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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.

Dusklands by J.M. Coetzee (1974) 125 p.

Coetzee’s first novel Dusklands is a fairly short piece of work divided into two halves: an American military psychologist’s report on propaganda techniques being used in the then-ongoing Vietnam War, and a manuscript detailing a journey undertaken by fictional South African pioneer “Jacobus Coetzee” which descends into violence and blood-letting.

Like Coetzee’s future works, Dusklands is grim and depressing; an examination of dominion, colonialism and exploitation. Jacobus’ story is the more overtly oppressive of the two, and I actually think the book would have worked better if the narrative halves were switched; beginning with the violence of 18th century colonial South Africa, followed by the more subtle brutality of psychological warfare by foreign occupiers in Vietnam.

Coetzee’s writing, as always, is beautifully clear. His powerful, distinctive voice is evident even in this early novel. Dusklands contains some wonderful scenes – I particularly liked a description of Jacobus’ hunting party as described by the trail of litter, bullets and bodily fluids they left in their wake – and also some horrible, disturbing scenes. (Oddly enough, for all the violence in the book, nothing made me squirm more than a description of Jacobus attempting to pierce a pus-filled sore on his buttocks.) Dusklands is a strong first novel, and stands up well against the masterpieces that would follow it.

Behemoth by Scott Westerfeld (2010) 485 p.

This is the second book in Scott Westerfeld’s inventive steampunk YA trilogy, in which World War I is reimagined as a swashbuckling adventure in which the Central Powers use enormous robotic fighting machines while the Allies use genetically engineered creatures for war, from the kraken-like beasts of the Royal Navy to the “fighting bears” of the Russian Army. Having escaped Europe aboard the Royal Navy airship Leviathan, heir to the Austrian-Hungarian throne Alek and his girl-disguised-as-a-boy friend Deryn find themselves in Istanbul, melting pot of cultures, a city and a nation on the brink of a revolution and being tugged both ways by the Clankers and the Darwinists to join the war.

On paper these books are good – imaginative, swashbuckling, well-written and deftly plotted. It’s sort of hard for me to objectively judge them. I find my attention wandering, but maybe that’s my fault. I’d never say I’m too old to be reading YA fiction (because nobody is) but maybe I want something more complex than cliche dilemmas (noble boy in commoner’s clothing, tomboy in a man’s world) and sound and fury set pieces (lots of giant robots and crashing destruction). Or maybe I’m unfavourably comparing the trilogy to the masterpiece of YA fiction that is Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series – which is also unfair, since my love of that series probably stems in part from nostalgia, i.e. the fact that I read it when I was actually a Young Adult. (The days, man. Those were the days.)

So what can I say? Never mind my self-indulgent fretting. I can say with some conviction that Behemoth is a worthy successor to Leviathan, that it’s solid YA adventure fiction, and that if I’d read it in high school I would have loved it. Adult readers – your mileage may vary.

My short story Denmark was published the other day at Read Short Fiction, and you can read it online for free.

It may seem like I’ve been very productive lately, but actually all these recent stories were mostly written last year or at the beginning of this year and have been waiting to be accepted or published. I have nothing in my Duotrope queue now. This is it. Zip. Zilch. Nada. It’s all over.

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September 2014