My review of Laura Jean McKay’s debut short story collection Holiday in Cambodia lands at The Australian this morning. McKay’s stories are crisp, humourous and purposefully sour – well worth your time.
I’m over at the Meanjin blog today, enthusing about Geordie Williamson’s The Burning Library, Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter and Autobiography of Red, Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye and John Burnside’s Black Cat Bone. Love to hear your thoughts.
The photography of Bill Henson has a demonstrated power to unsettle. This was most spectacularly proven in 2008 when a private Sydney gallery showing his work was temporarily shut down on (later unsubstantiated) accusations of child pornography.
The exact circumstance of that furore has its share of daft moments, triggered as it was by Henson’s decision to place on an advertising postcard a shot of a naked 12 year old girl, something which prompted then-PM Rudd to remark when shown the image on morning TV that he found it ‘absolutely revolting.’
The misrecognition of Henson’s work as pornographic couldn’t have been entirely unexpected. Gallery-goers had long looked at his pictures and felt uneasy. The difference in 2008 was that this unease leaped over the bounds of the art world into a larger moral panic.
As David Marr wrote in his still remarkable account The Henson Case (written at breakneck speed as the events unfolded), this one image touched on
‘…fears for children so boundless and vague that they put into doubt old ideas of what is safe and decent for the public to see.’
The often inarticulate disgust which greeted censored examples of Henson’s work during the controversy was partly fuelled by a simple misapprehension: that nudity and pornography are largely interchangeable. Even if we put aside art’s long tradition of representing the human form, any time with Henson’s work reveals that its consideration of skin is too elusive for the direct contingences of porn.
In a piece for the luxurious catalogue of Henson’s work Mnemosyne (2005) the senor curator of photography at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Judy Annear, contends that the medium Henson works in still holds a concrete promise which makes us resist its status as art:
‘It is tempting because Henson works with photography to a greater relationship to the actual; but the actual that this artist is interested in is the very substance and texture of the intangible aspects of existence – of feeling, memory, connection and loss.’
Henson’s trick, and the real source of the trouble in 2008, is that his work – regardless of subject – is completely resolved as imagery yet unsettled as to meaning. His use of bokeh, an aesthetically purposed blur, gives his work a painterly quality, connecting it to a long tradition of pictorial art. However, he purposefully resists the explicit narrations of much of this tradition by leaving his work untitled. His figures are anonymous and often androgynous, eyes turned away or in shadow. Fragmentary and elusive, Henson’s work depends on an inexplicit tension between tradition and the unstoried.
cloud landscapes at the Art Gallery of New South Wales displays fourteen works, only two of which contain clouds. Co-curated by Henson and Annear, the prints were selected by Annear from the gallery’s collection and Henson –notoriously fussy about the placement and lighting of his work- determined the hang.
The most striking part of the exhibition is on the longest single wall of AGNSW’s small photography gallery.
Four of the five prints displayed here are – despite varying size – hung on the same line. The fifth is flicked up the wall higher by a couple hand-spans. The oldest and smallest photos here start this procession, which ends with one of the most recent. It’s tempting to take the position of the last image as a rising inflection except that Henson’s inexplicitness never employs parody. It rather stresses, in a fluid, musical way, the continuity of his imagery and its growth in scale.
This placement points to the relevance of the exhibitions’ title. cloud landscapes doesn’t relate to the show’s direct subject matter but rather to allusion and investigation. Clouds often appear motionless but are always travelling. Look long enough at a Henson and, by fractions, details arrive before your eyes.
Indeed, movement is everywhere. A boy swigs water from a bottle on a bicycle. Rain pin-prinks the surface of a slow creek. A hypnagogic landscape looks as if a lazily stored camera was shaken into its shot by the vibrations of a car’s dash. Even a woman asleep suggests the travel of dreams.
Change and transferral have long fascinated Henson. His use of chiaroscuro, strong contrasts between dark and light, is not only a compositional tool but points to the duality implicit. His eyes is drawn to the edge of things; not just between darkness and seeing but between sleep and waking, childhood and adolescence, solitude and loneliness. Before the meaning of This settles and is no longer That.
Given his use of classical and renaissance painting as inflection points, a great temptation with Henson is to consider him borne of a fundamentally European sensibility. But what can’t be ignored is the antipodean longing for otherness. It’s a connection that Judy Annear draws by quoting (in Mnemosyne) that other great Australian dreamer about Europe, Gerard Murnane:
‘There is another world, and I have seen parts of that world on most days of my life. But parts of that world are drifting past and cannot be lived in. For as long as I used to see drifting past me those parts of the other world, I used to wonder about the place where all the drifting parts drifted together.’ (Inland, 1988)
The location of Henson’s work – its Australianness – is integral to its creation, however much of its inspiration lies over the horizon.
Evil has played an essential part in our stories since stories were born. The narrative benefits of existential threat are just too compelling. A threat is something to endure, to triumph over or –just occasionally- to succumb to.
The latest personification of evil to gain sustained cultural salience is the serial killer. The latest wave, from Dexter to Hannibal, was kicked off by the commercial and critical success of Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, 25 years old this year. That novel’s Hannibal Lector goat-eyed lack of dissembling and invasive insight proved a seductive template for many fictional killers who have come since – accomplished, calculating, indelible.
The Shining Girls is determined to be different. Lauren Buekes is a South African writer whose previous two novels – Moxyland (2008) and Zoo City (2010), were speculative fictions shot through with a restless nudge at the genre’s conventions. For her third novel, Buekes turns her hand to the thriller, adding a sci-fi sprocket to the whir along at its core.
In Chicago 1974, a thin man steadies his stride as he limps across a park towards a six-year-old girl. Interrupting the circus she’s fashioned out of chipped cups and a bumblebee, they talk uncomfortably. His determination to be memorable comes up against her tenacity. He leaves her with what will later prove to be an impossible gift, promising ‘I’ll come back for you.’
The girl, Kirby Mazrachi, grows up to survive –just barely- a vicious attack thirteen years later. The thin man did come back, biding his time in a way other than waiting. Fleeing from Hooverville vigilantes in 1931, Harper Curtis murderously obtains a key that wills him towards an abandoned tenement. Inside is a luxury at odds with the boards on the windows, a body with its head caved in and upstairs a gaggle of luminescent objects. Among them a baseball card, contraceptive pills, a toy plastic horse. Next to each is the name of a woman, in –despite this being his first visit- Harper’s handwriting. The House (always capitalised in Harper’s thoughts) offers the gift of time-travel in service of the obsessions of those who hold its key. Harper’s obsession is girls possessed of confidence, attainment, resilience – the Shining Girls.
Harper visits each of his Shining Girls first as children, giving each a gift that serves both his need to be memorable and the novel’s to be anachronistic. He then pays them a second, killing, visit to them as women. The sequence is Harper’s alone, carefully nestled into chapters that follow a breadcrumb logic of clues rather than chronology. Pinging against this is the perspectives of Harper’s victims across time and Kirby’s efforts in 1992 to uncover the truth of her attack. Kirby, working as an intern for veteran reporter and curmudgeonly foil Dan Velasquez, is a doughy hero; tough, resourceful and bright. But the novel’s real energy comes from the variances that Buekes is determined to strike from the commonalities of the thriller genre. Harper stands for what cops know about serial killers. Rather than a supremely talented murderer, Harper is a dangerous dullard, propelled by a darkly odd obsession, but fundamentally opportunistic. Our sense of the meaning of events is also up for grabs, as Buekes has Harper muse that stories are a
‘…desperate attempt to order because we can’t face the terror that it might all be random.’
This approach also suits the central speculative element of this novel. Like a caulk line drawn to represent a wall, the notion of a time-travelling house can’t much resist a wetted thumb before its useful suggestion is dispelled.
Most vitally, Buekes takes real care to allow Harper’s victims their own voice. These are recognisably women, rather than props for evidence. The high point of this approach is Zora, a welder on the 1943 Chicago shipyards. Her sheer endurance, both as a widower raising children, and as an Afro-African in a white workplace are astute fishhooks to catch the reader’s sympathy. However, Zora lives beyond her character outline in a way that Buekes’ other characterisations do not.
But its not character that drives this book; it’s the structure of the tale. As Kirby tips us off
‘There are only so many plots in the world. It’s how they unfold that makes them interesting.’
Lacing through seven decades, The Shining Girls weaves in and out of perspectives and timeframes with a sureness that speaks of much careful construction. But this is a strength that succumbs to a weakness before the tale is done. Sustained empathy requires an evenness of characterisation that this novel lacks. As a done-it of neither the ‘who’ or the ‘how’ variety, the last third -which should have hummed with an urgent fluctuation- instead breaks down into a stuttering game of kill-chasey.
If Buekes’ gamble with the thriller genre really pays off, it is primarily in its hove to the truth of violent death, its horrifying mundanity. In fiction of course, truth is only ever part of the story, measured as it must be against cozenage, pace and context. Given its real incidence is vanishingly small, its fair to wonder at our sustained cultural interest in serial killers. In a society like ours, where the leading cause of death for women is someone they know, do serial killers –the stranger at the door- provide a fictional distraction from the real threat, the man at the dining room table?
‘Desire is like a stone in your month – you don’t spit it out, you talk around it.’
Me at The Newtown Review of Books on Jennifer Mills’ very impressive short story collection ‘The Rest is Weight’.
My review of Melbourne writer Jo Case’s beautiful memoir is now up the Newtown Review of Books.