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Monday, 18 June 2018

Book review: Axiomatic, Maria Tumarkin (2018)

This collection of literary journalism employs a psychogeography that locates it mostly in Melbourne but there are sections, such as where she talks about the entrepreneur Nahji Chu, that zoom in on Sydney. Like Hunter Thompson, Tumarkin brings herself as narrator into the drama but the main debt the author has is to another American, Joan Didion. When Tumarkin in one of the chapters talks about “hillbilly directors” she is nodding in the direction of Didion, who surveyed the culture of her native California and highlighted its big intake of migrants from the Midwest in the 1930s.

In fact Tumarkin’s prose feels more like poetry than anything else. It can be exhilarating. Her style reminds me of a trope I used myself about 10 years ago during question time after a talk organised by people from a major English news magazine. The talk was held at the Seymour Centre, near Victoria Park in Sydney, and I got up when it was over to ask a question of the person who had given it. China, I proposed, was governed by a terrified group of men who were like a circus performer who is riding bareback, standing up on a horse going around an arena, and he is frightened both of falling and of getting off. In Tumarkin’s book, the circus metaphor works (more a high-wire act) because of the elliptical nature of her impressionistic prose, which is fecund with ideas in a way one of the Romantics devised to describe Shakespeare’s blank verse: ideas tumbling and tripping over themselves in their rush to appear.

For this reason, the book can be incredibly satisfying. It is full of interesting insights and perceptions as Tumarkin uses her journalism training to take us behind the headlines to a different place where you can contemplate in a composed frame of mind more eternal things: sex and death, nature and nurture, love and hate. But on occasion the machine fails, as in the third section of the third chapter. In this part of the book, which talks about an old diary that was found in the countryside in Russia and led to strange discoveries by a person living in the present, the stated relationships between people named in the text elude the grasp of your attention and you cannot keep up with the narrative’s forward movement. Tumarkin likes to write in this way – running fast on a narrow track – but the slightest slip-up causes everything to fall down like a house of cards. She has a habit, for example, of leaving out articles in front of nouns (“a” and “the”) because to keep them slows down her delivery, and she is all for pace.

The book is like this from the very beginning, where the author introduces a girl who one day finds her sister has killed herself. She drops names into the flow of the text to indicate who is the subject and who is the object, but boundaries are made to blur by using ellipses, buttressed by punctuation (em-dashes, semi colons) and fomented by the author running along at a fast rate without checking to make sure the reader is still with her. All of a sudden a name appears (“Amanda”, say) that had been used earlier in the narrative, and you falter as you struggle to remember who Amanda was when she had appeared before. I had to tap my way back many pages in the Kindle on a couple of occasions up to the point in the book where I left off reading. There might have been more vaguely Didionesque failures like this later on, I can’t know.

On the upside, this author’s complex and sophisticated language reminded me of Vladimir Nabokov, another Russian emigrant, who went to American during WWII to escape the Nazis (his wife, Vera, was, like Tumarkin, Jewish) and who switched halfway through his life from writing in his native Russian to writing in English, with spectacular results after an erratic transitional phase. There are marks of the inventiveness and playfulness of Nabokov’s prose here, in addition to the nuance and elusiveness of Didion’s. Tumarkin made me think, as I was out walking today, about the male bowerbird who customarily brings an array of blue objects to his nest to decorate it as part of his mating technique. The precious coloured things Tumarkin drags out of a broad lexicon of experience she has built up over years of meaningful life are presented to the reader for his or her perusal, in order to complete the transfer of knowledge in a mostly reliable manner.

The highfalutin title motions toward what might have been a useful organising principle for the author in writing the book, which contains recounts from different parts of her life, including visits to local courts to hear the progress of criminal and civil cases, stories about people she has met (she has children who might be in their late teens), interviews with people, and quotations from books she has read. The chapter titles are like shiny coins struck from the ore of popular culture, refined within the crucible of the author’s imagination. But it is hard when you are gripped by the busy-ness of the prose to keep in your mind the overarching framework Tumarkin proposes. The title reminded me as I was reading the book of the often-arch titles that literary journal editors give to new issues of their magazines in order to lend some sort of form to them for the benefit of prospective readers.

In this book, the outlines of the forest disappear in the thickets it contains where cognates and feelings created by the author are used to weave tales about youth suicide, homelessness, drug addiction, administrative injustice, parental failure, and other totemic aspects of modern society. The gnarly problems that emerge in the newspapers on a daily basis that despite our best efforts always seem to elude anything approximating lasting solutions.

I highly recommend this book. It demonstrates how important migrants can be for a nation’s culture. They bring new ways not just of seeing the world but also of expressing ourselves. The twin branches of rhetoric – signification and style – are with their help refreshed and invigorated.

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