Monday, January 18, 2010
Sunday, January 17, 2010
I peddle, push and purvey.
Though I am the pusher, I am as much of a sucker as those to whom I fob my wares.
My wares are the ether around which the written word resides. The space outside a novel, everything that is, essentially, superfluous to the text. It is the cult of the author and the author as fetish.
I broadcast the story around the story – the author’s life, how they write, what inspires them, what they read, as well as the story of the industry around books; the prizes, legislation affecting the industry, awards and accompanying gossip. I yearn to hear the story OF the author, not just the story By the author.
In Bolano’s book The Savage Detectives, he tells the story of young writers as detectives seeking an elusive poet – they are seeking her, not her words. In 2666 he writes of the intellectuals whose livelihoods are made by another elusive author, in this case the real or imagined BennoVon Archimboldi. He toys with the reader, like me, who appears to need to know where the author sits, stands and lies in order to truly understand and give credence to the story.
Obviously, to know the time and space where the author writes from helps to understand (and to accept in some cases) the attitudes of the text. It places it within a historical or cultural context and if we bring something of our knowledge to that reading, we can glean more from the words themselves.
In the past, without the time and space shattering communication mechanisms such as the internet it was simply not possible to have such a cult around the authors, though we know that there was a demand for Mark Twain on the speaking circuit.
The 2009 arch-version of this circuit is the Writers’ Festival – of which there is a massive proliferation, generally aimed at middle class ladies, that augments the business around books.
Writer speak, reader buy.
And writer sign, reader buy.
One of my favourite childhood memories occurred in C1978 (??) in the Long Gallery. My mother took me to a book signing. The book was The Hills of the Black Cockatoo and the author was Pat Peafield Price. As a child this book took on significance much greater than the story. It became a valued item, something which somehow gave me a lot more than the story itself.
What changed with that lithe little tome, what altered the weight of the words once the author had inscribed it with her magic, her pen and with the hand that wrote the words. What was it that my few nervous childhood moments in the presence of Pat that made this work weightier for my conditioning mind?
I recently encountered a Buddhist monk signing the books of his teacher – and enquired how he, who views the world through lenses of impermanence and non attachment, could justify putting his mark in this book. He answered that that we know sales improve with signed copies, and that will take his teacher’s message further.
It’s true – signed books sell more copies and the cynics say that once a book is signed, if it doesn’t sell, it can not be returned the publisher, though this is less the case than it once was.
A gentle paradox in the face of the increased pecuniary value of the signed book by a dead author is that a personalised dedication from the dead author lessens its value in the auction house, though it has more importance to those who know to whom it was dedicated.
The written word can transform the reader, can vault you to a place you did not know existed, can allow you insight and can entertain – whether the copy is signed or not, yet despite the magical qualities afforded the written word, it is an industry. We consume books and words- just as we consume food, clothes, and widescreen televisions. There are people who work in this industry and need to be paid, there is money to be made from the words and to be able to get the words out there money must be made. The snake eats its own tail.
Of course, there are purists out there – people who consume the text and nothing but (“the words alone transform me, to know of the author’s divorce is merely crass.”)Those who are transformed by the essence – and there are the prurient (“it is absolutely crucial to know what type of drug Kerouac was on when he wrote each book.”) and everyone in between.
We can read the stories of the writer or the writers’ stories. They are all part of a cycle of narrative. Stories within, like Matryoshka dolls, though they’re far from uniform and sometimes impossible to prise apart.
What I really truly don’t understand, though, is why the big fuss that Pearl Jam wouldn’t sign autographs on their recent tour.
...originally published in 'Apple' - Summer '09 '10. 'Apple' is the magazine of the marvellous Tmaggots
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Forty Degrees South, 2009
‘No Weather For A Burial’ is the latest in a series of crime novels by David Owen set in Tasmania that feature the same world weary detective – Detective Inspector Franz Heineken – aka Pufferfish. Yes – Pufferfish is back, after a 12 year hiatus.
‘No Weather..’ is Tas Noir, the setting is as important as the tried and tested scaffolding of most crime novels on which it is strung:
An aging, and no doubt ruggedly handsome, detective with a questionable past and a bitter divorce behind him (Pufferfish) faces down, not only a curious cast of criminals, but also sceptical and thwarting senior police officers to overcome obstacles (after being led down various gardens paths) to ultimately solve one – or possibly more crimes. Plus love interest.
Pufferfish fits the bill – he has been forced to leave his homeland, the Nederlands, under a cloud to eventually arrive in Tasmania and forge a new career in the TPF (Tasmanian Police Force – one of myriad acronyms in the book, others, deliciously include FU, TROG and ABCD – Above and Beyond the Call of Duty).
At the beginning of the book, Pufferfish returns from three months of long service leave, a lot of it having been spent at his shack on Bruny where he estimates he has caught and eaten about four grand of cray, to begin a hunt for the disappeared wife of a Ferntree based, wheel chair ridden Professor of Egyptology. Already the sense of place in this book becoming crucially apparent.
The story is transformed with a king tide revealing a recently dug grave on a remote beach on the ‘Peninsula, building as the search for the identity of the game-hunter’s deer bagged corpse begins - bringing in deer hunters from the midlands, waterfront nightclub owners from’ the Bay, fishermen from the West Coast, ex boxers from the’Bunna and bikers from Sydney. Pufferfish and his cop cohorts have to travel to most corners of the state as well as to Sydney – of course taking the reader with them to experience these places.
‘No Weather’ is a solidly structured novel, though the key to transforming it into one that is better than the average is the character of place – in this case, Tasmania. The state, its climate, its peculiar North, South, East, West parochialism are captured with accurate intensity and hang all the more flesh on the crime scaffold.
The parochial subtleties of this island are rolled out by Owen with an eye for detail and in an informed manner. “Out here Franz, we’re masters of improvisation. We supplied most of the islands wealth but you bastards out East, don’t give a toss,” Owens has a Strahan based character say.
Place is a character crucial in a lot of crime writing– the more extreme the better;
Arnaldur Ingridason’s Reykjavik, Steig Larsson’s Sweden or even Peter Temple’s bushfire shadowed Melbourne are vital to the telling of these stories and without the Tasmanian setting of Pufferfish it would not be as interesting to local readers, or as informative and curious to readers abroad.
And Tasmania is, despite what those of us for whom this is home think, an extreme location.
Owen has an outsider’s eye for observation and an insider’s awareness of nuance, having arrived in Tasmania in the early nineties via South Africa, London and Melbourne – and a writer’s scholarly approach to text – his most recent publications are part of a natural history series published by Allen and Unwin.
Pufferfish’s character is written in the first person and present tense. This results in some strange turns of phrase “we stand, self feeling a tug in the lower back” but also adds to the noir-esque-ness and transports the reader with a gum-shoe gritty detective novel tone. The narrator/writer also has a propensity to have Pufferfish refer to himself in the third person occasionally though this is skillfully written and adds to the ‘voice of god’ style narration that pervades the book.
What is missing in this crime novel, though definitely not lacking, is the often superfluous violence described in florid detail – we are a savvy reading audience, one that is often unfortunately inured to graphic depictions of murder, rape and mutilation on the page and screen. This violence becomes more pronounced when read as the reader is left to create those details ourselves. ‘No Weather’ proves that gratuitous violence is not required to further a plot.
Crime novels are crime novels, they offer the reader the vicarious thrill of having a crime solved before your eyes, there is no pressing need for intellectual engagement – the story is spelt out for you in clear language, the crime novel does not aspire to be ‘art’ or transformative literature – and the reader can rest easy, despite gnawed fingernails and edge of the seat reading – there will be a resolution.