BOOK REVIEWS with Michael Morrissey


FREEDOM by Joseph Franzen, Fourth Estate, $39

It’s official – almost. Freedom is a great novel. The New York Times has so proclaimed it, throwing in the term “masterpiece” for good measure. As has Esquire. The ever likable and energetic Oprah Winfrey has endorsed it with the kind of enthusiasm that suggests a conversion experience. Locally, the highly discerning readers at The Time Out bookshop also like it. And I too liked it and was, at times, moved by it, though with considerable reservations.

Calling a novel great in these Facebook/Twitter times is a brave gesture for if there is one thing that all these new media networking octopi do is eat away at the notion of greatness, replacing it with gossip, and the detailed ordinariness of millions of lives. I shouldn’t be too snobby about this because Freedom has its share of gossipy undertow – after all, novels thrive on wagging tongues. So I guess, it’s a question of emotional depth. Novels are deeper than Facebook. There, now I’ve got that off my chest.

Freedom is a family novel that concentrates on the marriage of Walter and Patty Berglund, plus their children, the dissolute Joey and his sweeter sister, Jessica. We get additional cameos of various siblings and parents. Also portrayed in depth is Richard Katz, Walter’s best friend, a womanising would-be Indie rock star whose loose ways make him morally repellent. He doesn’t even acquit himself honourably with his fans, sneering at them defensively. He exerts a baleful influence over the Berglunds, though it is Patty who throws herself at him when Walter is absent, wanting him to make love to her while she’s still “asleep” or at least able to pretend to herself that she hasn’t quite assented to her own voluntary adultery. Patty – showing a literary sophistication that seems at odds with her conscious characterisation – writes a novella-length account of her feelings, experiences and exploits somewhat pompously entitled MISTAKES WERE MADE – Autobiography of Patty Berglund by Patty
Berglund (Composed at Her Therapist’s Suggestion).

The somewhat slow and indirect opening of the novel is jazzed up by Patty detailing a rough date rape in chapter two of her autobiographical text. Unpleasant as the rape may be, what is more damning is her infidelity to Walter. Depending how you look at it, the novel moves gradually or slowly, to the point where Richard deliberately leaves the incriminating text for Walter to read. We will consider the ramifications of this in a moment.

Walter is a man of our times – an executive with Nature Conservancy who leaves for what he convinces himself is a higher, nobler stake – the Cerulean Mountain Trust. This organisation offers a Faustian deal – the top of a mountain will be coal-quarried but the pay off is a huge reserve for warblers. He is spurred on into accepting this corrupt offer by Lalitha, his beautiful idealistic assistant with whom he eventually falls in love. Significantly, the two young women possessed of overpowering beauty – Genna (Joey’s would be girlfriend) and Lalitha both turn out to have flaws – Genna is a money-hungry tease with whom intimacy – as Joey discovers – is a disabling disappointment; Lalitha is suspiciously perfect, both morally and physically. She seems too easy a solution for Walter, (on the rebound , as it were, from Patty), so he pays the price of losing her in a fatal car accident. Also too easy is his rant at the Cerulean Mountain Trust where he seemingly regains his moral centre. Yet isn’t this moral rave a little Hollywoodish? – the compulsory scene where the partially corrupted or at least morally challenged hero realises that he has been fooling himself and reasserts his true temporarily abandoned values.

The combination of Katz’s betrayal, Patty’s infidelity-revealing document, and Lalitha’s death leaves Walter a sullen, wounded man whom his daughter Jessica comes to realise, “would not be getting better, didn’t feel like betting better,” which makes her futilely angry.

What is striking about Freedom is how all the characters are morally weak or corrupted – unfaithful Patty (though she is the character explored in greatest depth); licentious, crooked Joey; shallow Genna; ideologically compromised Walter; and treacherous, sneering Katz. We wincingly register their moral failure yet fail to feel sympathetic to them. Franzen examines his characters coolly as though they were helpless fish in an aquarium. The sense of moral depth present in traditionally great novels is absent. Some would associate this with postmodernism but this is hardly a postmodern novel. Franzen’s text is peppered with knowledgeable worldly detail in the manner of an Updike but he lacks Updike’s or Roth’s smooth elegant style. His writing is uneven (though often highly acute), fussy, shallowly up to date, replete with numerous sentences awkwardly ending in prepositions.

Suddenly, in the very last pages, Franzen offers redemption. Though Jessica cannot budge her father from his morose withdrawal from life, the well nigh miraculous appearance of Patty leads to reconciliation. While I regret this plot spoiler, I felt obliged to comment on it. I was moved and felt relieved by this last minute reprieve, yet, as with Walter’s rant, was struck by its crude parallel to a hundred Hollywood movies where the emotionally isolated doomed hero or heroine is saved when all seems lost. Naturally, our hearts lift, but after the moral turpitude of the previous nearly six hundred pages, it seems too much of a final curtain salvation to be entirely convincing.

THE TORCHLIGHT LIST by Jim Flynn, Awa Press, $33

This is the sort of compendium that I used to relish – an intellectual /academic/ writer makes a list of the world’s great classics and gives succinct reasons why a book should be chosen and why we should read it. Flynn enthusiastically writes, “I am now seventy-six and the magic realm of literature captivates me as much as it did when I was four.” Good on you, Jim! To re-echo my remarks in the previous review, literature itself is currently seen to be in danger from the barbaric linguistic brevity encouraged by cellphones, emails, texts, Twitter, Facebook, videogames, movies (though movies often reinforce the reading of books) and the laconic style of conversation seemingly encouraged by footballers – or does Sir Colin have a novel tucked under his jersey? Flynn notes that a sixteen year-old killed his older brother over access to Playstation but observes that no teenager has killed anyone over who gets to read War and Peace.

Flynn’s method is to visit all the cultural centres of the world and pick some 200 books as the finest representation of world literature. He omits Greece, Switzerland, Netherlands and Belgium but (being a kiwi) sneaks in a mention of New Zealand with Gee’s Plumb, Frame’s Owls Do Cry and Mulgan’s Man Alone. It’s a sound choice but then what of Katherine Mansfield or Owen Marshall?

Flynn’s lists are a provoking mixture of the expected and the unexpected (or in some cases unknown to me) and a few glaring omissions – or are they provocations as well? Like many readers, I have only heard of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Flynn confidently informs us we should read three more -The Black Obelisk, Three Comrades, A Time to Love and a Time to Die. I shall look out for them. However, I consider it unlikely that The Black Obelisk, as the blurb claims, is likely to be the “best book of the century”. Among numerous classics of which I was ignorant are included Chaim Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev and and two books about the Spanish Civil War by Camilo Jose Cela, and C. Vann Woodward’s The Strange Career of Jim Crow which Flynn declares the best history of blacks after slavery. I was happy with his list of American greats but thought listing The Naked and the Dead as Mailer’s one good novel seems a little harsh.

As Flynn warms up, he become more outrageous. “I have read Spanish novelists whose work is set post 1950s. Perhaps I have had bad luck, but all were fatally infected.” Fatally infected by what? Literary cholera? French writer Philippe Sollers’ achievement in writing a novel using one continuous phrase “ranks with going through a prolonged head cold without blowing one’s nose.” I may be backward but I can’t see the relevance of the metaphor.

Now for some of Flynn’s extraordinary omissions. Prominent among them is listing Gabriel Garcia Marquez but failing to mention One Hundred Years of Solitude widely regarded as the greatest novel of the last fifty years. Nor is there any mention of J. D. Salinger. However, when Flynn really likes a writer such as Philip Roth, Erich Maria Remarque or Isaac Bashevis Singer he gives them an enthusiastic thumbs up. And in the end that’s what literature is about – enthusiasm amounting to love. Literature currently needs all the love it can get.

THEIR FACES WERE SHINING BY Tim Wilson, Victoria University Press, $30

TV watchers will be aware that Tim Wilson is our highly competent anchor man in the United States. Now it turns out he is a highly competent novelist. (Come in Mike Hosking, your novel is due). Wilson’s novel explores a partially secularised view of Rapture, that time immediately before the Second Coming. As I understand it, Rapture is when the bodies of believers will be resurrected but the Second Coming refers specifically to the defeat of the Anti-Christ. If at the time of Rapture, Christ takes away believers and Christians, as described in this novel, some will disappear but some will remain. – until the time of the Second Coming.

The book begins with thriller-like immediacy – “What were you doing when it happened?” Bewildered mortals reveal by this question that while some have been en-Raptured eg taken away to a new Heaven, others have been left in the mortal sphere. When the Rapture occurs, people simply float upwards and are observed with rapt shining face – hence the title of the book. Presumably, when Rapture manifests, those that remain may discuss why they were not taken.

Here is central character Hope Paterson’s acute observation about it:

May I say how I felt? Alive. I felt energised. Aware of the smallest details: how Kelli spoke, how the hospital windows scattered the sunlight, how comfortable Kelli looked, cradled in Mom’s arms. Bliss. Nothing and everything mattered.

In other words, even to be an observer, one of the non-Raptured left behind, was equivalent to a mystical experience. In the confused aftermath, groups such as the flagellants and Ash-heads appear in society. When the moment of crisis arrives, Hope is in the middle of a good deed – rescuing a small child who has fallen down a hole..

In the normal secular world that remains, Hope’s over active mind continues to make shrewd analyses:

Acting dumb is like wearing clothes that are too small,; it leaves marks. Yet even much later, after pregnancy and sleep deprivation had played the usual tricks on my memory, I still identified as smart. While filling tiny mouths and tossing sticky diapers, I’d console myself: “ One day I’ll read large books and think vivid thoughts again.”

In the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that Hope finds herself praying – “Oh Lord,” I said, my internal voice small, “give me the strength to honour this new feeling You’ve put me in today. Let me build bridges and bring glory to You. Keep me in your everlasting arms. Amen”

The remainder of the earth-bound ask,” If this was the Rapture why hadn’t I gone up?” Meanwhile, the non-chosen still go about their daily tasks. The Reverend Wendell wryly comments, “God’s definition of love may be different to ours.” When a head count is done, it is apparent the ranks have been chosen from all religions – from the many rather than the few – and include the Dalai Lama and Muslims. The actual Rapture is then renamed a Rapture-event, a glib PR way of re-representing the incident.

Dramatic tension looms late in the novel with the arrival of a villain – who is called Dr Wright. Despite protestations of prayers and sanctity, Dr Wright turns out to be very much Dr Wrong. The violence that ensues in the form of a twin stabbing is as shocking as the awful shock suicide of Wade, Hope’s father.– though it is described subtly in its way. Hope is confused – she doesn’t even know if she had been saved – though presumably the eventual outcome wouldn’t be in doubt!

Their Faces Were Shining is a teasing, tantalising oblique sort of novel whose ironic secularity may offend some, and that, in true contemporary literary fashion, doesn’t quite resolve the cosmic and theological conflict it so skilfully evokes.

UNDERCOVER by Keith Bulfin, Bantam, $39.99

Undercover is a gripping on the edge-of-your-seat thriller. The question remains – is it really a thriller or simply a true to life report from a dangerous life? The answer seems to be a bit of both. Certainly, it is written up as a first person narrative biography and reads as a life account rather than a work of fiction which isn’t to say that a degree of fictionalising hasn’t occurred.

Bulfin is a New Zealander who graduated from the University of Queensland with a double major in economics. Subsequently, he worked in the finance industry in South Africa, the UK and Papua New Guinea. Though his account carries an ambiance of claimed innocence, Bulfin narrates how he was raided by the Victorian Fraud Squad and decided to plead guilty. His logic was that he might otherwise have lost in a “prejudiced court” and receive an even heavier sentence. He received a three year sentence. Compared to the 20 or 30 year sentences handed down to multiple murderers, it might not sound like very long but in Bulfin’s gruelling account it comes across as a pocket eternity.

Since in civilised countries inmates have toilet facilities in their cells, some might regard their stay in prison as somewhat of a cruise and certainly it is a great improvement on the barbaric type of Asian prison where inmates are all crowded together. But bear in mind prisoners are locked up in tiny cells up to twenty three and a half hours a day. Bulfin foolishly tells the guards he suffers from claustrophobia and is a vegetarian. He doesn’t get a lot of sympathy. Bulfin writes: “Living in Sirius East was like being a bad acid trip inside a hall of mirrors.” Taken literally, this sentence means, the prisoner is confronted by multiple unpleasant hallucinations.

As fate would have it, Bulfin found himself a fellow prisoner with Daniel Gomez, a tall, educated Mexican drug lord fluent in four languages who also happened to be a banker. Because of their mutual interest in finance, the two became friends. Let it be noted that Bulfin estimates the drug traffic from Mexico to the United States is worth over $80 billion a year. One hundred and twenty people are killed each month.

When Bulfin emerged from prison he was approached by the DEA with a job proposal. Most people have heard of the DEA or Drug Enforcement Agency. It was created by President Richard Nixon in 1973. Today, they have more than five thousand agents and a budget of over $2 billion. Because of his previous association with drug lord Gomez, they wanted him to use his financial know-how to track the movement of drug funds from Mexico to the USA.. This means he had to work hand in glove with drug lords. To say the work would be dangerous is an understatement of massive proportions. Though the DEA agents tell him he won’t be put at risk! How could he not be? After a while, Bulfin was moving up to a million dollars a day and more for Gomez.

Everything is happening as it should (under dangerous cover) until on one occasion a DEA agent is recognised by Columbian gangsters and a deadly shootout ensues. Unlike the movies (or James Bond), Bulfin doesn’t stay calm, cool and collected but urinates in his pants during the murderous violence. Thereafter, he has to be protected by a witness protection programme. The rest of the book is a series of nerve-wrenching escapes from vengeful hit men. The stresses and strains on family life are clearly detailed (probably one reason why James Bond spent most of his career not married). This account is somewhat like a James Bond story but in its way more gripping as it is so clearly underpinned by fact rather than fantasy. Highly recommended as a vicarious exploration of a dangerous life style. But don’t start reading it late at or you’ll stay up all night.

‘A TINGLING CATCH’ edited by Mark Pirie, HeadworX, $35

The reviewing of a book of cricketing poetry by someone who doesn’t play the game should prove an interesting challenge. Like everyone, I am familiar with cricketing metaphors – stuck on a sticky wicket, clean-bowled, stumped, middle wicketed, run out, and so forth. The English language owes a lot to cricket – more than to any other game possibly. It is, after all, the quintessential English game. And up until recently we were a very English society. I am sure long after we become a republic, we will be playing cricket.

Cricket’s local poetic origins go back over 150 years reaching back to Pember Reeves and Thomas Bracken and beyond (thereby preceding football) and the range of poetry as noted by expert editor Pirie, ranges from “rhyming verse, to free verse, and open forms, to haiku (Japanese forms), to limericks and remakes of well-known stage and pop songs.” This wide poetic catchment enables Pirie to include the relatively recent ballads of Jim Tocker and the more up to date poems of Tony Beyer or Murray Edmond.

On the basis of this selection, our most prominently featured local cricket legend is the great Richard Hadlee, rated by some as the greatest fast bowler of all time. He is celebrated in Ian Donnelly’s straightforward, “A tribute to R J Hadlee,” in Robin McConnell’s more sophisticated, “the intense disciple: Richard Hadlee shade and light” as well as in Pirie’s “At Lords”. Pirie felt compelled to remind our Australian cousins of our bowling star when Lillee was mentioned – though cricket lore has it that Hadlee modeled himself on Lillee, so the two are inevitably linked.

Being of an older generation, I remember Bert Sutcliffe most strongly. Sutcliffe was said to be the world’s greatest left hand batsmen and is acclaimed in one of Pirie’s poems as “our Bradman”. The compliments don’t come higher than this. Sutcliffe showed his true mettle by returning to the crease with head bandaged after an injury and proceeded to score 80 with fellow batsmen Bob Blair whose fiancee had died that weekend. The “right stuff” is the phrase that springs to mind with these two stalwarts.

One of the finest poems is the “The Batsman” by Brian Turner (brother of famed cricketer Glenn Turner):

A notable presence is absent from the room,
I am told, demands a relief in the famous
as a possibility. His boots lie on the floor
of the wardrobe, their whiteness
fading, grass on the sprigs.

But possibly – and curiously – my favourite in the selection is “gasometer/ponsonby’”by David Mitchell. Like so many of the contributors, Mitchell is more famed as a poet than on the pitch but was recognised as a player of promise when at school and remained a keen cricketer until recent times. Unlike most of the contributors, Mitchell is typically interested in what is happening on the sidelines, off the pitch, as it were. In this case, three meths drinkers:

Their hair as matted as the warp
of destiny that brought them here
their faces taut and blasted dry
as lava welt on scoria.

It may not be cricket but it’s a vivid exploration of what’s going on just wide of the field. Poignant, cheerful, open-formed, this collection celebrates all aspect of the game – even those beyond the boundaries.