The Journal of Failure – Week 46 of 2020

Week 46 of 2020 – 4 November to 10 November 2020

Goals

Reading

  • Goal – 100 / day, or 700 / week
  • Achieved – 1,090/700 – Success!

Writing – I Remember

  • Goal – 7 / week
  • Achieved – 9/14 – Success!

Writing – Small Projects (Fragments, short stories, etc)

  • Goal – 1 minute, 20 seconds / day or 9 minutes, 20 seconds / week
  • Achieved – 17 minutes, 16 seconds – Success!

Writing – Large Projects

  • Goal – 1 minute, 20 seconds / day or 9 minutes, 20 seconds / week
  • Achieved – 20 minutes, 31 seconds – Success!

Getting myself out there

  • Short story reviews – Zero (Five total for the year)
  • Submissions – Zero (Zero total for the year)
  • Rejections – Zero (Zero total for the year)
  • Acceptances – Zero (Zero total for the year)

Commentary

Week X!

A week of resetting.  A week of calibration.  A week of determining what it is, exactly, that I want.

October 2020 was, for me, an exceptionally busy period at work.  Consequently, writing and reading fell by the wayside.  But this time is over, now, and I simply must refocus my energy on the things that matter.  There’s so little time available to us all.

I have a child coming.  My second.  They will be here in April, and the habits I develop now will help appreciate and utilise the small amounts of time I will have to myself when they are here.  Right now, I am in a golden period of life, because my daughter (2) goes to bed early and my wife (34) goes to bed early and I (38) can go to bed whenever I like.  Similar to Machiavelli, the idea of reading and writing into the night while socialising with and sharing ideas with the greatest minds of all time, is very heaven.  And so I must do that.

This week, reading went quite well.  I read some fantasy nonsense, which was great.  And quite a bit of actual fine and good literature.  Kadare, Bernhard, Howe – these are fine names.  Fine names.

I wrote, for the first time in quite a while.  A new short story, cribbing from an overhead story in my own life.  I am not sure if this will become a story worth completing, but it’s being written and that is the primary goal.

Otherwise, I have re-categorised my current short works in progress to better attain a high-level view of the work I need to redraft, the work that needs to be complete, the work that needs to be submitted.  I aim to tackle the end of 2020 and the entirety of 2021 with the fullness of my ego, arrogance and talent, which means I must and will submit, submit, submit.  No more crouching in shadows, it’s time to write and publish.  I have read enough.

I aim to polish and complete my story about a failed gangster in Belarus.   I aim to polish and complete my story about a disappointed housewife.  I aim to polish and complete my story about a man who regrets everything in his life while aiding an idle rich fool to murder an abhorrent dentist.  With all of these stories, I want to combine the high and the low (see – Saul Bellow) with the violence of power and the futility of art (see – Bolaño).  I admire the capacity of evil to be seductive, I appreciate the flower that grows in the muck.  I appreciate failed individuals who nonetheless keep pushing their Sisyphean boulder.  I admire the unknowable grandness of men and women who contain multitudes and magnitudes.

In terms of a larger novel, I have returned, I think, to my novella on Rasputin.  I read it this week, and while I recognise many clumsy, choppy areas, I think that the overall thrust is fascinating and capable of exploring many of the ideas that I care about.  The polyphony of voices is a touch too-Bolaño, which remains a constant concern for me.  When I flounder in terms of ideas or plot or the next word, I devolve to what I know, and what I know how to do is cut-rate Bolaño and mawkish sentimentality.  I can fix the former but not the latter – eschew sloth and excise everything cliche.  Be better.

I recognise these writing goals are small.  They should be entirely achievable, and to not achieve them suggests to myself and the world that I am not actually interested in writing.  But I also want to ease myself in and increase the pressure – specifically 10 seconds / day / week in short story writing, and 20 seconds / day / week in longer form writing.  The gradual grind up and up suits me alright, and has worked in the past, but oh my, I dislike when I fall back and need to restart.  What’s wrong with me?  Time is hurtling by.

I finished Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World.  This is the first book in his 13ish book series, The Wheel of Time.  It’s fine. It’s fine.  I read it when I was 16 and thus it will always have a place in my heart.  Reading this book is me returning to old friends.  Friends I’d like to see for a little while, but not every weekend.  I usually read the first three, or first five, books of the series, before finishing.  Both points offer neat and clear end points, and in both cases, the extra novels diminish the totality.  I’ve never completed the series (and nor did Jordan, who died), and I am unsure if I ever will.  The gender issues make me very uncomfortable, and the explosion of minor characters drags everything to a crawl.  When I read fantasy I want to be pushed along by the plot.  I don’t want to make notes and keep a record of nations, political systems, factions, etc, etc, etc.

Anyway, on to the real and true literature!

Susan Howe’s Debths was an exceptional discovery for me.  She is an American poet, and her focus (at least for this book) is found texts and memory.  This collection really blew me away – I have never read anything like it.  The corruption of public domain text alongside brief pieces on memory were just fantastic.  I am not fully equipped to comment upon poetry, as I haven’t really read enough, but this was a revelation.

Thomas Bernhard’s My Prizes is a collection of pieces by Bernhard surrounding the prizes he won throughout his life.  And while he is curmudgeonly throughout he certainly, ah, accepted the prizes and prize money.  Sure, he was poor, but there’s a certain lack of integrity here which makes the entire collection somewhat uncomfortable.  Particularly because Bernhard himself boiled his life down to integrity, integrity, integrity.

Ismail Kadare’s The Successor is a great novella that is about 30 pages too long.  It opens with the successor to the current dictator in Albania being dead, perhaps killed, perhaps a suicide.  We don’t know.  Kadare keeps the view of the novella high and broad, providing an understanding of the general political and cultural situation of the city and nation.  This is very good.  The middle section concerns itself too heavily, I think, with characters, names, particulars – this is a book that would have been stronger if it had stayed almost entirely as a fable.  Nonetheless, it’s quite good, and highlights, yet again, that Kadare is a Nobel-worthy writer.  When will his time come?

And that was my week of failure.

Each week I aim to provide an update on the Journal of Failure.  These reports are intended to provide an impetus for me to achieve as much as I should/more than I do, and also to provide a further ongoing record of my life, as it is. 

Some comments on Derek Maine’s Pontoon Boat is in the Front Yard

Your mom’s a slut. I just have to throw that out there. This isn’t going to be easy for either of us but we’re ripping off the band-aid, son.

The anger of a wronged man is vast and knowable.  Vast, because they perceive that the world is pulling them down, their jobs, their women, their children, their obligations – it’s all one giant conspiracy to keep them low, down, trodden upon. These men never look to economics or class.  No, that problem is too big.  And so it is the immediate surrounds which are to blame.

Knowable because they rage online, in person, to friends, to family.  Their rage comes in the form of fists, of Facebook posts, of picketing in the streets.  They cannot be silent.  Whatever grievance they  have must be heard, tediously stretching out across the decades that make up their miserable lives.

Women rage, too, but they have the modesty to remain quiet about it.

In Derek Maine’s Pontoon Boat is in the Front Yard, the rage comes via a message sent from father to son.  The son is 16, and his life has been hard.  But this story is not about him. No, instead it is about the father and his wife, ex-wife, the woman for whom his rage knows no bounds.  He airs his grievances to his son in explicit, detailed form, ostensibly wrapping them around the errors of the step-father, but this is not the entire truth.  The father’s rage reaches back to when she was young, at school, and extends forward to now and into the future.  This is a rage that will never be loosened.

The step-father, we learn, abuses the teenager, and at the end of the communication the father provides an answer to his son.  A gun, in the boat.  One squeeze of the trigger and the problems are over.  I note grimly that here the father offloads the responsibility of solving his son’s horrific problems to the child himself.  He will not pull the trigger – he will simply rage.

To his small credit, the father offers up a list of his own flaws, including that of violence against the mother.  But this list is used as a method of showing that he isn’t as bad as the others.

In truth they are all rotten.  Perhaps the son is not, but everyone else is a dark planet orbiting a fallen star.

Maine’s language is loose, and crude, and a touch too-heavy on the swearing.  Just a touch.  This message, however it is being communicated, is one of speech, streaming directly from the narrator in an out-pouring of anger.  This works, the character is believable, but the length of the short piece is just about as long as I’d like to spend inside his mind.  It’s exhaustive, and imagine living like that?

There are some shining bright spots.  Twice, the narrator mentions spending time with his son, and here the tone is pleasant, even kind.  It’s a nice balance, and shows that no matter how these men might hate the world, what they love, they love.

This strikes me as a very American story.  This is not a criticism or a commendation.  The ending involves violence, or at least, encouraging violence, and in a manner that I, as an Australia, perceive as close to uniquely American.  The answer provided is not to run away, or change, or engage the authorities – it is violence.  Violence, violence, violence.

The rage continues, the generations feed on one another, and in twenty years time this teenage boy will be saying something much the same to his own son, likely from jail, unquestionably full of his own inherited anger.

Derek Maine’s Pontoon Boat is in the Front Yard is a short story published online at Misery Tourism.  Derek’s Twitter account is @derekmainelives.

2020 in Review – the first 100 Books

October 28 marks the day when I read 100 books for the year.

Let’s take a look at the breakdown of what I read –

Books written by men – 81

Books written by women – 19

Translated works – 70

Nobel Prize winning works – 21

Books by Small Presses – 46

Fantasy novels – 5

Average pages – 168 pages

So let’s analyse the above

Obviously the glaring, massive, disappointing issue is the percentage of women writers compared to men. It’s not good enough and I am honestly surprised. If I was asked I would have said perhaps 40%, but here we are under 20% for the year.

I need to do better. I have enough books written by women to dramatically improve these numbers.

The next book, which I am almost done at the time of writing this, was written by a woman, but that would only take the year from 19% to 19.8%. Lots and lots of work here to do.

Some of the notable women writers I have read this year include the incomparable Marguerite Duras. I prefer her late works, which are sparse, pristine, close to formless. Open Letter publish a number of these and I would strongly, strongly recommend checking out her work.

I like Rachel Cusk, but A Life’s Work is not a book I connected with particularly well. In it, Cusk grapples with being pregnant and then having a child. And I mean, she really grapples with it. To the point where she struggles with whether or not she hates her child while loving it. And, for me, with a very young child, I just found it too much. I don’t love/hate my child, and I haven’t struggled with parenting. Perhaps when she’s 10 and I am distanced from the baby-phase I might be able to read such a book dispassionately, but alas at this stage in my life I cannot.

Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth was very strong. Boiled down it’s an historical dialogue between a famous man and an unknown (to us, historically) woman. They discuss art, love, life and it’s all absolutely fascinating.

Otherwise, 70% being translated work seems about right. I certainly actively go out of my way to read translated work, and this is shown here. I would anticipate most years of my life would show 60-80% translated books, particularly now that my Updike/Bellow/Roth obsession of my twenties appears to be over.

Nobel Prize winners at 21 is fine. I have no real goal here other than I want to read as many as I can. One book in five seems fine, fine, fine. I’m drawn to novellas, as can be seen above, and it sometimes seems that most Nobel writers write big chunky bois.

Small Presses at 46% is good. I’d like to push that up to 50%, but I’m fine with where it is. Special shout-out as always to Open Letter, which make up 12 of the books I’ve read this year. They are doing excellent work. Other big hitters for me is Dalkey Archive Press and New Directions. The stalwarts, in other words.

Fantasy at 5 books is ok. I want it lower than 10% and here we are. Not much to say here. I tend to use fantasy as a way to kickstart my reading slumps and get me back into literature, but at times I’ll really dive deep into fantasy. Not this year, as we can see – though I have bought a simply enormous amount of books in the SF Masterworks and Fantasy Masterworks series. One day.

The average pages strikes me as slightly lower than I thought, but broadly speaking about right. I have a fondness for novellas. I have for years and I will continue to do so. The kind of literature I enjoy most explores an idea fully and then gets out of the way. That’s a novella.

So what does the rest of the year bring? Likely twenty more books. And they really, really need to be more heavily female. I’ve disappointed myself here, and with only two months left in the year I don’t really see how I rectify this in any meaningful way. Reading 20 books, all by women, before the year ends, still only puts me at one third written by females. Which I mean is better but c’mon.

At any rate, reading is not a numbers game, or not entirely so. I have not engaged in enough reading projects this year (ie – Spanish writers, Holocaust literature, Oulipo, etc), and this is something I’d like to do more of. Twitter is aflutter with reading projects and months devoted to a country or language or theme. And sure, that’s pretty great. But I chafe under the rope of another individual’s project, and so I will go it alone, reading, reading, reading.

But definitely reading more women.

Update – And here are the books

Barthes, RolandCamera Lucida28 October 2020
Thiong’o, Ngugi WaWeep Not, Child27 October 2020
Handke, PeterDon Juan25 October 2020
Zweig, StefanJourneys28 September 2020
Darrieussecq, MarieOur Life in the Forest26 September 2020
Leiber, FritzSwords Against Wizardry26 September 2020
Eaves, WillMurmur24 September 2020
Didion, JoanSouth and West24 September 2020
Pessoa, FernandoSelected Poems5 September 2020
Calvino, ItaloInvisible Cities3 September 2020
Bataille, GeorgesStory of the Eye2 September 2020
Aira, CesarDinner1 September 2020
Greene, GrahamDoctor Fischer of Geneva31 August 2020
Ionescu, AnamariaZodiac31 August 2020
Beckett, SamuelThe Lost Ones26 August 2020
Madej, RyanThe Marianas Trench26 August 2020
King, StephenThe Gunslinger25 August 2020
Eliot, T. S.Murder in the Cathedral25 August 2020
Bolano, RobertoThe Spirit of Science Fiction16 August 2020
Perec, GeorgesAn Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris16 August 2020
Levi, PrimoMoments of Reprieve15 August 2020
Origo, IrisA Chill in the Air11 August 2020
Beckett, SamuelDante and the Lobster9 August 2020
Pilch, JerzyA Thousand Peaceful Cities8 August 2020
Saer, Juan JoseThe One Before7 August 2020
Togawa, MasakoThe Master Key6 August 2020
Sebald, W. G.Campo Santo5 August 2020
Gappah, PetinaAn Elegy for Easterly3 August 2020
Bolano, RobertoBy Night in Chile31 July 2020
Vila-Matas, EnriqueBecause She Never Asked30 July 2020
Armitage, SamuelBook of Matches29 July 2020
Coleridge, Samuel TaylorThe Rime of the Ancient Mariner23 July 2020
Review of Contemporary FictionGeorges Perec Issue22 July 2020
Hamsun, KnutVictoria22 July 2020
Cusk, RachelA Life’s Work21 July 2020
Sirieix, FredSecret Service17 July 2020
Roth, PhilipZuckerman Unbound11 July 2020
Whitehead, ColsonApex Hides the Hurt10 July 2020
Xingjian, GaoThe case for literature25 June 2020
Roth, PhilipThe Ghost Writer23 June 2020
Beckett, SamuelThe Expelled and Other Novellas22 June 2020
Mieville, ChinaIron Council22 June 2020
Fernandez Mallo, AgustinNocilla Experience16 June 2020
Turner, DavidVictorian and Edwardian Railway Travel13 June 2020
Nors, DortheMirror, Shoulder, Signal9 June 2020
Modiano, RenzoOf Jewish Race4 June 2020
OndjakiThe Whistler3 June 2020
Sosnowski, AndrzejLodgings2 June 2020
Navarro, ElviraA Working Woman1 June 2020
Modiano, PatrickHoneymoon1 June 2020
France, AnatoleBalthasar31 May 2020
Baudelaire, CharlesThe Flowers of Evil26 May 2020
Wolf, ChristaNo Place on Earth26 May 2020
Brecht, BertoltMother Courage and her Children22 May 2020
Mella, DanielOlder Brother21 May 2020
Azam, MaryamThe Hijab Files19 May 2020
Tenev, GeorgiParty Headquarters18 May 2020
Alexievich, SvetlanaZinky Boys17 May 2020
Rey Rosa, RodrigoSeverina16 May 2020
Hesse, HermannJourney to the East14 May 2020
Neruda, PabloSelected Poems13 May 2020
Heaney, SeamusNew Selected Poems 1966-198712 May 2020
Baudelaire, CharlesParis Spleen9 May 2020
Duras, MargueriteL’Amour7 May 2020
Erikson, StevenGardens of the Moon6 May 2020
Holub, MiroslavVanishing Lung Syndrome6 May 2020
Krasznahorkai, LaszloSatantango30 April 2020
Maupassant, Gu dePierre and Jean29 April 2020
Barba, AndresSuch Small Hands28 April 2020
Camus, AlbertThe Plague28 April 2020
Watson, HollyNever Seen the Sea26 April 2020
Saat, MariThe Saviour of Lasnamae25 April 2020
Saramago, JoseAll the Names23 April 2020
Sebald, W. G.Vertigo18 April 2020
Ogawa, YokoThe Housekeeper and the Professor15 April 2020
Modiano, PatrickSleep of Memory14 April 2020
Rothes, JoshuaThe Art of the Great Dictators19 March 2020
Pizarnik, AlejandraThe Galloping Hour17 March 2020
Camus, AlbertThe Outsider16 March 2020
Bidart, FrankHalf-Light – Collected Poems15 March 2020
Rilke, Rainer MariaSonnets to Orpheus14 March 2020
de Juan, Jose LuisNapoleon’s Beekeeper12 March 2020
Modiano, PatrickThe Search Warrant9 March 2020
Mieville, ChinaThe Scar8 March 2020
Transtromer, TomasThe Half-Finished Heaven2 March 2020
Igov, AngelA Short Tale of Shame20 February 2020
Wolf, RorTwo or Three Years Later11 February 2020
Vollmann, William TWhores for Gloria6 February 2020
Kadare, IsmailBroken April5 February 2020
Mahfouz, NaguibMiramar4 February 2020
Duras, MargueriteAbahn Sabana David3 February 2020
Ljubic, NicolStillness of the Sea3 February 2020
Mariani, LucioTraces of Time1 February 2020
Duras, MargueriteYann Andrea Steiner30 January 2020
Blatnik, AndrejYou Do Understand24 January 2020
Nordbrandt, HenrikWhen we Leave Each Other23 January 2020
Zambra, AlejandroMultiple Choice16 January 2020
Hazan, EricA History of the Barricade9 January 2020
Hesse, HermannPoems6 January 2020
Zambra, AlejandroThe Private Life of Trees2 January 2020

I Remember – #1011

I remember leaving Brisbane early in the morning, and then eating sashimi and sushi in a tiny restaurant in Sennichimae in Osaka by the time it was night.  This by Jetstar, via Cairns, with two (minor) flight upgrades, and a (foolish) $150 taxi ride from the Osaka airport to our hotel.

-28 June 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.

I Remember – #1009

remember playing Settlers of Catan with Anna and her siblings, and her sister’s husband (then, I think, her boyfriend), and how outrageously competitive Anna and I were together, to the point where we regularly exploded at and argued with one another in front of everyone.

-26 June 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.

Some brief thoughts on Ryan Madej’s The Marianas Trench

Alcohol, drugs, sex, blood

It is the mystery that draws you in.  What is this place?  Who are these people? Their names are, initially, reduced to single letters – R, M.  What are they doing?  Why is it so gloomy?  Is this place an allegory or something else?

The narrator has, among their other problems, an issue with memory.  They can’t quite grasp time, it slips through their fingers.

Everyone seems to be in search of Mantra Hand.  You look like him, a character muses near the end of the book.  Pages later, the narrator adopts the name with a woman he meets and shares a drink with.  Her name, too, is pregnant with possibility – Caissa.

Drugs, sex, blood, alcohol

If I am jumping around a touch it is because Ryan Madej’s novella, The Marianas Trench (published by Orbis Tertius Press), is uncomfortably concerned with shifting time and place, and clarity of narrative expression.  He wants the reader to feel on edge.  The tone is ominous and the skies are always grey.  It is as though leeches had sucked dry the sounds, the colours, the smells, the vibrancy of the air.  This is Midtown.

The plot itself is reasonably easy to pin down even if the specifics of it are not.  The narrator has come into possession of

the journals, letters, and collages collected under the The Marianas Trench by Mantra Hand

“Everyone in Midtown”, the narrator tells us, knows the name Mantra Hand, and all, it seems, flit knowingly or otherwise from the real world into the occult.  He reads the works, he drinks, he has sex with women.  The people he interact with allude to esoteric matters, and the narrator takes it in his stride.  Very often he is unwell; very often he is unsure of the time or the day.  In Midtown such matters lose their focus, become less relevant.  Shadows sharpen.

This is the kind of novella where there is a City, there are Outskirts, there is Midtown.  This is a risk – universality or totality are difficult concepts to convey, but Madej manages it, and particularly well with Midtown.  It is Plato’s Form of Midtown, the essence of the essence of a city.

Sex, blood, alcohol, drugs

Menace hangs in the air.  Much of the pages of the novella are taken up with sex, which is bloodless even when blood is drawn; much of the novella is taken up with drinking, which causes no joy or sadness, just stupor and the passing of time.  Drugs are taken, but they serve to cloud already clouded minds.

Menace hangs in the air.  There is a scene where the narrator is handed a cup of water.  He notes that even the water is somewhat darkened in Midtown – chilling.  Chilling.

When something comes into the Archive it means one of two things: either the person is deceased or the person has consciously chosen to have the material archived.  Neither one of these conditions could be confirmed by any source … Midtown has only one way in and one way out, and Mantra Hand left the party early.

Madej plays with the ways in which a scene can be constructed, particularly around dialogue.  At times, he borrows from Gaddis or Joyce, beginning speech with a hyphen; other times scenes are entirely in italics, and at still other times dialogue is marked carefully and normally, with ‘he said, she said’ markers.  Chunks of text whirl dizzyingly down the the paths of different literary schools.

It is, perhaps, the vagueness which appeals most strongly across the narrative.  Places are rarely described beyond the most ordinary of words, and the characters themselves are hardly provided any visual cues at all.  It is a shock near the end to have a character’s engagement ring described at all, and this sudden sharpening of focus heightens the character’s perceived importance.  All of this allows the primary characters – who truly are Midtown and Mantra Hand – to hulk over the rest of the novel.  They cast long shadows.

Blood, alcohol, drugs, sex

And here is where I level with you – a novella wherein the narrator is in search of the writer of a masterpiece is exceptionally, phenomenally, my bread and butter as a reader.  I do not even need to be seduced – the clothes are off!  Thus, I was exceedingly well disposed towards liking this novella.  What I expected less was the tinges of the Occult, the esoteric highlights, the increasingly fractures sense of narrative place and time.  These appealed, also, and quite happily so.

But it should be cautioned that this is not a book for everyone.  It is narratively fragmented, and while the overarching detective plot is entirely comprehensible and enjoyable, the beat-by-beat writing demands attention and patience as the reader and the narrator together untangle Midtown and its denizens.  There very well may not be enough anchors to keep some readers connected to the book, and I could entirely sympathise with someone who found it too cobweb-strewn to continue with.  It is the kind of book where a brief spell of inattention can see 30 pages go by without your mind entirely able to process what has occurred due to the wispy nature of a lot of the description and characterisation.  All I can say is, do not let this happen to you, and if it does, re-read.  There is treasure here.

The book is one of the first by a new press, Orbis Tertius, and they have, for entirely understandable reasons, chosen to use Lulu for their printing.  This gives the book a glossy, shiny finish which I personally struggled with, and I found the font choice challenging to read at times.  I will fully admit that I have rather specific criteria for fonts, but I will say that I feel quite positive toward the size, margins and spacing of the text – this was very pleasing to my eye.

This is the first book in a planned tetralogy (though I believe the third book has somehow already been published, which is amazingly appropriate and thematically consistent), and as it stands right now my appetite has been whetted.  And I do have the third book next to me, beckoning, and so, perhaps…

(Note – While I did purchase this book outright, it’s worth noting that Ryan Madej and I exchange Twitter pleasantries fairly often.  I would hope this would leave me unaffected but it is worth noting.)  

I Remember – #1008

I remember when Anna and I lived at Thondley Street in Windsor, in a cheap brick apartment building.  We were terribly poor, and most nights we ate dinner while listening to the Acid House King’s album, Sing Along with the Acid House Kings.  And every five or ten minutes someone would walk past our front door, which directly faced into the stairwell of the apartment building, on the ground floor, where everyone needed to walk by.

-25 June 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.

I Remember – #1007

I remember when Harry Mulisch died, and he was one of the first authors whose death created in me a true and outraged sense that a greater writer had missed out on the Nobel.  (And to think, I was alive when Borges was, too!)

-24 June 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.