As an academic who studies literary cultures, I am at least as interested in the question of how I am reading, as I am in what I am reading. Last year, I finished a monograph, Satirizing Modernism, about several long and ‘difficult’ modernist novels, such as Wyndham Lewis’s The Apes of God (1930) and William Gaddis’s The Recognitions (1955). Just around the time I sent the manuscript off, I began to find it increasingly difficult to concentrate on books. Perhaps a decade of teaching and academic study had finally undermined my passion for the written word? Maybe the constant interruption that accompanies looking after small children had winnowed my attention span? Maybe it was the internet, since everyone blames the internet for everything? After a month or so of silent suffering, I confessed these fears to my partner, whose response was swift: ‘I’ve watched you and you are holding books too close to your face. Get your eyes checked: you need glasses.’ Now bespectacled, I find my love of reading undiminished.
But the way I read has changed in two other major ways. Late last year, I relocated to the central highlands of Victoria, and my commute to work in Geelong is about an hour each way. Audiobooks have become a huge part of how I read. I find it interesting which books translate well to the audiobook format, and which don’t: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s novels are surprisingly compelling in this form, but even very well-written fiction in the minimal realist vein does not translate. Genre fiction works best, because of the skilled plotting, and science fiction has dominated my listening. I often feel that my affection for ‘difficult’ modernist novels is an outgrowth of my early love of SF. Few things make the commonplace stranger than speculative fiction.
The second change is that I have started attending a local book club that is open to the broader public. One of the rules of the club is that you are not allowed to talk about work or what you do for a living—a rule that both encourages other kinds of discussions and flattens social hierarchies in democratic and productive ways. I will say that—even though the books are not always to my taste—it has been an absolute pleasure to discuss books outside of an academic environment. I feel lucky to hear people talk about books with intelligence and wit, and to witness the way that people use books to reflect back on their own experience. Fiction is not (only) escapist: it is also a form that people use to think through their own lives and relationships, and it can be a powerful bond among people who otherwise might seem to share little in common.
Gerald Murnane’s Late Novels
I love Gerald Murnane’s work, and one of the conditions of love is that it defies rational explication. I often find myself asked (especially with Murnane’s growing overseas reputation) why I like his work or where the best place to start is. To this, I could say that his novels are great because they are great, and every novel is almost (but not quite) an equally good or bad place to start. Much of the joy in Murnane’s writing comes from the re-reading and the way that the books interact with each other (there are almost endless allusions and callbacks). The Plains remains his most famous book, and it’s great, but I increasingly find myself drawn to his later and weirder books, including, Barley Patch (2009), A History of Books (2011), A Million Windows (2014), and Border Districts (2017). In point of fact, I am working on a monograph about his late novels that I hope to finish in 2019, and it has been a pleasure to have an excuse to go back and re-read these books.
If nothing else, Murnane’s work is essential because he has created a style and approach that is almost entirely unique, and while it might be possible to compare him to certain authors, there really is no-one like him. Some may balk at his meditative and largely plotless novels, but they are not simply abstract high art; the novels often discuss, in oblique ways, serious issues like depression, alcohol dependency, mental health, sexual assault, and social isolation. If I had to choose a favourite novel, I would probably select A Million Windows (2014), but this is a book that is a reflection on his entire body of work, and may not be ideal for new readers. His short story, ‘When the Mice Failed to Arrive’, which is also the first piece in the recent Collected Fictions (Giramondo, 2018), is both a great story and a good introduction to the themes and formal techniques throughout Murnane’s writing.
Keri Glastonbury (2018) The Newcastle Sonnets
Giramondo Publishing, Artamon, NSW. 978 1 925 33689 4
I lived in Newcastle for three years. It’s a city of contrasts. It has stunning beaches, but, as the biggest coal port in the world, it is also ground zero for climate change. Every day, 25,000 local school children are exposed to dangerous levels of coal dust particles from passing trains. Many Australian writers romanticize the city because they have fond memories of attending the Newcastle Young Writers Festival, but Newy is a very different place during the rest of the year. In many respects, Newcastle reminds me more of the rural towns where I grew up in the USA than other Australian cities I have lived in. Novocastrians are house-proud and suspicious of outsiders, but also strangely cosmopolitan: there’s fantastic coffee everywhere and endless artisanal goods and farmer’s markets.
Keri Glastonbury’s The Newcastle Sonnets is a fantastic collection of poems that captures the strangeness of this place, and it always works on at least two levels. So many moments in the poems that might seem like poetic abstraction to non-locals are, in fact, specific and clear references to localities and people. But they also are poetic abstractions that function on a symbolic level. The movement between the local and the figurative is fantastic, but—beneath the often very funny exterior—these are also poems about love and sex and heartbreak that are genuinely touching. It’s a great book, and essential reading for any lover of Australian literature—even those who don’t naturally gravitate towards poetry.
Ann Leckie (2013) Ancillary Justice: Volume 1 of the Imperial Radch
Hachete UK, London. 978 1 405 52584 8
Ancillary Justice is a marvel. It’s tightly-plotted, but the writing is elegant throughout and there are some amazing scenes (such as a moment where two characters are falling off a bridge suspended several miles in the air) that seem simultaneously cinematic and impossible to film. The premise is also fantastic: the protagonist of the novel is the sentient artificial intelligence of a ship that has become trapped in a human body, and she (everyone in the book is referred to as she) lives in a complex imperial society, the Radch, which has no conception of gender. The genderless writing is handled flawlessly, and, of course, this imagined society, which is far more egalitarian than ours in some respects, is not a utopia, but a brutal colonizing empire. It also raises fantastic questions about the nature of identity that reminds me both of the old Ship of Theseus problem and the wild thought-experiments in Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons (1984). I read the whole trilogy, and my only complaint is that the subsequent volumes feel like interesting elaborations on the first book’s postcolonial post-humanism without adding much new. But the first one is some of the most brilliant sci-fi I have read in years, so it’s pretty hard to top.
Jen Craig (2015) Panthers and the Museum of Fire
Spineless Wonders, Strawberry Hills, NSW. 978 1 925 05215 2
Shortly before the birth of my daughter in 2011, I decided to read every Thomas Bernhard novel in chronological order. I am still not really sure why I did this, really, but in the process I became an absolute Bernhard devotee. All of his novels are brilliant and worth reading, and, given the force of his style, it’s perhaps no surprise that a variety of lesser writers have tried to copy it without much success (e.g. Geoff Dyer’s massively overrated Out of Sheer Rage (1997)). I am always nervous about reading other books that invoke Bernhard, and I had a negative experience reading a recent prizewinning novel (which was otherwise very good), because its constant references to Bernhard only served to remind me how much better Bernhard is.
Jen Craig—who must be one of Australia’s most talented and least appreciated writers—owes clear thematic and stylistic debts to Bernhard in her novella Panthers and the Museum of Fire, but she absolutely pulls it off. Part of the reason for this, however, is that she takes Bernhard off in different directions rather than lapsing into imitatio. For one, the narrator of Panthers—though often misanthropic and capable of voicing unpleasant thoughts—is more of a complex lateral thinker than a Bernhard-esque ranter. But also, Panthers is a book that is very much about place (in this case, Sydney), and the novel does a brilliant job of layering different localities and temporal events; the narrator, also named Jen Craig, might be walking down the street while thinking of a story she will tell her friend later and then will jump into that story and move back again through all the different temporal and locative layers within the same sentence. It’s a masterful performance that deserves a much wider audience.
Yoon Ha Lee (2016) Ninefox Gambit
Solaris, Oxford, UK. 978 1 849 97992 4
This is another wild science-fiction novel with a great premise. In this case, a young female military officer, Kel Charis, is tasked with the siege of an impenetrable fortress; to aid her mission, she becomes ‘anchored’ to the disembodied consciousness of a long-dead general—a military genius, who also murdered all of his own soldiers in a bout of insanity. The action takes place within the Hexarchate, an oligarchical empire run by six specialized guilds. The novel deftly navigates the experiences of a man and woman being contained within the same body, and the larger world depicted in the book is wonderfully strange. One of my favourite inversions within the book relates to explication: usually the strange concepts in a science fiction novel are slowly demystified and explained, but here the explications are intentionally so confusing that they only serve to make strange phenomena even stranger. The writing is more uneven than Ancillary Justice and there are some letters from another character that, to me, break up the main narrative in unwelcome ways, but this book is relentlessly inventive in the best possible way. I still have yet to read the next two books in the trilogy, and I almost afraid given how good the first one is.
Emmett Stinson is the author of Satirizing Modernism (2017) and Known Unknowns (2010). He is a lecturer in writing and literature at Deakin University, and a CI on the ARC Discovery Project ‘New Tastemakers and Australia’s Post-Digital Literary Culture’.