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Outside the Embassy.

February 27, 2014

Once again, I’m getting Bibliostrumpet’s monthly book review online by the skin of my teeth. In my defence, February has been a short but busy month: I turned 30, enjoyed a week’s holiday, and finally received the magic bit of paper that officially qualifies me as a doctor (the literary kind as opposed to the scalpel-wielding kind). So, in the midst of all this, I haven’t done much reading, unless you count Lonely Planet Tasmania (which I don’t, because it wasn’t that helpful). Yesterday, in a flurry of reading panic, I cheated and snatched up the shortest, quickest read I could find, which happened to be conveniently located on my beloved’s bedside table: Zadie Smith’s The Embassy of Cambodia, a 69-page story originally published in The New Yorker in 2013 and released as a dainty little hardback volume later that same year.

Although I’m a huge Smith fan, I don’t think she’s ever quite achieved the same level of greatness she displayed in her debut novel, White Teeth, which remains one of the few books to have prompted my eyes to well with actual tears. (I generally save my tears for anxiety-inducing situations such as lost keys rather than emotionally charged stories; I am cold and dead inside.) While White Teeth was a 500-page epic spanning several decades in the lives of three families with different ethnic backgrounds, Embassy appears to be a work of much smaller scale. But it’s set in familiar Smith territory—Willesden, in North-West London (also the setting of Smith’s last novel, NW)—and tackles her oft-favoured themes of identity, belonging, and assimilation.

These are big fish for such a small book, but Smith isn’t one to waste words; in lucid, elegant prose, she gives us a wry but poignant glimpse into the life of Fatou, an Ivory Coast housekeeper who lives and works for a wealthy Brondesbury Park family, the Derawals. 

Every Monday on her way to the Derawals’ health club for a swim (visits that are technically not permitted—Fatou is not a club member, but helps herself to the stash of guest passes left in the drawer of the Derawals’ front hall), Fatou stands outside the unassuming and mysterious Embassy of Cambodia and wonders at the people who are buzzed through its gate, none of whom she thinks are ‘visibly Cambodian’. On Sundays, Fatou enjoys coffee and cake with her Catholic friend Andrew, a Nigerian security guard, whose knowledge of world history and politics she finds both illuminating and intimidating. The rest of Fatou’s time is spent picking up after her unpleasant employers, although after reading an article about a Sudanese slave ‘living in a rich man’s house in London’, Fatou matter-of-factly decides that despite the poor treatment she receives at the Derawals’ hands, she is definitely not their slave.

Embassy is Fatou’s story, but, interestingly, she is not its teller; instead, the book is narrated by what seems at first to be a chorus of local residents (‘we, the people of Willesden’). As they look around their suburb and wonder, also, about the Cambodian Embassy, which ‘is a surprise, to us all’ because ‘Nobody could have expected it, or be expecting it’, so we read about Fatou’s rather lonely existence and wonder about her stoicism, her desire, and her future.

There’s a beautiful quality to Smith’s writing: it’s thoughtful, measured, and assured, lacking the slightly pretentious experimental edge that crept into NW. That we get such a defined sense of Fatou and Andrew in so few pages is testament to how finely Smith can render characters and evoke their place in a particular context—even one as layered with social and cultural tensions and aspirations as modern multicultural London. 

Yes, it feels as though there should be more to The Embassy of Cambodia; you’re left with a feeling that havers partway between satisfaction and wanting. Maybe that’s what Smith intended: as readers, we become a little like Fatou as she stands at the bus stop across the road from the Embassy, curious about who goes in and out and who plays the apparently constant games of badminton (‘pock, smash. Pock, smash.’) that carry on behind its high wall. Can we—and should we—ever know the full story? ‘Surely’, the people of Willesden ponder, ‘there is something to be said for drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle. But how large should this circle be?’

Records and old romance.

January 29, 2014

At the end of last year, amid (probably justified) complaining that we’d read too many depressing novels lately, someone in my book club suggested that we begin 2014 with some much-deserved mirth and read Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity (1995), which she’d heard was an entertaining read and is now immortalised in orange as a Popular Penguin.

Hornby’s fiction has variously featured obsessive music fans, obsessive football fans, and semi-neurotic characters grappling with contemporary morals and relationships. He’s probably best known for those of his books that have gone on to become successful films: Fever Pitch, About a Boy, and, of course, High Fidelity, which I mostly recall as being two hours of John Cusack whining about women punctuated by brief intervals of Jack Black in one of his rare ‘look, I’m actually acting’ roles. I can’t say I enjoyed the experience, but I liked About a Boy (the book and the film), so I was prepared to give Hornby’s original material a go.

High Fidelity turned out to be both a curious and a curiously rewarding experience. Reading it was kind of like what I imagine being in a relationship with the novel’s protagonist would be like, only probably, on reflection, a lot less irritating. To begin with, I thought the book was funny and clever and different, then I began to tire of it and find it less funny and more frustrating, then I briefly hated it and wondered what I’d even seen in it, and finally, after a brief break(up), it partially redeemed itself and held my attention (and sympathy…almost) until the end.

While it’s ostensibly about a 35-year-old record shop owner and music obsessive named Rob who feels the need to rake over his previous relationships when his girlfriend, Laura, suddenly leaves him, High Fidelity is also about a stage of life many of us go through at some point: that rather terrifying moment of prolonged self-assessment when something or someone prompts you to look at your existence and wonder how you got to this precise point within it and how, if at all, that point tallies with the grand and probably totally unrealistic ideas you had when you were younger. (Luckily, I’ve so readily bought into the Starving Aspiring Writer myth that the reality of never having any money and eating a lot of baked beans still seems worth it For the Sake of My Art.)

Rob is a self-confessed ordinary bloke whose ‘genius, if you can call it that, is to combine a whole load of averageness into one compact frame’, believes that anyone who owns less than 500 records can’t possibly be a serious person, and fantasises that ‘someone beautiful and tearful will insist on “You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me” by Gladys Knight’ be played at his funeral, even though he ‘can’t imagine who that beautiful, tearful person would be’.

It certainly wouldn’t be any of Rob’s exes, whom he revisits in the wake of Laura’s departure in a fit of self-indulgent ‘where are they now in relation to me’ curiosity. This voluntary, up-close-and-personal return to one’s romantic roots is an interesting concept, and one to which many of us can surely relate—how often have you wondered about how different your life would have been (better, maybe; perhaps just more interesting) if things had worked out with that particular someone?

Getting in touch with old flames can also be a poignant measure of change: you might think you’re fundamentally the same person you were at 19, but coming face to face with the person you loved at that age could well demonstrate otherwise. Of course, they’ve probably changed too; but for Rob, who’s about as self-centred as it’s possible to be, it simply exacerbates his sense of personal and professional failure. Looking at a photo of himself as a kid, he reflects that ‘if he could be here now’ to witness the state of his adulthood, his childhood self would ‘run straight out of the door and back to 1967 as fast as his little legs would carry him’.

But Rob’s soul-searching eventually serves a purpose—it turns out to be a necessary part of becoming, if not entirely self-aware and mature, at least more so than he is at the novel’s start. He isn’t a terribly likeable figure, but he gets away with it because he’s so frank, so openly neurotic and pathetic and willing to share his every thought—however unflattering (‘it’s brilliant, being depressed; you can behave as badly as you like’)—with the reader. Hornby has an appealing conversational style and dry wit that makes Rob surprisingly bearable (that said, you only have to tolerate him for 245 pages).

More than that, High Fidelity is a book that illuminates (with admirable levity) a common human experience: that uncomfortable periodic questioning of our identity and our achievements, romantic and otherwise, and whether we’ve made of ourselves what we thought we would when we were kids and the world seemed as though it was at our feet. That world is what you make of it; and Rob’s version turns out to be a thoroughly entertaining alternative to watching John Cusack have a mid-life crisis.

A learned miseducation.

December 29, 2013

Several weeks ago, in between serving angry Christmas shoppers and trying to jam more books onto our already packed shelves, a couple of my bookselling colleagues and I tried to come up with YA novels featuring strong and positive gay protagonists. It was surprisingly (and depressingly) difficult—off the top of our heads, the only one we could come up with was James Sveck in Peter Cameron’s excellent 2008 novel, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You

More recently, YA books featuring gay teenagers have become more prevalent—I’ve heard great things about David Levithan’s Two Boys Kissing, released earlier this year, and AS King’s Ask the Passengers was warmly received back in 2012. Still, for any gay or unsure teenagers seeking a fictional world that reflects their own experience or can perhaps offer answers and support that are proving elusive in real life, there doesn’t seem to be a huge selection of titles from which to choose. There also remains, sadly, a stigma attached to this type of literature—apparently, some school libraries here in Australia aren’t carrying Two Boys Kissing, and we even had a bookshop customer ask a bookseller last week if ‘you have to be gay to read that book’. This prompted another bookseller to ponder whether you had to be a wombat to read The Muddleheaded Wombat; answers on a postcard. A gay postcard.

No matter which way you swing, or your feelings about wombats, there’s plenty to enjoy in Emily M Danforth’s wonderful and important debut novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which portrays a teenage girl’s discovery of her sexuality with wit, honesty, and empathy. It’s also set in the early 90s; regardless of the fact that the 90s were probably the best decade of all time, it’s confronting to realise how different things were for the gay community just 20 years ago, and the novel’s time and place (Miles City, Montana) give its protagonist’s situation a poignant edge. Miles City (or Miles Shitty, as it’s known by some of its teenage residents) is a small town best known for its annual Bucking Horse Sale—four days of ‘street dances, tractor pulls, and authentic cowboy shenanigans’—rather than the progressive attitudes of its residents.

When the book opens, Cameron Post is 12 years old, and she’s just kissed her best friend Irene. Hours later, both of Cam’s parents are killed in a car crash, and she’s convinced that her actions have somehow caused their death. Two years later, she’s living with her grandma and well-meaning but conservative Aunt Ruth, and it’s pretty clear to Cam that she prefers girls. Things start to get complicated when she befriends the beautiful Coley Taylor, a cowgirl who ‘drove the forty-some miles into town from her family’s ranch every morning’ and ‘picked the table dead in the front of the room’ in biology class so she could ask ‘intelligent questions about dissection methods’; a smitten Cam spends the semester dreamily watching the highlights fade from Coley’s hair.

The two girls quickly become good friends, but things take an awkward and painful turn when Cam’s feelings grow increasingly hard to hide. When the inevitable happens and her Aunt Ruth discovers the truth about her niece’s sexuality, she takes the drastic step of sending Cam to God’s Promise, an ominous-sounding camp that aims to ‘cure’ gay teenagers (Danforth’s plot was apparently influenced by a real case).

While the idea of attending a camp designed to ‘fix’ your sexuality might sound nightmarishly Orwellian, Cam’s narration is so finely nuanced, negotiating that complex terrain between adolescent anguish and droll observation, that her experience is as entertaining as it is horrifying. The camp leaders’ efforts to ‘help’ their charges include making them fill out iceberg diagrams (the tip of the iceberg represents ‘Same Sex Attraction Disorder’; what lurk beneath are all the experiences that could have caused such a terrible aberration). ‘Are you gonna try and melt away my tip?’ Cam asks dubiously. She and her fellow ‘disciples’, as they’re known, survive by ‘faking progress in one-on-ones, amicable interactions with staff, and burning off steam through a series of sinful, thereby forbidden, thereby secret interactions with each other’.

As months of church services and iceberg counselling drag by, what Cam eventually gains from her experience at God’s Promise is not, of course, any kind of ‘cure’ for a non-existent affliction, but a more developed understanding of her true identity and a growing sense of self-worth. The friendships she makes at the camp—particularly with Jane, who hides her pot stash inside her plastic prosthetic leg, and Adam, whose skin was ‘the color of coppered jute’ and whose father felt that his career ambitions were threatened ‘by having a fairy for a son’—gradually help her accept the tragedies of her past (the loss of her parents, the messy end of her friendship with Coley). They also make for wonderful reading: Danforth writes with such humour and honesty, and draws such well-realised and sympathetic characters, that the novel flows despite its slow pacing and hefty length (almost 500 pages).

Miseducation is an undeniably necessary book, and not just because of the sensitive and realistic manner in which it handles a timely issue: the continued mistreatment of people based on their sexual orientation. Without proselytising or patronising, it offers sage lessons in the challenging art of knowing ourselves and respecting others’ choices—two concepts that continue, unfortunately, to prove much harder in practice than in theory.

Staying afloat.

November 17, 2013

In 2008, Australian author Christos Tsiolkas divided readers with his Commonwealth Writers’ Prize-winning novel The Slap (later turned into a successful ABC TV miniseries), an unflattering exploration of suburban Melbourne that exposed the moral ambiguities of modern family life through the eyes of eight characters present at a barbecue where a man slaps someone else’s child. While some considered its protagonists grotesque and caricatured, others found its portrayal of ordinary Australian lives refreshingly honest; Tsiolkas doesn’t shy away from using his fiction to pose difficult questions about how we live today.

His latest novel, Barracuda, returns to similar territory, although it’s a more focused character study than The Slap and deals more explicitly with the question of class. We’re back in the suburbs of Melbourne, where, in 1994, 14-year-old Danny Kelly secures a scholarship to a private school on the basis of his exceptional swimming talent. Danny’s determined to win Olympic gold one day, and although he resents the privilege of his new surrounds, with its front gate ‘that looked like it should have belonged to a mansion from the movies, a mansion with a thousand rooms and with butlers and maids and ghosts’, his drive to succeed keeps him focused. Eventually, he falls in with the cool rich kids—the ‘golden boys’—who christen Danny ‘barracuda’ on the basis of his tough attitude and single-minded desire to be ‘the fastest, the strongest and the best’.

But wanting something badly enough is no guarantee you’ll get it; when Danny fails to achieve his dream and the Olympics come to Sydney in 2000, he commits a terrible act that will change his life forever and set him on an entirely different path to the one he’s imagined for so long.

Tsiolkas shifts his narrative back and forth in time: chapters alternate between the young Danny and his progression through high school and escalating swimming success and the Danny of today, a quiet and inward-focused man who eschews modern technology (he doesn’t own a computer) and works as a carer for people with disabilities; when we first meet this Danny, we discover that he no longer swims, and the reasons for this are gradually revealed as the narrative progresses. While the younger Danny’s chapters move forward in time, the older Danny’s chapters mostly move backwards, taking us back through his adult years to reveal how his experiences have shaped the man he is now.

Tsiolkas is fond of incorporating big social issues in his fiction: his characters argue about familiar topics that include racism, refugees, and the rules and regulations that govern contemporary Australian life. But what makes Barracuda such an engaging novel is its sympathetic (but uncompromising) exploration of what Danny’s ambition costs him and how he deals with the fallout of a single violent act. The novel is an astute character study that also raises pertinent questions about how we define success and failure and how we reconceptualise our identity when the future we once envisaged for ourselves all but disappears.

Danny’s story is also a reminder of how readily Australia glorifies sport (and sporting success), and the often grim flipside of the intense national spirit and pride that accompanies major sporting events and typifies our adulation of successful athletes. To say that the younger Danny is difficult to like is an understatement: he’s a surly, self-absorbed, angry young man whose entire reason for being becomes predicated on the need to win. Danny’s parents face their own struggles as they try to foster Danny’s talent without fracturing the family dynamic, and Tsiolkas captures this with sensitivity: Danny’s father Neal is a proudly working class Scotsman who has difficulty accepting how selfish Danny has become in his urge to be the best, while his Greek mother happily rises at 4 am each morning to drive Danny to the pool for training, unwittingly neglecting her younger daughter in the process.

The older Danny, however, is an almost entirely different man, and one still trying to find his place in the world. He doesn’t own a computer, loves nothing more than losing himself in novels and enjoys silence, concluding that ‘loneliness could be found in conversation, it lurked in words’. Danny has to grow up the hard way, and Tsiolkas skilfully gives us a full and sometimes ugly portrait of a man who must re-establish his identity and learn to accept his past and present.

Barracuda does falter slightly in its final third: once we’ve learned of the young Danny’s misdeed, the novel feels a little directionless, and we’re given several chapters of minor domestic drama that feel a little bit like padding. Still, Tsiolkas does a fine job of showing us how Danny evolves, and how his struggle to be the best gradually transforms into a much harder struggle to overcome his own history and be a good man: ‘He couldn’t think how anyone but himself could be the hero of his own life, but he knew that he wasn’t a hero’.

The lost art of forgiveness.

October 7, 2013

Christmas is a fraught time in a bookseller’s life. It generally begins in September, when you begin unpacking boxes full of shiny new releases cunningly timed to coincide with that special time of year when everyone is gripped by the need to spend money on gifts and lacking the kind of caution that might normally curb their spending habits. In October, you begin to feel slightly concerned by the fact that you haven’t yet had time to read any of these new releases and your pile of reading copies slash impulse purchases keeps growing; meanwhile, shelf space in your shop keeps shrinking. In November, trade has picked up dramatically and customers’ recommendation requests are tinged with a hint of aggression as they get closer to panic-buying stage. By December, you have generally lost the will to live. There is no shelf space anywhere, ever, all the new releases have coagulated in your brain to form one giant absurdist novel that involves a samurai octopus and a boy wizard, and every customer asks you questions like, ‘I need a present for my father-in-law. He doesn’t really read’, followed by an expectant stare.

Anyway. As we approach this special time of year, I generally deal with my panic by pretending that Christmas isn’t real, which, it turns out, isn’t a very effective strategy. Instead of working my way through the entire Man Booker shortlist and starting Donna Tartt’s new novel, one of this Christmas’s biggest releases and a book that I’m supposed to be reviewing in time for its October release (I might also mention that it’s 800 pages long, THANKS A LOT, DONNA), I just read a book that came out in—wait for it—August! Despite my feelings of immense guilt each time I cracked the spine, it was (mostly) worth it. Jonathan Dee’s A Thousand Pardons is a thoughtful and elegantly written exploration of self-destruction, reinvention, and forgiveness, albeit one that doesn’t quite hit all the marks with dead-on precision.

Dee is a gifted observer of the human condition; his last novel, The Privileges, was shortlisted for the 2011 Pulitzer Prize (although I thought 2003′s Palladio was the more accomplished work). He’s on familiar ground in A Thousand Pardons, revealing the emotional and moral complexities of wealthy white people’s problems with subtlety and pathos. What might feel trivial or empty in a lesser writer’s hands is always powerful and resonant in Dee’s work thanks to his graceful prose and nuanced characters.

Ben and Helen Armstead are barely keeping their marriage together. Ben, a successful litigator, has become depressed and unresponsive, ‘like the walking dead’, and Helen realises that their adopted teenage daughter, Sara, ‘was old enough now that none of this was lost on her whether she knew it yet or not’. After a failed attempt at marriage counselling, Ben commits a predictable act involving a nubile young intern at his office, and the consequences are serious and dramatic—and, finally, the catalyst that helps his dying marriage to Helen take its last breath.

In the wake of divorce, Helen finds herself, almost by accident, working at a struggling PR firm in New York City, where she discovers an unusual talent for being able to get powerful men who have committed scandalous wrongs—a restaurant owner who doesn’t pay fair wages, a councilman caught hitting his girlfriend on camera—to publicly admit their culpability, thus inviting forgiveness instead of ongoing recrimination and negative media attention. Eventually, her work puts her in contact with Hamilton Barthes, a Hollywood star on the brink of self-destruction. He’s an old classmate of Helen’s, and, though he has no recollection of her, she has always kept the memory of the brief time they shared a kiss together during their junior high school years.

Meanwhile, in the aftermath of his undoing, Ben finds his own strange ways of reconciling his past and present selves. As Helen struggles to marry her newfound skill for prompting forgiveness in others with the growing anger she feels towards her ex-husband, Sara becomes increasingly aggressive and distant. Over the course of the novel, all three Armsteads grapple with their ability to understand and forgive themselves and each other; curiously, it’s Helen’s fraught reconnection with Hamilton that brings their various conflicts to some kind of imperfect resolution.

Dee’s novels often tackle themes of appearance versus reality, and A Thousand Pardons is no exception, with its insights into the Machiavellian world of public relations and celebrities saving face; these are neatly juxtaposed with the struggles of one family attempting to negotiate and overcome their private turmoils. There’s also a certain perverse satisfaction one gets from reading Dee’s tales of rich, privileged white people whose apparently perfect lives are perfectly illusory—his characterisation of the American Dream feels both brutal and poignant.

While he explores some interesting concepts, Dee almost loses his way about two thirds of the way through; his writing is sharp and perceptive, but his Hamilton subplot—which turns out to play a crucial part in the story’s resolution—feels slightly underdeveloped, and his ideas about human connection and forgiveness ultimately not mined as deeply as they could have been. For all that, however, A Thousand Pardons is a clever and engaging read and a curious tale of how wilfully we can blind ourselves to our own problems.

Seduction lessons.

September 10, 2013

On the day that Alyssa Nutting’s controversial debut novel, Tampa, was unpacked from its box in one of the bookshops where I work, I caught sight of the title and thought, ‘aha! This must be a well-timed book about refugee tragedy’. (For anyone who doesn’t live in Australia, we’ve recently endured a particularly dispiriting federal election campaign; one of the main issues in the public eye was the plight of asylum seekers, triggering memories of 2001’s Tampa controversy).

Then I took a closer look at Tampa’s cover—a remarkably suggestive image of a pink button-hole at close range (seriously, who knew a button hole could scream ‘GENITALS’ so loudly?)—and my incredible deductive powers led me to conclude that this was definitely not a book about politics or refugees.

Twenty-six-year-old Celeste Price is an attractive high school teacher living in Tampa, Florida, with her square-jawed cop husband, Ford. When we first meet her, she admits to spending the night before starting her new job teaching eighth grade English at a local high school ‘in an excited loop of hushed masturbation’. Not, perhaps, the kind of night-before-nerves response you’d expect; but Celeste has a deep and disturbing sexual obsession with teenage boys, and that, it seems, is the sole motivating factor in her choice of career. Just as Nabokov’s Humbert could only be stirred by ‘nymphettes’, young adolescent girls teetering between childhood and adulthood, so Celeste is moved by the still-developing pubescent boy, the ‘last link of androgyny that puberty would permit … undeniably male but not man’.

Tampa is an unflinching, deliberately over-the-top look at the destructive capacity of misplaced desire; it’s also a surprisingly witty character study of a deeply unpleasant, yet strangely compelling, sexual predator. Celeste’s entire life is a carefully constructed facade designed to obscure her erotic proclivities from others—her fellow teachers, her charges’ parents, and Ford, whose sexual advances she finds so repulsive that she has to dose herself with drugs in order to endure them.

Celeste quickly sets her sights on Jack Patrick, a naive 14-year-old in one of her classes whose ‘lanky-limbed smoothness’ and frame that ‘shunned both fat and muscle’ is the embodiment of Celeste’s sexual tastes. It’s not long before she’s seduced him and provided him with a special mobile phone with which to contact her in order to minimise the risk of their affair being discovered. But, of course, things quickly become complicated; Jack is soon professing his love for Celeste and can hardly wait for them to make their relationship ‘public’ once he’s legal, but Celeste has no such long-term intentions. For her, the fling is purely physical, the satisfaction of an overwhelming need that seems to stalk her every thought and action. ‘One more year seemed to be the most realistic to hope for’, she reflects after several months of graphically described encounters in Jack’s house after school. ‘He’d grow, his voice would further deepen, defining muscle would thicken and broaden him. I couldn’t imagine being attracted to him beyond fifteen at the latest’.

Celeste is a narcissist, fixated with appearance and driven solely by her libido. Ironically, despite her meticulous planning and need to maintain control, she refers to her sexuality as a ‘deformed thing to be kept chained up in the attic’ and even expresses the wish that ‘my genitals were prosthetic, something I could slip out of’ due to their ‘constant drone of stimulation’.

But there’s no sense of remorse here—Celeste’s concern is always and only for herself. She’s driven not simply by her lust, but its apparent connection to enduring youthfulness. She’s obsessed with her own beauty in a way that goes far beyond pride at her toned limbs or pretty face; there’s a desperation to her sense of physical identity that’s reflected in her sexual appetite. Remembering compliments she’s received from staff at the plastic surgeon’s office she visits, she describes their smiles as ‘filled with sadistic delight’, their admiring words ‘no different from kicking me in the ribs and saying, Everything on you will one day sag’.

Tampa is an ugly book, and no doubt some readers will find its frequent sexually explicit scenes uncomfortable to read. But it’s also intelligent, bold, and very well written; Nutting treads a clever line between erotica and satire. She isn’t afraid to show us just how awful Celeste truly is, and her first-person narration shapes a character both abhorrent and poisonously funny. Celeste regards everyone around her with a mixture of contempt and indifference, reserving special disdain for those not blessed in the looks department; only the reader is privy to her running internal commentary of vitriol. Talking to her beleaguered colleague, the ageing and frumpy Janet, Celeste observes how ‘the charcoal frizz of [Janet's] perm hovered above her scalp like a rising cloud of smog’ and notes that ‘when her head swivelled my way I could almost hear the grinding sound of a long-standing boulder being moved’. No character in Tampa is especially likeable or sympathetic—instead, they’re almost gleefully one-dimensional and exaggerated, but it works because they’re filtered to us through the Celeste’s sociopathic gaze.

Tampa isn’t a morality tale—Celeste is irredeemable, her sense of self wholly submerged in her constant craving for sexual release. There’s no sense of a lesson learned at the book’s end; it’s a glimpse into the mind of a narcissist, not a polemic against underage sex or a risqué erotic novel.

Nutting’s book, which was inspired by the real-life case of Debra Lafave, is supposedly intended to highlight the double standard apparent in how we regard (and punish) women who seek sexual relations with underage boys as opposed to men who do the same with underage girls (Lafave, for example, received three years of house arrest for her transgression; if she’d been a man, the punishment would likely have been far harsher).

Ironically, a different sort of double standard was revealed upon the book’s release: some Australian bookshops have refused to stock it (do they also refuse to sell Lolita?). These actions have probably boosted sales; they also expose worrying truths about how confronting we apparently continue to find female sexuality. Still, for all its difficult subject matter, Tampa is a horribly entertaining read.

The embers of love and revolt.

August 21, 2013

The US cover of Rachel Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers, shows a young woman with her mouth taped shut. It’s a striking image, perhaps indicative of the revolutionary politics the book’s rather passive protagonist finds herself caught up in. But while the woman on the cover might be silenced, the literary world hasn’t stopped gushing about Kushner’s book since its release earlier this year, from revered critic James Woods to novelist Jonathan Franzen, who provided an appropriately enthusiastic cover quotation for the Australian edition of the novel.

The Flamethrowers is a visceral journey through 1970s New York and Italy, a tale of art, revolutionary politics, and high-speed motorcycle racing; it’s also a panoramic snapshot of America at a particular time and a kind of coming-of-age story. But despite its brilliantly evoked settings and timeless themes—and Kushner’s obvious writing talent—the overall effect is curiously flat.

At the novel’s centre is 23-year-old Reno (a nickname that refers to where she’s from, in ‘the real West’, a place of ‘ranchers. Drifters. Divorcées.’) a 23-year-old aspiring artist and motorcycle enthusiast, who moves to New York from Nevada with little more than her camera and a sense of possibility. New York is alive with avant-garde artists and anarchist groups; Reno soon begins a relationship with Sandro Valera, an artist 14 years her senior and a semi-estranged member of the wealthy Valera family, who own a tire and motorcycle empire back in Sandro’s home country of Italy. Sandro is openly disparaging of his family’s enterprise and what it represents: ‘My father and his cronies conspired to change the face of Italy’, he declares ‘They wrecked the place and made piles of money’. In a fitting rejection of his heritage, Sandro has made a name for himself crafting minimalist steel cubes and displaying them in empty rooms.

As Sandro’s other half, Reno finds herself socialising with New York’s artistic elite, who seem bowed beneath the combined weight of their own pretension and narcissism. Kushner astutely captures the art crowd, and, despite the faint undercurrent of satire, she never breaches the border between sharp observation and mockery. There’s a clever, but overly long, scene at a loft dinner party where semi-industrial objects such as old lightbulbs and telephones are displayed on long tables, Reno learns about an anarchist group called the Motherfuckers and guests endure a lengthy taped monologue by the host about the context of nudity and the semantics of homebuying.

But as Reno’s time in New York stretches ever onwards, there’s an increasing lethargy cloaking the story, and it’s only exacerbated by Reno’s passivity: things happen to her and rarely seem to have much effect. I think this is deliberate, and part of Kushner’s intent to capture the political, historical, and cultural zeitgeist of 1970s New York. The Flamethrowers is more a novel of time and place than a character study, and Kushner’s detailed set-pieces—from Reno’s blazing dash across the Bonneville Salt Flats in a land-speed trial to her time in a squat in Rome with a group of revolutionaries she barely knows—are richly evoked.

But while The Flamethrowers is artfully composed and captures a fascinating period of recent history, it’s just not as compelling as it should be; there’s an element of self-consciousness at play here that interferes with the reader’s ability to really engage with the narrative. The novel seems preoccupied with the concept of reality versus artifice (Reno poignantly notes that ‘certain acts, even as they are real, are also merely gestures’); everyone in the novel is performing a part, to a degree, and while this is certainly effective, it soon becomes deadening and tiresome—there’s a sense that all of this meandering between bars and parties and galleries isn’t actually going anywhere.

This isn’t helped by occasional chapters that take us out of Reno’s world to tell us the story of Sandro’s father and his journey from lustful schoolboy to motorcycle mogul, or to briefly describe a series of actions undertaken by the Motherfuckers in their heydey, which include bank robbing, Cadillac smashing, and murder. These digressions from the main narrative might augment the historical and ideological context of Kushner’s tale, but they also feel too displaced and fragmented; they read more as interruptions than anything else.

Thankfully, there’s a change of pace about two-thirds in. Reno wants to combine her love of art and motorcycle riding, since ‘the two things I loved were drawing and speed’. When she breaks the female land-speed record, she’s given an opportunity to visit Italy and do a photoshoot and publicity tour with the Valera racing team, a trip that Sandro consider a ‘ridiculous prospect’. Nonetheless, he eventually capitulates and the action shifts across the Atlantic. Reno endures 10 days at the Valera family’s picture-perfect Lake Como home with Sandro’s openly hostile mother, and, eventually, his self-assured cousin, Talia. It’s here that Kushner’s tale finally becomes more alive, both in her excruciating depiction of Reno’s immediate sense that she doesn’t belong and her subsequent involvement in a violent political demonstration in Rome.

The Flamethrowers might not scale the full heights of its ambitions, but there’s still plenty to admire here; Kushner is a skilled writer and intelligent observer. Reno’s passivity, frustrating though it is, also offers a thoughtful perspective on the blurred lines between life and art. ‘There was a performance in riding the Moto Valera through the streets of New York that felt pure’, Reno says. ‘Ronnie said that certain women were best viewed from the window of a speeding car, the exaggeration of their makeup and their tight clothes. But maybe women were meant to speed past, just a blur. Flash, and then gone. It was only a motorcycle but it felt like a mode of being.’

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