Yes, the writer of Melbarts is still on the web. I'm sorry that I left this blog in recess for so long without explanation - truth to tell, I knew I wanted a change of direction but I wasn't sure where.
Finally I've started a new blog, Feminist Culture Muncher. It will incorporate some aspects of Melbarts, that is, reviews of books and film, but will range more widely to encompass politics and television. The reviews will be (hopefully!) shorter, less polished and more frequent.
Hope to see you there!
Thursday, July 15, 2010
Permanent marks etched into fragile human skin, and the soul of a whole city – these are the two disparate touchstones on which rests Fiona McGregor’s new and highly readable novel, Indelible Ink.
Taking her city’s natural beauty as a sine qua non, McGregor anthropologises her characters to reveal that the central truth of our time may be the banal but inescapable fact that real estate is destiny.
Yet the values of real estate sit uncomfortably with, but can never be easily separated from, equally important concepts such as attachment to and knowledge of the landscape of one’s home, the need to preserve architectural history and even the duties of parents.
In the light of this backdrop this panoramic novel unobtrusively deals with a vast number of themes with great wit and assurance – climate change and water shortages, tensions between siblings, the tortures of adolescence, sexuality and illness, the comfortable boredom of monogamy, creativity versus financial stability, the difficulties of single parenting and repartnering, the responsibilities of parents to adult children, female poverty after divorce, politically motivated policing, and gay singledom.
While this long list may make the novel sound like a sociological study, you’d never know it. In fact, McGregor’s clear observations and refusal to judge leave the reader floundering, desperately attempting to fill in the huge moral lacuna the author appears to have dug in the novel’s epicentre. This lacuna is one of the secrets behind the cleverness of Indelible Ink.
Widening the mainstream
McGregor is hardly the first novelist to take Sydney as her muse. The mythical aspects of Australia’s oldest and largest city exert a siren-like attraction for writers, its social fabric and arresting topography rent by rapacious capitalist heavies and, more lately, the unheralded catastrophe of climate change even while it continues to glow with its own astounding, seemingly indestructible natural beauty.
Recent treatments by Richard Flanagan (The Unknown Terrorist) and in the eighties Janet Turner Hospital’s now unjustly forgotten The Last Magician celebrate the great sexual and social decadence and urban decay of Sydney as much as they deplore it, seduced by the pulsing energy that a subtropical climate, sexual licence and the urgency of late capitalism cook up.
McGregor refuses to dichotomise and therefore avoids the salaciousness that ex-Catholic Flanagan, brilliant though he is, falls into. In fact, this novel shows her to be equally impatient with a number of fundamental oppositional pairs: good and evil, body and soul, life and death, abject and exalted.
With its emphasis on Melbourne’s eternal rival, the book could be read as a companion volume to Christos Tsiolkas’s now almost iconic Melbourne-based The Slap. The furious and unexpected success of this novel demonstrated not only that readers were desperate for fiction exploring ‘the way we live now’ (with all the contradictions in that concept) but that Tsiolkas himself, with his fearless placing of his own bodily and social subjectivity in the fictional spotlight, had actually extended the boundaries of the mainstream to include the experiences of second-generation migrants and gays, just as Garner did with women in The Monkey Grip and her subsequent fiction.
When Tsiolkas and McGregor came to prominence in the nineties, both were immediately filed away in the ‘grunge’ category. But this process of categorisation and their subsequent careers suggest that so-called grunge may have been above all an extension of realism through an attempt to bring the hitherto abjected reaches of bodily and social experience into the symbolic. How fitting that these two writers, also labelled ‘queer’, are now the ones ripping open the suburban blind to reveal particular cultural moments in their respective home cities.
As The Slap did for its author, this novel suggests a fictional coming of age for McGregor, a Generation X-er who rose to literary prominence with her searing short story collection Suck My Toes in 1994. At the time the craze for lesbian chic was at its height, and McGregor – with her shaved head, stunning looks and acerbic style – seemed to exemplify its more subversive aspects.
****Plot elements given below****
A privileged, spendthrift and alcoholic baby boomer, 59-year-old Marie King is reaching a turning point. Recently divorced from her advertising executive husband, Ross, and misunderstood by her children, she is reluctantly considering selling her beloved Mosman home with its view of the ‘dense blue harbour’, and leaving the North Shore.
After a lonely drunken evening she rolls into a tattoo parlour and acquires a shoulder rose. This foray leads to an insatiable need to keep decorating her body, an urge that causes her to question the values and lifestyle of her North Shore milieu.
She soon meets Rhys, an unconventional tattoo artist who introduces her to an alternative world not bound by the values of real estate. But as the sale of her home proceeds, Marie receives news that will throw her into the territory of her body like never before.
Marie is not a particularly heroic heroine in the traditional sense – in an early scene she buys a nine-thousand-dollar lounge suite without blinking – but from the start she’s likeable and unassuming.
Her greatest strengths are her deep affinity with the landscape and beach of the picturesque cove that her multimillion-dollar home fronts onto, and her encyclopaedic knowledge of the indigenous plants of her abundant Mosman garden and the natural dangers that beset them in Sydney’s seemingly idyllic climate. A nurturer of the land, she is old-style Mosman through and through.
Yet Marie achieves one great thing in the novel: ageing and its vicissitudes and the lure of the needle provide the impetus for her to reach a post-feminist awakening to her body, and through that, to discover an autonomous self, an enriched erotic life and connections with others who are not bound by the extreme materialism she’s been mired in.
In decorating her ageing skin and enduring the pain and exultation of body art, Marie also comes to extend the limits of her social and emotional repertoire. The experiences of the body, whether painful and pleasurable, enable her to know herself and engage with the world in a more honest and authentic way. As she decorates her body she learns to inhabit it.
It is to the novel’s credit that this transformation is as profound as it is subtle; after all, there’s already a staid kind of liberalism, complete with illicit affairs and drug dabbling, in the brash wealth of the moneyed world that Marie emerges from after her divorce. McGregor’s Mosman is hardly the uptight Moonee Ponds of Edna Everage, but a place so mired in competitive materialism that there’s little room for anything else. There’s also a surprising degree of ageism in the reactions of Marie’s friends and children to her tattooing odyssey.
****Plot elements end****
McGregor’s writerly style is quick, nimble and witty (‘they stared at a mob of shoppers charging through the doors for the Australia Day sales as though fleeing a tsunami’) but there’s sometimes a simultaneous sense of both depth and reach in her writing.
She flits from the tiny detail to the panoramic view and back again seemingly effortlessly, describing minutiae and wider concerns with equal authority: ‘The lawns of the reserve crunched between her feet like toast. The news said the heatwave death toll was three …’. She’s a highly visual writer, alive to the variegated beauty of nature and the human attempt to emulate that beauty through art – including body art.
Moreover, McGregor has a real knack for getting inside her characters’ heads and bodies while at the same time managing to present a panoramic view. Even the most mundane activities, such as refilling a car with petrol, give us insights into the characters’ inner lives, as well as Western culture as played out in Sydney: ‘Her car was a tick sucking up its weekly supply, injecting its host with poison simultaneously’.
As readers it’s Marie’s inner life we most often have access to, but at various times we also view the action from the perspective of her three children, Clark, Leon and Blanche. Some may be shocked at the Machiavellian ease with which these characters navigate and view their lives, particularly Blanche, who’s easily the most materialistic and, like Marie’s Mosman friends, obsessed with ephemera.
On the cusp between Generation X and Y, but owing their values to the latter, Marie’s children nurture various degrees of self-obsession and to some extent are seemingly trapped in a never-ending adolescence; however the dog-eat-dog, survivalist atmosphere of Sydney seems to be partly to blame, despite the three being so firmly middle-class. Although McGregor is faithful to their inner worlds, at times it’s hard to feel much for them apart from a basic sympathy, except perhaps in the case of Clark, significantly the only one who has a child.
McGregor’s political project is to retain the exigencies of the body at the forefront of the action, and we are as familiar with Marie’s digestive problems as we are with her newfound joys in her decorated skin or the awkward disjunctures her tattooing opens up with friends and family members: ‘a ream of burps emerged from her mouth, harsh and bitter like sulphuric gas’. Similarly, McGregor’s sex scenes are original and graphic while never being merely titillating. She’s able to present sex in a way that is funny and at times poignant but never romantic; for her, it’s a site where mind and body are often at odds with each other, much as they would like to coincide.
Her modus operandi also enables her to avoid romanticising the landscape and flora of Sydney, much as she appears to adore it. The subtropical climate leaves Marie’s angophora vulnerable to fungi; a street of ‘hooded figs’ leave an ‘acidic carpet of figs and fig shit dropped by bats at night and lorikeets during the day’. Nor is nature a still landscape for us to contemplate; it’s dynamic, noisy, pulsing and sometimes almost human, forever competing with the never-ending buzz of human activity: ‘The clouds parted and a billion tiny legs in the trees around the house grew frenetic with their worship’.
This natural plenitude, although distantly threatened by climate change, is mirrored in the abundance of fresh, beautifully prepared food in the novel (‘Susan unwrapped a piece of dark chocolate and began to grate it over a pear tart’); McGregor’s Sydney is still a land of plenty for the upper middle classes, one in which climate change has so far failed to quell the urge to excess that money fosters. In fact, with its adumbration of frenzied, upiquitous activity on every level of life – the rampant materialism no more meaningful or thought-out than the instinctive sun-worship of cicadas – it would be easy to assume that McGregor's view of life is Darwinian. I think it would be more accurate to read her style as a refusal to preach; her aim is simply to let the reader make up their own mind.
An insider’s view from the outside
The quarrel I have with the concept of ‘how we live now’ is that ‘we’ are all too often well-rewarded Fairfax journalists writing their smug but guilty columns from the security of their inner suburban veggie patches. McGregor’s feat here is to bring us a front-row view of a prime economic and cultural site with an insider’s knowledge but the cool gaze of the outsider.
Like so many of Australia’s prominent writers, and in stark contrast to Tsiolkas, McGregor’s background is unremittingly upper middle class; she grew up on the lower North Shore, in what is undoubtedly the epicentre of social prestige in Australia. But having occupied the outsider role in both life and fiction (she is a queer performance artist), she brings a bloodless, gimlet eye to this world.
The dinner party that Marie attends with her old friends the Joneses is one example. The various conversations and interactions are a delight. The question of whether one of Marie’s friends has had a boob job and is using Botox, the merits of Morocco as a holiday destination, and the competitiveness of Ross’s former business partner, who spends hundreds of thousands on a Nolan painting merely to compete with him, are all subjected to ironic scrutiny.
Marie’s children are all obsessed with real estate, with varying degrees of ruthlessness in their pursuit of the security ownership brings; but time proves that their generation doesn’t have the monopoly on selfishness. And while Marie is in many ways ‘old style’ Mosman, in comparison to the brash multimillionaires transforming it, a previous ‘gothic pile’ had once been demolished to build her loved home.
McGregor tells us a rollicking good story, a ripper yarn, as she drags us along, sometimes at breakneck speed, on Marie’s often wild journey, with its 360-degree turns and sharp emotional drops. But, like the finest literary misery memoir, McGregor refuses to fill in the dots with whys and wherefores, or to supply convenient heroes and villains.
Instead she leaves us with quietly devastating scenarios built around her central thesis, that the chief divide in Australian society may be neither gender nor class, but whether one ‘owns’ or not. I won’t give away the ending here, but the subtle traces of certain off-stage characters in the final scene brilliantly echo McGregor’s refusal to overtly pass judgement, even as it devastates.
This is what I took from the novel: in all the emphasis on the solidity of bricks and mortar, on their ability to both provide and remove everything that matters most – security, stability, wealth, a planned future – the body itself must and should be made paramount. Walls and houses were once things built to provide shelter for the fragile body. Now they have the ability to decide which bodies thrive and which don’t. If we all undertook a journey into the body such as the one that Marie bravely embarks on, there’s a slim chance that they might return to their original function.
For more recent book and film reviews, visit my new blog Feminist Culture Muncher! Read more!
Saturday, June 12, 2010
That may be true, but the idea of the line – be it a squiggle or swirl, a bold paint stroke or a basis for the figurative – is still powerful in this exhibition of contemporary drawings at RMIT. Drawing is also associated with a kind of unthinking, childlike creativity, and some of these works evoke the most instinctual and primeval elements of the psyche.
This is an exuberant exhibition that celebrates movement, dynamism, and the playfulness inherent in the many mediums the artists choose. But it is also a survey of Australian drawing over almost 40 years, with 35 artists represented from the present to as far back as 1973.
Indeed, while Generation X is certainly represented here, Godwin Bradbeer, one of the participants, has suggested that the exhibition is a coming of age of an earlier generation of artists who embraced the figurative despite being birthed in a modernism that abhorred the image. And these various modes of the figurative and beyond are everywhere here.
Curator Irene Barbaris has deliberately hung this exhibition as an installation rather than a salon. Given the small size of the gallery this is an inspired decision, with the works drawing from and speaking to each other; transitions, complementarities and contrasts all abound.
The gallery is still too small for the large number of works, and you really need more than one viewing, as there’s too much to take in at once with so little white space; but Barbaris’s extensive knowledge and sensitivity, as well as the high walls of the gallery, mostly make up for this.
In Aida Tomescu’s ‘Sodium II’, ‘Sodium IV’ and ‘Sodium cyr’ 2009, pastel markings in white and yellow dominate the foreground, against darker, shifting background brushstrokes, depicting a sense of chaos and incomprehensibility. These works struck me as more guttural and primeval than the more subdued yet still energetic earlier works of Tomescu I’ve seen, as if she had begun to dig further down into her psyche.
Spanning both the abstract and figurative, but equally inspired in its seductive use of colour, complex layerings, and seemingly random paint strokes is Graham Fransella’s moody portrait of an outlined semi-human figure. The vagueness and ambiguity of the figure combined with the painterly play of the work’s surface creates a strength and luminosity that stays in the mind like a vivid dream.
Moving further into the figurative is Mandy Martin’s ‘Wanderers in the desert real: Wallerawang power station (triptych)’ 2008. This diminutive set of paintings, in brown and grey hues, feature viscous-seeming sculptural textures that add aesthetic weight and immediacy.
These paintings enact a central paradox, evoking a surprising beauty from industrial ugliness almost abandoned by humans, apart from a small lone figure in the central painting who hurries through, dwarfed by cooling towers on each side and anxious to leave.
Critics have situated Martin in the tradition of romantic landscape painting, and the tiny scale of these paintings, as well as the subject matter, suggests Martin’s simultaneous subversion and celebration of this tradition.
Sarah Tomasetti demonstrates her mastery of a form she specialises in, fresco, in her series ‘Worldlines’ 2010. Tomasetti’s concerns with the numinous, the liminal and with aesthetic pleasure continue here, with the series of 12 frescoes in small boxed frames all depicting the same orbicular shape, presumably the Earth.
The seductively cracked textures and differing colour gradations through and around these surfaces also glory in texture, but these works encourage a meditative as well as an emotional response.
A complete change of mood occurs in Greg Creek’s bold and playful ‘Manifesto drawing’, dominated by a violent splash of off-white on a narrow black surface supported by plywood. The effect is something similar to a very steep, almost vertical slide that turns up at the bottom. It’s deliberately unkempt and slapdash, evoking the rawness of pure creativity.
Exuberance of a different nature is evident in Stieg Persson’s untitled drawing of 2007, a large ribbon-like design of great intricacy that celebrates decorative calligraphy with thriving pulsation.
This theme of decoration recurs in the striking ‘Anonyme’, 1998, by Deborah Klein. In this intricate and precise black-and-white linocut, the highly stylised head-dress of a Victorian woman, shown from the back, becomes itself pure decoration – is this an aesthetic violence or a triumph of the feminine on design – or both?
There’s enough to satisfy the traditionalists here, including Philip Hunter’s landscape triptych, and striking, relatively traditional portraits by Virginia Grayson and Pam Hallandal (who won the Dobell Prize for drawing in 2009).
There’s delightfully intricate and exacting attention to detail, the thing that sketching does so well, as well as a sense of Freudian absence and the melancholy of war, in a sketch by Raymond Arnold of a soldier’s jacket encasing an absent body.
In ‘Ancient Cypress’ Beijing’ 2001 and ‘Prunus (Flowering Cherry) jardin du Plantes, Paris’ 1996, Elizabeth Cross imbues her trees with life, soul and muscularity; there is something tortured about them.
Not so in Helen Wright’s ‘One tree on the island (II)’ 2010, a collage of birds of many different species perched on a tree. This work makes a strong point about conservation in a way that is deceptively sweet, conventional and decorative.
Perhaps the standout of the exhibition for me was Godwin Bradbeer’s Imago XIX, 2007, a striking, luminous image of an Asian face presented as a beautiful, generic object that is at once aestheticised and deeply human; totally lacking in personal revelation, it’s still seductive, even moving. Silver oxide and pastel dust give this image its remarkable sheen and increase its aesthetic power.
Bradbeer’s work has been positioned at right angles to Irene Barbaris’s startling and dramatic ‘Light circle #10: 8 points’, 2010. Barbaris has said this work is an examination of ‘the random line and the structural line’, but it is also a powerful collision of line, unapologetic colour and artificial light.
Noel McKenna’s series of animal sketches and Vivienne Shark LeWitt’s glorious ‘untitled sketch dancing couple’ 1994 reveal artists who are absolute masters of the art of outline, drawing form, soul, mood and even narrative from the barest illustrative details.
Also watch out for a gentle painting by Jenny Watson and an energetic video by Mike Parr.
There’s a related exhibition next door, Constellations: A Large Number of Small Drawings, that’s well worth taking a look at. This exhibition explores the use of drawing in a range of professions, so the drawings tend to be fairly traditional. And sometimes they’re so precise and beautifully patterned you want to eat them.
Both exhibitions run until June 26. Read more!
Sunday, April 25, 2010
Neoliberalism has stolen much from the experience of being young in Australia. High university fees and rental costs restrict its possibilities as a liminal period in which all kinds of education – sexual, emotional, intellectual – take place.
Early adulthood, especially in the university context, is a time characterised by uncertainty, intense but shifting friendships, and periods of apparent stasis in which the future may be quietly and steadily shaping itself. It is also a time in which romanticism must square up with cold and inexorable reality. Now that the coming of age of the young is once more blighted by class, we inevitably look to the privileged for models by which to characterise this period.
Emerging maturity among the upper middle class gets a fresh and unusual treatment in Kirsten Tranter’s The Legacy, a complex narrative that uses a mystery story to describe youthful romanticism in ironic terms, undercutting it with doses of grunge realism.
The Legacy has been hailed as a literary triumph. The fact that Tranter’s agent, Lyn Tranter, happens to be her mother hasn’t harmed the publishing, marketing and reception of the book – apparently the first-time author received a six-figure sum from HarperCollins for two books, with a second novel to follow.
So does this genre-crossing novel live up to the hype? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t good – there’s much to enjoy, even though the combining of genres does introduce its own limitations.
The story has a wide imaginative reach, encompassing six years and two cities on separate continents, Sydney and New York, in a back-and-forth sweep that seems to echo its heroine’s own emotional seesaw-ing; there are smaller temporal swings, too, that emulate the confusions of recollection. The plot is complex, both factually and emotionally, and the mysteries buried at its heart are skillfully conceived.
The mistakes that Tranter avoids may be as important as her achievements in The Legacy. There’s more than competence here; Tranter demonstrates a level of sophistication and mastery of story that elude many a first-time novelist. She writes with a kind of narrative ease, and reading the novel is sometimes a bit like watching a jazz pianist improvise – you feel that she’s exploring new territory yet still in her comfort zone.
***Plot elements given below***
It is the late 1990s. On a visit to Europe, beautiful young heiress Ingrid Holburne, a classics student at Sydney University, is swept off her feet by the sophisticated Gil Grey, a New York art dealer. Leaving behind an intense three-way friendship with her cousin Ralph, who loves her unrequitedly, and Julia, a restless law student, Ingrid marries Grey and goes to live in New York with him and his daughter Fleur, a precociously talented teenage artist.
Ingrid disappears on September 11 2001, presumed dead in the disaster. Julia travels to New York to find out about her life with Grey and Fleur, and stumbles on a mystery whose unanswered questions compel her towards the truth with ever greater urgency.
With an almost stereotypical self-destructive streak, Julia drinks too much (‘I wondered if the last glass of wine had been a mistake. I looked around for another’) and has made poor romantic choices overshadowed by her own unrequited love for the bisexual Ralph. Prior to her trip alone to New York she has reached a stage of ‘purposelessness’. Her journey is an attempt at an emotional coming of age: in seeking knowledge on the fate of Ingrid she is also in search of herself.
To learn what she has to learn, let go of childhood patterns and discover what she really wants to do with her life, Julia must be willing to remain in uncertainty, Keats’s ‘negative capability’. She must also do this if she wants to discover the truth about Ingrid’s fate. It is this process of submitting to the flow of life and letting go of destructive patterns that Tranter demonstrates so powerfully, with a minimum of self-analysis on Julia’s part.
The Legacy abounds in what’s fashionably known as ‘intertextuality’, with its diverse antecedents indicating its genre-crossing ambitions. Tranter has said that Ingrid is a transplanted, modernised version of the unfortunate Isabel Archer in Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, and that the ailing Ralph is also taken from Portrait. In contrast, the novel’s heroine, Julia, is based on a minor character in Raymond Chandler’s murder mystery The Big Sleep.
It’s not necessary to have read either of these books to appreciate the novel. Nor does the style echo that of James, although it does to some extent take up the theme of the Old and New Worlds that James deals with, the US now playing the more established culture that seduces a younger, more innocent Australia.
Rather, Tranter has adopted something of Chandler’s bald, cinematic prose. The novel treads a challenging line between grunge realism and the emotionally detached tone of a hardboiled murder mystery. It’s quite filmic; many of the scenes would be apt in a feminist version of film noir:
I was all rush and wanting to go faster; he let me for a minute and smiled at me. Then he pinned my wrists above my head against the bed and gave me a cool, hungry look.
The intertextuality, though, goes further than a transplanting of characters and a particular tone. With the university backdrop, the three main characters use filmic and literary references to understand and reflect on their own lives; for example, Ralph quotes from the film version of The Big Sleep when meeting Julia for the first time. Tranter seems sublimely aware of the impossibility of separating life from art: the two endlessly inform each other.
The narrative is powered by Julia’s emotional detachment, limited point of view and instinctive search for emotional and factual knowledge. Because of the emotional journey she must undergo, the action proceeds slowly, consistent with its realist style; for example, the youthful, idealistic friendships that are central to the novel change gradually in a series of phases rather than abruptly through a conventional climax.
Despite Tranter’s skill with plot, there was one point in this long novel where I felt the emotional journey slowed the action down and was getting in the way of the mystery story. Julia is called back to Sydney for personal reasons, yet, on the cusp of new knowledge about Ingrid, feels compelled to return once more to New York. The time just before she leaves the action felt too slow, and I was frustrated with her seeming torpor: having acquired some disturbing clues, wasn’t it clearly time to do some serious sleuthing? The novel regains this lost momentum once she returns to New York a second time.
Because the novel unfolds from Julia’s perspective, and because of the requirements of the mystery genre, Ingrid remains a remote character. This is deliberate and serves to make her exotic, the obscure object of desire, which is the role she plays for Ralph; but eventually our not knowing who she really is makes her less exciting. (Ironically, she becomes more three-dimensional as Julia scouts for information about her in New York, echoing the heroine’s own journey of self-discovery.)
The character of Ralph, too, takes a while to coagulate; eventually he becomes sympathetic, although he also remains opaque. Grey, Ingrid’s husband, is arresting but also a bit thin, fulfilling to perfection his role as the ‘baddie’.
It is the emotional resonances of the friendship between Julia, Ralph and Ingrid that Tranter chiefly explores through this expansive story. Idealistic university-based friendship in early adulthood isn’t new – think of Brideshead Revisited – but it gets a fresh treatment here. For Tranter, the hero worship and sexual overtones that such friendships can involve complicate as much as they enable emotional maturity.
To this end, she vividly conveys the intensity and intellectual urgency of Julia’s feelings for Ralph and Ingrid, as well as her emotional fragility. For a time the three friends meet daily at the university bar to drink and play games and the mundanity of this routine, and of Julia’s jobs at a video store and then a secondhand bookshop, is a pleasing contrast to the complex forces that will tear the threesome apart.
The book also strongly critiques an art world that is portrayed as being ruthlessly exploitative of investors’ endless quest for cultural capital and novelty. In a world where artists and art are both fetishised, Ingrid becomes for Grey just another object that he acquires.
***Plot elements end***
The detached tone of the novel offers some distinct pleasures. Don’t expect long, involved metaphors; instead there’s a focus on tiny details that possesses almost a quality of the haiku even as they are a tribute to Raymond Chandler.
Julia sometimes focuses on these details as an indirect way of indicating her emotional state, or as a means of coping with the enormity of tragedy and loss. But they also often act as adjuncts to the plot and as guides to the inner lives of the other characters. Notice the small aspects of life, Tranter seems to be advising, and you will understand the large ones. This is evident in the description of Grey’s apartment after the loss of Ingrid:
The proportions of the room and windows had a classical, balanced aspect: tall ceilings and tall windows hung with long, fine curtains, the one aspect of excess in the room. They fell from their high rail like the pleats in Ingrid’s wedding dress and hit the floor in a tumble …
Given this focus, it’s perhaps no wonder that the story becomes more vivid and richer in detail when Julia travels alone to New York after September 11, seeking to find out about the fate of Ingrid on Ralph’s behalf. The city and its endless range of tiny bars, minute stores crammed with goods, haughty galleries, doughnut shops, mob-filled streets and stately, graceful public buildings provide an infinity of novelty and fascination both for Julia and the reader.
Tranter lived in New York for eight years and her love of and familiarity with this city is evident. Its takeaway culture – endless coffees and bagels and Thai food and hardly a home-cooked meal in sight – is part of this ambience, and beautifully serves the detached, sometimes Chandleresque style.
The Legacy plays around with, as much as it celebrates, the mystery genre. Tranter inserts some stock characters – there’s an elderly fortune teller and a male femme fatale – and sets up a contrast between the glamorous and the sleazy (with both, in the best tradition, being ultimately connected).
In particular she has fun contrasting the casual elegance of Ralph’s family home in Kirribilli with the grime of a modern megalopolis and the slightly seamy lifestyle of university students at the turn of the century, with their casual indulgence in drugs, alcohol and sex:
I loved the sense of discontinuity between the frantic, late-night urban world we moved through – winding inner-city streets strewn with garbage and seedy interiors and neon light – and the high-class opulence of Ralph’s house at Kirribilli.
Don’t commence this book expecting to be immediately swept up by breathless prose, and don’t be fooled by its seeming straightforwardness. Instead, enjoy the ambience and let Julia’s recollections slowly reveal their complex undercurrents.
For more recent book and film reviews, visit my new blog Feminist Culture Muncher! Read more!
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
(Note: I'm so sick of my old template, I had to make a change. I'm not sure about this one but I'll try it for a while and see if it 'takes'.)
As a lover of thrillers and horror movies – not slasher movies, but the kind that dole out steady doses of heart-thumping suspense – I look forward to a good ghost story.
Every aficionado of thrillers or horror knows that at some point you’ll be plunged into a parallel world of fear or terror that there’s no escaping from until the end of the movie. A strong back story is vital to the believability of that world, but it must ultimately be secondary to the sometimes sadistic display of evil or supernatural forces, which must also have their own logic. Wolf Creek is one of the finest examples of a strong initial back story adding to the horror that awaits.
Yet watching a thriller or horror film is a bit like getting on a roller coaster. Once you’ve paid your money, you want to keep riding until the end. Occasional uphill chugs are a relief, but you don’t want to keep getting off for rest breaks.
The Eclipse promises a ghost story entwined with a love story. Ireland is an obvious setting for both, and the film is set in the storybook, rainy romanticism of the coastal town of Cobh in County Cork, amid the not-so-rarefied atmosphere of a provincial literary festival.
But the attempt to weave the two genres together doesn’t work, and detracts from both plot lines. In this film, the ghost story is the back story, and not only is it weak, but it lacks strong connections to the romantic plot. Unfortunately, this overshadows (eclipses?) what is good about the film.
The Eclipse has its antecedents in the brilliant Sixth Sense, and it also reminded me of the creepy Full Circle (aka The Haunting of Julia) with Mia Farrow, an underrated ghost/horror film made in the late 1970s that sadly isn’t available on DVD. While the elements of realism in these films are essential to their spookiness, The Eclipse can’t hold a candle (despite a surfeit of candles in the film’s imagery) to either of them.
*****Plot elements given below*****
Michael Farr (Ciarán Hinds) is a burly, laconic woodwork teacher, heavily burdened with a grief he can’t let himself feel following the recent death from cancer of his wife. He is a volunteer at the annual Cobh literary festival and himself a secret scribbler. He seems remote from his two children and his father-in-law, who lives in a nursing home.
Michael is assigned to pick up one of the festival guests, Lena Morelle (Iben Hjejle), a successful writer of books on the paranormal. Looking for all the world like a young Julie Walters, she is blonde, lithe, intense, and skittish about romantic involvement. Michael thinks he may have been seeing ghosts, and the two begin to develop a bond as they share their supernatural experiences.
Also at the festival is Nicholas (Aidan Quinn), a narcissistic best-selling author with a burgeoning alcohol problem. Being married doesn’t stop Nicholas from pursuing Lena, with whom he’s had a one-night stand in the past. The stage is set for a love triangle, with Lena at the apex.
*****Plot elements end*****
The mode to expect here is the British version of realism seen in, for example, Billy Elliot or The Crying Game. It’s not grunge, but it doesn’t have the excessive clean-ness of mainstream Hollywood movies. The colour palette is muted, the dulled light creating a sense of otherworldliness, of remoteness from the present. While it might abound in cliches, the camerawork succeeds in revealing the continuing presence of an older, more spiritual Ireland that exists as a substrate of the globalised present.
The acting is similarly low-key, character based rather than star-making. This enables some strong drama and lovely touches of finely honed Irish humour, even if the target is mainly the arrogance and vanity of Nicholas.
The presence of the ghosts signals another layer to life that we confront at powerful times, when experiencing grief for example. The aim of the film, I think, is to show how these two layers of experience, although separate, are entwined with each other – that encountering the ghostly layer can help guide us through the emotional mazes of everyday reality.
There are constant visual and verbal references to the past, the dead, and spookiness in general. Candles are lit by women dressed in period costume in preparation for a literary lunch; characters exchange words while shown in silhouette or are seen from the back as they stalk down tenebrous Irish corridors; Lena and Michael stroll companionably through a cliche-ridden graveyard on an inevitably overcast day.
These touches are inoffensive in themselves, but they promise a supernatural element that, while it pops up occasionally, never actually coalesces into a coherent narrative within the main one. There’s also one particular spooky manifestation towards the end of the movie that seems absurd, but again it doesn’t really go anywhere. And there are two attempts at schlock-horror, which, while they might provide short-term thrills, detract from the overall theme – an attempt to assert the validity of the supernatural as just another aspect of life.
Much more annoying, however, is that whenever things are getting a bit profound in the action of the film, or indeed when a particular, serious event occurs that Michael has been forewarned about, soulful choir music overwhelms the soundtrack. The effect is simply gauche; any genuine ambiance is ruined, because the viewer is being told that that they are now to lift their minds heavenward.
The two ghosts in the film don’t really have enough of their own narrative, and neither of them is connected strongly enough to the main narrative. There’s not even any obvious connection between the two hauntings, although in ‘real life’ the ghosts are related to each other. The traumatic event that occurs seems to be somehow peripheral to Michael’s life, its seeming main purpose to illustrate something about the supernatural. As a result, the culmination of the ghostly aspects of the film is something of an anti-climax.
The film handles its setting much better than its subplot. If it wants to create ambience while reminding us of how complex and unknown the world is, the town and landscape of the picturesque Cobh offer a convincing enough argument. Views of tall, brightly painted historic tenements seen from a ferry, and a stunningly luminous deep blue shore that Michael and Lena contemplate at dead of night, add a layer of authenticity to the film that some of the visual cliches can’t.
*****Plot elements given below*****
Having said all this, there is a scene towards the beginning of the movie which suggests how good it might have been. The household is asleep. Michael hears noises downstairs and goes to investigate. The dog wimps out with childish yelping. What Michael thinks he sees for a matter of seconds as he stands on the landing in the dim half-light is wispish-ly chilling in the way that blood-spattered corpses will never be.
*****Plot elements end*****
Ciarán Hinds is effective as Michael, even if you sense that he’s perhaps played too many similarly deep but inarticulate men in the past. A little bit ubiquitous in historical dramas, his turn as the repressed Captain Wentworth in the 1995 film Persuasion puts Colin Firth’s Darcy to shame.
Aiden Quinn has perfect comic timing as the champagne-soaked Nicholas. His presence is not only a foil for Michael’s character, but enables a gentle send-up of literary festivals and literary stars in general. While this send-up doesn’t go very far, Nicholas’s character continues to add much-needed drama and humour even as the ghost subplot fails to deliver. Iben Hjejle offers a poised, understated Lena, although we never know the source of her excessive reserve.
My criticisms about this film suggest the difficulty of bringing any work of fiction to the screen. Director Conor McPherson is also an internationally celebrated playwright, and he cowrote the screenplay with Billy Roche. The screenplay, in turn, is loosely based on a short story by Roche. I haven’t read the story, but I wonder if, rather than adding necessary extensions to the original plot, the screenwriters relied on inserting excessive ‘atmosphere’ to pad it out.
Having said all that, The Eclipse’s main story, while it’s fairly understated, does have its strengths; there's some powerful drama, and many of the interactions between the characters sparkle with sly Irish humour. Just don’t expect much more from the ghosts than a few unexpected jolts. Read more!
Monday, March 15, 2010
An Australian artist who has received astounding international acclaim for his lifelike fibreglass sculptures is currently exhibiting in his home town, Melbourne.
Ron Mueck is a stunningly successful sculptor who now lives and works in the UK. Using materials such as fibreglass, polyester resin, silicone and polyurethane, he creates sculptures of mostly human, often naked forms that are scarily lifelike, yet either smaller or larger than life. Mueck’s current show at the National Gallery of Victoria in the largest exhibition of his work ever staged in Australia.
Mueck challenges the boundary between art and the real, even as the scale of his works reinforces it, yet the hyperrealism is anything but simplistic. While his work shares similarities with Patricia Piccinini’s playfully dark visions of hybridised life forms, its aims couldn’t be more different.
It struck me as I wandered through this exhibition that I should be focusing on the viewers as much as the works themselves. The large Sunday afternoon crowd were delighted and intrigued, laughing, gazing, waving cameras around and pointing out details to each other. The excited comments I overheard seemed to be mainly about how realistic the sculptures were. Children revelled in the verisimilitude and asked pointed questions.
As the crowd revealed to me, the exhibition can be experienced on many levels. Humans are naturally curious about the people we see in the street, but from an early age we’re told it’s not polite to stare. This exhibition invites us to stare at these apparent examples of our species – to marvel at the various markings on human skin, to study the expression of a figure so lost in its own world it can acknowledge no watcher. Various angles offer different facial expressions and bodily details. But the pieces are always open ended: as viewers, we’re asked to bring our own interpretations to these works.
Mueck’s extreme attention to detail invites us to wonder at the intricacies of the human animal. The skins of his subjects bear all the imperfections and gradations of colour and texture of the real thing: pale pink blotches that indicate underlying capillaries; loose folds; ghostly tracks of blue veins; moles and freckles; pimples; hair follicles, and hairs that have been individually inserted.
Despite the hyperrealism, there seem to be occasional small distortions in the proportions in order to make a point about the subject. While the figures are often naked, the clothes and appendages that some of them wear are rendered with the same loving detail that Mueck brings to the nude.
Before his career as a sculptor Mueck worked in puppetry and model making in film and television, first in Australia and then in London; he was involved in Jim Henson’s film The Labyrinth. In 1997 his sculpture ‘Dead Dad’ appeared in the group exhibition Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, held at London’s Royal Academy. The work caught the eyes of critics and shot Mueck to fame; since his stunning debut, visitors have flocked to see his sculptures, which are now included in a number of Australian, US and European collections.
Mueck unashamedly uses size to shock us into viewing his subjects with fresh eyes. ‘A girl’ 2006 is one of the exhibition’s more confronting pieces. A huge newborn baby girl, 5 metres long, lies on her side. Part of the umbilical cord is still attached to her navel, and traces of blood and amniotic fluid are strewn over parts of her skin.
Her face has the squashed ugliness of the newborn, a testament to the ordeal of birth she’s just been through. Her head has been bent back as if she’s been placed in an uncomfortable position or is protesting about her removal from the womb. One eye is partially open but her expression registers little but a kind of blind angst.
Her hugeness suggests the enormity of her neediness, the responsibility that her existence, her advent, imposes on her parents, the undeniable change she will necessitate. But, seen out of the context of a typical loving triad, she looks grotesque and alien, even monstrous, not yet fully humanised. We fear and feel sorry for her simultaneously.
This work contrasts with the first sculpture in the exhibition, ‘Dead Dad’, which depicts the corpse of Mueck’s own father. This sculpture has been placed in its own, dimly lit room. It depicts a man who is about two-thirds smaller than life size, totally naked, laid out on his back with his hands turned upwards. His skin has a grey-greenish pallor. His face still bears the marks of recent suffering but also resignation.
He seems recently dead and therefore close to life, as if death and life co-existed in the sculpture. There’s a sense here that Mueck is demystifying death at the same time as he presents it in all its starkness. The sculpture’s diminutiveness suggests the loss of the human presence in death, but also that the father has lost Oedipal power: not only has been demoted to ‘Dad’, but he is smaller rather than larger than life as an oedipalised parent figure might be. There’s also a sad elegiac beauty inherent in the figure. He’s a kind of hybrid: both medical specimen (laid out too neatly) and loved father.
Most of Mueck’s subjects in this exhibition inhabit inner worlds, lost in their own subjectivity. Four of them directly reference the extreme inwardness of either sleep, being in bed or both.
‘Old woman in bed’ 2002 is a particularly poignant example. An elderly woman lies in a bed, her head nestled into a pillow, her grey hair tousled behind her. A crisp sheet and neatly folded cream blanket cover her, the lack of colour evoking a nursing home or hospital. She lies on her side, suggesting a foetal position. Her eyes are half-closed and her mouth hangs slightly open.
Here is a woman long past caring about the appearance she presents to a hypersexualised world. Instead, one hand loosely fingers the sheet as if craving the security of childhood. She is vulnerable, seemingly utterly exhausted by life, yet there’s also a sense in which she has abandoned herself to the peace that sleep and the bed offer her.
‘In bed’ 2005 (pictured) is also fascinating: a giant-sized woman, somewhere between youth and middle age, lies in bed with her knees drawn up under carefully draped sheets, head propped up by pillows, one oversized hand touching her mouth and cheek. It’s impossible to read her emotional state definitively but the possibilities are endless: she could be facing some health crisis; pondering an intractable problem; or simply watching television. Much as she confronts us with her huge proximity, her inner world is closed to us. The body reveals and hides simultaneously.
‘Wild man’ 2005 is fascinating on many levels, and was attracting a huge amount of attention on the afternoon of my visit. This sculpture, almost 3 metres tall, depicts a naked man sitting terrified on a wooden stool, clutching its sides, his legs drawn together in self-protection. He stares sideways, afraid to meet our gaze. His hair and beard are wild and woolly but his body is pale and conventionally toned. There is a disconcerting contradiction between his huge size and his evident fear, although that fear is emphasised by the vulnerability of his nakedness.
This creature is a focus of curiosity on two levels: as a giant realistic sculpture, and as a supposedly uncivilised man who is perhaps being exposed to nineteenth-century style medical objectification with its implications of the freak show. He seems to quail in our gaze, involuntarily stuck in the cages of his own terror and the discourses that might seek to name and ‘civilise’ him. We’re forced to study him in an objectifying way; but at the same time we’re studying a version of ourselves, and therefore also confronting the primeval fears that may lurk within us.
One disappointment was the exclusion of ‘Pregnant woman’ from the exhibition, which is surprising given that it’s already in Australia, having been purchased by the National Gallery of Australia. This magnificent sculpture of a woman nearing the end of pregnancy is a testament to female strength, agency and endurance. As if to compensate, the show contains four sculptures that have never previously been exhibited.
‘Drift’ 2009 is one of these. It shows a man who continues to revel in the trappings of civilisation even as he disavows the work ethic that such trappings suggest. This middle-aged holidaymaker lies back on his li-lo, arms loosely out to his sides as if his hands are resting in water, seeming to drift along with not a care in the world. His attitude indicates utter vacancy, as if he has temporarily left his life behind. But while he may be carefree, everything about him suggests his context: the expensive-looking designer watch, the surfie-style board shorts, the sunnies, the tanned, well-maintained middle-aged body.
He should be horizontal but he’s vertical so we can easily view him, and the downward angle of his loosely outstretched arms curiously suggests a crucifixion: perhaps Mueck is gently mocking Christian iconography and suggesting that the pursuit of pleasure is now the official religion.
A very different kind of crucifixion is suggested by the only non-human sculptural form in the exhibition. ‘Still life’ 2009 depicts a plucked dead chicken with its neck cut open, trussed and hung upside down, its wings hanging at angles from its sides. The inner flesh from the large cut in the side of the chicken’s neck is clearly delineated. This work, with its discomforting portrayal of human objectification of animals, reminded me of Ivan Durrant’s fibreglass butcher shop window.
Ron Mueck’s works will be on show at the National Gallery of Victoria until April 18. The exhibition will then be shown at the Queensland Art Gallery from 8 May to 1 August, followed by Christchurch Art Gallery from 30 September until 23 January 2011. Read more!
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
The internet has supposedly created an eternal present, but this phrase is tailor made to describe the experience of middle age. It’s a time of reckoning, when you suddenly find that you’re living the future your younger self so excitedly anticipated.
In her novel Reunion, Andrea Goldsmith introduces five close friends welded together by emotional, sexual and intellectual bonds. Despite their closeness, each must grapple alone with the dilemmas that beset them at this stage of life.
**Plot elements given below**
Jack, Helen, Ava and Conrad (‘Connie’), form a tightknit group at Melbourne University in the late 1970s and go on to study at Oxford, where they meet Harry, a rich boy from Adelaide. Their careers scatter them to different parts of the world and when they reunite as a group for the first time in two decades, some time ‘early in the new millennium’, they must re-establish and renegotiate their relationships with each other, as well as their own lives.
Jack is a scholar of comparative religion whose steady career slide is the result of his unrequited passion for the beautiful Ava, a successful novelist. Connie, a decade older than the others, is an ambitious philosopher and serial adulterer, while Helen is a globe-trotting research scientist determined to find a vaccine for a deadly bacteria.
Harry is the outsider in the group, an honorary member because he’s married to Ava. A ‘squat chest-of drawers sort of man’ who collects ‘corkscrews and barbed wire’, Harry is nevertheless practical and worldly. He has formed the Melbourne-based think-tank Network of Global Australians, and Jack, Helen and Connie have returned to Melbourne to take up the inaugural NOGA fellowships Harry has dealt out to them.
Reunion deals with the forgotten generation between the Baby Boomers and Generation X, ‘the post-Vietnam generation, wise to authority but not stymied by cynicism’. The four younger group members have been part of Australia’s golden age of free tertiary education, when university became ‘a promised land where anything seemed possible’, where for the first time at conservative Melbourne University, mature-aged students mixed with ‘throngs of people from Melbourne’s multicultural heart’.
But despite having discovered ‘a secret intellectual city’ in ostensibly dull Melbourne, Jack, Helen, Ava and Connie have been all too keen to leave Australia for the intellectual heartland of Europe. The globalised Melbourne to which they return two decades on is not the city they left behind.
**Plot elements end**
Reunion is long and ambitious in scope; the story is a bit slow to start but gathers pace. The novel employs a narrative structure that in some ways resembles that of Kalinda Ashton’s The Danger Game and Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap. As in those novels, both also set in post-millennium Melbourne, the reader sees the world through the eyes of each of its main characters in turn, with the story moving forward as characters shift in and out of focus. However, the maturing friendship between Ava and Jack forms the novel’s emotional core.
Goldsmith uses these individual viewpoints to provide flashbacks to the past, sometimes the characters’ shared past and sometimes their individual experiences. Events in the characters’ early lives and thus the reader's knowledge of those events unfold gradually: as the characters travel forward in the present, they revisit various scenes from the past, using such ruminations to make sense of their current dilemmas.
Goldsmith is not a particularly lyrical writer. There’s a brisk quality to her prose; like Tsiolkas she’s driven by the urge to tell the story and create strong characters. You won’t get the taut conciseness of Helen Garner’s sentences here or the poetic lilt of Sonya Hartnett.
What Goldsmith does specialise in, however, is a particularly rich brand of irony. While she stays close to her characters, she seems at times to be viewing them with one eyebrow raised. The novel is Jamesian to the extent that Goldsmith explores the inner lives of her characters in great detail, affording their emotional responses the status of plot. The novel is also rich with punchy metaphors and telling aphorisms: ‘the future was like fiction … a ream of blank pages waiting to be filled’; ‘nothing was relative any more: getting a new job was in the same category as getting new shoes’; ‘this man and this woman who had spent years in a fine frenzied feasting on each other’.
**Plot elements given below**
Reunion is very much a novel of ideas. One of its major preoccupations is the shattering of illusions that must occur before emotional maturity can take place. The characters endure many losses, but loss of their illusions is surely a major one. Jack has carried on an intense, mostly epistolary relationship with Ava for the last two decades, maintaining the ideal of a perfect sublimated love between them. Now he must face the reality of Ava’s reliance on the practical Harry.
Meanwhile, Helen, who has always viewed the scientific endeavour as a force for good, must confront the fact that her funding comes from military sources that could use her research to advance biological warfare. And Ava is forced to face reality far more harshly than are her friends, as well as the realisation that they cannot offer her the help that their loyalty demands.
The protagonists are the offspring of globalisation, having worked, lived and holidayed on different continents, but they are also the children of the post-war welfare state. This has diminished the role of class to the extent that Ava has been able to ‘transform herself from an hereditary shopgirl with a confined future to a university student and woman of the world’. Yet, having largely left their families of origin behind and forged strong familial bonds based on the life of the mind, it's perhaps no wonder that the friends view themselves as self-created; but this assumption may prove to be just another illusion. It is the non-intellectual Harry, a perfect fit for the times, who has brought them back together; and Harry – in a role that unsettlingly echoes that of the novelist – seems all too keen to control the efforts of his beneficiaries.
Goldsmith cleverly entwines this theme with the issue of creative endeavour and its sources, particularly passion and love. Jack’s career has stalled because of his preoccupation with Ava; but for another of the characters, an obsessional affair has led to a frenzy of creativity, even as it destroyed peace: ‘A bad love is very demanding. You’ll twist yourself so out of character in an attempt to get it right that the misshapen scrap you present to friends and family is hardly recognisable’. In some cases illusion can fuel creativity, but the death of illusion can produce its own breakthroughs.
For Goldsmith, the intellectual life can assist in the slow groping towards personal change that occurs when illusions dissolve, even though it is no substitute for that change. The novel is full of quotes from and references to an array of writers such as Rilke, Yeats, Wharton, Auden and Frost, as well as artists such as Picasso. Yet Goldsmith’s characters move through life, like all of us, partially blindfolded.
Overarching her thematic concerns is Goldsmith’s contention that civilisation and barbarism are not polar opposites, that to participate in one is to be implicated in the other. Goldsmith finds the modern world especially illustrative of this idea, and she threads the notion through her explorations of quotidian life and of contemporary issues like the so-called war on terror and the militarism that accompanies it.
To this end she ably constructs believable scenarios that reflect the complex structures characterising globalised life in the West. The trappings of the fictional NOGA are described with a fine ironic touch, its convenient ideological muddiness perfectly contemporary: what matters to Harry is not whether it is a force for good but that it is influential. The war on terror revives Jack’s career even as it threatens Helen’s; yet at a US conference, feeling conflicted about continuing her research, Helen revels in the civilised downtime her intellectual colleagues offer her, replete with the strains of classical music.
**Plot elements end**
Like The Slap and The Danger Game, Reunion is a novel that celebrates Melbourne, particularly the inner city so beloved of baby boomers and the generations following them. We shadow the characters as they stroll through the Melbourne Cemetery, loiter in the grounds of Melbourne University, get swept up in the lunchtime crowds of the city centre’s thriving laneways, catch trams along a St Kilda Road that was once majestic rather than commercial, or hunker down at an inner suburban beach on one of the oppressively hot evenings of a typical Melbourne summer.
The novel was marred but not spoiled for me by frequent minor lapses in diction and grammar. This could have been fixed with a good copy edit and Goldsmith has been let down by her publishers, Fourth Estate, in this regard.
Goldsmith refuses to tie up all the loose ends at the close of the novel; while there is a powerful climax it does not offer complete resolution any more than life does. Jack, Connie and Ava find greater clarity, while Helen and Harry seem to become more bogged down in illusion and contradiction. Although some of these five friends ultimately act more bravely than others, none is a hero in the traditional sense; instead, all remain painfully human. Read more!