‘Work is hell: a review of Halle Butler’s “The New Me”’, by Isabella Trimboli

 
Hachette

Hachette

 

Work is hell. I’m looking for a new job, and each listing feels more deranged and depressing than the last: responsibilities to answer your phone out of work hours, senior positions that pay unliveable wages, five years of experience to essentially fill out an excel spreadsheet, video applications!, adverts in all caps that read like: ARE YOU A GUN WHEN IT COMES TO SOCIAL MEDIA?  

 In this climate, reading Halle Butler’s The New Me was a strange, cathartic joy. I read the book in one sitting, and the experience was akin to sculling a whole glass of vinegar: searingly sour and burning, but ultimately good for me. As I read every excruciating office interaction and vile jab, I felt like was expelling the worst, sickest parts of myself. 

The New Me starts with Millie, who is thirty, and ten days into a temp job answering the rare phone call at a design showroom. Her boyfriend has left her. She hates her friends, her life and most of all her body, which she describes as puke-filled”, smelling like “onion pizza” and “oil-slicked”. Her nights are spent numbing herself with episode after episode of Forensic Files.

She is defined by her unrepentant rage for almost everything. Her colleague that calls her Maddie by mistake is a “thankless cunt”. She rails on a stranger’s “fuck-you disappointment” outfit. When one of the company’s top designers yells at her over the phone, she fantasises about him caught up in a violent home invasion, imagining “his gasping, girlish shouts”. 

But in real life, she chirps “sorry!”, “Thank you!”. When her superior, Karen, unhappy with her stapling technique, shows her methodically and slowly the wrong and right way to do it:  “‘I totally get it’ I say, speaking in low tones, soothing and reassuring, nodding to keep the indignant scream from leaving my lips.”

Most people can find themselves in the demoralising work situations Butler (who like Millie, spent many years temping) maps out in her novel, but there is something especially resonant about the way she writes about the saccharine niceties and congeniality that can play out between women in the workforce. The kind of performance we enact while debasing ourselves, our stomachs churning with rage as we squeak, no, it’s fine, really! 

 Or even how savage workplace cruelty is disguised by professional pleasantries: “I have just seen something that puts me further ill at ease about including her on our team,” Karen writes in a complaint email to Millie’s temp agency. 

The New Me is about the gig-economy hellscape and the precariousness of middling work. But it’s also overwhelmingly about entitlement. Millie is not struggling to get by. Her parents subsidise her rent and sometimes wire her money for groceries. Most of Millie’s anger seems to stem from the fact that she believes her upper-middle-class upbringing and university education should shield her from the kind of work she’s undertaking. She feels slighted. The book reeks with resentment. 

But even as Millie isolates herself, she isn’t alone in her misery. Butler includes slim chapters that detail the perspectives of other minor characters in Millie’s orbit. They might not be as sloppy or sad, but the pains of work, profound alienation and overall emptiness are contaminating their lives too. One woman constructs an entire joke-filled monologue about her new puppy before drinks with friends, and internally loses it when the conversation doesn’t pan out as planned. Millie’s neighbours, a couple, have a brief break from their sad, communication-deficient relationship when they try to investigate the source of a “festering stink” in their apartment block.   

***

Over the past year, I’ve read many contemporary novels that skew the idea that meaning and purpose for women can be derived from a big career and an enviable family life. For a while, especially around the early 2010s, this seemed like the dominant narrative surrounding women and working, with the idea of ‘female empowerment’ often entangled with careerism and the accumulation of wealth. There was, and still remains in publishing, a deluge of self-help manuals and memoirs from noted career women, rhapsodising on how best to work your way up the corporate ladder, or how to unlock the perfect work-life balance. 

 Criticism of corporate feminism has been well-vocalised: that these aspirations are only achievable to a small stratum of women (already rich, white) and ignore class realities; as well as how these ideas dilute real socio-political action in the service of a more palatable, marketable and mostly useless brand of empowerment.  

Even though that kind of narrow, have-it-all narrative feels mostly laughable and corny now, its grip on culture has felt sustained (despite everything, Girlboss just launched their own version of LinkedIn for millennial women). But in these novels, the protagonists have simply marked these aspirations as unwanted and undesirable. 

There has been Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman, a darkly deadpan novel about a devoted store clerk who optimises her entire being around her job, defying Japanese social mores to start a family and have what is perceived as a proper career, to the dismay of everyone around her. “I am one of those cogs, going round and round,” she intones with a sort of robotic reverence. (Murata herself worked at a convenience store for eighteen years). In Leila Slimani’s Adele, a story of a self-destructive woman in the throes of a sex addiction, the titular protagonist—a glamorous, upper-middle class newspaper reporter—resents her job because it is the antithesis of decadence and frivolity. Her wealth “smells of work” she decrees while thinking about her cushy, privileged life.  In Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation the rich, waspy, unnamed narrator is fired from her mindless gallery job, and decides to tap out completely and drug herself into total oblivion, in the hope of awakening a year later reborn.

In The New Me, it’s unclear what Millie really hopes for. (The Cut asked this question too when profiling the writer, leading with the title: ‘What do Halle Butler’s Women Want?’).

Reading the novel, I get the sense that Butler is interested in not only detailing the depressing nature of undignified, meaningless work, but also in exposing how modern work culture—especially those that apply to women and ambition—can completely warp someone’s priorities and personal desires. 

It’s that tension that I’ve always found funny about toothless, ethically-dubious women’s initiatives that revolve around championing women in the workforce. This idea that you’re in control, that you’re taking charge of your own life, that you’re an individual, only for your wants and ambitions to be supplanted and confined by the system. 

Millie is not ambitious, but her motivations are purely individualistic. Her concern for others are purely facile and self-serving, and she doesn’t even try to build up any relationships at work that could lead to any sort of unanimity or understanding. Instead, she desperately clings to the possibility that her salvation lies in her own self-improvement. The best bits of the novel are Millie’s frantic, funny and slightly unhinged dialogue with herself, where she plots her path to a seemingly better, more fulfilling life. She internally runs through different activities of consumption like a checklist that she needs to tick off, more work. But this is Butler’s strength: tart, short paragraphs that capture the quick rhythm of someone’s scheming in overdrive:  

I should read a book, I should make some friends, I should write some emails, I should go to the movies, I should get some exercise, I should unclench my muscles, I should get a hobby, I should buy a plant, I should call my exes, all of them, and ask for advice, I should figure out why no one wants to be around me, I should start going to the same bar every night, become a regular, I should volunteer again, I should get a cat or plant, or some nice lotion or some Whitestripes, start using a laundry service, start taking myself both more and less seriously.  

These lists are mostly speculative, but they reach her real life when the prospect of a permanent role arrives, sending her down a spiral of betterment. She soaks her dirty opaque tights in her bath, she spring cleans her closet, scrubs her bathroom floor and makes salad. But mostly, she shops: new clothes, expensive quinoa, a month-long trial at her local Yoga studio. 

It’s deluded, but it’s also something I continue to fall for: the idea that I’m just a few consumer choices away from transforming my life. I’ll put on the right face creams and say that I will never order take-out again. I download apps that will limit my social media use. I read. I think deeply about saving money. I feel good, even hopeful, about myself, until inevitably I’m drinking soft drinks in my bed and letting dirty laundry pile up in my room. And then I feel disgusted with myself all over again. 

Butler’s novel doesn’t often a solution to any of this – the soul-sucking work, the boundless consumerism, the profound alienation, because what is it? It’s inescapable, unending. At least in her novel, Butler gives us an opportunity to laugh at and commiserate our own self-loathing, deadening conversations with co-workers and stale, hardened office kitchen donuts.



Isabella Trimboli is a writer and critic living in Birraranga / Melbourne. She has written for The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, VICE, among other publications. She is also the co-founding editor of Gusher magazine, an annual print music magazine written by women and non-binary people. She tweets at @itrimboli.

‘Dedicated to Tenderness: a review of Alexander Chee’s “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel”’, by Léa Antigny

 
Credit: Bloomsbury

Credit: Bloomsbury

 

What is the point of writing about oneself? What is the point of writing at all? I will spoil the ending of this review for you right now: I do not know. I am not convinced that there is one. All I can tell you is that when I watch the edges of a cloud turn from yellow to grey in the evening, I feel something catch in my chest, and have an urge to find the words for it. Words for what that feels like, what exactly is caught, and how I choose whether to swallow it down or scream it out loud. I can tell you that when my mind starts wandering, my fingers start dancing over an imagined keyboard. I have always done this – think of certain sentences and imitate the movements of typing them. It’s subconscious. Sometimes, very rarely, but sometimes, I write a sentence that I read to myself later and think, yes, I understood myself. I never feel that I have understood myself when communicating with speech. With speech, I am clumsy, I need more time than it allows. On the page, I can wait. So that is the why, for me, or at least a small part of it. Why I write about myself, mostly only ever to myself. Because to live inside myself—my self—without writing seems dangerous. It would be like hooking a water balloon over the lip of a tap, turning the faucet, and letting it run too long, watching the balloon stretch and sag with the weight of everything inside. It will split into pieces before you have readied yourself for the sound of the snap. But why do we share our writing? What are we really saying when we say, here, have this piece of me? Why do we even try?

In one essay in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, titled ‘Becoming an American Writer’, Alexander Chee is confronted with this question the morning after the unthinkable has come to pass. In 2016, Donald Trump was elected the forty-fifth President of the United States of America. The morning after the election, Chee was expected to deliver a creative writing class. The air charged with a dread that would only intensify as time wore on, a student asked Chee: “What’s the point of writing when this can happen?”

Chee himself has been a student of writing his whole life, which is to say he has been a student of life and he has found the words for what he has learnt. There were stories of psychic mutants written as a young boy, poems as elegies written as a young man intimate with death far too early and far too often, book reviews, essays, short stories. Novels (only one of them autobiographical). In How to Write an Autobiographical Novel—not, it should be obvious, a how-to guide at all—Chee charts a writing life. It is a life in which writing is the product of a singular devotion to paying close attention to the world around him. It is a life in which writing is a tool for making sense of the most earthly, most human of horrors. The loosely chronological collection opens with a gorgeously drawn coming-of-age story set behind the tall concrete walls of a wealthy host family’s Mexico home, where mangoes fall freely from trees and Chee is still blissfully naïve, in the precious flush of youth before truths of class and social hierarchy make themselves known. Throughout, we meet the different versions of Chee that he chooses to present to us: the version that lost his father at the age of sixteen, the version that marched the streets and met with police batons in 1980s San Francisco, the version that fought with his body to prove his life worthy to a government that believed he was less than human. The version that lost friends thanks to that government’s inaction, the version that studied literary non-fiction under Annie Dillard, the version of Chee in drag, the version of Chee behind other kinds of masks. The version that learns the truth of his betrayals, deep and indefensible, decades after they were acted upon him.

In one of the most striking essays of the collection, ‘Girl’, Chee describes the exhilarating freedom to be found in disguise. Made up in drag, Chee discovers a second self, not under a mask but through a mask, through his new reflection. He delights in the sensuality of makeup. His  hands are forced to slow down, they move carefully as they colour his mouth slick. His boyfriend at the time is bewitched and, with the realisation that Chee might ‘pass’ in public, the tension wrought by a lifetime of pained self-surveillance is released. Chee imagines that they might walk through the night as lovers, holding hands, an act of togetherness without being political and without being in danger. Chee learns quickly that the power of successfully performing femininity—what he calls “the theatre of being female”—is hardly a power at all. A woman walks down the street, lips painted, hair caressing her neck and ears, and men perceive her to have power. The men who have perceived power in a woman then feel that something has been taken from them—the power should be theirs—and that this is the woman’s fault. There is a pleasure in making a head turn, pleasure in making someone aware that they want you, and aware that you are aware that they want you, but the pleasure is brief. It can turn deadly. To ‘pass’ is something Chee has been told he should aim for his whole life. He is asked not who, but what, he is. “You could pass,” he is often told. “Pass as what?” he demands. “When people use the word ‘passing’ in talking about race, they only ever mean one thing, but I still make them say it,” he writes.

Drag is only the most explicit kind of mask worn in this collection. The others are much more ordinary, and they are many, and if you say you don’t wear different masks all the time you are either lying or you have not even begun to know yourself. Like Chee writes, “we are not what we think we are…The stories we tell of ourselves are like thin trails across something that is more like an ocean. A mask afloat on the open sea.” This is true – we each are made up of flimsy threads held together only by our own narratives. The urge to tell the story of my own life back to myself is one I have felt for as long as I can remember. I feel it so keenly that it is hard for me to fathom that others might not think this way. Telling stories, I don’t mean to an audience, but to myself—at least one of my selves, the interior self—is a way of making sense of life which can, at times, feel comically senseless. But just because telling myself stories might feel as urgent and necessary as drawing breath, it does not mean those stories are truthful. They may be truthful to the self, but it’s possible—probable—they are not truthful to others. I am sure that to some, this way of viewing the world must seem like a desire to exist in a semi-conscious reality. To detach from the real world, whatever that is, to pad oneself with stories as cotton wool. In fact, to confess to playing so many different roles, to wearing and removing masks with ease, is only the beginning of honestly connecting with ourselves, which is necessary before we can connect with the world around us. To understand that we are, most of the time, floating like the tremulous sea foam, can be extraordinarily grounding.

In ‘My Parade’, Chee takes on the exhausting and ongoing debate of whether or not good writing can be taught. He believes that it can, as does his own teacher Annie Dillard (as do I for whatever that’s worth). What that means—to teach writing—is not what most people think. It is, as Chee teaches throughout this collection, about putting in the work: “What separates those who write from those who don’t is being able to stand it.” In urging a young Chee to pursue an MFA, Dillard tells him “you want to delay the real world as long as possible”. But to Chee’s mind, an MFA is “not an escape of the real world but a confrontation with it” – even if it did also feel like a “fantasy” to study under writers including Marilynne Robinson, Denis Johnson, and Deborah Eisenberg to name a few. This marriage of real world and fantasy is apparent in all Chee’s writing. His essays are rich and vivid, full of sentences that insist the reader pause and read twice, insist the reader hold and feel the weight of them. The care with which Chee deploys each word is so clear that, after a short while reading, it becomes near imperceptible. He makes every sentence seem impossibly easy. It is anything but.

So if we believe that writing can be taught—if we understand that means to work hard at paying attention to the world, to listen to which stories are asking to be told, to respond to the flashes of thought when they happen, as in now, as in write it down right now, you won’t be able to summon it later—what, then, is the point of it? Wondering about the point, though, is a distraction. It’s the wrong question. It is by design that we feel despair and that we question our purpose and value. Thinking about ‘the point’ is a trick played on us by the insidious neoliberalism that has crept into every little aspect of creative work, demanding that we operate with maximum productivity as the goal. It is a trick that works. Each time I ask myself, ‘What’s the point?’, I become stuck, because of course there is no satisfactory answer. Chee believes the good writer is the writer that can become unstuck. But I think to unstick ourselves is a lesson we all, writers or otherwise, need to learn. You can let the question of ‘why’ weigh so heavily on you that before long you will be unable to move. To move forward, to proceed in life, requires courage. Courage is a hard thing to hold when Donald Trump is President, when there is a horse in the hospital, when climate disaster is knocking at our door and those with the power to turn it away will let it right in. When each day we give hours of ourselves to the internet, we open our mouths wide and drink it in and it is sour and it is choking us and we need more all the time.

We can ask why all we want. We should also ask why not? “I learned quickly that if you stop writing, nothing happens, but I also learned that I had nowhere else to go,” writes Chee. It is a cliché, but it is also the truth, and it’s a truth we should remind ourselves every time we become stuck: your time here on earth is going to pass anyway. If there is a story asking to be told, listen to it. If there is colour changing at the edge of a cloud; if there is a heavy tulip hanging over the edge of a vase just so; if any of the tiny, tender moments of everyday life lodge themselves in your chest, listen. And tell. Tell it with your dancing fingers, with your tight chest, let the balloon swell but never, ever break. Writing need not save the world or overthrow the government (which is not to say that it can’t, I just don’t think it need be the goal). It is enough that writing might just hold the self together. It is enough that it might move a single reader. It can be small, like most lives are, it can be, like Chee writes, “dedicated somehow to tenderness”. ◆



Léa Antigny is a writer and student completing her MA at Western Sydney University with a focus on creative non-fiction and memoir. She has been published in the Guardian and The Lifted Brow. She is publicity manager at Giramondo Publishing and tries not to tweet at @leaantigny.

‘Class Clown: A Review of Heike Geissler’s “Seasonal Associate”’, by Cher Tan

 
heike geissler mit press.jpg
 
 

Recently, I made a zine titled To All The Shit Jobs I've Worked Before, a cheeky nod to a TV show of a similar name. The zine is literally an ode to my entire working life, a seventeen-year hodgepodge of largely low-level—or so-called ‘unskilled’—jobs I've held since the age of fifteen.

 I’ve never completed any kind of tertiary education. Throw in a dash of poor mental health and a working-class family who were too preoccupied and unhappy to care about what I ‘became’, and I’ve ended up with no real qualifications. Finally, nurtured by my fervent involvement in the punk underground (which nonetheless provided a fulfilling life), I ended up neglecting to pursue mainstream ‘goals’. In other words, I don’t have what people traditionally call a ‘career path’. Maybe some people will say that I've squandered my time. Regardless, it's been shit job after shit job, means-to-an-end after means-to-an-end, in the hopes of gaining a new skill or landing that one job that will be the most tolerable of shit jobs, at least until the day I die.

 In environments where eking out a shit living is par for the course, conditions are generally miserable. Workers are unhappy, unconcerned and/or mean spirited. Sometimes, you luck out and there are formal niceties, or you end up going for drinks at the local after work, but ultimately it's palpable that no one gives a shit. Yet we're all there for the same reasons: to make ends meet.

 This bleak reality is the backdrop of Heike Geissler's novel Seasonal Associate, published in German in 2014 and newly translated into English by Katy Derbyshire. Forced by increasing debt and a precarious financial situation, as well as needing to support her two young sons, the unnamed protagonist (who is loosely based on Geissler herself) takes up a temporary, low-level position at an Amazon warehouse in Leipzig during the busy pre-Christmas rush. It's the “first job that comes up”, and the underemployed writer and translator has to take it, “to put some money in the bank”. When desperate times call for desperate measures, there's no time for hesitation. Time is money.

 Presented as a combination of memoir and theory, Seasonal Associate uses second-person to fold the reader into the text. Its tone is at once accusatory and inviting – on one hand, the ‘you’ is universal, yet lines like “You walk around, go for a stroll, allow yourself the pleasure” presents a certain snideness. Geissler uses first-person occasionally however, and when she does, it is unexpected and jolts the reader back into their own present, a device that lays the groundwork for a recurring pathos. The first time she does this, it is to refer to her boyfriend and children: “I’m not going to share them. I can’t do that. You’re me, but you don’t have my entire life.”

The working conditions at Amazon turn out to be unrelentingly dismal, and Geissler manages to wring out every detail. Even so, nothing of consequence actually happens in the book; rather than a plot filled with twists and turns, it’s a composite of the non-events that make up the protagonist’s time at the warehouse, and the thoughts that occur to her during this tedious passage of time. As such, unless you're a trust-fund kid or someone who's miraculously escaped the mechanisms of the unskilled labour market, you're bound to have worked at least one shit job in your life to date, and this makes the contents of Seasonal Associate either terrifyingly relatable (because you're still there) or downright terrifying (because you don’t want to go back there). She calculates over and over how much money she'll make, worries about taking sick leave, and then worries some more about being thought to lie about being sick in order to take sick leave. She eats quickly at lunch break, cleans up her workstation fifteen minutes ahead of clock-off to avoid working unpaid minutes, and makes mistakes she doesn't bother correcting. Every day is routine. 

**

Geissler didn't set out to write about her time working for Amazon. But in an interview with The Creative Independent, she said that it was when her contract ended that she started thinking about writing about her experiences, “because I had not earned enough money [at Amazon], really.”

And there is the sucker punch. As Geissler’s protagonist laments early on in the novel:

You’ll learn to say, however, that you just need the money, that you have this job but you’re still a writer and translator. […] At some point you’ll find it easy to cast all your strange ideals of careers and life and success overboard, to say that you have this job, your actual job, and another one on the side. […] You’ll be constantly thinking about what ideas everyone has about making a living, why it sometimes feels like failure when you can’t live off your actual job.

For many artists in similarly dire socioeconomic circumstances, this is a dilemma that will sound very familiar. If I write about my hardships, maybe I will eventually catch the attention of someone who will give me more opportunities. Maybe I can then finally ‘make it’ as a writer. Seasonal Associate launched Geissler’s career as a literary writer, but the dismal working conditions and financial precarity that produced it undoubtedly took a psychological toll. As Amy Gray writes in an Overland op-ed on what she terms “the Bustle hustle”—the hyper-mining of personal experiences in writing, particularly in digital writing—“it's compelling for writers, especially those who want to break into publishing, and who haven't been able to enter the industry either due to circumstance or various layers of structural prejudice.”

At its very core, Seasonal Associate is a writer-labourer's book. While drolly interrogating today's burgeoning complexities around class and capital, Geissler queries what it means to work a shit job that has absolutely nothing to do with the art you make (in Geissler’s case, pre-Seasonal Associate) in order to—ironically—fund it, once you’ve covered the many important living costs which naturally take priority. At one point, while she wonders what her “mental bed” will look like at the end of her Amazon contract, she refers to Tracey Emin's notorious 1998 installation My Bed. The art work, the artist's bed with objects strewn haphazardly around it, acts as a simulation of the abject state someone's bedroom would look like if they were going through depression. Geissler cynically notes that her bed “won't be sold at Christie's for €2.5 million like Tracey Emin's bed; you'll have to clean it up yourself later.”

 Like a skittish servant, this linking of money with artistic success hovers in the background of the book. Within the creative industries, a false winner-takes-all meritocracy is often dangled from the ceiling like a pleasurable daydream: what if, as a labourer in the marketplace of the arts, I'm The One the system chooses for success? After all, Octavia Butler and Stephen King fucking made it against all odds. ‘Supporting yourself completely doing what you love? Congratulations, you've worked hard enough and made it!’ vs: ‘Pulling long hours at a non-creative day job and trying to make art in your spare time? You pitiful thing, but it's very admirable what you're doing!’ There's no middle ground, and two opposing ideas seem to exist in harmony: a good struggle makes good work, yet the most envied of all artists are the ones who manage to receive grant after grant, or those who are supported by external financial sources, like family or a partner. There remain no crumbs left. Back to the drawing board. Struggle. Envy. Win. Quit.

 And as the class gap between the haves and the have-nots in the creative industries widens, the farce is that labourers will have less and less conviction or confidence to pursue writing, especially if it looks like a vocation that is only sustainable for those with existing advantages. Books by privileged writers typically end up being the ones that get published, leading to a dearth of varied stories that, from the margins, make ‘the writerly life’ seem like an attainable goal, or one worth pursuing. As Roanna Gonsalves writes in an essay on the ‘double lives’ many marginalised writers often have to negotiate, “the aspiration of writers towards the perceived ‘sacredness’ of the creative process must be tempered with the ‘profane’ spectre of the need to earn a living.”

Due to the romanticisation of poverty within the creative industries, it is hard to tell who else comes from circumstances like mine. Who has access to an inheritance? Whose parents help pay their rent? Who is able to call their family members to help them out should they get into a financial rut? Nobody knows. If I'm wearing a t-shirt with holes in it, maybe I'm just being quirky. If I'm wearing a nice dress, maybe I bought it from an op-shop. If I'm buying a nice drink at someone's book launch, I'm either using my credit card and putting myself further in debt, or I have a cushy public servant job that gives me the nice life. Who can say? It is there, of course, in the difference between choosing to work in an undervalued arts industry and whining about $30,000 (or less) a year, and feeling $30,000 is actually a fair bit of money. But if everyone is ‘poor’ and ‘broke’, then no one is poor and broke.

When Geissler sees a book by an industry peer she recognises, on the Amazon conveyor belt as pre-ordered gifts waiting to be packed by her, she considers this disparity. “It was as if I were the chambermaid and he were the guest, […] as if we were showing our true faces,” she writes bitterly. “I bet he has time right now to think about his next work; it would have to be called a work, and he'd have to be called a successful writer.”

**

In the five years since I started my haphazard journey as a freelance writer, I have always worked non-arts jobs in order to support myself. Currently, I work within the gig economy: cleaning houses and engaging in business copy-writing to pay the bills, on top of other casual miscellaneous jobs, a sacrifice I decided to make to try and pursue this funny business that appears to reap little reward, but which undeniably keeps me existentially alive. Sometimes, I think about the fact that if I had stayed in my minimum-wage commis chef jobs and abandoned writing, I might have been promoted to a sous chef position by now. By no means glamorous either, but at least a source of income that would not rest on persistent precarity.

In the course of writing this review, I spoke to two writers who I know also explicitly identify as working-class. One of them, Peter Polites, echoed the difficult negotiation that often arises from this sacrifice:

For those of us who write and aren't trustafarians, there is a risk of pursuing literature creation – because it comes at a cost, the cost being the use of your mind, time and resources and that have been used to create a more stable financial future.

And while capitalism continues to thrive, alienation is the order of the day as not only are people pitted against one another, they are made to feel as if they are the only ones alone in their experiences. I didn't think anyone understood my position until I spoke to Stephen Pham, another working-class writer who emphasised the isolation he feels in a system that treats class as a single, isolated issue, and not one tied deeply to other markers such as race:

It's isolating. I bump up against white writers who treat poverty as a marker of authenticity, writers of colour who are privileged enough to not care about class, and a community of tertiary-educated Asian-Australians who don't read all that much but think being poor is for suckers.

When class is divorced from the other situational and statistical factors that inherently drive it, the conversation stalls. To use myself as an example, despite having no generational wealth or safety net, I'm privileged in that I'm able-bodied, and don't have any dependants. And while I'm a first-generation migrant of colour, English is my first language, and I don't have a discernible ‘foreign’ accent. Even as I write this, I feel a deep sense of shame: both from admitting my circumstances, as well as from feeling as if I am performing the working-class cosplay that many in the arts fetishise. Perhaps that's why I don't hear of many writers who talk openly about existing within similar class brackets; there exists both shame, and the underlying aspiration to leave it. Or, as Eda Gunaydin writes in her essay on gentrification in Sydney's Parramatta:

I think it is more important not to impute bootstrapping narratives onto the stories of people like myself or others fighting worse structural oppressions, who make writing or the arts work by cleaning toilets or mixing drinks: we represent overwhelming exceptions to the general rule that 'one cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.' Possession of the means to write is strong evidence of, on average, a not-quite-proletarian status.

In Seasonal Associate, Geissler implicitly acknowledges this schism. When she points out mistakes her co-workers have made, they call her “Little Miss Professor”. She argues with and blatantly questions her superiors. When she orders food at a cafe and the waiter says “happy to serve you”, she taunts him by laughing and turning it into a question. When she sits next to a homeless man on the tram who tries to start a conversation with her, she barely wants to acknowledge him and thinks about her stopover at the bank instead. She puzzles over why a new co-worker has travelled from the next town to work at the warehouse. And despite being in debt, she still has “purchasing power” to afford a new pair of boots, bank overdraft be damned.

How much of class consciousness is class aspiration? Even if talking about class is awkward, its very existence points to a kind of signalling—“I'm poor, pity me” vs. “I'm rich, envy me”—variations on a scale that’s always about desiring and striving towards something. Within a capitalist system, as Guy Debord writes in the ever-relevant Society of the Spectacle, “every given commodity fights for itself, cannot acknowledge the others, and attempts to impose itself everywhere as if it were the only one.” 

Of course, as capitalism finds new ways to remake its own image, working-class writers today are a lot more varied than the down-and-out Dickens or Orwell sitting in their dank flats, even if they later wrangled a more-than-comfortable existence for themselves from their craft. But it's a tension that will keep plaguing the arts as long as these internal contradictions aren't addressed, especially in spaces that are at once gatekept, looked at, and attended to by the middle- and upper-classes. Who wants to be Xu Lizhi when they can be J.K. Rowling? 

Seasonal Associate, in its form as a subjective account of precarious labour, lays out these uncomfortable truths in a time where many people are exhausted and disheartened by work that discourages solidarity. In a casualised economy rife with alienation, ‘hard work’ and ‘success’ become gifts to be won by those who most effectively manage to game the system, a trial-and-error roulette that rests on external factors completely unrelated to the myths that drive it. Like Geissler’s protagonist, I want my bosses to hear that I'm sweeping with intent outside their office, only to find out that it no longer matters whether I've finished sweeping or not. In the same scene, her team leader calls her to stop and return to her workstation. He doesn't even check, doesn't even ask how far she's got.



Cher Tan is an essayist and critic in Birraranga/Melbourne, via Kaurna Yerta/Adelaide and Singapore. Her work has appeared in Meanjin, Westerly, Swampland and Overland, among others. She is Kill Your Darlings’ 2019 New Critic and a Wheeler Centre Hot Desk Fellow.

‘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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