1/15/09

The Not Girl

Daniel Clowes has observed that female teenagers are licensed to be emotional in a way that other people aren't. He made this point extremely well in an interview which my friend Ian found in a remaindered magazine, kept, and forwarded to me by surface mail. In turn I read it, noted the passage, tore the interview out and filed it for future reference. I have no idea where it is now. But trust me: he said it, and he was on the money.

The teenage leads in Ghost World are the main reason the eight-issue spin-off eclipsed its parent, Like A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron. Although the lives of Enid Coleslaw (an anagram of "Daniel Clowes") and Becky Doppelmeyer are emotional and scattered they were always rendered as calm by the artist's nerveless line and shadow, glumly heroic as they stared slightly to the side of the reader's eyeline. Clowes' drawing style captures details with the sleepy clarity of someone only just waking up to the world he has always known. He's hypnotised by suburbia: bored but unable to take his eyes off it.

The movie version of Ghost World (2001) is pretty fine although it's more gentle, obviously. Enid (Thora Birch) and Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) form the passive links between the many characters. In the same way that their eventual friend Seymour (Steve Buscemi) hoards kitsch memorabilia, the girls and others collect relationships for interest rather than their true value. Even Enid's father (Bob Balaban) asks his girlfriend to move in because she's around the house most of the time anyway.

The movie is far from godless: huge neon signs and franchise outlets surround the girls in almost every shot, the power of their commercial presence mocking pretensions such as books, music and art. Blues Hammer, an all white college blues band, sing idiotic songs about picking cotton; Roberta, Enid's summer school art teacher, promotes the vocabulary of early 20th century art to help her students, who go on to say nothing with it.

Clowes said Hollywood studios considered the project arty but it's an easily understood tale of the suburbs and thwarted romanticism - not unlike Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused. Clowes has a working process I really understand. Here he is talking about it:
Usually, after I finish an issue, I sit and do nothing for about a week. I usually plan to take a month off, and then after about five days, I can't stand it any more and I have to get back to work. I have nothing to do and I'm just sitting there all day. I usually have a notebook of ideas that I collect. As I'm working on one issue, I'm sort of thinking about ideas for the next. So I sit down with this giant notebook of ideas, and I cross out all the really stupid ones that seemed brilliant at 4 in the morning 3 months ago and now don't make any sense. Then I take all the decent ones and I try and see if there's any thematic unity to all of them. I tend to write two or three stories at once, and then often I'll realize that two of them are very similar and I can put them together and combine them into something. There's generally some sort of magical process by which they all come together at some point. Then I try to sketch out the entire thing in skeleton in some sort of vague plot line. Then I sit down and draw it page by page and do the writing as I go along. I usually write about two pages in advance - actual dialogue and things like that. I try to keep it relatively spontaneous, without too much advance thought.
You can read more of the interview here.

(Muse Lounge, Apr 09, 2003)

Mundine vs Sullivan, Auckland, Feb 1, 2003

Should boxers avoid being hit? If you are Anthony Mundine, the answer is 'yes'. The Australian ducked and stalled through 12 rounds at the ASB Stadium before being awarded a win by a surprising number of points. A lot of people had turned up to see punches being thrown but apart from a few shots from Sean Sullivan in the early rounds that sent a fine plume of sweat spraying off his opponent's bullet head, not a lot seemed to connect. The fine art of hitting other people, hard, is difficult to judge from ringside: many of what looked like glancing blows would have been enough to stretch a normal person. But on the relative scale of things Sullivan did most of the work, or at least created it for Mundine who seemed to be treating the matter first as an exercise and later as a confusing problem.

Mundine was defending his Pan Asian Boxing Association super middleweight title as part of a lead up to an International Boxing Federation rematch. He needs to prove he can box past the early rounds, so his initial inaction - taking blows, keeping Sullivan in a huddle, dancing around - may have been a strategy to test himself and demonstrate to all interested parties that he has some puff.

In contrast Sullivan brawled into each round after crossing himself at the opening bell, shoving Mundine through the ropes at least three times and once bringing him to his knees with a low blow. Mundine winced in pain as he struggled to collapse in the far corner - the one where the television camera crew was standing. By round 12 Sullivan's nose was bloodied while Mundine smiled and chatted at the referee, copping annoying little poses to amuse the crowd, so his sense of humour was intact. But Sullivan was still on his feet. Sean Sullivan was paid $30,000 for the match: Mundine got an estimated $300,000. If Mundine is 10 times better than Sullivan, why couldn't he get through his gloves?

City life: Gangs of New York

I keep referring to the new Martin Scorsese movie Gangs of New York as Slaves of New York after the Merchant / Ivory production of the Tama Janowitz book. This is a mistake, but I think Slaves will last longer.

I was looking forward to Gangs: the director had telegraphed it as a seminal work and I was even prepared to look beyond Leonardo diCaprio, but it's just not very good. Scorsese's later work has moved into a finely tuned realm of shades and whispers: Gangs is straightforward and boring. Although violence is its subject, the film isn't violent at all in comparison to Raging Bull or even Casino: Miramax have steered the camera away from the icky bits, except where the black actors are concerned. After threatening all manner of mutilations, Daniel Day Lewis leaves Leonardo with a few little cuts and a photogenic burn under his cheekbone - nothing a few time lapse dissolves and Cameron Diaz can't fix.

A lot of research has gone into the film and nobody stops talking about it (much like Minority Report) but the characters are straight from stock. The Celtic soundtrack limits the director to the euphoric instead of the funny / sad / jarring jumps between popular songs that made Goodfellas great. I believe artists get better with age, not worse, but the train jumping the track now and then is part of the process. Gangs of New York reminds me of what Lou Reed did with Magic & Loss or, lately, The Raven: an experiment for him rather than us.

1/9/09

Deluxe and delightful


Roxy Music sounded like they looked, and they looked like nothing on earth. The band debuted when glam rock was the fashion and still managed to stand out against the hedonism and glitter of London in the 1970s. They made albums that lasted beyond the moment and then the decade and now the century. They didn't churn out a new single every Friday like Wizzard, or the same album over and over like T-Rex, and they didn't lurch from image to artifice like Bowie until all their ideas were spent and their credibility sacrificed. Roxy began burning bright, cooled to a lounge lizard mid-career, spun off a brace of solo albums and regrouped for just long enough to cut a languid farewell, Avalon, regarded by even dispassionate listeners as a classic.

Roxy Music stood out because they had taste and wit, chops and moxie. As a music critic once muttered to me ruefully, they were never kids: they arrived fully formed. Even David Bowie, that great planner and schemer, emerged as Ziggy Stardust only after a series of bad fits and false starts. Roxy Music just plain landed.

The circumstances leading up their arrival are the subject of Re-Make Re-Model, a new book by novelist and art critic Michael Bracewell. A pre-history of the years and days leading up to Roxy Music's 1972 debut album, Re-Make Re-model puts the band in context, charting members' histories prior to their 1972 debut.

Roxy Music was founded by singer and keyboardist Bryan Ferry, a Fine Arts graduate from Newcastle who told Melody Maker in 1971 that he wanted to make music "in as civilised a way as possible." He was joined by a oboeist, Andy Mackay, a student of classical music as well as avant garde composers like John Cage. It was Mackay who invited Brian Eno, a Fine Arts graduate who had studied cybernetics, to join them for rehearsals.

"[Andy] said, 'We've got a synth that nobody knows how to play, why don't you try it?'" Eno told Q Magazine in 1990. "So after soundproofing his tiny bedsit in Camberwell, there were six of us in there with all the gear and the noise was fucking staggering."

Bassists came and went, but the drums and wires stayed. Latin-influenced guitarist Phil Manzanera had worked the sound desk for the band's rehearsals and secretly learned all their songs. When he was finally asked to audition, "I could play them all immaculately - which of course seemed amazing."

Drummer Paul Thompson was an apprentice at the Newcastle ship yards who had been playing in bands in working mens' clubs.

"So okay, they were art students, but it didn't really matter," he tells Bracewell in the book. "I haven't got a degree and that, and there is a big intellectual difference between me and the rest of the boys. But that doesn't matter as long as the musical chemistry is right."

If the Velvet Underground were the great art band, Roxy Music were the quintessential art school band. The Velvets had tooled around in a variety of combinations before falling under the promotional wing of Andy Warhol. They were exciting and brilliant but in retrospect they didn't fit with the scattershot events organised by Warhol and his Factory cohorts. Footage of the Velvets' touring show, the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, looks stiffly 60s now, Edie Sedgewick whooping it up and Malanga cracking his whip while poor young Lou Reed stands there trying to make himself heard. Warhol and the factory were just a phase, really, before the band grew out of it.

But Roxy's founding members Ferry, Mackay and Eno had been taught first-hand by some of the leading British artists of the day. They went to university to find out about art and music with the intention of making it their career. They were educated, but they weren't snobs. Ferry's father managed pit ponies, Eno's was a post man, Mackay's was a gas fitter who played classical piano. They were clever boys who loved art and rock and roll, and they put the two together, and they made it work.

In 1973 Eno described Roxy Music to Sounds as "luxurious decadence. It upsets some people: they expect you to be pigeonholed, fully committed to one type of music like rock and roll. Well, we certainly don't expect to spend the remainder of our musical days driving up and down the M1 in a van, living in rat holes. We plan to do it in style."

"Roxy Music is a glamourisation," says Ferry at the end of the book. "I didn't think my own name was terribly glamorous; and I suppose, all those years ago, I changed my name to Roxy Music."

***

"A product," wrote British pop artist Richard Hamilton "must aim to project an image of desirability as strong as any Hollywood star."

Hamilton had already designed the cover for the Beatles' White Album when he was teaching the young Bryan Ferry at Newcastle University's Fine Art department.

"I was a great party goer in Newcastle," Hamilton tells Bracewell. "I remember [Bryan] always being at the parties, and being terribly good looking..."

It was Pop Art's fascination with Americana that would later inspire Roxy Music's famous cover girls: thematic cheesecake in the retro style of Betty Page and Vargas illustrations. Even if you don't know the band, you may well recognise Jerry Hall arched on the rocks for Siren or the girls standing in the bushes in Country Life. Bold even by 1970s standards, the covers have gone from politically incorrect to right back in fashion.

Roxy Music weren't the first or the last band to put women on the cover but their art school irony made it work. The rawness of the images is still a slap in the face because advertising sex in the 70s meant sex was actually being sold. The women look out of place because they were: beamed in from a fantasy retro-America.

On the band's debut self-titled album Kari Ann Muller bares her teeth in in 1950s pinks and blues while inside the gatefold, the boys are kitted out like an outer space Sha-na-na. On For Your Pleasure shiny disco queen Amanda Lear poses with a panther and a Cadillac before the nocturnal Las Vegas skyline. Even Stranded cover girl Marilyn Cole looks as if she's been washed up on the set of Hawaii Five-O. It wasn't until the fourth album, Country Life that the covers went European.

Ferry contrasted the Country Life magazine photography "where you normally have characters shooting ducks or jumping over fences in top hats" with a night portrait of two healthy German tourists standing against the bushes in a lot of makeup and very little underwear. The girls, Constanze and Eveline, were German tourists Ferry met while "writing lyrics" in Portugal and were, he says, "very keen to do the job" of modelling. It was banned in America for being too explicit - and maybe, one opines, just a bit too self-possessed.

The cover of Roxy's fifth, Siren, marks a retreat to safer ground, with Jerry Hall luring men on to the rocks. This time the joke would be on Ferry: after accepting his engagement proposal, Hall dumped him for Mick Jagger.

"Bryan always seemed to have two sides to him," says Hall in her biography, Tall Tales. "I think Texans and the English have a common bond of eccentricity. They both thrive on it. They love eccentrics and try to be eccentric as they can be. But there's this very straight, uptight side to the English, too. Bryan seemed to have both sides.

"His father was a coal miner in Newcastle. And he'd pulled himself up from that and made a real gentleman out of himself, but that always seemed to make him insecure. There were only certain people he could relax around."

When I got to talk to Bryan Ferry on a phone interview for Rip It Up in 1988 the experience was like very politely pulling teeth. Ferry answered the direct dial call so mildly it took me an awkward minute to work that it was actually him on the other end. I'd expected that he'd sound... different.

"How did you think I'd sound?" he shot back, slightly peeved.

"More Ferry-esque," I said.

He did laugh.

"I get a bit unsure about pushing the personality, y'know," he conceded. "That whole image thing can get in the way of the music so easily. It's a drag - it's very hard to find the right sort of balance for that. In the Roxy days it was much easier: one could hide behind the name, or that very anonymous glamour girl image, which I preferred, quite frankly."

Decades after graduating from art school, the singer-songwriter still used painting as an analogy of how he recorded songs in the studio.

"It's very much like working over the same canvas: you paint over a certain section and stand back from it, come back a few weeks later and try something again - a different colour, a different musician, whatever. The vocal part is the tip of the iceberg."

***

Roxy Music's second album, For Your Pleasure, was one of the first records I ever owned. I bought it late, in 1978, from the Sounds store on Great South Road knowing almost nothing about the group, although I'd heard tracks from their other albums on Barry Jenkins' Sunday night show on Radio Hauraki. I was unsure about the band's Parliament style threads, but the glossy black cover did its job of projecting desirability and then some, and soon I was walking home with it under my arm.

I slipped it on the turntable of the household's fake woodgrain Pye Isotronic and clamped on the headphones. And then, as 'In Every Dream Home a Heartache' goes: it blew my mind. I'd never heard anything like it. And haven't since, despite the many bands who now claim them as an influence. The hammering burlesque of 'Do the Strand'; the liquid, giddy 'Beauty Queen', the hypnotic, lurching 'The Bogus Man.' It was utterly weird and perfectly formed. Where the hell had this come from?

Nearly 30 years later, the book I needed then, is here. Re-Make Re-Model charts almost every connection and influence on Roxy Music, presenting the band as a pure product of London's art, fashion and party culture.Bryan Ferry's manager and co-founder of EG Music, David Enthoven describes the scene:

"The brilliant thing about the latter part of the 60s was that you had that wonderful Pop art movement which had really flourished with [Richard] Hamilton, [Allen] Jones and [Peter] Blake, but then went over to Mary Quant, Biba, Zandra Rhodes. An extraordinary flourishing of fashion, art, music and film - and they were all intermingling. And people were dressing up. It was definitely a period where 20 year olds had kicked over the traces."

Before Roxy Music the "art rock" label meant moody and intellectual. Andy Mackay tells Bracewell how he imagined he would be in a band like UFO or Soft Machine "quietly bent over their instruments.

"Likewise the Velvet Underground were a quiet band - they were all hunched over... I'm never quite sure how Roxy Music ended up being a totally up-front performance band."

The loudness, media commentator Peter York says in the book, came from London's fashion crowd and Ferry's gay friends who pushed him to camp things up:

"Now where did Roxy Music come from? Well, we know where Bryan came from, and it wasn't Earl's Court. Eno - the education system kicked in, and made it right for him. Neither were metropolitans in the first instance - but they wanted to be. And they were not gay. But the huge influence of [designer] Antony Price is there: that he made Bryan be more daring in his gestures, because Bryan didn't want to to be that daring."

"The crucial discovery of Roxy Music would be that you could be serious and have a lot of fun without compromising either," says Mackay. "Other glam rock bands like, say, the Sweet or Slade, went too much for simply being glam rocky - Bowie was somewhere in between - and we would start off expecting to be kind of serious."

"The dressing up was always part of the fun of Roxy," Manzanera told Uncut in 2001. "People tend to overlook the humour that was there. At first, it was just us and Bowie doing it. The more extreme we got, the bigger the reaction. It was a bit of theatre. It gave us something to do to conquer the nerves and feelings of amateurishness before we went on."

"With all the other bands I've been in, when we walked on stage nothing happened," Thompson told Melody Maker in 1972. "With Roxy Music, the audience takes notice right away."

***

It's difficult looking back at the 70s from our interconnected society of Post-Everything-Ism, but the kids are sure trying. After the politically correct 80s and the corporate 90s, the 70s seem like a Dionysian blast. Fast, helmetless, wreathed in smoke and confidence: an Empire Of Fun, fallen now. And okay, it wasn't really like that. But you only have to listen to the music it produced to become sentimental about how great it was. For it's music that we yearn for, trapped in our seamless nightmare of digital Britney-ess: music that comes from a place you can't locate on a spreadsheet. Rap's lost its punch, soul doesn't have any and punk's nothing more than a tie in a mall boutique.

Stopping as it does in 1972, Bracewell's book talks too little about the music and its compelling, vivid kick. At a press conference at London's Savoy Hotel to announce the band's 2001 reunion tour, Manzanera joked with the assembled journalists that Roxy were reforming to be their own tribute band simply because nobody else could. "You can't cover our songs very easily, so we thought we'd better do them ourselves."

Roxy Music's sound was unique. Rock historians draw comparisons with German kraut rock band Can but as writer Duncan Fallowell tells Bracewell: "I think the whole Can scene was a bit far out for Bryan - it unnerved him. We used to take drugs and talk very frankly and strangely about our inner selves. Well, that's not really Bryan, is it?"

"I liked what Pink Floyd did in terms of the picturesque, but there was no sense of joy in it,' Ferry says to Bracewell. As a student he had DJ'd at Club A Go Go in Newcastle, watching acts that would all add to the blend. Cream, the Spencer Davis Group, Wilson Pickett, Captain Beefheart.

"I wonder whether Bryan, at the time, was really aware of what he was doing," Mackay told The Guardian. "The band he was in before was basically a soul band; and it's very interesting that as soon as he got the chance to launch his solo career off the back of Roxy, he immediately did covers of all the songs by singers who he admired - which were soul songs. I think he thought he was singing one thing, but because he was English, it came out differently."

***

Eno split acrimoniously from the band in 1973. When the NME asked what he was going to do he said "I'll probably just give up music altogether and become a full-time poseur."

He and his co-founders did anything but. Roxy Music continued until Siren, split for a flurry of solo work, reunited for three more - Manifesto, Flesh and Blood and Avalon and then split again. Eno recorded some remarkable solo albums, produced hits for U2 and Talking Heads and quietly invented ambient music. Ferry's own solo career has been steady but with mixed results. Boys and Girls (1985) and Mamouna (1994) stand alongside Roxy's best: some of the others just lie there.

Nevertheless, Eno's "full-time poseur" remark seems prescient. While Bowie was crash-landing in Berlin with the undercarriage still up, Ferry got himself a proper tailor and a booking at the Ritz for a far more graceful landing. Every rocker of a certain age has picked up on his style, from Eric Clapton to Rod Stewart: a great cut suit, a shaded stare and a sense that the parties are drawing to a close. If a man's career must fade, it might as well be in the cocktail hour.

Avalon, Roxy Music's swan song, featured Ferry's future wife on the cover (again) who would split from him (again), but this time with her back turned to the viewer: an mutual invitation to enjoy the sunset. The single 'More Than This' turned up in Sofia Coppola's movie Lost in Translation, warbled in a karaoke bar by Bill Murray. It was a triple irony: the art house band that had lost its cool and fallen out of fashion was now being name-checked as another art house reference... and thus became classic.

"It's a very hard song to sing," Murray says, "especially after you've had several sakis. But the music on Avalon is some of the most romantic I've ever heard. There's just something about Avalon that shows a possibility about life and about feeling that I want to remind myself of."

And for the eyeblink that constitutes a 21st century trends, at least, the old Roxy Music are back in fashion again, name-checked by bands like Franz Ferdinand and Arcade Fire.

In the 2006 the original members returned to the studio, this time with Eno, and the old tensions were still at work.

"The band hadn't changed one bit in terms of its internal dynamics," Eno told The Guardian. "Just the same chemistry. It made me wonder if people can ever change the chemistry between them. After all that time, the relationships seemed exactly the same."

Human tensions fuel creativity, and like so many fictional inventions, the art of Roxy Music was a compensation for human shortcomings. The cover girls and costumes emboldened the shy Ferry to express himself. With Bowie the image was clearly a mask; Ferry's achievement was to work the image until it became real, stepped back into the frame of the vision he'd created. Speaking down the phone in 1988 he sounded more than a little nostalgic when I asked how those famous 12" LP covers looked reduced to the size of a CD.

"They don't look too bad, in fact," he said. "But I guess it's time to start designing from that other size up. The other things outsell LPs now ? cassettes and CDs. One has great nostalgia for the vinyl version, of course."

Of course.

(Originally published in Sunday magazine, 2008)

The X-Files

Mulder has been abducted by aliens and Scully is mysteriously pregnant and maybe The X-Files is worth watching again. The eighth season (TV2 ran it straight after the seventh) kicked off with a terrific two-parter packed with the stylish illogic that made the series ludicrous and cool at the same time.

Scully jogged miles across the Arizona desert at night in high heels. FBI agents in matching shirts, ties and off-road vehicles surrounded a local school but still managed to lose the two children they were chasing. A flying saucer that turned out to be a helicopter turned out to be - hey! - a flying saucer all along.

Inside the ship Mulder was strapped to an alien dental chair and calling for help but neither Scully or Skinner could hear hear because they were standing in the dark arguing.

"This is going to far," snapped Skinner.
"No," said Scully. "The problem is - it hasn't gone far enough."

They could have been discussing the last series. After successfully moving to the big screen in 1998 The X-Files never quite made it back. The tension between Scully and Mulder evaporated: she looked bored and he looked fat. The exceptions were the start and finish of each season - the "mythology" stories that are released on video and link up with the movie to form one long, paranoid conspiracy theory.

Series creator Chris Carter's plan is that the mythology will eventually reveal all: the cigarette-smoking man, Mulder's abducted sister, Scully's alien pregnancies, Skinner's infestation with deadly nano-technology - everything. He has his work cut out for him. After eight years The X-Files has strung together so many ideas it's become a running audit of ghost stories and urban legends. Scully and Mulder are Jungian G-men, endlessly posting field reports on modern America's collective unconscious.

As the nation's fears multiplied, the work piled up. Now, in response to the latest round of pay negotiations with actor David Duchovny, Agent Mulder has been snatched by aliens and is busy having his face drilled.

Mulder's replacement is John Doggett (Robert Patrick), a Marlboro-gargling dead-eye who might not be on Scully's side. His scepticism finally releases her from the one-note line that science can explain everything. She's becoming Mulder, the National Enquirer subscriber who wants to believe.

Which is good, because when a "giant bat-like creature" appeared in the third episode it was very hard to believe. Halfway through Scully wondered if there was a scientific explanation but she changed her mind when it tried to bite her head off. Doggett shot it. Afterwards, they debated science vs. religion with the clarity of an FBI memo.

"Do you believe that thing is still out there and will one day come after us, Agent Doggett?" asked Agent Scully.
"I'm pretty sure I hit it, Agent Scully," said Agent Doggett.

Tonight Scully discovers murder in the rural mid-west, which in this series usually means hillbilly cults and poor cell-phone reception. No guessing which is the greatest fear.

(NZ Herald, 2006)

Translation

I've yet to meet every one of my translators. Strangers assume that the process of having your words swapped into a different language is intimate but I've found it's almost the opposite. The publisher gives the translator the novel and the translator comes back to the author with questions, and even then only sometimes. My French translators have had many questions, the Italians a few and the Germans hardly any. The biggest sticking problems with language have been those between editors in the UK and the US but even these have been merely a matter of a few words or a local phrase. In such cases the most important language becomes that of the printer, "STET" and "COLLOQ" being two useful examples.

Overall the experience of having my work transformed so efficiently and without fuss has been a nice reality check. No matter how much you sweat over a novel, in the end that's all it is: just another book.

My French translators Anouk Neuhoff and Isabelle Chapman speak English as well as I do plus a few other languages besides. I blame them for my dismal French because they are excellent conversationalists and even better hosts. Whenever I've attempted a few phrases in their presence their comments are nothing but kind. Anouk translated Shirker and Electric for Christian Bourgois in Paris, and Isabelle translated Departure Lounge. It's my impression that each has imparted her own style to my work but I don't know what that might be. I do know that in France even readers of popular fiction can pay as much attention to the translator's name as they do to the author's. Which is logical if not sobering.

The effects of translation on a writer's work can of course be radical. A good modern example is the Japanese author Haruki Murakami whose novels lurch in accessibility depending on whether his translator is Jay Rubin or Alfred Birnbaum. Rubin's English language version of Murakami is poetic and calm but Birnbaum's, I'm told, is "more Japanese." If readers of Lugenspiele (Pack of Lies - Aus dem neuseelandischen Englisch von Dietmar Hefendehl) or Fuori dal tempo (Shirker - traduzione di Massimo Ortelio e Annamaria Raffo) are experiencing a similar disjunction I can only be thankful to be in such company.

As a writer I owe a great deal to works in translation. When I was growing up in south Auckland the local cinema screened Italian spaghetti westerns and Hong Kong martial arts pictures in which the overdubbed dialogue or subtitles was an integral part of the viewing experience. Similarly the local library held an oddly comprehensive collection of French and Japanese novels which I enjoyed as much for the clarity of the translator's prose as I did for the stories. There were doubtless gaps in meaning but like scratches in a favourite vinyl LP or reflections in a painting's glazing the disjunctions seemed a natural part of the work.

Subsequently the thought that a novel might be translated has encouraged me to focus not on the details of language so much as the broader story. Even if my words will be changed I know the brute narrative will survive. The first question an author is always asked is "What's it about?" so it helps to be able to say in English or any other language. Travellers to foreign lands know how far they can spin out simple phrases such as "Do you have a table?" and "What time is the ferry?" Authors likewise could do well practicing the sentence beginning "My novel is..." Try it some time. Translating the words is easy: finding them in the first place is hard.

(Sunday Star Times, 2004)

1/5/09

Boxing as a metaphor

The romance between boxers and writers has been going on for a long time. Fighters want to be poets and poets want to be fighters despite the fact that neither party is equipped to deal with their respective aspirations. Fighting is a direct method of problem-solving at odds with the shaded ruminations of literature. Writers don't like being punched in the face.

The messy affair has continued nevertheless. Ernest Hemingway belonged to a boxing generation, making his well-publicised dalliance with the sport less of a cliche than it seems now. In Cannibals and Christians, Norman Mailer - who also fancied himself with the gloves - describes a 1929 bout in which El Papa was knocked down at the end of a round that lasted four minutes instead of three. The nominated time keeper, F. Scott Fitzgerald, had become so distracted by the spectacle that he forgot to watch the clock. At least, that's how Norman tells it. Like most boxing anecdotes, the story has probably been jazzed up a little.

The wiry French novelist and philosopher Albert Camus, a contemporary of Hemingway, fought until tuberculosis ended further participation. James Ellroy writes about the sport with almost weary expertise although he's only ever put in hours as a golf caddy, as far as I can tell. Less famous authors, but two of the best to chronicle the experience are Timothy Mo (Sour Sweet) and Pete Dexter (Brotherly Love). When Dexter describes the worn gloves and stinking wraps his prose has the chime of someone who's actually done some fighting instead of just watching it. The author photo also provides a clue: his nose is slightly to the right of where you would expect it to be.

The instinctive analogy between the closed fist and the moving hand, the fighter's punch and the keyboard's click has survived into the computer age. Writers are attracted to boxing because it is a solitary craft: a vehicle for justice and a release for pent-up frustration. Surveys have shown that writers engage in more useless feuds than professionals working in other creative fields: logically, it would help if they let off steam. Andy Warhol mused about setting up a ring in Madison Square Gardens where Tennessee Williams, Gore Vidal and Truman Capote could scrap it out. Consider how long the recent Kidman / Grimshaw feud would have lasted if both had consented to some regulated biff. The photos alone would have put some zip into the literary section.

If there is an uppermost reason for non-fighters' fascination with the ring it's that boxing is a source of great stories. The associated corruption only makes it more so. A fixed fight is more exciting than the real thing, as the saying goes, rendering its true moments as plangent glimpses of a greater, ongoing tragedy. The simple bravery of a bout is so apparent that the intrigue piled up around it becomes disproportionately amoral and complex: an ongoing car wreck of greed, shadows and fools. It was not for nothing that Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull portrayed Jake La Motta as Christ-like: bloodied and arms outstretched as the crowd bayed for more. By reversing the image - the saviour as brutalised fighter - Mel Gibson's Passion merely returns the compliment.

Beyond the arts, it is intriguing to contemplate the extent to which boxing is employed as an everyday metaphor. You don't need to be a poet in order to step into the ring, throw in the towel, box clever or roll with the punches. At some time or other we have all taken it on the chin, stood our ground or been saved by the bell. With further conversational effort we might have taken the purse, thrown the fight or retired to the corner. Businessmen in particular love the the metaphor of "one man left standing". Comparing oneself to the winning fighter lends takeover bids and market contests a ruthless, gladitorial flavour.

In boxing, none of these sayings are sayings. They are descriptions of what actually happens. "Taking it on the chin" means a big fist bringing your teeth together so hard that the the conscious self shuts down for measurable seconds. A "knock out punch" is an impact that it shakes the brain in its bone and liquid pouch hard enough to cause permanent damage. Going "out for the count" means the difference between millions and zip. If you are the one man left standing, the other man will be bleeding on the canvas. Actual blood, actual canvas. Boxing is not a metaphor. Boxing is real.

My generation came with Muhammed Ali pre-installed as champion. Growing up square-eyed in the suburbs, I vividly recall two televised events: the 1969 manned moon landing and the 1971 Ali - Frazier World Heavyweight title. Both spectacles were strangely weightless. If contemporary technology struggled to convey the immediacy of the moment with their bobbing, black & white images and rasping commentary, it likewise ordained them as iconic. Armstrong walked on the moon and Ali danced in the ring: they were complimentary, monochrome heroes.

My childhood impression of the Ali - Frazier bout was that it went on forever. As an adult, I realise it lasted somewhat longer. Their first contest went 15 rounds; the 1974 rematch went for 12. The third - "the nasty one", as a boxing friend nicely put it - was stopped in the 14th. Ali opened with a range of combinations early on. Frazier dominated the middle rounds with what one critic called "the most vicious body punches seen in heavyweight history." Ali could barely return to his corner after round 10 but had closed his opponent's left eye by the 13th. In round 14 Frazier's trainer, Eddie Futch, called it off. "Joe would have been hit by a car and he wouldn't quit, so I had to do it for him," Futch said.

That's merely a summary. To watch the fight nowadays is to witness unheralded savagery. Consider also that the Manila fight took place in an absurd heat and that Ali, we now know, had made weight by taking drugs that shed body fluid, including the waters that rimmed his cerebral cavity. Stripped of this protection, the Manila fight was slow murder.

No matter who the fighter, we all know how the story ends. Sugar Ray Robinson: Alzheimer's. Joe Louis: dementia and paranoia. Joe Frazier watches over his North Philly gym through corneal implants. In his professional days his sight was so poor he would memorise eye charts for the pre-fight medical. Equally, we ourselves have become blase about Muhammad Ali's struggle with Parkinson's. When a British journalist commented in a 2000 interview that the ex-champ could tie his shoes unassisted, it was intended as a compliment, not an irony. Seated ringside for a bout starring his daughter Talia, Ali was also able to shut his eyes and turn his head away to avoid the sight of his daughter being hit. As numb gestures go, it said a lot.

The ongoing peril of boxing was highlighted by Beethoven Scottland, an obscure last-minute substitute who stepped into the ring to face a taller, heavier opponent in New York in 2001. As the fight progressed, the imbalance became obvious both to the television commentators and also to Bee's wife, Denise, who screamed from her ringside seat for it ton be stopped. The referee and fight doctors stopped nothing. Bee was not the man left standing. He went down in the tenth. The first attempt to revive him lasted 15 minutes. He died in hospital six days later.

After Scottland's death the calls to reform and regulate the sport grew louder. Journalists suggested a national commissioner to set standards for health and safety; a league and schedule of events. To this day, however, the standards float and the lawyers sting. Each match remains a separate deal. The sanctioning bodies that rate fighters force champions to pay huge sanction fees for the right to defend their titles. Evander Holyfield's bill is conservatively estimated at $20 million.

The sport sees no conflict of interest between managing and promoting a fight. The fatal Scottland bout was promoted - legally - by the opponent's manager. Don King's fighters say they are not permitted to hire their own lawyers or accountants. These legal circumstances are the air and water that has allowed Don King to become the monarch that he is today. His levy is the broadcasters' and fans' pay for view. For newcomers to the sport, King is the guy with the Bride of Frankenstein hair-do grinning at the camera and waving an American flag like a puppeteer trying to entertain a simple child.

The fans are not stupid. They accept the corruption. If you earned four million dollars, you wouldn't need to pull out a calculator to know that you would have to pay tax. By a similar rule, you know most of a champion's purse won't be going to the champ. Mike Tyson has declared bankruptcy. David Tua is filing for what he earned. Anyone who watches boxing, myself included, is party to this bad situation. This is the real reason that fans look for a champion with the primal rage. We are all frustrated and guilty of sins that can only be absolved by someone who can cut through the bullshit and rage at how unfair the sport has become.

This is the real reason for the furore over the ear-biting incident between Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield at the MGM Grand Garden in 1997. Holyfield had been dragging on the young street-fighter, trying his patience, wearing him down. Tyson decided - if not planned in his corner - to discourage the clenching by biting his opponent. "A little bit of the ear came rolling over toward us," blinked Showtime analyst Ferdie Pacheco. "It was sick, inhuman, despicable!" But the media's hollering were the cries of an audience hating themselves for getting what they really wanted: a fighter with teeth. We saw the same flash in the eyes when Tua met Hasim Rahman in their equally frustrating 2003 fight. Sensing a win by decision, Rahman raised his gloves in celebration seconds before the final bell. You just don't do that to boys from South Auckland, and Tua went for Rahman like he was going to kill him. Really. To paraphrase what fans said of Sonny Liston, these moments are the difference between boxing and, you know, a fight.

Women also box, now. There are well-regulated Olympic contests with head gear and of short duration, and Sylvester Stallone played a boxer in those movies but frankly - honestly - it's not the same. There is no civilised alternative to two men smashing each other in the face and chest because hitting each other, by definition, is uncivilised. There's simply no polite or fair way to go about it. People cite the Queensbury Rules in the same way that armchair militarists cite the Geneva Convention but if you've ever read the Queensbury Rules pretty much all they say is: two corners, a certain number of rounds, the bell stops the fight, and well, yeah - hit each other all you can. Hit. Hit. Hit. May the best man win, and may you both pee pink for the following week.

In writing this, in the process of digging out all the dirty facts, I have to ask myself why I watch boxing. The easy out is that its fatefulness mirrors humanity's own. Boxing gives you brain damage just as alcohol destroys your liver and smoking causes cancer and driving fast kills: there are just as many "lifestyle choices" that are as dangerous and corrupt. Why, in the Middle East alone, nations are conducting an experiment to test the relationship between civilisation and spilling blood. And there you have it. Even writing it down, the analogy between boxing and larger moral issues is difficult to avoid. You cannot begin to debate the paradoxes of the sport without naturally segueing into a larger debate about violence & culture; the individual & society; the whole shebang. Try it at the dinner table. You'll come to blows in minutes. No, on second thoughts: don't. Leave that to the guys in the ring.

What do the fighters have to say about it? Plenty, most of it practiced in front of a mirror beforehand. Lennox Lewis's power is unquestioned but when he talks about being a "pugilist specialist" the rap is embarrassing and inauthentic. So most of the talking is left up to the writers: the sports hounds, and the poets. This is a poor second. Writers don't write about boxing: they write about watching boxing. Big difference.

When I looked for what boxers have actually written about boxing, I found the piece that moved me most on a Christmas card to Sam Eveland, the 1950s Golden Gloves champion who shared a cell with Sonny Liston in the Missouri State Penitentary. After leaving jail, Liston went on to fight as one of the most convincing champions the world has seen, closing down opponent after opponent with his big hands before falling to Ali's "phantom punch" in 1964. What happened in that fight is a sad story. Sadder, however, are the contents of the card, dated December, 1961. Liston's words to his former cell mate were his own: Sonny Liston. Unschooled, illiterate and a world champion, he had finally learned to sign his own name.

I think if you wanted to nail the character of boxing you have it right there. For the reader, the simplicity of Liston's missive expresses all about the sport that is grave and pathetic; heroic and tragic; sentimental and grave; noble and wasted. Liston, of course, would have found no pathos in it. His name was not a metaphor. Liston was a boxer. He boxed.

(Originally published in the Sunday Star Times, 2004)

1/3/09

Spook Country

By rights, William Gibson ought to be out of a job. A 20th century science fiction writer, itself an anachronism in this bookseller's paradise of dwarves, dragons and flat-chested epics, he has built his reputation imagining technologies that were once exotic but are now all too familiar. His debut 1984 novel, Neuromancer, coined the term cyberspace to describe a parallel universe of interlinked, electronic worlds. His short story Johnny Mnemonic imagined a smuggling data in the human brain and uploading a person's memories to a hard drive. Idoru proposed the concept of a completely synthetic pop star. To which anyone with a passing knowledge of the music industry could only ask: which one of the Pussycat Dolls would she look like?

This is the problem with Gibson's future. Not that it's far-fetched, but that we've all got our hands on it. Google is a verb, goggles-and-glove virtual reality is a silly joke and a quick Yahoo search turns up many, if not all, of the author's once esoteric sources. With every passing year science fiction is changing gradually from "what if?" to "Oh, that."

Gibson isn't the only best-selling author facing this dilemma, but he is the only one who's truly dealing to it. His Zen-like response has been to stop looking forward and instead look around, placing his stories firmly in the high-tech everyday. Pattern Recognition was the culmination of this process and easily his best. Spook Country follows close behind.

Spook Country is a spy novel, again an irony. Recall the wringing of hands when the Berlin Wall fell: with no cold war, would cloak and dagger writers be out of a job? After 9/11, no, and Gibson, the ex-futurist dusts off the tropes with the same delight his characters reserve for collectable military antiques.

Tito, a Cuban translator, is smuggling data out of the US in broken iPods. Hollis Henry, a journalist, is hired by a London magazine to track down a phantom conspirator. Milgrim, a junkie, is translating Russian for someone who may or may not be a member of the CIA. Their three-and-a-bit stories march towards the same satisfyingly downbeat anti-climax in sequence rather than causally. Gibson interleaves the narratives in Spook Country, as he did in Idoru and Virtual Light, and the effect is just as frustrating. Just when you get into one character it's off to another. But this spieling jet lag is part of Gibson's message. As the characters hop between the controlled environments of airports and hotel rooms, they're experiencing the true manifestation of virtual reality.†

Spook Country pokes gentle fun at our high tech consumer world and the shallow characters it has produced. Hollis scoffs at a digital artist's neatly pressed punk clothes and accepts her commission from Hubertus Bigend, the advertising genius from Pattern Recognition's Blue Ant. Even the terrorists in pursuit of dark ends are dressed in even darker designer clothes.

Although there is talk of the Twin Towers and the end of Western civilisation, the threat never seems truly real. Milgrim may be a captive of the arms industry but he still has access to drugs, room service and cable TV. Tito is physically threatening but looks, Hollis notes, 'like a very serious fifteen year-old.' Hollis herself may be wracked by guilt but is gifted with the same post modern jouissance that Cayce Pollard expressed in Pattern Recognition. Gibson's kids are alright.

Ultimately, Spook Country is a comforting tale of humans closely observing their shared experience of a highly controlled world: a romp in a walled garden. In the old days such an artificial existence would have been the basis of a science fiction horror story. Now, heaping paradox upon irony, it's the modern world, and a pleasure.

(Sunday Star Times)

Crime

FINDERS KEEPERS by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Books)
MORAL HAZARD by Kate Jennings (Picador)
DEAD MEN'S WAGES by Lilian Pizzichini (Picador)
FAT OLLIE'S BOOK by Ed McBain (Orion)

Did you hear the one about the US $1.2 million that fell off the back of a Philadelphia security van and into the hands of an unemployed dockworker, Joey Coyle? Finders Keepers reads like that sort of joke, with the same cruel humour and predictable punchline.

The true life morality tale of a fool and his money is recounted by reporter Mark Bowden who first serialised Joey's story for the Philadelphia Enquirer in 1986. In chapter 2 the journalist calmly observes how the paranoid Joey stashes the cash in a hiding place under his kitchen floor; then thinks better of it and transfers it to his hot water cylinder; changes his mind and moves it again to a space under his toilet; then shifts it to a front wall crawlspace - only to fall through the ceiling as he retrieves it yet again.

This Sisyphean game of pass-the-parcel takes place over only a few hours. If Finders Keepers was fiction the labour would be surreal, like the elevator in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled that takes a chapter to rise between floors. But because Finders Keepers is true life, the scene's only significance is that Joey, a methamphetamine addict, has fried his brain. He told everyone he met about the money and gave it away in chunks. Most of the cash had disappeared by the third day and he was arrested on the seventh.

During his trial, local and national press presented Joey as a working class hero. When the charges were dropped he fell into the hands of Walt Disney who filmed his story as Money for Nothing starring John Cusack: "more Irish than Coyle", Bowden notes, and "far too articulate" to play the unemployed longshoreman.

A free man who feared the film's release, the real Joey hung himself. Bowden's brief epilogue is neither an epitaph or an apology. Coyle's death is merely the last loose end.

Kate Jennings' Moral Hazard is the story of Cath, a 1960s feminist radical who takes a job as a corporate speech writer for a Wall Street firm in the 1980s in order to support her husband, who is suffering from Alzheimer's.

The author is a 1960s feminist radical herself who also worked as a corporate speech writer for a Wall Street firm in the 1980s, also in order to support her husband was suffering from Alzheimer's.

A flinty post-modernist, Jennings maintains that Moral Hazard is fiction; that the narrative's academic, oratorial tone is merely "highly stylised" and that the fictional husband's wasting disease is "a metaphor for the financial industry".

The book's chapters alternate between grim details of the (fictional) husband's decline ("Bailey was hemorrhaging") and narrator Cath's (not Kate's) days at the office ("I already knew he wasn't a fan of Alan Greenspan...").

Cath's conversations with her Niedecker co-workers are educated feats of memory, their exchanges heavy with quotes from Whitman, Trollope, Leonard Cohen, Louis Armstrong, Ogden Nash, Jim Morrison and more.

Her powers of recall are a cruel reminder of what her husband will soon be missing but the ongoing tension between these contrasting environments is that there isn't any. Cath's - and Kate's - emotional self-denial borders on the heroic. As the author channel-grazes between flirty office talk and Bailey's journey into death, Moral Hazard starts to read less like a novel and more like a plangent memoir.

Lilian Pizzichini's Dead Men's Wages lines up her memories of her grandfather, Charlie Taylor, against his considerable criminal record as an East End gangster. "As good as a novel!" fizzed The Times, but are stories of the London underworld ever dull? The Sopranos talks down the once-glamourised American mafia but the Brits have always been awake to the life's mixture of savage, canny and banal.

(A friend of mine, an ex-Brit and a bar man told me about the Krays' visit to his mother's pub: "They stole an ashtray and said 'We'll be back.'")

Pizzichini literally digs up the past as she researches the streets Charlie walked, ("Harrow Road was once a crooked horse track used by the Celts..."), tracing his criminal career from Borstal to the army to its boon of post-blitz reconstruction contracts and and non-existent navvies - the "dead men's wages" of the book's title.

Pizzichini's London is a palimpsest of crime: an economy and culture of institutions that breeds quaint nasties like Black Fred, Pop-up Ted, Stuttering Bill and Half-pint Perkins. Some of it's talked up (while Charlie's father makes an arch return "from the muddy deathtraps of France", there's no need to spin World War I) most of the stories are rich enough run unembellished. Dead Men's Wages is a greasy tour through the shabbiest the city has to offer. As well as Oswald Mosley, the Krays and Mariella Novotny, Rod Stewart is name-checked. Twice.

Ed McBain has written has 97 novels. Fat Ollie's Book is a crime novel about a crime novel written by Oliver Wendell Weeks. (Think Chili Palmer's script that runs through Elmore Leonard's Get Shorty.) The book-within-a-book interrupts the 3rd person narrative in order to have the last word, but McBain is in synch with Ollie's world view. And so on page 8, Honey Blair, the roving reporter for the Eleven O'Clock News, "turned and followed her tits off stage." It happens all the time in real life - in Pizzichini, Jennings and Bowden's books, for instance - but in the world of fiction, it's still quite something.

(Listener)

Oracle Night

ORACLE NIGHT by PAUL AUSTER

Popular authors such as Stephen King use the device of a novel within a novel as a way of drawing the reader in. Paul Auster uses it to shut them out. Auster’s peripatetic urban myths parallel the creative process, constantly reminding the audience that he's the one wielding the pen. He has even guest-starred in his own narratives, many of which unfold as their authors "write" them.

Sure enough, his eleventh is narrated by one Sidney Orr, a novelist with a hint of a surname. (It could be Sidney or Auster or...) Recovering from a near-fatal fall in a New York subway station, Orr enters a Brooklyn stationery shop to purchase an attractive blue notebook. After fussing over its proportions, he begins filling its blank pages with the story of the next nine days.

Inspired by an incident in Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, Orr begins a novel about a long-lost work by a third (forgotten) writer. This novel within a novel, in turn inspired by a novel is entitled - finally - Oracle Night. Later Orr develops writer's block and switches to writing a screenplay of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine.

The frustrating twist is another pun: an author abandoning a linear narrative inspired by a detective novel in favour of a circular reference to a story about time travel.

Poo-tee-weet, as Kurt Vonnegut once predicted. So it goes.

People who like this sort of thing will find that this is the sort of thing they like. People who don’t will find the roaring in their ears getting very loud. They shouldn’t. Auster's wanderings ��‡are a pleasant diversion. Although the picaresque structure of Oracle Night affects the voice of someone making it up on the fly, the tone is cheerful and assured. The author has been lost many times before: he knows where he isn't going.

The larger paradox is that Auster’s invention now runs to a formula. His travels into the unknown feel like daily commutes; his strangers like old friends. More than one critic has worried that he runs the risk of becoming a literary equivalent of Woody Allen, his self-references spiralling into a sort of neurosis. In the meantime, Auster’s nervous industry offers readers a light-hearted reward: the fun of a consistently unreliable narrator and a nostalgia for whatever happens next.

(Dominion Post)

A non-musical


Sports Night is fast, intelligent and it only takes 30 minutes, which must pretty much nail it for the male viewing demographic. It's a show within a show about an ESPN-like cable sports network at the bottom of the ratings where everyone is smart and confident and very, very tense. It has recently co-starred William H Macy. It makes jokes about rifles and boxing. How cool is that?

Oh, and in real life it was at the bottom of the ratings and really did get cancelled. While critic's darlings like ER limp into their Vegas years Sports Night burned out in a blaze of not enough people watching it.

In retrospect, this was appropriate. Glory and acclaim wouldn't suit the series. It runs on smarts and fine shades of meaning. The characters are oblique and complex, chanting the same lines of dialogue over and over to each other like mantras. They even change a little week to week, not unlike the Sopranos. Junior staffers walk through the door, say something cool, leave and are never heard from again. The chopped-up tone is like watching the play highlights from a larger drama, as if something bigger is happening but everyone's too busy to acknowledge it.

It's a mystery, for instance, how Casey and Dana came to first get involved. What happened to Dan's alluring psychologist girlfriend - did they split up or did he just, you know, never go back? It's like a kinder, gentler David Mamet, or maybe Harold Pinter, if you go back that far.

Sports Night's creator Aaron Sorkin almost goes back that far. Although he's now best known for creating The West Wing Sorkin began writing for theater, winning an award for his play 'A Few Good Men' before it was subsequently adapted as a movie starring Tom Cruise and Demi Moore.

More (or less) prosaically Sorkin is also a sports fan and an admirer of half-hour sitcoms like The Mary Tyler Moore Show and, in particular, Larry Gelbart's work on the television series of MASH.

When Sorkin approached ABC with his idea for Sports Night it was just that: an idea, with no character "bible" or over-arching storyline. He made it up as he went along, writing all the first season's 23 episodes and battling with network executives who couldn't decide if it was a drama or a comedy.

He had never written for television before. In the theater tradition of classifying plays as musicals and non-musicals, he described Sports Night as a non-musical. When executives imposed a laugh track, Sorkin turned it down a little each week until it faded to titters and then eventually disappeared.

The series ran for two years, overlapping with the first season of The West Wing, an hour-long non-musical that is so far up itself you need a torch to find Martin Sheen. Sports Night, however, is still with us and running like the clappers. I'd call it a late-night gem except it screens at 8pm.

(2005)

Born Standing Up

Timing!
Steve Martin's first book, Cruel Shoes, was published in 1977 at the height of his fame as a stand-up comedian. Its blurb stated that "Steve Martin is the kind of guy who loves to write things about himself on book flaps. In fact, he has been known to write entire books just so he could write on their flaps." Some of the collected pieces were obviously jokes; others less so. One was a poem, 'November 25':
A thread strains to say goodbye
you snip the thread goodbye
Read aloud in the persona of his doofus standup "wild and crazy guy" it was doubtless funny. Lurking on the page, it read suspiciously like good poetry.

Comedy is about timing. Clive James said humour and common sense are the same thing moving at different speeds. Jerry Seinfeld told the BBC that comedy is about hard work and precision: "Everything about it has to be right for it to work, or it's useless. You have to be very thorough and attentive... Most music or drama, if it's in the ball park, it's pretty good but comedy has to be in the bullseye every time or it's not very good at all."

Steve Martin's memoir of his stand-up career, Born Standing Up, supports all three statements. It draws gentle but telling parallels between the moment of a joke's conception and his own personal development. His show business dreams are underscored by a cheerful, relentless rationalism. And at 207 pages, it wastes no words. But like 'November 25', or indeed, his 2000 novel Shopgirl, it's a product of epiphanic observation that targets more than laughs.

"I did stand-up comedy for eighteen years," he writes: "Ten of those years were spent learning, four years were spent refining, and four were spent in wild success."

Born Standing Up describes this development as a graceful arc. Like his 1998 collection of essays, Pure Drivel, its cultural references are sprawling. There is romance, too, spaced as carefully as paintings in a modern art gallery.

"When her current romance withered, Mitzi and I became entwined," he writes of Mitzi Trumbo, daughter of Hollywood Ten writer Dalton Trumbo. Martin became a regular guest at the household where he mixed with Dalton ("the first raconteur I ever met") and screenwriters such as Ring Lardner, Jr. He would lose Mitzi to the director John Frankenheimer who, twenty years later, would attempt to seduce his then wife, the actress Victoria Tennant. "Incidentally," Martin writes, "Frankenheimer died a few years ago, but it was not I who killed him."

You can read the line over and still not know if Martin is being flip or grave. It's reminiscent of his 1991 script L.A. Story in which his character says of his neighbourhood, "some of these houses are ten or twenty years old." It's funny and it's true, and the pathos verges on the Carver-esque.

Born in Texas and raised in a California suburb a few miles from Disneyland, Martin was the classic sunshine boy, beaming in family photographs and eager to learn. He was fascinated by vaudeville acts and radio comedians, and as a young high school student got a job at the Disneyland Magic Shop. "I stood behind a counter eight hours a day, shuffling Svengali decks, manipulating Wizard decks and Mental Photography cards, and performing the Cups and Balls trick on a rectangle of padded green felt."

Martin's focus on the quaint art of conjuring was obsessive. He spent four months mastering one technique of card-shuffling. As his confidence grew and his interest shifted to performance he realised there was a problem. "At age eighteen, I had absolutely no gifts. I could not sing or dance, and the only acting I did was really shouting." He taught himself to play the banjo by slowing down banjo records on his turntable and picking out the songs note by note.

He quit Disneyland to join a comedy troupe at Knott's Berry Farm only to quit at age 21 after seeing actors "who had worked there fifteen years and counting... I knew it could be a trap." At university he studied metaphysics, ethics, logic; at home he listened to Lenny Bruce and Nichols and May. "Some people fell asleep at night listening to music: I fell asleep listening to Lenny, Tom [Lehrer], and Mike and Elaine." He moved to Laurel Canyon and wrote for The Smothers Brothers and Sonny and Cher. Martin acknowledges his remarkable optimism and drive only in passing. His motive is self-evident - who wouldn't want to be in show business? - and a break with the maxim that the best comedy is born of a tragic life. (His 1979 movie The Jerk openly mocked the cliche, beginning with the narration, "I was born a poor black child.")

But Born Standing Up is nontheless bracketed by a distant family and a father who consistently ignored his achievements. An analyst might read Martin's stage persona - flailing, desperate to impress - as an exaggerated version of that relationship. His recollections of family, broken romances and the promoters who did him wrong are measured. "Lose it" a club owner barks at his famous arrow-through-the-head prop, but Martin recounts it without bitterness. If the anecdotes don't read as therapy, one suspects they slip by so smoothly as a result of it. The result is a narrative with real humour and remarkable clarity.

Eventually 45,000 people would buy tickets to see Martin perform in New York's Nassau Colisseum: a man in a white suit folding balloon animals and playing the banjo. The scale of his success forced him to examine the science of the jokes, stretching the punchline until the audience found it for themselves. At first the silliness of it made him even funnier, and then, suddenly, not. "I had become a party host," he writes, "presiding not over timing and ideas but over a celebratory bash of my own making."

Steve Martin bailed, moving on to become a movie actor, screenwriter and director, evading the success that would have typecast a lesser talent. Born Standing Up thus ends a story we don't expect from a clown. It has depth and range and quietude and – so far – a happy ending.

(Sunday Star Times)

He always seemed totally in control


Do you know Harold Robbins' books? Neither did he. Dubbed "the man with the smoking typewriter," Robbins was the sort of author who leaves the task of reading to others. His novels were famously filled with sex. What they lacked in other areas he made up for in words. He pounded out vast manuscripts which were proofed, edited, and later ghostwritten before being shipped out by the pallet load to an adoring public, few of whom are now willing to step forward. His advances earned him millions of dollars which he quickly spent on women, houses, yachts, travel and women who liked houses, yachts and travel. He was successfully married three times before going on to lead a lonely life surrounded by more women. He enjoyed drinking, swearing and taking what Keith Richards might describe as too much cocaine before achieving his first stroke in 1982. He went on to die in 1997, leaving no money and a social circle who missed him a lot. You can understand why. Even people who didn't like Harold Robbins say he was fun to be around.

The irony of Andrew Wilson's biography of Robbins, The Man Who Invented Sex is that the subject's life is far more interesting than the novels which made him so famous. Robbins wasn't a natural writer and never tried to be. He was an accountant who grew up in the era of Technicolour epics and fell in love with the sweep and grandeur of Hollywood storytelling. He also loved dealmaking and took up the values of mass market entertainment as his sword and shield. Robbins hated literature (of course) and counted his readers the way a vaudevillian boasts about bums on seats. He presented himself as a raconteur and showman, a teller of tales. The tales weren't necessarily engaging, interesting or even readable but they were big and spectacular and incredible for reasons no-one now can quite explain.

Behind all this churn the small, dapper Brooklyn boy who was operating the levers comes off as a real and rather gentle person. Harold Robbins made an effort to be a fond father and a generous husband. He did hold orgies and hire strippers but biographer Andrew Wilson draws a curtain of discretion across them, one suspects because the rumours could not be verified.

Robbins was an inveterate liar who loved to make up stories about himself. He was born Harold F. Rubin to a mother who died soon after giving birth, and was raised by a loving father and stepmother, but told journalists that he was an abused orphan who had fought harrowing and clich├ęd obstacles to make it to the top. He also claimed to have been in the navy and the sole survivor when his ship was torpedoed but when friends quizzed him about it he refused to say more. Harold wasn't being evasive: he just couldn't be bothered filling in the details.

Ultimately The Man Who Invented Sex is a perceptive and sympathetic account of luxury begets boredom begets sloth. The better Harold Robbins' life became, the less he was able to work and the greater the shame he experienced. His sense of self-worth was his financial worth: as his sales dwindled, so did he. Writing was lonely work and he was rotten at being alone. Robbins' life makes good reading in the late 60s and early 70s but darkens with as the years and mainstream feminism advance. When Lee Majors turns down your party invitation you know things are on the turn.

The cocaine turns up like a dead canary in a coal mine. "He always seemed totally in control of himself and what he was doing," remembers Hustler publisher Larry Flynt. The carefully selected plates include a be-Jensened Harold in heavy denim, a heavier tan and eyes that are almost dead. When the lifestyle overcame him the publishers wheeled in the ghost writers. Harold had resisted the move for years but even he had to finally relent: his typing days were over.

Death may have killed Harold Robbins and his books but his life influenced many best-selling authors who share his love of stories and his unconcern for telling them. Wilson's biography proposes that Robbins' true legacy was a fascination with the powerful and scandalous, a genre best embodied by the 1980s TV series Dallas. If it wasn't true, Howard would have claimed as much anyway.

(Sunday Star Times, 2008)