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Sunday, 16 December 2018

Book review: Milkman, Anna Burns (2018)

This earnest feminist screed represents another failure of the Booker Prize judges to make a sensible choice. I read a bit of it but it’s so stubbornly serious and airless, like an iron box in which all your feelings as a reader are trapped, unable to fly, that I soon gave up. Women might have more luck with it. For me, it virtually screamed the word “victim”.

The basic story is troubling and determinedly so. It’s set in Northern Ireland in the 1970s (?) and is about a young woman, aged 18, who starts getting unwanted attention from a sectarian fighter who hates the authorities to the point of violence. Her sister and her boyfriend are introduced but the unremitting insistence on the Milkman with his suggestive banter and sudden appearances suck all the life out of her life, and the reader is subject to the same lack of freedom. You can see trouble coming from the start, and it’s always there, like a monkey on the back of some fictional character out of a fairy tale. Needs relief in some part of the narrative; there is a dizzying lack of room for the reader’s imagination to move in this precious piece of politicking.

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Book review: November Road, Lou Berney (2018)

This hardboiled number failed to keep me interested for more than a chapter-and-a-half. Its two-dimensional characters do not engage the reader enough to keep you reading. The opening chapter is about a New Orleans underworld figure named Frank Guidry who ends up having sex – an act that is graphically described – in his luxurious apartment in that city with a young woman who approached him when he was sitting at a table in a bar. Guidry had earlier sold out an old friend of his named Mackie who had fallen out with a crime boss named Carlos.

The second chapter features a mother named Charlotte who has two small girls and a husband who drinks too much and has trouble keeping a job. Charlotte needed a lot more depth to remain coherent in the splash of events that cascade along the narrative arc in this chapter. I didn’t see why I should be interested in her, her children, or her husband, although it is clear that you are supposed to be.

There was no apparent connection between the story in which Frank appears and the one that features Charlotte. But the threads of narrative themselves are slight and lacked the sort of spark that can engage the reader and keep you turning the pages. With genre fiction often you have a problem with characterisation. The plot is pushed forward by general tropes that have a basis only in literary convention, and the nuances that normally go toward making up the people who are involved in the drama are lost in the schematic imaginings that animate the story. I found Frank merely unsavoury and Charlotte merely pitiful.

And the way that genre denies the legitimacy of literary tropes like stream-of-consciousness or complex metaphors cements it in the reader’s mind as a reactionary form of writing, as though all those newfangled gimmicks were somehow inauthentic and foreign compared to the down-home, plain-speaking simplicity of the American genre take. The early scene on the streets of New Orleans in this novel have all the dullness and predictability of a beer commercial screened during the final game of the season.

This is anti-literature, and it is so determined to erode the credibility of the mainstream that it rolls out every stale trick in the book. It’s so bland to be almost mistaken for the avant-garde, in case you were in the US and were looking for an authentic style of writing to match the impossible visual clichés of filmmaker David Lynch. It’s true that on the other hand there is plenty of bad experimental fiction around the place, but this is just going too far.

Friday, 14 December 2018

Aboriginal genocide and the distortion of history

On 27 November at 8.56am the Auschwitz Memorial Twitter account in Poland tweeted, “When we look at Auschwitz we see the end of the process. It's important to remember that the Holocaust actually did not start from gas chambers. This hatred gradually developed from words, stereotypes & prejudice through legal exclusion, dehumanisation & escalating violence.”

All of this is true, but for conservative Americans these will be hard things to listen to. There is a hard-right flank in the community there that harbours ill will toward minorities and that wants us to look away as it changes the debate to make it easier to demonise people who look different from them. Republican politicians are broadly sympathetic to such people and use rhetorical techniques to “dog whistle” in public, or in other words to call up negative emotions in certain people in order to further policy aims, without actually using words which would attract censure from people in the centre. It’s a kind of oblique hate speech, but it’s one that won’t necessarily result in a swing against them at the ballot box (of course, as we saw with the result of the Victorian election in November, it can backfire if taken too far).

Far-right culture warriors hate it when you talk about the Nazis because it exposes their real motivations. The truth is a tonic in contemporary debates because it reveals people for what they actually are. But people on the left are sometimes equally unwilling to face thee truth. On Twitter, @dearnonnatives tweeted, “Saying ‘the early settlers were illegal immigrants’ is harmful. They were not immigrants, they were colonizers. There’s a difference. Colonizers came here to take over the land and kill us. Immigrants are just trying to live a better life.”

You find this kind of view voiced by people on the left all the time with regard to the Aborigines of Australia. I had a long conversation with some people recently on Facebook about this issue and a lot of heated argument resulted because it seemed like I was playing down the loss of life on the frontier during the colonial period. But the facts of the case militate against the use of the word “genocide”. It is true that there was a determined official push to kill Aborigines in Tasmania but official policies on the mainland were not so rigid.

You only have to read history books that deal with the frontier during the colonial period. None of the reputable ones use the word “genocide” for a start. But what strikes me when reading these books is how many different stories there are. It's not one story all the time. To take one book for example, 1995's 'Waterloo Creek' by Roger Milliss, which is about the Myall Creek massacre in 1838. For one thing, some of the Wirrayaraay in the area were being employed by a local stockman on the day the killings took place. Then there was the convict, Anderson, who tried to help the unfortunate women, men and children the settlers rounded up. Then after the massacre happened there was a man in a nearby town named Foot who took the news all the way to Sydney (it happened on the Liverpool Plains) so that the authorities could learn of it. Then the governor asked a local magistrate named Day to investigate the killings. Then of course there was the trial (or, more correctly, two trials) as a result of which some white men were hanged. Other books tell similar stories.

Different states had different responses to the Aboriginal populations that lived in their territories. In Queensland they had the notorious “native police” who were used to control the indigenous tribes, and the use of euphemisms to disguise what they did (“dispersal”) was commonplace. But these measures were not used in all states at all times. Many settlers had good relations with Aboriginal people for most of the time, and employed them on their farms to mutual benefit.

But people who support a progressive agenda don’t care about truth, they just want their favourite policy to win in the contest of ideas that constitutes contemporary politics. And, as always, the most extreme viewpoint will get all the attention, which is why the people on the far-right I spoke about at the beginning of this post are so popular in the public sphere. Then there’s the pushback, so a word like “genocide” is thrown around with wild abandon by the left-wing culture warriors as they fight their opponents using all the rhetorical devices they can muster in support of their opinions. The first casualty in war, as we know, however, is the truth.

Thursday, 13 December 2018

Book review: Human Race, Ian Mortimer (2014)

Subtitled ’10 Centuries of Change on Earth’, this book goes into detail at various times in history to show how things in the past were the cause of major changes, but have since been forgotten by people in the broader community. I read part of the chapter on the 14th century as that is an era of particular interest for me, but I couldn’t really get into the book.

While it is adequately detailed to allow you to grasp the importance of the things that the author singles out for regard, I found the book disappointingly dull and uninspiring. I cannot put my finger on the problem other than to say that nothing that Mortimer singled out for attention seemed to me as of particular significance.

To give an example of what I’m talking about, Mortimer in the chapter on the 14th century focuses on the rise of nationalism in the period, and the consequent increase in the importance of vernacular languages. Now, this is something that I am particularly interested in as it dovetails with my own conception of later Medieval history as a time when major changes were afoot that might have been invisible to people living at the time. And vernacular literature is one such phenomenon. But Mortimer doesn’t talk about Frencesco Petrarch at all, despite the fact that, with his earlier countryman, Dante Alighieri, Petrarch almost single-handedly sparked the conflagration that would become the Renaissance, with his vernacular poetry and his interest in classical manuscripts.

So Mortimer missed out on an opportunity to link his ideas with larger trends that characterise this period of history, and that would become more important with the rise of religious fundamentalism associated with the era that came immediately after it. It seems like a small failing but I think that Mortimer should have taken a more popularist approach to his task, and linked what he wanted to say to larger narrative conventions (Martin Luther, Renaissance theatre) that people in the wider community will already have at their command. It doesn’t hurt to give people hints as to how to interpret the material that is original and rare that you are showing them.

The other thing that is a little disappointing is that the book seems to be determinedly Anglocentric, by preference making much of advances that originated in England. This is really strange for a book that purports to be of universal significance (although it is purely focused on European history).

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Debate over a Voice to Parliament has to get beyond emotion

There seems to be a radical disconnect between the Aboriginal community and the mainstream when it comes to discussions of the Reconciliation Council's 2017 report. I have written about this report at least twice on this blog since August 2017 when it was released. Left-wing culture warriors are not helping to bridge the divide however, and there is a startling lack of facts in any of the discussions that are taking place online.

The Liberal Party has said that a Voice to Parliament would function as a third chamber in Parliament and both prime ministers – Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison – have refused to bring the issue to the people for a vote. The report itself says "the structure and functions of the [Voice are] to be defined by Parliament". There is a document publicly available, a discussion paper, that goes into some detail about how a Voice might work. It is called ‘Hearing Indigenous Voices: Options for Discussion’ and I think it is available on the Parliament House website. I forget how I got hold of my copy, but I printed it out and have read part of it. The document runs to about 50 pages and goes into a lot of detail about how a Constitutionally-mandated Voice could operate.

The thing to know at this point in the process is that there is a lot of detail available but not much of it is being used in conversations that are taking place. Presumably someone in the Liberal Party has read the discussion document (in addition to the Reconciliation Council’s report). But as far as I know no-one in the broader community has referred to it apart from the fellow on Twitter who helpfully brought it to my attention. If you do a Google search for the document there are no news articles that reference it, for example.

The document offers two different options for how a Voice would function. In either case there is a lot of detail to consider, and none of this interesting material has been mentioned in the public sphere as far as I’m aware.

So unless the government starts to look at the matter with some industry and application nothing will be resolved. If the government won’t talk about it the media will ignore it. Meanwhile the LWCWs get more and more incensed and the Aboriginal community turns to rhetorical tactics such as sarcasm in an effort to sway the government and make it act. It seems that Aboriginal people want the matter to be brought to a vote by the public before the actual details are worked out. This seems to be the message I am getting from that community in the public sphere. This seems to me to put the cart before the horse.

It's not hard to come to the conclusion that the government has reached, moreover. What would happen if the Voice came to a different conclusion than the House of Reps or the Senate, or both? How would such an impasse (on a piece of legislation the Voice was asked to adjudicate on) be resolved? How would you decide which bills were to be looked at by the Voice? Who would be electing the representatives who would sit on the Voice? How do you decide if someone is Aboriginal or not?

A Parliamentary committee toured the country to get input from people in different communities and made a report to the government in November of this year. I don’t remember hearing much about it in the media at the time and there is one Australian Broadcasting Corporation story about it. But until the government makes an announcement it is unlikely that the press gallery will look into the options that are being considered by different people in Australia. There has clearly been a lot of discussion about these matters involving a lot of people. But the debate has not started in public because the government doesn’t want it to.

There are still so many questions to answer in the case, including whether the Voice will be based on a piece of legislation alone or also on a Constitutional amendment. Some think that having the right to a Voice enshrined in the Constitution will make it less easily dispensed with by any future government, but simply using a bill in Parliament would be easier to action in practice. Meanwhile, the LWCWs just slam you for daring to ask them and the government is not budging. The Opposition says that it will put the matter to a popular vote but that is still no guarantee that it will succeed in actual fact. Referendums do not usually pass in this country and I cannot see this one getting up without bipartisan support.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Book review: Black Man, Richard Morgan (2007)

This noirish police procedural is alternatively titled ‘Thirteen’. It starts with promise but soon gets bogged down with technobabble invented to give fanboys their jollies.

The story of black COLIN assassin Carl Marsalis that opens the story has merit but he is taken out of the picture after a couple of chapters and then you are faced with the trials of COLIN policewoman Sevgi Ertekin. (COLIN is some sort of pan-continental government that controls space travel in the solar system.) The story is that a spaceship comes down in the ocean off San Francisco and Sevgi and her partner are sent out from the east coast to find out what happened to the occupants, who appear to have been surgically dismembered and eaten.

The pseudo-technological claptrap that results from this set of circumstances was intensely trying and I gave up reading after less than 15 percent of the book had elapsed. You get loaded down with information about space travel, the intricacies of suspended animation, and the relative distance at different times between the Earth and Mars. The plot stalls as the author fills you up with details you will presumably need in order to make judgements about the characters involved and about the crime that has been committed. It feels like you have to do what the Romans allegedly did when they went to banquets: get rid of the food you have eaten so that you can stuff more in. I now know what a turkey feels like at Christmastime.

With "real-world" fiction (genre or literary), the ground rules are understood and there's no need to describe basic things. And all humans have basically the same motivations, at least, all men and all women. Men and women share some motivations, and there are some things that separate them, and so condition the way they behave. Aliens (or the genetically-modified human, Marsalis, who is a character in this novel), on the other hand, need more backgrounding to be fully realised.

The hardboiled style that is used to develop character in this novel is also trying. It excludes so many types of emotion and tends to focus you on the nuts and bolts of the world that is being created. It’s like a series of memes is being used to describe existence. The relations between people are all filtered through this distorting lens, a lens that flattens out the characters you are presented with, and who have such an important function in the novel.

Monday, 10 December 2018

Book review: All Among the Barley, Melissa Harrison (2018)

I didn’t read much of this book I have to admit, but the reasons for that are complex and I will get to that later in this review. To summarise quickly, I found this novel to be mawkish and determinedly middle-brow. It seemed to embody a certain kind of English exceptionalism centred on rural life and the Great War. The author is an acclaimed novelist in the UK and writes a column for one of Rupert Murdoch’s vanity newsletters, the Times of London. She is completely unknown in Australia. I don’t know if she has a following in the US.

The drama centres on a girl named Edith June Mather who is aged probably in her mid-teens. The start of the novel (the part that I read) is located in the 1930s. Edith is at school and she helps around the farm but her main occupation seems to be reading novels. Promising material, you would think. She lives on a farm with her mother and father and brother Frank. Her sister Mary has married and has gone to live with her husband.

The first problem with this book lies with its use of technical language. Farmers might have more luck with this story than a city-slicker like me. I had to look up the word “rick” (meaning a pile of hay), for example, and could not identify the function of the big machine was that was brought to the farm in the early pages. It seemed to be a thresher but it was never explicitly stated. Harrison embeds the functioning of the farm into the narrative in a very intimate way, and if you are not au-fait with how a broadacre operation functions then you will be at a disadvantage when reading this book.

Edith’s status as an outsider was the thing that most pained me. I had come across the author on Twitter when she had posted a thread that contained a story I thought would be interesting to some of the people who follow me. I suggested to her that I take the thread and put it in a blogpost so that it could be shared more easily. Some of the people I had in mind to read the content are not very familiar with things that others find intuitive on social media, and I thought having a simple link to share would make it easier to propagate the message in the thread. But Harrison rounded on me and took offense that I would presume to offer any advice about how to use social media, how to blog, or how to write. I was dumbfounded by this reaction. I had merely been doing a kindness and had been punished in a most high-handed manner by someone whose idea of a hero for a novel is someone who loves words and is a bit of an outsider. Sort of like Lady Catherine de Bourgh depicting herself in a letter to a friend as Cinderella. The hypocrisy is as substantial as the irony is thick.

The affront I felt at Harrison’s treatment of me coloured my experience of her book, and I found it impossible to go on with it. In the end my impression of the book was that it is suitable for tweedy middle-aged women who buy Laura Ashley print bedspreads, watch ‘Antiques Roadshow’ and ‘Midsomer Murders’, and think that England is all about larks and fairies and old Saxon myths. As if the modern world were a thing to resent and that the passing of the old ways were something to regret. I think Harrison most likely voted ‘Leave’.

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Dream journal: Three

This is the third in a series of blogposts that chronicle dreams I have had. With some dreams, I can revive the memory just by focusing on a single element, for example a scene or an idea or a feeling. Other dreams disappear as soon as I wake up. As always, the date shown is the date the dream was captured.

2 December

I dreamed I was examining the driver’s seat of a car and there I found a number of electrical leads that were attached to something hidden in the padding. I didn’t look further however until, later, someone took the fabric cover off the seat and discovered a listening device had been installed there. It turned out that a policeman had put the device in the seat and as punishment he would go to jail. Then there was a real estate opportunity where in order to take advantage of it you had to use a website and subscribe with a monthly payment using your credit card. Instead of buying apartments in the development you subscribed to it in instalments and could take advantage of capital gain in that fashion. But other people there didn’t like this arrangement and told me so. One of them, a young woman who did ballet, made it clear that she would remind me of the thing that separated us on every available occasion, and this made me fearful. There was a multicoloured statue that had an abstract design and that pulsed with rainbow colours and this somehow represented her disdain in physical form.

4 December

I was in the downstairs part of the family house I grew up in, the part where my granny and us boys slept. In granny’s area, which comprised the front room where the TV was as well as a bedroom she used that had an en-suite bathroom attached to it, we were installing new toilets. This was in the front area that was adjacent to what was called the “rumpus room” (that had the pool table in it). There was already a toilet installed in the front area, against the wall behind which granny’s bedroom was located, but we were thinking about putting in another one against a different wall. I actually saw a toilet set up on the floorboards near where the TV was in real life. This toilet looked different from the one that was already installed, the one that had the pipe at the bottom going to the sewage system. This one had a wooden seat and lid and a pipe that went around in a loop at the front and that was attached to somewhere inn the floor. I didn’t know what the purpose of the pipe was but the discussion was around whether this new location for a toilet was suitable. I finally decided that since there was already a toilet installed in the room (this was in addition to the toilet I knew was already there in the bathroom in the en-suite) we didn’t need another one put there.

The scene changed and we were in a street. There were posters on billboards showing Scott Morrison, the prime minister, and then I remembered that he had been the CEO of the company I used to work with in Tokyo. The name of that company in real life was Yamatake. Here I was looking at magazines that we had published with stories about the CEO and with cropped images of his face. I studied one image, where his face had been trimmed so severely that it had been cut in half by the cropping, which had been done in an artistic fashion, and thinking that now he wouldn’t be very pleased with what we had done to his face on the page.

9 December

I was back in the office on Tokyo (where I worked during the 1990s) and I had been sent to the section that took over the English language PR role in the company, which my group had once looked after. I was just visiting and saw all the men and women at their desks working. Then I returned to my section and I was sitting at my desk when I started to feel sleepy. My manager had come to the office in the morning. I looked at my watch and it said that the time was ten o’clock, but I knew it was after lunchtime. I looked outside but it was still light, so I judged that it was 10pm. I wondered by it was still light but then got up from my desk and left the office building, and headed for a shop where they sold watches. I sat down at a table and waited and a woman came around with gifts, some of which she put on the table in front of me. There was some cash and some other objects, the use of which I understood at the time I was dreaming but which I have forgotten now. I said something about maybe buying a new watch and an older woman came to stand in front of the table I was sitting at. She started to loudly make a sales pitch, taking my careless remark for a promise to buy a watch. I needed a new battery but when someone came over to help me none could be found to fit my watch.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Why I can’t abide Lee Lin Chin

I wrote this a months ago and sat on it for almost half of the year, and decided to go ahead and publish it today.

The ‘4 Corners’ program on the ABC on 30 July, about Cambodia’s bloodthirsty autocrat Hun Sen should give everyone in Australia who are regretting the departure of SBS newsreader Lee Lin Chin second thoughts. Lee Lin’s plummy vowels and clipped consonants might be idiosyncratic here but they remind me of those of the leaders of Singapore, a quasi-democracy dedicated to preserving the influence of old men in government.

Singapore is a big investor in countries like Myanmar and Cambodia where the rights of ordinary people are swept aside by faceless men who have the power of the courts, the police, and the army at their disposal. It’s not just China investing in these places. Singapore is a big participant in the schemes that leave ordinary people in Cambodia without the means of supporting themselves.

In Singapore itself, the government routinely launches vexatious court cases in order to prevent the Opposition from contesting elections. Which is exactly what Hun Sen and Vladimir Putin did to their opponents in order to make sure the outcomes of elections recently held in their countries were not in question. In Singapore, the People’s Action Party are hell-bent on keeping the same party in government that has ruled the country since 1959, when it was still a British colony and before it was expelled from Malaysia in 1965.

They even gave their ex-prime minister, Lee Kwan Yew, the title “minister mentor” of the country from 2004 to 2011. His son, Lee Hsien Loong, is the current PM. It’s a joke. Malaysia is light-years ahead of Singapore in the democracy stakes. What kind of example does Singapore, an ostensibly democratic country, hold out to other Asian countries? None. It’s a decrepit gerontocracy.

Chin travelled to Singapore after she left SBS, and more recently has been offering her services to the Australian Greens and the Australian Labor Party as a candidate for a seat in the upcoming federal election. But she should now be denouncing the gerontocrats in Singapore and so using her public profile for good, instead of helping its corrupt leaders remain in power.

Friday, 7 December 2018

The first day of summer on the Bankstown Line

This is the latest in a series of what I call “meditations” that have appeared on this blog since January. There are 25 of them so far, including this one. Each one has a theme and each one, in my mind, forms a unified whole. They are written in contrast to the “collages” that I have written for the blog but that started even earlier, and which are samplings of things seen and heard while walking in the streets of the city. 

I waited for my friend at Redfern Station. They had redesigned the east entrance. There was a young guy with long hair and who was wearing jeans with a hole in the back pocket walking around in the atrium there near the displays showing routes and stops and times. He kept on glancing at me as he circled the enclosure and I became a bit alarmed. I walked over to the side of the space and stood near some railway staff. Then he met with the girl he was there to meet. They greeted each other with open arms and left the building together.

After that two heavyset Boomers in shorts came past quietly cursing. "Black c***," one of them said. Then he added, again loud enough for anyone to hear him if they were standing nearby, "Fucking n*****. I then saw a black man (but not an Aboriginal) wearing a red athletic top with white stripes on its sleeves, and he was looking at the two men who had been making these comments. He had earphones on that were attached to an electronic device that was evidently playing music. He seemed to know however that the two men had been saying things about him. All the men disappeared from view. Then, just for good measure, a man came through the space dribbling a soccer ball.

On the train out to Cabramatta two young Anglo men were sitting nearby. They were talking about learning languages. One of the men was the expert on French and he was teaching his companion about the language. But he made basic errors. In his mind, the first-person plural of "vouloir" (to want) was "nous voyons", which actually means "we see". The true declension is "nous voulons". It was totally engrossing for me, who learned French from the age of eleven until I was about 23. I sat there eavesdropping compulsively. I couldn't help myself. And I thought about the way each new generation has to be the first to discover everything. The two men got of at Marrickville. I was not surprised. My friend and I were headed further west.

We I stopped at Campsie and went into a Cantonese restaurant to eat some food. One of the waitresses who served us had worked at a different restaurant that I used to go to in Campsie ten years before. I had lived in the suburb from late 2005 until early 2009. At that time, she had worked at a restaurant at the southern end of the shopping centre. But I recognised her face. The restaurant we were at now was located at the northern end of the shopping centre. As we were walking north into Anglo Square a man walking a bicycle and who had stopped on the pavement dropped a magazine that he had held in his hand. I bent down and picked it up off the ground and he looked me right in the face and thanked me in English, then in Mandarin, “Xiexie!”

At one station on the journey out to Cabramatta on the same line two young black women got off the train and as they walked along the platform to the station exit the one who was walking behind her companion looked at me straight in the eyes as I sat on the train’s seat. Her companion was pushing a pram.

Once we got to Cabramatta my friend and I ordered more food at a restaurant. This time I had egg noodles in soup along with crispy fried chicken. A woman who worked there who was in her fifties and who was dressed in tight black (leather-looking) slacks came to the door near where we were sitting to look out into the street, then went back inside the room. About five minutes later two people arrived at the door and she came out again, to meet them this time. The people she met were both dressed in black and were aged in their late fifties or early sixties. Like the woman in the tight slacks, they were immigrants from Vietnam who had arrived in Australia in the 1970s. The man was wearing a casual black jacket and dark sunglasses and neat black trousers. The woman was wearing a body-hugging black dress made of some elasticised fabric. She had on designer sunglasses that had big, plastic frames. Both of the people who entered the restaurant were slim and both looked like they had money. It was an ensemble with people who would be played by character actors in a TV series.

On the way back to Sydney my friend and I hurried through the doors of a train waiting at the station and sat down in the lower deck. There was a young black man sitting on a seat behind us and we asked him if the train we were on was going to the city. He said it was but added, “the long way”. We asked him what that meant and I ventured that it was via Bankstown and as I said the word he also said the name of the same station. We were in perfect accord.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Why the anti-encryption law would be unworkable

The following came into a thread I saw on Twitter from Peter Logue, who used to work as a journalist. I contacted Peter in a DM and with his son's help we produced this for publication. Peter says his son has worked in game development in Australia and China. His son then worked for a few years with Appster before setting up an IT consultancy called SixSix with Carl Rigoni, who ran an innovation division at Australia Post. His son deals with software development and encryption and security issues on a daily basis. Some of his son’s peer group are senior advisers on IT security to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Defence, and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

My eldest son has worked in IT and game development for over 15 years. He’s now a consultant to many major companies and works with software developers. Here’s what he says about the proposed anti-encryption legislation the government is trying to get through federal Parliament: It’s not actually possible to implement it in a modern software company.

To give you an idea of why it's not possible, picture the following scenario: I manage a software development company that is building some technology that uses encryption. This technology is being built for a client of mine that chose to work with my company because of our good reputation. With the new legislation, the government can contact one of my employees behind my back and tell them to build a backdoor into the software without my knowledge. If the employee tells me about it, they could be facing jail time under the new rules.

With my management tools though, I track every minute of their work and every line of code that they write is reviewed and automatically tested. If there’s anything unexpected in there it will cause the automated tests to fail, which will highlight the presence of the rogue code. Even if my tests don’t pick up on it, I can see that this developer is taking far longer completing the work than they should (because they are spending time working on features for the government). I ask the developer about this, and they can’t tell me about it, so I check the work that’s been done and see that the software is compromised. At this point I start jumping to conclusions, and I might think it’s a Chinese hacker stealing our work or something like that, and report the employee to the police. What happens then?

I don't think the people that wrote this bill understand how technology development works. That’s probably the reason why much of the wording of this bill has been left vague or undefined. If political parties want to get votes to prove they have robust cybersecurity policies, then enacting laws to make local cybersecurity weaker is not a good way to do it. It's arse-backwards anti-security and will undermine international confidence in the Australian technology sector.

This comment from u/Groovyaardvark on Reddit sums it up well:
One of the ways #AABill gets access to systems is by commandeering employees of companies to write backdoors. But they’re not even allowed to tell their employer, or face jail time. I went through the mechanics of this, and realised how out of touch Canberra is...
Peter’s son adds the following conversation to describe how the laws would apply in real life once they are enacted:
"Johnson, why are all of your tickets building up!? What are we paying you for?! We will need to discuss a performance improvement plan.”  
“But, sir, I've been working really hard on this err... other project...”  
"What project?"  
“Errrm....it's umm...I can't tell you."   
So the choice is, A: Get fired, B: Go to prison.  
“I'll pack up my desk I guess.” 
I wonder who will be the next lucky developer chosen to secretly undermine and destroy their employer’s products behind their backs?

UPDATE 7 December 2018 6.25am: The bill passed through both houses of federal parliament yesterday on the last sitting day before the end-of-year break.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Book review: On the Java Ridge, Jock Serong (2017)

I’m not going to mess around with niceties reviewing this book, an engrossing, compelling, and intelligent political thriller that with grinding efficiency tears holes in your emotional equilibrium, so I have to warn readers that this review will contain spoilers. If you don’t want to know what happens in this novel, stop reading here.

The story is simple and it’s a compelling one for Australians. A group of vacationers heads north from Darwin (presumably) heading for the surf breaks available in the Indonesian archipelago. They are led by a young woman named Isi (short for Isabella) Natoli and they are a varied bunch that includes a doctor and his son. At the same time, a boatload of refugees leaves Sumatra headed for Australia and asylum but due to a policy endorsed by the Australian government the bolts holding the engine in place have been filed down. The boat limps toward the island where Isi’s boat, the Java Ridge, has anchored and where its passengers are asleep in tents on the beach. The refugee boat hits the island’s reef and is wrecked but Isi and the others are quick to rescue as many of its passengers as they can. Many die but many are saved. One of Isi’s passengers, a young man named Tim, gets his foot stuck between the refugee boat and the reef, and it is crushed. Neil Finley is a doctor and his son Luke is a Scots student who wants to go into medicine. The two men operate on Tim and the surviving refugees bury their dead, then the lot of them pile onto the Java Ridge and head south toward Ashmore Reef.

During the voyage, Ali Hassan, the captain of the refugee boat, uses one of the refugees, a young girl named Roya, as a hostage and imprisons the rest of the people on the Java Ridge. He puts them belowdecks in the cabin and smashes the communications equipment on the boat, then turns it north, heading back to Indonesia. During the night, the Java Ridge hits a submerged log and the drives are damaged. As Ali Hassan, Isi and Luke are trying to fix the problem, Luke stabs Ali Hassan with an implement he holds in his hand, and Roya plunges a knife into Ali Hassan’s throat, killing him. Isi turns the boat south but Tim eventually dies because the infection in his leg.

Meanwhile, Cassius Calvert, the minister in charge of borders, is facing a dilemma. He learns about the Java Ridge and knows that he has to help its passengers but the prime minister, who is facing an election at the same moment, heavies him into ignoring the information that is coming from Core Resolve, the firm the government has hired to man the country’s northern borders. The order comes from the government that, instead of rescuing the Java Ridge, a drone should be used to shoot the boat out of the water. Cassius is distraught due to his party leader’s savage and single-minded purpose, and records a meeting he has with him in his office on the night before the election. The next morning, Cassius suicides by drowning himself in Lake Burley Griffin and his PA sends the recording of the conversation to the press gallery.

This is a gripping read but as with many genre novels life is cheap. It seems that drama is nothing unless someone dies first, or unless they are threatened with death. I found this aspect of the work distressing and unnecessary. Beyond that, the basic premise is a simple one, and it hinges on the reader accepting the contumely of the Australian government and the worthiness of the refugees. Roya is an engaging subject for fiction and her friendship with Isi is infectious. The devil’s advocate, Carl Simic, with his opinions about economic refugees and his distaste for people from other countries, especially for Muslims, is overshadowed by the government’s hypocrisy. Eventually, Isi and Carl come to terms with each other in the presence of emotions released by the drama they are involved in.

Putting all your money on the fundamental decency of a boatload of refugees is taking a gamble, however. Ali Hassan turns out to have been a victim of Saddam Hussein, so his responsibility is mitigated. The religious rites the refugees use at a time of stress to discover some solace in a harsh world ignores the way that societies in the Middle East barely function; it’s a little brazen to lay all the blame on corrupt leaders. People living in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq are just as responsible for the health of their polities as are the community in Australia for the health of theirs, where it gets to elect federal leaders every three years. I found the noble savage theme a bit tiresome, to be frank, and felt that Serong was looking at his creations through rose-tinted glasses. But this is not great literature and it is not designed to provide nuance and subtlety. It is designed to make you turn pages.

One other thing that I think merits attention is the character of Cassius. His divorce from his wife was difficult and she treats him with contempt. He loves his son (who touchingly has a pet chicken he takes with him wherever he goes; this is a nice touch by Serong) and treats him with dignity and care. He has a good relationship with his PA, who is like something from a casting list for the ABC sitcom ‘Utopia’, and is very funny in a zany kind of way. But he tends to rest on his laurels a bit with regard to his position as a minister of the crown. He gloats a bit too much about the power the job gives him. But on the other hand once the PM turns against him due to the refugee boat the authorities and Core Resolve discover in the waters north of the continent, he folds like a house of cards under the senior man’s withering scorn. The character of Cassius might have been a bit stronger if he had been a bit less vain and a bit more resilient. But genre novels demand scalps, and the suicide at the end is a tactic by the writer that merely follows a logic dictated by the rest of the book.

In the final analysis the danger of privatising essential services is scrutinised with ruthless effectiveness by this novel. It reminds me of the way that a similar theme is explored in the speculative fiction work ‘Dyschronia’ by Australian author Jennifer Mills (which I reviewed on 1 February this year on this blog). A kind of dysfunctional society where official accountability is mitigated through the use of hired intermediaries is a distinct possibility, with more and more government services contracted out to unaccountable operators that are often owned by overseas interests. In the end, we should all prefer to see the Navy in charge of the borders. And we should also think about doing something positive to remove the incentive for people smugglers to sell hope to desperate people. It’s time that we set up a refugee processing centre in Jakarta.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Book review: The Girl on the Page, John Purcell (2018)

This strange and ambitious book is a hybrid of two distinct things: a genre novel and a work of literary fiction. Despite some shortcomings it forms a generalised paean to writing, and especially to fiction. The following review contains spoilers, so if you don’t want to know what happens in the book it’s probably best to stop reading now.

The story charts part of the chaotic life of Amy Winston, who is an editor working for a publishing house whose reputation is partly based on her success in massaging the works of a thriller writer named Liam Smith into commercially viable products. At the height of her success, Amy is asked by her company, which has just been bought by a German firm, to help an older English writer named Helen Owen to complete a manuscript to be ready for publication. The company had already paid a two-million-pound advance to Helen for a book but Helen had been unable to submit a manuscript by the time specified in the contract. Hence their sending in Amy. The company had also started threatening Helen with legal action designed to retrieve the advance, which had in the meantime been spent buying a house for Helen and her husband, novelist Malcolm Taylor, in a nice area of London. The two had previously lived in a small flat in Brixton.

Helen has produced three separate manuscripts and has submitted one to the company. The editor, whose name is Clarissa, and who by this time has left the company, had thought that the manuscript was not up to the same standard as Helen’s earlier work. Amy asks Helen for a file to work with but Helen refuses to give it to her, fearing that it will be shared without her knowledge with other people, although all her work is at this point in her life produced on a computer. The couple have a separate unit in their house suitable for Amy to use so Helen suggests that Amy move in and read paper manuscripts while living in their house. Access to the unit requires a separate key.

Amy is a loose cannon and when Daniel, Helen’s and Taylor’s son, comes to stay, having separated from his wife and children, sparks fly. Daniel tries it on with Amy, who initially has no interest in the fortysomething, overweight man, but one night when she comes home drunk late she lets him go to bed with her. He also has unresolved issues with his parents, who he accuses of being distant during his childhood.

Amy has strong appetites for alcohol and sex and she routinely uses people, such as a labourer and barman named Josh, who she gives money to, having plenty of it to use for whatever purposes she likes. She is also in touch with Max, a former boyfriend who operates a magazine, and with Alan, a lawyer who proposes marriage early on in the novel. Much of the action is rendered in the third person but for some chapters the first person is used, notably some in which the narrative is focalised through the characters of Amy and of Max.

There are not many people to like in this novel for much of its length, and Liam (who is black and with whom Amy has regular sex) is particularly distasteful, but it is written in an engaging and readable style despite threatening to lose even the most attentive reader because of its driving forward movement. In many of the passages of dialogue you wish that Purcell had put in a few more attributions saying “said Amy” to help you negotiate the intricacies of the plot. Other writers who produce complex plots, like Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, stop periodically and refresh the ledger for the reader, but Purcell does not think it necessary. He rushes on regardless and if you don’t have the wit to keep up, you are left behind. This I think is a weakness of this novel. The relentless onward push of the narrative is demanded by its style but the complexity of the story asks that a bit more time be spent on cementing facts in the reader’s mind. Which version of Helen’s novel was submitted to Clarissa? Which one did Amy email to Liam to read?

In the end, Liam sends Julia – Amy’s nemesis at the publishing house – the draft manuscript that Amy had already worked on, and Julia tells Helen that she will go ahead and publish it. Or perhaps it was the draft that Amy had not worked on. It’s not clear. The novel doesn’t let you know for certain because its helter-skelter pace requires that facts are left behind almost as soon as they are stated. In any case, this thread of the story is resolved halfway through the book when Julia accepts the first version of Helen’s manuscript. So the house (that has caused Malcolm so many problems) will not be lost. But the story doesn’t stop there. Daniel suicides while the public debate about his father’s latest novel evolves and it is longlisted and then shortlisted for the Booker Prize (a major Anglosphere literary prize that is awarded every year). Amy is dragged into the intricacies of Helen’s and Malcolm’s life and Malcolm appears to be losing his memory: he thinks that Helen has died but his doctor does not produce a diagnoses of dementia. One day he ends up at the flat that he and Helen had lived in while they brought up their son, and the current resident calls to tell Helen and Amy about the old man’s sudden appearance at his front door.

Reality intrudes into the calm provinces of the publishing world that Amy had thought she inhabited. Things turn ugly, then alarming, then fatal, then they resolve as she is presented with the truth (as Purcell sees it) about the literary world even as the bodies pile up (as often happens with genre novels). And so the story advances to its close. Amy still has not got back into a relationship with Max, and Alan has committed to a marriage with a man. All the while, the pages turn.

The trope of three related manuscripts has been used before, in Christopher Priest’s 1981 science fiction novel, ‘The Affirmation’ (which I reviewed here on the blog on 29 August this year). In Priest’s novel, the manuscripts play a central role in the plot, as they do here in Purcell’s novel. And both novels are not only therefore metafictional works, they are also both genre works that are worthy of serious regard.

But a criticism I have is the way Purcell’s book deals with the elderly. Malcolm is (I think) 80 when the book starts and Helen is a few years younger. But while there are some reported thoughts – even though dialogue is more frequently used to do things like develop character and advance the plot – neither Helen nor Malcom have any thoughts about their bodies. The author was born in the mid-70s, so he has not yet entered “old age” himself, but speaking from experience (I was born in the early 60s) there is one thing that universally characterises that state of being: the breakdown of the body. It’s not merely going to bed early and waking up early. Old age will result in a range of physical complaints, such as heart problems, high blood pressure, problems seeing things, and problems with joints and muscles. There is nothing in this book that reflects this reality, and it’s just not credible, especially as Malcolm seems to be suffering from a form of delusion and this impacts on the direction the story takes.

In the end, literary fiction is given a fillip but the style is all genre. It’s as though Modernism had not happened. There’s little notice given here to Joyce or Faulkner or Hemingway (well, maybe him) or Simon or Garcia Marquez. This novel’s head may harbour thoughts of fine literature but its heart is with the blockbuster, the page-turner, the best-seller. Not so long ago critics would call a novel like this “schizophrenic” because, they surmised, it had a “split personality”, even though they knew nothing about the particular disease the name of which they misused with such wild abandon. It was a term used to critique whatever book was up for discussion, usually not in a complimentary way. I will not use the term myself having, as it happens, a sound knowledge of what the disease actually involves (and it doesn’t involve anything like what people usually want to imply when they use the word).

Nevertheless, this novel is at least paradoxical because of the way it uses one style to tell a story that in its details critiques the precise style that is being used. In this sense, the book can be said to have metafictional themes as well as the other main themes in it, which are money and youth.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Book review: Boy, Lost, Kristina Olsson (2013)

The first thing I have to say about this book is that it desperately needs an introduction. It reads like a novel but it’s not, it’s a memoir that chronicles the life of the author’s mother. I had to go to Wikipedia to find this information after a few pages of reading, and a few pages of complete confusion. So, first-up, it’s non-fiction. And Olsson is Australian, although her biological father was from Sweden. If you don’t know that this is non-fiction, nothing makes sense because then the emotions that the book retails in just seem cheap and overblown and it looks like a publisher’s mistake. Possibly good for the chick-lit market, but certainly no prize winner.

Once you know that what you are reading is meant to be non-fiction you immediately come up against another problem. How could a woman whose own memories of her mother were partial at best have access to minute details captured in her mother’s consciousness, and how could she have rendered them in the narrative, down to the way that her mother felt when she got off the train in Townsville, having caught the train north from Brisbane and from her childhood, and having made her way to the shop operated by the man she wanted to marry?

It’s all so involved. Olsson goes to meet with her aunts to talk about her mother but these passages bleed into her mother’s memories of working in the café in Brisbane where Michael (the Greek immigrant who would invite her mother to move her north, and who would end up stealing her son from her), visited her. And all the feelings these scenes invoke merge with the writer’s feelings about her mother, feelings remembered from her own childhood.

There is an uncertain role for the author in this messy tale, it strikes me, and an ambitious but probably questionable tendency to visualise things that the author could never have really known for a fact. It’s a shame she felt she had to use this method to get her message across, and that she could not rather rely on a more accurate account of what she actually knew. I felt that if she could fictionalise in this way – to imagine, for example, the things her mother saw while walking down the street from the train in Townsville to Michael’s café – how can we trust that what she is writing is actual fact, or something else entirely? Faction, perhaps?

The author is not quite sure, furthermore, if she’s writing about herself and her feelings about her mother, or if she’s writing about her mother and her mother’s feelings about her grandmother. Lots of feelings, without doubt, but something like a lack of delineation separating one thing from the other. It’s all a bit confusing for the reader. It reminds me somehow of the claims in favour of inherited trauma that some people put forward to justify poor outcomes for children in the Aboriginal community.

Needless to say, I didn’t finish this book. It’s probably ungenerous of me to say but it struck me as being a strong contender for a prize for victim porn. A battered wife. Struggling, working class parents. A cruel, unfeeling husband. All well and good and deserving of a recount, for sure. But I wondered at the ability of the author to separate her own feelings from those that were experienced by her mother. Feelings, in turn, that the author pretends to have a comprehensive grasp of. This book displays a troubling lack of definition in its conception. This is a major problem for a work of this nature. For me, it was an unconvincing read.

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Ego, like tribal loyalty, cements people’s identity

If you don’t have a healthy ego you’re probably suffering from a mental illness. It is what keeps us confident and “happy” (that indefinable feeling of rightness that characterises our waking life, even if we are not aware of it most of the time). You don’t want to be without an ego. In its absence your life would be hell.

But ego has a drawback even while it keeps everything ticking along smoothly: it keeps new ideas out of our consciousness. We privilege what we already know and cleave to ideas that are central to our identity. This aspect of ego makes it a liability in some circumstances. We won’t listen. We reject things outright unless they’re wrapped correctly. We say “No” when we perhaps should think twice.

For groups of people, the function of ego is carried out by tribal loyalty. We might all be individuals, with own tastes and preferences, but we cannot survive alone, without a community to support us. The group has its own language, its common referents, its beliefs even. It has its icons and its leaders and its spokespeople. It has traditions and lore and ways for members to use to conduct themselves so that everyone gets along well. Pledging loyalty to the tribe, however, has, like ego for the individual, the downside risk that it serves to quarantine the group from valuable input from outside. People who are identified as outsiders are distrusted or even mocked and scorned. Their ideas are diminished by sarcasm and other rhetorical methods used to create community, or ignored.

So, good ideas can have trouble getting in. Bad ideas can be perpetuated regardless of their merit simply through common usage. If someone you trust says something that is factually incorrect, you are likely to believe that it is true. This happens all the time in the public sphere, where most people outsource their critical faculties to political parties. Individual tastes only go so far; mostly our preferences are predictable, and our likes and dislikes can be accurately mapped just by learning which group we belong to.

People use news stories to help them to create community, adding commentary on social media platforms to tell others who follow them what they should think about the offering. Approve or disapprove, accept or reject. All in the service of community building.

And the most extreme views are privileged over the more moderate ones. If you are shrill and if your comments are full of hatred then you will win approval and gain rewards from the group. If you are nuanced and subtle and if your messages have to be processed in the frontal cortex of the brain before being accepted as true, then people will most likely ignore you (if you are lucky).

Although, counter to the common belief, people actually are exposed to more points of view now, with social media, than in the days before it was available for use. But we don’t meaningfully discuss things with those whose opinions we disagree with. We use language to cement ourselves more strongly within our tribe and we attack and shame and ignore our enemies with complete disregard for the normal types of social conventions that referee interactions in the real world. Different rules apply here. This is the jungle and we are with our own people, like chimpanzees. Foreigners: get out!

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Book review: Killing Commendatore, Haruki Murakami (2018)

You know that feeling when you’re reading a book and you get shivers of pleasure running along your arms and your neck. That’s the sign of good literature, and this book delivers that kind of experience. It’s an experience that is unmistakeable to the committed reader, the person who prefers, to just about any other kind of activity, a quiet few hours ensconced in the living room on the couch with a book.

This is a remarkable work from a master of the novel form. Since ‘Sputnik Sweetheart’ (1999, English translation 2001) Murakami has produced a series of novels that have done the job in a practical sense, but have not equalled his early phase of magical realistic ventures, those masterpieces like ‘The Wild Sheep Chase’ (1985, English translation 1989), ‘Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World’ (1985, English translation 1991), and ‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’ (1994-95, English translation 1997). But now Murakami has regained the heights he had earlier scaled and is, some might with reason argue, the foremost novelist working in the field today.

I want to start this review with some criticisms though. The first has to do with the translation, which is into American English so you get localisms like “in back of” instead of “behind”. You also get measurements converted into empirical units like feet and inches (which is inaccurate because Japan, where the book is set, uses the metric system in all cases). But more disturbingly you get some strange things like the use of the word “district” instead of the more accurate “prefecture”. Japanese number plates show on them the prefecture the car is registered in, and using the word “district” instead just because your American audience can’t be bothered learning something new, is idiotic.

The other criticism I have stems from a choice Murakami himself has made in the book, which deals in part with a painter named Tomohiko Amada who was a master of what Murakami calls the “Japanese style”. To make his point he refers to the Asuka period (538AD to 710AD) which was precisely the period when Tang Chinese calligraphy and Buddhist practice were imported into Japan along with other elements of their culture such as painting with a brush on paper. So to call it “Japanese-style painting” is to do violence to the truth. It was precisely Chinese-style painting that Amada was practicing in the 20th century in Japan.

The way that China is depicted in the novel is of some interest because of certain elements of the plot and of characterisation. In what follows there are spoilers so people who don't want to know what happens in the novel before reading it should stop reading this review here.

‘Killing Commendatore’ deals with events in the life of an unnamed artist who is aged 36 and whose wife Yuzu one day tells him that she doesn’t want to be married to him anymore. They live in an apartment in Hiroo, in central Tokyo, and the protagonist decides to move out immediately. He goes on a sort of pilgrimage around the north of the country to assuage his grief but eventually a friend of his named Masahiko Amano (the son of the painter) offers him the use of his father’s house in Odawara, in Kanagawa Prefecture, about an hour by train from the metropolitan centre. There, he is approached by a man named Wataru Menshiki who lives in a big house across the valley. The protagonist has also started hearing the sound of a bell in the dead of night, and together with Menshiki he digs up a mound of stones that had been placed on the ground behind a shrine on the famous artist’s property. They discover a hole in the ground that had been constructed using stone, and in the hole there is a small bell that can be held in your hand that is of a type traditionally used in Buddhist ceremonies. Then things start to happen that he would never have expected.

One day after the hole has been revealed a small man appears in the protagonist’s house who looks like a character from a painting titled ‘Killing Commendatore’ that, before he was moved to a nursing home due to dementia, Tomohiko Amano had painted and hidden away in the ceiling of the house. The character is the ‘Commendatore’ of the title, a character taken from Mozart’s opera ‘Don Giovanni’ who is killed by the hero of the opera, Don Giovanni, who has tried to seduce or rape the Commendatore’s daughter, Donna Anna. The Commendatore is an older man in the opera and Don Giovanni represents impetuous and dissolute youth. The Commendatore as he appears to the protagonist is about two feet high and carries a sword and is dressed exactly as he appears in the painting, which is done in what Murakami calls the “Japanese style”. The little man when he refers to the protagonist uses the third-person plural “their” (as in “my friends have their ideas”) instead of “you” (there are different styles of second-person pronoun in Japanese that vary depending on who is talking to whom, but usually this kind of nuance does not come across in translation, for obvious reasons). The Commendatore calls himself an “Idea” and he appears to be able to read the minds of his interlocutors. He vanishes suddenly when the effort required to keep himself visible becomes too much, and he tends to appear at night. Only the protagonist can see the little man when he appears (until the end of the novel, but that part will have to remain hidden for now).

More things start to happen when Menshiki asks the protagonist to do him a favour. Menshiki wants the painter to paint a portrait of a thirteen-year-old girl, who lives in a house next to the painter and who Menshiki thinks is his biological daughter. The painter has already done Menshiki’s portrait, for a fee, and now the girl, Mariye Akigawa, comes to the painter’s house to sit for her portrait, accompanied by her aunt, Shoko Akigawa, a woman who is probably in her late thirties or early forties and who is the sister of Mariye’s father. The two come to the painter’s house several times, each time on a Sunday, and the portrait progresses as the artist plies his trade with intent focus in order to capture the essence of the strange girl, a girl who loves art and who is as headstrong and as unformed as most people are at her age. It should be noted here that Mariye is more well-defined than women and girls are in other Murakami novels, possibly because the writer has been taken to task from some quarters because of his way of handling females. This novel seems to answer critics on this count.

Then Mariye disappears. She doesn’t come home from school one day and Shoko calls the artist to find out if the girl had gone to his house. He doesn’t know where Mariye has gone. At the same time, the protagonist goes with Masahiko to meet Tomohiko Amano at his nursing home. They drive in Masahiko’s old Volvo and arrive at the institution but then things take an even stranger turn. I won’t go into too many details but there is a sequence when the protagonist is walking through a dream-like landscape that to my mind resembled the underworld in Dante’s ‘Commedia’. There is a ferryman and a fee to pay to get across a river. There is a quest and a trial to be endured before the story can resolve itself; will it be tragedy or comedy? Will Mariye be found? What about Yuzu and her unborn child? And what about the man in the white Subaru Forester? Will he reappear and, if he does, what will happen to the painter?

These questions are obviously mostly answered in the book by its denouement but I won’t go into details. The metafictional aspects of this novel are also worth having a short look at. There is an effort made to place art within the ambit of human activity in a meaningful way. What does it mean when we tell stories? What is the relationship between reality and art? How are we to think of artists? What can they add to our lives that cannot be provided in any other way? What is art? What is an idea? A metaphor? And what, in the end, is so special about Japanese culture that it produces such great art, art like this wonderful novel?

Then there’s China. Tomohiko Amano’s younger brother was sent to China in the 1930s to fight and he killed himself after his return. Amano himself had been living in Vienna during the period leading up to the Anschluss, the moment when the Nazis annexed Austria and incorporated it into Germany. He had been involved in an assassination plot where the target was a Nazi official, but the plot had been discovered before it could be carried into action. Amano was sent back to Japan where he abandons the western style of art he had previously practiced and starts painting in the “Japanese style” he would use for the rest of his life (including for the painting titled ‘Killing Commendatore’). It is Menshiki who tells the protagonist many of these details, and then the protagonist gets more information from Masahiko when they meet up for lunch one day in central Tokyo. So the past has echoes that reverberate in the story, but more than that there is the relationship between children and parents that runs through this novel like a theme.

The notion that children have to challenge and defy their parents in order to find agency in their own right is explored here, which is why the China theme is so interesting. There is not only Masahiko and his father, and Mariye and her father, and the protagonist’s memories of his sister, who was younger than him and who died when she was 12, and Yuzu and the child whose paternity is unknown but who is probably not the protagonist’s because he was travelling on the night it was conceived, but there is also the two-foot-high Commendatore and his role as a metaphor for something deeper and more problematic. It can only be accepted as a truth that Japan is in many ways the older culture, relative to China, nowadays, after all the turmoil and change of the 20th century. China has been upended culturally in so many ways, not the least of which is the way the cities have been transformed by Capital. In many ways, the old ways have been better preserved in places like Japan and Taiwan and Hong Kong, places where the Communist Party has been unable to reach. And if you read this novel in the light of such realities you can get a lot more from it.

There is also the fact of Amano’s borrowing of a dramatic scene from an Austrian opera, something that is not the only point of productive cultural appropriation being explored in this work. Asuka period Japanese artists likewise also borrowed tropes and styles from Chinese originals in order to establish the tradition that Murakami pays homage to in his story.

Then there is one final idea I wanted to touch on, and that is Japanese spirituality. Despite the fact that they are for the most part staunch secularists, Japanese people are very superstitious. And the way that they negotiate the divide between the spiritual and the physical is worth looking at in a bit more detail. Luckily, the metafictional aspects of this book explore such themes and there is in the narrative a fruitful exchange of ideas between the protagonist and his beliefs and his artistic practice that is full of interesting reverberations, textures that reveal unspoken realities that lie just beneath the surface of existence. But without question the real hero of this story is the Commendatore himself, although his true nature only becomes apparent at the end. To understand what the novel is “about” you have to consider where he was drawn from and how that idea fits into the lives of the main characters, particularly that of the unnamed protagonist.

But the spiritual thread extends further than this as well. In this novel for a change Murakami has paid a lot of attention to car makes and models. Japan is of course the premier car manufacturing nation in the world and in the 1970s rewrote the rules of manufacturing by adopting the “kaizen” (“just-in-time”) practices that led to the lowest rates of defects in manufactured products in the world, and hence to global manufacturing dominance in a range of industries.

And in this novel the “thingness” of objects comes through in unexpected ways, but in ways with which most people will already be primed to understand. Different characters have different cars and they also have different relationships with their vehicles, relationships that depend on their personalities. There is the old Peugeot the protagonist goes off driving in after Yuzu tells him she doesn’t want to be married to him anymore. There is the second-hand Toyota Corolla that he buys after he returns to Tokyo and goes to live in Odawara. There is the expensive Jaguar that Menshiki drives. There is the blue Prius that Shoko drives. And Shoko’s father had loved fine cars and she is able to talk meaningfully with Menshiki about the Jaguar. There is the white Subaru Forester already referred to. And there is the old Volvo that Masahiko drives. All these vehicles with their different personalities! It is as though physical things have souls that continue to exist after their physical forms has been destroyed. Like the bell in the hole in the ground. Like the knife that Masahiko brings to Odawara one day in order to fillet a fish and that unexpectedly goes missing. (It turns up later, but to tell you any more would really spoil the fun.)

Friday, 30 November 2018

Book review: Upstate, James Wood (2018)

When I started to read this engaging novel I thought that it was just a tad underwritten. It was as though the writer had been unsure about where he wanted to go and of how to get there. There are odd transitions from time to time as the focalisation switches, sometimes in the middle of a chapter, from one character to another. (Focalisation is the common novelistic technique of channelling the narrative through the consciousness of a specific character. You get to “see” things through the eyes of Helen or of Alan.) These events were slightly disturbing and I wondered if the author had been aware of what he was doing as he did it.

But eventually things sorted themselves out. Although sometimes the characters seemed annoyingly unaware of the effect they have on other people, the rawness of the novel in the end turns out to be an asset. There is a freshness in the conception of the work and a vigour in the execution that are remarkable.

The story is also unusual because it takes place in or around 2006. It takes you a while to understand the timeline and I had to go to the computer to use the calculator to do the sums. There I worked out that Alan, the main character, was born in 1938 or thereabouts. His eldest child, Vanessa, was born in 1966 and when the book opens she is an academic and is about 40 years old. Vanessa struggles periodically with depression but it has coloured her whole life. Alan has been called from the UK, where he lives with his partner, Candace (who is ethnically Chinese and was born in China; the girls’ mother, Cathy, had left the family when they were children and has since died as a result of cancer), to a wintry upstate New York to visit his daughter. His other daughter, Helen, is a record company executive and lives in the UK although she travels to the US frequently. She is married to a man named Tom (who we do not meet) and has two children of her own, and also comes to New York to see her sister. Vanessa lives with Josh, who is American and a journalist who specialises in technology, and they are not married. They have no children.

Josh had emailed Helen to warn her about Vanessa’s illness and Helen had contacted Alan, raising the alarm. The way that this novel deals with mental illness is to do it with sensitivity and aplomb. Vanessa’s and Josh’s conundrum is real and problematic and the way that people around them deal with it (Alan not so well, Helen with a kind of detached resignation; Vanessa had had episodes before) is realistic.

The book also tries to grapple with larger issues – such as the internet and technology generally, and with the fallout from the twin Towers attacks – but in the end these things are of less importance than Vanessa’s health. But I thought it was insightful of Wood to place his drama in the year he chose because it was a pivotal moment in world events, being three years after Facebook was founded, the year before Twitter was established, and a time when the world was still coming to terms with Islamic extremism (and the reaction to it). The election of Barack Obama was just around the corner, as was the GFC. It’s as though, like Alan contemplating his fragile eldest daughter, everything was holding its breath.

The town of Saratoga Springs, where most of the drama plays out, is also waiting: for spring, which is just around the corner. The locales used in the book are depicted efficiently and with sympathy and intelligence. There is plenty of good, strong poetry in this book that is used to interleave the scenes that are enmeshed in the stories that pass through people’s minds. The simplicity of the cold, barren landscape is an effective foil for the involuted and sometimes suffocating processes of people’s diurnal thoughts.

The denouement is striking and subtle, hinging as it does on Alan’s relationship with his daughter, and it drops into your lap quietly, like a comment overheard in the lobby of a commercial office building that you happen to be visiting, or like a fall of snow in early spring that drops next to you on the pavement after falling off the roof of a house. Like a modern-day King Lear, Alan has three women (plus his elderly mother, who lives in a nursing home that he pays for) he must deal with, in addition to his own mortality.

I just wanted to comment briefly on the title of the book. Choosing this descriptor used for the location of the towns that form the backdrop to the book is of course efficient, but the title does more than this in the context of mental illness. Often people who meet people living with a mental illness advise them to “get over it” or to “buck up”, as though such suggestions could remedy what ails them, but the reality of mental illness is far more difficult. It cannot be overcome by mere force of will, as though you were getting over a poor exam mark or the loss of a job. On the other hand, many people living with a mental illness continue to function as active members of the community, as Vanessa does at her college. There is no easy answer, but there is also no single answer. Each person deals with it in their own way.

The setting for the film (in 2006) also highlights the meagre levels of resources that were dedicated at the time to illnesses such as depression compared to the huge quantities of money put aside by governments around the world at the time for “fighting terrorism”. We are more aware, now, of things life depression, but we still have a way to go.

Wood is a critic and is English but lives in the US. This novel reminded me for this reason of the 2017 novel ‘Eureka’ by film critic Anthony Quinn which I reviewed here on 31 August this year, and which I also thought was very successful as a work of art. While the works are very different in design and in style, in both Quinn’s and Wood’s books there is a protagonist who is a mature man who is surrounded by complex characters, with each character given space to feature as a credible source of truth. In both books there is also an abiding humanity that animates the whole.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

In The Field, number 01: Pretty green stripes

‘In The Field’ is intended to be a series of blogposts that will run here as long as I can source suitable content. Farmers operating in Australia can send me photos of their farms and descriptions of the steps that they take to overcome problems that they face in their routine working lives. An exchange will likely result in some questions and answers. I don’t know how many of these posts will be produced but I have long felt that farmers needed a bigger voice in the broader community.

This is a barley field on a farm managed by John Stevenson outside Lockhart, a town situated in the Riverina in southern NSW, between the Murrumbidgee River and the Victorian border. “Some of our barley meets the strict criteria of correct grain size, colour and protein content to be used for malt production ([a] key ingredient of beer),” John told me via DM.

“Our barley which doesn’t meet [those] criteria is mainly used as stock feed, either within Australia or overseas. Barley is an important ingredient of feed rations across many parts of the livestock sector. There is usually a $30-40/tonne premium for malt barley but this varies with supply and demand.” So John earns more money if his barley is of a quality that enables it to be used for brewing.

Malting is a process whereby grains of barley have water added to them and are allowed to germinate, but then they are dried to halt the process before it completes. The partially-germinated barley is called “malt”.


The challenge

Removing weeds from cropped fields so that the moisture stored in the subsoil is not wasted by their growth. 

“The barley was harvested two weeks ago,” John told me, referring to the photo (above) he had sent. “The grain has been removed and some of the straw has been baled to feed cattle at a reasonable cost. Following a very dry year November has been wet. Not all of the grain is collected in the harvester and there is always a proportion of grain ‘loss’. 

“As you can see this lost grain germinates and effectively is now a ‘weed’.”

Keeping moisture in the ground is critical for farmers to succeed and, if left to grow, weeds will use moisture that would better be preserved for the crop to come the next year. “The biggest limitation to our crop production is moisture and we are able to store moisture in the soil for next year’s crops. The green rows you see are actually using/wasting next year’s crop water. If we don’t control the weeds the soil will dry out completely in these strips.”

John explained that subsoil is everything below the topsoil. “Our hot summers generally dry out the top 30cm of the profile. The moisture we carry forward for the next crop is below that level. Our roots can grow down to 1.8-2m on some of our soils.”

The pretty green stripes in the photo are actually bad news, but how to remove weeds?

The solution

“We could dig them out (known as ‘cultivation’) but this removes the valuable mulch which protects the fragile soil surface from wind, sun and rain,” John told me.

“Our modern-day alternative is glyphosate, a chemical which is in the press a lot these days. I have been using glyphosate for this purpose for nearly 30 years and it has revolutionised sustainable farming.”

Glyphosate was developed by the chemical company Monsanto and was marketed under the product name Roundup but is now produced by many companies around the world. But why is digging out the weeds a bad idea?

John explains that “cultivation” is digging out the weeds, like a gardener would do with a spade or a fork. But it can be destructive of the topsoil. “Our topsoil is only 5cm to 10cm deep and very prone to erosion if exposed to the elements. The mulch is a thin layer of crop residue on the soil but also the standing crop residue from this year which is about 150mm high.” So the stubble that is left in the field after the harvest protects the topsoil that has to be in good condition in anticipation of the next year’s sowing.

John also told me that cultivation destroys soil structure. “Soil particles are bound together by the soil microbiology and there are important drainage channels through the soil made by decaying plant roots and soil-borne insect life.”

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Dream journal: Two

This is the second dream journal published on this blog. I have to capture the memories early or else they dissolve into oblivion. There are four entries in this post. The date shown is the date the story was captured.

16 November

Dreamed I was with mum (who died in July 2016) and we were in Queensland and there was an election on. We were at a polling place and I had my car but something was missing and I couldn’t find a signal to receive the radio broadcast. There were more images than this but the details have broken up since I got out of bed and I cannot remember everything as it happened. Later, I was in Sydney and it was an election as well and I was driving to the polling place but they wouldn’t let me in. I had to prove I was a journalist to get in. Even then, it was impossible to ask questions. They had set up a website where you could log in to register as a journalist and to ask questions of the candidates but the interface wasn’t working properly and I found it very hard to work out how to ask the questions I had. The journalists were listed in the interface according to their party affiliations and I couldn’t work out which party I was meant to support although I remembered that mum had wanted to vote for the Greens.

18 November

I dreamt I was staying at a house in Germany that was owned by a young couple and there were also people who from Honeywell Software Centre (where I worked from 1989 to 1992) working there. The house became more and more crowded as more people came in to do work on the contracts the couple held. In the end there were so many people that the only way to move from one part of the house to another was by walking over the top of desks that were lined up in a row between cubicle dividers.

The guy who I was working for took me to a cubicle where his food was kept. He opened a cupboard and from a shelf low down near the floor he pulled out containers full of vegetables. This was his lunch. He offered some to me but I declined, saying that the people who owned the house were giving me food. I went to have a shower in another cubicle because the bathroom was full of people. This cubicle had small plastic shower attachments stuck to the cupboards that had been installed in it. I pressed a button on one of them and some water came out desultorily, but not strongly enough to actually wash yourself. This was the cubicle that granny (who lived with our family when I was growing up) was also using, and she objected to me washing there and stormed off in a huff, complaining about me to a young woman who was with her.

Then I was in a car trying to get home but I couldn’t find the way. There were bright-coloured, plastic Nazi banners with iron crosses on them, on the ground, and I wanted to collect one to take it back home with me as a memento. More and more people got in the car until it became hard to drive. The cap of the gear stick eventually came off because I was cranking it sideways so violently. As I came to the top of a slope, I was surrounded by old factories, and a man signalled for us to get out of the car and go to where he stood. There, we started to ascend a metal contraption that led upward – the direction we wanted to go in – but it came to an end suddenly and I woke up.

21 November

This was a strange, long dream, during part of which I was getting around bookshops picking out magazines that I thought contained fiction good enough to be published as novels. I had a stack of one magazine in several issues that had numbers in an unbroken series that I wanted to recommend to the publishers. But then I was travelling on train tracks in the English countryside. It was not Australia, it was too green and lush. I was right on the train tracks, with my arse next to the rails, and I was travelling at speed facing backwards. I could see the tracks next to me rushing past and the green hills receding into the distance. I was on the way to meet up with my military unit but I didn’t want to go there. Then I was suddenly turning around and going back home, even though I knew that this would get me into trouble. I met different people on the way, some of whom were, like me, getting out of their obligations. We shared a sense of solidarity.

23 November

I only picked up the last part of this dream. It was the end of an event where food had been given out to people and there was food left over. I had to package the food so that it would be easy to distribute and so that it would not spoil. I worked out with the help of a man there that the salami that I had was made of vegetables, and he showed me how to put it onto pieces of white cardboard and how to seal it under plastic using a machine that was there. I also had a lot of boiled broccoli and I wondered how that would be distributed and if people would want to eat it. I asked someone about it and they said that the lambs would eat the green parts only.

People were setting up the food and the bottles of wine that were left over from the event on big plastic sheets that had been laid out on the ground next to rows of plastic chairs for people to sit in. I went along the rows that had been marked on the plastic sheets looking for the correct row on which to leave the bottle of white wine that I had left over. But when I looked on the bottle there was not appellation information telling me which grapes had been used to make the wine, so I didn’t know which row to put the bottle of wine on. Later, I was standing in front of a machine that sold big packets of sandwiches, some of which contained meat and some of which contained salads. I decided to buy a packet of salad sandwiches to take home with me.

Monday, 26 November 2018

A tale for the times: legacy media versus indie media

People on Twitter have put up comments that rage against the Walkley Foundation in the wake of the award of a Walkley Award to Sharri Markson of the Daily Telegraph for the Barnaby Joyce infidelity story. As usual there is the complaint about the "legacy" media which got the award and the "indie" media which broke the story. But what are the facts in the case?

I saw a page published by an outfit called True Crime News Weekly which contained a story by Serkan Ozturk that included a picture of Vikki Campion. The story was dated 13 February 2018 but someone online implied that the story appeared initially in October 2017. The outlet told me later that there were stories on this topic published on 24 and 25 October 2017, and they showed me the links and the pages. Then I saw a letter from a law firm addressed to the website dated 13 February 2018 complaining about the story of that date, that had been sent on behalf of Campion and that denied all of the imputations contained in it.

Apparently the story was then picked up by Independent Australia, which is an outlet run by a man named Dave Donovan. The True Crime News Weekly account told me, “They called us up while putting theirs together.” IA published a story on 19 November about Joyce and Campion and the DT put theirs up on their website on 6 February 2018. IA also put out a string of related stories (21 March, 28 May, 31 May) in early 2018. The New England by-election that Barnaby Joyce was contesting for the Liberal Party was held on 2 December 2017. Markson has said that she tried to verify the rumour behind the story in October 2017 but couldn't manage to do it. If she had been able to, Joyce might well have lost the poll.

Enthusiasts tend to rail against the machine in the name of freedom, but the outlets that they praise are not everyone’s cup of tea. I haven’t read anything on the TCW site but I have read some on IA’s website. It tends to publish stories that contain a strongly partisan (on the left of politics) viewpoint and there are often structural and grammatical problems with them that would have been fixed before publication by a legacy media outlet.

I mentioned to one person I was talking to about the award that many freelancers don’t belong to the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (the journalist’s union) because they can’t afford the fees. To put forward your story for a Walkley you have to be a member of the union. Donovan then said that he was a member but that he didn’t submit his story for the award. I don’t know if TCW’s Ozturk is a member and if he thought about entering his story for the award, but it seems unfair to blame the Walkleys for giving the story to the DT if the other media outlets involved never bothered to put themselves forward in the running for the prize.

On the other hand, the existence of the indie media stories mentioned in this post should have raised a rad flag for the Walkleys when they were deciding who to award their prize to. It’s not valid for Markson to deny their scoop on the basis that they are “blogs”. Can we please get away from these outdated categories that characterise bloggers as unemployed misfits sitting in their pyjamas in their mothers’ basements? Clearly, the DT did not get the scoop (which was the award Markson won). But if indie media outlets want to be in the running for such awards, they will have to pay their dues and submit the relevant paperwork.

As a footnote to this discussion, I think it’s worth looking for a moment at notions like “indie” media and “legacy” media. I first wrote about the idea of indie media back on 26 March 2013. In that post I talked about the way that the different outlets behaved in order to contextualise them outside of labels like “mainstream media” (or its contemporary form, “MSM”) and “indie media”.

From what I can see the basic difference between the two types of media outlet comes down to the fact that the legacy outlets have more people to do things like editing and subediting, making the text read smoothly, and ensuring that the ideas are both contextualised properly and embedded in language that is accessible and engaging. This costs money of course, and it is probably also a symptom of the fact that legacy media journalists have mostly been to university to study the craft and so have some sort of grounding in the kinds of principles that will lead to the production of good, solid, well-written content. Having all of your journalists go through the same process of acculturation is not necessarily the best way to organise your fourth estate, of course. Having some diversity in the sorts of viewpoints that you encourage, viewpoints that derive from different sets of experiences, in an objective sense must contribute to adding depth (and value) to the ecosystem.

But the economics of the business has changed so drastically with the appearance of the internet, and with social media the smaller players get almost as much exposure as the majors. So money is the sticking point. It doesn’t matter if you pay money to an indie outlet or to a mainstream outlet, but you should be paying something to someone in order to ensure the stability of our democracy.