Sunday, September 16, 2018

The Handmaiden, The Handmaids Tale

The Handmaiden is a South Korean erotic thriller directed by Park Chan-wook based on the novel Fingersmith by Welsh writer Sarah Waters. Both works are about a pair of grifters (a man and woman) who attempt to con a naive young heiress out of her fortune by having her fall in love with the man and elope with him. The female con artist goes into the house as a maid to work the plan from the inside while the male conman poses as a drawing instructor. Part 2 of the plan is that after the elopement they consign the heiress to an insane asylum and split the dough. Fingersmith the novel has that set up too but it's also qot quite a lot of cool stuff about pickpocketing, the short con and the long con. Fingersmith has a famous end of the first act twist and then a great second act twist too. It is set in Victorian England and is maybe a little long but otherwise perfect as an erotic twisty thriller. The Handmaiden moves the action to Japanese occupied Korea which I thought was going to be awesome but it wasn't because they do absolutely nothing with this premise. I've never seen a movie that takes place in Occupied Korea and I was stoked for some kind cool resistance motifs or Japanese-Korean tensions but there's nothing like. I'm a fan of Park Chan-wook, though, I, like every other man in my forties, have watched the corridor hammer fight in Old Boy about 20 times. However I was expecting a bit more from him with this adaptation. Like I say, the setting is not really used much, the erotic elements are a bit too leery and male gazy (while railing against male gaze eroticism as subtext (a beautiful example of attempting to eat your cake and have it too)) and the torture scene at the end is completely unnecessary. I did like the movie but if you haven't read the book the twists will come as more of a surprise and the film will probably work better.  
The Handmaids Tale is a science fiction novel by Margaret Atwood about a future America run by a quasi Mormon religious right that I only read recently. It's a book that everybody should read both as a warning and as, you know, a great work of art. Atwood, building on the tradition of Ursula Le Guin, Angela Carter, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell etc. creates an entirely believable universe where a young Handmaiden must endure Winston Smith type suffering simply because she is a woman. The TV series adaptation is faithful and well made and stars Elisabeth Moss who just keeps making brilliant choice after brilliant choice in her career. The book is a must-read and the TV series while a little bit sexier (!) and safer (the implied genocide of blacks and Jews has been removed) is still pretty good although maybe like Fargo and True Detective did (and Stranger Things and Westworld didn't) wrapping everything up in one season might have been the artistically smarter choice. Some of those involved in the production have been running away from the word 'feminist' which is absurd because the Handmaids Tale is transparently a feminist masterpiece. As is the Handmaiden although maybe with a female director we might have avoided some of the creepy stuff. Anyway both are recommended from me. 

Monday, September 10, 2018

JG Ballard's Great Decade 1973-1983

According to historian Eric Hobsbawm the twentieth century really began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in his car in Sarajevo on June 28th 1914. It was a century dominated by assassinations, cars, aeroplanes, wars, mass production and American pop culture. For me the novelist who perhaps best captured the obsessions and imagery of the twentieth century was the Shanghai-born English novelist J G Ballard. Pigeon holed early as a science fiction writer, for a long time Ballard was not noticed by critics. He had his champions, of course, such as Martin Amis, but in general his books seldom broke through into the popular consciousness until the publication of Empire of the Sun in 1983.

Ballard’s early apocalyptic novels from the 1960's such as The Drowned World and The Crystal World cut against the mainstream science fiction of the time with their concern for the effects of disaster on the protagonists’ psychological states. In 1973 Ballard’s most remarkable period as a novelist began with the publication of Crash, a book famously rejected by one London publisher’s reader with the phrase “This author is beyond psychiatric help - DO NOT PUBLISH.” Crash is the story of Vaughan, a television psychologist who is fixated by the sexual power of the car crash and who wishes to die in an auto-erotic accident with Elizabeth Taylor’s limousine. A damning indictment of, and also a love letter to, American celebrity culture, Crash reads as fresh, subversive and lively today as it did forty years ago. It prefigures the deaths of Princess Diana and Grace Kelly and recapitulates the deaths of Franz Ferdinand, JFK and screen siren Jayne Mansfield who was reputedly (but not really) decapitated in the 1967 crash of her Buick Electra 225.

Ballard’s follow up to Crash was a retelling of the Robinson Crusoe story, Concrete Island (1974), about a man who crashes his car and is trapped in it at the junction of many motorway flyovers and sliproads, living desperately on his concrete island and finally dying unseen by the thousands of commuters passing by on their way to work. High Rise (1975) is a funny, perverse and oddly believable novel about the collapse of civilisation’s norms within an apartment building. Satires on the English sense of decorum seldom get this ribald or excoriating.

For me, though, the climax of this period in Ballard’s evolution is the willfully strange, surrealistic novel The Unlimited Dream Company (1979) about a man who hijacks a small plane and crashes it into the Thames in the sleepy suburb of Shepparton. It’s never clear whether the pilot died in the crash or not but certainly some kind of apotheosis takes place and throughout the novel London is transformed into a seething, primordial, tropical city (similar in many ways to the London of The Drowned World) rich with sexual and avian imagery. The Anglo-Saxon world has generally been uncomfortable with the erotic and surreal in serious fiction but Dream Company is a book which treats both these tropes with the gravity they deserve and it may be Ballard’s finest work. The short story collection Low Flying Aircraft (1976) highlights many of Ballard's obsessions: abandoned swimming pools, crashed planes, urban decay etc. and contains one of my favourite Ballard stories, My Dream Of Flying To Wake Island.

Empire of the Sun (1983/4) is a novelistic retelling of the young Jim Ballard’s imprisonment in a Japanese internment camp from 1942 - 1945. Although the story is told in conventional matter-of-fact prose the book throbs with Ballard’s usual obsessions: war, repressed sexual desire, cruelty, ruined cities, America, cars, flight. As a novel of people in extremis it is a psychological masterpiece as well as being probably the last great novel to come out of the direct experience of World War Two.

In the 1990's and early 2000's Ballard wrote more volumes of memoir and interesting novels about the growth of advertisement speak, business parks, motorways, urbanisation and the spread of pop culture into all walks of life. In 2009 Ballard died of prostate cancer and the British obituaries were respectful but somewhat restrained in their praise. Ballard had been hard to categorise and he was never completely embraced by the British establishment even after his success in Hollywood. It’s a shame because many of Ballard’s contemporaries have dated rather badly and their books read like peculiar period pieces, but Ballard has hardly dated at all. Like Philip K Dick his voice is that of the clear sighted Cassandra warning us of the perils and strange joys ahead. Ballard agreed with the poet Horace who famously said that “they change their skies but not their souls, those who run across the sea,” which is true even when the seas are black with pollution and the sky is a radioactive hell.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

How Many Different Irish Accents Are There?

I've thought long and hard about this. I think there are probably about 24 or 25 different Irish accents. I'm hoping that non Irish speakers can tell the difference between all the accents this guy in the video below does (my kids can't tell all of them apart and can't understand half of what he says (which is fortunate because a lot of it is in Irish street demotic which, naturally, includes a lot of swearing)). I think he does a brilliant job here with Republic of Ireland accents however he drops the ball a bit when he comes to Ulster. He only does 1 accent for all of Northern Ireland. By my reckoning there are at least 9 different Ulster/northern Irish accents that are quite distinctive: Derry, West Belfast, Camp West Belfast (Julian Simmons), North Belfast, South Belfast/North Down (the posh BBC accent), Ballymena, Newry, Tyrone/Fermanagh. Some day I'll make a video of me doing all 9 Northern Irish accents but for now here's Richie Stevens doing his 15 regional Irish accents:

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Thursday, July 12, 2018


It's finally a thing....

The new Sean Duffy is in its final proofing stage and will coming out in the US and UK early next year. More details to follow.

This little bit from chapter 5 gives you a clue as to when its set and what its about:

Friday, July 6, 2018

Conquest of the Useless

I've been rereading Werner Herzog's Conquest of the Useless and its very enjoyable the second go round. (If you're into audiobooks I bet the audiobook of this is amazing.) 
Conquest of the Useless is the largely unedited journal Herzog kept during his time in the Peruvian jungle filming Fitzcarraldo. Fitzcarraldo is an Irish rubber baron who wants to bring high opera to the rain forest and to do so he attempts to move a steam ship between two river systems over a mountain. Herzog was ordered by the movie executives in California (a hilarious bit of the book where he was staying at Francis Ford Coppola's house) to move a model steam ship through the San Diego botanic gardens, but instead he chose to move a real steam ship through the real jungle because that's what his dream told him to do.
Even the initial canoe journey to the location shoot echoes The Heart of Darkness and Coppola's own Apocalypse Now. Everyone gets malaria and dysentery, Mick Jagger and Jason Robards quit the movie. Klaus Kinski loses his mind. Kittens are eaten alive by chickens. Wives are bought and sold for the price of a jar of poison (for darts). A mad soldier invades Ecuador with his platoon of men and advances 30 miles into Ecuadorian territory. A villager stabs a spear at Herzog's belly. The film crew's own translator is a pathological liar who incites the villagers against the director. People break legs and arms. Floods destroy the set. Wars break out. Poisonous snakes and spiders are everywhere. From all this chaos somehow a film is made. Fantastic stuff. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Inside The Whale

The one book I will never regret buying is The Complete Essays Of George Orwell which costs 30 bucks in the Everyman edition but for that 30 bucks you get 1400 pages of Orwell's best stuff. If you can't hack that then get the selected essays and if you can't hack that then please do yourself a favour and click the link and read one of my favourites Inside The Whale below. 
George Orwell's Inside The Whale (Henry Miller, Auden, Eliot, Louis MacNeice & co considered in the dark days of 1940).

& here's a little bit where he talks about Housman:

It is all more or less in the same tune. Everything comes unstuck. ‘Ned lies long in the churchyard and Tom lies long in jail’. And notice also the exquisite self-pity — the ‘nobody loves me’ feeling:

The diamond drops adorning
The low mound on the lea,
These arc the tears of morning,
That weeps, but not for thee.

Hard cheese, old chap! Such poems might have been written expressly for adolescents. And the unvarying sexual pessimism (the girl always dies or marries somebody else) seemed like wisdom to boys who were herded together in public schools and were half-inclined to think of women as something unattainable. Whether Housman ever had the same appeal for girls I doubt. In his poems the woman's point of view is not considered, she is merely the nymph, the siren, the treacherous half-human creature who leads you a little distance and then gives you the slip.

But Housman would not have appealed so deeply to the people who were young in 1920 if it had not been for another strain in him, and that was his blasphemous, antinomian, ‘cynical’ strain. The fight that always occurs between the generations was exceptionally bitter at the end of the Great War; this was partly due to the war itself, and partly it was an indirect result of the Russian Revolution, but an intellectual struggle was in any case due at about that date. Owing probably to the ease and security of life in England, which even the war hardly disturbed, many people whose ideas were formed in the eighties or earlier had carried them quite unmodified into the nineteen-twenties. Meanwhile, so far as the younger generation was concerned, the official beliefs were dissolving like sand-castles. The slump in religious belief, for instance, was spectacular. For several years the old-young antagonism took on a quality of real hatred. What was left of the war generation had crept out of the massacre to find their elders still bellowing the slogans of 1914, and a slightly younger generation of boys were writhing under dirty-minded celibate schoolmasters. It was to these that Housman appealed, with his implied sexual revolt and his personal grievance against God. He was patriotic, it was true, but in a harmless old-fashioned way, to the tune of red coats and ‘God save the Queen’ rather than steel helmets and ‘Hang the Kaiser’. And he was satisfyingly anti-Christian — he stood for a kind of bitter, defiant paganism, the conviction that life is short and the gods are against you, which exactly fitted the prevailing mood of the young; and all in charming fragile verse that was composed almost entirely of words of one syllable.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Kafka's Old Office

a LitHub piece from last November...
At the beginning of November I found myself in Prague with enough loyalty points at the Accor Chain to get myself a room in a fancy hotel way out of my usual league. There was one particular room in one particular hotel that I had been eyeing for years and much to my amazement I found that it was available.
The hotel was the Sofitel Century Old Town and the room was the Franz Kafka Suite. The Century Old Town occupied the former Austro-Hungarian Workmen's Accident Insurance Institute and a second floor office of this building was the place where Kafka had toiled as a lawyer from 1908 - 1922. This office and the room behind it had been converted into the Kafka Suite.
Kafka’s childhood home was long gone but for Kafka fans like me it was incredibly thrilling that for enough cash or Accor Reward Points you could spend the night in his old office.
I checked into the Century Old Town at two o’clock on a brisk November Tuesday in Prague to find that the room was not quite ready. Housekeeping was doing a quick final vacuuming I was told and I was given a voucher for a free beer at the bar which suited me just fine.
When the room was all set I walked up the wide, restored nineteenth century stair-case and found myself outside the Franz Kafka Suite where a little plaque confirmed me that this was indeed Kafka’s actual place of work. I put the key card in and opened the door.
The first thing that confronted me inside the room itself was pitch blackness. The outer door closed behind me and rather like – I fancied –Gregor Samsa I too was trapped in a bourgeoisie hell of the indoors.
“Aha!” I thought, you need to find the little slot to put your card in to get the lights to come on. I fumbled around and I did find the slot, but when I inserted my card the blackness remained.
I began to feel a little buzz of excitement. The Kafka Suite was deliciously Kafkaesque already. What fresh thrills and terrors lay ahead? The exhilaration began to dissipate when I turned my phone light on and realized that I wasn’t in a fiendishly difficult psychological maze partly of my own making, no, I was in an ordinary hallway and there was a problem with the electricity.
After a bit more fumbling I discovered the fuse box and although everything was in Czech it was pretty obvious which circuit had been blown by the vacuum cleaner. I flipped the switch and hey presto the lights came back on.
Out of the hallway I discovered that the Kafka Suite was gorgeous. The back room contained a generously proportioned bed, a huge bath, a luxurious shower and dual washbasins. But the front of the suite was definitely where the action was. The front room was an enormous light filled chamber with a sofa, a dining table and a writing desk that looked out onto the street.
This had been Kafka’s actual writing office. He had mostly prepared legal briefs here (the book to read on this is Franz Kafka: The Office Writings edited by Stanley Corngold) but you could imagine him working on short stories and letters in his lunch break or doodling away at ideas in the margins of his jotter.
The room was minimalist and contemporary, painted a bright umber with a portrait of Kafka himself lying against the wall in one corner. There was a bookcase containing mostly French hardbacks by second tier novelists of the first half of the twentieth century, but there were also a few modern paperbacks as well presumably left there by previous guests. I had no qualms at all about leaving a copy of my novel Rain Dogs on a high shelf where hopefully it will remain unnoticed for years.
I unpacked, showered and then made a beeline for the writing desk. I had been to Prague as a student backpacker years ago so I wasn’t that interested in sight-seeing, rather, I had come here to work.
The theory of literary osmosis is dubious at best but for a writer it is hard to resist the lure of attempting to compose something in the place where great literary icons did their thing.
 I have tried this game before and it hasn’t exactly worked out. In the old British Museum Reading Room I found what was allegedly Karl Marx’s seat while I was studying philosophy at University College London. The Marxian seat didn’t help me at all with my essays which were uninspired and generally terrible. A couple of years later at Oxford I frequented the Eagle and Child pub where JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis used to read and write. The epic fantasy novel I began there mercifully disappeared into a crashed hard drive never to be retrieved. 
A few years after that in Paris I toiled as a plongeur during the day while spending my evenings at the Deux Magots café. I was trying to emulate Sartre, Camus and De Beauvoir’s philosophizing while drinking enormous bowls of coffee and attempting to smoke Gitanes; but all I got from that experience was a massive jittery headache and a hacking cough.  
My most notorious attempt at literary osmosis was in the piano bar of the Ambos Mundos hotel in Havana in 2008. For most of that year I’d had writer’s block and with a deadline looming I took the drastic step of flying to Havana via Mexico City so I could work in the place where Hemingway supposedly wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls. Maybe I too could write my magnum opus here I thought and initially things went quite well. I got a notepad and paper and the ideas flowed. Half a dozen mojitos later I was writing gibberish and after a couple more cuba libres and mojitos I was attempting to push the deft piano player off his stool so that I could give the well heeled clientele my version of All The Little Puffer Trains Down By The Station.
I wasn’t going to let that happen again. This time I was going to write at Kafka’s desk (sort of) in Kafka’s office over looking the bustling Na Porici Street.
The Kafka Suite had generously provided its visitors with paper, pens and a rather nice mechanical pencil.
I took out the pencil and a sheet of paper and stared at the blank page for a long, long time.
Then I did a little Kafka portrait in the corner of the page, then another little doodle of a cockroach. I did a pretty good drawing of myself scoring the winning goal in the World Cup Final. Then I went to the book shelf and tried to read Georges Bernanos’s Journal d'un curé de campagne for a bit but found it pretty hard to get into.
Back to the dreaded blank page. I wrote a couple of opening lines and crossed them out and got a fresh sheet of paper and stared at that for a while.
I looked through the window at the building opposite. This must have been Franz’s view when he was writing those bloody insurance reports. It was an attractive building and on the third floor there was a large, peculiar sheep bas relief highlighted in gold paint. If it was there back then Kafka must have stared at that sheep for hundreds of hours. He did in fact write one short story about a sheep: ‘A Crossbreed’ which is a story about an animal that is half-cat, half-sheep with odd eating habits and dietary restrictions. It’s not his best work if I’m honest.
The sheep did not inspire me. I wrote a spoof Raymond Chandler short story once set in Ireland called The Big Sheep. It wasn't a great story and The Big Sheep Part 2 didn’t seem like a very good idea.
Unlike a lot of fancy hotel rooms in the Kafka Suite it is possible to open the window and let the city smells and street noise come pouring in. I pulled a chair close to the window ledge and watched the trams, cars and tourists go by for a while. There were more tourists and cars than the Prague of a hundred years ago but I imagine the citizenry riding the #26 tram was much the same.
It began to get dark. I noticed a beer cellar across the street called La Republica. I found my laptop and Googled it and discovered that it served liter steins of Czech beer and pre war staples of Czech cuisine such as pork ribs, schnitzel and pretzels.
“Maybe I’ll just go over and have one stein and a pretzel and then I’ll come back and do some serious work,” I thought.
Unfortunately that decision put an end to the possibility of the McKinty Magnum Opus getting started in Kafka’s office, for La Republica was a very amenable beer cellar indeed. It was full of Irish people, one of whom, as is the way of such things, knew my sister.
I had a very good night with a bunch of new friends. The bar wasn’t that far away from the salon where Kafka, Max Brod and Albert Einstein used to hang out, booze and chat, so I think they would have approved. When I got back to the Kafka Suite I was in no fit state to write anything at all.
But eventually the room did stop spinning which was nice and I settled down in the enormous, ridiculously comfortable bed.

After a night of peculiar dreams I woke up next morning transformed into a middle aged bibliophile who had written nothing at all in Kafka’s room but who was maybe finally over his literary osmosis addiction and was sort of ok with that.

Friday, June 8, 2018

John Banville's Mrs Osmond

my review of the John Banville 'Henry James' novel from the newspaper, not a whole heartedly ringing endorsement I am sorry to say. And I don't quite know how I managed to bring Kill Bill into all of this...
Mrs Osmond by John Banville

When a writer turns to pastiche in the later stages of his career he is either paying a compliment to the muse that inspired him throughout the difficult times or else the poor soul has run completely out of ideas. What to make then of John Banville’s Mrs Osmond which is the second pastiche he has published in the last two and a half years? Banville’s previous effort, The Black-Eyed Blonde, was a journeyman-like sequel to the Raymond Chandler novel The Long Good-bye that although lacking Chandler’s gift for simile, did echo Chandler’s skill for characterization and occasional seat-of-your-pants plotting.  
            Mrs Osmond is a sequel to Henry James’s A Portrait of a Lady, a novel Banville has proclaimed in interviews to be the greatest example of the form in the English language.
            Portrait famously ends with the beautiful and brilliant Isabel Osmond (née Archer) realising that the spiteful Gilbert Osmond has married her for her money and that his long term mistress is Madame Merle. Isabel quits Rome after visiting Pansy, Osmond’s daughter, to comfort the dying Ralph Touchett in England, where she remains until his death. An unpleasant encounter with Caspar Goodwood forces her to flee again back to Rome. The reader is left in a delicious state of unknowing, pondering whether Isabel is returning to Osmond to live heroically for Pansy's sake or whether she is going to somehow rescue Pansy and leave Osmond.
            John Banville steps into the breach to tell us what he thinks happens next. We don’t, of course, immediately get the satisfying confrontation with Isabel’s dirtbag scrub of a husband Gilbert Osmond. Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait, Wilkie Collins observed and Banville first gives us something of a Bradshaw’s railway tour of fin de siècle Europe through France and Switzerland where Isabel meets various characters we encountered in the original. We meet again the charming Hildy Johnson prototype, Henrietta Stackpole, with her crazy ideas about freedom for women. The villainous Madame Merle shows up and the two Osmond women circle one another like sabre wielding duellists looking for an opening. We rendezvous with the terribly nice Edward Rosier, who pursued Pansy’s hand in marriage but who was turned down by her snobbish father. Isabel seeks out her sister-in-law, Countess Gemini who, in Portrait, revealed all about her brother, and we get another run in with the delightfully batty Mrs Touchett, Isabel’s aunt, who saved her from a life of genteel dullness in Massachusetts.
            Banville does a nice job building upon and enhancing these characters although the conversations don’t do a whole lot to forward the story. Banville has garnered much praise for imitating the prose, syntax  and page length paragraphs of Henry James. His homaging skills are indeed impressive and I doubt whether even a James scholar could tell the difference between a Banville description of a French railway carriage and the actual article.
            The dialogue is a little harder to swallow, for Banville often attempts a facsimile of Henry James’s ill judged attempts at wit. James’s genius clearly did not run to banter, although his admirers urge us to overlook this defect by explaining that humour does not age well. This defence is unconvincing as Portrait shares a decade with Oscar Wilde’s first plays, peak Mark Twain and Jerome K Jerome – all of whom remain laugh out loud funny. A Portrait of a Lady becomes a great novel once the gears have begun to turn and James stops malleting us with the stale jokes and ghastly repartee of its initial chapters. When Banville tries to replicate James’s jocularity the results are almost unbearably tedious.
            The wheels of Banville’s novel inevitably turn towards a revenge plot that many readers will find satisfactory. I was a little bit unconvinced by all of this and found the set to with Gilbert as anti climactic as the Bride’s meeting with Bill at the end of Kill Bill – a touchstone I’m not sure Banville or James would wholly approve of. However, this brings me to the larger point: the ending of A Portrait of a Lady was perfect as it was and when I finished Mrs Osmond I was left wondering why Banville had done all of this.
            The popular parody Twitter account @John_Banville imagines Banville, Colm Toibin and Roddy Doyle spitting at one another in a state of perpetual feud. After Colm Toibin published his best selling biographical Henry James novel, The Master, the @John_Banville account erupted in a jealous rage, claiming he could do better and sell more. The actual John Banville, I’m sure, had more lofty goals in mind but artistically Mrs Osmond doesn’t come close to The Master’s concentrated brilliance, psychological penetration or deep emotional resonance.
            Mrs Osmond however is not a total waste of everyone’s time. Banville is a professional and nothing in this book will unduly disturb a Henry James completest. Fans of the novel and the Nicole Kidman film might well enjoy this as a harmless entertainment. Mrs Osmond is competent, safe and reliably dull. I am with Gunter Grass here, it may be an arid book, but it is a book nonetheless and therefore sacred.
           The real psychic toll of Mrs Osmond will not be on the reader but will be on the author. As a Booker Prize Winner and perpetual longlistee for the Nobel Prize (another subject the @John_Banville parody account hilariously mocks) John Banville can petty much publish anything he wants now. We can only hope that something exciting happens to him in real life or else, no doubt, a disheveled, rosy-cheeked Molly Bloom shall arise from her linen sheets and be coming soon to a bookshop near you in a quality hardback edition. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Patient X

my review of the new David Peace novel Patient X from the Sydney Morning Herald

David Peace's new novel Patient X, his 10th, is a series of interlinked vignettes inspired by the life of Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the Japanese master of the short story who is best known in the West for Rashomon.

Akutagawa was born into a middle-class family in Tokyo in 1892, the youngest of three children. Great things were expected from the boy who was named Ryunosuke (Son of the Dragon) because he was born in the Year of the Dragon, in the Month of the Dragon, on the Day of the Dragon, and at the Hour of the Dragon. Heady stuff. Maybe too heady. Early in 1893 his mother began to lose her sanity and was confined in the family home until her death shortly after Akutagawa's 10th birthday.

Akutagawa was raised by two aunts who were mavens of the arts. He had tutors in English, Chinese and Japanese literature. He was a precocious writer of haiku and in his early 20s his stories attracted the praise of the most famous Japanese novelist of the day, Natsume Soseki. From then on a successful career in literature beckoned.

Sons of the Dragon, however, never have it so easy and while the newspapers and magazines clamoured for each new Akutagawa tale, his life began to fracture and he worried that he too was going mad. Sleep became difficult and characters from his stories began invading his daytime reveries.

The dividing line between the real and the unreal, between truth and fiction began to blur and this, of course, became grist for further fictions. At the age of 35, Akutagawa died from an overdose of his insomnia medicine.

You can see why a singular talent such as Peace would be attracted to this material. Peace, originally from Yorkshire, is a long-time resident of Japan and author of three crime novels set in post-war Tokyo. He is also the author of two biographical novels about the brilliant, eccentric English football managers Brian Clough and Bill Shankly, and this, his third biographical novel, shares unlikely thematic resonances with those two very English books.

Shankly, Clough and Akutagawa are single-minded in their pursuit of glory, they are all burdened with a vision that those around them cannot always see, they are all accused of arrogance and at the end, madness and melancholy begin to creep into all their stories.

Akutagawa is Patient X, a man intoxicated with words. Peace demonstrates this by blurring fiction and biography to give us stories of love, loss, religious allegory, fairytales, biographical vignettes and fables that map the territory between insanity, truth and lies.

My favourite story in the novel is recounted by Akutagawa's friend Soseki, who tells him the strange saga of his visit to England (Japan's lost twin island on the other side of the world) where, as a lonely student, he is befriended by a crazy artist (possibly Walter Sickert), who is almost certainly Jack The Ripper.

Peace's prose is always changing and this time there is a freer, more lyrical approach to the work and less use of his trademark leitmotif and repetition. But Patient X is still an ambitious, sometimes difficult book that rides the line between Peace's personal mythology and Akutagawa's often occult visions.

It is further proof, if proof were needed, that David Peace is one of Britain's (and the world's) most gifted and original novelists.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Americans - one final beat




I liked the season finale of The Americans but I felt that it could have ended with one final beat dealing with the Renee mystery. I realise and understand that the writers wanted to keep it ambiguous but, are my thoughts for a very short scene that cd come at the very end of the show. 


PAIGE is sitting alone in the safe house waiting for something or someone...

She can hear FOOTSTEPS outside the door.

She looks up.

The door opens.


                                   Oh, it's you.



Tuesday, May 29, 2018

My review of Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now from the Sydney Morning Herald

Enlightenment Now
Steven Pinker
Allen Lane, $35
Those of us of a certain age will remember with affection Ian Dury's hit Reasons to Be Cheerful Part 3 that came along at the dog end of the economically depressed 1970s. Dury's list of things to be happy about included rock 'n' roll, Elvis, porridge oats and the smallpox vaccine.
Enlightenment Now continues Steven Pinker's pursuit of an optimistic view of human progress.
Enlightenment Now continues Steven Pinker's pursuit of an optimistic view of human progress.
Photo: Supplied
Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now is a 556-page update of Dury's list. Elvis and rock 'n' roll don't quite make Pinker's cut but the smallpox vaccine and porridge oats (sort of) do. This is Pinker's second book-length venture into the territory of Pollyanna Whittier and Dr Pangloss, his first, The Better Angels of Our Nature, was a skilful argument against intuitional thinking on the endemic nature of violence and war; in fact, Pinker showed that violence has been declining since at least the Middle Ages and probably since the Paleolithic and we are living now in the least violent age human history has ever known.
The first part of Pinker's new book deals with the objections that were raised to his last. He dismisses his critics as woolly-headed philosophers and social scientists who clearly don't have the maths skills to read a simple bar chart. Those readers still foolish enough to resist Pinker's new and improved Whig interpretation of history are deemed to have "progressophobia".
As the book continues, Pinker explains why everything else on Earth is getting better too. This is where porridge oats and smallpox come in. Again, in a series of very impressive, well-researched and well-presented statistics, Pinker demonstrates how we are winning the war against infant mortality, infectious diseases and famine. Pinker is absolutely right about this and only a foolish contrarian could argue otherwise.
In the 18th century the grim cleric Thomas Malthus argued that saving people from disease would only mean that they would die later from famine, but Pinker explains how the Green Revolution and improved chemical fertilisers have virtually ended famine in the First and even the Third World.
Pinker wants to show us that absolutely everything is better now than the "good old days" and, at least to me, his arguments become less convincing as he delves into the more esoteric subjects of "happiness", "quality of life", "the environment", "existential threats" and "inequality". Pinker is a very intelligent guy but in a book this broad you would need to be an expert in a dozen different disciplines to avoid making blunders and he is clearly not as well read as he might like to be in either economics, ethics or philosophy.
In his chapter on "inequality", for example, he dismisses the notion that the rich get richer at the expense of the poor by updating Robert Nozick's famous "Wilt Chamberlain thought experiment" to examine the bank account of J.K. Rowling. He explains that Rowling's wealth comes purely from the collective free choices of less wealthy people buying her books and thus everyone is better off. Pinker seems to be completely unaware that the Wilt Chamberlain thought experiment has been challenged and debunked many times since the 1970s, most notably by the philosopher G.A. Cohen, who argues that people such as Chamberlain (and Rowling) could not have become rich without an entire system in place to facilitate their good fortune and it's this system that has clearly generated vast inequalities of wealth and power.
More alarmingly, Pinker is not much worried that World War III could be a species-ending event, nor is he concerned about climate change: "humans are smart, we'll figure something out", seems to be his frighteningly glib response.
The overall effect of this book can be a little exhausting and I wonder if it really adds much to the burgeoning optimism genre that includes Pinker's earlier title, Peter Diamandis' Abundance and Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist.
I mostly enjoyed Enlightenment Now and it is a useful corrective for those doom-mongers down the pub who tell you that everything is going to the dogs. It isn't. Most things are getting better and Pinker has the stats to prove it. Pinker's hero is the charismatic late Swedish health statistician Hans Rosling, whose TED talks have electrified millions of people. Pinker urges us to look up Rosling on YouTube and if you want to feel less depressed about the future you should definitely do that or you could buy this agreeable and readable book, or you could just give Reasons To Be Cheerful another spin instead.
Adrian McKinty is the author of the Sean Duffy books (published by Serpent's Tail).

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Five Meetings With Philip Roth

From September 1993 – January 1995 I worked in the fiction section of the Barnes and Noble at 82nd and Broadway on the Upper West Side of New York. There were quite a few authors who lived in that neighbourhood in that time but the one I remember most vividly is Philip Roth whom I met five times in the mundane capacity of book seller and customer. According to my journal this is how those encounters went. Warning – mundane is the operative word here.

1. My friend Scott tells me that Philip Roth is at the Information Desk. We approach and ask if he needs any help. He asks if either of us is the manager. We say no. He asks if there’s a policy about which books get “faced out” on the shelves and which books are placed there spine only. We say there is no such policy and Scott asks if he would like his books to be faced out? He says that we must be mind readers. We face out all the Philip Roth books and Roth grins like we've pulled off a heist or something which is charming. 

2. Philip Roth comes in and asks me if we carry A Dead Man In Deptford by Anthony Burgess. We certainly do I tell him but when I look on the shelves it’s not there. I offer to special order it for him but he declines. He stands there awkwardly for a few seconds and I tell him that a lot of people have been buying Operation Shylock. He thinks I’m pulling his leg but I’m not, it’s been selling really well. Roth seems pleased about this. Scott tells me later that John Updike (Roth’s friend) gave it a bad review in the New Yorker and this (the Upper West Side) is the heart of New Yorker reading country.

3. Roth is talking to a friend of mine in the art department about what happened on Christmas Eve. A woman died in a chair and sat there the whole day dead un-noticed until she was ice cold. I sidle into the conversation and add the macabre detail that they threw a sheet over her and kept selling books (it was the busiest night of the year) until the paramedics came to take her away. 

4. Philip Roth is hanging around the display book table I have set up for St Patrick’s Day. I ask him if he’s interested in any of the books. He asks me if I’ve read Samuel Beckett’s A Dream of Fair to Middling Women. I say that I have. He asks me how it was and I tell him it was ok. He nods dubiously and does not buy it. I wonder if he ever met Samuel Beckett and I want to ask him but I can't summon up the bottle to do it. He drifts away and I curse myself. 

5. Philip Roth has an appointment to see my manager about an event. She’s late because she’s in the ladies room pumping her breasts. I explain this to him. He seems amazed by this information and asks how the breast pump works. I tell him I have no idea. He asks several more questions about the breast pump but I’m unable to answer any of them. (For the next five years or so I scan every new Philip Roth novel for a breast pumping scene but I don’t find one.)