feeling of sludgy unboundedness.
The cup is full
And here are the ingredients:
At the bottom a bit of despair
that after-taste of bitterness
by the true connoisseurs
One third blood
cheaper than tap water
One third tears
having been wept
by the gentlest eyes
Two fingers of vintage
at a constant ferocity
A peel of hot pepper
lighting up the mouth
and a cloud
of black anger
All of it
& to drink
in the face of disaster
LIKE AN OX
Like an ox
refusing to wear blinders
I pull the plough of hope
The earth to be ploughed
has become truly hard
The shears don’t resist
I need two or three
to cut a single furrow
Like an ox
I pull the plough of hope
with all my energy
I no longer ask myself the questions
since when and why
because I cannot
cannot leave dormant
the field fate gave me
a long time ago
to plant my armful of dreams
Like an ox
I pull the plough of hope
I have whitened under the harness
My shoulders, my back, my knees are in pain
in even more pain is
But I cannot stop
have no right to holidays
even less to retirement
we have to pull without raising the head
or losing ourselves in reflections
until we fall
not to get up again
Like an ox
I pull the plough of hope
It hasn’t escaped me
that the age we live in is dark
that the planet’s equilibrium
is about to break down
and that madmen
than those the history books speak of
are here and there
taking the reins of power
wearing the armbands of life-guards
move among us
Like an ox
I pull the plough of hope
and I still refuse
to wear blinders
I do see that the fertile seed
I hope to see sewn after my labor
is becoming rare
when it hasn’t been tampered with
and monopolized by the merchants
of false hopes
like any ox that respects itself
I am single-minded
and I continue to dig
I feel a presence
at my side
and on my spine
the caress of a helping hand
I hear an inhabited bountiful voice
murmur to me: Courage, brother
one more little effort
We have to finish the task!
And no matter how much of an ox I am
it moves me to tears
And so I pull
and will continue to pull
the big night
invades my consciousness.
The more frequently you listen to it, the more deeply a mixtape will ingrain the logic of its sequencing, until it comes to seem that the order of songs could not have transpired in any other way. I think of this as cassette time: a chain of events that each tape creates, internal and unique to itself.
This tape, the one that these notes accompany, had to begin with Fia Fell’s laser beam synthesisers and progress through Lady Lash’s sanguine flow to Milk Teddy’s genteel pop and thence to Waterfall Person’s welter, past truth-n-dare’s fluorescent declarations and the wooziness of School Damage to the glistening Kimchi Princi and The Hacketts, boogieing. If it didn’t happen this way then it would be another tape, not better or worse but different. A mixtape, like an essay, starts and ends somewhere that could have been another somewhere but you have to make a decision and once you do, every other latent possibility falls away. It’s maddening, really. Tape making is one of the most masochistic pastimes. Like writing. And just as addictive.
I like to believe that I’m not nostalgic for cassette tape—it is, after all, the worst-sounding and least reliable of analogue formats—but the rubbery, slip-on cover of my smartphone is a facsimile of a cassette. And the facsimile has fooled people: people old enough, like me, to recall the heyday of cassette but not young enough, as I am, to know a tape’s dimensions like a kind of muscle memory. I guess I do miss those exasperating days spent compiling mixes, though I don’t miss the time chewed up by chewed-up tape, unspooling it from the cartridge with the aid of a pencil, trying to right the damage, then winding it back in again. The worst was when it snapped, and all one’s patience went to waste.
A mixtape makes a ribbon of argument between one artist and the next. Here is a way to hear each with, and often against, the others. “We are complicit at all times,” sings Pikelet, on this tape. Pikelet’s placement next to Lady Lash, a Kokatha musician (“I am me, right here / I’m supposed to be,” she raps), is a juxtaposition that might prompt one to think about the fraught relationship between Indigenous and colonial settler people in Australia, if the latter is indeed the “we” of Pikelet’s lyric, which I suspect it is. There are ways and means of being bound up with this country’s multiple countries, but they are not the same.
All the artists on this mixtape are based in Australia, but you wouldn't necessarily guess that upon hearing them. I think it’s fair to say that the musical eclecticism represented here is a consequence of the kinds of listening—and the forms of musicianship—that the internet has made possible. What—if any—is the musical connection between the unorthodox pop of Pikelet and the polished beats of Lady Lash? Or between Lalić’s languorous, Auto-Tuned ballad ‘Sleeprunning’, on Side A, and Gussy’s bouncing ‘Morning’, which opens Side B? Perhaps it’s enough that they’re all here together, existing on cassette time. That itself is the connection.
Pre-internet, just about the only tapes on which you would have heard pop followed by hip-hop followed by rock followed by R & B were the end-of-year chart compilations that filled the racks at stores like Kmart. These tapes were marketed as cheap Christmas gifts for kids. (Proud owners of Hits 4 U ’92, stand up with me.) In many ways, the internet has returned us to the omnivorous, cross-genre listening that used to be the preserve of pre-adolescent children—or very open-minded adults—before subcultural loyalties bent them into more rigid patterns.
But the internet has not delivered us back to the innocence (one could also call it naivety) with which we listen to music before we know that genre exists. On the contrary. We are all knowing now. A song like Pillow Pro’s ‘Sex Appeal’—a DIY slow jam—is effective because it erodes the distance between techniques of mainstream and underground music-making, but you are still aware that the distance was once there. School Damage’s ‘Silent Zone’—which so closely recalls the spartan synthesiser sound of Young Marble Giants circa 1980, yet deals with “shopping sprees and online dating”—could not have been, until recently, anything other than a jarring anachronism. Now it’s a smooth one. There are no kinks between eras anymore, and the historical associations play out easily.
You might not even listen to this tape as a tape, but only as a digital download. And that’s fine. Have I told you already that tape is unreliable? That stuff is a bastard. It will only let you down. If not the tape itself, which will warp, then the Walkman, which will break, or the batteries for the Walkman, which will run flat ten minutes after you insert them, leaving you to face a whole bus trip with nothing for company but other people’s conversation. Best avoid that heartache.
The cassette tape as an object, though, free of the bother of having to play it—how beguiling it is! I like the way that a tape inside its case will rattle slightly, a little percussive instrument. It fits into the hand. And so often it bears the trace of another’s touch: their writing, their artwork. Before the internet, young people used to waste their time perfecting their drawings of band logos, the better to impress their friends and potential love interests by copying said logos onto the card insert or sticky labels of a tape. Among my most precious objects are those tapes made and given to me by friends who have since passed away. I know that they touched the thing, and by the tape I get as close to them now as I am able.
This tape is a little different, not so personal, though still directed at you. (And at you, and you, too.) Take some time to get to know it. Give an ear to the drifting marine world of Tim Coster and another ear to the Tetris warp of TT SKTLS, and then bare your arms to Lisa Lerkenfeldt’s wintry haze before singing along to Beloved Elk. Don’t forget Jade Imagine; if you do they will never invite you to their lunch table again.
A parting tip: two small pieces of sticky tape placed across each punched-out tab will allow you to record over this cassette, should you wish to. Which you won’t.
These liner notes were commissioned to accompanyThe Lifted Brow Mixtape, a curated one-off cassette tape available to subscribers, featuring 17 Australian-based acts.
For the last time, eyes closed, I breathe and stop breathing. I practise disappearing.
It’s blue, too blue to be true, like a circle of light-blue plastic boards.
Plastic sea. Plastic vows.
I’m finally walking barefoot in the world constructed by my ideas, where eternal love, a survival rule, happens every day.
Dolphins are flying. The humans outside still crawling.
Coconut trees stick out their fat butts, revealing gravidity lines.
I accidentally fall in love with the unwieldy flowers
dropping on the sands, the dazed little lizards crossing the road, the geckos spying at
the centre of the ceiling, the red ants on the open-air toilet.
In the tropics filled with wild emotions, thunder sounds like a belch.
I realise I have to create a man who loves me, who timidly hands over a white towel
beside a bathtub of seawater, to prove my presence.
Accidentally again, I make him too old, even the wind can’t move those tender, tear-shedding age spots.
I say, Dress up, there’s a grand stage in the sea – go there
and put on the sardine’s skin and the musk-crab’s pincers.
In so doing you can pierce the illusion I created and return to reality. I will take back all this, folding up days and nights, and pour the sea into a goblet.
All blue in the glass. A world of blue. Too real to be true.
Plastic sea. Plastic vows.
There are so many things in the world that I love. Dozing in the sun at the beach after swimming, limbs exhausted, salt drying stiff in my hair. Cutting up vegetables into neat, symmetrical pieces. Any food preparation, really, particularly if I’m listening to a good podcast. The way my dog presses his warm flank against my leg. Fragrant flowers: daphne, freesias, gardenias, violets, jasmine. Dramatic flowers: peonies, magnolias, proteas, foxgloves, hydrangeas, pansies. The strange sick swelling in my chest evoked by certain moments in particular songs, even happy ones, as though my body is unable to metabolise so much emotion. Flying into a city at night and seeing the lit gauze of its streets from the air. The scrunch of a stranger’s fingers at my scalp when the hairdresser gives me a perfunctory shampoo head massage. Cycling on a balmy night when the streets are quiet. Taking a bath when I’m a little drunk. Most things when I’m a little drunk, when my body loosens and the world softens at its edges. The quickening I get when I think of an idea for a story, or a solution to a problem of plot, or when a knot of words unravels in a clean sentence unexpectedly. Stretching out my muscles, sitting on the floor with my nose to my knees. The pearly pink light of a winter dusk.
On August 26th this year I was reading my work at the Queensland Poetry Festival alongside an astonishing line up that included Ali Cobby Eckermann, Ellen van Neerven, Tusiata Avia, Courtney Sina Meredith, and Andy Jackson. On the same day an estimated 20,000 people marched for Marriage Equality in my hometown of Melbourne. I’d been thinking a lot about who mobilises and for what. About numbers of bodies at protest marches—rallies for Ms Dhu, who died in police custody in 2014, don’t have estimates because they’re not big enough to. I wrote this as a way of trying to make sense of the complexities of fighting for social justice.
I can’t stop crying. Not a sob, not a weep, not a howl, this is a leak. You send me a link: 100,000 people registered on the electoral roll last night. For a moment I am elated: 100,000 people saying yes. The warmth of your thigh, my knee pressing in. And then I think: what if that’s 100,000 people registering so they can say no? The moment I write about the warmth of your thigh, my knee, you adjust yourself, fold your arms differently, and now there is a cold patch where you were. The purple pink light sends four shadows onto my page. I think about that slogan ‘love makes a family’. I think about a twenty-seven second video I have of Zach when he was four singing, “Can you feel it, can you feel that lo-ooove?” and feel sounds like fool. Can you fool that love?
I am at the Queensland Poetry Festival and Samoan poet Tusiata Avia asks what collection of molecules am I and I think about queer kinship and how do I trace my ancestors? Where is my lineage? My lineage is books, and dance floors, and documentaries – my lineage is not in my blood. It’s in Kathy Acker and Leslie Feinberg and Derek Jarman. That guy at Fair Day with a ‘MASC 4 MASC’ t-shirt on. It’s in protest signs. It’s in the slurs that we take and turn into love letters (faggot, queer, dyke, trannie, pervert, homo).
A few weeks ago I was walking home with a coffee and a four-wheel drive full of boys was coming fast along the other side of the road. One leant out the window and screamed
while his mate leant out the other side and screamed
Both words at the same time. They stared at each other across the car roof (that’s how far out of the windows their bodies were) and then dropped back inside, looking straight ahead, betrayed by their mouths and their desires.
I laughed. I laughed at being both and drank my coffee in the canopy of sun and cloud made by a Melbourne winter. I will call you later and we will fuck and you will whisper faggot and slut down the phone and I will come all over my own hand and those words will be like balsamic soaked strawberries rolling out of your mouth sweet full sticky bitter salt warm into mine.
Faggotslut. Faggotslut. Faggotslut. Balsamic reduced is a vinegary smear. Berry skin pulling the thick brown in. Seeds softened with acid and sugar. Citrus. Squirt. The feel of me between your squared teeth.
Writing in Brisbane is hot writing. Sweat under my arms, along the insides of my fingers, across my eyelids, in the crease of my belly, between my toes. Writing in Brisbane is writing inside music. Is a scream for what comes next. Is the burnished brightness of what comes later.
Yesterday you all marched for yes. I never thought I’d want to be there as much. Or that I would be so badly hurt by posters and campaigns that tell me my family is not ok, that the way I love should not be tolerated. The drilling down from complexity to one or two images: the darkness, menacing arms, rainbows with crosses through them, children with heads on knees and tear streaked faces.
And while all this is happening and I’m on stages telling people I don’t give a fuck about marriage but that the government needs to get their laws off my body, off who and how I love, and I’m overwhelmed and awed by the responses from people I’ve never met saying yes, yes, I think: queers seeking asylum are still in Manus and Nauru. I think: they are murdering gay men in Chechnya. I think: the intervention continues and people living in remote communities can’t buy an orange for under five dollars but they can get two minute noodles and they are starving on carbohydrates and msg. I think: there is such a thing as corrective rape in Uganda. I think: Aboriginal people in this country are still dying in custody. I think: doctors working in Syria have decided PTSD doesn’t cut it anymore and they’ve coined a new term—Total Human Devastation Syndrome.
So how does all of this stand up against a rally for Marriage Equality? Why do I leak tears every time I see another person campaigning for no? I don’t want to get married. I’ve never wanted to get married.
I leak tears every time I see another person campaigning for no because they’re not campaigning for no to marriage for queer folk. They’re campaigning for no queer folk.
And today I ran into an old colleague whose thirteen-year-old son went to the Equal Love rally on Saturday and came home covered in glitter and spent the night dressing up and dancing through the house. The same kid who attempted suicide two years ago and has seen the inside of more than one adolescent mental health unit. But how does this stand against Don Dale? Thirteen year olds in adult prison conditions being tear gassed and kicked in their small soft bellies on concrete floors. Hiding under blankets on steel cage beds. Stinging mist. Cop boots and the hell that is a white Australian man in uniform’s voice. How does this stand?
In Redfern there are two housing commission towers whose windows are slowly filling with cellophane to make a rainbow. Each night there are more coloured squares, shining into the polluted night. How does this stand? How does this stand against Ms Dhu who was jailed for failing to pay parking fines and spent four days in prison telling officers she was sick. She called and called from the cell and they didn’t come. Makin’ it up, they said. By the morning she was gone, an old broken rib turned sceptic, bled out under her skin. How does this stand? Who mobilises and for what?
Who mobilises and for what? Because suicide rates in the LGBTIQ community are high. Because trans women are killed for flesh where none was expected. Because an eleven-year-old wanted to die. But this mobilisation? This is for law, for marriage, for white people (?) for middle class people (?) for respectability (?) for family (?) for bringing us into the fold (?) for sanitisation (?) for making us known (?)
I can’t stop crying. Last week I tried to gather some friends together to drink red wine and eat and watch Ru Paul’s Drag Race and forget about the no campaign. Four said yes, but only one came. The others (all at the last minute) texted to say they couldn’t make it.
I’m so anxious I can’t leave the house. Going to stay in and go to bed. Love you.
I really want to come but I can’t keep my eyes open. I’m wrecked. Next time babe xx
Hey I’m suddenly feeling pretty bad. Maybe I’m getting sick? Going to stay home :-/
Anxious, tired, sick. And on social media nearly every queer I know is saying they’re feeling wobbly and sad.
That week I had to have a conversation with my kids, who are six and eight, about bullying and homophobia, and to check whether anything is being said to them at school.
I get home from the festival. Somehow Melbourne is colder than when I left, but the plum tree in my back yard has started flowering and that makes me happy. Another piece of no propaganda is doing the rounds on Facebook. I think about Zach singing, and about him telling me confidently that there are no bullies at his school, and that no one is asking him questions. I stay away from social media. I try again to gather friends and watch Ru Paul. This time they come. There are five of us in my lounge room. Ru Paul is wearing a long turquoise blue gown and her hairline is perfect. We share food. We stay warm. We finish Drag Race and watch Season 9’s reigning Queen, Sasha Velour, doing a lip sync of No More I Love You’s by Annie Lennox in front of a light show. At the end a pink triangle is projected onto her and instead of mouthing “no more I love you’s” her lips form the words “I love you” over and over again. I leak tears and grin. We all do. This is how we stand.
Quinn Eades is a trans and queer researcher, writer, and award-winning poet who lectures at La Trobe University. He is the author ofall the beginnings: a queer autobiography of the body,andRallying, and is currently working on a book-length collection of fragments written from the transitioning body, titled Transpositions.
Quinn Eades is appearing in two events as part of The Festival of Questions at the Melbourne Town Hall on Sunday 15 October, presented by The Wheeler Centre and Melbourne Festival. Book now at wheelercentre.com.
Midway through Robert Dessaix’s latest book <i>The Pleasures of Leisure</i>, while reading a chapter called ‘Nesting’ about leisure in the home, I realised I was bored. In it, Dessaix writes about activities like cooking, eating, gardening, and sex – activities that are, or can be, among the most pleasurable there are. But reading about those activities was bringing me barely any pleasure at all.
He stopped me at the banquet and said, "I'd rather be hanged with Omar al-Mukhtar than share the stage with these spies who speak in our name."
He stopped me and asked about the name of my neighborhood grocer when I was a child. Then he pulled a small album from his coat pocket and showed me pictures of nervous children, and told me they were mine.
He said I was supposed to come back years ago, and that my wife (he called her his daughter) had bravely raised the children in my absence.
(He also said that he was the neighborhood grocer, and that one of my nervous children tends the store every afternoon while he’s taking his nap.)
I was too embarrassed to ask him the names of my children. I was also too embarrassed to ask him the name of their mother. I acted like I’d just left the house that morning.
He sighed and gazed into the distance, like an actor in a soap opera, and told me not to tell anyone about what had transpired between us, or that he was the one who had put on this banquet—he preferred to play the role of the neighborhood grocer.
"I'd rather be hanged with Omar al-Mukhtar than stay here," he said, his eyes full of tears this time. Then he rushed out the door and left me alone at the banquet.
Alone, I flipped through his album, and looked at the faces of my children.
And I return to that town,
to that house,
to that room:
the bones of the dead are beneath me.
They know me,
though I do not know them.
Books and papers
I know them,
though they do not know me.
This dirt: the remains of those
who’ve been naturalized by death.
because one must return,
because the dead must rise again.
At The Lifted Brow, we have an enviable archive of pieces from incredible writers, some of whom have gone on to publish books. One such book isAround the World in 80 Cocktailsby Brow alumni Chad Parkhill. Here we revisit a piece from Chad's fantabulous TLB Booze column, originally publishing inThe Lifted Brow Issue 22.
Of all of the great books written about the demon drink, few are as unread and unloved as Malcolm Lowry’s booze-soaked masterpiece, Under the Volcano. There’s a certain piquant inevitability to this state of affairs, since Lowry himself—once considered a successor to no less than James Joyce, and who cracked the New York Times bestseller list in his lifetime—died in penury, having choked on his own vomit, at the age of forty-seven. Although he had notes composed for several works-in-progress, a number of which have appeared posthumously, Under the Volcano was both his second novel and his last. While he is not exactly unknown, time hasn’t been kind to his reputation: when I mention Under the Volcano to friends, many of whom are significantly better read than I am, most admit to never having heard of it or Lowry.
Although Under the Volcano is stylistically rather difficult, the plot itself is simple: Geoffrey Firmin, a British Consul in the fictional Mexican city of Quauhnahuac, drinks himself quite literally to death over the course of the Día de Muertos of 1938. His ex-wife, Yvonne, and half-brother, Hugh, accompany him through a series of misadventures, desper-ately trying to curtail his rampaging alcoholism, yet oddly complicit in it (each takes several drinks with the Consul; his alcoholism is evidently so severe that a cold turkey with-drawal from booze would be fatal). The Consul finally dies when, having lost Yvonne and Hugh, he starts an argument with the local police in a bar. They push him outside, shoot him, and throw his body into a ravine.
The particulars of the Consul’s death are hardly the point—although he technically dies from a gunshot wound, what really kills him is his fevered alcohol consumption, which he uses as a salve for his terrifying anxiety. (‘Terrifying’ appears to be one of Lowry’s favourite words; according to 2007 profile of Lowry in The New Yorker, his wife-cum-editor Margerie admonished him for over-using it while drafting Under the Volcano.) The Consul is gripped by a profound sense of dread; he believes himself doomed, and the cure for this pervasive terror ends up bringing about exactly what he feared. Throughout the novel he is driven by a near-mythic vision of drinking mescal in the bar in the town of Parián, under the volcano named Popocatépetl; it is in this very bar that he meets his end. Under the Volcano is therefore a profound meditation on alcohol as pharmakon—the remedy that is also a poison.
When Yvonne returns to Quauhnahuac early in the morning of the Día de Muertos, she discovers the Consul at his favourite bar—taking a drink, he claims, only to calm his delirium tremens. “It’s really the shakes that make this kind of life insupportable”, he says. “But they will stop: I was only drinking enough so they would. Just the necessary, the therapeutic drink.” Alcohol has caused the changes in the Consul’s brain chemistry that give him the shakes; alcohol is the only thing that brings relief from the tremors. Lowry’s vision develops this insight into the dual nature of alcohol to a tragic conclusion: in Under the Volcano, the solution that alcohol offers is a final one.
The joys of Under the Volcano lie not in its plot, but rather in its prose and its structure. The Consul’s fall is introduced by a framing narrative: two of Firmin’s friends, the failed film director Jacques Laruelle and the physician Dr. Arturo Díaz Vigil, are sharing a drink in the bar of a rundown hotel that was once a casino, on the Día de Muertos of 1939—precisely one year after the Consul’s death. Although at this stage we don’t know the particulars of his fate, we do know from their conversation that the Consul is doomed. You can’t accuse Lowry of using subtle imagery: the bottle of anís from which the two friends drink is emblazoned with a pitch- fork-wielding devil. Later, Laruelle receives an anthologyof Elizabethan plays he had borrowed from the Consul and promptly lost in the cinema; remembering the Consul’s own fondness for divination through bibliomancy, he opens a page and selects a passage at random to discover the closing lines of Marlowe’s Faustus: “Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight ... Faustus is gone: regard his hellish fall”. At the close of the chapter, Quauhnahauc’s bells toll “dolente ... dolore!” (in Italian, ‘woeful’ and ‘grief’). Lowry’s message is clear: abandon all hope, ye who enter here.
Lowry’s imagery isn’t the only heavy-handed aspect of Under the Volcano. The prose, too, is both richly evocative and unrestrained—a riotous orgy of logophilia, thick with allusions to literature both classic and obscure, creates an almost literally intoxicating effect. Under the Volcano therefore achieves a remarkable goal: its prose feels completely shit-faced. Take this description of a storm-front: “From the south an immense archangel, black as thunder, beat up from the Pacific.” The metaphor of storm-as-archangel is technically fine, if not a little hyperbolic, but “black as thunder” introduces some problems: as a simile it doesn’t make much sense (thunder, being sound, is obviously not black) and as a synecdoche it becomes tautological (describing the black- ness of the storm by referring to the blackness of storms). Yet for all that this sentence would make William Strunk, Jr. break out in a cold sweat, it follows a greater logic: according to Chris Acklerley and David Large’s impressive hypertext annotation of Under the Volcano, the black archangel is a reference to Emanuel Swedenborg’s work of Christian mysticism, Heaven and Hell, where black clouds obscure the souls of those who have, through their actions, chosen damnation. For all of Under the Volcano’s verbose stretches, there’s also an eerie precision to Lowry’s writing: later, when the same storm breaks, Laurelle observes “a savage scribble of thunder”.
This same layering of meaning informs the book’s structure: it takes place over twelve chapters and twelve hours (excluding the first chapter’s framing narrative), each chapter told from a different character’s perspective. In this it takes cues from the masterpiece of high modernism, Joyce’s Ulysses. Yet the numbers seven and twelve reappear throughout: Yvonne returns to Quauhnahauc and finds the Consul drinking at the bar at 7:00 am; the Consul intuits that drinking mescal in particular will lead to his death in chapter seven, and begins drinking mescal in earnest in the bar at Parián in chapter twelve; Yvonne is trampled to death by a horse branded with the number seven; the Consul dies at 7:00pm, twelve hours after Yvonne returns. The repetition of these numbers throughout the work ties in not only with Lowry’s obsession with Virgil, whose Aeneid was divided into twelve books, but also with Lowry’s occult interests: seven sins, seven seals of the Apocalypse. Here we have cutting edge (for its time) literary modernism mixing freely with structures borrowed from Latin epic poetry, shot through with Christian mysticism: a heady blend, the kind of thing only an inveterate drunk might think of.
Reading Under the Volcano is, therefore, like hanging out with the smartest drunkard you know (perhaps a washed-up professor). It’s a book of tremendous learning but also a hot mess; somewhere underneath the chaos of its surface lies a deeper structure that we can never quite fathom. It’s easy to identify Lowry with the Consul, but it might be more appropriate to identify him with the book itself.
It’s hard not to read Under the Volcano as a synecdoche of Lowry’s own tragic life. Like the Consul’s, Lowry’s life was, to use a portmanteau he coined while writing October Ferry to Gabriola, an “alcoholocaust”. Unlike the Consul, though, Lowry truly tried to escape the prison of his monstrous thirst. Just before he died, he had, through the assistance of an aversion therapy program that used apomorphine to associate severe nausea with alcohol, finally given up the demon drink. He switched to a non-alcoholic cider named Cydrax, which he praised in a doggerel verse dedicated to the doctor whose program had put him on the wagon. (“Dry cider’s little sibling slakes my thirst. / Its family resemblance keeps it near / Yet free from all the menaces accursed.”)
He was nally making good headway on one of his novels-in-progress, October Ferry to Gabriola. Then he relapsed one evening just over ten years after the release of Under the Volcano, got wretchedly drunk, and either took a large dose of Margerie’s barbiturates of his own accord or was fed them by Margerie herself. In either case, the combination proved lethal and he choked on his own vomit. Like the Consul’s death, the precise mechanism of Lowry’s own death doesn’t matter so much as the unfathomable drive for oblivion that lead to it.
In this light, the third and final epigraph for Under the Volcano, from Goethe’s Faust, is bitterly ironic: “Whosoever unceasingly strives upwards ... him can we save.”
Chad Parkhill is a writer and bartender based in Melbourne, Australia. His work has appeared in The Australian, The Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings, Meanjin, and The Quietus, among others. He is currently the cocktail columnist for the Guardian Australia. His bookAround the World in 80 Cocktailswas published by Hardie Grant this year.
‘A couple of times he’s tried to kill me, but guess what? I sure got off on it. Isn’t sex weird?’ In David Lynch's television series Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer’s unsettling conversation with her therapist achingly captures the peculiar sexual atmosphere that festers through the small town. Considering that Laura is a male creation, imagined by David Lynch, there is something particularly uncomfortable about this admission in an era where violence against women is on the rise. Despite these unnerving elements, the show remains alluring to me. A dead girl, wrapped in plastic is the main draw card to the show, yet I watched eagerly as a teenager, enamored by the brutal romances. I’m not the only one; in Lynching Women: A Feminist Reading of Twin Peaks, Diana Hume George writes “I was instantly hooked...I lived for Thursday Nights, taped the episodes for repeated frissons.” David Lynch’s male gaze presents women in various clichéd troupes: victim, slut, good girl gone bad or, in the ultimate objectification, just dead.
The complexities of sex and violence are raised in Maggie Nelson’s astonishing nonfiction book The Red Parts, where she examines cultural obsessions with death and sexual deviation. In the book, the desirability of dead white girls is illustrated through her own aunt’s horrendous murder. She describes the stalker-like viciousness of a journalist, desperate to interview her on his true crime show in the hope she will reveal some of the more salacious details of her aunt’s death. But most compelling is the zealous behaviour the incident elicited in her life. From watching snuff films with her older sister to allowing a partner to replicate her aunt’s murder during sex; pain, curiosity and desire blur in The Red Parts with a level of honesty that is both devastating and reassuring. Sickened by what happened to her aunt but also obsessed in ways that are almost pleasurable, Nelson's feelings towards the shocking incident are never straightforward, and they reveal some of the complex reactions to representations of violence against women on screen.
In many ways, Laura Palmer’s violent needs mirror Maggie Nelson’s longings. But unlike Maggie, Laura is a fictional character created by a man. Watching a male vision of female sexuality can produce mixed feelings for the female viewer. In Twin Peaks, David Lynch paints a surreal portrait of small town America, haunted by a vile underground. It’s not surprising that the 90’s television phenomenon garnered cult status, given our fascination with death. Laura Palmer was brutally murdered, stripped of her clothing and dignity, but, as Maggie Nelson demonstrated, eroticized death has an appeal.
Laura was the good girl, the popular Homecoming Queen whose wholesome demeanor hid a secret affair with biker James Hurley and a coke addition supported by prostitution. While my friends and I on occasion flirted with danger, Laura Palmer slept with it voraciously. As young women, it was thrilling to watch; Laura embraced our pent up fantasies of rebellion and sex. The fandom was reflected in the shows merchandising – Laura’s secret diaries were released as a book, successfully tapping into our own hidden schoolgirl desires. Fan sites and memes dedicated to the show are still prevalent, and a zine, She’s Full of Secrets, is just one of many, asking fans to respond to the mysteries surrounding Laura Palmer’s death.
The series, as in much of David Lynch’s work, is about ordinary people exploring sexual taboos. There is something repellent and attractive about this; whether it’s Jeffrey hiding in Dorothy’s wardrobe watching her sadomasochistic lover degrade her in Blue Velvet, or Hollywood hopeful Betty in Mulholland Drive slowly sliding into moral chaos, or Renée who is brutalized by a husband she continues to love in Lost Highway, Lynch opens us up to worlds where sex, love and violence tangle, and good people are drawn into insidious situations.
When the Twin Peaks revival aired on Stan I was forced to confront my own peculiar attraction to the show and Lynch’s oeuvre. Conscious of his depiction of women, I wondered whether I was supporting the toxic male culture I despise. Writing for the Guardian, journalist Sarah Hughes picks up on Lynch’s troubling portrayal of women, commenting on actor Sheryl Flynn’s recent experiences playing Audrey in the new series. The actor “hinted on Twitter that the show’s much-loved female characters had been marginalised this time around.” Laura Palmer said she’d be back twenty-five years later, and, as I started to watch the new season, I wondered if I’d fall for it again, or if Sheryl Flynn’s experiences reveal a deeper misogyny that negates any charm that these much loved women inspired.
Episode one of the revival plays like a deranged nightmare, one where you’re seeing an old friend but their behaviour is so cruel you can’t be sure if it’s them or a disturbed doppelganger. This, in part, reflects the plotline we're introduced to: Laura Palmer’s murder has permanently changed Agent Cooper, splitting him into multiple identities. One remains trapped in the dreamlike Red Room, a bizarre alternate reality, and other, far more malicious versions are free to wreak havoc on the streets. By the third episode we are introduced to a mysterious glass box containing a demonic presence that bludgeons a young couple to death mid copulation. A child bleeds uncontrollably in his mother’s arms as onlookers stare, concerned but mute. And, in a comparatively sanitised sub-plot, a high school principle is accused of decapitating his lover. As Helen Razor writes for The Saturday Paper:
“Our auteur was finally at his liberty to let his freak flag fly, which he did, possibly after draping it over the corpse of a decapitated hottie. To call David Lynch’s latest work Lynchian is to truly understate the exquisite damage this man can do with a big enough budget.”
Helen Razor may question what lurks in the refuse of his unconscious, but, while watching Twin Peaks, I wondered if his ‘genius’ might just be an expression of his misogyny. In the lead up to the new season, Stan released a range of promo interviews. In one, Lynch explains the inspiration behind the show, casually remarking: “a dead girl, this is what got us going, me and Mark.” I perceive a glint in his eyes as he says it; like it’s sexy and a little funny, and not a carefully considered plot device. It is a disturbing revelation that represents toxic masculinity and the detached objectification society permits. How can a dead girl get you going? But, as Maggie Nelson revealed in Red Parts, our culture is obsessed with dead girls. And, when the infamous journalist asked Nelson to explain her aunt's death for his appalling television show, her answer was simple: “because men hate women.”
There is a particularly gruesome scene in the new Twin Peaks that seeps into my consciousness. A leather-clad version of Agent Cooper kills Daria, an unruly member of his gang. It isn’t enough to watch her writhe as he strangles her. The camera zooms in, framing her face as he shoots. It’s as if you can smell the gunpowder and warm clump of flesh that rests on the pillow as heat gently rises in the cheaply furnished motel room. He leaves quickly, entering the room next door to join his lover Chantal. His hand immediately reaching beneath her skirt telling her with cool detachment: “you’re nice and wet”.
Men hate women in Twin Peaks with shocking force. While men are also murdered in the show, the camera turns away, distancing us from their demise. Watching Twin Peaks is like being exposed to the darkest crevices of a perverse mind. As an ardent fan of the original Twin Peaks season I was disappointed with the reboot. Repulsed, I turned away regularly, but something in the darkness always drew me back; I deliriously binge-watched the first nine episodes with ease. It’s possible that the latest series is symptomatic of the wider rise of toxic masculinity in Hollywood. As reviewer Guy Lodge writes: “in the year of Brock Turner, Nate Parker and President-elect Donald Trump, cultural critics haven’t had to reach too far for illustrative examples of abusive patriarchy.” Referring to films such as Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals or Paul Veerhoven's Elle, male protagonists were remarkably vile in several films released in 2016.
Without a doubt, Twin Peaks is emblematic of an abusive patriarchy, yet an intoxicating soundtrack elevates the series beyond what we expect from television. Each episode ends at the aptly titled Bang Bar where bands such as the Chromatics, Au Revoir Simone and Sharon Van Etten play with magnetism and searing melancholy. They can’t erase the horror but remind us that there is something moving and almost beautiful in the stark landscape. As Razor writes, the damage he creates is horrific but it is also exquisite. My attraction to Twin Peaks is strange. I remain captivated; in love with the bleak romances and petrified by the violence.
For women, trans, non-binary and gender diverse people, this work may have alluring elements, but it also reinforces the cis-male gaze, a force that has impact beyond the screen. In an undergrad cinema studies class, a lecturer I admired regularly screened David Lynch. He also ran a three-hour class on pornography, savoring his own explanations of genres, sub-genres and his particular fixation with Annabelle Chong. Oblivious to his own power and privilege, we were provided with a content warning of sorts, in the form of an instruction asking that we close the blinds just in case someone walked passed and was offended. But, in the darkened room, there was something exciting about watching the graphic scenes with other students, a wild departure from the dry lectures where Baudrillard and other theorists washed over me. As we left, a friend told me that some of the images had made her sick. I shrugged at her comment; it had no effect on me.
Looking back, it’s alarming that I felt proud that I could withstand some of the more grueling depictions of sex – like it was a test validating my ability to please men. My friend had just ended a relationship with a much older man and I failed to see how our middle-aged lecturer showing us hardcore porn might have been triggering. But I also failed to see the uncomfortable position I placed my younger self in; eager to impress, but unaware of boundaries. These ambiguities are articulated in Diana Hume George’s essay on Twin Peaks. Reflecting on the prevalence of sexual violence on television, she bemoans: “even feminist let it go by, behaving like charmed backsliders involved with a man so charismatic that we couldn’t think straight.” We were feminist, but we also admired our lecturer greatly, falling over his poetic descriptions of films. It’s not surprising no one complained.
Writing about her own experiences with explicit content for Archer magazine, Ellena Savage states: “pornography can be a deeply ambivalent experience for women; for me it is the source of both pleasure and concern, shame and ingenuity.” The treatment of women in Twin Peaks veers on the pornographic – as it does in much of Lynch’s work. And while it is reductive and simplistic to negate the pleasure people may get, the non-cis straight male viewer is often compromised or pushed into situations which painfully reflects the lack of control we experience in a patriarchal world. Savage writes with reassuring honesty that “the reason I may seek out porn in the first place are the dark and depraved fantasies you wouldn’t expect a lover to perform.” This echoes my own attraction to Twin Peaks but it also leaves you confused. What is it about these male constructs and male fantasies that can lure the very people they objectify? Analyzing her own attraction to the TV series, Diana Hume George writes: “in a society riddled with domestic violence, it’s risky business to feed a mass audience the idea that a seductive adolescent might want a real man to hurt her,” particularly when this fictionalized desire is created by a man. But many of us watch on finding some pleasure in Lynch’s gaze.
Twin Peaks premiered at the Cannes Film festival to standing ovations, perhaps understandable given Lynches status and distinct ability to weave bizarre threads into something that resembles a narrative. But the director’s iconic style and bewildering evocations left me uncertain. A sinister violence runs through the new season pulverizing the occasional moments of joy. Lynch’s work is hard to walk away from filled with intoxicating imagery, which taunts and thrills. But I enter his world with caution, conscious of the toxic masculinity he unleashes.
Although this essay focuses on reactions to the white male gaze in Twin Peaks, it would be remiss not to mention the representation of First Nation character Deputy Chief Tommy 'Hawk' Hill, played by Michael Horse an actor of Yaqui Native American descent. In 2017 it was uncomfortable watching the excruciatingly clichéd way his culture is used to solve crimes and the crass questions he endures from his white colleagues. So much more could be said but perhaps it is best to be thankful for all the incredible American Indian writers and other First Nations writers globally smashing these stereotypes.
Timmah Ball is a writer and urban researcher of Ballardong Noongar descent. She has written for The Griffith Review, Right Now, Meajin, Overland, Westerly Magazine and won the Patricia Hackett Prize for writing. She is currently using zine making to critique mainstream publishing conventions and will produce Wild Tongue zine as part of Next Wave Festival in 2018.
mixtape cassette liner notes by Anwen Crawford (and for subscribers only, instructions on how to claim your free mixtape cassette or download code);
non-fiction from Ellena Savage, Jana Perković, Hayley Singer, Dion Kagan, Mark Dean, Adalya Nash Hussein, Sarah Sentilles, Zoe Holman, Antonia Pont, Shirley Le, and Joanna Walsh;
short fiction by Haris A. Durrani, and also a piece of Croatian fiction by Jasna Jasna Žmak translated by Jana Perković;
poetry by Abdellatif Laâbi (translated by Pierre Joris), Najwan Darwish (translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid), and Dai Weina (translated by Liang Yujing);
a conversation between George Saunders and Paul Dalla Rosa;
comics and artwork from Shay Colley, Meg O’Shea, Rosie Whelan, Ben Juers, Emma Davidson, Gina Wynbrandt, Joanna Frank, Bryce Pemberton, Bailey Sharp, Amaya Lang, Lasse Wandschneider, Matthew Thurber, Dianna Settles, Jason Herr, José-Luis Olivares, Mish Meijers, Power Paola, and Fionn McCabe;
and, as always, Benjamin Law and his mum Jenny's sex and relationships advice column ‘Law School’.
We’re absolutely pumped about how good this issue is. You can pick up a copy from our network of retailers in Australia and around the world, or buy a copy online if you live somewhere other than Australia. Of course, you can have Issue 35 delivered straight to your door; subscribe to The Lifted Brow and we will post you four issues of the magazine. You’ll receive them even before our stockists do, plus you’ll save 35% off the cover price! Subscribers will also have access to TLB's first-ever cassette mixtape, created for this issue, with music from some of Australia’s most interesting and exciting independent acts.
Also, come celebrate the launch of Issue 35 on Friday the 15th September at The Curtin Hotel, featuring performances from three of our mixtape artists: Pillow Pro, Pikelet and Lalić - it's not to be missed.
There was only a week between mild chest pain and major surgery. As he waited for what would turn out to be a quadruple heart bypass, my father compared the situation to climate change. “You have to believe the experts when they show you the evidence,” he said.
Treatment for an illness he couldn’t feel required a profound surrender: to a series of medical professionals, to one surgeon in particular, to technology, to the care of his family, and to the rehabilitation program that followed. The experts had given him their tests; they had abruptly rerouted his fate.
I was on my way home from the hospital when I picked up Wayne Macauley’s new novel, Some Tests. This clever, troubling book begins with its protagonist Beth feeling “a little off colour.” Unconvinced that she is really ill, she takes a day off work. Her husband takes the kids to school and arranges a visit from a doctor. Since her usual GP is away, she is visited by the locum, who gives her a referral for some tests.
After a little wine and prevarication, she travels to a suburban clinic and submits to these tests. As a result, Beth is referred on to a second set of tests, and then a third. Slowly, she is shunted into a Kafkaesque labyrinth of examinations and trials, some of which are only vaguely medical. She encounters a series of apparently helpful people and submits to their instructions with little resistance.
When she does baulk, it is mostly at the expense; her middle-class thrift sends her along a track that is deemed appropriate for her income bracket. You can almost see the model railway structure of this novel, the switches where Beth’s route alters as she moves across a recognisable but slightly detuned Melbourne. Eventually she boards an actual train, by which point we are in deep allegory: the train provides a passage between the recognisable world and another social logic entirely.
Another writer might be satisfied by filling out the premise of Some Tests, but not Macauley. As with his previous novel, The Cook, reading Some Tests is rather like being the proverbial frog in the saucepan. The turning points are incremental, the rules obscure; the reader and Beth are in this pot together. Like The Cook, this is a book that takes an issue and, by following a single character’s journey, explores it at length. I’ll avoid spoilers, but there’s a different kind of key change here. Some Tests becomes an extraordinary treatise on the autonomy of the sick, a meditation on mortality, and an exploration of the nature of acceptance that is at once sinister and spiritual.
Throughout, Beth is one of those maddeningly passive characters often found in novels. She is a woman whose attachments to her work (in aged care), her family, and her life seem strangely thin. If she makes decisions, they are slight, and always doubted. At each step she gives up a little more autonomy to the experts, allows herself to be judged and prodded by them, and listens to their little self-indulgent speeches. What choice does she have but to trust them? Slowly, her uneasiness becomes the reader’s.
When the body is ill, it crosses a border. Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor made the observation that illness is often seen as some kind of moral failure – an observation so pertinent to the AIDS crisis that she produced a follow-up, AIDS and its Metaphors. Sontag offered the consoling notion that we each have dual citizenship in the kingdoms of the well and of the sick, but in a sense, illness as failure is citizenship relinquished. In her essay ‘On Being Ill,’ Virginia Woolf wrote of sickness as a kind of refuge, a defection from life: the unwell “cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright; we become deserters. They march to battle. We float with the sticks on the stream; helter-skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn, irresponsible and disinterested and able, perhaps for the first time for years, to look round, to look up—to look, for example, at the sky.” It’s an idea that is doubly haunted – first by a longing for freedom, the idle freedom of childhood sick days; second, by our knowledge of how Woolf will die.
When I returned home from helping my parents through the crisis, I was terribly conscious of my own body’s fragility. For a few days, I was watching for signs the way a driver who has narrowly missed a crash watches the road, suddenly hyper-aware of the mad risk involved in getting behind the wheel. Was I even at the wheel of my body? If my father, fit and suspecting nothing, could have been felled by a heart attack at any moment, how could I trust that the weird combination of flesh, electricity and plumbing that kept me alive would continue to do so?
Contemporary medicine speaks a commendable language of patient autonomy, informed choices, good communication. But it operates in a world where reinforced social anxiety engenders self-doubt and often shame around the body. To inhabit a body that is read as female is to have your sovereignty over that body doubted. It means being judged, being given unwanted advice, being assessed by that hovering, abstract ‘male gaze’ as well as by actual men and women, until in mid-life you slowly become invisible. Seeing a doctor can be comical, made absurd by the presumptions and pruderies on display. It can also be painful, dismissive, and deeply dehumanising. There are plenty of quacks around offering alternatives: reassurance, meaning, answers that appear less clinical.
“I think we’ve gone into a historical phase where we prefer to shut death away from ourselves, that we institutionalise it,” Macauley recently told the Guardian. It’s often said that Western culture (whatever that means) is bad at accepting death and dying. We admonish ourselves for avoiding consciousness of our mortality. But what might this consciousness do to us? While medicine can certainly be disempowering, a constant concern with one’s own mortality can feel worse; it can be completely paralysing.
I wonder if avoiding the idea of death, outsourcing it, doesn’t in fact have its uses. We trust the experts and their tests because the knowledge they accrue is itself tested; clinical also means scientific, peer-reviewed, the best available evidence. In a world where science is under attack and vested interests sow doubt, the question of who to trust becomes more complex. Some Tests is at its best when it provokes questions about how that trust―in the experts, in the orderliness of a plan and a process, in one’s own ability to understand the signals the body is sending―is structured, and how it is compromised.
I suspect that this novel will be read very differently by those who have been seriously ill, and those who have not yet crossed that border; it may be read with suspicion by those who have been suicidal. If there is a right-to-die message here, it is not clearly articulated as it is in Steven Amsterdam’s The Easy Way Out, another recent book that deals with similar questions, but from another angle and in a very different tone. Some Tests might be marketed as a discussion of a social issue, but it’s better than that: it unfolds as a fairy-tale does, inevitably and with the strange-but-familiar logic of dreams. Throughout, the prose is so direct as to be hypnotic. While the philosophical speeches of its various medical experts sometimes jar, it is rescued from its messages by a deep ambivalence that refuses to be resolved.
Macauley is famously underrated – in 2012 he won the inaugural MUBA for The Cook. Perhaps it’s partly because he makes readers feel uncomfortable, unsettled in the everyday; one emerges from his books freshly uncertain. Many of the writers I know are fans of his work. Looking mortality in the eye is not for everyone, and Some Tests sustains its steady gaze right to the end. To surrender to it, to follow where it leads you, is to risk transformation.
Jennifer Mills is the author of the novels Gone and The Diamond Anchor and the short story collection The Rest is Weight. She is the fiction editor at Overland. Her new novel, Dyschronia, will be published by Picador in February 2018.
The Lifted Brow and non/fiction Lab Prize for Experimental Non-fiction, now in its third year, encourages non-fiction writers to challenge themselves by testing the limits of their crafts and creativity.
We are delighted to announce that the 2017 winning piece for The Lifted Brow and non/fiction Lab Prize for Experimental Non-fiction is:
‘An Architecture of Early Motherhood (and Independence)’, by Stephanie Guest and Kate Riggs.
Stephanie Guest studied literature at the Universities of Melbourne and Sydney, and has begun a degree in Architecture. Kate Riggs studied architecture at RMIT and is working for Urban Design London. Guest & Riggs met in year 11 at Narrabundah College in Canberra. They will be running a series of baby-friendly events at MPavilion in 2017-18.
Their winning piece, ‘An Architecture of Early Motherhood (and Independence)’, will appear inThe Lifted Brow #35, out September 4th. You can subscribe or find a copy at one of our stockists.
This year’s judges were Eileen Myles, Wayne Koestenbaum, Fiona Wright, Leslie Jamison and Claudia La Rocco. Below is a cobbled-together summary of some of their comments about the winning piece:
“‘An Architecture of Early Motherhood (and Independence)’ is a wonderful essay about how we inhabit the spaces of female selfhood at different points in time and life, and the implicit assumptions that underpin their design; it speaks too to the changing conditions—unstable housing, casual work—that are changing our generation’s ways of life and ways of making families, making meaning. It is honest and occasionally brutally forthright, and quite lyrical in its writing, and the pairing of literature and architecture at the heart of the text makes perfect sense, each illuminating the other. We love too that this is a collaborative text, and there’s a real sense of generosity and affection at play between the voices. Overall it is an extraordinarily complex piece of writing: genuine, surprising – a trove of actualities, of maternal realities, more grained and beautifully (laudably) ‘pedestrian’ (and therefore profound) than most of what we've read on the subject. We loved the determined fidelity to the banality and logistics of early motherhood—states of radical and ongoing beholden-ness—juxtaposed against reflections from an autonomous life in the margins.”
With the support of partners Copyright Agency and RMIT University’s non/fictionLab, Guest and Riggs receive $5000, and two runners-up also each receive $500 each.
OUR TWO RUNNERS UP:
'The Essentials’ by Lei Wang
Lei Wang is confused about her identity as a Chinese-American living in Shanghai. This is her first literary publication. She has previously worked in happiness research, science journalism, and private investigations but is still looking for a dream career that can feed her without sacrificing her soul while she writes. In Shanghai, she helps run a spoken word poetry series with the International House of Poets and has a spare couch for visiting literati (this could mean you).
‘New World Cache – mathematically resolved Science Theory Fiction with Feeling and Politics coded in Deep’ by Holly Childs
Holly Childs is an Australian writer and artist. Author of Danklands, published by Arcadia Missa, London and No Limit, published by Hologram, Melbourne. Recent postgraduate researcher in The New Normal program at Strelka Institute, Moscow. Currently studying in Shadow Channel program at Sandberg Instituut, Amsterdam.
The Lifted Brow & RMIT non/fictionLab Prize for Experimental Non-fiction looks to unearth new, audacious, authentic and/or inauthentic voices from both Australia and the world.
This prize seeks work that is unlike any other. We want to hear from writers we’ve never read before, and we want writers we already know and love to challenge themselves to create work unlike any they’ve previously produced.
What is ‘experimental non-fiction’? Like all non-fiction writing it is steeped in facts, real events and real people, with the aim of communicating information, argument, and truth. It differs from traditional non-fiction in that it tries to convey its meaning using unorthodox form, or style, or voice, or point-of-view, or etc. The best pieces of experimental non-fiction are those in which any unorthodox element deepens the meaning and authenticity of the subject matter.
We want to acknowledge again this year’s brilliant judges—Claudia La Rocco, Wayne Koestenbaum, Fiona Wright, Eileen Myles and Leslie Jamison—who very kindly agreed to volunteer their time and brainpower to pick the best pieces.
Our prize would not exist without the generosity of RMIT’s non/fictionLab as well as the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund. We thank both of these bodies for their ongoing support.
If iconic film critic and theorist Andre Bazin were alive today, there’s a modern-day medium I’m sure he’d be keeping a close eye on. After his long day, deep in cinematic contemplation I’d like to imagine him kicking off his boots, pouring a nightcap and settling down for a nice evening-in with one of social media’s most recent trappings – Instagram Stories. Lighting up a Gauloises and tapping that enticing top row of circles, down the rabbit-hole he’d go, devouring collection after collection of user created micro-edits; hit and miss in their quality for sure, but often tantalisingly in tune with his well-documented tastes.
Bazin was a co-founder of the seminal film journal Cahiers du Cinema, and an ardent fan of the Open Form that came to prominence with the Italian Neo-Realists in the 1940s and went on to heavily influence the French New Wave. Distinguishing itself from the Hollywood Studio System and other Formalist cinema, the Open Form liberated the visual narrative from the shackles of artifice: largely doing away with manufactured sets, costumes and in some cases professional actors in favour of shooting real people, on location – just like most Instagram Stories. Bazin felt there was a particular kind of authenticity that most keenly arose when film-makers began to think of the lens as a window to objective realities rather than a frame for subjective ones; feelings that would surely have made him a fascinated observer of this recent social media phenomenon.
On Instagram, each user can upload unlimited 15-second videos and stills in order to tell their Story; and the resulting content, when the balance is right, often tumbles intriguingly into the realm of Neorealism – a delicate balance of the real and the contrived. The potential of such a concept would have Bazin undoubtedly hooked, a practically endless stream of compilations created by a sea of users, cataloguing their day’s events and pulling back the curtains onto marvellous movable windows into their own objective realities.
Composite images & screenshots by Doosie Morris, licensed under fair use.
A year ago the popular app, with more than 700 million monthly users, launched Stories – a feature that allows users continue adding unlimited 15-second videos, as well as stills, to a Story that is viewable on their account for just 24 hours. With its launch, the official Instagram blog declared “With Instagram Stories, you don’t have to worry about over-posting. Instead, you can share as much as you want throughout the day — with as much creativity as you want.” Like Snapchat, and Vine before it, the function taps into our natural urges to record and share stories: of ourselves and of the people and environments we encounter, applying our own creative flourish to the final product. The format of Stories allows users to create micro movies, that clip-by-clip open sometimes surprisingly engaging portals while also tapping into the very essence of what Open Form cinema aims to do: “offer a segment, a snap shot, or a fragment from a constantly flowing and evolving reality.”
A preference for this Open Form approach can be traced back as far as the films of the Lumiere Brothers, true cinematic pioneers of the 19th century who were not only among the world’s first film-makers, but also some of the first to embrace the power of true-to-life footage in storytelling. Shooting on-location rather than on-set and creating characters who were understood to inhabit a world that extended beyond the cinematic frame or the film’s plot was revolutionary. Such practices and ideals went on to become hallmarks of Italian Neorealism and The French New Wave; with Bazin being widely regarded as the godfather of the latter. By default Instagram Stories seems to honour “Bazin’s chief contribution to contemporary film theory: his appreciation of the revelatory nature of the photographic image [and his belief that] Film records the rich continuum of space and time as it happens.” Italian Neorealist classics such as Bicycle Thieves and Rome, Open City through to iconic New Wave films like Breathless, 400 Blows and Jules et Jim, each in their own ways laud the notion that film is at its most profound when it captures its version of reality, rather than creating one. The resulting influence of such innovative works has lingered well into many visual mediums to the present day; and through Instagram Stories it can even be seen in the everyday.
Since the advent of television, the Internet and more recently smartphones, the consumption of visual narratives has undergone unprecedented development, yet almost all of the work produced in the last century can be divided into simply being Open or Closed Form. This is the difference between the formalist framing and meticulous construction of works by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Sofia Coppola or Wes Anderson; as opposed to the more organic, free-wheeling tone of productions from Jean-Luc Godard, a fledgling Harmony Korine or Julie Delpy. While it’s conceivable that in the right hands Instagram Stories could be utilised by those with more formalist bents, it is evident that the medium most naturally lends itself to the sentiments of the Open Form. While there’s no hard data available yet on formal approaches to Instagram Stories, a survey of public users reveals a surprising number of Stories employing stylistically sound Open Form values to tell their stories. A 20-segment Story uploaded by a skateboarder from Mexico City (@bikpadrino), offers remarkable access, in that short time, to a unique narrative. Lying in his bed, shifting the camera from his own bare chest to his sleeping girlfriend; the discovery of a litter of puppies in an abandoned car; sneaking up on a friend in the shower; revving his motorbike, holding a tight shot on the exhaust, before panning to the long road ahead – his story is subtle, but astute; scrappy but deliberate.
I can watch another man (@jkirksy) who installs fake grass for a living as he goes about his day: annoying fellow employees, driving through Melbourne suburbs, eating at service stations and occasionally doing his job; what seems menial, often ridiculous at first, slowly develops into a meandering plot, with characters, locations and back story. The jump-cuts enforced by the 15 second restriction serve well to push these stories forward, with the spatial and temporal movement mixing and matching in ways reminiscent of the mood invoked by proponents of the Open Form. It would seem that the most intriguing of these stories exist with little consideration given to their overall impression, yet there is something innate in certain users’ ability to cherry-pick particular scenes from their day to enchanting effect, a spell that might be broken by over thinking the process. These are the accidental innovators, whose knack for the medium might inspire exploration of its possibilities by more intentional storytellers.
Of course not all Instagram Stories are created equal – many accounts are used by celebrities to promote products (or themselves) and literally millions of others are little more than asinine video journals. But when a user, intentionally or not, opens a window to their audience and allows the lens to capture a “diegetic world [that] appears as if what it depicts might continue in much the same way even if the camera were turned off,” then the results often speak the language of Bazin, of the likes of Rossellini, Godard and their contemporaries and to the doctrine of the Open Form. To Bazin film was “Ideally… a window on a given reality or specific milieu.” There could scarcely be a better description of what Instagram Stories are at their core and especially what they are at their best.
The creative role of the user as the director of their own story seems to prevent the Stories from appearing as testimonies. As with Open Form cinema, Instagram Stories in all their rawness and realness remain expressions rather than documents. The Stories that work best as visual narratives cultivate a sense of whimsy and vague stylisation, while retaining a spontaneous, true-to-life aspect. The close-up of a lobster in a restaurant fish tank, a long shot of child running into the woods, a street scene, the user in the bathroom mirror. These are simple, often crude snippets of a reality unfolding; but of course each user chooses what they record and what they overlook, making it easy to infer a degree of artistic sensibility to the resulting montage.
Allowing users to curate a series of micro-edits can then, in the right circumstances, produce detailed narratives with a distinct, individual style often emerging after some regular use, making each user an auteur as well. Ever ahead of the curve, New Wave icon Jean-Luc Godard concurred in an interview regarding Film Socialisme, months before Instagram Stories was even launched declaring “…anyway, with mobile phones and everything, everyone is now an auteur.” What users choose to capture, from what angle, through what filter and with what soundscape ensures each Story is an exercise in amateur direction – and autership, whether the user realises or not.
In the same interview Godard was asked “about the significance of the llama and the donkey in Film Socialisme (2010), which have prompted much chin-stroking among critics.” “The truth,” he said, “is that they were in the field next to the petrol station in Switzerland where we shot the sequence. Voilà. No mystery. I use what I find.”" This spirit of spontaneity exists on Instagram too with most of the Stories I’ve encountered being just that: people using what they find, to tell, add to, support or enhance a broader narrative, enriching it with the truth found in things that appear organically.
None of this is to say that anything but a tiny fraction of the micro-movies on Instagram can be perceived to have any cinematic qualities, or that they are intentionally created as true narratives at all. It is to say, though, that the mode lends itself to ways of expressing stories and objective realities in ways that naturally align themselves with the stylistic sentiments echoed from the Lumiere brothers, through Rosselini, Godard and beyond – and that the medium has the potential to deliver sophisticated Open Form works of virtually limitless possibility. There is the small matter of the resulting production vanishing from existence at day’s end – however, users are able to download their work and publish it elsewhere; allowing creators to catalogue and control distribution of their work.
In much the same way as television, web-series, long-form drama and other AV advancements have changed the way we consume visual narratives, so too the little miracle of Instagram Stories takes the cinematic innovations and philosophies of some of Film’s greatest theorists, movements and directors and utilises them within the context of a new mode of creation and consumption. For now, Instagram Stories remains somewhat of a guilty pleasure with occasional moments of brilliance; but it would be both my suspicion and my hope that it catches on as an outlet for increasingly refined audio-visual storytelling.
Doosie Morris is a Melbourne writer and critic. She enjoys strong coffee, cold beer, deep breaths and big laughs.
The virgin with long hair
gives the kava
to the worms
wriggling in a circle
with wide-open mouths surrounding her.
She no longer wants them to eat dirt.
The worms grow into the men of Tonga,
brown as fonua.
The men drag her from Pulotu – the Underworld.
God and Tonga is my Heritage
I dangle on the tamanu
my fihi hair
reaching for the ocean the spirits
from the land
of a hundred chords
my grandfather watches
sacrifices me (tata).
Upside down I fall
as his puaka palms slam!
The Holy Bible –
my branch is broken.
I have been dragged from Pulotu.
My dirt is raised to God.
I am caught with Lose, Lose, Lose
in my mouth
royal red roses
Queen Salote herself but hung
My body is snapped
with a torn ta’ovala
around my waist
My kui fefine beats the hiapo bark to submission
turning it into paper
My kui fefine beats the kaka’s red roots to submission
turning it into ink
To make a ngatu
my nana learns to write her own oral tradition
which is her saying that the truth will always show its face
with the wrinkles of fakamalu o Katea
Nana only uses her wrinkles for the story of Kate
a woman who gave illegitimate birth
whilst climbing up the steep hills of ‘Eua
she spreads this out over the front lawn of
our housing commission in Liverpool
My grandmother paints the cheek of truth
on the church community board Rape! Rape! Rape! In the house of Fe’ofa’aki!
the priest removes her message
because it is not Holy
she writes it again
My aunty Samena with her black hair
cut to her neck gives birth to a girl
my nana refuses to touch it
the child’s father is Samuela Holani
who was once my aunty Salato’s husband
Katea Katea Katea Ha’u
my cousin waddles in a nappy
to the front of our home
Nana sits us on her lap and says Fai’aki e ‘ilo ‘oua ‘e fai’aki e fanongo
Do it by knowing not by hearing
Nana covers our hands with kaka
Aue aue Malapo I tell you
I stop washing the dishes
bubbles of soap
running down my hands
in the elephant grey kitchen
where my pa and my aunties and nana
My pa is a man made of leather
folded, weathered, and bendable
into a speaking breathing taro
enough to feed the plenty
gulping cheap red wine.
I tell you I learn how
my brother no good too shy
he no learn the English
But I know English
I no shy I no care
I see the sign
I just talk it.
Only his hands, hard as red clay
give me true meaning
as they sprout everywhere
amongst the silver clanking of cutlery
like the blow holes called whale rocks
in a Tongan village
I have forgotten the name of.
I learn him
when I make Date Line hotel in Tonga
I make only 6 dolla a week
no good no good.
I then move to New Zealand.
Make window and farm – real man.
I would sell mangoes, bananas and taro leaves
and maybe make 100 dolla a month
How does a man have time
to speak this much?
And so fast that it hurts my eyes
just to listen.
It must be an Islander thing.
can paint patterns of conversation too.
He goes on about me learning Tongan
like the kaka ink of the ngatu
so red and brown and permanent.
Maybe that ink
cannot be just for women.
I don’t know why my brother is shy
if he no shy
As a millennial I grew up being told that the internet was going to ruin my life, that the planet as we know it would be bursting into flames and in the grip of an immigration crisis due to climate change, and that if I wasn’t divorced, forever alone or a single mother I was in the minority. Oh, and I’d probably never own a house and would be likely to live with my parents until I was eventually caring for them in their old age.
Depressingly, this premonition has largely been proven true, as explored by Briohny Doyle in her book Adult Fantasy. In this memoir/social analysis/highly entertaining book, Doyle delves into the adulthood of the generation that everyone loves to call inept – the millennials. She uses her own experiences as a trigger to explore the social institutions that have let us down or at least thrown some roadblocks in our direction: the education system, the concept of heterosexual marriage and child rearing, the conventional approach to labour and careers, the impending doom of climate change and the fact that even if we did get our shit together, there probably wouldn’t be anywhere to house it (unless our parents are willing to provide for us).
In case it wasn’t stressful enough to realise that my dreams of becoming a successful writer who ends up rich enough to buy a castle in Scotland (a la J.K. Rowling), even the fictional characters I aspired to become have ended up as failures. Never have I felt more keenly the grim realities of my generation than when watching the Gilmore Girls revival of 2016, and seeing Rory Gilmore’s career go up in flames.
As far as Gilmore Girls fans go I am an original. I grew up watching the show, and binge-watched the final season when I was graduating from year 12. My best friend and I spent our free periods in her lounge room up the road from school, watching Rory’s final year at Yale, her proposal from boyfriend number three (the privileged bad-boy with shampoo-commercial worthy hair, Logan) and her renewed skill as a writer and journalist.
Just as we were starting to dream our own dreams, and make plans for our impending futures – futures in which we no longer had the mandatory structure of school to guide us and could put to the test our assumed talents and ambition – Rory was stepping out into the world post-college. Predictably, given her track record as a standout achiever who rarely faced any challenges on her path to success, she immediately landed a very ‘2007’ job as a reporter for an online magazine, hitting the Obama campaign trail with the rest of the press pack.
For years, I measured my own progress against Rory’s, as a fellow high-achieving teacher’s pet with grandiose aspirations as a writer. When I dropped out of university in 2008 and returned home to Canberra, I watched Season 6 of Gilmore Girls on repeat, and reminded myself that Rory had also taken a detour, and she ended up just fine. When I was plotting my own writing career in my early teens, I used Rory as a blueprint, working my way to writing for my own university newspaper and throwing myself at every possible writing opportunity. I had no reason to doubt her approach – this was the girl who got into Harvard, Yale and Princeton, was the editor of the Yale Daily News, landed a job at the Stanford Gazette before leaving university (granted, that job then mysteriously disappeared and was never spoken of again), and then got a sought after writing position just days after graduation.
She wasn’t exactly mediocre in other parts of her life either. She had a series of attractive if somewhat underwhelming boyfriends (except Jess, he is amazing and I won’t hear a word against him), a fulfilling bond with her mother, she was cute and fashionable and cool enough to be friends with Lane Kim.
When the series finally ended in 2007 I was glad that the conclusion was anything but conclusive. I liked to imagine Rory out in the world, excelling as a journalist and eventually achieving her dream of being a foreign correspondent. I liked thinking that she would eventually reconnect with Jess and they would be successful writers together, maybe alongside a rescue dog with a literary-themed name.
Imagining that Rory went on to have the life that she wanted gave me confidence that I, too, could achieve my dreams. It was a confidence that was otherwise sorely lacking in my generation from other outside sources.
In Adult Fantasy, Doyle describes the criticism hurled at millennials by preceding generations – the way our supposed inability to purchase property is a result of frivolous spending, or how our constantly changing careers are ascribed to a short attention span, not the increasing casualization of the work force. It’s necessary to point out that Doyle restricts her analysis to middle/upper-middle class millennials, and there is no real attempt at an intersectional analysis in her critique. However, this is appropriate when Doyle singles out Rory Gilmore as a representative of the millennial crisis. Despite Gilmore Girls attempting to posit Lorelai and Rory as having done it tough, they still live in a beautiful house in Conneticut, and Rory gets a Macbook for her 16th birthday. I mean, she’s hardly on struggle street.
Depressingly, her privilege does nothing to ensure her success. What the 2016 Gilmore Girls revival showed Doyle, and me, was that Rory was not special – she was just as millennial as all of us. We find her in 2016 jobless, unable to get published, dating her ex-boyfriend Logan in secret while he’s engaged to someone else, and without an address of her own. She’s a mess. A directionless, never-quite-made-it mess.
In fact, a trope throughout the reboot is Rory’s refusal to identify with the ‘thirty-something gang’ in Stars Hollow – a group of young people who have ‘been to college but the real world spit them out like a stale piece o' gum and now they're back in their old rooms'. Rory is determined not to become a stereotype millennial approaching middle age, and yet, according to Doyle’s analysis in Adult Fantasy, Rory’s life as she approaches thirty is not entirely uncommon for an aspiring millennial writer.
Writing of herself, Doyle says, ‘As I approached my thirtieth year, the circumstance of my life was not very different from when I was twenty.’ She lists her part-time, unchallenging jobs, her rental accommodation and her creative endeavours that only sometimes delivered a return on investment: ‘All this felt fine – most often, more than fine. Nevertheless, with each new statistic, with each damning indictment, the sense of somehow having missed the memo on how to grow up got stronger.’
Doyle’s fear of somehow having gotten the recipe wrong when it came to cooking up the ideal adult life is reflected in a panicked Rory confessing her own fear of failure to Jess in the revival. ‘I have no job, I have no money, I have no underwear!’ she exclaims – and so she does exactly what most of us have done at some point to remedy the situation. She goes home to Mum, and her old bedroom, and starts exercising to tap-dancing videos to help relieve her stress.
Adult Fantasy reveals the not-so-funny aspects of the millennial crisis. In a chapter that tracks her progress against one of her best friend’s, Doyle is talking to her psychologist about writing the book: ‘I see people about this problem all the time,’ the psychologist says, referring to the struggle of achieving ‘adulthood’. ‘Mostly twenty-nine year olds coming up to their thirtieth birthday and losing it. One guy was ready to kill himself because he felt so worthless.’
It’s a sobering point. We exist in a capitalist society that continues to measure our worth against our earning power, our stable relationships (as defined by heteronormativity), and our ability to buy a house; but that doesn’t then take into account the uniquely awful state of play millennials are contending with in a post-GFC world where the horrors of climate change are looming and digital disruption is swiftly eating all available jobs.
Rory might be a fictional character, but she’s a surprisingly useful case study. She grows up in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, being told that the world is her oyster by the adults in her life, only to swiftly realise once she enters the job market that being great at making lists and having a can-do attitude aren’t enough to combat the dire economic and environmental situation she now has to exist in.
Rory herself isn’t entirely ignorant of the possible pitfalls of her silver-spoon upbringing. While still in high school, she points out to Lorelai that perhaps her approach to parenting has been less than realistic. ‘'This is not how you raise a child. You don't send them out there with a false sense of pride because out there, in the real world, no one will coddle you. I'd rather know now right now if I'm gonna be working at CNN or carrying a basket around its offices with sandwiches in it.'
Rory’s eventual mediocrity, however, is slightly unexpected, given that Rory (and most people reading this) are ultimately the lucky ones. We have parents who are in a social class that have guaranteed for us that we’ll probably be middle class, we have tertiary educations, and we live in first-world countries where there is a system of welfare that will see to our basic needs. Our equivalents in developing countries, or those more immediately affected by conflict, and/or climate change have less time to dwell on the injustice our generation has been dealt, with the more pressing demands of survival to attend to.
Doyle doesn’t touch on this too overtly in Adult Fantasy, though she is aware of the limitations of her analysis, as they focus on middle/upper-middle class white young people. In fact the definition of ‘millennial’ as interrogated by Doyle and most other critiques isn’t intersectional in the least – to be a digital native, to live at home with one’s parents, to work casual/unskilled jobs and still retain the ability to sip lattes and eat avocado implies privilege that is restricted to first-world countries, social mobility, and able-bodies.
As it applies to me (and to Rory), though, this definition is uncomfortably correct, even taking my migrant background and my parent’s original poverty into consideration. It’s clear my frustration with Rory Gilmore in the Gilmore Girls revival is really an expansion of my general frustration with the situation I find myself in as a millennial. With little certainty for the future, and pressure from all sides to figure it out like our forbears did, millennials are in a tight corner with few ways out.
Adult Fantasy raises this uncertainty early, and it lingers in the peripheries of every topic Doyle explores, haunting her obsession with reaching an adult milestone such as marriage, or her fear that the effort and determination she has placed in a creative career, to the detriment of other options, will achieve no outcome.
Like Rory, Doyle and so many of us are still holding out on the hope that our paths will become clearer, our outcomes solidified, that age will resolve the issues that plague our generation. Whether this will be the case remains to be seen for all of us, including Rory – in the final scene of the Gilmore Girls revival Rory is pregnant, with no obvious father to her unborn child, no job, and presumably still no underwear. If this is what adulthood looks like, it’s definitely a far cry from what I imagined for Rory when I watched her graduate Yale in 2007.
But, as Doyle says in the final pages of Adult Fantasy, ‘We all know there is no destination called adult. That is part of what makes us so anxious about it.’ Perhaps a latte and an avocado are our only sources of comfort for this existential anxiety. Let us eat brunch.
Zoya Patel founded online journal Feminartsy in 2014, following four years as Editor-In-Chief of Lip Magazine. She has been writing about feminist issues for over a decade, and has had work published in a number of publications including Right Now, iD.co, Junkee and more. Zoya was Highly Commended in the Scribe Publishing Non-Fiction Prize 2015, was the 2014 recipient of the Anne Edgeworth Young Writers’ Fellowship, and was named the 2015 ACT Young Woman of the Year. She is represented by Curtis Brown Australia. @zoyajpatel
While scientists cheer, historians tremble, and Trump turns the wall blueprints into a dome, my burning question is this: what then happens to our relationship with God? Would contact with extraterrestrial intelligence contradict the tenets of humanity's prominent religions? Would our religions collapse?