Well, the Penguin Varuna Scholarship shortlist of thirty names is up, and I didn’t make it. This means my entry isn’t proceeding past Varuna’s gate to be delivered to Penguin’s door for its consideration.
I don’t know what else to say. Maybe I’ll find some words tomorrow. Then again, maybe not.
- Bills. I feel like we are currently drowning in bills. An A/C rotary and side mirror for the Welsh Dragon? $600. Strata fees? $600. Llew’s new prescription glasses? You don’t even want to know. I also had no idea the pregnancy itself would prove so costly – those blood tests I had at the start of week 12? $350. Our next upfront medical fee? $1,000-1,500, depending on the lab work. And there’s another six grand due upfront in five weeks. Perhaps Medicare will rebate some small portion of these expenses, but we’ll still be out of pocket thousands of dollars. Added to the two rounds of IVF (and some people endure many more than two), this is one expensive undertaking. I kind of thought kids got costly once they were actually born; I hadn’t reckoned on this in utero fleecing. So what the hell is our private health insurance for? Well, I’m really not sure. It seems to be a grand scale rort of the highest order. Apparently it kicks in only once we hit the hospital, which seems incredible to me as I watch money gushing out the door in a vast wave somewhat reminiscent of fleeing tourists at the Running of the Bulls. Running of the Bills, more like.
- Bush. That same day I had the Braille revelation, last Friday, I ventured into the bushland of the National Park alone. There are established paths and well-trodden walking tracks right through the Blue Mountains, but it’s so gigantic it’s not at all unusual to find oneself entirely alone. It was a weekday, too, which just amplified the silence and sense of isolation. For me this aloneness began generating a vague unease; it occurred to me that I was extremely vulnerable out there, and in the unlikely event that there was a psycho lurking up the path, well, I’d be in a whole world of trouble. I managed to do quite a comprehensive job of scaring myself out of there – in order to catch me, said psycho would have needed to sprint up hundreds of steep stone and steel steps two at a time – and only really calmed down once I harnessed this paranoia into a potential short storyline. I don’t know if I’ll write it, but thinking about it helped alleviate my anxiety until I was verily giggling to myself about being such a scaredy cat. Turns out – an ugly coincidence if ever there was one – that the very next day, Saturday, a woman walking alone on one of the tracks was approached by a man and stabbed. The suspect (who was yet to be apprehended last time I checked*) is apparently already wanted on sex offences, but this woman valiantly fought him off before running back the way she came to find her family. Thank goodness. Thank goodness, but he still stabbed her in the face and neck, I think, before she got away, and she’s now recovering in hospital. It’s a very ghoulish, nightmare-come-to-life thing, and it makes me nervous about putting myself in a similar situation again. I really resent feeling fearful, it’s not fair that it’s mainly women who are vulnerable to this sort of attack, it thoroughly stinks, but I did also feel a very strong sense of responsibility to our little friend, just 15 weeks old and counting, a tiny being who’s utterly dependent on my not getting stabbed in the guts by the maniac in the woods. So I think I’ll be sticking to well-populated, well-lit areas for the foreseeable future, and meanwhile I wish this woman a very speedy and full recovery. I hope they catch that cowardly bastard very, very soon.
- Butts. Yesterday was the ninth anniversary of my giving up smoking. Nine years. I still haven’t passed that golden milestone of having been an ex-smoker longer than I was a smoker, that’s a few years off yet, but I’ll get there. There’s a question: do I count back to those very first furtive menthols with friends in the park, or perhaps to the drunken parties that soon followed, or to college at 16, when I first started smoking all the time? I think I smoked my first cigarette at 13 or 14, and my last at 28, so perhaps I’ll start there, at 13, which gives me another six years to go. Wow. It’s taking a whole lot longer to clear the debt than it did to incur it. Accruing these ex-smoker years is the sole aspect of getting older that moves at a snail’s pace – time otherwise whizzes by in a most obnoxious manner.
- Books. I’m afraid I’ve had to take a break from Brian Castro’s The Bath Fugues; it reminds me of reading Joyce, which I find tiring. One must apply oneself to the task with an extra energy I don’t always feel, and so the reading has lagged, and I’ve started committing that ultimate sneaky sin of avoiding it. It’s not that I’m not enjoying it – as with Joyce there’s much to admire – it’s just quite demanding, and sometimes that’s not what I’m looking for a novel to be. I’ve decided to dilute the experience with an interval, during which I’m reading The Legacy, by Kirsten Tranter (whose literary pedigree can’t have hurt her publication chances: her mum runs one of the best known literary agencies in Sydney, and her father is a respected poet), whom you may recall appeared with Castro at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, which is how I came to purchase both books. It seemed fitting to interrupt Castro with the debut author’s effort, and I’m enjoying it. More on The Legacy once I’ve finished.
* Postscript: I heard on the radio yesterday (5 July) that they got him. Apparently a civilian spotted him browsing hair dyes in a supermarket in Sydney’s west – good work, shopper!!
It’s my last full day at Varuna; I’m heading back to Sydney tomorrow. The time has flown by, and there’s never enough, although of course I am counting the hours until I see Llewie again. Yesterday disappeared into the ugly maw of Australian politics, so it turned out to be the perfect day for Darkling Deb to drive up from Sydney to have lunch with us, since Darkling JB and I were finding it impossible to concentrate on anything but the drama unfolding in Canberra. We splurged on lunch at Echoes, a boutique hotel jutting right over Echo Point, the best spot from which to drink in the spectacular panorama, actually visible for the first time all week.
It’s only once you’ve seen the Blue Mountains on a clear day that you can appreciate the sight of a total white-out – on Tuesday, standing at the Echo Point lookout, I couldn’t see anything – not one single thing – spread out before me but a never-ending dense white fog – very impressive in its own way, though hardly what the tourists pour out of buses to see. By Wednesday, the iconic Three Sisters had fought their way out of this invisible cloak; the fog had settled down below these towering rock formations, still spreading as far as the eye could see, but now as a vast river of cloud, snaking its way around the ranges looking as wide and eternal as life itself. It looked purposeful in a way human beings rarely do.
Today I visited Witches Leap and the Cliff View on a long walk before starting work, and it was only when I paused at the latter to read the sign at the lookout that I realised the signs around the national park are translated not into Chinese or Japanese or Spanish or French, but Braille. I reached out my hand and ran my fingers across the raised dots that I can’t read, and all at once I very nearly started crying. Imagine not being able to see this, I thought. Imagine standing here on the edge of this extraordinary vista and not being able to see it. I closed my eyes: birdsong. Immediately I heard birdsong, and it cheered me immeasurably. A brute gust of wind raced up the face of the mountain to greet me, streaking round my skull before carrying on past me. I heard too the grinding of the Skyway carriage being borne across the chasm by cables. Below – to my right and left – I heard waterfalls. People arrived noisily behind me. I opened my eyes and stepped away from the sign, and began feeding again on the privilege of sight, gorging myself on the awesome grandeur of the ranges spread before me, feeling as though I would never be able to leave.
Extraordinary scenes here in Australia today, with a swift – though not entirely unexpected – leadership change at the top. It’s been brewing: only last week I heard a program on ABC Radio National in which one commentator (I’m sorry I can’t recall his name) predicted a change of leadership this very week. And in that eerily prescient prediction, I believe we have a way into reading this whole political puzzle.
The media undoubtedly helped Kevin Rudd win in 07, and now the media has largely and very successfully controlled the rapid, truly astonishing change in public sentiment toward the man who – until just after 9 o’clock this morning – was the sitting Prime Minister of Australia. It’s not a sophisticated calculation, but whoever pursued this strategy within the Labor Government – and somebody did – certainly made the most of it. It goes like this: Rudd’s position was secure only so long as the public continued to love him. Rudd enjoyed record approval ratings, which made his leadership seemingly untouchable, so the only way to undermine him was to trouble his popularity among voters. This is especially true because Rudd didn’t have a party base of loyal, factional supporters to begin with, thus didn’t have it to lose – his support was famously outside his party, where it probably should matter most, and that’s with the people. And where do most people get their information? From some media source or sources. So I put it to you that someone within his own party made this deduction some time ago – as I say, it’s a simple conclusion to draw – and went after the all-important media trophy of owning the message.
Owning the message. If you own the message, you control its dissemination, and the message, almost overnight, in every news agency in the country, became this: Kevin Rudd’s public approval is dead.
Things snowballed once this message took hold. He was exposed – his leadership very soon became vulnerable to the attack that was now coming toward him at speed. I’ve wondered before on this blog and I wonder especially now at his curious inability to penetrate the media sphere with a coherent counter attack. One must look to his own people for an explanation of how he came to be so utterly impotent a media presence while Project Brutus was gaining momentum. I would like to hear from Kevin Rudd’s media unit, because I believe they have some serious explaining to do. Are they merely a pack of raging incompetents, or has something much more organised been afoot? I would love the answer to that question – I think much of interest lies in what that media unit knows. As it is, at the very least one could charge them with a gross dereliction of duty to their boss, a man we all know as a taskmaster and someone who is apparently difficult to like. His staffers respect but personally loathe him – this is a very consistent picture leaked from Parliament and naturally passed around to anyone who’ll listen.
One of the reasons he’s apparently such a crashing pill is that he’s a workaholic and expects the same dedication from everyone who works for him; I’ve said it before: I kind of like that in an individual carrying the weight of running the country. I don’t need to be able to buy Kevin Rudd a beer – I’d much rather know he was too busy to drink while he’s on the job. I don’t give a shit if he’s not the life of the party – but boy, did everyone get behind him before the 2007 election once they knew he’d visited a strip club in New York while uncharacteristically enjoying a night on the turps. It was the back slap heard around the world: atta boy, Kev, now we know you’re all right! Now we’re satisfied you’re a regular bloke! Now I’ll vote for ya!
What a pack of ingrates we are now. Unemployment and inflation are low, the GFC was dodged, the healthcare reforms are significant and positive, and whatever the problems with the schools program, it delivered school halls and has been deemed by the recipients of those facilities a resounding success. The shelving of the ETS was harmful, absolutely, but not enough to sink Rudd’s ship. And as for the tax on mining super profits – you know, I have not heard one regular person from either side of the voting fence say they disagree with the tax, so I don’t really understand – except for this paralysis in Rudd’s media unit and the corresponding feeding frenzy in the press corps – how Rudd’s people so badly lost control of this message: Australians should benefit more from what private interests are doing to our country’s natural resources.
Is it unreasonable to suggest that mining giants should pay Australians more for systematically stripping this country of its natural resources for company profit (in many cases primarily serving overseas interests, because we seem to just love giving it away)? I don’t think so – and more to the point, I can’t find anyone who does think so. Not even faithful Liberal voters I’ve spoken to think the tax is unfair; what I’ve heard most of all is, “A tax on mining super profits is long overdue.” But Rudd’s media unit did a spectacularly botched job of selling the tax where the message most needed to be heard: in the media. Not behind closed doors with mining fat cats (who, incidentally, have done a truly hats-off superior job of controlling their message, which quickly, crucially became, “This tax will hurt everyday Australians,” instead of, “Boohoo, my personal fortune of billions will take a hit, and shareholder dividends will suffer”- flawless strategy from a media management point of view), but out here in front of cameras and in newspaper column inches and online, where people actually live. We spend all our time saturated up to our eyeballs in media, so where were they? Where were the spin-doctors selling this tax? Where was the reiteration of everything Rudd’s government has achieved in just two and a half years in office? Two and a half years – after eleven years in Opposition – it’s extraordinary to me that I’ve recently been reading predictions that history will remember Rudd unfavourably. I find that astonishing. But see how the record is already being decided? Say it often enough, and it becomes the truth.
All of this notwithstanding, I’m excited by the prospect of our first female PM. Julia Gillard is as sharp as a tack and has proven to be a pleasant surprise for many people who perhaps underestimated her intelligence and dedication. She’s also really not Tony Abbott, so from an election point of view, this makes the contest much more interesting. Kevin Rudd VS Tony Abbott was never going to rock the foundations because unfortunately they have a few superficial things in common. Gillard, well, she’s taken on Abbott before, back when she was the shadow counterpart to his Health Minister, and Abbott was such a freak that they had to revoke certain of his ministerial powers to stop him being able to make decisions about women’s bodies. Yep. I think she can take him. And she’d better.
So. It’s an historic day, but I feel sad and angry about the way it’s come about. Labor’s punished Rudd for this (I believe cunningly engineered) fall in popularity with the ultimate fall from grace: he’s lost his job without even seeing out a first term in office. It’s humiliating, it seems more than a little unjust, and frankly I truly believe the man deserved better, from his party, from the media, and from the people of Australia.
I believe we need to examine ourselves. I’m terribly afraid we’re becoming a nation of passive receptacles, a population too complacent to form our own opinion and examine the way our information arrives and of what it entails. So many things currently dominating Australian media and therefore preoccupying the Australian population are simply not news, while critically important issues of national and international import are passing us by. It’s like our critical faculties have been hypnotised, lulled into inaction by those who understand how best to control the message, and know just where to repeat it.
Strange days indeed. Kevin Rudd, thanks for breaking your balls around the clock for this staggeringly ungrateful nation.
(For Kevin Rudd’s press conference as outgoing PM, please click here.)
It’s true I’ve been naughty, omitting posts yesterday and Friday, but I hope you’ll forgive me, as I’ve not been idle. Indeed, I have effected a temporary relocation, and I write to you now from Varuna, the Writers’ House, where I have managed to score a much-needed and brilliantly timed writing week. One of the other writers in residence this week, a GP from the Central Coast, made an enormous pot of porridge for breakfast, a bowl of which I took with me back to bed, with a cup of tea, from where I write to you now. There’s a morning mountain mist blanketing the scene outside, and a light spray is falling. Ideal writing conditions, in other words, though I am desperate for a long walk, and it’s only a few degrees outside.
I’m back in my old room from the September 2008 Professional Development Residency, at which, some of you may recall, the Darklings first met and formed our sturdy bond. I very cheekily put in a request for the same room…and I can see how one might become almost superstitious about such a thing. I’m not in either of the ‘prized’ spaces – Eleanor Dark’s bedroom or her beautiful separate studio – but I prefer this room anyway. Everything has moved – the bed, the wardrobe, the desk, the chairs – but it’s still the cosiest space I know, and the lovely bay windows afford a widescreen view of the surrounding gardens below.
Incredibly, Darkling JB is here too, on a three-week fellowship, and she’s in the room next door. Naturally there’s been much glee and excitement over the coincidence, which really did just fall very happily into my lap. I wasn’t supposed to be here, and now here we are together. It’s just like Varuna to manage something like that – that’s the kind of place it is.
I came up on the train yesterday, and settled straight into work for the afternoon, about five hours straight at the computer until heading downstairs to meet the other residents at seven. Last time, of course, there was plenty of plonk involved – we five Darklings quickly discovering the very first thing we all definitely had in common – but last night’s dinner was dry, which made life very nice and easy for me since I can’t drink anyway. It’s a very lovely group – four fiction manuscripts and a memoir are the focus of the week – and I’m looking forward to getting to know everyone better. If A keeps up the morning porridge pot, we simply can’t go wrong.
Today should see me finish the line edit and page summary. It’s taken a long time because the line edit is very slow going. An exercise in precision rather than speed, it has turned up several typos. It never ceases to amaze me that mistakes still slip in even when something has been so carefully read so many times, and now it’s almost like a game hunting down such errors. I feel a little surge of satisfaction every time I catch one out. Gotcha! And thanks to the page summary, I’m also forming a much better sense of ‘sewing scenes’ I have still to write – these are tightening scenes I’m hoping will have a propulsive effect on the narrative – and last night I realised, beyond doubt, which character is needed to drive them. If I can get these scenes at least roughly written while I am at Varuna, I will be very happy indeed.
I was talking to JB back in my study after dinner last night – everyone retired early, partly I’m sure because we couldn’t get a fire started downstairs and the rooms upstairs are all blissfully warm – and I articulated a fear that I may not have the adequate writing chops to do what needs to be done for this manuscript. I didn’t set out to have an ambitious structure, but I fear the story it’s become does demand it, and I’m not at all convinced I have yet acquired sufficient skill to pull it off. This is my first real stab at a full-length fictional work, after all, and I’m afraid I’ve made life terribly difficult for myself by stumbling into a world I can’t adequately control.
I’ve learned so much already, which is wonderful, and I know the manuscript is improving, but I do wonder if this particular story is best served by my fumbling beginner’s hand. I guess I’m just saying that I would like to think I’ll have the sense and maturity to recognise my own limitations as a writer if I get to a point where I know in my heart it’s not working because I don’t have the ability and experience to fix it. It’s a deeply unfortunate and confronting thing to contemplate, but I do think that it’s a distinct possibility. This is a difficult structural exercise, and it feels a bit like sitting an exam in higher calculus without first knowing how to use an abacus.
I think it’s a question worth asking myself: might this manuscript be better later? Might I be able to do more for it once I have more experience? Might I botch it by refusing to let it go until I am better qualified to tackle it? It’s a job one learns in the doing, so the other side of this is just acknowledging that writing any novel is a very difficult thing to do well, and that my lessons are ongoing, and that I’m not even at the end of the line with this manuscript, so why do I keep craning my neck out the train window to try to see what the last station looks like? Perhaps I should worry about all this only once I feel I have nowhere else to go, and nothing else to bring. And yet I’m afraid of precisely that, of that day arriving even as I know the manuscript itself still lags along behind like a recalcitrant child, scuffed shoes, grazed knees, matted hair, still grubby and unkempt despite my best efforts to civilise it. I’m afraid of that mayoral voice of authority booming in my ear: “Leave the urchin. There’s nothing to be done.”
Project ‘Our Little Friend’ is proceeding smoothly thus far, although that’s not how I’d describe the current state of my stomach… flat, smooth, these are words we won’t be seeing for a while. For the time being I’m still doggedly stuffing myself into my own clothes – something about suspecting that a move into maternity wear will act as an instant inflation device – but I’m not long for my magic jeans. Clearly. It’s interesting, though, because everything changes over the course of the day: I still look pretty normal in the morning, but by bedtime, I’m huge, hence my strong sense that it’s mainly a food rather than a baby thing. Still, it’s logically getting pretty crowded in there, what with the growing uterus and growing foetus and my growing appetite, so it makes sense that the more I consume, the less room there’s going to be.
We’re 13.5 weeks right now… and we had the 12-week scan on Tuesday, nearly a week later than originally booked due to a problem their end. There was a moment of real anxiety at the beginning because neither Llew nor I could detect anything that looked remotely like a heartbeat – I could feel my own starting to race as I peered at the monitor, and there was a tight panicked edge to my voice when I asked the imaging lady C where it was. “There,” she said. “See?”
Cue big sighs and nervous laughter from us.
Well, if you’re after a mind-blowing experience, I can recommend a 12-week ultrasound. Not only is there someone still in there, but that someone now has a brain and limbs and looks, well, kind of like an actual baby. While we were watching on the screen, he or she stretched out its little stick legs as far as they would go, clearly intent on getting comfortable (that could come from either of us…). We saw the hands groping around, and although it’s too soon to clearly count digits, I still gave it my best shot. She or he is an average size – currently about 7.5 cms long – and never has the idea of being “average” seemed more appealing. Average. Average in pregnancy is good, because average in pregnancy means “everything looks normal.”
“It’s got its whole life to be special,” added C, the imaging lady, and I couldn’t agree more.
The main purpose of Tuesday’s scan is the measuring of the nuchal transparency. This is the fluid at the back of the foetus’s neck, and the thicker the nuchal transparency, the higher the likelihood of Down’s Syndrome. That measurement is one part of an algorithm used to determine likelihood of Down’s occurring; its other components are my blood test results from last week, and my age. I think that’s all. It’s an anxious question, and an anxious wait, and I think I might as well get used to this constant low-level anxiety because parents tell me that’s what having children is: one long anxiety trip. Welcome to the rest of your life. Now, I’m going to focus as much as possible on all the other things parenthood offers – top tier tickets to Cuddle Town, for a start – but I can imagine this is just the start of a new, special kind of worry. It would be very nice if my hideous and graphic miscarriage dreams would stop, but they would probably only be replaced by others. One of my friends kept dreaming her babies were born without fingers. Another, that her baby was the Devil. It sounds like there’s a whole phenomenon of disturbing dreams induced by pregnancy, and at its core is the simple, real and perfectly understandable fear of something going horribly wrong.
A doctor from the imaging place called me several hours later with the results of the algorithm. He explained that my Down’s risk as a 37 year old was 1 in 150. YIKES. 1 in 150 – isn’t that kind of high…? But then he told me my risk assessment based on the nuchal transparency measurement, my blood results and my age: 1 in 2,670.
“Hey!” I said. “That sounds much better!”
He gave absolutely nothing away, just didn’t react, and I hung up already anxious again, trying to dissect his silence, his unwillingness to say the only thing I wanted to hear: “Yep, you have absolutely nothing to worry about!”
It’s hardly a million to one, is it? I’m seeing Dr F tomorrow, and I’m really, really glad, because I have nothing with which to compare my assessment. It’s just this vast world of probability, and I don’t have a clue where I sit on the spectrum of those dream terms, “average” and “normal.” What do other people score? And should we do the more definitive test, which brings with it certain risks, including miscarriage? I can’t seem to find anyone who’s done it, the amniocentesis test, but its accuracy is extremely high and it can test for other abnormalities beyond Down’s, so that’s a pretty compelling option… except of course for those pesky risk factors. So how high are they? And why do they seem to change so much depending on whom I ask? For instance, I’ve heard and/or read the risk of miscarriage as everything from 1 in 200 to 1 in 1,500 – which is it?? Once again I’m going to have to quieten the chatter and focus on what Dr F says – it’s ultimately a decision for Llew and me, but the opinion of someone knowledgeable whose expertise we trust is so important. Otherwise you could quite honestly drive yourself mad.
Anyway, I’ve been feeling really well and mellow and Our Little Friend is growing and moving, so I’m going to concentrate on that, and hush that nagging voice of anxiety, who really needs to learn its place in the pecking order.
Willing suspension of disbelief is fundamentally a pretty mad sort of phenomenon, isn’t it, and I find in my own case I apply all sorts of unconscious rules about what will and will not do when it comes to accepting things that cannot be. Or at least, I sometimes experience keen readerly resistance when already impossible things take a certain turn, and I experienced this specific unwillingness toward accepting the unfolding story while reading Her Fearful Symmetry.
But not for the reasons you’d think – and that’s what interests me about suspension of disbelief and my own weird and probably irrational relationship to it.
First things first: SPOILER ALERT. If you’ve not read Her Fearful Symmetry but think you might, PLEASE DO NOT READ ON, as this post will undoubtedly completely RUIN IT FOR YOU.
I was a whole 300 pages in when I flung the book across the bed and called out to Llew that my book had “just become dumb.” It was so irritating – I went back through the previous pages to see if I’d missed something, something that might explain why a patently absurd and dangerous idea was now so easily getting a run amongst the characters. What? I thought. Why? Why? This doesn’t make any sense! But there was nothing, nothing except an excellent reason for shutting down the entire crazy notion, being that the last time it was tried, the household pet ended up dead. I’ll explain: there’s a ghost. Now, I accepted the ghost without question as part of holding up my end of the bargain as reader. So there’s a ghost: gotcha. No problem at all. And the ghost is stuck in her old apartment and can’t get out. Vexing! Good dramatic potential there. I am with you, Niffenegger: go for it. The ghost’s twin nieces are now living in the London apartment thanks to her bequest, and they all discover a way to communicate. So far so good. Then the ghost accidentally hooks the soul of the household cat. This is a great scene, frightening and convincing, and the ghost succeeds in putting the soul back before any serious damage is done. Now, for the first time, we all understand this terrible power at the ghost’s disposal, and we’re duly unsettled by it.
Except for the twin who’s the chief communicator with the ghost – she’s excited by it. She hatches a frankly fucking insane plan to fake her own death as a means of escaping her twin – who, by the way, isn’t some diabolical ogre intent on destroying her twin’s life, she’s actually quite decent, just pushy and stubborn and lazy and lacking any discernible talent for all we’re told they’re malcontent brainiacs. But okay, whatever, because this other thing is never getting off the ground, it’s too stupid and extreme and besides, the next time the ghost hooks the cat’s soul, as we know she must, the cat dies.
I don’t know about you, but I kind of thought that would be it for the, “I know! Why don’t you pluck my soul from my body, I’ll drop dead, then I’ll have a funeral, my body will go to the family mausoleum for a few days – on ice, of course, and pumped full of anti-coagulants because otherwise, you know, I’ll start to rot – then we’ll get your bereaved boyfriend (a.k.a. my current love interest) to liberate my lifeless body from its coffin and cart it back here to the apartment, whereupon you, ghost, can put my soul back, and then I’ll be free to make a new life for myself away from my pretty normal and by now utterly devastated twin, without a useable passport, ID, bank account etc, but who am I to quibble?” plan.
WHAT THE FUCK?
The pressing question, the really, really, really pressing question is why this NUTTER doesn’t simply arrange for the assets of the estate to be split and, you know, MOVE OUT? It’s not a question of the action being unbelievable – my willing suspension of disbelief would have taken care of all that – the problem here is that the action is so unreasonable. We – or at least I – need to see the logic of a character’s actions so that we might empathise with them even when they do something moronic and life threatening; without this bridge, there erupts an impassable abyss. And for me, the chasm grew and grew from this point: first the ghost acquiesces to this cockamamie plan (and we find out later she’s actually the girls’ birth mother, so, you know, I’m struggling with the whole, ‘Sure, I’ll pluck out your soul!’ thing), and then – wait for it – so does the boyfriend. Sure, people, what a good idea! Neat-o! No, really, I can see why you wouldn’t just divide the estate, move flats, change countries… why sign up for a fashion design course without your twin when you can try faking your own death instead? It’s clearly the obvious solution, with, of course, predictable results.
Yes, this is what dissatisfaction feels like. I feel as though the contract has been broken, and my readerly trust – the thing that makes me suspend my disbelief so willingly in the first place – has been abused. This story veered into irrecoverable stupidity – sorry if that sounds harsh, but for me it’s true – and what a shame, too, because there was so much there to play with, it was all going so well, the novel had such an abundance of things going for it (Highgate Cemetary and its history, Martin the endearing and intriguing OCD-suffering upstairs neighbour…), so why, why, why Niffenegger abandoned that idea of internal logic I’ll never know. And by the time this entirely risible if elaborate conceit of melodramatic deceit was over, I’d really stopped caring.
I learned something about my own willing suspension of disbelief reading Her Fearful Symmetry. It’s not unconditional. On the contrary, it evidently has standards that need to be met, and it won’t hesitate to withdraw support – that rickety bridge stretching across the gorge – if conditions become unworkable. Things unravel, you see, once you’ve asked, “But why? Why? WHY?” one too many times. The bridge comes apart, splintering and tumbling into the ravine below. And then there’s no way back.
Good to know. Good to remember.
The clear advantage for me of Llew’s continued late nights in the office is that I too remain at my desk working, whereas otherwise I psychologically and literally switch off as soon as I know he’s coming home. Last night found me still immersed in the MS when Llew walked in the door after 10 pm; I hadn’t moved except to take Nature’s calls and to make one of my own to the local Thai, because frankly I get tired of cooking dinner for two only to end up eating alone (exhibit A: Wednesday night, when I celebrated reaching Week 12 of the pregnancy by cooking a blue cheese sauce to the safe-to-eat boiling point, which then accompanied a rocket and walnut gnocchi, a dish that unfortunately did not reward reheating hours later when Llew got home). Last night I decided I’d invest that time in the MS instead; dining at the desk has been the dominant feature of this week.
This is phase two of the current redraft: it’s a line edit, but I’m simultaneously writing up a page-by-page breakdown. It’s a very clarifying document; I did it for the first time over a year ago, at the first Darkling trip to JB’s shack at Aireys Inlet, when it proved phenomenally useful, and it’s time to do it again. Summarising the action of each page in a sentence is an interesting task in itself, but what I like most about this exercise is the way it simplifies my ability to move around the text. Oddly disjunctive passages also leap out like a raging case of hives, so if something isn’t working or is in the wrong spot, it scabs and starts itching immediately it hits the summary. I don’t know why it first occurred to me to do this, and I’m not sure if anyone else does it, but it definitely works for me. As editing aids go, it’s a document that’s also very compatible with the needs of this particular MS, which contains a story within a story. It’s very helpful being able to see at a glance whether these two narratives exist in a state of harmony or hostility as far as the overall structure goes. Basically, I rate it.
I’m enjoying Her Fearful Symmetry, although I’ve had a nasty shock very early on: it contains an exact storyline match with an important back-story in my second MS (an incomplete draft currently frozen and gathering dust at just over 43,000 words). An awful barren world immediately opened up in which I sat wondering, gooseflesh rising, if now I would have no choice but to toss the lot and start from scratch…not an experience I’d recommend to anyone. It was really quite bleak. But I hope there won’t be any need for truly drastic changes… now I’m feeling a bit less feverish about it, I can see (well, I haven’t finished reading the novel yet, so talk to me in a few days…) that from that pivotal point onwards things proceed completely differently, but I’m still disconcerted by the parallel. It is not what any writer ever wants to see, particularly not when you’re the aspirant rather than the established author.
I suppose it must happen all the time…certainly it’s not unusual to read a scene and think, ‘Oh, that reminds me so much of such and such,’ or, ‘That’s just how it happened in X.’ There is, after all, a finite number of possible family relations, which logically suggests that there may also be a cap on what such characters might reasonably be expected to do to each other, so cross-textual intersections are unavoidable. Still, when I do return to MS # 2 – damned if I know when that will be – it’ll be armed with this new knowledge, I can’t unlearn it now, and it changes things. I don’t really see that I can keep things exactly as they were – why would I even want to, now I know someone else has already used it, and that someone else is Audrey Niffenegger? As the Brits say, bugger.
I wasn’t so terribly in love with parts of Holidays on Ice, I must say…there are a couple of rather uneven inclusions in what is already a very slim collection…I don’t even know what to call them – persona pieces? Sedaris adopts a persona, a first person narrative voice not his own, and proceeds to tear satirical strips off the speaker, who spends his or her time on the page implicating him or herself in ever more staggering degrees of raging arsehole-ishness with each new word out of his or her mouth. Some-a-time she work, some-a-time she no work… and sometimes there’s a tenor shift that is jarring in a way that completely bypasses my funny bone. I’m sorry, but dead babies and murdered children never make me rock with mirth.
So now what to read? My choices are many… maybe Fugitive Pieces, which I bought aaages ago and which has been recommended to me umpteen times by different people. Maybe The Bath Fugues… maybe Brideshead Revisited…
I just wandered over to inspect my TBR stash, and the decision’s made: Her Fearful Symmetry, by Audrey Niffenegger. I’ve not read any of her novels before, and I picked this up at Desire on Saturday because I liked the title. Her Fearful Symmetry: it just sounds good, creepy and foreboding. It has exactly the same promising heft of His Dark Materials, which I’ve not read either, but I do think it’s a delicious title for the Pullman trilogy and an intriguing one for the Niffenegger. I like their cadence; both titles succeed in piquing my interest.
While in Desire, I sat on a footstool and read the first few pages, waiting for Llew to make his selection (two Edward de Bono titles in the end) while at the same time still weighing up my own. I ultimately bought the book on the strength of pages 3 and 4, entitled The End, which made me cry. I know I’m more emotional at the moment because of the raging hormones, but I did find the scene – of a man crawling into the hospital bed in which his love has just died – intensely moving. Llew was crouched scanning a bookshelf just in front of me – not close enough to reach out and touch, but in my direct sightline – and I found myself looking up from the book, hungrily taking in all his beloved familiarity, every detail of him but most especially the full sweep of his aliveness. And the unbearable dread thought of it, of his leaving me for all eternity or of my leaving him, added to the suffocating human foreknowledge of just such a fate, well, it completely overwhelmed me as I sat on my tiny stool, and it made me weep.
After silently sobbing over it like that, head bent low into the book as though it were riveting instead of a complete teary blur, I felt a sort of bond with it, and it seemed then that it simply must come home. Buying it felt like honouring the emotion it so soon wrenched from me; there’s something unforgettable about the awkward moment this novel and I have already shared that makes reading on seem like the very least I can do. So read on I shall, shaking out my first encounter from the dust of its pages, and discovering instead what it means to be about in its own terms rather than mine.
Don’t you just love reading novels? I do.
I finished On Beauty over the weekend – Llew’s sick at the moment so it was a rare opportunity to get him to sit still, inside, and read. He duly bolted MAUS, Art Spiegelman’s graphic masterpiece, highly recommended reading to anyone out there yet to make its acquaintance, and was predictably blown away. Its candidness as well as its horror makes it unforgettable. Indeed, Llew recalled hearing a radio interview with Spiegelman, who is so clear-eyed about his relationship with his father that it takes your breath away, in which the author/artist said something very brave that you don’t hear too often (which silence makes it no less true): there’s nothing ennobling about survival in and of itself. It’s simply survival, even when we’re talking about the Holocaust. His point is that survivors, including his father, remain deeply flawed human beings, they don’t all suddenly transform into untouchable heroes. Survival is, after all, most often not heroic in the slightest, but horribly mundane and as feckless as all hell. I’ve heard the same thing said of poverty, and it’s true; there’s no intrinsic honour in being poor, though we often rush to imply there is. Perhaps we attach a mythology to both because we instinctively and pretty desperately need to believe some good comes of grinding squalor and abject despair. Sometimes, of course, good does come, and people born into poverty are touched by greatness – of heart, mind or deed – just as some survivors emerge as true heroes, and we need those stories too, just as much as we need someone like Art Spiegelman to remind us of the many things that make up our collective human truth.
Aside from MAUS, I’d recommend On Beauty, too, the first Zadie Smith I’ve read. Someone recommended it to me, but I can’t remember whom – I think it was my friend T when he was up from Melbourne last and came to see me in Man Town. I certainly dragged him into Desire, my gorgeous favourite-place-locally second-hand bookstore, and I certainly bought On Beauty there, but whether or not the two incidents are related I can’t definitively say. Regardless, it was a good recommendation: I enjoyed it, particularly Smith’s take on African American street vernacular, as well as her exploration of the petty preoccupations, politics and minor scandals of academic life. Race plays an inextricable part in the unfolding – or more accurately unravelling – familial narrative, but the novel is at least as interesting on the question of class. Dominating the stage is the educated middle-class – both its liberal and conservative sides, as represented by the Belsey and Kipps clans – but it’s the supporting cast of characters that gives the novel much of its power, in particular the Haitian immigrant class. One character’s teaching qualifications aren’t recognised in America, and so he struggles for a foothold not in the educated classes at all, but as one of Boston’s supposedly “unskilled” working poor.
There’s some interesting trans-Atlantic cultural tension too, and in fact one of my favourite parts of the book is heartbreakingly small and domestic: Howard Belsey visiting his old man in London for the first time in five or so years. Anyone who grew up painfully aware of a fundamental lack of connection with one parent or two will gulp in recognition at this scene, which might otherwise be called ‘Talking to a Stranger.’ Good name for my memoirs, that, which I simply must remember should such a thing ever become worth writing…!
Now I’m reading a short David Sedaris collection, Holidays on Ice. That’s really just like a stiff drink of something delicious as a palate cleanser before I settle on the next novel… decisions, decisions… I have a teetering pile of TBRs that just won’t quit.
And now some news in brief:
- It seems Lady Alzheimer’s St Andy’s romance is headed for disaster. Turns out the object of her affection is married, and his wife is very much alive and probably still rather attached to her dementia-addled husband. Neither he nor Nana would have any clue whatsoever how hurtful and devastating their twilight shenanigans must be for his poor wife, whom I’d hazard neither can remember long enough to remotely consider, but these two have been caught in each other’s beds, and things have escalated quite dramatically to the point that they’re probably going to be separated. Never a dull moment with the drama queen that is dementia.
- Man Town had its annual Food & Wine festival over the weekend. Llewie was so poorly that we didn’t organise anything, but next year we really must get a gang together, because we did stroll down the beachfront just briefly to check it all out and sample some of the food stalls, and it’s just a lovely, lovely day out. A massive pod of dolphins dropped by for a stickybeak too, perhaps drawn by the sounds of happy crowds, live music, children laughing inside jumping castles, bustling markets, cajoling wine vendors and crowded food stalls, all overlooking the beautiful beach. By some miracle, the predicted rain held off until late on the second day, and the festival was once again a rousing success. The Man Town love is strong.
- After a slow start, I’m definitely starting to put on some pregnancy weight. Here’s how I know: my jeans are now slowly but surely unzipping themselves as I walk along, which I only realised too late after returning home from the shops this afternoon. Now all those pitying smiles along the beachfront make complete sense.
- I say pregnancy weight, but really I suspect these are sugar kilos, pure and simple. Most uncharacteristically, I’ve been really wanting sweet things, and I’ve been having them, often twice a day (a bit of afternoon tea, like a citron tart or a piece of cheesecake being no obstacle to dessert a couple of hours later, be it quince pie or chocolate pudding…). I’ve now decided to try eliminating all these goodies, because they’ve got no nutritional value at all, and indeed could potentially prove harmful, given the increasing incidence of gestational diabetes in this country. There’s simply no justification for continuing on this path, and plenty of reasons not to, including a growing suspicion that my arse has doubled in size. Farewell, French flan, farewell!