The Taste of Apple is Australian writer James Laidler’s debut, a verse novel about the life and times of young Pedro Jones. It won the Best First Book category in Interactive Publications’ IP Picks Awards 2010 and was published by IP the same year. Firstly, you might be wondering what kind of beast a ‘verse novel’ is. I’d never read one myself, but I remember having a creative writing tutor once, Alan Wearne, who had written a number of them. Basically it’s a novel with characters, a narrative, visual description, and all the things you’d normally expect from a novel, except that it’s set out as a series of poems. The resultant work, in this case, is breezy, engaging and frequently heartmoving. I strongly recommend that you give The Taste of Apple a try.
Pedro Jones is a young man in nineties Melbourne trying to come to terms with his mixed Filipino and White Australian heritage. His unhappy family life is fractured forever, on Christmas Eve, when his father leaves the family to live in another part of Victoria. Pedro’s mother Imee, alone and impoverished, is left to raise Pedro with only her Catholic faith to guide her. They have to more to the seedy apartment block Eden Towers to survive. Pedro meets Juan “Johnnie” Lazzaro, a young East Timorese man whose family life and personal circumstances are even more dire than Pedro’s. The boys become best friends, busking together on the streets of Melbourne and drowning their sorrows in alcohol.
The Taste of Apple is a dark book in many ways, but it’s never depressing, due to the optimistic tone and uplifting spirit herein. There are a number of shocking twists along the way, which I’ll try not to spoil here, but suffice to say that this is definitely a novel, even if it is set in verse, not a book of poems in the ordinary sense. As the narrative progresses, Pedro becomes drawn into the East Timor liberation movement, as he discovers that Johnnie himself is a survivor of the Dili massacre. Here we meet a colorful and memorable cast of characters, some of the strongest in the book. Pedro also learns about the healing power of gardening as he attempts to put his past, and specifically his absent father, behind him.
I doubt I’ve enjoyed reading a book this year as much as I enjoyed reading The Taste of Apple. The pages practically turn themselves; I’d challenge anyone to start reading this and not finish it. You can buy it from online sellers such as Amazon or The Book Depository. There is also an enhanced edition which you can read more about on the author’s website. I look forward to James Laidler’s next book with interest.
So it seems a news story is doing the rounds about this year’s IP Picks awards. I was very surprised to see that this article had been syndicated by Reuters, and thus had turned up in unlikely places such as the Straits Times in Singapore, as well as the normal Australian media outlets such as ABC News, Yahoo etc. Here’s the article on Reuters:
(Reuters Life!) – A novel set in a future where an unchecked global population has created an apocalypse took the top fiction prize in Australia’s IP Picks unpublished book awards on Wednesday.
The awards, now in their 11th year, are aimed at giving unpublished writers from Australia and New Zealand a chance to break into the increasingly cut-throat literary world, with publication the top prize for books in five categories.
“As usual, the judges were hard pressed to find a clear winner,” said David Reiter, director, Interactive Publications (IP), the Queensland-based publisher that hands out the awards.
“They felt that at least five or six of the shortlisted entries were publishable or very close to being publishable.”
Guy Salvidge’s “Yellowcake Springs,” in which all but the elite are suffering through a slow, painful apocalypse, is set against what the judges called “a frighteningly plausible Australian future.”
The rest of the article is here:
Memento Mori is Perth writer Daniel King’s first collection of short stories. Published by Interactive Publications, it was Highly Commended in the Best Fiction category of IP Picks 2010. This collection represents more than two decades of work in the short fiction form, with the earliest of these stories having been published in 1986. Despite the range in publication dates, King’s work demonstrates a remarkable consistency in approach and theme, and as such Memento Mori reads almost like a patchwork novel, each story a square of fabric in the overall quilt.
The earliest stories contained in this volume, “Tim’s Howse” and “Myths of the K-Mart”, both feature narrators grappling with some sort of mental illness. In “Tim’s Howse”, Jim’s world begins to fracture when he discovers something ‘behind’ the jigsaw pieces he has been assembling, whereas in “Myths of the K-Mart” Mark is entranced by the ‘maze game’ that threatens to consume his mundane reality at any moment. While interesting experiments, neither of these stories demonstrate the clarity of King’s mature work.
The title story, “Memento Mori”, is more representative of King’s ouevre. In it, Professor Ken Rivers grapples with his domineering’s wife desire for him to submit to cosmetic surgery, and finds himself increasingly retreating into the confines of his dresser. The plot thickens when both Rivers and his wife magically regain their youth, with unexpected and unpleasant consequences. This story also features the first of King’s metafictional games in this volume, in which a poem, also titled ‘Memento Mori’ and written by ‘D.K.’, informs the narrative as a whole. King’s technique is to take what initially seem like straightforward ideas, such as the quest to regain youth through cosmetic surgery, and push them through to often harrowing extremes. What begin as little more than thought experiments, often explicitly stated as such by the protagonists, quickly provide unexpected and often violent consequences.
Two stories, “Martial Arts” and “Venerean Arts”, help to illustrate the shifting nature of reality immanent in these stories. In the former, Dan and Coria both study Taekwondo, and Dan is writing a story, ‘Martial Arts’, which is supposed to be about martial arts but mainly features a series of giant gas tanks. It goes without saying that the gas tanks end up making an appearance in Dan King’s reality. In “Venerean Arts”, Daniel has recently broken up with his girlfriend Mimi, but the estranged couple still see each other at Taekwondo. To heal the dispute with his former partner, Daniel seeks to formulate a ‘Venerean Arts’ where pleasure, rather than pain, will be the underlying principle.
It was here, upon finishing this pair of stories, that I was reminded of J. G. Ballard’s seminal work of ‘condensed novels’ The Atrocity Exhibition. There and here, names of characters are subject to change from one story to the next, but the nature of the relationships seems much the same. One of the singular joys of reading is that it creates a portal into the mind of another person, or persons, but in drastically condensed form. Reading these stories in the space of twenty-four hours creates a dizzying snapshot of the author’s mode of thinking through recurring themes.
One of my favourite stories in Memento Mori was “A Dream Holiday”, in which Ian and Lydia decide to take their next holiday at an airport. Figuring that they can have all the experiences of travelling without the associated risks, the couple end up retreating into a closet and then into their own minds in a manner that I found to be deeply Ballardian. A similar progression is at work in “Significant Other”, in which Matt realises that he actually doesn’t need his partner Elsie to return for him to experience the best of her.
King’s work could be regarded as speculative fiction of a kind, but it is only in a handful of stories that these elements are particularly noticeable. One such story is “I Turn You On”, in which the nine year-old narrator discovers that his reality is not our own. Something odd is also at work in “Open to the Sky”, in which strange telescopes stand between the protagonists and comprehension of their place in the universe.
Memento Mori‘s final story, “Catenary”, is also one of the best. In it, Mr King donates several hundred dollars a week to various charitable organisations and helps to save a couple from a wrecked car. His good deeds are counterbalanced, however, by the fact that he keeps another man, Will, prisoner in his dungeon. This story poses the question of whether it is better to maim the masses and aid an individual or vice versa most elegantly.
A Ticket for Perpetual Locomotion isn’t my kind of novel. I might as well mention that straight up, because this review will probably be unfairly lukewarm toward Geoffrey Gates’ IP Picks Award-winning novel. My kind of novel, I’ve decided, has a strong, even monolithic narrative. It is between 200 and 400 pages in length, and there is plenty of action (but not of the Bruce Willis kind). The actual subject of the novel isn’t as important to me as the way that the writer invites us into the mind of someone interesting and/or different. Andrew McGahan’s Praise is the perfect example of this, and Deane’s Another hovers in the same territory, even if it does use multiple narrators. I’m not against multiple narrators per se, but what really appeals to me is narrative drive. I also tend to favour dark and gloomy themes to light and breezy ones.
A Ticket for Perpetual Locomotion, then, isn’t my kind of book. It is light, zany even, and it is full of different viewpoint characters. The central premise of the novel is one that will be familiar to readers of Calvino or other metafictioneers. Perpetual Locomotion is a concept in which travellers renounce their routine lives in favour of eternal travel, for which they will never have to pay a cent. The catch is they can never re-trace their footsteps. We are introduced to a young man called Carlos who is about to begin his adventure in Perpetual Locomotion, which we soon discover is also the name of a novel by Eduardo Maranda.
A Ticket for Perpetual Locomotion takes place, for the most part, in Australia and Mexico. There is a substantial cast of characters, from the beautiful Manon to the wily Eduardo. Gates employs a technique in which sections (very short chapters for the most part) are told often out of chronological order. Presumably this is supposed to be weaving a rich tapestry, but I found it confusing. Worse, the characters began to blur together by around the mid-point of the novel, which left me bemused. It’s my own fault, of course, for not paying sufficient attention, but if I have a real criticism of this novel it is that the characters feel very same-y. There isn’t often much to differentiate them, except for Eduardo himself, who is well realised. Gates also employs a slippery shifting from past to present tense and back again. What this is supposed to achieve, I can’t quite say.
What I can say about Gates’ novel is that it is technically well written, and features an excellent cover. I suspect that others might enjoy this a fair bit more than I did. There wasn’t anything wrong with A Ticket for Perpetual Locomotion, but it simply wasn’t to my tastes. By my grand old age (27) I know my likes and dislikes, and to a large extent the pattern for future reading is set. I would be willing to give Gates a second go, however, because he is certainly a talented writer.
Joel Deane’s Another won the Interactive Publications IP Picks ‘Best Fiction’ Award in 2004, and was published in the same year. This is my first Joel Deane book, and my first IP book as well, so I was interested to start reading straight away. In terms of the physical production of the book, I was pleased to discover that Another was professionally put together. The only problem I had was that a few of the lines had not been printed correctly, i.e. they were faded. This was only 3 or 4 lines in the book, so it’s a small issue. From what I had read about the book, I imagined that Another would cover a similar terrain to that in Andrew McGahan’s Praise and 1988. This assumption was partially correct, but if Another can’t match the stunning narrative drive of McGahan’s Vogel winner, it certainly rose above anything else that I’ve read of McGahan’s.
Another is a novel about a working class (if I am being unkind I would say white trash) family living in outer Brisbane, presumably in the mid-nineties. Late teen Toby Purcell is our main ‘protagonist’ (the inverted commas are because his actions can hardly be described as positive in any way). He lives with his Mum, his Gran, and a woman called Michelle. We soon discover that Michelle is in fact the girlfriend of Toby’s older brother Danny, who seems to have disappeared somewhere. The novel opens with an image of fire which, on reflection, never really leaves us as the book progresses. There is the fire which consumes Toby’s flesh, the fire of the burning Brisbane sun, and the fire of rage in the hearts of virtually everyone in this novel. This isn’t a bedtime read type of novel. Being the way that I am (read: a little odd) it was water off a duck’s back for me, however.
Okay, what happens in this book? Well, in time-honoured fashion Deane weaves his narrative to reveal events occurring in the past at specific times. This was an area that I felt Another really shone, for the method was more sophisticated than the overused ‘one chapter present, one chapter past’ technique. I would have to re-read the book to discern precisely how Deane achieved this, but suffice to say that the narrative is constructed around family secrets. Having said that, a couple of Another‘s secrets were all too obvious, even for a dense reader like me. The nature of Danny’s current condition is a prime example of this.
I still haven’t talked about the plot. It’s basically a narrative about Toby and his self-harming girlfriend Suzie’s crime spree. As the narrative progresses, their crimes become more brazen, but they always manage to elude capture. Just as much as this, though, the book is about personal tragedies, particularly the tragedies of women who are the victims of domestic violence. This is a sour, sometimes shocking book. One scene, in which Toby breaks into a house to find a baby left alone for hours in a crib, is particularly moving. Toby bludgeons a service station attendant half to death for $45, and later remembers how good it felt to wreak violence on another person. This is harsh, unapologetic, and grim. I suspect that people who aren’t as addicted to tales of destruction and dissolution as I am might find it difficult to enjoy reading this. But enjoy it I did.
This is also about racial intolerance (this is Brisbane in the One Nation years) and the crippling effects of poverty. Deane isn’t one to ram a theme down you’re throat, however. The closest he comes to direct satire is a quip about an Aboriginal man walking into a bookstore being a bigger security threat than the rampaging Toby and Suzie. And yet a sensitive reading of Another can’t but notice Deane’s cool rejection of much of the material here. It is a subtle art to write so candidly about such horrific matters, without anything but the merest hint of authorial disapproval, and expect the reader to interpret the novel ‘correctly’. (If I am interpreting it correctly.) But here I found Another to be a success. This is literature without needing to be Literature. I respect Deane for being able to write as clearly and as candidly as he does.