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Posts tagged ‘James Bradley’

Locus Recommended Reading List

LocusJust a quick post to say how delighted I am to discover Clade is one of the titles selected for Locus Magazine’s Recommended Reading List for 2015. You can check out the full list over at Locus, but needless to say I’m completely thrilled to be on a list that features books by Ann Leckie, Kim Stanley Robinson, Adam Roberts and Dave Hutchinson, and by the incredibly generous comments about the book in the issue itself. My sincere thanks to all concerned.

And just a reminder that if you’re in Australia Clade is available from any good bookstore, your favourite online retailer or as a ebook, and worldwide through Book Depository.



Pascall Prize for Criticism

I’m incredibly excited to be able to say that on Saturday night I was awarded the Pascall Prize for Criticism. It’s a huge honour, and needless to say I’m delighted, although in a way the really wonderful (and weirdly humbling part) has been how many people have written, tweeted or sent messages to say congratulations.

If you’d like to read my acceptance speech, it’s available on the Pascall website, as is the Judge’s Report, but since I suspect most of you won’t make it over there I’d like to say again how grateful I am to the judges, Geordie Williamson and Alison Croggon (both of whose work I admire immensely) and to the Pascall Foundation itself, for its commitment to the idea of criticism as something important and worthy of celebration. You can also read an extended interview with me over at Stephen Romei’s blog, A Pair of Ragged Claws.

I should also thank all of you, since at least part of the reason I was chosen was the work that appears on this site, work that has been shaped considerably by the generosity and intelligence of the many, many people who have taken the time to comment and engage with each other here. I’m aware things are a bit slow around here at the moment but hopefully that will change once I’ve got a couple of the things I’m working on locked away.


How do you do that? she asks, seated on the stairs to his loft, How do you know which notes to play without sheets?

Memory, he says, I do it by memory.

It is Boxing Day, and Anna has woken to the sound of the piano. Downstairs Seth seated before it, his fingers moving slowly across the keys.

What is it? I’ve never heard anything like it.

Seth smiles, his fingers continuing to pick out the notes in ones and twos, each separated by a gap, the space between them seeming as important as the notes themselves, the way they fade into it, leaving the memory of their resonance hanging. She shivers.

It doesn’t have a name, he says, An artificial intelligence composed it.

In front of her she can see the muscles in his back shift beneath his skin, the articulated cage of his ribs beneath them.

I have a recording of it, but I prefer to play it myself. There’s an alien quality to it, a sense of another way of being I can get closer to.

It sounds . . . sad. No, she corrects herself, listening to the strange, ghostly sound of the piano, the dying notes, not sad, something else I can’t quite describe, Like the sound of wind in grass or moving water, that quietness, that colourless feeling. She hesitates. Maybe I can’t find the words because there are no words.

It’s like trying to describe the sound of geometry, isn’t it? Can you imagine what it must be like to be conscious, aware, but without matter, without form? Without place. A ghost in a machine.

Anna shakes her head. But listening to the slow patterns of this music she can hear the loneliness of this thing of bits and light, this artificial mind shifting like the aurora through the circuits of some optical computer, like the siren call of a whale in the oceanic night, the long, clicking song that goes unanswered.

 From The Deep Field.

A blast from the past: me talking about The Resurrectionist

I was chatting about book trailers this morning and it reminded me of the video below, which was produced and directed by Steve Macdonald to coincide with The Resurrectionist’s inclusion as one of Richard and Judy’s Summer Reads in 2008. If you can get past the fact I look even more crumpled and feral than usual, my hair’s about a foot high and my stammer is particularly noticeable, it’s actually not too bad. And of course if you’re so excited after you’ve watched it you want to buy a copy, you can check out Booko for prices on the Australian and UK editions.


Blogging and telling the truth

I’ve got a review of Sam Lipsyte’s scabrously funny new novel, The Ask, in this morning’s Australian, and while I don’t necessarily advocate reading the review I absolutely recommend reading the book, which is hugely entertaining.

This morning’s Australian also features a fascinating piece by Geordie Williamson about blogging, which attempts to resituate the deeply tedious debate about the value of online writing by asking some questions about the aesthetics of blogging, and how the form alters the way we write.

Before I go any further I should point out that Geordie (who’s a friend) says nice things in the piece about me and this blog, and in particular the posts I’ve got reproduced in Karen Andrews’ new anthology of Australian blog writing, Miscellaneous Voices (‘On Novels and Place’ and ‘The Day of the Triffids . . .’). But his kind words about me notwithstanding, I think the piece makes some interesting and valuable points, not the least of which is the manner in which many writers who operate in more controlled forms are made uneasy by the immediacy and gregariousness of the online environment, and the importance of recognising that for all its apparent openness, online writing still seeks to control the terms of the reader’s interaction with the writer by controlling what aspects of the writer’s life and experience they have access to.

In a way this is an unsurprising thing to say. Despite the illusion of openness, all writing is fundamentally an exercise in controlling the terms of the reader’s access to the writer’s inner life. This is probably clearest in forms like the personal essay, but it’s equally true of fictional forms, in which the raw material of feeling and experience is encoded and transfigured by the process of creation: even at their most honest writers are always withholding, shaping, controlling. A good reader understands that, just as they understand that a writer often reveals as much or more about themselves through what they don’t say, through their tics and blind spots, as they do in the things they choose to tell us. But it’s also something we sometimes seem to forget in our rush to celebrate the openness and collaborativeness of the online environment. Because whatever else it is, online writing is still about inventing versions of the self, whether as pleasing personas, disguises or simply creations to be deconstructed and analysed, and as such needs to be understood within a critical framework capable of making sense of the complexities of that process. All of which makes pieces like Geordie’s, which is attempting to make connections between the ways we talk about more ostensibly “literary” forms such as the essay, and blogging (and indeed books like Karen’s, which seeks to place blogging in a wider context) all the more valuable.

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On novels and place


The Beaumont Children, who disappeared in Glenelg on Australia Day, 1966.

If this blog’s been looking a bit neglected lately, it’s because I’ve been frantically trying to knock over a first draft of my new novel. I had been hoping to have a draft done by the time our second child is born in November, and while I suspect that goal has now slipped away from me, I’m at least halfway there, so I think there’s a good chance I’ll have something by Christmas.

Writing first drafts is always a weird process. A lot of writers are planners, but I’m not, or not particularly. I’ve usually got a rough idea of the shape of the book, and at least a few key scenes, but I usually don’t have a terribly clear sense of how those pieces stick together, or what order they happen in. So mostly what I’m doing when I write first drafts is looking for the rhythm, and the energy. Sometimes that can be exhilarating, but mostly it’s a matter of feeling my way forward, looking for the moments when the thing chimes into life.

I’m still not quite sure what I think of this one (which is currently called Black Friday, though that may change). If you’d asked me a few weeks ago I would have said I wasn’t sure if it would work, but in the last fortnight or so I’ve become a lot more confident it will. Partly that’s because I’ve slid past the halfway mark, but mostly it’s because I can feel the characters beginning to live, and breathe, and the narrative beginning to develop the forward energy it needs.

That’s not to say all’s right with it. I’ve got a point of view problem that won’t go away, and the plotting of the section I’ve just finished is a shambles. And it’s precisely the sort of dark, disordered book I promised myself I wouldn’t write after the experience of writing The Resurrectionist. And my central character is pretty spectacularly unpleasant (as is the subject matter), but she also feels scarily real to me, which has to be a good thing.

What’s been strangest though, has been the manner in which the setting of the book has come bubbling out of me. Although it begins in the present day, the bulk of the action tales place in the early 1980s, and focuses on the actions of a small group of political radicals who decide to kill the Prime Minister. These characters come from a variety of backgrounds, but one of them – the central character – grew up in Adelaide, and there’s an extended sequence near the beginning depicting her absorption into the alternative demi-monde of the time in the backlots of Glenelg.

Although the scenes in question take place in 1980, and I didn’t finish school until 1984, the world this section takes place in is absolutely one I remember. The characters go to school at the school I went to (though it’s not named) and though they live a couple of suburbs further north along the coast, most of the action takes place in Glenelg, where I grew up (I’ve actually based the share-house she becomes entangled in on the house an old friend’s mother bought not long after we finished school).

In a way it’s unsurprising that the book has such a definite location. All three of the novels I’ve published so far are powerfully anchored in the places they’re set. Given that two of them – The Resurrectionist and The Deep Field – are set in places which don’t actually exist (the London of the 1820s and the Sydney of the future, respectively) that might seem an odd thing to say, but it’s true. Whenever I write about a place I need to feel I have a connection with it in an emotional sense, and to feel it’s an integral part of the larger symbolic and textural landscape of the novel. And so while the places they describe may not be real, in a literal sense, they need to be real to me, and to resonate with the book as a whole.

The curious thing is that I never had any desire to write about Adelaide. I left the best part of 20 years ago, and though when I visit it still seems almost overwhelmingly familiar, it’s been a long, long time since it felt like home. And although the South Australian landscape I grew up in has found its way into my work from time to time (the sandhills on the southern coast of New South Wales in which much of the action of Wrack takes place are imaginary versions of the Coorong, and the sandhills at West Beach, rather than anywhere you’d find on a map) I’ve not just not written about the place I grew up in, but actively not wanted to write about it.

In a way, of course, all I’m saying here is something I think any writer, and most readers understand, at least intuitively, which is that place, or location in fiction is never physical, or at least not in any simple sense. Place is always really a psychological space, a thing evoked through the layering of detail, and emotion. And like the strange, almost mystical capacity of characters to be conjured into life by a few words of dialogue or description (not for nothing, I think, do Christians understand God’s Word as a living thing; language has a primal and often quite unsettling power to take on life of its own) places are brought to life by the suggestion of great strata of meaning layered beneath the details we use to evoke them.

I’m not sure precisely what led me back to Adelaide, and the world I knew as an adolescent. What I do know is that it’s a process that began when I was struggling to finish The Resurrectionist. One of the inspirations for that book was the Snowtown murders, and having heard me talk about them, and about Adelaide and its history of serial murder more generally, my agent, David Miller, convinced me I should write about them, and about what seemed to me the very particular experience of growing up in Adelaide in the 1980s.

I still think the piece that came out of that conversation, ‘The Element of Need’, is one of the better things I’ve written in recent years. For contractual reasons there was a lag between me writing it and it being published, but a version was published in Heat last year (you can read a brief extract on the Giramondo website) and it’s recently been picked up for inclusion in Best Australian Essays 2009.

But good or not, writing the piece seemed to unlock something inside me. For a time I toyed with expanding it into a full length book, but for various reasons to do with my reluctance to spend too long in the headspace it inhabits that didn’t happen (though it still might). But alongside the book I didn’t write I found myself playing around with stories and novels which used the landscapes of my childhood and adolescence in quite direct ways. And although few, if any, of these are ever likely to find their way into print, the thing I kept running up against was the manner in which the landscapes they inhabit are so vivid and so particular.

I always think it’s dangerous to assume you know why you find yourself writing about particular things (and I’m painfully aware that even when you think you do know you’re often wrong, and the real reasons are hidden from you). But I do wonder whether this process of moving back, into the past, isn’t at least partly to do with growing older. My father is 76, and he routinely says his childhood, which he once barely remembered, is now almost frighteningly vivid. And while he’s got three and a half decades on me, the last few years have been pretty tumultuous. I’ve turned 40, become a father, felt the always unstable cycle of my moods spin frighteningly out of control, felt the only thing I ever wanted to do – writing – leave me, and then, tentatively at first, but then with greater certainty, return, all experiences which have left me painfully aware of the fragility of life, and of our vulnerability to its vicissitudes.

Yet at the same time the spaces I’m exploring are not simply memory. Despite various disruptions I had a pretty happy childhood. But the landscapes of the writing that draws on it are alienated and often downright creepy, populated by people with important parts of themselves missing. This is partly to do with my sense that there is something haunted and even sinister about Adelaide, some sense in which the outward peacefulness and order disguises something cruel and brutal. But I’m also aware that this view is itself coloured by my own fairly uncomfortable relationship with the place, and the person I was when I lived there.

I’m not sure this is terribly surprising. Like a lot of people who have left places I’ve allowed Adelaide to stand in for my past, and going back is always a pretty uncomfortable experience. But it’s also a reminder of the way fiction takes elements of our inner lives and gives them shape. For the Adelaide (and more particularly the Glenelg) I’m writing about in my new book isn’t a real one, in any literal sense, but an expression of whatever it is in me that has drawn me back there. I’m not going to try and unpack that part of me here – that’s what the novel’s for – but it is a reminder of the dangers of assuming fiction is, in ever, in any narrow sense, autobiographical, and simultaneously an illustration of Faulkner’s dictum: “The past is not dead. It is not even past”.

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Gertrude, Alice and the Flight of the Mind

balloonsIn case you’re at a loose end over the next couple of weeks, I’m doing two events. The first is a literary breakfast this Friday (16 October) at Gertrude and Alice Bookstore here in Bondi Beach. Tickets are $12, and bookings can be made by emailing or by phone on 02 9130 5155. I’m going to be talking about my most recent novel, The Resurrectionist (all that darkness and death seem so appropriate for breakfast in Bondi, after all).

And the weekend after next (24-25 October) I’m one of a very impressive line-up of writers appearing at the National Library of Australia’s Flight of the Mind Conference in Canberra. Held over two days, the Conference is designed to explore a range of questions about creativity and the writing imagination, and speakers include Alex Miller, Peter Goldsworthy and Sophie Cunningham. I’m speaking on Sunday morning at 10:00am, and given what a big part of my life this site’s become over the last year, I’m planning to speak about the way technology is altering both what and how we write. The full Conference program is available here, and bookings can be made by emailing or calling 02 6262 1122.

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Bread and Sirkuses


Peter Carey

I’m currently reading Peter Carey’s rather fabulous new novel, Parrot and Olivier in America. Since I’m reviewing it I can’t say much more than that, but I thought I might use it as an excuse to upload an essay I wrote for Meanjin about Carey way back in 1997. Entitled ‘Bread and Sirkuses: Empire and Culture in Peter Carey’s The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith and Jack Maggs, it uses those two books as the starting point for a broader survey of Carey’s work. In places it’s a bit dated, but it’s not a bad piece, so it seemed worth giving it another run.

If you’d like more Careyana, Carey maintains a classy-looking website, with excerpts from his novels, selected reviews and links to a range of interviews and appearances, as well as reproducing this one, which originally appeared in The Paris Review. And if you’d like to read some other pieces I’ve written about Carey’s fiction you might want to check out my reviews of My Life as a Fake and Theft.

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Le Résurrectionniste

Le Resurrectionniste

I’ve always taken a pretty hands-off attitude to translation and translation rights. That’s probably partly because I’m so embarrassingly monolingual, but it’s also about an awareness that you have so little control over the process that it’s better not to let yourself worry too much about it.

That’s not to say I don’t know any of my translators. I’ve recently been in correspondence with the Brazilian translator of The Resurrectionist and I had quite a bit to do with the German translator of my first two novels. In both cases the things they needed clarifying were small, culturally-specific details (most recently about the bonding of convicts in early New South Wales) or points of fact they were unsure about (or I’d not been as clear about as I might have been).

But the one foreign publisher I do have a relationship with is Payot & Rivages, who have just published The Resurrectionist in France.

It’s a relationship that came about largely by chance. Despite my execrable French, I was fortunate enough to spend the second half of 2007 at the Australia Council’s Keesing Studio in Paris, and since I’d sold the French rights shortly before I arrived I thought it couldn’t hurt to give my publishers a call.

Being as exquisitely courteous as most French people, they not only arranged to meet me, but made a great fuss of me, taking me to lunch and inviting me to their home for dinner.

That in itself was a wonderful gesture, and one made the more special by the somewhat hilarious moment when my translators (unusually they’re brothers who work together) asked me what music I listened to while I was writing the book. It seemed a bit of an odd question, but as I’ve mentioned before that I listened to a lot of Philip Glass while I was writing the book, partly because I found its almost hypnotic qualities helped me get into the right headspace, partly because there was something in the structure and texture of the music I wanted to emulate in the way the book’s parts moved against each other, and so I told them that, at which they laughed in triumph, and said ‘We knew it! We’ve been doing the translation listening to Philip Glass and we knew you’d been doing the same’.

Anyway – the other outtake from the night’s festivities came just before I ate, when I was spirited away to a back room and interviewed on camera. They didn’t tell me I was doing the interview until I’d drunk several glasses of wine, which may or may not be apparent in the excerpts that are now available on their website, but what is apparent is how much more clever and concise I am once somebody has translated me into French. Who knew my rambling, half-drunken words could be turned into such chiselled French prose? Or that I could be so suavely epigrammatic? I suppose the lesson is that I should speak in subtitles more often . . .



On depression and creativity

Griffith ReviewI’ve just realized the full text of my essay about depression and creativity, ‘Never real and always true’ is available for download on the Griffith Review site. Unfortunately it’s only in pdf format, so I’ve taken the liberty of cutting and pasting the text onto this site. And remember you can subscribe to Griffith Review by visiting their website, or purchase individual copies of Essentially Creative online from Gleebooks, Readings or bricks and mortar bookshops everywhere.

‘Never real and always true: on depression and creativity’

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Contemporary Writers Festival

resurrectionist-cover-ukJust a quick note to let you know that if you’re at a loose end on Sunday, I’ll be speaking alongside Malcolm Knox, Mireille Juchau and Ivor Indyk on a panel called ‘Desperate Characters: Character writing in extremis‘ at the Contemporary Writers Festival in Sydney.

The panel is at 11:30, and full details of the program are available on the NSW Writers Centre website if you’d like to make a day of it.

The Contemporary Writers Festival is a joint initiative of the NSW Writers Centre and the UTS Centre for New Writing.

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Photography in Australian Fiction

X-Ray image of hand, Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen

Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen, X-Ray image of hand

Last year I met an Italian student called Giorgia Tolfo from Bologna University, who was in Australia to research her thesis, The Photographic Act in Contemporary Australian Fiction. As part of her research she interviewed me and a number of other Australian writers (Delia Falconer and Gail Jones amongst others) who have used photographic motifs in their work.

She’s not the first person to write on this subject. Paul Genoni published a paper in Antipodes in 2002 exploring the use of photography in novels such as my second novel, The Deep Field, Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, Liam Davison’s Soundings, and Thea Astley’s Reaching Tin River (you can access the paper via the Curtin University Library site, though you’ll need to click the pdf symbol in the top right corner to actually read it). But it was interesting to find an Italian student struck by the same resonances between the various works she was writing about (she’s also incredibly bright and very charming, which never hurts either).

Anyway – I just received an email from Giorgia, telling me not only has she passed, but she’s received the highest mark, which is fantastic news. And, since I suspect her thesis isn’t likely to find its way into print in English in a hurry, I thought I might reproduce some extracts from the written interview I did for her after we spoke.

1. What is it that interests you about photography and what was it about photography you set out to investigate in your novel? Was there a particular influence or reference that urged you to write about photography?

I initially became interested in using photography as an element in the novel after looking at a book of photos of museum exhibits by Rosamund Purcell. The images were largely of objects from 18th century cabinets of curiosity, but there were images of fossilized ammonites amongst them, something about those images of ancient stone shells struck a chord with me..

Over time this idea of photographing fossils merged with the ideas I was also interested in exploring, about endings, and continuance, and deep time, and the idea that our own presence in the world might be part of a larger cycle, and a larger order. I remember reading Sontag, and Barthes, and being struck by their insistence that photography must be a representation of death. That seemed right to me, but also wrong – photos are also, necessarily, a form of connection to the past, a kind of persistence through time, in the same way a fossil is, and they connect us to the past, even as they remind us it is gone, and in so doing suggest something about the way loss is always with us, but part of us, and the capacity of things to go on, and endure.

2. In your novel, The Deep Field, Anna begins taking pictures of ammonites and fossils, but only after a scene in which the shells are explored by the blind character with his hands. Was this an attempt to link the idea of tactile memory to the idea of fossils as tactile memories of now vanished organic organisms? What do you see as the best form of memory – visual, tactile, emotional?

I was interested in different ways of being in the world, and particularly by the idea that the blind inhabit a non-spatial world made up of tactile and auditory experience connected in time, rather than spatially. Like virtual reality and cyberspace, that seemed ot me to suggest a very different way of being in the world, and one it might be useful to understand better as technology continues to alter the contours of our identity and the world we inhabit. But I also wanted to connect this idea of the new, and the futuristic to the very ancient, hence the shell on Mars, and the high tech photos of fossils. By doing that, and by playing on the way the blind inhabit their temporal and experiential world I thought it might be possible to suggest something of the way we exist within memory, and experience, rather than the other way around.

3. What do you think about the relationship between fiction and photography? Do you think that the former can help people to better understand the social, emotional and private value of the latter? Do you agree on the fact that fiction is more powerful than theory in exploring the possibilities of photography, being able to create new and not necessarily real situation?

Fiction and photography are necessarily very different. Fiction is narrative-based, and is therefore connected to change. Photography is something sliced free of time we must project a narrative, or meaning into. One explains us to ourselves, the other denies explanation (a process you can see at work in Sebald). But at the same time, both work by opening up imaginative possibility.

That said, I’m always a little wary of the use of photography in fiction. Photography is necessarily documentary and ambiguous, and there seems something dishonest, or sentimental about the impulse to invent stories which displace that ambiguity and fill it in with invented meaning.

As for the question of whether theory or fiction is more useful for exploring the possibilities of photography, I’m not sure either is particularly useful in that context – it’s photography that will explore its own possibilities most usefully. Theory may help us understand it better, criticism may help us understand particular works and practitioners, but I’m really not sure fiction has much of a role to play at all – its interest in photography is almost always for its own, imaginary ends.

4. Do you think there is a peculiarly Australian way of thinking about photography evident in Australian fiction, or do you think the use of photography in fiction is more universal?

I do wonder whether there is a a peculiarly Australian way of thinking about photography you see coming through in writers as diverse as Gail Jones, Delia Falconer, Liam Davison and myself. All of us are interested in exploring a photography as a way of making sense of loss, and transience, rather than as a simplistic memento mori. If this differs from its use in fiction from overseas (and I’m a bit short on ideas for examples to be sure it does) I wonder whether it has something to do with the fact that if you’re in Europe, particularly, or connected by the Jewish diaspora to that European experience, photography might well offer rather starker reminders of the past. Australians are, at some level, interested in finding a way to make sense of their past, and to find reconciliation with it in the present; it’s possible that for Europeans and others the past is something that needs to be put behind them.

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Phantom Shanghai

Phantom Shanghai

In 2005 I spent three months attached to the East China Normal University in Shanghai as an Asialink resident. Perhaps fortuitously, we didn’t end up living in one of the newer parts of the city, but in an apartment at the top of an alley house not far from the corner of Huaihai Lu and Shanxi Nanlu in the old French Concession.

The dodgy wiring and rats aside, it was a fascinating place to stay, not least because it gave me the opportunity to get to know some of the last remnants of Old Shanghai. For all its well-deserved reputation for criminality and vice, Old Shanghai was also the site of an incredibly fertile collision between European and Chinese modernity. This collision gave birth to writers such as Shi Zhecun, and Liu Na’ou (I’d probably also lump Eileen Chang in there as well, since although her work concentrates on the years of the Occupation, and was published in the 1940s, it exists in the shadow of the Shanghai of the 1920s and 1930s she grew up in), nurtured political radicals such as Mao and his wife, and most visibly these days, resulted in the peculiarly Shanghainese fusion of European and Chinese architecture that can be seen in the remaining pieces of the pre-1989 city.

'Alley (Yangshuo Lu, looking north), 2006', © Greg Girard, 2006

'Alley (Yangshuo Lu, looking north), 2006', © Greg Girard, 2006

Even in 2005, when I was there, these remnants of the old city were vanishing fast. The pace of change in China is (or was, until recently) dizzying, and the Chinese have little interest in preserving what they see as the European city (Shanghai may have been the site of the most potent encounter between Europe and China, but it is also, for that very reason, seen by many Chinese as a symbol of the West’s exploitation of China: not for nothing were the towering buildings of Pudong built straing back across the river at the symbols of European power and wealth that dominate the Bund).

The process has created a city which is very much in flux. Buildings, streets, even whole neighbourhoods seem to vanish overnight, swept away without trace. The results can be startling, shocking, and just plain disconcerting: my partner and I often ate in a restaurant a few blocks from our home; a few weeks after we left a friend who’d eaten there with us was back in Shanghai, and he discovered that not only the restaurant was gone, but everything within a radius of a few hundred metres had also been demolished, apartment blocks already rising on the site.

'Fuzhou Lu Mailboxes, 2005', © Greg Girard, 2006

'Fuzhou Lu Mailboxes, 2005', © Greg Girard, 2006

One of the ironies of this process is that it is largely undocumented. Images of Shanghai tend to fall into one of two categories, seeking to capture either the gleaming modernity of the new China, or the elegance and mystery of Old Shanghai.

In a very real sense this is a reflection of a more profound double-vision that afflicts most Western interest in Shanghai. Whether in guidebooks or literature, Western eyes seem unable to see that there are other Shanghais lurking beneath the surface of the city, histories and realities laid down during the Occupation and the Cultural Revolution which exist alongside the more comfortable images of Old Shanghai’s glitter and decadence and New Shanghai’s shining skyscrapers and designer boutiques.

'600 Things, 2005', © Greg Girard, 2006

'600 Things, 2005', © Greg Girard, 2006

These questions are on my mind because I’ve been working on a non-fiction piece about the city, but they’ve also reminded me about the one book I’ve ever seen that seems to me to catch something of the accretive nature of Shanghai as a city, its sense of layered history, which is Greg Girard’s splendid Phantom Shanghai. The images in Greg’s book show a city in flux, a place where the past is being gradually wiped away, yet they also show the many, often enigmatic, traces its past has left. Somewhere – and it may be in Denton Welch’s marvelously strange Maiden Voyage, but I can’t find the reference – there’s a wonderful description of the way Chinese cities and towns often seem to be constructed out of detritus, repaired and repurposed, yet still resembling nothing so much as a conglomeration of offcasts and broken things, and there’s something of this in the images in Phantom Shanghai, as well as a sense of the almost surreal light of the city at night, the reflected glow of the pollution and the neon. But there’s also a sense of the ghostliness of the city, of the way its seems haunted by its past, and by the simultaneous closeness and irretrievability of that past.

With Greg Girard’s permission I’ve reproduced several images from the book in this post, and you can see more by visiting the Monte Clark Gallery website, or Greg Girard’s website (where you can also read William Gibson’s introduction) but I really do urge anyone with an interest in Shanghai to buy the book, – it’s a remarkable document of a city in transition, and of a world which is vanishing even as we speak.

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Never real and always true

edition_imagephpI’ve got a piece about depression and creativity in the latest Griffith Review, Essentially Creative. The piece explores the links between mood disorders and creativity, and asks what we’re losing when we define behaviours intimately connected with creativity as disorders. It’s also a very personal piece, and one I found quite confronting to write.

As I say in the article:

I am not sure that if, fifteen or twenty years ago when I began writing, I was asked whether it was connected with my troubled moods, I would have seen the connection. Yet, looking back, it seems obvious. I came to writing almost by mistake, stumbling on it in my final year at university. At first I wrote poetry, partly as a way of sublimating desire, partly because it seemed to offer the most immediate vehicle for the feelings and experiences I sought to explore. Later, when I began to write fiction, my motivations were more complex, but the writing remained grounded in these same feelings and experiences.
But these feelings and experiences, and more particularly their intensity and what seemed to me their singularity, were inextricably bound up with the cyclic episodes of sadness and irrationality that have afflicted me since I was twelve.

Unfortunately the piece isn’t available online, but you can buy Essentially Creative from Readings or Gleebooks, as well as in any decent bricks and mortar bookshop. Or you can subscribe to Griffith Review on their website.

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Radio, Radio?

This-Years-ModelI was listening to Bruce Springsteen belt out ‘Radio Nowhere’, the opening track to his 2007 album, Magic, the other day, and as I did I was struck by how archaic it felt. Not in terms of its energy – as anyone who heard him perform ‘The Rising’ at the concert to celebrate Obama’s inauguration a few weeks ago knows, Bruce can still crank out the tunes like nobody’s business – but in terms of its invocation of the radio as a vehicle of connection.

When I was a teenager growing up in Adelaide in the 1980s, the radio – and music more generally – was a lifeline, a connection to a larger, more vivid world. Listening to it was a way of believing, however briefly, that there were other people, out there in the dark, just like you. And whether rightly or not, we invested the music we listened to, the music we loved, with all that longing and desire and need to escape.

No doubt that’s why the radio is such a powerful trope in the music of the period. I can think of a half a dozen songs without even trying – Elvis Costello’s ‘Radio, Radio’, Meatloaf’s ‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light’, The Sports’ ‘Who Listens to the Radio’, to take three examples, which bounce off the idea of the radio as a vehicle for connection (albeit a corrupted one, in the case of Elvis Costello’s ‘Radio, Radio’). All of them depend upon an idea of music as something almost talismanic, something which defines and liberates, and the radio as a medium for communion with that power.

But listening to Bruce Springsteen the other day, I found myself wondering whether that’s still the case. There’s no doubt the importance of radio to teenagers must have diminished. They can access music from anywhere, any time they want, and they’re constantly connected to friends, both real and virtual, by social networking. But more deeply, I found myself wondering, isn’t it possible the sheer ubiquity of contemporary media, the immediate accessibility of any song, anywhere, pretty much at the flick of a switch, is eroding the intensity of people’s connection to the music they love?

I know I’m articulating a very particular sort of cultural anxiety, but that doesn’t mean my question is an entirely frivolous one. Certainly at least part of the reason music mattered to us in the 1980s was because it was scarce. Albums were expensive, tapes were unreliable, the radio played things as and when it felt like it. But that’s no longer the case. And there’s little doubt that the endless feed of information from the net has changed the way people read, driving modes of interaction wth text which are about skimming, and sampling, and only very occasionally about reading carefully, or deeply. So mightn’t the contemporary world’s immediate access to music be doing something similar to our relationship with music, and more particularly the relationship of teenagers to music? 

For what it’s worth, in 2001 Triple J’s Richard Kingsmill compiled this list of songs about the radio.

Update: I’ve just discovered this piece by Mark Mordue, which speaks much more eloquently than I have about the power of music for those growing up away from the bright lights of the big city.

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