The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (1915) 89 p.

When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous insect.

This is one of the most famous opening lines in literature, and the general concept of The Metamorphosis, which hovers on the borderline of being a short story or a novella, is one of literature’s most famous and fascinating stories. No explanation is given for Gregor Samsa’s terrible fate; he and his family must simply endure it. Almost the entire novella takes place within the Samsa family’s apartment, and over a mere 61 pages Kafka develops an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia, alienation and sheer misery at the unjustness of the world.

This is a book many students are forced to read in high school, probably because of its short length, like The Great Gatsby, with no consideration for the fact that high school students probably aren’t yet equipped to appreciate the themes it explores (again like The Great Gatsby). There are dozens if not hundreds of scholarly interpretations as to what The Metamorphosis is allegorising; mental illness and depression are popular ideas. If I had to throw my hat into the ring I’d suggest it’s about the struggles of adulthood, the sometimes crushing sense of responsibility, the loss of innocence; much is made of the fact that Gregor, in his early twenties, has been working as a salesman to support his recently impoverished family, and following his transformation his inability to work and provide for them leaves him with a terrible sense of guilt. On the very morning of the metamorphosis the head clerk arrives from his office, demanding to know why he has not turned up for work, and it’s almost a scene of black comedy as Gregor attempts to leave the bed and open the door, to reassure his superior that he is fit and able and enthusiastic. The fact that he has turned into a monster is of secondary concern to his job security.

This particular edition has a couple of Kafka’s other short stories at the back, presumably because the publisher wanted to pad the length out. None of them struck me as particularly memorable. The Metamorphosis, on the other hand, deserves its status as a literary classic – an enduring symbol of alienation in human society.

Saga Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan (2012) 160 p.

This is the first collected edition of Brian K. Vaughan’s space opera comic Saga, gathering issues 1-6. The story begins as star-crossed lovers Marko and Alana, both deserters from opposite sides of an interstellar war, are holed up in a garage on a planet called Cleave, with Alana heavily pregnant and about to give birth. Volume One covers the misadventures of the couple and their baby as they attempt to escape the planet, pursued by military forces and bounty hunters.

Saga is heavily inspired by Star Wars; this is space opera as fantasy rather than science fiction, and Vaughan goes a step further than Lucas by openly involving magic. It’s also a heavily weird comic, in a weird why-the-hell-not way rather than the more mythic, deadly serious weirdness of something like Brandom Graham’s Prophet. Within the pages of Saga you’ll find a forest that grows rocket ships, a sort of deadly women/spider centaur, the ghost of a girl who dresses and speaks like a ‘90s SoCal teenager, a seahorse-like alien who acts as a Hollywood-style “agent” for various violent bounty hunters, soldiers who ride pegasuses (pegasi?) for some reason, and sex scenes between robots with TV monitors for heads (characters who are, I hope, inspired by Evan Dahm’s The One Electronic in Rice Boy). Whether or not you like Saga depends largely on how happy you are to embrace this sort of madcap, tongue-in-cheek creativity, and whether you think it strikes the right balance between playfulness and gravitas. Personally I was okay with it, but we’ll see how future volumes go.

The pacing is solid. You can tell that this is the beginning of what Vaughan hopes will be a long story, and Saga is an apt title for a work like this. The story has an omniscient narration by the couple’s infant daughter Hazel, who looks back on their struggles from a future vantage point, Wonder Days style, which I think works well. Opening the story with Hazel’s birth was absolutely the right moment to do so, throwing the reader into a family’s life-or-death struggle against a hostile universe from the exact moment they properly became a family, and I like the idea that Saga could chart a character’s entire life in this crazy universe from birth to death.

Saga is not precisely the kind of epic science fiction story I’d like to read – I’d probably prefer something a little more serious – but I still liked it quite a bit, and I’ll keep reading it. Volume One is a solid opening to what I hope develops further and becomes a classic sprawling space opera.

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathon Lethem (1999) 311 p.

Motherless Brooklyn is the first of Lethem’s more well-known novels, and so I was expecting to really like it, particularly after Girl in Landscape left me cold. It follows native Brooklynite Lionel Essrog, who is recruited in childhood along with a few friends from an orphanage (hence the title) by local small-time crook Frank Minna, to be groomed as what Minna styles “private detectives,” but who are actually just goons, thugs, or whatever you’d like to call them. In the novel’s opening scene, Frank is killed, and Motherless Brooklyn revolves around Lionel’s quest to solve the mystery of his father-figure’s murder.

Lionel also has Tourette’s syndrome (much less well-known when the novel was written), and his investigative interviews are hampered by his constant outbursts of verbal nonsense. There’s probably a postmodern reason for this, something to do with investigations, truth, the way our minds tick, etc. But I was never engaged with the novel enough to care. The plot itself is stock-standard crime novel stuff, complete with Japanese mobsters, Brooklyn thugs and an antagonistic homicide detective – although I did like the idea of telling a story from the point of view of one of a mobster’s anonymous thugs, the guys who always lurk menacingly in the background, whom we never think of having their own lives or stories.

Overall I didn’t particularly enjoy Motherless Brooklyn, and if I had to pick one I’d still say Lethem’s best book is As She Climbed Across The Table, although that wasn’t what I’d describe as a great novel. I’ve read Lethem’s first five novels now, and find him to be a frustrating writer – always on the verge of writing something really great, but never quite getting there. Hopefully his next book, Fortress of Solitude, will finally do it.

Our Story Begins by Tobias Wolff (2008) 379 p.

Tobias Wolff, a writer more known for his short stories than novels, has been floating around on my to-read list ever since I read his short story “Bullet in the Brain” back in my first or second year of university. It’s funny how when it comes to reading I can mentally file something like that away and then not get around to doing it for seven years. Anyway, Our Story Begins is a collection of both old and new stories from across Wolff’s career.

What I liked about “Bullet in the Brain” – which can be read online here – is that it begins as a light-hearted jokey sort of story, with a book critic wearily sighing at the cliched demands of real-life bank robbers, and then – as he gets shot – suddenly turns into a serious and moving story, as his life flashes before his eyes and he remembers the joys of his younger years. Wolff has a talent for mixing the banal and the profound, the humourous and the terribly sad.

I mentioned in my review of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? that I prefer short stories which are either plot-driven, or which have beautiful language. Wolff examines quotidian suburban life as much as Carver does, but writes in a way that’s actually interesting and poetic.

At the end we see the explorers sleeping in a meadow filled with white flowers. The blossoms are wet with dew and stick to their bodies, petals of columbine, clematis, blazing star, baby’s breath, larkspur, iris, rue – covering them completely, turning them white so you cannot tell one from another, man from woman, woman from man. The sun comes up. They stand and raise their arms, like white trees in a land where no one has ever been.

Now, certainly there are no stories in here quite as good as “Bullet in the Brain,” but that’s his most famous one for good reason. Stand-outs in the collection include “Hunters in the Snow,” about a chubby hunter bullied by his friends, “The Rich Brother,” about a wealthy man who rescues his aimless brother from a cult group, “A White Bible,” about the father of a disgraced schoolboy who abducts and threatens his teacher, “Her Dog,” about a widow taking his dead wife’s dog for a walk, and “Nightingale,” about a father driving his son to begin boarding at a military school.

Our Story Begins is an excellent anthology from one of America’s finest living short fiction writers. I typically just read short story collections to study the craft, and for something to read alongside longer novels, but this was a book I enjoyed for itself as well.

The Tax Inspector by Peter Carey (1991) 279 p.

Peter Carey is one of those authors whose personal life seeps into their writing in interesting, identifiable ways. His years working for an advertising agency and then living on a hippie commune in Queensland are very evident in Bliss, and the fact that his parents owned a car dealership in a small town can be seen in Illywhacker, where Herbert Badgery spends much of his time in the 1920s selling Fords to farmers. It’s even more relevant in The Tax Inspector, which revolves around the Catchprice family and their failing auto dealership in the outer suburbs of Sydney in the early 1990s.

It’s tempting to say that Peter Carey is a hit or miss author depending on whether he’s writing historical fiction or not; I loved Illywhacker, Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang, all of which are historical novels, but didn’t like Bliss and was indifferent to The Tax Inspector. But I feel like that must be a coincidence, because there’s something lacking from the writing which has nothing to do with the era in which it’s set. The Tax Inspector rambles along a series of unlikely events and unbelievable characters in the same way that an early Michael Chabon or Jonathon Lethem novel might, and no single passage of prose holds the same sticking power as Ned Kelly and his changeling host in True History of the Kelly Gang, or the Aboriginal tribe discovering and keeping Lucinda’s shards of glass in the aftermath of a massacre in Oscar and Lucinda. It doesn’t feel like it amounts to something worthwhile in the same way that even one of his middling novels like Jack Maggs does.
The Tax Inspector is not a bad novel but not a great one either. If I didn’t know any better – if you gave me his books and asked me to arrange them in chronological order – I’d say The Tax Inspector feels much more like a sophomore novel Carey might have written after Bliss, rather than a follow-up to the literary powerhouses that actually precede it.

David Michod’s debut Animal Kingdom was always going to be a hard act to follow – in my opinion it’s oneof the best crime films of the last decade, and one of the best Australian films ever made. The Rover is a messy failure, but I’m still glad he made it. It takes place in the Outback “ten years after the collapse,” and stars Guy Pearce as a grizzled anti-hero trying to recover his car from a gang of thieves. The story is weak and and ultimately doesn’t add up to much, but the world Michod has created is a compelling one. At first glance it appears to be in the same vein as the original Mad Max – a world teetering on the brink of apocalypse, already bad but about to get worse. Gangs rule the highway and the only law is the barrel of a gun. This is neither original or compelling, unless you consider an alternate interpretation.

Most reviewers assume the “collapse” in the title cards is a global one. But nothing in the film actually confirms this. The overheard Chinese radio advertisements and Chinese-branded train carriages guarded by armed mercenaries imply that everything is going fine in China, which is now a dominant economic and cultural power. An assumption of China’s inevitable domination is par for the course in a lot of apocalyptic scenarios these days (see The Bone Clocks), but the second intriguing detail is that everyone in the film who wants to sell something demands US dollars as payment. This suggests that maybe things aren’t too bad in the US, either, and reflects the real world practice in which many impoverished countries, such as Cambodia and Zimbabwe, use the dollar as a de facto currency.

The developing feeling I got throughout the film was that of Australia as a failed state, the kind of violent and dangerous country you can find all over Africa. A land where once the minerals flowed and everybody was well-off, but where the good times have come to an end, and law and order has broken down. The use of foreign currency, the cultural and financial presence of an overseas superpower, corrupt and underfunded soldiers acting as police – all of these things have real-world equivalents, little post-apocalyptic states which grind away with brutality while the rest of the world is still watching Netflix and reading the Wall Street Journal. The Rover is a far more disturbing film when viewed through this lens, as a film which forces the viewer to conceive of their own country as a failed state.

One of the lingering images of the film comes as Pearce’s character stares through a chain-link fence at an open-cut mine’s enormous superpit; an iconic image for modern Australia, one that Australians associate with wealth and prosperity, but which symbolises in The Rover a land of vanished happiness and, perhaps, of squandered opportunities. To that extent, at least, The Rover is a cautionary tale; a rebuke to complacent Australian viewers who assume our economy is untouchable.

London is a hard place to live. Kristie and I already have our eyes on the door at the end of her two-year visa; financially speaking, Australia has come to represent the land of milk and honey. (It does for many Britons, too.) But it’s important to remember that while Australia has always been a prosperous country, its recent wealth is unprecedented. Young adults of my generation, who graduated high school in the middle of a time of unparalleled wealth and economic growth, have to remember that this is the exception, not the rule. In the next decade or so, as the mining boom begins to wind down, life is going to be a lot more like it was for my father’s generation in the 1970s and 1980s – still comfortable, but harder and more uncertain than the Australia we grew up in. Either that or we will in fact utterly squander the mining boom, end up as a banana republic, and engage in blood-spattered gunfights with Mad Max style bandits for our territory’s remaining petroleum resources.

Prophet: Remission by Brandon Graham (2012) 136 p.

I’m trying to read more comics, but not being a fan of the whole superhero thing means I have to be fairly discerning when trying to collate a to-be-read list from various internet sources and “100 Greatest lists” etc. As it turns out, John Prophet is in fact a superhero, albeit a short-lived one – but you wouldn’t know it from this comic.

Prophet: Remission is the stuff of dazzling space opera, as Prophet awakes from cryosleep tens of thousands of years in the future and roams across an unrecognisable Earth, colonised by bizarre alien species and scattered with the decaying ruins of long-forgotten civilisations. This is heady stuff, the best kind of fantasy and science fiction hybrid, the sort of thing you might read about at Clarkesworld. Prophet: Remission is low on exposition, and as John survives in a city made from the decaying, crashed body of a once-living spaceship, or joins an alien convoy to travel across a harsh desert, I often had little idea what was going on. But this is what makes comics so wonderful: the visual element means I’m more than willing to forgive the confusion, which I probably wouldn’t be in a novel or short story.

This reboot of the original series – which is apparently little-known even among comic fans – is spearheaded by Brandon Graham, creator of the brilliant King City. Different chapters are illustrated by different artists (Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple, Giannis Milongiannis and Graham himself), which sounds confusing, but there’s a good plot-related reason for it which I won’t give away, and which makes it very appropriate. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed Roy’s branch the most, simply because at three chapters (half the book) it’s the longest. What always bothers me about comics and graphic novels is that they’re too short, although obviously it takes a long time to illustrate and colour all those fun images. I just wish I could discover something old that ran for decades and has now been collated in a great big bundle – I’m certainly open to suggestions from people with more experience than me.

The Witch in the Wood by T.H. White (1939) 94 p.

This is a weird one. It’s the second book in TH White’s larger work The Once and Future King, and at one stage it was extensively written and republished. From descriptions online I seem to have read the revised version, which is much shorter, but I’ve seen conflicting information as to which is called The Witch in the Wood and which is called The Queen of Air and Darkness. My ebook version, which is the series as a single work, has it as The Witch in the Wood, anyway.

This is also an odd one because it’s much, much shorter than The Sword in the Stone and also far less interesting and eventful. It’s split between the Scottish island of Orkney, with a plotline involving the witch-queen Morgause, her four children, and the bumbling knight King Pellinore and his companions, and a different section further south involving Arthur, Kay and Merlyn as they fight an uprising. This section was the more interesting; White’s time-travelling Merlyn, with his contemporary language and knowledge of the 20th century, is a wonderful character, and the three of them have interesting discussions about the nature of politics, war, and the justification of force. I thought this was an interesting quote (even though I disagree with it), given that it’s the eve of the Scottish independence referendum:

“I could never stomach these nationalists,” he exclaimed. “The destiny of Man is to unite, not to divide. If you keep on dividing you end up as a collection of monkeys throwing nuts at each other out of separate trees.”

Overall The Witch in the Wood seems to be a bridging novel, between the establishment of the series in The Sword in the Stone, and the later novels, which is presumably where the meat of it all is. I wouldn’t say I’m disliking the series, but so far I haven’t seen anything to support the popular claim that it’s one of the greatest fantasy series of all time, and if it wasn’t for that claim I probably wouldn’t be pushing on with it.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (2014) 595p.

The Bone Clocks marks a return to David Mitchell’s love for a fractured narrative that crosses time and space, as we saw in Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas. It begins on a hot summer’s day in Kent in 1984, as fifteen-year-old Holly Sykes runs away from home after a fight with her mother. Other segments involve different characters, all linked to Holly in some way, and we follow the course of her life’s loves and losses into the present and the near future.

But The Bone Clocks is also a fantasy novel. It involves – not to give too much away, as far too many reviews do – a battle between immortals. These figures remain in the background at first, in strange encounters which are alarming and intriguing. (There’s a particularly memorable scene as character Hugo Lamb is confronted in the Christmas snow outside his house by a homeless man he spoke to earlier that day, and it becomes apparent that the man’s body is being possessed by someone else entirely.) This background war eventually bursts into the main scene in the book’s penultimate chapter, and perhaps goes a little too far in terms of its expository vocabulary. Again, I don’t wish to give too much away, but while I would have been disappointed if this aspect of the book wasn’t explored more deeply, I don’t think I wanted to go that deep, and it was something of a relief when that segment ends and places us in The Bone Clocks’ final section, in a world ravaged by climate change and fuel exhaustion, dominated by a powerful China and slouching towards apocalypse.

The Bone Clocks has predictably been attacked in a number of quarters for committing the cardinal sin of involving genre elements. I can only be puzzled by this. Were these critics reading the same David Mitchell as everyone else over the past fifteen years? Have they not also travelled along the Mongolian steppe as a disembodied spirit in Ghostwritten, lived among the post-apocalyptic Hawaiian tribes in Cloud Atlas, watched a ninja raid on a monastery in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet? Granted, The Bone Clocks does marry the fantasy and science fiction of books like Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas and the realism of books like Number9dream and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet much more strongly than anything he has previously written. I can understand why some readers might find it slightly jarring. But if you expected a straight-laced “literary” novel you have only yourself to blame. Mitchell has built his career on the fanciful and the fantastic.

I suspect part of this snobbishness also comes from his writing style. I love Mitchell’s vivacious prose. He has an effortless way of emphasising the colour and the beauty of life, whether he’s painting a picture of a hot summer’s day in Kent, a teenage girl and boy eating fish and chips on a beach and watching the sunset; a heaving pub in snowy Cambridge before the Christmas break; a Swiss chalet in the Alps; the “nuclear sunshine” of my own hometown of Perth, Australia. A lot of critics refer to his style with phrases like “fireworks” or “pyrotechnics” or “colour and movement,” with a disapproving tone. This attitude, I’m sure, comes from the same wellspring as the idea that genre elements are a disqualification. This is what makes a David Mitchell novel such a useful litmus test for determining whether a critic is somebody who genuinely appreciates fiction for the joy and wonder it can bring, or whether they’re a crusty old bore with a rigid belief that serious fiction isn’t supposed to be colourful, imaginative, or popular; someone who believes that Real Literature is supposed to be austere.

Enough of that, anyway. I enjoyed The Bone Clocks tremendously, as I expected to. It falters in parts and is not quite the brilliant novel Cloud Atlas was, but it is nonetheless the best novel I’ve read so far this year, the finest fantasy novel of the year, and another grand accomplishment from one of the world’s greatest living writers.

Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? by Raymond Carver (1976) 181 p.

Working my way through the canon. Raymond Carver is one of the most pre-eminent writers of the past century, ranking alongside Hemingway, Chekhov and Cheever as a master of the short story. (And also as one of the key figures giving rise to the romanticism of the alcoholic author, along with Hemingway and Kingsley Amis.) Will You Please Be Quiet, Please is his first collection of short fiction, published in 1976.

Carver, again like Hemingway, is famous for having a fairly bare style. I’m not a fan of this. I’m OK with it when Hemingway uses it to describe lion hunting in Africa and skiing in Switzerland, but not so much when Carver uses it to describe unhappy middle-class couples in mid-century America having evasive conversations. I like short stories to have either a vivid, baroque writing style, or an interesting plot, or ideally both. Carver sadly checks neither box. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please has a few stories in it that piqued my interest – specifically “Jerry, Molly and Sam,” about a father driving his kids’ dog out into the middle of nowhere and abandoning it, and “Are These Actual Miles?”, about a man in financial trouble who suspects his wife of infidelity – but for the most part I found them formulaic and somewhat empty; brimming with dull moments of epiphany. I half-suspect whoever wrote the Wikipedia page for this collection is taking the piss; consider this synopsis for the story “How About This:”

A couple comes to look at the woman’s father’s deserted place in the country. Maybe they will move there.

It’s all well and good to cite the Iceberg Theory and have a story where much remains unsaid and you have to read between the lines, but I don’t have much inclination to do so in stories about struggling relationships (and more than half the stories in here are about struggling relationships) with bitter comments made in restaurants and living rooms. I don’t really feel like googling an analysis of a story after I’ve read it. This collection often feels like it comprises of stories made to be dissected in a classroom discussion, rather than to be read, appreciated and enjoyed.

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