Thursday, May 5, 2011

Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

I have this thing I do, when there are gaps between books I’ve been wanting to read, where I go back to novels I’d dismissed despite critical applause. My inner literary snob wants to believe that any quality novel can sustain my attention, even if it deals with a subject I’m not interested in. Or am sick of. Or simply cannot bear to delve into for various reasons — perceived bleakness, ungodly length (Freedom, anyone?*), or because the author has taken a shortcut to fame (James “It’s a true story!” Frey).

World War II novels have fallen into my growing pile of neglected brilliance for no better reason than I’ve read a lot of them. It seemed my entire HSC English literature booklist was comprised of WWII books, both fiction and memoir, and although a decade — (cough) or two — has passed, the memories still haunt. I’d begun to feel that there was really nothing to say about Nazi atrocities, Jewish escape narratives, or London bombings that hadn’t already been said, and very eloquently for the most part. (Apparently Australia was also in the Second World War, although no one told the Year 12 English curriculum coordinator.) So I opened Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces (1996) with some trepidation — even the title suggested another bleak account of hatred and cruelty, followed by loss and displacement, culminating in stoic survival. The requisite arc for survival stories.

And then I read it.

Fugitive Pieces is written in two parts: Book 1 and Book 2. It opens with the fictional account of Jewish poet Jakob Beer who, as a young boy, escapes the horror of his parents’ killing in a village in Poland, by running through the dark forest at night and burying himself in the dirt to avoid detection during the day. The horrific but gripping depiction of his escape is over quickly however, as it primarily serves to set up the encounter that shapes the novel: the loving relationship between the boy and his rescuer.

“No one is born just once” Jakob tells us, in a novel that takes rebirth as its theme — even as it focuses on what we find under the ground. There is Jakob’s earthen burial, the dark, filthy hiding place from which he emerged to be rescued by the Greek geologist and humanist Athos Roussos, who wonders if this apparition were one of “Biskupin’s lost souls”. Athos is on an archeological dig when he sees this filthy boy, and takes the strange and courageous step of helping him escape, and giving him a new life.

“Lost soul” doesn’t touch the edges of the depths of the protagonist of this story. Jakob is both lost and beautiful, fragile and resilient, nurtured to health and a fragile peace in the capable arms of the loving father-figure, Athos. The story that unfolds as Athos takes Jakob to a Greek island to hide and, eventually, Toronto to migrate, is one of enduring love and the power of human connection to rekindle the spirit and renew life and hope. Michaels’ novel tells us that we are not complete as beings until we have loved, and been loved. That through this love, we can find rebirth.

A man of enormous wisdom, Athos gives the haunted Jakob another life, another language — two languages, in the end — and with this, a sense of history and humanity. Travelling across continents, struggling to find food, shelter and a place to call home, all the while grappling with having left his beautiful older sister to an unknown fate when he escaped, Jakob remains an almost mystical spirit, somehow separate and removed from the world around him, except in the stories and wisdom imparted by Athos. And in the lasting friendships this man brings to him.

After Athos’s death, having anchored his soul in the warmth of his mentor, Jakob turns to Athos’s words and history to escape his grief. He posthumously publishes Athos’s notes rejecting the Nazis’ falsification of history, in a book called, Bearing False Witness, and believes, for a time, that he's found love with Alex who he too quickly marries. But his darkness persists and the marriage ends, thrusting Jakob back into the search for understanding and peace in language, literature and scholarship. Saved by a friendship with a local family, Jakob is introduced to Michaela and, together, they return to Athos’s family home in Greece, complete and content, and finally at peace.

The second part of this novel deals with Ben, a Toronto-based professor who has grown up with parents haunted by the Holocaust, to the point that they seem unable to connect with him in the same way that they can connect with his wife, Naomi. Unable — or unwilling — to stop this from driving a wedge between himself and Naomi, Ben seeks out solace in separation, leaving his wife in his search for Jakob Beer’s lost journals. Ben had met Jakob before he died, and uses this quest as a means to avoid his damaged relationship with his parents, and his anger with his wife.

For a short time, this second section became an unwanted distraction from what I thought was the real story. I was completely caught up in Jakob’s life and quest for peace, and felt deflated and lost, initially, when I realised that his story, ostensibly, was over. I persisted, though, and gradually grew to care about Ben, who manages a difficult but eventual resolution to his own damaged soul, largely as a result of the truths he found in Jakob’s experience.

Michaels’ language is exquisite. The evidence of her poetry is as clear in the deft imagery in her sentences as in their brevity. Beautiful and simple, she waves an almost mystical sheen across the places and people who inhabit this novel, without ever compromising their inherent warmth. Graphic and grim in places, somehow even the most horrible scenes have a majesty about them as examples of humanity, both good and evil. She describes the Greek village, Kalavrita, following the German invasion, accordingly: “In the valley, charred ruins, blackened stone, a terrible silence. A place so empty it was not even haunted.” And Toronto: “A city of forsaken worlds; language a kind of farewell.” And in perhaps the most poignant observation, the universal experience of grief and loss is eloquently rendered thus: “The grief we carry, anybody’s grief, is exactly the weight of a sleeping child.”

Anne Michaels is a poet, literally and figuratively, but unlike much of the poetry that seems to monopolise contemporary poetry pages (wherever they’re hiding), Michaels’ language never loses site of humanity, warmth, and the exquisite complexity of the human condition.

* Two things: 1. I’ve now read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom . 2. I am not opposed to the notion of a long book. Having said that, when I have to lug the bloody thing in a backpack already weighed down by manuscripts and endless parent crap, it reminds me, and I’ll remind you... Size does matter.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Poetry of Eddie Vedder

It’s a strange thing that whenever I confess my admiration — OK adoration — for Pearl Jam, it’s often met with a blank stare. Which is interesting enough, given the band’s profile, but more surprising is that sometimes I get the eye roll. When I query said eye-roller, they often can’t name a single song. Or they can name a song, but only from Pearl Jam's first album, and usually “Jeremy”. Either way, it’s an opinion drawn on little, if any, actual familiarity with their music.

(OK. I have no doubt there are people who hate Pearl Jam having given them a fair and reasonable hearing. I just haven’t met them, m’kay?)

The lack of familiarity comes from the fact that Pearl Jam do not benefit from regular airplay on commercial radio, nor do they have a string of memorable video clips on 24-hour rotation on Rage. (It’s probably called something else now. So I’m old. Sue me.) In fact, Pearl Jam have released only a handful of video clips, apart from those drawn from live shows, MTV unplugged performances, or the multiple bootleg YouTube offerings. Adding to their lack of broadcast opportunities, for a decade they eschewed the conglomerate Ticketmaster, using their own outlets and pioneering online ticket sales to distribute concert tickets to their loyal fans, in the process successfully keeping ticket prices comparable to the cost of a paperback novel but also, conversely, limiting the stadiums and venues where they could play. In theory they wanted to let their music sell itself. According to Rolling Stone, however, they seemed to have spent a lot of time “deliberately tearing apart their own fame.”

Quite successfully, my informal surveys suggest.

Musical taste is an incredibly subjective thing. One that often defies explanation, reason and logic. So I will not waste a moment trying to convince anyone here of Pearl Jam’s musical worth. You can click on the links and decide for yourself. (Or look at the impressive list of their collaborators, musical awards, number of fans, and body of work...OK. Couldn’t resist entirely.)

What I will do, though, is tell you why anyone who reads, writes, or appreciates language is missing out on some of the best poetry of my own fading generation. (The Xers, for those who haven’t caught up.) The reason they’re adored by so many and continue to sell out whenever they tour is because people — myself included — want to hear what Eddie Vedder has to say. As the lead singer and main lyricist, he is the driving force behind this band. But more than this, his lyrics transform an eclectic, grungey array of musical expression into something almost transcendental — a quality taken even further by his solo catalogue.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s give Eddie the pen for a moment.

What I’d like to do is just copy slabs of his lyrics and let him speak for himself. This, however, most likely breaches all kinds of copyright — quite apart from being all kinds of lazy. So what I’ll do instead is highlight selected extracts from his catalogue that I think best expresses why we — Pearl Jam and Eddie Vedder fans alike — hang off his every word.

Perhaps the best place to start is with Pearl Jam’s first single — one of only a handful they’ve released over the years. (Yet another example of their anti-marketing strategy.)

“Alive” tells the story of a teenaged boy whose mother tells him that his father is actually his stepfather, and that his real father died.

“Son,” she said, “have I got a little story for you
What you thought was your daddy was nothing but a...
While you were sitting home alone at age thirteen
Your real daddy was dying.
Sorry you didn’t see him, but I’m glad we talked...”

Grim, shocking, and worse, in the next verse hinting at incest, this was eventually revealed to be autobiographical. Part of a trilogy that Vedder calls a “mini-opera” entitled Mama-san, it tells the story of a teenaged boy who has been lied to and betrayed by his mother to the point where he does not know what he’ll do next. But ends, initially, with the almost pleading declaration that he is “still alive”.

Then the story builds to a terrible crescendo in “Once”, part two of the trilogy:

Backseat lover on the side of the road
I got a bomb in my temple that is gonna explode
I got a sixteen gauge buried under my clothes, I play...

Once upon a time I could CONTROL myself
Ooh, once upon a time I could LOSE myself, yeah...

And culminates in “Footsteps” in which the youth having gone out on a shooting spree now awaits his death sentence:

Don't even think about gettin' inside
Voices in my head, voices
I got scratches, all over my arms
One for each day, since I fell apart

I did, what I had to do
If there was a reason, it was you...

Still blaming his mother for what happened to him:

Footsteps in the hall, it was you, you
Pictures on my chest, it was you, you

“Footsteps” eerily pre-empts “Jeremy” which details a high school massacre, arguably the song most frequently cited as a reason to dislike Pearl Jam. It is also, in my opinion, one of their least interesting. Despite this, it is the song that gets most frequent radio play and is one of the only video clips they’ve made. (A clip that Vedder has since admitted he regrets agreeing to.)

Ten was the start of the Pearl Jam story and, admittedly, the harshest of all the albums, lyrically speaking. It’s also, ironically, still their best album musically. Although there are better individual songs, each song from Ten is potentially a single in its own right. If they were into that, of course.

Since then, Vedder has moved away from this focus on difficult childhoods and fractured family life, covering everything from the political “Bu$hleaguer”

like sugar, the guests are so refined

to pithy social commentary:

It’s a mystery to me
we have a greed
with which we have agreed.

Vedder turns desire into a complicated battle:

The waiting drove me mad...
you're finally here and I'm a mess
I take your entrance back...
can't let you roam inside my head

and transforms loss into something tangible:

Sheets of empty canvas, untouched sheets of clay
Were laid spread out before me as her body once did.

(Incidentally, “Black” was one of the first songs that forced me to listen beyond the music — to study the lyrics and wonder about the man behind them. Something about the next line grabbed me and changed how I listened to Pearl Jam forever: “And all I taught her was ... everything.”)

He ranges from stinging self-actualisation:

I did, what I had to do
And if there was a reason
Oh, there wasn't no reason, no
And if, there's something you'd like to do
Just let me continue, to blame you.

To quiet self-determination:

Me, I figure as each breath goes by
I only own my mind.
(“I am Mine”)

He is cynical about religion and the hypocracies committed by followers —

The selfish, they’re all standing in line
Faithing and hoping to buy themselves time...
(“I am Mine”)

and yet has written an almost Messianic ode to the power of belief in “Given to Fly” :

Alone in a corridor, waiting, locked out
He got up outta there, ran for hundreds of miles
He made it to the ocean, had a smoke in a tree
The wind rose up, set him down on his knee

A wave came crashing like a fist to the jaw
Delivered him wings, "Hey, look at me now"

While both Vedder and Pearl Jam deny the Christian overtones — Vedder is an aetheist — there is blatant referencing of the Christ story:

He floated back down 'cause he wanted to share
His key to the locks on the chains
he saw everywhere
But first he was stripped
and then he was stabbed
By faceless men — well, fuckers
He still stands

Again, Vedder returns to the defiant advocacy of love, couched in anger and frustration, granted, but still, ultimately, a declaration that love is what makes us human, and allows us to soar:

And he still gives his love,
he just gives it away
The love he receives is the love that is saved
And sometimes is seen a strange spot in the sky
A human being that was given to fly...

It is surprisingly sentimental and decidedly lacking in cynicism. It is also very powerful as a consequence.

The simple wisdom of some of his lines requires no explanation —

And the young, they can lose hope
cause they can't see beyond today,...
The wisdom that the old can't give away...

Sometimes life
Don't leave you alone.
(“Love Boat Captain”)

and yet so often these simple wisdoms aren't given the respect they deserve, or not in any meaningful way:

Sorrow grows bigger when the sorrow’s denied. (“I am Mine”)

In his grammy winning solo album for the Sean Penn film, Into the Wild, Vedder so artfully slots himself into the headspace of the story’s protagonist, Christopher McCandless — top athlete and college graduate who sells everything he owns to disappear into the Alaskan wilderness — that the film almost didn’t need dialogue, so clear was the narrative across Vedder’s lyrics.

The story is synopsised in Vedder’s Oscar-nominated song, “Guaranteed”:

Wind in my hair, I feel part of everywhere
Underneath my being is a road that disappeared
Late at night I hear the trees,
they’re singing with the dead

If you've seen the film, you’ll understand all the extra layers to this verse. But even without seeing it, Candless’ mixture of innocence and naivety, underlined by an unfulfilled desire to understand something bigger than the “normal” society he was expected to enter before he took off “into the wild”, is sweetly rendered by Vedder:

A mind full of questions,
and a teacher in my soul


I’ve got my indignation,
but I’m pure in all my thoughts
I’m alive...

as well as recognising Candless’ genuine feelings of remorse for having hurt the ones he loved by leaving, as well as his attempts to ease any feelings of guilt they might have:

If ever the was someone to keep me at home
It would be you...

Vedder understands the frustrations of youth, even now, at the ripe old age of 47. The cynicism is there, as is the sharp and witty social commentary — very rock-and-roll and very “alternative” (if there is such a thing anymore) — but what tempers Vedder’s stories — for they are all stories — is the persistent underlying theme that manages to force its way to the surface, if not in every song, then across each album, and certainly throughout his career...

That is, love.

Love is all you need. All you need is love.

The haunting "Black", already cited, gives us one of my favourite declarations of love:

I know someday you'll have a beautiful life,
I know you'll be a sun in somebody else's sky, but why
Why, why can't it be, can't it be mine?

In "Love Boat Captain", a song written in response to a fan’s request in the aftermath of a tragedy that almost forced Pearl Jam to disband, Vedder reminds us simply in this un-ironic quotation:

It's already been sung,
but it can't be said enough
All you need... ... is love

The incident that triggered the band’s crisis occurred at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark. During Pearl Jam’s act, the crowd surged dangerously toward the stage. In the crush, nine young fans (all men) were trampled to death, largely unseen by the other fans or the performers. On stage, Vedder had repeatedly pleaded with fans to move back, but it was only later, some way into their act, that they discovered what had happened. They cancelled the performance and left the stage. The festival continued without them, although no other acts appeared on that particular stage.

Vedder references the incident directly in “Love Boat Captain”:

Lost nine friends will never know,
two years ago today...

But it is in the question these deaths poses immediately after that we get to the heart of it:

...and if our lives become too long,
will it add to our regret?

The question suggests that this level of loss is never finished, never closed. That time doesn't make it any easier, just longer. During live performances, Vedder changes the lyrics from “two years ago today” to reflect the actual time passed — a poignant reminder that while life goes on, the families’ suffering is a continuum. As is the band’s. (Several of the band members, including Vedder, have remained in contact with the families of the nine dead men.)

Perhaps this is the greatest irony surrounding people’s misconceptions about Pearl Jam. Considered to be grunge and therefore somehow cynical, bitter, and angry, in truth, more recently, and perhaps all along, love shapes Vedder’s music. It is the question he most consistently asks and tries to answer, and the only consolation he willingly offers up when nothing else makes sense.

Once you hold the hand of love...
it's all surmountable.
(”Love Boat Captain”)

The opposite of cynical, Vedder’s faith in love is the source of the most eloquent and original contributions to the genre, and, yes, I'll say it: the generation. Even when referencing his angry youth — the angry youth, more broadly — there is a hopefulness and optimism pervading everything he writes. Even if he wasn’t a recipient of it as a young man, he knew it was what he needed. What we all need. And he seems to have found it as an adult.

This is the opposite of the nihilistic ranting too readily associated with grunge music by its critics, and too frequently cited as the reference point for Pearl Jam detractors. Vedder unashamedly advocates the purest but most complicated of all desires in the simplest form possible. It’s all about love. The need to give it and receive it.

Enough from me, though. I’ll give Eddie the final word:

Hold me, and make it the truth,...
That when all is lost there will be you.
’Cause to the universe I don't mean a thing
And there's just one word that I still believe and it's
Love,... love. love. love. love.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

What's coming up...

Will get back to you re info regarding a new project I'm working on. I'm putting together a list of interviews with local and overseas authors and hope to start this new series in the next couple of weeks. Also have some reviews coming up - some new books and a few oldies.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Reason # 155 for avoiding my thesis...

...too many books to read, for a start.

Anyone else feel overwhelmed the moment they walk into a bookshop - liquidation and bankruptcy issues aside? The sheer volume of books there are to read has the double whammy of 1) reminding me that the world doesn't need another author (me, for example), and 2) making it impossible to choose one out of the million possibilities on offer.

There are whole genres I barely consider, let alone buy, and whole departments (self-help, I'm looking at you) in which I've never deigned to set foot. (I don't think I have. I actually don't know where that section is. So if you see me hovering near one, understand I am almost certainly lost.)

And then there are the books I already have - the ones that scream for my attention in a way that Cute American Husband has no hope of managing. Some of them are reputed to pertain to my research, but they're so tired and dusty looking that I struggle to read their titles, let alone their contents. Most of them, however, come in the form of distraction - from my children, my work, and most of all, my thesis. (From here on in to be known as The Beast.)

Most intimidating of all is the Dreaded Bedside Pile. The tower of knowledge and words that grows almost daily, never shrinking, despite the efforts of Father Gravity, the laws of logic, and my relentless desire to "get on top of things". (No chuckling in the back row, thank you.)

Still, you can't question my commitment to this pile, comprised of a mix of borrowed books, newly bought books, library books and old favourites awaiting a second (third, fourth, twentieth) read. (See this for specifics.) There are books I've begun but can't finish, nor can I give up on them confidently enough to re-shelve for another time. There are books I feel like I should read but don't want to, have read but can't remember, and won't read but have promised I will. You see, in my unique style of reasoning, as long as the book remains by my bed, there is some hope I'll get to it as promised, some day, eventually, and so it isn't a lie so much as a not-yet-fulfilled promise. (Yes, there's a difference.)

Quite apart from the Dreaded Bedside Pile are the various manuscripts of unpublished novels cowering on my hard-drive, weighed down by a promise of feedback, encouragement, support and/or editing - all shouting at me to be read the moment I fire up my computer.

So you can see why I'm behind on The Beast: all those books, with no time to read them. Sometimes it's difficult to remember that this reading business is fun. Sometimes it feels like hard work, and then I stumble upon a story that pulls me in so completely that I wish I didn't have to waste time eating, sleeping and washing. And I remember suddenly why I love reading.

Right now I'm halfway through the latest novel by Jon Clinch, author of the beautiful but harrowing Finn, whose new book, Kings of the Earth, has been listed among the outside shots at a Pulitzer.

It's always a cool thing when you knew the author before they were published, seeing the years of rejection end with a bang the way Jon's career did. It's even better when their second book lives up to the promise of their remarkable debut. I intend to post my review next week, so won't impart further details here, but if it continues at anything like the quality it's begun, be prepared for the kinds of superlatives I've saved for my favourites. Already it's the kind of novel you want to devour, and then re-read, slowly, carefully, to savour the language. The characters are distinct, believable, and eloquent, their voices as clear as a bellbird's song. So I'm taking my time with this one, almost despite myself, knowing that the towering pile will not allow me a second bite at this cherry for some time to come.

In the meantime, for those Australian readers who are tempted to give Kings of the Earth a shot, I'm afraid it's been deemed "too American" by local publishers, and so you can only buy it online or overseas.

I can only assume that local publishers haven't actually read it yet, because the novel I'm reading is as universal as the idea of storytelling itself. And, from the perspective of an aspiring author, as intimidating and as towering as the Dreaded Bedside Pile and my beastly thesis combined.

Monday, March 14, 2011

John Irving and Me

I want a divorce.

There. I said it.

Before my mother panics, or my in-laws investigate cross-continent custody laws, please be assured, it’s not that kind of divorce. Not one from my actual RL husband, but a divorce from my literary husband. The man I fell in love with at the tender age of 16, when his story about an oddball frustrated writer with initials for a first name and a species of fish for a surname (albeit a fictional hybrid) made me laugh and feel smart and sophisticated while bolstering my budding feminist self — all in a single insightful sentence: “Jenny felt that her education was merely a polite way to bide time, as if she were really a cow, being prepared only for the insertion of the device for artificial insemination.”

The author was John Irving and the book was The World According to Garp. (I made the hybrid bit up, but what else would you call a gar-fish crossed with a carp?) Mr Irving (we were not yet on a first-name basis) had described how I cynically viewed the cohort of students’ ambitions at my Catholic girls’ school, in words both cutting and dry — the very tone I attempted to emulate for the rest of my teen years. (In between writing really bad Don Walker-inspired poetry.)

Thus began a love affair which outlasted a century and crossed several decades, through the good times (Cider House Rules, The 158-Pound Marriage, The Hotel New Hampshire) and the What the Fuck? times (Setting Free the Bears and The Water-Method Man), taking me to the cusp of my literary desire in the form of his 1989 novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany. Newly paroled from my convent school where the “three r’s” weren’t merely taught but canonised, Irving’s blatant disregard for punctuation and capitalisation was as deliciously rebellious to me as sex before marriage and Vodka and Passionfruit UDLs. I wanted to have “UNSPEAKABLE OUTRAGE” tattooed on my inner thigh, and experienced a giddy delight every time Owen delivered his unrelenting all-caps voice. I decided right there and then that John Irving had to be the most outrageous, experimental, and hilarious author there was. (I mentioned the Catholic convent thing, didn’t I?)

Better yet, the man was handsome — according to the book jacket anyway. (It is only in the process of having watched so many of my friends’ books get published that I’ve learnt the art/ifice of the author photo.) In short, I thought John Irving was creative, inventive, brave and original, and the only man I could ever truly love — literarily speaking, of course.

Did I mention that I didn’t read very widely at the time? Goes hand-in-hand with the Catholic education thing, no doubt. You see, I read voraciously and relentlessly, unforgivingly and repeatedly, but the depth of my reading had little to do with the breadth of it. If I liked an author, I stuck by him or her. I read all their works, from top to bottom, then started again. Anything or anyone I liked, I loved. My teen and early twenties seemed to consist entirely of a series of superlatives and extremes, loves and hates, “discoveries” and obsessions, but sadly, little in the way of range. When I loved an author, or a book, or a series, they loved me back. Soon I was them, and they were me. I wore them like a badge — proudly and ostentatiously, spouting quotations and memorising passages as though my own. Is there anyone better at obsession than a teenager I wonder? I’ve yet to meet one, if there is, and I took that to its monotonous extreme. I was obsession personified.
Along with the obsession, I was also fiercely loyal.

So, it was by drawing on this loyalty that I forgave John Irving A Son of the Circus, and feigned ignorance at his recycling of old stories in Trying to Save Piggy Sneed. My patience was rewarded with the solid A Widow for One Year, and the pending release of the film version of Owen Meany. Finally, I would get to hear Owen’s “wrecked voice”, see what I believed was his vaguely Mr McGoo-like qualities — the ghostly and improbable combination of wispy blonde hair, a cracked and shrieking voice and that permanently dwarf-like height. I faced the prospect of a Hollywood version feeling both eager and tremulous. How difficult to manage! How easy to go wrong! And then my beloved John resolved my dilemma for me, distancing himself — the screenplay having strayed too far from the original story — whereupon I duly cancelled my plans to see what later became known as Simon Birch, and have continued to live in ignorant bliss.

I was delighted by the integrity of this decision — that John Irving wouldn’t allow my beloved Owen to be changed beyond recognition, knowing how dearly we readers cared for him, how loyal and committed we were to our own imaginings.

After this near-disaster, I expected John’s resurgence — a return to the core of what we loved about him. I could not get enough of New England and Vienna, motorbikes, bears, and wrestling; beautiful dead mothers, and oddly innocent yet precocious young boys. Even Canada seemed mildly interesting in an austere and remote sort of way. Surely if I still loved them all, John would too.

I had moved past A Son of the Circus by then, could pretend Piggy Sneed had never happened, and bought The Fourth Hand the same week it was released. This was the moment the cracks truly emerged. Where was his loveable protagonist? The innocent boy, the beautiful dead mother? Even the bears had been replaced with a lion — a hand-eating one, no less — and suddenly all the things I knew and believed about John Irving’s world was being slowly ripped apart.

But worse was yet to come: he shifted from the third person to first in Until I Find You. I have nothing against first person (obviously) — have employed it in my own fiction a lot — but this is not the John Irving I know or love. The self-reflexiveness that seemed both coy and gentle was suddenly brash and loud. Let me explain — and stay with me, if you can: the main character of Until I Find You, Jack Burns, wins an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay the same year that John Irving really did win his Academy Award — 1999 — the same year that Jack loses the Supporting Actor Oscar which, in Real Life, was won by Michael Caine for his role in Irving’s adaptation of Cider House Rules. (Still with me?) And then Jack goes to school at the same place where A Prayer for Owen Meany’s narrator, Johnny Wheelwright, teaches English as an adult.
See what I mean?

Coy it ain’t.

Now, what began as possible separation has shifted irrevocably to grounds for a divorce. And the straw for this blessed, overburdened camel? Last Night in Twisted River.

I had so much hope for this novel when I first picked it up — we are back in “innocent young boy with mysteriously dead beautiful mother” territory; there’s Canada and logging, and New England and icy rivers... All the stuff that made Owen and Garp, Cider House and Hotel New Hampshire such riveting reads.

And yet, there’s no love. No warmth. No humour. And, frankly, too many logs.

The real sadness, though, is that I can’t finish it. I’m sure I will one day — as my father used to say when referencing our family’s refusal to quit our lazy attachment to Catholicism, “You don’t change teams mid-season.” I will make myself finish Last Night in Twisted River because I owe that much to John Irving. And I will continue to revisit Owen and friends whenever I need a literary jolt.

But there is no going back. The divorce papers are in and this party, anyway, has moved on: I am no longer in love with John Irving.

At least in this divorce, there’ll be no the custody battle.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Gender Divide

I just posted an extract from my blog on this groovy little gidget thingy called the Gender Genie and a weird thing happened. I turned into a bloke. (Just don't tell my husband.) According to the website, these people were inspired by a New York Times article that argued they could gauge the gender of the author of texts based on particular word choices and frequency of use. In other words, it's a question of mathematics. Or Algorithms, more specifically.

Here's the thing, I tried this test over and over, and no matter how many cutesy things I say, how fast I bat my eyelashes, or how high I like my heels, apparently I write like a bloke. Sixty to seventy percent male words over female ones, every single time.

Now, this might seem like a simplistic approach to understanding something as complex, fraught and slippery as the idea of gender, and gendered writing, but it interests me because it parallels other experiences I've had. You see, on every forum and bulletin board I've visited anonymously, no matter which country, subject, or field of interests, posters consistently assume I'm male. Not just some of them. All of them. Until I say something declaring my hand, something unambivalent or clearly gendered (like the fact that I'm a mum, or that I went to a girls' school), whereupon I am inevitably met with a chorus of, "Sorry! I thought you were a dude." (Bloke, if Australian.) Or, "You sound like a guy." And variations on that theme. Over and over, everywhere I go.

Now, I've always had interests in areas not traditionally associated with women - footy, politics and debating - so perhaps this shouldn't surprise me. Except that in my fiction, I deliberately and carefully write for women, about women, and about girls. I'm not interested in writing for men, don't choose subjects that would matter to the blokes I know. I actively and carefully target women. As readers, and as subjects.

So you can understand my confusion. And, frankly, concern. Because here's this mathematical theory essentially declaring me a man trapped in a woman's keyboard - a theory that seems to hold up when tested amongst real people - and now I have to wonder if maybe there's something to it. Or at least, something to the perception that there is such a thing as gendered writing. Even if that perception is among readers, rather than writers, or something we've learnt rather than imbibed. Either way, it's tricky.

So why don't you give the test a shot and tell me how it goes? Were they right, or were they wrong? Or are they as confused as you are? (Try to sample at least 500 words - that's the recommendation. But even when I cheated, posting half what they asked, they still pegged me as bloke.)

P.S. For those having trouble posting comments - sorry! I thought I could fix it - twitter me or send a message and I'll try to sort it out. Or post on your behalf.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Fact or Fiction: Does it matter?

Australian director Peter Weir's latest film is finally out in Australia. Called The Way Back, it deals with the story of a group of Russian prisoners who make a grueling 4000 mile escape from a Siberian gulag during the Second World War. Based on a book by Slavomir Rawicz of the same title, it depicts what's been claimed to be a true story of the author's journey overland to India.

As so often happens for "true stories", questions have been raised about its veracity, and the likely role Rawicz played. Weir himself almost dropped the project on the basis of these claims, believing the only way the film could work was if it was a "true story". It does seem to have had a negative impact on its American release, having come out there in January, just in time for the 2011 Oscars (it's been nominated for Make Up), but died a quick and nearly silent death within weeks. Maybe it's the ruthless tentpole market that Weir talks about in the below interview, or maybe it was a direct response to the queries regarding the "true story" tag. Either way, the rumours couldn't have helped in a world that seems obsessed with the "true story" over the fictional one.

In the interview captured below, Weir decided to pursue the project, despite lingering doubts, largely because the research he unearthed suggested that there were many documented stories of escapes similar to this one; that the fact that they have happened in some form, in similar situations and with similar outcomes was enough to hang the "based on a true story" tag on The Way Back.

My question is, though, why the obsession with the "true story" label? Why does a dramatic feature film have to have its grounding in actual events? Is it less satisfying if it's fictional - made up, created in someone's head - rather than taken from their life? Actual experience? Real events?

Where do we draw the line anyway? If it happened somewhere, or we think it happened somewhere, is that "fact" enough? Even that it could happen somewhere - do we need to know to whom, when, and where?

How much non-fiction is true anyway? It's supposed to be true, of course, but how can we know? And why must we know? What is truth anyway, when all of these renderings come in the form of someone else's musings, their perspective, their slant? Always the story is viewed through a distorted or filtered prism. It is always someone's take - whether the screenwriter, the author, the director or even the producer. Maybe it's even the actors'. Or a combination of all of these. How can we know where the story starts and the facts stop?

Worse still, this push for "facts" in our stories could arguably be the reason for so many literary hoaxes of late, James Frey being probably the most widely vilified. He couldn't sell his novel as fiction, so he sold it as memoir. He really had spent an afternoon in jail for drug related offenses - didn't that qualify him to tell a "true account" of the life of a drug addict who, after a stint in prison, redeems himself and gets clean?

Did the fact that this "memoir" was plugged as self-help somehow make Frey's crime worse than had he written a "factual" account with no redeeming message of hope? No, "look what I did - and survived!" theme underpinning it? I'd guess if we asked Oprah, her answer would be yes. It's much worse.

My question is, are we kidding ourselves that we can somehow learn more from "non-fiction" than we can from fiction? That its message is somehow more reliable, more accessible, and more believable because the events "really happened".

Peter Weir believes that he'd found enough evidence in the research about other stories of long walks across the desert to justify his faith in the veracity of The Way Back as a "based on true events" story. Maybe he did.

My question is, does it matter?

Here's the link to the interview.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Asking for notes etiquette

Below is a piece by screenwriter Derek Haas that he posted on Artful Writer in response to the countless people who ask him for notes.

I, too, get a lot of requests for feedback on manuscripts and feature film scripts - sometimes I say yes, occasionally, if I'm feeling really brave, I say no. I wish, though, that I could always say this:

With permission from Derek and the fabulous screenwriters' forum, Done Deal:

The point of this is to remember that no one is entitled to help. No one should expect to be read. Everyone who is prepared to offer time and effort for no good reason other than they can, or would like to, deserves consideration, space and the courtesy of not feeling obligated.

Easier said than done, but no one ever said the world needs another writer. We might need to write, but the world doesn't need to listen.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Kids Are All Right, but...

What about the mums?

I was really looking forward to seeing this film for all kinds of reasons. Firstly, I have a heterosexual girl-crush on Julieanne Moore (who doesn't, I ask you) and, as someone who's dabbled in the art/craft/torture of screenwriting, have dreamt of the day when Annette Benning is cast in one of my films. (OK. First I need to get one made. But, then, the moment that happens, I have no doubt Annette will come running.) Plus, Mark Ruffalo is yummy in all the right ways.

But mostly because it's about time that this increasingly visible kind of family is acknowledged in popular culture in an intelligent and considered way.

So the synopsis is simple enough: The two children (Mia Wasikowska and Josh Hutcherson) of a lesbian couple - one born to each mother but with the same father - decide they want to meet their sperm-donor dad. There's the obvious discomfort and uncertainty when these middle class, smart and sophisticated women learn of their kids' desires, but both mums are doing their best to be understanding and patient with what is, at this point in their lives, a difficult and fraught decision.

The meeting, when it happens, is delightfully believable. Awkward silences, overcompensating gestures, and the squirming humiliation all adolescents display when they can see their parents trying too hard. Good fun and very believable. And not so far from what any meeting of adoptive and biological parents might look like. I liked that part the most - how similar the arrangement, and how irrelevant, ultimately, the gender breakdown is when it comes down to love. Loving parents are loving parents. Biology has its place in the parenting process, but family is really about who's there, night and day, day after day, loving and caring, talking and fighting, growing and learning, living and dying. Basically, it's about being together.

So far so good. And then a weird thing happens...

********************SPOILER ALERT*****************

Scroll down for the rest.

Struggling with strained relations with her wife, Jules (Julieanne Moore) gets involved with Paul (Ruffalo), the donor dad, first, as his landscaper, and then, well, kind of as his landscaper again. But a different landscape altogether.

Basically, they screw. A lot, it has to be said.

This is where the film loses me. While, from a storytelling perspective, it answers the important dramatic question we're supposed to ask when dealing with story arcs - Find the worst thing that could happen to your main character and make it happen - it slides into that murky, chauvenstic old chestnut that argues that all lesbians really need is some solid man flesh. (I had a quicker, sharper ending to that sentence, but resisted the impulse.) Basically, that belief that lesbians are somehow missing out on something essential to human sexuality as long as they persist with this whole lesbian thing.

The film's message isn't as simple as this, of course. Nor do I think it's even the writer's intention, interestingly. The film spends a lot of time giving these amazing women real consideration and pathos in the process of making very difficult decisions. Jules experiences much angst and guilt associated with this tryst, which Paul is taking to heart in a way that she is not. He's ready to settle down, see - catalysed by his kids' appearance in his life. He dumps his easy lay, focuses on changing his life, and embraces this strange but intoxicating mantle of fatherhood with impressive, if naive enthusiasm. The kids like him a lot, and their relationship with Paul changes into something real and substantial over the time they spend together.

The result is that Paul sees this relationship with Jules as the beginning of his "family" - now that he's ready to have one. She sees it as a reaction to the hurtful things her wife has been saying and, it must be said, seems as much about getting her rocks off with someone who couldn't be more different from her wife if he tried.

Of course, the deceipt is the killer, but not just between Jules and Nic (Benning), although the betrayal is fraught enough. (Not just an affair, but an affair with a man, and not just any man, but the father of their children, and not just... It goes on.) The clincher is what Paul and Jules seem not to have factored in - the betrayal their children feel, and their subsequent guilt that they have somehow brought Paul and Jules together. In effect, threatening to destroy their family.

The performances are lovely. Wasikowska and Hutcherson display just the right amount of uncertainty in this new life that they feel partly responsible for creating, mixed in with all the completely normal (horrid but inevitable) adolescent angst that plagues any family with two teenagers making their way in the world.

There are several funny/painful moments, particularly Nic's drunken rendition of Joni Mitchell at the dinner table right on top of the moment she realises Jules's betrayal. This is truly squirmworthy storytelling. Nic is so vulnerable in that moment - passionate, loving, open and in pain - so completely different to how we've seen her until then, made all the more excruciating by her refusal to let up, even after the point is made. Her lilting, husky rendition of the lullaby persisting in the face of prolonged and awkward silences... Really powerful stuff.

I just wish Jules had not so desperately and urgently embraced heterosexual lust as though it were somehow better or more than what she had known with her wife. While it was most likely intended as a comment on how stale and tired a long marriage can become, and how fresh and intoxicating new love/lust can be, particularly the forbidden kind, the fact that he was a he, and the father of her son, gave it a layer that, I feel, undid a good chunk of the subtlety and respect the writers had shown this non-mainstream but unquestionably loving family.

But the ending is extremely satisfying and in some way compensates for that aberration of a midpoint.

See it or rent it because it's worth it - funny, smart, different and sophisticated - but I'm still waiting for a time when a lesbian family graces our films without the patriarchal/heterosexual hangover anywhere to be seen.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

My top five contemporary novels

Now, by "contemporary", I mean authors who are still alive. Not sure what other people mean by contemporary, but just in case there's some confusion. No F. Scott Fitzgeralds, Patrick Whites, or Miles Franklins to be seen. These books are by living people who might or might not have a Facebook page, but certainly have witnesses to their ongoing existence on earth. Today, anyway. And, hopefully, next week.

So, now that's cleared up...

I love these novels for all kinds of reasons - some literary, some personal, and some a bit of both. Either way, I have no hesitation in recommending them to people who ask - and, weirdly, a lot of people do - because they rarely bite me on the backside later. The worst that happens is that disgruntled readers think I'm a wanker. But that's OK. I think they're wankers too. :-)

Number 5: The Shipping News, E. Annie Proulx
I love the sparseness of the prose, her unique turn of phrase, and Proulx's incredible ability to cast a fine mist of grey over her writing. Newfoundland, where it's set, is cold and grey and damp and, somehow, that tone pervades the whole novel. I was living in Hawaii when I read this book, but remember feeling cold - genuinely cold - when I turned the pages. (OK. So maybe I had the A/C ramped up. But still.) I loved the protagonist, Quoyle, "a great damp loaf of a man", because he was so unlike any main character I'd known - square chin, broad, thick body. Slow and heavy, and dull, too, if his wife - the absurdly named Petal - were any judge, although he turned out to be anything but. Still, I shouldn't have loved him the way I did because he didn't fit my exacting image of a hero. Yet I did.

Mostly, though, I loved the language - "great damp loaf", yes, but also "pain like gravel under the knee". I could see, feel, hear this place I'd never been to before, and I had such a strong image of it that, despite enjoying the film, never allowed Lasse Hallstrom's incarnation of Newfoundland replace the vision I took from the novel. Quoyle will never be Kevin Spacey, destined, instead to remain a "great damp loaf of a man" in my mind, forever and ever.

Number 4: A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving
Ah, Owen. This book doesn't even have a full title in my small, somewhat tragic world. I call it "Owen" because rarely has a character of such miniscule size cast such a dwarfing shadow over my literary soul. Owen Meany is tiny, shrill, and moralistic. As a young boy he spoke indignantly of "THE UNSPEAKABLE OUTRAGE" perpetrated by the Catholics (as a lapsed Catholic, I felt an UNSPEAKABLE DELIGHT that there was such a thing), and always in that wrecked voice perpetually caught between a shiek and a squeal. Owen's UPPER CASE direct speech was the first time I'd seen such blatant disregard for the lexicon, and I felt a genuine thrill at John Irving's audacity. WRITING IN ALL CAPS? IMAGINE!
John Irving had me at Garp. By the time Owen came along, I was a goner. (Or at least until the Fourth Hand. But that's another posting.)

Number 3: We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver
Lionel Shriver might very well be me in another life. The me that didn't have children and didn't want to. The me that moved countries and wrote angrily - long distance - about her abandoned home. The me that imagined any child could grow up to be a high school serial killer if he didn't have a mother who loved him. This novel riveted me because I both loathed and loved the protagonist's voice. The letters she writes to her estranged husband are a testament to the perpetual and pointless second guessing and only iffing we parents subject ourselves to any time our children break our code, or our rules, or even the law. Kevin does more than break the law - he defies nature. And so does Kevin's mother, or we think she does, until we work through her angst and see just what kind of horrible price had to be paid in order for her to forgive herself. This one divides my reading friends, but those who love this book, love it fiercely, angrily, determinedly. So, for that reason alone, as a means of dividing my friends into those who get it and those who don't - those who get me, and those who don't - it's my favourite of standard recommendations.

Number 2: Beloved, Toni Morrison
My first foray into contemporary Nobel winning literature, and one that stayed with me for years afterwards. Small, sharp sentences, original and unforgettable imagery and a mystery teased out just long enough to keep me engaged without distracting from the amazing characterisations. The beauty of the language, the power of the story, and the strange mix of brutal reality alongside paranormal intrigue is positively breathtaking. Read, and re-read. Then read again.

Number 1: The Road, Cormac McCarthy
I always start discussions of The Road with a sigh. So picture me sighing. There's something about this novel that moves me - no, pains me - in a way that no other novel does. Or will. The language is as sparse as it is poignant. There is not an errant word, nor a superlative in sight. The characterisations of the boy and his father - characters without names, on a landscape so bleak it defies description - are as true and as clear as if they were my own family. I don't know their eye colour, the cut of their hair, what they liked, or what they did before I first met them on the page. I don't need to. They have each other, and that's really all there is. And, incredibly, it's more than enough.

This story is an ode to the love of a father for his son - the love of a parent for their child - and yet, the word "love" is not used once. There are no grand speeches. No waxing lyrical on the power of the paternal bond. It's one step in front of the other. One silent but grim decision followed closely by the next, surviving every brutal day with dogged relentlessness, in a world where the truest expression of love is in the shape of two solitary bullets, saved for that day when the worst happens. Can you do it? the man asks himself. Can you kill your own son?
McCarthy has painted a world so brutal and desperate that you find yourself praying he can.

Read it if you dare. Be warned though, you'll not read anything else like it again.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Steve Prestwich, RIP

I've got a confession to make. I used to be a bogan. A full-blooded, Cold Chisel loving bogan. Mocs and all. Even Uggs for a year or so. (My mother still blames my flat feet on that particular fashion statement.)

While I'd like to apologise generally for the bubble gum jeans, the pixie boots and the pastel v-necks I exposed the world to, I make no apologies for my excellent taste in music, or my undying love for a band no one outside Australia knows (and no one east of the CBD and west of Springvale Road acknowledges): Cold Chisel.

OK. Bear in mind that I can't abide great chunks of Triple M (so blokey, I don't feel welcome at all) and I don't ever need to hear a beery cover of Khe Sanh again, but there are plenty of spectacularly uncommercial, even un-bogan (or is it anti-bogan?) songs that never make Best of play lists, and yet have not faded with time.

There's the obituary to a lost friend, "Letter to Alan", the ode to gambling in "Numbers Fall", and the litany of exotic place names in "Houndog" - highlighted by the sexy, crooning Ian Moss interlude that made Hornsby station sound like Shangri-la. But of all my Cold Chisel favourites (and there are too many to mention), it is the poetic but incomprehensible Breakfast at Sweethearts' song, "Dresden" that changed my life, potentially forever.

This Don Walker-penned ballad made me want to write. There were other influences before then of course: a love of story telling, a father with a gift for language, and a desire to express on paper all the things I couldn't say out loud. But it was the moment when I first read Don Walker's lyrics that I genuinely began to think of myself as a budding writer.

For a while as a teenager I spent great chunks of my angst-filled days writing and re-writing the "Dresden" lyrics in the hope that some of Walker's brilliance would rub off on me. When that didn't work, I started stealing from it, drowning my terrible poetry in images of "icy rime" and experimenting with objects I could successfully describe as floating "like thistle down". I made "sledge-wings dip and play" and placed stones "above each measured stone" believing that I was honouring Mr Walker when really I was simply plagiarising him. I still find myself tempted to drop in some mention of God being "on the edge of time" and wonder how I can reference the "mark of Cain" without actually knowing what it means; I even copy out the lyrics every now and then in the hope that one day I might eventually understand them.

So, in the weeks following the death of Cold Chisel drummer, Steve Prestwich, it seems apt that I invoke my inner bogan (not to mention my latent adolescence) and reproduce Walker's poetry right here and now:

"Dresden" by Don Walker (and frequently plagiarised by ... let's call her "Nic")


The morning breeze is off and gone
The winding factory streets are clean
Old ladies put the kettle on
And all-night lechers pause and lean
On grey shop windows, everywhere
A deeper hum is in the air
Hotel room, drifter leaves no clues

He rides a freight-train out of town
And whistles at the icy rime
The cattle float like thistle-downs
And God is on the edge of time
Somewhere behind a siren wails
The freight-train soars above the rails
The traveller, he's hard as nails
As the train sweeps down the line

The salmon Season's here to stay
And etched into each shoulder-bone
The mark of Cain is on display
As stone above each measured stone
Old Dresden burns above the breeze
The traveller, he's on his knees
He's watching sledge-wings dip and play
So far above the holy throne

Dresden blues...

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

It's Australia Day here in, well, Australia, so it seems apt to post a list of things I love about this country and - yes, I'm a lefty with an agenda - ten things I hate about this country.

Top Ten things I love about Australia in no particular order. (Don't let the numbers fool you.)

1. The beach
2. The footy
3. The humour
4. The film industry - ha! Just kidding!
5. No - 4. The backpacking mentality.
5. The weather - OK, that's a Melbourne thing, but still. It counts.
6. The idea that 12 hours on a plane is no big deal
7. The food.
8. The wine. (Wait - that should be number 1.)
9. The convict heritage.
10. The Indigenous culture.

Ten things I hate about Australia
1. Our increasing level of intolerance
2. The bogan population.
3. The humour. (It works both ways.)
4. The film industry - ha! Just kidding!
4. This is 4. The idea that 12 hours on a plane is no big deal.
5. The fact that our flag has been stolen by nationalistic lunatics
6. The fact that our flag was originally stolen from the English.
7. Our anglophile tendencies
8. The polarisation of the political debate. (There was a time I would have put this first, then I realised how little influence politics really has.)
9. Australian newspeak which has transplanted the word "refugee" with "illegal immigrant" or its evil twin, "queue jumpers".
10. That I could find 10 things I hate about Australia.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A film I wanted to love...

I'm an Aaron Sorkin fan. I mean, truly, a huge, borderline-obsessive, Sorkin fan. I have the entire seven seasons of the West Wing on DVD - legally purchased at full price. (Literally the only show I've bought this way.) I've read all of his scripts - produced and otherwise - and have watched everything he's made multiple times in case there's a stunning line buried amongst the other stunning lines that I missed in the first 47 viewings.

You getting this? He is a screenwriting god in my tragic little world.

So, I was (discreetly) salivating at the prospect of seeing Social Network. The reviews only made the wait - for it to land on our sunny/flooded shores - more angst-ridden and painful. The gap between its origin nation and my very own had never seemed wider than during those weeks of anticipation. The endless waiting.

And then it came. And the local reviews were generous, effusive, even a little giddy. Just what I was hoping for.

After a few aborted attempts, I successfully managed to buy a ticket and was ready to go. Finally free to indulge in some serious, dark-room Sorkin-worshipping when, half an hour into the experience, I realised something very strange...

I was watching a movie.

This might seem a statement of the bleeding obvious. Not worth mentioning, right? Except. This was an AARON SORKIN FILM. Are you getting it yet? When I watch a Sorkin story, I'm in it. With it. These people become my friends. CJ Cregg would be my daughters' godmother if only she'd answer my calls. Josh Lyman - my righthand man for my very next political coup. And Sam Seaborn? Well. I'm married, so best not to continue with that.

Thing is, I know them. I love them. I want to be their friend. I want them to love me the way I love them and, secretly, disturbingly, believe they already do.

But in Social Network, from beginning to end, I was aware I was watching a film. A very good film. Probably the best film for the year. But not a stunning film. Not an Aaron Sorkin film. Not - and I use this word advisedly, sparingly - a masterpiece.

Worst of all, it wasn't brilliant enough for me to forget what I was doing.

I wanted to love it. I wanted to buy it on DVD, download the script and study them both with the same envy-laden adoration that I've attached to all his work.

Except I couldn't love it. I could only like it very much. And sadly for Sorkin - although I'm guessing it won't bother him too much - I want more. No - I expect more.

Alas, poor Aaron. It must really suck being a genius.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A story...

Life, Art and Crystal’s Levis

MITCH: I’m not leaving, Crystal. I don’t care what Blake says.

CRYSTAL: But Mitch, he’ll kill you if he finds us together.

MITCH: I won’t let him get between us. Not this time.

CRYSTAL: Oh, Mitch. What are we going to do?

“And then they kiss and the camera stays on them as they embrace passionately.” I look up, hopeful. “So… What do you think?”

I don’t know why I do this. Why I persist. He hates my work. Hates everything about it: the words, the stories, the people I work with, even the fact that I work there.

“Could we talk about something else?” he’ll say, as though, as long as I don’t speak about it, it isn’t there. That the words — my words spoken aloud — are all that make it real.

Which makes me talk that much more.

Which makes him hate it that much more.

Sometimes, when I’m working through a script or in the middle of a re-write, he walks into my office, storms in really, and announces he’s leaving. Just like that. His anger huge and intimidating in my tiny, not-quite-a-bedroom home-office, shrinking me — shrinking us — as he rails.

He tries to soften it. Tells me he loves me — he always does that first — but true to form, comes right out with it. “I love you but…” The reasons vary, or sound different anyway. But underneath it’s the same thing. Same old story, just a different episode.

My words. He hates my words.

He denies this of course. Says it’s not what I do but how much I do it. That I’m “never there”, and when I am, I’m so distant that it barely counts. Distracted, he says. Somewhere else. That he wants me back. “Down here. On Earth,” he yells, like his Earth is the kind of place I’d want to be anyway with him all angry like that. That if I gave it away, tried something else, we could make it work. “Together, we could make it work.”

But they’re just words, aren’t they?

It doesn’t happen like that in real life. Real life is a lot more like soap opera. It’s not like a sitcom, where we find resolution in twenty-two minutes (minus the ads). Nothing’s like that. It’s not even like a blockbuster movie where the hero lives to accomplish Herculean acts, while the heroine is thin and gaunt and looks fabulous in jeans that have never been near a Chinese sweatshop, or a Tijuana market. And the bad guy loses, or dies, and always, always wears black.

But soap opera ... now that’s real life. Take Crystal and Mitch, for example. They love each other, they’re two consenting adults of different sex and equal social status — no reason in the world why they shouldn’t be together. Lord knows they’ve had sex often enough. But, still, there’s the whole Blake thing — the former lover, now revealed to be Mitch’s long lost twin brother, who has control of the family’s wealth and will banish them both if Crystal doesn’t return to him, like she’d promised she would after he threatened Mitch’s life…

It’s messy, isn’t it? Well, so is life. I mean, really, who doesn’t have an ex, the brother of your current lover waiting around somewhere? The kind that shows up at the local mall with the girl he dumped you for strung around his shoulders, her skinny hips as narrow as your forearm, and her creamy blond hair tied up in schoolgirl pigtails, while you’re in your gardening gear — not even the good gardening gear, but your crappy, never-let-anyone-see-you gardening gear — and your unwashed hair sticks to your face in a limp attempt at the “natural look”. I mean, who hasn’t experienced a moment like that?

The fact is, life’s complicated and ongoing, with endless threads and loose ends tying themselves up with bits of your life that should otherwise not be connected. And there’s never just one bad guy. It’s never that obvious.

Besides, I look really good in black.

But back to my husband…

“It’s fine, Rach. Just fine,” he says. The sigh resting right above his words, not quite near enough to be audible, but hovering just out of reach of my indignation. So he gets away with it.

“What do you think will happen next?” I say, despite the voice inside me saying, Shut up! Shut up! He hasn’t insulted you yet, he hasn’t threatened to leave you in weeks, so why do you persist? Why? Why? Why?

He looks at me squarely. His eyes are as blue as a kids’ wading pool. Seriously. Exactly that colour blue. And his eyebrows are heavy and dark and almost always brooding. He could be a character on my soap opera, except he’s too literal and too practical, and wouldn’t dream of declaring anything loudly or passionately, unless he was watching the Cowboys go wide. But he’s handsome, my husband. Very handsome.

“What’s going to happen next?” he says, his voice as tired and strained as I’ve ever heard it, and I realise that he would have answered me anyway, one way or another, whether I’d pressed him or not. Because today is the day. Finally. After all the promises, the threats, the anger… today he is leaving me.

“I don’t know, Rach. What usually happens in these stories? They hate each other for a bit, then they meet someone else and get on with their lives. After a couple of seasons apart, they decide they were meant to be together all along. That, or they discover they’re long lost siblings.”

I want to reach out to him then. Kiss him square on the lips because, even when I hate him, when this voice he saves for disappointment — this voice he saves for me — is hard and immovable, he is still smart and funny, and better, somehow, than anyone else I know.

“I could quit,” I say weakly, although we both know I won’t do that.

“Too late, Rach. It’s way too late.”

I nod, and think about what Crystal would say here, what Mitch would want to hear. But I probably would have written this differently, so that there was another woman, or another man, or suspicion anyway, and once they realized it was all a mistake, they could return to each other, knowing they’d never have to feel such loneliness again. That they were meant to be together.

But I’m no terrible at first drafts. Better to let this version go the way it is. Set it aside for a time, revise it later, and try again.


GRACE: Quick, hide here!

CRYSTAL: I can’t do it, Grace. I can’t put your life in danger!

GRACE: It’s too late, Crystal. Blake already knows. But our friendship means more than that. More than anything.

CRYSTAL: You’re the best friend a girl could have, Grace. I’ll never forget this. Never!

“So he left? Just like that?”

I’m talking to my friend now. That friend we all have. The one you’ve known so long and been through so much with that you’re not even sure where she ends and you begin. So you find yourself relaying stories that, later, you suspect might have happened to her and not you, but as neither remembers or cares, you don’t bother trying to work it out. That person who calls you and says, “Hi.” No name or details, no reason for calling, just a sigh that you recognise even before she speaks, and the unquestioning, unrevealing “Hi,” that somehow manages to say it all.

“Just like that.”

“Are you sure?”

“No, I’m not sure. I should check the garage maybe, or his workshop. He could be hiding in there…”

“I mean, is it for good?” She’s barely six months older than me, but has always seemed decades ahead, like someone told her things that no one else knows; secrets she ekes out grudgingly, on a need-to-know basis.

“Who knows?” I shrug. Who ever knows? If he comes back, will he stay? If he doesn’t come back, will that ever change? Does anything ever really change? Or do we just see different drafts of what is, essentially, the same thing. Variations in plot, maybe some character development along the way, but the same point, in the end. The same old story.

“Right then. Let’s get drunk,” she says. And who am I to argue when she’s so much wiser than me?

We are lying on her floor now. The fake Persian rug she bought in a factory outlet downtown is scratching my elbow, which is holding me up. The wine bottle is beside me, empty, on its side, looking as necessary as I feel, and as useful.

“You know,” she says, languidly, like it’s something she’s been saving up for all night, “we kind of had a thing together.”

I stare at the wine bottle, my eyes somehow disconnected from my brain, because although I am looking at the bottle, I can still see her face, clear as day: the heart-shape is pretty, if a little insipid, with a sprinkling of tiny freckles across her nose, and one persistent pimple that reappears monthly, as it has done today, in the same place along her jowl. She’s watching me, of course. Watching to see what I’ll say. Hoping I’ll say more, or maybe she’s hoping I’ll leave.

And then I’m speaking, although I don’t remember deciding I will. And my voice sounds like it’s coming from another place, somewhere I’ve never been before.

“What does that mean?” Although I know — we all know — exactly what that means.

“It was a long time ago.”

Of course it was. It always is a long time ago. What would be the point of making it recent? How better to prove my perpetual self-absorption? My longsuffering husband’s inevitable surrender, while demonstrating that he is flawed, too, and real. Not some saintly two-dimensional Perfect Man who the audience loves to hate as much for his perfection as his whining self-righteousness. Not someone who we all boo and hiss, crying, “You’re better off without him!”

And so I miss him more — we all miss him more — because of this imperfection.

But that’s later. First, the drama…

“Tell me.” My voice grates with wine and tiredness, and all the things that I’d quietly suspected, but hated myself for thinking.

“Soon after you met. You weren’t really with him then…”

Not “really” with him? my mind shrieks. Not “really” with him?

“It was in those first few weeks. One night when you were meant to meet us — after work I think. You didn’t show up. You’d just started writing then.”

Ah, the words. Of course, the words. See how it’s all tying together?

“Anyway… We were drunk. We were both really drunk. It didn’t mean anything. Not a thing.” Her hands go up, flat and open, proof of her innocence.

“We promised we’d never say anything. He didn’t want to screw things up. He was so in love with you.”

Obviously. Because when you really love someone, you sleep with their best friend.

“You were all he talked about.”

I try not to cringe at her use of the past tense.

“I felt really bad. Really. But there was no point saying anything. It would only have hurt you.”

And you would never do that, would you?

I look into my glass. Four bits of cork float on the surface, bumping into each other and the side of the glass as I swill the wine around and around.

And then three of the bits are stuck to her face, and the wine drips from her chin, and I look around interestedly for the fourth piece of cork.


I have a plaque on my wall about friendship. It’s old and corny, but I’ve had it so long there’s a stain on the wall edging it, from age or water. From life. So I’ve left it there to hang.

It’s a list of what makes a friend true. Line after line of what friends do. Friends listen when you need to talk. Friends talk when you need to listen… That kind of thing, on and on all the way down the plaque. Except there’s one missing that they really should include, Friends don’t sleep with your husband.


I can’t sleep again, and the morning seems a lifetime away. My characters are filling my head, fighting to be heard, to live. They’re always clearer to me at night. Perhaps the day’s events, by then, have been sorted, and my brain is ready to tackle the moments without order. My creative mind takes over and prowls the dark night, looking for treasures hidden under rocks, secrets taped to the bottom of wicker love seats. And then the characters start to breathe, and I am right there with them.

Never more than I am now, with Crystal.

I watch her enviously. The way her jeans cling to her hips, snug and unfettered, as though she couldn’t be more comfortable or at ease. Her short, midriff tops are light in colour to offset her tanned flat stomach that glistens under the camera lights. I’ve always wanted my clothes to sit on me like that. Natural and easy, not like I’ve dedicated a good part of the morning trying to squeeze into my jeans. Or that I’ve had them altered twice for my height — first shortened, then lengthened again because the extra weight I’d put on made them sit two inches above my Achilles, revealing my squat ankles in all their stumpy glory.


CRYSTAL: It’s no use. He knows everything. We have to stop.

MITCH: I’ll never do it, Crystal. I’ll never give up. You mean too much to me. We mean too much to each other.

CRYSTAL: Oh, Mitch. This is crazy! You need to start a new life. Forget about me.

MITCH: Never, Crystal. As long as my heart beats and there is air in my lungs, I will love you. I will always love you.

“Crystal’s sobbing by then. Really into it. But Mitch stays strong. He takes her in his arms, strokes her forehead while the music kicks in, and then he sings their song. The camera stays there, then pulls away to show Blake standing right behind them.”

“Then what happens?”

“Well, nothing. That’s it. The camera holds them, to let the audience know Blake’s heard it all. That they’ve been caught again, only this time, by the look on Blake’s face, we know it’s serious. Really serious.”

I watch my producer absorb this. He’s an older man, and looks a bit like my dad, but a lot less friendly. He’s pretty gruff most of the time. Crystal’s terrified of him. Even now, after two years working there.

“I don’t like it.”

“You don’t like what?” I ask, feeling the shock of his words reverberate through me. I try to think which part he’s worried about. “Is it the song? We could cut the song. I thought it’d be an easy connection for the audience, plus a shot at cross-promotion. But I’m not married to it. I won’t die in a ditch. Is it the song?”

“No. Not just the song. I don’t like any of it.”

“But, but…” A thousand thoughts rush through my brain, but I can’t seem to grab hold of even one of them. So I stand there, stupid and mute, while he waits for me to leave his office.

I suppose he realizes I’m not leaving because he clears his throat, looks at the door pointedly, then puts down the paperwork he’d already begun shuffling.

“Actually, it’s Mitch and Crystal. I don’t like them.”

“But, they’re the whole thing! The whole series has been geared toward this moment. That was the plan.” It feels like the earth is shifting beneath my weight and I am left floating — hovering — dangerously above it. Out of the corner of my eyes, I can see the walls moving.

“I don’t believe them,” he says simply, shrugging away all my words and, yes, me too. Shrugging away me.

“Believe them?” I sound hysterical. The edge in my voice has shifted to one decibel below a shriek, and is already of a similar pitch. “How can you not believe them? They’re everything romance should be. They are passion and intensity. Courage and truth. They are … they are … impregnable,” I finish, although I stumble a bit over the word and remember, belatedly, why I never include it in dialogue.

“Yeah, well, I think they’re boring. Cut them.”

For a full minute I am unable to draw breath. I must look a little scary because he gets up quickly as though ready to perform CPR, but looking also like he really doesn’t want to. When I’m able to breathe again, I say quietly, through gritted teeth, that he can’t do that. That the audience would crucify him. That the people want love. “They crave romance,” I yell, “Crystal and Mitch define romance!”

The producer is watching me closely. He’s already decided I’m insane — you can see it in his eyes. He’s unsure what I’ll do next and is primarily concerned with getting me out of his office, into someone else’s realm of responsibility. But I suppose he thinks I’m still capable of reason, and that if he talks quietly, calmly, I’ll leave.

“Look. I know you’re having trouble at home——”

“What?” I say. “What?”

“Your husband left...”

He’s waving his hand around like he doesn’t know what to do with it, and all I can say is, “You’re going to cut Mitch and Crystal?” My voice is now a hateful whimper. And I decide immediately that it’s all Mitch’s fault — the whole thing, this disaster, comes down to Mitch.

“The ratings have dropped consistently since Crystal and Mitch got together. The audience loved the first kiss, but have hated everything since. I thought the best friend’s betrayal would pick it up, but it didn’t. Crystal and Mitch need to disappear ASAP. A death would be good. Maybe a murder/suicide. That’d work. Might help us move things over the holiday break. Open up some space for new characters, new stories——” his eyes narrow to ensure I understand before he continues, “new writers.”

“No.” That’s all I say. One word, one statement, encompassing every single emotion I have suffered these past weeks. It is the summary of me. Simple, clean, complete. No. That’s all. Just no.

“Well, obviously you’re fired.”


“So now you should go.”



“No.” I am loving this word. All this time I’ve tried to write lives, build worlds, with word upon word, when the answer’s been staring me in the face. This perfect, facile yet all-consuming word. No. It’s beautiful. This word, no, is beautiful.

By now security have shown up and all I can say, over and over, is “no”. I say it louder and louder. I say it — scream it — so many times that it loses meaning, run together in a string like that. But I know, too, that I can’t alter its meaning, or contextualize its point. I can’t manipulate it in any way. The meaning is so intrinsic, so wholly definitive that, even I, a wordsmith, a word lover, a writer, can do nothing except say it.




And it feels good.


So I’m at home now, sitting at my desk. I have no job. No husband. No best friend. I’ve never been more alone in my life, and yet I feel better than I have in years. I’ve brought Crystal with me, of course, tucked away in my mind and my computer. After a time, I’m sure I’ll let her out. Perhaps find her another Mitch, or even a Blake, maybe a best friend. But for now she can rest. Pull on some loose, comfortable jeans, tie up her silky blonde hair, and hang out at the local mall, being gorgeous and elegant and slim. While I continue at my computer, working on the perfect sentence, writing my entire life. Tiny words on a vast white page:

No. No. No.