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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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

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.

Wimmera: book review


A proof copy of a Mark Brandi’s debut novel, Wimmera, landed on my desk a few ago. What a gorgeous cover. If you like a bit of Australian rural noir, check it out. It’s out in June through Hachette.

Here’s my review from Goodreads:

There seems to be a recent surge of excellent Australian debut novels. Wimmera by Mark Brandi is no exception. This coming of age/murder mystery fusion is set in Stawell, a country town in the Wimmera region of Victoria. The Grampians loom large as a backdrop to the relationship of Ben and Fab. We follow them as they tread their path from young boys yabbying in the local dam, discovering their sexuality and negotiating life at home and school onto an adolescence marked by an experience that will haunt their troubled adulthood. From the outset of the novel we know there is a brutal discovery waiting to unfold but this sits lurking quietly behind the scenes, never dominating the narrative. It is not your typical whodunnit, the story instead centering around the relationship of the boys. I enjoyed the nostalgic thread of pop culture references and the playful vernacular language in Brandi’s novel. This is a ripping yarn, quietly menacing, and neatly resolved. I’m looking forward to Brandi’s next novel. This one will appeal to fans of Jane Harper’s The Dry.

An Isolated Incident: review

Although in style Emily Maguire’s novel, An Isolated Incident might fit into the psychological thriller genre neatly alongside Jane Harper’s The Dry, I think that is a short sell for this complex novel. Maguire’s book grapples with a broad range of social and cultural issues including misogyny, violence against women and the portrayal of women in the media. It is more akin in substance to Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things if I was searching for a contemporary stable mate.

When 25-year-old Bella Michaels is brutally murdered in the truck-stop town of Strathdee, half way between Sydney and Melbourne, she leaves behind her sister, Chris. The novel is party told in the first person from Chris’s perspective. Chris is one of the most compelling and finely drawn characters I have met in a novel for some time. Maguire completely nails her voice. I loved her vernacular and sassy turns of phrase. We discover that Chris is equally tough and scared, independent and needy, street-wise and shielded. Her sister’s death sends her into a spiral of grief as she grasps onto the threads of her life, not knowing who to trust. I was hooked by Chris immediately. I was propelled along on her narrative at the speed of the road trains thundering along the highway into Strathdee.

The balance of the novel is told in the third person from the perspective of May, a journalist from Sydney who arrives in Strathdee to cover Bella’s murder story and to escape her miserable love life. At first I found the shift in perspective from Chris to May jarring, but came to appreciate the relief of stepping off the juggernaut of Chris and her terrifying crash through life. May is a secondary character, and honestly it would be difficult to compete with Chris, who was such a perfectly realised protagonist. May’s character did serve to expand the plot and gave Maguire the opportunity to explore some themes that otherwise would not have had breath in the novel.

What makes this novel captivating and unique is Maguire’s choice not to shine all of the focus on discovering the perpetrator of the crime. This thread runs quietly in the background. However, the main focus is squarely on the aftermath of Bella’s death and how it affects her loved-ones and her community, and how the murder fits into a broader social context. At its core this novel asks questions about how women are treated in their personal relationships and by society. There is anger in these pages.

I read this novel in two sittings and I adored it.

This review is part of my participation in the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.