slogan one, reminder one: the preciousness of human life

Point One The preliminaries, which are the basis for dharma practice

Slogan One First, train in the preliminaries (the Four Reminders or the Four Thoughts)

Reminder One Maintain an awareness of the preciousness of human life

I have been trying to reflect on slogan one this week, but not that much has been coming up that has caused me to remember to reflect. I didn’t nearly die, which is nice. We did have a pretty serious mental-health scare with our son though, which happened after I started long-handing this draft. Consider that a trigger warning I suppose.

I guess without a trigger, the first reminder of slogan one is a pretty broad sweep as far as philosophical subjects go, the idea that human rebirth is a rare opportunity to work on our karmic balance and move some way to a more enlightened way of being. In our culture we’re not exactly trained to do anything more with the idea of human existence than take it for granted. Maybe the Tibetans weren’t either and that’s why it was made the number-one slogan. Daily meditation would be a good way to bring these slogans to the fore each day, but I’m only just restarting my pogrom this week, and slowly at that.

When I grumbled at Zane recently for being selfish I thought (after a while), Hey, maybe a slogan like this could help me to be more patient. (He’s 12, so selfishness is almost a natural expression of emergent self-identity, considering he’s only just beginning to realise he may or may not actually have a self that’s independent from others – so the suffering begins.) This is a rare opportunity for Zane as well, and if awareness of this slogan meant he got a skerrick more compassion from me, that would be a leg up for him. Some of the other slogans will be a bit more specific to this kind of thing though I suspect.

Something else that came up while reflecting on this slogan was when we helped a guy at work who nearly fell off a ladder. And then my friend had a close call at work and texted me to stay safe. Two indirect encounters with mortality in one week (the week I was reflecting on this slogan …) combined with my dim awareness of this slogan has meant that I’m appreciating my own human life more at the moment, which makes tribulations easier to bear and makes the small triumphs more brilliant. Such is the power of a millennia-old psychotherapy.

I said to Nikki the other day that the human experience is both a blessing and a curse: we are, it seems, acutely more aware than other species that our suffering could be avoided, yet we are equally unable to avoid or assuage or mitigate that suffering. I mean, we could – that’s exactly the point of a psychotherapy such as Buddhism and teachings like the lojong, but who can remember this all the time? It is when we forget these teachings and practices that the tribulations begin to feel like a curse. The teachings remind us that being human is a blessing, the result of good karma and the opportunity to accumulate more, not something that should be squandered by, say, cursing our own existence.

This taps into something that is near and dear to my heart: the idea that thoughts are (mental) actions and therefore each thought comes with a karmic result; wishing to not exist (even without the intention to act on that wish), when considered alongside slogan one, must constitute a considerably negative mental action, with attendant negative karma.

Remember the Rage Against the Machine cover?

Journalist Malcolm Browne’s photograph of Quảng Đức during his self-immolation

Even in the 90s before I knew more than rudimentary ideas about Buddhism, my friends and I knew the karmic sacrifice this monk had made by burning himself to death as a protest.

Even thinking about suicide has negative karmic consequences as far as I know, especially when considered alongside this slogan, and that might be all the take-away I need from reflecting on this slogan. I’m not going to mention this to Zane – introducing him to the dharma at a time in his development when everything we say is wrong by virtue of our having said it would be unskillful to say the least. Reflecting on this slogan has helped me enough to respond more compassionately to his our mental-health crises.

The slogan also came to mind when I was picking up some steel in the work truck. A trucker was grumbling at the office counter about how it’s always the drivers who suffer when the distributor is disorganised as they were on that day. That sort of ignorant and self-absorbed grumbling kind of annoys me: like everyone doesn’t suffer from how most adults these days are absolute numpties who couldn’t organise their way out of a wet paper bag! And I thought later that I’d like to have dropped some pithy comment about how rich we would be if we could transform such suffering into gold. Maybe it would have been taken literally, but sowing the seed of such a metaphor might have ended up yielding some sort of valuable reflection down the truck … um, track … for the poor suffering fellow.

I like the idea that dharma can be dropped among the most mundane situations if we have enough knowledge, experience and eloquence to do so without sounding like some kind of preacher. If we can thus enrich one person’s rare opportunity of human experience, then we are living the dharma and making good use of our own opportunity.

It’s been a great slogan to start on, and I’m enjoying the practice of reflecting on these slogans “weekly”. It’s probably been more like two weeks on the first slogan because I barely get time to scratch myself now that I’m working full-time for the first time since 2008, and I’m only just chipping away at the project, but I find it enriching to just know this project is in my peripheries. Ecoscaping is noble and rewarding work that means a lot to me, but there will always be a part of me that craves and needs a bit of intellectual and spiritual fodder in his diet.

a digressive introduction to the lojong ( བློ་སྦྱོང་) blog series

This year I started working as a landscaper, which has been something of a departure from my earlier career in publishing and academia. A year ago I took a twelve-month leave of absence from uni for a few reasons: studying on campus during covid was either a nightmare or impossible; it was always part of the plan for me to take on more of the bread-winner role so Nikki could study permaculture; working as a professional student and freelance editor was just no longer suitable for me, who has been looking for more direct ways to influence change since my publishing career began to seem like an abortive idea in my late twenties (I’m now in my late thirties). Ten years later I can now finally accept that publishing was a wild chapter of my life, which is over for now. This job … um, I mean … this blog is a hobby and an exercise in self-reflection.

Beginning work as a landscaper is also not a departure, because publishing is the path that lead me to landscaping, as landscaping is a path to what I have recently conceived of as ecoscaping. I will be doing all I can to bring the ecological awareness of permaculture to the landscaping work I’m doing. I am very fortunate to have been lead to a business run by a couple of young blokes who understand the value of permaculture. It feels a bit self-evident to say that one career path leads to another, but who ever heard of a book editor becoming a landscaper?, and sometimes it helps to be explicit about accepting that life paths are never linear.

We’ve all heard the archetypal story of the working-class kid who pulled themself up by the bootstraps and made an artistic life out of the suburbs. I did it myself. I was raised working class in the suburbs, escaped from there to middle-class creative work in the cities, and am now escaping back into the suburban working-class, which I always wanted and felt I needed to avoid. It was a kind of rebellion against the culture of my parents: I didn’t want to squander my life in what I thought was menial labour. By my early twenties I was convinced that I would spend the rest of my life in publishing, so was surprised (to say the least), when I started feeling disillusioned about that path as soon as my late twenties. Even then I started to realise I needed to be doing work that would have a more direct impact on the social and environmental issues I had started to learn about through my work in publishing. It took me ten years mixing travel with vagrancy, freelancing with study (creative writing and permaculture, at different times), and spiritual teachings with meditation/yoga to stumble upon the idea that ecoscaping is actually a suprising blend of all these, in the weird way I have managed to interpret the trade of landscaping. It wouldn’t be me doing the trade if I didn’t manage to weird it somehow.

Reflecting on this I realised that I needed to go down the urban creative-intellectual path to get a few things out of my system before I could confidently and happily move back to the suburban working-class path, doing work that combines physical, intellectual and creative labour in one outdoor package. I mean, I needed to pick up some values and principles that I could bring to working-class culture, so that I would feel my work is meaningful. If I had gone into working-class culture as an NDT technichian (as nearly happened before I landed my first opportunities in publishing) without the “training” of my urbane stage, I might not have had the confidence to make sure my working-class efforts were contributing good to the world. Nothing is linear, really. If it was, I would never have become a book editor in the first place, who is now becoming a pre-apprentice ecoscaper with a business that values the permaculture principles I may not have enountered or acquired through the tail-end of the publishing path.

But this has been a digression: this point about the path; not the path itself. May all the digressions be embraced.

Now that I am working as a landscaper with a business that values the principles I bring to the landscape of the industry, I can settle in to a creative, spiritual and intellectual project that I have been contemplating for sometime. I have the degree of stability and security and lifestyle structure I need to embark on the project and practice of reflecting each week on one of the 59 slogans of lojong (བློ་སྦྱོང་) mind-training.

The first slogan, being made up of four points under the heading, “First, train in the preliminaries”, reminds me of a teaching I was interested to learn already through Tibetan Buddhism, which is that human rebirth is fortunate and must not be squandered by wanton ignorance. I’ll reflect on that this week and see how I go at posting something vaguely weekly about each slogan. [Here’s a link.]

The Peripheral, by William Gibson

Travelling the Culture of Gibson’s The Peripheral: There is no future that will save us from the present

This is not a review – just a few thoughts about The Peripheral that might interest others who have read it or Gibson’s other work.

I picked up a copy of The Peripheral at Little Bird Bookshop recently, apparently having forgotten that I couldn’t make much sense of Neuromancer. I wanted an entertaining and somewhat-illuminating sci-fi novel, which I didn’t get, perhaps because I haven’t been in the right mood for reading Gibson. It’s been hard work, getting into and enjoying The Peripheral.

I don’t mind hard work when it comes to literature, and even with literary-genre writing, but the sort of work that Gibson seems to expect of his readers is beyond my ken unless I’m really on my game. I can’t work out whether he’s difficult to read because he’s not a very good writer or because he’s just not the writer for me. I looked up some reviews of Neuromancer while I was reading this one, and they said essentially the same thing: he’s a difficult writer, but some readers might enjoy that. I imagine he would be a nuisance to edit, and there’s a funny imagined dialogue between publicist, publisher and editor that suggests the book was published not on the basis of its merits but because it was written by Gibson: “It will sell, because it’s Gibson.”

Maybe I thought there would have been some improvement between 1984 (Neuromancer) and 2014 (The Peripheral), like maybe he had become more articulate in the thirty years and ten or so books between his first and more-recent novel. But Neuromancer sold some six and a half million copies, so when you’re onto a winner, why change? I’m prepared to accept that Gibson is doing something that is simply beyond my ken, because this is both exciting and frustrating: he has all these books I could try to read, and maybe eventually I’ll crack the code, as after I’ve read a few Shakespeare plays in a row.

That’s actually not a bad analogy, because both Gibson and Shakespeare are writing about worlds that either no longer exist or don’t yet exist, and I’m willing to concede that the thing I’m (not quite) missing about the Gibsons I’ve read is that they are using world-specific language that is inherently difficult to follow because we are not (and cannot be) part of those worlds, anymore that we can visit Shakespearean London, except in the imagination. What I mean is that it may be a strength of Gibson’s that he uses such world-specific language without enough context for the reader to easily understand what is going on. It might be a strength because it lends itself to a kind of world-specific authenticity or verisimilitude that would be lost if he were more explicit about what he’s talking about. So in a way I’m wondering whether what Gibson is doing actually puts a lot of other scif-fi writers to shame.

Other sci-fi writers give explanations, of sorts, about what is going on. They use language that means something to us, to kind of bridge our understanding of world-specific stuff across to our world. The only word I can think of is they “port” the confusing world-specific phenomena across to our world using exposition specific to our world, so we can understand. Gibson doesn’t do that – he doesn’t use a lot of exposition. He just has his characters do stuff that would make sense to them, and he has characters discuss or reflect on these events using terminology that would make sense to them – and to us, if we were living in that world. But we are not. So we just get a report from that world, and we can either marvel about its necessary obscurity or we can be disgruntled that we didn’t have some kind of cultural ambassador along with us, or maybe the babel fish of Adams’ hitch-hiker universe.

If we had such an ambassador or interpreter, though, I think we would feel more disgruntled in a less overt way – we would feel that our experience of witnessing an alternate world had been somehow cheapened, by having someone along to explain everything. We would become tourists in a literary adventure where everyone prefers to be a traveller, able to navigate and interpret their experience of a foreign culture on their own.

I won’t try to summarise the plot because this is not a review. It’s enough to say here that the novel is set in two futures: pre-apocalypse America, and post-apocalypse London. Some of this comes from the blurb, though it does leak through in the text. Flynne gets recruited by her brother Burton to do some security-guard work in what they think is a virtual-reality game. While on duty, Flynne witnesses what seems to be a murder, and she soon learns the murder wasn’t just a game, but happened IRL in some version or iteration of the future. How Burton has been accessing this future/game was never made clear, so right from the premise the whole novel was just not plausible for me, but see above about why maybe this doesn’t matter for Gibson and some of his readers. There was some talk in the London future about how agents there had been the ones who accessed Burton’s reality (London’s sort-of past, but our future), but this was so vague, delivered in the characters’ arcane vernacular, that I never grasped the plausibility of this either. The London characters don’t even know how Burton’s “stub” was accessed, and the motivations for these characters piggy-backing this illicit “blackbox” access was also super vague. Something about Lev’s family (members of the old undefined “klept” or kleptocracy) having economic/investment interests. Mostly I’m thinking this is a plot-driven narrative, rather than a character-driven one: things happened because Gibson wanted them to happen, not because the characters would necessarily do these things. If they did have reasons for getting involved in this narrative, I either couldn’t figure out what they were, or wasn’t invested enough to care because their motivations were not clearly articulated. The storytelling was just not that great. Maybe Gibson is in company with the likes of H G Wells in that he is neither a great stylist nor a great storyteller, but he’s got some good ideas that warrant exploration. The trouble is, for me: what’s the point of exploring ideas through fiction if your readers can’t easily follow along? Maybe other readers can, and Gibson is just not my kind of writer.

Burton’s employers get wind of what was witnessed during Flynne’s shift and he has to admit to them that he wasn’t working at the time, so he arranges for Flynne to meet them. Someone tries to kill Flynne (because of what she witnessed), but Conner mysteriously intervenes, and the f(l)ight is on. The employers have Macon fab some headsets and Flynne starts visiting the future she will never know.

Hereafter there are too many (vague) plot points to consider, and I don’t remember some of them because they were not explicit enough for me to understand enough to remember (or care). All I know is that the employers (along with Lowbeer) start helping Flynne for reasons that are not clear, and Flynne’s cohort play along for equally unclear reasons: Lev and co.’s motivation seems to be no more than curiosity (again, there are some fleeting mentions of him scouting investment opportunities, but that’s it); and Flynne’s cohort seem to play along because they are bored and have little else to do (they are paid some money through ambiguous means, and it becomes vague that they need protection from the London characters, but this emerges only later, by which time I had lost any real interest and was only reading because I wanted to finish the book). I don’t really feel like untangling the plot points or the characters’ motivations, because if Gibson didn’t bother making it clear, then why should I decipher it? Maybe his books are worth deciphering, but I’ve just not been in the mood for that lately and I’m not sure I want to invest the time. There’s a review here that suggests it wasn’t just me:

[The plot] becomes progressively more of a slog to get through as the novel goes on. The writing is often clumsy, ponderous and uncomfortable where Gibson is usually nimble, which is partially due to the complexity of the timelines. […] As the plot becomes even messier and more convoluted, it starts to break down, like massive siege weapon that starts to shake apart when battle-tested.

There were some cool over-arching ideas that do warrant mentioning, such as the “jackpot” and Gibson’s take on “evil” being just an extension of ordinary human baseness, not some pathology that only a few people suffer from but a natural consequence of greed, which any human is susceptible to.

The jackpot is mentioned a few times and it becomes clear enough that this is the cataclysmic event that separates pre-apocalypse America from post-apocalypse London, but Netherton eventually spills to Flynne (for no good plausibile reason) that the jackpot was not some single event that caused the apocalypse, but the cumulative effect of numerous idiot-human mistakes over a period of many generations. This is when Gibson makes room to come in and allude to the idea that eras rarely seem like eras at the time, and are only categorised as such through the lense of history and its retrospective narratives – hindsight being 20-20. A Goodreadser who seems to have been taken by the book has extracted the following quote about this, which I admit was a good one:

“Eras are conveniences, particularly for those who never experienced them. We carve history from totalities beyond our grasp. Bolt labels on the result. Handles. Then speak of the handles as though they were things in themselves.”

Netherton explains that the jackpot was “caused” by an economic climate that lead to environmental climate change that eventually become unstoppable (cf. Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers). This is where Gibson drops in a few more ideas that might justify the blurb’s emphasis on a “story which gets right to the heart of the way we live now”, though the rest of the novel doesn’t really do this on a day-to-day basis (unless it does and I just wasn’t paying attention for the right signs), and dropping this ideas-nugget in as an implausible plot-point just doesn’t fly for me as a reader. There’s something important about making sure the story resonates, as well as the themes/ideas. Telling a second-class story and name-dropping some world-class ideas just doesn’t do the ideas justice, I reckon.

The way he depathologises “evil” is a great idea, though it also is just dropped in through Lowbeer at the end. She disabuses us of the notion that people who do evil are some other subhuman species, which shines a spotlight (however indirectly) on the idea that if evil is not a pathology, a deformation, or some kind of aberation, then every human (among even all our goodness) is somehow capable of the sort of “evil”/behaviour that would lead to something like the jackpot. In the context of Netherton helping Flynne understand that her world is in the depths of the beginning of the jackpot, which implies that our world as we know it is approaching something similar, this depathologising of evil makes us all complicit in the potential future that is half-depicted in the London world. (It is half-depicted, but depicted enough that we understand we don’t want to end up realising the kleptocracy that Netherton so despises.) So on this level I really appreciate what Gibson is doing, and for this reason I have more time for his books than I thought I would throughout the opening, middle and even the approach to the end of this one.

One of my favourite books of all time didn’t make any sense to me until right at the end, so perhaps I should be more forgiving of Gibson than I had been before I started writing this, which is prexactly why I write these long-winded and rambly posts. That said, from what I recall of The Obscene Bird of Night, the prevailing ambiguity/confusion of the novel (made clear at the end) was an intentional and artful stroke, whereas Gibson’s ambiguity was the result of not deigning to let the reader into the secrets of his imagination.

The only other thing I want to note is that I don’t like the idea of depicting our present being saved from itself by some implausible series of events from a future we can never access. I don’t like saved-by-the-future narratives, though I guess that’s what Terminator is. These stories tell a narrative that there is nothing we can do in the present to save us from ourselves. But the future is not going to rescue us.

I’ll be trying Gibson again one day if I find myself in a situation where I especially crave the challenge of sci-fi that might be as illuminating as it is hard to access, but I’ll need to be in the right mood to accept that it may not be worth the effort.

“Goldilocks’ Grieving” published [short fiction]

I am pleased to announce that I have had a new short story published, called “Goldilocks’ Grieving”, the first in quite some time. You can read it here. Based on a true story, it’s about a guy’s reaction to witnessing another guy idling his car in the carpark.

I’m really proud of this story. It emerged almost fully formed in a single sitting, immediately after the events that inspired it. I used the draft for a uni assignment and then submitted it to a competition run by QUT, who published it in the inaugural issue of a new student-run mag called Scratch That.

Let me know what you think!

oneiric aetiology [microfiction]

He should probably have known better than to watch a movie that was triggering like that before bed, but he’s done it now and here he is on the verge of elsewhere. He’s woken up suddenly and looked over to see the bedside clock flick over to 11:09 before his eyes. Maybe not a portent exactly, but a number with meaning for him below reason in the realm of oneiric logic.

Nothing like this has happened for months. The meds had been doing their job of keeping it under the carpet. Their efficacy was bound to wane eventually, along with the validity of their prescription. The associations would return and they would double-back with intensity for having been repressed, and he would have some unknown reason to get out of bed again. Better than sleeping fourteen hours a day.

He now steps out of bed with diligence he can only remember from before the meds. He moves to the open window and yes, a course of tingles cascades down from his crown because yes, of course the traffic lights are green outside the window. It’s a main road out there and it’s the middle of the night, but such profane logic is not what registers when he looks back at the clock to see the numbers tick over to 11:12. It hasn’t felt like three minutes, but who is he to argue.

Others believe 11:11 is the master number, but his purpose is different. This isn’t some “secret mission”. It is below secret, arising from the primordial within.

Dr Schneider has other ideas, of course. And lots of elaborate linguistic chicanery for defending a model of aetiology as profane now as it was once arcane. This is not just apophenia. It is apophenia, yes, but it is not just some elaborate abstraction from reality to help the man cope with the abnegation of his responsibility. It is the perception of patterns that others cannot perceive, which does not mean the patterns are not there. As though to confirm this, a butterfly makes it path across the backyard in the direction of the green traffic lights.

He doesn’t know whether butterflies emerge at night, this man, but he knows that doesn’t matter. He knows what butterflies mean – that to not climb out the window would be a true abnegation of his arcane duty. He has waited months for this, sleeping fourteen hours a day in what he now understands was a narcotic cocoon.

He doesn’t expect to fly or anything crazy like that. But he knows when he jumps that he will land elsewhere, having committed himself to a leap into dimensions with their own notions of causality. And when he lands, the butterfly returns, doubling back in loops on the wings of infinity to bless his crown with a kiss of welcome. He climbs the fence with his crown tingling and crosses the road against the red light of the standing man.

~~~

This draft was produced for the EWF20 Swinburne Microfiction Challenge

biogas disaster [microfiction]

My wife and I were doing it when we heard a backfire outside and it triggered something in Nikki. She looks damn-near traumatised, eyebrows up in her forehead and a vortex of sadness spiralling downward in her eyes.

It just reminded her, she says, of this parent at school who’s a bit damaged now after what he saw.

We lay beside each other and the sadness emanating from Nikki reminds me of the old couple from The Titanic. She tells me she met this guy at a school thing one time. Middle of the day, kids all around and the air-conditioner rattling, talking like normal at first.

It’s worth mentioning our son is something of an amateur engineer slash chemist, an idealistic young kind who likes to put things together until they make new things. Sometimes the inventions don’t have much point, but the point is he tries to make new systems because the ones we have now aren’t doing anyone much good.

Apparently this parent’s neighbour was quite like our son, and that’s what got him on to the subject in the classroom that day.

Remember, we’re talking about this in bed after we were doing it and it all feels very much like we’re the old couple from The Titanic, drowning in each other’s arms.

Nikki was telling him about our older son and the guy, this parent, was all of a sudden about to cry in the middle of all these boisterous kids with the air-conditioner clanking away. Tears all up in his eyes and he said, “I’m sorry, can we sit?”, so Nikki manoeuvred him to the corner of the classroom that passes for a school library these days. That’s where he told her.

This neighbour of his was quite like our son apparently, but he’s no longer here because he got fed up with burning a shitty electric stove all the time. So he built some thing called a biogas digester and blew up his shed. The guy ran over there but it was too late, way too late, and all this was pouring out of this poor guy in the corner of what passes for a school library. Nikki was able to contain the outpouring somewhat but still, people talk about this parent at school who’s a bit damaged now.

No one talks about how damaged we must be that an idealistic young engineer slash chemist would risk his life in such a way. About how all the real polluters are too damn gluttonous to do anything real about the ancient phytoplanktons we dig out of the ground every day. The despair we share because anyone with half a brain knows we’re running this planet into the ground. But we talk about this in bed because we don’t feel like doing it now after a noise like that. These triggered memories arise like nightmare flashbacks, reminding us of just how deep we are in the problem of fueling our needless desires.

~~~

This draft was produced for the EWF20 Swinburne Microfiction Challenge

takes guts [microfiction]

“great now he’s off walking to school”

The sms comes as a surprise because you just sent a link to your friend and you’re expecting it to be from him but no, it’s your wife, from the driveway.

You step back from the phone thinking Why the dramatics?, but the phone comes with you because it’s in your hands and at the same time you remember all the times you did this as a kid. A glance out the window to see your wife has stopped the car and the passenger door is dangling open. You don’t remember remember – it’s more like a flood of melancholy that feels achingly familiar but somehow distant, connecting you at a spooky distance with your son, who could be anywhere by now, you catastrophise.

But wasn’t it only minutes ago that he answered you?, in the surly manner he takes to your gruff admonishments. He doesn’t walk to school because … thinking, frowning … wondering why you were even asking … realising, perhaps, that actually he’s never even considered this, just assuming that you or Mum would always take him … and finally, saying, “I don’t know the way?”

And that unsure inflection, stabbing you because the boy is eleven and doesn’t understand that rhetorical questions are even a thing.

“Exactly!” was the last thing you said to him and now you’re looking at your phone again because maybe you misread the message but no, your son has decided to exercise a mixture of spite and confused remorse by threatening to walk himself to school.

He knows the way, but doesn’t know that. All he knows is that Dad is annoyed with him again because he said something stupid and spiteful. He doesn’t know the word for spite, and he only knows that what he said was stupid because Dad got annoyed and raised his voice out the loungeroom window.

That was you who raised your voice and whose stomach is falling out from under you onto the porch in your dressing gown because what if he runs off or something stupid but no, he’s getting back in the car. He hasn’t bolted off into traffic.

You pick your guts up off the porch and walk back inside without a second wave, surly and frowning and annoyed by all the catastrophising and dramatics. Your stomach flutters as you remember again all the times you ran off as a kid, determined to hide out down the creek and hold your breath until no one cared anymore.

It’s a good thing you picked your guts up off the porch, because you’re going to need them later when you apologise and explain to him: your cheap shot about walking himself to school … that was meant to inspire gratitude for all the lifts, not fear and loathing and spiteful remorse … about all the times anyone said something stupid, or used a rhetorical question with a kid.

~~~

This draft was produced for the EWF20 Swinburne Microfiction Challenge.

genre, literature, literary genre, and genre trash

It’s been a while, but as I said when I first wrote in the Books category here, I’ve been trying to write a few notes at least when I finish reading a book, so that I’m not just reading book after book after book without really integrating what I’ve read.

I fell off the wagon.

The last book I wrote about was Going Bovine by Libba Bray, and since then I’ve read:

  • The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub (which I read in my late teens and found recently at a community book exchange);
  • We So Seldom Look on Love, stories by Barbara Gowdy (I tend to have a short-story collection on the go at all times, and will read one or two from the collection in-between novels or non-fiction books);
  • The Etched City by K J Bishop (an Australian New Weird novel published by Tor Books in 2005);
  • Lock In by John Scalzi (which was a bit pukey).

It was cool to read The Talisman again, because it was one of my favourite books in my late teens ~ by that I mean I remember vastly enjoying it, but I never remembered much more than that about it, except a vague image of a young boy on the road, travelling through dangerous ‘territory’. Reading it again this time I was mildly surprised that not one of the words brought back any real memory of the actual story. So mostly it was like reading a novel for the first time. The story was kind of bloated and over-written ~ it takes a long time for the good stuff to happen, and many of the narrative tangents don’t really contribute much to the theme or plot (though they do a good job of developing a rich character in Jack). But I enjoyed it ~ especially the whole notion of how myriad parallel dimensions revolve around the Talisman, which is a theme that must have sunk in deep when I was a kid, because the novel I’m working on goes near similar territory, and apparently King goes deeper down this path in the Dark Tower series, which I’m keen to look at soon.

The stories in We So Seldom Look on Love, by Barbara Gowdy, are brilliant ~ dark, semi-erotic, bordering on perverse, but deeply human and affecting, plus her style and voice are assured and consistent. My wife put me on to it ~ it’s a collection she has had on her shelf for a long time, and which she revisits now and then (such is the quality of the stories). There’s a story about a troubled child who drills a hole in her head, a story about a guy who ‘saves’ a Siamese twin (though not before having sex with them), and a story about a relationship of sorts between a married woman and the voyeur next door. Oh, and the title story about the relationships of a necrophiliac. (I was pleased to learn just now that a synonym for ‘necrophilia’ is ‘thanatophilia’: I wrote an assignment for my lit studies subject last year about what I decided to call ‘thanotic sublimation’, which, I decided, is similar to erotic sublimation except it takes the form of yonic symbolism instead of phallic.) I very much value the ability to embrace the shadowside of ourselves, especially (or perhaps only) since reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being in my early twenties. So I love it when an author is able to lovingly depict characters who would otherwise be considered perverse or even perverted ~ apart from stylistic concerns like fluidity and the suspension of disbelief, I reckon such a function is an essential factor in determining what makes good writing great literature.

The Etched City by K J Bishop was aesthetically beautiful and deeply engaging at a sentence level, but the story and plot left a lot to be desired, in my opinion ~ an assassin escapes a Dystopian Wasteland for a Victorian-esque Wretched Hive city, has a hallucinatory relationship with another assassin he used to know, and then … I actually don’t remember how it ends, because I had lost interest in the story by that point. I think he goes back to the wasteland, and she evaporates into the whisps of hallucination. I read this because: 1), it’s an explicitly New Weird novel, and 2), it’s Australian. And I enjoyed it, but I’m such a sucker for good strong narrative that I sometimes felt it missed an opportunity to be a great story. No regrets. And I admire the courage to write something that doesn’t depend entirely on plot or story to get people turning the pages.

The virtual-reality sci-fi balls-up of John Scalzi’s Lock In is mass-market genre trash that holds value as market research, but that’s about it. The characters are implausible cardboard cutouts, the virtual-reality depictions are lame, and the myriad plot holes are back-filled with dialogue that would never happen among halfway-intelligent adults. I don’t think I can even be bothered finding a cover to upload. If you find yourself deserted on a temperate island in mid-winter with only this book for company, use it to start a fire and keep warm.

performing “Prank Me” at QUT Literary Salon

I am very pleased to announce that I will be performing a short story called “Prank Me” at next week’s QUT Literary Salon at The Bearded Lady. This story was shortlisted for the Allen & Unwin Undergraduate Writers Prize, and it’s a fun story to read, so I’m really looking forward to it.

If you’re in Brisbane and you’re interested in local spoken word, you can find out more about the event here.

recent and not-so-recent publications and not-so-publications

I’ve just added a Study page to this portfolio site, where I’ve uploaded an exegetical essay I wrote for a uni subject called Swords & Spaceships: Writing Genre. I also included the chapter I wrote for that exegesis. I like saying the word ‘exegesis’.

I’ve also added a page to the Other section of the Writing page, where I’ve published a rumination called “How To Eat Cereal“, which was published in Glass, the QUT student magazine, earlier the year.

And I’ve added a review of Dave Eggers’ What is the What, which was broadcast on ABC Radio National’s The Book Show, yonks ago.