KILLERS, GREAT AND SMALL
From September 11 to Alexander the Great to hapless would-be crims, a range of books that looks at murder and its consequences
EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE
By Jonathan Safran Foer
New York. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2005. ISBN: 0618329706. Available on import and currently stocked by unusually good book shops. To be released by Penguin Australia in July 2005.
To write a second novel after the first has been a bestseller is famously difficult. Many never manage it at all. After To Kill a Mockingbird, nothing. The author was said to have begun writing a new book the very next year but nothing else ever materialised from the pen of Harper Lee.
With a seven-figure advance on his conscience, Jonathan Safran Foer must have been under enormous pressure when he set to work on his second novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. It probably didn’t help that Foer’s debut, Everything is Illuminated, (winner of the Guardian First Book Award in 2002) was hailed as work of genius. It can’t be easy to follow that.
Foer decided to up the stakes and raise them dramatically. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is based on a child’s experience of September 11, possibly the most provocative subject a contemporary author could address. Has Foer stolen the emotional pull of September 11 in a desperate effort to produce another powerful work of fiction?
Salman Rushdie says the book ‘completely earns the right to take on the Trade Center atrocity. The powerful emotions generated feel deserved, not borrowed.’ A good book, or an honest book, creates its own power whereas a bad book tries to claim its power from external sources. And so it goes that a good writer can elicit more feeling from a sneeze than a bad writer could ever hope to glean from a sunset.
Employing big themes to cover up small writing doesn’t work. Readers already have intense feelings about the attack on the World Trade Center so while many books have previously approached the subject, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the first to become a best seller.
Oskar Schell in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is about the same age as Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and Foer chooses a similar method of approaching a grave issue through the eyes of a child. Foer maintains that he writes out of a need to read something rather than a need to write something and has contrived Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as a non-political response to the tragedy.
A crazy coffee-drinking kid whose father died in the World Trade Center tragedy, Oskar’s grief sets him off on a journey to find the lock that fits a mysterious key he has found in his father’s room. Obviously traumatised, he invents many things that might help avert catastrophe. There’s a birdseed shirt in case you need to make a quick escape and a big sign for the top of ambulances flashing messages like ‘IT’S NOTHING MAJOR!’ or ‘GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU! GOODBYE!’
Oskar speaks a bit like Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye (another one-hit wonder) over-using the phrase ‘heavy boots’ to talk about being depressed:
On Tuesday afternoon I had to go to Dr Fein. I didn’t understand why I needed help, because it seemed to me that you should wear heavy boots when your dad dies, and if you aren’t wearing heavy boots then you need help. But I went anyway, because the raise in my allowance depended on it.
The word association test that Dr Fein conducts during this meeting is very funny. Critics in New York have been quick to accuse Foer of ‘getting cute’ about the atrocity, reminding me of one of the characters Oskar meets on his journey. Ruth Black, a tour guide, hasn’t left the Empire State Building for years, not since the death of her husband. In conversation with Oskar, ‘she let out a laugh, and then she put her hand over her mouth, like she was angry at herself for forgetting her sadness’. Reactions to Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud become more positive the further one gets from Manhattan.
Foer’s writing falls into the category of magical realism, a mode of literature that commonly surfaces when a government overrules its people. In our culture, magical realism it is often mistaken as an attempt to be amusing, whimsical or surreal. As a form, it seems well-equipped to accommodate the pluralism required to describe a complex and mythic city like New York, now also a site of intolerable pain.
Flipbook style, the novel concludes with a series of images of a man falling from the World Trade Center, but the order is reversed so it appears as if he is bouncing back up again. My feeling is that Foer’s decision to pepper the book with photographs doesn’t quite work. The German writer W.G. Sebald uses photographs in his texts to majestic effect, so by no means is it a technique destined to fail, but these photos seem to dilute the book rather than enhance it.
Extremely Close and Incredibly Loud doesn’t need to bank on the gravitas of September 11. Oskar could have lost his father under any circumstances and given his perculiar leanings need not have lost his father at all before embarking on this strange journey. If you take away the references to September 11, you are still left with a whole book.
Nothing stems ability half so well as weighty praise and the burden of high expectations. Remember Ian Thorpe flopping into the pool at the trials for the Athens Olympics? He went on to take out the gold again, but not before embarrassing himself in front of the nation. Like Thorpe, Foer finds the gold, but not where you might expect.
By Andrew Miller
London. Sceptre, 2005. ISBN: 0340836555.
Structured like a brilliant photograph, The Optimists is Andrew Miller’s best novel to date. Clem Glass, a successful photo-
journalist, is struggling to overcome the trauma of a massacre in Rwanda. Though accustomed to harrowing assignments, Clem returns home to London unable to resume his life. Miller writes as a perceptive photographer might record, knowing that the edges of a scene are often far more interesting than the scene itself.
Genocide is not the theme here for The Optimists is about salvation. His inability to detach from the wickedness he has witnessed obstructs Clem’s quest for redemption. Throughout the novel, he carries three images around with him in his wallet: an early portrait of Sylvestre Ruzindana, the man responsible for the massacre; a picture of a ravaged classroom showing the legs of upturned desks and a whitewashed wall sprayed and smeared with blood; and a girl called Odette Semugeshi, 10 years old, standing in front of her bed at the Red Cross hospital and staring into the camera ‘with a gaze of the quietest imaginable outrage.’
The experience in Rwanda has awakened Clem’s innermost fears – that the soul of mankind is ruthless, heartless, evil. ‘Drawn increasingly to every manner of portent’ Clem searches for proof to the contrary. He visits his father who, after the death of his wife, has withdrawn to a monastery where the monks keep a vigil in the chapel, each taking a two-hour shift:
‘Can I ask what you pray for?’
‘Me? Oh, for understanding.’
‘Yes,’ he said, smiling to himself and slipping his hand again under his son’s arm as they came onto the road. ‘Always.’
Although his previous novels demonstrate an ability for sumptuous prose, Miller’s writing draws little attention to itself in The Optimists. Clem chases down Frank Silverman, the journalist with him in Rwanda, but Silverman’s losing it too and instead of offering consolation, he hands Clem a brown envelope full of heavily corrected notes. Both disturbing and beautiful, Silverman’s fractured account provides a vivid contrast to Clem’s paired down, straightforward narrative.
‘Fear is a darkroom where negatives develop’ said Usman Asif, and almost everyone in this book is afraid of the dark. The notes Clem is handed describe Silverman’s terror of the unlit city where all that is unseen threatens.
Still unable to return to work, and thinking about giving up on photography completely, Clem retreats to the country with his sister, Dr Clare Glass. Clare, an esteemed art historian, has sunk deep into depression after suffering from a bout of malign hallucinations. One night during their stay in Somerset, a fuse blows and the cottage is plunged into darkness. Similarly haunted, Clem is almost as frightened by the experience as his demented sister.
Before she grew old, Clem’s mother went blind and Clem becomes increasingly concerned about his vision. As keenly aware the eye’s sensitivity as a photographer would be, Clem is tormented by the fear that witnessing such atrocities could have irredeemably damaged his retinas.
Like the rest of us, Miller’s ‘optimists’ are trying to make sense of a world where so many bad things happen. They are not optimistic fools but characters who strive towards a positive perspective, battling against the painful and the discouraging, never content to blank it out.
Reviewed by Michael Morrissey
Penguin Australian Summer Stories
Penguin Books, $22.95, ISBN 0143002724
I believe all books should have identified authors/editors, so why then an anonymous compiler? Or did the authors select themselves? If so, who invited them? With no editor, there is no introduction which is, or should be, a necessary part of any compilation; it offers guidelines to the anthology’s intention.
The collection as a whole disappoints – the editor hiding his/her shame, perhaps? The problem is, too many stories here have the same even kind of tone, which is warm but somehow bland. Possibly this is a conscious/unconscious strategy: summer is a time of relaxed warmth (let us say), so let’s have stories with a relaxed warm tone, stories that give a suntan without skin cancer. However, there are some gems.
With the exception of veteran story teller David Malouf’s novella-length contribution, the best stories are in the earlier part of the book. First up is Gabriel Lord’s ‘Surprise Lunch’, a chilling little tale of an intended murder that backfires. This has the kind of sting-in-the-tail punch we might associate with Roald Dahl, modern master of the horror-terror tale derived from the inventor of it, Edgar Allan Poe. This is the kind of story that – apart from the great Luis Jorge Borges – has been unfashionable in literary circles for some time, but damn it, I enjoyed it.
Peter Goldsworthy’s ‘Run Silent, Run Deep’ brings a sharper and more contemporary note with its forbidden tape in a possibly stolen camcorder. Marion Halligan’s ‘Irregular Verbs’ defiantly breaches the almost uniform tone with a luxuriantly descriptive stream of consciousness technique.
By and large, these are coastal or suburban rather than outback stories. No billabongs, kangaroos or snakes – though an echidna makes a guest appearance. There tend not to be professionals in crisis, more ordinary folk in a jam, such as the lady in Andrea Mayes’s ‘The Bag’. With possibly an outsider’s perspective, I wondered about the absence of well-known Australian denizens like sharks, snakes, and blue-ringed octopuses. Casting on eye back to (say) Coast to Coast, a collection edited by Frank Moorhouse when summer-oriented hippiedom was at its height, I felt a tinge of nostalgia for some of the authors current at the time – Peter Carey, Murray Bail, Michael Wilding – and wondered about their absence. Frank, I would guess, has thrown away his swimming trunks and became an unabashed winter-loving Europhile. After many a summer, can autumn be far behind?
INSIDE HITLER’S BUNKER
By Joachim Fest
Pan Books, $25, ISBN 0374135770
It’s interesting to read a biographical study, albeit a short one, focused on the last days of Hitler by a German historian, rather than what is more typical for most English readers, one by a British historian. Fest’s cool, cogent overview of what is most probably the greatest drama of the twentieth century offers a fascinating view of the necessities of military crisis – permission was given to Goebbels to set up a battalion of women soldiers – an unthinkable idea in the earlier triumphal days of the Third Reich. This book contains some of the familiar photos of Hitler’s last days but some touching new ones – including a fifteen-year-old youth alongside a much older man: the last futile strategy – to defend doomed Berlin.
What Fest’s study shows clearly is the extraordinary contradictions in Hitler’s personality. On the one hand, clutching at chances of last-minute victory (hoping that Roosevelt’s death would split the alliance), while on the other, seeming to exult in a dramatic and final destruction – a gotterdammerung of his own making. While he had become a pathetic shambling physical wreck with a ‘pathological craving for cake’, Hitler could still convince generals who knew the situation to be hopeless that it was nevertheless possible to save it at the last hour – Gauleiter Albert Forster in Danzig had but four tanks to face 1100 Russian tanks, yet after a brief time in Hitler’s study he emerged ‘completely transformed’.
Fest argues forcibly that German soldiers felt swept up in a great cause – ‘called on ..to be the participants in the final act of a great tragedy’. Further on, he maintains, ‘An infatuation with hopeless situations has long been one of the characteristics of at least one strand of German thought.’ Hitler is portrayed as a fanatical exemplar of this kind of infatuation. This psychological-Zeitgeist theory makes a lot of sense and would explain what British historian A. J. P. Taylor found inexplicable, namely, why German soldiers and Hitler went on fighting when the cause was hopelessly lost. Fest’s analysis also helps rebut the tiresomely glib explanation of the phenomenon of Hitler – that he was simply mad.
Hitler’s epic rages are vividly described yet Fest doesn’t try to explain them as amphetamine-fuelled – though certainly the drugs he was taking wouldn’t have helped. Ultimately, Hitler’s personality contradictions remain an enigma, but Fest’s acute analysis, more than most, helps us decode it.
ALEXANDER THE GREAT
By Robin Lane Fox
Penguin Books, $22.95,ISBN 0141030768
The recent justly-panned film about Alexander the Great, history’s greatest general and conqueror of the then-known world, has prompted a re-issue of this magnificent one volume history of the enigmatic Macedonian. According to some critics, it is the finest history so far written and, though I am not a professional historian, I am inclined to agree. A scholarly work, it has 50 pages of microfiche-sized footnotes. In the main text, it’s all here in dazzling detail: the fantastic siege machines that stormed the island fortress of Tyre, the wheeling feints and massive concentration of attack that defeated every military adversary, the brutal methods used to defeat King Porus’ elephants (javelins in the eyes, hamstrings cut with axes, hacking off trunks with razor-sharp scimitars) plus the founding of cities, the grand Hellenic vision, the spontaneous acts of kindness and generosity, the ruthless treatment of enemies, not to forget alcoholic and sexual indulgence.
Historians like Schachermeyer, Tarn and Hammond praise Alexander while others like Badian, O’Brien and Green condemn him. Depending on one’s cultural and historical perspective, Alexander’s life and deeds lend themselves to either favourable or denunciatory interpretation. Among ancient historians Callisthenes, Aristobulus, Arrian, and Plutarch praised Alexander while Curtius Rufus and Cleitarchus were harsher in their assessment. Plutarch saw Alexander as a civilizer of barbarians – an attitude with which we no longer feel comfortable. When Fox writes warmly of the spread of Hellenic or Greek culture, I am tempted to ask, isn’t this Plutarchian praise in a more sophisticated form? On balance, Fox admires Alexander and there are numerous incidents of his nobility of character as well as the darker side. At times, so overwhelming is the mass of Alexander’s achievements, both cultural and military, in such a short life, one feels a kind of admiring historical vertigo. Did the man never sleep? Apparently, very little.
Fox writes with angelic erudition throughout his closely detailed book. He excels in outlining military technicality but is even more outstanding when he offers intensive psychological analysis – the exact motives and circumstance of Cleitus’s murder by Alexander; the acute examination of the controversial proskynesis or homage with prostration paid to social superiors; the intelligent consideration of Alexander’s “godhood” – are all masterly, superb.
Now for some brickbats: the maps are ridiculously poky affairs and printed in such a way that it is hard to read place names. Also the maps show only Alexander’s journeys, not his battles. Why such an important omission? The new issue – save for a changed cover – is exactly the same as it was 30 years ago, surely a missed chance to
improve and extend the maps as well as an opportunity for Fox to update his views.
Fascinatingly, Fox was historical consultant to Oliver Stone’s recent film and made a non-negotiable’ demand that he be included in the front ten of every major cavalry charge on location. Fair enough. By now, of course, Fox is as old as the hardy veterans of Alexander’s concluding campaigns – nearing 60, yet still a champion horseman. But why oh why did he apparently sanction a major rewrite of history in the film? King Porus is shown as wounding Alexander with a spear, whereas in actuality Porus was captured by an unwounded Alexander.
Prior to Jesus Christ, Alexander was probably the most famous and written-about of men. Curiously, no one has ever doubted that Alexander existed even though nearly all the original documents written about him were lost and recast some three to four hundred years after his death. The consequence is that many of his famous (and infamous) deeds exist in variant accounts. Thus he has become partially mythical though indisputably a real figure. In the case of the Gospels, they are all written close together, soon after Christ’s lifetime and are consistent with each other. Yet some nineteenth historians suggested that Christ never existed. The same theory applied to Alexander would never have gained an inch of traction. Such are the paradoxes of history.
THE FULL CATASTROPHE
By Edna Mazya
Picador, $22, ISBN 033044215549
Thrillers are like fast food – they fulfil a need with suspicious ease but leave you undernourished. On the other hand, there is the deeper psychological thriller more or less invented by Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment, one of the world’s greatest novels. This wonderful first novel by Israeli playwright Edna Mazya aspires more to the Dostoyevsky ‘genre’ than the usual airport trash. As in the great Russian novel, we know who the murderer is – it’s the main character, Professor Ilan Nathan, who kills his wife’s lover, not with a knife, gun or heavy object but with – you’ll never guess – his pipe. If the unlikely death of Oden Safra is black humour, it’s difficult to mourn the demise of such a callous smug bastard.
What is gripping about this book is the way Nathan keeps drawing attention to himself, his guilt is an inner motor that drives him to perpetrate the most infelicitous of actions. He leaves a trail of self-incriminating evidence that a blind man could follow. The superbly detailed sequence where Nathan keeps trying to dispose of the body is both nail-bitingly suspenseful and blackly funny. This book, along with countless movies – including Unfaithful, which it strangely parallels – makes one thing perfectly clear: never take a stiff to the rubbish tip.
Apart from the expert plotting, black humour and acute psychology, the novel’s outstanding feature is its unusual style. The sentences are disconcertingly long rolling affairs, yet once you get used to their rhythm they carry you along like giant surf. This eminently readable yet in depth novel is a good antidote to the trashy Hannibal Lecter books. I’ve never quite believed in Hannibal but Ilan Nathan is more credibly human – complete with an unemotional mother who loves him and saves him in the end. Just how, you will have to find out by treating yourself to the book.