Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Tri-Review, part two: "The Sisters Brothers" by Patrick de Witt

       Here is the second part of my new "read and review" tactic, designed to slow down my book-buying habit. I bought this book recently after being sucked in by an ad in the pages of the Granta journal.  

        "If Cormac McCarthy had a sense of humor, he might have concocted a story like Patrick de Witt's bloody, darkly funny western The Sisters Brothers,” said The Los Angeles Times. It was this comment (as well as the cool cover) - which made me read de Witt's book. Unfortunately, it also meant I entered the novel with entirely inappropriate expectations. I soon realised that The Sisters Brothers resembles McCarthy in so far as it is set in the American West, has a few violent episodes and explores different relationships between American men. But while de Witt’s style is “declarative” in the of vein of many (most?) male American writers, it certainly doesn’t approach the linguistic acrobatics achieved by McCarthy in all or any of his works. That said, The Sisters Brothers does have other strengths in its own right - it's just taken me a few weeks to realise them.

        I actually found that the voice of Eli Sisters, narrator of The Sisters Brothers, echoed Mattie Ross from Charles Portis’ True Grit (1968) more than it did any of McCarthy’s characters. This similarity alone suggests that de Witt's novel is dryly humorous – and it is. The Sisters Brothers is the story of Eli and Charlie Sisters, two hired hitmen: Eli is the ostensible "good guy," frequently racked with guilt about the murders he has committed, and longing to be a better man; Charlie is the brutal killer, who cares only about alcohol and fast horses. They are chasing a man named Hermann Kermit Warm across the 19th century American West, and yet of course, the goldrush interferes in their activities, and they end cautiously befriending Warm after he reveals his a trick to making millions from gold panning. The humour occurs in the way the brothers speak to each other, and some of the situations they find themselves in - which revolve around killing other bad guys, stealing horses, crushing on women, panning gold with Warm, etc.

        Mostly, though, the de Witt is at his funniest - and most moving - when he is at his most insightful. The novel is loaded with incredible moments of self-awareness and understanding on the part of Eli Sisters. It's through these moments that de Witt's incredible knack for articulating the ways in which human motivations and desires actually work is revealed. Most heart-breaking, perhaps, is when Eli admits to himself how much he loves and desires validation from his brother, whilst at the same time realising that Charlie will never actually love him as deeply or self-sacrifically as he desires. This realisation is particularly important, because it is due to Eli's love for his brother that Eli has stayed in the killing business so long: he could not bear to see his brother shot dead, so he sticks around to protect Charlie, even though he hates the lifestyle. It's heartwarming to go through this journey of emotional discovery with Eli, and learn with him how valuable it is to one's own sense of identity to treat people - and oneself - with honesty.

Like many a Western, the narrative trajectory of The Sisters Brothers is predictable, in the sense that it has an ending in which everything you want as a reader comes true. Eli achieves redemption through his choice to abandon a life of killing in favour of a reunion with his long-lost mother and, presumably, a more “moral” lifestyle. Charlie, the more brutal of the pair, gets his come-uppance in the form of an injury (his shooting-arm is amputated). Eli doesn’t even have to choose probity over his brother, as his Charlie's physical injury leaves him totally in the care of his brother. Eli has his cake and gets to eat it! Yay for warm and fuzzy endings and family reunions!

But the happy main character did not result in a happy reader - for me, at least. I was actually quite disappointed that it was so easy to see what was coming. In fact, the ending was so expected that I wondered if I were missing something (especially since the novel was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize last year, which suggests that at least some important people thought it merit-worthy). It crossed my mind that perhaps de Witt’s story arc was no cliché at all, but actually a parody of the similarly easy endings of the Western dime novels from the early 1900s. And then I wondered if de Witt’s western was a subversion of contemporary darker Western novels (such as McCarthy’s) which had already subverted the early Westerns! A subversion of subversion! Occurring in a way that was invisible to me! And then I thought: I am thinking myself in circles. It may not be Cormac McCarthy, but De Witt’s novel is a fun, clever read, knotted with a few golden insights about male bonding and desire. And that’s it. And that’s a great thing.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Tri-review, part one: "The God Of Small Things" by Arundhati Roy

For the past few months I’ve been on a book-buying spree. I justified it by telling myself that I’m supporting writers, independent Australian booksellers and the global publishing industry in a feat of three-birds-with-one-stone consumerist acrobatics. Of course, the person I wasn’t supporting was myself, who quickly ran out of money. Furthermore, the ol’ pile o' Books I Haven’t Read But Look Good On My Bookshelf is increasing exponentially, simply because I can’t read as fast as I can shop.  So I’m on a book-buying-ban at the moment, and now that I’ve announced it publicly you can remind me of all the writers I should actually be supporting by reading their books and reviewing them, rather than just looking at their pretty covers. As part of this cold turkey escapade, I have briefly jotted down my thoughts on three of the books I finished in the last couple of weeks, to ensure that said reviewing actually takes place - and I'll post them over the next three days!

As I read the The God of Small Things (1997) by Arundhati Roy, my impression of Roy was that she has complete mastery over the English language. Even though her descriptions are long and lavish, not a word is out of place. Check out the lush, vivid description in the book’s opening paragraph:
May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.
Roy is Indian, so English is not, presumably, her first language. However, her position outside that of “native-speaker” gives her power. It’s as though she stands apart from the language, considers its traditional limits and boundaries – and ignores them. When Roy wants a new word, she simply makes one up, and the result is almost always more succinct than it perhaps would have been, had she described in “correct” English. "Dustgreen" is used in the quotation above, and “dullthudding” is the word she uses to describe the particular sound of Ayemenem rain on the roof of the Ipe family home. Much of the book is told from the perspective of the children, Estha and Rahel, and the language that inhabits their dialogue reflects the way Indian children might collide with the strangeness of English. Ousa is the Bar Nowl, who lives in the factory on their property. When Estha replies in the affirmative to a question, he says “Exackly.” “Boot” is Rahel’s favourite English word because of the way it sounds as it comes out of her mouth. The God of Small Things is a tough read in places, content-wise – it’s the story of a family whose members are all embittered against each other, of caste prejudice, of death, mourning and grief. But it’s also the story of a brother and sister who, due their closeness, manage to make it through some very traumatic moments and its linguistic style made it a joy to read. It won the 1997 Man Booker Prize – and deservedly so.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Million Dollar Tegan

Wana know the best way to get back into the habit of blogging? Get together with your ex-boyfriend and take him to see a comedian you haven't heard of! The ex-bf (now current) and I chose Tegan Higginbotham at the Melbourne Internash Comedy festival last month cos she was young and a girl (but not in a weird way...we just wanted to support up-and-coming female comedians...promise) and she was FUNNY – in the sense that we laughed a LOT. Tears were induced, abdominal muscles were engaged – I think I even snorted. I was also inspired to write a review immediately! (I didn't, though, obviously - but am making up for that lost time now).

Her show, “Million Dollar Tegan,” was an hour-long recount of her foray into boxing and her first televised fight (it didn’t end with her cracking her neck on a stool a la Hilary Swank, but she did make a joke about how, before she saw Million Dollar Baby and had only heard a summary of the film, she originally hoped said killer-stool might have been a giant Poo Monster). Jokes and anecdotes ranged in content from interesting details about the boxing industry (the smell of boxing gloves, the way not to punch, the way fights are scored) to by-products of Tegan's training, such as the close friendships she made with the other female boxers, the nicknaming culture at the gym (hers was "Spastic") and the crush she developed on her mentor.

Tegan bustin' moves
The narrative arc frequently veered into non-boxing territory, revealing stories about Higginbotham's messy ex-housemates, her dad’s model spaceships, getting fired from her day job, eating chocolate and the excitement of going to the tip. Somehow, these tangents segued convincingly back into the boxing story and provided a layered picture of Higginbotham that meant the climax of her show – fighting her first fight, and experiencing all the emotions that went along with it – was that much more powerful. Structuring her show around a narrative made it particularly easy to stay engaged and allowed her to build certain jokes throughout the gig, as opposed to relying on one-liners. Her timing was impeccable. Several times since the show, I have laughed out loud when particular lines come to mind - especially a recurring joke about meeting Dipper. Her one Bible joke was cute and funny - and, impressively, very well-informed!

Unlike many young comedians, Higginbotham's onstage presence was easy and unfazed. She spoke with familiarity to the late-comers, laughed at herself when she mucked up a joke (which made the line even funnier) and continued with gags about her boxing coach even though he was in the front row. Her candour and openness made it feel as though she was speaking to the audience like friends, and admirably, she spoke with a humility that didn’t rely on total self-deprecation or self-abasement (which I find a bit tiring after a while). 

This attitude allowed her to create some extremely moving moments. I may have welled up when she described how she got punched in the face – hard - by her opponent (and friend) during her first real fight. She described how confusing it was to be punched in the face – hard – and be bleeding and unable to see properly and have no-one ask her if she was ok (and instead having people cheer her on). The only consolation she had during this moment was to see her mother crying in the crowd. Though she quickly reverted back to funniness, these snippets of insight gave her show a surprising amount depth and richness.

Do I sound like I'm raving too much about this show? Possibly. As you know, anything done successfully by a young woman makes me stupidly happy, so this show had my happiness off the charts. BUT - the rest of crowd was laughing as much (if not more) than I was. Go and see Tegan Higginbotham at her next show, for shizzle.

In other news, I wrote a piece on women and gender and stand-up comedy for the Kill Your Darlings blog - read here!

PeEsE oWt bAyBz - xOxOx