Friday, 26 September 2008

True Grit

By Charles Portis

Loved it.

I've been going through a John Wayne phase. You can buy his films cheap if you buy them in bulk. Across three collections, I scored about 30 the Duke's films for just $80. For a little under $3 a film, it's great value. I've been going through them slowly in the past few months - some are absolutley fantastic (The Searchers and Rio Bravo are standouts so far) and some are fucking retarded (Rio Lobo... write it down; write the words 'Rio Lobo' down, commit them to memory, and make a pledge to never see that movie). The other night I got to 'True Grit' and was about to hit 'play', but then remembered I owned the book. "What the Hell," says I, "I'll watch another film tonight, and actually read True Grit before I watch the flick," (this then lead to the Rio Lobo disaster of 2008. Seriously, I can't begin to describe how pathetic Rio Lobo is. As a 19 year old girl I met recently would say, "It was AIDS.").

The book starts: "People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood..." and from that very first few words to the very last, the book was UNPUTDOWNABLE.

It is told in the voice of the fourteen year old girl, Mattie, whose father was killed by one of his workers, a man called Tom Chaney, "...a short man with cruel features."

Mattie, though young, has an exacting or calculating manner about her to the point that I surmised she had Aspbergers, and with a mix of that need for exactitude along with guts, skill, wits and a Presbyterian's old-testament longing for revenge, she doggedly hunts down Tom Chaney.

I'm not being flippant on the Aspberger's line either. I don't know if that's just the way Portis writes or whether he's brilliantly skilled at bringing a unique young girl's voice to light, but, Mattie is brilliantly formed, so unique, in a kind of manner that's not quite right but nor is it bad, or wrong, or off-putting. No, Mattie is just, well, umm, not cold as such, but full on. Fortunately, her single-mindedness is taking us on a great adventure with what could only be described as a noble cause... the taking down of a violent killer in revenge for her father's death.

To hunt down the man, she enlists the services of a mean Marshal renowned for having 'true grit'. This is 'Rooster' Cogburn (the John Wayne part), and along with a Texas Ranger by the name of LaBoef (who is hunting the same man for killing a Senator back in Waco, Texas), the three hunters go deep into Indian-held territory.

It's a classic Western. It's also a classic moral tale, a classic chase, a classic adventure - it's romance free but sexy as fuck. It's got shootouts, dead horses, skeletons, rattlesnakes, Indians, double-crossers, executions... everything you want.

They talk mean. The Texas Ranger wants the killer to pay for the high-profile crime of murdering a Senator (and his dogs) back in Texas but young Mattie wants him hanged for the crime of murdering her simple and honest father.

"I want him to know he is being punished for killing my father. It is nothing to me how many dogs and fat men he killed in Texas."

"You can let him know that," said Rooster. "You can tell him to his face. You can spit on him and make him eat sand out of the road. You can put a ball in his foot and I will hold him while you do it. But we must catch him first."

I like the way Portis brings in characters for cameos (if you ever read it, watch out for the bloke 'Stonehill' who in just a few pages becomes one of the best fictional characters I've known). I like the way Mattie interacts with these cameos. The night before she leaves, she decides to sleep in the stable with her horse Little Blackie rather than waste money at the boarding-house for just a few hours' sleep (her financial acumen is a recurring theme).

The watchman was an old man. He helped me to shake out the dusty quilt that was on the bunk. I looked in on Little Blackie at his stall and made sure everything was in readiness. The watchman followed me around.

I said to him, "Are you the one that had his teeth knocked out?"

"No, that was Tim. Mine was drawn by a dentist. He called himself a dentist."

"Who are you?"


I can smell Hemingway...

Rooster, though mean and violent, has a heart under it all. Discovering two young boys torturing a mule, he frees the mule, gives the boys a' whippin' and says to one of them, "See that you mend your ways, boy, or I will come back some dark night and cut off your head and let the crows peck your eyeballs out."

It's at times a violent book, and perhaps the only time we ever get a sense that young Mattie feels fear is when an interrogation of two young cattle-thieves goes wrong. One of them, Moon, who was shot earlier, starts to spill the beans, and suddenly the situation spirals out of control. Fingers are chopped off, guns are fired, people are stabbed and Mattie records, "My thought was: I am better out of this. I tumbled backward from the bench and sought a place of safety on the dirt floor."

As Moon lays dying, he talks of his brother.

I said, "Do you want us to tell your brother what happened to you?"

He said, "It don't matter about that. He knows I am on the scout. I will meet him later walking the streets of Glory."


That'll do for extracts. You have to read it. It can be done in one sitting. One rainy afternoon, or as I did it, one empty evening tanked on coffee and Dunhills with an old cat beside me, occassionally strirring.

I wonder what it is I suddenly, in my late 30's, like so much about the Western? For starters, I like the names of things. Daniel Webster's Cigars, Stonehill's Livery Stable, The Grangers Trust Co. of Topeka, Kansas, and my favourite in this book, a reference to a company called 'The Great Arkansas River, Vicksburg & Gulf Steamship Company'.

I like the simple food they eat. Oh, I love gourmet chefs' stream-of-consciousness "agitated greens with Nicaraguan virgin jus" type stuff, but I also like meat and three veg. I think I even like it more, the older I get, and as these western stereotypes range across the land, whether the law or the lawless, they drink their coffee in the morning, their whiskey at night, and in between there's some salted pork, bread and maybe a bite of corn. Many smoke.

These Western stereotypes also have a pleasing mix of anarchy and freedom, but tinged with a sense of community, hard-work, morality and 'what's right and wrong'. Oh, there's a bit too much God-fearin' and that Old Testament rhetoric but I'm prepared to look past it and suggest that for then, back then, in those times, it was intellectual solace (no excuse now).

In the end maybe it's the stereotype itself that attracts me. I spent much of my late 20's banging on about post-modernism, about challenging the hegemony, bringing down stereotypes, throwing history away - stomping on it first - and starting anew with a Foucaultian Utopia where gender, race, class, sexuality, sanity and culture hardly exist beyond their entry in some dusty Museum's ledger.

But now suddenly I'm all, "Fuck it. A man's a man."

That's not denying variations thereof, nor does it condone violence or the evil that men do. Hell, it's the opposite. Sheikh Al Hilaly and his 'uncovered meat' fable diminishes the manliness of him and his flock as far as I'm concerned because real men act like real men, not like budding Satans with unbridled lusts for domination.

But saying a man is a man is a man is just saying, ecce homo, and, well, that's just how it is, and we all, deep down, know what 'being a man about things' infers.

It's the Western that right now exemplifies this for me, and this book is a highly entertaining Western.

I give it a B+.

(PS: The film 'True Grit' was a bit of a let-down of course. It was okay, but, it was largely ruined by a completely inapparopriate soundtrack (which seemed to never stop) that was lithe, light and fluffy - totally at odds with the themes of the story. Also, and I guess it's just because of when it was made and what audience they hoped to reach out to, the film, rather ironically lacked the very thing it promised most: grit.)

Tuesday, 23 September 2008


By Mary Shelley


The story itself is fantastic. Obviously, we all know the basics. Brilliant but mad Dr. Frankenstein makes a monster out of spare parts, it goes on a murderous rampage, the doctor gets on to the drugs, cue moral lesson #17 “Be careful what you wish for...” , some parallels with Actaeon getting eaten by his own hounds and about a hundred other metaphors, life lessons and subtexts ranging from Christian sexual dysfunction to, “Oh no, I ruined my soufflé... I’m Frankenstein!”.

But my knowledge of the tale was based on the B-grade cartoons and movies of my childhood, and The Munsters, and I was pleasantly surprised that at every corner I really didn’t know what was going to happen next.

I always thought Dr. Frankenstein was an old man. Oh no, in the original, he’s a gifted young University student when he brings the monster to life. I also thought he had a dumb hunchbacked assistant. Nope. And I also thought he ran through cemeteries gathering spare parts. Wrong again. In fact, Frankenstein is very vague as to how he gathered the parts, saying only that he, “...collected bones from charnel-houses...” and, “...the dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials,”. As for the process of bringing a monster into the world, he simply announces that one day he realised that he “...possessed the capacity of bestowing animation,” and, “...having spent some months in successfully collecting and arranging my materials, I began.” That's about the sum total of information we get regarding his creation. As for the particular science of the creation, we get nothing. Nothing at all. Still, good on Mary Shelley for not boring us with complex scientific wish-wash, and in a way, the lack of science and procedure helps the story chug along (something Hollywood needs to re-learn... yeah, I’m looking at you George Lucas).

The night Frankenstein finally animates his monster, his first reaction is: “How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form?... Breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.”

Cue memory of creations gone wrong in our own lives: In my case it was my Year 7 Woodwork assignment. I spent months creating a swan. I chiselled its wings, smoothed its face, put a little of myself into every sandpaper scrub and when I handed it in the teacher said, “What is it? A turtle? I’ll give you a C.” The next project was a tray. I failed, and started to become more bookish.

Anyway, after the monster comes to life, what does Dr. Frankenstein do? Instead of immediately putting the monster down, he runs into his bedroom and goes to sleep, leaving the monster to fend for itself. The most awesome moment of the book then takes place. The monster works its way into his bedroom.

“He held up the curtain of the bed; and his eyes, if eyes they may be called, were fixed on me. His jaws opened, and he muttered some inarticulate sounds, while a grin wrinkled his cheeks. He might have spoken, but I did not hear; one hand was stretched out, seemingly to detain me, but I escaped...”

Even reading it now, and knowing what we do of the poor monster’s fate, it’s a powerful scene. What’s both tragic, and in its way quite hilarious, is that Frankenstein not only escapes, but he actually kind of just gets on with his life for a few years, only occasionally wondering what ever happened to that monster thing he created.

We discover later that the monster at that point didn’t even know what he was, or what anything was, including ‘life’, which reminds me of the great monologue by the whale, suddenly ‘invented’ and dropped from the sky in Hitchhiker’s... (I fear this reminder also exposes me as part-nerd).

“Ahhh! Woooh! What's happening? Who am I? Why am I here? What's my purpose in life? What do I mean by who am I? Okay okay, calm down calm down get a grip now. Ooh, this is an interesting sensation. What is it? Its a sort of tingling in my... well I suppose I better start finding names for things. Lets call it a... tail! Yeah! Tail! And hey, what's this roaring sound, whooshing past what I'm suddenly gonna call my head? Wind! Is that a good name? It'll do. Yeah, this is really exciting. I'm dizzy with anticipation! Or is it the wind? There's an awful lot of that now isn't it? And what's this thing coming toward me very fast? So big and flat and round, it needs a big wide sounding name like 'Ow', 'Ownge', 'Round', 'Ground'! That's it! Ground! Ha! I wonder if it'll be friends with me? Hello Ground!”


But back to the horrror.

The fact the monster was smiling at his creator makes the scene all the more tormenting to me.

So anyway, a few years later, Frankenstein’s little brother gets murdered and by chance he discovers the monster was the murderer.

A confrontation occurs between Frankenstein and his monster; the monster demands a wife, otherwise there’ll be more killing. Frankenstein acquiesces, but changes his mind just before completing the bride, so he chucks the bride-parts into the ocean.

Of course the monster gets mighty pissed off and goes on his murderous rampage. The story then takes us as far as the North Pole where there’s plenty more excitement to be had.

There’s a great scene on Frankenstein’s wedding night, where instead of screwing his wife (who he’s been waiting to marry since childhood) he instead patrols the corridors of the inn, high on drugs, carrying a gun and ready to shoot the monster. I couldn’t help but detect a fear of sex in the whole scene and in fact, once I got to that bit, I realised that on just about every page of this book there’s plenty of subtext to rummage through, as well as some impeccably created mythology that we can use to both reflect and admire.

The fact that much of the imagery from this original tale still permeates our culture is testament to its many layers.

Also, published in 1818, I wonder if it's the first book to ever provide us with the oft-employed horror cliché of a lightning bolt illuminating a spine-chilling visage for an instant?

“I perceived in the gloom a figure which stole from behind a clump of trees near me; I stood fixed, gazing intently: I could not be mistaken. A flash of lightning illuminated the object, and discovered its shape plainly to me; its gigantic stature, and the deformity of its aspect, more hideous than belongs to humanity, instantly informed me that it was the wretch, the filthy daemon...”

In fact, there’s a lot of horror clichés that could probably be traced back to this book and of course Stoker’s excellent ‘Dracula’, but I suppose back then when they were released they weren’t clichés at all. One imagines this book would have once been considered truly horrifying.


Oh, it’s all so POMPOUS. Unlike Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ , it’s ability to scare is diminished by the pompous upper-class twittery of the language Shelley writes in.

For starters, we can’t discern between characters and narrators because they all talk in exactly the same Lord Snot way as each other.

The whole Frankenstein family speak in identical Pompous Twat... and for fuck’s sake, SO DOES THE MONSTER. After going missing for a few years after his 'birth', the first time we hear words come from his mouth he sounds like he has a silver spoon rammed deep up his arse:

“All men hate the wretched; how, then, must I be hated, who am miserable beyond all living things! Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us.”

Now, an eloquent monster is fair enough, but it’s a great leap of faith I’m forced to make that in only two years he has gone from ‘Ugga ugga ugga’, to learning the alphabet by eavesdropping on a family ,and then, for his first book, reading Plutarch’s ‘Lives’ (no joke, that’s how the monster got to be so well spoken in the course of a couple of years). But when Frankenstein responds with:

Abhorred monster! Fiend that thou art! The tortures of Hell are too mild a vengeance for thy crimes!”.. I began to realise that Shelley only had one style of writing, and it was coming out of the mouths of not just these two characters, but every other character as well, and the narrator(s). There doesn’t appear to be one linguistic differential between any of ‘em.

Add to that, Frankenstein is a fucking girl and it’s like Shelley grabbed a discarded Jane Austen character from the Austen family’s garbage bin, put a dick on it, called it a mad scientist and made it her central character.

Another thing that bugged me was its lack of sexual tension. The Magic Faraway Tree has more eroticism than this book, and so does Toadie from Neighbours and that tea-towel on my kitchen bench. Like, there’s none. You’d think, given that Shelley used to hang out with the likes of her libertine husband Percy and his best mate, the sister/bear-fucking Goth pinup boy Lord Byron, she’d give us a heaving bosom or a nod to someone’s virility or even a well-turned ankle, or a sweaty bicep, but no, it’s all just so chaste. In a sense, I ended up coming to the conclusion that the whole book was one giant reflection of Mary's own sexual dysfunction and/or disinterest, and I offer this un-researched and ill-informed scurrilous piece of gossip: Mary Shelley was a dud root.

Perhaps her only sexual reference was attributing these words to one of the narrators (a sea-captain who finds Dr. Frankenstein floating on a slab of ice) in a letter to his sister... “I have one want which I have never yet been able to satisfy, and the absence of the object of which I now feel as a most severe evil... I desire the company of a man...”

So Shelley has a bit of gay fantasy, but, you know, that line was on Page 4, and that was the end of that!

I can’t help but compare it to Dracula, which was both scary and sexy. Frankenstein is neither. It’s a little creepy at times, and even sad, but never really chilling and certainly not steamy.

Aside from the monster’s demand (not desire, it was only a demand) for a wife, there is zero reference to anything even vaguely approaching sex and in that, the book lacks a certain spunk. Even death is treated in a most inartistic and mundane fashion. So analysis of our two favourite themes in art, in life, in being a human – sex and death – are absent from this book (which is the complete opposite of the Holy Bible, which, is slowly dawning on me as the greatest documentation of our human lusts and our fear of/ obsession with death... and yet the pious amongst us would claim that the very opposite is true of these two publications).

Once this lack of primal themes started to sink in with me, Shelley’s Frankenstein started to bug me. Bataille would have not got past page 3.


I’ll leave the conclusion to the monster himself, in perhaps his finest soliloquy. This one actually affected me strongly because it reminded me of people I have met in my life - the ones that tend to fuck things up for everyone else.

“I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on. .. You hate me; but your abhorrence cannot equal that with which I regard myself...”


I give it a C Minus.

Mary Shelley - a dud root

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Top 11 Novels

It's been a while. This happens to me. About once a year, I stop reading for a month or so. I read newspapers, and sports statistics, and get into the footy finals and stuff like the Olympics and that, and the whole book thing winds down. But, I'll have two new book reviews next week... maybe even three (I'm on a novel, a science book and the Bible all at once).

In the meantime, because nobody asked me to, I'm going to be one of those 'list' people and I'm going to have a stab at my Top 11 novels. I have linked them all to Amazon, just in case you are swept away with interest and feel like buying them for yourselves (but please try to buy them at Readings first). I've also linked the authours to their wiki entry.

1. The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat

2. Crime And Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

3. One Hundred Years Of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

4. The Old Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway

5. The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea by Yukio Mishima

6. Journey To The End Of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand Celine

7. The Sound And The Fury by William Faulkner

8. L'assamoir by Emile Zola

9. Christ Recrucified by Nikos Kazantzakis

10. The Tree Of Man by Patrick White

11. Blindness by Jose Saramago

(Apologies to George Orwell, Red Badge Of Courage, every other Dostoyevsky novel, Auto da Fe, some Nabakov books, Enid Blyton, The Enormous Room, Steinbeck, For Whom The Bell Tolls and The Wizard of Oz... you all made the shortlist)

There's only so much one can say about another's list, so instead, please feel free to put your own Top 10 list in the comments (novels only).

If you think my list sucks, well, get fucked.