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Posts from the ‘Visual Art’ Category



I have to thank Sean Williams for alerting me to this video about the astonishingly beautiful work of Dutch sculptor, Theo Jansen. Called Strandbeest (Stranbeests? Strandbeesten?) they are crafted from plastic piping and walk and move using systems of sails to harness the wind.

Even on video they’re extraordinary things: marvellously intricate, improbable, strangely weightless, but what really fascinates me about them is the quality Jansen himself is alert to, which is the way their motion and delicate skeletal structures seem to elide the boundary between the biological and the mechanical. Nor is this just a matter of appearance: Jansen designs them using  a computer program that utilises genetic algorithms to improve their design and selectively “breeds” them to improve their performance. Little wonder that as they shimmer along the beach it’s so easy to believe you’re seeing some form of alien life possessed of its own presence and purpose.

This quality is also present in many of the creations of roboticists at places like M.I.T. (or this robotic pack mule designed for use in Afghanistan and other mountainous areas (and indeed drones like the ones featured in the final moments of the same video)), and, in rather different form in the work of artists such as Patricia Piccinini (whose bizarre Skywhale has been hovering over Canberra for the past week or so) and Miyo Ando’s beautiful work with bioluminescence, all of which seek to grapple with the way the once clear divisions between life and non-life, biological and artificial are breaking down (interestingly Jansen’s creatures are created from plastic tubing, itself, and artificial substance made from organic compounds). These are questions I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, partly because the novel I’m working on is set across the next century, and is very much concerned with many of these questions and the intersecting notion of the Anthropocene (as was my Aurealis Award-shortlisted story, ‘Visitors’), partly because I’m hoping to write something rather longer on the subject later in the year. But in the meantime you should take the time to watch the videos below, and to visit Jansen’s website, which has more information about him and the project.


Inspired by the work of Dutch designer Pieke Bergmans, filmmaker David Parker set out to make a film about the ways we waste energy, but somewhere along the way it grew into Light, a haunting, poetic meditation not just on human wastefulness, but on the eerie, even spectral textures of the urban landscape.

There’s a short interview with Parker at The Atlantic.

The Alien Within

Somewhere in my second novel, The Deep Field, there’s a description of an alien fossil found on Mars, and the instinctual revulsion it provokes from humans. When I wrote it I was interested in evoking something of the feeling of visceral wrongness we tend to feel confronted by images of insect life enlarged.

The winners of this year’s Olympus Bioscapes Award, which celebrates the best of microscopic photography, are things of beauty, not horror, but that sense of alienness is still there, shot through this time with both wonder and something like the unnatural vividity and fleshiness of orchids. The image above, which took sixth place, is by Haris Antonopoulos, and shows stink bug eggs, but you can check out a gallery of the winners and honourable mentions, together with videos and more information on the competition website.

Water, Southern Skies and Electronica

I’m in the throes of finally finishing my edits (more on that soon), but in the meantime, here are two amazing pieces of time lapse photography. The first comes via NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day, and is by amateur astronomer and photographer Alex Cherney, who compiled twelve months of footage of the movement of stars and clouds across the southern coast of Australia into one very beautiful, and very haunting video. I have a personal affection for this video because I’ve actually been using one of Cherney’s images as the background on my computer for the last six months, but in a way what’s most striking is the way the video serves as a reminder of how different southern skies and landscapes are to those in the Northern Hemisphere. Be sure to embiggen for the full effect.

The second comes via io9, and features images of water in slow motion (set to music by electronica act, Team Ghost). It’s a thing of strange, almost alien beauty.

I’ll be back online properly next week. Catch you all then.


Some more Wayne Levin (and Manta Rays!)

After I published my post about Wayne Levin’s new book, Akule, the other day I came across this rather terrific little video featuring Wayne talking about his experience photographing Manta Rays and his work more generally. Having dived with Mantas myself I’m keenly aware of the feelings of awe Wayne describes, and of the other-worldly presence of them in the water.

Anyway, if you’d like to see more of the shots discussed in the video they’re available on his website, otherwise enjoy!

A Murmuration of Fish: Wayne Levin’s Akule

Wayne Levin, ‘Circling Akule’, © Wayne Levin (click to embiggen)

Of the many editorial decisions I made while putting together The Penguin Book of the Ocean, the one I’m proudest of was to include a series of Wayne Levin’s photographs. Anybody who’s seen the book will know how much they add to it, not just because they offer a stunning visual counterpoint to the written selections, but because they so eloquently distill the sense of the ocean’s mystery and beauty I wanted the book to evoke as a whole. I think – I hope – that the book is put together in such a way that every piece adds something essential, but I think there’s little doubt that if there was one selection the removal of which would drastically impoverish the whole, it’s Wayne’s photographs.

I assume some readers will already be familiar with Wayne’s work. Although he’s less well-known in Australia than he is in the United States, his iconic images of swimmers and bodysurfers are both justly celebrated and immediately recognisable (and, I suspect, were at least partly responsible for inspiring Narelle Autio and Trent Parke’s equally iconic celebration of the Australian beach, The Seventh Wave).

For my part, I first encountered Wayne’s work in 2005. I was working on a book about the Pacific (a project which, sadly, I later shelved) and as part of my background research had been reading Thomas Farber’s brilliant essays about water and the ocean, On Water (one of which also appears in The Penguin Book of the Ocean). Keen to read more of Tom’s work I went searching online, and in so doing stumbled on Wayne’s breathtaking 1997 book, Through a Liquid Mirror, which features an introduction by Tom.

Wayne Levin, ‘Body Surfers’

When my copy arrived I sat staring at it for hours. I quickly realised I’d seen some of the images of surfers before, but as I read on I found the real marvels were not those strange, perspectiveless images of humans in flight underwater, but the images of marine creatures: sharks, dolphins, fish, turtles, gliding weightlessly through the deep.

In the weeks after that I bought and read Wayne’s similarly beautiful and deeply haunting collection of photographs of aquariums, Other Oceans, and found my way to his website, which collects many of the images from the books, both of which only added to my admiration for his work.

One of the things I found most striking about Wayne’s images was his decision to work not in colour but in black and white. There’s no doubt one of the great revelations of the last decade or so has been the rapid advances in the documentation of marine environments, in particular the work of the BBC’s Natural History unit, whose efforts have led to the creation of documentaries such as The Blue Planet and Planet Earth. While these works have done much to change the way we see the oceans and their inhabitants, perhaps one of the most profound is the way they’ve taught us to see the marine environment as a place filled with colour, not just the reds and oranges of coral and tropical fish, but the deep, saturated blues and greens of the water, and the dazzling silvers and metallic glints of fish and light.

By contrast, by working in black and white, Wayne’s photos cleave to a more denuded palette, one comprised only of silvery greys and blacks, a decision that serves not just to sever their connection to more documentary forms of photography, but to demand the viewer see the subjects again, not as fish or swimmers or sea spume, but as things in themselves, wrapped in their own mystery and moving outside the bounds of language. Breaking waves become thunder clouds, suggesting how close swimming is to flight, sharks become sculptural objects, whales and dolphins loom out of the dark towards the light.

Wayne Levin, ‘Blue Trevally surrounded by Akule’

At its most effective, in images such as  ‘Blue Trevally surrounded by Akule’, this transformation grants the subjects – and by extension the photographs themselves – a sacral quality, imbuing the scenes they depict with a mute power that conveys something essential about both the immensity and indifference of the ocean.

Yet in many ways the best of Wayne’s images are those focussing on schooling Bigeye Scad, or Akule, as they are known in Hawaii. In these images the schools of fish become not just schools but living things in their own right, drifting and swirling like patterns of smoke or the Aurora, many minds in one body.

Most of Wayne’s Akule photographs were taken across a three year period last decade, during which schools of Akule gathered in Kealakekua Bay on Hawaii’s Big Island (and the site of the fatal attack on Captain Cook), and Wayne took to swimming out in pursuit of them, oxygenating his lungs as he went in order to freedive ten, twelve, even eighteen metres down, to the edge of the light to capture the fish moving below.

The best of these images, together with a selection of other images such as ‘Body Surfers, Makapu’u O’ahu 1983’ are collected together in Wayne’s new book, Akule, which was published late last year.

Perhaps interestingly, it’s a smaller book than either Through a Liquid Mirror or Other Oceans, not just slimmer but more closely cropped. Yet somehow this reduction in size gives it an intimacy and simplicity many larger books lack.

But its size also belies the wonder of many of the images it contains. Here, again and again, schools of fish take on the wonder they possess in reality, becoming shifting things of light and silver, darting and turning, many minds in one body.

Wayne Levin, ‘Akule Tornado’

As Frank Stewart points out in his introduction to the book (the book also features a Foreword by Tom Farber), the seemingly purposeful of fish schools are relatively simple, and can, like many complex phenomena, be reproduced by the application of several simple rules, the same rules that create the unity of purpose exhibited by bird flocks (they also, suggestively, bear more than a passing resemblance to the Aboriginal artist, Gloria Petyarre’s Medicine Leaves paintings, which evoke the movement of grass and leaves in the wind).

Stewart is wary of reading too much into the capacity of simple rules to generate complex behaviour, cautioning against the desire of some to see in it something essential we have previously only associated with living things.

I share some of that wariness, though I’m perhaps less inclined than Stewart to dismiss the discoveries of those working in this area as simply the application of “our currently fashionable metaphor to explain the mystery of life”. Yet he’s right to point to the way many of the photographs in Akule ask us to reconsider our ideas about the boundaries of agency. It is impossible to look at photographs like ‘Column of Akule, Kealakekua Bay, Hawai’i 2000’ or ‘Flock of Akule, Keauhou Bay, Hawai’i 2006’ and not be aware of the way these twisting columns of bodies seem to have purpose and meaning of their own, or the manner in which their sense of order and movement seems to imply the presence of some kind of collective organism.

Wayne Levin, ‘Pattern of Akule’

This desire to expand the definition of life to include biological systems is central to much contemporary biological and environmental thinking. Yet it also demands we rethink our own relationship to the environment we inhabit, and the interconnected web of life that sustains it. Given the urgency of the environmental challenges we face, there is something both salutary and humbling in being confronted by work which, like Wayne’s photographs, demands we do precisely this. Because in the end that is what the photographs in Akule do. They ask us to look at the twisting, shifting, leaping columns of fish and see them as what they are: things pulsing with life, mysterious and Other, but living all the same. And, perhaps just as importantly, they demand we re-examine many of our assumptions about the creatures that surround us, by reminding us of how irrelevant we are to them, caught as they are in the business of their lives, and of how our knowledge of them will always be partial, fragmentary, constrained by the limitations of our imaginations and senses.

Akule, Through a Liquid Mirror and Other Oceans are all available from Amazon. If you’d like to see more of Wayne’s work you can visit his website or download a preview of Akule. The Penguin Book of the Ocean is available in Australian bookstores or you can check prices at Booko. At some point I may talk more about my unfinished book about the Pacific but that’s very definitely a story for another day.

Manhattan in motion

Because I’m deep in the land of edits it’s likely to be another slow week around here, but in the meantime you might want to take a minute or two to watch this amazing time-lapse video created by New York photographer Josh Owens: it really is a thing of beauty.

If you like what you see you can check out more of Josh’s videos on Vimeo, follow him on Twitter or visit his website. Thanks to The New Yorker for the original link. You might also want to take a moment to watch Tor Even Mathisen’s similarly breathtaking timelapse video of the Aurora Borealis.


Summer and the myths of Australianness

Narelle Autio, 'The Climb', © Narelle Autio 2001

Some of you may have noticed my piece in The Weekend Australian about summer and the myths of Australianness a couple of weeks back. It was an interesting piece to write, not least because the process of putting it together was, in an odd way, very similar to the processes of remembering and reliving the past that seem to me to so essential to the experience of summer. Certainly while writing it I was reminded very powerfully of my childhood and adolescence in Adelaide, and of the silent, empty streets and wakeful nights.

As a writer you have next to no control over the illustrations that appear with your pieces(I think I’ve been asked for a suggestion once and offered them unsolicited twice in all the years I’ve been writing for newspapers). But in the case of this piece I’m not sure I could have chosen something more appropriate, because Review’s Editor, Deborah Jones, chose to use not just an image by Narelle Autio, but her photo ‘The Climb’, which was taken on Brighton Jetty, only a kilometre or so from where I grew up.

I’ve been an admirer of Autio’s photos for a long time, and my partner and I actually own several of them. While the early black and white images of swimmers and surfers bear a passing resemblance to Wayne Levin’s images of bodysurfers, they have an informality and sense of play that’s very much their own, a celebratory aspect that seems to capture something not just of the joy and spontaneity of their subject, but of the odd way that joy and spontaneity seems to exist suspended on the edge of memory.

But the series ‘The Climb’ is a part of has always been my favourite. Partly that’s because the images that comprise it are so vivid and immediate, in particular photos such as ‘Black Marlin’. But it’s also because they capture that oddly informal and shapeless communality that summer holidays often involve, the groups of people and sudden pleasures of caravan parks and camping grounds.

Part of what makes them so beautiful is the sheer saturation of colour, not just the blues of the water but its greenness, the yellow of the sand, even the brooding, impossible purple of late afternoon cloud. I suspect to many it’s a saturation that will seem immediately tropical, but oddly enough I remember standing in front of these pictures in the gallery and being immediately, unshakeably certain that Autio was from South Australia like me. It wasn’t the subjects of the photos – indeed I’m reasonably certain the photo that made me so sure she and I grew up near each other, ‘Orange Car’, is actually of somewhere in New South Wales – rather it was something about the quality of the light and its intensity, the degraded nature of the yellows.

As it turned out I was right: Autio grew up two beaches away from me in Adelaide. But that certainty was a reminder of somethign I’ve long thought about the nature of the Australian experience fo the beach. I keenly remember reading Robert Drewe’s brilliant memoir, The Shark Net, for the first time and being struck by the way it spoke to the summer landscape I knew as a child. Partly that was about it being set amidst the emptiness of sandhills and marram grass of the west coast rather than the cliffs and broken bays one finds on Australia’s east coast, but it was also about the way it made the landscape so palpable, not just the heat and the wind, but the denuded palette of sand and sea and sky, the intense, almost unbearable light.

One of my enduring regrets about The Penguin Book of the Ocean is the fact I couldn’t find a way to include something of Rob’s, not just because he was one of the first two or three writers I thought of when I was planning the book, but because he’s a writer I’ve admired enormously for many years, and whose writing played an important part in inspiring me to become a writer in the first place. I’ve been meaning for some time to write something about the process of putting the anthology together, and the way my desire for it to work as a whole, rather than as a collection of pieces made a lot the decisions for me. But in the end I just couldn’t find a piece by him that spoke to the ocean in the way I needed it to (for a writer whose public image is so indelibly associated with the beach Drewe’s books are usually only interested in landscape in a fairly passing sense, and tend to focus much more on the illusions and betrayals of middle class life).

But I do wonder whether that sense of the differences between the bays and beaches of the east coast and the more denuded landscapes of the south and west coast isn’t one of the reasons Penguin decided to use Autio’s photos to illustrate their recent rerelease of Tim Winton’s coastal memoir, Land’s Edge.

Originally published in 1993, with photographs by Trish Ainslie and Roger Garwood, Land’s Edge is at one level an account of Winton’s enduring love of the ocean, and of the part it played in shaping him. But it’s also a sort of manifesto, a mapping out of the emotional and philosophical territory Winton’s fiction has explored over the years.

To my mind it’s an interesting, if slightly unsatisfying book. I’ve read it twice now, and both times I kept wanting Winton to go further, push harder, dig deeper. But that’s not to say it’s without its pleasures. Certainly it’s fascinating to see the way Winton’s experiences have been woven into the larger fabric of the work, and to be made aware of echoes and allusions between the books and the life which would not otherwise be apparent. It’s also interesting to be reminded how much deeper and darker Winton’s work has grown in the last two decades, and of the manner in which his command of language has kept pace with that deepening: word by word, sentence by sentence I’m not sure there’s any writer working in Australia  at the moment (except maybe Delia Falconer) who can match the raw power of Winton’s prose. Even its rough-hewn textures are deceptive, intimations of the steel beneath (in this context you might want to check out my review of Breath from a couple of years back) .

But in a way the real pleasure of this new edition is the book itself, and the use it makes of Autio’s photographs. Penguin have clearly gone to considerable expense to use excellent paper, and it shows, lending both the text and the images a richness and a clarity they might otherwise lack. It’s also convinced Winton to speak publicly, something he doesn’t often do (if you’re interested there’s a long interview with him by Stephen Romei in yesterday’s Australian, complemented by an audio recording of Winton reading from Land’s Edge). If you’d like a taste of the book I’ve reproduced several of the images in it below, and there’s an extract available on Penguin’s website. Likewise if you’d like to see more of Autio’s images you should visit Stills Gallery. Otherwise you can read my piece on summer at The Australian.

Narelle Autio, 'Black Marlin', © Narelle Autio 2001

Narelle Autio, 'Before School', © Narelle Autio 2001

Narelle Autio, 'Orange Car', © Narelle Autio 2001


A little bit of linkage

I tend to do most of my linking on Twitter these days (and I’m a heartbeat away from setting up a Tumblr page for things that seem too long for Twitter but not really worthy of full-scale blogposts) but I’d be remiss if I didn’t direct people to this amazing series of photographs of London in the early 1880s. All photography is, as Sontag and Barthes remind us, necessarily a record of loss, but in these images of London that sense of loss is (as the author recognises) given added power by the strange absence of people from the streets and buildings depicted, an absence which recasts the city itself as a sort of memento mori.

On a rather different note, you might want to check out Sci-Fi-O-Rama, a site dedicated to SF and Fantasy-themed art. There’s usually something good going, but recent features on French SF illustrations, British SF artist Jim Burns (whose work graced the covers of any number of the SF books I read as a teenager in the 1980s) and Australian artist Dan McPharlin are particularly worth checking out.

Elsewhere I can heartily recommend both the excerpt from n+1’s What was the Hipster? in the New York Magazine, a piece which has some very intelligent things to say about the hollowing out of the counter-culture. And if you’ve not seen it before, it’s worth revisiting n+1’s terrific 2005 editorial about the novel and its place in contemporary culture.

And finally, please read the summary of an extraordinary year in climate science that appeared this week on Climate Progress. A lot of what’s there will be familiar to anybody with an interest in the subject, but it’s a piece that should be required reading not just for anybody who doesn’t think climate change is the single biggest issue facing the human race, but for every politician and policy-maker around the world.

And if you haven’t seen it, perhaps you could cap off the Climate Progress piece with Elizabeth Kolbert’s trenchant analysis of the Republican Party’s war against climate science and climate scientists in this week’s New Yorker. As Kolbert remarked in her chilling 2006 study of climate change, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, “[i]t may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.” (I’d also recommend Kolbert’s excellent piece on the links between declines in zooplankton populations triggered by rising levels of carbon dioxide in the oceans and large-scale change in the ocean’s chemistry, ‘The Darkening Sea’, a piece I came within a hair’s breadth of including in The Penguin Book of the Ocean).

Best Underwater Photography 2010

Alexander Safonov, 'Hitting sailfish'

I’m excited to say I’ve just received a copy of Wayne Levin’s new book, Akule, which I’m planning to write something about next week (Wayne’s photos appear in The Penguin Book of the Ocean and I’ve written about his work previously) but in the meantime you might like to take a look at this stunning collection of photographs chosen by the judges of Our World Under Water and Deep International Underwater Competition. The Safonov image above is probably my pick, but it’s only one of a pretty fabulous collection.

Paul Nicklen’s Polar Obsessions

A while back I linked to an amazing series of images of sailfish rounding up baitfish by National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen. To commemorate the publication of Nicklen’s new book, Polar Obsession, National Geographic have now released an amazing video montage of his encounter with a leopard seal, an encounter that begins with the seal taking the camera and Nicklen’s hand in its mouth. It’s an amazing sequence, and the images are just breathtaking. If you’d like to see more of Nicklen’s work you can check out his website, which has a beautiful array of images (though it must be said the fact that they’re all watermarked to within an inch of their life does detract a bit from the viewing experience) or you can check out a selection of images from Polar Obsession on The Huffington Post (and vote for your favourite).

And while we’re on the subject of nature photography, the wonderful Wayne Levin (who I’ve also mentioned before) has just added a lot of new work to his website as part of the lead up to the release of not just one, but two new books next year. Most of the images are black and white underwater shots of the subjects he’s long been fascinated with (bodysurfers, marine animals) but a number were taken on a recent trip to the remote Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument as part of a scientific expedition by staff of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and represent a bit of a departure for Levin, not least because some of them aren’t only above water, they’re actually in colour.

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Art criticism done right


I’m planning to be back on deck later today (or just possibly tomorrow) but in the meantime I have to thank my friend Dionne for alerting me to Regretsy, absolutely the funniest thing I’ve seen on (or off, for that matter) line in a long while. It trawls handicraft site, Etsy, for masterpieces of naive and not-so-naive art in order to offer its own unique perspective on the items for sale. It’s vindictive, cruel, totally unfair and out-and-out hilarious.

I know, I’m cheap, but I laughed so much I cried (then again I’m the sort of crypto-philistine who got the giggles over this).

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23 years after Chernobyl (or the nuclear fool cycle)


Pripyat Funfair, © Ben Fairless

One of the more bizarre side-effects of the climate change debate is the fact that it’s given new life to the nuclear power lobby. Indeed it sometimes seems that every time I turn on the ABC or open a newspaper there’s some talking head doing his utmost to convince us that not only is nuclear power now safe, it’s also the only technology capable of offering emission-free alternative to fossil fuels. Never mind that we still have no way of dealing with the waste (at least until Generation IV technology becomes a reality), never mind that the emissions generated by extracting and processing uranium far outstrip the emissions generated by coal-fired stations, never mind the possibility of accidents or sabotage, nuclear power is the way to go. (I suppose the one point in their favour is that nuclear technology actually exists, unlike the ludicrous fantasy of “clean” coal).

Of course nuclear power is precisely the sort of boysy technology that appeals to a particular kind of smart man, not least because it allows them to do their “I’m the sort of man who’s prepared to take hard decisions without being fazed by silly, sentimental anxieties about the environment,” routine, but you’d think even they’d be able to hear themselves when they declare that the technology is now foolproof (like that unsinkable ship, the Titanic, I suppose).

Anyway – I thought in the context of that debate it might be worth linking to this remarkable series of photographs of Chernobyl. Gathering together work by a number of photographers, some born in the area, others not, they speak not just to the destructive force of the accident, and the scars it left on the place and its inhabitants, but in their haunting reminder of the way the forest is reclaiming the Exclusion Zone, to the hubris of presuming human society and its creations are anything more than a hiccough in the larger cycle of life and time.

(via io9).

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Jack Kirby, Jonathan Lethem and Philip K. Dick

Dr Doom and Silver Surfer

Click to embiggen.

Via io9, a reminder that yesterday (28 August) would have been the 92nd birthday of the legendary Jack Kirby. To celebrate, they’ve assembled a gallery celebrating just some of the characters Kirby helped create over the years, from Captain America to the Fantastic Four, Spiderman and the Uncanny X-Men. It’s worth a look, if only to be reminded of just how significant a role Kirby has played in the creation of late-20th and early-21st century pop culture.

Pleasingly, Kirby’s birthday also gives me an excuse to link to Jonathan Lethem’s fabulous piece about Jack Kirby and the illusions of adolescence, and the mention of Lethem in turn gives me an excuse to link to Forward’s recent interview with him about Philip K. Dick and Lethem’s upcoming novel, Chronic City.

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Not so happily ever after . . .


Dina Goldstein, 'Snowy'. Click to enlarge

I wonder if I was the only one who found the first half of The Incredibles incredibly distressing. It may just be that I found myself identifying a little too much with Mr Incredble’s expanding waistline, but the sequences in which he and his wife struggle to come to terms with their life in suburbia seemed pretty close to the bone for something that is supposed to be a kid’s movie.

Anyway – what happens after happily ever after is a rich theme, and one explored to great effect in this wonderful series of images by artist Dina Goldstein. The images:

“place Fairy Tale characters in modern day scenarios. In all of the images the Princess is placed in an environment that articulates her conflict. The ‘. . . happily ever after’ is replaced with a realistic outcome and addresses current issues”.

Goldstein might have been thinking about one of my favourite Ondaatje poems, ‘Late Movies with Skyler’, which ends:

“In the movies of my childhood the heroes
after skilled swordplay and moral victories
leave with absolutely nothing
to do for the rest of their lives”.

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