It Is Finished!

 

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.

Extreme Metaphors – J. G. Ballard

Cover of Extreme Metaphors J. G. Ballard

Dipping in and out of Extreme Metaphors: Selected Interviews with J. G. Ballard, 1967-2008. Ballard is one of my very favourite authors, with my favourite works so far being The Drowned World, High-Rise and many of his excellent short stories. He often chronicles the drift into extreme states of psychopathology, into inner landscapes that mirror, or create, outer landscapes of disarray. The causes of this drift are various, but it often results from obsession, and from boredom with existing states of reality. This is not surprising given the violent chaos of his childhood, contrasted with the long, increasingly consumerist and dull peace post-World War II.

As Ballard points out in a number of the interviews, the standard definition of ‘Ballardian’ (see the entry on Ballard in Wikipedia, for example) is inaccurate. The Drowned World is anything but bleak. (In fact his situations are often bleak only if the reader is unprepared to make the mental shift necessary to entertain different psychological and exterior states.) It conveys the sense of ecstatic revelling in the shift to a new state of being. As if the protagonist has found himself in a Max Ernst painting and is learning to embrace his new surroundings.

To me, a really bleak, dystopian novel would be Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Not a lot of hope there that I could see. Or Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the absence of hope is a warning to us all not to go down the novel’s path.

Ballard’s novels are more like outbreaks of madness that lead to new realities. Human societies are doing this all the time. It’s awful, sure, but it’s so far not final. Think of the settlement of Australia, in a time when industrialisation had forced vast numbers of people off the land, there was no work for many, no social welfare as we would understand it, and crime rates were 6-10 times* what they are today in the UK as a result. It was a horrible time for many. Utterly dystopian. (As a character in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas says, “Then, as now, dystopia was a function of poverty.”) Later, things improved. In the future they will change again. (Actually they are always changing, so it’s a matter of time frames. A point for another time!)

In one interview from 1984 with Peter Rønnov-Jessen, ‘Against Entropy’, Ballard discusses the fact that his novels are not about entropy and decay but rather reconstruction and the possibilities for creating new realities in the cleared-away space. (This is also a major concern in the novel I am currently writing.)

And he refutes the progressive view of history when talking about the phenomenon of the suburbs and what it represents in his work. On the one hand suburbs represent a banal modern evil, as sites of conformity and mindless consumption (this view was developed in his final novel, Kingdom Come). Anyone trapped in a shopping mall’s cunning maze can relate to this. But he has a couple of other points to make about the shifts that led to their creation. That there was a shift from rural life, to the industrial city, then to the post-industrial suburb. But these shifts did not involve the ‘decay’ that critics perceive in his books. It’s not that the rural life with its moral structures was decaying, but simply that people needed the possibilities of the city, and now need the possibilities of the post-city.
The other point is that the suburbs are part of the post-industrial shift to the creation of a private space of exploration, with peoples’ homes full of technology for private consumption and reflection. A turning inward.

“People are moving into a more private phase of self-exploration, and leaving behind the mass society that technology created 150 years ago.” p.202**

As a psychological writer, it is these shifts in behaviour and mentality that interest Ballard. Another kind of turning inward happens to Kerans in The Drowned World, as his conscious mind retreats and he follows the shifting external climate back into an earlier, reptilian state of consciousness. He adapts to his surroundings. (Brian Aldiss explored a similar idea, also in the 1960s, in Hothouse: the idea that consciousness might be a temporary evolution that proves unsuccessful in the long run, and fades away.)
Another interesting point made is that Ballard’s early ‘disaster novels’ (and the later Hello America) reverse the usual formula for such works because the characters don’t want to overcome the disaster but to merge with it. For example at the end of The Drought (spoiler) it finally rains and the protagonist doesn’t notice – the drought has become internalised. (Those living in southern Australia in the past couple of decades will understand the deep psychological effect that drought has!)

I’ll finish with a wonderful long quote from the author which ties in nicely with my recent thoughts on the film Melancholia.

“Death takes many forms, of course. A loss of self-consciousness, of the awareness of self, could be regarded as death, but at the same time it’s almost an ideal towards which human beings aspire. It’s not just the womb. Some of my characters are obsessed with the notion of getting back to the source of their own being, using the systems of biology as a metaphor…The characters are trying to build structures through which they can escape from the limitations of self. You could say the sense of ourselves, of our physical bodies, that we all have is in itself a sort of small death – because of its enormous limitations. We find it very difficult to break through that small death to a larger world…I don’t accept the criticism that there is a negative streak running through my work. Many people have accused me of being defeatist, pessimistic, entropic…but of course the destruction of self is necessary to achieve nirvana – freedom from self and identification with whatever you like to call them, the unseen powers of the universe.”

-p.207

 

*Figure from A. Roger Ekirch’s At Day’s Close: A history of nighttime.

**Of course since this interview there have been further shifts with the creation of online forms of mass society. We could argue all day about whether this a move back outward – a social development – or a further symptom of the turning inward of society.

Haruki Murakami’s dream logic

(From December:)

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”
Sunday Herald

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.

Reductionism

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.

Film’s exhilarating Melancholia

(spoilers)

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.

Melancholia screenshot

Acceptance of vulnerability

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.

Melancholia screenshot

How hypnotising are Fenrir’s eyes

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.

Melancholia screenshot

The end approaches

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.

What is a blog for?

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.

Ok.

 

(*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.)

‘Fighting for Breath’, more details of the award

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.

 

‘Fighting for Breath’ receives Highly Commended entry

Boroondara Literary Awards Highly Commended

Fragment (consider revising)

Someone needs to tell Word that all the best lines are fragments.

Saved by a Sentinel Chicken

Recently* I visited the Melbourne Writers Festival to hear one of our preeminent scientists talk on birds and human health. Nobel laureate and professor at the University of Melbourne, Peter Doherty is the author of Sentinel chickens: what birds tell us about our health and our world. His work as an immunologist has a bird connection, since the influenza virus is a disease of water birds which crosses to humans via other mammals such as pigs.

Other effects of birds tend to be more benign – they give early warning of toxins, transport seeds and nutrients, and control insects. The US ‘Parrot Panic’ of the early 1930s when many pet birds died led to the creation of the generously funded US National Institutes of Health, which Professor Doherty described as a key contributor to human longevity through its research into disease.

The loss of birds can also lead to catastrophic effects on humans. In India vultures are now critically endangered as a result of their consumption of cow carcasses treated with anti-inflammatories. This in turn has led to an increase in wild dog numbers, causing up to 50,000** extra human deaths from rabies.

Then there are the sentinel chickens, which are stationed around Australia allowing medical scientists to study their response to mosquito-borne infections, and thus help to protect human populations.

The central message of the talk was that birds are important to our health in many ways, and we must continue to ensure that their habitats and wellbeing are protected.

 

*On the 28th of August 2012. The session was called Contagion.There was a delay while this report was submitted for publication elsewhere.

**This is the figure in the book. The total given in the talk was 20-30,000.