I have finished the first draft of my first novel. On the 30th of April in fact, a bit under a year after I started working on it consistently. It came to just over 85,000 words, which is a good thing. Apparently 80,000 is a good length for a first novel, from a publisher’s point of view. Now I’m finishing the first edit, then I’ll put it aside for a while. During that period I’ll be reading more non fiction in the areas I need to research, such as urban infrastructure, the evolution of human societies and the city, and environmental change. I also need to read more about character development and editing. I’ll probably leave it for a month and go back to the re-write with fresh eyes.
I experienced a great feeling of relief after finishing it. I’ve never before completed an artistic project of this scale and complexity. It’s a bit daunting to face the prospect now of moulding it into a publishable novel. But I have ‘thrown the clay’. Now for the shaping process.
Reading Haruki Murakami’s Dance dance dance. The style is interesting. Couldn’t decide if I liked it at first.
(My first comments were: Strange book. Soft, flowing, dreamlike. Yet compulsive as a soap opera. But unlike a soap opera does it operate under the surface of the mind, the seemingly meaningless exterior? Whereas soap opera is obsessed with the surface itself and sees nothing else.
Need to come back to it. Can’t say if it’s boring. A lot of truisms, e.g. pp. 209-10. Piss-taking, poised between wisdom and banality. I suppose though, as a comment on the unreality of much of life, it is effective. I can understand why people like him. And I can understand why people don’t like him.)
I guess I do. Hypnotism of the ordinary. A lot of everyday life. The narrator is searching for something, but is mostly killing time. Eating, walking around, reading. Clouds, snow. Everything muffled, dreamlike, but also ordinary. Still, most of life is made up of these boring actions, as the author understands. It draws me in, the pages fly by.
Interpolation: This seems to me to be the opposite of much contemporary culture, where the ordinary is over-hyped, raved and screamed about. Here in Melbourne anyway*, the endless babble about football and cooking. The way cooking and reality TV (nearly typed TB, which would be preferable) have fused to form a new kind of super-banality, the endless blather about food and ‘celebrity chefs’. It seems that our society in its comfortable old age has reached that stage where nothing real is allowed to be discussed because it might cause a fight, it might upset our slow peaceful death, so the most safe and boring topics are brought up constantly like mental pap to be masticated in the nursing home. But god forbid we should recognise them for what they are.
Bits of the strange within the ordinary. There is a Sheep Man who inhabits a secret realm within the Dolphin Hotel. Talk of crocodiles and gorillas. Anthropomorphised animals linked to ancient Egypt.
Another writer would make these irruptions seem magical, here they are downplayed, no more extraordinary than cooking a meal or drinking a beer, both of which happen a lot in Murakami’s novels.
The Sheep Man tells the narrator (p.84): “Thisisyourworld.”
Nice idea: that there is a reality for everyone, their home, a spiritual home with physical reality, that they can get back to. Because like many sensitive, introverted people, the narrator feels out of place in this reality. Perhaps it’s a prodding. The thoughtful person believes in a true path that they need to find. Many extroverted, or should I say externally-guided people feel threatened by this, by evidence of divergence, and try to persuade thoughtful people to do the same as them. Rather than analysing their own life choices they seek to have them externally reinforced by attempting to coerce others to make the same choices. So other people in the novel criticise the narrator, his life choices.** He goes beyond even the threat of a different choice, because he questions whether any choice is meaningful, given the meaninglessness of existence.
p.113: “Some people say that’s escapism. But that’s fine by me. I live my life, you live yours. If you’re clear about what you want, then you can live any way you please. I don’t give a damn what people say. They can be reptile food for all I care. That’s how I looked at things when I was your age and I guess that’s how I look at things now. Does that mean I have arrested development? Or have I been right all these years? I’m still waiting on the answer to that one.”
Imagine if we could tell the truth to people. But there are far too many barriers to that. (To be sensitive and unable to lie to oneself, a particular kind of curse. Leading only to madness or art.) Fear of getting hurt. Gossip. Safer to keep quiet. Otherwise, develop hippo skin and join the brawl.
There is a quote on the back cover:
“Murakami is a true original and yet in many ways he is also Franz Kafka’s successor because he seems to have the intelligence to know what Kafka truly was – a comic writer”
Funny to read that, as it’s what I’ve always said, as well as about another great writer on the black humour of existence, Philip K Dick. I’ve nearly always got funny looks in return. Most people seem to think, “Oh Kafka, he’s paranoid, he’s depressing”. Yes, he is, and hilarious, and gentle, and wild, and wise. The wisdom of seeing how crazy we all are, how crazy this life is. The torment of being both ape and angel, so to speak. How very, darkly funny the absurdity of it all is.
*And from reading Will Self’s article it is in the UK too, this mind-numbing hype around food and ‘celebrity chefs’. Anyone who idolises chefs should try a stint working in a commercial kitchen, and find out what a wonderful world of sub-criminal, psychopathic apes it is.
**This is a common occurrence in the literature of the strange, of disturbance. Think about Alice, how the inhabitants of Wonderland constantly criticise and belittle her. Or the dwarves in The Hobbit. The strange interrupts the quiet and reflective reality, throws the protagonist into the adventure, shakes up his beliefs. A topic for another post.
To follow on from my previous post:
What is powerful about Melancholia is its certainty – conviction even – married with mastery of the form. This conviction doesn’t at all contradict the many-layered meanings present in the film. An example will demonstrate this point better. In the second act, Justine is talking to her sister Claire as it is becoming clearer that the planet Melancholia will in fact collide with the Earth. There has been a shift from the early second act, when Justine was clearly clinically depressed. Now she takes on the character of an oracle. (The director’s thinking is not so limited and conventional that he sees these states as mutually exclusive, of course). She knows that the planet will strike the Earth, no matter what the media report. And in this scene she also reveals that there is no life elsewhere.
Life is only on Earth. And not for long.
I found myself rebelling against this. “Of course there could be life elsewhere, the Universe is vast!” I thought, bristling indignantly. But my response was the whole point. The director wants to provoke, to challenge my ideas. And I love him for that. So few films do. And there seems to be so little tolerance for anything these days that goes against glib, surface positive thinking. And I don’t just mean the ‘filler culture’ of TV sport and celebrity chefs. It goes far beyond that. I read a review of Melancholia in a well-known, moderately intellectual, monthly Australian progressive magazine. The critic in this case didn’t look beyond the surface or into himself but simply slammed the film as self-indulgent, the outpourings of a neurotic. “And?” I thought. “Can this really be your whole argument?”
This is a strange feature of Australia – not just of Australia – that art can be dismissed with ‘This person’s not right in the head’. As if art is only permitted to express ‘healthy tendencies’ as defined by a random sample of average types. Perhaps it should only describe people doing stretches in warm sunshine while breathing deeply.
It’s possible to trace the cultural origins of such reductionism, its growth from our difficult beginnings facing a harsh environment and vicious Imperial ruling class for whom being poor, Irish, rebellious or all three was enough to earn a trip to a distant gulag. Better perhaps to not think too deeply, to focus on one’s immediate surroundings. This overdone laconicism is also related to Australia’s high levels of atheism and agnosticism.* However I would really hope for a little more, at this late date, from someone who purports to an interest in art.
[For a much more interesting discussion of Melancholia see here. In reference to the line ‘I am and I remain whatever you do not want me to be.’: I agree that depression and related states are often not merely pathological but operate as guide markers to more true states of being. They do so by undermining false, societally-imposed certainties. Like the absurd in such writers as Franz Kafka and Philip K Dick, they function as a starting point, hopefully, for a higher consciousness; they represent the sensitive person's recognition of the absurdity of life. Whether a true higher state exists for everybody, or can be achieved, is another question. Many people either ignore the possibility and get on with physical imperatives of procreation/consumption (genetic machines), or fake some kind of higher knowledge (e.g. what Steven Amsterdam perfectly described as the 'bullshit teenage look of inner peace', not at all exclusive to adolescents; also the fake-enlightened New Age conman. I suppose the real thing can be detected by the fact that it doesn't want to convert you or take your money. And someone who is truly serene will not need to judge others.)]
*Not that this is a bad thing. And this is not intended as an exercise in Australia-bashing. There are of course good things about the ‘national character’, just as there are about other ‘national characters’. In Australia’s case there is a residual egalitarianism, though unfortunately class snobbery and division is creeping in, as always happens as a society ages. This has been evidenced in recent times by near-hysterical outbreaks of ‘bogan-pointing’, as so many worry about being seen as on the wrong side of the bogan fence. Hopefully Australia can hold on to enough of the good and preserve a measure of meritocratic freedom against the growth of oligarchy.
I recently saw Amadeus for the first time.
It was a little disappointing. I’d heard so often what a classic it is. But I found it one of those ‘I probably would have liked this when I was younger’ experiences. It seemed too much of a confection. Too formulaic, and what’s worse, manipulative. One of those films where you’re supposed to cheer at certain points and cry or boo at others. A straight-line hagiography of the great man, like Forrest Gump without the gags. Which I wouldn’t mind in a simple fantasy, a Star Wars or whatever. But given this film’s reputation I was expecting something more complex, more intelligent. A great work of (film) art to me has layers of meaning, can be interpreted in different ways. The mind keeps coming back to it, seeing something new each time it is revisited on the screen or in memory. Examples for me would be The Tree of Life, A Clockwork Orange and Melancholia.
Let’s take the last of those. On one level it can be interpreted psychologically. Is the depression of Justine and her aversion to social ritual a sign of personal illness? Or is it, as it seems later in the film, a sane response of a self-actualised individual to hypocrisy and conformity, to humanity’s corruption which the planet Melancholia comes to erase?
Which leads into another aspect, the moral/religious component in the film. Melancholia’s collision course with Earth is presented as a cleansing act. The evolution of life is a mistake which must be erased. What is extreme in the film is that it is not just humanity that is implicated. Condemnation of humanity’s evils is commonplace. But the film suggests that all life was a mistake. The horses go wild with terror, but later settle down, accepting the judgement. This is at odds with the more modern environmentalist approach that sees other species as innocent victims of humanity, of our enslavement of them and destruction of their habitats. But it is quite in line with the (pre-)Biblical tradition of the Flood myth. It is thought-provoking, the way Lars von Trier connects so convincingly with what many would see as pre-modern ideas, so that they become fresh and shocking.
Another aspect of the film is the local, the Scandinavian. If you have read the Norse myths in particular this aspect will stand out. The fimbulwinter and the ferocity of real winter each year when the world seems to die. The Ragnarök myth. Myths and images felt deep in the bone. Justine’s psychology also mirrors these myths. First depression (fimbulwinter), then destruction (Ragnarök). The images of destruction’s approach, the house and garden on the water under the burgeoning planet, are as beautiful as winter’s frozen trees, as symmetrical as death and life.
It also works on a purely visual level, as an exploration of stunning set-piece images, broodingly theatrical, cosmically vast. It takes the viewer back to the great tradition of cosmic imagery from films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Tree of Life. The opening sequence also erases the boundaries between film and contemporary photography. It revels in its artificiality before delving into the darkest of psychological intimacies, forcing the viewer to see the links between the two.
Structurally too, Melancholia engages the viewer. It has a structure of acts which is operatic or symphonic. The opening short act or introduction establishes the theme visually and musically. It summarises what is to follow and how it will all end. Then the two major acts develop the action and characters within the main theme. Finally there is the destruction of the coda. Like Odin before Ragnarök, we already know the doom that awaits, as does the main character Justine. The act structure also once again highlights the artificiality of the film, its constructed nature is on display from the start. It is a testament to the director’s power that this doesn’t stop us from engaging with the characters.
This is what a real work of film art is. A work that the viewer can always see more in, no matter how many times it is revisited. That has multiple ideas, narratives and contradictions, myths and symbols. That even if it is painful, you can’t help going back to one more time.
I haven’t been posting here much lately, for various reasons. I have the kind of mind that over-complicates everything, leading to paralysis. So here are some reasons:
Still writing the novel. Have written 56,000 words, which means that there are 15-25,000 to go, then research and rewriting/expansion especially of the first third, then try to get it published. And once published (fingers crossed!) this is planned to be more of a promotional site which means it would change again. In fact it has shifted that way a bit, with samples of work. Those tabs, up there.
So what do I do with it now, use it to practice? As a blog? Writing about what? And I don’t want to post for free work that could be sent to publishers – e.g. short stories. Because I want it to be published, there’s no sense giving it away. But then what do I put here? I could research topics that support the novel writing and post about them, but at the moment, i.e. for another eight weeks at the current rate, I’m focussed on keeping the momentum going and finishing the book.
Also not many people read this at the moment. And I’m not on Facebook etc. because I’m a crank and tend to react against things that EVERYBODY MUST DO. And I’d generally rather lie in the grass and stare at a beetle as it walks across my hand.
And also this is freely available on the Net and I have a family and a job and etc. so it limits what I can say. Which is difficult for an artist because much of the energy comes from honesty, from the fact that groupthink is difficult and something that you challenge and from the tension between internal perception and external roles*. Like walking a tightrope over a chasm of fire. So I tend to shut up and say nothing.
Anyway I think I’ll just post random stuff from my journal which may or may not be interesting to anyone.
(*Which to ‘serious and professional people’ probably sounds juvenile and angsty, however the capacity to play and to preserve childlike states of mind is central to the creative process. Which is a huge area and could be the subject of a whole series of posts or even indeed books. Probably if I was balanced and well-integrated I wouldn’t feel the desire to create anything.)
The Open Short Story category of the Boroondara Literary Awards was open to all Australians. There were 611 entries received from around the country.
P. D. Martin, crime writer, judged the category. She said at the ceremony that my story was the highest ranked of the Highly Commended stories and came within one point of third place. She found it very hard to choose. In the judge’s report she wrote:
Fighting for Breath is a story with an incredibly strong voice that followed a boxer turned New York taxi driver…this story oozed atmosphere and I was right there with the taxi driver and his fare in New York City .
The idea for the story first came to me in response to a writing exercise with a number of objects to choose from. I chose the boxing glove keyring and asthma inhaler. From there the images began to flow. The setting was provided by my memories of a year spent living in the USA.
A vivid memory of the time I spent in NYC is the Manhattan traffic jams full of yellow taxis. The drivers couldn’t go anywhere, so they all tooted their horns and yelled at each other out the windows. It was a form of theatre for the tourists, perhaps therapy or comedy for the drivers.
It was an honour to be chosen for this award from among so many entrants.
Someone needs to tell Word that all the best lines are fragments.