Friday, July 3, 2009

I was bemoaning the ravages of writer's block to a friend the other day at the Supper Club, and she made the wise observation that in the creative sphere, rest is not a luxury, it is an imperative. The fields must be allowed to lie fallow in their season, gather their resources. This agricultural metaphor got me thinking about the imaginative and emotional nutrients which infuse our writing. Visceral description, humour, clever observation, emotional truth, unsettling metaphor: these are some of the food groups of fiction. Whatever richness we bring to our writing comes out of us; how can we expect to nourish the reader if we're run down, burnt-out, used up? The fields need time to gather themselves, and there is a natural process to creativity that cannot be forced.

So instead of "pushing the river", I've been nourishing myself on others' work. In the past few weeks I've gobbled up Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger (always read the Booker winner), Coetzee's Disgrace, Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, Wells Towers' short story collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, Steven Amsterdam's Things We Didn't See Coming and Jon Bauer's unpublished manuscript Rocks in the Belly. Jon is in my writing group, and I offered to critique the manuscript on the strength of the few chapters he'd read to us, which I'd found excellent. I understand that Rocks in the Belly is not necessarily the final title, but it works for me: this is a book that aims straight for the guts and pulls no punches. Despite the confronting, sometimes appalling behaviour of the protagonist, and the relentlessly downbeat emotional tone, this book truly gripped me. It covers some big, ambitious themes: the ineluctable grip of childhood, the fateful, unalterable moments that imprison us, and the physical frailty of identity - two of the three central characters have their selfhood disordered and eventually destroyed by insults to the brain. But perhaps its strongest theme is the intense relationship that can exist between mothers and sons, and the psychological scars that can be left when this relationship fails. Jon's protagonist is a man deeply damaged in his relationship both to himself and others by the perceived failings of his mother. As the reader, we are not quite so convinced that the responsibility for all of his pain really belongs at the mother's door; the chapters set in the character's boyhood show us a child whose profound psychological disturbance seems to have roots in nature as much as nurture. Yet the exploration of a boy's need for his mother's love and attention is very affecting, and the ways this "mother complex" plays out in his adult life through misogyny, seduction, the addictive need for sexual affirmation, are utterly believable. I haven't seen this theme explored in fiction before - perhaps there is even some taboo here.

I had my criticisms too, the most significant of which was the question of how many readers would have the stomach for the heavy rocks of truth Jon serves up. Or perhaps - probably a more serious criticism - whether the book doesn't at times slide from unflinching truthfulness into an indulgence in the awful that borders on the gothic. However, Jon is very much aware of these issues, and I must stress that the manuscript I read is still a work in progress. I sincerely hope he gets the balance right in the final work, because the core of this book is seriously good, and it deserves a wide audience. (I told Jon I would mention his book on my blog but I wouldn't review it, seeing as the version I read was not the final one. Sorry Jon, it just happened!)

The other book I wanted to talk about was Wells Towers' collection, recommended to me by Louise Swinn of Sleepers Publishing fame, and a great aficionado and patron of short stories. This is the kind of short story collection that makes you want to jump up and sharpen your pencil and write the best story you've ever written - if only it were that simple! They are relatively long stories by Australian standards - it's difficult to publish anything much over 3000 words here, whereas these must average at least twice that, though for US stories that is not unusual. They never ramble however - if more tangential detail goes into them than is customary for our pared-back stories none of it is dull or without impact. Tower just seems to have such a fullness of imagination that he can afford to pour all this extra material into the mix. Rather than feeling impatient with their length, I found myself flicking forward through the pages hoping there would be a whole lot more of them before the end. I can't wait to see what this guy does with a novel. Tower often begins his stories with events or details far removed from the crux of the narrative he will eventually unravel, then slowly narrows in on the quarry until the final line shows us what he's been chasing all along. In "On the Show", for example, the story starts with the literary equivalent of one of those "falling through the clouds" film openings: a wide angle view of a fairground, cast in disturbingly garish colours, rapidly closing in on a lizard on the side of a rusty gas canister. Before we know it, the lizard is trapped in a child's hand, and then, almost before our head has stopped spinning, the child is lured into a portable toilet by a paedophile. And yet even this is still not the real story, but just a thread in the tapestry Tower is weaving: a gripping portrait of the sordid, cruel world of life "on the show" and the characters whose stories converge in that surreal environment. It's not easy to write a short story without one central character narrative , yet Tower pulls it off masterfully, making it all appear effortless, almost throwaway. Yet once you start to take a closer look at the writing, the construction, you become aware that you are looking at a master's brushstrokes. As casual as it appears, everything is balanced, everything considered, and there's not a lazy metaphor or cliched treatment in sight. With the possible exception of Anne Enright's Taking Pictures, this is the finest short story collection I've read in a long time.