Saturday 27 May 2006

Event: The New Yorkers, Sydney Town Hall (as part of the Sydney Writer’s Festival) Friday 26 May, 2006. Panellists: Rhonda Sherman, Hendrik Hertzberg, Andy Borowitz, Phillip Adams (moderator), Aleksandar Hemon, Susan Orlean.

This event was recorded for video streaming by Bigpond.

Parking in the city is a nightmare. So this was the first time I took the train from my new flat. I’ve been here six months now and this was a big event for me. Big night out. Riding into the city, about 40 minutes were spent watching the station signs pass — Canterbury, Hurlstone Park, Dulwich Hill, Marrickville — and listening to the various groans, squeaks, trills, grunts and rattles of the CityRail train as it forged through the inner western suburbs into the heart of the metropolis.

There was a line of hundreds of well-dressed and affluent-looking ticket holders waiting to enter when I emerged into the chill night air from the subway beneath the pavement, about twenty minutes before starting time. But the queue progressed rapidly and, not long after, we were ensconced in the lit chamber awaiting amusement. The lights dimmed, the throng hushed. The panellists filed onto the stage and took their seats in the order shown above. They comically wore little, cream-coloured head mikes.

The night started at Ground Zero. The reactions of each to the news of the blasts that destroyed the Twin Towers on 9 September, 2001, were trotted out with due reverence and awe. Most watched it unfold on TV, just like everyone else in the world.

Then the politics began. Now, I’m not a big supporter of the U.S. Republican cause and I don’t know enough about U.S. politics to get really interested. These guys are, however, without exception, blue. “Here in the bluest borough of the bluest city of the bluest state in all our red-white-and-blue American Union, it has not been a happy week,” wrote Hertzberg in The New Yorker on 8 November, 2004. The magazine has been an opponent of the administration ever since.

Hertzberg, as Senior Editor, was the elder statesman on the panel. (Although I took along my recording device, I turned it off because of the consternation I would face next day when it came to listening to it over again and transcribing. I sort of regret this decision now. Never mind.) As such he was like a peg the others hung onto. Borowitz was the comedian, a source of endless amusement for the audience. Hemon was the outsider — a resident of Chicago and a foreigner to boot. Sherman and Orlean bracketed the men physically and while Orlean held her own technically, Sherman tended to get lost in the mix. She added factual details and dutifully answered questions when asked by Adams, but seemed junior to the others. But a nice bunch of people, to be sure.

But were they liberal. Bush-bashing never had it so good. As I say, I’m no Bush supporter, but the sense in the hall of an overwhelming liberal bent was overpowering and distasteful. It was assumed that you should dislike the 43rd President of the U.S., period.

Phillip Adams, of course, is a famous leftie and showed his pedigree flamboyantly. But he was overall a good host, asking valid questions and responding with cogent follow-ups. The talk was to be broadcast on ABC Radio National.

Question time was not. Some people asked about the magazine, which was good, because a lot of the preceding discussion was about politics and not publishing.

On the way home I didn’t have much time to reflect on the evening. A bunch of noisy louts flitting about the carriage monopolised my attention. But I managed to reach my door unscathed and hale, ready to finish reading the newspapers before turning in. I’m glad I bought this flat: it’s comforting to know that I can use the train to get somewhere if driving is unattractive.

Hertzberg rides his bicycle to work in Manhattan, which must also be comforting. As the New Yorkers of Australia, Sydneysiders are curious about the Big Apple. We see similarities in our attitudes to life: a taste for irony and detachment, a fierce energy when it comes to competing in the workplace. On the train, I felt that the sort of shenanigans those youths were getting up to must also be prevalent in the other place. And my winter jacket would not have looked odd over there. From here, New York looks inviting, a little scary, and sometimes just strange. Inside the covers of The New Yorker it looks a lot better, as does the rest of that country.

For a start, they are one of the only magazines to consistently publish new fiction. This is sad but inevitable when we think about it. At one point Adams reflected sadly on the fact that there’s not a magazine like theirs in this country. I wonder why he didn’t mention Quadrant? Possibly because that publication is stoutly right-wing. He mentioned The Monthly, a relatively new mag that publishes quality articles on a range of topics. It is a good read, I’ll grant that. But I prefer Quadrant. Again, it’s not that I’m right-wing — in fact I voted for The Greens last time and probably will again in 2007 — it’s just that they cover things in great detail and are unapologetically high-minded. They really talk about the important issues in politics, education, history, law, and other areas of public life that we need to know about. I generally read the whole magazine through, while I only read a few articles in the issue of The Monthly that an acquaintance recently lent me.

Monday 22 May 2006

Review: Money, Martin Amis (1984)

John Self is mercilessly corrupt. Amis pulls out all the stops in his effort to make this most ordinary of mortals — awful. But we’re not filled with awe: hatred, disgust — any of these things. What strikes us most immediately is how pitiful he is. We feel sorry for him. If that was Amis’ aim, he has succeeded. Self doesn’t exude power, just a potential for self-destruction. And he’s happy with it. He ambles along and spends his time fantacising about his girlfriend: is she doing it with someone else? Selina Street is out of our grasp, a siren with a heart of ice.

I had fever. And I had Selina fever too. Lying in that slipped zone where there is neither sleep nor wakefulness, where all thoughts and words are cross-purposed and yet the mind is forever solving, solving, Selina came at me in queries of pink smoke. I saw her performing flesh in fantastic eddies and convolutions, the face with its smile of assent and the complicit look in the flattered eyes, the dermatology of her underwear suggesting spiders and silk, her sharp shoulders, her fiery hair, the arched creature doing what that creature does best — and the thrilling proof, so rich in pornography, that she does all this not for passion, not for comfort, far less for love, the proof that she does all this for money. I woke babbling in the night — yes, I heard myself say it, solve it, through the dream-mumble — and I said, I love it. I love her. . . I love her corruption.

But John Self is fuelled by money. He’s a gas-guzzler, a straight-8 with roof racks for the booze. Everything comes down to dosh and he wants more of it. The anonymous caller who gets up his nose is a relic from his past, it seems, but that’ll be cleared up in good time. Meanwhile, John needs to quit the city he’s just arrived in, return to London and find out what’s happening in Selina’s life. Is she faithful? Before he leaves, he rummages around in his pockets for some crushed bills.

In the end I had ample time for my farewell to New York. First off, I gave Felix a fifty. He seemed strangely agitated or concerned and for some reason kept trying to make me lie down on the bed. But he was pleased, I hope, by the thought. I love giving money away. If you were here now, I’d probably slip you some cash, twenty, thirty, maybe more. How much do you want? What are you having? What would you give me, sister, brother? Would you put an arm round my shoulder and tell me I was your kind of guy? I’d pay. I’d give you good money for it.

Amis is trying to shock us. The debauch in slow motion that is John Self’s life, however, never really rises to the top. It’s pathetic and somehow cleansing to know that a person can be so crass. The imperatives of money are laid out for our delectation. Fast food, advertising, pornography. All the minimalist subterfuges that some people use to delay disappointment.

But is that really the way to make money? What about financial planning, being an electrician, an endodontist, or a real estate agent? Why are these methods of milking the masses ignored? Surely they’re just as lucrative? But, then again, you need training and discipline to enter these fields, whereas Amis is trying to shock us by showing how someone who has neither can become rich. The horizon slims to a point and disappears in a tiny, technicolour blink. Gone is the suspense and the magic of the story. We’re left gaping at the gold chains and centre spreads, like amazed schoolboys.

Indeed, lamentably under-informed, Fielding Goodney. He smiled in innocent self-reproach, then swung sternly and made the reverse V-sign at the watchful waiter. Two more Red Snappers were on the way. We ordered. Fielding held the crimson menu (silken, tasselled and beautified, reminding me and my fingers of Selina and her secrets) in slender brown hands, the wrists cuffed in pale blue and the gold links taut on their chains. Over dinner Fielding explained to me about the lucrative contingencies of pornography, the pandemonium of Forty-Second Street, the Boylesk dealerships on Seventh Avenue and their prodigies of chickens and chains, the Malibu circuit with the crews splashing through the set at dusk for the last degrees of heft and twang and purchase from the beached male lead on the motel floor, the soft proliferations of soft core in worldwide cable and network and its careful codes of airbrush and dick-wipe, the stupendous aberrations of Germany and Japan, the perversion-targeting in video mail-order, the mob snuff-movie operation conceived in Mexico City and dying in the Five Boroughs.

We get a look at John’s aspirations. He wants out of the porno grind, the spew train, the junk junket. He wants a real life: books, good conversation, a real job, perhaps. But what chance has he got? It doesn’t sound too convincing.

Look at my life. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: But it’s terrific! It’s great! You’re thinking: Some guys have all the luck! Well, I suppose it must look quite cool, what with the aeroplane tickets and the restaurants, the cabs, the filmstars, Selina, the Fiasco, the money. But my life is also my private culture — that’s what I’m showing you, after all, that’s what I’m letting you into, my private culture. And I mean look at my private culture. Look at the state of it. It really isn’t very nice in here. And that is why I long to burst out of the world of money and into — into what? Into the world of thought and fascination. How do I get there? Tell me, please. I’ll never make it by myself. I just don’t know the way.

The pace of John’s squandering is extraordinary. We see him waste thousands but we don’t feel the loss. Not yet. It seems as though there’s a never-ending supply of cash. John is like a filter for money, a sieve. And the fast pace of his debauches helps to make the value of money nugatory. Filling up and spewing out is achieved without our noticing, almost, so the pain of losing and the pleasure of gaining are minimised. He’s a money sieve, a transaction account, a node in the matrix where the speed of currency is hastened to the point of burlesque. Spastic twitching in a sea of green.

There was a knock on the door and I wriggled to my feet. An impossibly elegant young black scythed into the room with several polythene body bags in his arms.
  ‘On the bed, sir?’ he asked.
  ‘Yeah. No,’ I said. ‘I don’t want them. I’ve changed my mind. Take them back.’
  He looked at me quizzically, and raised his lordly chin. ‘The terms of purchase are on your receipt, sir.’
  ‘Okay. Sling them over here. I was only kidding.’
  I gave him a ten and he left. A ten . . . For the next hour I took delivery of many additional purchases, the vast majority of which I couldn’t remember purchasing. I just lay on the bed there, drinking. After a while I felt like Lady Diana would no doubt feel on her wedding day, as the presents from the Commonwealth contingent started arriving in their wagon trains. A squat kit of chunky glassware, an orange rug of Iranian provenance and recent manufacture, a Spanish guitar and a pair of maracas, two oil paintings (the first showing puppies and kittens asnooze, the second a nude, ideally rendered), an elephant’s foot, something that looked like a microphone stand but turned out to be a Canadian sculpture, a Bengali chess set, a first edition of Little Women, and various other cultural treasures from all over the world. When it seemed to be over, I went to the bathroom and was explosively sick. Stress, it’s expensive. There is great personal cost. But out it came, the lunch, the champagne, the money, all the green and folding stuff. When it seemed to be over, I went next door and called Fielding and asked him to give me an incredible amount of money. He sounded as though he’d been expecting my call. He sounded pleased. That evening a large envelope was brought to my room. It contained a platinum US Approach card, a brick of traveller’s cheques, and a cash-facility authorization at a Fifth Avenue bank for a thousand dollars a day, if needed. I was so relieved I went to bed for two days. Actually, there wasn’t much choice. Steady, I thought, steady. Money holds firm but you have no power. It seems that, whatever I do here in this world I’m in, I just get more and more money . . .

After Selina, it finally dawns on John:

My clothes are made of monosodium glutamate and hexachlorophene. My food is made of polyester, rayon and lurex. My rug lotions contain vitamins. Do my vitamins feature cleaning agents? I hope so. My brain is gimmicked by a microprocessor the size of a quark, and costing ten pee and running the whole deal. I am made of — junk, I’m just junk.

It’s not surprising, this new self-knowledge, From one extreme consumption point to the other, he waggles his brain at the universe — and the universe signals back. Amis’ dense prose ambles on through drama to hilarity and the death of appetite. The movie they are making shambles on: how will it all end? What about his Frank, the anonymous New York caller? The humour takes us through the pathos a step at a time. The jokes pile up like butts in an ashtray: eventually you have to dump them in the bin. The hilarity is the medium and the message is that even with a 120 kilo smart-ass there is redemption, the positive spin keeps the planet on trajectory towards a bright future. Even in the life of a junk merchant there is something more than nail-biting obscurity and waste.

Sunday 14 May 2006

Review: Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion (1970)

There’s something wrong with Maria (Mar-eye-ah, as she stresses). She’s unhinged, slightly batty, off in her own world. She must be on the freeway by 10:00. She must move. Anywhere. Other people in her life: Carter, Lang, Helene, BZ, Benny Austin, her father (now dead), her mother (ditto), and her daughter Kate.

Once she was on the freeway and had manoeuvred her way to a fast lane she turned on the radio at high volume and she drove. She drove the San Diego to the Harbor, the Harbor up to the Hollywood, the Hollywood to the Golden State, the Santa Monica, the Santa Ana, the Pasadena, the Ventura. She drove it as a riverman runs a river, every day more attuned to its currents, its deceptions, and just as a riverman feels the pull of the rapids in the lull between sleeping and waking, so Maria lay at night in the still of Bevery Hills and saw the great signs soar overhead at seventy mile an hour, Normandie ¼ Vermont ¾ Harbor Fwy 1. Again and again she returned to an intricate stretch just south of the interchange where successful passage from the Hollywood onto the Harbor required a diagonal move across four lanes of traffic. On the afternoon she finally did it without once braking or once losing the beat on the radio she was exhilarated, and that night she slept dreamlessly.

In the spaces between bouts of narrative light, Maria continues to live, feel and suffer. The spaces are black with fuzzy edges and we drift in and out of the light in short sections of narrative, stepping across the spaces of darkness and entering a new area of consciousness populated by Maria and her fears: of Carter, of not having her period, of the abortionists who she dreads, of her friends in New York. Stranded in Los Angeles at the end of the string of her life, Maria is adrift. She won’t tell Carter whose child it is. She dreams of being with Kate. She is alone.

In the dream from which she woke when the telephone rang again that night she had the baby, and she and the baby and Kate were living on West Twelfth Street with Ivan Costello. In the dream she did not yet know Carter, but somehow had Carter’s daughter and Carter’s blessing. In the dream it was all right. She supposed that she had dreamed of Ivan Costello because the telephone was ringing, and he used to call her in the middle of the night. “How much do you want it,” he used to say. “Tell me what you’d do to get it from me.” The telephone was still ringing and she pulled the cord loose from the jack. She could not remember what she would have done to get it from any of them.

After the abortion, the divorce. Carter, Helene and BZ at the courthouse with Mrs. Maria Lang, the plaintiff. Didion reveals confidences in her writing: the legacy of planning and structure, the rightness of everyday drama that is just a little more surreal than our own, lived lives. We feel as if we are there, hear the hollow echo of Maria’s voice and the harsh clangours of the voices of the others. As if each voice that brings a pain to Maria causes us mentally to flinch.

Every night she named to herself what she must do: she must ask Les Goodwin to come keep her from peril. Calmed, she would fall asleep pretending that even then she lay with him in a house by the sea. The house was like none she had ever seen but she thought of it so often that she knew even where the linens were kept, the plates, knew how the wild grass ran down to the beach and where the rocks made tidal pools. Every morning in the house she would make the bed with fresh sheets. Every day in the house she would cook while Kate did her lessons. Kate would sit in a shaft of sunlight, her head bent over a pine table, and later when the tide ran out they would gather mussels together, Kate and Maria, and still later all three of them would sit down together at the big pine table and Maria would light a kerosene lamp and they would eat the mussels and drink a bottle of cold white wine and after a while it would be time to lie down again, on the clean white sheets.

It sounds like Ballad of Lucy Jordan, doesn’t it?

Maria schlepps around about: Vegas, the desert. She is rootless, unbridled, desperate for comfort of any kind. Immobility alternates with movement: she gets in her car and drives at 80 miles an hour into the desert. The desert has fewer memories but she makes them all the same.

The town was on a dry river bed between Death Valley and the Nevada line. Carter and BZ and Helene and Susannah Wood and Harrison Porter and most of the crew did not think of it as a town at all, but Maria did: it was larger than Silver Wells. Besides the motel, which was built of cinder block and operated by the wife of the sheriff’s deputy who patrolled the several hundred empty square miles around the town, there were two gas stations, a store which sold fresh meat and vegetables one day a week, a coffee shop, a Pentecostal church, and the bar, which served only beer. The bar was called The Rattler Room.

The conversations are slightly opaque, the characters unformed. This quality makes your mind slide over the action like a coin on a Teflon sheet. You’re not sure what each utterance actually means, and so you try hard to find meaning where you can. The book makes you work but provides something else, too: the certainty that life never stops coming, that tomorrow you’ll do the same things you did last week, and that sometimes things get out of hand. You can only try.