Beside the bed in Melbourne: Three kindles. All loaded full of books. All broken.
We know any given e-reader will eventually become obsolete. Mine are early.
On the train to Castlemaine: George Saunders, Tenth of December.
I had a major argument with a close friend last week. As a make up present he left this book at my house. I took it to read on the train.
I’d never heard of George Saunders. But from the first story, I had a sense of ‘where have you been all my life’? He’s vastly funny, and has one of the most effortless voices I’ve read in ages. Out through the suburbs—Sunshine, Watergardens, Sunbury—we went from super-sharp domestic satire into some strange and very dark places. The stories are moral and political, and human and warm, and every now and then they drop you into richly speculative fiction. I had more laughter in me than the hushed train carriage would permit.
A stand-out story is ‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’. It’s about a family struggling to provide for their children, in the way that modern provision is primarily about status. The story logs a journey through envy of your peers, and the American dream, and—somehow, without you realising it—through exploitation, immigration, fashionable cruelty and moral courage. It took more than a decade to write. When Saunders’ wife Paula first read it she left him a post-it note with a single word: TEARS. Off the train, I rode home through autumn bush and finished the story on the porch of our unfinished house. My post-it note would have read the same.
‘Exhortation’ is another that unfurls in you like some slow-release drug. It’s a jargon-riddled memo from a manager exhorting his staff to do better. He gives an example: during the holidays he and his kids helped lift the carcass of a whale onto the back of a truck. Given the right attitude, it was the highlight of their trip. So when his staff are working—’cleaning shelves’—they have to think positive too. Saunders never tells you what the hell he’s talking about, but it’s an amazing moment when you work it out.
I finished the collection in two days. It reminded me of devouring books as a kid. I felt a little better towards my friend, that he knew me well enough to have chosen that book.
In the bush at night: Keri Hulme, Te Kaihau (The Windeater).
Up in the bush, we’re basically camping in a building site. The house was built in the seventies but never finished. It sits in a cirque of trees above a stone-rimmed dam. When it’s finished it’ll be a base for writing two books. All it needs first is a toilet, bathroom, kitchen, running water and power. And a roof more tin than leak. By day we render and plumb. By night we read.
Under the mosquito net, I’m reading Keri Hulme’s Te Kaihau. You’ll know her work from The Bone People, winner of the Booker in 1985. That one’s about three beautiful, damaged people, and the history and myth that breathes through them. I love it for its lyricism and imagination, and because it put Ngai Tahu writing and culture on the literary map.
Te Kaihau is short fiction from 1986. I found a copy at my parents’ house in Christchurch. It’s fierce, dark, at times funny and always hugely imaginative. I’m not sure if it’s still in print, but it’s worth tracking down. It’s amazing.
‘Swansong’ takes us into a A Clockwork Orange-style riot at a protest march. Three head-kicking nutjobs, intent on beating up protestors, pick up a hot girl at the pub. They bring her along for the fun. She’s blond and strange and has little sharp teeth. In the seethe of battle, as the knives come out, ‘she gives me one wild blackhole stare…And that’s when it happened’. She lets out a piercing scream, standing tall amid the chaos while ‘people are falling in a bloody swathe as though her words and her screams are knives cutting them in two.’ She’s a valkyrie, an ancient norse spirit who decides who lives and dies in battle. It’s a revelation to find her at an anti-apartheid march in New Zealand in the eighties.
‘A Tally of the Souls of Sheep’ puts a man, a woman and two children on a lonely beach late at night. It’s a pleasant sort of place by day; by night, the children disappear. Twin bonfires are seen burning in the distance, and the name of the bay—Kaitangata—looms large. The story pushes into melodrama and the old stories of cannibalism that inhabit the island’s history. It also crashes them into banal modern massacres: farming, freezing works, a tally of the souls of sheep. It’s pretty strange, but it’s incredibly good.
With these stories, I get the feeling that Hulme is helping create a hybrid mythology for her time and her place, one conjured from intense moments between people, from parties and drinking and in those blurred, in-between moments when imagination works best.
Tonight is one such moment. I’m up in the bush on my own. The stories are mostly pretty dark. It’s getting late and I’m beginning to scare myself. I put the book down, blow out the candle and fall asleep.
Some time before dawn I find myself sharply awake. There’s a rushing fear in me and six clear words repeating in my head: ask the posts of the house. Strange. I pick a path through the buckets and tools and stand outside under a thin white moon. It’s probably the methylated spirits I was using to scrub varnish off the windows, but I have a feeling of things in the land moving all around me. This valley has just four houses, and two are empty, but it was once the goldfields, swollen with thousands. The Djadja Warrung people were here long and away before that. I’m seeing it through the lens of Te Kaihau, the windeater. I’m not sure what it means. Ask the posts of the house.
Nic Low is a writer and artist of Ngai Tahu Maori and European descent. He divides his time between a hyper-social Melbourne sharehouse, and an anti-social bush retreat north of Castlemaine. His writing has been published in Griffith Review, The Monthly, The Big Issue, The Lifted Brow, Art Monthly, Australian Book Review and various suspect anthologies.