But Q & A answers plenty of questions
HOW WE ARE HUNGRY
By Dave Eggers
San Francisco. McSweeney’s Books 2004 ISBN: 1932416137
Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, has compiled a list of factors that compel people to write: ‘Free time. Technology. Material. Education. And disgust’.
People are working less and living longer; computers are everywhere, spell-check included; anything goes; we are constantly being told where to put our commas; there is so much bad writing out there and there’s the belief that people are making money from it. Disgust provokes an I can do better than that mentality that has created the hordes of story-telling punks now being published all over the place.
Dave Eggers is one of their leaders, and How We Are Hungry is a collection of fifteen of his short stories. But don’t let that put you off: short stories are changing again, and for the better. Traditional surprise endings à la Roald Dahl are on the rise, while academic experimentation is out. The market for these pieces is still slim with the number of stories being written greatly outweighing the number of people who are willing to read them. With everyone rushing off to writing workshops, this situation worsens daily.
In the New York Review of Books (October), Diane Johnson articulated a hope that the genre is making a come-back: ‘Readers and nonreaders alike are affected by the Internet and television, the byte, the sound bite, and the accelerating pace of life, and have only a short story’s worth of time to give to literature.’ Proof is still to follow. Last year, the publication of John Updike’s Early Stories: 1953-1975 received much positive attention but few sales considering his status. Annie Proulx’s new anthology Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 has not had shining reviews but surely it will sell.
Eggers’ first book, a memoir entitled A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, came out four years ago and made him very famous. Since then he has enjoyed an escalating cult following. His magazine The Believer, his first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, and his publishing house, McSweeney’s, are all very popular. Eggers himself is well-liked, not least of all because he runs free writing labs for children in Brooklyn (Superhero Supply Co.) and San Franscico (Pirate Supply Store) offering one-on-one help
So, how are we hungry? Each of the stories in this book answers this question directly. Self-conscious desperation is the key motivation. Mostly, Eggers’ human characters are a miserable lot. They collect cacti and count their lives away. They don’t want to be like they are, but are only momentarily allowed to transcend all that which debases. The urge to find a gigantic pair of tweezers and pluck Dave Eggers from Generation X and put him somewhere more meaningful (and less anxious) overwhelms.
The prognosis is better for dogs and the final story “After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned” is enjoyable:
When I run I can turn like I’m magic or something. I can turn like there wasn’t even a turn. I turn and I’m going so fast it’s like I was still going straight. Through the trees like a missile, through the trees I love to run with my claws reaching and grabbing so quickly like I’m taking everything.
This dog’s a Jack Kerouac but his name is Steven.
One of the most topical stories in How We Are Hungry is called “When They Learned to Yelp”. It is also one of the most annoying ones. Though he never makes this explicit, Eggers is at pains to define ‘yelp’ as what happened to young Americans upon witnessing the destruction of the Twin Towers. The word ‘yelp’ appears over thirty times within three pages and Eggers gets his message across just fine. Call me old fashioned, but I still believe a yelp is what happens when you accidentally tread on your puppy’s foot. He’s hijacked the wrong word and the experiment falls as flat as his character in “Climbing to the Window, Pretending to Dance”, who attempts suicide by jumping from a two-storey building.
It’s all the more annoying when Eggers’ writing falters because we have already looked through the windows of his enormous potential. In “Up The Mountain Coming Down Slowly” the writing is so good you don’t even notice it’s there. First published in McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, it’s about a woman who sets out to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro for reasons that elude her. This story is as full as any novel ever could be. And the ending… it’s no wonder Eggers is winning so many awards. A trophy room is in order if he intends to keep this up.
On the eve of her departure, Rita, from “Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly”, visits the hotel bar and meets a stranger: ‘They talked about capital punishment, the stenographer comparing the stonings common to some Muslim regions with America’s lethal injections and electric chairs. Somehow the conversation was cheerful and relaxed.’
And yet somehow this book is actually quite funny, a most curious mix. There’s also lot of fooling around here and that’s probably why so many people think he’s pretentious. The posturing in How We Are Hungry is irritating; it distracts from the quality of the writing and the quality of thought. I’d give it an A for achievement and a D for effort and attitude – Eggers might consider this the perfect grade.
It’s unsettling that quite a few of these stories have been revised since their original publication in prestigious places like The Guardian and The New Yorker. One worries that the new ones are going to change too – so wouldn’t it be better to wait and read the final version? Old-fashioned, I would prefer Eggers’ words to stay put.
Q & A
By Vikas Swarup
London. Transworld Publishers 2005 ISBN: 0385608144. Distributed by Random House Australia. Paperback. $32.95.
“I have been arrested. For winning a quiz show.”
This is the eye-popping opening line of Vikas Swarup’s debut novel Q & A – a picaresque tale of an orphan who wins “Who Wants to be a Billionaire?” Unable to pay out the prize money, the organisers of the show conspire to have him arrested for cheating. Our hero is Ram Mohammad Thomas – a name part Hindu, part Muslim, part Christian, designed to please everyone.
Ram’s excellent adventures are presented to us in the form of a quiz show, with a chapter dedicated to each question. It’s a clever set-up and the novel takes full advantage of the quiz-show phenomenon, namely that the audience desperately wants the contestant
Ram is as smart and brave as his tales are tall. This boy is far from lucky but lucky coincidences are everywhere in Q & A. In an extraordinary act of generosity Ram gives away a huge amount of stolen money to save a dying boy he’s never met. The father of the dying boy gives him his business card which he puts in his top pocket. Moments later the police arrive to frisk him but he no longer has the stolen cash so he walks free. Further down the track, a question on Shakespeare pops up in the quiz and Ram doesn’t know the answer. He elects to use a ‘life boat’ but can’t think of anyone to call. While reaching into his pocket to find his lucky coin, his hand brushes against the business card. He reads it for the first time and miraculously it says, “Utpah Chatterjee, English Teacher, St John’s School, Agra” and then gives a phone number.
Though the story is related entirely from Ram’s point of view, Swarup bends the rules so that the limited perspective is never isolating or dull. Though we are encouraged to doubt Ram’s honesty, this is done in a genial sort of story-telling way: there’s no edgy postmodern uncertainty here. It’s a book that began as a good idea and will probably end up a movie.
Like any great ride at the fair this book succeeds in making you feel a bit sick and it would be irresponsible not to give it an MA rating. Q & A is a fictional story about fortune, both good and bad. Swarup is not remotely concerned with presenting a factual account of a street kid’s life. For example, the only time Ram complains of real hunger he reports, “even something as basic as a boiled egg, which I have never liked, makes me salivate”. I am not sure how basic a boiled egg is to a penniless orphan but to nit-pick is to miss the point. If reading is at all like traveling then Q & A is like riding fast across India on a motorcycle. The view is blurry but the journey is lots of fun.(Trivia: Turkey has just chopped another six zeros off its currency, so that country’s show, “Who Wants to Win Five Billion Turkish Lira” might finally get a catchier name.)
By Tim Winton
MacMillan Australia. ISBN: 0-330-42138-7. $46.
I have a confession to make. When I gave The Turning the dreaded flick test and came across a page (say p.294) of skinny unpunctuated dialogue, I thought “not more Hemingway please”, and closed it. A review that lavished it with praise prompted me to give it a second go. I’m very glad I did. When I actually read the first story, I was instantly hooked. Here was a story whose main characters I could easily identify with – dropouts on the run, adolescent losers in quest of the big city or, as it is entitled, “Big World”. It’s a warm but unsentimental account of friendship and doomed destiny that any man who has ever worked a dead end job and one morning got up before dawn, jumped in his rust bucket and muttered to himself, “I’m gettin’ outta here,” can identify with. Or, as Winton puts it ,”Monday morning everyone thinks we’re off to work as usual, but in ten minutes we’re out past the town limits and going like hell.” And somehow you sense hell is where they’re headed, though at that moment, the exhilaration of escape is all they know about.
Accordingly, Winton’s stories have a place of honour in what Irish short story writer Frank O’Connor identified as the central literary short story tradition – people dreaming of escape but not quite achieving it. The short story becomes a kind of mournful but touching parable that shows the trapped protagonists attempting a wild tangent of hopeful escape but essentially returning to where they first started, returning to where they belong. It’s a pessimism about overly quick change in our lives that seems acceptably lifelike in a short story but perhaps unbearable in a novel. In a way, the short story has permission to be more honest about life’s bitter containments than a novel.
The small town world of coastal West Australia is here fictionally embodied in a place called West Point. Gradually and subtly, it
becomes clear that some of the characters’ lives have intersected. After all, West Point isn’t that big a place. Melanie, for instance, who is a central character in “Abbreviation”, is alluded to in “Damaged Goods” as “a farm girl whose ring finger ended at the first joint”. The effect of this and other such intertextualities is to create a sociological mosaic, a village-sized cosmos that is warm and compelling.
As well as Frank O’Connor, Winton’s stories with their drifting losers, drunken wife beaters, abattoir workers, down at heel train catchers, rusting Kombi owners and small town trailer trash put me in mind of what Granta magazine identified twenty years ago as a then new trend in American writing – dirty realism. The principal star of that “group” was Raymond Carver, a modern master of the post-Hemingway story, complete minimalist unpunctuated dialogue, feelings of entrapment and social doom and, unintellectual characters with low social horizons. Like Hemingway, Carver’s work was spare to the point of boniness, and cool to cold in tone. Winton partakes of that heritage but has a warmer tone, a plusher vocabulary with apt colourful similes that sketch in the backdrops effectively. The easy but rich style, the expert characterisation and feeling of small town enclosure make a heady and exciting brew. As of now, Tim Winton is one of my favourite short story writers.
SHOTGUN CITY: Melbourne’s Gangland Killings
By Paul Anderson
Hardie Grant Egmont. ISBN: 1-74066-210-5. $19.95.
What do Nikolai Radev, Jason Moran, Pasquale Barbaro, Willy Thompson, Mark Mallia, Housam Zayat, Michael Marshall, Graham Kinniburgh have in common? They were all criminals and they were all (save one who was incinerated) shot to death in 2003 during Melbourne’s ongoing gangland wars. By mid – 2004, when this book went to print, six more had been killed. This book is a grim progress report on the “Second War”.
None of these gun battles nor gang warfare are anything new. The opening chapter entitled “The First War” gives an overview of the era from the late 1950s to the early 1980s when an estimated 40 individuals were taken out as a result of warring factions of the notorious Painters and Dockers Union. Veteran of the murderous streets, Billy Longley says sardonically of the Second War, “they’ve got a bit of catching up to do”. Maybe so, but if the present spate continues at its current average, twenty years will see at least 62 well-dressed corpses laid to rest in classy coffins.
Why gangsters murder each other might not be a question that keeps a lot of honest citizens awake at night. However, there is some variation in theories of motivation. A study conducted by the Australian Institute of Criminology and the South Australia Police Major Investigation Branch surprisingly fingered “dissolution of an intimate relationship” i.e. bumping off straying partners, as a major factor. It also noted money, drugs, silencing a witness, revenge, or profit from crime as motives. Anderson is adamant that in the case of the recent 1998 – 2004 orgy of assassination by bullet, most were drug – related hits.
As a result of reading this clinical to morbid text, the following advice could be given to those contemplating a career in
* Don’t leave your car unattended
* Don’t leave home without a pistol down your pants
* When dismembering a corpse, use a meat cleaver. Chain saws get clogged with skin and blood.
* Arrange for a minimum $100,000 donation to the police as an information incentive to help track your anticipated killers
* Move out of the Melbourne Central Business District Area
* Stop seeing Quentin Tarantino movies
Regarding the latter, it is fascinating to read that gangsters do watch and like crime movies. Billy Longley’s favourites are Unforgiven and On the Waterfront. Other movies favoured by the older generation are Scarface and Little Caesar. In more recent times, The Godfather, Heat, Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs have prominently figured. Plus the cult series, The Sopranos. It must be said that the bad guys have good taste in films as they do in the expensive clobber they buy with drug money.
Cause and effect should not be confused. Crime movies don’t create criminals but if you are walking the street with a Colt .45 in your belt, the mode and code of your crime, not to mention sartorial style, may be film-influenced. It seems the local hoods do follow the general style of their American counterparts as regards dress, code of silence, mode of execution and nicknames – plus a liking for the more authentic crime movie. Overall, the Anderson account is a cool-toned hard-boiled history with traces of American slang – though reading too much at a sitting has a depressive effect.
Edited by David Crystal
Penguin Books 2004. ISBN: 0-140-51543-7. $75.
What can you say about an encyclopaedia that gives twelve lines to Alexander the Great and sixteen lines to the Beach Boys? Clearly, the pop present is being privileged over the classical past. However, this 1698-page tome is often factually inaccurate when dealing with the present (20th century). Under Mexican Art, David Alfaro Siqueiros has his last name omitted so he becomes David Alfaro; Booker Prize winner Keri Hulme is credited with the 1992 publication of Bait, a novel that she has yet to publish; Postmodernism only deals with architecture, ignoring the fact it is de rigeur in literature and art. Spelling mistakes include the Mexican president’s first name printed as Vincente instead of Vicente and painter Jose Clemente Orozco’s second name spelt as Clementi.
The omissions are a wonder indeed. Mick Jagger is in, “Keith Richards” is out; Al Capone is in, Lucky Luciano is absent; Keri Hulme is in, Janet Frame is not; Stalingrad is in, Kursk (world’s greatest tank battle) is missing; Michael Jackson is in, Peter Jackson is not; Everest-conqueror Edmund Hillary is necessarily in but Reinhold Messner, the world’s greatest mountaineer is not; Saddam Hussein is in and Osama bin Laden, as always, is invisible. Structuralism is in but astonishingly poststructuralism is not (though it is sneakily mentioned under Deconstruction with which it is mistakenly identified). I was surprised to find Timothy Leary, Peggy Guggenheim, Bryce Courtenay, Pierre Bourdieu (renowned anthropologist), Takla Makan desert and Google absent (though Desktop Publishing is in).
Another anomaly – perhaps common in other encyclopaedias – is contradictory entries. The Aborigines entry has them arriving in Australia 60,000 years ago while the Australian history section has a figure of 40,000. (Some have advanced the figure to 100,000 BC – shouldn’t all three estimates have been discussed?) The entry on Australian literature make no mention of Judith Wright, yet she merits a separate entry under her own name. This inconsistency of analysis is possibly explicable by two different people doing the two entries. But shouldn’t there be a match up? Similarly, William Burroughs is not mentioned under Beat Generation but under his own entry is declared to be a “spokesman of the Beat movement”. Also, stingily, there is no colour in any of the maps and no portraits (though that does allow more text).
Now for some appreciation. There are compendious lists of phobias, popes, highest mountains, deserts and, best of all, Crusades which includes sub-headings under Background, Leaders and Outcomes – though regretfully no Nobel Prize listings. Listings of musicians, artists and scientists are generally good. The quality of the paper and binding is excellent. Some may be wondering – in this Internet age do we still need encyclopaedias? I, for one, would not like to see them become obsolete because they present the opportunity par excellence for browsing by association and the alphabet. Also an encyclopaedia offers greater authority than the crackpot and often wildly inaccurate entries frequently found on the Internet. It cannot be repeated too often that an encyclopaedia, being a book, can never have power failure, a virus, intrusive advertisements or the irritatingly busy format deployed by many website homepages. However, the Penguin Encyclopedia needs a clean up on accuracy, improved expansion and consistency of inclusion and could do with some colour in its bland white pages. Hey, it’s still an encyclopaedia, my favourite kind of book for browsing new arcana and esoterica.
TOLKIEN’S GOWN & Other Stories of Great Authors and Rare Books
By Rick Gekoski
Constable and Robinson. ISBN: 1-74066-210-5. $29.99.
In general, I have regarded book collectors and first edition freaks as fetishists who are more interested in the wrapping than the present, brassieres instead of breasts. Having enjoyed Mr Gekoski’s lucid prose and accumulation of delightful anecdotes, my previous value judgment has been white-anted somewhat. Despite his eye for the deal, the multi-talented Gekoski also has an ear for the interesting human story, hence this witty and attractively presented book (which I am hoping will one day prove a valuable first edition).
The book kicks off with a chapter on the controversial Lolita, Nabokov’s sordid tale of a middle-aged lecher’s seduction of a barely pubescent girl. Shocking as this relationship might be, Nabokov’s exquisite prose turns it into a tragic love story.
In his cheerfully lucid style, Gekoski relates how after he sold a first edition of Lolita for $4900, he received a letter from Graham Greene asking how much he (Greene) could get for a copy inscribed to him by the Russian author. Apparently, this in an example of what rare book dealers call an “association copy”, one presented by the author to someone of importance. As Greene eminently qualified, Gekoski insisted on paying him $7200 (Greene wanted less!), and sold it for a profit (mysteriously, or tactfully, not revealed). When Gekoski last heard, the on sold book fetched $264,000 which left him “sick with seller’s remorse”. Since reading this revealing anecdote, I have been urging my friends at launches of my books to hurry up and become “persons of importance” so I can buy the book back off them and resell it for a whacking profit. So far, the scheme has yet to take off. And is unlikely to, for almost none of my books have that piece de la resistance, a dustwrapper, which rockets the price for any rare book into the ionosphere.
If over a quarter of million dollars sounds like big money, it has been topped by Gekoski’s estimate for a first edition Lord of the Flies – $450,000. A first edition inscribed Ulysses actually sold for $460,000 – the highest price thus far. Touchingly, Gekoksi admits that Ulysses is a tough read, even though he considers it the greatest book of the twentieth century. This promisingly profitable spiral was recently put in the shade when the original manuscript of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road sold for $2,430,000 which makes me wish cryonic preservation really works and poor old Jack could return and feast off the posthumous profit.
Packed with colourful stories of famous writers, this book is surely one of the more notable of the 110,000 books published in England last year, most of which, Gekoski reminds us, will soon be forgotten. I am hoping the first edition of his book will soar in value – when Gekoski soon visits the Antipodes I must ask him to inscribe it.