first line friday – by request

I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies. My posture is consciously congruent to the shape of my hard chair. This is a cold room in University Administration, wood-walled, Remington-hung, double-windowed against the November heat, insulated from Administrative sounds by the reception area outside, at which Uncle Charles, Mr. deLint and I were lately received.

I am in here.

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace, 1996

I am obliged to confess before I go any further that I have not read Infinite Jest. Everything I know about the novel’s setting (a tennis academy and a drug-rehabilitation retreat in a near future in which years are no longer numbered but corporate-sponsored, eg “Year of the Trial-Sized Dove Bar,” “Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment” etc) and characters (eg the three Incandenza brothers: a tennis prodigy, a football punter and a fire-hydrant-size dwarf) I learned from either friends who are obsessed with this book or from the Washington Post ten minutes ago.

My reason for featuring Infinite Jest this week is four-fold. Put another way, I have four reasons for featuring Infinite Jest this week:

  1. 1. One of my said obsessed friends requested that I do so [1];
  2. 2. It’s just over a year since Wallace died, so it’s my equivalent to waving a cigarette lighter in Strawberry Fields a la Beetles fans on the anniversary of John Lennon’s death;
  3. 3. I am currently reading and loving one of Wallace’s other books, A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again: essays and arguments; and
  4. 4. I bought Infinite Jest just this afternoon, and intend to begin reading beyond the first line later tonight.

If I’ve piqued your interest I’ll warn you now – it’s massive. My copy comes to 1079 pages, and the type is small. Which is not surprising if you’ve ever read Wallace [2]. The world is his babushka doll. As soon as you think he’s unpacked the final doll, there he is, driving a fingernail into the guts of the baby doll, gutting it for another doll, and then the one inside that for yet another doll.

Wallace thinks hard, and deep, about everything. It makes him worth reading on pretty much any topic, including Balthazar Getty:

…about whom the less said the better, probably, except maybe to say that he looks sort of like Tom Hanks and John Cusack and Charlie Sheen all mashed together and then emptied of some vital essence…As a Young Hot Male Actor, Balthazar Getty is to Leonardo DiCaprio roughly what a Ford Escort is to a Lexus.

From the essay “David Lynch keeps his head, 1995”

I recognise that this is not necessarily the best example of Wallace thinking hard and deep, but I wanted to put it in anyway.

DFWSomething else I already knew but fact-checked with the Washington Post is that he was a ranked junior tennis player growing up in Illinois [3]. It can be no surprise then, that one of the topics Wallace writes about, and is worth reading on, is tennis. This is why I want you to navigate away from FLF right now, in the direction of this article that Wallace wrote in August 2006 for the New York Times. I’m tempted to say that you’ll dig it even if you’re a person who doesn’t like tennis. However, since I am in no position to judge the article from the perspective of such a person, I will give you a tiny taste of “Federer as Religious Experience” right here and you can decide whether to follow this second strategically-placed link for yourself:

Federer had to send that ball down a two-inch pipe of space in order to pass [Agassi], which he did, moving backwards, with no setup time and none of his weight behind the shot. It was impossible. It was like something out of “The Matrix.” […] That’s one example of a Federer Moment, and that was merely on TV — and the truth is that TV tennis is to live tennis pretty much as video porn is to the felt reality of human love.

[1] With thanks to the rad Rachey C for this rad First Line Friday request, and to Wallace for the inspiration w/r/t the footnotes.

[2] I am calling him Wallace on the assumption, but without actually really knowing, that Foster is his middle name, rather than part of his surname. It seems unlikely, but the Washington Post went with it, and I am presuming they did their research.

[3] Note: the interest in tennis does not explain the bandana (see pic). He wore the bandana because of sweat issues.

first line friday – by request

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy. I can’t say that I am really comfortable, and there is a depressing smell of carbolic soap, but this is the only part of the kitchen where there is any daylight left. And I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring – I wrote my very best poem while sitting on the hen-house. Though even that isn’t a very good poem. I have decided my poetry is so bad that I musn’t write any more of it.”

Dodi Smith, I Capture the Castle, 1949

With so many great British Smiths, how is one to distinguish them? There are the musical ones of course, but narrowing Smiths to their respective fields doesn’t always help. Take the sub-group British literary chicks, and you’ve got not only Dodi, but Zadie and Ali to deal with.

Since I am drafting this post on an empty stomach, I am of a mind to differentiate these talented three by what one should consume whilst reading their books:

Zadie – An Indian dish, mispronounced, in the fashion of those ordered from Ardashir Mukhul’s restaurant in White Teeth (“Chicken Jail Fret See wiv chips” for example).

Ali – Haggis.

Dodi – Devonshire tea – with the tea-pot tea-cosied, the scones with lashings of cream, and the table sheltering bed-socked feet and a dalmatian.

icapturethecastleThe dalmatian is in deference to one of Dodi’s other books – the one arguably more famous than the author herself. It goes by two names, the lesser-known being The Great Dog Robbery. I’m sure you can guess what it is.

With thanks to the splendid Cathy for requesting this splendid first line.

first line friday

“This was the year he rode the subway to the ends of the city, two hundred miles of track. He liked to stand at the front of the first car, hands flat against the glass. The train smashed through the dark. People stood on local platforms staring nowhere, a look they’d been practicing for years. He kind of wondered, speeding past, who they really were. His body fluttered in the fastest stretches. They went so fast sometimes he thought they were on the edge of no-control. The noise was pitched to a level of pain he absorbed as a personal test. Another crazy-ass curve. There was so much iron in the sound of those curves he could almost taste it, like a toy you put in your mouth when you are little.”

 Don DeLillo, Libra, 1988

“The strongest feeling I took away from that moment”, DeLillo has said of watching the Kennedy assassination, “is the feeling that the shot came from the front and not from the rear”. It is the moment that DeLillo has said “invented” him as a writer.

Hence Libra, his ersatz biography of Lee Harvey Oswald (the title is a reference to Oswald’s star sign.) Hence the preoccupation with conspiracies and media images to be found in DeLillo’s other books, such as Underworld and White Noise.

My question is, if the Kennedy assassination invented DeLillo the writer, and DeLillo the writer, in penning White Noise, invented the Airborne Toxic Event, does that mean that we can blame Lee Harvey Oswald for this Airborne Toxic Event? And this one? I certainly hope so.

kennedyHere’s another interesting fact explaining DeLillo’s interest in Oswald, and a segue into one more beaut passage from Libra: DeLillo and Oswald, who were three years apart in age, grew up within streets of each other in the Bronx:

“In summer dusk the girls lingered near the benches on Bronx Park South. Jewish girls, Italian girls in tight skirts, girls with ankle bracelets, their voices murmurous with the sound of boys’ names, with song lyrics, little remarks he didn’t always understand…Heat entered the flat through the walls and windows, seeped down from the tar roof. Men on Sundays carried pastry in white boxes. An Italian was murdered in a candy store, shot five times, his brains dashing the wall near the comic-book rack. Kids trooped to the store from all around to see the traces of grayish splatter. His mother sold stockings in Manhattan.”

first line friday

“In the old brown house on the corner, a mile from the middle of the city, we ate bacon for breakfast every morning of our lives. There were never enough chairs for us all to sit up at the meal table; one or two of us always sat on the floor or on the kitchen step, plate on knee. It never occurred to us to teach the children to eat with a knife or fork. It was hunger and all sheer function: the noise, and clashing of plates, and people chewing with their mouths open, and talking, and laughing. Oh, I was happy then. At night our back yard smelt like the country.”

Helen Garner, Monkey Grip, 1977

Perhaps it’s the nostalgia, or the share-house references, or the bacon. Perhaps it’s all three. Whatever the case, every time I read this opening I want to live in that house in inner-city Melbourne, and I want it to be 1977 all over again.

There’s a fair few people out there who still haven’t forgiven Garner for writing a certain book about an incident at Ormond College in 1992, and who as a result have never bothered with her fiction. If the above excerpt from Monkey Grip isn’t enough to convince you to give it a go (I’d recommend starting with The Children’s Bach (1984) then reading Monkey Grip, Honour & Other People’s Children (1980), Postcards from Surfers (1985) and Cosmo Cosmolino (1992) – yes, they’re all worth it), here’s a curious artefact that might soften your view of the author.

monkeygripIn 1975, when she was still an author-to-be, Garner featured in a film called Pure S about the Melbourne drug scene in the ‘70’s, which Paul Byrnes has described as “one of the most radical and notorious films ever made in Australia.” (In Monkey Grip, the narrator mentions getting work “on a movie about junkies” – presumably Garner had Pure S in mind.) Please enjoy this endearing clip from the film starring a young Garner playing a paranoid speed addict. It’s worth it for the hair alone.

first line friday

“I did not kill my father, but I sometimes felt I had helped him on his way. And but for the fact that it coincided with a landmark in my own physical growth, his death seemed insignificant compared with what followed. My sisters and I talked about him the week after he died, and Sue certainly cried when the ambulance men tucked him up in a bright-red blanket and carried him away. He was a frail, irascible, obsessive man with yellowish hands and face. I am only including the little story of his death to explain how my sisters and I came to have such a large quantity of cement at our disposal.”

Ian McEwan, The Cement Garden, 1978

Because who cares about a father dying when there’s a few bags of cement up for grabs?

I love how creepy McEwan’s earlier novels and short stories are. Pick up anything he wrote in the ‘70s or ‘80s and you’re guaranteed death, emotional trauma and kinky sex – usually of the incestuous variety. His later, more highly acclaimed novels are tame by comparison. And is it just me, or are too many of the Booker short-listed ones based on a tenuous premise that McEwan doesn’t always pull off?

cement garden2A man writes a rude word in a letter to his beloved, an action which changes his life forever.

Or: a man and a woman have bad sex on their wedding night, an action which ruins their relationship forever, etc.

I think my favourite McEwan novel is actually The Child In Time, possibly because the trauma he puts us through (there’s child abduction, madness, even politics!) is balanced by what could, at a stretch, be called a hopeful ending – in comparison to his usual endings anyway. It’s almost as if McEwan left the incomplete manuscript lying around somewhere and Enid Blyton decided to finish it off for him.

There’s also an intriguing paranormal element (perhaps Blyton popped that in as well?) and a terrific portrait of the British Prime Minister as a closet homosexual. All of this fun, however, cannot be predicted by it’s opening, which sounds more like the introductory paragraph of a submission to a Senate Committee Inquiry:

“Subsidising public transport had long been associated in the minds of both Government and the majority of its public with the denial of individual liberty.”     

Duller than a cement garden.

first line friday

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. I’m stupid about executions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers – goggle-eyed headlines staring up at me on every street corner and at the fusty, peanut-smelling mouth of every subway. It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.”

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Welcome to the first ever First Line Friday. I aim to use this weekly post to belljarshare some of my favourite opening lines – of novels, primarily, but also of poems, short stories, plays and occasionally films.the-bell-jar1

I should say at this point that I’m no stranger to the dangers of judging a book by its opening. I have been hoodwinked before by great openings that peter out into nonsense. I was even duped once into reading a terrible novel that consisted entirely of openings.

I’ve also read a few slow burners in my time: books with 20 plus pages of plodding exposition that might take weeks, months, even years to get through before you’ve hacked your way clear of the undergrowth, but that reward you once you’ve done so with an exhilarating sprint across the plains.

My idea is to use the first lines as a starting point – a springboard if you will – for a conversation about writing, writers and other literary curiosities.

I’ve started with Plath’s opening to The Bell Jar as it rates, in my humble opinion, as one of the greats. It takes the classic dark and stormy night formula and turns it completely on its head.

On that topic, the bell jarclick here for another take on the “dark and stormy night” opening from a very different kind of genius…

New story in Etchings 7

Volume 7 of the Ilura Press journal Etchings is out this month and I have a story in it called ‘Trace’. The theme is chameleons:

Colourful, playful, and particularly creative, the Chameleons issue abounds with ideas of change, disguise, double identities, and purely ephemeral moments of beauty.

Bio

I’m a fiction writer whose short stories have been published in a number of journals and anthologies, including Best Australian Stories, The AgeOverland, Southerly and Going Down Swinging. My work has been broadcast on radio. I’ve also worked as a freelance writer and columnist.

Awards I have received for my short fiction include first place in the Banjo Patterson National Short Story Competition, the Wimmera Literary Competition, the University of British Columbia “Ubyssey” Literary Competition and the FAW Frank Page Award for Short Story Writing. I have also been placed in the Age Short Story Competition and the University of Canberra Literary Competition.

I am a past recipient of the Varuna Eleanor Dark Flagship Fellowship for Fiction, an Australian Society of Authors Mentorship, a Bundanon residency and an Australia Council Emerging Writers Grant.

Selected published work

  • ‘Benny Wins Powerball’, Going Down Swinging, #32, October 2011
  • ‘Honey’, Australian Book Review website, December 2010
  • ‘Trace’, Etchings, July 2009
  • ‘My Life as a Freeze-Framed Action Hero’, Final Draft, 2ser radio, 2/6/2008
  • ‘The Promise’, The Age, January 2006
  • ‘Jump’, F.Moorhouse (ed), Best Australian Stories 2004, Black Inc.; Southerly, v 60, n 3, 2003
  • ‘On the Way to Thursday’, Hecate, v 30, n 2, 2004
  • ‘Packing a Punch’, Overland, v 171, Winter 2003
  • ‘Scene on a Boat’, Dot Lit, 2002
  • ‘The Wound Begins’, Imago, v 13, n 3, 2001
  • ‘Sheets’, Southerly, v 60, n 3, 2000
  • ‘Seven Points in Detail’, Idiom 23, v 10, n 1, 1997