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Posts tagged ‘Meanjin’

Encounters with the Uncanny: Postscript

Last week I mentioned that the September Meanjin has an essay by me about ghosts and ghost stories. At the time the piece was print-only, but I’m delighted to say it’s now available online in its entirety.

Obviously I think you should read it right away, but once you have I think you should come back here, because in the week since it was published it’s acquired an extremely unsettling postscript …

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Encounters with the Uncanny: Ghost Stories and the Brain

Bronwyn Rennex, ‘Safety Pin’, © Bronwyn Rennex, 2004.

The new Meanjin is out today, and as well as being an incredibly gorgeous physical object, includes a piece by me about ghost stories and recent research suggesting many of our encounters with the uncanny may have a physiological basis. You can buy the issue in good bookshops, online or you can subscribe (a particularly good deal at present because Meanjin are offering five issues for the price of four during September), but if you’d like a taste, here are the first few paragraphs:

In 2007, while on a residency in Paris, my partner and I took time out to visit friends in London. It was August, and we were fortunate enough to be offered the opportunity to mind a friend’s mother’s house in Balham Hill. The first night we stayed we were tired; it had been a long day, travelling on the Eurostar with our fifteen-month-old, and so we ordered a pizza, watched television and went to bed early.

I have never been a good sleeper, especially in unfamiliar places, but that night I was asleep almost as soon as my head hit the pillow. For a time I slept undisturbed, but then, sometime deep in the night, I woke, falling out of a deep dreamless sleep into the sort of strange wakefulness jetlag induces. At first I was disoriented, the room unfamiliar in the darkness. Next to me I could hear my partner breathing. Gradually I realised where I was, but even as I did
I was gripped by the certainty I had not woken of my own accord, and that something, somewhere, was wrong.

And then, quite suddenly, I heard a child cry …

Update: the piece is now online, so you can read it at your leisure. But when you have make sure you come back and read the postscript. Alternatively you can buy Meanjin 71/3 online or subscribe.

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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A quick mea culpa

In my post yesterday about the new look Meanjin and the Meanjin blog I omitted to mention the excellent work Jeff Sparrow and his team have been doing at Overland. It wasn’t a deliberate omission, but it was pretty remiss of me, not least because Overland began exploring the possibilities of the online environment more than a decade ago with Overland Express. That said, are there other sites I’ve forgotten? If there are please let me know.

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Meanjin: signal from noise?

MeanjinAfter the acrimony surrounding the absorption of Meanjin into MUP, and the departure of former editor Ian Britain, one could have been forgiven for thinking Sophie Cunningham had accepted a poisoned chalice when she took over as editor last year. I’m not sure anyone would think that now: despite a mildly controversial redesign the magazine seems to have gone from strength to strength under her editorship, a process which is clearly visible in the Winter issue (2/2008) which was launched at Sydney Writers’ Festival last week and features Ross Gibson’s quietly brilliant piece on William Dawes and Patyegarang, Katherine Wilson on the hoaxing of Keith Windschuttle and an interview with Christos Tsiolkas.

I’m obviously not an unbiased reader – I’ve known Sophie for a long time, and she’s published a couple of pieces by me in the new-look magazine – but what I find exciting about her version of Meanjin is its determination to drag the literary magazine into the 21st century. In doing that she’s obviously drawn inspiration from American magazines like McSweeney’s which have embraced the possibilities of advances in publishing technology to create magazines which reflect the omnivorousness of their interests in their physical form, and which are prepared to explore the possibilities opened up by zines and graphic forms such as comics. But she’s also clearly put a lot of effort into trying to reimagine the sort of writing one might find in a magazine such as Meanjin by including more life writing and memoir and commissioning pieces on television and broader questions about digital copyright and new media.

All of which brings us to the Meanjin blog, Spike, which has been going from strength to strength over recent weeks. Although News Ltd are about to launch some kind of new media venture under the stewardship of former Daily Telegraph Editor, David Penberthy, Australian media has handled the transition to digital strikingly badly. In contrast to newspapers such as The Guardian and The New York Times, which have devoted considerable time and energy to developing digital incarnations that embrace the possibilities of the medium by incorporating high-quality blogging and high levels of interactivity, the online versions of our newspapers are largely content to simply replicate their print versions online, albeit in a stripped back and dumbed down form.

This contrast is particularly acute in the context of the cultural pages of Australian newspapers and magazines, through which you can almost hear the tumbleweed blowing. Rather than using the cost pressures upon the print versions of these sections as an excuse to build more sophisticated online presences, Australian newspapers have been progressively scaling back their cultural content online.

Nor – although it must be said this is largely a matter of economics – have our literary magazines embraced the possibilities of digital publishing. There are some notable exceptions out in the blogosphere, where outfits like Larvatus Prodeo have found niches and occupied them with varying degrees of success. And in a slightly more formal context Inside Story is doing some good work, and The Monthly has set up its subscription-based Slow TV. But in general it’s fair to say that most of what’s out there is being done on the sniff of an oily rag by individual bloggers.

That alone would be reason to make Spike – which is already drawing on a pretty wide pool of contributors and producing the sort of steady stream of good material that makes individual bloggers like myself feel exhausted every time we look at it – stand out from the crowd. But what’s more interesting about it is the fact that rather than devoting their resources to reproducing the content from the print version of the magazine online, Meanjin has decided to create a separate entity which complements and extends the print version of the magazine by providing content specifically created for an online environment.

All of which makes the redesign of the physical magazine, and its preparedness to rethink how the medium might affect the message seem less about simply taking design cues from elsewhere and more about a really serious strategy to find a model which might contain good writing across a variety of media (a project that’s also visible in Sophie and the magazine’s enthusiastic and highly successful embrace of the possibilities of Twitter).

In and of itself the successful implementation of such a strategy would be interesting, but I suspect the current convulsions in the media landscape give it increasing urgency. As the newspapers stumble dinosaur-like towards their inevitable oblivion, the question of where the Australian cultural and literary conversation will occur is sharpening, and I’d have to say that at this point the forums aren’t exactly thick on the ground. I can name a slew of American sites such as The Second Pass, Salon, BookForum or The Millions, all of which offer access to writing about books and ideas of a very high standard, and which, to a greater or lesser degree, embrace the possibilities of the internet as a medium. By contrast, there are almost no Australian sites offering anything of the sort, nor – at least without considerable private or institutional backing – does it seem likely there will be any time soon.

I suspect some people will accuse me of cultural nationalism, but they’d be mistaken. All I’m saying is that it’s vital small countries, and in particular anglophone small countries with a long history as importers of culture, possess forums in which ideas and issues be discussed in context. Because without them we’ll be condemned to listening to other people’s conversations, without ever being able to have our own.

All of which makes the Meanjin experiment as important as it is interesting. Because while Meanjin isn’t going to be The Sydney Morning Herald of the future, I do think in it, and in Spike, it’s possible to see a model which suggests it is possible to mark out space for the Australian cultural conversation online without being either stuffy or parochial. And that’s something that really, really matters.

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This ship is dead: Battlestar Galactica and the tyranny of explication

battlestargalactica-s4bLike most devotees of that most improbable of televisual phenomena, Battlestar Galactica, I’ve been blown every which way by the final episodes. With eight of the final ten down, the show has lurched from two of the most powerful and shocking hours of television I’ve ever seen (‘The Oath’ (4.15) and ‘Blood on the Scales’ (4.16)), to dot-point infodumps (‘No Exit’ (4.17)) and weird, slow car-crashes such as ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ (4.19).

At one level the sheer haphazardness of these final episodes shouldn’t be surprising. For all its power as a series, Battlestar Galactica has always been pretty variable episode to episode. In part this is a consequence of the show’s very particular aesthetic, which discards almost all of the connective tissue and explication ordinarily expected in a television show. Combined with the claustrophobic intimacy of the handheld camerawork, this paring-back lends the show its extraordinary, almost hallucinatory intensity, but it can also leave individual episodes feeling surprisingly ragged.

But it’s difficult not to suspect the haphazardness is also at least partly a function of exactly the qualities that have made the show so remarkable. Despite its complex and deeply unsettling political subtext, much of Battlestar Galactica’s fascination has lain in its suggestiveness, and the constant, teasing implication that in the end its many elements will come to form a larger whole (not for nothing do the opening credits inform us that the Cylons “have a plan”).

The problem is of course that it is difficult to picture an explanation capable of drawing the show’s many elements together. Getting echoes of The Aeneid, The Book of Mormon, Paradise Lost, Exodus and other mythic sources, as well as post-9/11 anxieties about terrorism and loss and the War on Terror into the air together is one thing, but once they’re married to the mystery of the Cylons’ origins, the show’s own mythology, questions as to Starbuck’s true nature, the President’s visions, the political subtexts and most particularly the show’s constant, haunting refrain that “All of this has happened before, and will happen again” it’s difficult to see how the show’s creators can keep them all aloft at once.

Certainly the explanations offered thus far have been pretty unsatisfying. Quite aside from the jarring note of the Final Cylon’s identity, the attempt to explain the Cylons’ origins and the nature of the Final Five have managed to be both confusing and unsatisfying, managing to simultaneously reduce the show’s complex political allegory to a squabble between a spoiled son and his parents (as’s Annalee Newitz has observed) and to make the uncanny and profoundly disturbing Cylons oddly mundane. Then there’s the slightly too literal metaphorical business of Galen repairing Galactica by grafting Cylon biotechnology into her body, and the messy process of reorganizing the Council to reflect the changed composition of Human/Cylon society. And then, for every great moment, such as last week’s funeral for the crew killed trying to repair the damage caused by Boomer’s escape, and its glimpse of three separate belief systems struggling to make sense of the same questions of mortality, and loss, there’s a bum note such as Baltar’s speech at the funeral’s conclusion (though I think this most recent incarnation of Baltar is pretty unconvincing in general).

As I’ve observed elsewhere, there’s always been something slightly unnerving about the show’s creator, Ronald D. Moore’s openness about the casual manner in which many of the crucial decisions about the show are made. We want, as viewers, for it all to connect in a meaningful way, and more importantly, in a manner which allows the explanation to be more interesting than the process of getting there. But the fact is, with a show like Battlestar Galactica, where the ambiguities its political and mythic allegories suggest are much of the point, that’s unlikely to be a desire that’s compatible with resolution, or at least conventional resolution of the sort series television usually demands.

I want to write at more length about the final season once it’s done and dusted (I’ll probably wait for the Cylon-centric Edward James Olmos-directed telemovie which is apparently going to appear as a weird sort of coda somewhere between Saturday week and the DVD release of the spinoff series, Caprica) but in the meantime, Sophie Cunningham at Meanjin has very kindly given me permission to reproduce a piece I wrote about the show, ‘All Of This Has Happened Before And Will Happen Again: Humanity, Inhumanity and Otherness in Battlestar Galactica for the magazine’s December 2008 issue, which I’ve made available via my Writing page. The piece was written in the interregnum between the first half of Season Four and the second, so parts of it have been oveertaken by the developments in recent episodes, but the bulk of it is still current, and may be worth a look if you’re a fan of the show.

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