Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Books 09

I read a lot of good and great books this year but for the purposes of this list I'm limiting myself to nine titles. Why the hell not.

* The best comic I read in 2009 was Black Hole by Charles Burns. The story is a bit ropey and some of the characters a bit dopey - think about it, you'll see what I did there - but this story of a virus attacking a bunch of small-town teens is atmospheric and scary and black, really black.

* Tom McCarthy's second novel Men In Space is actually his first novel, written before but published after Remainder. The fragmented narrative follows a group of young artists and art-world associates/hangers-on in post-Communist Central Europe. Maybe not as outright brilliant as Remainder but still hugely enjoyable and thought-provoking in a way that most lit fiction just isn't, ie. Men In Space actually provokes thought.

* The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles is brilliant.

* I reviewed China Mieville's The City & The City here so you can go there to read what I had to say.

* I also reviewed Alan Moore's Voice of the Fire. One of the best prose works I have ever read.

* Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler is an amazing artefact: an odd-shaped paperback that looks as if it's been recovered from the bottom of a dam. The stories and bits of text inside fight for space with streaks of visceral material; effluvia of the apocalypse. Scorch Atlas describes a putrid, dying world in such vivid sickening prose that it gave me nightmares. I'm frightened of this book, it's that fucking good.

* The other nightmare-inducing book I read in 09 was The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. It is horrific and informative and written with skill and passion.

* Rather more cheerful: True Grit by Charles Portis is a short, almost perfect novel. Any lingering associations with John Wayne vanish immediately once Mattie Ross, the novel's determined, vengeful, shrewd protagonist, begins her narration. It is one of the finest first-person narratives I have ever read, utterly absorbing and believable. The story is simple, and simply told, with great characters and a lot of humour. I can understand the Coen's interest in this book and I suspect they'll do right by it.

* Jonathan Coe's Like a Fiery Elephant, a bio of the English writer B.S. Johnson, is enthralling. Johnson's life is interesting in itself, but Coe's insights into Johnson's art, his attitudes and his aesthetic make this as much a study of the work as of the man. I'd like to write more about my response to this book, but frankly it's a bit personal and we've only just met. Perhaps some other time. It is, in any case, an astonishing book.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Music 09

: Some albums released in 2009 that I have especially enjoyed listening to in 2009: The Thing, Bag It!; Polvo, In Prism; Moderat, Moderat; Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion + Fall Be Kind; Emeralds, What Happened; Health, Get Color; Fuck Buttons, Tarot Sport; Wild Beasts, Two Dancers; Wooden Shjips, Dos; PJ Harvey & John Parrish, A Woman A Man Walked By; King Midas Sound, Waiting For You; Teeth of the Sea, Orphaned by the Ocean; Them Crooked Vultures, Them Crooked Vultures; Paul White, The Strange Dreams of Paul White; Devin Townsend, Ki; John Zorn, O'o; Acoustic Ladyland, Living With a Tiger; Mordant Music, SyMptoMs; Tyondai Braxton, Central Market; Mission of Burma, The Sound The Speed The Light; St. Vincent, Actor.

Plus, some albums released in years other than 2009 that I have especially enjoyed listening to in 2009: Animal Collective, Feels; Tom Waits, Rain Dogs; Ellen Allien & Apparat, Orchestra of Bubbles; Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, Rock 'n' Roll With the Modern Lovers; Harry Belafonte, Calypso!; De La Soul, Buhloone Mindstate; XTC, Black Sea; Unwound, Repetition; Drive Like Jehu, Yank Crime.

The old haunted brickworks

Local legend has it that the first person to spend the night here, and live to tell of it, will receive the grand sum of one million broken bricks.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009


The new Buddha Machine is here, and I mean here, in front of me. It's called Gristleism on account of it being a collaboration between FM3 (the Chinese musicians responsible for the Buddha Machine) and noise/industrial band Throbbing Gristle. (The collaboration was to be called the Throbbing Gristle Box, but KFC already had that trademarked.)

The original Buddha Machine played nine ambient loops; BM 2.0 added a pitch shifter. (There is a Buddha Machine iPhone app that performs the same functions, although it lacks the artefactual qualities of the original.) The Gristleism unit or toy or whatever-you'd-call-it does much the same thing, only with Throbbing Gristle loops instead of FM3 originals.

Gristleism is a curiosity, but I'm not sure what you're meant to do with it. You put it on, listen to the weird creepy loops, fiddle with the pitch, then turn it off. I left it running while doing housework and while the droning and hacking and blipping does resolve into a pleasing/disturbing ambiance, the effect is diminished by the unit's tinny speaker. Gristleism's main value comes from the confused look on people's faces when they turn it on for the first time. (This pleasure is undermined somewhat by the look on people's faces when I explain that this essentially useless plastic box cost me $45.)

It's probably a bit late, but Gristleism would make an ideal stocking stuffer - for somebody you hate. Don't give it to them; hide it somewhere in their house and watch them go slowly insane trying to find the source of all those strange noises.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Make a jazz noise here

New 8tracks mix, feat.: Jaga Jazzist, Jenny Scheinman, The Vandermark 5, The Blessing, Jason Moran, Don Byron, Fight the Big Bull, John Zorn, The Lounge Lizards, Matthew Shipp, The Thing, Ben Allison, Acoustic Ladyland.

Listen here.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Greasy dudes with greasy guitars

New 8tracks mix: all nineties, all bloke, all noisy guitar music of various persuasions. If you like that sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will like. I certainly like this sort of thing - the mix could've been fifty or more songs long without repeating a band.

You're not supposed to post your track list anywhere, but let's just say that this mix might - I stress: might - contain songs by the following bands: Polvo, Ricaine, Burning Airlines, Drunk Tank, Slint, Hoover, Jawbox, Redd Kross, Unwound, and Drive Like Jehu.

Listen here.

My other 8tracks mixes can be found here.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

A book review

This review was to appear in the September issue of ABR, however at the very last minute it was omitted due to "space restrictions", which I translate as "Peter Craven demanded an extra page to waffle on about that PEN Anthology."

Stealing Picasso
Anson Cameron

Stealing Picasso is an art heist caper based on the theft of Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the National Gallery of Victoria in 1986. The crime, attributed to a nebulous gang of militant aesthetes calling themselves the Australian Cultural Terrorists, remains unsolved. Cameron, a Melbourne writer perhaps best known for the novel Tin Toys (2000), takes this historical loose end and runs with it, discarding all but the most cursory details of the source story.

Cameron’s merry disdain for the quasi-academic rigour of the ‘based on a true story’ genre is admirable. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with heavily researched historical novels, yet there are times when such fiction can feel like little more than research notes in fictional clothing. The uncharitable conclusion to be drawn is that writers sometimes stress the factual because their imagination isn’t up to the job. The risk Cameron has taken in Stealing Picasso is in saying to hell with the crutch of historical authenticity and giving his imagination free rein.

The story begins deep in the bowels of the NGV – depicted here as a kind of taxpayer-funded Gormenghast, ‘a mediaeval fortress, complete with moat’ – in the rooms of the National Gallery School of Art. This is a grungy, testosterone-heavy institution, presided over by Turton Pym, an erstwhile peer of Brett Whiteley and John Olsen. Pym’s talent fell short of his potential and he now seeks to assuage his bitterness by launching a generation of Pym-schooled painters.

Harry Broome is Pym’s most promising student. Ambitious but lacking direction, Harry falls under the spell, and into the arms, of Mireille, a beautiful older woman. After various twists and turns Harry, Turton and Mireille conspire to make off with the NGV’s recently acquired Weeping Woman and sell it to billionaire Laszlo Berg. (Almost every character in Stealing Picasso is burdened with a zany – but not especially funny or clever – name, eg. Harry’s School of Art classmates include such unlikely personages as Sedify Bent, Pasquale Knapp and Roland Loader. The effect is more Tom Sharpe than Thomas Pynchon.) Naturally, the crime doesn’t come off as planned and the conspirators are drawn into a convoluted adventure involving betrayal, bikies, and an out-of-work Michael Jackson impersonator.

Stealing Picasso is assembled with enthusiasm but it must be said that the result is a mediocre concoction. Cameron’s figurative language is often clumsy: ‘A guy like this, with a broken dream, has a head full of shards of reminiscence sharp as glass.’ ‘In Melbourne on a good spring day a sun sits on every car along every street.’ Cameron’s use the present tense, presumably to generate immediacy and pace, has a paradoxical distancing effect. The narration often reads like a running commentary, an effect that renders unwieldy Cameron’s efforts to imbue his narrative with greater intellectual depth.

The sketchy characterisations wouldn’t be a problem if they contained an ounce of vitality. Protagonist Harry is purported to be brilliant and thoughtful, but he is really a bit of a dill. Mireille is two parts Susan Sontag to three parts femme fatale, amounting to an unconvincing fantasy figure. Despite her alleged experience and sophistication she is given to naïve Euro-English syntax, for instance describing a bikie gang as ‘a motorcycle gang of hoodlums’. The native English-speaking characters’ dialogue is clunkier still, especially when Cameron tries to evoke criminal cool. ‘I’m in the same boat as Coke,’ a bikie chief announces. ‘You advertise you’re the real thing, you got to be the real thing or they close you down. You advertise yourself as a brutal son-of-a-bitch, you got to be carnage personified.’ Lacks snap, you might say.

Turton Pym is a potentially interesting character; even his name, redolent of Poe, is fitting. Pompous, libidinous, Pym ‘speaks with the authority of failure’. Unfortunately he also speaks with the same weird hollowness as Cameron’s other characters. ‘As soon as you shape up to the canvas the fight begins,’ quoth teacher Turton. ‘You either win or Failure wins. There is no honourable draw.’ Oddly, Turton’s students don’t spontaneously abandon class en masse but this is, as noted, a work of imagination.

Stealing Picasso’s satire is feeble. Cameron’s caricatures of institutionalised complacency and corruption are tepid: the NGV director is a preening alpha-male (named Weston Guest, natch); the gallery’s ruffian packing staff play a stoned game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey with a minor Giotto. It is often difficult to know what, if anything, is being satirised. At one point Harry is working on a portrait of Mireille. ‘[M]aybe he should strip her off, paint her bare-breasted, then surround her with bears and have her laughing at them. Not circus bears, angry bears from the deep forest. Sit her outdoors, bare-breasted, laughing at these bears with their furrowed muzzles.’ To you and me it might sound like the worst visual idea this side of an Iron Maiden record cover; to Cameron’s supposedly super-snobby NGV director it is ‘an extremely clever trope’ that he might consider purchasing. Is he taking the piss? Is Cameron?

Uncertainty of this kind pervades Stealing Picasso, the result of a niggling discrepancy between Cameron’s apparent intention and his accomplishment. Humour is signified but rarely delivered; the plot is elaborate but too sluggish to be suspenseful; the flimsy characterisations and stilted dialogue undermine Cameron’s excursions into sincerity. Stealing Picasso raises the occasional smile, but it isn’t art, not even close.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Warrnambool: A Photo Essay

We spent a few nights in Warrnambool earlier this week. While there I took some photos.

Flesh Fence was in the process of closing down, possibly as a result of confusion as to what kind of wares it actually sold. (Hint: not flesh; not fences.)

The winner of Warrnambool's Most Anachronistic Shop Name 2001-2009.

This spectral bride was glimpsed haunting the window of the RSPCA op shop. Significantly there was no sign of a groom.

Humour plays a vital role in Warrnambool's day to day life.

This abandoned Martian tripod dominates the town. Some say it contains the decaying corpses of interstellar travelers. Others claim it is full of trousers.

Further evidence of an extraterrestrial presence.

All those surf-loving cats will have to find somewhere else to hang ten.

Not here though. Here is foul.

A great place to take the kids/cats/Steve Irwin.

I don't know what these domes are for. Probably something to do with keeping 19th C Russians at bay.

There were at least fifty billion snails on this fence. It is an image that will remain with me forever.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009


Some things I would probably get out of bed for at 1.45 a.m.:

- a housefire
- burglars
- a large sum of money
- a brand new Nabokov novel, hand-delivered by the resurrected and still grave-cold master himself, with the offer of having selections from it read aloud to me in Nabokov's delightful Russian-French-American accent.
- sex

One thing I would not get out of bed for at 1.45 a.m. or frankly at any other time:

- Dan Brown's new novel

Monday, 7 September 2009

Great moments in art history #1

Whistler's MILF

(1871, oil on canvas)

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Melbourne Writers Festival

The Melbourne Writers Festival concluded recently and by all reports it was a resounding success. Your correspondent was lucky enough to attend several days of the festival, having purchased tickets to what he thought was the Melbourne Waiters Festival and then subsequently sought to make the best of his error.

The main event on the festival's schedule was the Fairfax/Readings/Bob Jane T-Marts Literature Series, a full day of lectures designed to poke, prod and generally dissect the fundamentals of the art. "What is Literature?" asked David Marr in his keynote address, causing a ripple of chin stroking amongst the audience. "Perhaps one could more profitably ask what isn't literature," Marr declared, ungrammatically, before suggesting that coconut husks, aluminium cladding and antacid medication "probably" count among the things that literature isn't. Jason Steger then appeared on stage, asking "Where is Literature?", or at least so we assumed until it transpired that Steger was actually asking "Where is the shitter?". Steger was escorted from the theatre and directed to the appropriate facilities. Thomas Keneally was next, pondering the age-old question, "Literature: Wha?" The afternoon session was no less spirited and insightful: Professor Raimond Gaita wondered "What the Frick Does Literature Want?", while Christos Tsiolkas concluded the series in a peremptory fashion with "Watch Out! It's Literature!", a high energy lecture that Tsiolkas' audience, particularly those seated in the first three rows, will surely never forget.

Other highlights of the festival included: the Obligatory Genre Whinge (featuring a panel-led singalong of "Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, think I'll eat some worms"); the Best Dressed Poet competition (won by Mr J.K. Krumples of Preston who was pleased to thank his major sponsor, Dimmeys & Forges); and The Future of the Book, a round-table discussion that overcame early difficulties (specifically the lack of a round table) to deliver a powerful affirmation of the written word. (Unfortunately I can't offer a more specific account: note-taking was prohibited at this panel.)

The festival was officially closed by Lord Mayor Robert Doyle who burned a ceremonial truckload of Betty and Jim maths books, thus signaling Melbourne's return to generalised illiteracy and drunken thuggery after a precious fortnight of intellectual mutual masturbation. Your correspondent, intellect thoroughly chafed, was sad to see it all end, but confident that the 2010 festival will be even better. Festival Director Steve Grimwade was coy about the treats in store, but he did offer a small clue: "We're booking strippers. Lots of strippers." Your correspondent's brain is, in apparent contravention of his anatomical arrangement, literally drooling in anticipation.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Cannibal Corpse: Rejected Album Titles

Pit of the Pitiless
Addicted to Mutilation. And Pez.
Stripped, Bound, Burned, Eaten: Dinner Parties Made Easy
Plucked to Death by Penguins
Sent to Your Room by Satan
Drowning in Kittens
Forcefed Anchovies by Necrosadist Zombie Pizza Chefs
Convinced By Demons to Ignore the Bus Driver's Polite Request For Exact Change

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Down in the park

This park would be quite a nice park if somebody went over it with an enormous comb - and I must specify an enormous comb, not merely a large comb like the one used for a deliberately groan-worthy sight gag in the comedy smash Spaceballs - and combed out all the bits of broken beer bottle and syringes and used condoms and dog shit and chip packets and whatever else people have dropped like the scum that they are. I don't know about the logistics of this combing operation. I assume you'd need a helicopter and a dozen stout men, or two helicopters and two dozen not-so-stout men. Like I say, I don't know about the logistics. I just deal in ideas.

There is a lake in the park, man-made, like all the best lakes. For about two weeks every winter the lake bed is almost completely covered with water. Ducks paddle about, children race around the banks, criminals chuck incriminating evidence into the murky shallows. The lake makes people happy. Then the warmer weather arrives and the lake begins to dry up. By summer's end the water has evaporated, the ducks have left, and police divers don't even need to roll up their trouser legs to conduct a search. The lake bed is cracked, scorched the same dead-brown colour as the grass elsewhere in the park. One summer day I asked a passing old man what he thought of the state of the lake. He tried to hit me with his walking stick and screeched something about "medication". I think he was feeling sad for the ducks.

Monday, 31 August 2009

Are you there blog? It's me, Margaret

Having made several abortive attempts to return to blogging this year, I inaugurate this blog with a certain skepticism. Chances are it will last a week or four posts, whichever comes first, then stand forever in awkward silence on the blogspot servers, protuberant shoulder to saliva-slicked jowl with the kazillion other abandoned, undead blogs.

Then again, perhaps this one will stick. Blogs might be passé in the Facebook/Twitter/whatever-next era, but what other medium allows the individual crank infinite space to rant, spit and make unsightly gestures? I suppose the very rich could afford to employ a crack squadron of skywriters to etch their ephemeral opinions, anecdotes and lolcats against the empyrean, but for the rest of us blogging will have to suffice.

As the preceding waffle demonstrates, perhaps the most difficult thing about starting a blog, besides coming up with an appropriately smug and/or cryptic name, is writing the first post, the introduction to the thing that doesn't yet exist. This particular example of the genre is so overwrought and pointless that I'll probably come back in a few weeks and delete it, then pretend it never existed. And if somebody has taken a screenshot of it and attempts to prove that it did indeed exist, then I shall accuse that person of forgery and have him or her shot at dawn by trained monkeys whose alcohol-induced shakes cease only for the brief moment it takes them to aim and fire.