On Reading, Part Seven

To live is to dream. To dream is to want to escape. To escape is to read. Ergo, to live is to read, to read is to live. It’s a bit of a vicious circle sometimes, as I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions already this year – the need and want to read sometimes cannot match the volume and supply of books. Which is why I trawl through bookshops and libraries like fishermen do the ocean, hoping that amongst the shelves and thousands upon thousands of volumes there’ll be just one that catches my eye.
Everybody extols the virtues of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap. And for that reason, I wanted nothing to do with it. I also don’t like the way he writes, the way he uses language, certain words peppering his writing like bullets. When I finally did get around to reading it, I wondered what all the commotion was and had been about. 
The idea itself is rather simple: at a barbecue with friends, a boy gets slapped by an adult who is not his father and it sets in chain a whole string of events which have repercussions for everyone present at the barbecue. The eight chapters of the book – more like sections; each named for the character Tsiolkas wants to examine – progress the ever-widening net into the weeks and months after the event has happened, after it has long been glossed over. I understand what he was trying to do – in the hands of a lesser writer, it might have degenerated into a pile of inconsequentiality, and in the hands of a more skilled writer, it had the potential to be a potent book that looked at the hereandnow of our contemporary Australian society, in much the same way that J.K. Rowling does in The Casual Vacancy. But with Tsiolkas at the helm it seems to stagnate, and descends into long discussions about characters’ thoughts and recollections of events, their own stubbornly observed tics and habits, the ruts they dig themselves into deeper and deeper as time progresses. If there was one character whose story I found compelling, it was Connie’s, the sixteen-year-old girl who works as the receptionist at Aisha’s veterinary clinic. It had its moments, but it was on the whole the most honest section in the book (if that can be said with any degree of sense attached to it.) The television series of Tsiolkas’ book, screened on the ABC a year ago, bought a sense of immediacy and life to the story which the book could not. We saw the families, the barbecue, the slap, the anger and outrage of everyone there, the way their lives unravelled and descended into ruts whereby wheels fell off and they lost their way, only to pull themselves together later on (or not). Like the book, the best episode was Connie’s, and it’s no surprise given its writer Alice Bell also wrote episodes for the recent successful television show Puberty Blues as well as the film Suburban Mayhem. Bell’s style, especially noticeable in Puberty Blues and The Slap, is a very non-judgemental this-is-how-it-is depiction of life, and there’s a very beautiful and heartbreaking quality to it. Not only does it let an audience make up their own minds about the characters, their actions and the situations, but it seems all the more real – or at least less scripted and forced – for being thus, more so than other episodes and pieces. At the end of the day, you can’t escape the fact that the series was based on the book, and therein lies its inherent problem – you never really quite believe all the characters would act like that (some, like Harry, probably would, but others I’m not so sure about). 

I’ve been wanting to read Lily Brett’s new book Lola Bensky since I saw it in Dymocks a few months ago. From its blurb, it s
ounded like it was going to be one of those books that hummed with the music against which it’s set, that fizzed and bubbled with a vitality – a humanity and warmth – that comes from the period, but sadly that promise evaporated at the end of the first chapter. To publicise the book, Brett gave a series of interviews – both print and radio – and one in particular on Richard Fidler’s Conversations program on 702ABC Sydney was particularly entertaining and enlightening. In it, Brett made the point that Lola Bensky – the character just as much as the book – is and was not autobiographical; throughout the interview, Brett shared stories of famous performers – Mick Jagger, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix to name a few – and yet, upon reading the book, the stories are there, almost verbatim, preserved in a kind of emotionally-vacant amber. Written in a third person style, the constant use of characters’ full names within paragraphs and pages rather than just ‘Lola’ or ‘she’ began to frustrate and by the end of the book, the narrative had barely delivered upon anything the blurb promised, and had fallen far short of its potential. The most lively sections were, curiously enough, the meeting with Janis Joplin at the Monterey International Pop Music Festival in June 1967, and the final pages where Brett had compiled a list of all those featured in the book who had died in the interim between meeting and publishing, many of them aged twenty-seven. Yet another mark on the list of disappointments of 2012.

On a happier note, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a beautifully heartbreaking book. Set a couple of years after 11th September, 2001, the story is predominantly told from the point of nine-year-old Oskar Schell and details his search for the truth about his father’s death. There are interludes, letters in a way, written by someone else, someone older, and it isn’t until two-thirds of the way through the book that our suspicions as to who is writing these are confirmed. It’s a bit of a strange book in a way, but by no means less impressive for that. There is a rather tender story, told by Oskar’s father in a recollection, about the Sixth Borough of New York City – it’s a whimsical story that seems to step straight off the page and into a surreal kind of magic-realism world, a story that wouldn’t seem out of place if told by Max in Spike Jonze’s film of Where The Wild Things Are. It’s about losing connections with people, regaining those connections, reconnecting; meeting new people, following your heart, and trying to make sense of the world around you, even if none of the people you meet really understand it either. By a strange coincidence, my reading of this occurred at roughly the same time as I watched the film of Safran Foer’s first novel, Everything Is Illuminated. And, while I am loathe to watch the film of this book, the same emotional investment and connection in their respective stories, their characters and their lives is noticeable, identifiable, strong. The book’s conclusion, told in fifteen black and white images, will challenge even the coldest hearted to not let their emotions overwhelm them.

This year I’ve read something close to eighty-five books, an average of one book ever 4.3 days. It’s something that is all at once terrifying and thrilling, but it leaves me wanting more – the endless search for new stories, new characters, new authors, new worlds. There have been some books this year which have been eagerly anticipated and yet ached with disappointment, while others arrived unannounced and very quietly said ‘hello.’
And as summer tries to do its thing, and the long days of sun and music and friends and picnics stretch out ahead of us, I finally got around to getting Anna Karenina. And I’m going to read it this summer, come hell or high water:
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,”, it begins…

What I’ve read this year, part seven
Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan
London Belongs To Me, Norman Collins
The Slap, Christos Tsiolkas
Geography, Sophie Cunningham
Carte Blanche, Jeffrey Deaver
Looking for Alaska, John Green
The Rachel Papers, Martin Amis
She’s Leaving Home, Joan Bakewell
Questions of Travel, Michelle de Kretser
White Teeth, Zadie Smith
Lola Bensky, Lily Brett
A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer
NW, Zadie Smith
Sound, T. M. Wolf
The Habit of Art (play), Alan Bennett
Black Mirror, Gail Jones
Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie
The Family Law, Benjamin Law
26 Views of the Starburst World: William Dawes at Sydney Cove, 1788-1791, Ross Gibson

Simultaneously posted by me at http://thespellofwakinghours.tumblr.com/post/37631630297

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