Sunday, April 29, 2007

Books and Films: In Brief

Having determined to see a film in the German Film Festival, I went to see Grave Decisions (Wer Früher Stirbt, Ist Länger Tot), a cute and sometimes fantastic story about death and immortality, which follows Sebastian, a mischievous eleven year old boy whose discovery that he 'caused' his mother's death in childbirth kicks off a quest for immortality, with various misadventures along the way... while it was a fluffy comedy, it was beautifully made, well acted, funny, and, in the way that European comedies can be, lighthearted without being irritating or cliched (the tone, though not the subject matter, reminded me of The Closet and similar films).

And, since the pile of books I've read without having had the chance or the time to review is growing out of control, I thought I'd just do a quick roundup here.

John Lanchester - Mr. Phillips (2000)
I loved Lanchester's The Debt To Pleasure, so I approached MP apprehensively - but while it doesn't have the same refined nastiness which is one of my favourite things in a novel, it's still worthwhile. The story follows the eponymous accountant, who, rather than going to work, spends a day wandering around London, thinking about sex, and quantifying everything, while stumbling into various more and less dramatic situations. Lanchester has a gift for knifesharp observation of the minutiae of everyday reality which is apparent here - and the very English tone of the work, its workmanlike but Larkinesque language, the exploration of the bleak and sordid without being depressing, and of London as an environment - made it both an easy and an interesting read.

Maurice Gee - The Halfmen of O (1982)
Not, as you may think, a children's version of The Story of O - I seemed to remember this book from my childhood - but, sadly, it doesn't live up to the work of the New Zealand children's fantasy author who I most think of when I think of childhood reading, Margaret Mahy. It's not a bad work, but not entirely gripping - and the premise is problematic: that, in an alternate world, an act of power hungriness has divided human beings into those who are purely good and those who are purely evil. Not terrible, but disappointing.

Hilary Mantel - Vacant Possession (1986)
I love Bernice Rubens and Alice Thomas Ellis, so to complete the square of politely dark and nasty Thatcher-era English comedies of manners I needed Beryl Bainbridge, and Hilary Mantel. Vacant Possession is the story of Muriel Axon, unhinged and just released into society as part of the era of de-institutionalisation - with dangerous consequences for those with whom her former life had become entangled: Colin Sidney and Isabel Field. This novel is very much concerned with class, and no class avoids a satirical serve from Mantel's poison pen; its other concern is the nature of intimate relationships. I enjoyed the novel, though not as much as I do either Ellis or Rubens - and it gained momentum as the story unfolded and events folded together - my main criticism was the ending - I wasn't sure if it was intentionally ambiguous, or if my intellect wasn't up to understanding what had happened. Still, very much my kind of thing, and recommended to those who share my literary proclivities.

Catharine Arnold - Necropolis: London and its Dead (2006)
This work takes us through burial practice in London, from the earliest records to the present day. For the most part, however, we find ourselves in the pre-Victorian and Victorian eras, exploring a growing cultural obsession with death and burial and changes in discourse around these issues - and the gruesome consequences of the burgeoning field of medicine, and of the massive disparities in wealth which meant that the rich had a black couch and eight while the poor were thrown into huge, open mass graves to decay. Arnold's writing isn't perfect, which sometimes bogs down the narrative. However, her subject matter is easily interesting enough to hold the work, and to hold the reader's interest. A fascinating work of cultural history which not only explores the enthralling intricacies and historical trivia of death and dying, physically and culturally, but which also has a great deal to tell us about the more general nature of societies through its exploration of its subject.

Hubert Selby Jr. - Last Exit To Brooklyn (1964)
I hadn't read Selby, as I'd classed him, along with Bukowski and the Beats, as one of those substance-addled, masculinist chroniclers of alternative life who have little to offer anyone except the adolescent, or mentally adolescent, male. How wrong I was! While I often like my darkness with lashings of the fantastic, rather than grimy reality, that's been changing over the last few years with my growing interest in figures like Jean Genet, Lydia Lunch, and now Selby. The book is a series of connected stories, sometimes vignettes, treating the seamy sexual, narcotic, criminal underside of life in Brooklyn in the forties and fifties through a series of characters. The writing is absolutely gorgeous, spare but poetic, as is the dialogue and observation - and I must say, if it wasn't for this, the depressing and awful nature of the lives depicted would have had me closing the book long before. This is a work which in one sense is entirely located historically, but in another is still entirely relevant to and reflective of the dark underbelly of civil society - in particular, how its outcasts inflict their pain upon each other. It still reads like a paean, an indictment, and a slap in the face. I'll be reading more Selby - when I'm emotionally recovered.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

John Kennedy Toole - The Neon Bible (wr. 1953; pub. 1989)

Before being given this book, I hadn't realised that John Kennedy Toole, who killed himself at the age of thirty-two, had produced anything other than the wonderful, rollicking black satire A Confederacy of Dunces; and the story behind the publication of that work (due entirely to the persistent efforts of Toole's mother, Thelma, after his death) seemed astonishing enough. In some ways, the publication of The Neon Bible was even more unlikely. Written when the author was only sixteen and located after the wildly succesful publication of Confederacy, due to a complicated but somehow appropriate set of legal circumstances stemming from the oddities of Lousianan inheritance law, Thelma Toole attempted, succesfully during her lifetime, to stop the publication of the work. We have reason, however, to be grateful that she was ultimately unsuccesful.

This is an entirely different work to Confederacy, and one which will not appeal to everyone who enjoyed that novel. It is in a certain sense a classic example of the American outsider bildungsroman, following the development of its protagonist, David, in a small Louisiana town in the period preceding, during and after the Second World War.

In the first place, it's astonishing to consider that this is the work of a sixteen year old. While at times this is clearer than others (for example, in the hasty, out-of-character, and temporally overconvenient events leading to the end of the book and David's departure from the town), overall it displays an emotional maturity and a use of language which bely the author's youth. To me, the work didn't have the narrative pull of Confederacy; but it's more of an exploration than a story, a work in which the town itself is a character in the same way that New Orleans is in Confederacy, and in the classic American tradition of the centrality of geographical location in fiction. This may also be understood as one reason for the novel's sombre tone; as in Confederacy, we are concerned with outsiders, the way in which they deal with their status as such through complex and shifting alliances and acts of acceptance and rebellion - and to be an outsider in a small town is a very different question from being an outsider in a big city. The depiction of the torments and vicissitudes of this life are moving without becoming a litany of cruelties in the manner of more recent 'loser literature'.

In its exploration of small town hypocrisy and the stifling of the individual and the outsider, particularly as regards Christianity, and in its quasi-gothic sense of place and spare, stilted, yet still eloquent language, TNB reminded me of works from Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood to Nick Cave's And the Ass Saw The Angel. The other great strength of the work, to my mind, is the character of Aunt Mae who, like the central characters in Confederacy, is a creation who lives and breathes in the imagination of the reader beyond the confines of the novel itself.

Overall, while it is evident that this is the work of a writer in the process of formation, it is a better book than many written by succesful adult authors; and one which can be given interesting multiple readings, both in light of Toole's life and Confederacy, and in the tradition of the obsessions of the American novel.

Monday, April 9, 2007

The Scientists + Howard Arkley

The Scientists rocked my socks on Saturday night - I got my three favourite songs (Set It On Fire, Swampland, This Is My Happy Hour) plus an impressive, blistering We Had Love. Quite a contrast from the last time I saw Kim Salmon, as part of The Darling Downs (with Ron Peno of Died Pretty)... they seemed to have acquired a non-original drummer who, despite her chissenefrega air, gave the music the irresistible tribal repetition which it works on - and Salmon himself was in fine form both as vocalist and guitarist.

I also headed to the Howard Arkley exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales today. Arkley's work was panned by John McDonald in this weekend's Spectrum for being formally awful (Arkley claimed that there was no irony or kitsch present in his work, either in his choice of subject or colour) - but I thought there was more to understand here, particularly considering that, since the death of the author, we needn't be guided by the way the artist intended her/his work to be read (and Arkley sounds like a typical, if amusing, tortured artist - McDonald retails the story of how, at the only major exhibition of his work during his lifetime, he signed catalogues at $25 a pop til he had enough for a fix, and promptly disappeared. He would, of course, die of an overdose).

I love Arkley's day-glo colours, his hyper-real airbrushed depictions of suburbia with their vague air of the sinister and the contrast between the airbrushing, which gives them an opacity belying the fact that they're painted on canvas, and the sharp relief of the wallpaper and pop art patterns he uses, so reminiscent of your auntie's parlour and of Liechtenstein (and there is a derivative element here, which doesn't necessarily undercut the work, to my mind at least). The earlier works, and those from just before his death in 1999, don't necessarily have the strength of the classic period, although there's a beautifully day-glo picture of the junkie's shot, so different to the usual and understandable darkness in which the subject is wreathed, and a striking portrait of Nick Cave... and I'm always interested to see suburbia taken as an ambiguous subject, without the old cliche of suburban utopia or the new cliche of the darkness that utopia hides (in the Australian context we might also think, as McDonald did, of John Brack) - one wonders whether Arkley cunningly anticipated the shiny consumer dream of the McMansion now being realised everywhere at such great cost.

Perhaps, also, this work, which transforms the physical moments of suburbia into something garishly gorgeous is speaking to me at the moment for other reasons - the joy that I'm taking in suburban moments, and in colour, the vivid green of bus-stop weeds, the electric artificiality of traffic lights, the oilslick purples and greens on the wing of the crested pigeons which my mother feeds on her balcony. And this is something which I've painstakingly created myself over the past months; but which also owes a debt to another presence, of which I won't mention anything more here, except to say thank you.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Pet Shop Boys + Jarvis Cocker + The Pixies + V Festival

It's been a gruelling two weeks of gigs, to which I have subjected myself in the name of edification and the pursuit of musical knowledge.

The unquestionable highlight was the Pet Shop Boys last night at the Hordern. I haven't been to the Hordern since my teens, but it's still more or less as I remember it - and since I was there with an absolute fanatic, I turned up at seven to get a place centre front, just behind the barrier. Now this, gentle reader, is something I don't usually do at gigs, because if there's one thing that makes me unable to concentrate on watching a band it's fear for my physical safety - but Pet Shop Boys didn't seem like it'd be that kind of environment, and it wasn't (now if only I could do something about all the people with cameras - whatever happened to good old fashioned memory?). They certainly know how to put on a show, complete with dancers, backup singers featuring the formidable diva Sylvia Mason-James, and even a giant dancing top hat to, ahem, top it all off. The thing the Pet Shop Boys do so well, and which few other bands manage, is the transition between the sublime and the ridiculous, between deep, heartfelt emotion, detached irony, self-reflexive as well as non-overtly-political satire, and silly hats.

Chris maintains his detached stance (despite a rather gorgeous yellow fluorescent hoodie - and I never though I'd call something fluorescent yellow gorgeous) behind the keyboards, while Neil, who gives off just the nicest vibe - you'd love to have high tea with him - is a still, anchoring presence, with a raised eyebrow and a half-smile, in the midst of the performance. The visuals also add a great deal to the work - I'm With Stupid, for example, which is not a favourite of mine, gains a new dimension with British and US flags splashed across a giant screen. And I got Flamboyant, my current favourite PSB track, which I'd been hoping for. But the absolute highlight was an understated, moving version of Rent.

The other solo shows I've been to, Jarvis Cocker and the Pixies, were both more mixed. Jarvis's new work is to my mind rather banal and forgettable - and seeing him live didn't do much to change my opinion on that score. On the other hand, it's Jarvis - you almost wish that he'd just abandon the music and do standup. His stylised dance moves have suffered not the slightest with age - and neither has his banter. Perhaps the most amusing moment was his interrogation as to the nature of Ipswich in Australia - which in one of his songs is used as an exemplar of a place you really, really wouldn't want to go (I don't think he quite realised the aptness of that in the Australian context...) Or, on the other hand, it could've been his interrogation of the pair of undies that was thrown on stage. And, dash it all, he's just so incredibly cute. Despite the musical blandness, I didn't for a moment regret going to the show (I would've liked some Pulp material, and could've done without the Springsteen cover - but I understand why he wouldn't want to play that, and cover-wise you can't win 'em all...)

If Jarvis was a larger-than-life personality but muscially bland, the Pixies were the obverse. Though the sound at the Big Top left a great deal to be desired, it was great to hear them - I was particularly excited that they opened with In Heaven, a cover of a song on the Eraserhead soundtrack, and I got the song I'd been hanging out for, Nimrod's Son, along with the majority of their other well-known work (although they've apparently disowned Bam Thwok, which I think is a shame, as I've decided that is actually a good song). But there just didn't seem to be much else happening - except for the dowdy Kim, who was a chain-smoking sweetheart, they simply stood on stage and played, which is something I don't like in a performance - and at times seemed fairly unrehearsed, as in the chaotic La La Love You. So, again, I wasn't sorry I'd gone - it's the Pixies, after all - but it did leave something to be desired.

And, finally, the V Festival, at which I saw all of the above and, well, the only other band I payed any attention to were Nouvelle Vague (even though they'd mistreated me by doing only a secret sideshow - but I hear they're coming back soon). Despite the utter inappropriateness of the venue for their loungey bossa nova covers of seventies and eighties alternative classics, they were a joy to watch, with their oh-so-French charm and a singer who was rather cute in that classically European, au naturelle way. The only thing I would've wished for is that they would've done some of the lesser known songs, which are my favourites of theirs - Sorry For Laughing, say, or Making Plans For Nigel - rather than a run through of the best-known songs they cover (Too Drunk To Fuck, Love Will Tear Us Apart, etc).

I haven't been to a festival for years, and though V had somewhat of an amateur-hour feel (you could tell that it's the first time it's been put on), it had a fairly laid back atmosphere - at least if, like me, you weren't drinking (the bar queues stretched halfway across the festival). But it reminded me why I dislike festivals - drunken yobbos in particular - and also of the way in which, for all my faults, I was raised with a communitarian consciousness. Doesn't the girl sitting on her boyfriend's shoulders ever think for a second that her pleasure is thirty other people's displeasure?

That aside, though, it was a fun and relaxed afternoon. Pet Shop Boys were spectacular, though I was glad I was going to the solo gig, as their set was essentially a best of; the Pixies (I only caught the end of their set) seemed to have it a lot more together, and with a lot better sound quality (which is saying something, given that it was outdoors); and Jarvis was, if anything, cuter than in his solo show, noting for example that Australian 'gobstoppers' wouldn't stop anything, except maybe a dog's arse - if it was cold enough...

So I now have, oh, two hours or so to breathe before I head out tonight to continue my unwonted live musical odyssey - not to mention what might be the last time I do the closing set at Ascension for some time... I was thinking of doing a 'greatest hits' of my closing sets, running through deathrock, oldschool industrial, and, of course, my signature eighties... but since I won't be drinking, don't expect Mickey or Belinda Carlisle. You've been warned that you don't need to be warned...