Review: ‘Just Another Week in Suburbia’

 

just-another-week-in-suburbia-187316436Just Another Week in Suburbia is the debut novel of Melbourne writer Les Zig. In it, Zig dares the reader to sit with one uncomfortable question: can you ever really know someone? The reader is encouraged to examine the enormous leap of faith it takes to be in a trusting relationship – a difficult but worthwhile venture.

Just Another Week in Suburbia spans seven days in the life of Casper Gray. Casper is a suburban everyman with a nice home, a secure job and a wife who challenges and complements him. Like many suburbanites he’s content (if uninspired) and comfortable (if a bit complacent).

One day a chance discovery upheaves Casper, leaving him questioning his marriage. At first, Casper struggles to find the courage to face this discovery, as doing so means dealing with the inevitable fallout. Instead he obsesses over it, and his preoccupations affect everything from his relationships to his professional judgement. Casper’s poor decision-making can be frustrating, but it’s what makes him such a complex and interesting character.

Just Another Week in Suburbia has some undoubtedly harrowing moments. It’s unflinchingly honest, particularly as Casper struggles to escape from his quagmire of insecurities. Throughout, Zig uses Casper’s ordeal to deconstruct the notion of traditional masculinity. He also explores the resentments that can form when two people with individual desires start a life together. But to label this a portrait of marital discord would be reductive; it’s a powerful cautionary tale about the importance of open communication. Zig’s writing demonstrates a great respect – even a reverence – for the union of marriage. Casper and Jane are well-written, believable characters with a flawed but complex relationship.

Outside of the relationship aspect, Zig authentically captures the malaise of suburban life. He also acknowledges the comedy of it: the way neighbours lose their minds scrutinizing property lines or how hauling garbage to the kerb at week’s end feels like a Herculean task.
Memorable side characters add further levity to the story, like Stuart, Casper’s pernickety vice principal; Luke, his affable womanising friend; and a slippery drug dealer nicknamed Jean Jacket. Then there’s Wallace, Casper’s scrappy fox terrier. Wallace’s every mannerism leaps off the page. He is a charming addition to this story.

Zig’s crisp prose and strong characterisation ensures the story breezes along at an enjoyable pace. The darker moments are perfectly balanced with wry humour and poignant observations about life. In one memorable moment, Casper posits that long-term relationships are like reading the same book over and over again. A dour assessment – until Casper’s co-worker points out that re-reading brings a new and deeper appreciation. “Some books you hold dear to you your whole life.

And so it is with Just Another Week in Suburbia, a relationship story with real heart and emotional depth. My appreciation for it grows the more I meditate on its themes. I look forward to revisiting it one day. I’ve no doubt I’ll discover even more things to appreciate about its narrative.

Advertisements

Review: ‘Pet Sematary’

pet-sematary-coverThis book, alongside a discouraging handful of other King novels, begins with great promise, drawing the reader in with the kind of three-dimensional characters King does best. Unfortunately, it hits a slump halfway, from which it cannot recover, and meanders its way to a predictable conclusion.

The plot deals with grief, obsession and reincarnation. The Creed family (Doctor Louis, Rachel, and two children Ellie and Gage) move to backwater Ludlow, a small town in – you guessed it – Maine. Ludlow’s a dandy slice of American pie. It’s also the halfway point between two large townships and is frequented by huge trucks on shipping runs … See where this is going?

So, protagonist Louis strikes up a friendship with local old-timer, Jud, and learns about a makeshift cemetery that is situated near the Creed’s new home. Apparently generations of residents have used this ground to bury their beloved pets, and it’s become a sort of eerie community tradition. But this ain’t your grandpappy’s cemetery; the titular Pet Sematary is actually a front for ancient Micmac burial grounds. It’s a spiritual place with deep historic roots – generations of teenagers have fooled around here. Burying your pet here is said to bring about reincarnation, which is handy because, after some whacky hijinks, Louis ends up home alone with the still-fresh corpse of family cat, Church. Ruh-Roh!

So Louis is faced with that classic parental dilemma: tell Ellie (his daughter/Church superfan) the truth, or dabble blindly in the dark arts. The choice is clear; anyone who’s seen the Arnie classic Jingle All the Way knows only deadbeats disappoint their kids.isc080booklet.inddAnd so Church comes back — albeit a little dopier than before. His movements are sluggish and he permanently smells of the earth, which was admittedly cool. The prospect of a reanimated cat – possibly infused with a sinister Micmac spirit – is great horror fodder, but, in King’s hands, it amounts to nothing. The cover and blurb allude to some terrifying developments; a murderous four-legged zombie that perfectly resembles your beloved Mr Whiskers would make for an excellent monster, but nothing like this eventuates. The whole concept of the Pet Sematary is severely underutilised – unless your secret fear is slow, dim-witted cats that lumber around not hurting anyone.

Nice Churchy!

Nice Churchy!

Pet Sematary has a strong premise and solid opening. It’s great to see King sink into teeth into some serious subject matter and, as usual, he excels at inhabiting his characters. Rachel and Louis are particularly compelling (as luck would have it, Rachel has a debilitating fear of death – guess who’s confronting their fears tonight?), and it’s a pleasure to discover the intricacies of their marriage. Louis is a bog-standard King everyman; however, his profession does distinguish him (slightly) from others of this mould. Doctors are logically minded and less inclined to buy into supernatural mumbo jumbo. I enjoyed Louis’ early scepticism and stoic nature, but grew frustrated with the irrational behaviour he exhibits later on.

Pet Sematary also suffers serious pacing issues. It takes three quarters of the book for all the (obvious) set-pieces to come together (believe me: the signposts are as big as Maine itself). You know the Pet Sematary will cause major complications, yet it goes damn near unmentioned for the first half of the book. Instead, the reader is dragged through family drama subplots that, while mildly interesting, add squat to the narrative.

My biggest issue with Pet Sematary is its conclusion, which unfolds like a slow train wreck. Despite being cautioned by Jud on the dangers of the Pet Sematary, and learning about how a reported case of human burial went horribly awry, logical, level-headed Dr Louis jettisons all common sense and tries it anyway.

A sizeable portion of the novel’s conclusion details Louis’s inner monologue as he climbs up to the haunted burial grounds, his child’s corpse in tow. He openly admits it’s not the answer, that he’s clinging to empty hope. He knows whatever emerges from the ground won’t be his loved one, no matter the resemblance. He knows his actions will cause grief and heartache, and that they will destroy his remaining family’s chance of moving on. He also knows his actions will place everyone in very real danger – yet he goes ahead and does it anyway.

The ensuing bloodshed was senseless, a chore to read, and was all so preventable. King spends so much of the novel (which, it’s worth noting, isn’t short) building rich characters and relationships, only to throw them to the wind in the last seventy pages.

I get the suggestion that grief supersedes rational thinking, and that the Micmac burial ground had some sort of supernatural pull of Louis, but that doesn’t justify this frustrating, limp-wristed ending. Here, King rejoices in kicking his readers in the teeth. The fact that Louis is aware what a dope he is adds insult to injury. God awful – and this is coming from someone who defends and understands Cujo‘s macabre ending.

Read The Shining instead.

Some Thoughts on Bird by Bird and Writing Advice

Bird_by_Bird_LR_titlecoverBestseller Bird by Bird is a quasi memoir and instructional craft book for budding writers. Alongside Stephen King’s On Writing, it’s the most lauded and cited book about writing. Anne Lamott trades in honesty and uses clear, tactile examples from her writing life to illustrate her points. There are some wonderfully evocative passages about human nature and the realities of life as a working writer.

I’ll give it this: Bird by Bird has personality, which, I suspect, is why it’s endured the way it has. Lamott has wit and a knack for metaphor. However, I’m in no hurry to investigate her fiction, as my reaction to Bird by Bird was largely negative. Frankly, I found Lamott unbearably smug. Am I alone in this? Did no one else find her faux self-deprecation a chore and her humour grating? (Just on this, her humour: It starts innocently enough, but morphs into this ugly, sarcastic crutch. How did no one else notice this?) Similarly, some of her admissions made me question her professionalism (see: the chapter ‘Jealousy’, which had me shaking my head in astonishment). When this happened, I could no longer respect her as a writing authority, rendering the book a failure.

Unsurprisingly, Bird by Bird took me an eternity to finish. I didn’t particularly enjoy it, though concede its uses. It was required reading for my course. Most of its advice was second nature to me, but it was nice to have it reaffirmed so eloquently.

A quick aside: I’ve always wondered why intermediate-level writers persist with reading craft books. Don’t get me wrong: studying the mechanics of writing is important. It’s just that, lately, I’m finding writing advice rote and tedious – which is maybe why I’ve ceased dispensing it on this blog. There are myriad resources available for those that need it, so my current view is why perpetuate a dialogue when the inevitable consensus will be ‘Don’t break rules unless with stylistic intent’.

Most professional writers discourage the romanticisation of writing, but breaking it down to bare mechanics feels equally reductive. Frankly, I don’t want to understand everything about creative practice. It’s like intellectualising faith, or watching one of those jerky, fun-spoiling, tell-all magicians. Continue reading

Review: ‘The Girl in the Flammable Skirt’

the-girl-in-the-flammable-skirt smallThis collection, originally published in 1998, was on my to-read list for ages, but my local libraries and bookstores never carried it. Fortunately, with the recent popularisation of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Aimee Bender’s older works have gotten the reissue treatment (slash they’ve made it to backwater Australia in the first place). Even with the reissue, though, this was still a difficult find. I had to grab the LARGE PRINT edition from my local library. Ever read a large-print story about a promiscuous librarian during the morning train commute? Didn’t think so. Don’t scoff.

Fortunately, it was worth the trouble. Although The Girl with the Flammable Skirt feels a bit like the work of a writer still developing their voice, its stories were loaded with entertainment value. Bold, eccentric and dripping with originality, Bender’s short fiction contains highly memorable plots with unconventional subject matters. She trades in the sort of quirky surrealist style associated with writers like Francesca Lia Bloc and Miranda July. A strong sexual undercurrent also permeates these works, further accentuating this comparison.

Still, I enjoyed this way more than Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You. Though they’re aesthetically similar, I find July’s writing gratingly cute and too far removed from reality; Flammable Skirt was, oddly, more grounded in real human emotion, thus I connected better to the stories. (I say oddly because, like contemporary fairytales, Bender’s subject matter is pretty out there: an incognito imp, of high school age, makes an unwitting sexual advance while stroking the hair of an incognito teenage mermaid; a woman’s boyfriend, disillusioned with the state of the world, experiences – perhaps initiates – reverse evolution, eventually becoming a salamander; two young women experience the hardships of adolescence – with added elemental burdens: one has an ice hand, one fire.)

Reading these, I was delightfully forced from my comfort zone (realist literary fiction). The stories were often trés silly, but Bender sells them, establishing the parameters quickly and upholding them, honouring them. Universality grounds even the most outlandish story, and so they read like strange fables, cautionary tales. I’m intellectualising what doesn’t need to be: at their core, I must emphasise, these stories are just great fun.

I had several favourites, including: ‘The Ring’, a story about besotted thieves whose stolen ruby ring permanently dyes everything it contacts; ‘Quiet Please’, a story about a grief-stricken librarian who decides to have sex with every man who enters her library; ‘Dreaming in Polish’, a story about a prophetic old couple who dream visions of the future in unison; and ‘What You Left in the Ditch’, a story about a military wife who finds it hard to love her wounded husband after he returns from war without lips.

A couple didn’t quite hit home (the sprawling, overambitious ‘Marzipan’ and the ineffectual ‘Legacy’), but theses don’t tarnish what was an otherwise compelling debut. I’ve no doubt I’ll be reading more of Aimee Bender’s work in the future.

Doctor Sleep Induces Namesake: An Extended Diatribe on First-Ever King Sequel

Screen-Shot-2013-08-19-at-10.45.36In the Author Notes of Doctor Sleep, the extremely belated sequel to The Shining, Stephen King writes diplomatically about nostalgia, fan expectation and the legacy of his wildly successful third novel, The Shining (and its iconic Kubrick-helmed adaptation). King knew publishing Doctor Sleep would be a largely thankless job. The Shining holds a special place in many hearts. It’s iconic, a certified classic. Building on the momentum of his preceding novels, it cemented King’s reputation as a master of the genre and was revered by generations of readers.

Judging by his notes, King is acutely aware of what was at stake with this endeavour. He even expresses reservations. Appeasing everyone was inevitably impossible. That’s the case for any book, but it’s especially true for Doctor Sleep, a novel with so much baggage it’d go bankrupt with extra airport charges. Yet King rose to the challenge, breaking his unwritten rule about follow-ups and putting himself in an unenviable position. Why? Apparently it’s because he’s always wondered what became of little Danny Torrance. Hard to fault someone who approaches projects so sincerely.

Despite my forthcoming criticisms, I can say with conviction that I don’t doubt that King had pure intentions with Doctor Sleep. The Shining has a potent universe, so it’s not like there wasn’t room for additional stories. This is no cheap cash-in and King emerges with his integrity intact. That said, Doctor Sleep is weak, half-baked, a disappointing composite of ideas. It shows King isn’t creatively bankrupt – this novel is enjoyable if not particularly nourishing, like a Big Mac – but its screams for an intervening editor are deafening.

As a late-career Stephen King book it’s serviceable, I suppose, but as a sequel to one of the most defining horror novels of all time? Piss poor. There are some cool ideas at play here but, despite King’s aforementioned admission, I don’t believe the necessary care and attention went into this. I can say with surety that this is not King firing on all cylinders. This feels like just another of the four-a-year novels he routinely churns out. Nothing more or less. The Shining, and its fans, deserve better.

* * *

Doctor Sleep opens with remaining Torrances, Danny and Wendy, grappling with everything that occurred at the Overlook Hotel. Danny, now a couple of years older, is still burdened with the ability to shine. Wendy, on the other hand, has all but shut down after the breakdown and subsequent death of her husband, Jack Torrance (immortalised in a manic Jack Nicholson performance). The telepathic chef Dick Hallorann cameos early on to teach Danny his ‘mental lockbox’ trick, which is used to trap negative spirits.
Jack Nicholson
Continue reading

Review: ‘Wilco: Learning How to Die’

51T9ueCpjRLWilco: Learning How to Die chronicles the history of experimental rock band Wilco. Written by Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot, the book opens with bandleader Jeff Tweedy’s small-town beginnings and goes on to cover Uncle Tupelo’s career and the birth of Wilco. There is very little information online about Tweedy’s childhood, so Learning How to Die’s opening sections were invaluable. (For me, it was like reading like a superhero origin story.)

Pivotal Tweedy moments, like his introduction to Jay Farrar and their subsequent formation of Uncle Tupelo, are detailed. I’ve never really gotten into Uncle Tupelo, but their legacy is undeniable, and learning about their formative years widened my appreciation. Tweedy and Farrar’s songwriting process was particularly interesting. Their professional relationship was a minefield of warped expectations and miscommunications, and it grew increasingly volatile as the boys’ egos developed and the band’s star rose. Quotes from those closest to them are also included. These offer a broader picture and made an oft sensationalised rivalry richer and more nuanced.

The Wilco narrative here unfolds chronologically, with each half culminating in a major conflict: Tweedy versus Farrar, and Tweedy versus Jay Bennett. Since these incidents are well-documented, even casual Wilco fans will anticipate them, giving the book a great quasi sense of tension. Continue reading

Review: ‘[untitled] Issue Six’

ImageThe sixth issue of Busybird Publishing’s flagship literary journal opens with a question: ‘Where has [untitled] been?’ The journal, which ordinarily sees an annual release, was an unexpected no-show in 2013. According to the editorial, the publisher’s self-imposed deadline repeatedly slipped by as the editors-cum-mad scientists deliberated over their largest assortment of stories yet. Talk about perfectionists! But issue six is here now, and I’m happy to report that [untitled] has come back strong.

The issue opens with one of my favourite stories: Josh Donellan’s ‘The Stench of Adventure’, a charming, fictionalised account of the author’s Cambodian travels. Having been to Thailand, I related to Donellan’s depiction of South-East Asian culture. It’s a sweet story, playful in tone. But also worth noting is that the author nails the shameful way privileged westerners treat lesser-developed countries as their personal playgrounds. This story sums up what [untitled] is all about: smart, well-written, entertaining stories that can be enjoyed by anyone. There was no pretension in ‘The Stench of Adventure’, thus it struck me as the perfect opener.

Another highlight was second story, ‘An Open Book’. This story was vintage Ryan O’Neill: the state of a relationship is revealed through passages, doodles and notations made in the margins of a book. It’s quirky, involves a bit of light detective work and appeals to our base voyeurism. Ryan O’Neill’s relentless cleverness continues to impress.

‘The Crying Space’ was a melancholic account of a man experiencing trauma-induced blindness. Despite how it may sound, I found this refreshingly unsentimental. There are no miraculous recoveries (at least not within the timeframe of the story), and main character Bryce is forced to re-evaluate his perception of the world. Author Peter Farrar excels in his sensory descriptions. It’s deeply affecting and impossible not to project yourself into Bryce’s situation.

Wendy Purcell gave a memorable reading from her story, ‘The Broker’, at issue six’s launch, and I’d been thinking about it since. Purcell subtly implements an intriguing, fantastical concept (a pawn broker removes sellers’ memories of the objects they’re divesting from, Eternal Sunshine style) into an otherwise familiar setting. This closing story was a multi-faceted page-turner, and ended the journal on a perfectly poignant note.

The 2013 [untitled] Short Story Competition

Also included in this issue were the winners of the 2013 [untitled] Short Story Competition. Not sure what was in the water this year, but I found all five of these very impressive.

Suzannah Marshall Macbeth’s highly commended ‘Niall’s Edge’, a mournful comment on global warming and our acceptance of fate, was perhaps the most ‘literary’ story in the whole issue. The precision in her descriptions was astounding.

Contrasting this was Venetia Di Pierro’s ‘Rollerbaby Queen’, a buoyant, Fifties-style story about an adolescent friendship. Di Pierro’s story excelled in its rich portrayals of Fifties culture and of authentic teenaged friends growing apart.

Peter R Hill’s ‘She’s All Broken’ was an occasionally funny, sometimes frustrating, always powerful art heist caper. This story’s point of difference was that it starred a disabled protagonist with a fully functioning mind, but communication difficulties. ‘She’s All Broken’ bravely inhabited a minority’s point of view to beautiful effect. Putting the reader inside this character’s skin enables them to experience, first-hand, just how fearful and prejudiced society can be towards the disabled.

Adrienne Tam’s ‘The Human Child’ initially struck me as a moody, atmospheric tale about family dynamics, which it is – but it evolves organically, becoming much more. Tam sucker-punches the reader with a dark late development, transforming the story into a fantastical fable, akin to Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Well-executed.

Special mention must go to Luke Thomas’ first-place-winning story, ‘Regatta’, about a fractured married couple’s travels through Africa. Luke Thomas’ ‘Real Estate’ was one of my personal highlights in [untitled] issue five, and, for me, ‘Regatta’ cements the author as one of Australia’s seminal short fiction talents. It’s hard to articulate why this story resonated with me the way it did. Listing its superficial qualities feels insufficient. ‘Regatta’ has intangible magic; it’s a perfect marriage of voice, technique, character and story. Thomas wholly inhabits his protagonist, Tom. The story is no meditation on angst, but Tom’s pain is positively palpable. And still he holds things together, hoping, with grace, restraint and occasional wit. The titular boat race becomes a desperate, metaphorical struggle. More than the sum of its parts, ‘Regatta’ is a delicate, Hemmingway-esque story that will doubtlessly stay with me.

Overall Impressions

Unfortunately, not all of the stories in this issue were direct hits for me – ‘Puppet Fears’ was a bit beyond me, and may require closer re-reads; ‘Tilly’ showed fleeting brilliance, but felt tonally confused; and ‘Pretty Birds’, despite inspiring an excellent cover image, was underwhelming and a bit obvious. I’m fast realising, though, that this is the nature of reading anthologies. Different stories appeal to different people; it’s possible – even likely – that others may rate these as favourites. Overall, the sheer diversity of styles in [untitled] issue six was undeniable and greatly appreciated.

I’m thrilled about [untitled]’s return. It is an excellent celebration of Australia’s diverse literary talent, and issue six maintains the high standard set by previous issues. Reportedly, Busybird are working to get issue seven out by the end of 2014, so hopefully the wait won’t be too long for more short fiction goodness.