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David Bowie: Loving the Alien

Aladdin SaneAt first I thought it must be some kind of mistake. Not just because he’d just released an album two days before, not just because the description of a courageous battle with cancer seemed to contradict the images of him at the opening of his musical, Lazarus, only a few weeks before, but because it didn’t seem possible. Although he himself had been an elusive presence for more than a decade, refusing interviews, living if not in seclusion (he was in New York, after all) then certainly out of the public eye, his music and the characters and imagery it gave shape to often seemed more present than they had ever been.

In the end it took a tweet from his son, the director Duncan Jones, to convince me. “Very sorry and sad to say it’s true. I’ll be offline for a while. Love to all,” he wrote, above a photo of him on his famous father’s shoulders as a baby. And as I read it I knew it wasn’t a hoax. The great transformer had managed one last metamorphosis, one last surprise.

I was in shock, I realise now, unable to process the news. Later I would give way to tears more than once, surprising myself. Nor was I alone. As the news spread social media and the internet lit up, people moving online to express their sense of loss and disbelief. At first I thought it was just people I knew, people of an age to have grown up with his music, but as the hours passed it became clear it was more than that. Late in the evening I opened Facebook on my computer and scrolled downwards for what seemed like minutes through screen after screen of people from all walks of life sharing articles, videos, personal reflections and snippets of songs, united in their grief.

In a way this sort of reaction is understandable. Music is one of the ways we remember ourselves, its rhythms and melodies connecting us to the people we once were, all those other versions of our selves that we bear within. This capacity to conjure forth not just memory but something both more profound and more fragile is the one of the secrets of its power, and part of the reason losing the person who gave shape to that music is to lose something of that connection to the people we once were, almost as if some part of us has passed out of the world.

That was part of it for me, but it was more than that as well. I discovered Bowie in 1980. It was a bad time for me. I was in my first year of high school, my parents’ marriage was coming apart and I was desperately overweight and so lonely it hurts me to think about it even now. And then, one Sunday, I turned on Countdown and there was the video for ‘Ashes to Ashes’.

 

It’s difficult to overstate the effect that encounter had on my 13 year-old self. The video and the song were like a glimpse of a world I’d only ever imagined, somewhere strange and beautiful and filled with adult feelings of regret and self-loathing I only barely understood. Yet they spoke to me in an intense and powerful way. Only a few days after seeing it I bought the album, blowing several weeks of my pocket money in a single hit.

In recent years critics have tended to regard the Berlin Trilogy of Low, Heroes and Lodger as the most significant phase Bowie’s career. Much as I love the three of them, and Low in particular, I’m not sure it’s a judgement with which I concur. Yet either way, this tendency has meant Scary Monsters is often treated as a sort of afterthought, a moment of stasis before Bowie made another decisive break with his past.

To my mind this is a mistake, and not just because Scary Monsters features two of Bowie’s best and most recognisable singles in ‘Ashes to Ashes’ and ‘Fashion’, as well the glorious ‘Teenage Wildlife’ and the swerving ‘Because You’re Young’. Instead it’s a mistake because it’s the album on which the vision Bowie had been articulating in his Berlin years was distilled and then turned inside out, the elegant ennui and Steve Reich minimalism of Low’s electronic instrumentals cast away in the wailing wall of Robert Fripp’s guitar and the looping tapes of tracks such as ‘It’s No Game’, producing a record as ferocious and driven and passionate as anything Bowie ever recorded.

Either way, my 13 year-old self loved it, seduced by its drama and its steely elegance. And wanting more I moved on, first to Changesone: Bowie, a compilation that began with ‘Space Oddity’ and ended with ‘Golden Years’, transporting the listener from his first hit to to Station to Station (an album that I have come to regard as one of his most brilliant, not least because its expansiveness and precision are so at odds with his psychological disorder when it was recorded), and then its sequel, Changestwo, which supplemented these with more tracks from his early years and cuts from the Berlin albums and Scary Monsters.

In this age of instantaneous information I think it’s easy to forget how remote the wider world often seemed in the 1980s. You learned about music by listening to the radio and watching Countdown, hanging around record shops, or flicking through magazines in newsagents. The music you could hear was confined to what you could afford to buy, or the tapes we passed from hand to hand.

That meant that, at least at the beginning, my experience of Bowie was largely about an engagement with the songs, an engagement that only deepened as I moved out from my Changes compilations and began to buy the albums; first Ziggy Stardust, then Diamond Dogs and Heroes, or as with Aladdin Sane and the then-disappointing, now-delightfully loose Lodger, to tape the copies I glimpsed in the record collections of my friends’ older brothers and sisters. Each new one came as a surprise, as the songs I knew from it opened out into new worlds, glimpses of worlds of strangeness and urgency I hadn’t realised how much I wanted.

But as I grew older and began to watch late night music shows I began to encounter him in other ways as well, glimpsing videos of him in concert, of him performing songs such as ‘Life on Mars’ and ‘Heroes’ and ‘Starman’, or in Nicholas Roeg’s (entirely baffling to my 15 year-old self) The Man Who Fell To Earth.

Looking at them now what strikes me about him is his delicacy and otherworldliness, the way he seemed to challenge our ideas of sexuality not just through his clothes and hair, but through his embrace of a particular kind of vulnerability and otherness. His beauty transcended gender, made him both male and female, human and alien.

This rejection – or transcension – of categories was a central part of his appeal in the 1970s and 1980s (as well as part of what made his sojourn in the relentlessly corporate and drearily macho Tin Machine so uniquely depressing). For by demonstrating it was possible to be both and neither, he made it possible to imagine other ways of being, ways that involved different kinds of sexuality, other kinds of beauty. Just as Morrissey would for another generation a decade or two later, Bowie offered people – and teenage boys in particular – a different model for masculinity, and more importantly suggested that being an outsider wasn’t something to be afraid of, it was something to be embraced and celebrated.

All these things mattered to me as a teenager, often profoundly. But Bowie did more than suggest other ways of being, he also opened the door to a wider world, one filled with glamour and danger and most importantly sexual and personal possibility. Nor was this possibility always imaginative, for as my awareness of his work expanded it brought me into contact with other musicians and artists, not just The Velvet Underground, but Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, and in a roundabout way artists like Patti Smith and Talking Heads. Without Bowie my teenage self might never have encountered Reed’s Transformer, or understood that its evocation of the lives of New York’s demi-monde wasn’t the leering innuendo the macho DJs who played ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ on commercial radio took it to be but something delicate and beautiful and true, or experienced the wild exaltation of Patti Smith’s Horses.

After Scary Monsters Bowie retreated for a time. There were singles – the magnificent deconstructed gospel of his duet with Freddie Mercury and Queen, ‘Under Pressure’, his collaboration with Giorgio Moroder, ‘Cat People (Putting Out Fire)’ – but for three years he was largely invisible to my teenage self.

Then, in 1983, he reappeared with Let’s Dance, the album that together with the tour that followed, turned him into a superstar. These days it looks like his first fatal misstep, the moment when he elected to transform himself into a conventional rock star, but in 1983 it was perfect, capturing the world’s desire to shuck off the confusion and darkness of the 1970s and the early 1980s, to embrace something colourful and glamorous yet uncomplicated (and after all what could be less complicated than his emptied out version of Iggy Pop’s ‘China Girl’, or the frankly dire ‘Ricochet’?). And I have to confess that even if there was a part of me that longed for the other Bowie I already loved, the one whose shifting identities and danger suffused records like Scary Monsters and Heroes, I was dazzled by this new version of him, so much so that at 16 I wanted nothing more than to be him.

The second half of the 1980s and the 1990s were a dark time for Bowie. In the aftermath of the success of Let’s Dance he was initially becalmed, and then, like a drowning man, began to flounder. The almost uncanny feel for the zeitgeist that had sustained him through the 1970s and 1980s seemed to have deserted him, his endless reinventions (dance music! drum and bass! rock opera!) suddenly seeming desperate rather than inspired, his conceptual language, its tortured painters and fascination with religion, hackneyed and faintly embarrassing. There were moments of brilliance like ‘Absolute Beginners’, but as the years passed they were fewer and fewer, so much so that when in 2004 he disappeared from view after a heart attack on stage in Germany it almost seemed like a relief.

In fact in the years before his retirement he had been staging a comeback of sorts, perhaps as a result of reuniting with producer Tony Visconti, recording not one but two albums in Heathen and Reality which, while not bearing comparison with his best work, nonetheless showed some of the clarity and purpose that had been lacking in the previous two decades, something that is clearly audible in songs like the wonderfully menacing ‘New Killer Star’. Yet in the years after his heart attack he chose not to return to recording or touring, choosing instead to retreat into what most people took to be retirement.

Perhaps because he had vacated the stage, the years after 2004 saw a growing interest in his work, and more particularly the significance of his achievements in the 1970s. There were of course the reissuing and remastering of old records that is the bread and butter of the legacy star, but alongside it there was an uptick in academic and critical interest, producing books of the calibre of Hugo Wilcken’s thrilling study of Low and leading, almost as if by design, to the V&A’s magnificent retrospective, David Bowie Is.

Yet there was little question that what was being curated by these writers and historians was not a living body of work but a legacy. Bowie the man had essentially disappeared, variously believed to be on the point of death, disfigured by strokes, or simply enjoying domestic life and fatherhood. Until, that is, 8 January 2013, when, without warning, he released a new single and a new video, recorded and filmed in secret, and simultaneously announced plans for a new album.

Unlike his work in the decades leading up to his retirement, which had often evinced a curiously uneasy relationship with his work in the 1970s, this new single deliberately invoked his best work, a connection that was made explicit by the cover of the album, The Next Day, which took the iconic image of Bowie that adorned the cover of Heroes and pasted the title of the new album over it.

 

This was clearly a new Bowie, one not beholden to the past but not afraid of it either, seeing it as something to be deployed and mined. For some I think this was disappointing, suggesting the sort of standing still Scary Monsters is sometimes accused of, the stasis that was always anathema to his best work. Yet I found it thrilling, not just for the way it engaged with his past without ever allowing it to overshadow the new, but for its lyrical focus and political fury, the ominous balance of regret and possibility that inheres in the title, its simultaneous suggestion of renewal and admonition. These are qualities that are given stark and terrifying power in the opening track, in which he chants “The body left to rot in a hollow tree/It’s branches throwing shadows/On the gallows for me/And the next day/And the next/And another day”, words that turn the promise of resurrection or reincarnation one glimpses in the image of the body in the tree into something horrifying and endless. But they are also audible in the circling motion of the brooding ‘Love is Lost’, its unsettling evocation of the transience of identity and the way violence shadows the rootlessness of modernity: “Your country’s new/Your friends are new/Your house and even your eyes are new/Your maid is new and your accent too/But your fear is as old as the world”.

The Next Day was also notable for the manner of its release. Not just the degree to which it came as a surprise to all, but by Bowie’s refusal to go through the usual rituals that accompany the release of a new album by an artist of his age and stature. There were no interviews, no exclusive features, no media performances. Indeed his only real engagement with the media was a list of ideas he sent to the novelist Rick Moody, who used them to sustain an extended riff on the album and Bowie’s oeuvre published a few weeks after the album’s release.

Whether this was a deliberate strategy, a way of forcing the media to focus not on him but the album (something it did very effectively) or a way of protecting he and his family’s privacy (or indeed both) it forced critics and the public to focus not on him but his work, and made clear he was no longer interested in the business of celebrity.

Fascinatingly it also signalled the beginning of a creative resurgence. He began work on the stage show, Lazarus, a sequel of sorts to The Man Who Fell to Earth, began recording another new album, and while he still avoided the media, insisting on his privacy, there was even talk by some of a possible tour.

That new album Blackstar, was released the Friday before last, its release timed to coincide with Bowie’s 69th birthday. Although I had been looking forward to it for weeks I held off listening to it until the Sunday afternoon, partly because my unexamined desire to own it in physical form had held me back from streaming it,  partly because I wanted to be able to give it my full attention.

Despite my excitement I wasn’t sure what I was going to think of it. The pre-release publicity had emphasised his decision to record with a group of New York jazz musicians instead of his more usual collaborators, a concept I found unsettling, not least because I’m not usually enamoured of jazz, especially in its more experimental incarnations. And while I’d admired them I’d also found the singles that had preceded somewhat baffling, the videos that accompanied them cryptic and confusing, their imagery poised  somewhere between nightmare and the overwrought parody of Floria Sigismondi’s video for ‘The Next Day’.

But by the time it was halfway through I was ecstatic. Here was something as strange and mercurially beautiful as anything he’d created in years. Gone were the grinding guitars and heritage rock of The Next Day; in their place was a free-floating, liquid ominousness, broken here and there by sudden flashes of soaring, melodic beauty like those that break through in the last third of the ten minute title track, or the gorgeous closing ballad, ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’.

It was also, like The Next Day, an album that begged to be analysed, its meanings teased out. What were we to make of the image of the astronaut lying dead at the opening of the video for ‘Blackstar’, or the the English evergreens the narrator is running toward in ‘Dollar Days’? Why after so many years had he elected to produce an album without his image on the cover, opting instead for a simple graphic? Was this an album about beginnings or endings? About ISIS? About the end of the world or power of love? Or was it something more inscrutable than that, a piece of deliberately confounding late-Bowie gameplay?

In the end we only had to wait two days for the key to its mysteries, the realisation this was not just another album, but a swan song, a work created not just in the full knowledge of his impending death, but in the belief he would not live long enough to see it released, that it would be a message from beyond the grave.

We are taught to be wary of reading autobiography into art, if only to avoid the tendency to literalise it induces, thereby eliding the complex ways in which experience is transfigured by the artistic process, its constituent elements subsumed into something new, but with Blackstar that admonition feels pointless, for it really is a kind of summa, a work designed to be listened in full awareness of its creator’s looming mortality. Even the stark black and white of its cover suggests an act of self-erasure, as if the man behind it is eliminating himself, perhaps in completion of the process foreshadowed in the covering of his face on the sleeve of The Next Day. Likewise the image of the astronaut lying dead on some alien planet that opens the video for ‘Blackstar’ becomes almost impossible not to read as the final resting place of the trajectory his cosmic Major began in 1969 in ‘Space Oddity’, the dead planet and black star overhead suggesting a universe in the last stages of senescence. Even the album’s title took on new meaning once somebody made the connection to the song of the same name by Elvis Presley, the first verse of which – “Every man has a black star/A black star over his shoulder/And when a man sees his black star/He knows his time, his time has come” – underlines Bowie’s certainty about where he is heading.

There is something astonishing about this choice, the idea one’s own death might be a kind of performance. Like so much else that Bowie did, it is entirely calculating, a way of diverting the world’s attention to protect the privacy of his family. But it also turns these songs and more particularly the videos that accompany them into something simultaneously brilliant and self-effacing, a death haunted kabuki, a beautiful dance of disappearance.

And in so doing it reminds us with great eloquence of why Bowie mattered, and why he continues to matter. Not just because he had things left he wanted to say – one only has to look at the video for ‘Lazarus’, the way his shadow emerges from the wardrobe for a final burst of creativity while the real man, his face swathed in bandages, writhes in agony on the bed to see that. But because by turning his death into a work of art he reminds us one last time of the degree to which all our identities are, in some sense, works of art, performances in which death is really only the final transformation.

Yet in a way Bowie’s real genius lay less in his understanding of the liberating power of fantasy but in the music itself, the way it touches us. For while much is often made of his fascination with alienation and decline these qualities are counter-balanced by a deeply human yearning for connection, for the power of it to free us from who we are and make us anew. And it is this we respond to when we listen to songs such as ‘Heroes’ and ‘Starman’ and ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me’, this that makes him speak to so many of us so deeply, this that means his passing leaves us with these mingled feelings of loss and gratitude. For as he promised us in ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide’, he can help us with the pain, all it takes is to “turn on with me and you’re not alone.”

 

 

The End of Nature and Post-Naturalism: Fiction and the Anthropocene

One of the most interesting things about watching a novel go into the world is discovering what other people think it’s about. Sometimes that can be illuminating, sometimes it’s frustrating, but it’s always fascinating, not least because the book people seem to read is never quite the book you thought you were writing.

In Clade’s case this process was complicated by the fact a lot of people didn’t seem to know quite how to categorise it. For my part I tended to say it was science fiction, simply because that’s easy and relatively uncontroversial. A number of reviewers, especially in literary outlets, called it dystopian, which it isn’t, or not quite, while a couple of reviewers with an interest in science fiction described it a slow apocalypse or breakdown novel, which I suspect it is, at least in one sense. Others have called it cli fi, or climate fiction, a term that has some utility as a marketing category but seems to occlude more than it reveals when deployed as a critical tool; elsewhere some people have called it Anthropocene fiction.

Interestingly though, several reviewers registered the inadequacies of the terminology, and went on to ask about how exactly we should be describing the growing number of books engaged directly or indirectly with climate change and environmental transformation.

The most substantial of these discussions was in Niall Harrison’s characteristically thoughtful and perceptive review at Strange Horizons, a review that ended with what he described as “a coda about categories”. Noting first that Clade was only one of a number of recent novels “that to varying degrees explore the personal and social effects of environmental crisis”, he went on to note that while many such novels are “kinds of science fiction … there is a sound political logic for discussing them as a group unto themselves”.

Like others, Harrison thinks it’s possible to distinguish such novels from other kinds of science fiction because “climate change is already happening, which means it is in a different class of speculation and social relevance to, say, a pandemic: writing about it is a question of degree and perspective, not whether or not it will happen at all, and the degrees and perspectives that writers choose can be usefully compared” (a point Dan Bloom has also made). But he also – rightly – points out that acknowledging this distinction then demands we recognise the existence of novels such as Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, which are engaged with these questions but are not science fiction in any meaningful sense.

Like me Harrison is unconvinced of the utility of the notion of “cli fi” in this context (as I have also done he notes its troubling tendency to elide the long history of environmental science fiction), and similarly sceptical of trying to group such books together as dystopias or post-apocalyptic stories, even though many books in this area deploy tropes and strategies associated with these traditions, before acknowledging that while he doesn’t have a solution to the question he believes it deserves further attention, if only because “this is a vital literary area, and … we need to get better at describing and discussing it”.

For what it’s worth I agree with Harrison that this is an area in which our conventional terminology fails us, and that none of the options on offer seem to be able to make sense of the work that is being produced, its relationship to traditional genre categories like science fiction (and indeed non-fictional and essayistic forms such as nature writing), or the various strategies it deploys to open up the realist novel in ways that let it embrace and engage with environmental questions.

That’s partly because of the sheer diversity of such books, and their tendency to elide traditional genre boundaries: certainly there’s almost no meaningful family resemblance between a book like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora and Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, but as I’ve argued elsewhere, the affinities between the two means they can (and should) be usefully discussed together.

At one level this diversity reflects the many and complex ways in which writers and artists are engaging with these questions, and more deeply their ongoing attempts to map out an imaginative language with which to make sense of what’s happening to our world (and indeed ourselves) in the 21st century, a point I’ve made elsewhere in the context of what might be best described as the new nature writing. Certainly it’s not accidental so many writers fall back on stories about lost parents and missing children when they seek to articulate their feelings about climate change, devices that capture something of the rupture and grief which suffuses the contemporary condition (something that has prompted the writer M. John Harrison to talk about “loss lit”, and which is also present in articles like this, or this). Nor is it a coincidence that so many of these books employ fractured structures, and borrow devices from science fiction and elsewhere to talk about time and deep time (I suspect all the lost parents and children are another way of getting at these questions as well), or that questions of landscape, and our solastalgic sense of loss about its erasure intrude over and over again (in an excellent piece earlier this year Robert MacFarlane made a similar point about the rise of the eerie in contemporary British culture).

More importantly though, this diversity suggests why thinking of these books in terms of genres or categories is to miss the wood for the trees. Because these books aren’t a genre, they’re expressions of the deeper and more pervasive transformation of the world and ourselves we have taken to calling the Anthropocene in exactly the same way novels like Mrs Dalloway and Ulysses reflected and embodied the transformative effects of modernity upon our culture and our selves. As Mckenzie Wark quipped on Facebook earlier this year, all fiction is anthropocene fiction, some of it just doesn’t realise it yet.

To my mind the benefits of thinking about the question in this way are considerable. Not only does it allow us to step away from fruitless arguments about generic definition, but it allows us to see climate change as simply one (if still a very considerable) part of a larger process of transformation, one that embraces, amongst other things, genetic engineering, virtuality, over-population, species loss, habitat destruction and the broader disruption of natural and social systems by environmental change and capitalism.

And, perhaps more deeply, it recognises that we inhabit a world in which we ourselves are being altered, not just by technology and social transformation, but by the shifting terms of our engagement with what we would once have called the natural world. If one wanted to define when this change became apparent perhaps you might point to the floods and fires that tore through Australia over the summer of 2010/11, or the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, or the droughts in the Middle East in 2008, or any one of the flooding events or hurricanes or droughts or heatwaves that have struck countries around the world in recent years, but perhaps the really significant moment was earlier this year, when average CO2 levels in the Earth’s atmosphere passed 400ppm for the first time since the Pliocene. As Virginia Woolf might have put it, on or about March 2015, human character changed.

What we call the literary expressions of this condition is an open question. The obvious choice is Anthropocene fiction, although I’m resistant to that term, both because like cli fi it suggests a set of generic boundaries, instead of emphasising the degree to which this transformation leaches into everything, and because it emphasises human agency when, to my mind at least, what many of the books and stories we wish to discuss are attempting to find ways to talk about the non-human in fictional terms (I also think it’s worth making the point that while the idea of the Anthropocene is usually assumed to embrace the effect upon the natural world by human activity, but it also – and importantly – embraces a different and more interstitial kind of ecological awareness, one that recognises the presence of wildness and the natural world within the fabric of the human world).

Yet still, given that this idea of the transformation of the natural world, and of the end of a particular idea of nature is central, I wonder whether it mightn’t be simplest to begin to speak of the post-natural, or post-naturalism, and to begin to think of it not as a fad or a fashion or a genre, but as a tangible condition, something shaped and defined by the transformation of the natural world by human agency that is going on around us, and which helps determine the nature of the way we see the world, the questions we ask, and perhaps most importantly, the stories we tell.

 

Best Books 2015

Brief History of Seven KillingsI’m aware this is a little late in the piece, but I thought I might take a few minutes to pull together a section of the books I’ve enjoyed the most over the past twelve months.

These sorts of lists always make me uncomfortably aware not just of how little I’ve read over the past twelve months, but how incoherent that reading feels, a feeling that, for various reasons, is even more pronounced this year than usual.
Yet despite all that I read a number of books this year that I admired enormously. And while I’m mostly going to try and avoid ranking books, one book that would sit near the top of any list I might make is Marlon James’ astonishing, virtuosic A Brief History of Seven Killings, a book that is as impressive technically as it is as a portrait of the complex ways violence and reverberates through both individual lives and history.

Similarly impressive was Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, a series I’m still working my way through, but which is as remarkable as everybody says, astonishing not just for their ferocious moral intelligence and psychological penetration, but for their almost eidetic recall of the textures of the world they depict.

Buried GiantIt seems to have slipped off many people’s radar already, but I loved Kazuo Ishiguro’s deeply strange excursion into post-Arthurian Britain, The Buried Giant, Kevin Barry’s similarly strange and stylistically pyrotechnic portrait of John Lennon lost in rural Ireland in 1978, Beatlebone, and Anne Enright’s marvellous The Green Road (the second chapter of which is worth the price of admission alone). Likewise I very much enjoyed the fourth volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My StruggleDancing in the Dark, not just because it’s so funny, but because it’s the book where the series’ fictional and autobiographical elements begin to enfold each other in fascinating ways, and in so doing begin to bring the complexity of Knausgaard’s larger design into focus. And although I’ve come to it late, John Williams’ Stoner is exactly as brilliant as everybody says it is.

I also very much admired Max Porter’s wonderfully odd and richly poetic exploration of grief, Ted Hughes and Emily Dickinson, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, Tom McCarthy’s archly brilliant Satin Island and Sunjeev Sahota’s Booker-Shortlisted The Year of the Runaways. And while it was perhaps slightly less brilliant than Life After Life, I loved Kate Atkinson’s wonderfully inventive exploration of historical contingency and the immensities a simple life can contain, A God in Ruins. And while I’m not sure whether it quite came off overall, I’m not sure I read a book over the past twelve months that was smarter, funnier or stylistically exciting at a line by line level than Nell Zink’s Mislaid.

Thing ItselfOver on the genre side I adored Dave Hutchinson’s smart, politically savvy near-future political thriller, Europe at Midnight, Kelly Link’s brilliant Get In Trouble and Paul McAuley’s wonderfully accomplished Something Coming Through, and very much enjoyed China Miéville’s dazzling Three Moments From An Explosion, Jane Rawson’s Formaldehyde and Naomi Novik’s magical Uprooted. I also loved Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Mercy, a book that brought her fabulous Ancillary series to a wonderfully satisfying, emotionally resonant and fascinatingly subversive conclusion, and although I’m not quite sure whether it’s technically a 2015 or a 2016 book, Adam Roberts’ The Thing Itself is a triumph: a deeply strange, extremely funny and metaphysically thrilling riff on John Carpenter’s The Thing and Immanuel Kant’s metaphysics (trust me – it’s great). And finally, while it’s a bit over a year old, I adored Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor (don’t be put off by the title: it’s wonderful).

Six BedroomsI read fewer Australian books than I should have, but of those I did I very much admired Mireille Juchau’s portrait of an ecologically fraying landscape, The World Without Us, and Tegan Bennett Daylight’s brilliantly observed and exquisitely painful Six Bedrooms, Charlotte Wood’s ferocious The Natural Way of Things and (although it’s a couple of years old), Ashley Hay’s The Railwayman’s Wife.

I also read less non-fiction than I should have, and a lot of what I did read was things I’ve read before (Tim Dee’s wonderfully expansive Four Fields, Richard Mabey’s Nature Cure), but I found time to knock over Robert Macfarlane’s magisterial Landmarks, I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of Hal Whitehead’s The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins and I loved Thomas Farber’s wise, witty and delightfully sideways Here and Gone. And while neither are 2015 books I also very much enjoyed Helen MacDonald’s 2006 contribution to Reaktion’s Animal series, Falcon, which is a rather drier affair than H is for Hawk, but fascinating nonetheless (I also recommend her closing address to the Sydney Writers’ Festival earlier this year) and Rebecca Solnit’s marvellously spiralling The Faraway Nearby.

Unfaithful MusicOn the more technical side I very much enjoyed Mckenzie Wark’s notes toward a theory for the Anthropocene, Molecular Red (his unpacking of the politics and architectonics of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is a must-read for anybody interested in Robinson). And while it needed a much firmer editorial hand (and, I suspect, to be broken up into two different books), Elvis Costello’s memoir, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink is as funny, savage and fascinating about songwriting as you’d expect, and while too long and oddly unreflective in some regards, often surprisingly moving, especially when it comes to Costello’s relationship with his father.

On the graphic side of things I hugely enjoyed Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s This One Summer, and I continued to love every panel of G. Willow Wilson’s Ms Marvel, Charles Soule and Javier Polio’s She-Hulk, Al Ewing and Lee Garbett’s wicked and wise Loki: Agent of Asgard, Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s joyous Daredevil and the endlessly delayed conclusion to Matt Fraction and David Aja’s Hawkeye.

Ms Marvel

 

As I said in The Weekend Australian a couple of weeks ago though, the two books I loved most this year are a pair of novels that at first blush seem to have almost nothing to do with each other. The first, Sarah Hall’s exultant, lyrical The Wolf Border, focuses on a plan to reintroduce wolves to the north of England, the second, Kim Stanley Robinson’s dazzlingly expansive Aurora, follows the struggles of a group of colonists sent to Tau Ceti half a millennium from now, but look a little closer and it becomes apparent both are books deeply engaged with a series of questions about the ethical and imaginative dimensions of a world whose systems have been fundamentally and irrevocably altered by human activity, yet which simultaneously try to look beyond the reality of the present day in order to reclaim the imaginative possibilities of the future,  quality that, as 2015 draws to a close, seems not just important but necessary.

 

 

 

Favourite Music 2015

I’m planing to get a post about my favourite books of the year up in the next week or so, but in the meantime I thought I might pull together a quick post about some of the albums I’ve enjoyed this year. As I said when I did this last year, this makes no pretence that it’s comprehensive or objective, instead it’s a selection of things I’ve loved over the past twelve months. Rather than try and make a definitive selection of my absolute favourites I’ve arranged them in (mostly) mostly alphabetical order. Hopefully I’ve also managed to remember enough to save myself from a supplemental post about all the ones I’ve forgotten.

And so, without further ado, here they are …

Asaf Avidan, Gold Shadow
One of my absolute favourite albums of 2015 was by Israeli singer-songwriter Asaf Avidan. I’d not heard of Avidan until I read a review of his latest album, Gold Shadow, but it’s a stunner, anchored by Avidan’s distinctive vocals and  a wonderfully retro yet oddly timeless feel that sounds as if it could have been recorded 50 years ago or last week.

 

Courtney Barnett, Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit
Closer to home I loved Courtney Barnett’s Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit. People in Australia and the US have already written reams about Barnett and this record, suffice it to say I saw her live last year, and the record is as smart, funny and utterly self-possessed as she was on stage.

 

Blur, The Magic Whip
I also loved Blur’s comeback album, The Magic Whip. It’s not quite Parklike (although what is), but they sound as smart and sharp and tight as they always did, and when I saw them in Sydney earlier in the year they were totally amazing.

 

Leonard Cohen, Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour
Leonard Cohen turned 80 last year, and celebrated by releasing the brilliant Popular Problems. this year he was back with Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour, a collection of live versions of lesser-known tracks from his back catalogue plus a couple of new songs, and while it’s not as coherent or focussed as Popular Problems, it’s still a pleasingly rich and occasionally unexpected record that more than holds its own in Cohen’s recent discography, and one I’ve come to like more and more with every new listen.

 

The Decemberists, What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World
The Decemberists’ What A Terrible World, What A Beautiful World is a frontrunner for the title of my favourite album of the year, and certainly one of the ones I’ve listened to the most. I know some long-time fans are a bit dismayed by the more radio-friendly songwriting (as much as that term makes any sense these days) but I love almost every track on it (and who couldn’t love an album that contains the lyric “And me, seventeen and terminally fey”?). The Florasongs EP they released late in the year is great as well.

 

Diane Coffee, Everybody’s a Good Dog
Blissed out Beach Boys and soul perfection from one half of Oxygen. Insanely enjoyable.

 

Destroyer, Poison Season
I’ve never quite connected with The New Pornographers’ albums, but I really enjoyed their front man,  Dan Bejar’s side project, Destroyer’s new one, Poison Season. I remember reading Bejar saying the album was a tribute to Hunky Dory, but to me it sounds like a brilliant art pop reworking of Lou Reed and Bruce Springsteen (most obviously on the second track, ‘Dream Lover’).

 

Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series Volume 12: The Cutting Edge
What’s there to say? Different interpretations and working versions of many of the songs on three of my favourite albums of all time, many of which are as good or better as the originals. You don’t have to be the sort of Dylan obsessive who’s got the energy to listen to an entire album of outtakes of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ to love this collection, and tracks like the version of ‘Love Minus One’ are worth the price of admission all on their own. Weepingly brilliant.

 

Sharon van Etten, I Don’t Want To Let You Down
I adored van Etten’s last album, Are We There, and although these songs from the same sessions are basically an extension of that album that’s fine by me. Gorgeous, intense, visceral.

 

Colleen Green, I Want To Grow Up
On a first listen Colleen Green’s album sounds like a piece or perfectly pitched grungy guitar punk pop. But dig a little deeper and something darker and more complex begins to appear.

Julia Holter, Have You In My Wilderness
Julia Holter’s previous albums were curious combinations of experimental soundscape and pop melodies, but on her new one she let her pop sensibility come to the fore, and created something really special. I’d be tempted to complain it’s occasionally a bit tasteful (a problem that afflicts a lot of contemporary indie pop IMHO) but on a more careful listen that impression is wiped away by the lyrics, the strength of the songwriting and the complexity of the arrangements. It’s a beautiful record.

 

Elle King, Love Stuff
Elle King’s debut album, Love Stuff, seemed to come out of nowhere when it turned up earlier in the year, but since it was released it’s picked up two Grammy nominations. Imagine a 26 year-old Wanda Jackson and you’ll be pretty much on the money.

 

Joanna Newsom, Divers
There’s a clear line of influence flowing from Kate Bush to Joanna Newsom, but that shouldn’t obscure the fact that Newsom is a genuine original, with a fascinating and increasingly clear aesthetic that’s all her own.

 

Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats
There’s been a lot of retro-soul and soul-inflected music around this year, perhaps most obviously Leon Bridges’ surprise hit debut, Coming Home. Although I’m always a little uneasy about music that so deliberately (and often slavishly) invokes the past, I liked Coming Home, and in particular the big single, ‘Better Man’, and I also liked Anderson East’s similarly pitch-perfect recreation of the sound of the late 1960s, Delilah. But much as I enjoyed both Bridges’ and East’s albums, Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats’ excursion into the same territory in their self-titled debut outshone both in terms of energy and urgency.

 

Alabama Shakes, Sound and Color/Thunderbitch, Thunderbitch
Meanwhile the band that probably did the most to initiate the whole new soul movement, the Alabama Shakes, finally released their much-delayed second album, Sound and Color, and used it to make it clear they had no intention of being pigeonholed by those sorts of labels by delivering a record that pushed outward toward garage rock and funk and even punk. Sound and Color has a lot of great moments, and although Brittany Howard’s voice and charisma mostly overcomes the fact the songs on Sound and Color only occasionally reaches the same heights as those the Shakes’ 2012 album, Boys and Girls, you couldn’t say the same about Howard’s side-project, Thunderbitch, which was released with little fanfare later in the year, and packs more exultant energy and joy into its 33 minutes than the most bands  find in a lifetime (for reasons I don’t understand none of Thunderbitch’s videos seem to be available in Australia but you can listen to a few tracks on their website).

 

Bill Ryder-Jones, West Kirby County Primary
I also loved Bill Ryder-Jones’ gorgeous, damaged West Kirby County Primary, an album that wears its debt to The Velvet Underground on its sleeve, but which also has a vulnerable beauty (and a host of scuzzy pop hooks) all of its own. Another contender for my favourite record of the year.

 

Bruce Springsteen, The Ties That Bind
I’ve only had a chance to listen to it once and watch the documentary (which is terrific, and a reminder of how interesting Springsteen is about the craft of songwriting and painstaking way he imagines and creates his albums) but like Amanda Rose I’m going to dispense with the fantasy I might not love an album made up of a remastered version of one of my all-time Favourite Springsteen albums and 20-odd new tracks from the same sessions might not be one of the best things I’ll hear this year.

 

The Vaccines, English Graffiti
48 minutes of New Wave influenced punk pop perfection. I feel happy every time I hear it. What more is there to say?

 

Waxahatchee, Ivy Tripp
I quite enjoyed Katie Crutchfield’s first album as Waxahatchee, American Weekend, but her second, Ivy Tripp, is on a whole other level. Grungy, 1990s influenced guitars meet intimate lyrics and delicate melodies. It’s great stuff.

 

Matthew E. White, Fresh Blood
Matthew E. White’s new album is really just a second helping of the retro-soul-influenced rock and roll that made his first album, Big Inner, so much fun, although it’s richer and more accessible than Big Inner. But what it does have is one of my favourite songs of the year, the sneakily catchy ‘Rock and Roll is Cold’. Put memories of Warren Zevon out of your head, give it a whirl and enjoy.

 

The Beatles, 1+
And finally, I’m not sure whether they really count as an album, but it was difficult not to love the rerelease of the Beatles’ 1, if only for the two discs of beautifully restored videos that accompanied with it. I haven’t had a chance to listen closely to the Giles Martin remasters of the songs themselves (and I’m not sure I wholly approve of that particular exercise) but the videos are an absolute joy.

 

Wrack now available as an ebook in Australia

Wrack AU smallI’m thrilled to be able to say that as of today, my first novel, Wrack, is available as an ebook in Australia through Vintage. If you’d like to buy a copy you can pick it up for Kindle (via Amazon.com and Amazon.com.au), through the iBookstore, and on Kobo. If you’re in Australia and you’d rather read the print book you can check prices for that through Booko. Likewise if you’re in the UK you can check prices for the print book or pick up the ebook through Amazon and the iBookstore. And if you’re in the US or elsewhere you can pick up the print edition or the ebook. And there’s also an award-winning audio edition read by Humphrey Bower.

For those who haven’t read it, it’s set in Sydney, Singapore and the NSW south coast during World War 2, and is about maps and murder and love and obsession (you can read more here).

 

 

Write Around The Murray

Detail from Kathy Holowko's 'Batmania', featured at Write Around the Murray.

Detail from Kathy Holowko’s ‘Batmania’, featured at Write Around the Murray.

Just a quick note to say that if you’re in the Riverina I’ll be appearing at Write Around The Murray in Albury on the weekend of 12-13 September. The full program was announced a couple of weeks ago, and features a bunch of fantastic people, but if you’d like to catch me I’ll be discussing ‘When Sci-Fi becomes Cli-Fi’ with Jane Rawson, Cat Sparks and Tim Flannery at 1:00pm on Saturday 12 September, and at 3:00pm on Sunday 13 September I’ll be in conversation with Jason Steger as part of Write Around the Murray’s Big Book Club. Both events are at LibraryMuseum, Corner of Kiewa and Swift Streets, Albury, and you can RSVP online.

And just a reminder that I’ll be appearing at Melbourne Writers Festival this weekend and Brisbane Writers Festival the weekend after.

Festivalorama

BBWF2015_07_WebsiteHeader3I’ve had my head down working for a while, but over the next few months I’m doing a number of events around the country. First up is the weekend after next, when I’ll be at Byron Bay Writers’ Festival, where I’ll be in conversation with Wendy Were at midday on Saturday 8 August, and will be speaking about the limits of forgiveness alongside Sarah Armstrong, David Vann and Anneli Knight at 12:15pm on Sunday 9 August and about Climate Fiction with Mireille Juchau (whose much-anticipated new novel, The World Without  Us, has just been released) and Anneli Knight at 2:15pm. Tickets are available from the Festival office, by calling 02 6685 5115 or online.

A few weeks after Byron I’ll be at Melbourne Writers’ Festival, where the scarily smart Jane Rawson, Michael Green and I will be discussing whether climate change is the new apocalypse at 11:00am on Friday 28 August and Mireille Juchau and I will be talking about novels of ideas at 2:30pm on the same day. Tickets are available via the pages for the individual events.

And finally, the week after Melbourne I’ll be in Brisbane for Brisbane Writers’ Festival, where I’ll be appearing at the Cooper Plains Library as part of the Festival’s BWF in the Burbs program at 10:00am on Friday 4 September, reading at 2:00pm on Saturday 5 September as part of the R[E]AD Box series, discussing climate fiction with Deb Fitzpatrick at 4:00pm on Saturday 5 September, appearing alongside the brilliant Sjón (if you haven’t read The Blue Fox run, don’t walk, and grab a copy), the multi-talented Debra Oswald and others as part of the Letter To My Future Self event at 8:00pm on Saturday 5 September and speaking about Clade at 4:00pm on Sunday 6 September. Tickets for all events are available online.

I’ll have details for a couple more events soon, but hopefully I’ll see some of you somewhere in the meantime.