Lisa Lang’s Utopian Man

In her historical novel Utopian Man… Australian author Lisa Lang… seems to propose a certain savage truth about the march of history: that, at bottom, it is the simple unfolding of entropy. With this in mind, she approaches historical fiction aware that narrative cohesion is destined, or doomed, to be upset by the sloppiness of the unvarnished historical record. Rather than attempting to overcome the entropy of history, Lang entertains it. She offers a novel whose acceptance of the chaotic events seems designed to frustrate readers who expect an orderly narrative in the vein of Byatt, Mantel, and their cohort. Ostensibly setting out to shape the life of a man into an entertaining and accessible story, Lang abandons that enterprise and begins to shine a light on its inevitable shortcomings. The result is a minor triumph: not without its share of failures, but a captivating, challenging, and rewarding work of fiction that succeeds despite the weaknesses of its final pages.

My review of Lisa Lang’s Utopian Man is online at The Critical Flame.

The Late Great Patrick White

In the 1960s and 1970s one figure commanded the [Australian] literary landscape, and ruled the artistic life of Sydney like an (intermittently) benign despot. Nobel Prize winner, patrician activist, host of legendary proportions, he was famed for his savagery as well as his generosity, his intolerance of fools and charlatans, his immense warmth and his uncompromising intelligence.

James Bradley, ‘Me and Patrick White’

A couple of weeks ago, I listened to a panel discussion at the Wheeler Centre entitled “The Late Great Patrick White.” It was the first in the Centre’s series of discussions about the lives and works of Australian writers who are no longer with us. I can only hope that the others turn out to be as fulfilling as this one because it was a fantastic event: impassioned, intelligent, often very funny. Happily, there’s no need to recount the discussion in detail now that the Centre has uploaded video, but I do want to add a few general remarks on White and the event participants and to point towards what I think were some of the night’s most valuable moments. Continue reading

Treasures in the Digital Aether

I’m not interested in reading books that tell me what I already know. I don’t want to read a novel that makes me ‘care about’ a fictional character; I want to read a novel that teaches me a new way to think or a new way to read, or else intentionally frustrates my desires for those things, or does something else entirely unexpected — frankly, a formula of rising action, climax, falling action and denouement seems to me to be the thing that’s in need of defending. How boring! Why would anyone want to read that?

That’s from a fantastic interview with Emmett Stinson at Verity La, an online Australian literary journal that has evolved from interesting to absolutely indispensable in the space of about six months. Even better than the interview as a whole is that it is only the latest installment in a long series of equally fantastic interviews. Continue reading

A Writer’s Writer Speaks

In my estimation, Gerald Murnane is arguably Australia’s greatest living writer of fiction and probably one of the greatest currently at work anywhere in the world. Yesterday, I enjoyed the rare pleasure of listening to Murnane speak at this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival. Ordinarily, I would avoid such an event; I dislike the often superficial and self-congratulatory atmosphere of literary festivals. Late last year, however, I caught an ABC Radio interview with Murnane in which he discussed his most recent work of fiction, Barley Patch, and I was so struck by the unhesitating, unashamed, and yet entirely amiable way in which he discussed the nature of his fiction that I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hear him speak in person. At the outset of that 2009 interview, the interviewer, Peter Mares, noted that Murnane has often been called “a writer’s writer” and he opened the interview by asking Murnane how he reacts to that designation. To his credit, Murnane took the opportunity to respond to that rather insipid question as a means of opening up a more sophisticated discussion of what he actually writes: Continue reading