Book Reviews

Nineteen Seventy-Seven by David Peace (2000)

 

Hello sweeties! This review has been sitting on my wordpress dashboard for over 18 months. I am planning on returning to the big bad world of book blogging in 2013, thought I’d get this out of the way before the new year so I can start with a clean slate. See you in the new year!

 

Nineteen Seventy-Seven by David Peace (2000)Nineteen Seventy-Seven, the second novel in David Peace’s Red Riding quartet, is crime fiction without good guys. Crime fiction without resolution. Crime fiction that depicts not only criminal behaviour as relentlessly bloody and horrific, but raises the question of whether there is something inherent in human nature that is similarly corrupted. Nineteen Seventy-Seven is bleak, despairing and an assault on all fronts.

I really loved the first book in the series, Nineteen Seventy-Four, and when beginning Nineteen Seventy-Seven I found the narrative voices were very similar to that of Eddie Dunford in the first book. That narrative voice – abrupt, short, stream of consciousness pace, is similar to the one used in Seventy-Four, and other than content it is near impossible to distinguish who is narrating. What was a compelling narrative voice in Nineteen Seventy-Four now seemed to be Peace’s default writing style, not as intrinsically linked to character as it originally appeared. Nonetheless, it is a suitably hypnotic and alluring style, a sort of gruesomely poetic vision of paranoia and fear. In Nineteen Seventy-Four, as a quick recap, Dunford was a man in way over his head, a somewhat clueless crime journalist investigating and becoming entangled with gruesome crimes and institutional corruption. Nineteen Seventy-Seven focuses on a different series of crimes, this time the mutilation and murder of prostitutes on the streets of Yorkshire, the work of the Yorkshire Ripper.

Yesterday’s news, tomorrow’s headline:
The Yorkshire Ripper.

The two main characters of Nineteen Seventy-Seven are two men that appeared in the first book, and at first it is difficult to reconcile how they were in Seventy-Four with how they appear here. Jack Whitehead, star crime reporter, was Dunford’s friendly rival, while Bob Fraser, an unusually helpful police officer, was one of Dunford’s key sources. Here, their roles and the sympathy afforded to them are reversed. Bob Fraser, though somewhat decent in Seventy-Four, here is complicit in his acceptance of the brutal tactics of the police force and sadly, desperately, in love with a prostitute while his wife cares for her ailing father. Jack Whitehead is no longer the star journalist puffed up on his superior attitude, but a broken man deeply traumatized by events in the years between.

The footnotes and the margins, the tangents and the detours, the dirty tabula, the broken record.
Jack Whitehead, Yorkshire, 1977.
The bodies and the corpses, the alleys and the wasteland, the dirty men, the broken women.
Jack the Ripper, Yorkshire, 1977.
The lies and the half-truths, the truths and the half-lies, the dirty hands, the broken backs.
Two Jacks, one Yorkshire, 1977.

These two key characters are involved in the official and media investigation into the spate of violent crimes frightening the city, but are also personally involved with prostitutes who they fear will be the next victim. One major qualm I have with this series so far is the lack of female characters who are not victims of violence or prostitutes. With the investigations invading their professional and personal lives, Fraser and Whitehead are unable to escape from the atmosphere of dread and of fear. It’s a mood that envelopes the entire narrative for the reader as well, claustrophobic bleakness, with no evidence of light at all. Mainly due to the similar style and a lack of momentum in the investigations, it wasn’t until the crimes began to slowly be linked to those in Nineteen Seventy-Four that I really became engaged. Engaged being much too light a word for how I feel about these books, it sinks its hooks in and refuses to let go. Especially when the slightest connections are being made, when the characters are on the brink of, yes madness, but also uncovering essential details that reveal more than they could ever possibly want to comprehend.

The ending of Nineteen Seventy-Seven is one of the most disturbing, disheartening and oppressive that I have read in a long time. There is no redemption. There is no resolution. There are no heroes. Paranoia and failure are rife, corruption nearly impossible to overcome. Powerfully grim and genuinely frightening, and not just due to the visceral descriptions of murder, but the horrors possible of human nature.

(This post was a draft that I had saved on my wordpress dashboard since August 2011 and I have since read the final two books in the series, and found them equally as stylistically gripping, inventive and unrelentingly bleak. Brilliant, harrowing stuff.)

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Book Reviews

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown (2011)

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown (2011)Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters is a gentle novel about three very different sisters returning to their childhood home to care for their ailing mother. The offspring of an eccentric Shakespeare professor father and named after characters from the Bard’s plays, each sister bears the unique burden of their Shakespearean namesake. Through the difficulties and love of their family, they find their way, and, cue heartwarming cliché, each other.

Rose has stayed in the area, a successful mathematics professor with an attentive fiancee, and resents her sisters flight from the town. Bean has returned from her high cost lifestyle in New York after being unceremoniously fired from her job and Cordelia may have found a reason to finally give up her gypsy lifestyle and settle for good. Frustratingly, each sister is determined to face their past and secrets alone, ignorant of the similarities she shares with her sisters. Readers will find a lot to love, and relate to, with the family’s bookishness – the books left open around the house, the retreat into the written word when reality seems too much.

She remembered one of her boyfriends asking, offhandedly, how many books she read in a year. “A few hundred,” she said.
“How do you have the time?” he asked, gobsmacked.
She narrowed her eyes and considered the array of potential answers in front of her. Because I don’t spend hours flipping through cable complaining there’s nothing on? Because my entire Sunday is not eaten up with pre-game, in-game and post-game talking heads? Because I do not spend every night drinking overpriced beer and engaging in dick-swinging contests with the other financirati? Because when I am waiting in line, at the gym, on the train, eating lunch, I am not complaining about the wait/staring into space/admiring myself in available reflective surfaces? I am reading.

This is not a hugely taxing novel.  Brown’s style is light and enjoyable, well-versed in the particulars of lovingly antagonistic relationships between sisters. A curious use of the collective narrative voice (“we”) is effective, only sometimes jarring, and allows for us to see how the sisters view each other as a whole. As one of three weird sisters myself, I really liked seeing how the three interacted together, with their parents and as individuals and the frustrations inherent in each of those relationships.

And though I am not usually one for sentimentality or sappy narrative arcs based on the power of forgiveness and love, Bean’s story of repentance and self-forgiveness, even when couched in the alien (to me) language of religion and religious redemption, reduced me to tears. Everything I write seems to be so damned apologetic for being affected by a story on a basic empathetic level. Eleanor Brown makes it easy to relate to these women and their stories, even when they are at their worst. Moments of predictability don’t diminish the strength of Brown’s writing and though it is quite different from what I usually enjoy, The Weird Sisters is a satisfying read.

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Book Reviews

Dangling Man by Saul Bellow (1944)

Dangling Man by Saul Bellow (1944)Some authors strike fear into the hearts of wary readers. Faulkner. Joyce. You know the usual suspects. For me it is the White American Male literary triumvirate of the mid 20th century – Roth, Updike, Bellow – celebrated, praised, awarded and much adored, and because of this, damn intimidating. I suppose it stems from a fear of “just not getting it” and having any literary appreciation credentials stripped away and shunned from the readerly world forever. Stupid, I know. So it was with a considerable amount of trepidation that I approached Saul Bellow’s debut novel Dangling Man.

Written in a diary format, Dangling Man is the story of a moderately intelligent young man, Joseph, who has enlisted in the army but is stuck in some sort of bureaucratic purgatory while the authorities figure out what to do with him. While his colleagues go off to battle, or are stationed around the country, Joseph spends his days in a shoddy boarding house, walking around Chicago, avoiding questions about his current position, having meaningful conversations with himself, looking back over his past, and generally being a layabout little shit.

Joseph considers himself as something of an intellectual, a scholar who had previously found success in rote employment. Joseph’s self-assuredness and confrontational methods of dealing with the world and others brings Salinger’s Holden Caulfield to mind. More appropriate a comparison would be with Frank Wheeler from Revolutionary Road, who also believes that his self proclaimed intellectual ways put him above the less educated. (Although I’m thinking that, as with Caulfield, reading this book at a certain age makes one more likely to relate to Joseph’s outlook.)

As he is in most things, Joseph is conscious of a motive in his choice of clothes. It is his answer to those whose defiant principle it is to dress badly, to whom a crumpled suit is a badge of freedom. He wants to avoid the small conflicts of nonconformity so that he can give all his attention to defending his inner differences, the ones that really matter. Furthermore, he takes a sad or negative satisfaction in wearing what he calls “the uniform of the times.” In short, the less noteworthy the better, for his purposes. All the same, he manages to stand out.

For someone who declares himself intelligent beyond compare, Joseph is not only lacking an element of self-awareness that would make him more tolerable, but unforgivably misogynistic. He is unable to accept his wife Iva’s agency, constantly belittling her with his moods, unable to influence her and shape her into the well-read intellectual he wants her to be. He is given to sudden outbursts of anger and, in one scenario, a strange scene of faux-parental discipline, which are not given the same amount of consideration as the minute actions of others. His diatribes about how the world and his friends, colleagues, family are all deemed lacking and his uniqueness are tiresome and become very tedious to read. When he simply recounts his days or his past, the prose flows better, but for the most part it is difficult to empathize with Joseph and his precarious predicament. Maybe if he didn’t resort to massive generalizations about mankind (while excluding himself from those crude beasts) and unfair criticisms.

Sometimes he manages to appreciate simple serene scenes from his domestic life – such as napping with his wife after eating strawberries rolled in powdered sugar – yet, even this becomes another opportunity for a long pronouncement about … whatever, who cares by this stage. His arrogance and verbosity quickly becomes boring. And yet, though Joseph is an arrogant asshole, and irrationally horrible to those around him, it’s impossible not to feel just a small amount of sympathy with him when he gives up his dangling days and demands to be called up for duty. One is left wondering whether the discipline of army life will be beneficial to him.

So, as it turns out, my trepidations was largely unfounded. Though this is Bellow’s first novel so perhaps his later works will, whenever I get around to reading them, be somewhat more challenging. Dangling Man, while having some moments of insight, didn’t make much of an impression.

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Book Reviews

Sick Notes by Gwendoline Riley (2004)

Sick Notes by Gwendoline Riley (2004) Meh.

The above would have been my review of Gwendoline Riley’s Sick Notes had I reviewed it immediately after reading. However, the more time I have to think over the book, the more unforgiving I become with the cobweb thin excuses for characters, plot, motivation. Once upon a time I probably would have loved this novel, would have become intoxicated with the rhythms of Riley’s language, with the lifestyle of drifting between bars and parks and dusty bedrooms and bars, with her heady take on the thrill and awe of intensely felt attraction.

Esther has returned home to Manchester to live with her friend, Donna. She spends her days drinking a lot and wandering the streets, writing, watching and thinking until she meets and spends a few days with an American musician, Newton. There are hints Esther left in the first place to “sort herself out” though her current behaviour dismisses any recuperation ever having taken place. Her behaviour is abrupt, her conversations stunted – though this seems to be a stylistic choice on Riley’s part, the characters communicate almost entirely in non sequiturs. Esther is prone to vicious outbursts of irrational behaviour that do not seem to be prompted psychologically or emotionally, and without any self-awareness on her part. She is infantilized in speech, thought and behaviour.

Donna has a crush on the boy at the biography desk so we have to go upstairs and walk past him a couple of times.
‘Don’t look,’ she says. ‘We’ll stand by that display table and I’ll just ache in his direction.’

As Newton begins to dissect their dalliance and talking about his other lovers, Esther switches off, unable to look at him or be present in the situation or the conversation, she is unable, or unwilling, to verbalize to him how she feels – and yet she finds herself feeling so strongly attached, even as she recognizes what he is trying to communicate. And, so, after he leaves, she mopes and yearns and drinks a lot and I think it is  supposed to come across as all being so terribly romantic and melancholic but … it’s just annoying. Are we supposed to empathize with or pity her?

Esther seems hopelessly desperate, and surrounded by friendly idiots who only encourage her unhealthy actions, rather than giving her a firm slap in the face and telling her that her one night stand was probably not the beginning of a great healing romance. Her problems are never fully realized, it is uncertain whether she has really come back from New York or is covering up something else – this is not used as a narrative technique, it’s just presented as halfway interesting background for the real story of Esther and Newton’s whirlwind romance and the disastrous aftermath.

The most painful aspect of Sick Notes is that Riley seems content to glorify Esther’s alcoholism, while never naming it as such. It is, albeit, a seedy glamour, but the high gloss of Riley’s prose lends a particular grace to Esther’s problem. Riley’s prose is synaesthetic; you can feel the cold, dreary rain and long for a cup of the ever present tea to warm your fingers, you can smell the dust and the mould of the house, the stench of gin emanating from Esther’s room. Riley’s style is, in places, undeniably lovely and is only saved from becoming irritatingly twee by a few moments of raw honesty.

Though the dialogue feels staged and unnatural, the characters annoying portraits of studied eccentricities, there are some graceful moments in Sick Notes, but as a result of Riley’s writing style rather than content. It appears that a lot of other people really enjoy it, so perhaps I am the lone voice of dissent on this one. Meh.

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Book Reviews

Under the Skin by Michel Faber (2000)

Under the Skin by Michel Faber (2000)From the cover and blurb of Michel Faber’s Under the Skin I was expecting some sort of psychosexual thriller about a murderous woman on the prowl for male suitors. This is not my usual tastes, but what the hell. At first, Under the Skin does appear to follow this formulaic path but quickly turns in to something much more complicated, much more compelling and deeply disturbing.

Isserley is a slightly odd woman who drives along highways in Scotland looking for physically fit male hitchhikers. Through what appear to be casual conversations she determines their drifter status and further assesses their physical suitability, and those that are found satisfactory she takes back to a secluded farm. And that, unfortunately, is as much as I am willing to reveal in this review and I apologize for the vagueness that is to follow. Under the Skin is a novel where the less you know about its premise, the greater the impact on the reader. I was, as mentioned, rather clueless and as a result was very much bewildered, frightened and intrigued by this story, carrying it with me beyond the pages.

Isserley switches the television off. More awake now, she’d remembered something she should have known from the beginning, which was that there was no point trying to orient yourself to reality with television. It only made things worse.

Isserley herself is compellingly strange, marked by an inability to understand simple concepts, unexplained debilitating aches and pains, odd turns of phrase and unfamiliar words, and a ambiguous moral attitude toward picking up the drifters that she begins to question and explore as the novel progresses. Her use of unfamiliar slang (that wordnerds may attempt to look up in a dictionary and become frustrated that it doesn’t appear there) purposely alienates the reader from immediately determining Isserley’s role. At the same time, the peculiarity of the words and images invokes the desire to uncover the truth.

Yet, as you think you’re beginning to understand something, however briefly, Faber turns those assumptions to dust. My original expectations of this book as “psychosexual thriller” in part shaped my reaction to it – everything that happened was much stranger and more disturbing than I could have anticipated. Under the Skin is an artful experience of suspense, as Faber provides just enough without seeming unclear or without direction.

That’s what lying had done to the world. All the lying that people had been doing since the dawn of time, all the lying they were doing still. The price everyone paid for it was the death of trust. It meant that no two humans, however innocent they might be, could ever approach one another like two animals. Civilization!

As well as exploring Isserley’s growing contempt for her employer and her own existence, Faber reveals Isserley’s drifters through brief glimpses of their interior monologues, and by contrasting the cruelty, callousness and sometimes kindness of these drifters with the grisly severity of their fate Faber points us towards our own humanity. The story itself suggests a larger moral implication which is readily applied to our own everyday choices without seeming didactic. However, it would be too simplistic to read Under the Skin as straight allegory, as it manages to be much more complicated than a simple folk tale.

Like a half-remembered nightmare, Under the Skin lingers long after it has ended, the gaps leaving open any number of horrific possibilities. Words like chilling, horrifying or harrowing, and vague reviews like this one, do not do this book justice.

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Carson McCullers

An Eye on Carson McCullers: November 2010

“Member of the Wedding”, Opening Night, Ethel Waters, Carson McCullers and Julie Harris, New York City 1950 by Ruth OrkinA compilation of Carson McCullers news, tidbits and mere mentions from around the Internet in November, 2010. In other words, I sift through the spam and pointless mentions to bring you the monthly CMcC gold.

Photo: “Member of the Wedding”, Opening Night, Ethel Waters, Carson McCullers and Julie Harris, New York City 1950 by Ruth Orkin. I love this photograph so much.

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Book Reviews

The Best Australian Stories 2010 edited by Cate Kennedy (2010)

The Best Australian Stories 2010 edited by Cate Kennedy (2010)Short stories, for me, are a way of easing myself back into reading following a severe reading rut. They serve as a reminder of what fiction can do, even in small doses, how words can shape images, emotions, thoughts. I took The Best Australian Stories 2010, edited by Cate Kennedy, with me on my recent trip and though at first only dipping in and out of the selection, by the end I threw moderation aside and was happily gorging myself on story after story. Of course, with an anthology like this it can be difficult to organize your thoughts coherently: do I look at it as a whole? Do I select one or two stories that I enjoyed and focus on them?

There are names both familiar and previously unheard of in this collection, unpublished stories are placed equally among those that have been retrieved from hallowed literary journals. These stories cover a wide range of emotional territory and styles, from the funny, the breathless, the painfully sad, the joyous moments, and the horrific. Given the restraints of the short story form however, these explorations of emotions never feel too exhausting or depleting.

Against the darkness, other faces from that shared past occur to my mind with stunning vividness. Even closer, thicker, than the dark is the heat. Another scorcher on the way. Somewhere out there a forest is burning, and a family crouching under wet towels in a bathtub, waiting as their green lungs fill with steam and soot muck. I test the coffee’s temperature. As often happens at this time of morning I find myself in a strange sleep-bleared funk that’s not quite sadness. It’s not quite anything. Through the trees below, the river sucks in the lambency of city, creeps it back up the bank, and slowly, in this way, as I have seen and cherished it for years, the darkness reacquaints itself with new morning.
- from “The Yarra” by Nam Le

My personal highlights, in bullet point form:

  • Paddy O’Reilly’s “The Salesman” which, though working on accepted stereotypes of working class suburbanites as brute, racist and insensitive, plays with these expectations as much as it reinforces them.
  • Karen Hitchcock’s “Little White Slip”, a nicely unromanticized look at motherhood and the expectations it places upon a woman’s identity, this story ruthlessly cuts through to the pain, the bodily changes, the heightened and sometimes irrational emotional battles and the hormonal impulses without the need to glorify the role of motherhood. Although I enjoyed it, the ending did feel a bit too “and they lived happily ever after”, which detracted somewhat from the powerful depiction.
  • Nam Le’s “The Yarra”, probably the longest story in the anthology, is an involved tale about the experience of second-generation Vietnamese men involved in brutal acts of violence along Melbourne’s river. Le wonderfully captures the relentless heat of Melbourne summers which works towards heightening the internal struggle of the protagonist, Lan, whose brother has just returned home after a long jail stint. Both of them are forced to confront their violent past, its consequences and the strength and contradictions of their filial bond.
  • Chris Womersley’s “The Age of Terror” is quietly horrifying. What at first seems to be a meditation on aging turns into something else entirely, and it wasn’t until after I finished reading this story that I began to put the pieces together, to see the comparison being made and realize how truly terrifying it is. A difficult, multivalent story that lingers for hours, days after reading.
  • John Kinsella’s “Bats” is a lovely and strange story of vanity, youth and attraction. A girl and a boy watch a purple sunset over a mountain and he educates her on the fauna of the inland, culminating in a bat getting caught in her long blonde hair. This may be my favourite story of the collection, simple but rich.
  • Antonia Baldo’s “Get Well Soon” is another strong contender for the favourite story though, a beautiful story on living with a family member suffering with depression, how it effects the entire family and exploring the limits of responsibility and the tenacity of faith.

Rebecca’s disappointed that I don’t live for these moments of rapture anymore. It’s true. I’m ordinary. I’ve accepted the inadequacies of living. But I can’t sit beside her forever and whisper that discovering the world is a matter of choice. I can’t remind her of the smile on her face when she wore that strapless sea-green dress to her formal. I can’t tell her she’s so alive she just might have to die while I, half-dead, can afford to go on living. And so I leave her, a white frame twisted on a bed, those sharp-angled thoughts cutting into her brain.
- from “Get Well Soon” by Antonia Baldo

It becomes increasingly obvious that guilt features heavily in this selection: the guilt over past mistakes, past sins, guilt over irreversible accidents and damage, guilt over failed relationships, guilt of not living up to social expectations. Is this guilt something that is deeply embedded in the national literary consciousness – from the vicious blights on our national history, to our past as a colony of convicts, a quick overview reveals much to feel guilt over- or is it merely a quirk of editorial selection? Whatever the cause, toward the end of the anthology this recurring theme does begin to feel needlessly repetitious. The guilt is felt, but rarely are actions taken to appease this guilt, these stories prefer to wallow in the personal regrets, as though acknowledging it is repentance enough.

My knowledge of the Australian literary scene is not sufficient enough to comment on any glaring omissions, but The Best Australian Stories 2010 is overall a strong collection, showcasing a wide variety of contemporary Australian storytelling talent, offering readers a number of names to look forward to reading more from in the future.

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Book Loot

Book Loot: Week Ending November 21st, 2010

New Books:

Surprisingly restrained considering my afternoon(s) spent in Kinokuniya in Sydney.

Marginalia

I’ve had an amazing week. Words cannot even begin to express just how great it has been. I saw my favourite band the Manic Street Preachers for the first and second time, met them after both shows, and got a photo with Nicky Wire and James Dean Bradfield. This is a band that has shaped, influenced, changed, and inspired me for over twelve years, so this week was pretty damn important to me and they didn’t let me down. I was on the barrier for both shows, right up the front, screaming and singing my little lungs out. Amazing. And, to have the band be so gracious and attentive to their fans was just a bonus. Meeting fellow fans has also been an encouraging experience.

So, as it was, I didn’t exactly spend much time worrying about blogging. The only conclusion that I’ve managed to reach is that I want to continue writing about books and reading with enthusiasm and sincerity. Posting is going to continue being slightly irregular while I try and “figure things out.” Trust me, I am cringing as I write that. It sounds like the “it’s not you, it’s me” of book blogging.

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Book Reviews

Praise by Andrew McGahan (1992)

Praise by Andrew McGahan (1992)Andrew McGahan’s Praise is a novel about being young, unemployed and poor in early 90s Brisbane, when copious amounts of drugs, alcohol and sex are the only things that can stave off boredom. After quitting his job, sometime poet and asthmatic chain-smoker Gordon spends most of his time negotiating with social services for unemployment benefits, drinking booze, taking drugs, and becomes involved in an intense sexual relationship with the insatiable Cynthia, ex-heroin addict and chronic eczema sufferer.

At first Gordon and Cynthia’s relationship is almost tender, and McGahan nicely expresses the awkwardness and awe of discovering another’s body and how it works with yours, especially with the added interest of disease and skin irritations on display in Praise. But Cynthia’s relentless passion for Gordon’s sex is exhausting, and through constant depictions of their sex life – and there seems to be little else to their relationship, bar heading toward the bottle shop or dealer to stock up on supplies – this quickly becomes boring. As characters, Gordon is too passive and Cynthia too excessive, for them to really work together.

I felt as much love for Cynthia in that moment as I ever had, even in the good times. It was strange and confusing. But when a woman loved you enough to want you to die, it was hard not to love her back.

Like Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip, the main characters are, despite their faults, constantly drawn to each other, their bad habits and behaviour disguised as love, their dangerous or destructive tendencies as alluring, as though theirs is an impossible attraction that cannot be thwarted by logic and will-power alone. I just don’t buy into this idea of l’amour fou any more, the anhiliation of self is too complete.

Toward the end of the novel, as Gordon and Cynthia are separated, Gordon becomes involved with a girl who he has spent ten years nursing an unrequited love for. Yet, when it comes to consummating this love, he just can’t move beyond the idol worship, unable to see her as an independent being. This relationship is much more complex, more cerebral than  Gordon and Cynthia. Perhaps that is the point, Gordon’s attraction to Rachel is purely based on fantasy, so much so that years of imagined intimacy discounts the possibility of it happening; Cynthia, on the other hand, is a woman that demands the physical from Gordon, yet there isn’t a connection based on emotion or understanding. It’s an updated version of the Madonna/whore complex, only this time through a distinctly Australian grunge aesthetic.

I said, ‘Speech is such a definite thing.’
‘So?’
I thought for a long time, staring at my drink.
I started again. ‘Maybe it’s a matter of sincerity. I’m never that certain of anything I feel about a person, and talking about it simplifies it all so brutally. It’s easier to keep quiet. To act what you feel. Actions are softer. They can be interpreted in lots of different ways, and emotions should be interpreted in lots of different ways.’
‘But people are never going to understand you.’
‘People are never going to understand you if you tell them things, either. It’d be even worse.’

I suppose others have used words like “raw” and “gritty” to describe McGahan’s Praise. The style is simple, dialogue coupled with internal monologues, but a high sex-drugs-booze content alone doesn’t make a piece of writing gritty and raw. Gordon’s conflicts and struggles with love and sex conform to expected standards, and there is no enlightenment or possibility of change. Stagnant characters and relationships make Praise a frustrating novel.

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Book Reviews

The Exterminators by Simon Oliver and Tony Moore (2006-2008)

The cover of the first volume of Simon Oliver and Tony Moore’s graphic novel series The Exterminators compares the publishing imprint Vertigo as the comic book version of television’s HBO. In that case, it’s easy to take this comparison even further and liken The Exterminators to Six Feet Under. Like Six Feet Under, The Exterminators takes an unlikely career path with a strong ick factor and uses it to look at issues of human relationships, conglomerate corporations versus independent business, life and death. However, everyone’s favourite undertaker family never had to battle an army of mutant cockroaches and a reincarnated Egyptian bug worshipper. I’m tempted to take this analogy further, but really there’s nowhere else to go with it. While Six Feet Under had the most perfect ending of any television show ever (in my completely biased and not often humble opinion), The Exterminators starts off strong but lacks momentum to bring it to a fully realized and effective ending.

The Exterminators: Volume One, Bug Brothers by Simon Oliver and Tony Moore (2006)Volume One: Bug Brothers (Simon Oliver & Tony Moore, 2006) introduces us to Henry James, a convicted criminal who, thanks to his step-father, has taken up the post-jail career of exterminator with Bug-Bee-Gone. Henry is learning the ropes of the vermin killing business with the very possibly deranged AJ. Exterminating is, and take this as a warning readers of a sensitive disposition, gruesomely portrayed. All the vermin are shown as vicious, drooling, diseased and the kill scenes are often full pages that bask in the glory of a successful kill. Only, these vermin aren’t completely innocent. The Bug-Bee-Gone researcher Saloth has discovered a new strain of cockroach that is not only resistant to the best roach poison, but fuelled by the very chemicals intended to kill it, mutated into something stronger and much more sinister than your average roach. The narrative in this first volume is set up so well, with every page come new possibilities and potentially intriguing side stories; such as the mysterious Saloth’s past connection to the Khmer Rouge, or Henry’s prison connection to the Aryan brotherhood, or Henry’s girlfriend Laura’s new job with Ocran – the makers of roach poison that doubles as a narcotic for humans brave enough to indulge Draxx, or the green scarab. All these little hints build anticipation for further volumes. The artwork is strangely beautiful, as though the world is being viewed through sunshine and a haze of pollution, lending it an almost otherworldly, though recognizable, murky hue.

The Exterminators: Volume Two, Insurgency by Simon Oliver, Tony Moore, Ande Parks and Chris Samnee (2007)Volume Two: Insurgency (Simon Oliver, Tony Moore, Ande Parks and Chris Samnee, 2007) continues with this narrative set up and builds on our knowledge of the characters. We’re introduced to a new love interest for Henry, Page – a literary hooker that works within the constraints of fulfilling sexual fantasies taken from literary works, proposed as a preferable option compared to the corporate career-minded Laura. An issue featuring complementary storylines that compare and contrast Page and Laura, after Laura and Henry have broken up, allows us to see the differences and similarities between them, but issues raised here are hugely contradicted by later storylines. Meanwhile, at Bug-Bee-Gone, the mutant cockroaches are infiltrating essential infrastructure and it is up to Kevin, Henry and Stretch to do the dirty work involved in clearing them out. The Exterminators really revels in the detritus of both humans and and plays on the base disgust we tend to have for bugs, rodents and vermin.

The Exterminators: Volume Three, Lies of Our Fathers by Simon Oliver, Tony Moore, Mike Hawthorne and John Lucas (2007)Volume Three: Lies of Our Fathers (Simon Oliver, Tony Moore, Mike Hawthorne and John Lucas, 2007) finally delves into Saloth’s back story as he fabricates his refugee past for a date. An encounter with a past comrade forces him to confront that past, and vows to never let it jeopardize his life’s work again. One of the most disturbing scenes in the series occurs in this volume, as a young boy who has just had his eyes operated on has consistent itching beneath his bandages. Just don’t expect there to be fully healed wounds and cheer beneath those bandages. Oh, and there’s another fantastically gross scene involving the resuscitation of a pet hamster. Despite some brilliantly disgusting moments, here is where the series really began to fall apart for me, as contradictions arise and problematic turns of events just aren’t as strong as those that preceeded them. Laura is set on a rape revenge path and viciously murders her boss – an image that contradicts completely with that we have of her crying to her mother and worrying about her career. And why is it that rape is used as a dramatic trope so often for female characters in graphic novels? It’s offensively reductive, and cheaply used as a convenient plot point. Though the plot twists are unpredictable and no character safe from death, it doesn’t feel like as cohesive, it seems directionless and as a reader, I lost trust in the storyline.

The Exterminators: Volume Four, Crossfire and Collateral by Simon Oliver, Darick Robertson and Ty Templeton (2008)Volume Four: Crossfire and Collateral (Simon Oliver, Darick Robertson and Ty Templeton, 2008) features a really cool one issue story about Saloth and Stretch (the spiritual zen cowboy type who is also, if you’ll pardon a brief outburst of fangirlishness, really effing hot.) in a desert casino for a pest control convention, where more is revealed about Stretch’s shady past. This issue almost made me regain my faith in the story, but I’m thinking it was the combination of a story completely separate from the main narrative and artwork by Darick Robertson of Transmetropolitan fame that made me enjoy it so much. The rest of this volume focuses on a neighbourhood gang war over Draxx drug dealing, and the introduction of Draxx into black neighbourhoods by the Aryan brotherhood. This reads like an attempt to give The Exterminators more of a social slant, but I’m not entirely convinced. Too much of the dialogue and slang rely on painfully outdated stereotypes.

The Exterminators: Volume Five, Bug Brothers Forever by Simon Oliver, Tony Moore, John Lucas and Ty Templeton (2008)The final installment of the series, Volume Five: Bug Brothers Forever (Simon Oliver, Tony Moore, John Lucas and Ty Templeton, 2008), sees the epic showdown between bug and man that the series has been leading up to and … it’s disappointing. Again, some single story issues are entertainingly horrific, but the main narrative loses momentum as it draws to a close. The main issue is that the delineation between good and evil in The Exterminators is too convenient. The good guys – the Bug-Bee-Gones and associates – have their morally murky pasts and stories, but the bad guys are purely one dimensional. How can you create sympathy for a cockroach? It lacks the moral weight to make it truly engaging, and there never seems to be any doubt that the good guys are going to come out on top, albeit with significant losses. The final pages emphasize that this is just one battle won in a larger war of man against nature. More insight and exploration of the fascinating characters and less on the bug versus man battles would have made The Exterminators a triumph. As it is though, it’s a moderately entertaining graphic novel series that has hints of unfulfilled greatness.

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