Saturday, December 31, 2016

on failure and courage

It was the last weekend in April when I first fell. Or at least when I first remember falling. I went to Clunes Booktown and came home with three volumes of Virginia Woolf's diaries and two volumes of the Penguin Classics Greek Myths—battered and worn in a manner that only made them more appealing.

Later it would be Kate Tempest's The Bricks That Built the Houses when I saw her speak at The Wheeler Centre and Gloria Steinem's memoir, My Life on the Road, when I saw her speak at the Town Hall. Steinem's book came with the ticket price and how could I give up the chance of a personally signed copy of The Bricks? I couldn't.

A book of Blake's poetry would follow, as would a collection of Warsan Shire's, and more Tempest with The Brand New Ancients. All necessary for my poetry class, or so I told myself. A dear friend would send me some books and I'd pretend that this was ok because I hadn't bought them myself.

A trip to Readings for a Melbourne Writers Festival program and Fiona Wright's Small Acts of Disappearance would come home with me. Later a visit to the underground treasure trove of City Books with the intention of buying a short story collection for a friend saw me leave with two for her and one for me. This trip to City Books also instigated a cross-country purchase of Woman in Sexist Society edited by Vivian Gornick and Barbara K Moran.

A restrained weekend at the Mildura Writers Festival would add a single David Malouf. My second stint volunteering at Melbourne Writers Festival and I would fall hard for Elizabeth Harrower, A Few Days in the Country would come home with me. Trips to second-hand book sales, library sales, op-shops and vintage markets would add Helen Garner, Tony Birch, Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle, Eimear McBride, Hannah Kent, Ruth Park, Anne Tyler and Sonya Hartnett. And others. Many others.

There were more beautiful gifts in the mail and the launch of a friend’s debut poetry collection. I wandered through a newly discovered op-shop and brought home my first Agatha Christie. I discovered graphic novels and comics and added one of each. An unexpected gift voucher to a Melbourne treasure added three new names in Ali Smith, Lucia Berlin and Christina Stead. As Christmas approached I gave my Kris Kringle a simple list of a dozen names. Some of them—Vivian Gornick, Julie Koh and Shirley Jackson among them—appeared under the tree.

Earlier this year I had glanced at my tbr pile and decided that in 2016 I would do two things. Firstly, I would read every book in my tbr and post a review here and secondly I would abstain from buying any more books until I'd reached the bottom of that pile.

I did neither.

This week I finally finished putting up some new bookshelves at home. They line the walls on each side of the window in my bedroom. I spent most of an afternoon filling them. At first I tried to arrange them alphabetically, then by genre before deciding that height was the only option—inclined as I am to appreciating aesthetics over logic.

I stacked them side by side, pushing them up against one another as I filled shelf after shelf. Among these books are the remnants of my original tbr pile as well as the books I told myself I wouldn’t buy this year.

On the title page of many of these books is my name, a habit I've taken with me from childhood. On many of the newer books, the ones whose corners are still sharp, I’ve written the city or town I found them in, too. Some say New York or London, others Melbourne or Ballarat. Some list the name of the person who gave them to me, others have handwritten notes tucked inside their pages.

While cleaning out my parent’s bookshelves this past week (I guess I was feeling inspired after doing my own) I found a collection of books that transported me back to my childhood. Stamped inside these books, in either red or blue ink, were the words ‘rejected copy not for sale under copyright’. I flipped open cover after cover, searching for the stamp. I ran my fingers over the long-dry ink, feeling the waves of nostalgia wash over me.

My Aunt and Uncle used to work for a printing company. A spare room in their home was lined on two walls with bookcases that seemed endless to ten-year-old me; shooting towards the ceiling and brimming with books. Whenever I visited, my Aunt would hand me a plastic bag, point to a bookshelf and say take what you like. When they visited us, there was often a plastic bag bulging with books tucked into their car somewhere.

I often wonder if I would be the reader, or the writer, that I am without all those books. Those rejected books that filled my childhood and lined my bookshelves. Those rejected books I forwent sleep to devour, the ones that formed the figurative staircase I climbed to get here.

In an essay in her collection When I Was a Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson writes that books give her courage. Courage. When I first read that I wondered what she meant. But I think I understand what she was getting at now or at least I understand what courage in this context means to me.

This year has been punctuated by wonderful, beautiful highs and horrible, crushing lows. There were weddings and milestone birthdays, beautiful new babies and afternoons in the garden with my niece and nephew. There were wonderful new friends and reminders of how important old friends are. There were new beginnings and new challenges. There were unexpected triumphs and there were devastating heart-breaking losses—the kind that punctured my soul, taking something from me that I desperately wanted to keep.

This year was many things. This year reminded me how severe the world can be. It reminded me that a hug can often say more that words can, and sometimes better too.

And it reminded me that the love that was nurtured in childhood by those rejected books is not going anywhere. It is an unwavering, steadfast love that props me up, that allows me to escape when reality hurts too much, that reassures and emboldens me, that educates me. I line my bookshelves with that love, I stack it up on my bedside table and I write lists of potential new lovers.

When Marilynne Robinson wrote of courage, I think she wrote of that love. More specifically I think she was talking about how that love forges a type of courage that you cannot get anywhere else. It’s the courage to see the world through eyes that are not your own. It’s the courage to enter a space that does not belong to you and to sit and listen and begin to understand. It’s the courage to be challenged, the courage to ask yourself questions, the courage to ask others those same questions. It’s the courage to share something of yourself, to let something of those books crawl under your skin and stay.

I didn’t make it to the bottom of my tbr pile this year. I’m further from it today than I was at the beginning of the year when I set myself that challenge. But, sitting here at my desk, surrounded by these books that I love, books that will forever live under my skin, I don’t care.

This year in failing to reach the bottom of that pile, in failing to abstain from adding to it, I haven’t failed at all. I’ve moved through the highs and lows the past twelve months have dealt and I’ve come out the other side: a little older, a little stronger, a little surer of who and what I am. I’ve reaffirmed that love that started so many years ago with rejection and found courage in the books that have left a little of themselves under my skin, courage that pushes me to be the writer, to be the woman, that I am. I may not have stuck to that ill-formed resolution, but I haven’t failed.

Friday, September 23, 2016

journey to the bottom of the tbr pile: Nell Zink/The Wallcreeper

the kirby bee nell zink the wallcreeper book review

I’ve never been much for birds. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate their existence. And I’m aware they’re likely related to dinosaurs so that gives them some cachet. But beyond an occasional glance as one sweeps across my line of sight or flies just a little too close to my head, nothing. 

Maybe that’s why I felt compelled to know what a Wallcreeper looked like. So I googled, and began sifting through the various images, clicking from one to the next until I came across one that caught my attention

In it the bird is in full flight, moving through the air with a bug hanging from its beak. Its wings, spread out wide from its body, are black with splashes of red and the most arresting line of large white polka dots right at the end of the feathers. That picture snuck up on me. I wasn’t prepared for it, wasn’t prepared for the way I sat staring at the screen, soaking up the beauty of this bird. 

In a way, Nell Zink’s debut novel, The Wallcreeper, snuck up on me too. It felt a little like Zink had pulled back a curtain, letting me peek into this strange world she’d created, letting me squirm at the edges of these somewhat dubious character’s lives. I had no preconceived ideas about this novel— except for a recommendation from a friend, I’d not read or listened to a review of any kind. I went in cold. I came out feeling like I’d been unceremoniously pushed back outside the curtain. Dumped onto the cool earth. And yet, I loved it. 

The Paris Review describes The Wallcreeper as a coming of age story, and in some ways I suppose it is. Americans Tiffany and Stephen meet when he interviews for the pharmaceutical company she works for. A meeting Tiffany, the narrator of the book, says this about: ‘It was one of those moments where you think: We will definitely fuck’. They marry three weeks later and Tiffany follows Stephen and his job to Berne, a small town in northern Germany. What follows is a frankly chaotic story. 

Tiffany and Stephen's relationship is at the centre of the book—though it is Tiffany's story—and it's fascinating to watch them exist with and shift against each other. Their relationship is both marred and seemingly strengthened by their multiple affairs and after Stephen abandons his job, they move across Europe and become increasingly engaged in environmental causes—you might even call them eco-terrorists, as Keith Gessen does.

The Wallcreeper though, above all else—marriage, infidelity, birds (there are lots and lots of birds), coming of age stories—seems stridently environmental. Some kind of comment on the human impact on the environment and how the likely best thing for the planet is the cessation of mankind. Which, let’s be honest, is probably accurate. 

However, of the book, Zink says this: 

‘I wanted to communicate vital topics in nature conservation to men and women in their thirties, the leaders of tomorrow, by wrapping them up in sophisticated language and conflicted sex. It worked for the first few pages. After that I had some personal setbacks and continued it as a tortured autobiography in impenetrable code.’

Which explains a lot, really. There are no chapters in The Wallcreeper, with only line breaks to suggest at the movement of time. The story progresses at a brisk pace, which helps with the chaos. And some aspects of the character’s border on absurd. 

That said, Zink has a way with words. And, as is my custom, I found myself underlying sentences that struck me. Zink, through Tiffany (knowing Zink describes it as a tortured autobiography makes it difficult to separate Tiffany the character from Zink the writer, but then maybe she’s supposed to be Stephen or Gernot or Olaf?) makes some startlingly blunt observations in the most economical of language. Of the miscarriage that occurs within the first line of the book, Tiffany says: ‘I rolled over to my side and coughed. I wasn’t pregnant, I noticed’. Later, she will use similarly blunt language to describe another significant event (which I won’t mention here because spoilers etc.) which had me gasping, hand over mouth. 

And yet other times, her characters made remarkable observations that had me sitting back in my chair, replaying the sentences over and over in my head. At one point, after Stephen asks Tiffany to tell him about herself, she recounts her life in a series of sentence long anecdotes and ends with the line ‘I’ve never met anybody I can be entirely sure I’ve actually met’. Well, have you? 

These types of experimental novels can sometimes be hard work, the reader slogging through complicated prose, sifting the words for meaning. And while The Wallcreeper is undoubtedly experimental, I was captivated. Reading it over a single weekend in great big gulps. The characters may have, at times, had me shaking my head in disbelief, but I still found myself thoroughly absorbed in their world.

In a not particularly effusive review, Bookslut describes Zink’s debut as ‘an odd bird’, suggesting both a plot and coherent characterisations are missing. I really have to disagree. Perhaps there is no defined three-act structure here and no particularly redeeming characters, but if you’re reading fiction to find those things, maybe avoid experimental work like this—or just fiction altogether?

The Wallcreeper might refuse to abide by ‘the rules’ but there are real characters here. Complex, infuriating, predictable and unpredictable, confusing and ugly characters that push against one another as they hurtle towards something none of them seem prepared for, or even aware of. Which, when you think about it, seems less experimental and more a simple reflection of the lives we live.