Meanjin: what I’m reading

I wrote a ‘What I’m reading’ column for Meanjin this week, reflecting on some fiction and non fiction books that explore the topic of loneliness. 

Just a warning: it’s a little bleak. Here’s a link to the piece.

Books featured are:

From The Wreck by Jane Rawson

The Wanderers by Meg Howrey

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

Lonely City by Olivia Laing

Future Sex by Emily Witt

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The Wanderers: book review


The word ‘planet’ is derived from the Greek word for ‘wanderer’. Greek astronomers thought the planets were inexplicable celestial bodies wandering through space against a background of fixed-point stars. Their movements did not conform to the astronomers’ mathematical predictions. Equations could not describe them. They were unknowable.In Meg Howrey’s novel, a crew of world-class astronauts — Helen, Yoshi and Sergei — is on a simulated training mission in the Utah desert. Prime Space, a private aerospace exploration company, is preparing them for the first crewed mission to Mars. The elite, hand-picked crew are the wanderers, gazed upon from afar by Mission Control, the public and their families.

The astronauts are highly experienced, having served on previous missions and on board the International Space Station. And while their careers are mostly spent in training, it is the seduction of space travel that motivates them. The moment of leaving the Earth behind is their calling, their addiction:

Microgravity is the heroin, the God, the unrequited love, of astronauts. Nothing feels as good or does more damage.

Helen Kane is one of NASA’s finest, a recently retired astronaut and a choice pick for the Prime Space Eidolon mission. At 53 years old, this is her last shot at space travel. Should the crew be successful in this mission, they will journey to Mars and become the first humans to visit the red planet. For Helen it would be the pinnacle of an already decorated space career:

It is not anyone’s fault, or responsibility, that the best of her exists in space, that she knows she’s at the height of her powers, that if she doesn’t go back up, then she has run out of road before she has run out of breath. And how many years left on Earth for her? Consigned to a lesser version of herself on a planet that had also seen better days. Cast out from heaven into a melting Eden.

Joining Helen is Sergei, a Russian cosmonaut recently divorced from his wife, and Yoshi, a married but childless Japanese astronaut. Prime Space has selected this crew for their individual skills and strengths, as well as their compatibility as a team. During their 17 months in the Utah desert the simulation puts Helen, Yoshi and Sergei through their paces to determine if they are resilient enough to send on a real mission to Mars. Life on a Mars mission, even a simulated one, is full of challenges. The crew face compromises around their personal space, exercise, food and hygiene. The astronauts are being prepared and tested:

Who are these people that can withstand such a trip, the danger, the risk, the isolation, the pressure? What can these people teach us?

Aside from the physical constraints they are bound by, the crew also endures the extended psychological and emotional toll of being away from their families and from Earth. An infinite loneliness stretches out across this novel. Howrey asks if we are alone in the universe. In a space novel, you might expect that question to focus on the possibilities for carbon-based life on another planet. But it is a deeper question that concerns Howrey. In the vast, winding space of the human condition, are our connections to each other elliptical?

While the novel is marketed as science fiction, it is science-lite, and is more comfortably characterised as literary fiction. This is no space blockbuster. It is an introspective, character-driven novel. At the heart of the book lie not aliens and spacecraft, but Howrey’s exploration of the relationships of the crew to each other as well as their relationship to their families. There is a great distance between the crew and their family members, exacerbated by their months away in the training program. Howrey explores this distance and juxtaposes the restraint and control of the Mars simulation against the chaos happening in the lives of the families back on Earth.

The astronauts are heroes; feted and celebrated pioneers who overshadow their family members. Helen, Yoshi and Sergei’s relatives languish in their glittering wake, struggling to define their own identities. Yoshi’s wife Madoka is experimenting with assuming different personas. Sergei’s teenage son, Dmitri, lies and deceives while coming to terms with his homosexuality. Helen’s daughter Mireille takes on chameleon-like turns by acting in video games. They are each simulating their lives on Earth, while the crew simulates their lives on Mars/Utah.

Helen speculates that one of the reasons she has been chosen as the sole female member of the crew is because her age puts her beyond sexual desirability. She assumes a maternal role and acts as a barometer for the moods of Yoshi and Sergei. Helen watches for signals of disquiet. She reads the subtext that hangs heavy in the manufactured air between them:

They are all in extreme close-up; one notices the appearance of a new eyebrow hair. And yet they must communicate as if they are not noticing this. They must protect themselves, from Prime, from one another, from whatever parts of themselves they are grasping in the dark.

Helen’s role as mother figure juxtaposes her actual maternal relationship with her daughter Mireille (Meeps). The relationship between Helen and Mireille is Howrey’s central study. Helen loves space travel and she loves her daughter and this conflict pulls at her:

I wanted to go to space more than I wanted to be your mother. That’s true. If you had ever been to space, you’d understand. It’s not true. They are different things. Nothing is comparable to another thing.

In many ways, Helen’s choices are not that different from the choices any mother makes between her children and other competing priorities, but her work means many months away and the lingering shadow of death:

Awareness of imminent possible death is not without beneficial properties. Risk of annihilation can be a key ingredient, like baking soda. A teaspoon or so is sufficient to make all the other components rise up in glory, but without it? No cake. For some, the edge of death is the only place to find love of life.

The environment is fabricated and governed by rules, precision and machines. Mission Control watches over and records every aspect of the astronauts’ lives, listens in on their conversations, simulates disasters and analyses their reactions. The crew are all engineers because things will break and need to be fixed. Helen, Sergei and Yoshi are all studies in emotional restraint; personalities that are controlled and clinical. Howrey’s economy of language is as restrained as the astronauts’ emotions. But an undertow of anxiety pulls at them and paranoia lurks quietly in the background. For it is not only machinery that can break, but also people. 

Throughout the novel Howrey builds the expectation that the astronauts will crack, and delicately anchors their relationship to reality. They are vulnerable and she dares them to drift:

There is too much time, too much space. They must remember their names, their countries, their languages, their sexes, their bodies. They must remember where they are, where they came from, where they are going.

Howrey challenges us to question what is real and what is unreal, and whether the distinction matters. There is a deep lament within these pages: for love, for Earth and for the great distances between us, best summed up by Helen:

Helen has a flash, a memory, of holding her infant daughter against her bare chest, of Meeps’s skin, which she once knew so well.  It is appalling to think of the distance between her body and her daughter’s body. And how they will never know each other’s bodies again. Helen is filled with an animal urge to feel her daughter’s skin again, and for her daughter to touch her as if she is a thing that is known, as if she is a body that is loved.

Perhaps like the planets, we are all essentially unknowable. In this subtle and finely measured novel, Howrey casts us into the infinite reaches of the universe to ponder our aloneness.

Meg Howrey The Wanderers Simon and Schuster 2017 PB 384pp $32.99

This review was originally published in Newtown Review of Books.

Review: Rubik by Elizabeth Tan


Experimental fiction can be a risky gamble for the reader, but when it is beautifully executed, as in the case of Elizabeth Tan’s debut, Rubik, the dividends are sweet. Rubik is a looping narrative, a filmic novel told in short stories, where time bends and reality blurs ‘as if truth is no solid thing’. Each story opens up like a new browser window, seemingly unrelated to the last. Tan dares the reader to float untethered until the hyperlinks start to emerge: ‘everything is just an alt-tab away’. This is a novel that demands trust from the reader.

The book kick-starts with the death of Elena Rubik, run down by a car outside a petrol station, where she has just bought a pie. Elena shape-shifts. She reappears in various forms throughout the novel: as a set of transplanted corneas; as a member of an online community. She won’t stay dead.

Through Elena we meet: her best friend Jules Valentine; aspiring investigative journalist April Kuan; bereft schoolboy Peter Pushkin; his missing music teacher Kish Amar; artist Ursula Rodriguez, and a cast of others, including an anthropomorphised octopus named Tako. Tan moves seamlessly among these points of view and as the book unfolds, portals between the stories open to reveal the connections between them.

We follow this improbable cast around Perth, both an unlikely and completely obvious setting for the novel, a city that has reached peak hipster with its designer lattes and unisex clothes stores:

At the moment you can find me in the brochure for the Ampersand Spring/Summer collection. In each photo, which is printed on matte paper with an Instagram wash, I am posing next to this year’s male Ampersand ambassador, who is wearing the same outfit as me with minor modifications. We manage to finesse vague, casual expressions, as if it’s only natural that we would be wearing identical outfits while socialising in a sun-lit sharehouse full of sensible bookshelves and creamy stationery.

Tan’s characters are apathetic. Their society is vacuous, defined by conspicuous consumption, technology and brands: Samsung, Panasonic, Coca-Cola, IKEA, Google. While hyper-connected, they are also alienated. They are slouching towards a digital dystopia where lolcats and memes are currency, where real birds, frogs and silkworms have been replaced by corporate-sponsored replicants, and where children work grocery production lines to keep blue-rinsed pensioners well fed.

Looming over the human and human-like characters are omnipresent corporations, including technology company Seed, whose products dominate billboards and consciousness with a sinister edge. And weaving through the stories is Ulysses, a mysterious black cat with a red collar:

… cats can slip in and out of a parallel dimension, a realm which permits them to move invisibly, to reappear without sound. To swap places, even. Certainly, looking into Ulysses’s eyes, those blurry hexagons, Tim knows that Ulysses is acquainted with a separate, softer world.

It is this separate, softer world of parallel dimensions, ghosts and shadows that Tan invites the reader into, tearing a rip in the fabric of the mundane lives of her characters and pushing past the noise of Google, YouTube, Wikipedia and Facebook. Tan’s commentary on our relationship with technology is not a cheap shot at an easy target. It is nuanced and clever, deftly mixing witty satire with speculative fiction to create a novel that is at once both cutting social commentary and a heady adventure.

A number of the stories in the novel have deservedly been published as stand-alone pieces of short fiction. Read together, the novel’s structure is daring and genius. There are moments when you simply need to stand back to admire Tan’s breath-taking architecture, an architecture scored with repeating sequences and reinvented scenes. Like Ouroboros, the serpent caught in a cycle of eating its own tail, Rubik destroys and recreates itself.

A recurring motif in the novel is ‘falling girl’, a girl from a scene in an indie film that becomes a viral meme that becomes a falling cat meme that becomes a T-shirt. We witness falling girl defy physics over and again throughout the novel:

Jules double-clicks. And re-watches that part of her day, looping over and over. Each fall is different but she always returns, like a typewriter sliding back into position, or a teleportation device malfunctioning relentlessly, blinking her backwards and backwards. She’s already forgotten the chosen take. The loops are becoming indistinguishable. Backwards, backwards. Like a thought you just can’t get over. Rocketing through that starry sky in reverse.

In Rubik, Tan forces us back again and again to re-examine the puzzle from different angles. Just when you feel you have a grasp on the story, she leaves you unmoored once more. It is a book that requires full attention. Look away, the network will dissolve and you become lost in ‘a glitch in the matrix’. On finishing, you emerge from Rubik blinking into the light, wondering if it was all a dream. This richly layered novel begs to be read more than once to fully appreciate its complexities and connections.

Rubik is a wonderful experiment in fiction. Tan has created a vast landscape to explore within the contained borders of a novel. Jump in with your eyes and mind open and be prepared to hand control over to the author. She is an expert guide who will steer you elegantly to the conclusion of this wild ride: ‘you have everything necessary to begin.’

Elizabeth Tan Rubik Brio 2017 PB 336pp $29.99

This review was originally published in Newtown Review of Books

Melbourne Knowledge Week: on libraries


Melbourne Knowledge Week (MKW) 2017 filled the city with a packed calendar of talks, events and technology demos in the first week of May. The MKW Hub this year was the State Library Victoria. What better venue for a panel discussion on the future of libraries

Ben Kolaitis from the City of Melbourne libraries hosted the panel, made up of Travis Sheridan (Venture Cafe St Louis), Jason Potts (RMIT Professor of Economics) and me. What happens when you ask an economist, a librarian and an entrepreneur about the future of libraries? 

Well, as you might expect, not everyone imagines the same future. The discussion ranged over rocky terrain that saw the death of the book and the demise of the library, through to a bright, shiny outlook where libraries seized the zeitgeist of the creative economy and were reborn.

It was a robust discussion with the packed audience asking some thoughtful questions to round out the debate. And as a follow up to the panel, Kirby Fenwick wrote this piece on the future of libraries for the MKW site.

“Book clubs, coding workshops, poetry slams and exhibitions. Children’s story-time, writer’s groups, maker hangouts where you can access 3D printing and robotics. Digital literacy classes, live music, literary festivals and craft workshops. All these things are happening in libraries right now.”

The future of libraries is already here…

Podcast: The future of publishing

What’s the future for reading and writing in the digital world? What are digital writing communities all about? And why is the State Library Victoria involved?

I had a chat about these questions with Jemma Birrell from Tablo on Radio National’s Books and Arts program, hosted by Michael Cathcart.

You can listen to the podcast here.

If you would like to find out more about the Tablo State Library Victoria community, you can explore the community on Tablo or read this article on FutureBook.

See What I Have Done: book review

Reading Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel See What I Have Done is like pressing down on a blossoming bruise. It is compelling, uncomfortable and somehow irresistible. Schmidt skilfully reimagines the true crime tale of Lizzie Borden, who in 1892 was accused of the brutal axe murders of her father, Andrew, and stepmother, Abby, as a work of fiction. While Borden was acquitted of the murders and no one else was ever convicted, Schmidt does not leave any doubt about whodunit.

The gruesome events at the Borden home in Fall River, Massachusetts are narrated from the points of view of Lizzie, her older sister Emma, and the Bordens’ Irish housemaid, Bridget. Infiltrating the Borden household is the voice of a menacing stranger, Benjamin, who collides into the family’s bloody trajectory via the girls’ objectionable uncle, John. A thread of desperation connects all of the voices in this story. They are each, in their way, cemented in their misery.

The three women narrators all pine for escape. After a thwarted romance, Emma is forever tethered to her cloying and demanding sister, Lizzie. The housemaid, Bridget, dreams of returning to her homeland, Ireland, but is trapped under the financial thumb of her employer, Abby Borden. And puffed up with conceit after a grand tour of Europe, Lizzie imagines herself too sophisticated for the small life she leads in Fall River.

Schmidt explores the lives of these women with a sharp feminist lens. They are each trapped by the financial and social circumstances of being a woman in the late 19th century. That Lizzie Borden is a woman ironically becomes her saving grace when she is acquitted of the murder. The jury simply cannot believe a woman to be capable of such a heinous crime.

Schmidt weights this murderous tale with decay. The novel is thick with vomit, decomposing bodies, putrid fruit, rancid soup, rotten teeth, congealed blood, and stinking breath. But the decay is infused with sensuality. Schmidt is clearly fascinated with dissecting and describing the guts of life:

“Along the fence was a full-bloom pear arbour, the sickly-sweet smell of half-eaten fruit thrown to the ground. I thought of the worms underneath churning earth, climbing over each other until their soft jelly bodies rolled into one. I pulled a pear and ate, juices on fingers and chin. There was a sharp twinge towards the back of my mouth and I reached my index finger inside, felt another loose tooth. I took hold, pulled and twisted, threw the tooth under the pear arbour.”

The effect is overwhelming and claustrophobic, always teetering on the edge of too-muchness. It is the kind of book you want to read with a hand over one eye to shield your gaze.

The Borden family is a chilling study in violence, rage and seething sexuality. Lizzie and her orbiting cast are cut through with psychological wounds that eventually manifest as a brutal blood-letting. The undercurrents of the story run deep and dark, and Schmidt steers them artfully just far enough below the surface. All the while, the clock on the mantel tick ticks in the background menacingly.

Lizzie is a perfectly unhinged character, a maelstrom of instability and obsessiveness, petulance and pity, with a rushing undertow of maleficence. She continually revisits the bodies of her father and stepmother, both physically and in her mind, with an almost-devotion:

“At the tip of my mind I heard Mrs Borden call to me, ‘Come and see us Lizzie. Come see a secret.’ I didn’t want to let them down. I crept the stairs towards the dining room. I made sure I was alone. I held my breath. There under the white sheets, frightened and silent, their bodies held each other like first-time lovers. I closed my eyes while Father reached his arm around his wife and told her, ‘It will all be over soon.’

… I hid a smile underneath my palm and tasted salt. On my wrists there was a spatter of blood, tiny droplets that were still finding their way under my skin. I licked at my finger and wiped at it, erasing Father, erasing Mrs Borden from my body.”

Schmidt’s writing style is distinctive, full of brilliant and off-kilter imagery that reinforces the unsettling mood of the novel: ‘her mouth lion-wide’, ‘his long, bony jaw moved like a grip broiler’ and ‘voices were pin pricks in the ear’. Lizzie describes her father’s dead body ‘stretched out like a bone xylophone’. The universe created by Schmidt is defective. Her characters are deranged.

This is a confident debut novel and there are obvious parallels to draw between Schmidt’s work and Hannah Kent’s Burial Rights. Both are based on actual 19th-century crimes – women accused of murder – and both were much hyped. But unlike Kent’s novel, where the reader is invited to have empathy for the central character, there is nothing redeeming about Schmidt’s portrait of Lizzie Borden.

Two recent novels that sit comfortably alongside Schmidt’s are the bloody and brutal 19th-century exploits of The North Water by Ian McGuire and His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet. And for another brilliant study of the mind of a murderer, MJ Hyland’s This is How is a cracker.

Schmidt is now working on her second novel. According to an interview in the Sydney Morning Herald, it is about a woman with a decomposing baby in the back seat of her car. It seems the decay that set in during her debut will be with her for some time yet.

Sarah Schmidt, See What I Have Done, Hachette Australia 2017 PB 336pp $32.99

This review was originally published in the Newtown Review of Books.

Postscript: It would be remiss of me not to also mention that Schmidt is a librarian from Melbourne. Librarians are awesome, and Schmidt clearly is no exception.

Things That Helped: book review

Jessica Friedmann’s book, Things That Helped, deftly threads essay, memoir and critical theory through the despair of Friedmann’s post-natal depression to weave an impressive debut. 

Friedmann reflects on her experience of motherhood with the benefit of distance, both geographic and temporal. She now lives and writes in Canberra, anchored in an inland city far removed from Melbourne’s Maribyrnong river where she fantasised about drowning herself. The cool, calm river a siren calling her from her misery towards annihilation.

While Friedmann’s focus is her post-natal depression, her essays radiate out across art, feminism, music, the environment, marriage and race. It is an enthralling journey through her expansive knowledge and sharp mind. This isn’t a 10-step recovery narrative. It is a 12-chapter chipping away at the edifice of depression, each chapter offering a thing that helped.

Emily Laidlaw and Kara Nicholson both place Friedmann’s book alongside Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Fiona Wright’s Small Acts of Disappearance as stablemates in genre. I found Nelson’s dense critical theory a hard slog. In contrast, Friedmann wears her theory delicately. It never weighs her writing down. Like Wright in her exploration of anorexia, Friedmann deconstructs her mental health struggle honestly in all of its complicated mess. Neither Wright nor Friedmann offer easy answers, instead they raise difficult questions about being a woman. 

They simultaneously hold up a mirror to themselves and to society, laying bare the imperfections of both.

It is a revelation to watch the recent emergence of women’s writing on mental health from Australian writers such as Friedmann, Wright and Anna Spargo-Ryan. Their important narratives open up room for discussion and better understanding of the experiences of the many women wrestling mental health challenges. This kind of writing can save people.

Dying a memoir: book review 


‘The accident of birth is just that. And so is everything that happens afterwards, or so it seems to me.’ 
I can’t imagine feeling anything but sheer terror at the prospect of dying from a terminal illness, when your brief flicker of life faces extinguishment. Conversely, in this short but powerful book, Dying: a memoir, Cory Taylor faces death with sadness, sometimes anger, but mainly resolve and a deep appreciation of all her life has been, both the ups and downs. Taylor laments the absence of discussion about death in our culture and the lack of choice for the terminally ill to end their lives with dignity. She ponders death through the lens of an atheist and questions how she might view it differently with religion as a frame of reference. For the most part, the book is a gentle meander down the paths of memory and I had to remind myself at times that Taylor was dying. This is a beautiful book and is as much about living well as it is about dying well. Perhaps our vain attempts at self-preservation by wandering about in denial about our own mortality robs us of the chance to live better lives.

The Museum of Modern Love: book review

What is art? It is a question as inexplicable as asking what is life? But in The Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose asks both questions. The lens for examining these questions is a fictionalised account of Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present, a 75-day performance art piece staged in New York’s MoMA. In the novel we meet a cast of characters intersecting with Abramovic’s performance, all at a cross-roads in their lives. This is a clever, well-executed novel and beautifully written. Rose weaves the intertwined lives and narratives of major and minor characters convincingly, though I did wonder if the novel could have worked better if it had been written from fewer perspectives. I wanted something more from the voice of the ghost, but then this wasn’t meant to be a ghost story. This novel ponders the artistic life and ultimately Rose is making a statement, which is that making art is an act of courage. There is something of a manifesto in this novel. I think Rose is saying that we live one life and she is challenging us to live it singularly, to create art. And she has done that with this novel.

From the Wreck: book review


Genre-bending, ambitious, wild and magical. I loved this novel. In From the Wreck Rawson challenges the boundaries of historical fiction with a shape-shifting alien character. She takes us on a journey from dusty and dry 19th century Adelaide, drags us down into the deepest oceans, flings us out past the stars and into space and then reels us back to earth again. This tale of loneliness, trauma and grief is equal measures tender, dark and playful. This novel is original and deeply human. Rawson is masterful at stretching plausibility just enough, balancing a tricky line of believably that never tips too far over the edge and without ever becoming tricksy. I’m not sure if I would use the label scifi, fantasy or magical realism for the novel. It did remind me a little of Jeanette Winterson in books like The Passion, but then I also thought it was completely unique.