‘Joli pivert-chat pretty pussycat: A Review of Marie Darrieussecq’s “The Baby”’, by Frances Egan

 
Credit: Text Publishing

Credit: Text Publishing

 

“Why don’t you want kids?” I ask him in bed, keeping my face turned away so he doesn’t notice that I’m blushing. I don’t like that the question suggests that I might want them. And that I might want them with him. I want to be cooler.  

He hesitates for a while and I have to stop myself from saying something else. He always thinks before he speaks, much more likely to be on the verge of saying something than actually saying it.

“It just doesn’t interest me,” he replies eventually. He is lying on his back, looking up at the ceiling. “So I wouldn’t be good at it.”

 Fear about being a bad father is open for reassurance, even persuasion. But indifference is so slippery – there is nothing to push back against.

***

Marie Darrieussecq says that a book triggered her desire to have children. She was reading The Little Horses of Tarquinia by Marguerite Duras and came across the line: “since the moment he was born, I’ve been living in madness”. Was madness a good thing, I wondered? Darrieussecq craved it. She wanted to be swept up in the fiction of being a mother and entering a world almost alongside reality. “Folie”, she calls it. Or “folly” in the English translation. Such a neat match of French and English, the two words soft like their meaning. But is that what it is to be a mother? Frothy, excessive, frivolous, weird, unfathomable. The French ‘folie’ is larger than the English. It can house you: historically a folie was a luxurious place of leisure. But the term also refers to a deep and consuming kind of madness – not only light and whimsical but serious and debilitating.

In her book The Baby, Darrieussecq writes that she wants to “polish words the way you do silverware”. The baby, the mother – words whose sounds could be clearer. Perhaps if we push the terms this way and that, we will see the things themselves anew. I’m conscious of the fact that it is the translator, Penny Hueston, who chooses the words that we hear as she renders Darrieussecq’s French into English. And she chooses them prettily: the text has a lilting rhythm, soft sounds – it has shapes that sit neatly beside the original. Folly for folie. Chickadee honey bunny pretty pussycat for joli pivert-chat. They match like beautiful mirrors of Darrieussecq’s own intent, bébé and baby, reflecting over and over until we understand them.

***

 In the tea room of the School of Languages and Linguistics, a few of us are talking through a general ambivalence about having children.

“I don’t want children and I don’t want not to,” I say. The double negative is awkward, ugly – but it has to be that way.

E agrees with me: “I’m so glad someone else is ambivalent,” she effuses.

But is this ambivalence? I’m struck that both my feelings are refusals, apprehensions, and that the sentiment rings unpleasantly of fear. People pass in and out, eyes unsure where to look, as we turn the words around. Mother and mère. They dump their Dilma black-tea bags in hot water and wait quietly for the colour to deepen: wanting to chime in or offended by the personal in the public office space?

Darrieussecq begins her text with a problem: “A baby human being,” she writes, “there must be something to investigate, to understand here.” She goes on to document the tiny details of a new mother’s daily routine: tending to the baby as he sleeps, eats, cries, attempting to navigate the streets of Paris with a pram, and going on holiday “en famille”. The fact that she is a practising psychoanalyst as well as a writer informs her text. Where being a mother remains so wrapped in mystery, Darrieussecq aspires to concretise the feelings in words – for it is the expression of motherhood that she seeks as much as a study of the baby. Interlaced with the often-closed world of mother-newborn are the quotes and opinions of others: Darrieussecq’s personal life joins a larger discourse through The Baby’s explicit intertexuality. As such, the account is visceral yet detached, bodily yet scientific. Reading her text, I’m reminded of Maggie Nelson’s breathtaking The Argonauts – both clash the physical and taboo with the philosophical and the literary. But what is so crucial to Nelson’s and Darrieussecq’s work is that, somehow, there is no clash. The worlds meld seamlessly together, as though they should have always been that way.

Can a book tell me whether I want children, I wonder? I thought that one day I would know. But I’m in my thirties and everything remains the same – my answer is still, as ever, “not now”. What happens when the now moves and the statement becomes not ever. Subtly, without any action, without any moment of realisation. To what extent can we research the question, intellectualise it, work it out like a scientific trial?

I had a child because I knew I’d enjoy it.
I had a child because I met that man there.
I had a child because I am in favour of the production of decent people.
I had a child because I was told that I wouldn’t have any.
I had a child because life is better than nothing.

Darrieussecq lists the reasons she would give if she had to justify her choice to. So often the justification is about not to.

It is her first reason—enjoyment—that comes through most in the text. Darrieussecq takes pleasure in the baby in an all-consuming folly: her love is obsessive, beautiful, sensual, addictive. “I wanted to have two of him, three of him,” she writes, “collect his clones, give birth to him in an eternal present tense.” Hueston’s choice to add “tense” to “eternal present”, a nuance only implicit in the French, brings this sentence neatly to the importance of language itself. The baby’s routine seeps into and defines Darrieussecq’s writing. Its cries “slice through the […] pages, from paragraph to paragraph”, and the text moves with the mother’s experience of the moment. As he sleeps-eats-cries, The Baby’s questions jump in a way that is smooth yet fitful, repetitive yet not tautological.

Darrieussecq wonders where the baby is in words, in literature, in our intellectual world. Tenancière and romancière, housewife and female novelist; her mutual identities continue to sit uncomfortably beside each other. These terms are unconnected in English yet somehow comparable in French. ‘Tenancière’ and ‘romancière’ possess the same structure, the same feminine endings which, by separating the role from its default masculine, cast aspersion on the identity and alter the connotations. A ‘tenancier’ is a keeper, holder, possessor – in the feminine form, it has historically designated a brothel owner. A ‘romancier’ is respectable but a ‘romancière’ problematic – Darrieussecq recalls Rousseau’s conviction that women should not write but have babies.

Even today, Darrieussecq’s French critics wonder if what she has written is literature at all. One condescendingly calls it a diary between breastfeeds; another questions why we would read something so boring and self-satisfying when we don’t even know the baby. Significantly, The Baby was published in French in 2002, long before Text put it out in English this year. Since the original was released, the literary climate has changed, and English language publishing has seen a boom in texts on motherhood. But what Darrieussecq does so well, and that which remains innovative, is to write the banal aspects of looking after a baby. For it is boring, she admits. Yet delving into that boredom is less so – Darrieussecq probes the loss of mental stimulation, intellectualism and professionalism that so often remains a part of motherhood. She writes about the “happiness of being among adults” where one participates in a dialogue rather than simply receiving ‘areuh’ in return. What results, if not a conversation with the baby, are the words of her text.

*** 

I hesitated before pitching this review. Surely, I was not the right person to comment on such a book – I don’t know babies, I’m not maternal. And, more than that, for so long I had actively quashed the very topic, uncomfortable even entertaining the question of what if. But all my friends and family were talking about babies, having them, asking. And so was I, almost subconsciously, without premeditation. Moreover, The Baby begins from a premise that resonates with me: Darrieussecq approaches her project from a place of strangeness, shock, ignorance. For her too, ‘mother’ feels like someone (something?) else. I sense that I am on Darrieussecq’s team; she would surely be ok with the childless woman daring to write about mothering. And daring to indulge in her own story.

When I used to work at a hospital, colleagues would use the terms ‘baby’, ‘mum’ and ‘dad’, without the definite article. In the children’s ward, they would report on how ‘mum’ was doing. But it’s not your mum, I wanted to yell. And I could never pin down why it bothered me so much – why I felt a burning need to burst this bubble of cosiness. Like me, Darrieussecq cringes at the drop of the article. She says that, without it, intimacy is imposed, like someone using ‘tu’ when you seek the distance of ‘vous’. She takes the opposite approach. The Baby has no names but teems with definite articles: the baby, the mother, the father of the baby. All parties are defined by their relationship to the tiny little human in the centre. And the effect is one of detachment: a scientific gaze, and a reach towards universality. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know this baby.

“It is a love I had no idea about,” she acknowledges, going on to describe a sensuous, almost scandalous love. “I cuddle his delicious warm body against mine, I eat him, I kidnap him.” Darrieussecq breaks taboos with her urge to fondle the baby, to kill it, to express paedophilic love – a representation of babies that the literary world has long allowed, even if some among it continue to resist the more quotidian. Just for the pleasure of it, she writes in a refrain: “my son’s dick, my son’s dick.” At multiple points, she compares the love she feels for the baby to that between lovers. The analogy is unnerving but thought-provoking. I can’t imagine love for a baby, but what if it resembled that which I felt for a partner? That sort of love was the closest I came to understanding. It is a love that you learn and dissect, a love that moves from zero to something before your eyes.

*** 

I was the one who said “I love you” first. I had a cold at the time and my voice was husky instead of high pitched. Sexier, my friends told me. For once, the question at the end of my sentences was gone.

I wasn’t interested in saying I love you just because I felt it. I said it only because I knew he felt the same way and would say it back. Even so, I was sticky and hot with anticipation, the doona that was so cosy a moment ago suddenly stifling.  When I finally said the words, my sexy voice broke in the middle so that “I love you” was just “I” and “you”. I wasn’t sure he had heard.

Is it easier to love a baby? Certain that it feels the same way, or else, undesiring of its reciprocation. Infinite, unconditional – these are the words we associate with motherly love.

Darrieussecq’s second reason: “I had a child because I met that man there.” Does this logic work the other way? I didn’t have a child because I met that man there. Now that we are allowed to ask the question, it seems so many women (because it is still women, ultimately, who do the choosing) don’t know how to answer it. “With child”, as Darrieussecq writes in English in her French text, or “childfree”? And is it a problem if childfree results from circumstance? Some people seem to carry with them a strong and inherent “yes” – and he gave me an inherent “no”: “it just doesn’t interest me” – but how can I make such a decision irrespective of other parts of my life?

My own list:

I want children because I’m afraid of what it means not to.
I want children because my friends will, and our relationship will change.
I want children because I want to be seen as a normal woman, capable of having a family.
I want children because FOMO.
I want children because he does not, and the possibility is moving out of reach.
I want children because I want family and people all around. Not babies but grown-ups, like I have now.

Surely the justification has to be to. We start from a place of not, if only because we haven’t yet. But my last reason is the only one that isn’t about everyone else and that isn’t, at least not completely, about the problem of the alternative.

“Saint de Beauvoir” as Darrieussecq calls the French philosopher, wrote that “one cannot be an intellectual and a good mother”. In Darrieussecq’s words, “on peut pas penser et pouponner”: “think” and “dote on” in the translation. In order to write, then, she takes a pen in her right hand and puts the little finger of her left in the baby’s mouth. She waits until he shuts up or drifts off, or until the grandparents of the baby take him elsewhere. But ‘penser’ and ‘pouponner’ do go together: the soft bumpiness of the ps in these terms fit neatly into place. Like poussin, lapin-pin-pin, pussycat. In fact, Darrieussecq writes precisely because/from/of the baby. Her text is what brings writing and mothering together but, since any established distinction originated from men, it does so in a way that challenges and transforms both.

When Darrieussecq kills off the baby, writes about incest and indulges in a paedophilic reverie—for it is dreamy and alluring—her words make it smoothly into the English text, even beautifully. When she writes, though, that “le bébé rend les femmes idiotes”, or “babies make women crazy”, it is cut from the translation. The preceding paragraph speaks derisively of the way women envelope mothering in mystery and this line, a paragraph of its own, slices into the reader’s reverie, stopping her too from getting carried away. Perhaps this is the new taboo, at least in contemporary English literature. We can write what is shocking, and what is apparently ‘feminine’, but we shy away from anything that depicts women as hysterical, mothers as sentimental, females as hormonal.

I catch up with a friend who has struggled for a long time trying to conceive. The not having has entered her body and altered her consciousness. I mention the piece without thinking and immediately regret it. Reflected in her eyes, I feel frivolous, insulting, as though I’m asking the wrong questions and writing the wrong piece. But Darrieussecq’s point in The Baby is above all about more. We need more writing on babies and mères, more literature on feelings, more thoughts of folly turned this way and that. I just need to read the other book now – the one where the woman does not choose to.



Frances Egan is a translator, writer, and PhD candidate at The University of Melbourne and the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3. Her work centres on identity in translation.

‘The dislocation of now: A Review of Ali Smith’s “Spring”’, by Will Cox

 
Credit: Penguin Books

Credit: Penguin Books

 

Now: in May 2019, it’s Spring.

Now is relative. Ours is a different now to the UK, where this book was published. Here, Spring comes out at the beginning of autumn.

Growing up in rural Tasmania in the 90s, now was a baffling concept. All our culture was imported. It happened in Britain or America, or possibly as close as the mainland, and it mostly happened years ago. At school we had textbooks from the 1980s and cultural attitudes from the 1950s. On the weekends my parents dragged me to National Trust homes, through sitting rooms perfectly preserved in the late nineteenth century, through gardens full of introduced flora, to public tea rooms serving scones and cream. I saw, through the cordons, homes frozen at the point of value; older, truer.

In the evenings we ate overboiled vegetables and watched repeats of Keeping Up Appearances and Blackadder, sitcoms about repulsive British eccentrics displaced in class and time. These episodes looped endlessly, with the occasional Christmas special, which would air in May or August or February, reaffirming my belief that the world happened elsewhere, and elsewhen. This was British soft power in action, and mine is a firmly colonised psyche.

Now: I lay in my front yard on unseasonably hot April days and read this book about now, set there. There, where I lived for a while, everything is closer together, accessible by rail, and the years are closer together too, the decades collapsing into an ever-present past. I put down the novel to take a nice photo of the sky, or to write some notes. I read a few more pages, some more notes, some more staring at the sky. I go running. I don’t run to dance music, I run to BBC Radio 4, catching Woman’s Hour and On Your Farm and the shipping forecast, current affairs programs with a calm, unflinching air of stately order, formats like remnants from a less urgent time. 

Maintaining a connection to the here and now has always been a problem of mine.

For the last few years Scottish writer Ali Smith has been working on a season cycle of novels. Each is written in the months before publication, and is intended as a record of now. It’s a willfully risky artistic move that could come out horribly, or worse, prosaically. Smith told The Guardian a few weeks ago:

The concept was always to do what the Victorian novelists did at a time when the novel was meant to be new…The pact with the book is one that means it will always be as up-to-the-moment as possible…That’s why it’s called the novel – what it can do, what it’s for, what it does.

In a scene set in an art gallery Smith describes a Tacita Dean picture: “an avalanche coming down the mountain picture towards anyone looking at it, an avalanche that had been stilled for just that moment so that whoever saw it had time to comprehend it”. Smith wants to write the avalanche, and she wants to do it as a series of four novels.

Every effort has been made to make Spring and its companions feel urgent. The type is huge and unjustified, sitting ragged on the page as if the text has been CTRL+C/CTRL+V’d into the template the night before it hits the printers, like a literary dispatch from an artistic front line, a work that can’t wait around for typesetters to sap its timeliness. The cover is a simple template holding David Hockney’s 2006 painting ‘Late Spring Tunnel’, capturing a spot in Woldgate Woods which Hockney has painted again and again and filmed for a video project. As in all of Smith’s season cycle novels, the stories just tumble out, full of asides and parables and flashbacks, and fictions within the fiction, nostalgias tucked inside nostalgias.

The huge type tells us: In Britain 2019, there’s a TV director, Richard, who’s sure his best work is behind him. That best work was all done on a series of Play For Today programs in the 1970s, collaborations with late writer and best friend Paddy. Richard is consumed with grief for her, and for the incisive creativity of her groundbreaking work, and for the past that she occupied and understood better than he did. He reads old postcards, fragments of now shot through with wish you were here sentiments. He recalls his father lamenting the disappearance of a busker with a saxophone, one day suddenly replaced by a guitarist: “Every day he makes me come back and check this bridge to see if the saxophone man is back. Apart from that having a lovely time. Wish you were here.”

“People spoke about it in parliament”, Richard recalls about one of their plays. “People understood more from it than they knew from a thousand newspaper reports”. This from the days of a small media, three TV channels. Play for Today was a series of high-minded, socially-conscious TV dramas which might reach tens of millions of viewers who had few other viewing options.

Elsewhere there’s Brit, a detention centre worker thoughtlessly upholding the immigration regime of an increasingly brutal government. This is about as now as it gets, as socially conscious and urgent as contemporary British fiction can hope to be. Brit works for SA4A, a private security firm doing the dirty business of detaining refugees, operating at arms-length of the government, perhaps a thinly-veiled analogue for real-life global security firm G4S. Brit is a DCO, and the inmates are “deets”, or details, and “all [the inmates] really had in common was shit, an open toilet and being stuck in here in indefinite detention”, and of course it’s harrowing and all very real, but Smith coats everything in an optimistic layer of magical whimsy. A mysterious schoolgirl walks straight into the centre, through all the security doors and past all the guards and, using little more than a child’s logic, convinces management to clean up their act.

But Spring and its counterparts are as much about reaching into the past as they are about probing the present, and therein lie the lazy bits. In Autumn, a bureaucratic nightmare trip to the post office took up a significant portion of a slim, quaint novel. Spring doesn’t quite plum those depths of boomerish whingeing, but a scene on a train in which ignorant drones sit glued to screens while our hero, Brit, has her mind opened by a mysteriously wise schoolgirl, comes damn close. 

It’s contemporary, it’s urgent, it’s now, but beneath the veneer of the frozen present, Smith presents Britain as a National Trust version of itself. This is the present rendered in broad strokes of oils, the realism of the moment hidden behind the thickness of the brush, the violence of the global refugee crisis sugared with a bright palette and whimsical artificiality.

It’s the Play For Today model that Smith aspires to in this cycle, that mode of contemporary, of-the-minute State-of-Britain drama. That sits strangely in 2019. We’re inundated with now now, and it’s easier than ever to publish and to share etc. etc., and this is a statement published in a book, which is a far more solid, real format, which we trust more, which we hold as a bound record of contemporary ills and attitudes that will stand the test of time. The tacit dream is that in the future it will be a fragment of now that will conjure respect, not nostalgia.

The presentation of Spring is of now. But any attempt to depict now with reference to a nineteenth century art form and a 1970s television format is going to get caught in a strange temporal feedback loop. And from that loop, that tangle of contradictions and histories and nostalgias, Spring emerges, blinking into the light, cloying with optimism, poised with stately calm.

 At the end of the novel, even with its narrative nods to documentary cinema and activism, the whole thing is frozen in an already dissolving immediate past. It’s Autumn and I’m running around the track near my house listening live to BBC Radio 4, and the announcer says good morning when it’s early evening. The delay of the international broadcast is a matter of seconds, but it feels old the second it goes out. It’s already glazed with the thin film that separates now and then. Cordoned off. Memorialised.



Will Cox writes about art and film in Broadsheet every week, and various other places occasionally, including Big Issue, The Saturday Paper and Vault. His first novel is on the way. He tweets: @dazzleships.

‘After Parents: a review of Vincent Silk’s “Sisters of No Mercy”’, by Alice Robinson

 
Credit: Brio Books

Credit: Brio Books

 

Our nation is hurtling towards the federal election as I consider Vincent Silk’s debut novel, Sisters of No Mercy. I am alert to public commentary, the kind I pay attention to anyway, which suggests that climate change has finally made itself sufficiently known to us so as to influence votes—perhaps for the first time—in terms that are both decisive and wide-spread. To me, more daunting than the looming question of who might triumph to take charge of the nation, is the spectre of climate change itself, which to my mind is something that exists, like a sweat-soaked nightmare, like God, on the periphery of imagination, at the limits of my talent as a writer to meaningfully articulate. I imagine the catastrophe as a dust-storm, something bonding land to sky with darkness and debris, rolling over the earth like a shroud. I imagine it as thirst; water clotted with the phlegm of plastic particles. Climate change is the experience of being buried alive. An unending scream – until the scream does end, cut off mid-note, because there is no world left to populate with sound.

As if pre-empting a fate in which we have failed to put into office a leader with the will to fight for the planet that sustains us, Silk conjures an imagined Australian city decomposing under the impacts of Mega-storm Martha. The storm, he writes, had “thrust the spectre of Nature inside the common living room, and the effect was undeniable…the panic that This Could Happen Here cascaded through the city’s consciousness more violently than the freak waves that had rolled in along the coast”. It could happen here – but in day-to-day discourse, that message still feels at once too opaque and too slippery to convey. My attempts to pin climate change down are just images – linguistic struggles to reach toward a conceptual framework for total annihilation (or something much more horrific and plausible, which is having to live on indefinitely, as Silk’s band of plucky young characters must, in a collapsing world). Almond, one of the resourceful survivors who populate Silk’s prescient novel, notes that, “When you can see the pattern, you can see where the pattern breaks. You might not be able to avoid it, but if you can see it coming you can at least prepare”. But how to articulate the pattern so that we are forearmed? Time and again, I attempt to conjure climate change beyond the alliteration of its nomenclature – bandied about so loosely and frequently these days, thankfully and unfortunately, that it is almost meaningless. Even as drought and fire and flooding occurs with preternatural severity and duration in Australia and globally, the term climate change fails to relay any meaningful electrocution to its audience: it has become that ubiquitous.

That said, there has been a call to arms, popularly personified recently by adolescent activist Greta Thunberg, to shift the discourse away from change and toward breakdown and/or emergency. Whatever we call it, bald-faced fear of the catastrophe manifesting should make us howl until our throats are raw, drive us wailing into the night, into the sea – anywhere so long as we shift completely outside of our minds and our bodies, just so we won’t have to endure with any cognisance, or bear witness to, what the science says is coming. Of course, we could take action to avoid complete disaster. That is an option, impossible to achieve or dangerously necessary, depending on your view – and, perhaps, the generation to which you belong.

Thunberg has had the most success in bridging the chasm between the abstract and our reality. Her discourse—heartfelt, impassioned, critical in both senses of the word—and her age, conspire to bypass the lethargy that has attached itself to climate change. In this, she is a real-world avatar for Silk’s activists and troublemakers: Pinky, Del, Neeah-Nancy, Jameson and Almond. “When social infrastructure, all of it, the buildings, the very shape of public spaces, the ways the city allows or prevents people from moving, flowing, from existing in public, when all of that is against you, you’re at a huge disadvantage. Aren’t you?”

 You are, but young people hold one advantage conceptually if not practically at the coalface of disaster, because generally speaking they have nothing to lose (unlike, for example, Baby Boomers) by advocating for massive social upheaval in the name of the common good. Silk’s characters are more transient and disadvantaged than most, given that they are living in the natural outcome of neo-liberalist structures destabilised by environmental collapse. The nation’s contemporary fixation on real estate and inflated housing costs have given rise, in Sisters of No Mercy, to ruin and perpetual homelessness for ordinary folks. “Thousands of buildings had sat empty for years, until Martha had decimated a portion of the city, tipping the scales of property value in the favour of banks and developers…The worst affected buildings still just sat there, ruined, abandoned, squalid and huge”. Some, like the villain of the story Dirk Trench, whose disproportionate and horrifying wealth draws the force of the band’s intelligence as they try to rip him off, signal that whatever systemic inequities exist today will only be exacerbated under pressure of the weather. The fact that Trench is slated to have grown his own jungle is a heartrending signpost for his incredible privilege, and this small but powerful detail haunted me, even beyond other more expansive descriptions of characters and lands in crisis.  

 Various writers, myself included, have come at the problem of portraying climate change with bleak earnestness, trying to find the right tenor, the right language, the right metaphors to bring the issue home. Vincent Silk takes a different tact – and his efforts are admirable. Critic James Wood infamously coined the genre ‘Hysterical Realism’ to describe the mode of modernist fiction to which Silk’s novel has also been assigned (as per the novel’s blurb). Wood originally wrote of the genre, “One is reminded of Kierkegaard’s remark that travel is the way to avoid despair…these books share a bonhomous, punning, lively serenity of spirit. Their mode of narration seems to be almost incompatible with tragedy or anguish”. Such novels, which include those written by David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo and Zadie Smith—and now Silk—among others, share a relentless energy, many plotlines, and as Wood points out, a marked (perhaps irresponsible, perhaps necessary) absence of despair.

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, such rambunctious approaches to storytelling suddenly seemed implausible, redundant, when considered in the context of such pervasive evil and disaster, provoking Wood to write, “It ought to be harder, now, either to bounce around in the false zaniness of hysterical realism or to trudge along in the easy fidelity of social realism. Both genres look a little busted”. Perhaps this is even more true with something as globally and irrevocably devastating as climate change, but Sisters of No Mercy seems to hover above the crumbling foundations of the genre to which it has been assigned – to find a way to articulate the unsayable in ways that can be both stomached and heard. Ultimately, Sisters of No Mercy poses a vision for what the outcome of our failings may not only look like, but how it might be expressed. The tone is mocking, ironic, clever and cynical, something like how the future might be told if narrated by characters from The West Wing. “Just because you’re a slave to your neo-liberal lifestyle, and you’re sucked into a toxic, state-sanctioned treadmill of profit doesn’t mean I’ve got to do what you say!” crows an unpopular member of the ensemble, Clancy. The novel is funny and energetic, and also poignantly impactful. At times, I found the writing almost transcendently tender. When Pinky’s parents disappear overnight without telling him where they are going, Pinky joins the ranks of many young dystopian protagonists before him who are left to fend for themselves with their peers. Silk writes, heartbreakingly, that Pinky, “accepted, gently, silently, that he was now in a period that could be labelled ‘After Parents’”.

But perhaps an era categorised by being After Parents—after the generations who royally fucked the environment and those, like mine, who failed to rise up sufficiently to repair it—is what we should all be fleeing toward without a backward glance, painful as the progression might be. For a fighting chance of, first, being able to express to ourselves the scope and severity of the disaster looming, and second, to survive its unfolding, we will be relying on folks like the ones Silk has created, and a mode of narration, a way of getting at the issue, that is at once incisive and imbued with humour.

Although Silk’s characters are resourceful because their hands are tied by circumstance, they are not only surviving the instability of their time but, impressively, fighting back. Meanwhile, in the present, we don’t even know how to scare ourselves into action, to make this looming terminal diagnosis relevant, current or undeniable. I came away from reading Sisters of No Mercy thinking, Aha! This is how we must tell our story to ourselves.



Alice Robinson earned a Bachelor of Creative Arts from The University of Melbourne and a PhD in Creative Writing from Victoria University, where she was awarded the Vice Chancellor’s Award for Research. Alice’s debut novel, Anchor Point (Affirm Press, 2015), was longlisted for The Stella Prize and the Indie Book Awards (debut fiction) in 2016. Her second novel, The Glad Shout (Affirm Press, 2019), was published in March.

‘The smallest of things: a review of Sharon Lam’s “Lonely Asian Woman”’, by Shu-Ling Chua

 
Credit: Lawrence & Gibson

Credit: Lawrence & Gibson

 

Lonely Asian Woman, Sharon Lam’s debut novel, explores various ways of not fitting in: not fitting in with one’s friends because they all have jobs, not fitting in with white/western society, not fitting in with expectations of adulthood. It examines the purpose of life as one’s low-humming worries cascade into post-uni existential crisis. How does one find one’s place in the world? What is one’s role, function, utility? What does a meaningful contribution look like?

Twenty-something Paula Mo is a ‘Multisector Freelancer’ between jobs. She lives in her parents’ apartment in Wellington with four fish. Her ‘crush’ (read: kind-of-boyfriend) Eric has just left for an internship in Copenhagen. She has an architecture degree. Since graduating, she has worked as a worm-farm attendant, coffee packer, mushroom picker, tutor for DESP220, tutor for WHAT221, cattery cleaner and textbook copywriter. When Paula wishes for a job that gives their employees lanyards (“Those people always seemed the most grounded to her, walking around with their ID photos around their necks”), I want to tell her, “A lanyard won’t save you bb.” Because I know.

When I was twenty-one, I moved to Canberra and joined the public service. I wanted to make a difference, to change the world. Instead, I was a tiny cog in a giant machine, making a difference somewhere, sometime over the forward estimates. I was yet to make close friends there and had no interest in climbing the APS ladder, buying a home, marrying and having children. My identity shrank to that of public servant/neglectful daughter. I was a seemingly put-together adult, destined for great! things! but just as Paula gleans, this was all a façade:

[The corporate people] looked more serious and more clueless at the same time…Now, as she watched an adult get off their scooter to drag it across the road, she saw in them the inexpertness of a child rather than a carefree spirit. If anything, they were uneasy as they scootered along, vaguely suspicious that they were complicit in something not quite right.

Lam’s irreverent depictions of adulthood, work, responsibility, friendship and disappointment steer clear of binaries. Rather, Paula ponders the meaning of work and parenthood. Are they not also forms of pointlessness, albeit socially sanctioned forms?

Those with salaried, nine-to-five jobs have an easy life…You can go through the motions and still feel like you’ve done something towards something, even if it was nothing else but money.

While watching repairman Avinesh fix her broken fan, Paula’s “mind drifted to the wish for some near-death but ultimately harmless experience, so that her own exact purpose would spill out”. I remember wishing for a similar epiphany in my early twenties. I remember reading Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, on the cusp of twenty-four, and feeling Esther’s fig-tree dream scene so damn hard:

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig-tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

I quickly learnt, as most young people do, that the world was not my oyster.

*

Lam uses tables to explain how Paula and Eric are the same type of person and how they are not. Lonely Asian Woman’s experimental structure provides detours into Paula’s personality and preoccupations. Lists include: PAULA’S LOW-HUMMING WORRIES, THINGS PAULA HAD GIVEN UP ON and THINGS PAULA HASN’T DONE. While stuck at home for four days because of a storm, Paula runs through a series of one-player games, ranging from confusing (DICTIONARY EYES and A B U N D A N C E) to ha-ha-funny (POW POW POST-IT PARTY) to ha-ha-funny-bam-why-life-so-futile (SPA DAY ROLE PLAY, EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES and DAIRY DELIRIUM):

Decide to attempt making butter…Keep whisking. Feel your arm and grip get tired. Cheer yourself on with the thought that it’s good hand-job practice…Have momentary day-dreams about starting up an artisanal hand-whipped butter boutique. Do some quick maths and realise it won’t ever be financially feasible. Accept that it’s just another thing you’ll never be able to do.

The novel’s more surreal elements are judiciously timed and spaced. For the most part, they add to, rather than detract from, the narrative. A glitching, abandoned baby provides a critical plot twist, nudging Paula towards adulthood. Paula’s alter ego Paulab is part comic foil, part manifestation of her inability to let go of a past love. Paulab is confident and all tough love, constantly prodding Paula into action. Paulab, however, is also unnecessarily depicted as morbidly obese and as loud, bossy, constantly eating, sloppy and childish – stereotypes commonly associated with fat people.

Lam’s portrayal of Paula’s interiority, in contrast, is a highlight, veering from banal to philosophical to brutal. Paula’s sharp bursts of insight, cutting at times, give emotional heft and keep her tethered to reality. While prone to mistakes (stealing a shopping trolley! taking a baby clubbing! meeting Jake for coffee!), she remains self-aware, rather than wallowing in self-pity. She sees through people’s BS:

People from Paula’s town loved moving to Melbourne. It was the most unimaginative thing you could do. From Melbourne they could pretend they were happy from a safe, inscrutable distance. Perhaps they all made a pact once they got there – no one could tell anyone back home that they were still miserable.

I laugh-cringe in recognition. I grew up in the western suburbs of Melbourne. I thought moving to Canberra would make me happy.

*

After Eric relocates to Copenhagen, he quickly fades to the background. Emails become their preferred form of contact. Before he leaves, Paula deflects that conversation. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether they stay together; this story isn’t about Eric.

Similarly, Paula’s relationship with her parents hovers like a mirage, difficult to articulate. Unlike most Asian diasporic memoir and fiction, the novel focuses on friendship, rather than blood family. There is only one conversation between Paula and her mother, part Cantonese, part English. Like most migrant children, Paula’s existential crisis is tinged with a sense of familial debt and guilt:

Maybe the gratitude she felt towards her parents was too large for any language. No, I will not shoplift that hairclip, Ashley. My parents left everyone they ever knew for a completely foreign land just for me. Also, it’s like a dollar. All her parents wanted was for her to be happy, and she wasn’t sure she was.

Reading this, I think of Yassmin’s Story by Yassmin Abdel-Magied and No Country Woman by Zoya Patel, both memoirs. That sense of debt is a big deal but it’s also not. I don’t think of it every minute of every day but it’s there and it’ll always be there, significant, but not in a feel-sorry-for-me way. Abdel-Magied’s articulation, like Lam’s, struck me: “There is a level of existential responsibility, debt even, which sits in the mind of migrant children that means sometimes our decisions are made, whether consciously or unconsciously, out of respect to our parents and the sacrifice they made…To know that but for one decision made by our parents, our lives could have been entirely different – that tugs on a person’s soul, either anchoring you to reality, or drowning you.”

For all its confusion and angst, Lonely Asian Woman is quietly triumphant. It is small-l lonely, the most recognisable form of lonely, an incomplete but valid form of lonely. Paula is not an outcast; she is not in any real danger of slipping beneath the poverty line. She has a safety net of friends—Odie, Shogo and Jay are the only people to whom Paula reveals all—and successfully applies for an overdraft.

*

My introduction to New Zealand literature is Hera Lindsay Bird at National Young Writers’ Festival in 2015. The following year, I am deeply touched by Courtney Sina Meredith’s performance of ‘Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick’ and keynote speech at the Emerging Writers’ Festival and see Hera again and Freya Daly Sadgrove at NYWF. Through Twitter, I swoon over poetry by Nina Mingya Powles and Chris Tse and become friends with Rose Lu, also a writer of non-fiction.

Our friendship begins as DMs on Xiaolu Guo’s A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers and Chinese-Australian (Alice Pung, Ben Law and Julie Koh) and Chinese-New Zealand (Nina, Chris, Emma Ng and Gregory Kan) recommendations, segueing from Guo’s memoir Once Upon a Time in the East to whether it’s a ‘Chinese thing’ to not want to talk about the past. We later exchange long emails about our lives and writing. When Rose shares a piece on language, identity and memory, I recognise the argument she had with her mother about Saturday Chinese classes, word for word.

While reading Lonely Asian Woman, I kept thinking about how I'm similar to and different from Paula. This led me to ponder the appropriateness of ‘relatability’ as a measure of literary merit and cultural importance. To what extent is it appropriate to consider (un)relatability, as a critic? I know better than to judge Lam’s novel—indeed, any work—on how closely it hews to my lived experience; all the same, no work is created, or read, in isolation from this experience. As critics, we need to be aware of, and interrogate, the lens/bias we bring to a work. We need to ask: Have I done my research? To whom might this narrative be (un)relatable and why? Am I ‘qualified’ to review this work? As Evelyn Araluen writes in ‘The Other people: CALD and the ‘Cat person’’:

We [writers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds] cannot afford to publish fiction that assumes relatability will allow readers to overlook clichés and cringe because we are not coded as relatable by white Australia; we are expected to write with sustainable difference, while providing a language to describe and understand experience for those who are without that language.

I appreciated Lam’s attention to detail—Eric taking his shoes off in Paula’s hallway, Paula making spring onion pancakes, her conversation in Cantonese with her mother (“Aiyaaaa, Paula why are you always so laow bao bao”, “Me laow bao bao! NO! I’m not! YOU’RE LAOW BAO BAO”), her not knowing how to respond to being ni hao-ed—for its verve and its familiarity. As Paula notes, “even the smallest of things made a difference, the reason a patch of masking tape on the underside of a ruler could save a drawing”. For writers and readers from marginalised backgrounds, relatability cannot be taken for granted; it is rare, magical, fun and empowering, an ‘I see you’ moment.

That is no small thing.



Shu-Ling Chua is a Melbourne-based writer. Her work has appeared in Feminartsy, Peril Magazine, Triangle House Review and Meanjin, among others. She tweets @hellopollyanna and is working on an essay collection exploring the intersections between life and art.

‘Small Acts of Planning: a review of Annaleese Jochems’s “Baby”’, by Emma Marie Jones

 
Credit: Scribe Publications

Credit: Scribe Publications

 

Last year on Australia’s The Bachelor, the Bachelor, known primarily as ‘the Honey Badger’—one of those private-schoolboy-faux-bogan types, if that explains anything at all about the naming situation—did not choose a bachelorette. This television moment was like peeking behind a curtain, even while knowing that all I would ever see was another curtain: surely, the Honey Badger’s uncertainty and commitment-phobia was not real, and he was not allowed such consequential agency at this late stage of the game? Surely the network had planned and staged this awkward impasse to give us a little shock after years of insipid Cinderella finales?

The image my mind keeps returning to is the reunion of the two rejected bachelorettes, the juicy glitch in reality television’s smooth veneer as they figure out what’s happened. There’s a practical brunette and a vampish blonde and they’re both laughing and crying. A kind of adrenaline rush has hit them. There’s a sense of horrifying possibility that these women might do absolutely anything. The camera movements are shaky; everything in this moment has an urgency that comes from these visual nods to the impromptu. This is what we’re not supposed to see, right? Is this footage proof that what happened was unplanned, or is it part of the planning?

It’s only natural that I want to see the mechanism of the planning. In 2019, our whole selves are made up of small acts of planning. We’re living in an age where you can’t really participate in society unless you cultivate a shadow of yourself on the internet – and our main goal in these harsh online spaces is to project, or at least approximate, total authenticity. If you think about it, that’s an oxymoron: you can’t control your authentic self, you can only be it, and being something in real life where nobody is looking at you isn’t going to get you any likes or new followers. So we plan. How many times have my friends private messaged me images—a pear, a book, pale linen, a limb askew—“should I story this?”

Annaleese Jochems’ debut novel Baby enters the scene, then, at an interesting moment. Jochems gives us Cynthia, a blonde “skinny-fat” millennial ingénue, as our point of entry. Unlikeable protagonists are something of a trend among millennial literary novels—think Frances in Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends, Alice in Olivia Sudjic’s Sympathy, Paul in Tao Lin’s Taipei, Megan in Halle Butler’s Jillian, or the nameless narrator in Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation—and Cynthia doesn’t disappoint. As we meet her, she embodies everything a baby boomer has ever whinged about millennials in a newspaper or on talkback radio: she’s twenty-one, lazy, entitled, unmotivated and self-absorbed. She thinks, perhaps knows, that she’s beautiful and that being beautiful is enough, although for what remains uncertain for the time being. She’s glued to her phone and thus detached from whatever reality exists outside of its glass pane. Another apathetic pouting white girl who assumes that she’ll get whatever she wants by default and so follows her quarry around, waiting for wish fulfilment. (Yes, like me at twenty-one.) You could suggest that Jochems is doing some broad metaphorical work here, that Cynthia’s apathy is all of our apathy, that the consequences Cynthia must face are all of our consequences. But really, isn’t it possible that Jochems is just having a little fun?

 Cynthia’s quarry—the thing she wants most of all, the thing she’s risked everything for—is her gorgeous gym trainer, Anahera. Anahera is the book’s opening line, but not its beating heart. Its beating heart is Cynthia. Impulsive, lying-on-her-feet Cynthia! You feel a kind of affection for her, even as Jochems uses textural descriptions to repulse you from her: custard, snot, porridge. Cynthia is emotionally in tune with Anahera: she can “understand how Anahera feels just by looking at her body”. When Anahera leaves her husband, Cynthia—unsatisfied by her own love affairs with insipid men, men whose idea of flirting is texting photographs of dogs, “men who don’t like educational television”—steals sixteen thousand dollars from her father’s bank account and convinces Anahera to run away with her. With Cynthia’s father’s money, they drive to the Bay of Islands and buy a boat called Baby.

During the long, long period of Cynthia’s languid boredom on board Baby in the book’s first act—repetitive motions, canned foods on the stove, soaping her swim-suited body in the salty ocean, folding out Baby’s Murphy bed and folding it away again—the possibility of desire overshadows every word. Even the ones like “is” and “and” are stretched as taut as rubber bands about to be flicked. There’s an undercurrent of shame during this period, too: while Cynthia’s bored, Anahera is as nervous as a caged animal. But Cynthia’s not really observant like that. She’s avoiding a reality check, one that’s so long it spills over the character limit of a single text message into several text messages: one that would force her to ask herself a question no millennial wants to ask: what am I doing here? So instead, the canned food, her phone on landscape mode, streaming The Bachelor Pad and The Newlywed Game on an unlimited data plan. Escapism, raw and unfiltered. Cynthia’s eyebrows grow hairy, shapeless and wild. Perfect beauty is something you can’t maintain on the run, even though the movies would have you believe otherwise.

Later, Cynthia’s pursuit of Anahera becomes, circumstantially, more calculated. She can no longer rest on the laurels of her youth and beauty to simply hold out her hand and receive what she would like to have; she must fight for it. Cynthia—millennialism distilled to its purest form—doesn’t strike you as a fighter. Not in the Charlie’s Angels sense, anyway. But she’s confident that she can control what people think of her, and if you think about it, as you craft the specific timbre of each individual Tweet, as you ensure that all your Instagram stories have an aesthetic flow that is both uniform and unique, as you remove all the uppercase “I”s from your text messages: aren’t you, too? In his 2009 essay ‘Self-Design and Aesthetic Responsibility’, art theorist Boris Groys writes that:

 The virtual space of the Internet is primarily an arena in which my website on Facebook is permanently designed and redesigned to be presented on YouTube—and vice versa. But likewise in the real—or let’s say, analog—world, one is expected to be responsible for the image that he or she presents to the gaze of others.

Cynthia, who in her life before Baby and Anahera “did things on Facebook” during most of her downtime, is no stranger to Groys’ endless work of designing and redesigning her self. The Cynthia that appears on Facebook is redesigned to be presented anew on Instagram, and presumably again on dating apps and in private messages, and on and on. In the real—or, as Groys calls it, “analog”—world, Cynthia continues this work of designing and redesigning, showing herself to Anahera as someone who Anahera might like, or maybe as someone who could be like Anahera. Either way, it’s just projection.

As readers, the Cynthia that we know—the authentic Cynthia, maybe—goes a little deeper. We know about her secret guilts and shames, her innermost fantasies and most desperate boredoms: and yet we know the fake Cynthia, too. The peppy Cynthia who knows what she’s doing and is up for the challenge. The Cynthia who will see each lie through to its logical conclusion, however crushing. This is the way it has to be: anyone who’s ever lied knows that revealing yourself at the climax is like spending hours baking a beautiful cake and then icing it with your own shit.

 For months or even for her whole life, Cynthia’s felt a furious desperation to go somewhere, to feel things, and be a real person. Well, Anahera is the over-heated centre of the world, the point of rupturing where it becomes too big and too strong to hold itself, and Cynthia feels close to her now. At last, she’s content.

You can’t cultivate an authentic self, only be it – and Cynthia’s authentic self lays around a boat all day streaming reality television, while Anahera’s body grows stronger and perhaps more prepared for what lies ahead. A conclusion Jochems invites us to draw is that Cynthia’s idea of a ‘real person’ is tainted by having allowed her digital and analog worlds, and selves, to blend into one shadowy space, one shadowy self. A shadow is unknowable, intangible, impenetrable. But Cynthia has learned from The Bachelor, and other, similar shows, that “You have to ask for love, and do anything for it”. She has done something crazy, something reality-television-worthy: she is living on a boat with a divorced woman whom she loves. But something’s missing. You’re wondering, right: is it the audience? Or is it something as simple, as corny, as brilliant and wrenching as love?

A lot of people find The Bachelor compelling viewing, but to be honest I’ve only ever enjoyed the first and last episodes. Both are little parades of humiliation, monuments to a kind of heterosexual romance that, in my experience of the world at least, doesn’t exist beyond anybody’s surface. But perhaps that’s the problem – or maybe less of a problem, and more of a point. Our surfaces reflect all that careful work we’ve done; the designing and redesigning, the planning. If you expect the love in your life to look like the love in The Bachelor, you’ll plan your life around it. And that is exactly what Cynthia does, until she can’t anymore, and she has to turn to Plan B.

 She watches The Bachelor for three hours. It’s all about how to fight your enemies by lying, kissing, fucking and dressing really well. All she needs to do is remember everything she knew in her old life. … It doesn’t matter about the truth of anyone’s love. You either have the gumption and talent to win a place for what you’ll call your love, or you don’t and it means nothing – if you can’t swim, the water won’t hold you.

For Cynthia—and maybe for Jochems, and maybe in a broader way for us, for millennials—this rings true. Love is like The Bachelor. It’s a peek behind a curtain to another curtain. You’re planning and planning and sometimes love is not the goal but just part of the detail. Sometimes you spurn two bachelorettes at once in order to advance your perfect image as Australia’s cheekiest rugby-player-slash-underwear-model. Love, and the dance around it, becomes an act of self-projection, a tile in the pathway to your own understanding of a winner: a brilliantly, totally authentic you.



Emma Marie Jones is a Melbourne-based writer and the author of chapbook Something To Be Tiptoed Around (2018). She’s a PhD candidate and teacher of Creative Writing at the University of Melbourne and is working on her first novel.

‘An apple is never just an apple: A Review of Jenny Hval’s "Paradise Rot", translated by Marjam Idriss', by Justine Hyde


Verso Books

Jenny Hval is best known as an avant-garde musician who blends the political and the personal in her music. Paradise Rot is her first book translated into English (it was originally published in Norway in 2009). Icelandic musician Bjork gets a passing reference in the novel, and all through reading it, the lyrics to ‘Birthday’ by the Sugarcubes kept coming to mind. After a while, I gave in and listened to the song—the spiders and flies, the creepy sexuality—it makes the perfect accompanying soundtrack to reading Hval. Of course, you could skip the Sugarcubes and listen to Hval instead. She challenges gender conventions and plays with humour and ambiguity to create songs that are more dream-like than Earth-bound. Hval’s lyrics centre on feminism, women’s bodies and queer desire. She skewers capitalism and social decay in her songs. In The New Yorker, Anwen Crawford describes her music as “a kind of experimental folk music, which resists the rhythmic and melodic efficiencies…of chart pop in favour of something slower and more irregular, with few hooks or choruses”. Her live shows are known for slipping into performance art, flaunting elaborate costumes and fake blood. She carries this same self-conscious flamboyance across into her writing.

Hval’s slim novel, coming in at just under 150 pages, follows Djaoanna (Jo)—a somewhat naïve Norwegian student—in her overseas move to the fictional town of Aybourne. Jo is in the drab English town to attend university. Her field is biology which she likes to think of as “the study of the living”. Her special interest is myocology—the study of fungi—a specialty that proves resonant as the novel unfolds.

Jo’s story starts out conventionally enough; she arrives at a hostel full of international students, begins to orient herself to the town, and makes a laboured shift to speaking in English over Norwegian. After a tedious search for share accommodation, Jo moves in with local girl, Carral. Terminally-sleepy Carral reads trashy romance novels and watches the television show ‘Charmed’.

Their share house is an old factory—a former brewery—and is barely habitable. It has been converted for living in, but has little natural light, blank walls and is covered in dust and damp. The ‘rooms’ are divided by thin particle board walls that do not reach the ceiling. Sound travels through the factory, leaving no privacy between Jo and her flatmate. This forces shared intimacy between the two women.

Jo says:

I lay awake in my new bed and listened to Carral leaf through the pages of a book. I heard her fingers scrape the rough paper, the spine creak and the binding tighten…in almost imperceptible noises at night I imagined hearing the hint of her curls falling over her cheek as she turned.

Carral describes their makeshift home as a ‘theatre set’, and as their life together descends into the surreal, it becomes a stage for dramatic acts.

Hval’s musical fascination with bodies and desire are further fetishised in Paradise Rot. She is intrigued by permeable boundaries; literal and figurative. Hval dissolves the border between humans and other organic matter, stripping bodies clean of pristine otherness and returning them to the earth. Jo says: “…my dreams are full of apples, and in the dark my body slowly transforms into fruit: tonsils shrinking to seeds and lungs to cores. I dream of white flowers blossoming under my nails, as if under ice.”

Hval dissects women’s bodies and re-forms them into grotesque blossoming meat. Jo dreams of Adam and Eve, “the apple rolled in between Eve’s legs, scratched open her flesh and burrowed into her crotch…bite marks facing out”. This feminist reclamation of ‘vagina dentata’ subverts the view of women’s sexuality as being dangerous to men.

The novel leans hard on the biblical story of original sin, hence the title. When the women bring home a large bag of apples—more than they can possibly consume—the apple juice drips and sticks, and the discarded cores start to decay. This imagery is reminiscent of the rotting fruit in Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done. Just swap the apples for pears. Schmidt’s execution is more stylish and controlled than Hval’s. In fact, Hval’s allegory of Eve’s ejection from paradise is as delicate as a sledge-hammer.

Jo describes their factory home as a “rotten, reeking Garden of Eden”. As the weather in the town of Aybourne cools down, the factory generates its own micro-climate. It becomes humid and moist, a petri dish of sprouting mould and fungi. Hval creates a stinking, claustrophobic environment: their bodies are “clammy”, rooms are covered with “a thin white layer of moss”, the stairs are “damp and slippery”, and their home is full of “the stench of rotten fruit”, “white spiders” and “crawling maggots”. Both the outside climate and reality are kept at bay by the thin walls of the former brewery.

Jo and Carral are suspended in this fecund microcosm and their relationship morphs into a sexual one. The factory becomes host to a fugue state of erotic discovery. It is a psychosexual awakening for Jo as she is pulled towards queer desire. Hval plucks the taut line between desire and repulsion. To be queer is to be marked as perverse and unnatural. For many, it is laden with shame and denial. Jo is torn between lust and resistance. She is caught in a hard crush, but retains enough rationality to be wary of her strange, somnambulant flatmate.

As the boundaries between the women disintegrate, even their corporeal selves begin to merge. Hval relishes in describing bodily viscera; she steeps her characters in blood and piss. Jo describes Carral “twisting and tangling around my spine…there’s a rush through me, her stalks and fingers and veins spread through my entire body like a new soft skeleton”. When the women’s male neighbour, Pym, interrupts their dream world, a ménage a trois develops between the three. This heady brew of jealousy and fluid sexuality cannot end well. Like the female black widow spider eating its mate after sex, Pym’s fate is to be consumed in this tryst. Jo describes “Carral’s body opening and devouring him, slipping over his body and covering it like a thick, soft dress”. Hval doesn’t bother to make Pym anything more than a light sketch as a character. The women discard him like just another apple core.

It is tempting to call this a coming-of-age story, but it isn’t really. Typically, you might expect a protagonist to experience a rite of passage that delivers her into a state of certainty, of resolution. While Jo’s experience is transformational, she is spat out at the conclusion of the novel changed but confused about her sojourn in Carral’s world. Was it all a dream? Where rites of passage are marked by ceremony, Jo’s departure from paradise is unceremonious and ethereal. In this, Hval has struck perhaps a truer depiction of life’s trajectory; one that is looping and smudged, not neat and linear. Jo’s is the anti-hero’s journey.

The strength in Hval’s writing is in her lush imagery. Her lurid descriptions of bodies and decomposing organic matter are both gorgeous and revolting, and she convincingly blurs the boundaries of reality and fantasy. There are nods to fairy tales and horror in the novel but it doesn’t fit neatly into either category. While there are some delicious passages of prose, the reader has to swallow so many layers of metaphor that indigestion belches the emotional guts out of the novel.

In Paradise Rot, Hval has conjured a provocative and decomposing world, one that is dripping wet and swollen. Think of Jo as a hallucinatory sexed-up Alice in a queer, queer Wonderland, lightly snacking on the psychedelic mushrooms described in her myocology textbooks, with one hand down her pants. While not completely satisfying as a work of literature, it’s a mostly pleasurable trip down the rabbit hole.


Justine Hyde is a library director, writer and critic living in Melbourne.

FAVOURITE BOOKS OF 2018 – BROW STAFF EDITION

Photo by Alexis Brown. Reproduced under the Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.

It's the end of the year and you know what that means: overwhelming listicles of books to fill your summer with! Of course, we'd first recommend you check out all the wonderful work we've published, but if you're looking for even more Brow Approved BooksTM, this list of favourites from our talented, beautiful and well-liked staff is for you!



 
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Everything Lale Westvind produces has a crazy, cosmic energy to it. Her drawings are like one of those illusion posters that appears to be moving when you look at it but much cooler. Her new book Grip Vol. 1 is a great way to get into her work if you’ve not seen it before. She uses the comic form to trigger a strange, immersive and very bodily experience for the reader. Lale dedicates this book to 'women in the trades and anyone working with their hands'—what could be more enticing than that?
—Bailey Sharp, The Lifted Brow Art Editor

 
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Von Spatz by Anna Haifisch has a premise that's weird, insular and borderline magic realist, but not so much that the rest of the book has to rely on its wackiness. Her deadpan delivery and timing are impeccable, and she's an expert with negative space.
—Ben Juers, The Lifted Brow Art Editor


 
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Ooft, the end of another year, time to think synoptically. If a good epitaph teaches us anything, it is that we want any talk of death to be succinct. Mercifully, Kim Hyesoon disagrees. In the 49 poems that represent the days the spirit wanders the afterlife before reincarnation, she imagines the daily habits of the dead. It is a purgatorial book, yes, even a haunted one, but isn’t that what haunting is about: the attempt to work through things we don’t know how to, or can’t? Autobiography of Death tries to give structure to these major and minor traumas, it tries to frame an impossible but necessary conversation. It’s a great read for a season that sometimes stresses we be a little too resolute.
—Lachy McKenzie, The Lifted Brow Fiction Editor

 
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My book of the year was the one I was most impatient for, Rachel Cusk's trilogy-closing Kudos. Beyond everything else that can be said about these books, their formal inventiveness etc., each of them has just been a hugely enjoyable reading experience for me. The kind of sentences I want to keep reading forever.
—Luke Horton, Editor of The Lifted Brow Review of Books

 
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It’s no word of a lie that my absolute favourite books I read this year are Brow Books books, and sure that might be because I as publisher and/or editor have such an intimate relationship with these books and so was no longer just a ‘reader’ of these books. It’s also the truth because they are competing with not a huge amount of other books — I read less ‘published’ books in 2018 than I have for several years now, what with a lot of my reading being manuscripts for Brow Books, both unpublished submissions and also submissions of books published by presses from different parts of the globe. (I’d like to list any of these latter books, but my favourites of these are titles which we are going to publish in Australia in 2019, or are still hoping to.) I also read a lot of emails this year — I don’t even want to think about the ratio of words I read on email compared to words of honed, good writing—but no one ever wants to create a list of ‘best emails of the year’ because that wouldn’t make any kind of sense. I also spent way too long reading the timelines of various social media platforms, of which I barely remember a thing except vague colours and vibes. Among all this noise, the book from 2018 that springs to mind most that I’d like to mention is Motherhood by Sheila Heti, which I read in bursts on buses and trains throughout a long day of criss-crossing London visiting various publishing houses and people, before finishing the last long bit of the book in a heady slog in a bar with a beer or two. Motherhood is so full of sharp observations and it is also full of many hypocrisies; it feels very honest the whole way through, very human. The protagonist spends years sometimes musing and sometimes agonising and sometimes somewhere in the middle. She is flawed and she has blind spots and she just wants simplicity but she doesn’t really. The book made me stop reading a lot, to think, which is rare for me because my book-thinking usually happens while I keep reading, and I also underlined bits and circled other bits and folded down the corners of many pages.
—Sam Cooney, Publisher

 

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, the stars align and you read a book at exactly the right place and time. This happened to me with Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, which I picked up while visiting Europe. Described by the author as a ‘constellation’ novel, Flights strays from the linear path of traditional travel memoirs. Instead, Tokarczuk gathers the expanse of human experience through 116 distinct vignettes — from the imagined biography of a Flemish surgeon identifying the Achilles tendon to a story about a woman traveling back to Poland to euthanise her high school sweetheart. Contemporary in its approach, yet timeless in its beauty, you don’t need to be on the road to enjoy this truly excellent book.
—Clara Sankey, The Lifted Brow Fiction Editor

 
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Surprising absolutely no-one, my favourite book this year was Andrea Lawlor's Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl. If you're yearning for a speculative queer history that embraces fluidity, chaos and failure: this is it. It's hilarious and tender and avoidant, and reading it made me feel like a real person. Eileen Myles described Paul as making 'both what’s out there and in here less lonely, less fixed, and less fake.' I don’t think I could put it better than that.
—Jini Maxwell, The Lifted Brow Editor

 
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I read a lot of amazing books this year, but the one I've probably thought about the most is Naben Ruthnum's Curry. In three interlinked sections 'Eating', 'Reading', and 'Race', Ruthnum considers the South Asian diasporic experience with an honesty, tenderness and rigour that really floored me. Reading this book made me realise how much I'd needed it. Honorable mentions also go to Maria Tumarkin's Axiomatic, Anne Boyer's A Handbook of Disappointed Fate and Elif Batuman's The Idiot.
—Adalya Nash Hussein, Online Editor

 
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I'm never on time with new releases but Kudos , the culmination of Cusk's trilogy of masterclasses in subtle prose, was an exception. Cusk continues with the deft observation and delightful snark that made Outline and Transit such pleasures, with more offerings than ever in the realm of bitterness and resentment. I particularly like the novel's perpetually disappointing fathers and husbands, and the intricacy with which she renders the terrors of parental power struggles over children. A breeze, a joy, a flex.
—Justin Wolfers, The Lifted Brow Editor

 
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My favourite book this year is Radiant Shimmering Light by Sarah Selecky. This is a long and detailed book that I wish could have been longer. It follows impoverished Etsy-artist Lilian as she moves from Toronto to Manhattan to work in her cousin’s booming wellness cult. Before long, Lilian finds herself caught up in a world of meditation apps, golden lattes, pyramid schemes and sleazy yoga instructors. Selecky’s critique of ‘benevolent marketing’ and competitive Insta-culture is sharp and funny, but never mean-spirited or didactic. I’m looking forward to whatever she puts out next.
—Oscar Jonsson, Website Manager

Best of TLB Online 2018: Review of Books

If anything can be said for 2018, it's that at least TLB Online got some excellent book reviews out of it.

The team recently got together to choose the reviews that most excited us this year. We put forward pieces that were thoughtful, experimental, challenging and disruptive — reviews that lived on in our heads long after we'd finished reading them.

Unfortunately, that was the bulk of our reviews this year. So, faced with a list that kept growing instead of shrinking, our book-review editor Luke had the unenviable task of narrowing these down to twelve.

Here they are, in chronological order. (If you're after holiday reading, this would be a pretty good place to start!)

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‘The Lives of Others: A Review of Jenny Erpenbeck’s “Go Went Gone”’, by Ruth McHugh-Dillon

Does it matter where you read a book? I was reading Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go Went Gone in a court waiting room, where my friend’s asylum case had been adjourned (again) until the interpreter showed up. The interpreter’s arrival didn’t bring clarity. Instead, I felt a tightening of the chest; bitterness: she was doing a great job translating words, but it felt like no one was telling the story that mattered. Or maybe no one had a language that allowed them to hear it.

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‘Grief, Its Many Faces and Infinite Gaze: A Review of Emma Marie Jones’ “Something to be Tiptoed Around”’, by Jennifer Nguyen

It’s been barely a year since I lost someone important to me. When it happened I thought it was a joke. When I realised it wasn’t I lay in bed for a week. Staying in bed wasn’t a choice. Any energy I had expended itself on thoughts. Thoughts that came, stayed and went of their own volition — I was jealous of how much willpower they had. Thoughts. Questions. Sobbing. At times, loud and guttural like an animal had climbed into my throat. Other times, silent, like the animal had died there, withered away into nothing.

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‘Three Paths for a Novel: A Review of John Purcell’s “The Girl on the Page”’, by Madeleine Gray

Fifty-seven years ago, in 1961, before the conglomerisation of the book-publishing industry, before the canny invention of ‘literary fiction’ as a distinctly sellable genre, and eight years before the Man Booker Prize for Fiction had even been established, novelist Iris Murdoch wrote her now infamous polemical sketch, ‘Against Dryness’, for Encounter magazine. In this essay, Murdoch boldly characterised what she saw as the two competing modes of thinking and writing about the self that had developed in the twentieth century. On the one hand, she asserted, there was the notion of the self as a free, self-determining, discrete, rational agent — a Liberal mirage of wishful thinking in the wake of fascist totalitarianism, and then of the intellectually stultifying Welfare State. On the other hand, there existed the post-Humean conception of the self, which saw individuals not as “isolated free choosers, monarchs of all we survey, but benighted creatures sunk in a reality whose nature we are constantly and overwhelmingly tempted to deform by fantasy”.

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‘Not a Tiger at All: A Review of Krissy Kneen’s “Wintering”’, by Madeleine Laing

I wanted to introduce this review with the premise that it seems like there’s a lot of books set in Tasmania at the moment — but really I can only name two: Wintering, and Di Morrisey’s latest Australian Epic Arcadia. Maybe it’s more that Tassie is in the air, generally. The population of Hobart is growing faster than anywhere else in Australia (just ask anyone who’s tried to rent a house there). Its produce and chefs are being lauded as the best in the country; tourism from Australia and overseas is booming. And it just seems the perfect setting for a dramatic Australian mystery — it’s spectacularly beautiful, with a dark history and a people often regarded as insular and inscrutable. Against this moment, Krissy Kneen’s Wintering, the story of a flaky-but-genius glow worm scientist confronting a monster in an isolated part of south east Tassie, captures one isolated pocket with her typically rich and beautiful prose.

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‘Luck; Loops and Variations: A Review of Carys Davies' “West”’, by Laura Stortenbeker

Text Publishing


I have been thinking about the word luck and how it is an ugly word to speak. Maybe mostly the feeling is good, but the sound of it is heavy, maybe I feel this because I’ve said it too many times. I like how it looks written down, and of course, when it’s good luck, how it feels. Lucky is an easier and better word, the ‘y’ makes it so.




In a search of my recent digital conversations the word lucky is used, in each, 57, 38, 32, 27 times. Lucky is used with extensive frequency both from and to me, appearing in a deep yellow highlight when searched for: ‘lucky you didn’t drive’, ‘so lucky’, ‘stay lucky’, ‘I feel very lucky’, ‘that’s lucky’, ‘I feel lucky to have – ’, ‘I am v v lucky with – ’, ‘I’m lucky to have – ’, ‘lucky lucky lucky’, ‘I’m lucky to have met you’, ‘I’m lucky to know you’, ‘(I feel lucky)’, ‘(feeling lucky)’, ‘(feeling so lucky) x’.

In these conversations, the idea of luck is most often used as an expression of gratitude, or as an expression of wanting something for someone else, ‘wish me luck’, + ‘good luck’. I want to describe it as a non-religious blessing, good luck, good luck, good luck. In one message, a friend says, ‘sending all my luck to you’. This is an impossible transfer, but is tied into other lucky feelings.

When I think of lucky things, I think of Helen Frankenthaler’s painting Good Luck Orange, I think of a note on my friend’s wall that says ‘You are so lucky, do something with this luck’. I think of early August, when someone sends me a photograph of a series of pressed out four-leaf clovers and how that made me feel lucky, not just because of the symbolism of the clovers, the repetition of their flat forms on my phone screen, but at the gesture, that I am known enough to be thought of, texted, transferred thoughts of good luck. It’s the same feeling as ‘sending all my luck to you’; knowing someone cares for you enough to want to give their own luck away.

If we begin talking about bad luck this will quickly become exhausting, but of course there’s that too. Bad luck is as common as good, feeling unlucky is often followed by the feeling that you’ll never be lucky again: and then the luck loops. The scale of all luck can be huge, can be small, can be barely noticeable, can be a feeling that swallows you with joy, or a sour feeling you must swallow.

When good luck or bad luck happens it feels hot in the body, at least this is how it feels for me. This is only when it’s very good, revelatory, or very bad, crushing; only for significant things. More commonly, and I’m glad for this, most instances of luck are small, everyday intersections, insignificant instances of chance.




The first thing I heard about West, also before reading, was from a friend who said it had been described as being like Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, but funny. I started associating luck with the novel from this point because this conversation made me remember when I felt long-term unlucky earlier in the year I opened my copy of Train Dreams in the middle of the night and found a twenty-dollar note wedged in at the exact page I’d been wanting to reread.

By the time luck is actually mentioned by name in West, we already know that Cy Bellman is setting off to the American west: to find, to discover, to be awed by “mammoth creatures”, and that this is a task, an experience that will of course rely on luck. And of course, we can expect his luck to be both good and bad. We also know that Bellman is a beloved fool, whose actions are forgiven, or at least rationalised because of previous bad luck. His wife has died, well before the events of the book take place. We have luck as the explainer, some bad luck that Bellman couldn’t control and yeah, he’s doing something reckless, but at least everyone knows why. Luck allows reason to be applied to his actions.

Before luck, Davies writes of hope. Bellman tells his neighbour, Elmer Jackson, about the task he’s set himself, “in the hope that I can find my way to what I’m looking for” and then soon after, “but I’m hoping I won’t need to go that far. I’m hoping that if I don’t find what I’m after near the river then they’ll be here, before the mountains.”

If hope is a desire for something good to happen, maybe good luck fits best as getting something you desired but knew you weren’t guaranteed, as a positive when something was likely to be negative, or remaining remarkably well-off when it’s apparent it should have been otherwise.

Early in West, Bellman hires a Native American boy, Old Woman From A Distance, to lead him through the shifting seasons. This transaction is undeniably exploitative, but it is one that represents Bellman’s good luck, it’s obvious his luck would be much worse, much sooner without the guide, and the companionship. The two press on for most of the novel, with landscapes and time and seasons passing in sudden cuts. The beautiful, rapid way Davies writes is simple and grounded, everything sits where it should (I’d forgotten the thrill of what it’s like to see an ugly word perfectly placed in a beautiful sentence and remembering that felt lucky): “and in the morning bright jewels of melting snow dripped from the feathery branches of the pines onto his cracked and blistered face, his blackened nose.”

There’s an incident that takes place in just over a page, where the bad luck of Old Woman From A Distance immediately becomes Bellman’s, and they think they’ve lost all of their supplies in a river. Bellman cannot control his anger, lashes out, shakes the boy. Then, “In the tranquil pool at the bottom of the falls, Bellman’s things floated or twinkled beneath the water. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘I suppose we’ve been lucky this time.’”

Most of the time when I think of luck, I’m thinking of it personally, as something that solely belongs to me and doesn’t really affect anyone else. But luck does transfer in that way, or at least overlaps. In fictional worlds, the main character’s luck will influence the luck of almost all others, and the luck of others will transfer to others still. In West, Cy Bellman’s luck is the initial determiner. His bad luck is Elmer Jackson’s good, it’s Bess, Bellman’s daughter’s bad, it’s both for Old Woman From A Distance.

Everyone is lucky until they’re not, and then depending on which character you look at, the luck loops again through good and bad. For some in the space of West, this is endless, for others, there’s an endpoint, which is obviously tied to death. In a fictional world these overlaps of luck propel narrative and allow us to apply levels of empathy to characters, did they deserve this good/bad/ugly/kind outcome, even while knowing that luck is senseless (part of the appeal of believing in something completely out of your own control).




But what about controlling luck? — can you? And — does it still count as luck if you’re attempting to influence it?

I want to talk about Bess, who is ten, eleven, twelve, who stays at home as her father moves farther and farther west. Bess the devoted and precocious child who borders on understanding everything, but who still believes her father is brave and right, who hopes, no, knows he’ll come home. Ultimately Bess is lucky, although like all luck, hers wavers between good, bad, tragic, small, vast.

While awaiting Bellman’s return, Bess looks for signs in nature and the people around her to determine whether her father is safe, well, heading home. If a flower blooms early, if her aunt’s mood in the morning is a particular way:

She did this all the time now — daily, sometimes hourly, and always last thing at night before she went to sleep, marking time by accumulating signs of good luck in her father’s favor.

It’s simple enough to say that to believe in luck is to relinquish control, but what about the ways in which we influence luck, or at least feel like we have small powers over it.

Even as a child, Bess knows that her luck can be manipulated:

On balance, of course, things tended to come out on his side, because Bess always weighted the odds in his favor by setting outcomes she had some power to influence, or at least knew were likely.

She cycles through repetitive thought to control both her own perception of luck and her father’s. The narrator goes on to say, that despite Bess’ awareness of the falsity of this luck, “Still, it was comfort.”

As I move through West I start thinking about how assigning ‘back luck’ to something becomes a cover for horrible things, makes it neat don’t you think, bad luck as the easy explanation. I cared the most about the luck of Bess and the things that happened, and almost happened, to her and again began turning a common thought; is it bad luck or basic fact that predatory men will always align themselves with young people like Bess, and then is it a matter of luck as to whether such insidious advances will land. I don’t know, I don’t want to talk about myself in this because I feel I’ve been relatively ‘lucky’, in that the things that have happened to me, as have happened to many of us, still feel manageable, could have been worse, my luck could have been worse. So, in that sense, luck is just a matter of framing, of limits, of fulfilling a certain capacity between your experiences and what they could have been, what they reached and what they were close to, your own perception of good/bad luck. I like the idea of being able to control the perception post-event, so if luck is indeterminable and unpredictable, at least you can align it differently after. But is that framing a different kind of pressure, one forced upon us after such luck, to take comfort in the possibility that there is always something, someone unluckier, you could be unluckier. Is it good or bad luck to be able to imagine worse things, know that your good luck is someone else’s bad? More loops of good and bad luck. See, that’s the transfer again, I can’t explain it much more.




There is a scene in West where Old Woman From A Distance speaks to the horse he’s walking with, “sometimes, to encourage himself, he laid his mouth against its soft, leaflike ears and whispered, ‘Remember, there are no gods. We have ourselves and nothing else.’”




I often urge myself to remember bad luck during good moods. I think this is to protect myself from feeling too joyful or too out of control.

I remember a phone call last year with someone close to me, them telling me they didn’t believe in luck. I extended the call thirty minutes longer than I’d planned, paced outside the front of my house, knotted my free hand in my hair, had to call someone else after to ask the same question, “but do you really believe in luck?” Asked myself the same thing all night.

There is always bad luck, we’re all lucky until we’re not, then lucky again. Acknowledging luck must come with parameters, decisions, choices, control. Again, it’s a looping thought, whether I believe in it fully or not, me who thinks that if I wear all blue (including my underwear) my day will be a good and lucky one (and like Bess, knowing that’s a controlled luck, knowing that blue doesn’t protect from bad luck). And still even if I believe in this created and controlled form of luck, I don’t dress like that every day; feel like I’d be pushing something, wearing out the trick. But it isn’t just me, I know the rituals of my friends, know the lucky objects they keep close, who keeps something in their pocket or in their car or pressed loosely to their skin.

Throughout West, Davis describes the ways Old Woman From A Distance has tied various items he’s collected, won, earned, throughout the distance travelled, in his hair. Although this could be read as an aesthetic act, his deliberateness, and the protective way he holds on to these items makes me think they symbolise good luck. A man he meets asks him to remove the items so they can create a makeshift map, and before he understands the intention, Old Woman From A Distance is hesitant to give up these objects, the ribbon, the inkwell behind his ear that he sees as a flower, a signifier of good luck.

So I guess the point I’m trying to make is, needing to believe in luck, or performing the rituals close to it, is inherently personal. Even while knowing luck truly can’t be influenced or predetermined, even if the belief, the rituals, are only tricks. That loop, wanting to know you’ll have good luck between the bad, is important, regardless of it being based in collected clovers and plastic childhood figurines and pulling at your necklace at the right moment. The repetitions in conversations, good luck, good luck, the overlap, me in my all-blue clothes, “Still, it was comfort”, right?




Laura Stortenbeker is a writer and editor. Her work has been published in Kill Your Darlings, Meanjin, and Overland.

‘Uneasy Habits: A Review of Fiona Wright’s “The World Was Whole”’, by Alexandra Hollis

In Queer Phenomenology, Sara Ahmed talks about spaces as being “like a second skin that unfolds in the folds of the body”. Becoming at home in a place, she writes, is:

…a process of becoming intimate with where one is: an intimacy that feels like inhabiting a secret room that is concealed from the view of others. Loving one’s home is not about being fixed into place, but rather it is about becoming part of a space where one has expanded one’s body, saturating the space with bodily matter: home as overflowing and flowing over.

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‘Fuck you, Australia: a review of Ouyang Yu’s “Billy Sing”’, by Terri Ann Quan Sing

In the barest sense, Ouyang Yu’s fifth novel is a fictionalized biography of celebrated World War I ANZAC sniper William Edward ‘Billy’ Sing — an Australian-born Eurasian of Chinese and British parentage. These basic details have led many reviewers to celebrate the novel for all the wrong reasons; as if it were simply a history, a cog in the machinations of Australian nationalist ANZAC memorialization, or self-congratulatory multiculturalism (which Yu has called elsewhere “malticulturalism” pointing to its frequent malfunction).

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