September reading

The last few weeks have been light on the #amwriting side of life, but I have been displacing nicely with a fair amount of #amreadinginstead. More #amwriting to follow, and in the meantime a selection from the pile on the bedroom floor as follows…

Christos Tsiolkas – Merciless Gods

A short-story collection from a writer I’d label as ‘one of my favourite authors’ were I much given to sticking labels on things. As ever with Tsialkos, there is hard-hitting writing about sexuality, class, religion, race privilege and more – all the tropes from the novels are present and correct. As much a fan of the Tsialkos of Loaded as of Barracuda (for a critical theorist’s comments on the trajectory, read an article at the Sydney Review of Books, but be prepared for phrases like “progressive vision of a multicultural Australia is almost impossible to distinguish from an aspirational, bourgeois habitus that, in the greater scheme of Tsiolkas’s work, is clearly regressive” – which are hard to imagine many of Tsiolkas’ characters reading without resorting, to quote the article’s title, to ‘Frequent, Coarse Language’), my favourite pieces here are refinements rather than reiterations of his themes. “The Disco at the End of Communism” uses the eyes of a socially conservative narrator to view the social milieu of his recently deceased bohemian brother and weave an ambiguous picture of respect and revulsion, while the mother’s striving for posthumous understanding in ‘Porn 1’ reminded me of Bernard Cooper’s wonderfully moving “Graphology”. This is also very masculine writing – which certainly shouldn’t be taken to imply that its characters have a penchant for aftershave or cuff-links. ‘Raw’ is the word, and in several of its meanings. Like The Independent’s reviewer, I’m left pondering whether Tsiolkas’s ability to shock with the sheer power of his writing doesn’t sometimes sell his abilities short: the best moments here are not necessary the most shocking, but the most subtle.

Denis Johnson – Jesus’ Son

Like Tsialkos, an author whose short stories I’ve come too from a novella (in this case, the magnificent Train Dreams). The potentially thorny issue of fictionalised autobiography probably lies just below the surface with both books, although the barbs are from different parts of the human armoury – homosexuality for Tsiolkas, a past of drug and alcohol addiction for Johnson. He writes beautifully, poetically even – Johnson was first published, like a writer whose abilities with prose his work reminds me of, Michael Ondaatje, as a poet – although my lingering feeling on reading these stories was discomfort not at the subject matter (we are firmly in the worlds of addiction and losers, and the accompanying grimness and grime here) so much as at the tacit expectation that the reader will find them inherently fascinating. There’s a voyeuristic undertone to reading these tales, as well as an occasional nagging sensation that these are themes whose appeal to an almost adolescent nihilism are dependent on the sheer quality of the writing to lift them above a slew of less capable efforts in the same milieu. (Lost young men with their hands in the medicine jar may seem at shallow first glance like a rarity and a taboo, but I’m not sure you they’re exactly under-represented in contemporary literature. I realise Jesus’ Sun dates back to 1992, but even so…)

As one goodreads reviewer argued, it’s Johnson’s wonderful prose that helps this not be a throwback to Burroughs and Bukowski. I can hear people howl at that use of the word ‘throwback’, but Kerouac died while I was in primary school and I’m hardly ‘young’: this may still be transgressive territory, but it’s not new ground. I’m tempted to agree, although part of its quality is its honesty in capturing the junkie life. If I recoil, it’s through familiarity with the milieu rather than any sense of moral superiority. But I still think Train Dreams is the superior piece: getting a reader – well, this reader, at least – to root for the decency, integrity and humanity of a morally conservative backwoodsman who rejects almost every aspect of social and technological progress feels like the greater achievement (and, ultimately, a more intriguing read).

Adam Mars-Jones – Kid Gloves: A Voyage Around My Father

We could, in subject matter, be almost of Tsiolkas territory – geographical dislocation, class mobility (arguably in more than just the upward sense), the complexities of father/son relationships with their undercurrent of expectations or both self and the other, homosexuality and its acceptance or otherwise – but we are on very different emotional as well as literal terrain. Kid Gloves takes place mostly in Gray’s Inn rather than Melbourne, and the parental dislocation is from Wales rather than Greece, not that fiery temperaments and drink don’t have parts to play. There is a Britishness as well as a Welshness at play here: even when the memoir deals with the son’s coming out to the father, the reader experiences emotional candour and exposure but not, as might be the case with Tsiolkas, a second-hand mouthful of knuckles, although they might have been momentarily anticipated. (Disclosure: Adam is an acquaintance, although the book’s content covers aspects of his life that are unknown to me.)  It’s also a memoir that is – at least in part perhaps as it is centrally concerned with a High Court judge – alive to and acutely aware of ethics and responsibility in writing. Many blushes go unspared, but they include the author’s as well as the subject’s, and the inability of the dead to speak up in search of redress is openly acknowledged. What could have been a revenge drama is, in contrast, far closer to its sub-title – Mars-Jones Snr may not necessarily have been the most hospitable island, but its shorelines are gently delineated for those who didn’t visit for themselves and final judgement is (just) left for the reader.

September soundtrack:

Bau – Café Musique: Cesaria Evoria’s former musical director’s own musical output – a compilation from a string of solo cds that showcase not just a striking ability on violin, guitar and cavaquinho but a beguiling way with melody. A shot of Caboverdean beauty on an English autumn day.

Soledad – In Concert: the list of composers of the non-original material here (Astor Piazzolla, Egberto Gismonti) might suggest Buenos Aires or perhaps Rio De Janeiro, but Soledad are from Belgium. To these ears, they are as capable – both as players and writers – as exponents of nuevo tango as more expected heirs of Piazzolla (Pablo Ziegler, for example), and just as likely to stir elements of jazz and classical music into the mix too.

Gustavo Santaolalla – Camino: definitely Argentine this time. Santaolalla is best known as a sountrack composer (Brokeback Mountain, Motorcycle Diaries, Babel), but his non-film work is worthwhile too. Visually evocative as you’d expect it to be, although it’s Andean mountainscapes it conjures for me rather than Buenos Aires. Not quite as good as the previous non-film album (Ronroco is a gem of a record), but better than merely ‘lovely’.

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