John Irving and his writing

This morning I read the essay linked to below, at John Irving’s facebook page and was surprised to see it had been published in 1980. It was the mention of one of my favourite Irving novels that caught my eye, THE WATER METHOD MAN:

It’s been 45 years since John Irving published THE WATER METHOD MAN. While his second novel is regarded as a purely comic tale, and John’s current project is a darker contemplation of life’s disruptive forces, the two novels bear some resemblance to one another.

John Irving is once again experimenting with framed narratives and writing about the evolution of a writer—like Bogus Trumper, one who writes screenplays. This time, we see the main character —Adam Brewster—mature from childhood and early adolescence to become a writer like Garp, or Ruth Cole, or Juan Diego, as if writing were an inevitability given the fateful circumstances of his life. And, along the way, despite the darkness, there are points of humor. John’s work in progress may ultimately be his funniest novel since THE WATER METHOD MAN.

And a link to the essay published all those years ago, 3 BY IRVING by Terrence Des Pres, a text credited by Irving as “the most insightful thesis on his writing.” It contains some fabulous insights into and perspectives on fiction writing, particularly his. How he works, how he circles.

I do feel his fiction went off the boil for me, but maybe I had changed, maybe his work is still as vibrant and compassionate (a word that keeps recurring in the essay) and funny as it ever was. (although I have to say, the character name Bogus Trumper is genius but Adam Brewster? Ordinary).

Anyway, I thought it a fascinating read, this morning. It helped restore the juice that I will need to push on to the next project. It has some great quotes like:


Superior fiction asks three things of the novelist: Vigorous feeling for life as we live it. Then imaginative force, strong enough to subvert and rebuild unhindered. And then–but this is rare and so essential that we might call it the “reality principle” of fiction– shrewd sense to keep the first two locked in stubborn love with each other.


Irving’s grasp on fact is firm, yet not so cramped as to dampen his delight in wild fabulation. To manage this balance with compassion and comic liberty is chief among his strengths. Not fact but fact perceived is fiction’s rightful domain, and Irving has been quick to take this special license to its limit. Rampant invention is central to his art, and one of the finest pleasures to be got from reading his novels resides in the multiplicity of styles, the range of forms and abrupt imaginative turns to be found in each book. Irving’s multiple manner, if I may call it such, his will to come at the world from different directions, is one of the outstanding traits of Garp; but this remarkable flair for confluence–stories inside stories, genres circumventing genres–is already handled with mastery in Irving’s first novel, Setting Free the Bears, published in 1968, and with a freedom almost wanton in The Water-Method Man, which appeared in 1972. Only The 158-Pound Marriage departs from mixed form; published in 1974, it is as lean and concentrated as a mine shaft. But in every case Irving’s habit of originality provokes surprise and enjoyment.


#6Degrees from Flowers in the Attic to A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing



Can’t believe how quickly this swings around. I never have it in my diary – my fault – and it’s never until it pops up in my blog reader that Kate at Books Are My Favourite And Best has done it that I know it’s time to throw something together. Each time I think it will take longer than it actually does. Finding the links is pretty easy so far.

1     The starter book, like a piece of bread dough kept in a warm place in a village house (!) is Virginia Andrews’s 1979 best-seller Flowers in the Attic. I reckon every girl between maybe 13 and 17 was reading this book in 1979. I was in Year 9, what we called Form Three. That year holds memories of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, a particular fragrant lip-gloss with a roller-ball applicator and a fascination with Dolly Magazine, Ishka clothing and silver jewellry. I can’t remember much about this novel other than the idea of children locked up in an attic, and something incesty which was shocking to me, a concept that was kind of freaky for us 14-year-old girls. (Never mind that now the ‘line’ for kids learning about freaky stuff seems way lower.) (I just read the wiki page – the pet mouse! I remember the pet mouse!)

2     The other book that I read in Form Three was The Exorcist. I’m not sure when I first read it, hopefully it was that year and not earlier, but 1979 was the year I did a book review on it. My English teacher, long-suffering Mr Neeson (he had me for French as well the poor man, I was a bit of a terror in class) gave me a good mark, A+ from memory, along with the comment ‘perhaps a better choice of book could have been made.’ I think I just wanted to shock him.

3     A book that shocks and is defo not for the faint-hearted, the light-headed or the easily-disgusted, is a novel called Wetlands by Charlotte Roche. Wiki tells me it was the world’s best-selling novel in 2008, and also that it is ‘partly-autobiographical’ and ‘erotic literature’. It’s about a young woman who is very damaged and who huts herself (but not in the way that self-harmers traditionally do or have, not that that is great but this goes way beyond ‘simple’ cutting). It’s quite a stunning book, and I found it engrossing. It is sexual and graphic and visceral and gut-churning at times. I do not recommend it at all but I found it a powerful reading experience. It was not, however, anywhere near erotic.

4     I’ve been thinking lately about what is erotic in literature. We all know it’s really hard to write sex well. It is hard to read sex if it’s not done well. But what is ‘well’? Isn’t it going to be as varied and individual as we all are? Doesn’t it, like so much else, come down to taste? I don’t purposely look for sex in books, in fact it can be a deterrent if something is described in sexual terms, but when I have come across it, I have found that most supposed erotic scenes just aren’t. But someone told me Krissy Kneen’s Triptych is very erotic, that there is a scene with an octopus in a rock pool that is rather pant-tingling, sorry. It’s not a new idea. There is the beautiful, arousing, disturbing woodblock print The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife by Japanese artist Hokusai, and while I’m not into cross-species shenanigans there is something compelling about the squid’s head, looking skull-like and human. It is grotesque and startling.

5     I took a punt and wondered whether there would be a celaphod in Moby-Dick and there is! How could there not be? Apparently Chapter 59 deals with ‘The Squid’. I haven’t read Moby-Dick but it is on the list of books I will really really try to read at some stage. There is a very good audio version of MD, with a whole range of interesting people reading – Tilda Swinton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Stephen Fry and others. While I don’t think listening to a book is the same as reading it, I think that would be a good version to choose.

6     I can only think of one novel that I would actively seek out in audio-book form and that is Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing. I loved this book when I read it, mostly because the prose is so unconventional and irregular, and difficult to read at first. But then you learn how to read it – it teaches you somehow – and it becomes fluent and molten and the experience of reading it all the way through makes it a unique and powerful achievement and the emotion of the main character is pressed in to your being somehow. I found out a few days ago that she has narrated Girl for the audio form and I think it would be fantastic to listen to.

Reading catch up

So, I’m going to be honest here. I haven’t read anything on my Reading India list for months. But I have been reading. This is a quick catch up on all things bookish in my life (made more difficult because last year I noted my completed reads in my diary, and numbered them as I went; this year none of that sensible business is happening.) So here goes.

These are some books I’ve read in the last little while:

Jane’s book was not something I usually pick up, and she won’t mind me saying that I struggled with it because it was overwhelmingly dark, violent and grim, deliberately so. Jane has created a protagonist who is damaged, alone and a survivor in a bad, mad world. I found it a tough read and had to pace myself, but having said that, I never got bored with it, and was amazed at how vividly I could see the world, the landscape and the people. She has done an incredible job there. It’s an amazing debut and is best for people not easily shocked; people who like their reading hard and dark. Sam’s book I finished a few days ago. I loved it. The Windy Season is my type of book. It’s literary but the language is not OTT and dripping with metaphor. I found myself thinking about it in the evening and looking forward to getting back to it. It’s a good read and again, bloody great debut.

The Knausgaard I was really looking forward to (I may have already written about this here. If so, sorry, but I’ll be brief.) I was looking forward to reading it because I knew it was about ‘a young writer’s life’ but out of all the five books so far in the series, I found it DULL and didn’t love it.

Rebellious Daughters – I haven’t read all the stories yet – but the ones I did (and I won’t mention names cause that’s not fair, and shows my favouritism in picking and choosing) I found super readable, fascinating and varied. Oh all right. I’ll mention Lee Kofman’s essay in which she takes her mother to Sexpo. It’s worth reading if only for her mum’s funny, wry reactions.

The last book of the bunch, Sarah Drummond’s The Sound. Finished the last few pages in bed last night. Again, I paced myself with this book because it’s a dark look at the history of Maori and Australian indigenous people ‘working’ with colonial sealers in the west of Australia. I use the quotation marks because working sometimes meant enslaved, forced, used, stole, abused, violated and terrorised. The prose is beautiful, you learn history at the same time, but it’s not overloaded with it. I was entirely satisfied with the ending as well, another reason why I think I was stalling. Another brilliant book from the wild west fisherwoman.

Books I am part-way through:

I’m reading these two (well, have started City on Fire but am powering through The Sympathizer because of book club next week). I was immediately struck by the voice in The Sympathizer. It’s pretty extraordinary so I am trying to work out why, why is it so?

And then because I’ve fallen off the wagon so spectacularly, these are some other books I have lined up ready to go:

Ah, that’s better. I feel cleansed. Confession is good. Happy reading all.

Six Degrees of Separation – From Romeo & Juliet to The Night Guest




For my second #6Degrees chain, the starter book is William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, a tragedy if ever there was one. (As an aside, my preferred Shakespeare play is Macbeth, but I do love the Baz Luhrmann R+J version. The Leo factor, to be sure, and Claire Danes with wings.)

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, in addition to being yet another book I haven’t finished, is a dystopian novel featuring a band of Shakespearian actors who travel around, putting on performances. In fact, from memory, the opening scene is a dramatic performance of King Lear where the main actor suffers a heart attack during the production.

Watershed by Jane Abbott is another dystopian story, a new release in Australia, and – disclaimer – Jane is a friend who got a two-book deal with Random House, and they also picked up her YA manuscript which is being published also this year… Talk about wow. (AND Jane’s sister won the inaugural Richell Prize. What a family.) Anyway, I am reading Jane’s Watershed now (took a bit of a break to read another book) and the reason I took a detour is because it’s dystopian, it’s dark and really really violent. The action takes place in an unnamed world where water is scarce and has become the currency of trade and earnings.

From a dark post-apocalypse to one of Australia’s best-loved children’s books, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie is also concerned with water in one of it’s longer sections. Little Ragged Blossom is taken captive by the evil John Dory (am I getting this right or wrong) and kept in his underwater den. I remember Little Obelia, asleep on a beautiful unfurled flower, and then finally Blossom being tossed up onto a rock. Maybe I need to revisit.

Another type of fish – Barracuda – is the name of Christos Tsiolkas’s last novel, a book about champion swimmer and special needs worker Danny – arsehole and redeemed good guy – who we follow from his early beginnings as an athlete with potential, to his time at prestigious school and beyond.

Australian novelist and short story writer Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest also features a character who is a personal care worker – or nurse – a woman who turns up in a taxi, seemingly uninvited, to look after an elderly woman who lives beside the sea. (Interestingly, the book I read while taking a breather from Watershed is the terrific Leap by Myfanwy Jones, and she also has a tiger motif as well as a nurse. But that would have been too easy a linking.) I confess I didn’t finish The Night Guest so that is on my list to re-visit as well. Maybe I need a year of ‘Finishing the Books I Started’…

Apparently for the next 6 Degrees, the starter book is Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, so I’ll look forward to that and seeing where it takes me.


Reading update


How beautiful is this image? It’s a photograph by Chris Friel, you can see his work here. I’m thinking this is what I have in my head when I think about my next book.


Well, I kind of snapped last night and started reading Karl Ove’s fifth book which I’ve had sitting on shelf since earlier this year, when I kind of snapped and bought it.

But I have almost finished Interpreter of Maladies. And have really loved it.

I will finish Buddha of Suburbia. And I will read more from my list, the year is still new.

I cheated with – true confessions – James Patterson’s Along Came a Spider (it’s a long story, you’ll just have to trust me when I say it’s the first one of his I’ve ever read, and will likely be the last. I didn’t think it could be as god-awful as everyone says. But it was.) Part of the reason is I’m doing his Masterclass online (a series of short videos where he expounds on different aspects of writing. Costs USD $90 and is kind of helpful. Doesn’t matter what you write, the principles of storytelling are common across all genres.)

So why Knausgaaard right now? Because last night I watched a 2014 interview he did with Andrew O’Hagan, you can watch it here. And it reminded me of how wonderful it is to immerse myself in his books, and I’d read that book 5 is concerned with him going to a writer’s academy in continuation of his ‘coming to art’ process and I thought to myself: you’re the one who’s put these ridiculous constraints on your reading, who will care if you read Karl Ove?

If nothing else, the challenge has taught me not to set such stringent challenges for myself, because all that happens is I end up feeling I’m doing the wrong thing. Who needs that in life, as a self-imposed thing, when there are all the external things that can make you feel like that?

But I’m not going to crack and just start buying books all over the place. I’m still going to refuse myself the ones I want – Maestra, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg, Preparation for the Next Life, the rest of the Ferrantes, and others – until next year.


I’m super annoyed because I have a ticket to Hanya Yanigahara who will be talking at a Wheeler Centre event next month but I’ve managed to book a work thing that night, where I’ll be speaking at a school in Frankston. If anyone wants the ticket please let me know and I can email it to you. I don’t want payment would just be good for the ticket to be used. But I’m okay for Jonathan Franzen later the same week.


I’m up to the Paper stage of Mari Kondo’s tidying method and it’s proving harder than clothes or books. It’s sucking the life out of me, seriously.


How is this glorious Melbourne weather?






Friday wrap, w/ lettuce: Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri and other sundry matters

This, then, is a balm for my own maladies. What a gorgeous little book of amazing writing and characters. I don’t usually like short stories but this came highly recommended. I only started it two nights ago, after putting down The Lowland 30 or so pages in (finding I just really didn’t want to be reading more about independence and partition, and a story about brothers – not just now – maybe later) and I realise now this challenge will mean that I skip around a bit, pick things up and put them down if they aren’t grabbing me quickly enough.

For the first time for ages I went to bed last night looking forward to reading. It is not a good situation if I am not looking forward to reading. It is my biggest pleasure in life.

So, a big exhalation and onwards…

interpreter of maladies jhumpa lahiri

In other news, I have had a gander at the Sydney Writers Festival headline people and was tempted to just go go go, BUT am not going to, at this stage anyway. if I htink about the money I spend I would rather spend it on Ubud sometime (I’ve already had a tempting voice in my ear from someone I met there last year: Come, she said. Argggh, I replied.) but also, next year I’m going to be at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre in Perth for 2 weeks, just before the Perth Writers Festival, and after that will go to the festival, so I need to spread them out. But I do want to go and see the Franzen talking to Jonathan Green in Melbourne, because last time J-Franz was here, I had a ticket and didn’t go, because it was a rainy Friday night and I was sick. And I regretted not making myself go. So this time, I will, I will.


I confess I’m getting a little over festivals? (Blasphemous to even say.) For me, there isn’t enough literature, not enough writers of high calibre and reputation talking about their work. I’m not interested in journalists, celebrities and their memoirs, international digital media types (although I really liked seeing Maria Popova when she was out here at the MWF.) I get why festivals have been opened up more, to appeal to a wider group of people, and to try to add glossy people to the grey-heads who have traditionally been ticket buyers.

But. There’s not enough about literature, and serious stuff: the so-called highbrow stuff. There, I’ve said it.

There was recently (I  mean over a few months) an interesting daisy-chain of articles that kind of started with publisher Ivor Indyk voicing the idea, that literary prizes (and festivals by implication) have moved towards the ‘middle-brow’ a concept that lots of people have different responses to and definitions for. It seems that middle-brow somehow equates to popular appeal and authors do take it as an insult.

Ivor started the slow-burning kerfuffle (or maybe just continued it, who knows?) with his Sydney Review of Books article in September last year:

The Cult of the Middlebrow

It was followed (not necessarily followed-up) by Beth Driscoll writing about middle-brow fiction in another SRB article in October:

Could Not Put it Down

After that, the authors of the three novels mentioned in Driscoll’s article got together for a lengthy, articulate and forceful reply, which SRB (no doubt gleefully) published later the same month:

As One in Rejecting the Label ‘Middlebrow’

Everybody seemed to draw breath for a month or so, and then it was Jonno Revanche* in Kill Your Darlings writing about the ‘Melbourne voice’ and how he feels shut out of things:

Right Place, Right Time: How the Melbourne Voice shuts writers out

So. It was all interesting reading, and I read along as things unfurled. Things settled, maybe, people licked their wounds (sorry) but then, something else came into the mix, described somewhere as an ‘essay-bomb’: an article by Luke Carman in Meanjin, accusing arts administrators of being zombie-like, vampyric, and – even worse – ‘anti-artists’. The response this provoked is reflected (kind of) in a Googling of ‘Luke Carman’ and you get ‘shitfight’ as the second result. Here is the essay. It’s a long read and is styled in a peculiar, deliberate way. I had to read it three times to drill down :

Getting Square in a Jerking Circle

After that, there were a few responses online, with most people reacting negatively to Carman’s piece but Emmett Stinson’s response in Overland was one of the better ones:

Vulgar Rhetoric

I also really liked Boiling the Pot by Ellena Savage printed in the Lifted Brow, and of course it spilled into the MSM, with articles in The Guardian and The Australian.

I’m not putting all these links here to generate argument, or even discussion really, because I don’t know that my readers will be that interested in this. It’s more for me collating the stream into one place and to record the stoush which I think will be ongoing.

Ivor Indyk (whose company Giramondo publishes non-mainstream – read probably non-‘popular’ or ‘middlebrow’ fiction) has written a series of interesting articles for Sydney Review of Books.

On the Stella Prize

On Novelists and Poets 

On colouring books for adults


*I’m not implying Jonno’s article was part of the daisy-chain in any other way that timing. But he was picked up and carried along because Carman referenced him (along with everyone else).

Salman Sunday

Last night I cracked and googled the metaphors, symbolism and motifs of Midnight’s Children. It didn’t help much, only confirmed that I was right to think the silver spittoon, perforated sheet, dripping cucumber-shaped nose and head-crushing knees are significant.

I have yet to work out* the meaning of the horn-shaped protuberances in the main protag’s head, and why they match the forceps-shaped indentations of another baby born at the same time.

I have been cheating with the Mother Teresa book Jason recommended The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice by Christopher Hitchens. It’s a mere slip of a book at 105 pages, and fascinating reading.

Happily I’ve also received delivery of three new books for the Reading India shelf: Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland and Interpreter of Maladies, and ahem, Salman’s The Moor’s Last Sigh (I figure we are on first-name terms, now that he is killing me with his words. Greater intimacy cannot be imagined.)


* find on internet