Archive by Author

Guns N’Coffee (A.S. Patric)

25 Dec


I work in the middle of the damned city. I start when every other son-of-a-bitch is about to clock-in as well. It doesn’t matter where I go, I can’t get a coffee without waiting for fifteen minutes in a line. No one likes lines, right? I’m not saying I’m different, but lately, these coffee lines seem to be slowly moving us along like a hissing snake, swallowing all our minds in a milky swirl of white poison.

These days there’s less space in front and behind. The breath of those who haven’t eaten or brushed since the day before, spiced up with a cigarette or two just before coming into the crowded café and snuggling up just behind my shoulder, is the kind of stuff that is going to challenge the most equanimous. Me? I only know what equanimous means because it was word of the day on my screensaver yesterday.

If it’s not that, then there are those women with the angry industrial-strength perfume that burns like a corrosive through my nasal passages and leaves a chemical taste on my tongue. I used to think they had lost their sense of smell, but now I know it’s an attempt to get some space in these coffee lines.

None of this is going to explain why I brought a handgun along with me today. I’m just saying, there’s too many people in this damned city, and they’re all starting work around the time I need a coffee.

*

It’s a modest gun. I’m not a closet Dirty Harry wanting someone to make my day. I just want someone to make my coffee.

When I pull it out for the first time the woman in front of me just kind of blinks sleepily and goes back to daydreaming about her strong latte with two sugars.

“Hey,” I say to her. She’s ignoring me so I give her a wave of black steel near her right ear. “Hey,” I say again. “I’m not kidding.”

I fire the gun through the wide doors of the café and out into the street. The shot travels just above the heads of the masses of people pushing along the footpaths. The bullet shatters a pane of thick glass across the road in the fashion store. People get a bit cut up from the crashing glass and a man begins screaming like someone has cut off his toes. The pedestrians keep passing, barely pausing, crushing the glass beneath their shoes as they make their ways to work.

My wrist is limp from the kickback but I transfer the gun to my left hand as though it’s all the better to display the weapon. The double sugar latte woman steps aside. The rest of the folks in the line follow her example.

Bradley the Barrista knows how I like my coffee. His arms move with speed and precision, a perfection of machine engineering translated to human form. It’s as though I press his fast forward button and then the stop button when he finishes my ristretto strength long black with three grips and three sugars.

I pay him and tell him he can keep the change on a ten dollar bill. It’s only polite to show an appreciation for good service.

“How’s your day been Brad?” I ask after my first satisfying sip.

“It’s been pretty busy Mr. Bushnell. This is the first time I’ve had a moment of stillness for two hours.”

“Are you enjoying it Brad?” I ask.

“I am indeed, Mr. Bushnell,” he replies, and adds, “There’s something about a loaded gun that makes one appreciate a moment like this. Thanks for that, Mr. Bushnell.”

“Glad I could do that for you Brad. I’ll now have the pleasure of strolling to work rather than the unwelcome power slalom through those frustrated crowds outside. I’m going to have a lovely amble to work today, Brad.”

As soon as I move away from the counter the line resumes its shape, longer and angrier than ever. A rattler of a line extending outside the front doors, the furious tail shaking with the anger of twenty mobile phones, palm pilots and planners going off simultaneously. It’s a soothing sound when you have discovered the ways of the snake charmer as I have.

*

I come in the next morning with a smile in my stride and a spring in my face. I’m eager to display my Kimber 1911 Compact again. I want to get that snake dancing out of my way.

I don’t have a problem until I arrive at the head of the line and a high-powered exec smiles like his teeth are made out of diamonds and he eats crystal croissants with his coffee. He’s been held in the purgatory of the line for the last fifteen minutes and can’t swallow me moving past everyone with a royal wave of black steel. Maybe he didn’t see my warning yesterday but I can tell he is a natural born hero.

“You are not going to shoot me for a coffee. That’s ridiculous! It’s only a few dollars and a few moments. You can’t kill a human being with such little motivation.”

“What’s your game, Mr. Suit?” I ask him.

“I don’t want to play. I’m just going to get a coffee and go to work.”

“Well, Mr. Suit, I’m not going to go into a lengthy analysis of the situation here. But I will say this — it’s not about a few minutes or a few dollars. It’s about an accretion of time that mummifies my brain and turns my thoughts into sand. More than anything it’s about the brief, black, bitter taste of liberty in those cups. You’re standing in the way of my freedom Mr. Suit. I advise you to step a side and give me a moment with Bradley the Barista.”

“I don’t think so,” Mr. Suit tells me with his diamond grin.

“Mr Suit,” I say and step forward. I raise the gun to the height of his heart. “Reconsider, please,” I say and wiggle the Kimber 1911 Compact. I polished it last night and I know it has a lethal gleam to its black metal.

He looks at it like it’s a water pistol and turns around and asks Bradley for an affogato. It’s more of a desert than it is a coffee. An affogato! It also happens to be the most time consuming thing he could have asked Bradley to make him. I take it as a personal affront. Mr. Suit says he also wants two scoops of ice cream and not just one. I give him two bullets instead and I’m not sorry.

Mr. Suit dies in a very elegant creaseless crumple of the best Italian fabric and design. A macchiato stain of blood spreads across the immaculate collar of his white shirt and drips to the black marble of the café’s floor. Everyone lines up behind me. Bradley’s hands fly to the handles and dials of his Deco D Dosata Gaggia espresso machine.

*

The next morning I walk into the café and feel sure there will be no more need for gun waving and I won’t have to kill anyone to get a coffee. I had a difficult night getting to sleep. For hours I tried to rest my mind and body. Even when I managed to drift away I found myself waking in a fevered state, my sheets wet right through and my pillow soaked. In short, too much coffee. There’s got to be limits even to these dark pleasures I suppose.

The line is long and I can barely get through the doors of the café. I announce myself but no-one moves.

The double sugar latte woman stands before me again and I tell her, “Surely, my mettle has been tested. My resolve can’t still be in question.”

She turns around and a wash of her perfume breaks over me in a dizzying ocean of petals and pollen, bouquets of sweet smelling chemicals rushing down my throat. I take a step back but I stumble and grab a café chair to steady myself.

“You don’t look good,” she tells me.

“I didn’t sleep very well,” I explain. “Frankly, my experiences in the toilet haven’t been too pleasant either. I’m sweating a lot and my stomach feels uneasy. Queasy, I feel very queasy.”

“Coffee’s not for everyone. Perhaps you should drink tea instead. Take a few moments every morning perhaps — treat yourself to a pot of Orange Pekoe leaf. You’ll find it’s a lot more suitable to your nervous system. Our culture has so many problems and diseases that stem from stress and anxiety and there’s nothing that generates and promotes these things as does the addiction to the coffee bean.”

I’m starting to feel disorientated. People are pushing past me to get into the store and others are coming out with steaming take-away cups filled with the delicious beverage that will give me the boost I need to get through the next few hours of my life.

“Shut up, you scandalous hypocrite. You’re here for the same reason I am. You need the coffee bean as well.”

“I drink decaf.”

“Decaf?” I say. “Decaf!”

“Yes, Decaf. Decaf indeed.”

“Don’t talk to me about decaffeinated coffee. It’s like taking a shower in a raincoat.”

“I don’t think so,” she says.

“It’s like eating one of those burgers made out of lentils and cabbage.”

“No, it’s not,” she says, looking at me like I’m someone to be pitied.

“Should I remind you I’m carrying a weapon?” I reach below my arm and remove my Kimber 1911 Compact from a holster I bought for it yesterday afternoon. “You don’t require further demonstrations do you?” I pull it out and hold it before her.

“It’s not a good idea. There’s a room full of coffee drinkers here after all. Every single one of them desperate for that first hit, just like you. There’s no way you can keep a trump card like that in a room full of losing gamblers.”

“What?” I blink at her. “Just move!” I waved the gun with two sharp movements to the right.

She steps aside with a sorrowful expression. I see the line has changed. Everyone in it has removed a firearm from a pocket or handbag and they all have these guns pointed at me. Thirty barrels are trained on my head, chest and stomach. I blink but I can’t really take in the image of all these respectable city workers armed with such deadly weapons.

I look over to Bradley the Barista and ask him, “What’s going on here Brad? Didn’t I invent the game? It’s my ball isn’t it? I get to say how we play. Bradley — tell these people!”

The Barista wipes his hands with a tea towel and a regretful look passes across his face. He says, “I’m sorry Mr. Bushnell. No more coffee for you.”

“What?” I ask the question meekly but I feel my heart kick in my chest at never having another morning jolt from Bradley’s beans. “What?” It comes out as a roar this time. “You don’t get to decide on something like that. I’ve been coming here for years. I’ve been working in this damned city…”

*

My anger had begun to foam like milk in the bottom of a metal jug and I was spitting with my eyes closed when I said ‘damned city.’ My weapon might have been raised but it was more a gesticulation than an intent to harm anyone. Coffee drinkers are jumpy though and their fingers get twitchy.

*

‘Guns N’Coffee’ is the winner of the 2011 Booranga Short Story Prize. It is published in Issue 22 of fourW.

Neal Stephenson’s Reamde reviewed by Robert Goodman

24 Dec

Neal Stephenson, one of the Godfathers of cyberpunk and deliverer of massive, engaging tomes full of historical and philosophical fun returns to the present day, real world (of sorts) with Reamde.

The first thing to say about this book is: don’t be put off by its size or its unpronounceable name. At over 1000 pages it is a daunting prospect and will make you think seriously about buying an e-reader (if you don’t already have one). And, given the novel’s focus on all things technological and interconnected, this may indeed be the most appropriate way to read it. But an e-reader doesn’t build up the muscles quite as much, and the novel makes just as good an argument for throwing technology away and experiencing reality. So you can still lug the real thing around and feel righteous.

Reamde, stripped right back, could best be characterised as a post-9/11 thriller. It has Russian mafia, internet millionaires, famous jihadists and their hangers-on, hackers, MI6, FBI and enough lovingly described exotic locations to fill a couple of James Bond movies.

The Reamde of the title is a computer virus which is used to extort money from the players of a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game called T’Rain, a game that has been designed specifically to help part players from their money in the first place. But while this aspect of the plot allows some skewering of the on-line fantasy gaming fraternity, it is just the conceit from which the rest of the story spirals completely out of control. But the plot, is not Stephenson’s central concern.

Under the hood, Reamde continues Stephenson’s look at the how technology changes the way we live and interact. On the surface, coincidence brings a group of disparate characters together. But it never feels like coincidence, as the connections are all the result of the information age – an age in which everyone finds out about you through Facebook or your Wikipedia entry; an age in which a Chinese teenager, an America special services soldier and a Swiss banker can interact in a virtual gaming world; an age in which GPS always lets you (and other people) know exactly where you are.

At the same time, the novel also examines how its internet-savvy characters fare when their technological safety net is taken away. At one point, one of the main characters finds a kind of bizarre freedom in being kidnapped and forced to operate without a phone or internet connection for the first time in years. Another trio find deep wells of ingenuity while trying a “sail” a powerless fishing trawler.

Stephenson can be heavy on exposition, and there is plenty of it in Reamde’s 1000 pages – about things as diverse as how gold farming Chinese teenagers make money out of virtual games, about how the Russian mafia actually works, or how aircraft flight plans are developed and approved. But its delivery is mostly well integrated with the plot, pitch perfect and peppered with a beautifully sly, tongue-in-cheek observational style that often makes you smile while you absorb the information.

Just a couple of examples:

On the Russian Mafia: “Almost all of what they do is very boring… How they get most of their revenue in Russia was not crazy shit like drug deals or arms trafficking. It was overcharging on cotton from Uzbekistan…”

Or this: “Insurgents did not care for spectacular snow-covered mountains. Snow impeded movement and implied harsh cold, “Spectacular” meant “easy to see from a distance”, and insurgents did not like being seen… Many of the features that tourists liked, insurgents found positively undesirable – most of all, the presence of tourists.”

Stephenson highlights how the interconnectedness of the modern world helps us communicate but in a way in which meaning is often left behind. A Chinese hacker and a Hungarian systems administrator communicate well enough using terminology and concepts that they both learnt playing American video games:

“’Maybe we should go back and get their guns,’ Marlon suggested.

“‘That’s how it would work in a video game,’ Csongor said, which was his way of agreeing.”

But they still don’t really understand each other:

“Csongor remarked on the fact, which to him seemed odd, that in China places were unbelievably crowded and others were totally uninhabited but there was no in between. Marlon thought it curious that anyone should find this remarkable. If a place was going to be inhabited, then it should be used an intensively as possible, and if it was a wild place, all sane persons would avoid it.”

Readme is engaging fun, an often thought provoking read which at its heart, is an old-fashioned pageturner grounded by interesting and endearing characters. It has good guys, it has bad guys, it has cliffhangers, chivalry and heroism. And lots and lots of guns.

Patrick West Interviewed by Laurie Steed

20 Dec

Laurie Steed: You are noted as saying it’s essential a short story “spend time in the foreign territories of the writer before it is midwifed onto the page”. How would you define such territories? What are the roles of time and memory when evaluating accessible life experience versus those moments you’ve yet to fully process?

Patrick West: As a writer I’m happy to receive inspiration and useful insights into creative method from just about anywhere. One book I would recommend to any artist is Creative Evolution by Henri Bergson (1911). Bergson makes a seemingly naïve observation… everything isn’t given all at once. In other words, there is time. But is there really time? Bergson’s point is that our conception of time is such that everything might as well be given all at once. Pre-determining time as a series of static moments, as we tend to do, we always fail to encounter time itself. What is time itself? The existence of time, the fact that everything isn’t given all at once, suggests for Bergson that “Time is invention or it is nothing at all.” The future is always a matter of invention and the past is dead as in “already invented”. On Bergson’s logic artists need to insert themselves into time itself as creation in this sense. To do otherwise is to treat creation as merely the re-creation of the already created, as if, to borrow one of Bergson’s own metaphors, all a painter is doing is returning a jigsaw puzzle to its original state. Great artists tap into the very becoming of time and use it as a resource for true creation. Time, for them, is moment-less not as in without time but as in pure becoming. The test then of originality in all art might be that it produces, out of this flow of becoming, an effect of time never before experienced.

I do not claim to have done anything like this myself! And besides I am only beginning my own adventure with Bergson’s thought as it relates to creative writing. However, I think that I can notice in my writing some indications of what, for Bergson, such an engagement with time itself might consist in—namely, an un-thinking of the usual (time-based) categorisations of our existence. Or an attempt to prise open reality across the grain along which it usually splits. With these ideas in mind I just came across this passage from my short story “Nhill”: “When we made up our minds to go it was in sadness. A single duck’s cry carried to our ears with almost no volume at all, the smallest increment imaginable before deafness begins.” I like the notion of being “in sadness” (rather than simply say “feeling sad”) because it opens a chink in sadness out of which may trickle an unfamiliar sense of time. It makes sadness itself into a form of becoming. Similarly, the last part about “the smallest increment imaginable before deafness begins” suggests an attempt, at least, to occupy the flow of becoming rather than bear down on it too heavily with timeless modes of writing.

To come back to your question, the “foreign territories of the writer” would by this measure be those places where time is able to go to work on memories by drawing on the resources of that most valuable of things for a writer: his or her own body. Our bodies are an ever-present source of creativity for us as writers. In the simple fact that we are living as we write, we may be put in touch with the becoming of time itself. And, I might add, it is probably in the only half-processed (or apparently so) moments of our experience that we encounter creativity of this order.

Laurie Steed: How does the body both individuate and collaborate in regards to creative practice? Is writing meditative fiction, in a sense, a solitary writer seeking connection with the reader through the memory of sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste, and how does the mind shape these senses into a finished story? Equally, how do preconceived notions of what constitutes narrative either help or hinder the transmission of our own “body” memories across to the reader?

Patrick West: There is an oft-quoted line in Spinoza’s Ethics (1677): “the body can do many things by the laws of its nature alone at which the mind is amazed.” What are the limits on the power of the body? Does the body lead the mind or is it led by it?

In your question you mentioned “sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste.” These, of course, are all capacities of the body, but in the special sense that they operate as aspects of the interface between the body, any body whatsoever, and the world. In fact, the world is absolutely necessary to the exercise of these capacities. If there were nothing to see we would all be blind…. If there were nothing to taste we could not taste.

In my view, the only creatively useful way to think of the body is in the multiplicity of its possible relations with the world. Even sexual difference is sculpted out of the relations of bodies to the world as a whole. The world, of course, is made up not just of things but also of other bodies: human, insect, animal… and after all don’t we call just about the largest things we can contemplate (suns, stars, moons, planets) heavenly bodies?

How does all this relate to creative writing? It seems to me it’s a question of how and to what extent the senses may be evoked in a piece of writing. Scriptwriting theory tells us that a rounded character is the bridging of the gap between apparent wants and unconscious needs. Perhaps this works in performance, but in writing, for mine, a rounded character is one with a zone of indiscernibility about them. When a reader starts to feel uncertain about where a character ends and where other characters and the world begin, that’s when that character comes to life. Characters then are bodies through and through, as even the mind is woven into the body at every level of existence.

One might even argue that the mind is subservient to the body. Spinoza asks us to consider the case of sleepwalkers and “those things [they] do at which they are surprised when they are awake.” As an aside, I like this idea that creative writing may be like sleepwalking… allowing the body to create art at which the waking mind will be amazed.

Janet Frame warns of the dangers of trying to rid oneself, as a writer, of the demands of the body. In a recent review of Frame’s short-story collection The Daylight and the Dust (2010) I wrote this of her short story “Solutions”:

–>In Solutions, a writer tells of another writer who, “bedevilled by the demands of his body . . . decided to rid himself of it completely”. Eventually, all that remains of him is his brain, which, mistaken for a prune, is tossed out by his landlady and eaten by three mice for breakfast, “spitting out the hard bits”. In his final state, as pure brain, the writer is left “blind, speechless, deaf”. “No one could have divined his thoughts; he himself could no longer communicate them.” Writers who ignore the contribution the body makes to their writing, Frame seems to be telling us in this collection, might as well be dead.

The absence of body is the absence of the senses (“blind, speechless, deaf”) and the absence of all writing. It is also, as it happens, death.

One reason I like the short-story form so much is because you can do things in it that would perhaps not be tolerated by publishers or readers in a novel. Thus, while I’m not sure how “preconceived notions of what constitutes narrative” could help in “the transmission of our own ‘body’ memories across to the reader” I don’t regard these preconceptions as particularly a hindrance to such transmission either. (Having said this though, I imagine that there are some bodies out there that do conform, somehow, to “preconceived notions of what constitutes narrative”, although for my part I wouldn’t want to be one of those bodies.)

But what of the mind? What is its role? I wonder if mind is what “individuates and collaborates” by seeking connections both within bodies (as in complex characters and complex writers) and across bodies (as in communities of friends, lovers, fellow writers)? For me, creative writing is all about making connections through the senses (in that double sense of using our senses to engage with the world and also allowing the world into ourselves through the portals of the senses… thus becoming in a way what it is that we see, or hear, or taste, or touch, or smell).

Although, like most writers I imagine, I write alone, and although, unlike many writers perhaps, my characters often appear to be “solitary selves”, I am not usually inclined to think of myself or of my characters as isolated or cut-off from the world. There is, if you like, an art to being solitary or alone yet not isolated or cut-off.

In “Nhill” the male protagonist, you could say, is solitary yet not isolated: the sensitivities that connect him to the world and the world to him suggest both other types of non-human connection and, just perhaps, future forms of (better?) human connection. Many of my stories, I suspect, are variations on this pattern.

Sometimes though it goes the other way. In “As of Shadows” the main character is so enmeshed in things—at a certain level—so weighed down by her abject historical situation, that her very lack of a solitary identity makes her isolated in quite a terrible way. She is unable to make connections with others or with the world that would enable her to feel richly alone.

In short, “Nhill” is about being a crowd though being alone, while “As of Shadows” is about being alone in a crowd… only “a counter of countries” in a world impossibly teeming with countries.

Laurie Steed: Which, in a way, leads on to my next question. What are the limitations of fiction in recreating experience, and do said limitations occur primarily at the point of transcription, or do they surface at every stage of literary engagement, from transcription through to reader reception, and perhaps even literary criticism?

Patrick West: Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “On Exactitude in Science” springs to mind. Borges describes an Empire of such overweening ambition that it creates a map with a one-to-one correspondence to the territory that it maps. The point of the story is that such a map is useless because it is a map no more. For it has become the unmapped territory itself.

The limitations of fiction in recreating experience are, like the limitations of any map less large than what it maps, quite possibly enabling limitations. Just as the map Borges describes could never be of practical use so any fiction that somehow managed to describe the totality of experience would be useless as a means for reconciling ourselves to experience.

As it happens, my desk is covered with a writing pad that is also a map of the world. The scale of the map is “1: 64 100 000 AT THE EQUATOR”, whatever that means.

But what is the scale of fiction’s relationship to the world? And do some genres operate on a larger scale than others? Is Naturalism, for example, a closer approximation to the world than say Magic Realism? Or do none of these questions make any sense?

Georges Perec wrote a curious little story, first published in 1979, entitled “The Winter Voyage”, about a writer whose work, also called The Winter Voyage, seems to contain quotations from a multitude of famous authors who wrote after him. Perec terms The Winter Voyage a “premonitory anthology.”

I am telling you about this story because the name of the author of this fantastical book is Hugo Vernier and a “vernier” or in full “vernier scale” is, according to The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, “a short movable scale used on various measuring and positioning instruments, by which fractional readings may be obtained from the divisions of an adjacent graduated scale.” The writings that come after The Winter Voyage might thus be interpreted as fractional readings of the “premonitory anthology.”

Something similar might apply when we talk about fiction and this thing we call experience. What if there is no experience beyond writing, no world beyond words? What if all writing is like a vernier and/or in relationship to a vernier? What if it’s all just a matter of scaling within language?

My short story “The Japanese stripper from the Inland Sea” concludes with an immodest attempt to somehow scale an understanding of experience (within writing, the setting is a bookshop) against the scale of the universe. It could be seen on one level as an attempt to travel to the very edge of fiction in order to ascertain if there is “‘something more’”.

–> On the morning of his departure from Japan, with some time to kill, Mr Simone browsed in the multilingual Narita Airport bookshop. Simultaneously with the first boarding call for his flight coming over the PA, he picked up The Oxford dictionary of philosophy and started flicking through its alphabetical entries. An ancient Greek name caught his eye. He began to read the one-paragraph entry about an inch from the bottom: ‘… is also famous for his proof of the universe’s infinitude’. (A gramophone needle stuck in the last groove of any record, thought Mr Simone, answers this question easily.) ‘The curious man should travel to the edge of the known universe and toss a dart into the darkness. Only two things can happen. It may disappear without trace. It may bounce back. Either way, the boundlessness of the universe is proved. There is always something more.’

Of course there is “‘always something more’”, but it is a “‘something more’” that hangs suspended in the sublime abyss between something and nothing. It is a something that could be nothing or anything!

Sometimes I think the fiction we write is like the dart described in this passage, indifferently bouncing back from or disappearing into the maw of experience, telling us very little about what it encounters. Sometimes I think that writing is a very crude instrument for describing or explaining the world or even, as Perec suggests, that it only ever recreates other writings in scaled-down or scaled-up versions, which are geometries that make little sense in the face of the “‘boundlessness of the universe’”.

Better writing, though, than a boundless map….

Laurie Steed: Indeed. And yet despite such constraints or limitations, the written word, at its best, continues to confound, engage, and evoke strong political, emotional, and intellectual responses from the reader. The Oulipo Movement of the 1960’s (which included Georges Perec, as well as Italo Calvino and Raymond Queneau, among other writers and mathematicians) seemed to see writing as both freedom and limitation, and indeed described potential literature as “the seeking of new structures and patterns to be used by writers in any way they enjoy”. Here, I’m selling their work criminally short: among other things, they played with palindromes, lipograms, and even chess formulas to create new and exciting narratives.

Your work, at least to this particular writer, seems to take the Oulipo spirit as one of its departure points, and if there’s one thing I noted about The World Swimmers, it’s a willingness to showcase rather than summarise, by which I mean you’re willing to see each story as its own point of departure. In West’s world, there is no necessary need for an overarching connectivity between narratives; your stories hint at both solitude, connectivity, and even the malleable nature of time, but all do this in such different ways that there’s a necessary divide between them.

If one, then, was to accurately sum up Patrick West, the writer, what would be the necessary themes, preoccupations, and motivations to be cited? More importantly, how do you see that particular trajectory informing your work that’s still to come?

Patrick West: At the Melbourne launch of The World Swimmers Paul Carter suggested that, though there is considerable geographic range across the stories of my collection, I am not really writing about places themselves so much as about the senses by which we encounter place. Or by which we encounter anything at all for that matter.

This was something I hadn’t really thought of myself until Paul pointed it out, but once he’d said it, it seemed suddenly obvious. I would add that it is not only senses as in the senses of sight, hearing, touch and so on that are in play here. I realize now, on the evidence of my own stories, that I am a writer interested potentially in all of the infinite number of ways by which humans have sensations of the world and of themselves.

To “re-sense” the world and/or yourself, as it were, one has to do what you suggest in your question: “showcase rather than summarise”. For when you “summarise” you take much more for granted than perhaps you should as a writer. Realism as a form tends to summarize in its very foundations. Effectively it says, here is a world that we share, now let’s create a story within that world. The story told may be truly fascinating but it will probably not suggest new ways of sensing the world. It won’t re-create it, make it over. The conventions of language Realism employs won’t allow that.

I like what you say about the Oulipo Movement and writerly experimentation. My writing is sometimes referred to as experimental too (I have a fondness for chiasmus that I couldn’t even begin to explain!). But I hope that what my experimental writing explores is not experimentation for its own sake (something that would be remote from the preoccupations of the everyday world) but experimentation as a way of discovering and perhaps even interrogating other possible ways of sensing.

Experiments of language (which in one very powerful sense at least is all that writers have to work with) may create opportunities for different ways of sensing ourselves and the world of which we are a part. And in these opportunities, to return to an earlier theme of our discussion, there will almost inevitably be new modes of time as an expression of new modes of becoming or being in the world. All of these themes—language experimentation, the sensing of the world, the sensing of oneself, time itself, notions of living—are contained in this paragraph from “The Japanese stripper from the Inland Sea”:

–> Mr Simone crossed the room and placed his palms down flat on the window sill. Distractedly, with just the tips of his fingers, he nudged what he thought of as only some value-less trinkets. Finally raising both hands, he took the smallest of these objects into his grasp, felt its lightness. Replacing it in its original position after several minutes, Mr Simone then turned away. He was never to know of this thing’s aliveness. There is a species of insect that hibernates trustingly in the open the length of the Japanese winter. Now, spring was just around the corner. The thing uncurled itself a fraction on the window sill. Pray mercy, the birds …

The “point of departure” for this story is Mr Simone’s lack of awareness of “this thing’s aliveness”. I hope and imagine that ideas of what it means to be alive—the spectrum from deepest death to fullest life—will continue to preoccupy me in my future writings. And that, perhaps, if I’m lucky, some odd notions of how to sense ourselves and the world differently will slide off the page and take up their place in the world and in our bodies. To make that happen, though, in my view, one needs to engage in concentrated experimentation. One needs to sweep away the “taken for granted” and, almost, to un-learn the lessons that we don’t even know we have learned. For these lessons obscure the new.

* * *

 

What Will Happen Next (Emilie Collyer)

18 Dec

We called the show ‘Maybe we’re never together’ – so what did we expect?

Right at the very end, once the show was over, someone said to me: ‘So it was about searching, wasn’t it? It was about searching for something that is difficult to find.’

And then of course, the week after our season finished I found that great quote, the one by Tadeusz Kantor, where he talks about theatre as a place of memory, which is exactly what we were attempting to create. And he put it so beautifully, and our effort was still a little bit clumsy and inarticulate. But it made me smile, that smile of recognition. Oh yes! That was what we were doing.

But that was after.

In the beginning it was just an email. You asked me if I would like to make a piece of work with you. Later you told me that you were nervous, in case I said no.

The last time we’d worked together was straight out of drama school, in the late 1990s. We had that corporate act, the two cousins: fFanny and fFleur who went to events like the Grand Prix and the Australian Open and Shopping Centres and entertained people.

I’d gone more down the path of writing and you had moved into the world of physical and devised theatre and performance making, although, to be honest, you have always had a way with words. You’ve always been something of a writer.

We didn’t sit down and say: Right, let’s make a show about two women who betray each other.

Our process was painfully, wonderfully, excruciatingly open and experimental. I set you writing tasks. You set me performance tasks. I brought in clothes to muck around with. You got me to do spatial exercises. We had long conversations. We started recording our conversations and collating our emails. You suggested we develop a language of physical gestures.

We’ve spoken about the various creative development phases and how one of them was particularly difficult. It was winter and we were in a cold studio and we sort of hated each other in a stubborn, head butting kind of a way. That was after we had spent hours and hours and days putting together funding applications to try and get money together for the show. So many hours spent describing this show that did not yet exist. We wrote about post dramatic theatre and contemporary practice and the desire to both provoke and engage our audience.

And about a year after deciding to work together and having generated all of that material and with our season confirmed in the Big West Festival for November 2011, we still didn’t really know what the show was about or what would be in it.

We liked the lists. We liked the audio where we talked about the weird things that go on inside our minds, how you think a lot about disasters, such as what would happen if you dropped a baby and smashed its skull. How I think about how hard it is to say the names of people I am in a relationship with.

We had a beautiful image: us in petticoats in that bluestone lane way with the petals all over the ground. We toyed with Samuel Beckett and Miranda July. We wrote about life and death and the awkward bits in between. The Festival was worried because it was hard to market our show. And neither of us are famous or off the television and we don’t even have another interesting job aside from theatre, like being a doctor or a chef.

Is a show about women’s friendship interesting enough? Where we look for love? What we hope and fear life may be? How we can be cruel to each other?

It made people laugh. Some were shocked. They wondered at times, which was my voice and which was yours, which were my stories? When my family came I was nervous. It’s funny how we can get most nervous about showing ourselves to the people we are most close to. Which were your stories?

When it was all over it was easy to pack away. I took home the small chair and all of the underwear. You took the dress to be dry-cleaned. I still have the cardboard man, although his right arm got a little bit bent.

We didn’t talk for a few days and I wondered what you were thinking. Echoes of the show haunt my speech, my gestures. I hear us, on a loop, the music of our voices. The show is becoming a memory, something from the past that will be replayed in our minds eye, part of the dissolve between what is real and what is imagined.

And we don’t know what will happen next.

Patrick West’s The World Swimmers – Reviewed by Robert Goodman

13 Dec

Short stories are their own particular art form. Like poetry, they are often the expression of an idea or a mood or a character. A distillation of a thought into prose. As a result, a collection of short stories can often feel a bit like a rollercoaster. Every few pages everything changes – the tone, the voice, the mood, the narrative style – and can often leave the reader disconcerted, longing for a lengthier narrative and characters with which they can connect more fully.

The World Swimmers, a collection of nine short stories by Patrick West, has this disconcerting nature. The stories are on the whole very short – quick dips in and out of a varied set of lives and situations. Many are thought provoking and disconcerting all on their own, never mind when they start bumping up against each other. And yet, unlike many bodies of collected work, there is a cohesion here, a pattern that emerges as you step back from the individual pieces and consider the whole.

The World Swimmers displays a wide range of styles of narration and voice, many of which border on the poetic and abstract. Most are first person narratives from wildly different narrators (a modern day Australian man, a 19th century Hungarian trainee midwife, a female Japanese research student). Others play with second person but in different styles.

That said, this group of stories is very strongly linked thematically. In almost all of the stories the main character/narrator is an outsider, a person out of their comfort zone or fighting against conformity. In “Greenwood” it is the boy from a “special school for boys” unable to fit in a mainstream class. In “Dear Semmelnazi” the narrator is a would-be midwife in 19th century Hungary shunned after she has to take care of a little boy who himself grows up to buck futilely against the establishment. And in “As of Shadows” the main character starts by telling us that she is “one of those few people born in the country in which I should have been born”. These characters are not alone but they are outsiders, some deliberately so.

West is also interested in boundaries and borders – the area where one thing or place becomes another – and their effect on people. Many of the stories are set on the coast, where the land meets the sea (including a couple of inland seas), or have the coast as a destination. The beautiful “Nhill” charts a walk into Victoria’s little desert “different from the surrounding countryside”. After their walk to the salt lake at the heart of the desert the narrator and his wife are physically “ejected” by the place, reinforcing its otherness. In “Shame” a Japanese researcher is told a story of a rare tree that now only grows within a fence surrounding an American army base. She replies that “this type of tree was now as good as extinct for the Japanese as it is no longer a reality for the Okinawan people; they could neither see it nor touch it.” The main character in “As of Shadows” becomes a border guard but the real border that she wishes to patrol is the border between what people are and what they should be.

There are some breathtaking stories in The World Swimmers and some bewildering ones. “U”, for example, is a palindromic story, set by the shore, its ascending and descending repetition work like a tidal pull. Not all of the stories worked and some defied me, but there is a poetry here and some enduring imagery that make even these worth the journey. The stories that do work in this collection are transformative, changing the way you look at or feel about the world, though not always in a way that is immediately obvious.

The Verity La Forum

8 Dec

Forum Question:

A New Archaeology?

Alec Patric: When the novel first emerged it was considered trivial entertainment. The literary productions most honoured were to be found in verse and sometimes on stage. As those media waned in their traditional states, the art of song writing matured and attracted many of the talents driven by poetry. Cinema rose into a global phenomenon—becoming the major cultural agent for all Western cultures.

We are presently watching the book dwindle into the doddering ineffectuality of old age as print media prepares for retirement. A new medium is already emerging. It is often considered trivial entertainment, just as the novel was in its youth. Will an e-form emerge in the coming generation as the new literary standard? Is the blog already the key artefact for a new archaeology?

Ali Alizadeh: I really don’t think this is the end of the printed book as we know it. Many publishers tell me this is a boom time for print publishing, actually. But I find the idea of blogs and so on being part of a ‘new archaeology’ quite interesting. Are you suggesting that the whole thing is about to collapse like a doomed ancient civilisation, fit for future archaeological digs? Or perhaps i’m reading too much into this …

Alec Patric: The idea of archeology is that we use remnants of a vanished culture to reconstruct their society. With the blogging world we’re dealing with remenants that are constantly vanishing so that even after a few years we feel like sections of our culture have been lost. If we look through the blogs of the literary community in Australia we find a class of people relegated to almost total insignificance by the dominant culture. The comments back and forth between bloggers, the posts, the links, etc, become a document for a section of the population that is being beaten into the dust.

Ali Alizadeh: I must say I very much like hearing the word ‘class’ in this context. It is often assumed all writers are in ‘it’ together, that they have common interests and so on (especially in the postmodernist, post-political, post-ideological discourses apropos of the internet) most of which I find insincere and silly. So I agree with you that there exists a ruling class in the literary world, and that anything that might offer a way of resisting their hegemony is a good thing. But I’m not sure if online phenomena like blogging are, as you’ve put it, ‘being beaten into dust’ because they’re in the way of the ruling class or because they’re too fragmented and ‘dusty’ (that is, an effect of hegemony) to begin with. I think the digital scene does have the potential to challenge the inequalities that characterise the print publishing milieu (the wikileaks ‘event’, seen as a purely journalistic phenomena, could be an example; although it too was swiftly co-opted by print newspapers) but I feel this potential is yet to be realised.

Alec Patric: If writers are being pushed further and further into cultural insignificance, then a street brawl among those that are devoted to literature is not what I’m hoping to see. The ‘ruling class’ of the literary world are themselves servants to the dominant culture, and there’s little point in trying to subvert their ‘authority’. There is a process of democratisation going on within our industry, in small press publishing and e-publishing, but the fight I’m more interested in, is for cultural relevancy. A blog is part of a forum, and voices that in the past were provided no opportunity to be heard, can now at least find places to speak. So much so, that there’s a fear of deluge, as though the masses will start speaking and destroy all literary values. It’s a panic that the barbarians are not at our gates but thrive within the city itself. There are no gatekeepers to a blog and it’s only commerce is with others who want to hear a blogger’s voice. The authority of the voice, the value of its message, is what distinguishes it. That’s all that a writer can ask for. So a blog can indeed become a new literary standard, judged purely on its merit. If it has none, it will simply be ignored. The goal of a blog can be to subvert dominant groups who seem to govern taste and distribute the small-change they have been granted by the dominant culture. I think it’s more important to look for an engagement with a readership. To reach beyond the Intelligentsia and reclaim the audience.

Ali Alizadeh: Well, I don’t think writers are being pushed into cultural insignificance – some are, but some aren’t. I’ve been to a number of literary festivals recently, and from what I’ve seen (lavish sums of many being spent to accommodate more important guests in five star hotels; very long queues of fans waiting to get their books signed; five figure advances for new books by commercially successful authors; literary awards each worth tens of thousands of dollars; major grants, commissions and residencies; and so on) the ruling class of the literary world are, for better or for worse, nowhere near extinction. If they are, as you say, servants to the dominant culture, then they are getting rewarded particularly well for their servitude. (I could quote some frankly mind-bugling figures here.) I know mainstream/popular media doesn’t pay much attention to contemporary Australian writers, but many contemporary Australian writers are doing very well without any need to plug their books on Hey Hey It’s Saturday. So I do think subverting their authority is crucial – even if you disagree with me that it’s something worth subverting in and of itself – if only because the Intelligentsia dominates and controls the means by which one can reach an audience. My earlier experiences as a self-published writer (particularly seeing my book removed from the shelves of a so-called independent bookstore to make room for books by commercially published authors) have made me aware of not only the injustices in the publishing/bookselling world, but also how these injustices result in some authors being deprived of, precisely, an opportunity to engage with a readership. Does the internet help us get around that? I.e. can class struggle – the unavoidable antagonism between unpaid and overpaid writers – disappear in the cyberspace? I’m not sure. I really wish the barbarians were at the gate.

 

Vox: Sunil Badami

Vox: Jessica Au

Vox: Laurie Steed

Vox: SJ Finn

Vox: Nigel Featherstone

Vox: Les Zigomanis

Vox: Louise Swinn

Vox: Ben Carmichael

Vox: Pierz Newton-John

Vox: Ashley Capes

Vox: Ryan O’Neill

Vox: Alice Gage

Vox: Sam Twyford-Moore

Vox: S. Van Berkel

Vox: Emmett Stinson

Vox: Maria Takolander

Vox: Peter Farrar

Vox: Jeff Sparrow

Vox: Shane Jesse Christmass

Vox: Emma Dallas

Vox: Kirk Marshall

Vox: Sam van Zweden

Vox: Ivy Alvarez

Vox: Eric Dando

Vox: Gabrielle Bryden

Vox: Demet Divaroren

Vox: Mark William Jackson

Vox: Bel Woods

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The Verity La Forum was conducted by Alec Patric

from July 2011 to December 2011

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Vox: Bel Woods

8 Dec

I think blogs remind us of a time when life was more connected. In some ways they’re a new translation of something that has little to do with writing, and more to do with society trying to remember how to communicate in conventional ways. You know, when you bumped into your neighbour at the letterbox and just chatted.

Or when you were read books chapter by chapter at school, the teacher explaining the context of the novel, as you gazed out the window and let it all soak in; when families discussed a news story at the breakfast table, or your parents gossiped, where names were rarely mentioned though everyone knew precisely who was being spoken about; or when your uncle took you out to the yard and gave you gardening tips as you tumbled the earth with your fingers.

Blogs are particularly empowering for writers. They can showcase their flash fiction, or poetry, long before their work hits the shelves. As a new writer, I think it’s more likely we’ll look back at all our postings and cringe.

It concerns me though, this new archaeology (if it is, in fact, a new archaeology). As I watched Pixar’s Wall-E with my son the other week, I started to think about where we are headed if we become linked through technology alone. What if we forget the old ways of communicating? Will this then be a world of internal monologues not wholly shared? Stories created from lives not lived? If so, then it won’t just be the book dwindling, but story itself.

I was discussing this with fellow writer, Les Zig, and he pointed out that for the blog to evolve to that point, where they’re created from lives not lived, it essentially becomes fiction anyhow. To quote him: “It’s actually bizarre if you think about it. Like the snake swallowing its own tail”.

Perhaps it will come down to effort. For many, the novel has always required too much work. It’s an effort to pick it up, it requires effort to read, and it’s an effort to discuss, more so than a simple blog post. Maybe we have only enough energy to keep a narrative if we cut off at the 300 word mark.

Despite this, I firmly believe the book will live on. The novel as a book especially. I’d also advise you not to believe everything you hear.

Vox: Mark William Jackson

8 Dec

I’ve been assisting with the selection of stories for an e-book that will be associated with an established literary journal. All pieces submitted to the print journal are being considered for the e-book, if accepted, writers will be asked if they are happy to be published electronically, they will be paid the same amount as the print edition.

Surveys have shown that it is older writers that are more acceptable of electronic publication. I don’t know if this is because they have already been published in print, probably to a limited readership and are excited by the wider distribution potential of electronic media. Younger writers might either be enamoured by the perceived credibility of print, or feel that they could vanity publish electronically and avoid the submission path.

Vanity publishing electronically releases all manner of worms from various cans. Apparently, a new blog is created every two seconds, obviously these are not all literature but it does make for a mammoth pile of crap to sift through in order to find the ‘good’ stuff. Most noticeable in the blogosphere is the omission of editors, that is; copy editors, proof readers, selection based on aesthetic guidelines etc.

With the works I’ve been reading, the e-book will be associated with an established and respected literary journal and will go through the same editing process as the print version in the interest of ‘brand’ protection.

This potential free-for-all vanity publishing threat leads me to Laurie Steed’s comments in this forum. After print dies (which I don’t believe it will entirely and will explain later) who will control distribution of e-works. An hegemony is forming, a three-headed Cerberus, Google-Apple-Amazon. Digital rights management (DRM) considerations threaten to bottleneck an otherwise infinite distribution channel, honest consumers could be punished for buying a book through legal means rather than choosing the bit-torrent, pirate channel and taking a non-restricted “free” version.

With a rigorous editing process, electronic media does offer amazing possibilities. Apart from the technological advantages – such as cross-media creations and active links within text – the distribution potential could reinvigorate the market. Not only the fact that a book could be released simultaneously around the work, but simple considerations like shelf space. Traditionally, unless you were Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, or, dare I say, Stephenie Meyer, the chance of a book store stocking your 200,000 word, wide spined book was next to nothing. It’s all about real estate, and shelf space is very valuable, shelf life for a new release is three to six months, then it’s back catalogue or the dreaded bargain basket. E-books remove the restriction on size. This works equally for smaller publications. As Nigel Featherstone wrote in this Forum, by quoting his interview with Mandy Brett, the cost considerations of print will no longer be an issue. This is great news for poets and short story / novella writers, and in turn, great news for readers who haven’t had this purchasing option for a while, the shorter form being ideal for the pace of today’s world.

Print will not die. This morning I listened to a podcast of the Book Show where the move of comics from 22 page single editions, to multi edition graphic novels, to electronic media was discussed. One panel member recalled that radio did not kill newspapers, television did not kill radio and the internet / e-book will not kill print. Print will find a niche market, to a large extent it has already – in a survey conducted by the Jenkins Group (US), 70% of adults in the US have not stepped into a book store in the last five years. Ironically this same survey found that 80% of the US population want to write a book (WTF?). The Book Show panel members spoke of the print future with regards to the e-distribution of comic books. A question at the end of some electronic graphic novels asks “like what you read? Buy the hard copy.” Click a link and you’re taken to hard copy distributors, both online and shop front.

There will always be people who like to be surrounded by books, floor to ceiling bookshelves, walls “wallpapered with savages”, words threatening to leap and choke you when you least expect it. The new media merely offers a cheap, but infinite, distribution channel which will ultimately lead to a wider readership.

The e-form is the future and will hopefully revitalise an industry that is otherwise in demise.

 

Vox: Demet Divaroren

7 Dec

Broadmeadows shopping centre was packed with bargain hunters the day Barbie moved in. Prams and trolleys dodged human traffic and people rushed past oblivious to the twisting pain in my guts. In the left hand corner of a brightly lit shop plastic limbs cluttered the space where Angus and Robertson’s top 100 books used to be. Barbie and friends now lived where Jean M Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series had lured me into a fictional world and inspired me to write. A sense of loss tailgated me for the rest of the day like a shadow.

Things were changing.

Younger cousins were balancing alternate realities, their bodies firmly planted in the lounge room, plugged into IPods. “Hi Demi,” they’d yell when the colourful devices were miraculously absent. “We’ve missed you!” Hugs would last until other devices beeped. “The pie’s ready!” they’d say, flying out of my arms and into artificial restaurants. Just as the tamagotchi was upgraded with sophisticated games and gadgets, it’s naive to think the novel wouldn’t face a similar challenge. Yes it’s the age of technology but some things are irreplaceable. Curling up with a good book, coffee in hand, staining it in your haste to get to the next page. That surge of excitement when you enter a bookshop or library where worlds and possibilities surround your physical space.

Reading is an intimate act that requires physical, emotional and mental connection. I choose to have no technological barriers in my experience and I’m not the only one. There’s naturally going to be a digital readership but that doesn’t necessarily mean that paper books will be forced into retirement. The arrival of an e-form offers readers wider access to books. As a writer, I couldn’t ask for a better agreement. As a reader I choose stained pages and curled ends.

 

Vox: Gabrielle Bryden

7 Dec

Future generations will grow up reading from screens. This is what they will know. This is what they will love.

There will be a great choice of screens and content and they will be savvy navigators of this e-world. They will consider the world of paper books and newspapers to be quaint and slightly amusing. They will have looks of bemusement on their faces when their teachers tell them that people used to read predominately from printed materials.

They will have access to a variety of screens to read from (tablets, e-readers, mobile phones and other types of screens not invented yet). They may switch from screen to screen depending on whether they are travelling, at home, at work, in bed. Young people with good eyesight may be happy with the use of one screen.

People who can’t afford screens will be able to access public screens, big and small. Libraries will pay for the screens and the content; and the public will be able to loan these products. The general public will pay for the libraries if this is considered of public benefit (as it is today).

Everyone will be able to access novels, novellas, poetry, dictionaries, reference books, magazines, journals and other collections of words and pictures. The same screens will also be able to access social media (twitter, facebook etc.,) which in turn links to an endless variety of written content such as breaking news and celebrity gossip.

Future software and screen technologies will integrate the inflow of data in a seamless manner, ensuring the effortless exchange of information from screen to screen.

People will know about print media, but rarely read from a hard copy. Print copies will be available for some written and pictorial matter but at limited print runs, high cost and only for select ‘special’ materials such as art and photography books, and best sellers. There will be some small presses and independent publishers who persist with printing not for profit ezines and chapbooks of poetry.

Future generations will have never seen a newspaper. Breaking news will be accessed from twitter and facebook feeds. People will pay for the download of whole newspapers and magazines onto their tablets. Many people will get their news for free but quality will take a nosedive.

People will read updated blogs on a regular basis, as they used to read print magazines and newsletters, and will tailor their blog feed to their lifestyle choices. Mothers, fashionistas, foodies, home renovators, gardeners, lovers of stories, poetry and art, travellers, political groupies, environmentalists – there will be blogs for everyone.

Longer collections of words (novels, children’s books, collections of short stories or poetry, reference books etc.,) will be read from a screen. Many will be interactive, with videos, music, and links to further information. People of the future, with short attention spans, will demand an interactive experience (to match the entertainment level of games consoles, 3-d movies, videos and fast paced television shows).

Interested people will visit museums and select libraries to see collections of paper books. The elderly proprietors will tell anyone who is listening that paper books had marvellous hand held qualities and dusty smells that made people swoon.