October 20, 2015
In this volume, Steep Stairs Review continues to build upon its eclectic identity, merging a collection of contemporary critiques of key postmillennial works, alongside independent creative poetry, prose and visual arts. The collection, among others, explores political, social and cultural representations in international literary work, and serves as an intersection between the concept of literature as entertainment and as a medium of communicating important social, cultural and philosophical perspectives.
This volume begins with a collection of critical book reviews: Glen Jennings, in Death and the Movement: Sheng Keyi presents a critical review of Sheng Keyi’s attempt in Death Fugue to portray the Chinese Protest Movement of 1989 and its aftermath. Next, Colm McNaughton in R L Williams’s A Companion to Gabriel Garcia Marquez: A Review underlines the importance of taking into account the historical, political and economic context of Latin America in order to accurately understand Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Katherine Firth in Orange, Pear, Apple, Dada: Emily Gravett, Again! and the avant-garde presents a concise and informative background to the origin of Dadaism followed by a discussion of its place in today’s literature by reviewing Emily Gravett’s award-winning contemporary children’s literature. The final book review in this volume, Between the Thames and the Tiber: The further adventures of Sherlock Holmes: A Review by Michael Todd, introduces the reader to Riccardi, a Conan Doyle imitator and his book Between the Thames and the Tiber: The further adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
The volume continues with a series of critical film and TV series reviews: In his sharp criticism: Metaphor and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – Feature Film starring and directed by Ben Stiller, Philip Kemp highlights the importance of approaching text “with a symbolic, metaphorical and mythological focus” in order to gain deeper appreciation of the social impact of art. Next, in The Secret River and the Masks of White Australian Identity, Michael Heald by critically reviewing a scene from the recent television adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River, reminds us of Australia’s colonial past and White Australian identity. Finally, Susan Karpasitis in What did you think of Gone Girl – you’re a feminist, don’t you love that kind of stuff? examines the challenges of reading contemporary film narratives through the lens of an ever-changing feminist ideologies.
Next is a collection of poems by Rod Beecham, Danny Fahey, Nazanin Ghodrati and Talitha Fraser who respectively in Reflections of a Perfect, Drowning, The Brick Choir and Untitled present a defamiliarised version of the everyday struggle from the metaphor of drowning to the issue of identity and self-perception.
Ernie Gray in Sri Lankan Story recounts the emotional journey back to Sri Lanka a decade after surviving the 2004 tsunami that cost thousands of lives in Sri Lanka and worldwide.
Lastly, this volume proudly showcases Sally Dalton-Brown’s abstract expressionist palimpsest paintings in Picasso’s Dust: Sally Dalton-Brown. Her strong brush strokes on the canvas allow for a personal dialogue between the presented image and the resulting subjective interpretation.
October 20, 2015
Sheng, K 2014 (Shelly Bryant trans.), Death Fugue, Sydney, Giramondo.
Reviewed by Glen Jennings
Sheng Keyi has written (and Shelly Bryant has translated into lively English) an excellent novel about young migrant workers in China. Northern Girls is realistic, humorous, and convincing in its portrayal of young women who leave their villages to seek a new life. Xiaohong and Sijiang are nuanced characters shaped by naivety, and cunning who face exploitation but also take risks in search of rewards. Knocked down many times, and only occasionally helped up, their aim is to “make it” in a country that, over the past twenty-five years, has been on the most spectacular “make” the world has ever seen. Anyone interested in the transformation of China from an overwhelmingly rural society to a global powerhouse, and the young workers who feed the literal and figurative furnaces of that powerhouse, should be interested in the lives of the Northern Girls.
Impressed by Northern Girls, I was greatly looking forward to Death Fugue, the latest fictional collaboration between Sheng Keyi and Shelly Bryant. This anticipation was heightened by the fact that Sheng Keyi had chosen to write, allegorically, about the Chinese Protest Movement of 1989 and its violent suppression. I lived in China during that time. What is euphemistically called “The Tiananmen Massacre” is a defining moment in my life, and something I believe deserves deeper exploration through fiction. This is exceedingly difficult for a Chinese author still living in China to do. Sheng Keyi, a native of Hunan who now resides in Beijing, is bold and admirable for tackling this important topic. Death Fugue also appeared around the time of the “Occupy Central” demonstrations in Hong Kong, the so-called “Umbrella Revolution” against China’s denial of full democratic reform for the citizens of this former British colony (people who never enjoyed full democratic freedoms under the British). Unsurprisingly, Death Fugue is officially unpublished in China and it has not been released through Sheng Keyi’s previous English-language publisher, Penguin. Instead, a small Australian publishing house, Giramondo, has taken up her novel. While it is always good to stick up for the little guy having a go, Death Fugue unfortunately cannot be recommended as highly as Northern Girls.
The central character of Death Fugue begins as an influential young poet on the periphery of the protest movement. Mengliu loves a woman at the core of that movement. When the demonstrators are killed or imprisoned, Mengliu loses, or loses contact with, his colleagues, friends and lover. He gives up poetry, takes up medicine as a profession for many years, and then mysteriously finds himself in a foreign land where poets are revered.
Death Fugue is long and at times complex, but it lacks definition and clarity. The characters are largely unsympathetic and the novel seems to be made up of various parts and styles. Is this novel realism? Political allegory? Science fiction? Dystopian fantasy? A critique of what Sheng Keyi calls “the vanity of material things” when former political radicals settle down to lives of wealth accumulation and conspicuous consumerism? Is it a cry from the soul of a poet whose ideals were crushed when the tanks and guns destroyed his braver colleagues, driving him to a vow of literary silence?
It is all these things and less.
There are moments of bitter realisation, if not despair in Death Fugue: ‘Poetry is no use; poetry isn’t as fast as a bullet; poetry is not as cruel as the muzzle of a gun’ (p.62). But overall the shifts in context and time frame jar on the reader, although the novel’s general chronology is fairly simple: Protest Movement/Violent Suppression of Protest Movement/Embrace of Materialism/Escape to a Foreign Utopia (which, you can guess, isn’t really a Utopia). The quick entry and exit of largely mechanistic characters grates, as does the sudden transformation of the key protagonists’ motivations and feelings. What endures, however, is dissatisfaction with mixed metaphors and ridiculous imagery (often, though not always, associated with sex and coconuts):
Her chest boasted a pair of loaded coconuts, uniquely lethal weapons with which to wage her revolution. They were a potent pair of aphrodisiac tear-gas canisters. Day or night, if she willed it, she could pull the pin and instantly fill the world with smoke. No one would be able to escape from her (p.50).
He felt like a monkey who wanted to climb up the tree and pick Juli’s solid coconuts, and lay her down whether she resisted or obliged (p. 218).
It is probably not fair to imagine a different book than the one the author has written. But there are parts of this novel that are moving and meaningful. Stripped of the nonsense, cut back dramatically from its current 375 pages, and focused more clearly on the central issue of the protest movement and its aftermath; a revised Death Fugue could be as interesting as Northern Girls. Millions of Chinese students and ordinary citizens who took to the streets in 1989 deserve such a book.
Glen Jennings’ articles and reviews have appeared in a number of publications including ‘Arena Magazine’, ‘The Australian Journal of Politics and History’, ‘Cha: An Asian Literary Journal’, ‘The China Journal’, ‘Mattoid’, and ‘The Melbourne Journal of Politics’.
October 20, 2015
Williams, R L 2013 A Companion to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Tamesis, Woolbridge.
Reviewed By Colm McNaughton ©2015
This companion, authored by US academic Raymond Leslie Williams, is an attempt to introduce the reader who is assumed to have no prior knowledge, to the complex and mercurial Colombian author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Explaining Garcia Marquez to the uninitiated is no easy task because he and his literary works sit at the very juncture of history, memory and imagination in the Latin American reality. Thus, to contextualize Garcia Marquez you are necessarily encountering the very processes Latin Americans have at their disposal to reflect on where they come from and where they might be headed. Of course there are numerous critics, especially those north of the Rio Grande who will disagree with this assumption; but this is the very battleground which Uruguayan historian Eduardo Galeano so eloquently referred to as La Memoria del Fuego/ the Memory of Fire.
In placing Garcia Marquez both as an author and as a person into the maelstrom that is the unfolding of Latin American history, what I am proposing is that his works can best be understood and appreciated as a creative response to the historical/ political/ economic contexts in which he found himself and his fellows at a certain time and place. To do otherwise is to consciously (or even perhaps unconsciously) decontextualize and depoliticize both him and his works, and as a consequence you may be contributing to ongoing forms of imperial/ state violence against the Latin American body. This I will suggest is precisely the fundamental weakness of this volume. This text essentially approaches Garcia Marquez through a narrowly compartmentalised and siloed off discipline of literature, and as a consequence what we are encountering is but a distorted caricature of the Colombian author. Omitted from this perspective is any sense of the revolutionary seer, who throughout his working life develops an arsenal of metaphors, incantations and stories to confront and attack the reach and power of imperial imagination. Garcia Marquez’s frontal assault on the pernicious master’s imagination is akin to the Cuban Revolution of 1959, which not only overthrew Batista, the US backed dictator, but also left a significant dint in the their beloved Monroe doctrine. Sadly, the Garcia Marquez we encounter in these pages is but an apparition of his marvellously real self.
This companion is divided up into six sections, the first of which places Garcia Marquez in the context of the Latin American Boom. Unfortunately the Boom is understood very narrowly as primarily a literary phenomenon and is not placed in its broader historical and geo-political contexts. The next section is concerned with the Macondo Cycle, and the numerous novels and short stories that helped to forge the imaginary space that frames his magnum opus, Cien años de soledad/ One Hundred Years of Solitude. This section contains a number of brief but very useful overviews of Garcia Marquez’s early writings and how they contributed to the development of the parallel universe that is Macondo. One of the highlights of this section – and it must be stated of the companion as a whole – is that all direct quotes from Garcia Marquez’s texts are in Spanish first, which are then followed by an English translation. This method makes a significant contribution to developing the flavour and pace of the ensuing discussions. Even though Williams observes that Cien años is his ‘most elaborate metaphor for Latin America’ and as such is a ‘metaphorical compendium of Latin American history, culture and society’ (p.74), the author does not have the adequate tools to demonstrate to the reader precisely how and why this is the case.
At this juncture I feel I need to make an intervention. In discussing the various literary influences on Garcia Marquez’s literary work, Williams points out that William Faulkner, Franz Kafka and Luis Borges are major influences. On page 74 he goes on to argue that Cien años is ‘written in the tradition of Faulkner and other modernists’. This statement concretely encapsulates and reveals the problem of decontextualizing and depoliticizing the discussion surrounding Garcia Marquez. Williams himself concedes that Cien años is ‘Marquez’s most comprehensive novel dealing with the Spanish medieval and colonial legacy in Latin America’ (p. 52). If this is the case, how could Garcia Marquez, a conscious Latin American and anti-imperialist leftist, look to a North American – albeit from the South – as his main model for making a break from the colonial and imperial imaginations? In making this point, I am not suggesting that Faulkner is not a truly great writer, or that he does not influence Garcia Marquez, but rather there are substantive reasons why an author from Colombia, who is supremely aware of the staggering contradictions of the Latin American reality and the centrifugal role the United States plays in these dynamics, cannot look to one of their greatest authors for inspiration. The Irish authors James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Seamus Heaney, albeit in a different context, also struggled with how best to respond to the colonial/ imperial legacies upon their imaginations and the dangers of writing in the coloniser’s language. As a consequence Joyce and co., for a range of pressing historical, cultural, linguistic and geo-political reasons did not, could and would not look to an Englishman such as William Shakespeare for inspiration and guidance, instead gravitating towards the medieval catholic Florentine, Dante Alighieri. Likewise, Marquez cannot look to authors from North America to find the tools and imaginary spaces to liberate Latin Americans from the dominance of the very same empire. As African-American poet Audre Lorde reminds us, ‘the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.’ The author of this companion, in approaching and developing an appreciation of Garcia Marquez the author, completely misses this vital point.
Emerging out of this insight, but one that is never adequately addressed in this volume, is how can Garcia Marquez use Spanish, the mother tongue of the Spanish Empire, in the context of being what Carlos Fuentes refers to as ‘a colony of a colony’, to confront and transform the very legacies of empire in the region? To help him think through these vexing post-colonial questions, Garcia Marquez turned to both Joyce and Kafka, the Irish and Jewish outsiders of Europe, who both wrote and spoke in the coloniser’s languages and who offer many cunning strategies worth reflecting on. Having sidestepped many of the complexities of the politics that are instrumental to Garcia Marquez’s writing, it is not surprising that the ensuing discussion of magical realism in this text is pretty weak. Williams’s discourse about magical realism is very pedestrian and concerned primarily with the narrowly defined discipline of literature. Never does he dare to venture into the other fields such as sociology or anthropology, let alone religion or myth to examine how different types of what could be referred to as magical realism, are not essentially literary forms, but rather ‘common sense’ (in the Gramscian meaning) survival strategies of ordinary people who have to deal with the daily violence of Empire. In missing this link, Williams cannot convey that Garcia Marquez’s real genius is that he takes the perspective of ordinary people and their insights and storytelling powers to confront the power itself. In his discussion Williams essentially reifies magical realism, turning what is a living process into a thing, because if you visit Latin America and engage with the people you will find various forms of magical realistic thinking very much alive and well.
In the next three sections Williams examines what he refers to as Garcia Marquez’s ‘break’ from magical realism and periodizes these sections as: El otoño del patriarca/ The Autumn of the Patriarch and his ‘political’ writing; his ‘postmodern turn’ which includes works such as , El amor en los tiempos del cólera/ Love in a Time of Cholera and Crónica de una muerte anunciada/ Chronicle of a Death Foretold; and his later writings. While the general overviews of the texts themselves are quite useful, what is vexing is how the author attempts to frame each of the chapters. Let me address the section on Garcia Marquez’s ‘postmodern turn’ as an example. The problem arises when Williams tries to explain what postmodernism is, and the best he comes up with is that: ‘the term has been used too broadly to allow a precise definition, but common concepts associated with postmodern culture included discontinuity, disruption, dislocation, decentering, indeterminancy and anti-totalization’ (p. 102). Williams seems content to throw at the reader a jumble of concepts and jargons with no contextualization or guiding discussion as to how they emerged or relate to each other, and then goes onto suggest that this somehow explains a shift in Garcia Marquez’s writing. Really? This is a very poor effort, which will leave most readers confused and bemused. Already on very shaky theoretical foundations, Williams continues to suggest that there is something self-reflexive about postmodern texts and as such they often refer to other texts. Virgil, Dante and Shakespeare are all self-reflexive writers; does this mean that they too are postmodern authors? If this is the case, doesn’t this render the term, at least how it is utilised in this companion, ultimately meaningless? I fear so.
Despite the poverty of the theoretical framing of his discussions, Williams saves the worst until last. To be blunt, the epilogue is quite shocking, as it is largely a blow-by-blow account of the author’s different interactions with Garcia Marquez since he started researching him in 1975. The only thing missing were a few ‘selfie’ shots with Garcia Marquez and few other forms of memorabilia to prove the author’s brief brushes with the literati. On a slightly brighter note, the further reading section and bibliography, particularly because they engage the literature in both Spanish and English are quite complete but not exhaustive, and as such may be useful to students encountering this field of research for the first time. But overall, I would suggest that this companion to Gabriel Garcia Marquez is something akin to the massacre of workers in Cien años, that is, something probably best forgotten.
Colm McNaughton is a Literature lecturer. He received his doctorate in political theory in 2006. In the years that followed he worked for a number of years at Community Radio 3CR and as a freelancer for ABC Radio National. He is a multiple award winning radio documentary producer. He has previously lectured for seven years in Journalism at a range of different institutions.
October 20, 2015
Written by Katherine Firth
The first Dada manifesto was read by Hugo Ball in 1916 in Zürich at the first Dadaist soirée: Dada is a simple word, he claims: it is “Very easy to understand. Quite terribly simple.” I had always believed it was a word that meant nothing, but Ball claims: “In French it means “hobby horse”. In German it means “good-bye”… In Romanian: “Yes, indeed”. This means that it is a childhood word, an international word, a contradictory word, a hello, yes, no, goodbye word. In the second Dadaist manifesto 1918, Tristan Tzara suggested that “One shouldn’t let too many words out. A line of poetry is a chance to get rid of all the filth that clings to this accursed language.” Small numbers of words are good, poetry, patterns are good. Dada helps you to strip away, allows you to return to a time of greater innocence, of cleaner, simpler, purer moments.
Dada is one stream in the early twentieth-century modernist avant-gardes that attempted to remake and rethink culture in these radical ways. The modernist small book and small magazine movement (1905-30) was strongly influenced by an interest in the book as a thing. The Russian Constructivist school’s little magazines were made of patterned wall paper off-cuts, like Khudizhestvenny Trud (Artistic Labour). The Dutch magazine Die Stijl (The Style) advocated bold lettering and radical, non-horizontal typography. The German magazine Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider) broke the rules of painting which said that a picture should look realistic, look truthful, in order to enable artists to speak a deeper truth about spiritual realities. The lettering, the paper, printing on wallpaper samples, breaking the rules of type, of grammar, of visual layout, they all intentionally set out to break the rules, to build a new set of possibilities for books, for language, for society. This often went hand in hand with a radically new ways to understand the human condition through the insights of psychoanalysis.
When we look at Blast! (1914), the Vorticist magazine edited by the English cubist painter and novelist Wyndham Lewis, with its hot-pink cardboard cover and its crazy screen-print typography, we think it looks incredibly modern…and yet that modernity is, to us, that of a 1970s art-school paper. That is, a magazine printed before I was born, and I am no longer all that young. Today, although desktop publishing and ebooks have democratised the methods of production, they have also standardised it, visually. The fonts, page sizes and paper types have become, on the whole, versions of the default template. Moreover, those texts are becoming ever less physical, ever more adjustable to the preferences of our individual e-readers (I personally, always read my Kindle in small print, landscape, two columns, sepia colour, serif font, low brightness). The typographic choices of publishers and artists have less and less influence on how we read.
So where might this experimentation exist today? In what physical books-as-objects might they be published? What rules of the book might they break? And where might it lead us– in terms of our own self understanding, in terms of our imaginations–into the darker and less explored places of our psyche?
One answer is children’s books.
Emily Gravett’s award-winning contemporary children’s literature places the physical book-object at the centre of the exploration of identity and dark fear. Her books are self-consciously books, and often books within books. In both Again! and Wolves, the book’s cover in fact encloses a second text which is then terrifyingly mutilated in the course of the narrative.
In both Wolves and Meerkat Mail, the book is both a published pop-up book and a collage–made of stuck-on scraps of paper, of letters, postcards, receipts, stamps and bits of string. In this, Gravett is part of a long avant-garde tradition. Georges Braque, studio mate of Picasso and co-founder of cubism, made his most famous collage as a work of bricolage (finding bits of made culture and putting them together yourself, a kind of magpie DIY). ‘Guitar, Sheet Music and Glass’ includes pieces of sheet music, a clipping from Figaro newspaper, and wallpaper.
In Gravett’s work, the pop-up book is inverted and twisted (and ripped up and burned and perforated), building on, and burrowing or blasting through, the famous hole in The Very Hungry Caterpillar. In this way, the construction of the book is predicated on its deconstruction. Tzara claimed that in Dada “Every page must explode, either by… the whirlwind, poetic frenzy, the new, the eternal, the crushing joke, enthusiasm for principles, or by the way in which it is printed.” The printed page explodes with jokes, the joke literally tears or blows the book apart.
The absolutely gorgeous little dragon in Again! can’t read his favourite story himself. That inability to read means first he holds the book upside down. And because his book is upside down, gravity acts on the words and the pictures. The towers fall, the trolls are tumbled, the princess are rumpled, and the letters jumble in a messy piles in the bottom corner of the page. In this book, for the pre-linguistic child, written language is anarchic, chaotic, destabilised and inaccessible. The only access such children have to the written word is by proxy, by a parent who reads to them.
In Again!, that parent alters the reading at each repetition, as the child demands the bedtime story is read again and yet again. This altered reading changes the text and the illustrations of both the fictional and physical book. The repetition is not simply a repeat, but also a revision. And that revision becomes more and more bizarre as we go along, until it collapses in a clutter of chaotic characters, and then in destruction and absence, with the little dragon blowing a blackened hole in the back cover of his book (and of the volume we hold in our hands).
Again! also therefore draws on a second strand of development from the early 20th century avant-gardes: the power of repetition. For modern poets like Ezra Pound (associated with Blast!) and W.B. Yeats, the power of repetition was one of incarnation, of the pre-linguistic, of access to the subconscious. In Orange, Pear, Apple, Bear and Again! repetition is the prerogative of children, children whose access to the written word is limited.
The variation and repetition is used for a somewhat different purpose in Orange, Pear, Apple, Bear. This is the kind of book that a small child can remember without yet, quite, being able to read. However, or perhaps therefore, every repetition morphs, linguistically and verbally. The smallest slips of punctuation cause massive transformations and transgressions of meaning.
Ball claimed: “How does one become famous? By saying dada. With a noble gesture and delicate propriety. Till one goes crazy.” Dada is thus associated with repetition and with madness. “I let the vowels fool around. I let the vowels quite simply occur, as a cat meows . . . Au, oi, uh.” Dada language is therefore playful. It accepts unlikely occurrences as simple fact. It plays with the sound of language. It allows made up words, it allows nonsense. Tzara declared, “Dada; abolition of logic.” Dada is therefore associated with illogic or new logic.
Orange, pear, apple, bear.
Apple, pear, orange bear. (And the big brown bear is suddenly bright orange)
Orange, apple, pear bear (has to be seen to be believed, utterly beautiful and strange).
Orange, pear, apple, bear.
Orange, pear, apple, bear.
Dr Katherine Firth is the Head of Academic Programs at Trinity College Residential College. She publishes on modern poetry and the relationship of poetry and music. Her most recent work is a Study Translation of Bach’s St John Passion in A Loewe, Johann Sebastian Bach’s St John Passion: A Theological Commentary (Brill 2014).
October 20, 2015
Riccardi, T 2011, Between the Thames and the Tiber: The further adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Pegasus Crime, NY.
Reviewed by Michael Todd
The first imitation of Conan Doyle’s Holmes and Watson appeared only four months after the characters appeared in the Strand Magazine in 1891. By 1995 there were over 2000 pastiches or parodies (Klinger, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes Vol 1 2005 p lvii).
From now on there may be an increase in the number of those imitations as the above-mentioned Leslie Klinger in October 2014 was successful in an American Court in arguing that the Conan Doyle estate no longer possessed copyright over the names Holmes and Watson (the estate attempted to collect a fee when other writers made use of the characters).
Ted Riccardi is a professor emeritus in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia University, and he has written some half dozen books featuring Holmes and Watson.
The stories, as with the originals, are written and have an introduction by Watson, and Riccardi has captured Conan Doyle’s writing style. While the stories reflect the original writing, the editing does have some problems, with a number of misspelled or deleted words, and the fact that the stories are not in chronological order is slightly annoying as you bounce back and forth between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Naturally you cannot write about Holmes without at least one Moriarty tale. This Riccardi does well, presenting the all-encompassing power that Moriarty holds over the criminal world in the story Porlock’s Demise, and this being a Holmes’ tale naturally there has to be code breaking involving a polyvalent semantic cipher (which is an actual thing).
Also returning is Mycroft Holmes whose death by stroke in the Diogenes Club in 1914 means the outbreak of war as he wasn’t able to prevent the assassination of the Austrian Archduke in Sarajevo.
Another story of note is that of The case of Isadora Persano which revolves around so called spiritualism and introduces Conan Doyle as a character due to his well known belief in psychics.
Allowing for the editing issues, Riccardi is a Conan Doyle imitator well worth reading.
I had intended to review Anthony Horowitz’s Moriarty which was recently published in 2014 by Orion Books and is the follow up to The House of Silk, Horowitz’s first Holmes and Watson imitation (reviewed in Steep Stairs vol.6). The trouble is that with only some 20 pages to go Horowitz does such a “I never saw that coming” plot jump that I cannot think of a way of reviewing the book that wouldn’t spoil it for others. I’ll just say it is a very good book.
October 20, 2015
Written by Philip Kemp
The ‘Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ is a 2013 feature film starring and directed by Ben Stiller. The film is based loosely upon the famous short story by James Thurber of the same title, which was published in The New Yorker on March 18, 1939 (and which is available to read free of charge on The New Yorker’s website).
The scenes presented in the film are largely action-based and designed to cater to a broad audience, and the subtext of the film to some degree represents the sentiments of the short story. There are, however, substantial differences between the brilliant short story and this filmic attempt at profundity by Hollywood.
Tired of his monotonous job producing photos for publication, the title character of Walter Mitty in the film, played by Ben Stiller, daydreams of spectacular and exciting adventures. Downsizing executive, Ted Hendricks, is brought into the company to oversee the last print edition of the magazine before the publication is moved online.
The protagonist in the short story is possibly somewhat autobiographical and Ramachandran and Blakeslee (1998, pp. 85-87) have posited that Thurber may himself have suffered from Charles Bonnet Syndrome or ‘visual release hallucinations’ where people with partial or complete blindness are subject to detailed and involved hallucinations such as those described in the short story and represented in the film.
Ramachandran and Blakeslee (1998) concede that Thurber was engaging metaphor in his story-telling. They also assert, however, that Thurber ‘really did experience all those haunting visions’ (p. 87) as a result of Charles Bonnet syndrome. Regardless of the medical diagnosis of the author, the boundless imaginings represented in the film can definitely be interpreted metaphorically through careful analysis. There are mythological echoes in the film which sound deep in the psyche of the viewer when the symbolic code is clearly discerned.
The daydreams of Walter Mitty can be reductively regarded in a simple, literal sense as the result of a hallucinatory condition or simply as mere daydreams. However, if interpreted metaphorically then a more resonant and intriguing meaning emerges.
The so-called ‘daydreams’ by the protagonist where he slips into electrifying action sequences (at one point the protagonist is fleeing a volcano erupting in Iceland at high speed on a longboard) can actually be interpreted as delusions resulting from a more elemental need to escape from a restrictive, monotonous and soul-destroying existence enchained in the milieu of a magazine company in corporate America. Events reach a crescendo with the economic rationalist downsizing of staff at the company and we are exposed to an intense and protracted series of action sequences which can be read as a symbolic descent by the protagonist into total delusion. This state of acute delusion can be perceived as deep, soul-driven and emotional dissent of the greed-driven inhumanity of the corporate change managers who have invaded the protagonist’s workplace. ‘Life’ magazine (and life as Walter Mitty knows it) is about to end painfully unless the protagonist can ‘save the day’.
Unfortunately, this interesting metaphorical material could have been more deftly handled in the screenwriting and direction of the film. Ultimately, the film fails as a sophisticated and cohesive symbolic narrative due to some clumsy, blatant and overt referencing. In addition, the film amounts to little more than a diluted hybrid of the action-adventure romantic comedy genre. Ben Stiller’s film carries good intentions, however, and provides some satisfying moments of meaningful and deliberate social commentary. There are also a number of comedic and dramatic scenes which should entertain. A resounding lesson from this flawed but honourable film is that we as a society need to sustain our ability to approach texts with a symbolic, metaphorical and mythological focus. In doing so, we can properly value, respect and glean wisdom about life from our art as we humans have been doing since the beginning of time.
Ramachandran, V . & Blakeslee, S 1998, Phantoms in the brain: probing the mysteries of the human mind, William Morrow, NY.
Philip Kemp is a Lecturer in Literature at Trinity College and also has an interest in contemporary film. In 2006, he travelled to the Cannes Film Festival immediately after walking 800kms across northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago. His review of the Australian Indigenous feature film, Jindabyne, which premiered at the festival, was published nationally in Australia.
October 20, 2015
Written by Michael Heald
The recent television adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River, is, in my view, quite a triumph. The novel itself, you may recall, achieved some notoriety when the historian Inga Clendinnen challenged its historical veracity. Grenville was lucid in the face of such an astonishing lack of understanding of the nature of art and story.
The Secret River follows the lives of Will and Sal Thornhill, from their impoverished struggles in nineteenth century London, through transportation to Australia, and their rise to the status of substantial land holders on the Hawkesbury River.
I will focus only on one short scene here, which I believe creates a dramatic image which can become a powerful moment in this country’s reflection on its colonial past. This occurs after the main character, Will, had been swept up in a punitive raid on a local indigenous camp, an episode of vicious mayhem, men, women, children and babies slaughtered, along with several of the white attackers. The aim of the raid, as far as Will was concerned, was to let the indigenous group know that they had to clear out and not try to visit his farm anymore, which was a part of their traditional country. Events had quickly spiraled out of control, however.
The next morning, Will, back on his own property, is down on his haunches at the edge of the Hawkesbury river, trying to wash the blood from his clothes and hands, a la Macbeth. He becomes aware of someone watching him, and turns his head to see that it is one of his sons, the younger one, who had always been drawn to the indigenous people, had gone off to play with the children, and been taught how to start a fire by one of the elders, despite parental warnings and prohibitions. This is in contrast to the other son who was quick to parrot the ubiquitous racism of the time and adopt a violently adversarial stance. To his more open-hearted son, then, Will raises a still blood-streaked finger to his lips: shush, don’t say anything about this.
Then he is squatting by the fire outside the family’s primitive hut, feeding it scraps in a dark, preoccupied manner. His wife, Sal, is standing with folded arms, observing. She asks where several men have gone, and Will tells her that one of them has run off, and two are dead. He explains: ‘…see we went for a little parlez vous, to er, to let ’em know we weren’t to be scared off our land. Well, Smasher got angry, and things got a little bit ‘eated. All’s right now, but. Both sides know now things ‘ave to change. There’s plenty a land out there left for them, so…But they won’t be bothering us no more.’
Sal looks perturbed . She says “I ‘ope you ain’t done nothing, on account o’ me pushing at yer, Will.’ Will keeps staring down at the flames, looking as consumed by recent memories as he was at the river. He has not been able to make eye contact with his wife during the conversation so far, but now he looks up, holds her eyes for a moment, then breaks into a broad smile, and says in bright, jaunty cockney: “‘course not. What you on about, Sal my girl?”
Ok, a denial, but here’s the clinching moment which allows this scene to reach a more profound level. Sal is not fooled. As her husband utters his jolly, cajoling, unfaltering protestations of innocence, her fear goes up a notch: she lets out a little gasp, her eyes rove about in panic, and she seems to be hyper-ventilating. It is as if she is tumbling silently, flailing, into an abyss of moral despair.
Thus, it is as though we are witnessing the very formation of the defining masks which Australian culture has come to wear, the first adoption and solidification of attitudes which have become characteristic of white Australian occupation of this continent: a protestation of happy-go-lucky, she’ll-be-right pioneer spirit which obscures responsibility for violent dispossession; and unspoken moral panic.
For his part, it is as if Will had been searching his mind and body for a way forward, a way out of the solitary confinement in his guilt. There seemed the possibility of his being honest with his wife: the tone of her questioning was slightly chiding but also caring, inviting a confidence. But instead, he hitches a ride out of the dilemma on a voice, an idiom, an attitude, which allows him to avoid the issue. His performance is like the continuing of his cockney identity, but now it is felt by the audience as impersonation. And of course both the accent and attitude are very close to, and recognizable as, Australian: cockney lad blurs into Aussie larrikin. The casting assists this effect: Oliver Jackson-Cohen has features which closely resemble a kind of typical Australian male – square jaw, broad shoulders.
The following scene, some years later, displays the large, established homestead with which Will and Sal have replaced the crude shack which had hunched behind Will’s blithe denial of wrong-doing, manifestly the reward for his deceit and denial, the fruit of murderous dispossession.
This is very well done indeed. I did feel, however, that the TV series’ omission of the first section of the novel, in which we suffer through Will’s and Sal’s struggles in London, is a crucial error of judgment. The physical privations and social humiliations which they endure at the hands of the class-based English society of that time, is key to our understanding of Will’s subsequent overwhelming desire to own land. His willingness, in Australia, to brutally force the indigenous people out is in direct proportion to the ruthlessness of his own disenfranchisement in the land of his birth. However familiar such scenarios may be to us, from the writings of Dickens et al, they are still an essential preface to the main drama which The Secret River unfolds to us: they need to be witnessed directly, and I would suggest a prequel be made to correct this error.
Michael Heald is a Literature lecturer. His fourth book of poetry, ‘The Moving World’, appeared in 2011 with Fremantle Press.
October 20, 2015
Written by Susan Karpasitis
A while ago a former student proudly declared that they had found a book that they actually enjoyed reading. ‘It’s really good – you should read it, there is loads about how bad men are, and representations of strong powerful women – you love that stuff don’t you, you’re a feminist?’ Not really sure where to begin in reply to that comment, I walked off with my copy and decided to humour the student for old times sake! I fully expected that by the end I would have a strong and definitive opinion on how, and indeed whether or not, Gone Girl was something I could endorse or reject. I was instead left confused, and deeply affected by the polarities of the novel and film regarding its representation of women from a feminist perspective.
Let us begin where most discussions of female characters begin, with the Madonna/ Whore dichotomy. We all know this one. A woman is either a submissive, meek and willing sexual and emotional servant of the man/ patriarchal figure (think 50 Shades of Grey) or she is a sexually independent, passionate but ultimately treacherous ‘whore’ – (Gone Girl’s Amy). This is a tried and tested construct of female characters presented and firmed up in the good old Victorian era. The twentieth century continued to build upon the whore image, but added a little pop psychology into the mix – the sexually independent ‘whore’ becomes a man-eating psychopath – Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, Disclosure – a danger to herself, to society and of course to the rational and stoic man. And that is where I assumed that Gone Girl would fall – into the category of intelligent but psychotic female lead.
The problem is that it refuses it sitting comfortably in its categorisation like an Angel in the publishing house. On the one hand, we have all the archetypes of the “bunny boiler” genre – the women obsessed by an emotionally unavailable man, deluded about commitment and marriage, controlling, violent and manipulative (all the excesses of constructed female vice).
On the other hand, the book and film portray a powerful and intelligent woman, who is also sexually assertive; a woman who is not merely a passive vessel for sex but actively seeks out her own pleasure and gratification. Both versions present a woman in control of her body and self-image, an educated and self-reflective female lead. Horray I hear the feminists cry! Further to this, she is actively aware of the socio-economic constructs of her femininity. She recognises of course that her identity and image have never been hers to control – they are themselves the product of her parent’s creation both in the developmental psychological sense, and quite literally as the fictional character ‘Amazing Amy’ a more successful and idealised version of herself written by her mother through a series of children’s stories. By diligently ascribing to the characterisation set out for her, by the time the flesh and blood Amy is in her twenties she is an expert at adapting her identity to suit changing societal needs…and one could argue market trends.
What follows in the novel are a series of cynically accurate monologues whereby Amy tells the reader that she knows exactly how to construct the female ideal. From an Anglo-America feminist perspective this ability to manipulate male constructions of femininity for her own gain is at once both commendable and a sad necessity.
More interesting psychological feminist territory presents itself when Amy ‘disappears’ and frees herself of men. In this deconstructed and liberated realm of identity, what version of the feminine will she choose? In fact, she takes pleasure in becoming ugly, fat, and unattractive to men. No surprises so far in the rejection of male versions of the ideal woman and the re-alignment of external image and appearance with a seemingly more authentic ‘real woman’ identity. Of course this freedom of identity cannot last – this too is a construct. Amy having had her identity passively moulded for her by birth is unable to assimilate a real version of herself. She presents herself as a working class, tough ‘been around the block’ abused woman (even hitting herself in the face with a hammer to produce a bruise- itself an interesting attempt at obliterating her past ‘face’ and persona). However she is not any of these things; they serve only as a façade or mask to hide her other equally inauthentic persona. This working class mask is punished for its lack of authenticity by a ‘real’ version of what she was attempting to embody – a working class, abused, tough female who sees immediately through the construction.
In an ironic twist Amy is subsequently left in the exact circumstance she was trying to portray artificially – destitute, homeless and beaten. Her ‘Amazing Amy’ persona has been killed (self-killed I suppose), the tough drifter identity has been revealed as a sham, consequently the shell of all these broken constructions – the real Amy – becomes desperate. She has no tangible identity to cling to and is about to deconstruct into nothingness. She turns to the only thing she knows well – constructions, untruths and facades to play on another archetype of male fantasy – the damsel in distress – the vulnerable victim.
Amy depends on the need for society to position woman as victims for the last stage of her journey. Having failed to find herself or her real identity, her only refuge is to re-imprison herself whole-heartedly into the role of ‘Amazing Amy.’ This time however she supplants the parental role and becomes the architect of this persona; she rewrites herself as passive victim and her intended victim as classic Gothic villain.
Though her subsequent story to the police is laughably implausable, the archetypal constructions are so simple, so entrenched and feel so natural after centuries of instilment, that it takes more effort not to go along with them than to simply sit back and accept an all too familiar tale. Just as she accuses her husband of becoming lazy, so too she believes are the viewing public of America who are represented as craving simplistic and easy stereotypes in a confusing and constantly evolving world.
So it would seem that this novel is a feminist victory? The protagonist – constructed in every way by others – turns the tables and uses patriarchal chauvinistic representations of women to her own advantage. The problem here is that there is no advantage. Amy remains trapped by an artificial construct (‘Amazing Amy’) that she has helped to build. She becomes part of patriarchy and in so doing condemns herself to her own impossible construction of the ideal wife and mother – of being America’s sweetheart. Therefore, in some ways this is a poignant but sad story for feminism. We have not moved forward at all.
So finally where do I stand? I have no idea – the novel and the controversial film adaptation are brilliant depictions of the danger of the artificial and unachievable constructions of femininity that feminists have highlighted for decades. However, problematically Gone Girl follows a long line of films and novels which align self-aware and intelligent females with psychopathy and violence…and yet it also presents the most interesting and complex female role to have passed our screens for a long time (a character certainly preferable to the subservient and dubiously naïve Anastasia Steele in its box office rival 50 Shades of Grey). The inability to position oneself firmly on the side of the proverbial fence or the other is ultimately irrelevant. Feminism is not a categorisation process but an intersection of discussion of this mess of contradictory constructs that constitutes contemporary gender identities. In that sense, and in line with the post-Emma Watson rebranding of feminism for a younger contemporary audience, Gone Girl positions itself as a worthwhile, perhaps even important text on feminist landscape.
Susan karpasitis is an English lecturer. Her interests include representations of madness in literature, her PhD thesis focused on representations of psychological trauma in Renaissance literature.
October 20, 2015
Written by Rod Beecham
I’ve always hated Passover,
the slightest twitch rippling the Sanhedrin beards,
rustling the people like a cornfield
hiding a wolf.
Some maverick preacher, no political threat,
quiet, in his own world
(where I’d like to be),
but they wanted his blood.
Claudia talked of bad dreams,
said he mustn’t be killed.
I don’t have dreams:
I collect taxes.
Pay or be punished and no religious babble.
I rather liked the man:
quiet, well-spoken, no political threat.
Priests yelled and waved their arms
aped by the stinking mob
like spasms of Caiaphas’ fingers.
So he had to die. But not by order.
The fellow spoke of truth
as if someone cares.
Truth is a stretched cord
between the Temple and the fortress.
When the priests’ fingers pull
I jerk like a servant.
Had I the men to crush their grip!
Ana partes aequales High Priest and prefect dig downhill,
maintaining flow, bypassing bumps,
or hollowing out rocks
like Caiaphas’ convictions.
I soaped the Sadducees from my hands
as dirt from old coins.
I put words on the cross, ambiguous words,
I am not to be used.
Here, in my fortress, I am master.
Quid est veritas?
I see a harmless man,
the Jews see a blasphemer.
If I look at a coin in the sun
the Emperor’s head gleams,
dulling in the shade.
A goat on the rocks
is hair, horn and eyes,
in the kitchen, blood, flesh and fascia.
I see further than the dogs in the streets
but their noses sense what I do not.
When the city is quiet
at night, with empty streets,
the sky soft, the guards nodding,
a breeze rustling my drapes,
the moon rippling in the pools of Bethesda,
David’s tomb puncturing the stars,
I understand my wife and her dreams.
Someone in the east, they say,
unencumbered by taxes (he was a prince),
found wisdom under a tree.
My wisdom is this fortress
where happiness is solid.
In the night,
when the trees stir
and the frogs give voice
like a guttural chant from Picenum,
I look upon the city and the hills beyond,
I can be, for a moment.
Stomach full, soft bed, my sleep secure.
Taxes make order. The aqueduct.
My clever engineer and his lines,
shapes, pressure and resistance,
he made numbers of them all, like me.
Should I listen to my wife?
Soldiers are the men for priests.
Could I but wrench that cord!
Why did that quiet man,
that small sacrifice to public order,
stir me to mercy?
What do I know
that I don’t know,
that tells me it’s false?
How can a silence speak?
Rod Beecham was educated at Monash and Oxford and took his doctorate from the University of Melbourne. In 2014 he presented a paper to the English Association’s centenary conference at Oxford on the poetry of the First World War. His essay, ‘Confecting a British Identity’, was published in Rosenthal and Rodic (eds.), The New Nationalism and the First World War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). His essay, ‘Fiction and Memoir of Britain’s Great War: Disillusioned or Disparate?’, will be published in the next issue of the European Review of History. Rod is a Literature Lecturer in the Trinity College Foundation Studies Programme.
October 20, 2015
Written by Danny Fahey
For many years now I have been using Grace Paley’s Drowning poems as an exploration of image/metaphor etc and the use of Dramatic techniques to present the poems in a theatrical form. I start teaching one of the poems (i.e. Drowning II) with the line “this is how the camel I am drowned”. But I have this weird habit of twirling words around in my head so what I see/read/ and what is to be seen are not necessarily the same.
So the problem was, as a student pointed out, the poem does not start with the line “this is how the camel I am drowned”. I checked the book of Grace’s poems that contained the drowning poems and…sure enough…there is no camel in that second drowning poem. It was a shame because I had made all these links to drowning and journeys and such that linked the camel into the idea of drowning (desert images etc).
In response to all that work and to my strange error, I wrote these two poems. I hope you enjoy them.
Editor’s note: the original Grace Paley poems are subject to copyright and therefore not included. However, the poems can be accessed online.
(for Grace Paley)
If the sand could be swallowed
would that empty place within
find itself curving back into a solid
that recedes in the light of day,
be finally re-found?
If the night, that hollow we step within
and try to hide all the damage
we have done,
could be devoured and made to turn again
into light would we feel the sun run free
in the tired rivers of our veins?
And if my hand could hold the right pen,
if the ink ran into all the proper places
and the lines between remained balanced and sober,
would I finally find all
might fall still the way a leaf tumbles down to the floor
and creates a sea of silence for the many lives
of the creatures that burrow and scurry
beneath the ocean of trees?
Might I, finally finding my inside
had been turned out
and drowning then in the sight of what should be hidden,
be set free?
(for Grace Paley)
this is how the camel I am drowned
under a vast sky, painted with the hand of
an artist so blue
the heart’s red earth shatters
in clouds of words
a vista of rolling waves
that capture the wind
curve first this way and then
in the waves, footprints, turn first this way and then
and distance is measured in tears shed
drunk at night
a treasure discovered in the depths
of the hidden cave
then the words and glory
turn to sand
fill the throat and mind
a trout landed
and drowning in air.
October 20, 2015
Written by Nazanin Ghodrati
They heard her voice, more like a noise
From the other side of the brick wall
Screams: muffled echoes
Scratches: broken nails
Cries: thousand tears
There in her throat lives a spider
That climbs up with every nightly scream
And weaves its sticky web in her mouth
Trapping her voice
To silence her, to erode her
And all she lives for is
The choir sung by the bricks
Screams: muffled echoes
Scratches: broken nails
Cries: thousand tears
Nazanin Ghodrati is an English for Academic Purposes (EAP) lecturer. Her literary interests are in Gothic, horror and absurdist fiction, as well as in confessional poetry.
October 20, 2015
Written by Talitha Fraser
learning to love is messy and painful and oh how i
want to be free/ free to be me/ or perhaps someone
else/ off the shelf/ will do/ for you i can’t
remember who/ it is exactly that I am trying to
please/ freeze/ hold it right there, that’s the
perfect shot/ but now the light has changed
and we’ve got to change our location/ altogether
now/ how is it that no one warned me this
was going to take work?/ Jerk me/ around
for dinner tonight? / A frightful mess/ rest of
my life with you/ I’m so confused it’s true/
have we made any/ progress payment due in two
weeks/ sweet for the sweet/ heart don’t take on
so/ feeling low? / I think you should go/ not
without me/ can’t you see/ understand me/
just throw the Frisbee/ I will catch/