Expat@Large

Dedication

Posted in books, hard slog, writers by expatatlarge on April 2, 2012

My occasional flatmate C, a lady-friend from HK, [settle down troops, nothing going on] keeps a cartoon journal. Everyday she draws hilarious little doodles in a notepad given to her by her daughter for Christmas. Nothing much, just fifteen minutes of cute cartoons inpired by her day. A funny pic of C with an appropriate emoticon face, a talk bubble with an explanation or an exclamation, and the day has been analysed, sorted.

Nothing necessarily big. Just something, every day.

Neato.

She has not missed a day since the beginning of the year.

Wish I had that dedication.

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And as my attempts to play that $180million app Draw Something have shown, I can’t draw cartoons either.

Doomed.

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No examples of either, sorry.

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In other news, my favorite opening few lines of a novel have changed. No longer are these classic vying for top spot: “It was a starkers night in the dorm;” “riverrun, past Eve and Adams from swerve of shore to bend of bay brings us by a commodius vicus of circumnavigation back to Howth Castle and environs” (or something like that); “Listen. Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time;” “One morning Grigor Samsor woke from a night of restless dreams to find he been transformed into a giant cockroach;” etc…

All are usurped by Robert Walser’s opening two sentences of his 1925 novel, The Robber.

“Edith loves him. More on this later.”

How awesomely fuck-you-literary-conventions-creative-writing-101 is that?

According to the blurb, Walser wrote this in almost indecipherable microscript. A first draft presumably; but Walser never bothered to transcribe it into a fair copy because he did not plan on publishing it. It was not “deciphered” and published in German until 1972 and finally translated to English in 2000 (review linked above).

Neato.

He was confined in a mental institution for the last 30 years or so of his life, at first of his own volition, as they say (which he says a lot), but latterly by Doctor’s orders – although perhaps undeservedly. He went for a walk, and wrote something, every day. One day, on his walk, he fell dead in the snow. He didn’t write much that day I guess.

You might recall that I had this beautiful Walser quote on my old blog: “We don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.”

E@L

(I have blogged about him once before (back when I was funny) when I was in Zurich on the way to a ski holiday.)

Words On Paper

Posted in books, writers by expatatlarge on September 8, 2011

You’re living for nothing now,
I hope you’re keeping some kind of record.

Famous Blue Raincoat: Leonard Cohen

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E@L has had several great out loud laughs in the last few days. Not least was induced by this photo he found on Joanne’s I Have Seen The Whole Of The Internet blog-like funny thing aggregator. You know, the type of blog that gets hits. He can’t put the photo up here or he’d just keep giggling and not finish the post…

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And the other bunch of guffaws, many of them embarrassingly public, were from reading Steve Hely’s winner of the award for the least subtle book title of the year,

How I Became a Famous Novelist
How I Became A Famous Novelist.

Hely is a writer for 30 Rock (love it), Family Man (not seen it) and The Office (US Version, not seen much of it, but it’s funny), and you can certainly see the type of idiosyncrasies of many of the characters in these shows in the characters in this book. That is a GOOD thing, because, well, E@L laughs out loud at the idiosyncratic characters in 30 Rock. So he is the target demographic here.

Plus, natch, he had been planning on being a famous novelist himself one day. Soon. -ish.

The book rams a hot satirical skewer up the arse of the publishing industry (possibly, well, for all E@L knows about it, Hely could be completely making it up) and not to mention the banality-loving mouth-open-when-they-read public (E@L has sinus issues) that keeps the industry tearing down trees and polluting the rivers and oceans with run-off from the pulp mills for fun, profit and entertainment. Dumb readers. Out there. In general. Not you. Not me.

It’s a hoot. If you do nothing else, grab a copy in the airport bookstore (they still have them?) and turn to the charts on pages 42 and 44, at the end of Chapter 2. Hely has written a facetious NYT best-seller list; it is an hilarious send-up. Guffaw 1.

In Chapter 3 he lists his guy’s – Pete Tarshaw – 16 Rules Of Writing a Bestseller. E@L is not going to run through them all here as that would be, like, a spoiler. More like copyright infringement. OK, except for these two.

Rule 9: At dull points include descriptions of delicious meals. Guffaw 2.

Rule 16: Include plant names. Guffaw 3.

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True story. At one point in time, E@L was preparing to consider getting ready to start making notes for his N-word [not *that* n-word] yet again, and thought, fuck, in all these books you read the people must be, like, fucking botanists! He thought, fuck I’ve gotta flesh out (as it were) the strip-joint and b-j stories with something else, like, um, nature walks. There’s nature in Hong Kong, right? There are mountains, hey, must be nature somewhere nearby.

He remembers getting bugged by all these red-bodied dragonflies buzzing over his pool, or swarming halfway along Bowen Rd path and wanted to, you know, make it seem like he knew about dragonflies the way Nabokov knows butterflies, for the N-word. So he went looking up names of the many types of dragonfly in Hong Kong.

He kids you not.

Phew, enough of that shit now. “He saw a lot of dragonflies. They were near trees and some flowers. On the mountain. ”

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Pete’s goal is to get famous quickly so he can turn up at his ex-girlfriend’s wedding the next year and show them all that he is not a loser. E@L is not going to tell you how well that plan turns out. Comedy, right? So he spends several months banging on his typewriter, and hey presto – famous. Or infamous, whatever, no such thing as bad publicity…

Two points of order, Australians (the groom-to-be in an Aussie) do no called rugby “rugger”. They call it rugby. Neither, when cheering do they shout “hurrah!” (wtf? – is this Goodbye Mr Fuck And Chips?), but “hooray!” (or “Oi Oi Oi”).

Other than those minor points, the book is an epic of hilarious literary slapstick. OK it gets a bit hokey at the very end, (Rule 6: Evoke confusing sadness at the end), but then, you know, endings… and beginnings.

Pete Tarshaw was not a blocked writer though. He already has a way with words, he churns out brilliant faux applications for foreigners who desire the prestige of America’s ivied universities. So sit and write? Can.

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The movie Limitless, another case in point.

Eddy is a self-proclaimed writer who has been not writing a book for 9 years. Not one word. Sit and write? Cannot.

Now, a few chemicals and he pops a great book out in four letters-falling-from-the-ceiling days.

E@L wishes. It takes him four days to finish a paragraph, a sentence, sometimes just a word.

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The best modern book on this theme, well the best E@L has read and can remember, is John Colapinto’s (4.5 stars on Amazon)

More about About the Author
About The Author.

In this one, Cal is supposed to be a writer, but expends all his energy on stories he tells of his sexual shenanigans over dinner parties, and in the end, never puts words on paper. His quiet cycle-riding flatmate Stewart has been taking it all in… When Stewart dies in a crash, Cal finds a manuscript in his flatmate’s room, a brilliantly written novel that contains all the tales that Cal has been telling, the ones that he was supposed to writing in his novel.

E@L read this one in Hong Kong. E@L told his buddies how much he liked the novel, but their response was unexpected, though it should have been expected. They wanted E@L to keep telling them those stories of his outrageous action-adventures in the underbelly of the expat elite (in the what?!), and they would write it down as a novel and sell it as their own.

E@L of course did not believe them, just as Cal did not even know that Stewart was capable of writing, but it did stimulate him to start a blog. He thought it best to get some of the stories down, as a copyright sort of thing.

But he would save the best of these stories, the one’s he thought were the funniest and that meant most self-deprecating in most cases, for the N-word.

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And you know, E@L is getting old. Sure he looks great and jovial, sprightly, adventurous (he wore no underpants when he walked up to the shop last night – he forgot to put them on) and still young at heart. [Heart? let’s not talk about cardiac disease in the family, OK?]

Realistically, unless some medication comes his way, the N-word will not eventuate. If only for the fact that he has too many good buddies now and too much of a social life.

Well is he is feeling old. And he is feeling that every second word he types is misspelled, that all the ‘i’ before ‘e’ stuff that he used to be so pedantic about is gone, and that ellipses in his all sentences. Sorry, that *there are* ellipses in all his sentences. He feels that his hands are too slow for his brain, or his brain too slow for the keyboard, or that the letters on the keyboard are jumping around in order to confuse him.

So he is sitting and writing them down now, all the inappropriate stories he has only ever told over dinners in mixed company, all the best ones.

The Taiwanese sumo wrestler story, the Cheshire Cat story, the getting rolled by a hooker with metal staples in her tits story, the first-time rim story, the two Mongolian girl’s story, the nearly got a b-j in a bar that doesn’t find that stuff amusing story, some Bangkok stories (the “oh, don’t tell me you’re a man” story, for example), some Singapore stories. He used to say that in his first two years in Hong kong he had already tallied up more *interesting* stories than he had in his previous forty years. Well, he’s been in Asia for more than 13 years now…

He is writing them down before he forgets them, before he has to dig out a thesaurus to look for a word that means ‘thesaurus’ and before he has to Google everything, everyfuckingthing.

People tell him he is not so funny any more. Maybe he has lost his sense of humour. The rest of his senses can’t be far behind.

E@L

p.s. E@L’s friend Mike McClung, aka Mercer Machine, has been head down and arse up recently too – writing that means, working hard ai it. He has a heap of fantasy stories coming out all over the place. Check his blog for details.

( Hang on! Doesn’t a heap have to be all in one place, sort of, you know, by definition?)

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My favorite version of Raincoat, Tori Amos from the Tower of Song tribute album. Apologies for the corny video.

Unforgivable

Posted in books, dysfunctional families, French, writers, writing by expatatlarge on February 24, 2011

…is the situation re: Philippe Djian. My copy of the book arrived from some sub-dealer with Alibris and it had a black pen across the pages at the bottom – remaindered, right? Yet I paid for an unmarked ‘NEW’ copy! Anyway, finished it tonight…

Well, should a) I send it back, or b) learn to read French in order to catch up on all Djian’s untranslated stuff, or c) was this the only one worth translating over the past 20 years, or d) why can’t we just get over the Betty Blue thing and translate some more of his brilliant stuff into English, and why, while we are in a cataloging mode, e) can’t we just dump Michel Houllebecq – he should delay no more and get his merde out of our visages – we want more Djian!

More about Unforgivable

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I know that this blog rambles from nonsensical book reviews (case in point) to the cataloging of the sexual exploits of various people called Bruce, to para-seditious mumblings about Singapore’s taxi drivers, coffee purveyors and the spookily ubiquitous Lee family who run the city of Singapore like a fascist state. Well big deal. Blogging is dead. These digital pages are for me and my handful of necrophiliac lurkers and zombie friends. And I don’t care if you’d rather read about Clive Cussler, Clive James or Clive Barker – what I’d like to talk about tonight is what I talk about tonight.

And I really had trouble deciding what tone to take in this book review type post tonight. I chose the ‘pissed ramble’.

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You’ve never met such an arsehole as the narrator in this relatively short novel (212 pages, large type). Not that he is violent (much) or your classic anti-hero as such, not a likable rogue who gets away with it, not your Ripley/Alfie type. No, he is just selfish to the point of pathology and as grumpy, narcissistic and insensitive as anyone you’d ever have the misfortune to meet – in short, he is French. Or English, in the Kingsly Amis, Philip Larkin mold.

‘Curmudgeon’ is a word you might associate with such grumpy, intransigent old men as this, and with the previous generation of angry young/old men writers like the above-mentioned insufferable (at least to his son and wives) Kingsley Amis. Well the protagonist of Djian’s recently translated novel is also a curmudgeonly old writer, an ostensibly (and perhaps essentially) unlovable, fastidious and unloving, old fart. Self-centred and misanthropic? You have no idea. Makes the infamously arsehole-ish Kingsley look like the unflappably affable host of a Sunday morning TV chat show on the shopping channel.

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The elderly writer Francis (please Lord I hope this is not based on Djian, surely on Amis) has one surviving daughter, Alice. When she was a teenager, her mom and sister were incinerated after a car accident in front of their eyes as she and Dad, who both survived the crash, looked on, helpless. To illustrate his insensitivity and self-centredness, at one point, just after the tragedy, Djian has Francis come into her room and tell the desperately grieving Alica, that hey, he has writer’s block and needs some sympathy.

Alice has grown up to be a (willful selfish) famous actress, who is rather alienated from dad (duh!), and shagging the likes of Brad (while denying it – “Angelina is my friend“) and/or Shia LaBoeuf, while her ex-drug-abusing banker hubby Roger and their adorable twin girls (one with two less fingers thanks to a stoned Roger) look on with great confusion.

Then Alice disappears.

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Then it goes downhill. New wives, PIs – amateur and professional, old girlfriends turned lesbians with suicidal sons fresh out of jail, and writer’s block, and homosexual dog-murderers, and guns (and lovers) [good name for a band?], misunderstandings, massive jealousy and a web of little white lies… as Francis’ long lost passion for writing comes back…

One of the reviews calls it “cinematic”. I guess that is because Judith, Francis’s second wife, is a real-estate agent. And because someone fires a gun at the end. But the frequent and often un-noted time shifts (paragraph by paragraph sometimes) swerve the narrative back and forth, it might seem like something you’d see in some Stephen Soderburgh directed/edited flick (the person dying in a burning car is another link) like ‘Crash’, rather than having the conventional linearity of the dysfunctional family in ‘American Beauty’.

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I downed the last 80 pages of ‘Unforgivable’ in a rush, along with a bottle of Coonawarra Cab Sav and a medium-rare rib-eye, and was sitting in the low red ambiance of the Rib Room of the Landmark (got upgraded to a suite, so thought I’d give them all their money back) and was stunned (by the book, not the wine, though it was bloody nice too) and considering that if this is what it takes to be a writer, then I don’t want to go there…

Francis’s aunt had a solid affair with Ernest Hemingway (she knitted that thick white jumper you see him wearing in some photos, and sent him a load of anchovies [wtf?]) and he is Francis’ writing hero. He has his aunt’s couch, one that Hemingway slept on (he keeps reminding us) and a framed card thanking her for the anchovies (brilliant!). Was Hemingway an arsehole too? c.f. ‘Happy Birthday Wanda June.’ Discuss.

Francis knows almost nothing about his fellow human beings and seems to care only as far as things affect him, at least with those is in his immediate family and environs. He reminds me (another film allusion) of the Jack Nicholson character (Alice would never sleep with Nicholson!) in ‘As Good As It Gets’ – someone who can write amazing stuff but cannot live or act in the emotional real world, completely unlike his characters or his authorial self. High functioning autism.

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But despite the chaos, the anger, angst and emotional dysfunction (here’s another film allusion that is not a million miles from the mark – ‘The Royal Tennenbaums’) I still am fond of Francis. “Am I not allowed a sexual life?” he asks his angry (packing her bags, leaving with the twins) daughter when, after years of abstinence/impotence (he was incapable of making love with his second wife), he surreptiously, he thought, brings home a lady he met in a bar. She (Alice) breaks down and cries on his shoulder. “Forgive me”, she says. Yet, hell, holy fuck, HE should be asking, pleading, begging, gnashing his teeth, cutting off his arms in pleas for her forgiveness for HIS unutterably bad parenting (which made her turn out this way).

[Addendum: now I think back on it, with the perspective on literature one gets after two or three hours, I’d say there is only one unequivocally nice person in the whole goddamn book (and she… no, won’t spoil it), not counting the sweet, almost interchangeable and digitally challenged twins – but counting their always crying newborn baby brother!]

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And the pains of the writing process he describes; the concentration and dedication required to get the rhythm of one sentence right, let alone the clarity of a paragraph or a page and the solitude one needs for this task, and the pressure that this intolerance of distraction puts on the demands of family life… No, not a writer’s life for me. Just keep me blathering away incoherently and unedited on this blog till the wee hours (again).

And stay well paid in my day job.

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More than recommended. Unforgettable – an emotional kick in the guts. As was that Katnook Estates Cab Sav!

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Some writers produce books so that you have something to hold in your hand as you pass the time (and be “entertained”), and some so that you have something to think about when you put the book down.

E@L

(also highly recommended for those times you are wandering around Chiang Mai in a daze – The New Yorker fiction podcasts. Short stories from the NYer archives, read by other writers. Awesome. Free. How I got onto the incredible Denis Johnson)

True Words

Posted in Mark Twain, quote of the day, writers by expatatlarge on November 29, 2010

An awkward, unscientific lie is often as ineffectual as the truth. Mark Twain

… who has just published his autobiography to much controversy, seeing as how ‘e’s dead an’ all.

E@L

Quotes Of The Day

Posted in literature, little book of calm, philosophy, quote of the day, writers by expatatlarge on April 5, 2010

The Sage of Göttingen

Physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799) is not widely remembered outside Germany — which is a great pity, as his notebooks contain some of history’s most trenchant aphorisms:

* If countries were named after the words you first hear when you go there, England would have to be called Damn It.

* What they call “heart” lies much lower than the fourth waistcoat button.

* What a pity it isn’t a sin to drink water, cried an Italian, how good it would taste.

* A book is a mirror: If an ape looks into it an apostle is hardly likely to look out.

* The often unreflected respect for old laws, old customs, and old religion we have to thank for all mischief in the world.

* It is we who are the measure of what is strange and miraculous: If we sought a universal measure the strange and miraculous would not occur and all things would be equal.

* Just as there are polysyllabic words that say very little, so there are also monosyllabic words of infinite meaning.

* If walking on two legs is not natural to man it is certainly an invention that does him credit.

* It is almost impossible to carry the torch of wisdom through a crowd without singeing someone’s beard.

* Now that education is so easy, men are drilled for greatness, just as dogs are trained to retrieve. In this way we’ve discovered a new sort of genius, those great at being drilled. These are the people who are mainly spoiling the market.

* Can it be that the evil in the world is in general of more use than the good?

* Nothing is more conducive to peace of mind than not having any opinions at all.

The “waste books” were admired by Wittgenstein, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Freud, and even Tolstoy wondered “why the Germans of the present day neglect this writer so much.” He never got an answer.

(This post entirely lifted from the remarkable Futility Closet).

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Love the last one.

E@L

What We Blog About When We Blog About Blogging

Posted in blogging, writers by expatatlarge on December 30, 2009

The small things, not the things that really matter.

I can’t blog much about the main event around the table this Christmas for example, or its emotional aftermath. What can I say? It was fun at first, then suddenly it flipped to desperately sad and unfortunate, and very important for the family dynamic. It was almost fictional in its drama, but I can say nothing or I risk alienating my family entirely. How? By “blogalising” it I will inevitably distort the facts to suit my truth and that will be “how it was” for all my readers, while each of the family’s truths won’t get a look in. Even these bland comments will cause ripples of consequence. BTW, it’s the same most Christmases. There are always a million things that could be told, but can’t.

So instead, like a dirty old man, I notice a pretty girl’s cleavage and that’s what I blog about. WTF?

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This from my friend Smoot, a Singaporean lawyer –

You know what the problem with a blog is?

It starts off as a place you can write stuff in, stuff that you can’t write down in a diary because someone could find it. Then after a while, it becomes a place that transcends my normal everyday life, where I can talk about stuff that perhaps doesn’t really matter but it matters to me in a relatively insignificant way, but important enough that I want to write about it. It’s also a place to vent about the small stuff, if I need to vent.

But I can’t talk about the big stuff. The stuff that keeps me awake at night. Because that’s conduct unbecoming of a solicitor. Because I am bound by rules of confidentiality and propriety.

So I talk about what matters to me, a little. What bothers me, a little. Stuff that bothers me a lot is what I know to keep to myself. Even when I think so much about it that I can’t sleep properly for weeks, and sometimes, oftentimes, it bleeds into my dreams and I wake up utterly exhausted, and put on my game face for another day.

Perhaps this time next year I will be far more settled in my mind, or maybe I would have lived with my fears long enough to have learned to ignore them.

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And Facebook is even more superficial. Twitter, let’s not even talk about it!

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The title of this post comes from the Raymond Carver book of short stories, not from Murakami’s manual of how to go jogging. I use it because not only because it is one of those iconic book titles that resonate and find application in a thousand variations, but also because my pool-side reading this holiday includes Beginners, the controversial drafts of many of Carver’s stories before his editor Gordon Lish carved (sorry) into them, creating that spare, compelling, “left unsaid” style we all associate with Carver…

How interesting and appropriate.

I wonder what his blog would have been like? Full of small things, with the big things left unsaid like his short stories? But still he (or Lish) might manage to leave the truths of life hanging with an aura of awe all around, like a stepping into a cathedral and looking up close at the pews and the stained-glass windows, the paintings of the station of the cross, of the saints and the statues, but with each of his footsteps echoing in the enormity of it all, maybe…

E@L