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Or should I have said that I wanted to die, not in the sense of wanting to throw myself off that train bridge over there, but more like wanting to be asleep forever because there isn’t any making up for killing women or even watching women get killed, or for that matter killing men and shooting them in the back and shooting them more times than necessary to actually kill them and it was just like trying to kill everything you saw sometimes because it felt like there was acid seeping down into your soul and then your soul is gone and knowing from being taught your whole life that there is no making up for what you’re doing, you’re taught that your whole life, but then even your mother is so happy and proud because you lined up your sight posts and made people crumple and they were not ever getting up ever and yeah they might have been trying to kill you too, so you say, What are you gonna do?, but really it doesn’t matter because by the end you failed at the one good thing you could have done, the one person you promised would live is dead, and you have seen all things die in more manners than you’d like to recall, and for a while the whole thing fucking ravaged your spirit like some deep-down shit, man, that you didn’t even realise you had until only the animals made you sad, the husks of dogs filled with the explosives and old arty shells and everything stinking like metal and burning garbage and you walk around and the smell is deep into you now and you say, How can metal be so on fire? and Where is all this trash coming from? and even back home you’re getting whiffs of it and then that thing you started to notice slipping away is gone and now it’s becoming inverted, like you have bottomed out in your spirit but yet a deeper hole is being dug because everybody is so fucking happy to see you, the murderer, the fucking accomplice, the at-bare-minimum bearer of some fucking responsibility, and everyone wants to slap you on the back and you start wanting to burn the whole goddamn country down, you want to burn every goddamn yellow ribbon in sight, and you can’t explain because it’s just like Fuck you, but then you signed up to go so it’s all your fault, really, because you went on purpose, so you are in the end doubly fucked, so why not just find a spot and curl up and die and let’s make it as painless as possible because you are a coward and, really, cowardice got you into this mess because you wanted to be a man and people made fun of you and pushed you around in the cafeteria and the hallways in high school because you liked to read books and poems sometimes and they’d call you a fag and really deep down you knew you went because you wanted to be a man and that’s never gonna happen now and you’re too much of a coward to be a man and get it over with so why not find a clean, dry place and wait out with it hurting a little as possible and just wait to go to sleep and not wake up and fuck ’em all.
– from “The Yellow Birds,” by Kevin Powers
Ubik by Philip K. Dick (1969) 224 p.
The first and last Philip K. Dick book I read was The Man in the High Castle, an alternate history in which the Axis powers won World War II, and which I disliked for its focus on trivial minutiae (especially jewelry design) rather than the more interesting concept of, say, a world in which the Axis powers won World War II. I think the only reason I bought Ubik is because it was on the list TIME made of the 100 best books of the 20th century, which I used to have blu-tacked to the side of my bookshelf in Perth.
Ubik takes place in the then-future of 1992, when mankind has colonies on the moon and Mars, and various ESP abilities are common in the population. Joe Chip works as a scout for a “prudence organisation” – a company which sells the services of psychics to act as counter-psychics for other businesses who are concerned about privacy, industrial espionage etc. Hired by a wealthy individual for a job on the moon, Chip, his boss Glen Runciter, and about a dozen of their poorly-introduced psychics travel to the moon only to be caught in a trap. The attempted assassination goes poorly, however – only Runciter is killed, and Chip and the others manage to escape the moon with his body. It’s only when they return to Earth that things start to behave strangely; milk is off, cigarettes are stale, and books and newspapers are out of date.
This was probably a fresh and creative novel back in the ‘60s, but for a modern reader the twist can be seen from over the horizon. You probably guessed it just reading my recap above. This is no fault of Dick’s, of course, and there are still quite a few passages which manage to be extremely creepy and instil a sense of dread.
Ubik is a very weird book, and I wouldn’t necessarily say I enjoyed it. But it was better than The Man in the High Castle, and I may read a few of his other novels.
Jack Maggs by Peter Carey (1997) 392 p.
On a drizzly spring evening in 1837, the mysterious figure known as Jack Maggs makes his long-awaited return to London. Where he has been and why he has returned we do not know yet, but the first few pages of Jack Maggs are a delight to read, capturing the sights, sounds and smells of Dickensian London, and Maggs’ disorientation as he returns to a city he does not recognise, lit now with gas light: “The city had become a fairground, and as the coach crossed the river at Westminster the stranger saw that even the bridges of the Thames were illuminated.”
‘Dickensian’ is usually used alongside ‘Victorian’ to describe a particular era of the 19th century, but here it’s even more appropriate: Jack Maggs is a reimagining of Dickens’ novel Great Expectations, with Maggs being a version of the convict character Magwitch. He has escaped from New South Wales to find his beloved Henry Phipps (Pip) and tell him his story – but Phipps may not want to be found.
It’s a common trait, I think, for people to partition history into segments, and also think back on the history of particular places as being self-contained. We know that 18th century Britain gave birth to the convict colonies of Australia, but the idea of them existing at the same time – for them being anything other than a one-way dumping ground – is fuzzy. And so it’s always a pleasure, I find, particularly in Peter Carey’s writing, to see the two worlds collide. Australia sheds its image (in my mind and many other Australians’ minds) as a dull and unimportant backwater and instead becomes a mysterious, exotic place. Most of the novel takes place in the upper-class dining rooms and parlours of Covent Garden and Bloomsbury, and it’s always pleasingly strange when Carey calls Maggs “the Australian” or mentions memories of Maggs’ time there – pelicans and parrots, his reliable old boots from a cobbler in Parramatta, or the dreaded prison at Morton Bay.
I haven’t read any Dickens at all, but it’s a mark of Carey’s brilliance as a writer that he can revisit old stories and classics and reimagine them without alienating an uninformed reader. You don’t need to have read Great Expectations to enjoy Jack Maggs, just as you don’t need to know anything about Ned Kelly to enjoy True History of the Kelly Gang or (I imagine) be familiar with the writings of Tocqueville to enjoy Parrot and Olivier in America.
I didn’t enjoy Bliss, I originally said True History of the Kelly Gang was “the product of a slow year for the Booker Prize” only to have it grow stronger in retrospect, and I was sometimes bored during Oscar and Lucinda but knew upon completing it that it was a great novel. Jack Maggs was a novel I thoroughly enjoyed (though it lacks the overall, retrospective solidity of Carey’s two Booker Prize winners), and I think Carey is fast becoming one of my favourite authors. I’d certainly agree with those who call him Australia’s greatest living writer.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954) 225p.
Lord of the Flies is one of those enduring stories that has entered basic pop culture awareness, and has been spoofed and mimicked and referenced so many times that almost everyone has heard of it, and most would have a basic grasp of the plot (shipwrecked children descend into savagery) even if they don’t know the specifics. For my part, I remember watching the 1990 film version (which makes the kids American, but is otherwise a fairly faithful, albeit mediocre, adaptation) as part of the curriculum in high school. Showing Lord of the Flies to teenagers is, of course, a fairly pointless exercise. I don’t remember it well, but I’m pretty sure the class’ general reaction was something along the lines of the Aryan Brotherhood watching Jesse’s confession tape in Breaking Bad.
So I knew all the basic plot points, and the ending, but it’s still an intense and gripping novel. Golding is an excellent author (a Nobel laureate, which I didn’t know before) and his depictions of the island are one of the strongest points in the book – a heat-soaked scrap of land covered in thick, stringy jungle, shadows under the creepers, butterflies dancing around each other – a beautiful and peaceful place which nonetheless has an eerie sense of menace about it. The gradual shift in power and authority among the children, as they go from following an elected “chief” to falling into line behind a vicious, bullying dictator, is a masterpiece of foreboding and dread, and I especially liked the adrenaline-soaked final chapter as the protagonist desperately flees for his life.
I’d thought before reading it that Lord of the Flies was set during World War II, but apparently it actually takes place during an “evacuation” in the middle of a nuclear war, as we learn from a few intriguing scraps of dialogue. This goes some way towards explaining why the children aren’t rescued for so long, and draws a clear parallel between their own brutality and the wider violence in the adult world, particularly in the novel’s final sentence.
There’s a lot of that, actually – symbolism and juxtaposition and themes about morality and authority, to the point where it almost feels like Golding was writing it with one eye on the English curriculum; I half-expected to see those essay questions that some editions of classic novels have at the back. But it’s hard to fault him for this when the book is, simply put, so great. Lord of the Flies is a dark and brilliant novel that everybody should read.