While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Bonus Day 2008

Today is the 29th of February.

For my next door neighbour growing up, this means it’s her first birthday since 2004.

For guys this means 'Watch out, your girlfriend could propose.'

For me it means, 'Write.' After all, these extra twenty-four hours, wedged into what has always seemed to me an unfairly shortened month, are the reason I am shooting for an average of 2732 words per day rather than 2740 words. (My cavalier rounding is a bit misleading: technically, the difference is 7.4855902 words, but let's just call it eight). What is eight words? Twice that last sentence. Or: the sum of the previous two sentences. Nothing, right?

If there's anything two months of regular writing—and running along side that: regular word-counting—has taught me, it's words accumulate best when you are writing for some other purpose. Writing to get an idea down on paper. Writing to finish a story to submit for a competition. Writing an email in response to a 'How's Things' from someone on the underside of the world.

Writing for the sake of word counts is not cool.

But there are only so many deadlines, and fresh ideas and surprise emails. Most days, it's a slog to 2732. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday this week I made it to 2185, 2180 and 2020 words. That’s a pretty tight cluster and a long way from target. Over these three days I worked on an average of 3 different short stories per day, adding as little as 135 words each time. While mired in these piecemeal compositions, it feels like I'm going nowhere (in three separate races). But when I stop and look at my spreadsheet on special days like this, there is movement. Overall, I tacked 4,100 words onto five different works in progress in those three days, bringing one to completion (and I finished another today).

But there is still the concern that too many of these words are bad words. That entire stories should never see the light of day. That this whole venture is doing more harm than good (to my sanity, to my writing, to my posture).

Meh. I don’t like the Craig who talks like that.

To prove to myself and to the YoaMW regulars (though nothing is called regular anymore; maybe you should be called my Extra Larges?) that 8 words a day means something, I am going to write a story 8 words at a time, with one instalment for every day of March. This will produce a 248 word story. I'm going to run it along my the top of the blog. Since it's still February, I have no idea what the story will be. That will have to come tomorrow.

Another free book

Hot on the heels of Radiohead's In Rainbows, Random House is offering Charles Bock's debut novel, Beautiful Children as a free download (for a limited time...).

I wouldn't have read the book otherwise, and now that it's sitting on my desktop in PDF format, I'm still not sure how far through I'll get (400+ pages of screen reading may take some time). Reading the comments on the Millions makes me think I won't make it past chapter one. Who knows.

The thing about free books is, it's not new. There's this place in every town that gives you books for free. It's called a library. That's if you can find the books amongst the internet terminals, magazines, sheet music, CDs, and computer games.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Jekyll and Hyde: First Digestion

Today I read the actual story (see yesterday for the prelims). As I’ve mentioned before, Marisa actually read it before me, but, sadly, I could not entice her to write a guest review. But, cunning so-and-so that I am, I asked her what she thought of the book and will now share her thoughts with the world (at least those lost souls who pass through this word vacuum).

I might feel a twinge of “Bad Craig” for doing this if it didn’t transpire that all her thoughts matched mine. So rather than a He Said, She Said, this post comprising thoughts upon a first digestion of Jekyll and Hyde is a We Said.

Reading the novella, we were both reminded of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. There are several reasons for this.

  • Jekyll and Hyde was published in 1886; Sherlock Holmes first appeared in A Study in Scarlet published in 1887.
  • Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson were both from Edinburgh, but set these particular stories in London. So there's similarities in setting and language.
  • The authors both have three names—this is normally the sign of an assassin, but I don’t think it has bearing on their writing (DISREGARD).
  • The stories are essentially mysteries, and rely on distancing devices to create mystery and tension. More on this later.

On a personal note, we both read a lot of Sherlock Holmes in September last year (like: all of the short stories between the two of us) when I was asked to write a treatment for a Sherlock Holmes PC game (which stalled through no fault of my own, or so they tell me). So old Sherlock is still fresh in our minds and it’s also something we are both familiar with: hence the shared reaction.

The thing about reading a lot of Sherlock Holmes stories in a compressed time is you start to not like them. You have to respect ACD for the laying some crucial groundwork for the crime genre and creating an immortal character (who 58% of Britons believe actually lived), but the stories aren’t action packed and rely too often on Holmes’ higher intellect to act as Deus Ex Machina and make it all work.

Reading Jekyll and Hyde for a first time, we got that same Not Liking It feeling. This may have a lot to do with the fact that we already know the twist, and to attack RLS from this vantage is unfair. But, the reader (modern or contemporary) is placed at such a distance from Jekyll/Hyde for two-thirds of the story (most of which is from the perspective of the lawyer, Mr Utterson, who would never get his own story) that Jekyll and Hyde isn't exactly gripping. The reading notes at the back of the One Book One Edinburgh edition invoke Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a “very great” book which uses similar distancing techniques. And yes, Kurtz and Hyde are the hearts of darkness - the things we are reading in order to arrive at - the difference is that Marlow, the primary narrator of Heart of Darkness, is an interesting character. We follow him around for most of the book (and observe him out of Africa in the captain's frame narration), and it isn’t a chore. Following Utterson around, however, is.

I might return to this point, but I’m drifting away from the We Said stuff (I don’t think Marisa has read Heart of Darkness, though she has seen Apocalypse Now)

The part we enjoyed the most was when we finally get to hear from Henry Jekyll. This takes the form of a letter written in Jekyll’s last throes before giving over completely to Hyde. The first half of the letter goes into all the things a reader has been dying to know. Why he would transform himself into the amoral Hyde, how he arrived at a process, how he managed to keep it a secret etc. But the letter also maintains a level of vagueness which ensures there are mysteries which survive the end of the book (such as the actual science behind his concoction).

This wasn’t a case of the final third saving the book, however, as the letter went on too long in our opinion.

We were not amazed. We could see glimpses of a fascinating story, but, perhaps because there have been so many subsequent takes on the duality of man (and woman), this early bird looked thin and quaint.

This was just out views on a first digestion.

Tomorrow, or the next day, or whenever I feel like it actually, I will stare into the heart of darkness of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella and see if I can’t salvage a masterpiece.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Jekyll and Hyde, almost.

Okay, I finally have my hands on my copy of the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. But before the actual story/novella I had to read the prelims: a section entitled ‘About the Author’ and ‘Jekyll and Hyde: an Appreciation’ by Ian Rankin. I think it’s a hangover from my days as an English Lit student, but I like to read the non-fiction first to get me thinking before diving into the book for real.

I felt like I’d read Rankin’s ‘appreciation’ before, having watched the BBC documentary about the roots of Rebus (which discussed Edinburgh’s two-faced nature, Deacon Brodie and Jekyll and Hyde), visiting the Rebus at Twenty exhibition at the National Library and reading snippets of One Book One Edinburgh all in the last six months. But that’s my fault.

The ‘About the Author’ section, well, it got me thinking, but not about Stevenson or his book, but about who wrote these six paragraphs, who approved their inclusion in the edition and what they were all thinking!?!

It’s clearly intended to be an unthreatening intro, perhaps even a school-age friendly intro, which does mesh with the ulterior motive of One Book One Edinburgh: to get people reading.


Actually there are two Buts…

But the first: I seem to remember reading somewhere here that this year’s book was not aimed at school children since Jekyll and Hyde is pretty dark. So I don’t see why the ‘About the Author’ section should be written in a Dick and Jane style.

But the second: such an intro might very well put readers off. If I hadn’t picked up a book for three years, but decided to give the book a go coz it free and/or people at work were reading too, I would read this section and feel insulted. Just because people are lapsed readers, does not mean they are necessarily bad readers.

I’ve looked around online and I’ve found entire texts of the novella and Rankin’s introduction, but it looks like I’m going to have to type out this jolly ‘About the Author’ thing so non-Edinburgians (is that what they’re called?) can see what I’m on about.

Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh in 1850. His family wanted him to become an engineer so he could join the family firm. Stevenson didn’t want this. He dreamed of romance, brave deeds, adventures and new lands. However, he was a sensible boy, so he studied law at Edinburgh University. He got his degree, but he didn’t want to be a lawyer. He wanted to write books.

Stevens suffered all his life from a lung disease. He travelled a lot. He hoped to find a place with good weather that would help him get better.

He was very often ill, but he wrote as much as he could. His adventure nove, Treasure Island (1883), was a bestseller. Then he wrote a dark thriller about the difference between good and evil, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886). This book showed that he was a great writer.

In 1886, he also wrote Kidnapped, which was a huge success, and is still one of his most popular books. He wrote Catriona, a follow-up to Kidnapped, in 1893 and The Master of Ballantrae in 1889. Stevenson also wrote poetry. His best-selling poetry book was A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885).

In 1886, Stevenson went to the South Pacific, with his American wife, Fanny Osbourne, and his family. He lived in Samoa, where the weather helped him feel better. He died in 1894. The Samoan chiefs called him their “story-teller”. They gave him a great honour by burying him on top of a famous mountain.

Stevenson wrote some of the best and most loved stories in the English Language. He is still popular with readers today.

Having typed this out (275 words; I don’t know if I should add them to my tally or not), my opinion of this bio is even lower than when I started writing this blog entry. It’s not just poorly targeted, it’s poorly written. Like the dual conjunctions and ‘sensible boy’ abstraction in, “However, he was a sensible boy, so he studied law at Edinburgh University.”

Then there’s the repetition in the second and third paragraphs, the “He… He… He…”, drone, the curious comma usage, and the stupid (yeah, I’m a little riled up) generalisations (“This book showed he was a great writer,” “He is still popular with readers today”).

The Samoa section bugs me the most. Forget the fact Stevenson gave himself his Samoan name, why do we only get the English translation in quotation marks? It sucks all the flavour out of the title (which is Tusitala by the way). I can just see a sceptical fifteen year old reading this and thinking, “Big deal.”

And what was the name of the mountain? “Honour” and “famous” tell us the same thing. Doesn’t this sound much better: “They gave him a great honour by burying him on top of Mount Vaea”? So much more flavour (though I would probably rewrite the first half of the sentence too). Would “Mount Vaea” scare off a non-reader or a young reader? If it does, they wouldn’t make it past the first sentence of the actual story, which is full of uncommon words in 00’s English (“countenance”, “scanty”) and scary semi-colons (three of them).

I don’t want to pick a fight with anyone trying to spread the love of literature, but surely 275 words could have done more to illuminate this “great writer” and maybe even arouse a little wonder themselves? Sounds like a challenge… I wonder if I can work the facebook to start the revolution.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Status Report: Week Eight

Week Eight – The Stats

Weekly word count: 20,018 words

Average: 2,860 words per day (compared to 2,853 last week)

Most productive day: Sunday 24 Feb, 4,479 words

Least productive day: Friday 22 Feb, 1,754 words

Year-to-date: 159,580

Astute, regular visitors will have noticed something above. That’s right, the reappearance of Novel A in the weekly pie after a month M.I.A.

What got me to back on that particular Clydesdale? I came up with a new angle. After tapping out a few hundred words, I paused to write the following:

By jove I think I’ve cracked it. (Yes, this is how I actually write to myself.) A way to ground the story and simultaneously untether it from the pesky demands of realism… It’s unique, voice driven, speculative, out-there, heart-felt, cool. I’m there. I’m really there. Tonight I will write 6000 words. Tomorrow I will write 4000 words. In the weekend I will write Bhutan. I know the narrator’s worlds and Mike’s world. It’s time to Kerouac it out. No fear. No sunk costs.

Ahem. Well, I got to 3,000 words, then the doubt set in. Like, is it such a good idea to start so many sentences with Maybe? Wasn’t it better before I started tampering with frame narrations?

So I went back to working on short fiction. Did I chickened out? Yeah. But I’ll get back to it.

I’m writing and reading more short fiction than I have at any time in my life so far, and I’m enjoying it.

Does enjoyment = good fiction? Not always. But I don’t think you have to starve in a garret suffering from syphilis, insomnia, a broken heart and an unshakeable self-hatred to write good fiction. It might help in some cases, but I’m going to leave that as a last resort.

Nada Surf w/. Rogue Wave

The Garage, Glasgow, 23 February 2008

I have a rule which states that if a band has a song rated 5-stars on my ipod, I have to do everything in my power to see them live if they come within a 100 mile radius. The responsible song in this case is the lead single from Nada Surf’s 2002’s Let Go, ‘The Way You Wear Your Head’.

I was not without reservation. Nada Surf first broke with ‘Popular’ (1996)… you know, the song where the guy reads out rules for teenage popularity during the verse. It was a good song, but a hard formula to follow and they would have been excused for becoming One Hit Wonders—which Elektra conspired to make them, dropping their follow-up album, ‘The Proximity Effect’ because they didn’t hear another ‘Popular’. They clearly weren’t listening hard enough, because ‘Amateur’ and ‘Bacardi’ are excellent, surprising, catchy songs. (I think ‘Bacardi’ is 4-stars on my iPod, but it’s pushing 5).

My reservations regarding their gig in 2008 come from the fact that Nada Surf have lived a second life since 2002. Let Go was more downbeat (‘The Way You Wear Your Head’ aside), more sappy lyrically (e.g. ‘Inside of Love’) and 2005’s The Weight Is A Gift took it one step further (e.g. ‘Always Love’) resulting in the appearance of their songs on The O.C. and One Tree Hill. Their latest album, Lucky, is very much in this O.C. groove: mellow, melodic, downbeat.

So I was a little worried a) about the age of the clientele at the Garage last night (the tickets read “Over 14s”) and b) about the song selection for the actual gig. I mean, they do the mellow, melodic, downbeat well, but it’s less fun to stand stock still in a room surrounded by people with asymmetrical haircuts also standing stock still than to jump around to rock songs—at which point it doesn’t matter what type of haircuts people have: rock is the ultimate leveller.

Before I could find out which Nada Surf I would be seeing, there was Rogue Wave, who were very ‘O.C. Nada Surf’. I actually listened to a few of their tracks on the net before the concert to decide how punctual I needed to be… and decided there was no rush to get to Glasgow for the start of their set. But we caught most of their set anyway, along with a diverse mix of ages and surprising lack of emo fashion statements.

The problem with Rogue Wave, I think, was typified by their bass player (left), who was wrapped in a leather jacket with a big scarf over that. It can’t have been that cold up there (based on how much Matthew Caws was sweating an hour later), but he seemed to be on another planet: the least funky bass player I’ve ever seen. Contrasting with this comatose figure was the guitar tech (right) who also played all the extra parts that Studio Bands put into their songs which require extra hands to pull of live (lap steel, four different guitar tunings in one song…). This fifth member was tattooed, bearded and graying, and must have been 15 years older than the rest of the band, but he clearly loved his job. I don’t doubt Rogue Wave love the music they produce (in the studio?) and I know it’s hard being an opening band in any circumstance, but when your guitar tech is the only one sending the right vibe, something’s wrong.

Their lacking stage presence was further underlined with Nada Surf’s appearance. They are clearly a band who’ve found their groove and like what they’re doing. Unfortunately for me, this groove is the one that does not include ‘The Way You Wear Your Head’ et al. But hey, not so fast, they still have some good songs, and even the ‘Love’ songs worked well in an anthemic way. There was crowd participation (soul band two-stepping, ooh-ooh-ooohs, the cussing part in ‘Blankest Year’). And songs from the new album which had felt flat on the first couple of listens suddenly made sense live.

Somehow I’d missed the genius of ‘Weightless’ from the new album:

Behind every desire is another one
Waiting to be liberated when the first one’s sated

New light was also shone on ‘Ice On The Wing’, ‘See These Bones’ and ‘I Like What You Say’.

It wasn’t all new material though, and most of the highlights came from this older (but not oldest) material: ‘Blizzard of ‘77’, ‘Blonde on Blonde’ and the epic ‘Killian’s Red’. Oh, and the song that was stuck in my head the whole way back to Edinburgh: ‘What is Your Secret?

They came on for multiple encores (my morning after memory is struggling to separate all the comings and goings and settle on two or three encores) was a bit contrived. Aside: an encore should be a treat, but I understand the lack of an encore would ruin most people’s nights, so a second encore must be the treat… We were a good crowd last night, but people were walking out the door when they came on for the last time… I’m glad they played all the songs they did, even working Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ into the last song, but they didn’t have to leave and return to get us going: we were there.

Considering they didn’t play the song that convinced me to outlay time and money to go to Glasgow to see them, the concert was not a disappointment. No regrets. Just good memories.

The verdict: Eight Guitars out of Ten.

[Since this is the first time I’ve rated a concert here, I’ll explain that my scale is based on Englebert Humperdinck’s ‘Ten Guitars’, a bit of a favourite in New Zealand, frequently getting the Maori Strum treatment for an end of a party singalong. Because you can’t play half a guitar, ratings can only be in whole numbers.]

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Where are you calling from tonight...

For the benefit of Nigel Campbell...

This is only the most recent visitors map for my blog (via StatCounter), but it's pretty indicative of where my visitors are coming from. I've never had anyone from the South Island of New Zealand or Africa visit. I think the South Island thing might have to do with most NZ ISP's being based in the North Island. I'm not sure how to test this. Maybe if I type "Canterbury Rugby Legend Todd Blackadder Mount Aoraki Nathan Astle Simon Barnett Many Many Sheep" I'll get some lovin' via Google.

Friday, February 22, 2008

There's no such thing as a free book (?)

I braved the wind and rain at lunch today to pick up my free copy of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which is this year’s choice for One Book One Edinburgh. Carrying the slim volume back to work (even with an intro from Ian Rankin, illustrations and notes for reading groups, the entire book is only 150 pages) I though maybe I could read it tonight and blog about it tomorrow. Y’know, once I’ve got a few words in the bank. The only problem is Marisa’s reading the book now. I said if she was going to read it, she had to blog about it, but she wasn’t keen. We’ll see.

Anyway, as soon as I can, I will read it (sort of re-read, seeing as how it’s one of those stories which has seeped into the loam of popular culture… example: I’m pretty sure there was a Tom and Jerry episode based on Jekyll and Hyde…) and hopefully have something to say.

I’ll try to keep my file clerk by day, deluded writer by night comparisons to a minimum.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

This is where it all happens...

Today I wrote my 150,000th word for 2008 and thought I'd let down the curtain a little: welcome to my world...

Just taking a moment to think about where I write, it hits home how many things are wrong with my writing space. First, the chair. It looks pretty lush, but it's too low (even with the addition of two cushions). Then there's the TV at 5 o'clock, and the constant PM reminder I'm not alone in this endeavour. Even when I am alone, the mirror at twelve o'clock is a distraction. But, there is a minibar in that cupboard to my right, stocked with juices, ginger beer and a bit of the harder stuff. And it's always warm - something I can't say for other writing spaces I've had.

What you don't really get the sense from the photo is the muddle of ideas I'm usually in while at work. I'm normally surrounded by loose pieces of paper, most of which don't make sense after a couple of days...

And there's normally two, if not three notebooks open on my desk. Here's last week's pages from my favourite notebook, which doubles as the first point of record for my daily word counts...

It's probably best if you can't read my writing. For the must-knows: the notes on the right hand side refer to 2 different ideas for short stories (one which I started yesterday), an idea for Novel B, an unused blog idea, a quote from Warren Zevon which I like but I have no idea if it will be useful, and an attempt to sort out the order of my unborn e-book, 'Orbital Resonance'. A pretty good symbol of my everything-at-once approach this year.

Today's state of mind: the glass is 15% full.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Even Better Than The Real Thing

I like writing. Most of the time it is not a chore to spend four hours after work typing words with a serious expression on my face. But sometimes I prefer to write something from the very top of my brain and not care about whether it’s Good or Not Good, or Publishable or Unpublishable.

Off and on these past few weeks I have been diverting these top-of-the-brain impulses into one particular Word file, which kind of became a love letter to Wikipedia. I’m weighing up whether to post this love letter to Wikipedia (a.k.a. ‘Orbital Resonance’) online, but I’d say there’s an 80% chance it will appear somewhere in the next fortnight.

Until then, here is something about Wikipedia, but also not about Wikipedia. I was looking for something a bit different to name a character and found my way onto the Wikipedia page for The Sons of Noah (the biblical figure) and then onto the following two pages:


Dr.Malachi Z. York

According to Wikipedia:

Nuwaubianism is an esoteric cosmology, a collection of religious teachings, a group of religious, tribal, and fraternal organizations, and a set of cultural practices that is multifaceted and ever-changing.
Now, until two hours ago, I don’t think I had any prior knowledge of the movement or its founder, and what follows is discussion based solely on two Wikipedia pages. It’s mind-blending to read too much of this stuff, so to come out at this stage and say anything too negative (or positive) about Nuwaubianism or the people involved or even the dude who created the faith (and is currently serving 135 years in prison for child molestation) would be rash and perhaps even dangerous.

What I want to say is, when I read through some of the stuff on the Nuwaubian page, I thought: there is a great brain for fiction being used for something else. What’s the difference between someone (Malachi Z. York) writing: “People were once perfectly symmetrical and ambidextrous, but then a meteorite struck Earth and tilted its axis causing handedness and shifting the heart off-center in the chest,” and, say, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick, where Chinese people shrink themselves to the size of postage stamps so they can all fit in their country?

The difference, of course, is that one is fiction (Vonnegut) and the other purports not to be (York).

To skim through the bullet points under the Other Nuwaubian Beliefs heading is like reading the unused plot ideas from one of Vonnegut’s notebooks (or Philip K. Dick’s or William Gibson’s or George Saunders’).

  • …some aborted fetuses survive their abortion to live in the sewers, where they are being gathered and organized to take over the world.
  • There is an underground road connecting New York and London.
  • The clocks on Earth used to have a “tick” and a “tock.” Now there is only the “tick.” So time has been changed, and that missing “tock” is up for grabs that can be utilized by extraterrestrial beings who overstand this “altered time,” and they can come in and out of this dimension at will.

In isolation, these might be harmless ideas, or they might be the seeds of satirical sci-fi-leaning stories which entertain readers and supply the odd ‘uh-huh’ moment. But when you start to paste all these ideas together into one cohesive [sic] theology [sic], and tell people to not just suspend their disbelief (as with fiction), but actively believe, that my friends is when the trouble starts.

Actually, I take back that claim that Other Nuwaubian Beliefs section could be mistaken for ideas from the abovementioned writers because only a small fraction of the bullet points are as neutral as those I selected. Most valorise ‘Nubians’ and demonise the many forms of ‘Other’ in a not very ulterior motive. Some of the lighter examples include:

  • Alcoholic beverages are made cheaply available to Nubians by the powers that be in order to preserve their blood and organs better “(just like they preserve organs in jars in laboratories)” for later extraction.
  • Disco was created by the devil to win the souls of the Nubians.

This could still be the brain of a great satirist brain at work. Except, this brain isn’t being used for satire but scripture. And then there’s the concept of Sound Right Reasoning, where:

Nuwaubians try to discover the deeper meanings of words by using a method in which words are decomposed into syllables and then phrases are created using similarly-sounding syllables, so that for instance caucasian becomes “carcass-asian,”[citation needed] extraterrestrials becomes “extra-terra-astrals,”[63]gospel becomes “ghost spell,”[64] Jesus becomes “Jah+Zeus,”[65] planet becomes “plan E.T.,”[66] and television becomes “tell lie vision.”[35]
Ludicrous, right? It sounds like something the title character from George Saunders’ novella The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil would say.

I’m avoiding a clause-by-clause takedown of Nuwaubian literature because the people I imagine I’m talking to right now don’t need to have What’s Wrong With This Page spelt out to them. And because that’s not what is the most interest to me.

What I’m most interested in is my reaction that some of this would make good fiction. That there is something so appealing about a man who has sixty aliases listed at the bottom of his Wikipedia page and distorts a 1001 source mythologies into this new thing crawling with Vonneguttian ideas, that I am able to scroll over sentences such as, “state prosecutors literally had to cut back the number of counts [of molestation] listed — from well beyond a thousand to slightly more than 200 — because they feared a jury simply wouldn’t believe the magnitude of York's evil…” and all the stuff about medical diagnoses and racism and land bridges from Africa to Georgia. Somehow I am able to push these less interesting (to me) aspects aside and think about this all in terms of fiction.

One track mind. I know.

It sort of hammers home a point which has been floating round in my head since I posted about Zadie Smith’s call for greatness after the no prize verdict for the Willesden Short Story Competition a few weeks ago. Fiction can encompass the ideas which have, in Malachi Z. York’s case, been siphoned off into radical religious doctrine. It can feature characters who believe the devil created disco. But so often it doesn’t. I can see how reading 800 stories mired in realism could get to someone and prevent them from choosing one over the rest.

There’s a place for realism. Don't get me wrong. But is the area we set aside for realism too large? There is unrealism out there. More than enough. But it’s ghettoed off in the genre sections of book stores and the spinning paperback displays in libraries (which I hate, by the way… you can never find books which the catalogue swears are in…). The internet, for all the freedom it provides niche interests and acquired tastes, is happy to let realism reign in the respected journals and magazines. I’m not a big fan of pure sci-fi, so I don’t know a lot about that section of web-ready reading, but it’s pretty bloody hard to find great unrealism writing on the internet. There’s plenty of po-faced realism, and plenty of shoot-from-the-hip word-splashes, and plenty of cutesy, angsty Tao Lin wannabes. Am I typing the wrong words into my search engine when looking for great new voices in unrealism?

Examples of great unrealism writing would the already mentioned Kurt Vonnegut Jr, some George Saunders, some William Gibson… but also Cervantes, Rabelais, and Swift. I’m tempted to say The King James Bible here, but a) it sounds like something a real wanker would say, b) I read more of the stories as summarised on Wikipedia than in the actual Book, and c) I’m don’t want to get into a religious debate after trying so hard to avoid one thus far.

Regardless of my source text, I am drawn to stories like Noah building a big-ass boat and saving animals, then planting a vineyard, getting drunk and exposing himself to his poor son… and dying at the age of 900. That’s a cool story. It’s the kind of thing that happens when you write from the top of your head…

And that’s what’s a little troubling for me right now. This quest to write a million words in a calendar year has already pushed me into new directions. The thing is though, I’m writing so many things at once (usually focussing on one story or section of a larger work for a day or two, then coming back to it five or six days later) that I’m writing realism and unrealism side by side. I have stories which play it straight like, say, Updike or Chekhov, ones which are real with a twist, like Barry Hannah or Lorrie Moore, as well as New Zealand Picaresque with a hint of Barry Crump, and top-of-the-brain things like ‘Orbital Resonance’ and ‘The Kick Inside’. And when I come across something like Nuwaubianism on Wikipedia and go off on tangents about fiction, I feel like I should be writing one way above all others. That this proliferation of styles might just be a sign of my lingering immaturity as a writer. Or worse, that writing as much as I am, I’m still missing the mark I should be aiming for…

But, in my calmer moments, I realise that it is exciting for me is to be in this position. Without the pressure of writing an average of 2732 words a day, I would not have all of these stories on the go, nor would I have gone through the process of articulating whatever it is I’ve just articulated about Nuwaubianism and unrealistic fiction.

So, to those of you who’ve read this far, thanks for indulging me. I know full well what a self-absorbed prat I sound like in posts of this kind, but as I’ve said before: if anything is going to do me in, it might as well be my own words.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Status Report: Week Seven

Well, another year’s Slam Dunk competition has come and gone. I know it’s hard for NBA players to keep coming up with new dunks each year, and for the last ten years there’ve been people saying, “Can it already,” but I’m in the other camp which says, “When you see something new after you think you’ve seen it all before, that’s special.”

The 2008 Slam Dunk Competition was high on gimmicks, the two biggest being Gerald Green blowing the candle out on a birthday cake positioned behind the rim and Dwight Howard dunking in a Superman outfit. These were okay. There’s a place for these dunks. But the real highlight for me was Dwight Howard’s first dunk in the final round where he lobs the ball, then taps it off the backboard with one hand and slams it with the other. That is something I’ve never seen before. Which is saying something after twenty odd years of the dunk competition (a concept not confined to the NBA). And it was without gimmickry. But if he had done it without his shoes on (a la Green’s last dunk) it would have been even better.

For those interested, you can watch all the dunks here: round one, round two, finals. I think it’s sad the whole competition only consisted of twelve dunks. Some of these athletes only have small window where they have maximum hops and aren’t barred by their teams from competing (because they’re too important to get injured) and it would be a shame if Travis Outlaw’s time came and went without him getting a go.

I think there is some sort of parallel to be drawn between trying to come up with a new dunk and trying to come up with a new story (another area where it’s all been done before) but I’ve sworn off using basketball similes in my writing, and I guess that applies here too.

We are now at the end of the seventh week of 2008. Only one week left in February. Some days I think this year is whizzing by, others I think I’ve found the perfect way to slow time down (sit at a computer every minute of your “free” time).

Anyway, here’s how I’m doing with the million words mountain…

Week Seven – The Stats

Weekly word count: 19,971 words

Average: 2,853 words per day (compared to 2,788 last week)

Most productive day: Tuesday 12 Feb, 4,580 words

Least productive day: Saturday 17 Feb, 1,833 words

Year-to-date: 139,452 words (a couple of days ahead of schedule)

I thought I’d fallen into a rhythm over the first three weeks of working: struggle to reach 2,000 words a day during the week then make up for it in the weekend. But this week it was different. I managed to start the working week on fire (buoyed by some good news re: stories getting accepted for publication), tailed off a bit, then had my worst day (words-wise) on a Saturday. Excuse: it was a beautiful day so we went to Tantallon Castle (photo below). Taking a positive spin on this: there is more than one way to go about this million words.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Bend Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov

Bend Sinister (1947) may not be the most acclaimed or well known of Nabokov’s novels, but it holds a special place on my bookshelf – when I am not lending it to friends and colleagues as, “a good introduction.” But Bend Sinister is more than a stepping off point; in its own right, it is a perfect microcosm of Nabokov’s art and the possibilities of fiction.

Set in an unnamed European country which has recently allowed a new dictator into power, Bend Sinister, written on the heels of the darkest half-century in human history, is both of its time and timeless. The protagonist, Adam Krug, is a well-known intellectual naturally opposed to the new regime’s policy of “Ekwilism”, but his crisis is a personal one. Krug has just lost his wife when the novel opens, and by its close, he will lose everything. The cruellest blow is the clerical error which sends his son – taken hostage to coerce Krug into endorsing Ekwilism – to The Institute for Abnormal Boys, where he meets an “accident”. At this point, the narrator steps forward and reveals himself as Nabokov the novelist, and through, “an inclined beam of pale light,” he grants Krug the madness to free himself of the twin tyrannies of grief and despotism.

Bend Sinister manages to meld political allegory, personal tragedy, and the occasional meta-fictional flourish into a cohesive story thanks to Nabokov’s ebullient language and a sequence of memorable scenes: Krug’s attempt to cross a bridge without the appropriate pass; his repartee with the male-and-female duo entrusted with his arrest; the description of the tyrant Paduk as a victim of schoolyard bullying – indeed, taken scene by scene, the novel is highly comic.

It is by design that a reader chuckles their way through what is, on one level, a bleak tragedy – and that the greatest injustice (the death of Krug’s son, David) occurs offstage. The novel ends suddenly after Nabokov steps forward and confirms that it is all made up. After so much genre-blending, the very boundaries of fiction have faded and it is only natural for a reader to feel uneasy. This delayed unease is a classic Nabokovian ploy. We do not feel for Krug, his son or his doomed colleagues until it is too late. But, with the curtain of fiction dropped, the reader is invited to assume the role of Adam Krug, to play protagonist in this world, but also to recognize the tyrannies at work in one’s own existence.

While I fall in love with new books and new authors every year, Bend Sinister was the first to open my eyes to the possibilities of fiction, and for that reason, it will always have a seat reserved at my last supper.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Great Moments in Shuffle #3

'Buckets of Flowers, Porno Mags' – Consonant

'Right-hand-o-rama' - The Network

Two pretty obscure bands thrown together today as only an iPod could. Consonant might mean something to people if I say that it features Clint Conley of Mission of Burma. No? Your loss.

The Network (pictured) was a side-project of members of Green Day (though they deny it) and possibly members of Devo.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Status Report: Week Six

Week Six – The Stats

Weekly wordcount: 19,519 words

Average: 2,788 words per day (compared to 2,897 last week)

Most productive day: Sunday 10 Feb, 4,379 words

Least productive day: Thursday 7 Feb, 1,876 words

Year-to-date: 119,591 words

There are numbers and graphs above. They seem okay. But in the end they are just numbers and graphs.

Friday, February 8, 2008

One of my favourite words…


Verb intransitive, pronounced: sprook

I didn’t learn this word until I moved to Australia and to my knowledge it has never really made it offshore. If you google ‘spruik’, pretty much all the sites are Australian. So what does it mean, all you non-Aussies ask?

First, a textual definition:

Spruik: to promote goods, services, or a cause by addressing people in a public place.

Now, a visual one, courtesy of the Herald Sun Online (Australian of course):

If you can’t be bothered watching the video, here’s a fuller explanation.

In its strictest sense, spruiking is when someone, in my experience they usually have a mic and a portable PA, stand by the entrance of a retail store, usually a jewellery store or something dealing in souvenirs and tacky gifts, and rattles on about the products inside in an attempt to induce people to enter the store. With jewellers in particular, they blather about special Today Only reductions. Sometimes it is not a live person extemporising outside the store, but a recording of someone, usually a blokey Australian male who most certainly has a Dipper moustache.

In the video (shot in Melbourne) there seem to be a lot of spruikers for clothes stores, but in Brisbane (where I spent more of my time), this was uncommon.

The etymology of spruik is unclear. To most Australians, it began with these people trying to sell their wares through the power of speech, but the meaning has been allowed to progress from its strictest sense to now encompass ‘to make an elaborate speech, with persuasive intent.’

It is in this sense that spruik is a handy word to wield. It’s one of those words you can use in context and people who’ve never heard it before will know what you mean.

I’ve used it already on this blog—as a synonym of ‘sell’ or ‘promote’ I guess—and I will probably use it again before the year of a million words is up.

And why should spruik get thirty-two of those million slots? The sound of it in spoken English and the look of it on the page—both have that element of surprise. The uncommon union of “uik” is a thing of beauty in my opinion. If it was spelt sprook, it would lose something. And even though sprook is how I and other online definitions have transcribed the pronunciation, it’s not quite like ‘spook’ with an ‘r’ in it. It’s its very own animal.

That’s why I’m spruiking the use of spruik today. Because it’s a bit of colour you can easily throw into you conversations. Trust me. There will come a time this weekend where you’ll be able to say spruik, spruiks, spruiking or spruiked, even if its just, “I read a blog where this guy was spruiking the use of this word, just which word, I forget.”

[Spruik count: 16 down, 16 to go.]

Thursday, February 7, 2008

'It's out there most days and nights, but only a fool would complain'

SwissToni asked me a while ago to guest on his weekly Earworms of The Week feature. My day in the sun is not for another month, but I’ve been thinking about earworms anyway.

You know, those songs that get stuck in you head, in either a good or a bad way. Often, the goodness or badness of a song depends on how long it loops in your head. Eye of the Tiger, for example, is a fantastic song to hear once a year, but if it gets stuck in your head for six months, it loses that Rocky/Retro/Animal Print glow.

Today I want to hand out a Career Achievement (Earworm) award to Nautical Disaster by The Tragically Hip. Press play and listen while reading the rest of the post.

For the five weeks I spent in Africa last year, I had this song stuck in my head, and I love it more today for this fact.

I didn’t fall for this song when I heard it originally. I instantly loved other songs on Day For Night like Grace Too and Thugs but for maybe a year Nautical Disaster languished on only 3 stars.

As I got more and more into the Hip, I started to read around and found out Nautical Disaster was considered one of their greatest songs. Frankly, I was shocked. I went back and listened.

And listened.

Slowly it grew in my estimation. With every listen it inched towards five stars, and then came Africa, which proved beyond doubt that my tolerance for this song is off the charts. But it’s not just about liking the song, it’s about how it stays in my head.

I think it helps that there is no chorus, so every time I fall back into the song I’m free to move around, unhindered by an Eye of the Tiger-esque chorus.

Also working in this song’s favour is the density (and perhaps opacity) meaning. The title and the middle of the song suggest it’s about a shipwreck, but after repeated listens and scrutinising the lyrics, you figure out a) the shipwreck is a dream rather than a historical reference (the first line should make this clear, but somehow it escapes people) and b) that this dream is used as an extended metaphor for the state of a relationship.

But the song is never fully unpacked, labelled and ready for the museum. It’s a living thing which, as it burrows and loops in your mind (occasionally prompting you to bark out, “Off the coast of France, Dear,” as you peel potatoes), does not disintegrate through overuse.

Like I said above, this song did not catch me on the first spin, so don’t worry if you feel like you are missing something (you did push play, didn’t you?). I think the fact it takes a couple of listens but only gets better and never gets old is down to the guitar. I’m not down with technical jargon to articulate just how the guitar parts operate, and besides, its all in the song. Listen. And listen. If it doesn’t happen. Try these…

Craig’s Top Five Tragically Hip Earworms*

Courage (For Hugh McLennan) – from Fully Completely

Apartment Song – from Trouble at the Henhouse

Gift Shop – from Trouble at the Henhouse

My Music at Work – from Music @ Work

Family Band – from World Container

*Note: These aren’t necessarily my favourite Hip songs, but they are the ones that seem to get stuck in my head the most as of Feb 2008, Nautical Disaster excluded of course.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Last Word on Willesden

For completeness, here's the final word from the Willesden Short Story Competition judges.

It explains the judging process, the mix-up with the short-listed authors, and reiterates the rationale behind the judgement. Perhaps more of this detail and less of the "call to greatness" first up would have prevented upsetting some people...

The short-listed candidates were contacted and asked whether they wanted their names to appear. Some comments made on the comments page of the blog about these writers were so unflattering that it was decided that the WH should be sensitive to their feelings... When the decision was made to split the prize money, the short-listed writers were contacted again and most of them said that they did not want their names or stories to appear and did not want any prize money. They told us to f--- off. Which is fair enough.

All a bit of a storm in a tea cup really. Or in the modern parlance: "something to blog about."

I certainly wouldn't have turned down the money and the publicity, no matter how adverse. No one can be summed up by one story. Thankfully - otherwise what would my non-shortlisted entry say about me?

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Willesden Update

From the Willesden Herald blog:

Bowing to common fury, the prize will be split equally amongst the shortlist, all of whom have written strong and worthy stories. Our honest problem was that we didn't feel we had found a stand-out for the big prize, and we were trying to set the highest standard, but we did it clumsily and, as many have argued, there's no reason not to award the money, since it's there. Maybe you lot can read them when they're up and choose your own favourite.

There were only two or three comments suggesting a split. Personally I think it sends the wrong message. They wanted to stir things up. To agitate us all to greatness (or their idea of greatness... slippery slope). But now... what? I'm confused.

I think those involved mistook healthy online debate with whining. Easy mistake to make I guess. For those wondering, this is the former. Honest.

Still, these two competing decisions (no stand-out story so no prize awarded; no stand-out story so ten prizes awarded) don't do any favours for the prestige of the competition this year and going forward.

Congrats to the short-listed writers, though. Any placing, in any fashion, has to be taken as a positive. The "You're good, but go further" message may even spur them on to "greatness". Maybe they're already there, it just flew over Zadie's head?

The Affair of the Willesden Short Story Competition

That's what this would be called if written by Arthur Conan Doyle.

I sat down this evening with the best intentions to write fiction. I opened up the Excel spreadsheet in which I track my stories, their status (complete, in progress, not begun) and the wheres and whens of submissions. Scanning my growing list I was reminded that I entered the Willesden Short Story Prize back in December. I hadn’t heard anything yet, so I googled around and wound up here.

Perhaps I have a sixth sense for controversy?

To summarise: after receiving 800 entries, short-listing and handing X number of stories to Zadie Smith to make the final judgement, it was announced today that no story was good enough to award the prize (£5000 and “immortality” as they said in the conditions of entry).

According to comments on the Willesden Herald’s blog, they actually posted a message a few days ago saying the short listed authors had been notified… And now this.

It was a free competition. Apart from printing and postage costs, which all but one person would not have recouped if a winner had been announced, so there’s really no issue there.

[Except the claim that the prize next year will be this year’s £5000 plus a year’s interest, which would only make the average prize-money £2500+interest over the two years… surely they could up the £s next year, or spend it on promotion to get the best entries out there for 09 rather than banking it for a couple extra hundred pounds…]

Zadie Smith makes some interesting points in her explanation for the prize being withheld, and I can’t really argue that it’s their right to not award the prize if they didn’t read “greatness”.


In the same diatribe-cum-apology, Zadie Smith talks about the aims of the competition as supporting unpublished writers. I wonder how many PUBLISHED stories Zadie Smith and the other judges would read to find one “great” story? Of course a free competition will have some chaff, but to expect “greatness” in a short story competition might be overstating the competition’s importance. Especially one “established to support unpublished writers.” Few writers achieve greatness without first passing through mediocrity, promise, proficiency…
I can understand why they wouldn't want to send the message that proficiency was enough, but if the competition and its organisers really want to help usher writers towards greatness, how about some specific critiques? I’d be particularly interest to hear how the short-listed entries fell short…

As I re-read Ms Smith’s carefully chosen, agonised-over, words, I started to see a subtext.

“I think there are few prizes of this size that would have the integrity not to award a prize when there is not sufficient cause to do so.”

Add to this the repeated references to this prize not being sponsored by a beer company, it’s difficult not to consider whether this is less about the stories received and the writers who submitted than upping the prestige of the prize and the people involved…

But it would be simplistic and misanthropic to say this decision was a cynical marketing ploy. It was a combination of less-than-great stories, the desire to get better stories next year, and the potential to rattle a few trees that lead to this decision.

The only problem I have is that what Zadie Smith perceives as greatness would vary wildly from the opinions of “Rimbaud or Capote… Irving Rosenthal or Proust… Svevo or Trocchi… Ballard or Bellow, Denis Cooper or Diderot… Coetzee or Patricia Highsmiththe” (writers mentioned in her explanation). Again, the “not good enough” ruling calls out for examples. They usually publish an anthology of the shortlisted stories – I think it would be more interesting to read it this year (with an introduction addressing where they fell short) than the last two year’s anthologies.

If anyone involved in the competition is reading, it may take some grovelling to the short-listed entrants, but such an anthology would do more for writing than simply keeping mum until next year.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Superbowl XLII


What a Superbowl.

The New York Giants didn’t look so average (well, their defence certainly didn’t). And even though seeing Brady sacked 5 times was nice, and so was Randy Moss being but shut out (his big TD catch came after the DB slipped over), I did feel a twinge of pity for the Patriots and their now imperfect season. I’m sure they’d trade records with the Giants to get those rings. Then again, they have won 3 championships this decade.

It was a strange experience for me watching the game from 11pm until 3am on a Sunday night here in Edinburgh. I’m used to watching the game on a Monday afternoon in the middle of summer back in NZ. Because our TV is affixed to the wall of our bedroom, I had to watch the second half on mute while Marisa tried (without much success) to get some sleep. Fotrunately, the game (broadcast on BBC2) was captioned. I discovered this while watching Tom Petty’s halftime performance on mute. The microphone obscured Petty’s lips so couldn’t figure out which song he was singing and had the brainwave to try captions. To my surprise, someone - or something - somewhere, was actually transcribing the lyrics. A simple # before the caption denoted this was singing.

# I stand my ground, and I won't back down

It was clear that the captioner was not a Tom Petty fan as only every third line appeared in text on screen, often with some egregious and comical errors.

Like in ‘Running Down a Dream’: “Going where every I please,” was transcribed as, “Going with every police.” Sometimes these mistakes were followed by a hyphen and the correct wording, sometimes not.

When the second half commenced, the commentary was also captioned, this time capturing, or attempting to capture, every line uttered, though again, with mixed success.

As the comic misspellings piled up, it became clear the live captioner was using some form of stenotype where sounds where being transcribed rather than typing every letter of every word.

So “Brady’s career,” became, “Brady’s Korea”. And the Giants were referred to as the Jazz and the Jains from time to time (funniest though was the Redskins being referred to as the Bad Skins).

Sometimes, the captions were very wrong, but oh so close. Like when “Michael Strahan” became “My court stray hand.”

Other times, I couldn’t work out what had actually been said. Like, in reference to Wes Welker, “he takes a lake.”

Or the second half of “The largest [sic] player [sic] of the game, 30 year to two no.”

It stopped being funny about the time Kevin Faulk was referred to as an “unselfish Gaia” and Mike Carey as “the first Afro-America breath for route” (that is: referee).

I started to feel sorry for the captioner. My examples make it sound like they messed everything up, but they actually did a pretty good job for someone who probably didn’t know a lot about American football captioning live during the early hours of the morning.

But if that’s what all sports commentaries are like when they are lucky enough to be captioned, I wonder what deaf people think of the way sports commentators talk?

And of Tom Petty’s songs for that matter. Here’s a guy who looks like a dried up Jesus singing, #Take it easy baby, make it last all night.

I’m grateful for the captions for another reason too. All the attention I was paying to them helped keep me awake through the scoreless third quarter, and I’m glad I stayed up to catch one of the best finishes in a football game I’ve ever seen, Superbowl or no

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Status Report: Week Five

It has been a strange few days. First Memphis trades Pau Gasol to the Lakers for… um, financial flexibility. Just how they’ll land a free agent of Gasol’s ability with their vaunted cap space this coming off season, or the next, beats me.

I think this is the first time I have posted about the NBA. I haven’t been deliberately concealing this fact, it’s just I’m a Kings supporter and there hasn’t been much to crow about with everyone injured and/or waiting to be traded.

I don’t know all the salary cap intricacies involved, but surely Memphis could have got more for Gasol from the Kings than Kwame Brown’s expiring contract, a 3rd string rookie PG and two draft picks (which, now that the Lakers are stacked, will be late-late first rounders)?

Another strange occurrence this week was that my temp job evolved into something more than filing. I actually got to use a computer on Thursday and Friday. Not that I’d need any of my three degrees to carry out the required tasks, but my hands welcomed the respite from filing.

And then, of course, there was the writing.

January ended with a word count of 89,920. I usually leave it till the end of the day to transfer the word counts in my faithful moleskin into my excel spreadsheet, so I didn’t realise I was 80 words short of 90,000 for the month until it was too late. I’d closed all of my word documents, put iTunes to bed and it was already pretty late for a school night.

I think 89,920 is a bit more believable than 90,001, or whatever I would have scraped to if I had soldiered on.

Anyway, that was January. There are seven more 31 day months left in 2008. I’m sure 90,000 will fall at some stage.

But for now, it’s February, complete with its blessed bonus day on the 29th. Hmm, the 29th is a Friday… Is that the bonus day or is December 31st (the 366th day)? Either way, neither are ideal for writing a truckload.

In recognition of cracking another milestone (see Year-to-Date word count below), I tried to find some better looking charts. Turns out they take forever to make, and I’m not sure what they’ll even look like, so you only get two this week.

Week Five – The Stats

Wordcount: 20,276 words

Average: 2,897 words per day (compared to 3,087 last week)

Most productive day: Saturday 2 Feb, 4,908 words

Least productive day: Wednesday 30 Jan, 1,608 words

Year-to-date: 100,722 words… or 10% of the way there.

This week (Week Five) was pretty similar to the last: a lull mid-week made up for by going hard in the weekend. I wasn’t quite up to last weekend’s back-to-back 5000 word days, but it can’t be Nashville every night.

Most of my fiction was focussed on ‘Novel B’. I’ve written a lot of words but I’m still in the midst of the opening chapter (or three opening chapters, I still haven’t decided on the way the story will be divided). Like I say at the top of this page, writing a million words is sort of like writing War and Peace twice. Aside from the fact it’s more like writing War and Peace 1.85 times, I’m not going to end up with one massive tome at the end of this. It’ll be more like a medium sized novel (80-100,000 words??), and a collection of print-worthy short stories. The rest will all have been spent on drafts, revisions, failed ideas, writerly emails, and of course, semi-erudite blog entries. Perhaps hemi-demi-semi-erudite blog entries.

I wonder how many of the million words will be deployed in the name of self-deprecation?

At least I’m talking like I will write a million words this year, eh?

Okay, time to watch the Superbowl. I’m also a big NFL fan, except this year I’m not that excited about this year’s Superbowl. New England is one of the best teams of all time (I say this begrudgingly, being a Dolphins fan), and the Giants are merely adequate. If ‘the other’ Manning leads the G-men to victory, I think I would feel sorry for Tom Brady.

For about a second.

Audiobook Review Test Case: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

On Thursday I wrote about listening to audiobooks as opposed to reading books the traditional way, and said I would write about The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, having only listened to it the once, to illustrate how much one can gain from an audiobook.

I took two days instead of one to cobble this post together, and I would say that the process of writing this review has not been entirely pleasant. I wouldn’t normally feel comfortable making proclamations about a book after just a once-through: listening or reading. I would like to return to certain passages, particularly early on, in order to appreciate more of the craft behind the novel. By nature, I seem to gravitate towards discussions of craft, which is the hardest thing to dissect on a first run through. But here it is. My review of Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle - the audiobook - translated by Jay Rubin and read by Rupert Degas…


From the very first lines of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, a picture of the narrator, Toru Okada, begins to form. Slightly anal, maybe even myopic. Okada, we soon learn, is out of a job and taking his time to decide what he does next. Time and freedom, it seems, have let his inner pedant run wild. He meticulously describes the process of cooking a plate of spaghetti and the classical music on the stereo, and then… a phone call.

The woman on the other end of the line asks for ten minutes, after which time, she assures him, they will really know each other. Such talk is outside his current frame of reference and he cuts the call short.

But slowly, inexorably, weirdness begins to penetrate Toru Okada’s muted world.

As he searches for Noburu Wataya, the cat named after his brother in law, he befriends Mei Kasahara, a sixteen year old girl out of school indefinitely after a motorcycle accident. Their friendship begins on an intellectual level – with Mei airing her not-so-16-yr-old views on death - passes through the vaguely erotic, and by the end of the novel, even though they are now in different parts of Japan, the relationship has taken a very spiritual turn.

Tension in the first quarter of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle builds as it becomes clear to the reader (but not Toru Okada) that his wife, Kumiko, is having an affair. When she goes missing, Okada is finally plunged head-first into the weird world which until then he had managed to hold on the periphery by ironing shirts and not thinking too hard about things.

While Okada’s relationship with Mei Kasahara is often given pride of place structurally, it is more of an anchor for the story than a rocket. The blast off is provided by the spiritualist Malta Kano and her sister/sidekick/psychic seductress Creta Kano. Suddenly Okada is having lucid dreams, described in much the same detail as his daylight activity, in which he “co-joins” his body with Creta Kano. Later, Okada learns that Creta Kano was an active participant in these dreams. They were, if there is such a word: coterminous.

While Toru Okada is struggling to figure out why his wife has disappeared and having vivid wet dreams, he also strikes up an unlikely friendship (as are all the relationships in the novel) with an elderly WWII veteran called Lieutenant Mamiya. Over the course of the novel, Mamiya tells Okada a long, violent, and at times supernatural, story about his experiences in Machukuo and later Siberia in the 1940s.

The strength, the triumph, of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is the way that all of the above (which I have laboured to outline) occurs at such a comfortable pace, and everything is absolutely essential. Without Mamiya, Toru Okada would not have gone down into a dried up well, which he would not have known about if it were not for Mei Kasahara (and the missing cat), wherein he must battle to co-ordinate the out-there spirituality of the Kano sisters, his missing wife, and his own shuddering sense of self.

The novel is separated into three books, with the third being the largest of the lot, covering the most pages (or tracks) and the longest period of time within the story. Early on in Book One, Toru Okada objects to the way Malta Kano speaks in abstractions and general things, to which she replies that concrete things are not of importance and the only things which are really worth talking about can only be done so in generalisations. This is, perhaps, explains why Book Three is the most difficult.

But, as I listened, there were other, more superficial, aspects of Book Three which lessen its hold on the reader, the first being the shifts in pace. The joy of the first two books of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is the way that everything is happening at once, yet, through Okada’s slow, deliberate narration, all the question marks and knee-jerks are suppressed.

After passing through the wall of the well in another lucid dream cum spiritual experience, in a matter of pages Okada spends almost an entire year people watching and waiting for Kumiko to return, or to figure out what is going on, or to decide what to do with his life, but of course, none of these happens.

Book three has an utterly different body clock, which might have worked okay in isolation, but coming as it does 60% of the way through the novel, it makes the remainder feel… shallow.

When Okada is employed by the mother and son team of Nutmeg and Cinnamon Akasaka, the pace slows, but it does not (and cannot) return to the languid and meticulous narration of the first two books. It also does not help that the Akasakas function in much the same way as the Kano sisters (who have disappeared), and the informed-uninformed dynamic is less interesting the second time around.

Also acting against Book Three is the sudden appearance of implags. I picked this term up from Jonathan Coe (specifically, Like a Fiery Elephant). It’s basically a blend of ‘imported plagiarism’. That is, when made up newspaper reports and the like are inserted into the text of a novel. These implags purport to be written by people other than the narrator, and when used well, they are a way of exploding a story, the way Cubists tried to explode the 2-D plane of a painting a century ago (almost).

Implags are a way of showing multiple, conflicting perspectives of an idea or an event. Coe uses implags throughout The Rotter’s Club and The Closed Circle in just this way. Implags work best on the page when form and font can help ad an air of realism to the inserstions and differentiate them from the rest of the narration. But implags are still easy to pick up in an audiobook. I listened to both of Coe’s novels above and found the implags were one of their strongest features.

The implags in Book Three of Murakami’s novel take the form of several gossip rag articles about the mysterious activities going on in the property where we know Okada is acting as some sort of spiritual healer for Nutmeg Akasaka; letters written to Okada by Mei Kasahara after she moves away to work in wig factory; and stories written by Cinnamon Akasaka about Machukuo.

These implags do enable the book’s perspective to expand out from what has been the engaging but limited perspective of Toru Okada, but, their sudden appearance after so long with Okada’s voice and nothing else (barring a few short letters from Kumiko and Lt. Mamiya) serves to unsettle the story rather than root it in a wider world.

It’s like if you started constructing a bookshelf from Ikea, and then, you turn to the back page of the instruction booklet and it starts talking about a dining room table.

Coe’s novels, in contrast, feature implags throughout. From page to page the narrative is uneven, but from a distance, everything is symmetrical.

After delving into these complaints, it sounds like The Wind-up Bird Chronicle failed to meet my exacting standards as a reader, I mean: listener. But, I am swipe away the unevenness of book three, and even the way it doesn’t live up to the skilful mix of mellow mystery and head-scratching ideas established the first two books. I still think the novel as a whole is close enough.

This evening I watched the movie Network, and loved it. I mean, I started reshuffling my mental list of favourite films as I watched the final act, that’s how much I rated the movie. But it, too, was flawed. Insanely flawed. The best satires must, inescapably, sacrifice logic and realism somewhere, and so I could forgive Paddy Chayevsky’s script and Sidney Lumet’s direction.

And while Network is predominantly a satire and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is the farthest thing from a send up, there’s a strange confluence of ideas and method. The rants of the mad news anchor Howard Beale, Diana Christensen’s use of psychics, and the final way-of-the-world speech of the Mr Jensen in Network, all have corollaries in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.

I realise I am compounding my sins by comparing a film I’ve just seen with a novel I’ve just listened to. But, if you’re about to string me up for my sins, let me have my Howard Beale moment: there are so many books and films and albums and blogs one should consume, digest, and reflect upon, all the while eating a balanced diet, engaging in vigorous exercise, attending birthday parties, weddings, funerals, christening, barbeques, walking your dogs and feeding your cats, while holding down a job and continually upskilling in your chosen field to keep climbing that corporate ladder - - one should do all of these things in whichever proportion produces the greatest happiness for oneself and the least pain for others. Reading books is an important part of being a functioning human being for me, and I’m willing to sacrifice 10% of the reading experience to listen to a book when in time I would not otherwise use for literature. Audiobooks allow me to cram more stories into my life. I think it’s fine to encourage non-readers and avid readers and everyone in between to try audiobooks because 90% of a great story is better than 0%. The 10% you lose (and, I should stress, the 10% figure is purely arbitrary and probably overstated) is the stuff you hardly ever talk about with other people. Read. Listen. Please yourself.

Thus ends my rant.

Back to my Network­/Wind-up comparison: I think I can excuse certain things in Murakami’s novel because it functions in very much the same way as satire. At the root are ideas. These ideas cannot be expressed flatly. One must go to extremes. In satire, the extremes usually make you cringe-smile. In The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, the extremes make you narrow your eyes, but you cannot dismiss what is happening. Things do not round out fully, but there is enough closure to simultaneously satisfy and unsettle a reader.

Or a listener.