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Review: Holly Childs’ No Limit & Maxine Beneba Clarke’s Foreign Soil

April 2014

The cult novel is a funny thing. ‘Cult’ doesn’t necessarily collapse neatly down to ‘divisive’ (if that were the case, Fifty Shades of Grey and its progenitor Twilight would surely be works of cult fiction), nor can it simply be reduced to ‘underrated’ (Hunter S. Thompson is, by almost any yardstick, a cult writer, yet Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas boasts over 150,000 glowing reviews on Goodreads). What, then, makes a piece of writing ‘cult’?

Holly Childs’ No Limit isn’t a cult novel. It’s too short for that, but it is certainly a cult novella, albeit one still accumulating followers. As with much cult fiction, the narrative itself is beside the point, as are the virtually indistinguishable characters (for the sake of argument, let’s pretend for a moment that this stuff does matter, in which case we might say that No Limit is ‘about’ a girl called Ash who gets stranded in Auckland due to an imminent volcanic eruption and ends up, semi-inexplicably, at an apocalyptic squat rave).

What makes No Limit a cult novel, perhaps, is Childs’ single-minded focus on expanding her own worldview until it blankets her fictional world in its entirety. Nobody exists outside of Childs’ hyper-connected, hyper-distracted, hyper-queer, hyper-munted, hyper-branded bubble, and when a character remarks that they watch Harmony Korine’s 1995 film Kids “Every night before I go to sleep, doesn’t everyone?”, you get the sense that we’ve been transported to a world in which, yes, that’s exactly what everybody does right before brushing their teeth.

There are moments when Childs’ world overlaps our own, and her insights into Millennial culture are incisive. One character carries an unread of copy Naomi Klein’s 1999 anti-globalisation treatise No Logo as an identity signifier, and a girl is called out for reblogging too much, building her personal brand “off of other people’s hard work”. This is, for better or worse, stuff that all of us really do think too much about. I do, at least.

Emerging writers who want to become cult authors tend to make the mistake of emulating their heroes, but that’s a trap: you don’t become a Bret Easton Ellis or a Tao Lin by aping a Bret Easton Ellis or a Tao Lin, but by turning in on yourself and pulling and pawing at your own idiosyncrasies. No Limit reads a little like Less Than Zero for the Tumblr generation, or Shoplifting from American Apparel for antipodean FAsH1ON HA¢K£Rs, but Childs’ voice doesn’t feel like the result of the usual alt-lit cribbing. Instead, it’s a voice that will, hopefully, be emulated and reworked by her MacBook Pro-toting followers. (I’m now one of them).

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In the final story of Foreign Soil, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s debut collection, the author herself becomes the protagonist. In a run-down Footscray flat, too close to the train line, she reads rejection notes from a publisher advising her to make make one of the “angry black kid[s]” in her collection a little more palatable. “Unfortunately,” another publisher writes, “we feel Australian readers are just not ready for characters like these.”

It’s not clear whether these rejection letters are real, but it certainly seems plausible. Foreign Soil tells stories about people of colour, Clarke moving between Sudan and Brixton, Jamaica and Mississippi, Sydney and Melbourne. Oftentimes, the stories are infused with the local dialect, and the results can be both glorious (Clarke is a slam poet and has an ear for slang and inflection) and a real challenge (“Nathanial Robinson lean out ovah de water, shake im head an look-look down past im grubby dungarees…”). Never, however, does it feel that Clarke takes us to the same place twice, and never does it feel as though she’s reusing stock voices.

There is an interesting tension at play throughout Foreign Soil, and I think this may be what made some of the more conservative publishers anxious: Clarke at once wants to demonstrate that the stories of people of colour are manifold, while also drawing non-Caucasian ethnic groups into a collective of common experience. This is ambitious: it’s virtually impossible to encapsulate a particular cultural group without resorting to stereotyping, so telling the story of just one asylum seeker (in ‘The Stilt Fisherman of Kathaluwa’) or just one Tottenham rioter (‘Harlem Jones’) leads the reader to wonder whether the part is intended to stand in for the whole. Taken as a collection, though, Clarke’s characters expand, rather than contract, our understanding of the groups they identify as a part of. In ‘Big Islan’, one of the stories in the collection, the more the protagonist reads, the larger his world becomes. That’s how I felt reading Foreign Soil.

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(This review will appear in the upcoming Winter issue of CityMag. Their bewwwwdiful website will be going live next week).

Best Ever: Erlend Loe’s ‘Naive. Super’

October 2013
This review was originally published over at Annabel Smith’s blog - she runs a series in which bookish types are asked to share their all-time favourite work of fiction and describe what it means to them. 

I’ve tried to get friends reading Erlend Loe’s Naïve. Super for years, with relatively little success. It’s one of those books that’s virtually irreducible – the only way to understand what it’s about is to read it all the way through.

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(As an aside before I even get started, irreducible books are probably, in my very humble opinion, the only kinds of books worth reading. If it’s possible to broadly explain a book away in a sentence or a paragraph or a page, it seems as though that’s a sign of the work’s weakness, as opposed to a strength. At least, as somebody working on a book I find almost impossible to explain, I really, really hope so).

Naïve. Super is structured around a Norwegian twenty-something suffering a kind of mental collapse after losing to his brother in a game of croquet. From there, not much happens. The protagonist drops all his commitments and ends up housesitting for his brother, his only job to fax any mail that arrives in the letterbox. The protagonist plays with wooden BRIO toys and throws a ball against a wall, writes lists, plays with the fax machine, and reads the works of physicist Paul Davies.

Naïve. Super is similar to Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, another one of my favourites. Both Loe and Murakami play with the scale of the world, distorting and amplifying the mundane until it ends up rendered strange and fantastic. In a sense, both The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Naïve. Super would probably best be understood as ‘hikikomori fiction’, examining what happens when an individual drifts (whether willingly or not) outside the realm of social convention.

I recently read a review of Naïve. Super on Goodreads in which the reviewer referred to the story’s protagonist an “imbecile”, supporting their assessment by noting that, “The character in this book makes the STUPIDEST lists I’ve ever seen. I think one of them was all the animals he has seen in his life. ALL THE ANIMALS he has seen in his life!”

I guess, if anything, the question Naïve. Super fronts is simple: why are so many of us afraid to relate to the world as a child might? Why do we tend to instinctively associate naivety with stupidity, and how much do we miss by deliberately attempting to obscure our lack of experience instead of reveling in it?

Being a person is undeniably odd. We construct institutions and establish routines and conventions to cover up this oddness, and eventually these institutions routines and conventions solidify into “the way things are done”. All great writing calls “the way things are done” into question, but few pieces are as straightforward about it as Naïve. Super.

Reading List: Long Stories Short

October 2013

A few months ago, I was at a panel in which several Australian writers spoke about how the short story was a form in need of preservation. It’s kind of funny that particular creative forms are implicitly recognised as endangered. After all, you don’t hear many divas worrying about the continued existence of the three-minute pop song. When you get a bunch of short story writers in a room, though, the topic of conversation often drifts to wondering why there are way more writers of short stories than readers of them. The supply of bad short stories seems to far exceed the demand for great ones.

My view is that if you don’t like something, you shouldn’t feel too bad about it. I’ve long since given up trying to figure out poetry, for example. There are just too many good novels and games and TV shows out there for me to joylessly plod through the work of W.H. Auden (though if you do like Auden, obviously, all the more power to you!). I suspect that many feel the same way about short stories: something about the short story form can feel a little ‘off’, even after you’ve read a lot of them. Reading a bad short story is a horrible experience I would wish on no Arts undergrad, but reading a good short story can sometimes be nearly as bad – it can feel like spending just one day in Rome, your delight tempered by the knowledge that you’ll be off before you’ve even really found your bearings.

In short, I still don’t know about short stories. Many (probably most) novelists seem to treat short stories as an afterthought, while emerging writers are encouraged to pitch short stories to literary magazines to build a profile, treating the form as a means to an end. As few writers are primarily interested in the short story, it isn’t very surprising that few readers are, either. That’s kind of a shame, because, though there are a lot of bad-to-middling short story writers out there, there are at least a few pretty good ones, too.

One of the great ones is Charles Yu, whose latest collection Sorry Please Thank You came out a few months back. The stories are the kind you can explain in single sentences. In one, Yu engages in an epistolary dialogue with versions of himself that exist in parallel universes. In another, the protagonist works for a Bangalore-based company that lets the wealthy outsource feeling emotional pain. Unsurprisingly, Yu has often been compared to magical realist Jorge Luis Borges. Once, Borges was asked how he wrote his short stories and he said something like, “I write a whole novel, then summarise it, and then I have my story.” Borges couldn’t write anything but short stories because he thought novels were too full of fluff. Though Yu is actually pretty good at writing novels, I suspect he’d agree.

I’ve also been rereading a few neither-old-nor-new short story collections over the past few weeks: Miranda July’s Nobody Belongs Here More Than You, Amanda Maxwell’s Nobody Told Me There’d Be Days Like These, Joey Comeau’s It’s Too Late To Say I’m Sorry, and Tao Lin’s Bed. I return to these collections all the time the same way I return to particular pieces of music. July and Lin can both be difficult to take in large doses, but their short story collections are charming, Comeau’s stories are based around wonderful conceits (in one, the protagonist runs autobiographical bike tours around Nova Scotia, taking tourists to visit each of his exes in turn) and Maxwell’s stories always make me think of summer. I read these collections less for the narratives than for the texture of the writing (which, I know, sounds like a horribly English Literature postgrad kind of thing to say). I reread stories from Lorrie Moore for the same reason, too (if you’re new to Moore, start with the story ‘How To Be an Other Woman’).

I’m also a big fan of the Review of Australian Fiction. The RoAF emails out two new stories a fortnight as ebooks, pairing one well-known Australian writer with one up-and-comer. It’s a solid concept, and it’s a good way to dip into a lot of work from a range of Australian writers.

As somebody who’s given it a go and failed many times over, I can tell you that it’s easier to write a bad short story than a novel, but writing a great short story is probably the most difficult literary undertaking of all. For that reason alone, I do hope the short story has as sure a future as three-minute pop song. You can give me J.D. Salinger’s ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’ over J.T.’s ‘Sexyback’ any day of the week (though I’ll grant you that both are, indeed, triumphs of their respective forms).

 

(This piece originally appeared in CityMag #2)