The Next Big Thing – Splendor

Freelance writer, editor and soon-to-be-published novelist Kirsten Krauth recently tagged me for the “next big thing” meme that has been doing the rounds of Australian literary blog-types.

Ah. Meme. That’s a word that takes me back to the days of Dreamweaver (I was never hardcore enough to handcode) and learning Director. Yes, there was a time when we thought cd-rom was going to be the new standard for digital writing. Daggy words like hypertext, interactive and digerati come to mind, though I still think Linda Carroli‘s pretty rad. The Oughties seem as long ago as the Nineties, in some ways.

Meme was pretty hip as a term then for the viral spread of cool_shit. So meme me up, Scotty.

The brag of “the next big thing” is that I gets to tell you what I’m working on, all bright and shiny and new. Not to me, of course. Working on Splendor is like looking at a Mona Lisa tea-towel I’ve been washing up with through fifteen years of share houses. It’s a good tea-towel so I’m not going to stop using it, but I don’t talk about it much.

1) What is the working title of your current/next book?
Splendor. This is not quite splendor in the modern sense (nor an 80s sugar substitute, though that always pops into my head) – it’s more than magnificence. The title is a reference to the medieval painter’s understanding of optics and the multiplication of light from a gilded object. Before artists wanted to paint people they painted the divine, and that meant MAJOR bling.

2) Where did the idea come from?
I took a pain-in-the-arse journey in the freezing cold in 1997 to see the cycle of St Helen by Piero della Francesca and discovered why you should never travel Italy in winter. It was closed for restoration. In a little church down the street I was completely blown away by a work by a medieval artist I had only vaguely heard of, named Cimabue. He’s a bit of a phantom – his surviving works are few and mostly wrecked. The crucifix in question was grimy and poorly lit (since restored) but it was poppingly different to everything else of its era. A gruesome, dead body hung there, flesh hanging away from the bones of his face. I discovered later that Francis Bacon admired Cimabue and you can see why – the expressiveness of his work was completely new.

So that led me to ask the questions how and why – what would make a painter step away from his taught traditions, when no one ever had before? And how could he and did he develop a new method of putting paint on, and more mysteriously, seeing? Painters were about as innovative as bookbinders, and painting was considered a grunt craft, very lowly. Cimabue painted a long time before the rockstars of the Renaissance – the concept of the individual was barely nascent in his age. I considered what kind of a man Cimabue might have been, and where he would have come from. And then I had to find a way to write about painting that wasn’t about seeing but experience.

3) What genre does your book fall under?
Literary historical fiction with a dash of meta.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

I don’t know about filmability, though The English Patient used the frescoes by Piero that I managed to miss seeing at Arezzo in 1997 to swoon-worthy effect.

brightstar43 The modern-day protagonist (the book has a split timeframe) Pan needs to be sweet enough to attract trouble but also bookish – Abbie Cornish seems perfect.

Cimabue I can only see as one actor – leonine, capable of great quietude but with a chef’s temper. Javier Bardem. bardemHis looks don’t hurt either.




5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
A woman whose hands tell her secrets, her obsession with a medieval painter, and the hunt to find him.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
An agency is my preference. Now that I’ve found out the next Dan Brown is on Dante; they’ll be knocking my door down, right?

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft?
Er. Coming up on twelve years. In my own defence there has been a lot of life, and another novel, in the interim.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
Probably a little bit Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring tupped by Peter Robb’s M, then reputation restored by Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Once I started digging, the circumstances of Cimabue’s work, and his time were just too good NOT to write a book. He’s thought to have been master to Giotto, was contemporary with the first flush of poetry that made Italy great (Dante, Cavalcanti etc), and right there on the biggest art commission of the epoch – the church of St Francis at Assisi.

This might not seem so sexy but St Francis was popular beyond what I can describe – imagine him in Who magazine every week for a hundred years. Canonized almost immediately when he died, an unstoppable wave of people devoted themselves to his philosophy and example, and his order commissioned art of great beauty in huge quantities. He was a cult figure who inspired people to incredible change. And Cimabue was the first artist given the job of decorating the place where the body of the saint lay. Ka-ching!

It’s also set just before the plague hits Italy, which is nice.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
Like Thackeray’s Barry Lyndon, it’s a good tale because it’s a rise and fall. The historical Cimabue was a victim of his own success. His experiments with paint meant lots of his work went black, and his pupil Giotto became so stratospherically famous in a generation that his teacher was utterly eclipsed. Cimabue soared, he crashed, and Dante wrote him into the circle of purgatory with the prideful. But his last works are very beautiful; he’d learnt a lot.

Pan thinks she’s pretty damn special too, hunting Cimabue down like some maven looking for rare vinyl. She has a gift that takes her beyond the norm, a supernatural version of “the eye”, as art connoisseurship is known. She sees things in art that are hidden to most people but still manages to be a total donkey about life as it is lived. She might learn to leave the historical record alone for a damn minute and find some fulfillment in the present. She’s due for some falling of her own, via misplaced pride, lust and falling for flattery. Isn’t that what your twenties are for?

Hand of Christ, Crucifix of San Domenico, Arezzo. Cimabue

Hand of Christ, Crucifix of San Domenico, Arezzo. Cimabue

But that’s not where this meme-y thing ends, oh no. You’ve got to go and visit some other writers that will put you ahead of the curve like a steamboat dinner party in the 1970s. Rat-tail hair in 1982. You get it. This is a slight problem as my personal reading of the last year has been mostly on the contemplation of God in the 1280s – and I’m not pointing you in that direction, because I like you.

Still, I do heartily recommend you visit:
Jon Bauer – compelling, likeable writing, no sorry, just a momentary lapse, actually dystopian and creepy in the best Russell Hoban manner. Current works may induce paranoia similar to that Northern Lights stuff I got given in Amsterdam but you’ve been warned and that’s not going to stop you from trying it.

Tim Denoon – Tim and I had the good fortune to go to Varuna, where lucky authors go to be fattened, in 2011. He’s writing something very good. George Saunders via Chesterton with a touch of Sedaris? Or just Denoonian?

Tom Cho (who won’t be meme-ing his project because he’s gallivanting the world writing it) but his collection Look Who’s Morphing is satire worthy of Swift if Swift watched a lot of PopAsia and liked eating Haw Flakes. His current project is deep, but he’ll flash-fry the philosophy to make it tasty.

Marguerite Yourcenar. She’s not local. She’s not even alive. But she’s given me the most profound reading pleasure and philosophical food in the last two years. She was dead before memes were invented but you should read her. Essays, novels, memoirs. All stellar.


Review: Lives

LivesLives by Peter Robb
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A thoroughly enjoyable faggot of thoughts and musings from Robb, some falling more towards the journalism end of interview and observation (more declamatory and crisp in tone) and others dreamier, or happy to gorge on the author’s particular obsessions. The range of its concerns follows the author’s commissions and experience – the cultural cringe an irrelevancy. Robb writes about what he likes.

I loved his visit to the “lost” Caravaggios exhibited together in Naples for the first time – his breathless excitement at seeing properly rare pictures that obsessed him and his tumbling out what he could puzzle from them, slotting their hints into the large body of his insights on that artist – gleaned with such intensity that he alarmed the guards and was escorted away. Also his dissection of the crossed swords of academe in relation to scholarship on Caravaggio, starring Roberto Longhi.

Robb is not afraid to show us himself craven in a horrible apartment in the Cross, pissing off Gore Vidal, exploring queerness without the slightest hesitation of opinion, or his bare, breeze-on-flesh pleasure of a lotus-eating retreat in Brazil.

I never quite escaped my consciousness of Robb controlling his presentation of self – he is always clever, always, always, grasping what is going on – that sureness of his opinion at times was too impervious. Occasionally I wanted that large, brainy head of his not to be glinting across the table from me at the dinner party. He might get up from the table and let his words alone give me a rest.

The only time I felt the urgency of his need to master understanding it all waver was in his interview with Marcia Langton, whom Robb has known for a long time and with whom he shares a powerful frisson. You sense his awe of her and the wound of her chastisement of him when she rips him a new arsehole in public, while out for dinner.

I do know one of his interview subjects (or I did, fifteen years ago – the piece is fairly old too) and I can’t say I think it very characteristic of her. But it doesn’t make me like this book less. And like all essayists, it’s a pleasure to dip into and read over time.

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Lesser known Masterpieces of Literary Smut

For those who understand the appeal of learning things from books. You probably won’t find them arousing, but they do engorge the mind.

  • The Devil in the Flesh by Raymond Radigeut
    – a highly sexed teen beats a path through provincial pubic hair.
  • The White Hotel by D.H. Thomas
    – First wave psychoanalysis, prophecy and the erotics of death. I should point out that this book will sear your brain like a grill pan.
  • Against Nature (À Rebours) by Joris-Karl Huysmans
    – the corrupting novel mentioned obliquely by Wilde in Dorian Gray. Zola hated it; only a good thing.
  • The Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille
    – the Surrealists ended up being too staid for Bataille. Watersports, peeled eggs, saucepans. Do the math.
  • Ice by Anna Kavan
    – not conventionally erotic but hauntingly sadistic and compelling. Woman and man in pursuit of each other, a world encroached by ice, a prisoner escaping her jailer.The ice is encroaching global winter but also the white powder Kavan couldn’t do without.
  • The Fermata, Vox, and House of Holes by Nicholson Baker.
    – I haven’t read HoH yet but The Fermata manages to be both comedic and titillating, a tricky combo. Filth as satire.
  • A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter
    – an affair so tightly written and flawless, you’re intruding. Heartless, pellucid voyeurism.
  • Casanova’s autobiography
    – go for the abridged version. Terrifying cures for the pox.
  • Benevenuto Cellini’s autobiography
    – surfing the alpha juice of the Damien Hirst of his era.
  • Fanny Hill by John Cleland
    – quintessentially English in preoccupations.
  • The Naked Civil Servant by Quentin Crisp
    – Crisp only had sex to be polite, but he makes the blackout sound like a romp.
  • James Joyce’s letters to Nora Barnacle
    – Joyce has coprophagic fantasies. Just saying. Also, his side of the correspondence is all that survives so another instance of bloody writers hogging the spotlight.
  • Junkie and Naked Lunch by William S Burroughs
    – the junk is ‘sposed to make you uninterested in sinking your spunk but Old Bill was a man of appetites, despite vampiric appearance.
  • Most things by JG Ballard
    – somehow I get a film by Michael Mann running in my head when I read Ballard. As sheened and distant as a Hajime Sorayama prOnbot.

Books that are not recommended

  • The Thousand and One Days of Sodom by Marquis de Sade. Very, very repetitive.
  • American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis – do not go here looking for squirmy fun. Satire that looks into the black heart of man, yes.

Essential primers for a woman in search of cautionary tales of faux-empowerment

And if you’re looking for some fine Australian literary erotica? Linda Jaivan has a ball taking the po-face out of poking in pretty much all her fiction. Chris Flynn over at Overland also has a few fine suggestions.

P0*n before pr0n

'Mary Van Rensselaer Buell (1893-1969), sitting in lab with microscope, reading paper' photo (c) 2009, Smithsonian Institution - license: reboot of fan fiction as mainstream hard copy books isn’t new, but a welcome return to prominence for the dirty book.

Fan fiction is web-based writing of untrammelled relish utilising pop tropes, star crushes and further-plotted continuations of classic literature and cult TV. ‘Slash’ is the sticky end of fan fiction, as in, two pages stuck together. There’s a lot of it online. And being online, it sidesteps the discomfort of what used to be considered, in the quainter idiom of a time before vajazzling, a brown-paper book. A book you might not want others to see you reading.

Call it generational but pornography for me has always been written. When I was a teen I moved straight from Judy Blume to the complete works of Nancy Friday, who complied interviews and letters solicited from the women of America regarding their sex fantasies. I skipped Nancy’s febrile analysis of what the scenarios meant, but I greatly admired her categorisation. The fantasies in those books were touchingly baroque, revealing the individual supposedly anonymous behind the sex.

The formation of sexual taste is linked with powerful forces. What happened on your own when you were ten, waking from a vision of a teacher that infused you with incandescent joy. Or something you saw when too young that was inscrutable to you but made your blood thump. Many things could be grist to the mill. The blossoming of preference into peccadillo seemed to be linked with recapturing a certain feeling, an elusive sensation not always directly erotic.

As a fairly late virgin of bookish disposition, reading was an indispensable aspect of my sexual education. Legendary groupie Pamela Des Barres taught me a few things, including why one shouldn’t be Pamela Des Barres.

In Xaviera Hollander’s The Happy Hooker I recall a client, a Holocaust survivor, who required service involved Hollander donning a Nazi trench coat, re-enacting an abuse he had suffered in a camp at the hands of a female guard. I was pretty pure when I read that book but I thought about that man for a long time. Hollander wrote precisely about opening the hall closet where he kept his coats, overwhelmed by the smell of decaying rubber. That detail drew back the curtain on the orgy, so to speak. It suggested sex might be more nuanced, sad or therapeutic than I had imagined from Shirley Conran’s Lace.

I read all the literary dirty books I could find and discovered that most of them were in fact, not that sordid. They were full of inquiry on the nature of relationships; sex as an aspect of being human. Using the SBS principle that kink was always better in another language, usually French, I started with Anaïs Nin (florid and neurotic), George Bataille (surrealistic sex with eggs, watersports) and moved on to the louche afternoon pleasures of Radigeut and Huysmans. After that there was no stopping me. I preferred the ‘classics’ (Salter, Burroughs, the letters of James Joyce to Nora Barnacle) but had a go at modern stuff like Anne Rice’s fairytale raunch (about to be re-issued) and Nicholson Baker. The nineties was a good era for a sexy book. Perhaps it’s something about recession.

So what’s the appeal of the dirty book without pictures? Insertion. The surfaces of porn movies are impermeable, despite the efforts of women like Candida Royale to make them more inclusive. Porn stars are not you. Their appearance is so uniform as to be prosthetic. These are people whose line of work means they have to groom their anuses. But written smut is another matter. It gives you ideas. You are in the middle of those ideas. If something takes your fancy but isn’t quite to taste, well, it’s in your head now. Play it another way.

It’s safe for work. It’s safe (and how grateful I was for this) for the Sunday morning church pew. Being a reader and developing an extensive mental library of masturbatory material got me through being an overweight teenager with the usual range of problems. I loved to read that stuff. I liked what my body could do and I trusted it, despite the external messages I was being given. I may have been careful about who knew about it, but me and my right hand were just fine.

Which is why dirty books will always be superior to cinematic porn or the DIY skinfest of the internet. They just fit better in one hand than a Kindle. And they don’t fritz out if they happen to slide to the floor.

Review: Bumble-Ardy

Bumble-ArdyBumble-Ardy by Maurice Sendak
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Ok, vale and all that…

I can’t really escape the voice of Carole King singing “Chicken Soup with Rice” when I think of Sendak so he gets a big free pass. To say nothing of beautiful nude Mickey.

I have quite a lot of lesser Sendak. To wit:
“No Fighting, No Biting”
“The Nutcracker”
“A Hole is to Dig”.

I have to say that as an author he’s an excellent illustrator.

This was barely cogent. And SWEET JESUS these illustrations are not for children. The animals that come to party with the eponymous pig are completely freaking terrifying.

Think James Ensor.
Think the black death scenes from Herzog’s Nosferatu.
Think the worst cheese dream you’ve ever had. Roquefort level.

The pictures are compelling in the same way those German Carnival heads suck out your eyeballs with their evocation of the Gnostic hovering presence of Death. I mean, archetype au go go.

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Review – How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive

How to Keep Your Volkswagen AliveHow to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive by Christopher Boucher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel was a breakfast grapefruit – sour, refreshing, occasionally squirting me the eye with acid. All good things, like that underrated start to the culinary day.

I should first disclose that I am writing this review codeined to the eyeballs and on deadline for something else. It gives it a frantic and digressive edge.

After reading so much fictive bilgewater, ersatz Balzac so removed from the original style of heaving bosoms and toothsome dramatics, as to have entirely forgotten its progenitor…books that were foggy, like a remnant word maimed and altered in meaning until it grates to even hear it (discreet/discrete is my current bugbear) this read GREAT.

David Shield’s Reality Hunger is a good reference point here – I refer you to Buck’s excellent review and attendant discussion thread.

Boucher has written a novel that complements all Shield’s bravura epigrams on the dead dead dead state of traditional storytelling, on the actual form of the novel, and pleaded for alternatives. THIS BOOK IS A REPLACEMENT. An improvement. Zesty.

So, how to describe it without releasing small rodents that knaw at your brain with academic snoozery and make you run screaming, oh book-lover that likes things to, you know, mean something? Something definable. As opposed to applying all those prisms of theory which shatter meaning into a thousand bad copies of the cover of Dark Side of the Moon? Ah. More difficult.

The unnamed narrator has sold everything. His name, his possessions, his stories, hocked the lot. To buy time-as-money, the currency of Boucher’s alternative version of Western Massachusetts. He needs the money because of health-care issues (Oh, the terror of being sick in the US. For smug bastards with national healthcare like me it’s like contemplating the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg. You know you will never come out. At least, not as you.)

He has sold it because he has a sick child. His child is a 1971 Volkswagen who runs on stories and requires careful maintenance of his sufferoil, his memorycoil, his unique engineheart. Got that?

You can make a stone-cold analysis of what Boucher is doing here – the alternating chapters of cutesy-hippie lingo in the second person, a faked manual explaining the tao of his strange car (as a former Peugeot owner I know how French things can get). Then a first person patchwork memoir of the narrator, a hack storyteller and misanthrope to whom success is a foreign country. Possessor of a black-belt in self-sabotage, inventor of ghosted persons and mis-remembered histories. His former girlfriends are trapped inside formalist conceits.

It’s a novel of augmentation; of accumulated, startling detail.

Does it sound annoying? A little, but less than you’d think. The dialogue is cracking, and Boucher controls perfectly the balance between the recognisable whims and failings of his protagonist and the otherness of his version of Western Massachusetts, where sentient objects abound, police are CityDogs, and trees regularly are involved in homicides, attacking people’s to eat their hearts.

Themes? The act of writing, more specifically the life of a freelance writer, of writing for money, on spec. Heartlessly. Also, parenthood. Death. Dickheads who won’t grow up, who construct elaborate fantasies to avoid responsibilities of any kind.

I had enormous admiration for the control of this book and the complete and unerring conviction of its vision. It’s the new new fiction, all right. It was also piss funny.

And yet I have a niggling suspicion. Like a few of those writers under-40 sainted by The New Yorker last year (Karen Russell I’m looking at you) I worry that along with fixies, Pancho facial hair and the bad-craft mania gripping women who should know better, the sentimental sweetness, Gen-X nostalgia, is going to date pretty quick.

The thing about grapefruit at breakfast is it needs brown sugar. Boucher has used a little much. At times the tweeness made my fillings hurt. I know why he did it – there’s some heavy stuff going down in Western Massachusetts, but it seemed a little spooked. Like he pulled back from how dark it should have been.

I love post-modernism. I know, kick me. So unfashionable. It seems clear to me that what Boucher and his kind are doing is essentially post-modernism á la Portlandia. It’s good. It’s whipcrack clever. It’s just not as new as it seems on first read.

Put a bird on it.

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How to justify the state of my shed

“Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories. More than that: the chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books. For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?”

– Walter Benjamin, from “Unpacking My Library” in Illuminations