Authenticity: Richard Linklater, Woody Allen, Romanticism, Decadence

I’ve stopped giving much credence to birthdays over the past couple of years (I’m writing this on the eve of my 29th). Once the rites of passage in life become murkier – i.e., after you’re done with school and have no set ‘stages’ to go through any more – birthdays start to feel truly arbitrary.

But something strange, and just about wonderful is happening this year: right now I truly feel like there’s some kind of culmination of the recent experiences I’ve been through.

Part of all this is, of course, down to finally finishing and publishing the book, and I’m wary of how this feeling of relief mixed with euphoric uplift can be temporary and elusive.

But there’s other factors which have contributed to me feeling an increased sense of peace, and a receding of the persistent self-doubt which comes with – in a big way – from the very same arbitrariness that characterizes most of adult life.

It’s a hard-won sort of peace, though, and one which needs constant vigilance to be maintained.
I suppose the cost of growing up is, ultimately, the realization that bliss can no longer, at any point, come automatically.

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Increased self-awareness also means an increased sensitivity to what is authentic about yourself – what you should keep and cultivate, and what you should discard because it’s no longer relevant to you: a dead-end road.

Authenticity was always a bit of a thorny subject for me; one the one hand yes, I work for a newspaper – which, at least ostensibly, trades in remaining authentic – while on the other, my primary obsessions are concerned with both the production and consumption of fiction.

A recent ‘catch up’ marathon for three films I’ve been wanting to watch – the ‘Before‘ films by Richard Linklater, starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke (I know, I know) – put this in focus for me once again.

The trio’s breezy style clearly emerges as a result of consummate, carefully cultivated filmmaking, of course, but the way the films worry at concerns so delicate, intimate and – ultimately – relatable puts a number of cinematic attempts at the same themes to shame.

There is both a sensitivity and a kindness – as well as a dramatic dynamism, taking the shape of the best stage play’s effortless back-and-forth banter – to Linklater which made me think, first and foremost (and for whatever reason): Woody Allen is a fraud.

The comparison came to me just as automatically as that: finishing off either the second or the third ‘Before’ film, Woody Allen’s attempts at extrapolating home truths about sexual politics came to mind, and just didn’t ring true.

Where Linklater zooms in on an unfolding relationship between just two people – a thespian duo he clearly trusts – first by charming us with their idyllic romance but then boldly returning to his subject/s years later to shade that relationship, Allen props up his ping-ponging dialogue in the midst of cardboard cut-outs and facile plot developments.

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My own reaction came as something of a surprise, because in recent years I’ve developed an increased fondness for artifice – a resistance to the ‘organic’ creation of art so vaunted by the Romantics, in favour of what we could, I suppose, at a stretch venture to call a more Decadent approach which places increased value on form and ornamentation.

In retrospect though, I think this may have something to do with the fact that over the past few years, I’ve made a conscious effort to write my own fiction, TO MAKE MORE STUFF, and so the – broadly defined – Romantic idea of ‘waiting for inspiration’ or of dedicating your attention solely to the perfect subject that is closest to your heart was not really helpful.

Focusing on just putting the thing together, on the other hand, helped me to move forward, and so the opposing milieu became more attractive.

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Now that the novel is done, though, I have to confess that ultimately, its autobiographical elements are what kept me going – or, at least, that engine that whirred in the background, quietly fuelling me ahead as I scrambled to put the whole thing together.

Having a personal stake in something – anything – by its very nature adds urgency to a project, and one of the best things I’ve heard said about Two is that it made some readers – two of them, actually, as far as I know – “give me a hug”, because they recognized the emotional authenticity of the book.

Truth is a slippery thing; I will never understand it, not fully. People are constantly called out on begin ‘phony’ and ‘fake’; even a kind of manufactured authenticity seems to have pervaded our culture (see: Emma Stone, Jennifer Lawrence, and countless other celebrities presented as ‘just one of us’).
But I’ll be happy if I hit upon it, however fleetingly, when “it matters”.

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Some more coverage for Two:

The Times of Malta – A measured, well-written review I’m quite happy about.

The Malta Independent – An interview by Colin Fitz, also delving into my work as a journalist. Some of the quotes come across as a bit pompous, and I’m fairly certain I was more self-deprecating during the conversation itself. But whatever.

If you – my fine, illustrious readers – insist on doing something for my birthday, might I suggest you pick up a copy of Two, either from “any good” brick-and-mortar store if you’re in Malta and Gozo, or through Merlin’s website if you’re seeing this from abroad? Shipping rates have been reduced to normal prices, thankfully, so you can order away without too much of a burden on your pockets. Ta!

Post-book launch post | Managing clutter

Marsamxett reading spot

I’ve blogged about this spot before, and not too many posts ago. But a lot has happened since my last post (at least it feels as though it has) and I’ve found myself gravitating towards the place again.

It felt significant because my head was in a hectic, accelerated mess that day – peace seemed like a hardly achievable goal and then, I sat down in my favourite nook to read – for just under an hour – and the whirling clutter in my head decided to take a break.

I was glad to come across a particularly memorable passage, too.

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“I knew him well enough to know that if you asked him the right way, at the right moment, he would do almost anything; and in the very act of turning away I knew he would have run after me and hopped in the car laughing if I’d asked one last time. But I didn’t. And, in truth, it was maybe better that I didn’t – I say that now, though it was something I regretted bitterly for a while. More than anything I was relieved that in my unfamiliar babbling-and-wanting-to-talk state I’d stopped myself from blurting the thing on the edge of my tongue, the thing I’d never said, even though it was something we both knew well enough without me saying it out loud to him in the street – which was, of course, ‘I love you’.” – Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

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It’s still early days, but I’m happy with the local reception of the novel so far. This being Malta it’s inevitable that your first (and possibly last?) readers be your friends and acquaintances, which complicates things somewhat as you’re never sure how honest they’re all being while dishing out praise. But luckily, some have qualified their praise quite convincingly, and I’m glad that others haven’t felt the need to sugar-coat what they didn’t like about it either.

I’m also glad that the review which came out in last Sunday’s edition of The Times of Malta was solid and balanced – neither a hatchet job nor an unmitigated torrent of praise that nobody would be convinced by.

But what makes me especially glad is that the reaction to the things I prioritised the most in the novel – atmosphere, ambiguity – is positive. I would hazard to say that this is the best a writer can ask for.

I’ll be keeping busy with collaborative projects in the meantime – the inherent loneliness of writing a novel doesn’t inspire me to dive into the process again so readily – but there is something about the process of long-haul writing that I do miss, at least at this relieved-that-it’s-over distance.

It becomes an organising principle; something to either dread or look forward to each passing day, week, month: regardless of whether you’re in a good place with it or not, it’s there, waiting. At its best, it keeps the relentless clutter at bay – it’s the space in your head that’s yours, and nobody else’s, and there is something thrilling about bringing a chunk of that shapeless aether out into the world.

So perhaps, despite my initial protestations, a second novel may be in the offing. Even if I write them in ten-year lapses like the aforequoted Donna Tartt…

The Weird Down Under: KJ Bishop and Anna Tambour

Don’t know if it’s down to coincidence or something deeper (never visited the region + not an anthropologist) but I’m really happy to have discovered two great works of weird and wonderful fiction from Australia that I’m enjoying more or less concurrently.

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That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote by KJ BishopOne was less accidental than the other though. I had enjoyed KJ Bishop’s debut novel The Etched City immensely, so upon discovering that she had self-published a collection of short stories and poems, I was sold from the word go. So far it definitely doesn’t disappoint.

The collection is what I’d like to call ‘unaggressively strange’ – Bishop’s ease with language and her appreciation of the Decadent idiom gives the tone of the work an unapologetically ‘decorative’ quality that couches her zany imagination into something consistently enjoyable.

The overall feel of ‘That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote‘ is that of a cabinet of strange delights… due in no small part to it being a self-published work and so free from any overbearing commercial strictures.

Testament to its freewheeling, ramshackle variety are the poems accompanying the stories – surreal feasts of language, placed like addenda at the end of the book but in truth – and in spirit – reflecting the joyfully insane feel of the rest of the book.

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Though commenting on a book before you’re even done may seem silly or even crass, I can’t help but enthuse about Anna Tambour’s Crandolin.

Crandolin by Anna Tambour

Speaking about the art of criticism, Oscar Wilde said that, just like you don’t need to consume an entire bottle of wine to determine whether it’s any good or not, so a critic should be allowed to pass judgment on a work of art without having to have experienced it in its entirety.

Of course the statement is just a witticism to be taken with a heavy pinch of salt, but Tambour writes with such frenzied confidence (yes, a paradox worthy of Wilde) that her narrative voice alone is enough to convince me that she’ll carry her vision through to its end.

Using the titular magical device as a MacGuffin to pull a strange array of characters together (think Aladdin’s lamp, but if its gifts were less materialistic and more sensorial) Tambour lets her tale cumulatively paint a vivid picture. There’s no laborious world-building here: the reader is shoved straight into the detail, and save for a final destination involving the Crandolin serving as the figurative dangling carrot, we’re never sure where this is all headed.

Which is where Tambour’s grasp of language can really come out to play. Rhythmic, jokey and always at the ready with a wry (and not cringeworthy) pun, it works in perfect tandem with the craziness of the story so far.

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I’ve been trained to nitpick – both academically and professionally. Which is why it feels good to gush sometimes.

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READ MORE: Schlock Magazine interview with another favourite Aussie fantasy scribbler, Angela Slatter

READ: Schlock Magazine’s 5th year anniversary issue

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Schlocktopus selfie – Schlock Magazine’s December 2013 cover by Nel Pace/Widdershins

It started with a casual discussion at a now-defunct reggae bar: what if we created an online version of, say, Weird Tales?, I asked my friend Peter.

He said sure why not – a lot of our friends like to write and draw and stuff.

And so five years on, Schlock Magazine has continued to pollute the internet superhighway with an eclectic mix of prose, poetry and illustration – originating from us in Malta but, gradually, extending all over the globe.

We have since featured interviews and even fiction by authors like Jeffrey Ford and Angela Slatter, and we have names like Ken Liu, Nathan Ballingrud, Laird Barron and Karin Tidbeck lined up for the coming year.

Needless to say, I’m quite proud of what we’ve accomplished so far, and grateful for all the readers and contributors we’ve received over the years.

I hope you continue reading. For now though, I hope you find it in yourself to check out our December 2013 issue, which also doubles up as our 5th year anniversary issue.

Thanks!