Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Only Connect

How to Be Both by Ali Smith
(Hamish Hamilton)
Pp. 371

This ambitious novel twists strands of tales together like the DNA double helix molecule that symbolises the story. The first half concerns Francesco del Cossa in an out of body experience – she may be dead, but she doesn’t remember dying; perhaps this is purgatory? She is drawn to a girl who is looking at her painting in an art gallery. The second half concerns George, the girl from the gallery, trying to cope with the death of her mother, Carol, who became obsessed with the unknown painter of frescoes in Ferrara, Italy and took her daughter there to see them in situ.

The halves of the novel are both numbered One; half of the books are printed with George’s story first and Francesco’s second. They can be read in either order because everything is connected, and all things overlap. Sitting in an Italian piazza and discussing the prevalence of over-painting images, George’s mother asks her, “Which came first? The chicken or the egg? The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?” George says the picture underneath, of course. “But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all? And does that mean the other picture, if we don’t know about it, may as well not exist?”

These palimpsests become a metaphor for life. Francesco is really a girl, but disguised as a boy so that she can have a career as an artist. Pictures record things past their death; they capture immortality. Carol was an art activist, “It was her job to subvert political things with art things, and to subvert art things with political things.”

After her mother’s death, George feels as though her life has been split into two entirely separate halves. “That before and after thing is about mourning, is what people keep saying.” She discovers a woman with whom Carol had a relationship, and George stalks and photographs her every day. She recalls how her mother used to think she was being spied upon and ‘Minotaur-ed’; was she just being paranoid? Or is this the self-enveloping effect of time’s continuum? Both art and surveillance involve watching and being watched, and there is always more going on than meets the eye. Carol taught George, “Nothing’s not connected. And we don’t live on a flat surface.” History is ever-present and the weight of all this connectivity can be oppressive.

The novel is a complex work of meaning and metaphor: a classic story of love and loss, told in a fresh and modern way. Both genre and gender bending, this is a work of parallel universes, palimpsests, fluid time and space, paranoia and mystery – almost too clever by half, and certainly challenging, but definitely memorable.

Monday, 19 December 2016

It's what you make it

My Life in an Object
Canberra Writers Festival
National Museum of Australia, Visions Theatre
Saturday 27 August 2016

Objects acquire symbolism through our transference. Many people have items of ‘sentimental value’ that would mean little to anyone else. I have a quilt my sister made me when she left home. It has accompanied me around the world and graced my bed in every house I’ve ever lived in. I know that once the people and animals were safe, that would be the thing I save from a house fire. Sentimental and worthless to strangers, it connects me to my love for my family although they are many miles away.

Ahead of the National Museum’s A History of the World in 100 Objects exhibition, three authors were asked to bring along an object and explain how it had changed their life. That’s a tough request, and they all admitted that they chose something lightweight and easily portable to represent a greater truth. George Megalogenis, Karen Middleton and Nick Earls all entered into the spirit of the panel show-and-tell, My Life in an Object, with enthusiasm.

Author, journalist and political economist, George Megalogenis, brought along a Beatles record, Please, Please Me. He explained how the first time he heard it he had to have it, even though he didn’t have a record player. He was crippled with consumer anxiety that by the time he had the wherewithal to play it; the record wouldn’t be available any more. Clearly he couldn’t predict the enduring popularity of the Fab Four and the ubiquity of their songs.

He mused that it is no longer his favourite Beatles track, and that objects don’t necessarily change but people do and so the relationship alters. Our need to possess things we like is also interesting, but I wonder if it is fading in the world of digital downloads, minimalist furnishing, and premium prices on real estate space.

Karen Middleton's effect was a stars-and-stripes bandana purchased shortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001. At the time she had been in Washington DC with John Howard as a political correspondent for the West Australian newspaper, reporting on the then Prime Minister's visit to the United States. She recalled that John Howard was bundled onto Airforce 2 and flown to Hawaii, then Qantas to Canberra, but Air Traffic Control was asleep so he was diverted to Sydney where he was met by recently-sacked Ansett workers.

She, meanwhile, flew to New York to report on the scene there. The air was full of noxious dust comprised of potentially lethal asbestos from toppled buildings and human remains. Some African-American kids saw a gap in the market and sold these bandanas not as souvenirs but for practical reasons so people could mask their faces and breathe a little more easily. “They were enterprising kids – I paid way too much for it.” Even in the face of grief and horror, capitalist opportunism will triumph.

At the time she didn’t know she would become a war correspondent, but she knew this was a life-changing moment and that it would have a dramatic effect on her personal and professional development. Indeed she went to Afghanistan three times as a direct consequence of these events and published the book, An Unwinnable War: Australia in Afghanistan. In it she questioned Australia’s carte blanche commitment to help the US, for which she received hate mail and was labelled a traitor. She took the bandana with her, as a reminder of why she was doing what she was – the object became imbued with her projected focus, and although she said it is not a talisman, she has clearly made it a token.

A butter pat makes a fairly unassuming object for author, Nick Earls, to expand upon, but he soon brings the domestic wooden item to life. It was used on the farm in Ireland where he lived until he was nine. He explained that such simple appliances provide links to the land, and that the stories of nearby churches or landmarks become your stories too – we willingly assume the ties and inherently form affiliations.

Apparently we crave these connections and researching family history is the third most popular activity on the internet “after shopping and pornography”. Earls used this platform to appeal for more funding for Trove, the popular and free digital resources portal created by the National Library of Australia. “Please remove the shackles and let it run.” The on-line resource contains books, images, historic newspapers, maps, music and archives, but the Library stopped funding content in July due to government cuts. (At the time of writing, this decision has been reversed.)

Nick Earls is writing a series of novellas. He has researched the form and understands the way it works to intrigue and delight the reader in a single sitting. He complained that people now consume so much information and content and so quickly they don’t understand anticipation or deferment. He believes in enforcing breaks “to let the stories sit in your head.”

Just as the Quarterly Essay (for which George Megalogenis writes, bringing us full circle) fills the gap in the market that has been dropped from the weekend newspaper, novellas have their own place on the bookshelf. Earls claimed that while articles were getting shorter, books were getting fatter, and that we are losing the art of digesting information. He stated that novellas can give depth without padding. Similarly objects can give meanings without words.  It’s a concept worth exploring, and this panel did so convincingly.