Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy

Shortly after the economic Golden Age had drawn to a close in the mid ’70s and modernity started to take on what Zygmunt Bauman described as its unstable, liquid form, Paul Auster wrote New York Trilogy — a collection of stories that reflected this changed world, and transformed expectations of what high-concept literature and detective fiction might deliver. Rather than writing about hard-boiled pros investigating some external menace, Auster’s amateur detectives are introspective narrators: the cases under investigation are not crimes but our certitude about life and what we think we know.

Originally released as three separate books in 1985 and 1986, the stories — City of GlassGhosts and The Locked Room — were well received critically, but Auster himself was not so sure about their literary value, likening their popularity to Lou Reed’s hackneyed “Walk on the Wild Side” or Godard’s Breathless, sacred cows not particularly loved by their creators. But despite Auster’s disparagement of his own work, there’s no do doubt it signalled an interesting direction in the evolution of literature

However, there are two things Auster vehemently denies about New York Trilogy. The first is that these are detective stories; in spite of the fact that two of the stories’ protagonists are engaged in paid detective work, and the third is involved in an investigation. The second is that this is postmodern literature. And looking at the form a bit closer, I might be inclined to believe him.

The detective novel is a genre type not typically associated with philosophical and psycho-social investigations. A Victorian-era or mid-century pulp fiction novel tends to operate like a pencil sharpener; the detective shaving away the superfluous elements of the story until the sharp nub of facts are revealed.

By way of contrast, Auster’s amateur detectives telescope out. The closer they try to get to their object of contemplation the more it recedes into the distance or becomes a meaningless blur.

The facts of the matter remain elusive; to a large degree because the protagonist is clouded in mystery, to themselves and the reader; until their motives and sense of self are obliterated. The subject of investigation disappears and suddenly they become the object. The world understood as a log of facts or meaningful patterns fails; language is ambiguous; the “I” is subverted.

For this reason many people consider New York Trilogy to be a piece of postmodern fiction. Yes, theorists like Kuhn, Derrida and Foucault can spring to mind when reading, but it’s better understood as a piece of literary modernism. Gogol, Dostoevsky, Beckett, Breton are maybe better guides for what’s going on here.

It might almost be described as nihilistic if it weren’t so funny. The way Auster’s purposefully earnest and faux naïve writing style interacts with the genre had me in silent convulsions a few times on the train. The fulsome exposition of genre conventions is often hilarious, for example when the protagonist of the second story, Blue (an incognito detective), waxes boyish when speaking to a detective, Black, in a bar:

Cracking cases, living by your wits, seducing women, pumping guys full of lead — God, there’s a lot to be said for it.

Blue is being paid to watch Black, who in turn is watching someone else to no purpose, like an Escher drawing — or images reflected forever and leading to nowhere.

This disorientation continues in the other stories. In City of Glass, author Dan Quinn is drawn into a detective case before mentally unravelling as Auster investigates religio-philosophical concerns (man and the fall) and literary interests (Don QuixoteParadise Lost). The Locked Room, written in first person, follows an unknown narrator as he inhabits the life of a former high-school friend and literary talent who everyone else thinks is dead.

The stories are self-reflexive, but not in an unbearable, Gravity’s Rainbow sort of way — a book whose architecture is designed to irritate. These stories fulfill an admirable and sometimes scarce literary function: the entertainment of the reader.

* originally published in Crikey 3 Aug, 2018

Film Reviews

Sacred Cows: Animal Kingdom

If triangles had a God, they would give him three sides.

— Charles de Montesquieu

As the French philosopher Charles de Montesquieu noted, it’s not easy to conceive of our world in images that aren’t already familiar to us. David Michôd’s 2010 film, Animal Kingdom, is a film inspired by cultural sources that we’re conversant with, but unfortunately these influences — notably a hackneyed “study” of Australian criminals and working-class life — and some weak plotting present significant issues in the film.

Like Rowan Woods’ The Boys, which was based upon the Anita Cobby murder, Animal Kingdom is inspired by real-life events — the Melbourne crime family the Pettingills and the Walsh Street police shooting. But despite the Byzantine and potentially thrilling elements of that case, Animal Kingdom is relatively uncluttered by plot complications, or much in the way of a story engine. Michôd chose instead to make this film a sort of study of a crime family, with particular focus on the character of the film’s antagonist and alpha male eldest brother “Pope” Cody (Ben Mendelsohn).

Michôd is not only the director and scriptwriter of Animal Kingdom, but comes from an acting background. And it shows here. Animal Kingdom is a film that’s somewhat sparse in dialogue and relies to a large degree on atmospherics. The palette is dark and it feels at times that the actors are working overly hard on performance; on pulling off a convincing characterisation of a working-class crim.

The brutalist Australian crime tableau has some very strong contenders for authenticity and engagement, including the fine television miniseries Blue Murder; the stylised but mesmerising Chopper, which managed to convey character and sociopathy alongside a well-structured plot; and perhaps the exemplar of the menacing, realist Australian crime film experience, David Williamson’s The Removalists, which bears the audience into disturbingly close proximity with latent violence against the backdrop of a silent ticking menace.

It’s hard to understand where Animal Kingdom sits in terms of genre because it fails the test of plot-driven tautness required of a crime drama, nor does it provide any particularly illuminating insights into the characters, just some surface effects that signal malfunction.

In terms of originality, it follows many of the conventions of The Boys — a sociopathic older brother, chastened siblings, an enabling mother, absent father, the home as a house of horrors, status and sexual anxiety being at the heart of male violence. Maybe these are just real-life factors surrounding a crime family. But what might have made this film more disqueiting would have been some levity; moments when we might uncomfortably find ourselves identifying with ogres, or discovering that ogres aren’t always so.

But the biggest issue for this film is that the protagonist is docile, a blank space. The school-aged Josh (James Frecheville) or “J” ends up moving into the Cody home with his grandmother and violent uncles after his mother dies of a heroin overdose at the start of the film. His reaction to his mother’s death is cavalier, but not in a spooky or affecting way. Through the movie he fails to drive the story forward in plot or emotion. His coup de grace comes at the film’s conclusion but for 99% of the film he’s a pure spectator, an inert block. Too much is dissipated waiting for the one-time pay-off.

The character at the centre of the film is clearly Pope, but he doesn’t arrive until 17 minutes in. Up to that point it appears that Pope’s friend and accomplice Baz (Joel Edgerton) is the protagonist, but he’s killed minutes later with no sense of comradery having been established. What’s at stake in this film is hard to fathom.

Animal Kingdom is a realist crime drama but with no heart, not even a dark one.

*originally published in Crikey on 29 June, 2018

Film Reviews

Sacred Cows: Bliss – a controversial trailblazer for Australian strangeness

Ray Lawrence’s Bliss certainly caused a stir at its release, but did it ever get the credit it deserves in the canon of Australian film?

A big trap for ambitious filmmakers is to fall in love with a literary novel. Problems of drift and focus can occur when trying to translate the interior reflections of literary fiction into screen language. The 1985 Australian film Bliss certainly was an ambitious project for this reason, owing to the somewhat high-toned literary structure of Peter Carey’s 1981 Miles Franklin Award-winning novel on which the film was based.

For first-time director, Ray Lawrence — who had met Peter Carey in the world of advertising –perhaps those doubts never entered into calculations, and surprisingly, it’s this big risk that makes Bliss notable in the history of Australian film.

Bliss follows the story of advertising executive and raconteur, Harry Joy, who dies of a heart attack one afternoon during a family lunch. After being brought back to life, Harry’s life appears a sort of purgatory. He takes stock of his family’s depravities, has a brief sojourn to a psych hospital, Harry becomes smitten with a bee-crazy hippy named Honey Barbara who makes occasional visits to the city as a sex worker to help sustain her communal life in the rainforest. Harry’s journey involves the repudiation of the base materiality of his world and is a chalk-out to some degree of Carey’s own occupations and proclivities in the late 1970s.

Bliss certainly made an impact on the Australian and international film community when it landed. When it showed at Cannes, 400 of the 2000 strong audience walked out of the screening, eliciting a forthright headline from The Daily Telegraph: “Caning at Cannes: Bliss Bombs”. It was the second largest walk-out behind Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura in 1960.

Owing to its risqué content — notably an allusion to an incestuous sex-for-cocaine exchange between Davey and sister Lucy — the $3.3 million Blisscould not find an Australian distributor, and then had to fight the R-rating it was given by the censor. It never recouped its investment at the box office, collecting just under $2 million.

The critical response, however, was more fulsome. Film critic David Thomson invited Lawrence to screen Bliss at the New York Film Festival, and in Australia the film slowly built momentum, eventually picking up AFI awards for best picture, director and screenplay in 1985. Despite this, it’s never been widely revered by Australian audiences.

But what of the film itself? Bliss begins with a literary monologue on “Vision Splendid” which acts as a prologue to the film. The voiceover is accompanied by a surreal, quasi-apocalyptic visage of a robed woman holding a gold crucifix on a boat, floating across a flooded suburban street. We then cut to Harry who is delivering the monologue as he sits amongst his friends and family at the lunch table, before stepping outside to have a smoke and a heart attack.

To this point, it’s all very straightforward in film terms. We understand the world of the protagonist and have a clear inciting incident. Thereafter the film struggles to create any tautness, owing perhaps to its two-act structure. Like a biopic, at times it tends to move from situation to situation without any great sustaining drive. The character of Honey Barbara, Harry’s commune-living love interest who enters halfway through the film, I must say I found grating and whatever appeal she held in the novel translated terribly on screen.

But this is a film of moments and tone, theme and style; an arthouse film with an Antipodean twist. There are dream-like moments in the film; although they’re not at full-blown Fellini levels, which was presumably too far to reach even for an ambitious young director. But in Australian style, they are reined in. There are also surreal moments that are Lynchian, such as when the lover of Harry’s wife Bettina bursts into a fireball on the sofa.

Its value as a film lies in its status as a trailblazer. It showcased new possibilities in the Australian filmmaking industry, as a corrective to our hitherto obsession with national identity branding, social realism or recreationist drama. Along with films like Monkey Grip it opened up vistas quite urbane and distinct from the usual shibboleths of Australian film, as evidenced in films like Breaker MorantThe Man from Snowy RiverGallipoli, or Phar Lap.

And beyond questions of theme, Lawrence brought subtle stylistic elements to the Australian film palette. One shot sequences, master shots, long takes, slow dollys, natural lighting and almost non-existent dubbing gave the film a different gloss and a less harried aesthetic. The stylistic conventions Lawrence used here helped render a much more affecting form of naturalism too; his 2001 film Lantana being a prime example.

Sure, Lantana is far superior to Bliss as a film, but Bliss deserves a special place in Australian film history for its bold foray into the murky and often unforgiving terrain of the literary film adaptation.

* originally appeared in Crikey on 18 May, 2018


AFL, socialism or death!: why AFL’s socialist policies have been a success

As socialism was teetering on its last legs in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, the AFL was just joining the show.  The introduction of the salary cap in 1985 and reverse order picks and the national draft in 1986 were getting underway as Gorbachev started to introduce Perestroika to the Soviet Union.

Starting at opposite ends, both were heading toward a mixed economy girded by socialist principles. One never quite made it.

Today, only the most rusted-on, cold-war warriors would maintain that the AFL’s socialistic model has failed.  Not only has the competition evened out — with Adrian Anderson recently reminding us that every club has made it to a Preliminary Final since 2000 – indeed, the general level has been raised.

What is strange though are the bed-fellows that the AFL’s socialist model has attracted to its’ side.


When the AFL conceded this year to the AFL Players Association (PA) a limited form of free agency — to take effect after eight years of service — it was the arch individualist and champion of political liberalism in 1990s Victoria, Jeff Kennett, who took up the cudgels and warned of the dangers of opening up the game to player autonomy and money chasing.

“You wait ‘til you see how this bloody plays out,” warned Jeff. “Where (will) that lead? The weaker clubs are going to get weaker.” While the AFL used the cover of free agency being a component of other professional sports, Jeff wasn’t having a bar of it.

“They forget one very important point, all the codes they are quoting are commercial operations, they are owned by individuals, or groups of people or businesses,” opined Kennett.

“AFL football in Australia is a community game, owned by the community, and the AFL’s proposal puts our unique game at risk… of commercial failure by some clubs.”

The weak getting weaker through free trade? Community? We can’t imagine the Iron Lady — who once famously insisted “there is no such thing as society”, just a multitude of free-floating individuals — would have had much time for her erstwhile, Antipodean acolyte’s views.

Then again, Jeff was never a big fan of organized employees either, of which the PA is one. Perhaps it was the idea of the tail wagging the dog, that rankled Jeff’s managerial feathers.  Headmasterly Jeff seemed to have shaded out individualist Jeff is an internal power struggle.

Or maybe we have to take him on his word, that Jeff simply had a road to Damascus conversion, a pragmatic volte-face when thinking of how free agency might actually create an intractable division of super-rich clubs versus the stragglers: a farcical situation that grips the English Premier League, where clubs become ego extensions of uber rich billionaires.

But Jeff surely isn’t Robinson Crusoe in his ambivalence toward the benefits of football socialism.  The ski-bunnies and cognac swilling patricians that crowd out the Melbourne Football Club must be battling their own inner demons.

For a club that for a period refused to accept working-men in their team, the spectre of socialism presumably elicits a grave internal sense of confliction.

The salary cap, the priority picks — the whole concept of positive discrimination and welfare, which now puts Melbourne in an enviable position for a top 4 assault in the next little while — must be instilling the most exquisite, bittersweet stirrings.  The red and the blue are coming together, and must be sending a few purple.  But like the post GFC (that is Global Financial Crisis) bail-outs for incompetent and irresponsible company directors, hand-outs are something you evidently can learn to deal with.

For me, Jeff and the Melbourne Football Club toffee apples get off a little too lightly.  A recanting of free-market voodoo economics and an admission that socialism rocks football and their personal worlds must be a pre-condition of any future assistance.

Just say it Jeff, just say there is such a thing as society, that a helping hand is always better than an iron fist, and a little bit of socialism is no bad thing.  This individual would pay a fair market price to get a ringside seat to that admission.

*originally appearing in Crikey

Book Reviews

Sacred Cows: Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet

There’s nothing quite so virtuous in Australian literature as the naifs and curmudgeons who spring from provincial Australia. Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet — a book centred around the tribulations of two struggling Australian families who co-habit a decrepit house in suburban Perth from 1943-1963 — is a cultural extension of Australia’s institutional love affair with the world outside of Australian cities.

The Australian city — a sus inner-suburban ring of decay and debauchery, once occupied by a combative white and ethnic working-class, and now by “craft beer wankers” — is the0 place where big moral pollution hovers, threatening to contaminate the suburbs beyond its borders.

The characters on whom Winton’s novel claustrophobically focuses are the Pickles, who emanate from the bucolic fishing town of Geraldton, and the Lambs, who arrive in Cloud Street after failing to make a fist of farming. And, while they’re brought into a suburb in Perth, Cloudstreet is no urban novel. The city to the extent it functions in the novel does so as a sort of rapacious backdrop, a sink of doom and diminished values. It’s a place Mark Latham watches suspiciously through his culture binoculars.

Cloudstreet is a communitarian project that focuses on the redemptive power of home-spun homilies, truisms and eternal forgiveness. It’s a paean to the truncated world of timeless institutions; the family, the Bible, the ALP, and cuckolding. It’s also a book of preposterous mythological wetness, and its story potential is boxed in by a checklist of thematic touchstones, archetypes and sugary colloquialisms.

And this is still where we find ourselves in Australian literature today, all too often looking past the mirror of contemporary urban society and through some rustic window, searching for some wistful core that is meant to represent the “real” Australian experience. A cursory glance at prescribed novels for VCE or ESL courses is replete with Australia’s geographic obsession for life outside the city, despite the fact Australia is one of the most urbanised nations on earth.

The motivations are partly bureaucratic, political, and commercial, but clearly there’s a cultural obsession at play. American literature explores the American soul through the salesman — the great loser floating down the American river — we continue to explore, incomprehensibly, the Australian psyche through the bushman.

A book demands drama and Winton delivers it — an eating disorder, a dissolute mother, a gambling father, a tragic accident — but Winton’s thematic peccadilloes mean he doesn’t seem to recognise that the cloistered world of these families is the problem. Stop me if I’m wrong but Cloud Street is the wellspring of every character’s misery in this book. It’s a macabre house of hokey horrors.

But my major issue with the novel is its fey language, its bowdlerised representation of Australian culture, its grasping allusions and overwrought metaphors. Water serves as a constant reference point in the book which is fitting because Cloudstreet is dripping with wet language. Characters are constantly chiacking, skylarking, saying “whacko”, “bonzer”, “flamin”, “cripes”, “buggerizin”, “dinkum” and so on. When we first meet Fish, he’s apparently well thought of about town for lighting paper bags with turds inside: the neighbours — presumably with shit on their heels — proclaim “it’s just Fish Lamb and his fun”. Two pages later Fish has his accident and we’re supposed to be tits deep in pathos. Unfortunately, a lot of the emotional developments don’t feel earned but chalked out.

I’ll admit this is a bit of a user-end problem; I’m a booster for contemporary, urbane and urban-based stories, like those of Christos Tsiolkas, but live in a world where kitsch nostalgia casts a long shadow over the Australian cultural landscape. Where’s the healthy morbidity? Stranded in the moral pestholes of the city no doubt.

*originally appearing in Crikey