first line friday

“May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.”

Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things, 1997

In 1997, first-time novelist Roy did with The God of Small Things what only one first-time novelist had done before her, and only three have done since. Here are the others who managed to hit the mark with a single shot:

Keri Hulme with The Bone People in 1985

Yann Martel with Life of Pi in 2002

DBC Pierre with Vernon God Little in 2003

Aravind Adiga with The White Tiger in 2008

There is a lot of talk among literary types about the second book block, but imagine how much worse it must be if your first won the goddam Booker.

Which possibly explains why, out of the five, Pierre and Adiga are the only ones to have published a second novel.  

Yet.

It’s not as if the others have been idle all this time.  Martel has been writing music, Hulme short stories and poetry, and Roy screenplays. And all three have been quoted in the media as saying they are working on that elusive second novel.

Martel’s is apparently called Beatrice and Virgil. Hulme is rumoured to be writing twin novels called Bait and On the Shadow Side. Roy has not revealed a title, but she started writing hers more than three years ago. She still has time up her sleeve: The God of Small Things took four.

But who knows? If they don’t get a move-along they might end up with this crowd, in the company of Margaret Mitchell (Gone With The Wind, 1936), Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man, 1953) and Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960). Esteemed company, but let’s hope not.

keru hulme

first line friday

“You never hear about a sportsman losing his sense of smell in a tragic accident, and for good reason; in order for the universe to teach excruciating lessons that we are unable to apply in later life, the sportsman must lose his legs, the philosopher his mind, the painter his eyes, the musician his ears, the chef his tongue. My lesson? I have lost my freedom, and found myself in this strange prison, where the trickiest adjustment, other than getting used to not having anything in my pockets and being treated like a dog that pissed in a sacred temple, is the boredom.”

Steve Toltz, A Fraction of the Whole, 2008

Steve Toltz, to quote Darryl Kerrigan, is an Ideas Man. He has ideas about crime and punishment. Ideas about honour. Ideas about feeding fish. His characters have ideas. Strange ideas a lot of the time, like the Towering Inferno’s idea to capture her tears in a jar. Sometimes they even have ideas about ideas, like Martin Dean’s idea for a town hall suggestion box.

It’s as if every idea that Steve Toltz has ever had in his life he has slotted into this book.

This makes A Fraction different to most novels. Most novels have a couple of ideas, which are often related to a central theme. In Toltz’s novel, however, the theme is this: life does not have a theme. Life is simply a series of crazy stuff that happens.

Hence the book’s chaos and incredible silliness. The things that other writers would edit out for fear of not being taken seriously, Toltz leaves in.

Not everyone goes in for silly. John Freeman, for example. But then, the man’s byline does tell us he is finishing a book on the tyranny of email. From this I would surmise that he is a man who takes everyday life a little too seriously. 

To those who say there is no place for the ridiculous in life or in literary fiction, Toltz’s character Harry West may well put this challenge:

“There are men put on this earth to make laws designed to break the spirits of men. There are those put here to have their spirits broken by those put here to break them. Then there are those who are here to break the laws that break the men who break the spirits of other men. I am one of those men.”

fraction

This picture is a cover design for the book by Nathan Burton that I found at faceoutbooks.com and like a lot. One of his other designs was used for the cover that went to print.

first line friday

“Ennis Del Mar wakes before five, wind rocking the trailer, hissing in around the aluminium door and window frames. The shirts hanging on a nail shudder slightly in the draft. He gets up, scratching the grey wedge of belly and pubic hair, shuffles to the gas burner, pours leftover coffee in a chipped enamel pan; the flame swathes it in blue. He turns on the tap and urinates in the sink, pulls on his shirt and jeans, his worn boots, stamping the heels against the floor to get them full on. The wind booms down the curved length of the trailer and under its roaring passage he can hear the scratching of fine gravel and sand. It could be bad on the highway with the horse trailer. He has to be packed and away from the place that morning. Again the ranch is on the market and they’ve shipped out the last of the horses, paid everybody off the day before, the owner saying “Give em to the real estate shark, I’m out a here,” dropping the keys in Ennis’s hand. He might have to stay with his married daughter until he picks up another job, yet he is suffused with a sense of pleasure because Jack Twist was in his dream.”

 Annie Proulx, “Brokeback Mountain”, Close Range: Wyoming Stories, 1999

Proulx has written three collections of Wyoming stories now, and if Brokeback and the rest of Close Range broke your heart, try reading her latest collection, Fine Just the Way It Is. It’s just as well they’re short stories – no one could bear a novel as depressing as these tales. I love ’em, but woah. They are seriously dark. 

To give you an idea, I’ve done a digested read of one of the stories in her latest collection, called “Them Old Cowboy Songs” (Spoiler alert):

fine

Archie and Rose McLaverty staked out a homestead where the Little Weed comes rattling down from the Sierra Madre. Little Weed was named after PH Weed, a gold seeker who had starved near its source. This was appropriate because this was Wyoming, in a Proulx story, where death and misery was a part of life. It’s what made it poetic.

“But you’re only sixteen, Archie,” said Rose. “Will you really be able to support me?”

“In Proulx stories we cowboys grow up fast,” Archie told her. “You would too if your mother died of cholera when you were seven, and your father died a few weeks later by overdosing on cholera-prevention medication.”

“You think that’s poetic?” said Rose. “My mother’s so sick she can’t get out of bed, and my father’s so drunk he can’t stand up.”

But the misery of their childhoods was not enough. More bad stuff had to happen to compound the poeticism. So Archie got laid off and got Rose pregnant. Archie went to Cheyenne to look for work.

“Will you write?” asked Rose when Archie got a job.

“I can’t”, said Archie. “In order to get the job I had to tell the boss I wasn’t married.” 

“You mean you’re leaving me all alone, pregnant, with no way of contacting you, in a cabin in the middle of nowhere?” 

“Hell yeah,” said Archie. “If that won’t lead to misery and suffering, I’m damned if I know what will.”

Things went ominously well for a while. Archie made friends at work with a closet homosexual and learned how to fall off a horse. But when autumn came, so did Rose’s baby. It was far too early. She gave birth to the corpse alone in the cabin, then buried it in the yard and listened to the coyotes feed on it that night. Oh, the horror. Before fainting from loss of blood, she contemplated whether she had stumbled into the wrong genre.

Two months later her drunk father rode by the cabin and knocked on the door, but after getting no answer, was too drunk to bother going inside. Archie got pneumonia and got fired. A neighbour found Rose dead in the cabin.

It was 1886. The living was tough. But the locals and the book critics thought it was fine just the way it was. And if that much poetic misery didn’t earn Proulx a shot at the Nobel, nothing would.

first line holiday friday

“The approach of Christmas signifies three things: bad movies, unforgivable television, and even worse theatre. I’m talking bone-crushing theatre, the type our ancient ancestors used to oppress their enemies before the stretching rack. We’re talking torture on a par with the Scotsfield Dinner Theatre’s 1994 revival of Come Blow Your Horn, a production that violated every tenet of the Human Rights Accord. To those of you who enjoy the comfort of a nice set of thumbscrews, allow me to recommend any of the crucifying holiday plays and pageants currently eliciting screams of mercy from within the confines of our local elementary and middle schools. I will, no doubt, be taken to task for criticising the work of children but, as any pathologist will agree, if there’s a cancer it’s best to treat it as early as possible.”

David Sedaris, “Front Row Centre with Thaddeus Bristol”, from Holidays on Ice, 1997

Happy holidays everybody.

holidays on ice

first line friday returns

“Let me tell you about when I was a girl, our grandfather says. It is Saturday evening; we always stay at their house on Saturdays. The couch and the chairs are shoved back against the walls. The teak coffee table from the middle of the room is up under the window. The floor has been cleared for the backward and forward somersaults, the juggling with oranges and eggs, the how-to-do-a-cartwheel, how-to-stand-on-your-head, how-to-walk-on-your-hands lessons. Our grandfather holds us upside-down by the legs until we get our balance. Our grandfather worked in a circus before he met and married our grandmother. He once did headstands on top of a whole troupe of headstanders. He once walked a tightrope across the Thames. The Thames is a river in London, which is five hundred and twenty-seven miles from here, according to the mileage chart in the RAC book in among our father’s books at home. Oh, across the Thames, was it? our grandmother says. Not across the falls at Niagara? Ah, Niagara, our grandfather says. Now that was a whole other kittle of fish.”

Ali Smith, Girl Meets Boy, 2007

I briefly mentioned Ali Smith in my FLF post on 1st October by way of a crude racial stereotype, which was lazy of me: I have no idea if the woman even eats haggis. She’s probably vegetarian.

In any case, Smith deserves more than a mere mention: her writing is original, engaging and at times very funny indeed.

This novella is part of the Canongate Myths series. The idea is to retell a myth (Smith has chosen the myth of Iphis from Ovid’s Metamorphoses) in a “contemporary and memorable way”.

Smith does. Which is more than I can say for Jeanette Winterson’s effort with the story of Atlas. Crikey.

girl meets boyHere’s another excerpt from Girl Meets Boy:

“(Oh my God my sister is A GAY.)

(I am not upset. I am not upset. I am not upset. I am not upset.)

I am putting on my Stella McCartney Adidas tracksuit bottoms. I am lacing up my Nike runners. I am zipping up my Stella McCartney Adidas tracksuit top. I am going out the front door like I am a (normal) person just going out of a (normal) front foor on a (normal) early summer day in the month of May and I am going for a run which is the kind of (normal) thing (normal) people do all the time.

There. I’m running. That feels better. I can feel the road beneath my feet. There. There. There.”

first line friday

“Chapter one. ”

“He adored New York City. He idolised it all out of proportion. ”

Uh, no. Make that “He romanticised it all out of proportion. ”

“To him, no matter what the season was,this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin. ”

Uh… no. Let me start this over.

“Chapter one. ”

“He was too romantic about Manhattan, as he was about everything else.”

“He thrived on the hustle, bustle of the crowds and the traffic. ”

“To him, New York meant beautiful women and street-smart guys who seemed to know all the angles.”

Ah, corny. Too corny for a man of my taste. Let me… try and make it more profound.

“Chapter one. He adored New York City. ”

“To him, it was a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture. ”

“The same lack of integrity to cause so many people to take the easy way out… was rapidly turning the town of his dreams…”

No, it’s gonna be too preachy. I mean, face it, I wanna sell some books here.

“Chapter one. He adored New York City, although to him it was a metaphor for the decay of contemporary culture. ”

“How hard it was to exist in a society desensitised by drugs, loud music, television, crime, garbage…”

Too angry. I don’t wanna be angry.

“Chapter one. ”

“He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Behind his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat. ”

I love this.

“New York was his town and it always would be. “

Woody Allen, Manhattan, 1979

This week’s film first line will be doubling as my vacation (as they say in Manhattan) holding pattern. View the opening of the film here. And if you really like it, watch it again in Spanish!

See you in three weeks…

manhattan

first line friday

‘Once,’ said the Mock Turtle at last, with a deep sigh, ‘I was a real Turtle.’ These words were followed by a very long silence, broken only by an occasional exclamation of ‘Hjckrrh!’ from the Gryphon, and the constant heavy sobbing of the Mock Turtle. Alice was very nearly getting up and saying ‘Thank you, Sir, for your interesting story,’ but she could not help thinking there must be more to come, so she sat still and said nothing.

Lewis Carroll, The Mock Turtle’s Story, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865

It is the comic melancholy of the Mock Turtle that makes him my favourite Wonderland character; that and his deadpan delivery of bad puns:

‘When we were little,’ the Mock Turtle went on at last, more calmly, though still sobbing a little now and then, ‘we went to school in the sea. The master was an old Turtle – we used to call him Tortoise -‘

‘Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn’t one?’ Alice asked.

‘We called him Tortoise becasue he taught us,’ said the Mock Turtle angrily. ‘Really you are very dull!’

Tim Burton clearly loves Carroll’s trippy tale as much as I do, but not everyone shares our delight. Here is fantasy writer Terry Pratchett’s take on the Alice books:

‘I didn’t like the Alice books because I found them creepy and horribly unfunny in a nasty, plonking, Victorian way. Oh, here’s Mr Christmas Pudding On Legs, hohohoho, here’s a Caterpillar Smoking A Pipe, hohohoho. When I was a kid the books created in me about the same revulsion as you get when, aged seven, you’re invited to kiss your great-grandmother.’

Alicesadventuresinwonderland1898One author who would disagree with him is AS Byatt, whose latest Booker-nominated tome The Children’s Book gives a glimpse of the world of a children’s author in the Victorian age, at the time when Dodgson was writing. Earlier this month in The Guardian, Byatt reviewed a recently published book by Maria Tatar, Enhanted Hunters: the Power of Stories in Childhood, which apparently includes observations about Dodgson, whom Byatt describes in the review as (and I paraphrase) ‘a childless man who constructed theatres of the imagination in order to entertain Alice Liddell on rowing picnics.’ Byatt also observes of Enchanted Hunters:

‘Perhaps Tatar’s most original contribution to thought about children’s stories and what they do to their inhabitants is about how the addicted readers are also learning (most of them) to deal with growing up. The great powers of the mind in the world of children’s books are a capacity for wonder, and an insatiable curiosity. The writers feed both with colours never seen on sea or land, with moons and stars and gold and silver and monsters and dangers. But they are also teaching mastery of language which is the stuff of thought and necessary to growing up when the time comes.’

If it’s the case that Carroll is actually teaching us something valuable with all of those puns, then this next excerpt is a lesson about lessons: a meta-lesson, if you will:

‘And how many hours a day did you do lessons?’ said Alice, in a hurry to change the subject.’

‘Ten hours the first day,’ said the Mock Turtle, ‘nine the next, and so on.’

‘What a curious plan!’ exclaimed Alice.

‘That’s the reason they’re called lessons,’ the Gryphon remarked: ‘because they lessen from day to day.’

For a childless man, Carroll certainly does a good line in Dad Jokes.

first line friday

“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He’d been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history – state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter; the college closed, the dye factory in Hamden shut down, people coming from New Hampshire, upstate New York, as far away as Boston. It is difficult to believe that Henry’s modest plan could have worked so well despite these unforseen events.”

Donna Tartt, The Secret History, 1992

So begins the prologue of The Secret History. The first line of the novel proper is also worth excerpting:

“Does such a thing as ‘the fatal flaw,’ that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.”

As the dual openings suggest, this is a novel about literature just as much as it is a murder mystery, and the combination makes for a ripping yarn. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times described it in this way:

“Imagine the plot of Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” crossed with the story of Euripides’ “Bacchae” set against the backdrop of Bret Easton Ellis’s “Rules of Attraction” and told in the elegant, ruminative voice of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited.””

The Brideshead influence is certainly there, as is the Greek. And the Bret Easton Ellis backdrop is no coincidence if you consider the following:

Tartt and Ellis were class mates in the ‘80’s – they both attended Bennington College together in Vermont. Tartt’s Hampden college, the setting of The Secret History, is based on Bennington College, and Ellis uses Bennington as the basis for his fictional Camden College, which is referenced in a number of his books, including The Rules of Attraction.

the secret historyIn fact, in The Rules of Attraction (published in 1987) Ellis references the characters of Tartt’s The Secret History (published in 1992) in the form of a passing mention of “that weird Classics group (and they’re probably roaming the countryside sacrificing farmers and performing pagan rituals)”. This is even though The Secret History was five years away from being published.

I love it when an author drops hints that his or her books are set in a shared fictional universe. Michael Chabon is an example of someone who does a lot of this. Patrick White and Tim Winton do it too. Even better is when the fictional worlds of authors collide. Presumably Tartt had discussed the book with Ellis while writing it – a process that took her eight years – which is why he made the reference in his own work. It’s likely, in fact, that Ellis offered his support and advice to Tartt during that time, given that The Secret History bears the following dedication:

For Bret Easton Ellis, whose generosity will never cease to warm my heart.

Follow this link if you dare to a very strange cartoon inspired by the book’s prologue…

first line friday – by request

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita, 1955

Something you may not know is that the NSW Government has a “Baby Names Explorer” that allows you to browse through more than a century of the top 1200 baby names. I tell you this because tonight I conducted a search between 1955 onwards for the name “Lolita”. I came up with exactly zero matches.

This book is the reason why.

lolitaOkay, so there were no matches between 1900 and 1954 either, but that’s not to say that the infamy of this book would not have dissuaded expecting parents had it been a popular name prior to 1955. Nabokov admitted the fact himself in an interview with Life magazine:

I am probably responsible for the odd fact that people don’t seem to name their daughters Lolita any more. I have heard of young female poodles being given that name since 1956, but of no human beings.

Take an amusing expedition by clicking this link to thisrecording.com’s recent The 100 Greatest Writers of All Time list, upon which Nabokov is ranked no.8. It is amazing that Nabokov made it into the list at all, given that, as one New Yorker blogger observed, it could almost double as a list of “The Greatest Literary Facial Hair of all Time”. I find it amazing, too, that the the New Yorker mentioned the list at all, it being full of senseless commentary such as “Lolita is probably more important than The Odyssey.” What does that even mean? The post is worth visiting for the pictures, though, and once you’ve looked at the pictures read the pithily derisive readers’ comments that follow the list.

Thanks once again to Cathy for this fab First Line Friday request.

Off to Bundanon

I found out this week I’ve been accepted for a one-month residency at Bundanon next year – hoorah!

Bundanon was gifted to the Australian people in 1993 by Arthur and Yvonne Boyd and is located on 1,100 hectares of bush land overlooking the Shoalhaven River, near Nowra. It looks beautiful. If you would like to check it out for yourself, here’s the website: www.bundanon.com.au