Tuesday, 1 August 2006

First Tuesday Book Club (“the show for people who love to read and want to share that passion with other enthusiastic readers,” according to host Jennifer Byrne in her intro, “after all, isn‘t that what readers do? We may read alone, but as soon as the reading ends the talking starts: what worked, what didn‘t, who we liked, who drove us nuts.”) is a casual, sparring affair. Five people sit on beige armchairs in a circle with shelves and mock-up books in the background, and debate the pros and cons of two books. One book is a recent release (“maybe something brand-new, maybe something already making waves”) and the other is considered by one of the (“brave”) participants to be a ‘classic’.

“We want you, Australia’s readers, to be part of our club,” said Byrne enthusiastically.

This month — the club’s first to air — the participants were Jason Steger (the literary editor of The Age and former sports journalist), Jacki Weaver (famous Australian actor), Marieke Hardy (granddaughter of the famous Australian writer Frank Hardy and now a script-writer and radio host), and Peter Cundall (host of “that television institution, Gardening Australia”).

Each book is introduced by a dramatisation of the plot. In the case of The Ballad of Desmond Kale this took the form of various clips of film of re-enactments of life in the early nineteenth century in the new colony: black-and-white snippets of action with some jazzy background music. It’s quite entertaining, but nothing special.

“I think The Ballad of Desmond Kale is a terrific book,” said Seger. “It’s got virtually everything in it, all you could ask for. It’s a fascinating picture of [the] early 1800s in Australia. It’s an incredibly imaginative book written in a very distinctive style, which I think makes demands on the reader. But if you respond to those demands, you get a huge amount of pleasure from the book.”

“Well, Roger McDonald is a poet,” said Weaver, “and so it is a bit like reading an epic poem. And some of the syntax is very odd and eccentric, and some of the sentences are very convoluted. But once you get used to that… the way that he’s writing… I mean, now and again you have to read a sentence several times like you do with a poem, to find the gist of the sentence…”

“I actually found that quite cumbersome,” interjected Hardy. “I was quite willing to go along on the journey with him with characters using dialogue but…” and the rest was masked by distortion as others joined in the discussion. You see how it is when people discuss books. They get very passionate and argumentative. And that’s good. We should get passionate about books.

“Occasionally I did find it like flicking through a school text book,” added Hardy. “I found it so ponderous.”

“I liked the characters, though,” Weaver jumped in. “The characters were very Dickensian, especially the villan…”

“Stanton,” piped up Cundall. “Well he is, but this is the amazing thing about the book. I mean, look at it, it’s the size of a house brick, isn’t it. The first thing I noticed is that there’s Desmond Kale — I mean ‘kail’ is an Irish cabbage.” Cundall, true to his grass roots, then took exception to the fact that Kale was flogged for stealing an iron rake. It was more likely to have been made of wood, he averred. Laughter ensued.

“Well let’s be honest,” resumed Byrne. “Kale is nowhere near the centre of the novel. … He’s retreated off to develop his superfine sheep, with some kind of gardening implement or whatever he’s using out there. But the real character, the real driver of the book is his rival for the sheep. And this guy — Matthew Stanton — I mean, did he work for you?” “Oh he’s brilliant,” replied Seger. “He’s a brilliant character, I think, and yet his very presence is absolutely, completely realised by McDonald.”

“I think the two points,” continued Seger, “the two characters: Desmond Kale, who is absent, and Stanton, who is so very present, I mean, that’s what makes the book really … So we’re seeing Desmond Kale through all these other peoples’ experiences, or the news that drifts around about him. Whereas Stanton is absolutely real, absolutely there all the time.”

Seger then quoted from the book. Hardy said that the character described sounded like the Magic Pudding. “I think it’s quite a weakness of the book that it takes two or three hundred pages to either get used to the style or go on a journey with it. And by that stage I resented Roger McDonald.” “I found these strange, back-to-front sentences a bit hard at first,” said Cundall, “and it’s true we had to go back. But I also noticed that as we got towards the end of the book it’s almost as if Roger McDonald decided to hurry things up a little. He dropped that style towards the end, he dropped it completely.”

“I didn’t enjoy the female characters at all,” said Hardy. “The ones that didn’t spend half the novel lying on their back were, I felt, not as fleshed out or fully realised… I guess the argument against that is that if he had fleshed out every female character we’d be in two volumes.” “I thought the women’s characters were quite layered,” said Weaver. “I was pretty impressed with the daughter of the parson and the Jewish girl and the relationship they developed I thought was terrific, and I thought showed quite an insight into the way women feel and behave.”

Some amount of confusion prevents me from redacting the entire discussion, but the verdict on McDonald’s book was mixed. Questions and comments posted on the Web site would be responded to by the author. This is a nice touch, and a demonstration of the benefits to be derived from using the Internet creatively. I think it’s wonderful that you can get feedback from the author of a book you admire, in real time (as it were). It'll be interesting to see if anyone participates online.

Book news: Jonestown, the much-debated biography of Alan Jones will apparently be published “some time before Christmas”.

The second novel to be discussed was Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, chosen by Byrne herself. She thinks it’s “a classic and a brilliant satire”. After the music and the video clips, the discussion started.

“I think it’s brilliant, too,” said Weaver. “And I was one of the people that rushed out… the main reason I rushed out and devoured it as soon as it came out in 1991 was because: how dare anyone tell me what I can read. I’m very anti-censorship and like everyone else in my class at Hornsby Girl’s High School when we were fifteen I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover because it was banned. And at the time I devoured American Psycho, the particularly repugnant nature of the murders that he goes into with great detail was sickening and nauseating, but at the time I read it I kind of coped.”

“I found it really boring. I think that it could have been a fantastic short story,” said Hardy. “I’m with Marieke here,” added Seger. “I thought that in the end it was a dull book. I think it’s a very moral book, actually. I think anybody who says it should be banned is missing the point completely. It’s just in too much detail.”

“I couldn‘t believe what I was reading,” said Cundall. “It’s about the most insignificant, useless, parasitical, self-centred, greed-driven people on earth. And it’s a whole book about them. And, not only that, it’s got pages and pages of their half-witted conversation.” “The writer, he decided to spice it up,” went on Cundall in full irate mode, “with a few murders and a lot of explicit sexuality. And this is the part that really got me. Because the murders are horrific. They’re ghastly. And he’s delved into his shallow, little, inexperienced mind to dredge up the worst things he could think of.”

“But that’s the point,” countered Byrne. “These are the people, who have no morality, no judgement, are the richest and most powerful — as they were then — on earth…”

Cundall really let loose. Weaver added a bit of reasonableness: “Jacobean drama, all those plays that were written during the reign of James the First, the early seventeenth century, they are particularly bloodthirsty and gory, they are revolting and I hate going to see them, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t go to see them, because they are classics.” Cundall, however, wanted to cut the book up and use it for compost.

Nuf said. We'll see what the next month brings, when the books for discussion will be The Shadow of the Wind (1st pub. 2001, trans. 2004) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón and The First Stone (1995) by Helen Garner.


kimbofo said...

Interesting. The format sounds very much like News Night Review here in the UK which is on every Friday - the panel usually discusses one new release book, a play, an art exhibition and a film. It's hugely enjoyable if only because you're waiting for the first punch to land - I swear one day there's going to be a full-on fight on that show.

Meredith Jones said...

Thanks for the review Dean, I'll definitely watch the show from now on. The protagonist's LP music reviews in American Psycho are some of the funniest passages I've ever read... and I agree with Byrne, the book is actually highly moral. But geez, if they're talking moral high ground, wait 'til they get to Garner's "The First Stone"!!! It is so so so "I'm giving everyone a fair go here, especially the poor bastard who thought he was still living in the 1970s" that it made me sick.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Dean, what a labour of love -- thanks for going to all this trouble, it's really useful for recalling the show. In all the Peter Cundall drama I had forgotten that remark of Jacki Weaver's about Jacobean drama, but in fact I think it was the most perceptive and intelligent thing anybody said all night. And that's not to diss the show, which I liked rather a lot, but rather in praise of Weaver, whom I've always admired and thought was underrated.

Matthew da Silva said...

It only took about an hour to transcribe and edit. Unfortunately the recording device didn't perform well when everybody spoke at once, which happened quite a lot, so this is really only a partial transcript. The human ear is much better at distinguishing separate voices than an audio recorder.