What We're Reading 

Hidden gems, hot favourites, slow burners and the odd guest columnist.

Lohrey, Kirby, and Tartt

 - Wednesday, April 29, 2015

John: I first read Amanda Lohrey in the late 80's. The Reading Group was creating quite a stir at the time and there was litigation regarding an unflattering portrait of a (fictional) politician who was allegedly recognisably based on a member of parliament. The details are vague in my mind but the book was withdrawn and subsequently reissued, I assume with changes. I was proud of my Picador first edition when I attended a lecture given by her around this time at USyd.
While on holiday I picked up a copy of Amanda's A Short History of Richard Kline, a fictional memoir of  Richard Kline a man in middle age who is constantly searching for meaning in his life. He tries the new age, gurus, medication, throwing himself into work. He finds some passing satisfaction but is still left with the sense that his life has no meaning. He is both obsessed by his quest and repulsed by his need. He is dry, cynical and frequently an unsympathetic creation, but I still felt for him and his plight. Amanda Lohrey is a stunningly good writer, rare, a writer who you can read just for the pleasure she gives from her use of language.

Lynndy: A Private Life: Fragments, Memories, Friends by Michael Kirby—From these nonlinear reminiscences and musings we are treated to glimpses of the Honourable Michael Kirby, former Justice of the High Court of Australia. Reading his own personal account of episodes in his life reinforced for me his exemplary intellect, compassion and independence. Yet this is not a recitation of his life’s highlights: he eschews any attempt to gloss over events that show his unpopular dissent or ambivalence on moral and judicial matters. Long a passionate advocate of human rights, in retirement he continues to work for the marginalised and ‘voiceless’, likewise he still inspires many within and outside the legal profession. My (no longer secret) dream is that he will become our prime minister—we should be so lucky!

Andrew: So I've just finished The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt—and everything I had heard about it proved true.
You've possibly read that it is a rollickingly well-written bildungsroman, a dark and enchanting American gothic adventure that careers from the opening (gloriously imaginative) set-piece in the Metropolitan Museum of Art via a bomb explosion to a mysterious Dickens-goes-Downtown antique dealer, and ends up in a seedy Martin McDonagh-esque Amsterdam warehouse showdown. Tartt has a particular skill in taking the most normal and urbane occurrences and magicking them into something dark and disturbing; she is a superlative alchemist, and the entire novel is imbued with a sense of delicious mystery and intrigue. A Hitchcockian high anxiety pervades the book's upper eastside salons and squats.
There is, however, another school of opinion, that says the book is a terribly bloated and tedious brick of a book that stutters and stalls; as the reader churns through it, the narrative engine backfires at least as much as it slides effortlessly into top gear. Page after page after page of some mind-numbing exegesis and explication that has one skimming, before it suddenly starts to romp again. Tartt is a silversmith one moment, and a mule driver the next. A lengthy mid-novel excursion to Las Vegas, in particular, never really manages to fire.
The young hero of The Goldfinch has a prescription drug habit (with the occasional foray into cocaine and smack), but  it is my own quiet theory that both this talented author and her editors at Little Brown must also be dabbling with oxycontin to have produced such a gloriously mis-shapen, mercurial, wooden, exciting beast of a book. Highly recommended... to a degree.  

The Anti-Front Person - Steve Reid

Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon ($30, PB)

Before the internet was born and if you weren't a mainstream band, it was nearly impossible to get your music heard on the radio. Touring was the only way to get a label to market your music...Your band lived and died by the road.

And tour they do—Sonic Youth that is. Literally to the bitter end. This sharp and surprisingly intimate memoir by the vocalist, bassist and co-founder of influential indie rock band, Sonic Youth begins at the end—on 14 November 2011 at a music festival in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Their final concert of their final tour of a thirty year career was played during a torrential downpour. The cold, gloomy weather reflected the mood on stage. Gordon had discovered that Thurston Moore, her husband and musical partner of twenty seven years, had been carrying on an affair with a young book editor. She played with her back to the audience, not wanting to witness her ex-partner prancing around the stage.

We had exchanged maybe fifteen words all week... I'd asked him to move out of our house... the couple everyone believed was golden and normal and eternally intact, who gave younger musicians hope that they could outlast a crazy rock and roll world, was now just another cliché of middle-aged relationship failure—a male mid-life crisis, another woman, a double life.

The couple had publicly announced their separation a month earlier. You have to wait till Chapters 48–49 (pp. 247–258) for the candid details of how their storied romance imploded, thanks to 'Thurston's darkness'. Identified by Gordon only as 'the other woman', she has subsequently been named as Eva Prinz. In interviews given since this book's publication, Thurston Moore remains completely unrepentant about this extra marital liaison that led to the breakup of both his marriage and the band.

Born in California in 1953, Gordon recounts a troubled childhood. It was especially difficult because of the torment inflicted upon her by her schizophrenic older brother, Keller.  His treatment of her, Gordon explains, 'ran over me, erased me, made me feel invisible even to myself... it comes from years of being teased' by Keller 'for every feeling I ever expressed'. She believes that this broken sibling relationship is why 'the page, the gallery, and the stage became the only places my emotions could be expressed and acted out comfortably'.

There is also a candid recounting of her struggle for identity and respect as a female in the testosterone-soaked music scene. Unfortunately, true Sonic Youth devotees will find a paucity of information about the band—'This is not a Sonic Youth book!' declares Gordon. That labour of love awaits another writer. Girl in a Band is more a portrait of the vanished New York netherworld of the late 1970s and early 1980s—when the art, music and film scenes flowed into one another. Involved in each, Gordon seriously name drops, with sections of the book detailing her relationships with art dealer Larry Gagosian and artists Dan Graham, Cindy Sherman and Jeff Koons ('No one liked Jeff'), as well as musicians, writers and film celebrities such as Keanu Reeves, Chloe Sevigny, Henry Rollins, Spike Jonze, Sofia Coppola, Nick Cave and the rest. An index would have helped this reader keep track.

There is a tender account of her friendship with, and musical mentoring of, Kurt Cobain. Courtney Love is treated much less generously: No one ever questions the disorder behind her tarantula LA glamour—sociopathy, narcissism—because it’s good rock and roll, good entertainment! I have a low tolerance for manipulative, egomaniacal behaviour, and usually have to remind myself that the person might be mentally ill.

For good measure, Gordon also slices up current singer Lana Del Rey's blasé 'feminist' posturing—Today we have someone like Lana Del Rey, who doesn’t even know what feminism is, who believes it means women can do whatever they want, which, in her world, tilts towards self-destruction, whether it’s sleeping with gross older men or being a transient biker queen. Equal pay and equal rights would be nice. Naturally, it’s just a persona. She got that right.

Of Gordon's musical contribution to the creation of Sonic Youth in 1981: Thurston would usually sing the poppy more melodic things...I sang the weirder, more abstract things that came out of all of us playing together... In our early days I had no technical ability, no knowledge of conventional chording. At the same time I was always confident in my ability to contribute something good to our sound. All the improv and jazz I had listened to growing up came back to me on stage. I loved playing live, it was an almost ecstatic experience...

After 1990, and their 'sell out' signing to 'corporate' Geffen Records (that's what the critics said) to produce their album Goo—complete with a b/w cover by hip New York artist Raymond Pettibon, instead of the colour photo of the band with the glamorous, blonde bassist front and centre that the label wanted—the touring continued apace. A memorable musical road trip with Sonic Youth champion Neil Young is amusingly recounted, as the band moved slowly into the mainstream.

Gordon and Moore also moved—from New York to rural New England. In 1994, a daughter, Coco was born. The music continued to be made—eight more Sonic Youth albums are released in the next fifteen years. Some of these are briefly touched upon. Thurston's affair is discovered. The band is put on 'permanent hiatus', and Gordon's memoir concludes with the author back in California determined to continue her work as a visual artist. The penultimate chapter offers some reflections on changes in rock music and popular culture over five decades: 'Did the 1990s ever exist? Mainstream American music today is just as conservative as it was back in the 1980s'. She got that right, too.