On Raymond Carver

I finished Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, finished the titular story and the collection, as we finally left behind a sprawling, half dry salt lake in the middle of Turkey, and shortly after we, from a roadside seller (who, before he saw us pulling in, was reclining in the drivers’ side of his van), bought bags of pistachios and almonds that I liked to think of having been taken from the country’s heart.

Roadside nut stop

*

The plains around the lake and the salt lake are incredibly flat, the flattest land I’ve seen in my life. For a long time it looked like the milky lake and sky met and the lake opened into the sea. But as we followed the lake’s curve, the land on the other side became clear, putting a dark line between water and sky.

The land appears as if it has been ground down, polished smooth. Not from rain and wind but worn smooth by time, maybe, the lake buffed to a metallic sheen.

Around the salt lake are tufts of thin, sharp grass. Roaming the tree-less plains, much of it divided into patches, are herds of black and brown cattle. Some of the houses on the plains look as if they, too, are being eroded, slowly dismantled, turned into unnatural structures before they fall apart and are forgotten.

lake-tuz

*

My grandfather’s name was Raymond; I like the name and think it sounds noble. Maybe one day I’ll tell his story, or what I know of it. And as I read ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ I thought I could sense the beginnings of other, more recent US writers, something in the vernacular, in Carver and I wonder how right or wrong this is.

*

A second lake appears. It runs along the side of the road for a long time before turning sharply and disappearing into the horizon. Ahead, a snow-capped mountain with a cloud draped across its top levitates above the earth.

Nuts

On three things on the walls of my grandmother’s house

1. A photo of my grandfather. His smiling face, gold tooth and bare forehead, in a small wooden frame. This photo and a recording of his voice (in which the timbre of his voice falls somewhere between my father’s and my uncle’s) and apocryphal stories of his life, and death, is all I remember of him. My grandmother used to have a photo that she carried in her purse of me and my grandfather eating ice creams we’d bought from a Mr Whippy truck. I am tiny, we both wear shorts; my grandmother liked to compare our legs. I remember this too, but this photo is gone.

2. A print of the Sacred Heart. Jesus dwells in my grandmother’s bedroom. He is pained, haloed, a pierced hand raised, a ruby heart at his chest. He has been turned sepia by the sun. As a child, I was careful to avoid his melancholy eyes, peering from above my grandmother’s bed, afraid he knew my secret thoughts.

3. A painting by my maternal grandmother. Thin paperbark trees clustered around a small lake done in the style of the Impressionists. The story goes that her painting teacher would help her; I wonder if she ever went to the locations that were her subject, or if she painted from the pictures in calendars. These landscapes are passed around in the family, ownerless. It is not amateurish, but I thought it was better than it is. There is a fine balance of colour, of the blues of the distant mountain range, but it displays an impatience, lacks fullness. I wish it was more complete.

Untitled [On connecting the dots]

When I was a small child the mysteries and potentialities of a dot to dot picture would fill my stomach with what I understood were butterflies. I favoured blue-ink pens for the task of doing a dot to dot, colouring the finished picture in with textas or pencils later maybe but treating the dots and blue ink and paper as the the raw, picture-making material. I made my lines from dot to dot as straight and direct as possible, taking my time, delaying the moment that the image hidden in the dots would be revealed.

The best dot to dots were those that were unrecognisable in pure dot form.

I wonder now what dot to dots actually taught me. If they conditioned me to follow a guide and find safety and pleasure in this rather than to do things my way.

I even wonder if I was indeed attracted to the mystery and idea that the picture was waiting to be revealed and that revealing it was in my power, or if it was in fact that if I didn’t get the line from one dot to dot perfectly straight, there was always another opportunity to get it right between the next dots. Or was my attraction simply to the sound of the name dot to dot, the rhythm of it like the rattle of trains along a railway line?

*

City; corporate lunchbreak. I was walking back to the office. As I passed the QVB, I saw a solitary old man crumpled against the building’s wall. People waited for buses and hurried with shopping bags and dined at the cafe on the corner. I eventually turned back. The old man wore pressed trousers and a vest over a button up shirt and was sitting uncomfortably on the footpath, propping himself up on his elbows. The legs of his trousers were hitched up so I could see thin calves and that he had on matching blue socks which, in that moment, was something I interpreted as being uncompromising symbols of sanity and dignity. I walked back to him – his white hair was carefully combed – and I asked if he was OK, called him mate. He looked at me then averted his eyes, unsurprised and unembarrassed but bewildered maybe, like I hadn’t spoken a language he understood. I called him mate again and asked if everything was OK. He looked at himself. He had vomitted down his chest and onto his pants. I waited for some words from him, or an expression that I could interpret, but none came. I went inside the QVB and told the concierge – fringe, eye shadow – that there was an older gentleman outside who was in bad shape. To be clear, I said that he didn’t look like a bum. She sprang into action, literally popping out of her chair, said she would get security. She thanked me but I thought her thanks were misplaced because I was relieved this old man was now her problem.

I thought about him for the rest of the day. And now. My heart is still broken.

Some travel notes

  • “$22, one carton.” Cigarettes for sale on the plane. Lights are dimmed and switched off – peach sunset.
  • Time to KL: 6:26
    Distance to KL: 5,426 km
    Outside air temp: -18 C
    Altitude: 10364 m
  • Old Indian man stares ahead at the blank screen as if there is something showing, sips wine from a plastic wine glass, pinkie finger erect.
  • Chased by the night, the horizon red as blood in a protracted sunset.
  • Adverse weather conditions over the Arafura sea and I realise completely that I don’t like flying anymore.
  • … but there is the mother across from me, veiled and wearing spectacles. For hours she has stayed awake while her children sleep, one across her lap, the smallest. A tiny brown foot pokes out from under the blanket.
  • The hustle for the inauthentic. Livelihoods depend on fake versions of luxury goods. Fakes.
  • Day two in Beijing; the sun is bright at 6:12 am. I realise I am on a part of the planet I haven’t been before.
  • As if the city was built on the edge of an angry desert, everything exposed to the day has an coating of fine brown dust.
  • You pity someone when you think the world is too big for them; Jiang doesn’t even live in Beijing – he commutes here and stands outside the Forbidden City, asking Westerners if they want a tour guide. He refuses the offer of an ice-cream but is eager to talk philosophy. I forget to look at his shoes.
  • In the early hours of the morning, I dreamt of what I understood was my wedding. It was a long and detailed dream, as long as a wedding.
  • At the Great Wall, thinking of walls.
  • In front of the hotel, two men take apart the front section of their jeep. Other men come and stand by to watch while the paths of cyclists deviate around them. Cyclists with cigarettes hanging from their lips.
  • 6RMB = 1AUD
    2RMB = 500 ml bottle of water
    3.50RMB = Vienetta ice-cream on a stick
    28RMB = Average paperback
    300RMB = 1/2 Peking duck, rice, other dishes
  • The golden flashes of an electrical storm somewhere in the clouds below; in the sky, I miss home.
  • Last night: An at-times violently turbulent flight with a near-full moon over the left wing, technical problems at the baggage carousel, haggling over taxi prices, a highspeed Hyundai Excel ride over bridges and into town, forms in the lightless city alleys, greeted at the hotel with jokes and watermelon at midnight. Now: Not sure of the time, date, place, but also not sure that it matters.
  • It’s been a few days since I’ve written to you. It isn’t that there’s nothing to say, just that I can’t gather my thoughts in tight enough. I’m not able to pull them in to something less abstract. I blame Hanoi, or maybe I am tired; Hanoi is chaotic, tense, electric. As I write, the sounds of scooter horns stretch by on the street outside, winding into the city’s unlit alleyways, where people sit on tiny seats, in the same spot they were fourteen hours ago, drinking tea from hard plastic cups and gossiping, watching the street, pulling a bald child in closer, or flicking a thin cigarette between fingers.
  • A cluster of headstones in the open plains of the rice paddies. Often, hunched and straw-hatted rice farmers are also in view, creating the impression that they never leave this, knee-deep in the fields in life and in death.
  • White ducks, heaps of marble and brick, solitary and opulent terraces in wide spaces, four or five and even six tiers and faded Viet flags hanging at their fronts, brown cows on the side of the road or lounging in a rice paddy, structure after structure – houses, roads, bridges, storeyards – that are either under construction or or abandoned half-built or incomplete but good enough, leaving me thinking of completeness.
  • “The reason for printing this picture is not to put down G.I.’s but to illustrate the fact that the army can really fuck over your mind if you let it.” Caption from a photo of G.I.s with beheaded Vietnamese patriots.
  • Despair and sadness and nausea at the war museum.
  • Went to a GP. There was a lizard on the wall.
  • Doosan Bears vs. Nexen Heroes: Doosan wins.
  • I’m thinking about three things tonight: how I only get homesick on the plane, the cross P & I bought M at Notre Dame – red and gold and how she doesn’t take it off now unless she has to – and the head of Alexandros the great, or, more specifically, the clean slice across the top of the sculpture.
  • One of the most memorable things in Seoul will be something I can’t exactly remember.

On love

Stefany Anne Golberg’s article on Waiting for Godot, and love, is worth a fistful of your private moments.

You could, like Vladimir or Estragon, easily be talked into hanging yourself from a tree by the only one who could save you from it. We must escape. We cannot. We can’t go on. We do.

I hope at least once in your life you are fortunate enough to experience the deep-ocean turmoil and grinding anxiety and daily horror and the rush of power and fear that comes from discovering you hold someone else’s pink heart in your hands, and them yours, that is love. How else will you know you’re alive?

On the names of things – Part II

There was a domestic dispute in the block of flats across from mine last night. I was washing dishes when I heard screaming and fragile things breaking and grunting.

It began in one of the apartments that faces mine, the balcony door open to the warm night, the argument therefore audible, and later continued in the stairwell. At no point did I see those involved – when it was upstairs I could see only the white of the living room wall; when it continued downstairs, I could see only shadows cast across the driveway by the amber light in the stairwell entrance.

It was the screaming, worried screams from a child or a young woman, that drew me outside, where I waited and listened. The men argued, something broke; the child or girl pleaded for her father to stop.

“You’re a dog,” one of the men said.

Most of their words, the low and guttural fighting words of men, caught in the thick night air.

“You’re a dog,” he said. “Dog. You’re a dog. Dog. Dog.”

When it is day, I see the man who lives in the apartment hanging his clothes out to dry.

On the names of things

Only when writing do I wonder about the names of things. I haven’t been writing so I haven’t been wondering about the names of things. Of course I have been writing, but not the kind of writing where I wonder about the names of things.

*

A young man squats out of the sun as he smokes and stares hardfaced through the glass fence of his balcony. The city is both ten stories below and stretching to the sky around him. The young man, barely a man, more a boy, rests his thin arms on his knees and lets the cigarette burn between his fingers. He wears shorts and a t-shirt that hangs loose around his neck and looks like he’s from, I don’t know, rural China, perhaps – somewhere he remembers as uncomplicated. I wonder if this way he sits, balancing on his toes and sitting on his haunches, has a name – in Chinese and if there is an acceptable English translation – so I can write it down and that would be my secret reason for writing this piece.

On Chi Vu’s Anguli Ma

Anguli Ma is a murderer. In the versions of the myth that I found online, his name is Angulimala, named as such for the garland of fingers, lopped from the hands of his victims, that he wears around his neck. The wicked man is one finger away from completing his finger-necklace when Buddha convinces him to change his ways, thus reversing his fate.

In Anguli Ma: A Gothic Tale, Chi Vu brings Anguli Ma to the Australian suburbs. The story’s central character is Dao, a sweatshop worker and landlord who is subletting the house she rents to fellow Vietnamese immigrants, Sinh and Bac. One day, Anguli Ma knocks on Dao’s door asking to rent a room. She leases the moulding garage to him, and her life is slowly turned to ruins.

Early on, Anguli Ma, written in the tradition of Anne Carson’s retelling of Ancient Greek tragedies and Circe by Nicelle Davis, brims with promise. There is humour and playfulness here – setting a Gothic story in the outer suburbs of Melbourne, for instance – as well as the kind of writing you feel in your bones:

The dog begins to shake uncontrollably, its hair stands up along the ridge of its back. The brown man looks into the eyes of the dog; the dog sees the man and knows itself to be animal, stuck in its animal form. It regrets its imminent pain and death. It is able to regret because it has known joy, the joy of running freely in the wind.

But it soon becomes clear that this is a story that is attempting to be many things: a tale of horror in the Gothic tradition, a story of the hardships faced by immigrants in a new land and a retelling of the myth of Anguli Ma. At the same time, it tells split narratives from multiple view points. In trying to be so many things in the space of 100 pages, it fails in completely being any of them.

Vu’s retelling of only a part of the Anguli Ma myth is comparable to David Malouf’s retelling of only a section of The Iliad in Ransom. But where Malouf enlivens his source material, Vu fragments hers. Dao, Sinh and Bac struggle to come to terms with their place in their adopted country, questioning why they left at all. “None of us knew if we were going to meet with God or the devil out there,” Bac says about her boat trip to Australia. It’s here, with these three Vietnamese women living under a single roof in a new country, that the story’s true richness lies. But the dramatic tension surrounding them is overtaken by the drama created by Anguli Ma, and eroded. Extending the narrative, giving it room to grow beyond the myth – the crux of which, the notion that one’s karma is not fixed, is lost anyway – of Anguli Ma but keeping the surreal elements, would have made for a more focused story and a more complete reading experience.

Despite the above, Anguli Ma as a dog-murdering abattoir worker and the lively Dao as the protagonist of a suburban Gothic tale makes this worth having a look. This is where the novella succeeds, as a hugely unique Australian story.

On something Eliot said – Part II

The Myth of Wu Tao-Tzu by Sven LindqvistIn the time since sharing my last post, I’ve read The Myth of Wu Tao-Tzu by Sven Lindqvist, a book that directly interrogates this idea of escaping into art.

The story the book is named after goes as follows: Wu Tao-Tzu paints a mural on a wall. Upon completing the mural, he claps his hands and a door in the mural opens. Wu Tao-Tzu steps into the artwork and is never seen again.

A confession: I bought the book because it addresses the question of spending a life immersed in art but I noticed it in the bookshop and picked it up at all because of the mysterious front cover (which still baffles and intrigues me). And while I’m pleased to have read it, the book hasn’t had the effect on me I thought it might when I was a quarter of the way in. But it has left me with one thing to think about.

The The Myth of Wu Tao-Tzu reads almost like a series of diary entries as Lindqvist comes to terms with how he feels about a life spent in art. At first, he agrees with Hesse’s arguments for art and finds the idea of stepping into it – for good, as Wu Tao-Tzu did – attractive. He wants to pursue these thoughts, and so he does, literally – travelling through Asia to help make up his mind. The outcome, however, is that he begins to believe the opposite – yes it’s attractive, but a life spent in art is delusional, immature, even cowardly. He takes what is, at its foundation, a philosophical approach based on the idea that an unexamined life is a life not worth living, and believes we must be ever-present. That, despite its horrors, we must not turn away, we must exist in the world.

I then thought of escapism in all its forms. Alcohol, drugs, anything in which you can forget yourself. What of the regular or even constant immersion in books or film or the ocean or your own narrow-minded beliefs – is there a difference if they’re all a turning away? And what does it mean for me if my desire to escape into art is different to what I do in reality, which is work and dip into art when I can?

*

I wonder if the holy books say of anything of art or if, at their time of writing, art as something different to aesthetics had not been conceptualised yet – if it came later, rising our of a need.

*

That’s all I can say about that; I’m being hurried away from my notebook and summoned for dessert, so I must leave these thoughts there.