Jul 282014

Faces in the Crowd, Valeria Luiselli, tr. Christina MacSweeney, Granta, 2012.

I am so in love with Valeria Luiselli’s writing – or Christina MacSweeney’s translation. Everything about this book hit the spot for me. It seemed a little as though this may be her Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy, moment. The narrator’s identity shifts, so that the novel may have been written by a young woman imagining the ghosts of dead writers, or maybe one of the dead writers wrote the book and imagined the ghost of a young woman. As I see it, ambiguity combined with gorgeous writing always makes for a very interesting reading experience. The only thing that is certain about this narrative is that nothing is certain.

I loved reading Sidewalks, Luiselli’s book of essays, but I think I found this more satisfying. As someone who keeps close company with the dead writers and poets living in my head, I breathe a big sigh of relief when I encounter someone else who has that sort of stuff jangling around inside their brain. It seems to me that literature may be woven into Luiselli’s DNA. Writing is important to her, in the way it was important to Joyce – after a while it just becomes part of you, inexplicably, inextricably and irrevocably twined around your soul. Oh, yes. The text is most definitely Joycean in flavour, but I also detected a strong nod to Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque, one of my favourite books of all time.

Faces in the Crowd is comprised of short passages, sometimes only a paragraph, sometimes only a couple of sentences, that combine to form the whole. The narrative zips and zaps about, switching time, place and narrator. American Objectivist poets and other literary luminaries make an appearance in the beautifully layered novel which is ‘not a fragmented novel’ but a ‘horizontal novel, narrated vertically’ (p. 70). I am reluctant to say anything more about the book because I do not want to spoil it for anyone. I think it is one of those books that is best read with an open mind and no preconceived notion as to what it is about. It will probably appeal to readers who like metafiction with a postmodernist vibe, but some people may find it a bit too, hmm, non-linear, perhaps?

The first thing I do remember is the face of Ezra pound in the crowd waiting on the platform for the train. Of course, it wasn’t really him. The doors opened and there he was on the platform, leaning against a pillar. We looked each other straight in the eye, as if in recognition, although he couldn’t possibly have heard anything about me, a young Irish-Mexican, neither red haired nor good looking, more bastard than poet. I let the passengers leave and be replaced by others, identically ugly, overheated and ordinary. Pound didn’t board the train. He was lost among the crowd of faces on the platform, faces like the wet petals of his poem (p.87).

There’s nothing so ill-advised as attributing a metonymic value to inanimate things. If you think the condition of a plant in a pot is a reflection of the condition of your soul, or worse, that of a loved one, you’ll be condemned to disillusion or paranoia (p.13).

A dense porous novel. Like a baby’s heart (p.28).


‘In a Station of the Metro’
by Ezra Pound (1913)

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Jul 262014

The Comfort of Water. A River Pilgrimage, Maya Ward, Transit Lounge, 2011.

In 2003 Maya Ward and three friends walked the length of the Yarra river, from its end at Port Philip Bay in Melbourne to its source in the mountains. Or, they would have walked to its source if the water authority had allowed them into the catchment area, but they got as close to it as they could.

This is a strange book and, surprise, surprise! I did not get along very well with it. I like the idea of people being so interested in a river that they want to walk along its banks from start to finish. I am concerned about environmental degradation, and about the way our rivers and water sources are not properly looked after. I am even a bit of a tree-hugging hippie myself, but yeah, the whole flute playing, dancing to welcome the sunrise, overt ‘Hey! I’m such a spiritual person’ vibe kind of grated on my nerves. The other thing that bothered me was that Ward, who is non-Indigenous, seemed almost to appropriate Indigenous culture at times in the book. She calls the river by its Aboriginal names and incorporates Aboriginal myth and legend in her storytelling, and that annoyed me. Those are not her stories to tell. That culture and that country and those stories belong to Indigenous people, and no matter how much whitefellas want to be ‘in tune’ with the country through which we pass, those things do not belong to us.

Although the Yarra is only 242km long, and the walk only took 21 days, Ward and her friends did not carry their own supplies or make camp for themselves. Their friends and family towed a trailer of supplies from one overnight stop to the next, set up camp and cooked the evening meal for the walkers. That is SO taking the soft option. Wandering along carrying a day-pack full of snacks and chasing each other across fields and swimming nude in the river is SO removed from the hard slog of a pilgrimage, which is what the walk was supposed to be. Shuttling vehicles back and forth to the city is not good for the environment, and neither is eating tuna and cheese, which they did. I have no idea if the group was vegetarian, but it seems strange that people so concerned with the health of rivers would eat dairy products, considering that dairy farms are the source of vast amounts of effluent flowing into rivers world wide. It seems to me that if you were a really serious eco-warrior you would be a vegan.

Maybe I had a problem with the book because I have a problem with inner-city environmentalists who use trains and ride in friends’ cars, but waffle on about not wanting to drive because it is so bad for the environment. Maybe I have a problem with someone who is silly enough to allow mosquitoes to feast on her blood so they can complete their life cycle and fulfil their destiny. Has she never heard of all the mosquito-borne diseases that can make you very ill? And maybe I have a problem with someone who cries when her friends walk on ahead when she is dawdling and the sun is going down and the temperature is about to plummet. Maybe I just let Ward push all my ‘stupid city people’ buttons.

The Yarra is polluted and its banks are degraded. It was sad to read that Ward and her friends came upon a scene of utter desolation near the source of the river: an area of forest had been clear-felled and burnt. Why we are still doing stupid things like this in the twenty-first century is beyond me. Rather than try to educate people about environmental issues, which is what Ward attempts to do, I think we need to lobby our governments, local, state and federal, and pressure them into allocating money to save the environment. I think maybe Ward’s book would appeal to other people who have a strong spiritual connection with the Yarra, but for practical environmentalists like me, the book totally missed the mark.

Here is the official synopsis of the book:

This is the joyful yet heartbreaking true story of four friends who walk a 21-day pilgrimage from the sea to the source of Melbourne’s Yarra River. There is no path for most of the way, but offers of campsites and boats, and free access to private lands, illustrates the generosity shown to pilgrims even in modern times. The Comfort of Water: A River Pilgrimage, Maya Ward’s lyrical exploration of her river as it winds through the city and the wild is a revelation, a testament to the fact that the greatest of worlds are often at our doorstep. Maya’s telling of her own journey and that of her fellow walkers is seamlessly woven together with ecological and cultural history, the revelation of the pilgrim’s path and the unknowable depth of Aboriginal myth. Through trekking this Wurundjeri Songline, this ancient, ever-renewing river, she discovers rich possibilities of belonging, and shares how a river can nourish the passion and resilience required to transform our world.

Jul 182014

Well, it was quite a surprise last week to be told that all the information we’d been given for the life writing class was actually from the previous course because, oops, the unit chair had been on leave for 6 months and had only gone back to work a couple of days before and she was completely disorganised. ‘Sorry, but I’m sure you’ll understand.’ (I’m sure she will understand when one of us is so disorganised that we can’t submit an assignment on time!) The information was distributed again this week, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s exactly the same as before. It seems that there is no difference between last year’s course and this one, so that was a whole week wasted. Pfft!

Some of the other students are interesting. There are a few who haven’t acquired the set texts yet, despite the details being available for the past couple of months. Obviously, they didn’t read the course notes. Some of them don’t want to pay for the books and think the university library should supply them. One student has already done the assignment that’s due in October, despite the fact that we haven’t even studied the relevant material yet. I don’t know, but I’m just keeping my mouth shut.

Fortunately, I’m not being graded on my group participation this time, although I do have to work with a group to produce a report later in the semester. I hope I don’t get stuck with the TALKERS. :P I know my inability to work with other people is a big problem for me (and for them, poor people!) and I should be more accepting and tolerant of social chit chat and whatnot. I don’t know why I’m so driven to just get on with the task at hand. I always end up doing most of the work in a group situation, because I think it needs to be done ‘properly’ and on time.*

Anyway, I have two essays to write in the next few weeks, so I don’t have time to read anything much besides PDFs, and there is a veritable forest of them growing on my desk. I’m learning things about life writing theory, though, so that’s good. It’s a very complex and contested field of study, apparently. I feel a bit snowed under by everything I have to do, but I’m making Molly a priority so she doesn’t feel ignored, and it’s rather nice to just switch off my brain and hang out with her. It’s also nice to sneak a few minutes here and there to catch up with your blogs, and have a little whine amongst friends. :P I’m sure things will settle down once I figure out what I’m supposed to be doing for the assignments. The due dates are staring at me as I write this, and yeah, I should be doing some research right now, so I guess I’ll go and dive into the library catalogue and see what it comes up with.

*The universal lament of the control freak! :)

Jul 162014

Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill, Alfred K. Knopf, 2014.

Jenny Offill teaches in the MFA programmes in three US colleges, a fact that is clearly evident in her writing: it has MFA stamped all over it. As I see it, MFA programme graduates tend to produce writing that is self-consciously ‘clever’ and workshopped to the nth degree. In her acknowledgements in the book, Offill lists forty people she wishes to thank for their ‘generosity and encouragement in matters literary and far beyond.’ I wonder how many of those people read and discussed the manuscript with her? The narrative has a slick and highly polished feel to it that does not reflect the rawness of the writing experience, which as I see it, is all about metaphorically sitting alone in a room with a typewriter and a quart of whiskey, and wiping the blood from your brow.*

Anyway, the narrative is presented in snippets – sentences, paragraphs and quotes – and it is up to the reader to piece them together to make meaning of the story. I am not sure that this form actually works all that well: I did not get much of a sense of who the characters were – I know what they said and did, and what one of them thought, but I felt as though I were viewing them from a distance, as if they were tiny little actors performing on a stage and I was way up in the Gods, or something.

This is a story about a woman’s experience of life – ambition, love, parenting, adultery, mental collapse, and about the aftermath of all those things. The wife – Offill does not use names, just labels – is a thwarted Art Monster. She wanted to be devoted to her art, like Nabokov, who (apparently) never furled his own umbrella or licked his own stamps. Despite a promising beginning at being an Art Monster, she fell in love, got married and had a child. The baby is difficult and cries a lot, and grows into a strangely knowing little girl. The wife teaches and writes and fights a plague of mice and bugs in her apartment… I did not understand the mice and the bugs, I have to say. I did not understand their significance, nor the necessity to use up precious sentences describing them and the (banal) attempts to combat them.

Another thing that bothered me is the way that quotes are used in the book without any citation. There are several instances of,’What [famous person] said’: [insert quote].’ However, I cannot find any reference in the book to the source of the quotes, so that, ‘What T.S. Eliot said: When all is said and done the writer may realise that he has wasted his youth and wrecked his health for nothing’, just appears in a paragraph of its own, without any attribution whatsoever. Did Eliot write this somewhere? Did he say words to this effect? If so, where is the evidence that he wrote or said that? Presumably, he did not say those words to the author herself, so where is the proof that those are indeed his words? Who wrote the sentence,’They change their sky, not their soul, who run across the sea.’ There is no citation, so maybe Offill wrote it? No, the Latin version of those words were actually written by Horace in 62BC. There are many such instances and I do not mind admitting that each one annoyed me a LOT. If quotes from other people are included in a published work they need to be attributed to their source. I have been told this at university so many times and it surprises me that someone teaching in universities does not think it necessary to include a list of sources for the words she has ‘borrowed’. How are readers supposed to know which are her own words and which are those of other people? I hesitate to call it plagiarism, because I think it is probably more an attempt to be ‘innovative’, but using someone else’s words without acknowledgement is still using someone else’s words without acknowledgement, no matter the intention underlying the ‘borrowing’.

So, the experience of reading this book was soured for me. I mean, come on, do I have to trawl through all of Wittgenstein to find where he wrote, ‘What you say, you say in a body; you can say nothing outside of this body.’ Is this a direct quote or is she paraphrasing? Throwing lines into your work willy-nilly like this just does us all a tremendous disservice.

Initially, after finishing the book, I gave it three stars on GoodReads. However, after brooding over the above issue for a while and re-reading some passages, I removed two stars. Upon reflection, I decided that the writing is all a bit smoke and mirrors as well; it is a bit too glib and lacking in depth. I think this is the problem with a lot of MFA programme writing – it just has a too-many-cooks feeling to it.

* ‘Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.’ – Gene Fowler.